How can we go beyond requirements & take pressure out of learning?

Meet Erin Carlson, an English teacher at Sandusky Jr./Sr. High School who shares her journey in creating requirement-free learning opportunities for her students.
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It can be incredibly powerful for students to have opportunities to learn where there are no grades attached and they can connect to the intrinsic value of a learning experience, whether it be for the love of a good story or for the joy of making a positive impact in their home community. 

This week on the BRIGHT podcast, I had the true delight of speaking with Erin Carlson, an English teacher at Sandusky Jr./Sr. High School who shared her journey in creating requirement-free learning opportunities for her students.

It was immensely clear from our conversation that Erin is an incredible teacher who regularly goes above and beyond for her students. It is perhaps because of her ingenuity, enthusiasm, and devotion that she was honored as a 2020-21 regional teacher of the year, representing her geographic area in Michigan’s thumb.

You can listen to our conversation using the audio player above or keep scrolling to read an edited version of the transcript.

Here’s a sneak peek at our conversation:

Photo of Erin’s book bulletin board
Erin uses this bulletin board to showcase the books she’s read over the past year for her students.

Edited transcript

Nikki: Can you tell me a bit about what drew you to education in the first place and how that journey has led you to where you are today?

Erin: Since I was a young student, I always thought education was in my future. I used to play school all the time when I was a kid. My mom had a daycare when we were growing up, so I was always around younger kids. It was just something that I enjoyed: working with other kids.

So, it kind of naturally fell into place when I went to college and decided that’s what I wanted to do. It led me back to my home area. This is my 16th year teaching, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.

Nikki: One of the things that you mentioned when we were talking before is that you have a passion for community service opportunities and learning “beyond the classroom walls.” I was just wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about what this means and why it’s so important for students.

Erin: Whenever I think about my favorite experiences as a student, what I remember about my teachers back from when I was in school is the little extra things that some of my teachers did for me. Those are the memories that stand out.

I’ve had this opportunity to bring in some different opportunities for my own students, and that just brings so much more joy to me as a teacher because I can connect with them beyond the subject matter. 

The most powerful thing that I started here at Sandusky has led to this “community service overhaul,” we’ll call it. I am the National Honor Society (NHS) advisor, but NHS requires students to have a certain GPA. A 3.5.

But I don’t like that you have to be stuck to a certain grade point to do things in the community, so I found a way to advise a different organization to pull in all of those community service opportunities for any kid.

I worked with our Kiwanis Club here in Sandusky, and we started what’s called a Key Club, which is a national organization. I like being the advisor of both of those because it does give me that opportunity to present those activities to any kid. It doesn’t matter what your GPA is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a junior or senior, to whom the NHS is limited. This is open to seventh through 12th grades.

One of the most well-known events that we do five times per year here in Sandusky is our Flags of Remembrance project, which has been in place for probably five or six years now.

We’ve allowed anyone in the community to buy one flag with a plaque of a veteran that they would like to commemorate. Five times per year, we put up flags and now have over 500 full-size flags on our courthouse lawn with those plaques next to each of the flags. 

What I love most about these events is that you have such a variety of students that show up. You have the athletes, you have the kids that work in robotics, and you have the kids that, in some cases, are just looking for community service hours for their juvenile court system.

We have such a wide range of students that show up, and they work so well together because they have this common interest. A lot of times in school, you don’t find that common interest. So, that’s why I like those types of events to bring them all together. 

Some of the other things that we’ve done: We put in a walking trail here in Sandusky with 20 pieces of exercise equipment around a mile-long path. It was fully student-led. They did all of the fundraising —  over $30,000 in a year — and placed that equipment on the Diamond Trail.

And again, so many different types of students came together in such a profound way to impact the community. Looking back, a lot of these kids have since graduated, but this is something they have placed in this community of which they can be proud.

They can bring their own children back to the trail. They get to have an impact in the town in which they grew up.

We work very closely with our VFW here. All of their fish fries —  they have one every once a month, and then, during the Lenten season, they have one every Friday — our students are in there dishwashing with the veterans and just building connections with the community members.

Just because we’re in the school building doesn’t mean that we can’t network and communicate with people outside of the school building. I think that does help bridge a gap that many communities face, especially when schools go for bond issues. You know, when people in the community don’t see the school’s impact, it’s harder for them to vote for those bond issues.

We don’t have that issue here. Because our kids are in the community, and they’re making a difference. 

We will be building a park this summer. Actually, it was supposed to be built last summer. We had all of the equipment, but it got put off because of COVID. Our students will be building the park. It’s just a great opportunity for us to get involved.

They see teachers outside of the classroom, so that kind of humanizes us and lets them know that we’re all doing something together.

Nikki: Can you think of any examples off the top of your head of a particular student or group of students who benefited from this approach?

