Where Are Your Students in That Beautiful Lesson You Just Planned?

Good Sunday Morning Everyone!

Posing with our favorite author Nic Stone in Nashville (Project LIT Summit 2018)
Today I'm going to invite you to take a look at how you're choosing to work hard this summer.  I mean, come on, I know you're a good teacher who wants to use summertime to improve. But before you jump into a flurry of unit planning for the upcoming year, I encourage you to pause and reflect on what you're doing, why you're doing it, and what impact it might have on your classroom next year.

First, let's jump back to my English education class at the University of Missouri.  I vividly remember reading Nancie Atwell's suggestion in her book In the Middle that I leave the bulletin boards in my classroom empty at the beginning of the year, so that when the students arrived they could decorate them. Now, up until that moment, Nancie Atwell had been a god to me.  I hung on her every word and embraced reading and writing workshop wholeheartedly.  Student choice in books?  Yes!  Student choice in writing?  Yes! Students decorate the room?  HELL NO!

The little girl inside me, the one who had wanted to be a teacher since first grade and played school in her basement constantly, suddenly had a huge melt-down temper tantrum. "But I want to decorate my classroom!" she screamed, laying on the floor pounding her fists and kicking her small feet, which were clad in her mom's high heels. "I've waited YEARS for this!  What are you going to tell me next, that I can't write on the chalkboard?!"

That little girl, observing the few teachers she had so far encountered, thought this was what teaching was--standing up front, directing everyone's actions, teaching the lessons, decorating the bulletin boards, reading the books, grading the papers. Good teachers did all the fun stuff!  Good teachers were in charge! By the time high school rolled around, my concept of being a good teacher had blended with my concept being a good student.  I worked hard, did assignments thoroughly, participated, and generally tried to make everyone happy with my choices. 

This perfect storm of childhood fantasy and high school compliant student made becoming a teacher a very comfortable choice.  It felt natural when I had loved and been good at school.  What many of us fail to notice as we venture into a career in education, however, is that we're not students anymore.  School is not about us; it's about our students.

When teachers spend their summers planning beautiful, well-developed lessons, their inner good student is validated.  She has done her homework (ahead of time and immaculately).  She looks good, looks smart, gets As, accolades and awards.  The next year, she can read the book she's teaching again, deepen her knowledge, polish the lesson further, and the unit will become more and more beautiful.  Parents, administrators, and other teachers smile and thank her for all her hard work.

She did great!
She did.

While others flock to sing her praises, copy her lessons, and strive to be like her, I have to stop and ask, "Where are the students?"  I mean, I know, they get to do this beautiful unit, but where is there room for their thoughts, ideas, choices, voices, challenges and genuine questions?  Where is there room for student creativity?  Where is there room for students to forge their own paths through this novel?  Where do they get to take the lead? I mean, how can they choose any other path when this one has not only been cleared for them,  it's been paved, landscaped, and perfectly manicured?

On the surface, I can acknowledge, that teachers who choose to spend their summers crafting and perfecting units for the new school year work hard.  They carefully craft whole units - choosing the  book, or a few, coming up with supplementary materials to go along with novels, writing questions for discussion, prompts for writing, creating a culminating project that pulls in all the major themes, symbols, and imagery that are essential for deeply understanding the brilliance and social implications of this incredible piece of literature.

The problem is that there is nowhere for the students to go except behind the teacher.  She controls their every move.  This unit is so directed, planned and well--thought out by the teacher  that it can be nothing but compliance for the students.  I mean, it has to be:  the book has already been chosen and named as high quality literature; the themes have already been discovered; the questions have already been asked (and answered); the prompts have been written; the assignments have been made.  All by the teacher.

She did great!

But, what did the students do?

I'd like to invite you to consider taking a different path this summer--one no less rigorous, time-consuming or thought-provoking.  But on this path, you might have to get your machete ready, because you're going to learn how to be an explorer, how to face new challenges, discomfort, and experiences.

 In short, instead of spending time this summer controlling every move your students will make during the school year, I'm proposing that you to let go and spend your summer as a student, taking risks in new territory. Instead of spending your time creating things for your students to do, what if you spent time using the tools of our ELA classrooms to contribute something meaningful to the world yourself?  That just might make all the difference for the students in your class next year.

So what would we do this summer if we weren't planning units?

We could read widely--as many new books as humanly possible.  Find books that explore other cultures, races, genders, perspectives, and places. Read novels and poetry, nonfiction and graphic novels.  Read about real kids facing real life situations and fantasy that takes you to new worlds.  Then stop and think and write and talk about each one, not as teachers, but as readers of books. 

We could read widely in the world--articles, editorials, photos essays.  We could study what's happening in America, in Africa, in Europe, in our own communities.

