Unfortunately, many of us are ruled by the calendar and the clock, and we end up rushing to get curriculum covered. However, if we spend time early in the semester, setting students up for success, they will gain confidence and be ready to learn and grow.
And, that will allow us to get more done in the long run, so that upfront time is never wasted.
Getting to Know Yourself Activities
The first days and weeks of school are often filled with getting to know you exercises. I do one myself. However, I think it’s also important that, in English class especially, we do some getting to know yourself exercises too.
Why, you ask? After all, it’s English class, not psychology. And don’t we already have enough to do without helping kids get to know themselves better?
Well, yes. We do have lots to do. But. many of those things will be more successful if our students feel comfortable and safe in our classroom. When they do they will be much more ready to take risks. They will be more likely to take part in a class discussion and to share their ideas and their writing.
So how can we do that?
Plan activities that require reflection
Let’s face it. The teen years are full of angst. Our students are struggling with their identity and confidence. Our English classes can offer them a safe place to explore who they are and what they believe.
One way we can do this early in the semester is with writing prompts that get them to reflect on different aspects of themselves. Asking students to do free-writes, where they just do a brain dump of all their thoughts on the topic or issue is an excellent strategy to get them to do this.
With a brain dump, I instruct my students to just get their ideas down on paper. This can be a brainstorming session or a journal type entry, but the main thing is that it doesn’t have to be organized or focused. It’s just a way to explore their thoughts. Then, after they’re done, I ask them to go back and highlight or underline at least one idea they’d like to explore further. Focusing on the revision process, even with quick-writes, helps students build that all-important habit.
Using high interest topics for reflection and group discussion is another key strategy to get students to explore what they believe and to get to know themselves. If you need resources to help with this, I have a whole series of lessons and activities that focus on engaging topics like the Snowflake Generation, Screen Time, Feeling Anxious and Stressed, Cyberbullying, and Climate Change
Don’t make kids share early in the year
I never ask students to share their writing in the first weeks of class. Sharing is a big component of the writing workshop approach but this is something that can strike fear in the hearts of students early in the year.
So, when we start doing in class quick-writes and short assignments, I don’t ask for volunteers to read their work at all. We just do the activity and move on. After we do a few of them, I’ll ask for volunteers to share their work. This is a practice that I continue throughout the year, as I never cold call students because that just puts them on the spot and induces all kinds of anxiety – for no real educational purpose at all.
After we’ve done several responses and quick-writes without sharing, we step things up a notch, and I ask students to do a turn-and-talk and share something they wrote with a partner. They don’t have to read the whole thing; they can just tell them about one idea. Then, after they’ve all had time to chat, I’ll ask if anyone wants to share with the class.
I find that when I use the process of a) reflection, b) turn-and-talk, and c) whole class share, students’ will build confidence as the year goes on, and by the end of the year, more and more students will offer to share with the whole class.
This scaffolding process is something I do with speaking assignments too, and I have had great success with getting kids who were scared to speak in front of the class to feel a lot more confidence. You can read about how I scaffold speaking skills on this blog post. And check out my strategies to encourage reluctant writers as well.
Establish clear routines and expectations
Another way to set students up for success is by establishing clear routines and expectations from day one.
Our students need to feel secure both physically and emotionally. When either of these is threatened, they are not ready and able to learn. Many schools have breakfast and lunch programs to help students who are hungry, and bullying and lock-down procedure to help keep students safe. However, there are also things that you as the teacher can do to make your students feel secure in your classroom, things that will let them know that their personal or psychological safety is not threatened. And this will open the door to helping them feel safe exploring their identity and beliefs.
It may be surprising, but one of the best ways to help students feel safe and secure is to set clear expectations for behavior in your class – as well as the consequences for not meeting them (consequences, not punishment). However, I’m not saying you need to create a strict, rigid environment. There are ways you can meet this need for students without doing that. As long as your students know that they can rely on the routines and expectations in your classroom, they will feel more secure in your room.
Read more about how you can effectively manage your class here.
I hope you’ve found something here that can help you set your students up for success. Please reach out with any questions, and share your own tips in the comments!