Empty Sky – Full Classroom

The leaves are changing colour, the mornings and evenings are chilly, and school is in full swing! Back-to-school week was as good as it ever gets. I welcomed back twenty new potential 2012 graduates and 103 new freshmen and sophomore students into my English classes. This is the first year in many that I don’t have a single student that I taught last year. The dynamic is interesting. We, the students and I, are still learning about each other.

Thursday was the first full day of classes, and that day is always spent going over course outlines, reviewing policies, setting up expectations, etc. In the past, I’ve tried not spending that whole first day talking at my students. But, invariably, if I put it off, something important gets left out or glossed over. I think they get that stuff in every other class on the first day too, and it must get tiring. Plus, I know after five minutes, I’m going to start sounding a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher. To combat that, I say all those little funny things that pop into my head. For the first three periods of the day that works, I get a few chuckles and it keeps everyone listening. Period four is a different story. Yesterday, I think they were in an after lunch  coma or something, or maybe it was me. It’s difficult to be witty all day when you’re saying the same thing four times in a row and it’s about structures, procedure, and rules.

So with most of the preliminary stuff out of the way, today we launched into the course work.

Yesterday, I started by asking my freshmen students to answer the question. “What’s not wrong?” I borrowed this idea from Gary Anderson. I follow him on twitter and he posted a blog about how he does this. I was glad that an administrator chose this part of my lesson to do a walkthrough in my classroom. I said to the kids, “If I asked you what’s wrong you’d probably have an easy answer? What’s wrong with today? What’s wrong with school? What’s wrong with society? What’s wrong with the government? What’s wrong with the ‘system’? All easy questions to answer readily. But, I’d like to begin this year with a more positive focus by asking, ‘What’s not wrong?'” They wrote their answers on little slips of paper, exit slips and gave them to me on the way out the door. Today I read back their answers. Some of them were, “My Life <3”, “I’m sitting next to Haley.”, “I haven’t got lost yet today.”, “I’m wearing new kicks, and I look fabulous.”, “I haven’t fallen yet today”, “The right answer.”, “My new English teacher is nice.” Awwwww. When I read their answers back to them, it was fun to see each student smile as they heard me read their own response. Thanks Gary, what a great way to set a positive tone for the year.

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up this Sunday, I wanted to share some of the creative writing that has taken its inspiration from the events of that day. I’d been thinking of this for a few days, and the other night my husband was playing Bruce Springsteen on the stereo and the song “Empty Sky” came on, perfect. As I listened to the song again in preparation to share it with my students, I knew that I wanted my students to also have the lyrics to read as they were listening. It allowed us to have a conversation about Springsteen’s message. I didn’t tell them what the song was about, just that I wanted them to pay attention to the music AND the lyrics. It was interesting to me that I had to lead them in a conversation about the song for a few minutes before it occured to a student in the class that the song was about 9/11. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been any need to do that.

Some questions I asked:

  • What does he mean by ’empty sky’? Does he really mean the sky was empty? Or, is that figurative language to stand for something else?
  • When he says “I want an eye for an eye,” what does he want?
  • Is this a religious song? No? Then why does Springsteen use biblical allusion? (Of course I explained allusion first.) Why not choose another example in history where someone wants or gets revenge?
  • What kind of mood or feeling does the music create? Does the mood of the music match they message in the lyrics?

This was a fantastic way to begin a conversation with Canadian young people who surprisingly know very little about the events surrounding that day just ten years ago. It was a tragic event of historical significance that happened during their life time and very close to home. If you think of it, in Atlantic Canada we are closer to NYC than many Americans living in the southern and the western states.

It was a good way to begin the year. I had a great first week back with students and I’m looking forward to a year full of thought provoking conversations, reading and writing with everything we’ve got, and learning together.

My next big task? Learn everyone’s name, and fast.


1 Comment

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One response to “Empty Sky – Full Classroom

  1. Hi, Deborah. Your classroom is obviously an exciting, student-centered place to learn.

    Thanks for trying What’s Not Wrong. Please let me know if you try any variations on it that work for you and your classes.


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