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.
Reanna Ursin, English Instructor at The Westminster School
Hometown Sacramento, CA
Favorite teacher growing up: who and why? Mrs. Foster, Sister Christine — they weren’t necessarily teaching my favorite subject, but they saw me and qualities in me, sometimes before I even recognized them. I’m biracial, and even in California growing up, I still wasn’t the norm in any way. Seeing me as a beautiful person, or pulling me to the side and talking about my dreams and interests, were meaningful. Those teachers were also open to non-traditional things. Mrs. Foster had the entire 5th grade class memorize [Billy Joel’s] “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to learn about the events in the song. It was awesome.
Describe yourself as a student in three words: Diligent, definitely curious, and anxious. I was probably a little tightly wound — I got very attached to doing well, and once I enjoyed that, it made me run toward being “safe” instead of creative.
Current City, School, Teaching Assignments: The Westminster Schools, Atlanta GA. I teach 10th grade English (Global Literature) and 12th grade English (AP Language & Composition).
Favorite historical figure (or best line from history?): Toni Morrison (I’ll change the question to be “favorite writer in history”). I so admire the way that she knew what she believed and it suffuses her writing. I envy that certainty.
Favorite literary character (or best line from novel?): Violet in Morrison’s Jazz. I love her character because she’s a little messed up; she’s had a challenging life, and she goes a little bit off the rails, but she finds her way back to an even better self. Favorite line is from Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me”: “ “Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
Favorite school supply? I love superfine point pens, especially in Navy. I love a new pen and a crisp line.
Pet peeve about class (student-led?) discussion? I get so frustrated when I can tell that my students aren’t listening to one another, but that they’re actually rehearsing in their head and waiting to say their “thing” at the end. I work so hard to try and get them to trust that if you’ll listen to your classmates, you will have something to say in response.
Favorite moment of class discussion? I love when during or at the end of a discussion, students realize how awesome their discussion was. Sometimes I’ll ask them to write down a post-it who/what impacted them during discussion, and they’ll give their post-it to another. The pleasure of realizing that a classmate was listening to them, and that their idea had impact, is huge. I also love when a student asks a simple question that changes everything.
Biggest challenge to good discussion in a virtual classroom? It’s that sense of immediacy. When we transitioned to online teaching, I maintained discussion as a core part of our English classes, and my students did a fantastic job. But all of those discussions were in small groups — we never got to have whole-class student-led discussions. With 3-5 students, it worked. So I have to create opportunities for small group discussions from which students can share out to the whole group.
Text you count on to inspire conversation? My seniors finished with Between the World and Me, and that inspired a lot of conversation. I think anything, honestly, that has interesting and even polarizing characters. Beloved, obviously, just at the level of: “what is going on?” The Great Gatsby: they love discussing love and soul mates, which characters should have our sympathy… there are a lot of texts that inspire discussion, but it often has to do with: is there a character or situation that students feel strongly about?
What do you nerd out about? Online teaching and teaching in general — I love finding out what other people do and what works and what doesn’t. I love self-help: it sounds awful, but I love anything that gives me insight into how things work, so thinking about how you can work better is also great. A multiple choice survey that tells me who I am? Yes! I started reading Tarot cards a few years back. I’m not trying to forecast my future; it’s just a focusing tool, and it can help to show you what few things you’re really trying to focus on.
What is your wish for this world? I would say radical self-awareness. There are no words to sum it up. But I’m in Georgia, with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — there are a lot of things that are not in our control, but we can control and exert influence over how we view and think about and respond to others. It takes radical self-awareness, though — something beyond the basics, being able to see the parts of you that don’t line up with who you see yourself to be, or who you want to be.
One prediction for the future of schools? I am excited about the future of schools because of what we’re going through right now. I hope that we see dynamic communities where students rotate in and out of different types of experiences. You might be online, or on campus, or someplace else in the world, doing something more experiential; I hope we see schools embracing more opportunities for students to learn with the things that are around them, with the things that interest them. We’re going to see things become flexible and leave room for student creativity. It’s going to push us to reconsider the models we’ve been working with.
Best advice given to you by a department chair or supervisor? It wasn’t advice, but an observation: “You are only as courageous as the person you report to.” It clarified for me — what I love about my current department chair is that if I take risks, she will support my growth. Her courage allows me to be a courageous teacher.
Better classroom discussions will not provoke anxiety.