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Students Find Their Voices In Honors English
Dawn Chmura, Director of Communications

Helping students find their voice is Alysia LaBonte-Campbell's primary goal in her Honors English class. Once they find it, she wants them to share it, to share their thoughts and feelings about the world, themselves, and their experiences. Because if they know they have a voice, they can look at problems in the world and put their voice toward them.

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Walk into Alysia LaBonte-Campbell's Honors English class on any given day, and you might not believe you're in an English class. While it is readily apparent that they are studying literature, as the book they are reading is in the hands of some students, this is no sedate class with students sitting behind desks and the teacher lecturing or posing questions at the front of the class. No, students in this class take charge of the discussion, actively (and respectfully) sharing their views and debating their opinions.

Early in the spring term, the class read New York Times Best Seller The Other Wes Moore One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. Students walked around the room in small groups until they reached a station with a poster board. Upon each poster board was a question, quote, or topic. In small groups, students actively discussed and debated before they wrote on the poster board. After a certain amount of time, Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell asked the students to rotate to the next board. These students were comfortable sharing their thoughts, debating their ideas, and agreeing and disagreeing with one another.

This exercise is one of the many ways Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell, quite literally, gets her students to think on their feet. At times the class can look more like a drama or debate class than a typical English class, but the process helps students learn how to articulate their thoughts and feelings while also listening and respecting the viewpoints of others—skills that will serve them well in secondary school.

According to LaBonte-Campbell, the keys to success are curiosity and an eagerness to learn. "They bring an inquiry-based approach to class," she said. "Of course, they are very strong writers. They are strong readers. That's important when reading challenging books, but I think, all those things aside, there's that need to ask questions and dig into the story. And then they want to listen to what others have to say and bounce ideas off of one another, agree and disagree, and then revamp their ideas. There's a constant dynamic exchange between them all, and it's really cool when they applaud each other when a new discovery happens."

Not the Typical Ninth-Grade English Class

Students in Rectory's honors-level classes are placed based on their past academic performance. "These are students who seek and are excited about the challenge," Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell said.

Early in the year, LaBonte-Campbell introduces a round table discussion. The goal is for students to recognize that they are taking the front seat in the conversation about the book. "I start with a topic that has no basis in a story," she explains, "to see how they jive off each other. And from day one, I don't participate because I want to hear their thoughts."

She monitors the class by creating a web diagram. "I put all their names in a circle on a sheet of paper and map the discussion. It is a visual way to ensure that students recognize if they are contributing effectively, too much, or too little to a discussion. This technique allows me to know if there's an imbalance by seeing if some lines aren't reaching certain people the way that they should.

"If there is an imbalance on the web, we ask questions like, What did we do as a class that may have made it challenging for everybody to participate? What can we do to encourage everyone to feel like they have a voice and can find the space to talk? And so it turns into the person who talks a lot needs to recognize that they're very comfortable speaking and that sometimes their voice doesn't have to be heard as often because they will get their ideas out there. But somebody who takes a little bit more time to process ideas and formulate their thoughts has the space to do that and still participate in the discussion."

"We read books that are much deeper than I've read before," said Shawn W. '22. "The Kite Runner, for example, was a book like I've never read before. Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell lets us talk and makes sure all of our voices are heard. We all have different perspectives based on our backgrounds, so the conversations are very interesting."

The most significant difference in the honors class is that this group determines what they talk about and how they will discuss it. This year, the class read many titles, including Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini.

"They are very much in charge of their experience," LaBonte-Campbell said. "I give them the text and say, 'Okay, let's focus on narration, character, and author's craft,' and then they run with it. We focus on a few overarching themes throughout the term like, Is a specific character a good or bad person? and Why do good people do bad things? They analyze the text together, pull it apart, and discover the story's nuances and characters on their own. This class is much more independent, critical, and student-centered, which is the expectation in secondary school and college."

And it's more than just about students finding their voices; it's equally important for them to listen to and understand the other voices around them. "In another class, I'll ask them, 'Do we think this character is a good person?' I'll have them do a quick writing exercise, then talk to each other and throw the ideas on the board. Then we'll look for the evidence.

"With the honors class, I can look at them and ask, 'Is Amir a good person?' I'll tell half of the group they have to say that he is not, and the other half has to say he is, and they have to find their proof, and then they'll debate. So in real-time, they have to figure out their argument and present it. And then they have to hear the other side, and they have to revamp their opinions. A crucial skill of debating is listening to the other side. With encouragement and guidance, they learn to understand that there are multiple perspectives, and they must see them all to form an educated opinion."

"I like the conversations we have in class," said Lois K. '22. "Compared with other classes, we talk more and debate a lot. The people in the class articulate their thoughts and feelings very well. It's nice having people in the class who are passionate and dedicated to learning. Differing opinions broaden our worldview. Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell has helped us get our point across well and taught us how to disagree respectfully. It makes me better prepared for secondary school because I'll feel more comfortable getting my point across whether I agree or disagree with what someone else is saying."

Seeing Themselves in the Text

Rectory is a very diverse community. Students from around the world live and learn together, sharing their cultures, languages, and beliefs. They learn at an early age to respect differences in others. "I think that our English department, in general, is pretty great about making sure to find novels that are capturing various perspectives," said Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell. "It is our responsibility to put books in students' hands that show perspectives, even if they're uncomfortable for somebody.

"We recently read an article in the honors class about books being windows, mirrors, or sliding glass doors," LaBonte-Campbell said. "It can be a window where we can look into somebody's life and see what that would be like. It can be a sliding glass door that we can imagine stepping into and feeling like we are a part of a magical world or in a different culture. And then they can also be mirrors. We need kids to be able to see themselves in the books we are reading. I'm so proud of our English department for having a group of teachers who want to make sure that our students see themselves in the works and allow them to share their experiences with the other group members. I try to get different perspectives, genders, cultures, sexual orientations, and religions. It will never be perfect, but I think the point is to keep trying because new books are always coming out."

Outcomes

Along their journey in Rectory's Honors English class, students become aware that their voice matters in a discussion. They know how to be heard and how to formulate their opinions with evidence. They know how to talk about specific passages and know that their reactions and reflections are important. "That's the biggest thing that I want," said Mrs. LaBonte-Campbell, "not just in the honors class, but for all of the students to understand that their reactions are the important part, not what a teacher has to say."

"The members of the honors class know how to annotate and reflect in a way that will help them in the discussion. In secondary school, they'll be expected to walk into a round table discussion, sit with their teacher and peers, and share their thoughts. Writing-wise, they are learning how to formulate arguments, and that's the biggest thing. And not just about the characters themselves, but about big picture ideas."

"They're leaving Rectory feeling like their voice is important, their voice is heard. They know how to share their voice and share confidently and proudly. Because if they know they have a voice, they can look at problems in the world and put their voice toward them. I think that's step one, and that's an important focus at a school like Rectory."

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