Leadership in the Classroom: Dr. Miller on Embracing Ambiguity and Finding Your Voice

English teacher Jasmin Miller discusses a reading assignment with her 7th grade students.

Jasmin Miller has many assignments planned for her Middle School English class, but helping students discover their voices is perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. 

“You each have a different set of interests and goals and natural skills, and the classroom is a lab for you to figure out how you learn best,” Dr. Miller tells students. “One of the most important things that I want you to walk away with from my class is not the content—because you’ll be reading a lot of important books—but learning about yourself.”

Dr. Miller, who has a PhD in English and Medieval Studies, came to Castilleja three years ago after teaching at another Bay Area independent school and incorporates the Harkness Discussion method in her curriculum. This collaborative form of learning, developed in the 1930s at the Phillips Exeter Academy, centers student questions and ideas. 

“The teacher is not actually a part of the conversation,” explains Dr. Miller. “I might act as a moderator if people are stuck or if people are shouting at each other, which is not usually the case,” she adds with a smile.  

To kick off a Harkness Discussion, students gather at a round table to symbolize that everyone plays an equal role, while the teacher is keeping time. Each student has to speak at least once, backing claims up with evidence and directing their comments at peers rather than at the teacher, which makes the conversation more organic. 

“You’re practicing active listening,” Dr. Miller says. “The idea is people have already been saying things about this text, and you’re listening to them and reading what their thoughts are and asking a new question.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the students diagram the flow of the conversation on the whiteboard as it’s happening or write down responses. In the end, students reflect on how they participated, what they observed, and what they can do differently next time. 

“While it’s very formal with very strict rules, I think it will help them understand that part of learning which is social. They have to learn how to listen, and they have to learn how to speak,” she says.

Recently, Dr. Miller’s students have been studying the Newbery Medal-winning young adult novel Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson. The book tackles complex topics, including race, privilege, mother-daughter relationships, and self-discovery.

“I love how one of the main obstacles that the main character faces is speaking up for herself, which dovetails neatly with the skills I'm teaching in this unit,” says Dr. Miller. 

Dr. Miller looks up to her mother as a female role model. Her mother immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in her twenties. “In the Philippines, she scored the highest on the national board exam for architecture, but coming to the States that didn’t translate,” says Dr. Miller. So after arriving in America, her mother started from scratch. She earned her AA degree, but didn’t have the opportunity to finish college because she had to take care of her family. 

“She was a single mom, so she had to start working,” says Dr. Miller. “Perseverance and love for your family were the backbone of how I grew up. You make hard choices for yourself, so that your family is able to have better opportunities. I saw leadership in her in a way that very personally affected me,” says Dr. Miller, now a parent herself.

She was also inspired by her teachers. “Growing up, my teachers were the first adults in my life who took time to listen to me and value my opinion,” Dr. Miller says. “I wanted to be that person for students when I grew up.”

Dr. Miller to students: "One of the most important things that I want you to walk away with from my class is not the content...but learning about yourself."