Podcast: Helping Students Heal Through Writing with Briana Morales in IL on Teachers in America

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Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Today we are joined by 2024 Illinois State Teacher of the Year Briana Morales. As a high school English teacher at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis, Briana empowers her students through storytelling, creating a healing-centered space where they feel seen and heard. In this episode, Briana discusses how writing has helped her students transform pain into purpose and power. Plus she shares writing activities to engage students in identity work and how to start a classroom dignity closet to help students in need.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

Content Warning: Please note that this episode mentions examples of trauma, gun violence, and attempted suicide.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a podcast from HMH, where we connect with educators across the country to bring you teaching tips and inspiration. I’m your host, Noelle Morris.

Today we are exploring the power of poetry with 2024 Illinois State Teach of the Year, Briana Morales. 

Briana teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. Throughout her career, she has encouraged her students to turn their pain into power through poetry and writing.

In this episode, Briana will share how she uses healing-centered engagement and storytelling to help students process trauma and reveal their purpose. Now, let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Briana Morales, who is Illinois’s Teacher of the Year. You might think that that is the most amazing thing, but I have done some reading and I cannot wait to start this conversation, Briana, because you just have a teacher life that is very inspiring. So, welcome to Teachers in America. Briana, I would love for you just to start off with telling us a little bit about the environment that you teach in. 

Briana Morales: Yeah, nice to be here with you today. I’m proud to serve students at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, which is the City of Champions. I teach eleventh and twelfth grade English to students who have been placed in an alternative setting to better meet their needs in ways that a traditional educational setting was not prepared to do.

My students are dreamers, doers, world changers, young parents, poets, artists, and so many more. But most importantly, the identity that I like to reflect on them, is that they are just young people with a deep desire to make their dreams come true against all odds, and to help other people see the truth about them and their community, which is full of beauty and resilience.

Briana is the second Illinois State Teacher of the Year who has represented an alternative school. 


Noelle: And so what drew you to alternative education? 

Briana: I’m actually a career educator in alternative ed and that’s pretty significant to my award as Illinois Teacher of the Year, because in all 70 years of Illinois State Teacher of the Year history, there’s only ever been one teacher of the year who represented an alternative school before me.

I’ve taught all years of my career in the same alternative high school that I work in now, besides my first year of teaching. I think that I’m drawn to teaching in this particular learning environment because alternative schools really speak to this idea of the underdog in all of us.

The young person who everyone doubted, the adversities that every person that we know has overcome on our individual pathways to greatness, and the unique drive that it really takes to maintain first, the belief in yourself. But second, to remember who you are when sometimes it feels like everyone else has written you off and cast you aside.

And I really believe, just from conversations with my students, that youth in general, they’re an unprotected class of citizens. Many of them believe that there are no adults who really care what they have to say or that no one really takes a genuine interest in their lives.

But in our alternative school, we get to show up every single day and remind young people that they do matter. That they have a story to tell and to help uncover those remarkable powers that lie within them to tell those unique stories. I’m drawn to, young people in that space particularly, because . . . I feel like many teachers have a catalyst story. I was one of those young people at a point in my own life. It’s my mission to help change the narrative of what these spaces are and the potential of what they could be in the lives of young people who need them the most.

Noelle: Well, kudos round of applause for the state of Illinois. I started my career in alternative education, teaching middle school. So, I love how much more recognition has happened over the last 30 years for teachers in alternative spaces and opening up that students should have alternative ways of getting to that end goal of a high school diploma and their future. What within your classroom community, your school community, do you see impacts your students the most?

Briana: East St. Louis, a little history lesson, was once described by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the most distressed small city in America. And that’s for several reasons, thinking about the socioeconomic shifts that have happened over time in the city, but particularly generational poverty in the city of East St. Louis as it currently stands is almost two and a half times the national average. About one in every three students in our school district can come from a family that earns less than $15,000 a year. So, in addition to various stressors and traumas in the community that have a compounding effect on students’ lives outside of school, such as gun violence at higher rates than other communities and substance abuse, both by students and within their families, we know what brain research tells us about those experiences and toxic stress and trauma. That those experiences can shrink and deteriorate our DNA. And so, from a physiological sense, we are quite literally never the same as we were once before significant life experiences have happened to us, such as the ones that my students experience in the community. However, research has also shown very promising impacts of the power of relationships with caring adults in regrowing parts of our DNA that have eroded, which proves to us that one dedicated person can change the trajectory of a child’s life despite these circumstances that might be out of their control. And I truly believe that that is the work that we get to do in our city, and also the work of educators across the world, by loving young people to life, despite so many of these unique lived experiences that they’re navigating. 

