Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the tag “community”

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


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 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

Visual Reading Biographies

On the first day of school on Thursday, August 15, I introduced myself to my sophomores through a visual reading biography. I displayed it on my SmartBoard and briefly talked about each book. My most influential (and favorite) professor in college introduced me to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I devoured all the Ramona Quimby books as a kid. My second grade teacher, Miss Rice, read Charlotte’s Web aloud to us in 2nd grade, and I’ve reread it on more than one occasion. The funniest book I read over the summer was Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. And one of my favorite YA authors is A. S. King. I think my students quickly caught on that I loved books and reading, and that I would expect them to be readers in Pre-AP English 2 with me. I wanted to use this assignment as a way for my students to start thinking of themselves as readers.


I told my students that they too would be creating visual reading biographies. This was the first homework of the year: tell me about yourself as a reader. I did not supply a rubric for this assignment, but I did provide these guidelines:

  • Use plain 8.5 x 11 computer paper
  • List your name on the poster
  • Choose 3-5 categories and label them on the paper
  • Find images of the books or create your own (a lightning bolt for the Harry Potter books works)

The reading categories:

  • Book I’ve reread
  • Book from my childhood
  • Book I want to read
  • Book I read this summer
  • Favorite series
  • Favorite book
  • Favorite author
  • Book I wish more people knew about
  • Book I was surprised I liked
  • Book recommended to me
  • Book I like more than the movie
  • Book I like less than the movie
  • Book I abandoned or struggled to finish
  • Popular book I haven’t read

(Notice I did not encourage my students to be negative. Least favorite book, author, and series were not listed as choices. This did not stop one of my students from sharing his least favorite book.)

The second day of school, a few students already had their posters ready. This was a Friday, and the assignment was not due until Monday. I kept their posters, so they wouldn’t lose them. On Monday, almost every student had their poster, and we took time in small groups to share our reading histories. This built community and reinforced that all students were readers at one time if they currently weren’t. Then every student picked one book from their poster and quickly shared it (along with their name) with the class.

By parent night, I had put up all visual reading biographies on the front wall of my classroom. For this blog post, I used pixlr to edit the posters to remove the students’ last names. I hope you enjoy their posters!

How do your students share their reading lives with their classmates?



Post Secret Memoirs

In Creative Writing 1 this year, we’re starting with the genre of memoir. I think most students have plenty to say about themselves and their life experiences–heck, most people can talk about themselves easily. It’s a natural part of being human. The longest paper I wrote in undergrad was for a human development class, and I basically just wrote down the highs and lows of my life up until that point. I think it hovered somewhere around 14 pages. I should try to find it.

One way I introduced memoirs to my students was through the PostSecret website, which is updated weekly with people’s secrets from around the nation. Some secrets are funny; others are heartbreaking. And others are NOT appropriate for the classroom, so I tried my best to screen the ones I showed my students. Even with my careful attempt, I accidentally scrolled down too far, and some of them caught a glimpse of a secret that had something to do with a crooked penis. Whoops! The class roared with laughter, and I quickly closed the window. Such are the perils of the PostSecret site, but the students found it highly engaging. (Quick aside: I think some of the secrets on the website are completely fabricated or just plain rude or jokey and not really secret-y at all. But who knows? I digress.)

I also showed my students the TED talk by Frank Warren, the founder of the PostSecret website:

When we were finished, I invited my students to write about a secret. It could be old or recent, silly or serious, personal or attached to someone else. Did they have a secret meeting place? (One of my students did. She described a creek and little waterfall where she goes to escape it all.) Were they ever left out of a secret? Did they get away with something? I promised that I would not read these, and that I would not turn them over to our principal. At the conclusion of class, the waterfall student suggested that we all make our own PostSecret display. I agreed that it was a good idea.

After writing groups met yesterday, we had some extra time, so I gave students paper while two students helped to pass out markers, crayons, and colored pencils. I told them they didn’t have to make a secret poster if they didn’t want to. They were to remain anonymous, so they did not need to sign it. Looking back, I wish I had had students write down their secret in regular handwriting on a strip of paper. Then I would have collected all of them, shuffled them, typed them up, and then redistributed them to students. Then they could have written someone else’s secret in their handwriting. As it is, our current PostSecret display features students’ secrets written in their own handwriting, so sneaky people could probably figure some of these out. A few students wrote too small, and I should have made everyone use markers because colored pencil is too hard to read.

All day long at the start of my classes–whether it was Pre-AP English 2, Creative Writing 1, or Creative Writing 2–students were reading the PostSecret display. One English student remarked, “I want to take your creative writing class next year.” Bring it on!

Some secrets were cute and silly while others were sad and disturbing:

Age Line

Even on my fourth day of class, I am spending time building community. I know 90% of my students’ names by now, so I don’t waste time calling roll. Instead, I told students that they would be forming an age line today: stand in a row from oldest to youngest. Since my room isn’t large enough to comfortably hold us (and because I have pods of desks in the way), we went out into the hall.

My students are sophomores, so they’re capable of performing this activity on their own. I don’t help them. I stand back, observe, and watch. I discover who my natural leaders in the class are. I discover if their peers will actually listen to them. I discover the wide range of students I have.

Once students have finalized their Age Line, I have them state their birthday aloud for the entire class. To keep things interesting for myself, I  moved oldest-youngest with some hours and youngest-oldest with other hours. In a couple classes, we discovered some students share birthdays, near-birthdays, and half-birthdays. One student announced that he was born on a Friday the 13th. Another student who is one of my tallest students actually turned out to be one of my youngest. And one of my students who I assumed to be on the young side (based on stories I’ve heard about his…life choices) is actually one of my oldest students. Finally, I discovered I have some 14-year-olds in my 10th grade English class. That’s good information for me to have.

Will you have your students form an Age Line early in the year? How could you modify this activity for your classroom? I’ve seen it done in silence before, but I like hearing the communication.

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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