Teaching English for a change


Years ago, four day before school started, the principal informed me that I was going to teach freshmen English and a special course for all these juniors and seniors who had passed the state test but not one single English class.  The goal–we were on a quarter system then:  teach a year of English per quarter or at least do that for the seniors.  Of course, everyone knew that if I did the traditional curriculum, such a thing would prove impossible.  I took a look at the students.  Smart (at least some of them), rebellious, lazy, unmotivated, potheads probably–some openly admitted it, and various combinations of these sorts of things.  For fun the previous summer, I had taken a week long course on how to teach junior Advanced Placement English–I know, a strange idea of fun, but I loved it.  Four days gave me little time to prepare so I decided I would use the freshman book for the freshmen, but incorporate what I had learned in the AP English course.  For this other special class, I decided to try some really different tactics, including starting with a really different book than any had probably ever read.  Because of the language–swear words in Spanish for starters, and because of the topics, e.g. prison, it seemed necessary to get the permission from the head of the English department.  The book:  A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca, one of my all time favorite books and a superb example of figurative language.  The department head gave permission much to my astonishment–she must have taken a look at the students and decided anything was worth a try.  The students actually read ahead, looked the author up online, found out he was giving a reading in Santa Fe and contacted him. We did go to Santa Fe for the reading and actually had lunch with him and his wife and baby–who would now be a teenager or nearly so.  One of the students who went contacted me a couple of months ago to tell me he still had a signed copy of one of Baca’s books.

After that year, I taught math for years–algebra, geometry.  Occasionally, I even cotaught chemistry or remedial science for those who had not passed the state test.  About three weeks ago, the new principal called me in and asked me what I wanted to teach.  I said English.  He asked me how about senior English?!  Next school year I will be teaching British literature.  Now, I am trying to think how to make Beowulf and Canterbury Tales readable and exciting.  I was told I could also incorporate modern British literature so I started looking at the Man Booker (sort of like a British and former British colonies version of the Pulitzer or something of that sort) short list.  Much to my astonishment, I have read a lot of the authors on this list, but mostly those from the colonies like Nigeria and India.  Now I am reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.  This book won the Pen Hemingway and was short listed for the Man Booker.  Probably more familiar authors for many readers would be names like Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Amitav Ghosh, and Kiran Desai.  If any of you who read this blog have others suggestions for modern British literature, send me the names.  The students may be in a temporary  (or longer) state of shock when they find out they really do have to read, but they will get over it and might even discover its fun.

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