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Protagonists: Joanna Balla-Elliott

The Protagonists series highlights the main characters of our mission: the teachers out there hustling to make their students feel known, heard, and challenged through student-led discussion.

Joanna Balla-Elliott, Middle School English Teacher at the Fessenden School

Hometown I was born and raised in Hyderabad, India, and immigrated to Boston when I was 9. I consider Boston home.

Favorite teacher growing up: who and why? Ms. Shelton was my fourth-grade teacher, during my first year in America. She was so warm, so kind, and I was coming from this rigid school model in India to a public school in Malden, MA. I was so blown away by the creativity and self-expression I was allowed in her class. I have vivid memories of these spring nature walks that we would take. I still remember the names of the flowers she taught us! That appreciation for nature, writing, and the seasons was new to me. She had us journal a lot, and I still have that little journal; it’s nice to have that collection of writing from my first year in America. She was so encouraging and thoughtful. I’ve never had someone quite like her. 

Describe yourself as a student in three words: Very earnest, serious, and a bit rigid

Current City, School, Teaching Assignments (?) I teach 5th grade English (all boys!) at the Fessenden School in Newton, MA. 

Favorite historical figure (or best line from history?) I’m interested by Leo Tolstoy’s life and writing. He had this change in his life mid-way through, a spiritual awakening, and I feel like that radical of a shift is rare. 

Favorite literary character (or best line from novel?) I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy this summer. At the end of the second book, the main character watches the “great dance of the universe”, and there’s this beautiful line I’ve been thinking about a lot: “He could see …wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells- peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like— ephemeral coruscations that piped their short songs and vanished.” The things that we see as so solid and permanent just aren’t — it’s a helpful perspective. 

Favorite school supply? I love a plain black and white marbled notebook. And a Bic pen. 

Pet peeve about class (student-led?) discussion? One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say “Sorry, I feel like I’m hogging the conversation!” and then continue to talk. There’s this tip of self-awareness but not enough to actually stop themselves. It happens even more with adults than kids. 

Favorite moment of class discussion? I love when the discussion takes a life of its own and students start running with it — adding in their lives, their personal takes on the topic. 

Biggest challenge to good discussion in a virtual classroom? All the nonverbal cues go out the door, even the intake of breath next to you.  If you’re an internal processor like me, you rely on those to stake a claim in the conversation. 

Text you count on to inspire conversation? This year, I used a mentor text called “When Lunch Fights Back.” It is about all these gross, animal self-defense mechanisms and the students absolutely loved it. Everyone wanted to take it home! 

What do you nerd out about? I’m working with a professor from grad school to bring authentic texts into vocabulary instruction that amplify diverse voices and expose students to issues of justice and equity. I’m interested in how we can promote a love of words as we teach students to think about their world. 

What is your wish for this world?  I hope that people can find common ground in the midst of the seemingly insurmountable divides currently exposed in our society.

When historians recount 2020, what will they be especially fascinated by? Something I’m fascinated by is how quickly we came up with ways to teach ourselves about this new world we were suddenly living in. Tutorials on how to do remote everything, especially for teachers, seemed to spawn overnight. 

Also, the shift away from certain modes of capitalism for a quick beat — people making bread at home, reading again, being with family. 

One prediction for the future of schools? I was talking to a public school parent the other day who is just going to homeschool her kids this coming school year. I’m interested to see how many families nationwide move to homeschooling. For some students, the break from a brick and mortar school was a beautiful thing and quelled certain anxieties. 

Best advice given to you by a department chair or supervisor? My mentor at the Shady Hill School was a very different personality from me. Her repeated instruction to me was to just be more flexible and let things flow a little bit, to have fun with the process of teaching. That was really helpful for me as she challenged me to appreciate the moment. 

Educator-Influencer you count on? First place you turn for classroom advice? The Facebook help groups, especially around the Calkins Reading Workshop method, is one place I look for advice. One of the directors at Shady Hill’s TTC, Dr. Kim Parker, is an incredible educator-influencer, so I visit her Twitter all the time. I don’t even have Twitter, but I check it anyway! 

Better discussions will Get more voices on the table and in the room! 

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