Inspiring one another to stick our necks out

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Kristal Doolin
Kristal Doolin

Recently, during a tribute video about education leader James B. Conant at the Education Commission of the States 2013 Conference in St. Louis, a quote by Mr. Conant flashed on the screen: “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” 

This quote not only applied to the educational policy and decision-making process at the heart of the conference, but the concept of taking risks resonated with me because as a teacher I “stick my neck out” daily in one way or another. How? I prepare lessons and present them to four classes of students a day and hope for success. Those students are not an easy audience.  In fact, they’re the first to let me know when a lesson is a flop. 

What’s more, I regularly put myself and my opinions out there with parents and colleagues never knowing how my thoughts will be received. The wonderful thing about teaching, however, is that great teachers collaborate and that means we don’t have to stick our necks out alone. So, as we all prepare for those first days with our new students, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite ideas for the beginning of the year with the hope that readers will share their ideas also.

Getting to know my students

Knowing my students is one of the most important things to me at the beginning of the year. Over the years, I’ve used many methods to learn about my students, but really feel like I found the perfect match with my introduction letter assignment. On the first day of class, I distribute a letter from me to my students.  This letter not only introduces me as their new language arts teacher, but also outlines their first task.  In the letter, I ask my students to reply to my letter with a letter of their own that tells me a bit about them and answers several questions.  Below are a few excerpts from the letter:

Tell me anything … “about yourself, your hobbies, and your life that you think would help me get to know you.  … tell me about your family and where you are from… what do you do in your spare time,” etc.

Since I teach language arts I ask, “What [do]you think about reading and writing?  Do you hate both, love both or what?  Why do you feel the way you do?  What was the last book you honestly read?  Have you ever truly read a book from cover to cover? When was the last time you put a lot of effort into something you wrote?”

One of my final questions is, “What can I do to help you make this the best year of language arts you have ever had?”

This assignment is a wonderful way to break down walls early and learn not only about each student’s personality, but also their thoughts and opinions of reading and writing.  The added advantage is it allows me to see their writing skills in action in a non-threatening way.

The initially unseen bonus to this assignment is that I do not return the letters until the end of the year.  In the last days of the school year, students get the letter back attached to a final letter from me.  That final letter details their last task of the year which is to write a reflection letter to me. This includes reading their first letter and analyzing it to see the progress that they often do not appreciate until seeing that first letter again.  

As with the first letter, I give them specific questions to answer, but the focus is on their growth and now their thoughts and opinions of my class. I simply cannot say enough about what I learn each year from both letters.  Additionally, those written at the end of their year in particular are worth their weight in gold as they are often very heartfelt.

Setting the Tone

Another favorite beginning of the year assignment is one I use to set the tone in my classroom.  My students use a writer’s notebook almost daily for bell ringers and for both in class and at home tasks with video response.  The first video I show students is entitled “The Power of Words.” After viewing this video, my class is full of chatter.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  We generally watch it at least twice.  After a few minutes of discussion, I give them the following notebook task:

Now that we have tossed ideas around in class, respond to the video in writing. You can do this in a variety of ways. There is no “correct” answer. Include your reactions, connections, etc. You can even respond in terms of the title…do you agree that words have power? Be sure to explain your thinking.

This is a simple task that students will remember.  As with the introduction letter, we revisit this video again at the end of the year before writing their final letters, and many mention in those letters that this video changed their view of words early in the school year.

A little inspiration goes a long way

As you meet the new crop of students this August and begin to nurture those minds, think about the comments of last year’s students and ask yourself what you want these students to say at the end of the year?  I don’t know about you, but I want to wow them!  I want to be Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society standing on the desk to teach them about new perspectives, or Ms. Gruwell in Freedom Writers inspiring them to use their voice to make a difference.  I want to be that crazy language arts teacher who made learning fun and accessible.

When I think about my students and all we accomplish together, my heart swells with pride. While I do not consider myself her equal in any way, a quote from Anne Sullivan comes to mind, “My heart is singing for joy this morning.  A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed.”

She is referring to her miraculous breakthrough with Helen Keller, but the elation she felt, the thrill of seeing the light come on for a student and teaching them to see the value in both learning and themselves are replicated in classrooms daily. We all have a little “miracle worker” in us.

Kristal Doolin, a language arts teacher at Corbin Middle School in the Corbin Independent school district, was named the 2013 Teacher of the Year on Oct. 17, 2012. During her year-long reign, Doolin will write a monthly column for Kentucky Teacher that chronicles her experience as a classroom teacher. The column runs the second Thursday of each month.

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