Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

"Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends..."

"...Once more, or close the wall up with our English dead." Appropriate words to start a new school year.

See what I did there? Our English dead? Like, our English Language Arts dead? Funny stuff, right?!

Sorry. I'm writing this during the second week of school. Just having pants on is a major accomplishment.

All the same, this quote, from Shakespeare's Henry V, is an appropriate one for me to begin this new set of columns, for this year I'll be taking a closer look at my own "breach," the great battle for ELA success that is my own classroom. Rather than writing about teaching in the abstract, I'll be taking a real-world perspective that continually asks, "How can I breach the wall many of my students have set up, a wall which keeps words, stories and books far away from their lives?"

Hyphens, Aplenty.

As you might have figured out already, I have two careers. One pays me a tidy sum (enough to keep me in clogs and pancakes), the other not so much (yet). For the first, I teach 11th Grade English Language Arts/Regents Prep at a public school, Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, in the Canarsie section of New York City. As for the second, I'm also a writer of books, articles and plays. That's right, I'm a teacher-playwright-columnist-aspiring-novelist-aspiring-nonfiction-writer. That does not fit easily on my tax forms. This year, more than ever before, my two careers will be merging. Besides ELA, I'm also teaching an exciting new class at BTAHS — Playwriting.

My school is unique and intriguing, giving me a great deal of latitude in how and what I'm going to teach, whilst appropriately providing standards and assessments to make sure my students are not becoming, oh, Kabuki experts who do not know how to form the past tense of "to swim." We have our problems, but this kind of class is rare and special. Asking a woman who writes plays already to teach playwriting at a theatre school may seem obvious to many readers, but this decision represents the kind of logical thinking which is always impressive in any school system.

And so, with these challenges before me, how I actually immerse my students in language, books, words, writing, reading — the whole ELA-Playwriting-Theatre schmear, so to speak —  and how I keep their interest (or try to) will be my topic this year.


Let me start off with a few caveats, none of which will surprise you, I'm sure, but, still, attention must be paid. The first is that I won't tell you my students' names, nor many identifying characteristics about them, and I'll mostly avoid doing the same for my colleagues both in and outside the school. They didn't ask to be the supporting characters in this series, so it's only fair. (Better I should save them for my novel, anyway).

Also, please keep in mind that the 11th grade year is the English Regents year for my students, and the majority of New York state students. The Regents, for those of you, who, like me, blissfully grew up without having to endure them, are a state-wide series of standardized tests given throughout students' high school careers to mark a level of competency in the major subjects. Nearly all NYCDOE students must pass a battery of tests in order to graduate. The ELA Regents is particularly brutal, taking six hours and requiring four essays of over five paragraphs in length. I have heard from more than one student that ice packs had to be employed for sore wrists and hands by the time they were done. Anyway, when a big test is coming at the end of the year (my kids will take this one in June), it's hard not to teach to the test. I fight it somewhat, for sure, but you know what? I want my kids to pass, and the first time, especially after listening to my colleague's succinct argument to her students: "Do you want to spend six hours of your life taking this test? Or 12? Or 18?"

Finally, I teach in a New York City public school. Sometimes things don't make sense in that world. And, in the words of Forrest Gump, that is all I have to say about that.

Let me fill you in on a few of my goals for this year, and we'll see how I'm doing as the months roll by...

Goal 1: And if You're Really Good, We'll Read Endgame.

By virtue of the fact that my school is small, I knew most of my 11th graders by sight, although I did not teach them last year. That transition, from Lady in the Hallway Who Randomly Told Me to Get to Class to Lady Who Will Be Reading about My Most Personal Issues in My Essays is always a little fraught, but so far, my students seem to be handling it well.

One thing that helps is that I have both a carrot and a stick. The stick is those Regents and my continued braying about them. (Seriously, if I had a nickel for every time I will say "Regents" this school year, I could probably buy real estate.) The carrot is that after we do our test prep, I have something fun to do: write plays, since my schedule is cleverly arranged so that I have the kids for double periods of playwriting and ELA.

When I was told I would be teaching playwriting, I was pleased, but also apprehensive. My principal expressed that it would be great to have the kids writing as much as possible, essentially whenever they're not reading. I'm totally with him, but visions of those ice-packed-wrists danced in my head. Besides, how much could I really expect my students to want to move from ELA to, um, more writing?

As it turns out, a lot. They really want to. For one thing, playwriting isn't just sitting in a garret churning out realistic dramatic fables about the fragility of man (although that's cool, yo). It's also sitting around bellowing out ideas and making your teacher scurry to put them on big pieces of poster board. Or working with a classmate to hash out some dialogue in a ten-minute work session. Or getting to leave school for an entire day to see a staged reading of a play being done just for you and your class. Or going to an Off-Broadway show with your teachers and classmates, and staying after to meet and talk to the actors. These are all things we've done, or will do in the first six weeks of school. Heck, at this rate, we'll be in Stratford-on-Avon by April. 

But what they're most excited about is the opportunity to, as one of my students said, "Write what I want to say." Man, wouldn't you be excited to, after years of three-to-five sentence paragraphs and 6 paragraph essays and so on? The opportunity to create their own worlds, control their own characters, and decide what happens is powerful stuff to a teenager, especially a teenager burdened with too many adult concerns years before they should be, as many of my students are. The same kid who told me that he wants to write what he knows later mentioned he's going to name a female character in every play after his daughter. He's 17. 

Making sure they get to write what they want to say: That's a big goal for me this year.

Goal 2: How I Do What I Do

People often tell me that they could not do what I do. They may be right — there are plenty of jobs that I could not do, including being a nurse, wrangling snakes, and doing PR for Kanye West — but I think people don't realize how much support there is available for teachers. In fact, it took me a long time to realize that I need not hash out a new lesson plan every night, that there were dozens of support sites, books and people who wanted to help me.