Noelle: What do you begin to do the moment students enter your classroom to establish that, " I recognize trauma, I recognize experiences, but we’re not going to necessarily let that define us. We’re going to work through it." How do you get students to understand your classroom environment, the environment at that school is going to be different than anything they’ve ever experienced?

Briana: That is a great question because we are uniquely positioned to do that at our school, specifically because we’re a competency-based education pilot school program with the Illinois State Board of Education. In that pilot, we’re able to engage students in this dynamic model of new ways of teaching, learning, and assessment that actually allow us to meet our students where they are and take them closer to where they need to be in ways that traditional pathways of learning, both in their home schools and in education in general, kind of had limitations of our students’ potential and didn’t really meet them how they needed to.

In our school, we equip students with personalized individual pathways to learning where our students are met at their developmental level, and we can scaffold them to where they need to be. Because we focus on mastery of a set number of competencies in every single area that’s kind of aligned to a graduate profile of who we want them to become in the world once they graduate from high school, rather than the focus of traditional education, which oftentimes is just centered around seat time and completion of work.

A majority of the juniors and seniors that I teach in my class, they might sometimes come into school reading between a third- and fifth-grade level. But in our environment, they’re so eager to improve their skills because they have this newfound confidence to take academic risks. They feel like they have been met with supportive adults who believe in the potential that they have in this new model of learning.

We equip them with project-based learning and inquiry skills, to really dig deeper into who they might want to be in the world. I think that this model has truly been a game-changer for students who maybe their academic performance or attendance in school was a barrier to their success in a previous environment. But in our school, they can see themselves as confident, with a renewed sense of confidence, because they know what their potential can be and that there is a community of adults who are ready to take them there. 

Noelle: Is there a go-to teaching strategy or two teaching strategies that you begin in the very first week or two weeks of school that continue to build that you could share with listeners that might pique their interest to try it in their classrooms?

Briana: Yeah. As an English teacher, I think that we have a huge opportunity to engage students in identity work. Trying to understand what is our place in the world because we know all of our students, human beings in general, we want to be someone and young people, depending on where they’re at in their developmental journey, they’re just not sure maybe who that person is yet.

In English class, specifically with my students, and in addition with the things that they might be navigating at the time, I took that as a unique opportunity to engage them in trying to really unpack their identities in community through healing narratives in my English class.

Understanding that a lot of these students may have gone through similar events in the community, but also completely different ones. The power of one person’s story unlocking the potential for other youth to feel confident, to feel comfortable, to take those courageous risks in sharing vulnerably about themselves to create that shared sense of identity. This idea that we can all come from various lived experiences, various backgrounds, as diverse as we might be. But there are different threads that tie us together that do create that sense of community despite how different we might be. And so my students and I, over the years we have written poetry of witness, which catalogs as documents that we can look back at things that we’ve experienced in our own lives, how we can communicate those as a way to process that event.

Also sharing our story with other people and then putting those together in books. Every single year my students and I create a chat book of sorts of their stories. I think that it’s interesting because then students that come after them have something to look back at of people who are in this same room, in this same community that I am right now. What were their similar understandings or where are their points of convergence where I can learn from someone else’s story? 

Noelle: For students who may have come so guarded and protective, how do you support them getting their feelings onto a page? I mean, is the page the last place to put your words? Is it more about just beginning to understand and find the words that describe your experiences and what you’ve witnessed? 

Briana: Yeah, I think this kind of approach to writing as a means of healing for my students has taken shape over the course of my career. It’s definitely not something that I started out doing in my first year of teaching and I think that it’s definitely something that gets better over time. Your craft of helping students is to harness the power of their story and getting them to buy into the belief that I am somebody with a story, with a dream, with a purpose. And that by sharing that with other people I can help other people to unlock those healing pathways as well. So, I present a framework for healing narratives and also for wounded body narratives for my students in my class. This idea that there’s been something that’s happened to all of us in our life, regardless of where we come from, that we’ve reckoned with at some time. Or maybe we still are reckoning with. English teachers, we love to write a good personal narrative at the beginning of a school year. But oftentimes, these personal narratives can lack that human aspect because what we’re really asking students to do is to think about this really significant event that you’ve been through in your life and what did you learn from it? What did it teach you? How did it make you a better person? For some students, and for us as adults even, there are things that we experience in our lives that didn’t teach us anything. It just brought a lot of pain. This idea is how we can walk with students through that pain. You are so much more than what happened to you, but telling your story can still help us to reclaim that power of those events that were more than what happened to us. We’re more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done. By just communicating that story in a way that makes sense to us, we’re taking back that power to turn our pain into power and that can reveal our purpose.

