Linda Christensen inspired teachers, kids with ideas, energy

All Karl Meiner needed to know about teaching language arts he learned from Linda Christensen.

He learned how to use an activity called 'I am from,' to engage students to write poetry. He learned how to have students highlight key elements of their work - such as the theme, or descriptive words - to help them revise their own work. He learned the value of judging students on their progress through revisions, not by a score.

'(Christensen) has been the greatest influence in my career,' said Meiner, a teacher of nine years, starting at Jefferson High School and at Wilson for the past eight. 'I see Linda as the icon, the literary martyr. She has just displayed ridiculous, enviable, boundless energy. It's kind of daunting as an educator.'

Now, Christensen - one of Portland's most widely respected and nationally recognized language arts teachers - is retiring from the district after 31 years of work in the high schools.

Teachers say Christensen's work in shaping the district's language arts curriculum over the years has been groundbreaking. That's why they saw it as a major loss when she stepped down to return to the classroom last year just after Superintendent Vicki Phillips introduced the concept of anchor assignments.

Anchor assignments are an attempt to standardize curriculum between schools by essentially requiring that all students take the same tests. Phillips sees them as setting a standard for judging progress and increasing rigor in schools districtwide. But they are causing an uprising among teachers, who were upset that they weren't included in the process. They also said the work is redundant, that they didn't have enough time to plan for it, and that it would be disruptive to their lessons.

Particularly rankled were those who have followed Christensen's teachings through her summer literacy workshops and her published material, which includes one essay called 'My Dirty Little Secret: I Don't Grade Papers.'

Since Day One of her teaching career, Christensen said, she hasn't graded papers because 'as soon as you put the grade on it, it says it's done, and I don't want it to be done.'

Instead, she works with students one-on-one, helping them to identify their errors and shape their voice, and has them revise the paper as many times as necessary until she decides to accept the work.

'Often, students who are not highly skilled just do it to get it done,' she says. 'I won't let them do it because they'll just be happy with a C. … To me, it's not about the grade, it's about crafting, the process -How do we get better?' Christensen still gives students a grade for the class, based on how many assignments they complete.

Besides work on the language arts curriculum for the district for seven years, Christensen has taught at Jefferson and Grant high schools, directed the Portland Writing Project, edited a national quarterly magazine called Rethinking Schools and led a local teachers' workshop series called the Summer Literacy Institute.

Now she'll be based at Lewis and Clark College as the new director of the Oregon Writing Project, a collaborative effort by schools, colleges and private foundations to improve the teaching of reading and writing.

Anchors cause some angst

The district believes strongly in the anchor assignments.

'Despite the fact that many of our schools and students do well, it is not enough for some schools to be successful and others not,' Phillips wrote in a letter to teachers who had protested the assignments last fall.

In response to the teachers who protested, Phillips agreed to scale back the initiative to start with two subjects - literacy and social studies - and wait to roll out the other two, math and science. She also gave the high school language arts teachers a one-year reprieve. They will, however, be required to complete the first set of anchor assignments for the first time this fall - including a narrative paper, persuasive paper and data analysis that are scored on a scale of 1 to 4.

Marcia Arganbright, the district's director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said the anchor assignments that were assigned this past year went over well, with most students in all levels scoring at the top of the scale with 3s and 4s.

She said the papers now will be used for staff development, for teachers to get together and discuss why one paper is better than another, how they taught the lessons and what other strategies they can use to teach the concepts.

In that way, 'the score isn't really for the student, it's for the teacher,' Arganbright said. 'The practice of teaching often can be isolating. We can have a talented teacher getting great results, but it's just her kids getting great results. But this way, she can have great techniques she can teach others.'

Camp helps teachers teach

Controversy over the anchor assignments has died down, but some teachers still are lukewarm to the idea. Wilson High School teacher Tracy Groom says he'll 'dutifully assign my students the paper, though I view it as a bureaucratic gesture to Phillips, who feels the need to show voters already suspicious of teachers that she is holding teachers accountable.'

Groom was one of a dozen teachers last week who took part in the Summer Literacy Institute, which Christensen has led for the past 20 years. Last week, in between helping her last few students wrap up their assignments for the year, she scrambled between classrooms of teachers at the weeklong summer workshop.

This year they discussed ways to teach students to read and become engaged in 'Of Mice and Men' and 'The Kite Runner,' which will be introduced to English classes this fall.

Joyce Lozito, a teacher at the Metropolitan Learning Center, said she learns best from other teachers and looks forward to the camp each year. 'This feeds my soul,' she said. 'I love working with teachers. I'm always solo in my classroom. I love the opportunity.'

Christensen got creative

Besides bringing teachers together to learn from one another and inspiring them to teach her craft, Christensen is credited by her peers for helping 'hard-to-reach' kids develop an interest in reading and writing.

In one case long ago in her career, as the story goes, Christensen spent all year trying to gain the trust of one young girl who seemed to hated her. Finally, the student said she would be willing to do her work on Christensen's home computer if Christensen bought her Doritos and soda. She did, and the girl's writing progressed.

Those who know Christensen say that's all it takes, sometimes.

'Linda exemplifies everything we look for in terms of the teaching profession,' said Cynthia Guyer, executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation. 'The mantra on high school reform and improvement is academic rigor, relevance to the world around you and relationships - that young people really need teachers and adults to know them - and I think Linda knows how to do all three of those things.'

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