Erin: Yeah, actually. It was in 2017. One of the projects that the kids set out to do was to bring the Vietnam Memorial, the moving wall, to Sandusky. That was a huge task. This one student was incredibly shy as a sophomore when I had her first and didn’t put herself out there very much. She was okay sitting in the back and watching throughout this project.

Then, as the Flags of Remembrance projects grew, she started to take a very active role — still on the side, but in one-on-one conversations with people.

I think it completely transformed the way she sees things. She actually will be finishing up her teaching degree this year. She decided to go into teaching because of the impact that each of these service events had on her.

Now, she wants to do the same thing for others. But she just grew and took on a completely different role as she went from her sophomore year to her senior year.

The confidence that she had after that was just incredible. I would never have guessed the things that she would be doing today. But I think it’s her experiences doing the community service outside of the school that gave her the confidence to have discussions and network with other people outside of the school building.

Nikki: Would you like to see a future where community service is more deeply embedded in the curriculum itself? Is that something like that you have a passion for or an interest in seeing happen?

Erin: I would love that. I know some schools require seniors to do some type of senior project. They have to have so many hours of community service. Some schools do require that.

However, I also feel like sometimes, when you put a requirement on things like that, kids try to jump through too many hoops to say they did something, and they lose sight of the good endorphins they get from actually doing it. 

I think what we have going on here is working incredibly well. I have never had an event where we didn’t have someone show up to work it, and, as I said, it’s over 100 hours a semester of different types of volunteer work. Sometimes, I even have to shut it down because we have too many students showing up.

I sometimes think when you put a requirement on it, it takes away that feel-good thing.

I’ve found from doing these that the kids aren’t showing up for me, per se. They’re showing up for themselves. And once you get them to one event, they’re coming back all the time.

What’s powerful to me is they’re not doing it for the requirement. They’re doing it for them because they can see the impact.

Nikki: So, I explored your blog a bit, and I was struck by one of your articles in which you described performing an experiment in your classroom, where you spent a few minutes of each class period reading aloud to students. You wrote, if you allow me to quote you for a moment, “Giving up five to 10 minutes of my class for a couple of months was the most beneficial thing I could have done for those kids. They not only learned an important event in history, but they also learned how powerful a book can be if they allow themselves to bring it to life.” I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about what this experience was like for you as a teacher and what it taught you.

Erin: I always reflect a lot on the things that I remember from school. From our elementary days, we can probably all go back and think of the books that our teachers read to us out loud. We remember those books forever because of that experience.

The blog post that you were reading was about when I had some ninth and 10th-grade students. They were a more challenging class in that they didn’t like to read on their own. They needed to find some books, and they needed to bring back that love of reading.

And so I asked myself, “How can I bring back this love of reading to these kids? How can I show them that books are engaging? And how can I show them how to read?” 

I sometimes think what happens in junior-high-age children is they sometimes read books because they have to read so many books for a grade, and they just read monotone to themselves. They forget to put that emotion back into the words. I think a read-aloud in high school is just as important as a read-aloud in elementary to bring back that love of reading and to show the kids how to read with emotion and bring back that story.

Yes, books are engaging, they are fun, but I need to show you how to read them again. 

I have found that the kids love nonfiction, as long as it’s told in a story form. They want to feel connected to the story. They always ask, “Is this true?” As soon as you tell them yes, it’s true. They’re so much more engaged. A couple of the books that I’ve read aloud that I still do today. I read aloud every day.

Some of the most powerful ones have been Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America — that was the one that inspired the blog post. I read this before COVID-19 to a group of students, and then I read it again this year to my seventh graders. Tying the COVID-19 component to the Typhoid Mary story was very interesting and led to some incredible discussions.

Telling the stories through the read-aloud provided so many other opportunities for discussion that I would have never had with these kids. 

What’s important to note, too, these read-alouds had zero assignments tied to them. The students were just listening to listen and to be engaged, and I think that took away some of the pressure that kids sometimes feel. Usually, when you’re reading a book together, they know there will be a test or quiz, or they have to write something about it. This just took that away.

I had so many students that would have usually just shut down completely, but then, instead, when we’d start a new book out loud, it ended up leading to some of the most powerful discussions because that pressure was gone. 

Another book that we’ve read was called Never Fall Down. It’s about the Khmer Rouge and the stories that came out from that in the 1970s. These are events in history of which most of the kids had never even heard. Personally, I hadn’t either.

We’d never gotten to that within our social studies curriculum most of the time. Knowing that something almost worse than the Holocaust happened after the Holocaust and listening to those stories, the opportunities for discussion and engagement were beyond anything I could have ever imagined. 

I try to do many different types of genres, but nonfiction is definitely the most powerful with the kids. We just read the book Normal, which is by the same author as Wonder. A lot of people have heard of Wonder, but this is a true story. Normal is the actual true story of the child that inspired her to write Wonder.

