The Day Sondra Took Over

By Cynthia M. Ellwood

“If you write that big, you’re never gonna be able to get them all up there,” said Sondra, voicing her third critique of my teaching in five minutes. With that, I deposited the chalk in her hand.

“Take over,” I said

“Oh, my fault, Ms. Ellwood,” she apologized.

“No, really, go for it. I want you to.”

She looked doubtful, not sure whether she was being admonished.

“Try it. I think you’d be great.”

After a minute or so of this back-and-forth, Sondra stood up, and I moved to a seat near the back of the room.

We had just read “Little Things are Big” by Jesus Coldn in my fifth hour American Ethnic Literature class. Set in New York during the 1950s, the short story is about a young black Puerto Rican fighting an internal battle as he tries to decide whether he should offer to help a white woman loaded with luggage and children as she disembarks from the subway.

“Courtesy is a characteristic of the Puerto Rican,” the protagonist of this story reports. “And here I was—a Puerto Rican—hours past midnight, a valise, two white children, and a white lady with a baby on her arm palpably needing someone to help her at least until she descended the long, concrete stairs.” But he holds back, afraid that this white woman might misinterpret the intentions of a black man approaching her in a deserted subway so late at night. Later he is tortured by his choice: “I failed myself to myself,” he muses. He vows if he ever again faces such a situation, he will offer aid no matter how it may be received.

I asked each student to write down three questions for discussion about the short stoiy and had just begun to list their questions on the board under two categories: “plot/fact questions” and “thought/opinion questions,” when I handed Sondra the chalk.

Once up, Sondra took firm command of the class. She abandoned my approach. “Anthony, just tell me your best question,” she said. Then rather than putting it on the board, she posed it to the class for immediate discussion. When it seemed as if a topic had been plumbed, she moved to the next student and asked again only for that student’s best question. Whenever I tried to direct things, or other students tried to intervene, Sondra said firmly, “This is my class.” She refused to recognize me unless I raised my hand like everyone else. At one point, when I forgot and simply spoke out my opinion, she did such a magnificent job of ignoring me that Ernesto took pity: “That’s okay, Ms. Ellwood. Tell me what you want to say, and I’ll say it,” he offered magnanimously.

It was a fine discussion. We talked about what the author meant to convey, how the characters must have felt, whether it could happen today, where racism comes from, and both the obvious and subtle ways racial prejudice still affects our lives. We struggled with some tough questions.

One student said he could do anything if he tried hard enough, so racism wasn’t an issue. “Well you’re just blaming a person that doesn’t make it, then, just saying they didn’t try hard enough when it might be because of racism,” another countered. We agreed that it was important to believe in yourself and never give up. But we also agreed that inequality was real. Were these ideas contradictory? The students didn’t reach consensus on that one, but I think we had a chance to talk and think hard about an issue that struck a deep chord.

As I listened and participated, I also learned. I was reminded that my students must hold fiercely to the conviction that they can “make it.” The easy money of drug sales, the instant power of gang affiliation, the adoring neediness of a new baby are not trivial temptations if a young person—impatient to “become someone” as most teenagers are—has trouble believing the American dream. I’ve always tried to present them with examples of people who strove for their dreams, who acted heroically in everyday life, who fought oppression and pursued high ideals individually and collectively.

I’ve also encouraged students to critically examine our world and the problems we confront. Yet, while I’d always thought of this social critique as empowering, I realized as I listened to the discussion that day that for some of my students, sueh analysis might be feeding feelings of hopelessness and despair. The connection I made that day (or rather my students made for me) was subtle but important.

That Monday in April was a triumph for me. For while this penetrating, student-led discussion seemed almost to occur, spontaneously, through some quirk of chemistry and circumstance had been trying to make this happen from the beginning of the year. (We were to study Mythology and Folklore the first semester, followed by American Ethnic Literature the second.) I had articulated three goals at the beginning of this course. First, I wanted my students to see themselves as learners, people who felt invested in and responsible for the learning (their own and others’) in the classroom. Second, I wanted them to see literature as open to interpretation, and I hoped to train them to “unpack” a piece of literature. Third, I wanted them to learn to engage in “academic discourse,” which I define briefly as arguing using evidence.

That day, my fifth hour seemed to fulfill all three goals as they had never done before. We had had many good discussions before, but never ones that were so clearly directed by the students themselves.

