An Interview with Jessica Lahey: Teaching Writing and Literacy
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
1) Jessica, first of all where do you teach and what kind of students do you teach?
I teach at Crossroads Academy, an independent K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. We draw students from as far as an hour away in New Hampshire and Vermont. We base our curriculum on the Core Knowledge Curriculum created by E. D. Hirsch and the Core Virtues Curriculum created by our school’s founder, Mary Beth Klee. My students are a talented and motivated bunch; they attend Crossroads for the academic rigor, supportive environment, and focus on individual character. I teach English and composition in seventh and eighth grade, and Latin in grades six through eight.
2) Let’s first focus on writing–why do you see it as important and how do you encourage it?
I believe writing is one of the most important life skills I teach. The ability to persuade others through words will serve my students well, no matter what they do with their lives. I teach a very structured composition class focusing on exposition and persuasive writing, with the occasional descriptive or personal narrative piece thrown in. The students spend a lot of time on four-paragraph essays, moving from specific pre-writing tasks, through development of thesis, to full sentence outline, to rough draft, and finally, final draft and reflection. All work is done in class, in small groups so they have the benefit of my advice and editing during the process.
Last year, we began participating in NaNoWriMo as a way of fulfilling the student’s desire to write creatively and freely, without the strict structure of composition class. That has been a wonderful addition to our year, and about 75% of the middle school students write novels in the month of November. Many have gone on to edit and self-publish their novels as well.
I am a writer as well as a teacher, and I love to talk to the students about the process of writing professionally. They have shared in my quest for an agent, my successes and failures in publication, and often, I read drafts of my blog posts to them. They are, after all, my muses. Some have aspirations to write professionally themselves, and that just thrills me. If I am able to teach my students the value of words, the weight and power of language, the beauty of a particularly well-wrought passage, I feel pretty good when I go to bed at night.
3) Now, literacy–in this age of Half Moon, and Full Moon and Eclipse and Breaking Dawn and all this vampire stuff—what do YOU encourage kids to read?
I keep a well-stocked independent reading shelf in my classroom, and offer up extra credit points for those books. Students may choose their own titles, of course, but I have to approve their selections if they want credit. When a particular novel does not score credit, they get frustrated with me, but I stress that it’s not that I don’t want them to read the Twilight series, I just don’t plan to give them credit for it. I like them to stretch themselves, try new things. I even push students who generally read challenging material to move out of a particular genre if they are stuck. If they are readers of fantasy and science fiction, that’s great – I hand them H.G. Wells or Mary Shelley – but if that’s all they read, I will urge them to read something outside of their comfort zone.
4) Let’s put you in charge of a state—What would be your TOP TEN required books in high school?
Oh, how I hate these questions. It all depends; am I teaching these books or simply handing them over to the students? If I am teaching them, I go with novels that will ease even the most literal students into the realm of the figurative and give my students a broad base of cultural literacy – Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Song of Solomon, To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear… the usual. As I talk a lot about Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero, I also include The Once and Future King, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and short stories such as A Worn Path. The journey is a theme we come back to over and over again, and as I also teach Latin, these books are really great dual-purpose texts. Finally, my students don’t get out of my clutches without a good dose of rhetoric, so speeches are definitely on the list as well – Kennedy, Lincoln, and Churchill are always on the menu.
5) How do you communicate to parents that writing, and reading GOOD literature is important?
This comes up so often that I wrote a “position paper” on the teaching of good literature at Crossroads Academy. Here’s a [very] short version of my position:
We must require students to read great works of literature because, when we hand them Dickens, Twain, or Shakespeare, we offer students so much more than a good story. We give them the opportunity to step beyond the safe boundary of the known world and journey into the uncharted territory of challenging vocabulary, unpredictable plot, and shifting perspectives. Students must brave these works armed with their own experiences and ability to reason, because great works of literature require more than simple retrieval and regurgitation of other’s ideas; they demand feats of intellectual bravery, patience, and trust. Great books are literary proving grounds, safe places for students to try, fail, and in the end, find unexpected moments of wonder and pride in their own abilities. When students learn to ask more of the books they read, they learn to ask more of themselves.
6) You have several blogs and commentaries- what do you see as needed changes in our educational system?
I’d love to see a shift from all this discussion about testing to discussion about what needs to be taught in order to prepare students both for higher education and life as productive members of American society. Now that I have taught in schools without a cohesive vision or agreed-upon curriculum and my current school, where the curriculum is well planned-out and executed, I am a firm believer in the power of content. Of course I teach critical thinking, and of course I teach my students to apply their content knowledge across disciplines, but without a solid foundation in literature, history, math, science, music, etc., there’s no solid footing on which to place and contextualize new knowledge.
