Contrary to popular myth, teachers don’t really have summers off. Since I began teaching, I haven’t had a summer of absolute freedom—-in fact, as soon as I earned my certification in May 2004, I applied for a summer school job in the district that hired me. In addition to Writing Project summer institutes, AP institutes, countless workshops, and (just once) an AVID summer institute, I’ve also earned a Master’s Degree with the help of summer classes, and am currently working on another Master’s. This month, I am taking a class in African-American literature at the state university. I’m also working crazily to put together teaching units for my AP class, because after this year I feel a need to throw out my old ideas and start with something that’s truer to my heart.
My first two years of teaching AP, I was really shadowing what the previous AP Lit teacher had done, trying to put my own spin on it, slowly making it more like what I do. I need to have an overarching focus for every subject I teach. When I taught freshmen, I developed over time the metaphor of a journey, and how our journeys reflect Odysseus’ and other characters’. This is not at all an original idea, but the students seemed to buy into the idea of a “freshmen journey” and —-after my first year of teaching—- no one ever asked me that famous question, “Whyyyyy are we dooooing this?”—-they trusted that at the end it would all come together, and it did.
When I moved to sophomores, it took me a couple of years to refine my overarching ideas—-the self in society, the power structure in society, leaving the family of origin to build a place for oneself—-to focus on compassion and responsibility in a world of corruption and oppression. Sounds depressing, but I think at the end, the students are uplifted and really “get” why we’ve spent a year on some of the most depressing topics imaginable. Bad things happen, but don’t let that define you or your world; one person can make a difference; stand up for the oppressed; music and literature and art saves us. They know, too, that there are other ways of redemption: science and sports and theater, for example—-but they know that this is my particular way, and that I believe passionately in giving them exposure to the best literature for the 90 days, 84 minutes a day, that I have them.
My AP kids are more concerned with scores and numbers. They resist my concentration on the Dual Credit early college experience aspect of the course, which is all about writing through literature. Oh, they hate to write. They want some magic formula that’ll enable them to pass an AP Lit test without ever actually breaking a sweat. It doesn’t work that way for most of them, although I do have some who are gifted in the craft of test-taking. Literature is so intrinsically connected to life; reading-writing-thinking-discussing-rereading—rewriting until a work becomes as familiar as your own heartbeat.
Basically, what I want the AP kids to buy into is the idea of storytelling as a radical, audacious, essential aspect of being human. The summer reading, with which we will begin the school year, is, I think, a good way to broach this idea: we’re doing Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which lends itself so well to the big picture ideas of myth and folklore, beauty, self-actualization…why we tell stories, what Janie gains from telling her story, how we understand her through the frame in which she tells her friend about her life. Teachers of other subjects aren’t, I don’t think, called upon to defend their work as much as English teachers are. No one says, who needs history, who needs chemistry…but people are perfectly fine with seeing story as a luxury.
So that’s what I’m working on this summer.