Teaching the Teachers

Table of Contents

Fall/ Winter 03


Teaching the Teachers, by Sarah Beetham

Every other Saturday this past fall, eight experienced high-school English teachers met with Professor Harriet Davidson in Murray Hall to talk about contemporary literature. The course was offered by University College as part of a program to bring together teachers of Advanced Placement courses with faculty who teach similar material. Courses like this one are usually taught in weeklong seminars over the summer, but by meeting throughout a school semester, Professor Davidson's course gave participants the chance to try out ideas in the classroom right away, and then come back and discuss how well they worked.

The atmosphere of the course was about much more than the exam itself, because the teachers attending had the valuable opportunity to compare notes with colleagues of different backgrounds and introduce each other to new material. "Our schools teach curricula as varied as we are," said Audrey Nelson, a teacher at East Brunswick High School. Finding out what other successful teachers are doing in the classroom was one great advantage noted by participants.

Advanced Placement teachers must tread a fine line between providing their students with the skills necessary to score well on the annual AP exam and exposing their students to the level of reading, writing, and thinking they will encounter in college, whether or not it will be "on the test." The teachers who enrolled in this course were asked what field they would most like to discuss, and they responded with an interest in contemporary multicultural literature even though such works do not make up a significant portion of the exam. "Both students and teachers want to study books that address the multi-ethnic mix of today's society, regardless of the exam," said Professor Davidson, who specializes in contemporary American literature and culture.

The books discussed in the class included Elie Wiesel's Night, Ceremony by Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, The God of Small Things by Indian writer Arundhati Roy, and Toni Morrison's Beloved. According to Professor Davidson, the texts suggested the common themes of trauma and testimony: "These works present not just a happy multiculturalism but the trauma of cultural mixing and the displacement of peoples." The purpose of using books like these is to get high-school students thinking about complex tensions in literature instead of simply memorizing plots, bringing the same goals into secondary school teaching that professors have for their college classes.

On one particular Saturday morning, the teachers discussed the conclusion of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Professor Davidson focused on ways to discuss the novel's presentation of the trauma of slavery, and the way feminism in this book is expressed through sexuality. One important question came up: should this work be taught in high school at all? Although Morrison is listed by the College Board as one of the authors to study in preparing for the AP exam, some of this novel's content is controversial, and a handful of school boards have banned it in the recent past. However, many teachers recognize the value of teaching the novel to more mature students. Melissa Bahrs, one of the teachers, explained it well: "This text is a compelling literary work, but does have some disturbing scenes," she said. "It's important for Americans because the issue of slavery is still a part of our cultural heritage, and it should be taught to older students." Morrison's novel is an example of the unique dilemma high-school English teachers face when deciding whether or not to teach works that offer great literary rewards but include scenes that may be too violent or graphic for some of their students. This is a dilemma that often disappears in college-level literature courses.

The AP English program prides itself in preparing students for college through the close reading of texts on a wide variety of topics and in-depth discussion and analysis. In Professor Davidson's seminar, these high-school teachers got a chance to experience first-hand what goes on in a college course, allowing them to bring a little bit of the Rutgers English Department back to their classrooms. "Our discussions have been stimulating and challenging, especially on issues of pedagogy," said Professor Davidson. "Working with these excellent teachers has been a pure pleasure for me."

Related Links
University College New Brunswick

More about AP programs including those in English Literature

"The Effects of Censorship...", a short article on how high-school English teachers deal with controversial books.

Rutgers University home page