7) Sometimes, some good movies come out based on half decent literature–The Three Musketeers seems to be continually be revived and I understand an Ayn Rand book has been made into a movie- are these good things or bad things?
Again, it depends. Thankfully, my students read The Iliad in the sixth grade, so they were not fooled – they know there’s no Sword of Troy, let alone a sword that got handed to Aeneas by Achilles. Without a grounding in the original story, they might assume that the Brad Pitt version is the real story, and that would just be sad. But that’s just a plot device, so whatever. It doesn’t bug me that much. What really upsets me are films such as the Disney version of Hercules. The story of Hercules is eviscerated. The entire reason he has to go out and complete the labors stems from the fact that Hera sends him in to a blind rage and he kills his family. He seeks to atone for his sins, and thus the labors. The Disney version is a sad, pallid version of the story, and I hate to imagine that children around the world would only know the film version.
On the other hand, there are film adaptations I adore. Andrew Davies’ Jane Austen films, of course, the recent BBC versions of Hamlet and King Lear are brilliant, and frankly, Atonement was a masterpiece. I can’t wait to see Julie Taymor’s Tempest, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. I am not one of those sticklers who can’t enjoy a film because it’s not perfectly faithful to the novel; they are simply different beasts.
8) How do you motivate a student to read any specific author in depth- (I am currently working on Arthur Conan Doyle myself)?
I actually think it’s easier to get a student to read an author in depth than to read the first work. Once my seventh graders have read and understood Great Expectations, they are ready to move on to A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth grade. To round out the experience, I offer up double extra credit for certain independent reading books that enhance the literature we read. Right now, some of my students are reading either Oliver Twist or David Copperfield as an adjunct to their reading of Dickens in English class. Once they are in a groove, and if I am willing to dish out the extra credit, they are usually game. Last month our double extra credit was The Great Gatsby, as I wanted to be able to draw parallels between Daisy and Estella and Pip’s great expectations and Gatsby’s green light. That went well, and I used that as a launching pad to talk about “Bernice Bobs her Hair.”
I think poetry freaks people out. Too many adults have had it shoved down their throats by a teacher who only taught it because they had to. I happen to love poetry, and one of the reasons I adore teaching middle school is that I often get to be the first person to hand them Frost, to show them the magic in Dickenson, to explain the significance of Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider. Some years, I read a poem a day at the beginning of English class (I have a two-year rotating schedule, one year of poetry, one year of cultural literacy daily facts and connections). I am in the cultural literacy year of my cycle, and I have to admit, as much as I adore the cultural literacy lessons, I miss the poetry.
Students can tell when teachers are faking enthusiasm. If my love of poetry is genuine, if my heart soars when I read the words to them, they know. They feel it. And hopefully, with time, their hearts might soar as well.
10) I have nothing against Stephen King- in fact, let me say to him, that I think his writing HAS gotten better- but why do some pupils go overboard on reading his stuff?
I am not a fan of horror, myself, but I absolutely adore two of his books, Misery and On Writing. Misery is an incredible description of the healing power of writing and the magical mystery tour that goes on in some author’s brains. I don’t channel characters, as King describes in both Misery and On Writing, but I love reading about that process. On Writing is simply a wonderful account of a writing life. I love it the same way I love accounts by Annie Dillard or Carolyn See or Anne Lamott. Besides, King’s description of his process always motivates me to write. My thirteen-year-old writer son feels the same way.
I just picked up King’s new book, 11/22/63 because I needed a good “escape” book and it got a good review from Errol Morris at the New York Times. Besides, I was curious – King said he wanted to write this book thirty years ago when he was still teaching English but did not have the chops to pull it off…I like that sort of honesty in a writer.
11) Let’s close this interview, with the close of the Harry Potter series—Your thoughts on the work of J.K. Rowling, and perhaps her use of some themes from Charles Dickens ??
As I mentioned before, I use Joseph Campbell as a thread throughout the two years I teach my students. We start off with an introduction to Campbell in the first semester of seventh grade, just after they read The Once and Future King for summer reading. My presentation on Campbell uses Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter as exemplars, and I can’t tell you how helpful it is to have a story that everyone knows. Like mythology, Harry Potter serves as a useful touchpoint for so many concepts. I use Voldemort when I explain one-dimensional characters. I use the Latin translation of Harry Potter in Latin class. I return to the Harry Potter series over and over again in order to explain everything from the definition of Bildungsroman, to the biblical fall from innocence, to the use of Freytag’s Pyramid. Cultures have always had their stories – mythology, folklore, whatever – that bind us together as a people. Harry Potter is firmly entrenched in our cultural consciousness, and I, for one, am grateful for the addition.