11 Things I Learned About Teaching / Writing from My 10th Grade English Teacher

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Mrs. Raulston was my 10th grade English teacher. She was new to the school the year I was in her class, and she taught me how to make a strong argument, structure a paper, enjoy the richness of a complex text, and how to be open to differences by reading broadly beyond my own culture.  When I think of the volume of writing I produced that year—and all of the reading / commenting she was doing for 90+ students—I am overwhelmed by her kindness, dedication, and care.  As someone who recently taught four sections of 10th grade English for three years (as opposed to her five sections), I have no clue how she did such an amazing job and maintained any level of sanity / life beyond the classroom.  Balance is difficult to achieve in the life of a teacher, especially an English teacher tasked with reading and commenting on student writing.  When I had a stack of 70 literary analysis papers, I would fear them, really.  But she seemed to embrace bigger stacks with greater patience and love than I did.

When I was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in 2004, I was thrilled by the opportunity to name my “most influential teacher” to take to Washington to also receive recognition.  I chose Mrs. Raulston.  I still choose Mrs. Raulston as my most influential teacher.  In college and graduate school, I never took a formal education course, but one thing I have received throughout my life (and continue to receive) was consistent, top-notch instruction.  I have seen teachers model the best principles of responsiveness, content mastery, compassion, passion, and innovation.  Though I undoubtedly would have found some of the pedagogical speak interesting, and the theoretical frameworks would have gotten me thinking, I had already received an intense education in the art of teaching. 

Here are 11 things I learned about writing / teaching from Mrs. Raulston, who I found to be, perhaps most importantly, a genuinely interesting and interested person:

1. Reading Shakespeare as a community is fun, but you need to see it performed to “get” a better understanding.  We took a field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to see Shakespeare performed—a different, enlightening experience of the text.  On the way, we recited passages from The Tempest and Merchant we had memorized.  A bus full of teenaged angst, hormones, and blank verse.  Yes.

2. Good writers are, first, great readers.  And have read broadly and deeply across genres, continents, and time.  I remember reading Ezra Pound’s translations of Egyptian love poetry, the Upanishads and portions of the Mahabharata (and eating Indian food for the first time—a class field trip), Conrad, Joseph Campbell, The Tempest and MerchantGilgamesh, Kafka, and so on.  We had to put the effort into writing that we did into the reading because there’s not that much different in the exercises of reading and writing.

3. Know your audience.  I was a student who would write for “the A.”  But she quickly pointed out how naïve and shortsighted that mentality was.  She encouraged me to contribute something to a body of knowledge and discussion beyond our classroom about the great works we were reading.  She said to write as if you were going to publish something.  That was mind-blowing.

4. Your first draft is not your last draft.  I wasn’t too fond of revision as a 10th grader, and that’s not that surprising because no one had really told me that I had needed to revise things.  No one had made the case that something that was “grammatically correct” could be improved.  Mrs. Raulston made us conscious of rhetorical strategies and style. 

5. As a teacher, you never want your assignments to limit students’ creativity.  I remember feeling empowered to choose my own path when given an essay assignment.  A prompt was a suggestion, and we were encouraged to find our own angles, our own points of view concerning a text.  When I give essay assignments now, I always like to include “choose your own path.”

6. Teaching writing should aim to teach students skills for revision.  You can’t tell a 16 year old, “Work harder on your writing” without guidance or without training them how to go about improving a sentence or paragraph or conceit or so on. 

7. Students should have conversations with themselves while reading—in the margins or in a notebook. / Teachers are students too! One of the first texts we discussed was Lord Jim.  It had been chosen as a summer reading text by the previous teacher of the course (pre-Mrs. Raulston).  So she inherited that, and we students did as well.  It was far too dense for me as a budding sophomore in high school.  I remember mentioning to her how much I had struggled with that book, and she showed me this journal full of (beautifully written) notes from her reading experience.  I thought that was amazing—the teacher grappling with a text!  In writing!

