Review Essay: A Trove of Documents for the Beginning of the School Year

While I know I have posted most if not all of the documents in this post elsewhere on this blog, I wanted to publish them in a compendium for the beginning of the school year, which is upon us at the time of this writing. So, without further ado, I’ll start with this list of questions for the first day or week or even month of the school year. I wrote these witn an eye toward helping students gain some insight into why they are at school–mainly because students who know why they are doing something tend to engage more fully and rewardingly with it.

To get a sense of what students know, and perhaps more particularly, what interests students, I developed a series of interest surveys for a couple of reasons: to inform students early on that I am quite interested in what they know, and more importantly, what they have to say about what they know, and in a corollary, that they understand that I am interested in responding to these interests. (I’m also interested in getting them writing from day one of the school year.) So, here is a general interest survey  with four questions aimed at getting students started with thinking and writing about their own interests. To keep them engaged in thinking about their participation in their own educations, I use this survey for assessing prior knowledge for English Language Arts instruction. Similarly, I use this interest inventory for social studies to derive a sense of what kids know and how I can build on that knowledge–which is the essence of teaching, after all.

I took this learning profile questionnaire  from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s excellent book How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001). Once again, it will supply you with some valuable information about your student’s learning preferences while engaging them in an activity, and reassuring them that you are there to listen to them just as they are there to listen to you.

If you’re interested in equity, and we all should be now, then you might find this context clues worksheet on subordinate as a noun and adjective worthwhile. I introduce this word to help students understand that in my classroom, we work together on everybody’s education. I ask some pointed questions after students have defined the word, all based on one simple inquiry: are students the subordinates of teachers? I’ve always thought not, and so I use the discussion this worksheet prompts to talk about equity, self-advocacy, and the other kinds of things that we need kids to understand and actualize to succeed in life and the world.

Course agreements were a big part of the first days of school in the school in which I served the longest, in Lower Manhattan. I quickly ran afoul of the school’s administration by declining to use the boilerplate agreements they supplied. In my estimation, drafting a course agreement is a teachable moment, especially where self-advocacy is concerned. Accordingly, I conducted a couple of days of Socratic dialogue on what teachers and students can and should expect of one another. By the time I was done, I had an outline of a course agreement that students helped to formulate and in which, therefore, they were at least nominally invested. So, here is the basic course agreement template with which I begin these exercises, and another, more fleshed out template that contains what I consider the basics of an agreement between a teacher and his or her students. Here is the aforementioned Lower Manhattan school’s official course agreement for English Language Arts and another for social studies classes. I can’t remember if I played any role in revising these, but one thing–the injunction against eating in class–suggests that I did not. If I must choose between having a student arrive in class with a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich to eat in class, or having them stop to eat it in Zuccotti Park, where they were likely to cross paths with a fellow student, hatch a scheme of some sort, then disappear for the day, well, I choose to let kids eat in class. Finally, here is another course agreement that is at slight variance with the two preceding, but suggests a similar dictatorial posture towards students and parents.

Another thing I like to do to create a situation in which students are invested in their classroom, and by extension their own educations, is to call upon students to create posters to decorate classroom walls. To put this a little less politely, I find the kinds of posters and other decorations found in teachers’ stores leave a good deal to be desired–they are, in a word, inauthentic. Fortunately, I have several documents with text from which students can create posters for your classroom. First up, here is a short document of general text on taking credit for one’s work by identifying it with student name, date, and whatever else teachers want to see in a document header. Similarly, here are some quotes on learning that look good on classroom walls, and maybe better on hall-facing classroom doors. Primarily, at least in some years, I was an English teacher, so here are several documents with poster text for grammar and style, for concepts in English Language Arts, and for expository words that function across learning domains. Finally, here is a document with the verb to be conjugated, which I find useful on a classroom wall.

For social studies, here is a list of facts and concepts from the global studies and another of the same for United States history. As the latter document demonstrates, I spend vanishingly little time teaching United States History. I tended to teach what social studies classes that were assigned me as literacy subjects, using the content area to help students build their vocabularies and prior knowledge of history.

Finally, here (and I know I have previously posted this document on this blog) is a list of salutations I use in my classroom when preparing the board for the day. So, to use the first noun on this document as an example, the first item on the classroom agenda, recorded on the board, is “Good Morning Oncologists!” I generally begin with these materials further down the list, under outline headings XII or XIII, say with “hippies” (which generally excites remark, as does “haters”). After using a salutation, I cross it off the list. As the year progresses, I use a new word each day. Over the years of doing this, I measure the time it takes students to realize that there is a fresh salutation on the board every day. After that, it’s only a matter of time before this practice piques students’ curiosity, and then a much shorter time before they start asking what these words mean. Then you have a basis to start building vocabulary with only the slightest effort. And when students ask you, “What is an oncologist”? you can answer by telling them an oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer patients. Simple as that, they’ve learned something new.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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