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March 9, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 13
Table of Contents
Creating Relationships Through Literacy Events
It's the first day of a new school year. Twenty-five pairs of eyes focus on me—center classroom—waiting for their constructs about high school to be confirmed, rejected, or revised. They anticipate behavior expectations and a syllabus filled with grading scales, assignments, and deadlines. I take a deep breath and begin to share the story of how I came to love learning. It includes a description of my grandmother's dining room table and the bookcase she kept filled with my favorite stories. How when my mother would insist I go outside to play, I would head to my grandmother's house so that I could continue to read. They sneak sideways glances at each other, pondering when I will introduce the "surprise" quiz to determine what they have retained over the summer.
Instead, I explain that we all have experiences, events, or moments in our lives that are significant to the development of our intellectual identity. As their teacher, understanding those events will help me understand them as learners. The bell concludes the shortened first day of class and they leave confused, mumbling: "What just happened?"
Cultivating an Academic Identity
For me, academic identity is the way children perceive and define themselves as learners. Students with positive academic identities thrive in school; they are challenged by rigor, and they believe they belong in school because they have experienced success and, therefore, anticipate further success.
Conversely, a lack of academic identity means that a child does not perceive himself or herself as a learner, a belief that has been reinforced by previous educational experiences; these students display many of the behaviors that educators typically associate with failing students—poor attendance, lack of motivation, inattention in class, and failure to complete homework.
This understanding of academic identity prompted me to consider, "How could I begin the school year in a way that would challenge students' beliefs about the first day of class?" My answer? Start the school year with literacy events instead of rules!
Day Two Literacy Event
On the second day of the new school year, I start class with silent writing to a prompt designed to help students conceptualize their academic identities. Possible prompts include the following:
Then, in groups of about five, the students discuss their responses. As their teacher, it is important that you are an audience for these conversations—circulate the room taking notes and asking follow-up questions—demonstrating that you are serious about using this insight to support your students' learning.
After about 15 minutes of discussion, students can write reflections about common themes in the stories shared in their groups, or they can write about another event or time that came to mind during the discussion. I close this literacy event by asking students to synthesize their reflections into three adjectives that describe the conditions supporting their academic identities. I say,
Thank you for your honest sharing. I realize this was a bit of an unusual beginning to the school year, but by knowing these moments in your life, I can use them in my own planning process so that maybe one day I will have the honor of being mentioned in a literacy event you share with your children (laughter and giggling here).
Now I would like you to reread and think about the event you shared, and at the end of your journal entry, write three adjectives that describe your event. I will put the adjectives from my story about my grandmother's dining room table on the board as you write your adjectives in your notebook.
I write "connected," "choice," and "caring" on the board. As students share out the words they wrote, I add them to the board and keep a tally of repeated words.
Sometimes we hear words from others that are really a better choice for our story, so tonight I will type up all the words from the board, and tomorrow I will ask you to circle the three that you feel are most important to you personally in events that support your learning.
I distribute the "ballot" for a quick vote the next day and on the following day open class with the top five vote-getters for this class (yes, if you decide to do this event in all your classes you will have five or six different lists). I post the list and tell the students, "Now, I know what is important to you. Throughout the semester, I will ask you to return to this list and think about our class and give me feedback on which ones are happening and where we still have work to do. We are all in this together. I will give you feedback, also, when I feel you aren't engaging in work that has been designed with you in mind."
Students aren't the only ones who start the year with preconceived notions about what to expect on that first day. We carry years of positive and negative first-day experiences as a way to anticipate our present. With literacy events, you can change your frame, too, by putting relationships first.
Janell Cleland is a 15-year veteran teacher of junior high and high school reading and English. She blogs at https://academicid.me/.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 13. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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