Education Opinion

The First Day of School

By Donalyn Miller — June 05, 2009 4 min read
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School ended yesterday, and today, I moved the contents of my classroom into the new room my students and I will inhabit next year. Six girls, former students from various years, donated their first day of summer vacation to help me move. The most demanding task, of course, is dusting 10 bookshelves and hauling over 80 tubs of books down the hall. After two hours of dusting and shelving, I noticed that a large percentage of my books were stacked on the floor, never making it to the shelves.

Dismayed about how little progress we were making, I cried out, “Girls, why are these books piled everywhere? Do you need help sorting them all?”

The girls clamored, “These are the books we are checking out over the summer. You don’t mind do you? We need books to read!”

Laughing, I agreed, “Well, the books will just sit here lonely over the break. They might as well go home with you. Make sure you leave a list and bring them back before school starts.”

Later, we sat on the floor, eating pizza and chatting about our summer plans—plans that included lots of reading. Each girl dug into her take-home book pile, sharing the treasures discovered during the move. It amazed me that these girls, several who met each other today, came together as a reading community sitting on my floor, swapping book recommendations as freely as they shared tips about middle school. They reminisce about the books already read, and anticipate the next title. School is over, but their reading lives continue—using their experiences and preferences to inform future choices.

Teachers do this, too, reflecting and thinking ahead. One school year ends, and the new school year begins the next day, it seems. We hang up our teaching hats for a few months, but we never turn off our teaching brains. Taking a break to refresh ourselves and recharge, we consider how to move forward in our own teaching and learning. What did our students teach us this year? How can we improve the reading instruction in our classrooms? What can we read and study now that we have time? And most importantly, how can we support each other as learners like my students support each other as readers?

Considering the triumphs and trials of the last year and my own unanswered questions, a few topics repeatedly surface. Perhaps you have answers or a new perspective.

How can I build a community of readers and writers earlier in the school year? Every mix of students differs and some years it takes until after Winter Break for my students to gel as a community. Following the success of several teachers at my campus who implemented Responsive Classroom techniques this year, I plan to investigate this model for instilling academic and social competency in my own students next year. Building a supportive, caring community is always my goal, and any tools that help me accomplish this only benefit my students and me.

How can I integrate nonfiction reading and writing into my language arts classroom? For years, I have taught both language arts and social studies, integrating social studies content and language arts skills. This upcoming year, I will teach just language arts. Revisiting many of my old standbys, like Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads, and new works like Nonfiction Mentor Texts by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappeli, I need to rethink methods for teaching nonfiction without a content area to frame it. Conversations with my content-area colleagues about how to integrate this instruction across the school day must take place this summer, too.

What role can new reading and writing modalities play in my instruction next year? Text messaging, blogging, social networking, graphic novels, and podcasts add layers of literacy to my students’ lives that we hardly touch on at school. How can I incorporate these materials and tools into my daily instruction and use them to support my students in their literacy development? I have a stack of graphic novels to read and a list of Websites to visit this summer. Hopefully, this digital immigrant will be better prepared for the digital natives arriving in my classroom this fall!

How can I redesign my classroom library so that it is more accessible and interesting to students? Reading the end-of-year surveys from my class and talking with my helpers today, many of them mentioned that our class library is difficult to use. Dividing our books by genre worked when we had fewer books, but these days my students find it hard to locate the books they want without help from me. Additionally, students stopped using our checkout system of index cards in a file box about half-way through the year, and I lost more books this year than I have in years past. I need to investigate other methods for keeping track of our books and making the class library more user-friendly for students.

As you lie by the pool, wait in airports, or work in your garden, what questions and ideas percolate in your teaching brains? How do you seek answers? What would you like to do differently next year? Which practices will you keep and which ones need an overhaul? Come sit on my floor and let’s talk about our plans and dreams. Today is the first day of school.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.