What was she thinking?

Dear readers, as the SA school year approaches, I am getting increasingly uneasy about my relationship with Romola.  As you know from previous posts, I am skeptical that she’s really a “literature person,”  and I’m a bit apprehensive about sharing a room with her (amid other changes).  I do think she’s a nice person, and I do think she has a good rapport with kids.  I wish I thought there was more substance to her understanding of literature and writing.

She actually went to a summer program for teaching writing, and even that makes me a bit apprehensive, because I read her as someone who doesn’t have a well-developed body of experience teaching writing, and I’m afraid she’ll come back all enthusiastic about new techniques but insufficiently analytical about why we should or shouldn’t apply them to our students and our classes.  Now, I think that anxiety is probably mostly about me and my attachment to the way I do things, and that it will be good for me to be challenged and shaken up some, but I also think, objectively, that I’m not wrong about her ability to discriminate between what might be useful and what is unlikely to work.  The assignments she wrote during the year tended to be really broad and focused on students’ personal experiences; in my estimation, she over-values “relatability” and under-emphasizes close reading, so she writes questions like “Does Beowulf remind you of any character in a TV show or movie?  Who and why?”  (This is a very crude paraphrase, not her actual wording.)

But on the other hand…this is still high school, and there is more than one way to teach English, and despite all I’ve learned in the past three and a half years (and all I learned teaching in trade school and community college before that), I am still more of a literary/academic type, still more likely to pitch the material high and make the students stretch for it.  I’m thinking that the three years of sharing a classroom with Dr. Tea taught me a lot, but they also sheltered me somewhat from seeing how other people work day to day, because I am much more aligned with Dr. Tea in terms of philosophy, background, and experience than with anyone else in the department.

Case in point: Elinor, my co-advisor on the literary magazine, is a great lover of literature and holds a master’s degree, but she always starts a new “unit” (I still find that word strange) by showing a PowerPoint, and the PowerPoint always starts with a slide with a photo of the author and a bunch of very textbookish information, like dates of birth and death, facts about life, titles of major works, etc.  I do this only very rarely, and only if it seems like a strong way of giving the students access to the work itself.  In general, I’d much rather hand out a sheet of paper with the opening paragraph of the novel typed onto it, and spend twenty minutes doing a close reading; or watching the first scene of a Shakespeare play on film; or giving them a sestina without telling them what a sestina is, and making them work out the pattern for themselves.  That is to say, I want them to have an immediate experience with the text, and I’m confident I can supply the background and context later–or, even better, have them figure out some of it themselves (“When did this guy live?  Around the same time as Fitzgerald?”).  I think this makes them better readers in the long run, and less anxious about approaching challenging texts without a lecture or a bunch of notes bought off the Internet.

However, Elinor is a good teacher.  She loves literature, and she loves kids, and the students respond to her calm predictability and high standards.  Her students’ writing improves, and her seniors score well on the AP Literature exam.  She’s been reading classic American novels this summer, trying to fill in her gaps.  I like talking with her, and I respect her knowledge, and I get her methods.  I give her some of my ideas, and I borrow her PowerPoints (she has a good one on irony).  I think we get each other’s approach.

And I had another co-teacher early on, who’s since moved on to a school that was more in line with her own philosophies, who was really different from me, but I learned a lot from her.  She was very smart about how kids learn and how you could use their emotional connections to the text to facilitate learning.  She had a sort of dreamy hippie affect, but she had a ton of substance to her, and I am so glad I had the chance to work with her.  I had been hoping that the Romola relationship would be similar, but I haven’t yet seen the substance that I would like to have seen.

And I really need to keep a lid on my desire to run and talk it all over with Dr. Tea.  She’s my friend, but she’s also Romola’s and my chair, and she can’t be my sounding board about this.

So that falls to you.  Ha.  Any advice for me?


6 responses to this post.

  1. I think for students who really need help building a basic context for authors, the contextual intro might provide some comfort. Your way does it differently, and sounds like it would work better over time, but if she’s thinking that students need to be able to ID stuff for the SAT or whatever?

    I didn’t feel like I had a handle on beginning to study lit until I’d spent a summer reading Nortons with a group studying for the GREs. Before that, works were just all separate. After, I had a sense of context and who might have read whom. (On the other hand, I only now figured out who Fitzgerald might be.)

    What does a student do who doesn’t think of a parallel for Beowulf? “No, he seems really different.” I mean, I can’t think of any, so what if they can’t? (Maybe someone on a cop show?) What a nightmare assignment!


  2. Posted by meansomething on August 23, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I don’t have a problem with the way Elinor does it, and I think you’re right on that it’s reassuring to the students, and predictable routines are extremely helpful. I do think I would get bored and annoyed if I had to do it every time, particularly since I can’t think of any reason I would ask them to memorize, for example, titles of other works. But it’s a standard part of her approach, and that’s fine. She knows what she’s doing. I’m just not as confident about Romola yet.

    I do use PowerPoints now, particularly when I’m dispensing information I want them to write down. One of my more useful ones is an intro to reading Julius Caesar that begins with some images of different leaders who were assassinated, and we talk about assassinations in general and what happens afterwards; then we revive their recently acquired knowledge (in history class) of Caesar’s rise and murder, and I tell them a bit about the political/succession situation with Elizabeth I, and that’s the piece of context I’ve liked to spend a class period getting in place before they read the play. (However, I won’t be using that this year because we are trying Henry V instead for a change!)


  3. H5 is a wonderfully fun play to teach. If you can arrange to hit the St Crispin’s day Speech on Oct 25, you win. Ask them if they remember St Crispin’s day, and get them to realize that it’s that day. (Nov 11 also works, because they won’t remember the end of the Great War.)


  4. Probably not surprisingly, I approach new texts in the classroom very much as you do, with “an immediate experience with the text”; context will come later, but first I want them to have an immersion in the text so that they’re interested enough to even care about the context. Which doesn’t mean that other approaches are bad or weak, of course, but it’s great that your department chair has a similar style to yours, which grants some institutional okay to your approach.

    As for Romola — what exactly does sharing a room entail? That is, will it be possible to share a physical space without feeling the full force of what may be her pedagogical weaknesses? Or is there a faculty room that you can go to when she’s teaching her classes? (I actually can never get any work done in the faculty room, but I can go to the school library as well, and we also have a tiny little room tucked away in the English hallway that I’ll sit in when another teacher is using my room for four periods a week.)


  5. Posted by meansomething on August 26, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Bardiac: thanks for the heads up! We will not do H5 until second semester, sadly, and I don’t think we can change it up, but I wonder if we might make a tiny fuss on Oct. 25 anyway.
    WN?: I should do a separate post about room sharing, but briefly, we typically vacate when the other person is teaching. I still haven’t gotten inside the new building, but there will be a workroom, and I can usually work in there–it does depend on who else is there. I’ll definitely do a post about the new building!


  6. Posted by meansomething on August 26, 2011 at 6:54 am

    P.S. Bardiac–how would you get them to realize that St. Crispin’s Day is Oct. 25? And what is the connection to Veterans Day/Armistice Day? Please elucidate!


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