We do different types of exposure to various narratives. I actually use Writing as a [Way]of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. In it, she explains narratives in three different types: chaos narrative, restitution narrative, and quest narrative. As English teachers, we love a good quest narrative. This idea that [something] astronomical could happen to me in my life, and I can still live a great life after it, after I’ve learned what it meant to me. But for so many people, when these huge, significant, lived experiences happen to them, they’re living in a chaos narrative, and they just need a supportive adult who is there to help them, to make the space, and has the time to process it with them in real time. It might not be an essay, it might not be a poem at first, it might just be a stream of consciousness that I need to get out. But knowing that someone in my life cares about what’s going on and what I have to say, that can also provide healing elements for kids too. 

Noelle: Now, is healing-centered engagement, is that an approach across the school?

Briana: I think that we are definitely a trauma-informed care school. I think that trauma-informed education and trauma-informed pedagogy schools have definitely been utilizing that as a way to think about the ways in which we can provide students with the resources that they need in the aftermath of significant events that they’re experiencing. For me, in my own specific classroom, I wanted to go a step further than that because I believe that our students are more than what’s happened to them and to try to be more proactive about the healing that needs to be done in the aftermath of those events of toxic stress and trauma. I started utilizing healing-centered engagement in 2021, which actually is a framework that was coined by Dr. Shawn Ginwright. And it’s an asset-based extension of trauma-informed care. According to Dr. Ginwright, it’s a holistic approach that involves culture, civic action, and collective healing. Because it views trauma, not only as just an individual isolated experience that might happen to one person, but it actually highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively in community.

The term healing-centered engagement really expands how we think about responses to trauma and can offer a more holistic approach to fostering wellbeing. What I really like about the approach and what I utilize most in my classroom are the principles of healing-centered engagement, which kind of come out in an acronym that’s read as CARMA.

So (C) culture, (A) agency, (R) relationships, (M) meaning, and (A) aspiration. Through that framework we can move towards a lens of what is right with you, rather than what’s just wrong with you, that trauma-informed care can so often lend itself to. Young people then can see themselves as agents in the creation, or re-creation, of their own identities rather than just victims of their own experience and what’s happened to them and who do they want to be after those things have happened. 

Briana uses healing-centered engagement to help students process trauma and foster well-being. 


Noelle Morris: Now, do you write yourself? And does this passion stem from . . . I know you alluded a little bit to a personal experience, do you mind sharing anything that might’ve inspired you to get to this passion? 

Briana Morales: Yeah. I think that it is so important for educators to write alongside their students and to never ask our students to do anything that we wouldn’t do also, because they need to see us humanize in that aspect as well if we’re asking them to be that vulnerable.  I write alongside my students whenever we journal in class, but also it’s a concept that I utilize in my own personal life outside of the classroom. 

Writing as healing was actually a concept that was introduced to me by my own seventh grade English teacher, Jennifer Steinke. Middle school, as we know, it is just such a tumultuous and challenging time for all 12- and 13-year-olds, but particularly for me, a young person whose family was experiencing these drastic changes. Life just felt like it was moving at super speed and amidst the only trauma that I had experienced as a kid, I really felt invisible and like no one was stopping to ask me how I felt about it. Because of that, the emotions became too much to bear. And in the fall of my seventh-grade year, I attempted suicide. Mrs. Steinke, when I returned back to school, she was the one who introduced me to expressive writing that fall as a way to process that lifetime of grief and hurt. It was actually because of her that I wrote my very first poetry book in her English class, and I never looked back after that. Through a single act of care, one caring educator really opened that pathway to healing for me. It showed me that my story did matter and that poetry was a way that I could share it, which is now what I get to do with my own students later on in life, to turn our pain into power. Like I said, we journal every single day at the beginning of class, and sometimes the prompts are whimsical and silly. They might be joyful. Ask us to remember really wholesome parts of our life that can bring us peace. And sometimes we also offer students the opportunity to channel those bigger feelings that might have been bottled up over the lifetime and just need to be released, just like they did for me.

Whenever I give them the prompts to write from, they can just choose, or they can choose not to, and write about something completely different. But a prompt that has found its way back into my life recently, and that I find the most magical, is ask students to dream and rewrite a lived experience from any point in their life.

