Newsletter 101: A self-directed course for English Learners

Hatty Fryer Smith, Bilge Kalkavan, and Paul Magnuson


Veteran teacher, Hatty Fryer, is part of a group of teachers in an experimental program focusing first and foremost on transferable skills, e.g. collaboration and self-motivation. She creates room for students to practice these transferable skills by helping them create a school newsletter. The non-native English-speaking students are in US grades 8 through 10, with a range of language proficiency.


Hatty starts at the whiteboard, suggesting students break down their goals for the next newsletter into smaller steps to reach those goals. She asks her students to write these steps in bullet points using Google docs. Hatty leaves the board after a few minutes to speak with students individually about how they are planning to contribute to the next newsletter.


Bilge and Paul watch as Hatty speaks with the students. They notice the variety of topics the students are choosing to write about, from sports and video games to drug addiction and the LGBTQ+ community on campus. They also notice the numerous types of contributions students are planning: writing, interviewing, collecting art from students, collecting writing from students, talking to teachers in other classes, taking photos, and designing the pages.


This is an English writing course for non-native speakers, but in no way is the content limited to writing. Because the students are focused on an end product (with just a bit of the peer pressure that comes from publishing something for everyone else at the school), and because they have the freedom to determine both the end product and the work process themselves, the project does not seem contrived. Not only do they have to pull the newsletter together, they have to work on larger organizational issues, like balancing the complexity of the project with considerations for what is actually doable – and doable in what time frame. As students told us: Maybe we don’t have ideas so we have to think for ourselves, it’s hard to work by yourself without the teacher, and we have to find the things that we are going to do.


Their comments exemplify the goal of this class, and others like it in our Edge program’s set of elective courses. We are supporting student growth to greater self-agency. Along the way the students in this class are also very likely to improve their English writing skills.


Hatty had this to say:


Teaching an Edge class at Leysin American School (LAS) has caused me to examine my expectations and assumptions about students and learning in general. It brings into stark relief a point about learning that I, and perhaps other teachers, habitually lose sight of – namely, that the process is more valuable than the product.


In an Edge class, I am more conscious of myself than usual. I make an effort to step back and allow the students to get on with it because that’s the philosophy. When observing students I often think “Why would you do it that way when it would be so much better and quicker to do it this way?” It’s hard to resist that feeling after years of teaching students in a traditional way. But I have learned to keep quiet and to hope to be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.


About fifty percent of the time I am proud of the product. Typically, students work quite slowly without teacher assistance but do a fine job in the end.


The value of the process is clear: students are learning self-reliance. Sometimes the final product is great but completely different to what the student had talked about at the outset. In these cases learning is also clearly happening. When the teacher steps back, students have some space to discover what they are really interested in. Any interference from an authority, positive or negative, might stop them from changing tack and following their own instincts. Students learn to have self-confidence and to trust their own instincts and decision-making.


But I would say that about fifty percent of the students produce a final product that is disappointing. Do these students also benefit from the Edge class experience?


I haven’t yet experienced a student who didn’t submit any work at all, because although students are not graded and cannot fail, there is something about letting the group down that forces them to finish something, even if of poor quality and at the last minute. A common scenario, for example, is that a student starts a project with enthusiasm and then gets bored of it as the classes go on.


But I think that even if the student is not proud of their final product, they know that it is due to their own lack of work, making the process a valuable experience. Here is where my skills as a teacher are fully in play, because feedback to the student needs to be managed carefully. There must be a balance through helping the student learn through the experience of producing poor quality work so that the student sees the experience as a chance to learn rather than a failure.  This is tricky since students have been trained most of their academic lives to avoid failure and they may be fighting feelings of shame or constructing all sorts of defense mechanisms.


If I as the teacher do not address what’s happened, they may withdraw (literally or figuratively) from the class – or they may decide that I really do not care if their final product is of poor quality.  They will say they didn’t get the help they needed or that the course is ‘too easy’. But if they see that the teacher is non-judgemental and actually interested in ‘what went wrong’ – and genuinely not concerned about this particular final product – they will pick themselves up and try again.


