Perhaps the most empowered teacher I’ve met lately is the indomitable Dr. Sarah Zerwin, Doc Z to her students at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. I left California to head to Denver for my mid-year Heinemann Fellows meeting a little early so that I could visit Sarah and her colleagues, collectively known as The Paper Graders (thepapergraders.org).
Fairview High School is stunningly gorgeous. It sits next to Viele Lake, the snowy Flatirons adding a dramatic backdrop. My Uber driver dropped me off during second period, one of Sarah’s three prep periods. After stashing my bags in her office, Sarah gave me a tour of her school.
FHS is the first open campus that I’ve ever visited, and right away, I noticed a different spirit than most high schools I’ve visited. Because students have open periods in which they may study or leave campus, the halls and common areas were bustling with people, but here’s the thing: it worked. Fairview, Sarah explained, is shaped like a wagon wheel on its side, with the Hub–the student commons–at the center and three levels of halls winding off of it.
We passed a pair of students rehearsing a scene from Romeo and Juliet, another pair pouring over their science books in a niche of the Hub, the student commons at the center of the school, and students chatting with the security guards, whom they clearly adored. The halls were bright with student art, and even ceiling tiles had been painted by students to reflect the hall.
Knowing my obsession with libraries, Sarah was happy to show me Fairview’s, and it’s clear where they got their name.
A wall of glass invites the breathtaking view of the lake and mountains into the bustling library.
Students on their free periods worked at computers or studied in groups at tables and individually in study carols. A mural painted by an alum added even more personality to this unique space.
After getting me a cup of coffee from the a staff room behind the library, where the library staff keeps the joe flowing all day for caffeine-deprived teachers, we headed to Sarah’s office for a moment. At FHS, no English teacher has their own classroom. They all have a small office, though, that they share with a colleague, and based on the amazing discussions I got to sit in on, the cross-pollination of ideas benefits not only the department but the whole school.
While Sarah and I had become friends this summer at University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute, I had also met her colleagues the Paper Graders a few weeks ago at NCTE, where they gave two presentations.
Their level of collaboration inspires me as much as it makes me envy them. I left FHS convicted that I’m not making the most of the partnerships available with my own colleagues.
Sarah’s seniors were presenting their United Nations Panels as their culminating presentations for the semester. Their guiding question for the semester was: “How are you going to make the world a better place?” Each of the four group members presented to the class for a few minutes, sharing a slide as well as their investigation into the topic they chose. They also shared a personal anecdote as well as content from in-person interviews they conducted.
These were brave presentations. The one that stuck with me the most was on sexual assault. One girl shared that her mother had been raped. Another that she herself had been raped at a party. They shared their research, including Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Sarah’s seniors demonstrated deep interest in each other’s presentations, leading discussions and showing respect for each others’ work and ideas.
The next evening, when I found myself in Reader Heaven–otherwise known as The Tattered Cover, Denver’s kick ass independent book store, I bought Missoula for my class library. When I book talked it on Monday back in my own classroom, it was checked out immediately. Cross-pollination indeed.
Sarah and her colleagues exemplify empowered teaching. In addition to observing Sarah, I got to attend a Pride and Prejudice Tea Party with Tracy’s AP Lit class–Tracy’s hat was worth the trip to Boulder in and of itself! Next, I sat in on Jay Stott’s freshman English class. Students were deeply absorbed in revising their writing for their final projects on their Chromebooks.
While the kids were working independently, I interviewed Jay for a few minutes, asking him what his thoughts were on empowered teaching. Jay frequently works with new teachers, and he mentioned how stressed they feel, and how much pressure they feel to do things the right way.
Jay said, “So many teachers feel like someone is breathing down their neck, but when I ask them WHO specifically in their world–students, parents, peers, admin–is actually requiring them to do the things that are draining them and stressing them out, 100% of them can’t name a single individual person. It’s their own perceptions of what they are supposed to do that is making them miserable.”
Jay captures a conundrum that I myself keep bumping against. So many teachers are disempowered by their own assumptions, their own perceptions, their own inner narratives they tell themselves about how school is supposed to be. To become empowered teachers, we must first confront ourselves and our assumptions.
My morning with The Paper Graders left me feeling so much hope about what is possible when a group of empowered teachers take ownership of their department and challenge their own assumptions.
I have so much more to say about my time at FHS, but I’ll save it for another post soon. Many thanks to Sarah Zerwin and her department for being such gracious hosts!