Teachers are peculiar creatures. I don’t come to this assessment lightly: I am a third-generation teacher, from an extended family where “talking shop” around the table almost always involved an equal measure of current chisme and discussion of asinine education policy (and often in the same breath). Teachers have opinions.


And quirky personalities. We spend entire careers searching for the perfect pen, write our text messages like missives, either never bring lunch or bring four course meals (it’s either/or), and, like any other superhero, have our crucial gear: a weathered leather satchel, a cardigan, a 20 oz coffee mug., a USB flash drive that was neatly organized at one time but now looks like the contents of a 1,000 piece puzzle poured into a swimming pool.


But about the strangest thing we do is live our lives in cycles. That is, we stroll through valleys (summer/winter) until we come again to the foothills of great peaks (fall/spring). A recruiter for the education department at my last college always began his lectures this way: “Do you know the three best things about being a teacher? June, July and August.”


So here we are again. In August. We stand on the edge of the sea, looking out toward the rolling wave of work that even now—even with two and a half weeks to go—promises both excitement and frantic paddling. So, how can we start the semester strong? How can we prepare our students for our classes and college? How can we begin to build community? And frankly: how can we make our lives a little easier this time around?

To Get Students Talking to One Another:


Questionnaires are great for this and require little prep. Pair up students or put them in small groups. Give them a designated time (say, 10 minutes) and have them go through the list ensuring that each person answers each question thoroughly. Simple. Want to extend the activity? Go around the room and ask each person to identify 1 (or 2 or 3) questions they’d like to share their responses to. Also, let them pick a few questions for you. Alternatively, you can print questions out on slips of paper and have students circulate around the room for a designated time. These two have worked well for me:


Arthur Aron’s “36 Questions that Lead to Love” (also be sure to share the history of his social experiment)


For Vanity Fair fans: The Proust Questionnaire



To Learn Student Names:


There are so many ways to do this. Here’s why it’s important and some additional techniques. The simplest way is to write questions on the board and have students pair up to discuss the answers—make sure one question involves their name (see below). Here’s the key, when you regroup to share as a class, instruct each student introduce their partner and share their partner’s responses.


This does two things 1) allows students to talk about someone else which is always easier and 2) will help you remember the names as you are associating both a face and a story to that name and repeating it back.


Directions: I tell students, “You can talk about anything for the next 10 minutes, but you must answer these three questions. Please take notes if you think you’ll forget.”



What is your name and how did you get it?

What is your major and why?

What is one thing you’ve done that you think no one else in the room has?

Once finished, go around the room and have each student introduce their partner. Be sure to repeat the name back: “Thank you Juan and Sarah. Welcome to our class.”



A Joint Vision for the Semester: Bringing Teachers and Students Together


Creating “norms” for learning utilizes a shared-governance model that invites students to reflect on what brings them to college and how they wish to interact for the next 16 weeks. It also signals that teachers and students as both are equally invested in the conversation of what learning should look and feel like. This is great activity that helps build a culture of empathy between teachers and students and is a non-confrontational way to discuss expected behaviors in a college-level course. I read about this practice in Reading for Understanding and have used it for the past four years in all my composition courses.


You might ask students to brainstorm answers to questions such as these:


What makes you feel comfortable in a classroom? Uncomfortable?

What are some things the teacher can do to support your learning? Not do?

What are some things classmates can do to support one another’s learning? Not do?

What would get in the way of your learning?



Pass out four post-its to each student and offer them five minutes to respond individually (one answer per post it).

Have students share their ideas by posting sticky notes under the question on the board.

Begin from students’ ideas of things that support or undermine the




Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique’s Journey and LA Times reporter, will lead a plenary session at CTN’S Fall Institute and serve as a keynote speaker at its reception on October 25 in San Antonio.

Sonia Nazario, author


Nazario has written about social justice issues for over two decades and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for a six-part series that detailed the experiences of Latin American children who embark on perilous journeys to reunite with their parents in the U.S. This series later became the book Enrique’s Journey which went on to win the Christopher Award and the California Book Award in 2006. It has since been published in eight languages and been adopted as a text in educational institutions throughout the country, including many of our program’s classrooms throughout Texas.


Nazario is also a CTN author mentor who works closely with teachers to develop curriculum for her book and its themes of family, immigration, and exile.




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