At the start of school, I had a plan for connecting to the students in my classes. I would start by connecting on a personal level, so that they would be open to growing as readers and writers on a professional level.
On the first day of school, I greeted each student at the door of my classroom. They thought nothing of it, since it is a pretty typical structure for many teachers’ first day of class. Then, I continued to greet every student, every day, every hour, as they entered my classroom. Then they started to take notice. Students began greeting me in the hallway and when they entered class. They stopped, smiled, and responded.
I didn’t stop there, though. In the first few days, my next step was to connect to each student personally.
While students were setting up notebooks and working on classroom tasks, I spoke to each student, inquiring about things they liked to do, or something about them that they wanted to tell me. A student cleverly called these “interviews.” I smiled at this observation, but I knew that I was affecting students, because they felt like their turn was valuable and something to look forward to.
Over several days, I learned that one of my students is an avid sailor. Another is a horseback rider. I have students with siblings, and students who are pet lovers, sports enthusiasts, or guitarists. As I conducted these conversations, I jotted quick notes about these individual prides. The notes allow me to refer to these topics in the future, as I continue to build the connections or suggest writing topics and book themes.
My personal connections with students also support our writing conferences. Students see that these conferences are about growing as writers. They also see that they can choose to take a suggestion, and they can guide the way a conference unfolds with suggestions of their own. As the conferences shift to holistic moves for writers, students are now open to these conversations and open to reworking their writing. I found that conferences proceeded more efficiently and effectively because I had already interacted with each student before sitting at their desk with them. They realized that I was as willing to help with their work as I was to greet each of them at the door.
After each conference, students compare their previous work to their current work. Students name their shifting moves as writers, and then they evaluate the quality of their new work. What is important, too, is that following up with students after a writing conference shows that I value the work that they are doing, and it further forges the connection that I’m making with them.
Proof from an Email
Other than my observations, how did I know that this strategy was working?
Students were working on a narrative writing structure that we’ll grow and use all year. An email from a student said:
I finished my “Slice of Life” last week, but I have a question just to make sure about something. My topic that I am writing about is when my aunt and I went to an ice cream place. So, should I write about us at the ice cream place or when she picked me up from school, dropped my sister off somewhere, going to the market, and then going to the ice cream place? My overall question is, should I zoom in on that one moment (at the ice cream place) or include all the other details (getting picked up from school, dropping my sister off, going to the market, then going to ice cream place).
This email, which was sent outside school time, shows that this writer is using workshop language. She is also inquiring about how she can make a written piece better, even though it is already finished. I smiled as I responded and praised her, saying, “A good writerly question.”
This was just one benefit from my decision to make purposeful and deliberate connections to students at the beginning of the year. And I’m sure I’ll continue to see the fruits of this decision all year long.
Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.