Teach Like an Artist: Focus


I’m an aspiring minimalist.  I live in a small house; I spend frugally; I try to keep my possessions pared down.  In my personal life, I can usually maintain a certain amount of simplicity and contentment.

But when it comes to the classroom, where I spend most of my waking hours, I often feel overwhelmed by complexity. My desk is a disaster; my email is full of unnecessary messages; my task list is long; my stack of papers to grade is tall; my brain is on overload with all the upcoming units and assignments; my head is turned by every new idea I might want to try.

If I can make one resolution for this new year, it is this: to find simplicity in my working life.

The first chapter of Mike Schmoker’s book Focus is “The Importance of Simplicity, Clarity, and Priority.”  You can read an excerpt here. Schmoker asserts that top-performing schools and organizations have simple goals and simple techniques, practices that have been used successfully for most likely a thousand years.  Schools and teachers who get results have simplified their teaching to three basic principles:

  1. Curriculum (What We Teach)
  2. Lesson Design (How We Teach)
  3. Authentic Literacy (Lots of Reading, Writing, and Talking)

This simple list kind of goes against the grain, doesn’t it?  We preach innovation and charisma in the classroom. I often feel pressure (perhaps self-induced) to implement new practices so that I don’t get stale. We are plagued in education with the image of the “old” teacher who continues to do what she or he has always done. This image is all-too-often used to incite fear in the young teachers and guilt in the experienced ones.

But sometimes what has always been done is exactly what works.

So this year, in a few days’ time, I want to go back to my classroom and revel in my core values and practices.  I want to say “no” to ideas that distract me from my focus, not because I’m resistant to change but because I want to stick to my core with dogged faithfulness.

The core values of my classroom are as follows:

  1. Empathy: as this is the inspiration for the title of this blog, I’m sure it’s not all that eye-opening for any readers.  I believe that if there is one core value that I could instill in my students, a value that would lead to the development of all other virtues, it would be this one.
  2. Authenticity: I value my students’ voices and choices in the classroom, and I also share my heart with them. I encourage them to react to what we are reading and draw connections to their own lives.  I never expect them to like everything we read but rather to interact with it as the representation of another human being’s voice (there’s empathy again). I carefully explain my rationale for all classroom practices (even when my students don’t really think they want to know!). We share our writing with each other. I try to model admitting when I’m wrong or when I simply don’t know something.
  3. Proactivity:  I push my students to speak up for themselves, to learn to talk to adults as they become adults themselves. I require them to advocate for their own needs and ask questions when they don’t understand. I provide resources and expect that they will use these resources to prepare for class. This is often the most difficult transition of some students’ senior year.

The core learning objectives and practices in my classroom are:

  1. Transactional reading through authentic conversation.  I believe that students must make meaning of texts individually and in groups of their peers.  I emphasize this skill through the practice of Harkness discussion.  I do not teach other types of discussion. I do not implement other types of projects or presentations, although I know there are many other good practices.  I am relentless in teaching and reflecting on the skills necessary for academic discourse.
  2. Analysis and argumentation, supported by evidence. All of the thinking, speaking, and formal writing we do must have relevant evidence supporting the assertions.  In discussions, students learn to provide quotes with appropriate page numbers, just as they will be expected to do in a formal essay. All exams are written, with questions that require textual support.
  3. Logical, clear organization of arguments.  I am dogged in my teaching of thesis statements, paragraph structure, and logical progression of argument.  While the student blogs create space for students to respond in a more personal way, our formal process essays are all analytical.  Because I stick to one type, albeit a fairly advanced type, of writing rather than several different modes, I see real improvement in students’ thinking and writing skills by the end of the year.

I hope to continue to refine my teaching through the focus on these core values and practices in the coming months. I will evaluate any new techniques or technologies or texts or, frankly, any use of my time, against this core.  It’s not quite minimalism, but maybe I can handle the complexity a bit more readily.

Now, if I could just clean off my desk. . .




  1. Jennifer-

    I am a fellow Writing Project teacher and I love your blog. I teach 6th grade in Burleson and our district is big on Mike Schmoker’s Focus. I have been implementing his ideas in my classroom and I am able to do things in a 6th grade classroom that I was not successful with in either 7th or 8th grade. I have been having many fruitful class discussions and my students are loving my “Articles of the Week.”

    Thanks for this post!


  2. Thanks, Jennifer! This post helps me think about how to focus my own writing, too. These patterns and principles work for me!


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