Sometimes the best lessons spring up naturally from your students. Six weeks ago, Dr. Amy Smith’s students asked her if they could have a whole lesson devoted just to discussing the books they were all reading on their own. Throwing out the following day’s prepared lesson, Amy gave these 17-year-olds the space and opportunity to share what they were passionate about.
“Some of these students I had known for five years and to see them now standing up and expressing what they were interested in – it was incredible. We also practiced our critical thinking and public speaking as part of the discussion. It was an absolute joy to see how they had developed.”
Selections from her students’ first “Book Monday”
That impromptu lesson is now part of Amy’s class (albeit just for 15 minutes or so) every Monday and is just one of the many reasons she is ReadTheory’s Featured Teacher for May.
Getting to know Dr. Smith
Amy has been teaching for the last five years, three of those as Head of Year, at Framwellgate School Durham. Before teaching at Framwellgate, she earned her PhD in 20th Century Poetry. “I love watching students succeed” she recently told us. “I don’t mean ‘getting the highest grade – I mean watching them get their own sense of achievement from what we’re doing. It could be as simple as connecting a vocabulary word from early in the year to the text we’re reading now, or it could be them analyzing a text through the lens of Freudian Psychology. What matters to me is them feeling empowered to make those connections on their own.”
Dr. Smith Makes Connections With Texts and Students
Despite the looming testing season, Amy tries to stay focused on what really matters in her classroom. “I think we often lose sight of what is important in education. I think the focus of our classrooms should be helping students to understand the world and where they fit in it.” With that philosophy as her guide, Amy weaves literature and current events seamlessly together. “Teaching Othello this year was very different from previous years. I am always helping students to make connections between works of literature and the real world, so having discussions around racial justice, BLM, and Shakespeare’s characterization of Othello and Desdemona was an amazing few weeks in my classroom.”
While she appreciates the free resources at ReadTheory, Amy really enjoys the articles written by fellow-teachers. “I loved the recent article on building empathy into the classroom. I felt like it really fit with my views on education while also giving me really practical steps to put those ideas into practice.” Her exercise books for her class spell out a vision for studying English that moves beyond diagramming sentences and leaves students with a vision for being more fully human.
Hot Tips from Dr. Smith
When teaching, Amy is continually striving to broaden her students’ worlds. “It’s hard to answer questions about a work of literature set in London if you’ve never seen pictures or set foot there.” She appreciates the need for continually pre-teaching and scaffolding for her students so they can understand references within text. “Whenever possible, I try to build up my students’ cultural context.”
She also tries to give students the tools to find their own meaning and to use their own brains. “When we were reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one of the lines ends with ‘[he] sat down to dinner without relish.’ Handing a student a dictionary to understand the word ‘relish’ in that sentence isn’t enough. They need to be able to use their existing knowledge to determine if the character is sitting down to dinner without a condiment, or without enjoyment.” Amy encourages discussion and debate in those moments of ambiguity so students can come to their own conclusions.
Preventing the Summer Slide for Students and Teachers
Amy coordinates across multiple grade levels and even across primary and secondary schools to help ensure that reading continues over the summer. She helps to ensure that students are sent home with a book that will be taught the following term, even with a new teacher. That said, she also believes that there’s a lot to learn from just getting outdoors. “Especially after this last year, I want my students to really get outside over the summer. It’s what I love and helps me think and grow.”
Summer reading project for new Year 7 students
Over the break, Amy will be checking in with other educators on Twitter to recharge. Jennifer Webb at @FunkyPedagogy and Stuart Pryke are two of her favorite educators on Twitter. “But honestly, I love being able to post a quick question about something I’m teaching on Twitter and get input from teachers all around the world. It’s amazing and their thoughtful responses really help push my teaching forward.”
Thank you for all you do Dr. Smith!
If you know an amazing educator whom you think should be a ReadTheory Featured Teacher, please reach out to us via Twitter. Write a brief twitter post on why that teacher deserves a shout-out, and tag the teacher as well as @readtheory!