January is a tough time of year for me. The holidays are over, the weather is just meh in Michigan, and the craziness of midterms and starting a new semester makes my room feel like chaos. I spent all fall writing my Moving Writers posts about balance in the ELA classroom and, at this point, the only thing helping me manage that chaos and feel balanced is the relationships I’ve built with my students. Class has a natural flow, and we all know what to expect from one another. We’re moving in synch, if you will.
Since every Batman needs a Robin, I asked my buddy (and fellow Moving Writers blogger) Mike Ziegler (@ZigThinks) to team up with me and dig into this idea of how we build strong, authentic writing communities because I think relationships are built with students in lots of different ways. I didn’t realize just how different that might look until he and I shared a classroom for two years. It soon became clear that, despite different teaching styles, we ended up with similar results.
Though it’s tempting to think about community building as something that happens early and then lasts forever, we’d argue that as the year progresses, community is something that needs continual attention. If we expect our writers to continue to grow and mature throughout the year, our relationships with them must grow and mature as well.
Below we offer our (different, but generally effective) strategies for continued relationship building in our writing communities as we kick off semester 2:
A key feature of a thriving writing community is connection and relevance. As the year progresses and you know your students better, the opportunities to build their interests into the curriculum increase. Though it’s tempting (and easier, frankly) to focus on the things we love or have always done, when we take the time to center their interests, it shifts from being the teacher’s world to a shared one.
Hattie’s Take: Use Twitter to Find Relevant Texts
My AP Language and Seminar students are typically pretty concerned about the world around them. Even the ones who aren’t particularly interested in politics or world events want to be or at least feel like they need to be. One of the best ways I’ve found to connect with them is to give them space to dig into those concerns.
Last Monday, welcome back chatting quickly turned to their concerns about the escalation of tension with Iran. Our conversation drifted to their observation that the bulk of the social media response was jokes and memes. They were perplexed–what does this response say about their generation? The class was pretty split, so I decided it was worth abandoning my daily plan and digging into that question. Luckily, my Twitter Feed from the weekend had provided the perfect text. I popped “We Lived Happily During the War” by Ilya Kaminsky up on my projector and we did a quick notebook response to an AP Language argumentative-style prompt: To what extent does your generation “live happily” during times of crisis?
It was a lesson disrupted, but well worth the time. Tuesday, we followed up with some analysis practice using this related piece I’d found on Twitter Monday night. It’s a scientist’s (and parent’s) take on how to “live happily” in the age of devastating climate destruction. But the tone is drastically different. My students noticed the difference right away–in a way I don’t think they would have had I given them two related texts on an issue of lesser interest to them.
The pay-off when it comes to writing? We were in the middle of writing researched arguments. That difference in tone between the two texts gave us all kinds of space to talk about writerly choices made in each text and how or why they might make some of their own choices in their own pieces. It was time well spent because they were invested in the topic.
Mike’s Take: Pop Culture Is My Canon
My English 11 students sometimes share the curiosity to know the world that Hattie’s do, but by and large they tend to be distracted by their more immediate interests: The ubiquitous pop culture of teenage life. There are entry points to be had here, however, especially if you can find the tunnels that connect teen culture to broader American culture. Because once you’re in that realm, I’d argue that ALL exits lead to contextual relevance about the world.
Take for example a party I have arrived late to but am super excited to be at anyway: The immersive, perspective altering pop culture analysis of Hanif Abdurraqib. My class started August Wilson’s Fences this week, and as fate would have it, I had just read Abdurraqib’s outstanding essay about rapper ScHoolboy Q’s perspective about white members of his audience saying the n word at his concerts. Wilson’s play is about the black experience circa 1957, and the two main characters use both versions of the word rather extensively (and with nuanced meaning embedded in each utterance).
Abdurraqib’s essay will allow me to link a pop culture artist they care about to a play that they are only aware of because English class is making them stare at it. That’s not to say they don’t like it (who doesn’t love Denzel Washington?), but their engagement and appreciation of it will both be greater thanks to this opportunity to tie their teen culture world to the world of “high” art. It makes it less intimidating, and, in turn, it makes it seem to them like their perspectives about it matter–which is of course the precise moment where I conveniently provide them the opportunity to put those perspectives in writing.
As the year progresses, it gets easy to get caught up in finishing things and covering curriculum and getting to a certain point before spring break or state testing or any number of other things. Those things are reality, but it’s also reality that school is hard. Being a teenager is a lot. One of the best ways we can build community with our students is to have a little fun with them.
Hattie’s Take: Be Ridiculous with Theme Parties
In my next life, I’m going to be an event planner, and this unrealized dream finds its way into my classroom by way of ridiculous theme days for just about anything. The unique culture of my AP class is that as long as we shut the door, they’re usually willing to play along with any ridiculous activity I throw their way.
To be clear: my “parties” are never fancy or well planned. In fact they’re usually spur-of-the-moment and ill-planned. The tone word party idea popped up when students were struggling with analytical writing. They were using the WORST words to describe tones and I was trying to explain the difference between grieving and depressed. I tried to act it out and realized they needed to. I told them to dress up and there would be prizes. Some got very into it and busted out their hot glue guns, some whipped up “costumes” (half full water bottle and a smile= optimistic) when they walked through the door, but all laughed really hard and thought more deeply about tone and how writers develop it.
Mike’s Take: Constant Playfulness (wsg Memeing)
As a single member of a larger PLC in a building where common assessments drive course curriculum, I’m a bit more limited in my ability to deviate from the course schedule when I sense the class in need of a bit of fun (which, you know…weekly!). But. I have found that playfulness doesn’t require stand alone party days (although I do believe in Global School Play Day for high schoolers!) as long as you manage to keep your daily tone playful and look for laughs with the kids where you can find them.
To that end, my Slides presentations are always stuffed with funny memes (learn to make your own–the kids LOVE them!) and I try to be self-deprecating wherever I can do so without undermining my position as the expert in the room. One sure winner is joking about how old you are while still trying to be hip (whenever kids accuse me of being out of touch I brag that I knew the Macarena way before they did).
I also try to be playful with the kids on a one-on-one basis. If they’re notebooking, I’m wandering the room and peering over shoulders at what they choose to write about (or anything else open on their screens). If I spot anything that offers an avenue for chat, including stuff that isn’t technically what they’re supposed to be working on, I’ll often engage them right then: “Oh I love that song!” or “I thought I was the only one who liked that movie!” It’s immediate, personalized engagement and it gives me something fun and zero-stakes in common with each student.
A “Right” Way to Connect and Play?
We all have wildly different styles and personalities, so there’s definitely no one “right” way to nurture the relationships you’ve started, but it does need to be at the forefront of your planning when considering how to help your writers grow. As you move into second semester (or perhaps as you get a clean slate with a new crop of students), what are you doing to connect and play with your students? We’d love to hear about it on Twitter @ZigThinks or @TeacherHattie, on the Moving Writers Facebook page or in the comments below.
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There are school’s here in Virginia who experiment with “traveling or growing” relationships with students. I think it’s an amazing thing. I often times wonder what my primary education would have been like if I’d had the benefit of such an educational experience.