Reimagining The First Reading and Writing Units of the Year

This summer has already been more reflective than any other summer I have lived through. This turns out to be not the best timing since I am spending my days with a VERY active 18 month old child who mostly wants nothing to do with reflection. In other words, there has not been a whole lot of sitting still this summer.  And though this leads to a sort of exhaustion that my body has previously not known,  most nights it is hard for me to fall asleep because my mind just won’t turn off.  I am constantly reimagining the kind of teacher that I want to be in the Fall.  I am reimagining what my first few days of school will look like, what my classroom will look like, how I will greet the kids and for the past few nights I have been kept awake by thoughts of our first reading and writing units.

As I have shared before, I have reached a dangerous place in my teaching career.  I have figured out how to teach a lot of what I have to teach and I have been able to do it in a pretty successful way.  And last year, that lead me to a dangerous place.  I didn’t change a whole lot.  I settled for what had worked in the past, even when I knew things could be better.  I don’t think that I harmed any children in the process, it’s just that I know I could have done better.  So this year, I want to do things in a more meaningful way.  I don’t want to change things for the sake of changing things.  I want to make them better, more purposeful and more authentic.

Every year, our writing workshop starts with personal narratives and memoirs.  Our reading workshop begins with understanding how to make connections to texts beyond just making connections to make a teacher happy.  We spend a lot of time discussing and learning how to recognize connections to our texts that truly lead to deeper understanding, especially when we have little shared experiences or prior knowledge to go along with the text we are reading.  We then spend time learning how to effectively write about these connections and discuss these connections with others.  And every year, these are great units.  There is a lot of deep discussion. These units allow me to get to know my students better and they build reading and writing communities that sustain us throughout the year.

But I have started to do a lot of thinking about all of the opportunities that I have been missing with these units.  I believe that the lessons are important, but I believe that we can make our work more authentic and meaningful.  Here are some of the things that I have been thinking.

I want to turn our “connections” study into a study of how literature and non-fiction texts can serve to be both “windows” and “mirrors.” This is a concept that I, as a teacher, have read a lot about and thought a lot about and I think it could provide interesting learning for us as a class.  I want to take a look at how texts can be “windows” into people’s lives who are vastly different than our own. I also want to take a look at how texts can be “mirrors” which reflect our own lives and allow us to feel connected to a larger world and larger communities.  I want to ask my students how texts have been both windows and mirrors for them.

To help get the conversation going, I want to share the book “In Our Mothers’ House” by Patricia Polacco with my students.  The book is about a two-mom family with three adopted children.  The book tells the story of the family and the community that they live in.  The vast majority of the community welcomes the family as they would any other family. And there is only one woman who does not want her children to play with the children of the two-mom family.  I read the story with my students each year, but I think that I could do more with it. That is, if I am willing to make myself vulnerable (which I happen to know, always leads to the best learning experiences).

I would like to talk to my students about the reason that I love this book. I love that this book acts as a “mirror” for my family.  I see myself in the characters of the two moms and I see my daughter, Millie, in the characters of the kids.  And even more importantly, I love knowing that when Millie gets older, she, too, will be able to see herself and her own family reflected in this book, which will not be the case for the majority of books that she will read (though this is starting to get so much better).

I also want to share that this book acts as a “window” for me.  It allows me to see into the lives of people who might not accept my family or who might pass messages of intolerance onto their children.  While I wish people like this didn’t exist in the world, this book allows me to see into their lives and understand the power of their hate.  It also allows me to see into the lives of the many supportive families that exist in the world and understand that though hate is powerful, a community that accepts those who are different will always be able to overcome that hate.

I want my students to know that books are “windows” and “mirrors” for me.  I believe that this will allow them to start to talk about how books are “windows” and “mirrors” for them as well. I would like to wrap our discussion of connecting to texts into this discussion.  I want to show them that connecting to texts can make us feel less alone in the world.  It can make us feel valued and worthy. It can unite people and teach people. It can help us to understand the characters whose lives we are reading about.  And it can also help us to build empathy for those we might not understand.

From there, I would like to guide my students into an investigation of the books that we are reading.  I want to look at the types of people who are reflected most often in these books. I then want to look at the type of people are NOT being reflected in the books that we read.  Whose stories are NOT being told? I imagine that my students will start to see holes and gaps in the types of characters that we are reading about and those who we are not reading about.  I imagine that they will start to feel the injustice of this situation and I hope that they will be moved to some sort of action. But that will be up for them to decide and discover.

As we do this work in reading workshop, I would like to connect our work in writing workshop. I would like to talk about how, as writers, we are given the power to share our stories with others so that we can make people feel less alone in this world.  When we write our own stories, we are reflecting who we are through our writing.

This year, as I have mentioned, I hope to begin blogging with my students.  I believe that this will provide the perfect audience for the first pieces of writing that I want to do with my students.  I hope to share with them that as bloggers, our writing reveals who we are to the world.  And the first stories that we will be writing, will be posted on their blogs, to begin to show the world who they all are.  With that purpose in mind, I will guide my students in selecting moments from their lives that reveal something about who they are.  These are the stories we need to share.  These are the stories that demand to be written.

I am also thinking that once we start to discover whose stories are NOT being told, we might be able to do some fiction writing (which we never do enough of in the upper elementary grades). Perhaps we can begin to look at whose stories are missing from our libraries and begin to create fictional stories that introduce more characters that will allow more kinds of people to see themselves reflected in books.

I guess I wrote this post more for myself than for anyone else. I can’t imagine it would be interesting for anyone else to read.  I just needed to get some of these plans down, so that perhaps I can actually start to fall asleep again at night! I know that these plans will change.  I know that I will be guided by my students and I also know that I have to start somewhere.

If anyone should happen to read these ramblings, please feel free to leave suggestions as a comment.  I am so eager to hear other people’s ideas and to learn from the things that others have already done.


4 thoughts on “Reimagining The First Reading and Writing Units of the Year

  1. I love the idea of adding a bit of social justice work to your reading/writing workshop and building in some critical literacy as well. I especially like the idea of adding the fiction writing.

    Some questions: (1) How will you help your students gather information to make sure that their stories do represent those whose cultures aren’t always seen in children’s literature and make sure they steer away from stereotypes? (2) Have you thought about adding another layer to the social justice/activism piece? Maybe the students write letters to publishers about who they would like to see represented in children’s books? Or tweeting their ideas with a classroom twitter account using the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag?

    • I absolutely LOVE those ideas. Thank you so much for sharing them. This is why I love this world of blogging and the community we are forming here. I will have to continue to think about the gathering data aspect. I suspect I won’t be sure of how to proceed until I see what the students discover. Thank you again for the ideas. I am really excited about the thoughts they have led to! Keep the ideas coming!!

  2. Awesome! I can see why you would want to write this down: There are so many possibilities! I see a good opportunity for media literacy here. With shared vocabulary and the right mindset, students could analyze so much more than just their texts. Contemplating the presentation of individuals and groups, the presence/lack or diversity, and the told and untold stories in popular books/music/movies/advertisements should be a constant practice, but it definitely requires some practice and guidance!

  3. Pingback: Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 3) | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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