Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the tag “classroom”

Getting to Know Students

One of the most important things I do in the first days of school is get to know my students, especially their names. My father, a pastor, is great with names. I’ve never really asked him what his secret is. Maybe it’s a gift. I feel like I’m pretty gifted too with learning names. My only downfall is that if I learn a name wrong early on, there’s a chance the incorrect name will stick. A student in my 5th hour is named Ryan, but I kept calling him Nick on the first day of school. I corrected myself, and I think I’m on the right track now.

On the first day of class, I gave my creative writing students time to compare notes in their groups on who their favorite author, book, and book series was. As they did this, I walked around the room to check in with each student–how to pronounce the first and last name and if he or she used a nickname. This is less embarrassing than calling roll in front of the whole class right from the start. After I visited with everyone, I went to the front of the room and called roll, and each student had to say one of his or her favorites. This worked quite well, and the hour flew by.

In my advanced creative writing class, I already knew each student, but they didn’t necessarily know one another. I had them tell me something I didn’t already know about them while calling out the roll.

I’ve already forgotten exactly what I did in English 2 on the first day–I think I just broadened it from favorite book or author to favorite anything. I also had students get in order of their birthdays in sixth hour, but my seventh hour students groaned at this challenge because they had done it all day in their other classes. On the fly, I had students vote with their feet to four corners of the room on our school mascot: Keep it as Antlers or change it to the Alligators, Bucks, or Ducks. I know Alligators is absurd, but I was feeling wacky. I was the only one who voted for it, but the class divided into third for the other three. The first day is always a whirlwind!

On the second day with students I still wanted to get to know them. They need to feel comfortable with one another and form a good vibe and community before any real learning can effectively take place. For my first hour creative writing class, I tried something I dubbed Inner Outer Circle. I had students write down a list of at least 10 pairs: cats or dog, Pepsi or Dr Pepper, book or movie, Paris or London, etc. We moved the desks to create some space, and half the students formed a small circle. The other students formed a bigger circle around them. To make things even, I joined in. Then I had one circle walk clockwise while the other circle walked counterclockwise. I hummed a tune and then said stop. The students had to find the nearest partner and trade one of their questions with one another. After a minute or so had passed, we rotated again. This kept us moving and talking for the rest of the hour. Once it seemed like we had talked to everyone, a student had a smart idea to have every other pair swap places, so that we could talk to new people. It was lots of fun! I had to modify this activity for my other hour of creative writing because one of my students was on crutches. For this version, one line of students remained stationary, and another line of students rotated down the line until they talked to everyone. I called this game Down the Line.

On the second day with advanced creative writing, I tried a game called Spotlight. Students made a list of 10 questions to ask their classmates. They were lighthearted and funny questions–even ridiculous (“Would you rather have teeth for eyelashes or eyelashes for teeth?”). Then we stood in a giant circle, and one student (a volunteer) stood in the middle (the spotlight). The student faced a classmate for a question, but didn’t answer it yet. The student then faced 2 more classmates (3 total) before deciding which question to answer. The student whose question was chosen then moved into the spotlight. Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight. If a student’s question gets answered who has already been in the spotlight, he or she got to assign who goes into the spotlight. My students were very creative with their questions, which were normally very entertaining and amusing. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a long time, and my students were laughing too. It set a good tone for the whole year. Just as the bell rang, I remembered to take a class picture with my selfie stick, which I later posted to Instagram.

I tried versions of Down the Line and Spotlight with my two English 2 classes, but they weren’t as successful that time. We still got to know one another better, and I got to listen and learn names and personalities.

One thing I thought of after these activities was how it’s kind of a pain for students to have to rearrange desks. I normally use groups, but on the second day, we pushed desks all the way to the edges of the room. On days of quizzes and tests in English 2, I need to use rows. Then it hit me: Put some duct tape on the carpet to indicate where the center of each desk grouping belongs. I also added some tape cut into triangles to indicate where the two desks go that are in groups of five instead of four. I have yet to train students how to use the tape, but I hope it makes for easier and faster desk rearrangement later this school year.

What about you? How do you get to know your students at the start of the year? And do you have any tips for how your train students to rearrange desks into different arrangements?