We could write deeply--what do you think about these books, these events, these problems?  What is in your heart?  What is in your mind?  What matters to you?  What do you love?  What do you despise?  What writing have you always been afraid to try?  A novel?  A short story?  A poem? Dive in.  We tell our students it's OK to write horrible first drafts.  Let's live it ourselves.

We could use our time to talk.  Meet with friends and colleagues for rich conversations about life, books, and issues. Converse without prompts. Ask real question. Challenge ideas. 

And as we do all these things, we could keep asking ourselves--what matters most?  What feels most alive to me?  What's happening?  What's leading me nowhere, and what is leading me to speak up, to speak out, to do something, to act, to impact this world of ours?

Because isn't that what it's really about?  Isn't an education a path towards an active, involved, compassionate, thoughtful, interesting, compelling, rich, rewarding life?  Shouldn't the work we do in classrooms be more about helping our kids figure out what ignite them?  Shouldn't it be about creating ways for students to lead instead of just following our well-designed lessons?  Isn't it our job to provide the bulletin board and for the kids to fill it, instead of us creating something beautiful for them to look at and admire?

So, if we teachers choose to live as students of the world this summer, and if we pay close attention to what ignites us to action as human beings, won't we be better teachers who can model and inspire the same with our students in the fall?

Won't we be able to model how we chose to respond to a book we chose and invite our students to make their own choices, observations, and to explore their own thinking processes?  Wont' we be able to share how a conversations with a friend stimulated our own thoughts like fireworks bursting in the sky and invite our students to engage in real conversations in and out of class as well?  Won't we be able to show students our notebooks where we wrote drafts of our thoughts, worries, observations and plans, where we drafted to gain the courage to take action, where we chose to publish some of it on a blog or share it with friends, where we took risks, finding our own voice, and noticing that our words do matter?  Won't we be able to show kids that a life full of reading and writing matters?

If you choose to venture on this new path, we have to set down some of the bags we've been carrying, some of us for a long time:

1.  Our own brilliance must take a backseat.  The praise we're used to getting for our amazing lessons will not be there.  Our own talents as readers, thinkers, analyzers, synthesizers, of being literature-reading rock stars, does not matter.  We'll have to get out of the way because our students' thinking and development is what matters most.  Our goal will not be to get students to see what we have already decided is important, but to get students to think, question and see for themselves what matters most.  It's the process of thinking, not the end product, that will take center stage.

2.  Our lessons planning will change from directing a great unit, step by certain step--easily replicated and shareable to others--to becoming an intense observer, a great coach, inspiring and nudging young minds in just the way they need--a process that's often messy, jagged, and uncertain, but also living, dynamic and vibrant. This kind of planning cannot be photocopied and replicated.  It requires doing the inner work yourself, knowing what readers and writes do first-hand, getting to know each group of students each year, and creating something new with them. You cannot simply pull out, tweak, and reuse the same lesson from last year. You cannot.

The way English has traditionally been taught and the books that have been traditionally valued, fit a narrow definition of what it means to be an educated person. It has led us right to the place we are now in America, a place where Black Americans still fight to be heard, valued and to live; a place where our government embraces a policy of stopping immigration on our borders by ripping innocent children away from their parents; and a place where to be anything other than white is to have your value questioned, at best, and wiped out, at worst.  In our classrooms, we continue to lose (physically, emotionally, mentally) a tremendous number of bright students.  We have boys writing raps on their own at home while their teacher believe they're illiterate, belligerent, or even criminal.  We have girls sneaking books on their phones when class becomes overbearingly irrelevant, while their teachers believe they're disengaged, disinterested, or even disrespectful.

I invite you to consider giving up lesson planning this summer, to instead examine your own reading, writing, and conversations.  I especially encourage you to consider this if your reaction is similar to mine upon hearing I should let students decorate the bulletin board.  If you're feeling anxiety in your stomach, if you're feeling your shoulders creeping towards your neck, if you're screaming, "No!" inside your head, if might be time.

If we believe that our job is to empower our students to be lifelong readers, writers, and communicators in this world we live in, we need them to practice in our classrooms.  Are we giving them the space they need to truly grow and explore? 

There's plenty of work to do as a teacher. There always will be.  Let's make this the summer we constantly challenge ourselves to make sure everything we do helps empower our students by letting them choose, think and use their voices. Let's make this they year they go home more tired from thinking, deciding, choosing, and engaging all day than we do.

With Nic Stone &Tiffany Jackson at the Project LIT Summit in Nashville.

Happy Sunday!


  1. Fabulous advice. I did a lot of reading and thinking and discussing this summer but wish I had paired it with writing. I let so many things get in the way of my own writing. Thanks for encouraging all of us to be students, so we can be authentic coaches with our own students.


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