Brooke Nicolls earned her BA in English and Business Administration from California State University, Sacramento and a Masters Degree in International Multicultural Education from the University of San Francisco. Brooke is an integral part of the Area Three Writing Project at UC, Davis, where she teaches summer writing institutes for English teacher throughout northern California. She has become an instructional leader with a sterling reputation as a consistently successful writing teacher in one of the most difficult schools in northern California. Brooke is also one of a very few National Board Certified teachers in California.
Brooke began her teaching career at Rio Linda High School in Sacramento, California. After three years of teaching, Brooke lost her job due to budget reductions. She connected with a group of four other teachers at UC Davis, who came together to create a new curriculum, designed to change a school culture in low performing and high need schools.
Ultimately, each of these five teachers was hired to teach at Grant Union High School in Sacramento, CA. At the time, Grant was a school with a high gang presence and a school where few teachers wished to teach. Many of the classroom textbooks were written at the third and fourth grade levels and had been ordered because teachers had little confidence Grant students could read and/or comprehend material written at higher levels. The expectations of Grant students appeared to be exceptionally low.
The “group of five” slowly began to raise the bar at Grant High School. Over the years, they learned to lean on one another for support. They planned interactive lessons together and reinforced the expectations of one another in their respective classes. Although it took a few years, students began to respond in a positive manner.
Brooke said, “For once, students appreciated being treated as if they were capable. They appreciated the challenges we offered. They began to realize learning was more than reading a little book and completing worksheets. Student behavior began to improve as they realized we were serious, would not tolerate disrespect, and we expected their assignments to be turned in on time.
“As a group, we reinforced the idea that hard work would take them where they wished to go. Many of them had few, if any, goals for what they would do following high school and their futures were headed toward gang involvement, work in the fields and in restaurants or in landscaping or other service industries. For some, it was crime and drugs. However, more and more students were coming to school and to class on a more regular basis. That confirmed for us we were on the right track. It was clear to us they wanted to learn and it was our job to create situations where they could accomplish that. However, we first needed to teach them how to learn before we could teach them the material.
“I learned these students came to school and attended classes because they had been waiting for someone to take charge, to provide them the structure they needed and to direct and teach them. They hoped that one day someone would ignite their fire. Igniting that fire required a great deal of resourcefulness. Early in my life, I learned how to make things work. With that knowledge, combined with my experience, I found out how to direct their resourcefulness.
“In my classes, I use several different approaches. I begin each year by asking students to write me a letter, telling me about their dreams and their goals; of what they are most proud; and, to describe their expectations for their futures. I answer each of their letters and introduce myself to them, by sharing my hopes and goals for each of them and I keep their letters for the entire year to share with them at the end of the year.
“To teach writing, I make students revise everything they write several times. I use the overhead to demonstrate how I review and grade papers. I place the first drafts of papers I have personally written, with the same prompt I have given them. (I think it is important to understand if an assignment is a good one or not by doing it myself.) I then show them the second and third drafts and explain my thinking about the changes I made in each draft. Finally, I will show the final draft. The next step is to use their papers as examples. Students are amazed by the differences from the first to final draft. I give them lists of guided questions to answer while they revise their work and help them create a process for revision.
“With literature, I feel novels and short stories are vehicles to discuss and focus on the concepts and the realities of everyday life. Immediate relevance of the content to their lives engages students much more quickly. Moreover, having an interactive classroom helps imprint concepts, ideas and themes. Many times, even before we read a novel, I will create a list of statements from the book, short story or essay, about the character, morals, ethics, themes, etc., and ask, ‘is it ok to turn your back on a friend in order to save yourself?’ or ‘is a friend more important than your family?’ The purpose of this activity is to introduce them to the conflicts of the character as well as to begin the process of developing a thesis, identifying evidence in support of the thesis and, to analyze the evidence required to reach a supported conclusion.
“We also try to do a great deal of interdisciplinary collaboration. As a group of teachers, we create interactive activities to offer students the opportunity to explore their immediate world and to force them to incorporate critical thinking and writing in their environmental studies. I created a project where I give each student a disposable camera with an assignment to photograph four positive things in their immediate community and four photos illustrating something negative. From their photos, I assign students to create collages and present them to the class. They must discuss the pros and cons of each picture, while other class members are asked to share how they might view a photo differently. Together, they find and offer solutions to the identified problems and present their solutions to administrators, other teachers and, sometimes, to the school board. They learn they can have a voice and they may speak their minds. More importantly, they learn to organize their thoughts, justify their positions and realize every situation has several point of views that must be considered. Often, they are also able to create change and solve some problems on campus or in their immediate community.
“Everything I do in the classroom is done with a purpose in mind and is meant to challenge all my students, even the English Learners. All my students must write every day, make oral presentations, support their ideas clearly and be able to analyze what they read. I walk them through every process until I know they understand it completely and have internalized the concept. It is a such a pleasure to see their confidence grow as their skills improve and they become able to compare the final results to where they began.
“We have finally begun to change the culture here at Grant. It is now OK to be a student who comes to class and excels in the classroom. We expect students to work hard to earn their grades. Instruction is more rigorous. Teachers know and believe their students are here to learn and, more importantly, that they are capable of learning. Therefore, teachers are offering a better education for their students. We are finally collaborating with one another and consistently working to improve this school. And, it is working.”