September is For Stories

Last week I was in need of some inspiration to start the school year, and so I picked up Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice, one of my go-tos for centering myself and finding inspiration. Teaching for Joy and Justice was the first book that helped me peer beyond the old orthodoxies of the language arts classroom–the grammar worksheets, the endless succession of five-paragraph essays, and the practice of attacking student papers with pens of any color–and towards the world of possibilities that this blog explores.

As I flipped through, I found just the line I needed in this passage from her first chapter:

“When we begin from the premise that students need to be ‘fixed,’ invariably we design curriculum that erases students’ home language and culture; we fail to find the strength and beauty in the experience and heritage students bring with them to school.”

-Linda Christensen, Teaching for Joy and Justice

What struck me about this line (beyond its sad truth) was that it read like it could have come out of Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, which was one of my books I read for the summer.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood is wide-ranging, but at its heart lies a pretty remarkable question: How can so many teachers who make the altruistic choice to seek out jobs in schools with low resources–knowing full well that they will get a smaller salary to do a bigger job–end up becoming agents of the unjust systems they had sworn previously that they wanted to disrupt?

To find this answer, Emdin draws upon his own experiences as a teacher at an urban school, and recalls standing before the students in an auditorium on his very first day:

“The stereotypes we brought with us into that school auditorium shaped our understandings not only of the students we would be teaching but also of what it means to teach…Before [the students] even spoke, we read their exchanges with each other and marked them as teachable or not. We gave each other knowing glances based on how students walked through the auditorium.”

-Chris Emdin in For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, pg. 32

What Emdin pinpoints here is exactly what Christensen warns of. As teachers, it is easy to come into class knowing which students are likely in the most acute need of fixing and what we are going to do to fix them. Jumping to conclusions in this way is human nature, and we are by trade helpers, so it often feels natural and good to dive in on day one, our sleeves rolled up and ready to help.

The problem with this is that when we get right into fix-it mode, we are operating according to who we assume our students are, as opposed to who they actually are, making it more likely that we will accidentally diminish, demean or ignore their home cultures because we don’t know what they are. Further, such an approach means that we far too often don’t get to know student strengths and experiences, which can both be invaluable allies when it comes to teaching.

Thanks to stories like Emdin’s and teachers like Christensen and Emdin, I’ve made an effort in recent years to move my Septembers away from fixing and more towards learning my students’ stories. My goal is that by the time the fall comes, I am ready, as Emdin says, to “meet each student on his or her cultural and emotional turf.”

Here are some of the ways that I do this:

  • I have my students start the year by writing me a letter, which is an idea I got from my colleague Tracy Anderson (here is a link to her talking about this assignment on her blog). The letter differs a bit from class to class, but the basics are that I want to know who they are as readers, writers, and people. My basic template for my letters is below.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, my first paper of the year is an open-ended narrative. I find that students often tell you the most important stories about themselves when given a blank page to do so.
  • I now approach all of my early interactions with students with the question that Cornelius Minor asks when he interacts with students for the first time: Where is the poetry in this young person?
  • We do the New York Times Dialect Quiz and talk about language, dialect, and code-switching before we jump into formal grammar instruction.
  • I walk around and say hi to students at the start of class every single day in September, which one study tied to an instant 27% increase in academic engagement in that class period. Along with being more engaged, quick greetings naturally open the door to quick conversations with the student about who they are, what matters to them, and where they come from.
My basic letter template

On this blog, I’ve talked about listening before, but what I strive to do in my Septembers goes deeper. It isn’t just listening, which is a somewhat opportunistic behavior of being open to what is said; instead, I actively seek out information and stories in the same way that a miner seeks gold–one chip at a time.

And the result is better than any precious metal. The information I find about my students’ experiences, personal cultures, strengths, aspirations, and heritage helps me to be more efficient (which regular readers know I am all about) and effective all year, and for the students, just the act of someone inquiring about and listening to their stories can be life-changing!

Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,


Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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