Over the years, teachers have frequently asked me if I read any of my books to my middle school students.
The answer is yes.
I started off, as everyone does on that first day of a new year, by introducing myself. After briefly sharing stories about my family, about my past teaching experiences, and even what I did over summer vacation, I read FIRST DAY JITTERS. I told my students that the story idea came, in part, because as a teacher, I faced my own yearly case of first day jitters. “In fact, I’m nervous right now,” I’d say and then go on to honestly share my worries about, and hopes, for the coming year.
I’d ask the class if anyone else was nervous and why. Some brave kids always answered and in this way, we’d get the ball rolling, launching into a discussion about what made us nervous and why we got nervous in the first place.
“Now it’s your turn,” I’d say. “I want you to write me a letter sharing your worries about the coming school year. But I also want you to tell me what you are excited about. Finally, I want you to tell me one important fact about yourself.” I told them it was okay to brag about something they are good at, or some big success they’ve had. Or they might want to clue me into an issue that they are dealing with regarding health or family. I assured them that this was not for a grade and that nothing they said could or would be held against them.
And then I let them write.
I know that this isn’t some wildly inspirational, creative, and unusual way of starting the school year. The ice breakers and team building will come later in the week. But for many years that is how I started the year with my middle school students. That first day was for acknowledging fears and hopes and in that way creating an honest introduction to each other.
And here is the truth. I taught for a long time and it never failed to surprise me how much middle schoolers revealed about themselves in their writing. I am not even sure they realized that they were laying themselves bare on paper. But I did. As I read through their letters at the end of that taxing first day I reveled in their honesty and their humor while at the same time collecting clues and insights into their personalities, their academic levels, their home lives, interests and priorities.
I loved reading their letters. And it was in the reading of those letters that my own first day jitters disappeared. Because I knew that tomorrow in class, instead of meeting a room full of strangers I would be greeting a room full of students ready to face the year.