I could go on and on about the different types of books that I read aloud, but it is just so powerful and only takes five to 10 minutes a day. In most cases, kids are asking me to continue, saying, “Please just keep reading. We can’t stop there.”

It helps to bring back that love of reading that I find that many junior high kids lose. After I started doing the read-alouds, I created an online class offered in Sandusky called “Great Books.” A lot of kids had come to me and said, “You know, I just wish I had more time to read.” After taking my class, they’d say, “I wish I could read more of these books.”

And so, I created that class, and it’s just an hour within the day where students can read, reflect, and discuss it online. I had 36 students take the course last year, so that’s a class that’s growing. I get tons of feedback from those kids as they just need the time to read.

Nikki: I can almost see a connection to what you were saying about community service. You said if you make it a requirement that takes away half of the joy of it. It sounds like that’s also kind of what you’re doing with the read-alouds. Because you’re not making it an assignment, you’re just making it something to do for the love of it or its intrinsic value. That’s the connection I see between the two activities. I’m just curious what you think about that.

Erin: I think that is exactly what it is. Kids feel so much pressure. When you can give them something that they can enjoy and just grab onto and do for them instead of for a grade or some type of assignment, I think that’s refreshing to them.

At the end of every year, I do a personal growth literature circle with my juniors that takes reading outside of the standard curriculum that you would expect in an English classroom.

I’ve found that instead of reading a classic at the end of the year, which most kids would expect to do in an 11th-grade English class, I ask them, “What types of books are you going to pick up as an adult? Are you going to pick up a classic? Or are you going to pick up something that maybe that will help you within your career or your family life or something that will help you grow as an individual?”

I have about 20 to 25 different personal growth books and three to four copies of each one. I let the kids pick out which personal growth book they want to read and put them into literature circles.

Often, this is a type of book that they’ve never read before. I get such great feedback after we’re done with this activity because they find value in it, and it just gives them a purpose. They say, “Oh, well, this is something I could use later in life.”

They can find that connection. I try to think outside the box to give them those opportunities to find ways that reading can enhance their lives. I think that’s my job as an English teacher, and those examples are ways that I can bring that to them. 

One other thing that we’ve done in my English class is project-based learning. That’s been pretty powerful and has had an impact on our school in general. About three years ago, I had a group of juniors, a very small class, who wanted to do something different. They’re like, “Let’s do something where we can have an impact.” So, I said, “Alright, well, let’s write down some ideas. Let’s see what we can come up with.”  

Together, we created what we call the “Giving Closet” here at the school. The back closet in my classroom is full of food products and personal hygiene products, like shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent, facewash, towels, blankets, clothing, and everything that a student might need. Not just in school, but mostly at home.

They came up with a system. They did all of the marketing for it. They did the press releases, tapes, recorded videos, and put them out to the school.

The “Giving Closet” still exists today, and we’ve had many students utilize it on a regular basis because of that project-based learning activity. None of our students have to worry about anything. I have students that will come to me most of the time through email.

Because again, it’s about taking away that pressure from the kids. It’s hard for them to come and ask for help. They know it’s there. I email regularly and say, “Remember, we have these things. If you need them, email me and let me know.”

Often, I just drop it in their locker during my conference hour, so there’s no interaction whatsoever. It’s just there for them. It’s been four years now. Sometimes, kids will email me and say, “My shoes are falling apart. Can I please get some new shoes?” Then, I can run up to Walmart on my conference hour, get new shoes, and have them for them by the end of the day. 

So, those are some activities that have had a really big impact on the kids. And it’s had such a big impact on me, too, by being able to do that for the kids. That’s what this is all about. These are things that I can’t do just with a regular curriculum.

It’s all about just making it more. That’s what makes this job fun.

Nikki: I wonder, would you tell me a little bit more about what project-based learning looks like in an English classroom? I’ve talked to a few people about project-based learning on the podcast, but I’m not sure I’ve spoken with an English teacher. How does that connect with the English curriculum?

Erin: So again, with the English curriculum, it’s really easy to make anything work because we have speaking, listening, and writing, all of those skills kind of put together. For my students, I made it a lot about writing, but there’s speaking and listening as well.

For example, a group of kids were our PR team, so they had to come up with the press releases and type up all of the posters and things that we hung around the school to let the kids know that the “Giving Closet” existed. 

Another team worked on the recording,  which tied into the speaking and listening standards. But the biggest ones are any type of writing activity that gets them outside of the typical five-paragraph essay.

We did research as well into the kinds of items that our students here might need. We also had to do some fundraising efforts, so the kids wrote letters to different sponsors.

Again, every single type of project can involve some kind of writing and speaking, so I think the English classroom is a great classroom to incorporate project-based learning. 

