Dear Lydia

I’ve been teaching ELA at my high school in Des Moines, Iowa, for nearly 10 years. I’ve had success, even earning awards and recognition for my work, but I’ve never quite felt right about what I’m doing. 

I have recently been exposed to techniques for a more student-centered education and the concepts instantly clicked. PBL, experiential, simulations ― the stories all warm my heart and reinvigorate me about this career. The problem is, most of that stuff doesn’t work when you’re responsible for teaching sentence structure, or reading classic texts, or writing essays. It feels like I finally found my calling, but I’m trapped just inches away from it. 

How can I embrace this stuff without blowing up my whole course structure?


So Close, but So Far

Dear So Close,

Let’s start with the obvious: Celebrate! You’ve done something that, sadly, many never will. You have found your passion and you’re oh-so-close to realizing it. We can’t forget to stop and appreciate things as momentous as that, or we’ll never teach with full hearts. So, stop reading and spend five minutes reflecting on how amazing it is to realize what you’ve been put on this world to do … I’ll wait… 

Nope, the whole five minutes. 

And … we’re back. 

Okay, here’s the bad news. Throw away your syllabi, burn your lesson plans, and pitch everything you’ve built in the past decade. 

Kidding. Geez, lighten up. The idea that a new method requires changing everything is the biggest myth in teaching today. If someone tells you this, turn and run. It’s actually a lot easier to inject some of those ideas that got you all fired up right into the classes you’ve already built. How, you ask? What if, rather than selecting-all and deleting, you copied and pasted your class into a new context? It’s a little something I’ve come to call “contextualizing.” Here’s how it works:

First, add a constant lens that everyone understands. I use a great set of “Foundational Principles” from Empowered, but you can use any real-world idea that doesn’t relate directly to the subject matter. You’ll use these constants to relate everything you do in class to some extensions beyond school. 

Second, although simulations are a fun way to engage students (i.e., we’re flying to space to study Hitchhiker’s Guide), consider how to make the class itself a simulation. I suggest using a simple market using currency or tokens. It’s an easy way to keep kids entertained, elevate beyond grades, and give them an incentive to participate in more meaningful ways. 

Finally, add agency. When you give kids control over their choices ― no matter how small they may be ― it’s incredibly powerful. This part is easier than it sounds. Start simple ― you have a path that everyone follows in class, just add some spurs and switchbacks. If you’re having them read and analyze a book, offer two alternatives. If you’re asking them to write an essay, let them pick a real-world interest to build it around. Choice boards are another great way to add some spice. 

Just like that, you’ve gone from your typical class to a classroom market with incentives, options, and a set of timeless ideas to relate everything to real-world lessons. Not too bad, right?

Happy teaching. Stay Empowered,


After years of teaching in the classroom, Lydia Hampton recognized her true calling was empowering teachers through curriculum design and professional development.