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.