This week the 6th graders got the chance to write stories that revealed something about who they are and what is important to them, which culminated in a gallery walk on Friday. I will most definitely be repeating this activity each year for the rest of my teaching career. What an awesome way to establish a deeply meaningful classroom culture and community!
Here’s a breakdown of what this looked like over the course of the week:
- On day one we read a story that I had written about my own life. I spent a lot of thinking time coming up with the “right” story to share with the class–something that 1) felt vulnerable, 2) showed something personal about myself and 3) would be compelling to kids. I ended up sharing a story about not getting into a dance class I really wanted to take in college, and how this led to me discovering some different interests (and ultimately my major in creative writing and becoming a reading teacher!).
- We talked about what this experience was like for me and how I grew and changed from it. Kids also had the chance to ask questions about my story.
- I told the kids that sharing our stories is an important way for us to know more about one another, and that later this week they would have the chance to write their own story to share with the class.
- We read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and talked briefly about how this is another story of someone’s experience, and that we learn about who Rachel is by reading her story.
- We discussed Rachel’s statement about how growing up is like the layers of an onion, one year on top of the next one. This summer we’re learning how the experiences, relationships, and challenges in our lives have “added up” to who we are today. The stories we’ll share with one another will help us see the “layers” of our classmates.
- During writing time, kids got the chance to brainstorm three possible stories to share with the class. We talked about how these stories should be about 1) an experience in the past that had changed or shaped you in some way, 2) a challenge you have faced or are facing, or 3) how you discovered something about yourself, your abilities, or your interests.
- I emphasized that the purpose of these stories is to know real and interesting things about each other, and that the “right” story to share would probably feel a little scary or make you a little nervous. “Trust your classmates,” I told them. “We will read your story well and care about you.”
- Students had the chance to share their possible stories with a partner; their partner told them which story they were most interested in hearing more about.
- Students began writing their stories. If kids still had trouble deciding on a topic, I prompted them with specific things they had listed on their student interest surveys (“You said you’d like to be in the army because you have family member in the military, right? So, you could tell us about what they have told you or what you have seen in them that makes you want to do the same thing.”). Being able to recall that level of detail about them is really powerful to kids. It instantly builds your rapport with them.
- We finished our stories (I collected and read them on Thursday, then gave them back with an “I love ______!” and a question on a sticky note to prompt more writing) in class.
- We prepared for the gallery walk. I’d posted enough chart paper around the room for two stories to be posted on each. There were Post-It notes by each piece of chart paper so kids could write comments and questions to one another. As the kids were finishing their writing, I walked around and put a piece of masking tape on each desk. First we discussed the types of comments they could leave for one another (Favorite parts, things you want to know more about, things that are similar in your own life). Then I stated my expectations for the activity:
- Silent activity. You get to “talk” through the notes you leave for one another. (If students talk during the activity, remind them that this is a silent activity and ask them to return to their seat for a minute. After about 30 seconds you can allow them to rejoin the class.)
- 20 minutes to read one another’s stories.
- 3 people max per piece of chart paper. If there are already 3 people at the paper you want to visit next, move to the center of the room and wait silently until someone leaves.
- At about the halfway mark I asked the class for their attention and shouted out several insightful comments I’d noticed as I walked around–I read these aloud and told them why they were especially strong thoughts and why we should try to write more comments like these. I let kids return to their own pieces to see what others had said, and let them know how many minutes they had left to read.
- After we returned to our seats, I had students talk with their partners about 1) how it felt to learn so much about their classmates and 2) what they thought of the activity/what they were learning about themselves. I took a few volunteer comments–my favorite was, “My classmates have a lot of courage to share these stories about themselves.” Powerful stuff, friends!
If you are a new teacher working with a summer school class, this activity could be modified to take place during Academic Intervention. It’s a great way to share things about yourself and learn meaningful things about your students.
Curious to read some student stories and comments? Click here to read some of the students’ stories.