The question is, which generational tale or family story do you wish had a different ending, and what would it look like? So, this idea of like futurism, right? Dreaming of a world that does not even exist, can ground us and reaffirm our power as well as heal us just by the thought of a different ending that we can’t control in the present moment.

I was named Illinois Teacher of the Year in April of 2023, and just three months after that, almost three months to the day of being named Teacher of the Year, my father unexpectedly passed away at the age of 46. So I was right in the height of my professional career, but also at the lowest moment of my personal life after losing someone who I felt knew me better than anyone else.

What’s worse is that we actually stopped talking about two years before my dad’s passing. That’s something that I hold a lot of regret and grief over even now, and that’s something that I can’t change, right? He died unexpectedly without any medical reason, and we never got to reconcile the way that I hoped for when he was alive.

I actually used that prompt recently, on what was going to be my dad’s 47th birthday. I decided to journal in response to if my dad was still here, even though he is gone, right? If he still was here and I had one more chance, what would I say? A few months after his passing, I also learned that I’m pregnant with my first biological child that my dad will never get to meet.

And so that adds another layer to the journal. Which milestones do I wish he could be here to celebrate with my son? What advice would I ask him for? I can’t change that he is gone, nor can I replace that grandparent for my son. But just dreaming about another world where things would be different can heal me in the present moment, even though it’s out of my hands. And just by rewriting that story, I can regain a sense of power and peace, which is what I show my students. Journaling alongside the kids, I think, has strengthened our relationship and humanized all parts of life for us together. The good, the bad, and everything in between. 

Briana also engages in journal writing. She says, "its important for educators to write alongside their students and to never ask our students to do anything that we wouldn’t do also, because they need to see us humanize in that aspect as well if we’re asking them to be that vulnerable."


Noelle: I'm sitting here like. Processing all of this really hoping our listeners are as tuned in as I am because my father died at age 49. I, too, often ask like, "what would he say about me as a mom, not just as a teacher, as a career woman, but what would he see in my daughter and how would he have been as a grandfather?"

So, you find those moments and I think as a teacher, just as you have, you can find those moments to be vulnerable in front of your students and allow them to see that human side of you. Do you have students that come back to you, Briana, like a year, two years, even after they maybe are starting their first job, that come back to you and want to be in another part of your writing projects? 

Briana: Yeah. I have a lot of student stories just like that, and I think it’s beautiful because I think that poetry can follow us no matter what our life looks like. 

I think often kids might have this deficit view of English language arts because they’re like, I’m never going to be a writer in my life. I’m not going to be a teacher. This doesn’t matter. Well, you can write poetry and you can tell your story in any way no matter who you are or who you become in the world. You don’t have to be a teacher or a writer to do that. 

So many of my students, that’s actually what’s bonded us together even after graduation. So many kids who would love to say for the two years that I’m their teacher, because I teach them back-to-back actually for junior year English, they’ll always say, "I never have anything to say. I don’t have a story. There’s nothing cool for me to write about." Then graduation will come and go, and then all of a sudden I’ll get Facebook messages, which will be these long slew of words in a poem that was created by a student. And it’s actually about what’s going on in their life. They’re not going to tell me what is going on. They’re just going to communicate that through poetry. It’s become a sense of comfort that we have this unique understanding of this medium that can really communicate these identities, these experiences, and can bond people together.

One that I think really touches my heart, I had a kid who graduated in 2020 and he was the kid who swore, “I don’t have anything to say and you’re never going to get an ounce of poetry out of me”. But he was the first kid who every day at 9:00 AM he would knock on my door during my planning period and say, “Hey, I just really need to talk to you.” And I’m thinking to myself, "I have papers to grade, parents to call, things to do other than talk to you right now." And of course, I would let him in. It was during those one-on-one sessions every single day that we really built a relationship. When we got to graduation, he had journals full of amazing stories of his community and also of his aspirations. Not just for himself, but for the world and what he wanted it to be in the future.