No Accident

That the events that day in April were not simply happenstance set off by an interaction ^tween Sondra and me was later reinforced when I formalized in my eighth hour the student leadership that had seemed to arise spontaneously in fifth hour. I explained that I wanted them to run this discussion and we appointed a student facilitator. The eighth hour discussion had a different rhythm and elaborated on different themes than in fifth hour. And without Sondra’s commanding leadership, I had to exercise more self discipline to keep from controlling the discussion while still attempting to pose issues that might push students to dig deeper and think harder. But as in the earlier class, my eighth hour students willingly assumed responsibility for the discussion and, I felt, moved toward particularly thoughtful analyses of the short story and related themes in our lives. In the final months of the school year, both classes continued to build, albeit unevenly and imperfectly, on the abilities students showed that day.

Nor was this triumph the result of finally hitting upon the magic recipe, the perfect approach. I knew it couldn’t have happened in the first month of class; we had all learned a lot to bring us to this point. I set about trying to analyze what exactly had worked to bring about the fulfillment of my goals, and how I might learn from it to become a better teacher.

Laying the Groundwork: The First Semester

From the first day, I had attempted to train students in my three rules of “academic discourse.” Whether you’re discussing or writing, I said over and over, you must: 1) have a point (in an essay, this main point is called a thesis), 2) provide evidence to back it up, and 3) anchor your point (in discussion that usually meant drawing an explicit connection between your point and what had already been said; in an essay one often anchored one’s thesis with reference to another written piece or to “common wisdom.”) We had practiced these skills endlessly over the year and had made substantial progress before what I call “the day Sondra took over.”

I hadnlso constantly worked to confront students with serious, open-ended questions. As I see it, the main reason for studying literature is to discover more about humanity and oneself. And the main reason we learn to write is to be able to express our convictions powerfully. That means that moral controversies, searching questions, and even deeply personal dilemmas are not only admissible in my classroom, they are central. So I had attempted, with everything we studied, to bring these kinds of questions to the fore, and especially to forge a connection between the daily concerns of my students and age old human questions, between 

their individual experiences and universal experience.

During the first semester, in Mythology and Folklore, we tried to identify the values implicit in Greek literature and compare Greek beliefs with our own views about fate, the role of women, family relationships, religion, right, and wrong. We recall how fantasies—myths—appeared to us as children and argued about whether children should be scared into obedience with threats of the boogie man or taught to be good with the promise of presents from Santa. We identified archetypes—themes, symbols and story lines that come up again and again in the stories of cultures separated by time and distance—and tried to figure out why they recur.

As I look back, I can sec that the groundwork we laid in the first semester and the first part of the second semester contributed to that moment in April when Sondra took over the class and my students began taking greater responsibility for their own learning. At the end of the first semester I had asked each student to evaluate the class in the form of an anonymous “letter to a friend” describing the course. While many letters complained that the course demanded too much writing, almost every letter noted that students were expected to think hard and formulate their own opinions. A typical comment was: “The fact that we are able to discuss our own point of view rather than always having to listen to the teach er’s point of view… is a very positive and important part of this class.” Another said simply, “She’ll ask you your opinion whether you want to give it or not.” A third student wrote, “You read stories to dig deep into what the characters are thinking and how they arc alike and different from today’s world.”

As I reread these papers today, I see that by the end of the first semester we had not resolved the issue of who was responsible for the success of the class, the teacher or the students. Some students saw it as my responsibility to keep the class exciting at all times. One student wrote:

But sometimes this class is so. Boring. Sometimes you have lo pep us up or something. Like writing paragraphs— I hate it!

Another at least recognized how demanding the teacher’s role was: 

The most important aspect of all is the leader (or the teacher). She has to prepare herself for weeks in order to make the class interesting and not bore the whole class. What I’m trying to say is you need to have GANAS [Spanish for “desire”] in order to make the class interesting.

One seemed possibly to be expressing ambivalence about whose responsibility the class was. This student wrote cryptically:

I’ve learned that the teacher can influence how you act in class or what you learn in class is up to you.

The Final Dilemmar Giving Students Responsibility

For all our circle discussions, essays, dramatizations, group work, free-writes, surveys, debates, mock “Oprah shows,” more discussions, and more essays—and in spite of the tremendous progress we had made in the first semester and the beginning of the second—it was not until Sondra took over the class in April that I felt my goals were met. By late March, I had been feeling exhausted, and yet I felt I wasn’t demanding enough of my students. It seemed like the burden of learning fell more heavily on me than on them! Students knew they were expected to articulate their views, but the responsibility for posing provocative questions and guiding the discussion to thoughtful conclusions seemed to fall entirely on my shoulders. I wrote in my journal during the March spring break:

They [students] still don’t get the purpose of academic discourse to the point of feeling truly invested in the process. They engage in it because they like me and want to please me, or because I ’ve managed to awaken their interest by coming up with an angle that speaks to their concerns, or to get a good grade, or when they’re feeling generally agreeable. But the class is still heavily teacher propelled.

