How I Start the Year

It seems strange to me that we’re talking about returning to school, but some of my friends in far-flung places are already back. 😳

I’ve seen a few tweets about ideas for starting the school year, and I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing the last couple of years to kick off the school year. I currently teach AP English Literature and Composition and an elective called What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History.

At the Multicultural Teaching Institute, I learned about a fun icebreaker assignment called the Top 25. The idea behind it is to list 25 facts about yourself (the more random, the more interesting). As a model, I share my own Top 25. Sometimes I learn some really interesting and important things about my students because thinking of 25 things can be hard.

  1. I am a member of the Beyhive.
  2. I am always losing my phone and my keys. Tile is a game-changer.
  3. I earned a Doctorate in Education at Northeastern University. My dissertation focused on grading and assessment.
  4. I have a black cat named Bellatrix.
  5. My favorite color is light teal (close to Tiffany blue, but a bit greener).
  6. I am notoriously bad at taking care of plants. If you know of an impossible to kill plant, I’ve probably killed it.
  7. I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and three different high schools.
  8. My all-time favorite musicians are U2, and I get really sensitive about how much people criticize them. I actually subscribed to Sirius XM Radio just for their channel.
  9. You’d think I’d be in Hufflepuff, but no, Ravenclaw.
  10. I love traveling and going to concerts, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be waning, I really want to do both more often.
  11. I do not like football, but I am a huge fan of the Red Sox, and my favorite player was Mookie Betts. I’m going to stay salty about the Sox trading him.
  12. I love Polar Seltzer, especially flavored seltzer. I swap out my favorites all the time.
  13. I love a nice cup of hot black tea, but I’m not much of a green tea fan. However, I really love coffee. I drink two cups every morning.
  14. I buy way too many books, so I’m trying to use the library more.
  15. I played flute when I was younger and have very basic guitar skills.
  16. I have a sister who currently lives in Texas.
  17. I don’t have a single favorite book. I have many favorite books. My reading interests are wide.
  18. I am not scared of spiders or most bugs, but rodents and roaches terrify me.
  19. Pumpkin spice season is my favorite.
  20. My favorite TV show is Doctor Who, but I haven’t been able to watch the most recent seasons. David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.
  21. The first time I ever visited Massachusetts was because I won a trip to Salem. My husband said we would move to Massachusetts one day, but I didn’t believe him. About two years later, we did.
  22. I love baking bread, canning and preserving, and making soap. It’s 2021.
  23. I love history and sometimes think I would like to teach it as much as I like teaching English.
  24. Please call me Dr. Huff. I worked so hard to earn it. I know it’s hard for folks who knew me as Ms. Huff.
  25. I knew all four of my great grandparents on my mom’s side, but I never even saw my grandfather or step-grandmother on my dad’s side before they died.

In my AP Lit class, students read Clint Smith’s poetry collection Counting Descent over the summer. We begin our discussions of his work by watching this video of “The Danger of Silence.”

We re-read together the poem “Something You Should Know” from Counting Descent. I ask students three questions. Students can be given time to write, or the questions can be used purely for discussion. I do a mix of both. Hint: if you’re virtual, you can do these questions with Mentimeter.

  1. What did you notice? What resonated?
  2. What connections do you see to the all-school summer read (this year it will be Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram)?
  3. What questions do you have? / What do you want to know more about?

A great activity for “Something You Should Know” is to use it as a mentor text for students to write their own poems about themselves.

The first homework assignment is to read over all the policies, course outlines, and other stuff that many teachers spend the first day of class going over. I used to do that, too, but I’ve come to realize that class time is too precious and relationship-building is too critical to spend it going over policies. Some folks might argue that the students won’t read that stuff if we don’t go over it in class.

The Social Justice class is a cross-curricular class that I team-teach with a wonderful colleague from my school’s History/Social Science Department. (He’s truly one of my favorite people.) His idea was to frame the beginning of the year around understanding what social justice is. We use some of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Students in this class also create a Top 25. However, on the very first day, we ask students to think (do a chalk talk) on the question “What is justice?” For their first homework assignment, they read “Jorje” by Jorje Chica, and students write a reflection on the reading using the following prompt: “Why is Chica’s name so important to him? What connections does Chica make between his name and his identity?”

What sorts of activities do you recommend for the first day? Feel free to share in the comments.

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