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On week one after a tense summer, don’t be afraid to tell students: ‘We want to know you’

Denver Post
Denver Post

As school resumes, ninth graders are walking into 2,000-student high schools and and feeling uneasy, perhaps scared.

Some might recognize a small share of their classmates from middle school. But many won’t know a single teacher, and not one adult will know them, either.

They will wonder: Are the men and women in this building on their side? Is any adult there happy to see them?

In those first days, English teachers will have their own questions about their students’ writing skills and their students’ lives. As a longtime English teacher in Parker, my solution was to embrace the simple journal entry.

I would ask them to tell me about a fun, scary or memorable experience from this past summer. Write about a visit to relatives, a grandparent’s illness, your new apartment or home. Explain what did or did not go well in eighth grade and your questions about whether you’re ready to succeed.

The topics might seem fluffy to some. Aren’t those elementary-school topics? No mention of Common Core’s emphasis on “citing evidence to support your point of view”?

Nope. We have 35 other weeks to help our students develop their ability to narrate, inform, persuade. Week one, we need to get to know our students.

This is more important than it might seem for a couple of reasons. One, the 2015 Student Gallup Poll told us, once again, that by ninth grade students increasingly feel disengaged. Responses to the statement “The adults at my school care about me” decline steadily after fifth grade.

To keep our students engaged in this critical academic work, our 13- and 14-year old freshmen need evidence, this first week, that someone in this forbidding complex wants to know who they are. When they don’t get it, the results are clear.

Second, we cannot ignore what young people have witnessed this summer across our country. For those of us who teach or tutor in Denver, Aurora, or the Adams 14 districts, all of which have large numbers of students of color, questions about race and policing are even more relevant.

In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where protests flared in recent months, a recent story in Education Week profiled principals who are developing “plans to help teachers respond to students and their needs when they return to school,” including “efforts to provide students who may want to write or speak about race and policing as part of school assignments.”

“May” want? You better believe it. Let’s welcome this, and give our ninth graders a chance to try to put what they are thinking into words.

In my final years as a teacher, that first week of school, I asked my students to produce three journal entries. No magic there. But perhaps the big high school becomes less scary when one adult says, I care. I’d like to know who you are and what’s on your mind. Tell me.

Here are some writing assignment ideas …

I. Choose one of the options below, and focus only on that one activity or day or moment.

1. Favorite activity
2. Best memory
3. Most embarrassing moment/experience
4. Most difficult or most thrilling moment/experience, and why
5. Activity, experience or accomplishment from this summer of which I am most proud

II. Write about the adjustment to ninth grade. Some of the topics you might examine include:

1.) What is new? What is different? How much is the same? What are your first impressions? What will be different in the workload? What are you most excited about? What are you most worried about?
2.) Write about one or two of your main academic goals for the rest of the school year. It can help to set some goals for the next two or three months. What changes or improvement do you hope to see, and why?

III. Write a response to one of these topics.

Is there a family member you feel very close to? What makes you feel that way?
Do you or your family have a pet or pets? How do you feel about him/her/them?
If you have a friend with whom you can talk about anything, write about him or her.
What would you like to do after high school? After college?
What might keep you from achieving your potential?
What is your greatest fear? – or – What puts a smile on your face?

Peter Huidekoper Jr. taught for 18 years. He writes an education newsletter and is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program.

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