Everything's a Text: Readings for Composition

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Fifteen Summer Assignments for Teachers

There’s something beautiful about the seasonal refrain of high school. We start with the optimism of autumn, we survive the dark days of winter, we are charged with the anxious energy of spring, and then we part for the summer.

Teachers—like myself—often give students summer assignments. This year I’m assigning On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King to my AP Language students, and Everything’s a Text by Dan Melzer and Deborah Coxwell-Teague to my dual-enrollment seniors. I wasn’t always a fan of summer reading, but I’ve since been converted; after 13 years of teaching public school English, I’ve learned that an open-mind will save you.

Teachers, I want you to enjoy the summer. Sleep in. Lounge by the pool. Go to the beach. Watch Netflix. Read books that you can never teach in school. Embrace the freedom of these months, but save a little time for healthy reflection.

One of the best things teachers can do is write and read alongside our students. When I read John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” aloud with a group of 17-year-olds, I learn something new. I am reminded what it is like to see something for the first time; to be skeptical, and then slowly make an incremental but significant observation about the world through literature. You’ve got to be an optimist to be a teacher. You’ve also got to be willing to take a step back and reflect, and there’s no better time than during the summer.

In that spirit, here are 15 summer assignments for teachers. Try one, two, or a few of these, and see if they get you thinking about your profession—one of the most honorable around.

1. Write alternating paragraphs about the best and worst teachers you had as a student. Then, identify when and why you’ve shared any qualities with them during your time in the classroom.

2. Write a two-sentence description of your class from the perspective of a student sitting front and center. Then write descriptions of the same length from the following perspectives: the student who dropped your course, the student who asked you for a recommendation letter, the student who wouldn’t stop talking. How do they each perceive you?

3. Describe the most fantastical, surreal fire drill evacuation possible. The only rule is that it must occur in the midst of one of your major assessments.

4. Why do you teach? Why don’t you do something else?

5. What is one stereotype about teachers that is a lie? What is one stereotype that is absolutely accurate?

6. Read a few pages of Gertrude Stein, and then a few poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then a few pages of Toni Morrison. Explain what each writer is trying to do (with their language, their content, their style). Don’t say whether you like it or not; just try to understand.

7. Vent about one of your worst days during the past year. Fold it up, hide it, and forget about it.

8. Write a letter to the person who you identified as your worst teacher above. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

9. One of your most wonderful, compassionate students tells you that she wants to be a teacher. What do you say? What do you think?

10. Read an issue of a contemporary literary magazine. Try New England Review, Image, The Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Salamander, West Branch, or others. Visit the current issue of an online publication like Booth, The Collagist, or Linebreak. Find work there to share with your students. I recommend Traci Brimhall, Kaveh Akbar, Saeed Jones, Erica Wright, Eduardo C. Corral, Morgan Parker, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Marcus Wicker, Tyler Mills, Adrian Matejka, Rigoberto González—find a writer who speaks to you, and who might speak to the lives of your students.

11. What is a book that you teach that your students hate? Why do they hate it? Be objective: are they correct? If not, what can you do to better teach the book—to better reveal why you think the book is important?

12. Write a letter to a student you’ve failed—not in terms of a grade, but as a mentor.

13. Write a dialogue scene between one of the writers whose work you teach and your students. Don’t have them talk about the writer’s book or writing style. Imagine how they would communicate in everyday life. Let them be people together.

14. List three times that you’ve experienced joy as a teacher. Be specific about the setting, the situation, the people involved. What can you do to capture that feeling again?

15. Praise yourself. Write a paragraph about what you do best as a teacher. After that, enjoy the rest of your summer. You’ve earned it.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

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