Teaching American Literature: Delight and Hard Work

I remember as a boy, the excitement and thrill of the first day of school. I could claim a new grade, I would meet a new teacher, I would sit in a new classroom, at a new desk. I didn’t always do well in school. But I did love it. I still do. At this time of year, as the school year is new and I’m still learning student names, I almost laugh at my enthusiasm. Am I ten? No, I’m a long way from ten. But I feel the way about school today that I felt then– with more gravity, perhaps.

This year, I teach American Literature, Classic Literature, and Creative Writing: Poetry. At my school, with the freedom we’re given, these are a joy to teach. Many of you know my love for American Literature. I rediscovered this a few years ago. I start my classes with “Columbus’ Letter Concerning His First Voyage” and we go all the way to several living writers, including Sherman Alexie, Martin Espada, and we close the year with several poems by Lucille Clifton. Along the way, we dive into some of the classic American texts: Anne Bradstreet’s poems, Jonathan Edwards’ sermons, Native American writers Black Hawk and Red Jacket. We explore the life and work of Frederick Douglass, reading his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and his searing speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” We read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, Thoreau’s Walden, and the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention document, “Declaration of Sentiments.” We read some T.S. Eliot and a good batch of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin. We read Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — just to name some of our texts. One text I’m adding this year is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think this year in America requires that text.

The discussions of these texts are often lively and passionate. I take a lot of time crafting questions. Initially, I try to create questions that lead us to an accurate understanding of the text. Then, my questions, hopefully, lead to deeper truths: What do these texts mean to you, personally? What do these texts mean for America in 2017? Always the question: Where is the beauty in this text?

One of the great joys of teaching happens when you see a student catching fire because of the text being discussed. I’ve seen Frederick Douglass do this many times in the last few years. I’ve seen lots of the writers we read capture my students– Emily Dickinson always surprises me since I teach in an all-boys school yet she rarely fails to grab them with her psychiatric insights. Langston Hughes’ rhythms and prescience usually scatter some magic around the room as well.

My classes also write. They write essays in class which assess their understanding of the texts. But their out-of-class essays aren’t specifically about their reading. I try to make their essays touch the themes in their reading. I find a great diversity of writing skills in my classes. Some students’ writing skills are college level. So they get pushed deeper, I hope. Others are not quite ready and some are very weak. The hope is that everyone improves. You have no choice but to take a student where he is– and move him forward. Some make good progress, others less. I’m often self-critical in this area. But I know that learning to write is a complicated and difficult task. If one’s home has few books, learning to write will not be easy.

This year, I’m removing all computers and tablets from my classroom. I find that high school juniors and seniors have a hard time participating in discussions and focusing on a text if they are using a screen. We’ll see how this works. I am confident the results will be positive.

As of this writing, we’ve only had two days of school so I’m still learning names and adjusting to the routines of the school day. All in all, the teaching life is a joy. Don’t get me wrong, I love summer and all the breaks the academic calendar offers. But I also love the exchanges among students discussing a meaningful piece of literature. I love the silence when a student is really thinking about a question. I love the look on a student’s face when he sees the deep craft and power in piece of writing. During a discussion of Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Boogie,” a student once blurted out “My God!” We all looked at him. He said, “I’ve never seen words do that before.” Those moments of magic and discovery keep me alive, working, and happy to spend my working hours discussing literature that matters with young people.

What could be better than this?


Photo: My classroom in Kohlmann Hall, Gonzaga College High School, Washington, D.C.

Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

One thought on “Teaching American Literature: Delight and Hard Work

  1. LOVE THIS!!!! Joe, you write so eloquently! I’m gonna make a list of the books you use in your class (or do you have a sylabuss that lists them all in one place?) Anyway, I want to either read or re-read them and think about how they apply to our country today (and tomorrow and on and on…)

    I haven’t yet mailed you a copy of our 4×4 exploration book, will get on it I promise! Haven’t yet received a copy of “Ache” either….hard to get everything done sometimes!!!

    What kind of numbers are you having with sales? For our second book, in the three weeks it has been out, we’ve sold 310 copies! Our first book which has been out now 5 1/2 years we’ve sold about 4000….not a lot in the scheme of things, but for a VERY regional book not too shabby! Definitely a lot more than we ever expected!


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