In my more cynical moments, I felt as if I was up there performing like a maniac to win their engagement or running myself ragged to contrive situations that led them to “discover meaning for themselves” only to have them view our analytic dialogues as “conversating,” as a student put it once.

My friend Grace listened to my whining and then said simply, “Why did you participate in high-school?” She was right. Somehow I hoped that I could teach my students to pick up a piece of literature and plumb it on their own, to find for themselves the universal themes, the ideas that speak to their experience—just for the pure joy of learning. Yet I didn’t do that in high school, or even consistently in college. I participated to get a good grade, because I liked the teacher, or because the teacher or a particular text raised issues I found interesting or useful.

Finally: the Breakthrough

So how did it happen that one week later (the week after spring break), Sondra stepped to the front of the class, and I saw my students take more responsibility for raising questions and directing discussion? I think it happened, first, because we ha’d laid the groundwork in previous months. Second, an article by Grant Wiggins entitled “Enabling Students to – Be (Thoughtful) Workers” offered some useful suggestions at a key time. A friend showed me the article in February, and I went back to it over spring break as I pondered how to make my class less teacher centered.

Wiggins says we should organize our courses—regardless of the subject area— around “essential questions.” [See box] Instead of thinking about what content we want students to cover, we ought to identify large, overarching, higher order questions which “go to the heart of the discipline” and which are open ended enough to allow students to pursue their own answers. In this scheme, “the textbook, rather than providing the logic of the syllabus, becomes a reference book for posing and solving problems.” I realized that Wiggins’ “essential questions” were much, like the questions I posed again and again to my students. I organized my courses around major themes or problems, which I presented at the beginning of every semester. And as we explored those themes I constantly confronted my students with open-ended questions designed to help them formulate their own understandings of the larger issues.

But I realized as I read Wiggins, that I was asking most of the questions. Having students pose questions was part of my repertoire, something we did sometimes, the way I sometimes gave surveys to awaken their prior understanding of an issue or the way we sometimes staged debates to get students involved in articulating their opinions. Wiggins suggested that “students write down at least three questions for each lesson and reading.” While students posing questions was an occasional part of my class, Wiggins was suggesting it should be a routine assignment for every reading.

Starting the first day after spring break, I asked students to write questions about everything we looked at in the class. (I found, incidentally, that grading these questions is not difficult. Students and I were clear on the criteria for a “good” question: it was one that was open-ended— having no right answer—meaty, and thought provoking. Such questions were easily recognizable, though not easy to produce. I gave C’s for producing three relevant questions that showed a student had done the reading and A’s when they produced two or more truly thought provoking questions.) The following Monday we had our breakthrough, when Sondra took over the class.

Qualifying Conclusions: When Students “Take Responsibility”

Of course, to say that Sondra “took over the class” that Monday in April or the students “took responsibility” for posing questions and running discussions from that day forward stretches the truth. In fact, I never once relinquished control over the class—even on the few occasions when I sat on the sidelines and steadfastly refused to take part in a discussion. Though we played at changing roles on that day and subsequently, I never stopped being the teacher and the authority.

Nor do I think giving up my authority is something worth striving for. I believe I have things to teach my students—I actively trained them to argue with evidence orally and in essay form, for example; I organized the course around themes which my experience tells me are “big ideas” they will encounter in college and adult life generally; I tracked down and introduced literature, essays, films, and other resources that I felt would be fertile ground for thought; and even as I sat in a discussion as “just another participant,” I was constantly trying to pose questions and bring up issues that would focus the discussion and deepen students’ thinking. I do, however, learn constantly from my students. They have helped me to see things from entirely new angles and introduced questions that set me off on personal searches extending beyond the end of any particular school year. As I’ve learned about their views and experiences, the questions I pose to them and the way I pose them have also changed.

At times students may assume full, responsible, eager control over their own learning. My experiences this year suggest that I should see such moments as goals and triumphs, but not the absolute measure of success. My day to day job is to try to provide the training, skills, atmosphere, and conditions that will enable us to share the responsibility more and to change places from time to time.

We have not abandoned our roles as teacher and students. But I believe my students and I have learned more by changing the parameters of those roles.

Cynthia Ellwood teaches English and bilingual social studies at South Division High School. She is currently on a one year study leave. Students’ names were changed in this article. “Sondra” graduated in June 1989. Melissa Moore and the other students in Michael Scheib’s current 5th hour English class at South Division H.S. were kind enough to pose for the photos with this article.

For more information on “essential questions,” consult the following two articles by Grant Wiggins:

  • Creating Thought Provoking Curriculum, American Educator, 11(4), 1987.
  • Mr. Sisyphus, Director of Curriculum: Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance in the upcoming Hovember, 1989 issue of Educational Leadership.