Our next ASpotlight Interview is with Susan Lukas, an Upper School English Teacher at Allen-Stevenson. Read below to learn how she shares her love of the English language with her students, affecting the way they understand their world and helping them to think and to communicate their thoughts clearly.
What do you enjoy about teaching English at Allen-Stevenson? I love to read. I love to write. I love to think and talk about ideas. And I love the beauty and power of carefully chosen language. Add to that the value of studying the human condition and human nature through the lenses of writers of literature, and it becomes clear that teaching English offers a great deal. I can affect the way students understand their world and the people around them, help them to think and to communicate their thoughts clearly, and work with them to develop their sensibilities so that they can appreciate a particular kind of beauty. Allen-Stevenson is a school with heart and soul, as well as fine collective intellect. It’s a great place to do what I love most.
What do you find most rewarding about working with eighth graders, many who are in their last year at Allen-Stevenson and about to embark on their next adventure in life? Eighth graders in their last year of primary school are unique beings. They’re figuring out who they are, how they want to be seen, who they want to spend time with, and what they think and feel about a whole host of issues. They’re sophisticated in some ways and little boys in other ways. They’re the future. Being part of their growth, their passion, their understanding of self and others – all of these aspects of teaching eighth graders make the work important and rewarding to me.
You recently read The Hate U Give with your eighth graders. That has some very weighty themes. How do you select which books you read in class? How do you handle discussions on sensitive topics, and what kinds of writing do you assign for a book like this? That’s a question that has a very long answer. It’s unusual for me to have students read a Young Adult (YA) novel. The level of depth to the writing and complexity tends to be less strong in many YA books. The story, plot, and characters are important and engaging, and they are often well-written books, but the reader doesn’t have to dig around for symbolism and allusions.
Choosing a book for the class is a complicated process that takes, in this case, a village. In our Many Stories group, we’ve been discussing issues of bias, racism, gender, class, feminism, and masculinity as it relates to our students’ needs, classroom norms, and the curriculum. I knew I wanted my students to read a book that would help everyone experience what it’s like for a person to have to negotiate two worlds. And I wanted the students in my class who don’t always see themselves represented in our literature to have a different experience. I was looking for something written by a minority person because I wanted it to be authentically their story. I talked about possibilities with people in the Many Stories group, teacher friends, and students. The Hate U Give was high on the list of many of them. I read it and was impressed. It’s very well written and provides more than one point of view. It gives a depth of perspective, which I liked. I also liked that it was written by a female author and the main character is a girl.
Talking about it with parents beforehand, making sure our discussions were balanced, and allowing students to share their ideas and feelings safely made addressing the sensitive aspects of the novel less difficult for me and them. The students love the book and our discussions are rich. They use the text well to support their opinions, both in discussions and in essays. All in all, students are interested in dealing with these themes because they’re part of their everyday world.
My students just finished their first draft of an analytical essay on The Hate U Give, and I am very impressed. I tend to ask for complex writing from my students. I create complicated assignments. This is hard for my students who are linear thinkers and writers. I am not. Often my initial question doesn’t spark creativity for them, so I almost always give them the option of coming up with a different essay topic, so long as they meet with me to discuss their thesis before writing. For this assignment, they were also given the option of writing a personal essay if they chose, and I was surprised at how many boys chose to do an analytical essay. I think they chose it because this book has had a great impact on them as learners and citizens of the work.
I understand you write poetry. How do you share your passion for poetry in the classroom? Do you teach the boys to write poetry? I love writing poetry and I love reading it. I love beautiful language, and I love the complexity of language that’s meaning runs deeper than the surface. It interests me to see how one can manipulate language in such eloquent ways. Good poetry has a depth of meaning that our students can explore, pull apart, and dig into. When they begin to understand how rich the layers of such a poem are, they often get excited by its power and beauty.
We always do some poetry writing and analyzing and, I’m sure, my passion comes through at those times. Sometimes, if the boys ask, I’ll share a poem of my own with them. I especially like to give them a poem I’m struggling with and workshop it with them, so they can witness the difficulty and participate in possible revisions. It’s useful for them to understand that all writers work at their craft and that it’s rare for a worthwhile poem to simply “show up” without a great deal of effort put into its creation.
This past week I taught the boys about villanelles, which are peculiar fixed-form poems that are very difficult to write. It is all in iambic pentameter, which is difficult, and the form is very tight. My students asked if I had ever written one, so I showed them mine and told them that, if they could write a real villanelle, I will give them extra credit. I’ve been enjoying reading what they have come up with and helping them as they struggle with the form.
I understand that you were part of a writers’ workshop for many years. Do you ever have the boys workshop their own writing with classmates? I was in a writing group for many years. The idea behind the group was to distribute a piece of writing to the group and workshop it together. We absolutely workshop writing in class, but we have not done it so far this year. I’m considering starting a poetry writing elective that would be a writers’ workshop. It’s hard to workshop writing because it requires a level of maturity to accept criticism. We all want someone to say that our work is amazing, but of course, that doesn’t often happen. Over time, people grow and acquire a tougher skin. As an educator, I have to continually remember how hard criticism can be on my students’ egos. The tendency is to talk about everything that needs to be fixed revised and fixed again, but it’s equally important to tell them what’s good. That’s an essential thing to keep in mind. Positive feedback is vital.
You introduced the concept of the Critical Friends Group (CFG) to Allen-Stevenson. Can you please describe why you think this has been so valuable for faculty and staff at Allen-Stevenson? The objective of the CFG is to help teachers improve their practice. The A-S faculty is a collection of brilliant and creative educators. Remarkable people, really. A Critical Friends Group makes use of those talents to help teachers help themselves and each other in a non-evaluative way. A coach facilitates each protocol, which is how CFG meetings function. Simply put…this is professional development by teachers for teachers. Groups of 8 to 12 meet regularly every month and are together for several years. Trust is built. Professional communities evolve. Practice is improved.
At Allen-Stevenson, we often say, “there are many ways to be a boy,” What does this mean to you? We at A-S don’t have a single image of “boyness” or masculinity. Our students are encouraged to develop their passions, to take risks, and to try what they might not have considered learning in other settings. They knit and write poetry. They compete on the field and make robots. They play the female parts in Gilbert & Sullivan and sing in the choir. They learn science and math and history and literature. They do what kids do without much concern for how that fits in society’s subjective idea of masculinity. Being kind at A-S is no less important than being strong.
Describe the Allen-Stevenson community in 3 words: Compassionate Multi-talented Helpful