Down the Line in Creative Writing 1

Down the Line in Creative Writing 1

Selfie with Creative Writing 2

Selfie with Creative Writing 2

Black tape marking the center of the desk group

Black tape marking the center of the desk group

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Book Pass: Day One

Student arrive in the classroom the first day of school eager to make a good impression. We teachers want to bring our A-grade, too. Earlier this August, I had my tenth first day of school as a teacher. I had arranged my 31 desks into pods of 3 and 4 and piled books in the center of each pod for a book pass.

Book stacks waiting for my students at each group of desks.

A post shared by Jason Stephenson (@teacherman82) on

On the very first day of school, my students would sample books, finding titles to read in the coming months. This activity would set the tone and environment for the year. In this classroom, we read. We share books with one another. We are a community of readers.photo 1

I wondered how many books my students would be able to check out in a 50-minute class period. I aimed for 10. Each pod had around 6 books in its stack, and there were 8 pods of desks total. After quickly taking roll, I told my students that would be doing a book pass. I’ve heard this activity called speed dating with books. One of my colleagues on Twitter suggested I turn down the lights and play some romantic music, but I couldn’t do that on the first day of school. It would seem too silly to my sophomores. At least most of them, I think. This sampling of books could easily be called a book buffet as well. I had done this activity with librarians in the past, and I used to do it when I taught the reading for fun elective at our high school.

photo 2

In her guide “Tools for Teaching Content Literacy,” Janet Allen calls this activity a Book Pass. She recommends that students use a chart with these three columns: Title, Author, & Comment. For my purposes, I tweaked the columns and used Title, Notes, & Rating. I told students not to worry about taking a lot of notes on the book–just enough to remember something important about it. They would not be graded on how detailed their notes were. These notes were for them, not me. For rating, students used a scale from 1-5, with 1 meaning the students had no interest at all in the book and the 5 meaning they couldn’t wait to read it. Instead of running copies to create these charts, I had students fold notebook paper twice vertically to create three columns. Even on the first day of school, almost all of my students had notebook paper and writing utensils for this activity. I was pleasantly surprised!

photo 3

Students gravitated to their friends when they originally sat in their pods. I gave 2 or 3 minutes with their first book, and then had students grab a second book from the pile. Now that they had sampled 2 books, it was time for my students to get up and move to a new pod. So that they could meet other people in class, I asked them to sit at a new table group with at least one person of the opposite gender. We sampled two more books in the same manner, and then moved to a new pod with people who had similar eye color. Students scanned two more books, and then we established which months fell in each season. Spring birthday students would sit together next at a new table, summer together, and fall and winter. That rotation was a little complicated, but it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. Books 7 & 8, and then students rotated to their final pod where they could sit with anyone from a common elective–a sport, band, choir, drama, media production, foreign language, etc. We finished up books 9 & 10 with only a few minutes to spare. I had my students put a star by the best book they found and smiley faces next to any books they would consider reading.

book pass chart

I had students turn in their charts, so I could see what sort of ratings they gave to the books I selected. I gave them back a day or two later, suggesting that they hold onto their charts, to remind them of good books they could read this school year. I have already had a few students browsing my classroom library while holding their charts. It occurs to me now that I should have had students label which tub their favorite books were from, so they could easily find the books later. I was very pleased wit how this first-day activity went, and I plan on doing it again at the start of next semester, if not before.

book pass chart 2

Classroom Library Reboot

Yesterday I made some of the final touches in preparing my classroom library for another year of use for my Pre-AP English 2 and creative writing students. I have had a classroom library since my first year of teaching back in 2005 when I taught 7th and 8th grade literature. I still have a few books in my library that my middle school students bought for me at our school’s book fair. I know because I saw the donation sticker when I was sorting. My library was much smaller then, and I have grown it over the years in a number of ways:

  1. buying used books online for pennies (the $3.99 shipping is what costs)
  2. buying books at the Friends of the Library sale for super cheap (maybe your state has something similar)
  3. using Barnes & Noble gift cards to stock my shelves
  4. books gifted to me by students
  5. Scholastic Warehouse sales
  6. spending my hard-earned cash on hardcovers I can’t wait for (titles have recently included Winger by Andrew Smith and We Were Liars by e. lockhart)

