Start of School
Buzzing of Voices
“Do we have assigned seats?”
“Do we need notebooks today?”
“What’s for lunch?”
“Jason? Here. Becky? Here.”
When the start of school is just around the corner I begin thinking about how I want to start off my year to help build an atmosphere of writing and sharing in my language arts classes. The hardest part of writing in class, besides exploring authentic audiences, is getting students comfortable with writing and sharing their work with people that are not a part of their “friend” group. Often the biggest obstacle is finding multiple ways to help students learn more about other people in their class that they often don’t hang out with. This means that as a teacher I push myself to create opportunities all year that students keep working at really getting to know their peers. This is important when we read in literature circles, hold discussion circles, or when we write, draft, and revise our writing that is often narratives or poetry of our own lives. Students need the skills and opportunities to feel comfortable with each other, and that only happens with persistence of getting to know one another.
One of the strategies I like to use at the beginning of the year is on our class blog. It all begins in our Writing Notebooks, but the finished product ends up on Kidblog and in our hallways. The assignment requires students to work with a partner that has been randomly drawn—usually not a friend—and interview them, hear stories or anecdotes about their life, and compose a biography about their partner that they will post and publish on our Kidblog site, which we will also use to hang in our hallway under a display we rename every year. There, part of their story will be up for classmates in all grades to peruse and get to know their peers a little better.
The Biography Blog assignment begins with modeling my own biography exchange with my co-teacher and biographies from students in the recent past that demonstrate humor, voice, and passion. No matter who you are, your life is interesting and different from the person next to you in many ways, and of course, there are many similarities too. My ultimate goal is having my students compose biographies about each other that are engaging, have small anecdotes about their life, and really capture things about each other we didn’t know before. As a teacher, I am certain to learn more about my students, which will help me as we go through the year, but it also begins building that atmosphere of trust in my classroom once students get to know one another better, one person at a time. They will find differences, and similarities, with their one-on-one time with each other.
After modeling Blog Biographies, we focus on what attributes or features those biographies had that made them enjoyable for reading and listening. We come up with a Master List of ideas on what makes a good biography, drafting a list of potential questions those writers must have asked their partner, to compose their narrative.
It’s then time for students to draw names for their new partners-in-crime, followed by composing a list of interview questions before they actually interview their partner. By this point my students have created questions that ask for memories from childhood, favorites and least favorites, hobbies/interests, and one of my favorites: where they see themselves in the future and what predictions they have about what they will be doing, where they will be living, and how they got to that point, among many others.
Once interviews and stories are shared, students begin drafting and participating in workshops that work their biographies through catchy introductions, eye-catching titles to make blog readers and passerby in the hallways stop and read-up on their peers, along with other details like anecdotes, verb tense and so forth.
When the final drafts are completed, we upload them to share with the entire eighth grade class on Kidblog, but we also have a photo-shoot finale where we take photos to post next to our printed drafts to hang in the hallway—usually with some kind of hat props or funny faces to entertain our hallway audience.
The Biography Blog assignment ends with our typical writing reflection where I enjoy hearing students’ surprise and enjoyment from learning more about each other. There are always challenges and difficulties that come with writing about someone else, but I find the most important part of this assignment is getting to know one another. This relationship building I continue throughout the year, most especially as we turn to group readings, writings, and discussions that need students to feel as comfortable as they can to let their voice be heard.