Teaching Holistically

Teaching Holistically

My students know that they can bring any academic or school-related question to me, and I will consider if it’s worthwhile to discuss it with them.

The other day my Freshmen shared with me that they are doing a DBQ in history and since it is a writing assignment, I decided that I would give them some tips. That lead into my English teacher version of American History in 25 minutes lecture.

Teachers live for the look on their faces after an amazing lesson. Their eyes were wide and mouths open. If I might have mistaken that look for confusion, their words clarified their thoughts: “Miss, you should be a history teacher.” and “I’ll never look at history the same way again.”

I told them that I can only teach this one lesson because 1. I could never be a real history teacher; I am conceptual and not detail oriented. I can only give them a broad sweep of American History and not give them what their history teacher gives them daily. 2. If I WAS their history teacher, they would be just as interested or bored with it as they are now. It’s just exciting because I am a voice they don’t hear on the subject daily.

We think that we need to wait for college to bring all the subjects together into one conversation. But in my English class, we discuss everything: history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, business, technology, and many more. No, I don’t often use those words. I use words that they understand and connect to. I use the language that they relate to so as to not overwhelm them.


One of the first ways that I do this in any English class is by introducing Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. We discuss how all communication and all behavior from every person is to fulfill a fundamental desire or need. Any writing we do reveals who we are. Any words we use to other people is to get what we want (love, affirmation, acceptance, vengeance, etc.)

This initial conversation sets the stage for all of the rest of my lessons. It helps them to see that any writer is trying to DO something, fulfill a desire, or help others to see their inner desire.


When we discuss history, we bring in the time period that the author was writing and what they are referring to. Sometimes we realize that we are missing a lot of cultural and historical context to the topic (ex: Charles Dickens). We discuss whether we should spend time researching the context of what he is saying to fully understand him.

We have a logical debate on the need for understanding all his references. OR asking ourselves: Can we make enough meaning of the text without researching it? Can we bridge gaps of confusion with logical assumptions? What is the minimum we need to respond to this reading?


Most English teacher’s second love is Philosophy; I know it is mine. Philosophy in my class discusses the following questions:

  • What is good?
  • What is beauty?
  • What is art?
  • What is joy vs. sadness?
  • What is the human condition, and why do we seek to overcome it?

They LOVE these conversations. It helps each person in the class to have a voice, to learn how to disagree, to have evidence for their claims, and to have autonomy in their topics.


Let’s just admit it: Most of our students will not become huge readers (they are or they aren’t). They probably won’t become English Majors. They don’t desire to be published authors. They will never care about English the way we do.

But most of them will go into a business-type of field where they must learn how to write: technical documents, emails, instructional manuals, presentations, etc. That means that us spending 90% of our class time teaching them literary analysis, is largely a waste of time for them.

That said, if we want to improve engagement in our English classes, we should be teaching more business/technical writing.

Try these:

How do teach your class holistically?