Last week, I began my thirty-first year teaching. That number sounds a little jarring to me sometimes, but I have loved this profession so much that the number thirty-one actually sounds about right. I’ve been at this “for a minute,” as some of my students would say. This year has begun very well. After seven class days, each of my courses is well underway. The students are “with me.”
A friend asked me describe where the thirty-one years have been spent. So here goes. I began teaching at Irvine High School in Irvine, California, right after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The school had only been open for a few years and the faculty and administration were creative and energetic. I’m not sure I’ve yet been in a school with so much creativity and idealism among the faculty and administration. I taught there for two years, then began graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. I taught for one year at Bourgade High School in Phoenix, Arizona, before returning to Notre Dame to complete the Masters of Divinity. After receiving the M.Div., I taught in Notre Dame’s Freshmen Writing Program for eight years. The Freshmen Seminar class there was a real learning experience for me. This is where I first taught the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the year 2000, I left Notre Dame and moved to Washington, D.C. where I founded the Writing Center and taught English at Archbishop Carroll High School. I loved Carroll and taught there for ten years. In some ways, the students at Carroll truly taught me how to teach. They taught me to listen to my students. I owe them a lot. After Carroll, I taught in the College Writing Program at American University in Washington, D.C. At AU, I found the formula for teaching an entire writing class using Dr. King’s political autobiographies, Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community? This course would eventually become the structure my upcoming poetry collection, Raising King, coming out in the Fall of 2020. Most recently, I have been teaching at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. Here I teach American Literature, which I totally love, Classic Literature, which I sort of love, and Creative Writing – Poetry, which of course, I love!
I have come to believe that teaching American Literature, especially in these days, is essential. To raise up women and writers of color is critical at a time when the national discourse is so crass, imprecise, cruel, and often uninformed. I’m fortunate that I have a good bit of freedom in the literature I teach. I’m able to choose a lot of poetry, short stories, novels, and memoirs that I love. After thirty years of teaching, I am convinced of this: if you love a work of literature, you will teach it well. Some recent discoveries for me include the works of Frederick Douglass. I’ve written about him in this blog before but I have to say what a joy discovering his life and work has been. Most students know his name but have never read his work. We read his first autobiography, which many students find stunning in its beauty and power.
While I love the model of a chronological survey of American Literature, this year, I broke that model slightly. I thought it would be good to begin with Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then dive into the chronological survey. So that’s where we are now. We had one discussion day of Dr. King’s “Letter” and will have one or two more. Then we will take up the Iroquois Creation Story and go all through American Literature, up to writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Marmon Silko, Frank X. Walker, Martin Espada, and Lucille Clifton. Along the way we will dive into Emerson and Thoreau, Black Hawk, Red Jacket, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes, among others.
One of the most joyful moments of teaching for me, occurs when we have a class-wide discussion of what we’ve read and I can stand back and listen to one student explain his thinking, watch another respond and build on what his classmate said, then watch yet another take the idea thread and go even deeper. This happened as recently as two days ago. In our first discussion of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one student noted he was amazed by Dr. King’s explanation of the “neutrality of time.” This student admitted the idea seemed obvious but he had never considered it. Another student noted that he had never read or heard such a clear explanation of white supremacy. Dr. King’s writing will do that.
I’ve also learned, over the years, to listen to my students. I don’t prepare lectures. I do, however, take a lot of time to craft questions I will ask the class. I find that writing good questions for students to discuss or write about– this is the best use of my knowledge in a classroom.
Another joy that comes with my current teaching life is my school’s Poets & Writers club. Just last Thursday, we had our first meeting with twelve young poets. I was worried, foolishly, because we graduated several excellent poets from the last two years and I knew this year we would need to rebuild. But my conviction that young people come to poetry when they need it– proved true. These twelve young poets, all but two are students of color, are ready to engage in poetry– to see where it takes them. I am ready to accompany them too. One of the strongest supporters of our Poets & Writers club is my school’s head football coach and English Department colleague. I doubt most schools can make that boast.
A few years ago, some teachers had a discussion about writing every day’s objective on the board in front of the class. In some ways, this seemed a little odd to me. But the discussion made me realize I have the same objective every day. I want students to “Read to understand the world. Write to change it.” One day, after a long session of teacher meetings, I decided to make that objective visible everyday. Like a good graffiti artist, I got spray paint, stencils, and went to work. I painted that objective on the wall facing my students. Now, it’s with me, and us, all the time.
I believe that’s the power of a good English class. A lively class can transform students and teachers. I know I learn every year from my students. Our reading can help us to better understand the world– its joys and sorrows. Our writing, whether through a creative and clear essay, or through a beautiful poem, can change the world into the more just and peaceful place we all need.
As year thirty-one unfolds, I will write about it here. I will savor it as it comes. I will listen to my students and try to find the best ways I can to help them grow in their knowledge and love of the world– and in their abilities to change it.
This profession has always offered me one essential attitude: hope. When I listen to some of my students, I overflow with hope that the world will change, precisely because they are here.