Graduation comes and goes. I think that’s going to be the end of our journey. Some students, you’re tethered together forever, and other kids, you’re one point in their journey, and we are just so privileged to have been there nonetheless. Or so I thought. Fast forward to two years after that, in 2022, I was in New York City doing what teachers do every single summer. I was not on a vacation. I was doing professional development and I was in New York City, doing a really cool project with the New York Historical Society, not really thinking about kids at all. I got a phone call from an 866 area code. If you read in my bio, I am on the school board for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

It could have been something like that. I also have a lot of justice-impacted people in my family, so it could have been someone else calling me from there. If you’re not familiar, 866 is the collect call number for the Illinois Department of Corrections. And so I answered the call and immediately on the other end it was the student. I had not talked to him in two years. So I press one to accept the call and he’s excited as all get out. He says, “Hey, Ms. Morales, how’s it going?” And I just said to him, because I was so disappointed, right? I can’t say that I wasn’t. I just said, “Why did you call me?” And he said, “Because I knew that you would always answer.” He recently shared with me now that he’s been away for some time, he started a writing group in his men’s prison to help other incarcerated men process their lived experiences and tell their story through the power of poetry.

So that’s like the joy, right? The things that we impart on our students, the skills and knowledge that we equip them with to know deeply and innately who they are and who they can be in the world. And to tell that and share that with someone else, that’s the power of teaching and also the power that writing can give back to kids. Everything that we did in those one-hour sessions really lived for that kid and he came back to let me know, which I feel like is one of the proudest moments of my career. 

Noelle: I loved listening to your interview with Drew Barrymore. I learned about your dignity closet. What is a dignity closet? And can you share the easiest way to get a dignity closet started in your classroom or at your school? 

Briana: Yes. That’s why asking the community for support [is important] because, as you know, despite what popular narratives might be around education right now, people care about teachers and people care about young people and they want to be able to help. We just need to ask and share what our students are going through or what they need, and we can give from our own abundance to make what we have into enough for others at all times. The one way that I tell everyone to do it is the same way that I did through crowdsourcing from our community.

I live in an amazing community in St. Louis who has so many people with hearts of gold that I actually joined a Facebook group. It is called Buy Nothing, and there’s one for every community. You can probably look one up for where you’re from. Just type it in on Facebook. And the idea of buy nothing is the idea that we can keep things out of landfills that still have a purpose in other people’s lives. To repurpose things that don’t have a meaning for us anymore but can still make a profound impact in the lives of other people. I posted in that group years ago, probably six years ago now, just asking for some newspapers for this project my students are doing. And then all of a sudden, people were like, "Hey, you’re a teacher. Do you need these pencils? Do you need this paint?" And I started thinking, "Wow, there’s a lot of things my kids need. If other people are being willing, all I have to do is ask." And so I started a dignity closet in my classroom that has clothes, food, and hygiene supplies for students. Because oftentimes those can be the barriers for why they might not be able to come to school and also might be embarrassed when they are there that they don’t look like everyone else or have what everyone else does. Just by simply asking, we’ve been able to stock it with hygiene supplies like toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant. We also receive enough food donations where for winter breaks and different breaks across the school year, we’re able to send bags of food home with students when we are gone from school for extended periods of time. My neighbors are just so insanely kind, that every single holiday season, every single one of my junior and senior students receives a gift bag made up of donations from my neighbors that has a warm blanket, a young adult novel, and lots of necessities that they need to be successful in life. And also a few treats of things that they want, by other people who don’t know them, but care about them all the same. So, whenever we’re in doubt, we should just ask. 

A student helps stock Briana's classroom dignity closet, which contains clothes, food, and hygiene supplies.


Noelle: Oh, I love that. When in doubt, just ask. I’m not traveling as much as I used to, but I’m going to pick back up my habit, thanks to this conversation, that when I travel, I’m going to take the soaps that are given to me that I don’t use and start bringing them back. I’m going to get back into my habit for that. Now, let’s end with Teacher of the Year. Are you still on sabbatical? 

Briana: Yes, I’m on sabbatical until July. 

Noelle: Okay. And what have you used the time for? 

Briana: I feel so insanely grateful for the sabbatical because it truly is the gift of time, and teachers never have enough of it. I’ve been able to do so many passion projects that I’ve been wanting to do for several years, but I could never find the space to do it.

One of the ones that I’m most proud of is I actually started a nonprofit organization in honor of one of my former students that passed away. She was actually the most loving and loved student that I’ve ever had. We all have a favorite one, even though teachers love to say they don’t.

She was mine and I call her a scholar activist because that’s what she was through all the poems that she ever wrote in my classroom. It was about how deeply she wanted to see her community change for the better. Not just for herself, but also because she was a teen mom. She had two boys before she graduated high school, and she actually walked the stage in 2021, just three weeks postpartum.

