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Week 1 of School: Selling the Value of Literacy

Judy Jester

Eighth grade English teacher from Landenberg, PA
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I sell literacy. I do. If I don't sell kids on wanting to learn to read and write as well as they can, they won't. Sometimes it's an especially hard sell for kids in middle school, both for those who are competent in these areas but choose to be illiterate, and for those who have always struggled with these skills. You've heard the old axiom, "What you plant in September, you reap in June," so it's crucial to set the right tone from the start. Here's what I do.

A Kiss and a Strategy

We read one of my favorite poems the first day of school, Naomi Shihab Nye's "A Valentine for Ernest Mann". It's very accessible, and kids love the idea of getting two skunks as a gift. Everyone has something to contribute about weird and/or remarkable presents. Even before they begin underlining phrases they love in the text for our popcorn reading, I give every student an origami box with a Hershey's Kiss hidden inside and say nothing about it at the time, later asking them to write about the box for homework that night to show me what kind of writers they are. I don’t demand a certain number of words or specify a genre. I do tell them that, though it will be ungraded, I want them to knock my socks off. And they often do.

The next day in class I give them materials, a set of instructions for making such a box, and well wishes. For those already versed in origami, I’ll provide them instructions in Dutch, courtesy of a former housemate of mine. I tell them that while they’re working on constructing these, I will be attempting to better learn their names as I make seating charts based on their preferences. (The day before, I've told them to sit where they want and where they'll do well. I will move them if need be.) What I don’t tell them now is that, as I’m making the seating charts, I will also observe what they do as they attempt to construct the box -- ask friends for help, reread the directions, take apart the box I gave them the day before, push it aside, etc. This gives me some insight into who they are as learners, and they will ease into the work of the year without realizing it.

During our third day together, we debrief about why I gave them the box on that first day and asked them to construct one the next. Their answers often include my own purposes beyond the ones already stated: to arouse their curiosity, to see learning as something sweet and desirable (a nod to Talmud scholars having a drop of honey placed on their tongues as they begin their studies), to build community as they fumbled through the steps together, to see this year as an opportunity to step outside of the box in how they approach learning. They almost always also include that I'm trying to bribe them into liking my class. If one Hershey's Kiss does the trick, so be it.

Possible Consequences and Rewards

There are always a few who admit that they were afraid to eat the Hershey's Kiss as they thought this some kind of test of their willpower. After all, I hadn’t said they could. Some kids have done so and later panicked at the thought that they shouldn’t have, begging their parents to take them to the store to replace what they’ve eaten. Of course, still others have sneaked them before our first day together is over. All of these behaviors help me to know more about them, too.

I also share with them on that first day statistics about the rate at which information doubles today, what happens later in life for those who embrace literacy, and the potential consequences for those who do not. In June, when we revisit their box writing to see their growth as writers, kids remark that they'd decided to give more than they had previously to developing their literate lives after learning on the first day of class how some states predict the number of prison beds they'll need based on second grade literacy rates. This statistic held more sway for them than learning how much greater their future earnings as college graduates could be.

We also exchange letters about our histories with reading and writing after they’ve read my own, and write letters to our future selves with predictions for the year, advice for ourselves (my favorite: "Don’t make girls mad!"), etc. to be opened on the last day of school. We end that first week by bringing in a picture of a metaphor that best represents us to discuss with the class and display in the room.

There's no one right way to start the first few days of school, but it is important to be very intentional about what you do in showing them the value of literacy and inviting them to study it with you. No sale is more important.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Words are powerful things. They're sometimes like little bullets on a page of paper. Without words, all we'd get to do, I guess, is draw, wave our arms around, spit, and grunt.

In first period language arts class today, we read, going around, one at a time, the new fifteen words at the beginning of lesson 4. Punctilious landed on Lucy. She asked ... Is that OCD?

I was struck silent for a moment. Struck impressed. She's so sneaky smart. Lucy has obsessive compulsive disorder. I said, Not really. God. Sort of. Read the definition.

Lucy said ... Careful of and attentive to details, especially ones relating to good manners and behavior ... punctilious.

In class, sitting at her desk, when Lucy speaks to you in her always-quiet voice, she puts her right elbow on the desk and then presses the four fingers together. Then she moves her thumb underneath her fingers and it all looks like a duck beak. Lucy doesn't move the fingers like a beak when she talks, but she told me one time after I asked her why she does that ... It helps me communicate better.

Lucy also constantly picks at the skin on her arms and pulls out her arm hair and picks at the skin on her ankles and picks the hairs off of her ankles, too. All the teachers let her do it for a while and then ask her to stop. She stops without complaining, but then she starts up again when you're looking the other way. She pays attention while she picks, but sometime you can catch her lost in that world and she can't find where the going-around-the-class reading had ended with Brainerd or Lazlo.

Miss Velvet, her homeroom teacher and advisor by default, says Lucy's mother is oblivious to her daughter's disorders. That's hard to believe, but it could be true. As a teacher you get to know the parents real well, too, by default.

Lucy had come to class today with the hairs of her right arm shaved off. Her left arm still had hairs. No one other than Lucy's mother would have shaved the arm. I'm pretty sure. Maybe Lucy's mother is oblivious to everything else that puts her in this school.

Now we're quietly working on our own in the vocabulary workbook, except Lucy. She's hunkered down over her right arm. I don't say anything. I get up and walk around and look out a window and actually whistle a little bit and then sneak up behind Lucy to discover that in the duck beak she had hidden a pair of tweezers.


Lisa Dabbs's picture
Lisa Dabbs
Educational Consultant. Author. Speaker. Blogger.

Without Literacy, where would we be? When I was a school principal, I'd often have long discussions with my staff on the issue of literacy being at the heart of all we do. I don't necessarily agree with the view of having to sell it to kids? But I do see where you're coming from, Judy. I worked as a teacher to immerse my students in it, in as many different ways as I could. I'd like to think I was least I hope I was. Bravo, Judy for your tremendous commitment!

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