Every August teachers everywhere lose sleep over the first days of school. Some of us dream of showing up without lesson plans, copiers that break down leaving us syllabus-less. Some dream of classrooms without enough desks, of desks without chairs.
The thing that keeps me up at night is the impression I’m going to leave with students in the first few days. I rack my brain every year for an activity that will accomplish the following:
- set the tone for the year
- inspire students
- get students writing and reading right away
- show rather than tell about the routines of the class
- help students learn one another’s names and get to know one another on a meaningful level
As usual this August I spent several sleepless nights trying to invent an activity that might fulfill this criteria. And I kept coming back to this book that I couldn’t keep on my shelves last year: Robin Bowman’s It’s Complicated: The American Teenager.
photo taken from amazon.com
Students love this book for its candid interviews and stunning portraits of teenagers. The more I thought about this book the more I began to see it as more than a book. I began to envision it as a mentor text that could not only inspire my students but teach them something about writing and about one another. The result of my insomnia was The American Teenager Project.
- I read through the book, tagging interviews of 13 and 14-year-olds (I am teaching 8th and 9th grade this year).
- Then I reread these entries looking for compelling profiles that would represent a variety of perspectives, worldviews, and lifestyles. I narrowed it down to six.
- I photocopied the entries and made packets for each student.
- I typed up the list of the 26 interview questions Bowman asked her subjects, removing only three which I felt weren’t appropriate for younger students or relevant to the year 2014 (Bowman conducted her interviews in the early 2000s.)
- I thought about questions I might ask to help them probe these mentor texts like writers (see below).
- I checked out a set of iPads from the library so students could record their interviews in class.
- On the first day of school, I welcomed students to my classroom, took attendance, and did a 60 second overview of the syllabus. I asked students to read and annotate the syllabus for homework, returning the next day with questions.
- Then we put the syllabi away, and I said, “I want to tell you about a book my students have loved.” I showed them Bowman’s book, spreading open the pages of the book and walking around the room as I gave a summary, some information about Bowman, and a clincher. “If you’ve ever wondered what other teens just like you really think about this life, this is the book for you.” Then I read one interview with the book under the document camera. This was a perfect way to begin book talks and a great prelude into our own American Teenager Project.
- Next I passed out the packets and gave a brief introduction to mentor texts. I said, “Here are six pages from the book. These are mentor texts. Mentor texts are anything that inspire and teach us about writing.” Then we began reading the interviews out loud with these guiding questions:
- What do you notice about these teens? Are there any common themes?
- What surprises you about the interviews?
- What do you connect with? Where do you see yourself in these teenagers?
I gave small groups a chance to discuss these questions, and then we shared our reactions as a whole group. Many of them commented on the fact that much of the stress and anxiety felt by teens stems from their parents.
For homework I asked students to read through the interviews again, this time with a different focus. I asked them to mark-up the text and jot down their answers to these questions:
- How do you think the writer, Robin Bowman, chose what to put in?
- How do you think Bowman chose what to leave out?
- What makes the responses compelling?
- What do you want to know more about?
The next day we met as a group of writers, trading our insights about these interviews. After the students talked in small groups, and we made a large list on the overhead of our observations.
Then I passed out instructions for our own version of The American Teenager Project. That night for homework, students chose a minimum of six questions and took notes for each of the questions. These notes became talking points for their interviews the next day.
We spent the remainder of the class talking about the syllabus and answering questions they had about the class.
On day three, students paired up with someone at their table. They were invited to find a spot on campus to conduct their interviews. I asked them to record between 3-5 minutes of footage. I thought 3-5 minutes would give them enough fodder without making the transcription process unbearable. They were also instructed to take a picture of their subject. Before the students set out to do their interviewing, I did a minilesson on the qualities of a good interviewer and the qualities of a good interviewee. They copied these notes into their notebooks. For homework that night, they transcribed the audio.
(Students loved the interview process. Many of them had fun experimenting with filters–something I hadn’t even thought of–to help them “shape” their portraits.)