8. Be honest, approachable, and open to students beyond the minutes in the classroom.  So much of what I learned from Mrs. Raulston occurred outside the time of formal instruction.  High school teachers are always teaching; students are always learning.  The informal teachable moments have lasting impacts in teaching values and building relationships.

9. When you’re frustrated with one class as a teacher, you cannot let that ruin you for the rest of the day.  I remember seeing Mrs. Raulston deal with frustration or anger very quickly and then moving on / moving forward.  It’s important for students to see that teachers are human and experience the full range of emotions, just like they do.  It’s also important to model the ability to compartmentalize the more chaotic aspects of being human, enabling one to do one’s job.

10. SPES—Statement, Proof, Explanation, Significance.  Spes happens to be the Latin word for “hope.”  This was a paradigm for structuring an argument / paragraph that Mrs. Raulston gave us.  I use it for teaching my students about writing.  The statement (claim or thesis) is not a statement of fact, but is something that has interpretive value for the text.  Proof comes from the text itself.  The explanation is necessary for breaking down (analyzing) the “proof” and linking it to the “statement.”  Significance is the “so what” factor—why does this all matter.  In a paragraphing situation, the significance can also be the area where one transitions to a new point, showing how one idea feeds into the next.  I always tell my students that if they follow this paradigm, then hopefully they’ll have a strong argument.  No guarantees, of course.

11.  Show that you love what you teach and whom you teach.  Mrs. Raulston’s passion for words and for people were obvious and completely natural. I never questioned her authenticity or her motives.  I suppose that’s why, even in recollection, she’s still teaching me.

WTF: What the Foucault?

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We read enough articles that mentioned Michel Foucault’s work that it seemed ridiculous to avoid reading his work (in translation), so I gave my students some sections of The History of Sexuality Volume I.  So far, we’ve discussed “We ‘Other Victorians,'” which I guess you could say is Foucault’s introduction to his introduction on sexuality.  I’ve also selected portions of “Method” and “Domain” (later in the volume) and plan on reading to them a few other key passages.  It’s difficult to gauge how much of this theory the students are ready to parse.  But, early on, I’m still blissfully optimistic that the grappling is going well.  No one has fallen asleep–that’s a good sign.

On Friday, we talked about Foucault’s project in discussing sexuality, knowledge, power, and politics.  We marched through the repressive hypothesis and into his discussion of the controls exerted on sexuality not so incidentally coinciding with the rise of capitalism.  We talked about the limited spaces for and “uses” of sex, and the more we talked about how controlled sex and sexuality are, the more we began to question why.  The students quickly realized that this “history” is unlike any other “historical” text they’ve encountered.  One student made a particularly good observation: I feel like Foucault is better at raising questions than he is at tracing history.  Yes; the more we know, the more we wonder.

Here are some questions that Foucault raises in this section that are particularly useful or maybe a better term here since we’re talking Foucault would be pleasureful:

1. What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?

2. What paths have brought us to the point where we are “at fault” with respect to our own sex?

3. Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it?

4. What were the effects of power generated by what was said?

5. What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them?

Foucault provides us with an excellent set of questions as we look at power, knowledge, and pleasure related to sex and sexualities.  I know that I’ve been thinking quite about what Foucault says about the nature of power, which is “to be repressive, and to be especially careful in repressing useless energies, the intensity of pleasures, and irregular modes of behavior.”  I’m sure that Foucault’s notion of “repressive” power plays into McIntosh’s idea of the “oppressive” nature of privilege. And his idea of “irregular modes of behavior” clearly assumes “regular” modes–or, as we say, “normative.”

On a less serious note: in at least 73% of the photos of Michel Foucault I’ve found, he’s wearing a turtleneck.  As one who sports the turtleneck far too often, I approve.

Queering Roles

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I just read through my students’ first writing assignment.  There were two parts; first they had to say, in their own words, what queer theory is / does in 70 or fewer words.  Secondly, they had to tell of “narrative of privilege” from their own experience.  

One student, whose activist resume rivals that of someone three times older, introduced me to two new acronyms relevant to the trans experience: MAAB and FAAB–male-assigned-at-birth and female-assigned-at-birth.  And the roles in the course have been officially queered.  Teacher becomes student, and student becomes teacher.  

Peggy McIntosh TEDx talk

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We’re discussing Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in Queer Literature and Theory later this afternoon. I found this TEDx talk that McIntosh gave that sets up the article nicely; also, her talk lets us know that she didn’t just write the article and move onto something new. She’s a true scholar-activist in that she’s devoted her life to exposing and dismantling systems of privilege.

After Scudera’s “Teaching While Gay”: Sexuality Shaping Conversation

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In May 2013, Domenick Scudera, a theater professor at Ursinus College who teaches a course to freshman called the “Common Intellectual Experience,” wrote “Teaching While Gay” for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  As the only tenured / tenure-track professor teaching this core liberal arts course with a set of preselected texts, Scudera wrestles with whether his sexuality shapes his classroom discourse, whether or not his students’ intellectual experiences could be compromised by his being “out,” and whether or not he should create a space for a student to feel safe in expressing views opposing homosexuality.  One of the course’s texts is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir with two queer threads: Bechdel’s own, as she comes to identify as a lesbian, and her father’s, as reveals that he is gay.

As Scudera says, if Anti-Semitic, racist, or misogynistic views came up while discussing a text, he would address the issue in class directly.  But, with regard to homosexuality, he feels differently, and his careful probing is worthy of attention.  At one point, he wonders if one of his students expressed opposition to homosexuality, would he feel safe.  That turns the typical conversation from the idea of our students’ safety to the instructor’s safety.  And, it’s a legitimate concern: the instructor is also part of the same community of learning as the students.  The instructor is responsible for curating a conversation that is conducive for learning; if he or she feels compromised or undermined or, perhaps even, bullied, then the moment of learning has clearly been disrupted.

In “Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings,” Maxine Greene says, “If the human being is demeaned, if her or his family is delegitimized, crucial rights are being trampled on.  This is partly because persons marked as unworthy are unlikely to feel good enough to pose the questions in which learning begins, unlikely to experience whatever curriculum is being presented as relevant to their being in the world.”  While the obvious application of Greene’s statement is to the student population, it also extends to the teacher.  Of course, the teacher is in the position of power to set the tone or to police the various modes of expression in the classroom.  But in our protection of our students’ rights and worthiness, we have to also protect our own.  And we have to remember that though we may be positionally “teachers” and our students positionally “students,” the actual teaching and learning is mutual and dynamic.  Though we may be shaping the conversation around a certain topic, we are tasked with reading and interpreting the most slippery texts in the room: our students.

I seriously doubt that I’ll have any student express open opposition to homosexuality in my Queer Literature and Theory course.  In my four years at this school, I haven’t felt any open hostility due to my being openly gay.  One reason I applied to teach at this particular school in the first place is that it met one of my firm criteria: it lists sexual orientation in its nondiscriminatory policy.  When I looked around at many potential independent schools for teaching jobs, especially in the South, they stopped short of listing sexual orientation in these policies.  But just because an oppositional viewpoint isn’t regularly expressed does not mean that we shouldn’t consider what those viewpoints are and where they come from, especially in the classroom.   My job, in creating the best educational experience, is to curate that conversation.

Scudera ends his piece still digging, still questioning:

Do we, as educators, have an obligation to respect our students’ views that run in opposition to our own lives? Fifty years ago, that was not an issue. Being an openly gay professor was not realistic, and no college course would assign a book like Fun Home. There were no books like Fun Home.

Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.

We have to respect our students as people and their right to harbor views for whatever reason.  We do not have to let a particular view expressed exist unchallenged, regardless of whether it aligns with our own beliefs.  I am not one to check my biases, beliefs, or background at my classroom’s threshold.  No, those things I carry with me because they shape me.  I feel that being open about those biases and beliefs, and my background is key to my students’ knowing and respecting where my thoughts come from, just as I do for them.

It’s telling to note how the landscape of gay rights in America has changed since Scudera’s article was published on May 9, 2013.  Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, and Utah have, since the publication of this article, approved marriage equality.  That’s six additional states in about seven months.  On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor ruled DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional.  And, finally, the ENDA (Employment Nondiscrimination Act) passed the Senate on November 7, 2013, and is awaiting vote by the House.  All of this to say, that the cultural landscape seems to be changing much faster than many of us anticipated.  Scudera’s image of a professor in 2063 could very well come into being much quicker.  An additional catalyst for change: teaching queer subject matter to our students (even high school students) so that they do not view non-normative sexualities and gender expression as deviant or morally compromised.  We can be open with our students about our experiences as queer people so that the abstract concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” or “transgender” or “genderqueer” become real people and real relationships.  The poet William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things” when talking about conveying abstractions through physical, concrete images.  The same thing works for turning cultural or political rhetoric into something real; it’s my opportunity to take “queer” or “gay” and remind my students that those terms are attached to and lived by me.

There’s the bell. Let’s get started.

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Tomorrow will be the start of second semester at the independent boarding and day school where I live (#boardingschoolperks) and teach.  The school has announced that, on Monday, we’re going to start two hours later than normal due to a hard freeze.  In the Deep South, we swing to extremes when dealing with weather; sometimes it’s warranted.  I’m certainly not complaining about a two-hour extension to my winter break.  Love and civility are stronger in a school community at 10:00 a.m. than they are at 8:00 a.m.  But when I saw these record-breaking low temperatures for Monday, I had to wonder if, on the first day of my teaching Queer Literature and Theory (a new course) at a high school in Alabama, Hell was (literally) freezing over.  But, by that logic (?), Hell equals Alabama.  And Alabama is far from Hell.  Trust me.  I grew up in Mississippi.

I’ll anticipate a few of your questions and “interview” myself.

Q: Who are you?

A: I’m a 28-year-old teacher and writer.  The stars say that I’m a Libra with a “moon” in Scorpio (at least, my astrologically-inclined friend Jessica tells me the latter).  I studied classics and English as an undergraduate before realizing that, obviously, the economically-savvy pathway for graduate school was poetry.  Thus, an M.F.A. program in poetry and all the concomitant riches!  I’ve published a book of poems, He Will Laugh (Lethe Press, 2012), and am currently editing an anthology of essays and poems exploring the queer experience in the American South (due out in September 2014 from Sibling Rivalry Press).

For the past four years, I have taught at an independent, coeducational boarding and day school in Alabama (more on that later).  I teach upper-level Latin courses and one senior English elective each semester.  In the fall, I teach a creative nonfiction and poetry workshop; in the Spring, I like to mix things up.  I’ve taught Contemporary Literature (how’s that for specific?), Southern Literature and Culture, and The Coming-of-Age Story.  But last year, when we were to tell the Dean of Academics what electives we would be offering for the coming year, I threw out Queer Literature and Theory, half-way thinking I would get a response along the lines of, “Interesting.  Let’s talk about this.” or “Are you sure?” or “What?”  Instead, I got the silence = assent response.

Q: Are you…

A: gay? Yes. queer?  That’s fine too.

Q: Are you...

A: out? Yes. To your students? Yes.  Actually, I was never really “in” so to speak.  When I moved to this school, I had to make a decision: would I be out to the community, to parts of it, or some other complicated mixture of masking and revealing.  At the time, I was moving to this new state with my then partner, now ex.  We weren’t living on campus at that point, but he was going to be around, and I wasn’t going to do the linguistic dance of “Here’s my ‘friend’ or ‘roommate'” or whatever.  That’s thinly veiled Southern for “Yes, I sleep with him.”

Also, I had a book coming out that anyone could read or buy and realize that, yes, I was indeed a card-carrying, voting member in good standing of the “homosexual community.”

I also wondered how different my experience as an adolescent would have been if I had had an openly-gay teacher and if that would have made my coming-to-terms with my own sexuality easier? Suffice to say that, at the Mississippi independent school I went to, I received a very solid academic background, but my exposure to “diversity” (of any sort) was severely lacking.

I needed my students to know that there’s a part of me that informs who I am as a reader and thinker and, ultimately, a teacher.

More than once, I thought back to that episode of My So-Called Life where Rickie, cast out for being gay by his uncle, shows up to Mr. Katimski’s house unannounced.  And, in the moment of Rickie’s great despair and reaching out for help, there’s the big reveal: Mr. Katimski’s (male) partner and, thus, his outing. As fond as I am of the too-short-lived show, I played a different part.

Q: Is there a “big” gay / queer community at your school?

A: No.  I am the only openly-gay teacher at the school.  There are queer students, and we have an active GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), which I sponsor.  There’s a good amount of “queer visibility,” though there’s certainly a wide range of actual opinions concerning the open presence of all things queer amongst the various constituencies of the school.  I’ve seen / heard very little blatant homophobic behavior / speech; however, I don’t think that’s necessarily an indication of tolerance and certainly not acceptance.

Q: Did anyone sign up for your Queer Literature and Theory course?

A: I have 13 students (all seniors) currently enrolled.  I’m not under the impression that all of them signed up because they were eager to parse Judith Butler and Foucault.  Some took it because of the “cult of personality” that exists in schools–you know, where you take every course with Mrs. X because she’s a badass.  Some took it because it worked well with their schedules.  But a handful, I’m sure, took the course for genuine interest.

Q: So what’s on your reading list?

A: A lot of stuff.  I decided to be ambitious; even if we don’t “cover” all of the texts I’m having them buy, hopefully, they’ll keep everything and maybe one day read through everything or give things to people who will.  I don’t know; incredibly wishful here.

Making this syllabus was really, really difficult.  Syllabus-making is such a responsibility, a rush, a power.  I always give the disclaimer to my students that I could do a course makeover in heartbeat, that “our” Queer Literature and Theory course is not “the” Queer Literature and Theory course.  It is “a” look into “some” aspects of a vast field.  I’ll encourage them, in college or graduate school, to take a course under a similar heading because it will undoubtedly be different.

Our first reading is Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988).  It’s not necessarily a classic “queer” text, but I want to locate “queer studies” as the scion of women’s studies+gender theory+gay/lesbian studies.

Other texts: Woolf’s Orlando; Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; Bornstein’s New Gender Workbook; Carson’s Autobiography of Red; an anthology of trans* poetry and poetics called Troubling the Line; a theory anthology from Routledge; Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy; Mann’s Breakfast with Thom Gunn; Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats; Jensen’s The First Risk. And more.  I know, ambitious.

Q: So why the blog?

A: I don’t know if a course of this nature has ever been taught at the secondary level.  I looked around at the course catalogs of several other independent schools, and I found nothing similar.  I just assumed that a course exploring queerness wouldn’t be taught at a public high school (maybe that assumption is off; I don’t know).

Several months ago, I wrote a couple of poems, exploring my experience as a gay teacher, for an anthology called This Assignment is So Gay (edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press in August 2013).  I enjoyed the experience of doing that very basic rule of creative writing: write what you know.  So much of my life is consumed with teaching / being part of a boarding school community.  It makes sense to write that.

I want to document this experiment.  There’s just not a lot of content that exists written by queer teachers.  There’s even less content  about queer teachers teaching queer subject matter.  Especially in a high school.  Especially in Alabama.

When you seek out something, and it doesn’t already exist, then make it yourself.