Back to the revisions that I made to my library. I have my books divided by genres into tubs, which something I saw firsthand in a classroom of my colleague Kari Steele when we taught middle school together. Until this summer I had tubs devoted to Chick Lit, but I decided this was unfair because I discovered I had guy students who enjoyed the occasional romance story. Chick Lit tubs became Romance tubs.

romance

In my efforts to weed my library, I discovered some duplicate titles, but I didn’t want to get rid of all of them. In fact, I thought I would create a tub called “Read with a Friend,” an idea I remembered reading about in this Franki Sibberson article. Now, I realize I teach high school, not elementary, but I think my teens will enjoy this tub. I’ll have to keep you posted on how it goes. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll notice there’s currently only one copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but that’s because I have the other copy at home for a presentation next month.

friend front viewfriend side view

I already had tubs dedicated to nonfiction and memoir, and I think it was just this past year that I decided to organize my memoir tubs a little more. Subcategories included men, women, intense, humor, war and adventure, and classics. I realized my copy of Bossypants was missing when I looked through my tubs yesterday. This happens, and I usually replace books when I can.

memoir war intensememoir women menmemoir classics humor

My nonfiction books, on the other hand, were scattered across four tubs with little rhyme or reason. They needed the same treatment as my memoir books, so I came up with war and crime, American history, sociology, and science. My goal is to add another tub or two of nonfiction this coming year, but I’m not sure yet what those will be. Maybe a psychology tub?

nonfiction sociology science nonfiction war history

My final change was to expand my singular Oklahoma author and setting tub into two distinct ones. This past school year I required my students to read either a book set in Oklahoma or written by a current or former Oklahoman. In order to make the books easier to find, they got a tub, but as I increased my search of these books, they no longer fit into one tub. Voila!

Oklahoma author setting

In all, I have 66 tubs in my classroom library, and it took nine years to get to this point. I’m sure I will make other tweaks and changes in the future, but what will not change is my dedication to giving my students an opportunity to become lifelong readers.

Weeding My Library

My mom is a bit of a pack rat. She’s not even close to qualifying for Hoarders. In fact, most of my parents’ home is spotless. But pull out a few drawers, nose around on a bookshelf in the study, and you’ll find stacks of month-old professional journals and so many pens they could never all be used in a lifetime. Mom has passed this preservation gene down to me, and I recently discovered my classroom library was in need of a major weeding.

I started my classroom library my first year of teaching. I relied on student donations, scoured second-hand stores, and used my gift cards at Barnes & Noble to build my library. I’ve now amassed around 500 books.

Earlier this summer my friend Heather saw my library and some its disintegrating contents and urged me to weed. (She also recommended the funny blog Awful Library Books.) So a few weeks ago before my eighth year of teaching began, I decided it was time to examine my collection. I knew I had a few books that were falling apart. It was time to let them go.

A handful of students answered my Twitter call for help in this process. I knew it would be easier for my students to get rid of books. In the past, I’ve usually just passed books on to another teacher who could use them, instead of just throwing them away. I gave them some guiding questions in their quest to weed books:

  1. Is it damaged?
  2. Is it falling apart?
  3. Will it ever be read?

They tossed all the discarded books onto a pod of desks. Of the 23 books they weeded for me, I only rescued one: a paperback of The Firm, which only had a crinkly cover, but was otherwise fine.

My library was then ready to receive some new acquisitions from the summer. I’m so glad I weeded my library. Will you weed yours?

Here’s my library before Weeding 2012. I don’t have a lot of space, and I needed to make room for newly acquired books from the summer.

Monster was missing its cover. Say goodbye, Monster! (Notice the AR sticker from when I taught middle school. That means this books is 7 years old!)

Since I teach 10th grade, most students have already read these books. Except for Dean Koontz. No one reads those. (They were donated.)

When a spine is damaged, throw the book out. Sayonora!

Can you tell that Prey by Lurlene McDaniel was a very popular book last year? I got a replacement for this broken book.

Pages falling out of Cut. Time to cut this book from the library.

The weeded books. Some students rescued a few of these, but most of them went into the dumpster. I replaced some; others won’t make a reappearance on my class library shelves.

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