By Jen Ward
New tenth graders file into my room, unsure of where to sit, trying to find a friendly face in our World Literatures English class. Summer is over. School is back in session. And on our first day of class, I stand outside the classroom door, greeting students and handing them a syllabus as they walk into the room. This is what they expect. They expect to sit down, whisper quietly about the new kid in class and what they did over their summer break while their teacher stands at the front and lectures over classroom rules, grading policies, and class projects. So when the bell rings for class to start, and I tell them to put their syllabus away, they look genuinely confused.
As their teacher, I want to see my high school students connecting, collaborating, writing, and revising. And that needs to start on day one. So instead of starting with the syllabus, we start by writing. I have students pull out a sheet of paper and ask them to describe who they are as writers and come up with a metaphor for who they are as writers. Over the course of our first day, students are writing, discussing metaphors, and then ultimately creating simple web pages that showcase an image of their metaphor and a writing piece that explains its significance. And it is here where the tone of our class is set. Students are expected to write every day. Students are expected to collaborate. Students are expected to think carefully and critically. But I don’t have to stand in front of them and tell them that. They learn this by doing it. Starting with day one.
And I can do this because I’ve started to flip those more didactic lessons over to videos. Instead of standing in front of them going over our syllabus and expectations in class, I created a video for students to watch as homework on that first night that goes over our syllabus. And on that first day, I’ve never seen so many excited faces, excited that their homework was to watch a video…of me explaining our syllabus!
Over the summer I read Jonathan Bergmannand Aaron Sams‘ book Flip Your Classroom, and I’ve spent the last few months reflecting on where I can move some of my more didactic lessons on writing over to the web in order to open up time in my classroom to write with my students. Last year, I did a bit of this with students and saw improvement over years past. I created online videos to introduce writing assignments, walking students through the grading rubrics and particulars of an assignment through online videos posted to my class website. But I wouldn’t say that the improvement came because of the videos. Instead, I attribute some of their improvement to the fact that the students and I were working on the drafting and revising together in class. And writing teachers have known this for years. Writing gurus like Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have been writing about the benefits of writing with our students for years. And writing with my students last semester helped students not only because I could act as a coach, answering questions in the moment and giving suggestions, but also because students could see how their peers tackled writing assignments.
So right now I’m taking many of my writing craft lessons out of their traditional PowerPoint format and creating interactive videos for each concept with the idea that students can move through lessons at their own pace while taking notes on the concepts and work through practice activities. This will give me time in class to actually work with improving their writing, which is the point! Students can rewatch the videos as many times as they want and can learn at their own pace. Meanwhile, I can use class time to draft, conference, and revise with students. Writing then becomes a community activity, something we all do together in the classroom. I am building a community of writers. And it all started on day one by having them write.
How do you build your community of writers? What activities and ideas do you have that help your emerging writers see themselves as part of a writing community?
Picture the quirky, eccentric English teacher – you know the one who would jump up and down excitedly talking about the psychoanalytic interpretations of a text or gesticulate wildly about the double entendres found in a line of poetry – and you’ve got Ms. Jennifer Ward, high school English teacher and technology junkie. And that interest in the connection between teaching writing and technology has earned her a string of abbreviations, including GCT, NWP Fellow through the PA Writing and Literature Project, PBWorks Certified Teacher and Mentor, as well as being active in NCTE, PCTELA, PAECT, and EdCampPhilly.