I can’t even imagine doing everything that she did. But she was the most resilient young person I’ve ever met. She was also the one, she sent me her poems after graduation and we were just so tethered together. I reflect on her as my younger sister, because I was only 21 when I first started teaching, and she was close in age to me. And that idea of sisterhood, right? Just two girls trying to figure it out in the world at the same time. That is where we found our bond. Very tragically, a year and a half after she graduated high school, she passed away in a car accident. I poured my heart and soul into the search for the best way to represent her beautiful legacy that she left behind in the only way that I knew how: through sisterhood.

And so during my sabbatical, I founded (Sister)Hood of Hope Inc., which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is dedicated to elevating the voices, power, and brilliance of girls of color in Illinois through the community of sisterhood, just like her and I experienced. And so thanks to the generous donation from the Drew Barrymore Show and Five Below, we received $10,000 that made our program for 20 high school girls of color in Chicago and East St. Louis, free to their families this year. We have engaged those girls by pairing them with an individual mentor in their community, doing positive youth development sessions with them every single month. We also are giving away four scholarships to young moms in the state of Illinois this spring in honor of Da’Miya. So in June, we’re bringing all the girls together for what we are lovingly calling a sister symposium, where the girls are going to share about the competencies that they learned about, which are inspired by the resilience and beauty of Da’Miya’s life and how sisterhood as a community can change the trajectory of your life.

That’s one of the most proud moments of the past year that I’ve engaged in. Aside from that, the other crazy project that we’ve engaged in is my students are publishing a book of their poetry. We’re super excited that all those little chat books that my kids have put together from the past seven years in East St. Louis, they’re coming to fruition in a self-published work that will be available on Amazon this summer. We’re so excited to see kids see themselves as real writers, published authors who have stories to tell and that are going to touch the hearts and minds of so many people outside of their community. I’m just really excited for all the opportunities. Really grateful that Teacher of Year has given me and my students. 

Photo of Brianna Morales with Drew Barrymore courtesy of CBS. Credit: The Drew Barrymore Show/Ash Bean


Noelle: Oh, lots of love. Lots of love and heart out to you. 

I asked everybody in the previous [season], what’s your walkup song, because I love music. Music is part of my therapy. But now I’m asking, because I am focused on the teacher-to-teacher connection, and how do we keep our profession just full of light and life. So, first I’m going to ask you, why alternative education? If I’m thinking about teaching, why should I consider going into alternative education?

Briana: I think because there’s always someone who is going to want to teach the other kids, and we have to be the ones who are just as excited, just as excellent, just as dedicated to the students who are at the margins of the margins and need the most support because they too need a champion. And what I tell people when I talk about education and the beauty of the work that we get to do is that there is no such thing as other people’s children in education. They belong to all of us. And that also includes kids who are incarcerated or kids who are in alternative schools, kids who are in maybe these silo areas where they don’t get the same attention and support as other students do. They too deserve quality, excellent educators who are excited to see them every single day, believe in them, and accept them for who they are because they have the belief and the potential of who they could become later on in life. And I think that’s why I teach in alternative ed. 

Noelle: And I know I threw that question in because now you can answer why eleventh and twelfth grade English. Why especially eleventh and twelfth grade teaching English? 

Briana: Eleventh graders, they think that they’re almost there and they are quite not.

Just kind of like how people love teaching tenth graders, right? Because they’re not in ninth grade anymore. Eleventh graders are not ninth or tenth graders anymore. But they also understand they’re not twelfth. So that’s like that sweet spot in high school, where you can really still make a profound impact in the life of a young person by helping them to mold what that next few years is going to look like.

So many of them, just like all of us at that time in our life, they need the support of a caring adult to help them to unpack who I might be in this world, even if I’m not sure yet. And that’s the journey, the adventure, and the challenge that I invite all teachers to consider in teaching upper grades.

But especially those two upper grades in high school. And with twelfth graders, they are about to embark on the rest of their life. They’re already living in the real world, but we get to help them make sense of it every single day. I think that the sweet spot in education can be where you make it, but for me it is eleventh and twelfth grade and in the English classroom, because everyone has a story. Helping young people to believe that about themselves can also help them lean into the fact that every person that they meet for the rest of their life also has a story, and being interested in learning what that story is to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Noelle: Briana, you are an amazing teacher and even more amazing human being. What a gift it has been to interview you. Thank you for being on Teachers in America, and have an amazing rest of your sabbatical. No doubt I’ll be buying that poetry book when it comes out on Amazon. 

Briana: Thank you so much for having me.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. 

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!


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