National Writing Project

Book Review: Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success

By: Kathleen Godfrey
Date: February 9, 2011

Summary: Bruce Penniman, the former director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, has written a book that is a treasure trove of ideas for teachers committed to creating unscripted curriculum that acknowledges them as thoughtful, creative professionals.


At a time when administrators see scripted curriculum as the salvation of education, Bruce Penniman's Building the English Classroom offers a much-needed corrective to one-size-fits-all approaches: well-trained, intelligent teachers who design curriculum to address the needs of their students.

Penniman, who was the 1999 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, inspires teachers to rethink how they structure their classes and consider new ways of assuring that students learn.

In the book's first section, he models a process that new teachers often find difficult: creating curriculum units that build toward student mastery of strategies and knowledge. After identifying his teaching goals, Penniman maps out reading and writing pieces of the curriculum and creates syllabi to help students understand the "big picture" of each unit and their learning responsibilities.

At key points in every chapter, Penniman poses questions to readers to help them examine their own instructional practices. This element of his text is particularly important for encouraging teachers to consider their perspectives and that of students when redesigning their curriculum.

Regarding assessment, Penniman describes a classroom in which students write a great deal, gather their work in a writing folder, reflect, select which pieces to include in a portfolio, and polish their work. He discusses the challenges in such assessment systems as well as his strategies for managing any difficulties.

For example, he describes the evolution of his portfolio process that went from being tightly structured by the teacher to allowing for more trust in students' choices and respect for their abilities to reflect. The result was more student engagement and less teacher anxiety.

Day-to-Day Decisions

"Raising the Structure" focuses on the decisions teachers make on a day-to-day basis, anchoring this discussion in the theoretical knowledge that has helped us better understand how writing happens.

Penniman presents a variety of brainstorming/invention and peer review activities that have been successful with his students. Moreover, he models the feedback he gives by sharing a sample draft of a student essay along with his questions and suggestions.

One of the techniques for teacher response that I found especially useful was the idea of the "partial draft." Penniman asks his students to write one page of their essay and responds to it, allowing him to give feedback on the paper's direction early in the drafting stage. He asserts that teachers who employ this technique are more able to guide students' organization and development.

Teachers can be trusted to build their own curriculum.

Recently, I tried out this suggestion by responding to the first page of my students' research papers. I was able to move quite quickly through the drafts, giving advice to students that I believe will help them create a stronger final draft.

The book also includes practical advice on bringing together technology, writing, and thinking in the classroom. Penniman's goals for teaching with technology are:

  • Use non-print texts that are thematically connected to literature.
  • Help students develop critical thinking to assess media messages and media production techniques.
  • Teach students how to engage in and use appropriate online research.
  • Create assignments that allow students to learn the skills necessary to effectively design their own media projects.

Access, Diversity, Inclusion

The last section of the book, "Opening the Door," takes on issues of access and diversity. Penniman describes the importance of creating culturally responsive curriculum—but he warns against generalizing one person's experience as representative of all people of a particular ethnic group.

During his career as an English teacher, Penniman has pushed himself to include new texts that he feels his students will respond to and learn from. Wisely, he also addresses the difficulties of talking about issues related to ethnic difference and diversity, giving specifics, for instance, about how to prepare students to encounter racist language and ideas in texts like Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Finally, Penniman speaks directly to a theme that is repeated throughout the book: creating an inclusive classroom that embraces difference in ethnicity, academic ability, and language background. (I'm especially intrigued by the discussion of a school that has eliminated tracking.) Penniman makes a compelling case that teachers can meet the needs of students with diverse abilities in one class—and that all students can thrive in such classes.

"My department's decision to combine all academic levels into heterogeneous groups . . . has profoundly altered my perception of my students' abilities and needs," he writes. "No longer blinded by stereotypical labels such as 'basic' and 'advanced,' I have learned to recognize the diversity that was always there, even in so-called homogeneous classes. Everyone has a unique story, and anyone can require special attention."

This inclusive and caring attitude toward students permeates the book. Building the English Classroom is a model of teacher reflection, study, and revisioning class content—all of which the Writing Project promotes. Moreover, the text illustrates that teachers can be trusted to create thoughtful, effective curriculum to fit the needs of their students.

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