Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

On the First Day of English 2

This year I have 4 sections of Pre-AP English II. To start the year off right, I wanted my students to read and write on the first day of school. The syllabus could wait.

I’ve been a fan of Billy Collins since my junior year of college. He was was one of the keynote speakers at the Sigma Tau Delta national convention in Daytona Beach, Florida, in spring 2004. I enjoyed his insight, humor, and accessibility in his poetry. Afterward, I even got a signed book by him, which now rests on my bookshelf at home. Sorry, students! Get your own signed copy!

As I mulled over in my head what to read on the first day, I landed on poetry for its brevity and ability to pack a punch. I turned to one of my favorite Billy Collins’ poems: “On Turning Ten,” which has a clever allusion to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which English majors can appreciate.

As far as a writing component, I wanted to get to know my students. What were their attitudes toward English? What were their past reading and writing experiences? Did they like to read? What were their hopes for the year? Did they know of any strengths or weaknesses they had in the realm of English? Normally, these questions are answered in a letter I have my students write me as part of a summer assignment to get into my Pre-AP English class. I cut the entire summer assignment this year, though, for various reasons I could write about later.

I found myself returning to Billy Collins for inspiration. Some of the lines of “On Turning Ten” were perfect prompts for reflection about my students’ English prowess.

  • “The whole idea of it makes me feel”
  • “You tell me it is too early to be looking back”
  • “This is the beginning of”
  • “It seems only yesterday I used to believe”

I created a response sheet based on Collins’ poem with the plan to read his poem first (Just for fun! No analysis!) and then have students respond to his poem through reflection on their first day of class.

My students leveled with me. Some told me that English wasn’t even their favorite language. Others said the last time a teacher said they were a good writer was in first grade. Some claimed they loved to read, but AR (Accelerated Reader) destroyed that love in middle school. A few said they were good writers but had a difficult time finding the right words to say. One un-ironically said he enjoyed reading but wasn’t good at it. (I later found out he had a cognitive disorder, which inhibits his comprehension, but he is not on an IEP!) And of my 100-or-so English students, only 1 of them said she was interested in pursuing English at the college level.

Get to know your students. It helps you and them. What’s that cheesy saying? “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

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