On day four, students brought their transcribed interviews to class. I conducted a mini lesson that helped students think about how they might shape the interview and thus the story of their subject. We talked about what kinds of responses they might keep verses which responses they might leave out. I reminded them that Bowman likely had an hour or more of footage for each subject because she asked all 26 questions of every person. We looked at the interviews again and estimated that the final interviews were likely 1-2 minutes in length.
Several students brought up the idea of wanting to emphasize a certain understanding, story, or theme about their partner, which would entail cutting out anything that didn’t connect to that theme. Other students said it was important to represent the complexity of their partner by showing lots of different responses. Students used highlighters to trace emerging themes in their partner’s interview. They continued this work for homework.
I conducted a short mini-lesson on how to format the interview. I asked students to study Bowman’s profiles and think about these questions:
- Do you notice any interesting punctuation? How is this punctuation being used?
- How does Bowman indicate the end of one response and the beginning of a new one?
- How long is each profile?
- Do you notice any titles or ancillary information? Any other font features?
These questions lead to conversations about the following writerly things:
- what an ellipses is and why writers use them
- what an em-dash is and why writers use them
- rules about indenting paragraphs
- how images enhance text
- what wrapped text does and how to wrap text in a Google Doc or Word Doc
I also took this opportunity to show them how to sign in to Gmail (students already have school accounts), access Drive, and create a new Document. Students used workshop time to format their interviews or continue shaping them. Some of them explored Robin Bowman’s website for more inspiration.
On Day #6, students brought printed copies of their final “collaborative portraits” (the term Bowman uses to define this genre of writing) and we had a Read Around. Students put everything away and set their writing in the center of their desks. Portraits were rotated clockwise, and each group had about 5 minutes to cycle through four. Then students got up and moved to the next table. In a class of 20, it took about 25-30 minutes for every student to read every portrait. I had asked students to keep in the mind the name of two individuals they would like to get to know better this year based on what they learned about them in their profiles.
For homework that night, students completed this survey to reflect on their first writing project. Here are a few responses that stood out to me:
[I learned that] I need to have better conversation starts and ends. — Brian
[I discovered that] I would like to write more interviews about people because I find it interesting. –Elizabeth
[Through this activity] I learned that I want to write more about actual people and less about fictional people and stories. –Cole
I did not know how interested I was in learning about someone else. –Summer
I prefer this assignment to [typical getting-to-know-you activities] because we get to know people on a deeper level…I discovered that I would like to explore writing about the future. One of the questions was what you want to be when you grow up and it got me interested in the future. — Kennedy
What I learned about myself through this activity was that I can open myself up a little more and talk about things I usually wouldn’t talk about. –Grayson
As I was answering the questions, I started to realize that the future and where my life is going to go is something that really interests me. –Aubrey Scott
I learned that I am unique and most of my peers never had the experience that I have had. — Annalynn
I discovered that I would love to explore [through writing this year] the Depression because Reed’s interview about the homeless made me think about the Depression. –Garett
[I learned that] I would maybe like to explore writing more about other [people’s] views of the world. –Reed
I would like to learn more about inequality in different teens throughout the world and family relationships because it seems like a ton more people than we realize face problems within their families. –Ravenel
I learned to be more honest with people and that it is okay to share your feelings with friends. –Liam
[I prefered this assignment to typal getting-to-know-you activities] because it explains your story better… –Michael
I discovered the topic of ethnicities and I would like to write about that because I don’t even know mine. –Kara
While reflecting on the project myself, I realized it had a few surprising outcomes.
- It helped me identify which students are going to need more technological support this year and which students I may be able to call on to help others with technology.
- It helped complicate some of the assumptions I had made about students early on.
- It helped me share the following language and routines of the workshop without having to explicitly talk about them:
- mentor texts
- time to write & conferring
- the development of a “so what” or significance
- how to create a document in Google Docs
- what is genre study
- what is a mini-lesson
In the end, the portraits were moving, rich, and candid. It’s amazing what can happen when you give kids a camera and ask them to tell their story…
How do you engage students in writing in the very first days of the year? What are some other ways of showing the routines of the class rather than explaining them? Please find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1.