Responding to John Green's "An Open Letter to Students Returning to School" and "Wrecking My Journal."

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SWBAT to draft a brief letter in response to John Green's "Open Letter to Students Returning to School" and personalize their writer's notebooks by following the example of "Wreck This Journal."

Big Idea

Getting students writing early in the year and personalizing their writing notebooks establishes priorities for the class.

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 three of three in the unit In The Beginning: The First Three Days of School.

This lesson is the follow-up to "Setting the Right Tone: 'Dear Students Returning to School'" which features an open letter from YA author John Green to students. 

Although I initially planned the lesson as a response to John Green's "Dear Students Returning to School" Vlog, the death of Seamus Heaney necessitated a deviation from the original plan, so I have included the tribute to him as part of the lesson.

Warm-Up: Paying Tribute to Seamus Heaney

10 minutes

I awoke to the sad news that one of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney, died. The previous night I had been reading Heaney's translation of Beowulf, so his voice was in my head. 

I think of Heaney as an "everyman's" poet, so I decided to begin class with a tribute to him. I wanted to show a video of "Miracle" but had trouble w/ my district's filter. Instead, I showed a montage of Heaney reading "Digging." It's very appropriate to my students' lives in eastern Idaho, the country's largest potato producing geographic area, as Heaney describes his father's life as a potato grower and his decision to "dig" with his pen. 

I simply showed the reading and asked students what they noticed. I asked the students if they thought the poem sounded like a poem. One said, "It sounded like a story." Next I asked, "What did you think when I said we're listening to a poem." One student honestly said, "Oh, yuck, a poem." 

I didn't want to "beat the poem to find out what it really means," as Billy Collins says teachers like to do. I wanted students to enjoy the poem and the images and Heaney's reading. I suppose this was probably more about me than about them. Still, I'm hoping to come back to the poem another time. For now, simply acknowledging Heaney's contribution is enough. 


Follow-Up: Letter to Letter

15 minutes

*Follow-Up to the Lesson: "Setting the Right Tone: 'Dear Students Returning to School'" from the previous day.

Reflecting on My Pedagogical Approach:

In these early days of school, I'm more interested in student buy-in than in formal assessments. The students I teach often have inconsistent experiences. Some have had teaches who prioritize both reading and writing. Others may not have written more than one paper each trimester the previous year. It's conceivable that many of these students haven't been in an English class since March of the previous year, meaning that they may not have read a book or written a paper in the previous five months! Getting them into the groove of a class that focuses on reading and writing takes a little time. 

Student Directions:

I tell students this: "We're returning to the letter from John Green we listened to yesterday. You have three options (I put these on the board). Write in the writing journals I gave you yesterday. Be sure to date and label this quick write:

August 30, 2013                       Letter to John Green/Myself/Teacher(s)

1. Compose a letter to John Green in which you respond to his letter.

2. Compose a letter to yourself about your education, specifically your goals and dreams for the year.

3. Compose a letter to your teacher(s) in which you tell us what you want and expect from school this year. 

This is a quick write and as such, what's important is simply writing. Paradoxically, the mere act of writing will help you think of ideas. Looking at the paper and 'thinking about it' won't. So just write; we'll worry about formatting and revising later. You will have 10 minutes for your response. I'll write, too, and set the timer so we know when to stop."

At this point, I set the timer, and we all write. 


Pair and Share: I'll Show You My Letter if You Show Me Yours!

15 minutes

As the class progresses, I suspect students will become more interested in sharing their writing. At least that has been my past experience. At this juncture, however, it's no surprise that hands remained down when I asked, "Would anyone like to share their letter with the class?"

Next I asked, "Would you be willing to share your letter with a partner?" Success! Students gladly paired up to share their letters. 

I paired up with a student, too, who took the approach of writing her letter in the form of a summary of Green's letter. I told her, "I like the way you summarized Green's letter because writing summaries is a good way to begin thinking about your own thinking, and it's a good way to help you remember what you heard in the letter."

Then I shared my response, and she got to see me stumble over my horrible hand writing, which provided some levity. She also heard my commitment to students, which is the approach I took in my "Letter to Students Returning to Highland." 

The Student Letter shows how little thought some students give to the idea that their education matters to the larger world, that they can make a difference just by working a little harder on their education. During the discussion, one student told me he had now knowledge about the history of education. Others noted that the timeline really helped them understand how relatively recent the idea of education is in terms of recorded history.

These initial discussions and observations will be important as we progress through the curriculum, and maybe a student will explore the history of education just a little more. It's our school's 50th anniversary, so this is all very timely to the school's traditions. 

Personalizing the Writing Notebook: "Wreck" Your Journal

35 minutes

Today is all about how we respond to texts, but I know the three main sections of this lesson may appear unrelated. In a 75 minute period, it's important to have several "moves" to maintain student interest. 

After students write and share their letters, I invite them to "wreck" their writing notebooks. This is based, in part, on Keri Smith's Wreck This Journal. Smith has fashioned a career out of challenging traditional notions about reading and writing.  Wrecking their journals is one way to help students find their writing voice.

I provide students a plethora of supplies, including bubble paint, duct tape, construction paper, etc. The image accompanying this lesson shows some of the class's wrecked journals.

My hope is that many will carry the journals with them and use them to record their thoughts, ideas, concerns, potential topics, etc. Time will tell. Certainly, this has happened with students in the past, but I realize the idea of keeping any kind of journal might seem old-school in this age of vines, texting, posting on Facebook and Instagram, etc. I'm not as concerned w/ mode of recording as I am with students' conscious efforts to see their world as texts and places on which they write and reflect. "Wrecked" Student Writing Notebooks

It's Friday afternoon, so the act of creating something personal is a good way to end this beginning of a new school year.