Bilge and Paul leave the class to discuss the experience. Bilge noticed some of Hatty’s specific moves to keep the students in charge. To the student with an idea for the newsletter’s cover page, Hatty says: “Why don’t you ask the class if you can be the one to do the front page?” Hatty offered a strategy to move forward with the work – but didn’t use her status in the class to determine the course of the work. To the student who asked, “Miss, do we have to have the contents on the front page?” Hatty answered, “No. You do whatever you want.” It’s the process that counts, after all. Hatty’s approach gives important pedagogical insights for teaching contexts and reminds us to be facilitators for our students rather than a dominant teacher figure. From topic selection to design, Hatty allows her students to make their own decisions as autonomous learners. During teacher-student interaction, she hesitates imposing her opinion and assists them with her questions to help them to set their own goals and design their own work.


Paul smiled as he recounted what another student told him. “We don’t have to think about the grade. I think it’s super good. No grades is the best point [of the class]. It’s a workplace environment. You do it by yourself. If there’s a mistake … you can try something else. We can learn.


Exactly. We can learn.


We would love to hear your thoughts – please share them below.



Hatty Fryer Smith graduated from university with a Masters in Contemporary Fiction and has taught EAL and English literature. Currently she teaches a Creative Writing class in which seven students from different nationalities and abilities in English come together three times a week to create a magazine for the school.


Bilge Kalkavan is in the Faculty of Education at Hasan Kalyoncu University. She has a PhD in Language and Communication, an MA in Applied Linguistics, and an MA in Business Administration. Her research interests include interaction studies, second language acquisition, language, culture, and communication. She visited Hatty’s class during her second stay at LAS as a visiting scholar.


Paul Magnuson is director of Educational Research at Leysin American School and Academic Development Specialist for Moreland University. He has a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction and an interest in furthering student agency.


LAST but not least: The adaptive work of the teacher

Jonathan Butcher (Primary School PYP Principal, Berlin Brandenburg International School)
In dialogue with Anne van Dam and Fiona Zinn


The adaptive work of the teacher is much to be admired. The acronym LAST – Looking ‘closely’ At Student Thinking, is the prerequisite to: conferring with a child, directing them to take their next steps, modelling strategies and techniques, and creating scaffolds. These are just some of the powerful impacts on learning a teacher has and one would hope that these are not only worthwhile engagements for learning, but also joyful and rewarding experiences for the teacher too.


Carlina Rinaldi, describes documentation as an act of caring, an act of love and interaction. It enacts careful observation, listening to both the voices and the silences, actions and inactions. It facilitates further questioning, so that we can better understand the learner, through what educators in Reggio Emilia refers to as a meaning making process. Documentation can come in many forms: still photography, video/ film, drawings/ writing, or perhaps listening in on self talk/ peer-to-peer exchange/ group discourse.


One should always ask why we are documenting. I believe it has to be learning centric, not driven by the documenter’s guilt, or purpose-lose admin request, or parent pressure to portfolio. The process of documenting learning brings us closer to the learner themselves. In a webinar last year Fiona Zinn reminds us not to interrupt, but to consider – Listening with all senses, to observe, to see how the moments unfold.


Last year I created this documentation panel (Andrea Morgan was the teacher, and images from Aisha Kristiansen). My aim was to create, and model a documentation panel with multiple audiences in mind. The written narrative provides the context for any reader and photograph galleries for our early readers. The educator’s quote qualifies the approach used, together with the pedagog’s metacognition for professional insight of best practice. Publishing the student’s individual expressions advocates for the learner.



This panel work inspired Alanna Mazzon, an exceptions teacher, to work with me in creating an ebook using Apple Pages, following the same layering described above. The ebook allowed the documentation to unfold, be shared electronically, and to contain the multimedia clips that set a deeper context, allowing the reader to experience more.


Above: Excerpt from Alanna’s eBook on Apple’s Pages.



“Documentation is a highly personal strategy, we must take time to explore strategies, to refine our listening and to come to know both documentation and the processes of learning with depth and complexity. Indeed, time, collaboration and reflection are essential travelling companions in the journey toward becoming a better documenter.” Fiona Zinn


“Documentation is such a complex process, so rich in the possibilities it affords to create reflective collaborative learning communities who think deeply about their work alongside young children.” Anne van Dam


In the process of sharing my work, and writing this article, I was fortunate to engage in dialogue with both Anne van Dam and Fiona Zinn, two educators I highly admire. In my role as Principal, I felt responsible to promote best practice amongst my staff, to celebrate our learning and to bring parents on our journey and gain confidence and trust.


