First Days of Class: Who We Are, Why We Are Here

At least the first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years was spent learning to be the sort of teacher I wanted to be. I often feel I should apologize to those early-career students, many of whom remain kind and even praising.

Along that journey, I came to realize that the first days of any class or course must be a clear and inviting message to my students about who we are and why we are here.

A watershed moment for me was somewhat an accident. My administration ended the long and tedious tradition of spending the first day or two issuing textbooks by having all students’ texts placed in their locker before they began the year.

With that freedom, I stopped the equally tedious roll call and dedicated myself to conducting class on that very first day in a way that told students what the class/course was going to be about.

As I start my 34th year as a teacher, now a professor teaching two first-year writing seminars as well as a couple eduction courses, I also dedicate the first days of class to practicing what I preach: incorporating one or two different strategies or changes each new course (what I call taking baby steps since no teacher should feel compelled to overhaul entirely their teaching when they feel the need to change).

Here I want examine some first-days texts and activities, not as prescriptions but as models for how any teacher may take this same larger concept of how those first days establish who you are, who your students are, and why you all are on this class journey.

First, some of my new commitments are grounded in being more intentional about inclusive pedagogy, much of which will draw on the guidance of Dr. Anita Davis, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Associated Colleges of the South, who is helping facilitate a year-long seminar for a group of faculty at my university this academic year.

These new commitments allow me to incorporate existing activities and texts in order to improve the inclusive environment of my classes as well as establishing the disciplinary grounding of the courses I teach.

Regardless of the course, I use several of these activities on the first days, but I also will include a writing-specific opening days activity toward the end.

A central message for my students in the first days is that we will be bound to texts, important texts, and then we will also be using those texts for our own discussions and to write. The key texts I currently use for the first days include the following, all of which also model for my students that we are going to explore diverse voices and writers in order to challenge and interrogate our own ideas and assumptions:

Who We Are

Anita Davis opened her first seminar by explaining that she includes full name citations on her PowerPoint slides, even though most citation styles require last names only and APA hides first and middle names in initials. Davis stressed that names matter, especially if we are seeking to be inclusive.

Over the course of the seminar we also examined that roll calls can be intrusive and even stressful for students who are struggling with gender identification, establishing on that first day a hostile environment counter to our efforts of inclusion.

Part of our goal to be inclusive, we must all be better equipped when our students must name and identify themselves—issues about gender identity and pronoun preferences.

“My Name” (Cisneros) and “Naming Myself” (Kingsolver) are powerful texts for helping students think about how to introduce themselves in the context of a new learning community. I read these short texts aloud to emphasize there will be a common activity in my classes, read alouds.

Then we discuss how the speakers in the novel chapter and the poem emphasize the importance of names and of being named; both texts ask readers to consider sex/gender and race.

As well, “My Name” includes a recognition of how children/young people come to understand themselves in their names while “Naming Myself” challenges social norms of women being erased through re-naming during marriage.

These texts and activities establish that our names matter, but that naming ourselves is more complicated than some students have considered. I also want students to know that I appreciate texts, the read alouds, but that texts are not simply fodder for the sort of narrow analysis they have done in their English classes.

Finally, we introduce ourselves, first in small groups and then as a full class. This semester, I will invite students to talk about their names, and their pronoun preferences if and when this is important to them. I will also stress that our learning community must be a place where we honor confidentiality; we are free to share outside of class the topics we explore, but we should avoid naming our classmates in ways outside of class that breaks confidentiality, that fails to honor each person’s right to speak for themselves.

On the first day, we have avoided the drudgery of calling roll—and engaged in the sort of class dynamic that characterizes my classes throughout the semester. But I now will also establish an environment that honors inclusion more intentionally than I have in the past.

Why We Are Here

While the naming texts and activities are entry points for introductions and creating an inclusive learning environment, that first day also begins a journey into disciplinary expectations—why we are here.

Another first days activity I use is based on Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” but I will now include an activity, “Save the Last Word,” Davis used in our seminar.