Yet I still tend to be a bit of a lone ranger on this front. So that's another goal for this year: make better use of the resources around me. This year I've got some smart, and powerful folks in my corner, which means, of course, that they are in my students' corner too. First, I'm blessed with a great, creative teaching artist, who's been working my students for two years already. He'll bring ideas and energy to any unit I ask his help on. I've also got a colleague who's taught these kids for two prior years, and knows them well. She's got an incredible library of materials, and some wonderful ideas for teaching ELA, which she's made available to me, and she's even co-teaching a class with me.

I've got the Visual Thesaurus folks, and this year — at last! — computers in the back of the room so we can truly access the VT itself. I cannot wait to actually regularly employ the lesson plans I've pulled from this site.

And I've got the good folks at Epic Theatre Ensemble who have put together an amazing company that has a mission of creating Citizen Artists out of New York City public school students. The people at Epic (all theatre professionals) work with students, teachers and administrators to create theatrical works that bring together the political and the personal. I'm so excited to take their work and adapt it for use in my classroom. And call them when it doesn't work.

These are the people who've got my back. And, in turn, I'll try to have their backs and the backs of others, like the sweet new teacher down the hall from me, who's all potential and enthusiasm. I remember those days. I think I was 5.

Quick question to ponder — if you're a teacher, whose back do you have? Who has yours? If you're not a teacher, do you know one you can lend support to?

Goal 3: Drown in Words

"Words, words, words," Shakespeare's Hamlet said as he drowned in their complexity and meaning. My kids will be drowning — no, better yet, swimming through — words too. This is the year when they read every day. This is the year when they write almost every day. I am going to provide every single opportunity for reading and writing that I possibly can, for them.

There are dozens of reasons why kids should read more, but here's one that's on my mind right now: I worry about the passivity of the generation I teach, since they spend a great deal of time watching things happen in front of them, declining to get engaged. Even the low level of engagement that I saw 10 years ago, when I first started teaching, has dissipated. However, when they write, they are engaged, and when they are given something to read that correlates with what they're interested in writing, interaction with text starts to happen. Then they are truly, as their standardized tests would like, "reading for information."

That's my secret goal for the year (a secret for you, me, and the rest of the Interwebs): to see every one of my kids engaged with some kind of text. Hopefully, more than once, and hopefully something longer than a Tweet.

One, Brief, Shining Moment

By the way, I saw the mountaintop, y'all. I have seen my kids start to become engaged. We were in playwriting, putting together 9 Word Plays, or as I like to call them, "I Am Slyly Teaching You Punctuation" plays. The concept is simple: two characters, nine words. The first one to speak therefore gets five lines, the second, four. Here's an example:

A: Hey!
B: What?
A: Oh.
B: What!?
A: ...Nevermind.
B: But —
A: Later.

You can see how important the punctuation is, as there's a big difference between how those two "What?"s should be said. After we sketch out the basics in dialogue, the students get to decide the rest — who are these people? What are they up to? Why? When? Where? Sooner or later, of course, they're up on their feet, showing us their interpretation of the scene. Then they write their own 9 Word Plays. Their creativity astounds me — my favorite this week was a scene with a shark attack (titled, of course "Shark Attack!").

And that's the holy grail, isn't it? The creative moment, when I'm talking to my students as fellow artists, not as ruler to minion, or parent to child. We're all writers in the room when that happens, not just me.

Let's hope I can report dozens of moments like that to you, this year. And let me know when you see them in your classrooms and worlds, too.

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 29th 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
What a great article. I almost wish now I had become an English teacher! Bravo to you, Shannon. It sounds like you are one of the good ones.
Tuesday September 29th 2009, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Radames M. (Staten Island, NY)
Shannon, you bring back sweet memories of my 9th grade english teacher in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, NY. He had a way of getting us engage in learning the language. Your students are fortunate to have you.
Tuesday September 29th 2009, 5:44 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, the importance of our teachers of English.
Your article brings to mind a teacher of high school English that will remain in memory until death.
Mrs. Harper was a dragon of corrections.
A paper was never done in one review, or two, or ten. Once the red marks were all corrected, you had learned about the language!
I thank her to this day for the lessons.
Tuesday September 29th 2009, 6:41 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hey, anyone else notice that I wrote a 7 word play, not a 9 word play? Yay for the first month of school! : )
Wednesday September 30th 2009, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That's math, Shannon! We were all looking at the English! LOL...

I taught ELA to younger kids, some disadvantaged to the point of wondering which was a b and which a p. q and p also a problem.

We learned to punctuate converstion, but this was back before texting and twitter and conversations were still abounding.

After those basics, we enlarged on the background to the conversations, as this was for stories, not plays.

I did this by having them create a story based on the conversation parts of a real one only. The variety we got was amazing! And we did learn the punctuation, though it may have taken a few tries.

I taught at the beginning of the last 'let's just write and not correct anything -- if i write it it must be okay' time, and it wasn't always easy!

Kudos to you for your efforts. I'll watch through the year and read with pleasure.
Thursday October 1st 2009, 6:54 AM
Comment by: Tom C. (Dunleer Ireland)
You are an inspiration Shannon, I wish I had an English teacher like you at 17. I wouldn't have spent these last 18 years since trying to undo the wrongs and writing feebly and haphazardly. The very best of Luck with the year ahead.
Monday October 19th 2009, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Vera K. (Moscow Russian Federation)
What a creative approach to teaching English to native speakers!
What a metaphorical playful language : "...Just having pants on is a major accomplishment..." :)
I'm an English teacher in Moscow and you have provided me with a role model, Shannon.

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