Category Archives: Classroom Reflections

If It Ain’t Broke: The Workshop Model


If It Ain’t Broke. . .

don’t fix it, right?  But what if “fixing it” might make it better?  I have spent the last few weeks trying to make some important decisions about how I will teach next year.  I’m considering some major changes, but am also hesitant because my curriculum certainly isn’t broken.  My students learn a lot about writing and thinking.  They become much more active readers over the course of the school year.  Right now, my curriculum pushes them to excel and gives them the freedom to work on self-directed writing projects that inspire them.  For the most part, they work really hard, participate actively in discussion, and grow tremendously.  So why change anything?

The Master of Science in Education program at Northwestern University, the program I attended, requires two methods courses for new English teachers: reading methods and writing methods.  A foundational text for both methods courses is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle.  Reading this book is paradigm-shifting.  Atwell argues that the English classroom needs to become a reading and writing workshop, not a teacher directed study of literature, even if being teacher directed does not mean being teacher centered.  Student motivation and achievement at her school in rural Maine dramatically increased when she made this shift herself twenty or more years ago.  It allows her to work individually with each of her students, to help them grow in the ways they need to grow.  In the second edition of the book, she also argues for some whole-class activities and reading.  Not everything can be on one’s own, but for the most part, Atwell says that we have to provide an environment for our students to become their own readers and writers.

I have long been tempted to run a classroom that fits the description of Nancie Atwell’s classroom.  The idea of giving students control over the direction of their own learning—but not the organization of it—appeals to me as a former student who remembers being bored in classrooms because I could and wanted to do and learn more and as a teacher who has worked with student who just don’t understand a concept and are forced to press on because the rest of the class is ready to do so.  The workshop model is the ultimate in differentiation.  It is the democratizing of the classroom.

What worries me, though, is that my students are already motivated and achieving.  Most of them do well with a push from their teachers.  Many people assume that high-achieving students will work harder on their own. In my experience, academic giftedness frequently comes along with a touch of academic laziness: what can I get away with not doing?  Clearly if a student is really excited about a lesson or project, this isn’t true, and there are some students of whom this will never be true, but for many it is just the way their brains work.  Part of their giftedness is finding short-cuts.  So, giving them so much freedom is, in some ways, a ticket out of hard work.

Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays

Taking the Sting out of the SAT Essay: Tips for English Teachers


In my experience as a tenth-grade English teacher, most students have been terrified of writing the SAT essay. There are so many stressful (and usually unfamiliar) aspects to this kind of essay test that students aren’t applying themselves to the task as well as they might without the burden of anxiety and fear. I’ve heard complaints ranging from apprehensions about the time constraints to not being able to come up with anything to “say” in response to the prompt.

It’s not our responsibility as English teachers to prepare students for success on the SAT – and we’re not allowed to provide specific SAT instruction to the students who take our English classes. But the SAT essay requires students to use good writing skills that will be useful throughout their lives. The College Board is simply assessing these skills, and I feel that we should respect the fact that students need to be able to write this kind of basic response. Being able to communicate a strong opinion supported by substantial “evidence” within 25 minutes can be an invaluable skill in the real world. And that’s why I teach students to master the skills they’ll need to write their SAT essays successfully. Here are a few of the ways I’ve been doing that, and I hope they’ll assist you in your efforts to prepare high school students for higher education and the workplace.

Developing & Substantiating Opinions

Just about everyone has an opinion if you ask the right question. Some questions elicit strong gut reactions from some people, while others are hard-pressed to take a side. But in the real world, if you don’t have an immediate opinion, you’re not going to be an influential force in whatever issue is being debated. It’s impossible to have an opinion about everything, so it’s important to learn how to form a solid one quickly and judiciously.

To help students learn this valuable process, I assign two take-home essays each semester. These essay prompts require students to develop an opinion on the issue described, gather extensive examples to support it, and write an argumentative or persuasive essay that “sells” their perspective to the reader. This kind of basic writing is integral to the process of learning how to communicate clearly and professionally.

Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections, Lesson Plans

Have You Gotten Your Students Involved Today?


An educational tool that won't lighten your wallet

It may seem like a strange question. Learning demands that students be involved in their own education – that’s just the way it works. But there are two major types of involvement: passive and active. And in many cases, students are passively involved at best, a phenomenon I’ve encountered more times than I care to admit. I love being a piano teacher, but it’s always hard not to take it personally when a student just doesn’t care. That’s why I stopped letting that happen.

Of course, you can’t control students, and there will always be one or two who refuse to become invested in their own education. But I’ve adopted a philosophy of student choice over the years that has helped me gain students’ active involvement. In addition to using this strategy in piano lessons, I’ve found it useful when teaching writing as well, so it may be adaptable to different classrooms with a little creative tweaking. If you want that rewarding feeling that comes whenever you’ve got a student hooked on learning, try asking your students to share the decision-making process to jump-start your classroom’s involvement.

I discovered this by accident, which is a bit ironic since I’m a control freak myself. I didn’t think about the reasons behind its efficacy until I’d already found it to be useful, but it’s a logical step in education. K-12 students feel like they’re being controlled by everyone – parents, teachers, even friends – and they have almost no role in determining their own education. That can be a huge turn-off, so if you can share your decision-making responsibilities even nominally, it can go a long way toward earning the trust and intellectual investment of your students. Here’s an example from my experience:

Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections

Another Year, Another Race: Taking our students from August to June


I have my students do a lot of reflection at the end of the year, which in turn, leads to me doing a lot of reflection.  I inevitably end up making plans for the coming year at the end of the previous year.  I am sure that the same is true for almost every dedicated teacher out there.

Next year will be my third year teaching roughly the same curriculum to the same aged students at the same school.  As I look to next fall, I am occasionally overwhelmed by the journey that my students take.  They learn so much as writers who write about literature that it is exhausting just to think about starting where they start and ending where they end.

For example, before they enter my classroom, they have written persuasive, expository, and narrative pieces with an expectation of academic rigor, but they have never written a thesis statement analyzing a short story, poem, or novel.  By the end of the year, they can write six page essays that synthesize five or more literary sources in order to discuss an issue like Americans’ relationship with the land.

It is a journey that is exhausting for them, but also for me.  I wouldn’t  have it any other way.  Because they are doing all of that hard work, I feel pretty strongly that I ought to be working equally as hard.  One of my colleagues at school says that every school year is like a marathon.  Major school moments are all mile markers until we get to this time of year: when we can see the tape across the finish line.  I have never liked that metaphor because I used to be a runner and I remember how many races I forced myself to finish after hitting the 3/4s of the way done point and thinking, “If I fainted now, no one would be mad that I didn’t finish.” School is not like that.  I enjoy each part of the year for different reasons.

But, now, as I look to the starting line for next year, the metaphor seems apt—just on a different scale.  The students run a marathon, and it is grueling.  I am more like the pacer for each runner than like a runner myself.  My pace and my finish time are not accomplishments; they are insignificant.  Instead, it is my job to work as hard as I can to improve theirs while also working to make sure that they are going to make it through.  Our jobs are tough.  Teaching with your whole self means giving a piece of yourself to as many students as will take it. Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays

Reflections on Urban School Teaching: Black Is Beautiful


When I was growing up in the 1970’s, people who had a similar cultural background to mine were nonexistent in the media.  The closest I got to a media representation of someone from my cultural background was Puerto Rican “Maria” on the children’s program, Sesame Street, because she spoke Spanish like people in my family. As I grew up, without any particular event to tie my reasoning to, I felt invisible in this society.  I had internalized the lack of importance my people were given anywhere in public space.

