Hello, I am Claudia and I am the writing and literature literature teacher at Roadstead Montessori High School. In this blog I will tell you about how I developed my love of learning and teaching words. I will also tell you how my writer life converses with my role as a teacher.
I have been teaching since the 1970s,
when my father brought home sheets of carbon paper from the English department at Queens College of the City University of New York. I used them to make lessons and quizzes for my stuffed animals, my class. Some of them really were terrible spellers, no matter what I did. Don’t even get me started on Suzy the rag doll.
I have been lucky to have a life decorated with, awash in, and colored by words. I grew up in apartments lined with books, my parents talked about books with each other and their friends, and both my father and my aunt wrote books (of very different sorts) that I love to read. My father taught Shakespeare and Milton during the day, and at night my mother would read to me from The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit. When the circumstances of my childhood made me unhappy in any way, I escaped into the lives of fictional people, lives written to invite me, tightly wrapped tween, into their embrace of adventure, allegory, fear, and delight.
I knew that some words were not allowed, because if I said any of them, it led to disapproving glances, at the very least; a British clucking of the tongue and my father’s flared left nostril was to be avoided at all costs. I was so careful in my pronunciation of words such as “dog” and “water,” that when I left New York, people did not guess where I was from. Words–their meaning, even their sound, were of central importance. I learned lessons about the role of language in self-representation and socio-economic class, moving from a public school in Harlem to a small English private school on the West Side. The different ways we spoke, my friends and I, depended on where we were, who we were with, or whom, and what we wanted others to think of us.
I do not underestimate the power of words.
There are ways to teach this, though, designed to empower rather than shame. Accents and dialects are wonderful, and I love to hear them, read them, and learn them. A solid New York accent is music to my ears, but so is one from West Virginia. My American ears are less well-trained at listening to English spoken in accents from around the world, but I appreciate the effort I need to make to understand what is being said, and such listening forces me to slow down. Celebrating language, modeling for students the joy it brings me, is where I start. Look at how many ways we can read this line of verse just because of this one word! It has five meanings we’ve thought of in the last two minutes, and at least one alternate pronunciation that gives it a sixth definition. That feels clever. It feels exciting!
Then the world begins to open up,
because students can see how this piece of writing is in dialogue with other pieces of writing that use words in the same way. Sometimes this is obvious, as between Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Sometimes the images that words create for us require a bit of background knowledge, such as when a student suggested that the drunken Sir Toby Belch in the production of Twelfth Night we watched was wearing purple because the color represented Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Shakespeare wrote a play in the 1500s that is not only funny even to today’s teenagers, with its bawdy and bathroom-y sense of humor, but with a modern director’s mild tweaking, addresses issues relevant to them—establishing identity and finding love.
Because I have experienced the awe of realizing the relationship between two seemingly disparate works, or reading something I know is just so good, I want everyone to have the same opportunity to make these connections and to recognize truly fine writing; more than that, I want people to harness the power of words for themselves, for the sake of self-expression and making art, sure, but also to inform, to debate, to make the “text” that is the world their own.
The simple act of putting pen (or quill) to paper has formed and destroyed governments, started and ended wars, uncovered scandals and the mysteries of the universe, and created the most revered and carefully preserved historical documents of our lifetimes. My goal is to help young writers find such potential within themselves and use it in any field they choose, whether their jobs demand writing journal articles, data-driven reports and memos, corporate press packets, video game scripts, or pamphlets containing life-saving information for wide distribution.
Teenagers delight in memes,
and no wonder: the combination of an image juxtaposed with just a few words, the right words, can say everything they feel. They live in the Internet age, where information comes to them as soon as they request it, and a lot of material they never sought also crosses their paths. Because of the pandemic, their experience has also become disproportionately virtual. Everything comes at them fast. If they want to participate, they will need to jump into a conversation at a speed and in a format that most of us did not expect. Now is the best time for them to learn how to use words to express who they are, and to shape those words to suit the space, virtual or solid.
I work closely with each student so that their unique strengths can be nurtured even as I concentrate on specific skill-building tasks designed with the individual student in mind. Students expect to work together and help each other, and I can create working pairs and groups to continue skill-building tasks even as they all work within the context of a general writing assignment.
Student-led discussions of readings lead to writing assignments they can create for themselves; individual tutorials for research-writing or writing skills-building also allow students to design their path while learning to communicate effectively and artfully. When I was in high school taking piles of books out of the library to write essays with titles such as “Guns or Butter?” I wished mightily that I would be allowed to write what I wanted to write about—my generation’s fear of nuclear disasters and AIDS, why I’d rather be in Narnia, and a number of personal subject areas my parents might have found questionable.
Instead of assigning a hit parade of topics for students to argue for or against, I have them dig into memories—moments in which someone said something to them that stuck, for good or ill. They write down all the sensory details they can call up. They brainstorm other lists, too, of topics they love that they think their classmates would be interested in. This is how we approach the personal essay, but also the more complex rhetorical issue of audience.
They use time-tested methods to build the essay, but the subjects are theirs. Older student-writers, in tutorials with me, are allowed to set a course for the year (though who knows where we’ll end up?), and so far I find myself reading about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Filipino-American labor organizers of the 1930s and ‘40s, and present-day youth activists of all kinds. They are keeping me on my toes!
And, while I have been teaching on and off for thirty years,
I have also spent time working in publishing.
I was employed as an editor and a copy editor in New York for a 144-page weekly magazine, a children’s book publishing company, an engineering association, a publisher of medical journals, and even an industrial equipment publication. I have kept my own blog since 2014, IslerInk, and published some short stories and five nonfiction books for children and young adults. These experiences have helped ground my otherwise academic, who-needs-money-when-you-have-books existence, putting my schooling to use in the real world, in the workplace, where I needed not only to know how to use words on the page, but how to communicate with art departments, production teams, and printers. I learned how to organize projects and budget time, and I learned how to work late without complaining (too much).
Communicating with different people and their various roles is a skill we practice at school every day, from putting up canopies in our new pandemic morning to asking questions about what a classmate has written in the afternoon. Budgeting time for assignments and tasks is something we work on each day, too, as students arrange their calendars and later use their self-assessments to discuss whether things went according to plan.
These planning “exercises” have had an enormous impact on me, making me more productive with better planning. Seeking materials that will help students synthesize coursework with the world around them, articulate abstractions, and draw inferences can be a challenge. It is amazing to watch as they connect history to science and past to present, as they are doing in their history seminar. I plan to have them read a travel journal titled Along the Ganges, but before that we will read some short fiction by Indian writers and writers of Indian descent with varying views on British colonialism. I can’t wait to see what they make of these and other texts.
My blog: https://islerink.com/
The Right to Vote. Rosen, 2001.
The Right to Free Speech. Rosen, 2001.
Volunteering to Help with Animals. Children’s Press, 2000.
Volunteering to Help in Your Neighborhood. Children’s Press, 2000.
Caught in the Middle: A Teen Guide to Custody. Rosen, 2000.
“The Bicentennial,” Underwater New York, 2019.
“Hail Marys,” Scribblers on the Roof, 2009.
I love offering people the opportunity to express themselves through story and memoir and poetry, especially where few opportunities have existed, and so I have created some programs in under-served communities in and around Norfolk, teaching free workshops to small groups of children or adults, as my time has allowed. We are surrounded by a lot of talent and voices waiting to be heard!