Sitting down at night (for maybe the very first time all day), my legs still feel like they’re moving, my feet still pounding against the hard, tiled floors of my classroom as I dance from one side to the other, gesticulating in sweeping motions that match the fire and energy of my speech, imploring—no, commanding!—the eyes watching to take the stage with me. We each dance our own version of this ballet across the floors of our classrooms every single day, and it is tiring work however rewarding. And tired is certainly the word that echoes the loudest in my skull right now, winding down after the first couple of weeks back on the stage.
But this isn’t about being tired, really. It’s about the things we no longer do after we wind down. Gone are the discussions of rules and expectations, gone are the days of settling students into a routine, and gone are the days of introductory activities and ice breakers. We sometimes have a tendency to stop trying to deliberately learn our students after the obligatory first day introduction activities—not consciously or with intent; we just get caught up in all the busy, and “getting to know you” doesn’t always figure into the curriculum of the day. We learn who our kids are in the little and subtle ways that come with spending day after day with one another, but it’s just as important for students to continue to see that interest, care, and investment in who they are reflected in the curriculum. While doing some reading this summer, I came across a brilliant activity that provides such an opportunity, and I wanted to share with you this activity and my experience with it.
Deborah Dean introduces the idea of Self Pages in Strategic Writing as a way to introduce the reading technique “Observe, Question, Compare” (OQC) to engage students with mentor texts. The mentor text Dean uses in this instance is Artists, Writers, Thinkers, Dreamers by James Gulliver Hancock, who utilizes images and words to create biographical collages of sorts about famous people. I began by splitting students into groups of five and distributing the same set of images from Hancock’s text to each group, asking them to make observations about each Self Page, question why each page might include some things and leave out others and why each page was arranged the way it was, and to compare the pages to one another. Their goal was to compile a list of common characteristics as a group, which we then used to build a master list of “requirements” for Self Pages as a class. What they came up with included: combination of words and images, limited color palette (2 or 3 max), the person’s head/body is the most prominent feature of the page, accomplishments, goals/dreams/hopes, education, career, family/friends, likes and dislikes, fears, habits, important places lived/traveled, illnesses/major life struggles, etc. I announced that they had just collectively written their next assignment and charged them with the task of creating their own Self Pages (about themselves) that adhered to the characteristics listed on the board. In addition to the opening image, here are just a few of the amazing pieces my kids brought to the table:
As a follow-up, I asked them to write a reflective piece about what their Self Page had revealed about them—what had they learned about themselves? Of course, we also took the time to share our work and the multitude of stories the images inspired, and the entire class period was spent simply exchanging stories (which I had not really intended but happily reveled in). What I learned about my students in those ninety minutes of swapping stories would have never happened had I not opened the door to it, had I not made thema part of my own curriculum. And what they learned about me was that I had stories too. I constantly seek to humanize myself in front of my kids, to shatter that weird façade of teacher as knowledge-giver, teacher as know-it-all, teacher as not-student. I want them to know that I’m just me, and I’m there to learn just as much as they are. And, more importantly, they learn that there is a space for their voice in my room, that their voice will be listened to and valued, that it will be answered. And I continue to build up and reaffirm those beliefs as the semester continues.
The next day we took our first glance at Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and talked about the impact of pairing images and text and what happens when art and life intersect. Many students referred to their own Self Pages, which wallpaper the back of my classroom, throughout our conversation, already connecting and identifying with Junior before we have even begun reading the novel.