Nikki: What are three books that have resonated with you that you’d recommend?

Erin: Okay, so this is tough. I’ll start with this because this has been pretty profound for me. I read a lot of books, and I try to read a lot of young adult books because I like to make recommendations to the kids.

In the back of my classroom, I showcase all of the books I’ve read this year. I take pictures of them and hang them up, which is another great talking point with the kids.

They can see as I add new books up there, and they’re like, “Oh, what was that about?” I challenged myself this year to pick up a graphic novel and read it. I don’t know what it was about them, but I just had these, I guess, preconceived notions about what a graphic novel was. But I had never read one before. 

Now, if I have to pick a genre that I’m going to go to the library to look for right now, it’s a graphic novel, specifically memoirs or nonfiction stories within the graphic novel realm. I have learned so much about history and different ethnicities and races that I had never experienced before in my life.

With graphic novels, I can read one in a couple of hours, take so much from it, and then start a different one. I found this incredible love for them because of how much I can learn in a very short amount of time. 

This is My America was a young adult book that I read this year that had the biggest impact on me. I don’t know if I wouldn’t call it my favorite book, but I like to think of books as what taught me the most and gave me the best perspective. That book, along with Dear Justyce, had the biggest impact.

Living in a rural community, I am sheltered, and I know our students here are sheltered. Reading books like those two, in particular, just opened my eyes to so much that I’ve never experienced or have been truly able to understand. 

That’s the message that I try to give my kids: You are going out into a very big world that you probably are not prepared for living in a small rural community.

This is an opportunity for you to read these different types of novels where the character does not look like you to build empathy and understanding and know what other people are going through in this world. 

Last year, I teamed up with a teacher in Flint, Michigan. She’s a colleague that I had worked with before. We started a book club where any student could join from our schools.

We met on Zoom a couple of times and talked about a particular book that we had picked. Listening to different perspectives from her students and my students was just incredibly powerful.

It’s using books to bridge the gap between the kids and the experiences that they’ve had. That’s what’s been most powerful and meaningful for me about the types of books that I choose to read.

Nikki: Tell me about your favorite teacher and why they were your favorite.

Erin: I don’t know if I have one. I think I have a few. Just because of the different experiences I’ve had, I have a favorite elementary teacher and a favorite high school teacher just because the experiences are so different. But it all comes back to who did the extra things with me. Those are the things that I remember.

This one particular teacher in elementary school did plays with us all the time. We were able to put on productions in our classroom. That was something that was different from what the other classrooms were doing. 

In high school, it’s a similar idea. There were three in particular that stand out to me, all in different subject areas, too. I think of a science teacher, an English teacher, and a social studies teacher that stand out to me.

They made things. . . I wouldn’t say fun, but it was just more. They were personable with me, and you could tell that they cared. They had empathy for all students and provided different experiences that you wouldn’t think of doing in a typical classroom. 

For instance, in the science classroom, we were always building things and doing different projects that took us outside of the textbook. My social studies teacher took a group of students to meet John McCain when he came to Michigan. Just things like that. My English teacher was also our drama teacher, so I got to be in the plays and productions.

It’s just the extra things that they did to make class memorable and show that they cared.

Nikki: What is your vision for student learning? I know this is a big question, but if it were up to you, what would you want to see for every student? What is at the heart of your vision?

Erin: I would say it’s about having more flexibility and providing different opportunities for every type of learner. Sometimes in education, I feel like it’s boxed in, and we have so many checkboxes to complete. I don’t know that this truly provides the best opportunities for every single kid. So, I think flexibility within learning and providing those different opportunities for every kid would be huge. 

We saw some of that this year with virtual learning. At the end of the year, I had 51 virtual students and about 150 in-person. You could tell which kids were thriving in the virtual environment. They were doing incredibly well, and I would love to continue to offer those opportunities for those kids and provide those different experiences for different kids.

We all learn differently. In public education, part of our goal should be to meet those different learners in different ways.

Nikki: What words of advice or encouragement would you offer to educators right now?

Erin: Don’t be afraid to try new things. Try to think outside of the box. These kids that we’re teaching today are very different from the kids that we taught 15 years ago. Just continue learning and growing with them. We’re all human. We all make mistakes, and we all have to learn as we grow. So, don’t try to be perfect in any way, shape, or form, especially within this profession. 

Admit when you’re wrong and that we’re learning with them. As we found a lot with technology during COVID, kids often know more about technology than adults. We have to work with them.

I don’t think this is a profession where we can say that we are always the experts and you must always learn from us. This is a mutual experience, and we have to continue learning and growing with our students as we face whatever challenge comes our way next. We can’t be afraid of these challenges. We just have to make the most of everything.

Related resources

Books mentioned by Erin

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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