“Theme for English B” lends itself well to any class because it investigates the power relationship between teachers and students; like the Cisneros and Kingsolver texts, Hughes also confronts the role of race in that power dynamic.

When I have used Hughes’s poem in the past, I have struggled with students shifting immediately into the literary analysis mode, eager to analyze the poem’s structure and technique to the exclusion of engaging with what the poem’s speaker is saying about power as that intersects teaching/learning, race, and age.

“Save the Last Word” is a wonderful strategy for keeping students focused on what a texts says (not the how of literary analysis) and encourages student voice in the context of that text.

My slight adaptation of the activity includes the following: (1) my read aloud of the poem, (2) asking students to read the poem again silently to themselves, (3) placing students in small groups (preferably of 3), (4) having students copy what they consider a key or challenging stanza on the front of an index card, (5) having students reflect on that stanza in writing on the back of that card, (6) after all students have done this each student shares out to the small group the key stanza so that the other two can respond to that stanza first, and finally (7) each person shares their reflection last for that stanza.

Through a whole-class discussion of “Theme for English B” following the “Last Word” activity, I will share with students why we are here: to take words, each other, and ideas seriously and carefully in the pursuit of our own growth through disciplinary moves as well as our developing literacy.

The course, like the activities around Hughes’s poem, will be both individual and collaborative as well as interrogating and investigating key ideas and concepts.

Why We Are Here (Writing Specific)

Finally, I want to touch on a first writing activity I use in order to highlight how to use the first days to stress the narrow goals of any course or class.

The first writing activity I do with students involves Cisneros’s “A House of My Own”:

  • I read the passage aloud.
  • Students are instructed to write their own versions of the passage, changing “house” to an object of their choice and then mimicking the passage exactly except for the content. I refuse to give more directions and urge students to trust themselves and complete a draft.
  • After most of the students have a full first draft, I ask for volunteers to share their versions aloud. During the sharing I ask the others to compare their drafts to the one being shared.
  • Next I ask other students to share or discuss how their version does something different in terms of mimicking Cisneros exactly.
  • Always students begin to re-think their mimicking as well as how carefully they read any text for the how (technique) and the what (content).
  • Finally, I invite students to revise their versions and send them to me by email for the next class meeting.

This activity stresses the importance of completing a full first draft (especially as a discovery draft not as a process to fulfill a set thesis), the value of peer conferencing and sharing drafts, and the necessity of revising all writing with purpose.

We also begin to look at the craft of language—sentence formation (the entire passage is a series of fragments), rhetorical and literacy techniques, vivid and specific details, grammatical and syntactic awareness.

One unexpected but consistent consequence of this activity is that students often email their revision to me and call the text a poem—even though Cisneros’s mentor text is a prose fiction passage from a novel.

This means the following class allows me to begin a conversation about genre awareness, how we determine the form any text takes (poetry v. prose, fiction v. non-fiction, etc.).

In short, an opening activity models why we are here and how we are going to proceed.

Throughout my career, I have rejected traditional views of the first days of any class or course needing to be about establishing teacher authority (don’t smile until Christmas) and classroom rules or management.

Instead, I am committed to making the first days of class about who we are and why we are here while remaining true to my larger critical philosophical and ethical commitments as an educator and a human.

See Also

Inclusive Teaching Resources and Strategies (University of Michigan)

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Haruki Murakami’s 7 Stories: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women”

Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.

“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.

The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:

Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.

His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.

Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:

They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.

The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.

For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.

As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.

“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.

Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.

The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:

She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.

As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:

He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.

This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:

Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while neglecting it entirely on the other.

“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.

A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.

The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.

Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:

Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?

Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.

Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:

What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.

In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.

This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”

The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:

“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”

Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.

Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.

Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…

“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.

The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.

None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”

Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.

Investigating Zombi(e)s to Foster Genre Awareness

My initiation into the fiction of Roxane Gay was a wonderful moment of disequilibrium when I read her short story “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The opening of the story is a staccato tease that sets the stage for even greater disorientation:

[A Primer]

[Things Americans do not know about zombis:]

They are not dead. They are near death. There’s a difference.
They are not imaginary.
They do not eat human flesh.
They cannot eat salt.
They do not walk around with their arms and legs locked stiffly.
They can be saved.