I was a college student before I started to learn about the history of people of color and their struggles to resist domination by those in power.  Their land, resources, labor, culture, and very being had been stolen during colonization and continued to be threatened in current struggles throughout the world.  I realized how powerful my people are, how rich our cultures are, and how that had been kept from me throughout my formative years.

I contemplated how youth of color in this society are taught through the mainstream media that their people are not worth representing, as I had learned.  Worse yet, when reflections of our people are given, we are taught through the perpetuation of adverse images that we are not valuable, that we are to be feared, even despised.

The majority of the students I work with are African American children from various parts of Oakland, California.  During my first year of teaching in this community, my third grade class was studying the poem, My People, by Langston Hughes. The poem expresses the poet’s love for his people, African Americans, and validates Black people as beautiful.  I started the lesson by asking the students what the media (news, TV, movies) tells us about Black people.  One girl immediately responded, “That we’re bad.”  Other students chimed in, “We’re poor.” “We’re criminals.” “We belong in jail.”  These were eight and nine-year-olds and they were already aware of mainstream society’s perception of them.  I thought about how precarious that could be for self-esteem and identity and about the host of related manifestations that could result when one’s fundamental being is perceived as contemptible.

This experience eventually led to a study of the media with my students and my master’s thesis.  Among many relevant findings, I confirmed that students must acquire the tools of critical analysis.  Because our society’s values, and therefore culture, are dictated, overwhelmingly, by a singular perspective educators must find ways to assist students in developing the tools needed to address systems of domination. The students in my study demonstrated a desire to understand the world around them, specifically, the injustices that affect them as a cultural group, including an understanding of how the media machine works.

I also learned that we, as a society, need a much more complex understanding of what racism is and how it functions.  Today, systems of oppression are sophisticated and they are ingrained into the everyday foundation of our lives.  These systems must be analyzed to assess for inequity and injustice because they have become so commonplace.  Not only do our students need that education, but teachers and other adults do as well.  While we are quick to blame communities for their circumstances, we must gain a deeper understanding of how these structures work to support the current system of inequities in resources and quality of life.  This should be a requirement of civic participation for all of us, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Furthermore, Enid Lee, an international consultant on equity issues of language, culture, and race and their roles in education and organizational development, once stated in a workshop I attended, that “the problem is that society doesn’t know enough about or value Black culture.”  It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about the African Diaspora and how rich and influential it has been throughout the world.  I learned, and am still learning, about the connections in places I never knew there were any (a considerable African influence in Mexico and Guatemala, where my family is from).  There is so much to know and we are only shown a very limited perspective of history if we rely on mainstream sources.  I have come to feel it is my obligation, as an educator, to share what I know with my students and to invite investigations, including those that encourage family contributions.

So what else does this mean for a classroom teacher?  For me, most simply put, it means that I have a responsibility to participate in the process of interrupting the system of oppression and the effect it has on our youth– socially and personally.  I must participate in the process of “decolonizing” the mind, as bell hooks calls it, my students’ and well as my own. Because all of our minds/perspectives/world views have been influenced by the larger society, there must be a conscious and concentrated effort to disrupt the effects of this system. Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays

Learning for the Sake of Life


Something that I tell my students over and over is that the point of school is not to succeed at the next level of school.

We go to school–and we work hard there–because what we learn in school enhances our lives.

It’s a sentiment that is so self-evident that it almost feels redundant to say out loud.

That a better-understood, more passionate, more alert, ultimately greater life is the purpose of school is at the core of my teaching philosophy. But teaching freshman-level composition at ODU, as I do now, this often leaves me at an uncomfortable crossroads:

Do I teach my students what they need to know to succeed over the next few years, things like citations, how to craft an academic argument, and how to write the long, clause-filled, lofty reference-littered sentences that are sure to earn them A’s?

Or do I teach my students what they need to know to succeed in life, things like how to write a letter to an insurance company, or how to write a not-totally-schmaltzy love letter, or how to write a just-saying-hello email to a professional contact that might be of some service down the line?

