Week One: Both Feet First

Whew! What a week it’s been in the 6th grade ELA Lab Classroom. From paperwork to procedures, we’ve been working out the kinks for the first few days.

It’s been tempting for me to think that because I’ve been planning my summer school unit since February and I have 2 1/2 years of teaching experience, the first week of school would be a breeze.

Reality check, folks: TEACHING. IS. HARD.

Be encouraged to know that there is a reason you may be feeling overwhelmed–teaching is overwhelming! There are a thousand things to think about, plan for, assess, reevaluate, adjust, and accomplish every single day in the classroom. The work doesn’t become less, but it does become easier. I spent the first three days of my summer school unit feeling behind because I had to cut and revise several activities due to time restraints.

Sometimes kids show up who haven’t registered, and your first day of class begins 15 minutes late because you’re still collecting children. Sometimes a reading assessment takes twice as long as you thought it would for students to complete (this is a good sign–it means they care about doing well!). Know what your priorities are for the week, and keep the activities that align with those.

Despite moments of confusion, we’ve been having a great time in room 15. Here are a few highlights from the first days of class!

On Monday, less than 10 minutes after the kids came into the room for the first time, we had a visual mini lesson that is framing every activity we do for the rest of the summer. We looked at this book and this sandwich. I told the kids that before we did any work together this summer, I had a very important question for them.

How are these two things similar?

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Photo credit: Ms. Swenson’s iPhone

After the initial, “Huh?”, the 6th graders had a bunch of ideas: They both have edges, they have things inside, they have “covers”, you can hold them. After I heard a few of their suggestions, I contributed one of my own.

“I think that both of these things can feed you,” I said. “What do you think I mean by that?”

We talked about how a sandwich feeds our body–our stomach digests it and it helps us to grow; it becomes part of us. Then we talked about how a story feeds our minds and souls–the more we think about a story, the more our brains “digest” it, the more a story can help us grow; the more it becomes part of us. Over the rest of the summer we will consider how the stories we interact with–shared texts, independent reading selection, and The Story Project we are completing with our families–are “feeding” us and helping us to grow and change as individuals.

On Monday we read a story from my own life about an experience I had not getting into one of the dance classes I wanted to take in college. We discussed how not getting into this class actually opened up other opportunities to me, eventually leading to my major in creative writing and my interest in teaching English. At one point in the text, I asked students to stop and jot about what they would do if they were me and they’d just been told that they could not be in the class. Here was my all-time favorite response:

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Photo credit: Ms. Swenson’s iPhone

Right?! Straight up bribery. Let me in that class.

We’re also leveraging our families in a new way this summer through The Story Project. Kids are interviewing family members to collect stories related to the themes of the texts we are reading together in class and bringing these verbal texts to share with classmates. Together, we are asking: “How can I learn and grow from my family’s history and experience?” This has already been an extremely powerful part of our class–and it’s no surprise, when students write things like this in their student surveys:

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Photo credit: Ms. Swenson’s iPhone

Right now students are in the middle of writing stories about their own life experiences that have taught them something about themselves, their interests, or what they are capable of. It’s incredible. We’ve got kids writing about parents who have abandoned them. We’ve got kids writing about joyous family outings at the water park. We’ve got kids writing about family members who have died, and how their family grieves together. We’ve got kids writing about dropping important catches on the softball field. We’ve got kids writing about how fathers and uncles have inspired their career aspirations. We’ve got kids writing about falling off the horse, then getting back on–literally! We’ve got kids writing about how severe outdoor allergies have led them to a love of reading.

I think so many kids have been willing to share vulnerable stories because the story I wrote was vulnerable–before I read it, I told them I was nervous to share it. It was actually the first time I’d shared this story with others, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

“The right story,” I told them, “will be a little scary to write about. You might not totally understand it yourself. That’s ok–be open. Share.”

Tomorrow we are reading and responding to each others’ stories. I can’t wait to learn more from these incredible young people. They are already inspiring me in ways I did not expect or imagine.


Photo credit: Justin Philalack


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