Back to Basics: The FUNdamentals of Teaching High School English

“Mrs. Mendoza, you should write a book!”

One of my more enthusiastic students suggested this to me upon completion of our anticipatory class discussion prior to reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. During this particularly intense conversation, I warned my students that my job was to help them truly THINK about their opinions versus simply letting them share them without having to explain their perspective. They needed to be prepared for me to push them out of their comfort zones and to explain the WHY behind their position.

I quickly replied, “About what? How To Argue With Teenagers?” 

Throughout the discussion, I made sure EVERY student voiced their opinions and ensured that they knew that these were not set in stone. They were allowed to move freely around the room if their thoughts changed based on their peers’ perspectives, but they had to be ready to discuss their choices and why they made them.  

My student countered, “About anything! I would love to know what YOU really think about…just life in general-in all its forms.”

imagesWhile I admit it, his comment hit me right in the warm, fuzzy teacher-feels; I was more focused on the fact that I felt like my students not only enjoyed class that day, but they left also feeling like it was meaningful. Making meaningful connections to Shakespeare BEFORE we even read it? Why yes, yes they did. #teachergoals

One of the best ways I have found that readers and writers workshop works in my class is when all students experience the chance to speak, listen, read, write, and interact. Usually, it doesn’t take hours of preparation, 953 copies, or even a super cool tech device, app ,or tool. [Although, those strategies/tools work well, too!] Sometimes, it requires nothing but time and a little FUN…damentals.

A while back, Amy Rasmussen wrote about her 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule which helped me envision my own teaching non-negotiables in my classroom. She referred back to it here when other teachers inquired about the question that plagues several teachers everywhere; “How can we do it all?” Simple. We go back to the basics.

During that week, I admit I was pressed for time due to the end of the grading period, room displacements, etc. I needed to plan something that would require very little of me in regards to preparation but would serve as a strong springboard to launch into our study of Julius Caesar. I researched and found an anticipation guide with 5 controversial statements I knew would make for an incredible discussion. Levels of Agreement

Around the room, levels of agreement signs were posted in which students traveled to based on their perspective of the statement. Here’s a brief rundown of how the lesson flowed in our class;

  1. Upon discussion of agenda for the day, we read each statement individually first. Then, they listened as I read them aloud again.
  2. Students were asked to rank their levels of agreement and write about whether they agreed, disagreed, or were undecided. Students were given time to work through each statement prior to discussion.
  3. We went through each statement individually. Students were able to share their perspectives, interact with each other whole class and within each new group, and revise their thoughts if they heard something they didn’t consider or were undecided to begin with. They SAW this live as we were talking through it and verbally explained reasons for the changes they made to their original responses.
  4. After we went through each statement, students had the opportunity to choose which statement they wanted to reflect about and had time in class to write about it. If students needed clarification or assistance, it gave me an opportunity to confer with them individually.

So many of my students were eager to provide positive feedback once we debriefed the discussion prior to reading the play. They appreciated the diversity in their opinions and the ability to express themselves in a safe space. EVERYONE had an opinion to share. We were able to agree to disagree and keep the conversations objective and focused throughout the discussion.  Even though it felt like we didn’t “DO” a lot, we read, wrote, discussed, revised, reflected, explained, conferred when necessary, and supported our thinking. Bonus: We had FUN, too!

I am still learning and working on how to consistently implement these practices daily in my lessons. I am not there, yet. However, as long as I have these non-negotiables in mind, I know the rest will come.

What are your non-negotiables when it comes to the basics? How have you been able to successfully implement them? What challenges have you come across, too? I would love to learn from all of the ideas, strategies, and routines you have in your classrooms, so please share!

Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, Texas. Her recent non-negotiables in life have become a fully stocked candy stash in her desk drawer, Blue Bell’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Ice Cream, Starbucks’ mobile ordering app, and finishing All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3.


One thought on “Back to Basics: The FUNdamentals of Teaching High School English

  1. […] Back to Basics: The FUNdamentals of Teaching High School English […]


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