What was I thinking? Reflections of a former English teacher

A friend of mine is going to teach a Senior Academic English course this summer and I excitedly offered to help.  I haven’t taught ENG 3U in 5 years.  So I spent the day pouring over my old resources and my electronic files.

When I left the classroom to come into a District leadership position, it was with the sense that I was a fairly decent and progressive teacher.  After all,  I was that crazy teacher who dressed in role (and insisted everyone else did) and had my kids organize a class Medieval Banquet for Macbeth, complete with a re-enactment of Act 3 and court jesters.  Students didn’t even recognize me when I showed up to class in a Beekeeping outfit for a Honey Festival we organized for the Secret Life of Bees where we wrote poetry, researched recipes and remedies using honey, and talked about our favourite moments in the book.  We had a class blog for creative writing, Boggle Fridays and Book clubs in my class and we all got way more excited about grammar than anyone really should.

Thank goodness for those moments, because when I sifted through the seemingly endless files from 2008 (the last time I taught the course), I only found a handful of lessons that I would actually use today; or even modify for that matter.

That’s quite humbling, but it also speaks to how much I’ve grown and changed.

If I were in an English classroom in Ontario, I would do things so differently.

Instead of organizing the course into disparate units such as Poetry, Short Stories, Novels, Shakespeare, I would organize the course into inquiry questions through which we could explore a variety of genres.  In this way, I could pull in some great literature to complement their interests and wonderings about the world.

Instead of spending 4 weeks reading a Shakespearean play in its entirety, I would highlight a few scenes, summarize the story, and have students explore where those universal themes can be found in their world today.

Instead of deciding on a independent  book from an established list (of dead white people), I would have my students check out this list of authors on Twitter and have them select a book that interests them and have them connect with the author.

Instead of assigning copious chapter questions, I would ask students to select a passage that resonates with them, have them talk about why it does, or create a sketchnote (see @RoyanLee ‘s resource) to record their understanding of the big ideas in that chapter.  Or I would have them ask two or three questions using a Q-Chart, or use open-ended graphic organizers like I Read, I Think, Therefore or It Says, I Say, and So

Instead of dictating how students need to demonstrate their understanding, I would have them tell me how they would like to do that.

Instead of giving a content test (because a student with working memory issues may not do well, even if she’s really read the book–thinking of Rebecca), I would use dialectical journals, close reading, or reading conferences to have students demonstrate their understanding of a text.

Instead of telling a student who is passionate about a book we are reading in class to stop reading at Chapter 5, because she’ll be too ahead of the class (Yes, I did this!!),  I would let her finish that book and recommend another one she’d enjoy just as much.

Instead of having students write for me, I would create opportunities for them to write and publish for the world–not just once a semester but as often as they could.

Instead of using the Course Binder as the basis for teaching a course, I would go directly to the Curriculum Expectations, which in Ontario gives teachers the liberty to teach any content they wish.

Instead of working in solitude, I would connect my students to other students in the world using Skype, or Twitter, or GAFE.  They could work on a project together, hold a debate, peer edit, or hold their book clubs virtually.

And as I write this list I realize that where I gave my kids the greatest voice and choice and where I was closest to my future self  all those years ago when I was the only teacher teaching a section.


Instead of doing what every other teacher is doing, not because it’s necessarily good for kids, but because “consistency is essential”, I would fight for the right to do things differently based on the needs of my own students, even if  this might cause a bit of uneasiness in a Department.

All I can say is thank goodness for the moments where my passion for literature and kids made the other stuff bearable.  I can’t really make up for the past, but I know when I go back to a class, I will not make those mistakes again.



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