“So what were zombies, originally?” asks Victoria AndersonVisiting Researcher in Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, explaining:

The answer lies in the Caribbean. They weren’t endlessly-reproducing, flesh-eating ghouls. Instead, the zombie was the somewhat tragic figure of a human being maintained in a catatonic state – a soulless body – and forced to labour for whoever cast the spell over him or her. In other words, the zombie is – or was – a slave. I always find it troubling that, somewhere along the line, we forgot or refused to acknowledge this and have replaced the suffering slave with the figure of a mindless carnivore – one that reproduces, virus-like, with a bite.

The zombie narrative has captivated pop culture in the U.S. now for several years, notably the AMC series The Walking Dead and the comic book it is based on and novels such as World War Z. With the release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Anderson expects this popularity to continue—along with the reimagined but mischaracterized zombie conventions.

For the classroom—especially when we are addressing reading and writing—the zombie narrative in its many iterations is an ideal entry point into investigating genre. Zombie narratives are a specialized sub-genre and blending of horror and science fiction.

Since zombie narratives in print and film have been in U.S. pop culture for about 8 decades, teachers can expect students at all levels to come to class with some existing assumptions about what zombies are and what zombie narratives entail—in other words, the conventions of zombie narratives as a genre.

As a writing teacher, I ascribe to Johns’s emphasis on building genre awareness (as opposed to genre acquisition) in developing writers and readers. Here, then, I want to outline briefly how to use zombie narratives as part of fostering genre awareness in students.

First, I would have students in small groups identify their own experiences with zombie narratives—naming what they have read or viewed. From that, students would then construct “what we know about zombies.”

This focus on starting with what conventions students already possess helps generate engagement and context for the larger lesson on genre awareness.

Next, I would ask students to read Gay’s short story (or another that is age appropriate since Gay’s story is for older readers) as a model text for comparing how that story matches or contrasts with the “what we know about zombies” list each group has created.

Finally, I would share Anderson’s article above in order to have a discussion about the concept of conventions—how expectations for a certain type of writing (or film) are shifting but bound to a time and place. The concept of zombies is much different now than in its origin.

Since superhero films are now also all the rage, a companion activity to support helping students investigate the concept of conventions and genre is to allow them to research the many different versions for key superheroes—such as Spider-Man or Batman—that have existed over the 50-70 years of mainstream comic book superheroes.

Some key caveats about fostering genre awareness are helpful for designing and implementing many lessons such as the one above:

  • Fostering genre awareness as part of the writing and/or reading curriculum is an ongoing process. You can never “finish” that process, and all students at all levels need to be engaged continually with the questions of genre, form, and mode. Above, for example, asking: What makes a short story, a short story, or what makes Anderson’s essay, an essay, and how might the public piece of hers compare to a scholarly essay on zombies?
  • Genre awareness helps students build their own emerging and developing “rubrics” about how to tackle a writing project or interrogate a text. For example, a student learns to start with “what I know about X,” and then while writing or reading to use that to inform how she/he proceeds in making meaning through composing or reading.
  • Conventions serve communication as fluid frames that texts conform to or break; in other words, the structure helps create meaning, but the specifics of that structure are not as important as the structure itself.

“It’s a call to memory because the zombie – the actual zombie – reminds us of something very important,” Anderson concludes:

It reminds us to remember – who we are, and where we came from, and how we came to be – individually and collectively – especially for those of us whose personal and community histories are caught up in the blanketing fog of cultural amnesia. The zombie reminds us to taste salt.

Anderson’s meditation on the shifting conventions of zombies, I think, speaks to the power of conventions themselves since how we construct our genres and what genres we embrace in pop culture are as much about us as about the narratives themselves.

Ultimately fostering genre awareness is about helping students know who they are as well as about the world in which they live.

O, Genre, What Art Thou?

“What is genre in the first place?” asks novelist Kazuo Ishiguro during a conversation with writer Neil Gaiman, who reviewed Ishiguro’s novel, The Buried Giant. Ishiguro continues: “Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?”

