Starting the Year

Imagine what it is like as a student on the first day of school.  The go to first period and are given a note-card to fill out pertinent information, then they are given a syllabus for the course and rules that the teacher tends to go over ad nauseum.  The same thing happens second period…and third…and fourth.  In fact, much of their first day of school is sitting listening to teachers drone on and on.  While I think these are important things to cover, I think it is best to open the year in a way that is indicative of what they can expect the course to be the remainder of the year.  After many years of practice, I have narrowed down a first day lesson that I think serves a nice introduction to the course and then sets the students up to introduce themselves.

In 1992 the AP English Language and Composition exam had a passage from Nancy Mairs for students to analyze from her piece “On Being a Cripple.”  While the whole excerpt is fantastic to use, I tend to only give the first paragraph with the students on the first day.  I like them to see how an in-depth study can be accomplished with only a few sentences and I think it is rich with material to discuss.  The excerpt opens with:

I am a cripple.  I choose this word to name me.  I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are “handicapped” and “disabled.”  I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so.  Even now, I’m not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering.  People – crippled or not – wince at the word “cripple,” as they do not at “handicapped” or disabled.”  Perhaps I want them to wince.  I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely.  As a cripple, I swagger.

I read the passage to the students twice so they can hear the way the punctuation functions in this paragraph.  Then I ask them what stands out to them.  Knowing today’s teenagers, a lot of them want to talk about why she uses the word “swagger,” which is a fine jumping off point.  We discuss what “swagger” means to them and how it is a sign of confidence.  However, I point out to the students that “swagger” is only used once in the paragraph and not until the end. This gets students thinking about the placement of words and what comes before.  We begin tracing how Mairs feels about herself from the beginning of the paragraph until the end.  This leads to a discussion about her purpose.  We examine her repetition and I ask questions like “why does she keep repeating the word ‘cripple’”?  This also causes us to examine how the word affects the readers.  We examine her use of syntax and why it is so significant for her to use such brief sentences to open and close the paragraph.  We study her use of verbs.  “Choose.”  “Want.”  “Am.”  They all convey an impression of Mairs that helps to explain her purpose in writing the piece.  Often times, we end up debating if Mairs’ does these things to obtain power over her condition or power over others who try to label her.  Regardless, many students come to the conclusion that Mairs is trying to define herself so others can’t have power over her.

It is at this point that I ask students to think about how they would define themselves.  We return to the fact that Mairs made a very deliberate and conscious choice to define herself and her personality, not just her disability.  She took into account how others perceived the word and the various denotations and connotations of it.  This is the basis of their first assignment.  That night they need to determine one word that they choose to define themselves.  We then go around the room and the students introduce themselves to the class by providing their selected word, the definition of it, and then a brief description of how it captures them.

When they’re presenting, I like to write down the words the students select for themselves and use them the following year when writing college recommendation letters. I like how this lesson incorporates an accessible but rich passage for close reading and then provides a natural way for students to introduce themselves.  To me, it helps encapsulate the course and my expectations in a way that a syllabus and reading of the rules never can.


  1. Erin says:

    I found this site through the AP Ning, and I’ve already bookmarked it! I love stumbling upon other teachers sharing ideas, especially ones that push the technology or tradition envelope. This is a great opening exercise, and I’m definitely stealing it for my Lang class. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Laura L says:

    I started school last week and used this exercise for the first rhetorical analysis. What I love is that the text is accessible to all my students! Thanks!! I also love that ethical appeal – nice to distinguish from the pathos appeal. You two are my saving grace. Love from Houston.

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