I’m An English Teacher: So, What Do I Actually Teach?

The Thinker: Musée Rodin, Paris.

I clearly remember my first English Language Arts teaching job — it was 1996, I was teaching 8th grade in Washington Heights, New York City — we called it Communication Arts then- and I had my students in front of me. We had a novel in our hands, and I thought, ok, now what? We read?

I had wonderful professors in my teacher preparation courses in my undergraduate studies, I had completed student teaching in a high school in Wilmington, Delaware, and I knew we had read plays, novels, short pieces, yet what had I taught my students how to do?

Any first year teacher will tell you that our first year is about surviving. We focus on classroom management, collecting work, managing book distribution. In my first school in Washington Heights, I had to pay for my own photocopies at the bodega across the street from the school. The owners knew the teachers stopped in for coffee in the morning and capitalized on the business opportunity!

But I emerged, intact, and I continued to ask myself, “What am I teaching my students how to do?” We completed chapter questions, we worked on beautiful Venn diagrams together, we charted character’s names and traits, wrote body paragraphs, took plot-based quizzes, and I felt satisfied that I managed a good classroom. My students were happy. We enjoyed each other’s company, and we really did have great conversations about texts.

But still, I was haunted…what was I teaching them how to do?

It was not until around 2012 — sixteen years into my teaching career — that I started to understand, with the help of the great Kate Roberts, and see a clear path in literary and literacy instruction. I began to see how explicitly naming and then teaching students the skills of an intuitive and native reader enhanced my instruction and taught kids how to read more purposefully.

I began naming the skills good readers employ as they approach a text and taught into those skills using mentor texts, read-alouds, book club discussion groups. I began with characterization, but I knew I had to move away from listing character traits. I have been an avid reader since I can remember — in fact, one fond reading memory of mine is being allowed to go to the school library by myself in kindergarten because I already knew how to read — and never once have I read a book and thought to myself: “Let’s see…let’s make a list of adjectives to describe these characters I have fallen in love with.” No, I thought about Little Ann and Old Dan from Where The Red Fern Grows and their loyalty. I thought about how Little Ann’s love and sacrifice for her boy, Billy was the stuff that true love was made from. I scrunched up my adolescent face in anger as the “city kids” laughed at Billy after he trekked across the Ozarks, alone, to pick up the dogs he paid for himself by selling pelts with his wonderful grandfather. No, I never listed “determined”, “smart”, when I thought about Billy and his beloved dogs’ tale. I felt the love. I felt admiration. I wanted to be like Billy. Heck, I even wanted to be like Little Ann.

I had to teach my students how to do this. I had to teach them to learn what they wanted to be.

Over the last ten years, I’ve developed a way to invite this type of thinking in my classroom. I teach my students to pay attention to certain elements as they read, stop when they find them, and do some deep thinking in the moments. We build on these moments together as a class, in partners, in groups. We dive in and ask ourselves: Why does this matter?

I’ll be posting about this process here — sharing the successes, the challenges, the methods, and the products we create together.

This method of teaching has transformed my classroom. Today we see ourselves as a community of thinkers — each with their own theories and insights. We see each other as a room of 28 teachers; our hearts and our perspectives our own.

After 25 years as an English teacher, I’ve taught my students how to think.

Theresa is a National Board Certified English teacher, writer, and leader. She strives to promote progressive practices for her teachers and her students.