When I taught fifteen Teach for America (TFA) teachers in a graduate course on Reading, Writing, and Literature Across the Curriculum in 2011 at American University, the teachers reminded me how much the trust of their students mattered to achievement in the classroom. (Most were first year teachers in District of Columbia charter middle schools or  high schools.)

To build trust from the start, I recommended what I had done when teaching composition in a community college. In the first class of the semester, students interviewed each other about their lives in high school. And then at home, they added their own experiences in high school. You could almost feel the sigh of relief in the first class. They had an instructor who valued where they have been, and didn’t knock them over with an assignment about the evils of globalization on the first day of school.

The TFA teachers had many ideas about assignments which could build trust. One wrote..

“October has been a stressful month. Any behavior management system I thought I had in place was tested and breached, leading to many suspensions, frustrated calls to friends and family, and much reflection on what I can change. While school has felt more like a poorly managed daycare than an academic environment, I am determined to have my students physically produce more writing, and engage in more reading. This week, armed with the charge to try a new writing strategy and Linda Christensen’s book I decided to try the “Where I’m From” strategy listed on pages 18-22.

“After talking to anyone and everyone about best practices for behavior management I decided the reenergizing of my behavior system would come with additional investment strategies, so this writing assignment seemed to kill two birds with one stone. Earlier this year in my Social Studies Methods course the professor suggested a virtually identical assignment (perhaps borrowed from Christensen as well). While this particular writing assignment serves the purpose of a “get to know you” activity, at the beginning of the advisory I felt like I didn’t quite know students enough to conduct it as effectively as it needed to be done. Now, at wits end and ready to try anything I was ready.”

“Rather than having students start out by reading poems as Christensen suggested, I had my students begin by filling out a sheet with sentence starters such as” I am from … name three things you love, four foods you like, places you enjoy….etc”.  They were confused (but relieved) we were not studying Mesopotamia or the American Revolution for the day, and I think the break in the routine surprisingly had a positive effect on the activity. Students who very rarely produce anything for my class stopped to think about what I was asking, and why I was asking it. During the first week of school I had them fill out a survey, but since every class asked them the same questions their enthusiasm and answers faded as the day went on. I was left with very detailed surveys for my first period of 7th grade boys, and one word non-answers from my 5thperiod 8th grade boys. Now, 10 weeks in, the students were more interested in filling out information about themselves (their very favorite subject) and  for the most part answered all the questions.

“Once they finished the handout we moved on to reading some of the “I Am” poems compiled in Christensen’s book. They especially enjoyed Lealonni Blake’s “I Am From Soul Food and Harriet Tubman”. One student indicated they did not know history and poetry went together! Now that they had the time to see how their words were going to be used I had them go back and revise, emphasizing the revising portion of the writing process is not merely a time to fix spelling errors, but to rethink about your ideas and really expand on any loose threads. They started to discuss their word choices aloud, just as Christensen indicates they might, and the more competitive individuals tried to come up with the best words.

“After they had time to revise the students were given a framework of starting the stanza “I am from” and building from there. The suggested format was “I am from” followed by 3 to 4 items, and most students adhered to this structure. They were given a good chunk of time to work through their poem, and students struggling were assisted by myself or other students. Since middle schoolers are nosy (and noisy) they enjoyed helping each other, if only to find out what the other was writing about.

“When all students were finished we began our “ author’s chair” close out- a common occurance in my classroom. Since so many students wanted to share we continued the activity the next day. Students were given the opportunity to share out as much or as little of their poem as they wanted to. I could tell some went home and worked on it, thought it was not explicitly homework, and many indicated they had shared the poem with their families. After all students were given the opportunity to share we did a group “I am from”, and idea borrowed from my professor, where the students stood in a circle and continuously read their favorite stanza so as to create a classroom “I Am From” poem. It is my gain access to a Flip Camera and record their readings sometime soon.

“Overall, it was a really refreshing writing exercise as my very reluctant writers/readers enjoyed talking about themselves, but executed it in an entirely productive manner. I would really recommend the strategy to anyone and everyone looking to boost positive associations with writing as well as continue the investment component of teaching.”

Another teacher wrote about what this same strategy of recognizing students did for her class.

“I did the same writing assignment with my 9th grade Language and Composition class.  It was a class that I took over 3 weeks into the school year after another teacher quit, and, needless to say, I had no rapport whatsoever with my students.  In my other US History classes, I had spent 2 weeks doing classroom culture stuff, but I felt that I didn’t have this luxury with the class I just taken over because of time constraints. This made management very difficult, and left me stressed and often yelling for silence.

“Three weeks later, when I gave my students their first classroom feedback survey, many wrote that they felt that I didn’t really care about them. They didn’t buy into me, felt that I knew nothing about them, and this seemed to be reflected in their behavior in the classroom.

“So I decided to use the same “Where I’m From” assignment to try to change this.  And I learned a lot about each of my students.  I also wrote one myself and shared it with the class.  It was incredibly effective–not only did it bring the class together, but many students wrote poems that they wanted to submit for publication.  It was the first activity we did that truly brought the class together.

“My only regret with this is that we did not do it earlier.”

The book about writing to which these teachers refers is Linda Christensen’s Reading, Writing and Rising Up-Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Part of the power of Christensen is her emphasis on providing spaces for students’ voices. When you ask students to write about their own experiences, you affirm their importance. You recognize them. Starting the school year with lessons about Mesopotamia does not do this.

This strategy is of providing spaces for school voices is fundamental to Christensen but it can only exist where teachers have to power to shape a curriculum to their needs of their students.

Trust precedes achievement; every successful teacher knows this. But words like trust, and phrases such as the voices of students do not appear in the new Common Core curriculumwhich has been adopted nationally.

When you search on students’ voices in the English Language Arts and History/Social Sciences Common Core State Standards, what is the result? (English Language Arts often appears as ELA.)

No Matches Found

Trust also depends on the quality of what students are being asked to read. If the reading assignments are meaningless textbook trips into lists of names of long dead emperors, trust erodes.

Are teachers now able to provide the best reading experiences?

Almost twenty years ago in 1993, Diane L. Taylor and Ira E. Bogotch surveyed the working conditions of teachers in “Teacher Working Conditions and School Reform: A Descriptive Analysis.”

They wrote that…

“Teachers at several of the schools also described the inadequate supply of textbooks and instructional materials as ‘horrible.’ Teachers at four of the six schools face extreme textbook shortages. At three schools, teachers cannot gather enough texts for a classroom set so that multiple classes can share the same books.”

In the spring of 2011, a social studies teacher in the Anacostia area of the District of Columbia told me that she had used grants from DonorsChoose— a web site where teachers beg for resources–to put together a set of 30 copies of Three Cups of Tea. But she had more than 30 students each day so her students were not allowed to take the books home to read. As we all know, the amount of print exposure is critical to the development of reading skills, so this single barrier–the inability to order sufficient copies of books–severely limited the achievement of her students.