Clarissa Thompson
Associate Professor of Secondary English Education

Ph.D., University of Washington
Ed.M., Harvard University

“If you want to be a teacher, UMF is a great place for teacher education. And if you want to do something else, UMF is a great place to explore. It’s the best of both worlds here,” University of Maine at Farmington Associate Professor of Secondary Education Professor Clarissa Thompson said.

“When you are 18, 19 or 20 years old, you don’t always know what you want to do. You should be exploring and taking lots of different courses because you will stumble across something you love — that you never would have found if you hadn’t tried something new. And when you find it, you’ll flourish,” Thompson said.

“I have a lot of conversations with first year students who tell me they don’t actually want to be a teacher, and then I help them transition to becoming an English major or a Creative Writing Major or Music major,” Thompson explained.

Teacher Prep and Placement

“Come to UMF if you want to be a teacher. We’re really good at preparing teachers. We have a faculty and program committed to preparing teachers,” Thompson said.

Many of Thompson’s students end up with a double major in English and Secondary Education, because UMF Secondary Education students take more credits in English than the state certification process requires. “The state requires 24 credits in English,” explained Thompson. “We have them do 36 credits in English. Twenty–four credits are not enough. That’s only six English classes, and that’s not enough to turn you into an English teacher who is worth her salt. One of our positive features is that we have a pretty rigorous program.”

“Our students are very well prepared, not only in their professional education courses, but in the content they will be teaching, and that really matters,” Thompson said.

And that preparation pays off after graduation. Some of Thompson’s former students are teaching English at Washington Academy, Erskine Academy, Maine Central Institute and Dirigo High School. “We also have two students teaching at Camden High School. They recently had two openings and they picked two UMF graduates,” Thompson said. “Given the job climate, we actually have had pretty good placement for English teachers.”

Just the Right Fit

“This is my second academic job. My first job was at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I worked there for five years with some really smart, wonderful people. But it’s a research institution. I like research, but I love teaching,” Thompson said.

“At Colorado, the emphasis was on research, and teaching wasn’t valued as highly. I realized it wasn’t the right fit for me. I wanted teaching to be central. I started looking, and UMF seemed perfect,” Thompson said.

“UMF is a student-focused institution. At UMF, because we have so many eEucation students, I can specialize in preparing Eecondary Education English teachers and also enjoy the advantages of a small liberal arts school,” explained Thompson.

Some of those advantages include a focus on teaching and small class size — Thompson’s classes seldom have more than 18 students — as well as the opportunity to get to know and mentor students over the course of their college career.

“I was excited about moving back to the east coast. I grew up just outside the Lewiston/Auburn area. Maine is familiar. It’s nice to be back,” said Thompson, whose family still has a camp in Ellsworth.

Reading for Fun

Thompson teaches a Young Adult Literature course once a year that is popular with teacher and students alike. “I love to teach that class,” said Thompson. “I love to read Young Adult Literature, so it’s one big happy reading fest. We read books all semester and talk about them. We also read articles about Young Adult Literature and do projects about how to teach that literature, but the class sometimes feels self-indulgent because it’s pleasure reading.”

“My students look forward to the class. They come in saying they haven’t gotten to read for fun for a long time. And they consider it a pleasure, even though I require them to read a total of 14 books. I have them pick 10 books of their choice and then we read four shared books — that I feel are more teachable and have more depth to them — and we talk about them together,” explained Thompson.

Students then consider the curriculum potential of their Young Adult Literature books, such as the strategies, concepts or ideas they could teach. Students also design a poster to illustrate the themes and teaching goals and objectives of their selections.

“They are incredibly creative. The way their posters come out is amazing,” observed Thompson.

Fear not Poetry

Thompson also teaches a Reading Methods course mainly for Secondary Education English students. “I focus primarily on poetry in that class. That’s just my choice. I feel poetry is under-taught. I think people are scared of poetry,” Thompson said. “Somewhere in my 20s or 30s, I got braver about poetry and braver about using it in the classroom.”

“My students come in nervous about poetry and by the end of the course, they are more excited about using poetry,” Thompson said. “It’s fun to do a lot of different things with poetry in that class. I ask them to pick a poem that they don’t entirely understand and work with it all semester.”

Students work with their poem in a variety of ways. Those could include writing a parody; creating an artistic representation; and even reading the poem with another person, then interviewing the reader to start a conversation about poetry, Thompson said.

Students write responses to their poems in which they talk about what they have learned about the works. Although they haven’t used typical literary analysis to interpret their poem, in the end, they will have a deeper understanding of the poem, explained Thompson.

Building Better Readers

“I teach Content Literacy every semester. Almost all the Secondary Education students are required to take it. Content Literacy is about reading and writing broadly across the curriculum. It’s broad and foundational,” Thompson said. “My students often don’t think they need it. Most Education students are high-achieving, smart, bright kids who know they wanted to be a teacher from the time they were eight years old.”

“Because Education students are competent at reading and writing, they don’t always realize that their middle and high school students won’t necessarily be competent. When they get in the classroom, they’ll have students who struggle, like a ninth grader who reads at a fifth grade level. You can get by if you read on a fifth grade level — you can survive — but you can’t delve into content in any meaningful way,” Thompson said.

“Here, I have Education students who think they are going to teach deep meaningful intellectual content and they don’t realize that their students won’t comprehend the material or will just choose not to read the material because they are not engaged,” Thompson explained.

“They can’t assume that middle and high school students will do the reading or that they will understand the reading or that they will come in prepared to talk about the ideas and concepts you want to talk about,” Thompson said.

“I help my students understand strategies to get kids more engaged in reading and writing. If you annotate — mark up a text, answer questions, make connections to their background knowledge — kids may become more engaged readers,” explained Thompson.

Content Literacy is as much about teaching and learning as it is about reading and writing, according to Thompson. She said she wants her students to develop learning materials, and explore teaching strategies.

The UMF Education Center

The UMF Education Center building is Thompson’s favorite place on campus. The newest addition to campus, the Education Center is a LEED-certified building made with environmentally sustainable materials and featuring a geo-thermal heating system.

“I like my building, the Education Center. Everything is nice about it. I love having the Kalikow Curriculum Resource Center. Having that downstairs is so convenient and a great resource. I bring my students there and I bring my own children there,” Thompson said. “We’re really lucky to have these classroom spaces — they are wonderful. “