Setting the Right Tone for the School Year: "Dear Students Returning to School"

51 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT Evaluate John Green's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, in his "Open Letter to Students Returning to School."

Big Idea

Our world is a better place when citizens are well educated, which is why society invests in public education.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Overview and Context

Ready. Set. Write. These three words set the tone for my pedagogic philosophy about writing: For students to improve their writing, they must write often (preferably daily) and they must write in quantity.

I expect students to be ready to write daily. Additionally, rather than announcing an essay assignment at the end of a literature unit, I focus students attention on preparing for major writing assignments throughout our study of literature and weave focused writing instruction into the literature units. 

As a teacher, it's my job to help students find their writing voices and to show them they have important things to say.

This lesson is lesson two of three in the unit In The Beginning: The First Three Days of School. 


Warm-Up: Listen to the Letter

10 minutes

Background for Teachers:

The fall of 2012, John Green addressed "students returning to school" in an open letter via his vlogbrothers YouTube channel. 

The letter gives a brief history of public education, as well as the benefits Green (read: society) expects to receive from an educated populace. Additionally, Green uses a plethora of allusions, which subtly reinforce ELA instruction. Green uses inductive reasoning (specific evidence to general conclusion) to structure the letter, thereby saving his thesis for the end of the letter: "Your education isn't just about you...We're all better off living in a well-educated society. This use of delayed thesis reminds me of Emerson, who often structured his essays with the thesis toward the end. 

Listen to the Letter:

The first thing I like to do is tell students we have a guest speaker, John Green, the author of such highly popular YA novels as An Abundance of KatherinesPaper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars,which is being made into a movie that just began production. 

Next, I tell students that "Green speaks very rapidly, so don't expect to catch every detail in the letter as we'll listen to it at least twice. The first time, enjoy and be prepared to share what they heard."

Beginning Discussion: What's That You Heard?

15 minutes

Once the class has heard the letter, I ask students what they heard and record their responses. 

Since we're only on the second day of class, I considered my options for recording and discussing:

1. I asked students what they heard and used the white board to record their responses. I gave each student a marker and asked them to post at least one thing they heard on the three boards available. I considered giving each student a post-it note or note card on which to record their responses if they were reluctant to write on the board. 

2. Then we discuss the written responses on the board. I moved around the room and read them, even the ones not related to the content.  "Teachers are stupid" was the most popular board note. Knowing it's important not to get wound up about this, I asked,

"Is that all Green said?"

"We're stupid, too," several students responded.

"Is Green really calling us all stupid?"

"No," the kids chirped.

"The what's his point?" 

After some pausing, one kid said, "We can get less stupid together."

"Yes," I said, "There's always more for all of us to learn."  





Formative Assessment: Listening Map

25 minutes

Background for Teachers

One way music teachers provide instruction in listening to music is through the use of a "listening map." A listening map helps children filter and focus on sounds in an instrumental selection by giving a visual representation of sound using pictures and graphics. 

To assist students in becoming better active listeners, I modified the idea of an instrumental listening map music teachers use. 

The Instrumental Listening Map illustrates how one can filter sounds in a musical selection so that students can associate the image with the sound. 

I have  include a sample instrumental listening map that inspired my thinking. 

Instruction to Students

"Now we're going to listen to John Green's letter again. This time you are going to 'map' the presentation using a template for organizing Green's three most important points/ideas in the letter." 

I passed out the maps and talked to the class about its organization. We began by putting the topic "education" in the center. Listening Map. My hope was that after identifying Green's points and evidence, students would use deductive reasoning to arrive at the letter's theme. 

To help students understand deduction, I tell them that Green gives many details, so I want them to listen for those and put them in the sections on the map. 

Listen to the Letter

Rather than playing the letter from start to finish, I divide it into increments, pausing between natural points. For example, I allowed the letter to play through the history of education section and then paused it. This will give students a chance to create their maps and cut down on the frustration that results from trying to record a rapid speaker's speech. 

Student Response

Included in the resources is the template I share w/ students. This is an initial WIP that I'll modify. I've also included a student example. Student Example

Coming Attractions

5 minutes

Shortly before the end of the period, I tell students that they will use their listening maps as prewriting notes for a personal letter to John Green, to educators, or to themselves the next day. 

Those who teach on a block schedule or for longer periods can continue the lesson and use the writing prompt as an exit ticket. Since it's only the second day of school, I like to make this writing informal and the basis for information I gather about my students' writing skills.