I have taught high school English for nearly a decade, and that pending anniversary has caused some serious self-reflection. In a recent article at The Millions, I tried to articulate my path toward such a career, one that was never my goal as an undergraduate or graduate student. Teaching high school has been an excellent life choice for me, both financially and artistically, though I recognize that it is not the right profession for every aspiring teacher-writer.
Yet our current adjunct crisis should nudge graduates of English and Creative Writing programs to consider nontraditional career routes. For years I felt like a black sheep—someone active in small press and literary publishing who operated largely outside of higher education—but I have recently discovered a growing number of successful writers who teach high school. One such writer is Lauren Berry, whose first collection, The Lifting Dress, was selected by Terrence Hayes for the National Poetry Series. I wanted to learn more about Lauren’s experiences as a high school teacher and writer, in order to continue this needed conversation about careers for graduates of Creative Writing programs.
The Rumpus: Where do you teach high school, and how did you arrive at this position?
Lauren Berry: This school year will be my third year with a Houston-based charter school named YES Prep, which stands for Youth Engaged in Service. I currently teach AP [Advanced Placement] English Language and am the district Course Leader for English Four; I have taught both of those courses for the past two years. Before accepting a position in the twelfth grade, I taught at the college level for four years, and I was vocal about my belief that I would never fit into secondary education. Even as I went through a rigorous application and interview process, I was convinced that I wouldn’t take the job even if it was offered to me. However. There was a magic about the school that kept me wildly curious, and soon enough I fell in love with the staff, the students, and the imaginative drive of the organization. I quickly realized how dead wrong I was about dismissing the possibility of teaching high school English. I’d even go as far as to say that deciding to take the position with YES was one of the best (and most surprising) decisions that I’ve ever made.
Rumpus: Why have you chosen a career in secondary, rather than higher, education?
Berry: I get paid—better than I would as an adjunct, in fact—to bring my love of rhetoric to students who are, on the whole, more inquisitive and lit up about learning than my college students. The younger ones also aren’t “finished” in the way that college students seem to be; my senior kids are on the edge of a bright world and I’m their last English teacher before they enter it. That, in and of itself, is a gift.
At YES, I get to spend one-hundred-and-five minutes a day with each senior contingent, which allows for a deeper relationship than the college level. This bond helps me to select materials and teaching strategies for my kids’ specific interests and educational needs. While teaching at the University of Houston and the University of Wisconsin, I never felt that I really truly knew who the people in those desks were (not even in a writing workshop). I’m a better teacher now that I understand my kids’ literary and personal backgrounds. Every week I get to bring my students books, articles, poems, TED talks that I know that they will love, and when they light up because of this connection, it’s a glowing victory for me.
Rumpus: You are a graduate of the MFA at the University of Houston. Would you recommend that other MFA graduates consider teaching high school?
Berry: While I would (and often do) recommend teaching at the high school level, I would also caution that one must be extremely disciplined when it comes to maintaining a writing career. For example, if I’ve worked ten hours, have a fresh pile of In Cold Blood essays on the kitchen table, and know that grades are due the next day, it’s difficult to find the motivation to draft a villanelle. My solution: instead of trying to write during the crunch of the week, I carve out time on the weekends and holiday breaks. I also try to share my writing career with fellow teachers, as they help me stay disciplined. Most weeks a colleague asks me if I am writing—a question which holds me accountable. I’ve also requested that my current Dean of Instruction check in on me to ensure that I am crafting verse and not vocabulary quizzes over the weekend. I ask for this support because I need it; if I were left to my own devices, I’d spend all my time designing PowerPoint presentations and answering e-mails from students. When there are people around you who support your art, it’s easier to balance both passions.
Rumpus: Did the timeline of writing, revising, or promoting The Lifting Dress intersect with teaching high school?
