Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

7 thoughts on “Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery”

  1. This was a really fun post to read. I’m excited to here about how well she engaged your class with her lesson on poetry. Connecting it to popular music was a good connection. I often find that my students surprise me with how great they can be, even though I shouldn’t be surprised any more!

  2. Lots of thoughts swirling in my head right now. First, there’s a saying, “You never really know something until you teach it.” We have a student mentoring program; it’s actually a class that allows students to travel to elementary schools and work as aides, but I’m thinking it would be cool to have AP Lit students travel to ninth grade classes or even to middle schools and teach a lesson. I frequently have these students lead poetry discussions. Finally, I think this lesson may fit NCTE 18 theme. I need to read the proposal criteria closely (haven’t yet). Thanks for the inspiration, Dana.

    1. It was a lot of fun. I need to read the criteria, too, but one big takeaway I had was we need to bring more students to that conference. I’m wondering now if Sophia would come.

  3. You’ve presented at several conferences. I’m tentatively interested, but I’m not sure how to get started. What was your first time like?

    1. I was pretty nervous the first time. My advice is to start small—local or state-level conferences. My first presentation was at the Georgia Independent Schools Association (GISA) conference.

      1. I’d love to know more about what made you decide you wanted to present, and how you decided on what you wanted to share – but I don’t want to just blather on here. Ok to email you about it?

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