However, they point out that whilst the schematic patterns and episodes of childrens play is important, it is their personal belief was that the function of documentation is not to understand the schema of the children or to record what they have ‘done’, but rather “documentation offers something much more valuable:


“the chance to meet and tease apart the ongoing construction of ideas that children’s learning processes bring forth in relationship with others. It offers us a way to see ‘inside’ the learning process and understand the complex strategies children and adults have as they build new knowledge together rather than record ‘what happened’ or ‘what resulted’ at the end or ‘what type of play’ this might be. Documentation is about seeking to understand how (not what) learning happens.”  Fiona Zinn


“This process brings us closer to the learner. It is a disposition of research, a curiosity to learn more about learning. It offers us material that we can use to think about how we can support students with their working theories, deepening and adapting their ideas.” Anne van Dam


Our reasons for documenting must be clear and understood by all. Our efforts should be child centric – front and centre.


Looking At Student Thinking (LAST) is a Project Zero routine. Earlier I added the word ‘closely’, borrowing the term from Agency by Design, because it requires a level of sensitivity. In earlier conversations in 2021, Anne Van Dam challenged my thinking by asking me to consider the ethics of listening in. She recalls Carla Rinaldi ‘you are not documenting what has happened, you are documenting your point of view’. Through research I began to consider: Are we quoting the child in the right context? Do we fully understand what we are observing? Does the child consent to our listening in? Have we checked in with the learner and asked for their point of view? An opportunity to model how we respect the rights of a child, to be truly curious in the process. Intentionally I draw parallels to AdD and JusticexDesign (JxD), crediting Jaime Chao Mignano, power and empowerment, as indeed we are designers of content, curriculum and learning experiences, as well as the documenting that comes with this.


Capturing or collecting work samples gives us a volume of data to get to know the learner better, to reflect on how best to support them, and design next steps. I can’t think of an argument against this relational learning; teaching and learning is indeed complex, which is why the partnership between the child and adult is crucial.


Documentation is not exclusive to the work of Early Years, in fact I have tried to disseminate their practises throughout the school. The documentation gathered can ultimately provide compelling evidence of growth that may be reported out. But reporting alone shouldn’t drive documentation. The Harvard LAST protocol guides teachers to raise one another’s awareness, to describe the work, to speculate on the student’s thinking, to ask deeper questions, and discuss implications for teaching and learning. It informs teaching, compliments our conferencing and generates meaningful conversations. Not only have I always found this work valuable, I find it highly rewarding and enjoyable.


I would love to hear from you. What documentation practises work for you? How do you ensure your approach is ethical? Who are your audiences? What is the link between documentation and planning?


But if learning is the driver, I ask about your planning experience. Do you believe it is worthwhile? Is it joyful? One would hope so, and if not, I would suggest the team talked about that elephant in the room. Perhaps this deserves another article? Please share your thoughts below.



Rinaldi, Carlina. “The RELATIONSHIP Between DOCUMENTATION and ASSESSMENT.” Innovations: The Quarterly Periodical of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, NAREA, 2004,

LOOKING AT STUDENT THINKING PROTOCOL: Roles: Presenting Teacher, Facilitator, and Documenter (Optional). Cultures of Thinking Project, 2005

Agency by Design (AbD), Project Zero


Interested in reading more?


Working with working theories: the teacher’s role:

Inquiring minds, meaningful responses: Children’s interests, inquiries, and working theories, Helen Hedges and Maria Cooper (The University of Auckland) in partnership with Daniel Lovatt, Trish Murphy, and Niky Spanhake (Small Kauri Early Childhood Education Centre) and Bianca Harper and Lindy Ashurst (Myers Park KiNZ Early Learning Centre) July 2014


Jonathan Butcher holds a M.Ed in International Education, and continues to learn how to maximise learning through meaningful projects. At a time where the world needs compassion, innovation, and action, he is committed to working with others to call for Education for Sustainable Development. Jonathan is the Primary School Principal at Berlin Brandenburg International School.


Fiona Zinn is an Education Consultant based in Hobart, Australia. Fiona collaborates with International Schools to re-imagine early years and primary pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments in response to contemporary theory and research. She has a keen interest in collaborating with teachers to develop a ‘shared pedagogy’ as an authentic reflection of their culture, community and context.


Anne van Dam is an educator and educational consultant with a passion for play as young children’s active, complex, vivacious meaning making process. She views documentation as a way to grow as educators as they dig deeper into the threads, ideas and connections underpinning these investigations.