“Mr. Cleminshaw, you’re the whitest person I’ve ever seen.”
Thus a student welcomed me to my first class on my first day of my first full time teaching job. I was on Guam in the Central Pacific, teaching eleventh grade American Literature, and I was about to miss some amazing opportunities.
Looking back, I can think of so many ways I might have responded, ways that would have advanced learning, honored student stories, and been better than just nodding in agreement. Yet, I was a pale graduate of a New England college, and I was going to get on with my lesson plan. The class was going to start with a quotation from Walt Whitman because he was my favorite poet, and he said something I thought the students needed to hear.
I marched on through the curriculum doing what I knew English teachers did, assigning reading, giving reading quizzes, leading discussions of the reading, having students write essays on the reading. The text was central, and I was the intermediary presenting the text. The fact the text selections were completely illogical given the setting never crossed my mind.
Every day I drove north up Marine Drive and looked at the bright blue Pacific past the rusted landing vehicle left over from the US landing during World War II. Had I headed south I would have seen the beach where Magellan arrived, the first contact between the indigenous Chamorros and Europeans. My license place featured latte stones, traditional elements of Chamorro architecture and the Chamorro greeting, “Hafa Adai.” But none of that history made it into my classroom.
The dutiful students stopped by Robert Frost’s woods one snowy evening, heard Emily Dickinson’s bobolink sing, strolled the gardens of Gatsby’s estate. Never mind the palm trees outside, the waves crashing nearby, the typhoon that delayed the start of school; the biome of American Literature was decidedly deciduous.
What I Didn’t See because I Wasn’t Looking
Imagine what I could have done. I could have had students lead investigations of Guamanian literature. I could have stepped to the side and listened as students brought in stories of Taotaomona haunting the jungles, of Chief Gadao’s strength, of the Two Lovers’ Point protagonists’ valiant resistance.
And for what did my course prepare students? Did it prepare them to understand their lives as Asian and Pacific Islanders on an unincorporated territory, one of America’s far flung colonial possessions? Did it prepare them to navigate the intersections of military infrastructure, tourism, and indigenous culture? Did it prepare them to communicate their ideas outside the prescribed limits of socratic exchange and analytical essay?
Perhaps, however, I am being too hard on myself. My teaching approach was merely a result of my own education. I had spent many hours as a student in English classes. I read the assigned texts every night, came to class, took reading quizzes, listened to the teacher ask questions of the class, heard my peers offer ideas, wrote essays at the end of units, and repeated the process ad infinitum through junior high school, high school, and college. It was a timeless text and teacher centered structure; think Robin William in Dead Poets Society without the Hollywood drama.
I found my space in those classes. I could live on the page: both the page I read and the page I wrote. However, when I left the page and headed into the world, there was a problem.
In college my primary interest was in literature by the marginalized, texts that responded to oppression. I read powerful narratives of resistance from around the world. I graduated being able to explain the dynamics of racism, sexism and classism in any text. I could theorize about neo-colonial imperialism and interlocking oppressions and the history of empire. Given this education when I went to Guam, I knew exactly what to do. I wrote a poem entitled, “So this is Colonialism.”
That’s it. I wrote a poem. I taught a teacher centered, canon heavy American Literature class completely divorced from my carefully developed theoretical awareness of oppression and colonialism. My students saw my whiteness in relationship to their Guamanian identity. I could have done so much more.
What School Tends to get Wrong
Certainly this is an extreme example, a case where the juxtaposition of traditional teaching and non-traditional environment is jarring. Still, even in a conventional setting, the standard model can miss a lot, leaving students unengaged or disconnected.
I became an English teacher even though the traditional classroom, the one I replicated, did not work perfectly for me. I never spoke in discussion. I never felt the space was safe enough or my ideas were correct enough. I never read any of the teacher comments on my essays, those comments that were supposed to help me grow as a writer. I ignored all feedback and filed them away in my room. Somewhere my analysis of Holden Caulfield’s hat lurks untouched to this day.
I was perfectly happy reading books, writing what I wanted to write, thinking what I wanted to think, and getting a B+. I did not particularly trouble my teachers, and they did not trouble me. That is not, though, the goal of education, a quiescent achievement of moderate success. It certainly not worth replicating decade after decade.
There is so much more that can be done. There was so much I could have done back on Guam. Those days my hope was that coming to love books the way I did, one of my students would be the next Whitman, the next Thoreau. Now I simply hope that one of them may have found their way into a classroom somewhere on the island and is doing something I could not have possibly imagined years ago but am doing now at Hawken.
Students select their own texts, sharing with the class what they find. Students discover their voices inside and outside the classroom publishing their ideas in many different media. Students engage with artifacts from the past, dissecting, questioning, synthesizing, creating, and, in the end, making work that informs the future.
I did indeed squander an opportunity years ago on Guam, an opportunity my traditional education had not prepared me to meet. I hope that in redesigning school, we can prepare our students to rise to the challenges they may meet whether they find them next door or half a world away.
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