I find that most of my fifth graders enter our room seeing reading and writing as something done for school. There are the few kids who love reading, but most haven’t picked up a book over the entire summer. The concept of authors is nothing beyond a name on the cover of a book. And if they didn’t read over the summer, they certainly didn’t pick up a pen and write anything, beyond text messages to their friends. I understand their dilemma. As a child, I devoured books all summer long. I could rattle off a list of my favorite authors as quick as a wink. But did I ever view writing as a possible career? Never. That was for a select few, not something a girl from a small town surrounded by corn could ever dream of. These are the ingrained attitudes that I wish to change.
Each August I have to remind myself to slow down. The lists of concepts that need to be taught are overwhelming. Yet slow down I do. After so many years in this profession, I know that if I don’t build a solid foundation at the start, our entire year will tumble down like a house from the "Three Little Pigs." With that thought in mind, our first three weeks as a class becomes one of discovery: learning what our classroom community is like and learning to live like readers and writers.
On the First Day: Reflection
We begin as the year should begin, with reflection. On their first full day of school, I ask the students to think of who they are, and what they know about their reading interests and writing interests. I create quick surveys for them to fill out in Google Docs; I used to do this with pencil and paper, which works just as well. The questions are guided by my own interests and what I think I must know about my students.
Some typical questions to gauge reading and writing interests might be the following:
- What genre do you enjoy reading?
- Who is your favorite author?
- What book have you loved?
- What book have you not enjoyed?
- Have you ever abandoned a book? What was the title?
- Where do you get book recommendations?
- How do you pick what you will read?
- Do you write outside of school?
- When you write, at home and at school, what topic(s) do you write about?
- Do you use a writing notebook?
- Where do you get your ideas to write about?
- Do you have a special spot at home to read and/or write?
- Do you read and/or write daily?
A child who says, “I don’t know” when asked to name a favorite author is a child I need to work with. I compile all of the information and see where their gaps are (for example, genre, interests, being able to talk about books). This informs what minilessons I will begin with.
Day Two: Homework
Starting on day two, after I have examined their survey results, I share what their homework will be for every day of the school year: read for 20 minutes, and write for 10 minutes. For both assignments, they have choice. They can read whatever they like. They can write whatever they like. By adding these 30 minutes of literacy homework each day, they will begin on their path to becoming readers and writers.
The Next Five Days: Community
For the next five days, we will share our 10-minute writing from the night before at the start of every class. Students will come in, lay their notebooks out, and circle the room, using sticky notes to comment on other students’ writing. I’ve done this before in my Slice of Life unit in March. By starting the year with it, I begin to build that community piece from the very beginning.
Minilessons for the next five days will be about sharing and building our classroom community. We will share what we learn as writers from writing daily. Usually my students begin to notice that writing ideas come more easily when they are constantly aware that they need to write. We will share what we discover as readers—that we have interests in the same books as our friends. That we can steal minutes for reading from different parts of our day—what Donalyn Miller calls “edge reading.” I will also share what my reading and writing life looks like, what I do when I’m stuck for ideas to write about, when I abandon books, and when I keep going. Our relationships as a class and as teacher and students will begin to grow.
Learning from Others
Finally, we will have visitors to our classroom. These visits begin the second week of school and continue all year long. Authors, teachers, and students from around the country can Skype in and share what their reading and writing lives look like. Most of these Skype visits I arrange through friends I follow on Twitter. Last year teacher and author Penny Kittle and author Linda Urban both Skyped in to talk to my students about keeping a writing notebook: what their notebook looks like, how they find time to write, and what kind of stuff goes in their notebook. This helped my students see that it wasn’t just their teacher who was getting these crazy ideas, but that published authors write just like this, too.
Living a reading and writing life is a skill my students can take with them when they leave fifth grade. It is one that will benefit them across subjects and on a personal level as well. There is no greater way to begin a school year than by laying the foundation for a community of readers and writers. I cannot wait to get started.