When I visited Westwood High, more than a dozen of Montano’s classmates described Harper’s classrooms as the most intellectually challenging in their high-school experience—but most were clear that the biggest value went beyond academic content. “Ms. Harper specializes in people who don’t believe in themselves,” Montano reflects. “Before Ms. Harper’s class, I didn’t believe in myself, because I didn’t know my strengths. I’m much more open now: willing to take risks, be vulnerable, connect with strangers.” Montano is heading to University of Arizona in the fall to major in biochemistry. In Harper’s class, she says, she “grew as a person, not just a student.”
I sat down with Harper in May of 2019 to ask her how she builds confidence in her students, and what kept her in the classroom for nearly four decades. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Kristina Rizga: What do you think brings out the best work in your students?
Judith Harper: Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. Most of all, I build relationships with my students through their writing and performance work. But it’s also about looking at every student every day, and trying to figure out what’s there: “Are you okay today? You look a little tired. You look dressed up.” Just asking questions, listening to the responses. Switching things up, if necessary, and letting students teach you things. The classroom is this dynamic, ever-changing environment.
I also build a strong sense of community, so students feel safe to take on risks. This means I want them to relate to other students. I want them to feel like we are in a partnership. I want us to have rituals that are our own.
Rizga: Could you give me an example of one important ritual from last year?
Harper: One ritual I really enjoy sharing with my students is eating together. When we have major assignments due, I schedule group evening writing sessions, and I always buy pizza for the group. At some point during our work session, we move to another table, eat pizza, and just talk. We don’t talk about the work—we just talk to each other. It’s a way for me to say, “You matter to me. We care about each other. We are taking time for each other.” We call this our “communion time,” because it’s a literary theme that we explore in all of the texts we read.
All of the books we read in my class are really about exploring one question: How do we find meaning in life? Ritual is one way different authors do that. A play I used to teach, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, is really about this idea of the daily rituals that turn into the patterns of overall life.
Rizga: Could you give me an example of how incorporating performance into a literature class helps students learn important skills?
Harper: This question makes me think of one of my students, Dulce: a bright, thoughtful, artistic student, who was very shy. I always have students who are confident that people want to hear what they have to say. With students like Dulce, I have to seek their voices out.