Ishiguro then makes an interesting speculation about focusing on genre:

Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.

As I have grown older as both a teacher and a writer, I have become both more interested in genre (as well as medium and form—the distinctions and intersections) and less certain, like Ishiguro, about the utility of the labels.

Over the past several years, in fact, I have stumbled over publishers labeling Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84 and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as “science fiction.”

While I love both books and authors, I am hard-pressed to define either novel as science fiction; in fact, I am like Gaiman confronting Ishiguro’s Giant:

Fantasy and historical fiction and myth here run together with the Matter of Britain, in a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, “The Buried Giant” does what important books do: It remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over. On a second reading, and on a third, its characters and events and motives are easier to understand, but even so, it guards its secrets and its world close.

Ishiguro is not afraid to tackle huge, personal themes, nor to use myths, history and the fantastic as the tools to do it.

Just as many enduring writers do, Ishiguro, Murakami, Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and Kurt Vonnegut—just to name a few—weave genre conventions together, working within, against, and beyond the so-called boundaries of genre, medium, and form.

Unfortunately, formal education (and thus students and teachers) tends to remain trapped in the rote, the narrow, and the prescribed—or genre acquisition:

…GENRE ACQUISITION [is] a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way. The Five Paragraph Essay pedagogies, so common in North America, present a highly structured version of this genre acquisition approach. A much more sophisticated version, introduced in Australia but now popular elsewhere, has been devised by the proponents of Systemic Functional Linguistics (Christie 1991; Martin 1993; Eggins 2004). Using well-established pedagogies, practitioners follow a teaching/learning cycle as students are encouraged to acquire and reproduce a limited number of text types (‘genres’) that are thought to be basic to the culture (Macken-Horarik 2002).

However, for the skilled writer, genre awareness is part of the craft of writing, but not templates that dictate:

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts. Though there are few genre awareness curricula, for a number of reasons (see Freedman 1993), I will argue here that a carefully designed and scaffolded genre awareness program is the ideal for novice students – and for other students, as well.

Investigating Text as a Writer

For my first-year college students, we start the writing experience by cataloguing everything they have been taught about writing essays in school (concepts about introductions, bodies, conclusions, thesis sentences, and paragraphing, for example), and then we investigate the Prologue to Louise DeSalvo’s memoir Vertigo.

That investigation asks students to consider how this piece of nonfiction compares to what they have been taught about writing in school, but we also examine what the term “memoir” means against other terms such as “autobiography,” “biography,” and the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy.

Now I will add this exchange that sets as rule one for writing memoir: “Don’t try to ‘fit’ the genre.”

Learning to write becomes a continual tension between what we think we know about text as that is confirmed and contradicted by what we read—as preparation for what we write.

Being a writer is inseparable from being a reader, but both are ways of being that are always evolving, never fixed just as no genre, medium, or form is ever truly fixed.

As Gaiman and Ishiguro discuss genre, and Gaiman explains, “I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel,” Ishiguro adds:

So we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it. Gunfights are characteristic of a western, but may not be essential to making the story arresting.

So there is where I am guiding my students as emerging writers and developing readers—to have the sense of purpose and awareness to recognize “essence” versus “characteristic,” to attain a level of sophistication that informs them in their writing and reading but doesn’t artificially restrain them.

For both the reader and the writer, then, genre is a question, one to ask continually and not a definition or a prescription.

And then, we must admit, the ultimate question remains: Was the text satisfying? That, too, becomes the source of even more debate, which, I would add, is the real essence of writing and reading because as long as there are readers the text always lives.

That, of course, if what every writer wants, to live forever:

NG I know that when I create a story, I never know what’s going to work. Sometimes I will do something that I think was just a bit of fun, and people will love it and it catches fire, and sometimes I will work very hard on something that I think people will love, and it just fades: it never quite finds its people.

KI Even if something doesn’t catch fire at the time, you may find it catches fire further down the line, in 20 years’ time, or 30 years’ time. That has happened, often.

See Also

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Art of Fiction No. 196. Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell