I always spend a ton of time planning the first few weeks. It seems like there is way too much I want to do, and I go over my plans again and again, trying to fit everything in without overscheduling. Between introductory activities, establishing the routines of our workshop, writing lessons on process and craft, and our opening reading roundtable discussions, it’s a challenge to provide enough time for the most important things: writing and reading. Somehow, no matter how much planning I did in past years, I never seemed to get it right. Days were too busy, and we never had as much time to write and read as I wanted.
As we began this year, I made three major changes to how we started the year, the first two of which were intended to free up more time:
Wait a couple days to start writing: This freed up more time for booktalks, browsing the library, and choosing their first book.
No craft-related writing lessons for the first three weeks: This allowed us to focus on routines and process the first few weeks, freeing up time previously spent on early lessons on craft. This also means that the first piece each student finishes will show what they can do without the influence of any craft lessons, making it more helpful in reflecting on growth later in the year. During all my writing conferences, then, I haven’t made suggestions related to how the piece is written. Instead, I’ve made sure to point out positive things I see and, when necessary, help them navigate what to do next.
Giving them a specific way to respond to the poems we read at the start of class: We start class most days by reading and talking about a poem, especially at the start of the year since free-verse poetry is the first genre we study as writers. Even with a list of options, it was always hard for students to respond to and talk about these poems at the start of the year, so this year, instead of giving students the whole list right away, I chose one to go with each of our first six poems. It was only after they had used each option once that I gave them the whole list and allowed them to respond however they chose.
So, now that three weeks are finished, did these changes work?
Focusing exclusively on reading the first couple days was good as those days didn’t feel nearly as busy as they usually do. We had more time to talk and more time for students to select and start reading their first books.
Students also seemed to be better able to respond to and talk about the poems we read together. After reading seven of them, most students have shared at least once, and they’ve been able to comment on them better than in previous years.
The biggest negative, though, is that I still haven’t consistently provided enough time to write and read. Moving all craft related writing lessons back a few weeks would have worked except I added a couple of new things this year that took up too much of the time we were saving. I began Classroom Book-a-Day, reading a picture book a day with my students, and I also added a couple of discussions that we had not had in previous years. Inspired by Pernille Ripp’s idea, we discussed when/why writing and reading are great and when/why they are awful. From this, students created the lists of their rights as writers and readers that is at the top of this post. I’m glad I added each of these things; it’s just unfortunate that I didn’t cut enough to compensate for adding them. So, looking ahead to next week, reading and writing time start becoming the priority they should be. Starting on Monday, there will be at least 20 minutes to write and 15 minutes to read everyday, with the writing time increasing as we build stamina.
I’ve also already started thinking a bit about next year, about which things from the first three weeks can wait until later and which things we maybe don’t need to do at all. I might combine the first two roundtable discussions, about how we choose books and why we abandon books, into one discussion, which would free up some time.
Another possible change next year is that everyone will make their first book choice and start reading on day one. In the past, I’ve given them a couple days in case someone couldn’t find a book, but after reading about Colby Sharp’s first day, I’ve decided, why wait? I’m thinking about it almost as a chance to test out a book for 8-10 minutes. Everyone can choose a book, start reading it, and then afterwards I’ll do my first booktalk(s). Anyone who likes a title from a booktalk better than the one they chose can switch, and if anyone doesn’t like the first book they pick, they can choose another the next day. I’m actually excited thinking about doing this on day one next year.
I’ve also thought a bit about the students’ first piece of writing. While we start with a genre study of free-verse poetry, I’ve started wondering if I should allow students to write whatever they want for their first piece. If I’m waiting to do any craft mini-lessons until the fourth week anyway, maybe I should let them write any genre they want, and then shift to free-verse poems starting with their second piece when we really start diving into our study of the genre. This is something I’ll think more about next year when I begin planning for a new year.