Step inside Elaine Rabb’s classroom in the Middle School at Nashoba Brooks School and you immediately encounter a large “O” constructed of multiple tables, surrounded by chairs.
It consumes most of Elaine Rabb’s classroom. One look at this circle, and you know the space is dedicated to discussion and inclusion.
In Grade 7 and Grade 8 English classes, the female students face one another, and Rabb sits with them. As she explains, “The teacher is not the end all be all, but rather a facilitator.” It’s by design. It’s intentional. At its core, the circle is about creating an open dialogue where girls are empowered to speak, where they feel increasingly comfortable to take risks, stumble, and get back up.
Around the circle, students collaborate with one another. Rabb, a veteran teacher of twenty years, describes the process as “learning how to learn.” She asks the seventh grade girls to watch the eighth grade girls run a discussion in order to see the model in action; students listen actively, analyze verbally, and disagree respectfully. As each year progresses, students shift from looking at Rabb for affirmation to looking at each other. They no longer wait for the teacher to intervene, but instead they call on one another. “They learn to see and understand visual clues from peers,” explains Rabb. Some responses affirm while others refute, but all are engaged in the conversation. The students are learning some of life’s most valuable skills, skills many students do not learn until high school or college, or even after in the workplace: when to talk, when to listen, and how to lean into challenging conversations.
When it comes to the act of “pulling apart literature” Rabb refers to what she calls the “iceberg of understanding.” There’s the tip of the iceberg and then there’s everything underneath it. She wants the students to dive deeper. What cultural connections can the class discern? What literary devices do the students see? As the girls investigate texts and share their opinions, they create knowledge in conjunction with their teacher, who respects their capabilities. Since Rabb enjoys the benefit of being with the students for two years in a row, this loop allows her to hone their discussion skills and witness their tremendous growth.
“I don’t want them to stop questioning,” she says. “I don’t want them to swallow their innate curiosity.” To this end, Rabb engages her students in a year-long research project. They generate questions on chart paper around the room. “Look for questions, not answers!” Rabb tells them. They jot down burning questions, student-generated questions about relevant topics like: LGBTQIA+, Black Lives Matter, and Women’s Rights. Then they research. They discern fact from opinion. They ask: What’s a credible source? Afterward, they analyze their research in writing: notecards, outlines, thesis statements, 2-3 drafts of a 5-7 page paper, followed by an oral presentation to peers and adults, which consists of 12 slides in 2 minutes.
Every year, in every class, there are both reluctant and voracious readers, both extroverted and introverted students. Rabb tailors her lessons to fit each community of learners. The composition of the class changes but the goals for every class remain the same: increase student confidence, improve leadership skills, understand and participate in balanced discussion, and create a safe and inclusive space in which everyone is heard.
As Rabb sees it, “One of the most powerful things we can teach girls is: how to use their voices, and how to keep on speaking up long after they leave Nashoba Brooks.”