Berry: What’s funny is that my first full day at YES was the day that the National Poetry Series called to announce the publication. That evening there was a district “Back to School” event and when I broke the news to my school director, he said, “Does this mean you’re quitting?” I love this story, and I think it’s hilariously optimistic of him. Since I am a poet and not the author of a trilogy of young adult novels or an heiress to an oil company, I need to work full-time. But as much as possible, I attend readings in my community and keep up with friends who are writers; their devotion reminds me that I have to cultivate my identity as an artist. Otherwise, it is too easy for it to extinguish.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite writers to teach in the secondary classroom?
Berry: Right now I teach Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I plan to keep this schedule for quite some time. Between texts, I teach various nonfiction, poetry, and short excerpts from prose. Also, if I find something new that I fall in love with, I bring it to the classroom and have students analyze it. I teach them that I will always be a student of the English language. Our learning is never over.
Rumpus: I also teach an AP course. As an instructor, how do you negotiate instilling a love for the aesthetics of reading and writing with the need to prepare students for a specific exam?
Berry: On my campus, I am blessed with a vertical team of brilliant teachers. All four grades in the high school begin English class with fifteen minutes of silent reading time, a ritual that promotes the sheer love of language. Once a week, classes travel to our tiny school library, where we work hard to match students with books that they can’t get enough of, and it works. Believe me, I’ve given demerits for students sneaking a few pages from a book during a lesson. Today for example, a transition from one part of the lesson to the next took over a minute due to a struggle with technology, and one kid pulled out Don Quixote, just to get a paragraph read before I hooked up the document camera. Yes, it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s magic, I think.
I illustrate this because our school formally teaches students that if they read for pleasure every day, they are more likely to be successful when it comes to those daunting AP multiple choice questions and free response essays. Reading for pleasure and reading for analysis can be viewed as two different events, but reading for pleasure can inspire that potent analysis more easily and transform one’s relationship to the test itself. Also, and most importantly, I have my classes analyze passages that I find both rigorous and thrilling. In my syllabus, I wrote that I would never compromise rigor, but I also wouldn’t teach literature that I am not in love with. Just today we analyzed Mary Queen of Scots’ last letter, which she wrote at two in the morning, six hours before she was beheaded. My students analyzed that epistle, which has a 1600 Lexile score, for over an hour without pause or a single off-task comment, because they were so riled up just imagining Queen Mary in prison, rapidly scribbling out her last wishes to the King of France. It was pure joy to witness.
Rumpus: Are there any skills or tricks you have learned as a teacher that can be applied to the art of writing?
Berry: Last week our ninth grade English team led a lesson on analyzing poetry— my poetry. I stopped by one of the classrooms during my planning period to observe the lesson, which focused on a poem from The Lifting Dress called “Big Sister Drinks in the Field Behind the Children’s Hospital.” Sitting silently in the back of the dark room, I watched my illuminated poem on the projector screen, in awe of the young scholars who spent thirty minutes breaking the poem down line, by line, by line. They eagerly pushed every metaphor, every tone, every line break, every punctuation mark toward a greater thematic purpose. Their hands shot into the air with insightful interpretations. Viewpoints I’d never considered. It was bliss to witness it.
What stands out from that moment is how sincerely the students demanded meaning from the ink that I’d put on the page. When their teacher revealed my identity as the author of the poem and asked me to explain why I’d selected “the wet peach” to represent the speaker’s heart, the question gave me pause. Why had I done that for my audience? What did I want them to know? Suddenly I realized the possibility of my writer-self letting them down, which I’d never thought of before; I’d always been so focused on my teaching career, what light I could shine on others’ literature, that I failed to envision the benefit of cultivating my own works for them. Later that day, when various ninth graders found me around campus and told me how much they loved my “childhood poem,” I felt a fresh urgency toward my craft.
It’s easy to become pessimistic about the paucity of poetry readers, but here is my readership, literally peeking their heads into my classroom to tell me how excited they are about their new world of poetry. Sometimes it feels as though no one is going out in search of verse—and yet here they are. Right here the whole time. Our kids taught me to be hopeful about poetry—to remember them. To remember that I have more to do for them outside of teaching.