“On this new schedule,” I said, “We only meet with each class six times between Labor Day and October 1st.”

It was a hot afternoon last week, and a group of us were sitting outside, unpacking our first days back in our classrooms since March. The new situation—shorter classes, fewer meetings, an expectation of asynchronous activities to supplement in-class instruction, some students joining the class from home (or even other continents, in some cases)—requires us to rethink what we’ve been doing.

“I'm teaching five things this year,” my friend Donielle said. She teaches economics, entrepreneurship, and human geography. (She also hosts a podcast you should listen to!)


“Yeah,” she said. She went on to explain that teaching five things really well would be more beneficial than trying to cram the entire curriculum into these abbreviated spaces, spaces where we are relearning how to teach and students are relearning how to learn.

As she spoke about it, I started to feel like she was absolutely right.

When we went online back in March, my department decided to take a less-is-more approach. The two teams I was working with both decided to do a similar thing: take the paper we were working on before Spring Break and put it through an intensive writing process: draft, edit, feedback, rewrite, repeat. I really wanted my students to learn that writing is a process, that it's idiosyncratic (to some degree), but that all good writers have one thing in common: rewriting.

At the tail end of this laborious process, several students told me this was the best paper they'd ever written, the best writing they'd ever done, though they also found the process exhausting. Good writing is work, after all, so I guess it should be exhausting!

We were all in emergency mode back then; we understood that education in the pandemic requires us to think about the essential. We may have had more time to plan for this fall semester, but not much has really changed, has it? We still have to think about how much to do and at what pace.

  • How can we be both efficient and exhaustive in our work?
  • How can we get the most out of the little time that we have with our students?

Donielle got me thinking about five things. I've got between now and May 2021 to teach 73 students something about the world and themselves. I have to do it through the curricula I've got: language, literature, and a world religions elective. If I could only teach them five things, what would they be?

Here's my first draft, in no particular order.

  • Rethink your assumptions.
  • Your language shapes your world and your world shapes your language.
  • Understand what you can control and what you can't.
  • Document your sources.
  • Find your voice and then create third space.

Very few of these things are explicitly English skills, but the beauty of teaching English courses is that I get to help students think about how they construct and interact with their worlds. I get to delve into philosophical topics; I get to help them think about how they're going to approach life. My shadow goal for teaching reading and writing is always to get students to achieve that first knowledge that we all really need to succeed: self-knowledge.

So, my list is not a nuts-and-bolts list. It's not vertically aligned. It's not even specific to my discipline. Instead, my list focuses on what I think really matters: taking responsibility for yourself, for your words, and for yourworldview.

Photo by Tony Hand / Unsplash

Rethink your assumptions.

All of my classes begin with this philosophy. We walk around the world with a worldview, a schema, that helps us to interpret what is real and what isn't. Our worldviews have been built into us by our cultures and communities. At a young age, we have almost no control over this process. As we get older, however, we become more and more responsible for how we understand the world. After a series of rites of passage—high school being a common one—we emerge into the world as fully-fledged adults, responsible for our actions.

A high school English class is a great place to interrogate the worldview you've been gifted. Certain pieces of it are probably rock solid. Others, however, may rest on assumptions that won't stand up to scrutiny.

I want all of my students to approach things with an open mind, to put their assumptions on the table and give them a long, hard look. I want them to re-examine the way the world works.

Your language shapes your world and your world shapes your language.

My partner and I often make intentional decisions about the way that we use words in our house. For example, as our son gets older and we address social justice concerns, we decided to get rid of terms like “slave” and “slave owner” in our conversations about United States history. For us, “slave” sounds too much like a label, like a legitimate category. Instead, we have chosen to speak of “enslaved peoples” and “enslavers.” This distinction leaves no ambiguity about who is active and who is passive in this transaction. It creates a profound shift in how we think about the institution of slavery in the antebellum South.

How we speak affects how we see the world.
How we see the world affects who we are.

We come to understand the world, largely, through our language. But our language also helps us to understand ourselves. The words we use matter because they bring a new moment into existence. Each utterance has the potential to change how we see the world and how the world sees us. This new moment in time, therefore, reciprocates: it brings a new version of me into existence.

The dance goes on and on.
Your words matter.

Understand what you can control and what you can't.

What can you really control?

You can't control how a teacher marks your paper. You can’t control who your parents are, what teachers you’re assigned, nor that car in front of you that is going 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, thus keeping you from making it to class on time.

None of these is in your control.

You can control—to some degree—how many drafts of a paper you produce. You can control how you choose to interact with your parents and your teachers. You can control whether you make excuses and blame others.

Focusing your attention on what you can't control leads only to frustration. Control the things you can. Let go of the things you can't.

Document your sources.

This may sound like an odd one on this list. I’m not including it because I’m overly exacting or because I have some strange love affair with MLA, APA, Chicago, or Turabian. I put it here because I want students to understand two basic principles:

  1. Always give credit where credit is due.
  2. A well-researched, well-documented project makes you look like an expert.

Students often think that a work is unoriginal if it’s drawn from a variety of sources. We teachers know, however, that a variety of sources, synthesized, is the only way we hit upon something original. Everything is a remix.

Moreover, giving credit to the people that have helped you along the way, showing gratitude for their efforts, will always serve you well in life!

Find your voice and then create third space.

Finding your voice is a classic English teacher thing. I get that.

Sometimes, however, the classics exist because they are necessary. As we navigate increasingly confusing times—a world increasingly constructed by rhetoric—it’s important we all find the language that speaks our hearts and minds.

Dolly is a national treasure, y'all!

When we find that language, however, we have to be ready to engage openly and honestly with those that might differ from us. This is where “third space” comes into play. To be honest, I'm just now re-learning what third space is. I'm afraid my days of reading Homi K. Bhabha and applying postcolonial critical theory to everything I ever read are far behind me. (Though, perhaps they shouldn't be...)

But here's how I'm understanding it in this context:

Imagine third space as the space between you and me where we can stand, perhaps detached from our entrenched views of the world, to think critically about our ideas and perhaps come to some kind of solution or compromise.

(My friends Katie and Will are exploring third space in their AP English Language courses this year. I owe all of this to them! Their summer reading assignment asked students to read The Great Gatsby and then listen to Jad Abumrad’s podcast Dolly Parton’s America. Abumrad posits Dolly Parton as a physical manifestation of third space in a recent interview about the podcast. I'm coaxing Katie and Will into working on a piece about all of this for ROOTED!)

What about you?

What's essential in your class? If you could teach just five things this year, what would they be? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. We’d love to know what you find absolutely essential!

Even better, you can head over to the submissions page and consider submitting your in-depth ideas about what's essential to your curriculum and practice as we continue to teach our way through COVID-19.