It is rare that an opportunity comes along that satisfies both sides of the pedagogy. So rare, in fact, that I would like to celebrate one such example here.

Spong Hall.

My particular section of English 111 was assigned to room 102 in William B. Spong Jr. Hall. From the outside, SPONG (as it is affectionately called by the registrar) is actually a fairly nice building. It has an institutional feel (in a good way), with stately red bricks, great old trees casting shadows on the lawn, and an attractive vestibule with a pitched roof and columns.

When I first saw the building I thought, Oh, cool, this feels like college.

But when I first saw room 102 I thought, Oh, damn, Senator Spong might very well be buried somewhere in this room.

The room was a mess. The paint on the walls was chipped. There were piles of junk in one of the corners, and in the opposite corner was the room’s only “technology,” a mangy looking projector that looked like it may have been salvaged from an ancient submarine. Streaks of brown residue of an unknown providence stained the back wall, almost as if the room was crying for itself. A fair portion of the ceiling was occupied by two giant, rusty, onerous–we assumed–heating/cooling devices that looked perilously fixed to the ceiling. When I flicked a switch on the wall I swear that those machines bleated, like lambs not ignorant of the slaughter to which they’re being led.

The students hated it. They hated it so much that–full disclosure to my part in this–I even one day gave them the assignment of writing a horror story that took place in SPONG 102.

We complained among ourselves for the first few weeks of class. It was good for us, in a way. It helped to bond us as a group. Then one day, just as we were getting into the argumentative essay unit, one of the students asked me, “If you asked them to change our room, you think they would?”

“They might,” I said. “But I bet it would be even more effective if you asked them.”

And with that a class assignment–a class cause, if you will–was born: To write a letter to the ODU administration so compelling that they couldn’t help but give us a better room. Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections

The Skills I Teach


A lot of English teachers teach a content-based curriculum.  Most schools are set up to encourage that arrangement.  For instance, I am assigned United States’ Literature and European Literature as my classes.  While I keep my literature selections to the required geographical regions and work as best I can with the history class that pairs with mine, I try as hard as I can to shape my curriculum around teaching skills.

English class is important because of the skills far more so than it is because of the literary content.  I don’t mean that comment to be incendiary at all.  I actually truly believe that reading, writing, thinking, working in groups, and discussing are more important than being able to identify the major characteristics of various poets’ styles or than having read classics like Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick.  The literature exists as a tool to help English teachers teach these important life-skills.

Sometimes I have a difficult time convincing parents of the importance of these skills.  For instance, some students really struggle with group work, and parents will sometimes say things like, “So let Johnny work alone,” as though working in a group is not part of what I am teaching.  If a student is not capable of working with his/her peers, it bodes poorly for success in the modern work place.  Very few people end up in jobs where they never have to interact with others, and students who cannot be in a group situation without upsetting their group members need teachers to help them learn this really important skill.

In the same vein, when my students discuss literature, I try to model good discussion leading skills, so that they can use those same skills when I ask them to step up and lead discussions.  Some people would say that in every situation it is more important to control the discussion and ensure that students understand the main points of a piece of literature than it is to foster good discussion skills.  I would disagree.  For instance, five of my students were responsible for leading a discussion on “The American Scholar” a few weeks ago.  They prepared beautifully, using Diigo to add annotations to help their classmates read Emerson’s lengthy speech.  Unfortunately, they are also among the students who contribute the most to whole class discussions, and they had a genuinely difficult time leading the class without overtaking the discussion.  We spent a whole class period working on their discussion skills.  Then, we returned to the discussion another day to discuss the major points of the speech.

I am sure that some people would argue that that class period was a waste, but through the students’ reflections, I know that they have a better understanding of what leading a discussion entails.  They will remember that far longer than they’ll remember Emerson’s admonitions against spending too much time with one’s nose in books. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays