Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Teaching the Literary Canon

I read an article today about students from Yale University who wanted to "abolish the major English poets cycle and revise the remaining requirements 'to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.'" The author noted that she "was not arguing that while having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male" (para. 10).

The problem is, of course, is that the canon is not deviated as often as it should be. Teachers can be incredibly creative, but there are teachers who are also remarkably uncreative, who teach the same material in the same way for years on end, and don't think to vary their methods or materials. I do think there's value to teaching some of the canon, especially given that for such a long historical stretch, it was the wealthier white men who were able to write and publish to begin with - but people get stuck and ignore more contemporary writing but a wider range of authors.

Perhaps it's time to redefine what the "literary canon" encompasses - or widen that definition.

I ended this year by teaching my 10th graders a unit on short stories; it was a unit that included Langston Hughes (“Thank You, Ma’am”), Amy Tan (“The Rules of the Game,” which is an excerpt from The Joy Luck Club), Guy de Maupassant (“The Necklace”), Edgar Allan Poe (“The Cask of Amontillado”), Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), Roald Dahl (“Lamb to the Slaughter”), Saki (“The Interlopers”), O. Henry (“The Gift of the Magi”), and James Hurst (“The Scarlet Ibis”). It’s a good cross-section of American (including African-American and Chinese-American) and European writers. In other words, there are a range of voices from different eras, featuring writers from different ethnicities and socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

It is, I hope, a good survey of writers that students wouldn't necessarily encounter, but I know that how we define "literary canon" could be reconstructed to include some of these authors as well: Poe tends to be covered in American Literature and Gothic circles; Langston Hughes was part of a group of artists heavily involved in the Harlem Renaissance; Amy Tan emphasizes Chinese-American experiences; Roald Dahl is known for his children's literature (James and the Giant Peach; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Matilda). And so on.

I'm reconsidering starting next year with this unit because it includes elements of literature and provides a background in literary devices, analysis, and writing techniques, but I'll need to think of how I can transition between this unit and draw connections to the next (possibly Greek mythology).

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Year Five

Another year has gone by - a good year with few emotional stressors. We're having a quiet weekend at home this weekend; tonight we'll go out to dinner at Teppanyaki. I did get some good anniversary gifts: CCCP Cookbook: True Stories of Soviet CuisineThe Oxford Companion to Foodand Insects and Flowers: The Art of Maria Sibyl Merian.I got Ed a molten sculptural bowl, a personalized hammera rustic wood sign, and "Be Thou My Vision" burned on barn wood, ("Be Thou My Vision" is an 8th century Irish hymn attributed to the Irish Christian poet St. Dallan. We heard this song at Mass shortly after we got engaged; I hadn't paid much attention so it but it caught Ed's ear, so I asked the guitarist who had performed it what the song was, and it became the song to which I walked down the aisle.) 

This is still my favorite wedding picture.

In July we went to Ireland for three weeks. We visited some of my cousins in western Ireland (in the Co. Limerick area), visited my parents (who live on the Co. Roscommon / Co. Leitrim border for part of the year), made our way north to the Giant's Causeway and Belfast, then drove down to Dublin for the last week of our trip. Early in our trip we were able to attend a Medieval Banquet in Dunguaire Castle which you can see in the background here. (Dunguaire Castle was the Hynes Clan castle; my mother was a Hynes, and when in Galway one can still see Hynes establishments. We therefore like to think of this as the family castle.) Just look past my dad photobombing an otherwise good picture.
From Ireland (2015)

Over the summer I had 13 job interviews, and I was finally offered a position at Copper Hills High School. (Lucky 13 - my interview at Copper Hills was the last interview and the only job offer. On a side note, I appreciated the very few schools that were kind enough to send me an e-mail telling me I wasn't a match. Most of the schools I didn't hear from at all.) This year I've been teaching 10th grade, 12th grade, and Concurrent Enrollment classes, which effectively means I teach the same things I would at Salt Lake Community College (Introduction to Writing) except I teach those things to high school students who are simultaneously high school and college students. It's going swimmingly - I like the school, my colleagues, and the students tremendously, and my official observations were very good - and I'll be back next year.

My nephew turned one in mid-April. It was just a little too far away for a weekend trip to celebrate Niall's first birthday, but we were able to FaceTime during the celebrations.

This will be a quiet summer; I'm teaching two summer classes at SLCC, and I'm not sure we'll do any traveling. If we do, it'll be domestic.

There's a lot of professional development ahead. I got two conference proposals relating to Concurrent Enrollment in high schools accepted, so I'll be presenting at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Convention in October (conveniently held in Salt Lake City), and the Modern Language Association Convention in January 2017 in Philadelphia. I'm also getting the related paper published, due out in Summer 2017. And with any luck, I'll be able to complete a Master's degree I started way back in 2007 but didn't complete.

Michelle & Ed's Wedding
from Michelle Szetela on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How Can High School Teachers Become College Professors?

One of the blogs I regularly read is Confessions of a Community College Dean; a recent blog post in which he asked "How can high school teachers become college professors?" got me thinking, especially since I'm ensconced in teaching concurrent enrollment classes.

One of the biggest barriers I've seen - which is not to say that it's necessarily insurmountable, depending on experience and the facultyposition to which one aspires - is that many K-12 teachers have graduate degrees in education, as opposed to content matter. I think this can be a tremendous mistake. Teaching experience is gained by teaching - although I think taking education classes is immensely helpful as a pre-service teacher, and continuing professional development is key - but it's more difficult to gain that content mastery because of the amount of time one spends in a high school as a teacher; there simply isn't the same amount of flexibility as there is in the college world to travel to conferences, research, write, publish, or simply keep abreast of changing trends in one's subject matter.

If one wants to teach English, if one has an undergraduate degree in English but has a master's in education, the person hiring simply might not see how you have the advanced expertise necessary to teach English, even if you were a high school English teacher...unless you can show that you've taken some advanced courses in that subject matter.

This is what happened to me: I went to college later in life (I use the phrase loosely - I graduated with my B.A. in English when I was 31, in 2007), right when the economy collapsed on itself. I started but did not complete a graduate degree (which I have since done). Because of my extensive experience tutoring writing at multiple college writing centers, my mostly-complete master's degree in English with a concentration in rhetoric and the teaching of writing, and my formal teacher training, I found it exponentially easier to get a job adjuncting without the finished master's degree than I did finding a job teaching junior high or high school English, despite my being a licensed teacher. I adjuncted for a number of years in three different states, at both community colleges and universities (and in fact I was told I had gotten those CC jobs in part because I had attended and graduated from a community college myself; I would understand the culture from the students' perspectives).

In August 2015, eight years after having graduated with my B.A., I finally landed my first full time position teaching high school English; I was the first person to interview for this particular position, and was offered the job in part because of my college-teaching experience. My particular position requires me to teach concurrent enrollment (known in some circles as dual enrollment) through the same community college at which I've been adjuncting since 2012.

I did things backwards, in a sense, and certainly not the way most teachers seem to do it. I loved teaching at the community college and was about to just throw in the towel altogether - I was becoming cynical that I had put so much effort into trying to find a full-time teaching job in three states and having no luck.

I would in no way be able to recommend someone getting a graduate degree in education unless one is fairly certain that one wants to stay in the K-12 range, but this is just my perspective. I've appreciated the flexibility that comes with having a graduate degree in my subject matter.