English teacher sparks creativity in students


Alyssa Miller

Spanier guides his AVID class through the lesson. Spanier is known for creating a comfortable and thought-provoking classroom environment.

Expectations of the first few weeks of school include going over the syllabus, turning in summer assignments and a quick “getting to know you” activity conducted by the teacher. English teacher and AVID coordinator, Jeff Spanier, introduces his senior english students to his class with a process that tends to connect with more.

The activity was a free-write session where students would express what came to mind as Spanier guided them through. As Spanier instructed his class to imagine surroundings, from a forest to water to three animals, students wrote out what they visualized. As Spanier later revealed, the type of surroundings students visualized have certain meanings– the type of water you imagine and how you get around it to continue walking would explain how you view and solve problems in life. Senior Emma Hoffman had her speculations going into the assignment. Little did she know, this was a way for Spanier to learn about his class.

“I figured he was trying to get to know us,” Hoffman said. “I didn’t really think it would be psychological, but I did figure he would be getting to know our personalities on some levels since it was the beginning of the class. I kind of thought he would be trying to get to know our writing styles rather than how we are doing psychologically.”

“I think students, just like everyone else, finds themselves fascinating so to be able to do a deep dive on yourself and then explain it to yourself and other people is a lot of fun.””

— Jeff Spanier

For Hoffman, this was a positive surprise. Most teachers tend to stick with activities that represent who you are as a student, not necessarily as a person. 

“I think a lot of teachers get to know your skill level just because it is the first few days of school,” Hoffman said. “Obviously throughout the year [teachers] get to know you. I thought it was very refreshing compared to a lot of teachers structure the first few days of school.”

Spanier has stuck with this activity because he could tell how much the students connected with it. 

“The students loved it,” Spanier said. “I did it the first time more as a creative writing assignment in the middle of the year and then realized later on that this was something I could use at the beginning just to get kids to tap into their creativity and imaginations and share a little bit about themselves, to learn what it was like to make some guesses.”

This exercise challenged students to step outside of their everyday learning comfort zones. Spanier created a calm environment where it was easy for students to let go and write what they felt. This differs from most high-energy worksheet after worksheet classroom layouts students normally experience the first few weeks of school.

“I think [the assignment] is a little more intellectual,” Spanier said. “It requires a little more risk-taking for the students to share and if we are going to get anywhere in [English 4 AP] I need them to take some intellectual risk. I think students, just like everyone else, finds themselves fascinating so to be able to do a deep dive on yourself and then explain it to yourself and other people is a lot of fun.”

Overall, this exercise proved to translate well to students. Hoffman’s outlook on the rest of the school year with this teacher was positively affected by one activity.

“This was a good activity,” Hoffman said. “This helped us learn more about ourselves and the people in our class. I thought it was really cool, especially in an English class. It was really helpful to understand yourself as a person. I hope other teachers take this approach.”

Knowing this activity adds to the first impression students will have for the rest of the school year, Spanier makes sure that he made his first impact count.

“I want students to leave feeling intrigued by this activity,” Spanier said. “I need them at least somewhat interested in coming back!”