By Karla Hilliard

The single most important thing we can do as teachers is know our students and honor their identities. 

Without intentionally seeking to learn our students’ names, experiences, cultures, communities, faiths, families, and evolving selves, we erode the opportunity for real connection and deep and meaningful learning. 

Many of you, like me, are back to the back-to-school grind, and I’m sure that you, like I, sat through a few meetings focused on data and subsequent plans to move and improve the numbers in the spreadsheets. 

I count myself lucky to work in a school where our administrators focus on far more than “raising scores” and instead turn their attention to the human endeavor of teaching. On the Talks With Teachers podcast, guest Les Burns, University of Kentucky professor and co-author of Teach On Purpose: Responsive Teaching for Student Success, says, “Getting to know your students is the best data you can collect.” 

Of course, one of the best ways I collect “data” is through student writing. Writing can be a deeply private act, making us feel vulnerable, but it is an act that is meant to be shared with others and often leads to real connection. And it is this connection that allows for community and learning. 

I’m here to offer a few assignments that invite students to writing, so you can begin to learn who your students are and where they come from. 

1. Write a Letter

Y’all. I love letters—writing letters, receiving letters, sending letters, reading the collected letters of others. I’ve written about a simple assignment I call the Lit Letter here, and Jeni Kisner has written about persuasive letters here

My friend and teacher mentor Susan Barber recently wrote a letter introducing herself to her students, and riffing off of the Lit Letter, asked her students to respond to both her letter and to a selected poem, either “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver or “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith. 

Click HERE to read Susan’s welcome letter. 

Like the idea of letter writing, but you’d rather save the poems for later? Check out Tricia Ebarvia’s beautiful welcome letter to her 10th grade students

What I especially appreciate and admire about both of these teachers and writers is they’re doing the work they’re asking their students to and providing them the most authentic mentor texts possible. Plus, it’s easy! No fancy handouts or slideshows needed. 

2. Write a Poem 

If you’re interested in welcoming your students back to school with poetry, these three will get them thinking, feeling, and writing. 

See the original assignment here by Linda Christensen on Rethinking Schools. I especially love what Christensen offers in saying, “Part of my job as a teacher is to awaken students to the joy and love that they may take for granted, so I use poetry and narrative prompts that help them “see” daily gifts, to celebrate their homes and heritages.”

This idea for an assignment popped up in a #TeachLivingPoets chat. Joel Garza suggested inviting students to create a poem praising something about themselves and beginning their poem like Nezhukumatathil with the line “Because I was taught all my life to…” What a lovely way to encourage deep thinking and self acceptance. 

Last fall, Jess struck gold with this introductory writing activity. Smith’s work resonates with students and pushes them to explore ideas in their own authentic voices. See examples from Jess’s classroom here, where one student spun lines like: “But am more afraid of opening my arms like branches/ and trusting you to let me bloom again/ after I’ve gone bare”

The directions for each poem are simple: 

1. Teach the poem, relying on your favorite close reading and discussion activities to get your students invested in the poem. 

2. Ask students to build a list of noticings and writers moves. What do students notice about the poem? What craft choices does the writer make? What features of language contribute to the effect of the poem?

3. Invite students to write their own poem inspired by the mentor text poem. 

3. Write about Reading 

Imagine explaining who you are through the journey of only four books. 

Here’s a post by Adrian Nester outlining her four book reading journey and challenging students to create a list of their own.  

I absolutely love this idea in building a culture of reading while learning valuable information about our students. Adrian says, “There are no great tomes of literary merit on my list. Just the ones that made a difference to me as a reader.”

This assignment is an exciting opportunity for students to revisit the books that have made a difference to them and think ahead to the ones in the “to be read” pile and the ways the impact they might create in their lives. 

WVCTE is wondering…

How will YOU get to know your students and how will you get them writing? Leave us a comment, connect with us on Facebook, Tweet us @WVCTE!

I’d love to hear from you! – Karla

Karla Hilliard is a teacher and writer living in the Eastern Panhandle. She serves as the Co-Director and President of WVCTE. She is also the co-founder of the nonprofit More Than Addiction, whose mission is to humanize addiction. She is in her 15th year of teaching high school English and currently teaches English 11 Honors and Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, and mentors the Poetry Club at Spring Mills High School.  

Karla is a contributing writer for and loves hot coffee, homemade biscuits, and West Virginia. When she’s not teaching, she’s spending time with her friends and family. 

You can connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.

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