The writer E. L Doctorow famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” As a writer who studied under E.L Doctorow in graduate school, those word meant a lot to me. At their heart, they are about uncertainty, finding your way by seeing only part of the road ahead. They connect with my own writing process since I often uncover and unearth understandings of my characters and plot along the way. These words also promise an inviting possibility — that on my journey through the world, I can continuously discover my path.
This year during my self-study, I have found myself returning to E.L Doctorow’s words again and again. Now more than ever they seem to apply to my work as a progressive educator. I am learning to let go, to be more flexible, and to allow for more possibilities within my teaching practice and my classroom. In the end, this means truly listening, paying attention to what’s in front of me — not in a reactive way, but in a way that accounts for both short distance and long distance vision.
One example from this year – my annotated copy of Frankenstein – serves as a symbol for my wayfairing with headlights. I began teaching the novel in 2008 when I first developed an elective titled “Monster and Misfits.” This year, that course turned 10 years old. My copy of Frankenstein looks even older than that, however. Underlines, marginalia, and highlighting done in a rainbow of colors reflect the different moments of my annotation, leaving a fascinating history of my thinking about the novel over time – from before I was a parent to now that I have two children, from my early days of teaching to year 14 at LREI. The book is also falling apart, the pages strangely disintegrating, somehow turned yellowed and frail. I open it up and pages fall out. It’s in literal pieces, much like Victor’s creation, a joke which usually gets some laughs from my students.
This year, however, I decided to put aside my heavily annotated copy of Frankenstein and read a “clean” new copy alongside my students. I was open with them about this, telling them I wanted to engage with the text as they were, to meet the text on its own terms, without ten years of my interpretations to fall back on. I wanted instead to really listen — to the text, to the questions my students were engaging with — and wanted student inquiry to drive the conversations. This commitment to staying present and listening invigorated me and my teaching. During discussions, I found myself stepping back, letting students make sense of the text in their own ways, and letting go of particular ideas or passages I had thought were important but didn’t resonate with my students. Of course, I held on to the other annotated copy and will always have it to look back upon, but this serves as an important reminder to stay fully present in my teaching.
The Frankenstein example is just a symbol. I did this work in much more ambitious and comprehensive ways throughout the year. In response to the needs of 9th graders, following the death of a student the year before, my colleague Heather and I decided to teach a new text in the winter of 9th grade. We discovered we wanted to remove Antigone in mid-December, and began the rapid process of reading and selecting new texts, work which usually takes a full summer. We began teaching Twelfth Night in January. This was a massive undertaking and produced anxiety on my part; I had never taught the play. I had seen it performed and read it once in a college Shakespeare course many years ago. I did not have lesson plans or assessments to rely on for guidance. Moreover, my understanding of the text felt very limited. I didn’t understand certain passages, was confused by certain characters, and felt adrift as I read it the first time.
My colleague Heather and I worked together. We were supported by other faculty members, who gave us resources, talked at length with us, sent us links and videos and ideas. The only way I can describe the feeling is that I felt buoyed up by my colleagues, at a time I could have been drowning. The experience also reminded me what it’s like to be in the position of a student, reading a challenging text for nearly the first time. In the end, I think it resulted in greater compassion for my students.
The most exciting thing was the genuine collective inquiry and sense making that happened in the classroom. Students raised questions that emerged from their experiences of reading the text; I was beside them making sense of things with them. Students tracked particular motifs, and looking at evidence, crafted creative arguments about how those motifs functioned in the text. Ideas were new, emerging, exciting. I had no preconceived notions that limited my ability to listen to my students. At the same time, I knew that forward planning was also essential; we were not improv-ing from day to day; we had an overarching idea of the path ahead, but were discovering the details along the way. I’m proud of our responsiveness to the needs of our students. We truly listened, even when it was not easy.
I could say much of the same for my experience innovating a service learning strand in my Exile and Immigration class this fall. I was a learner alongside my students, engaging in and making sense of our experiences with New Sanctuary Coalition together, collectively. In addition, the work asked me to look within, at my own positionality, just as it asked my students to do so. Discussions where we debriefed our accompaniment experiences were some of the most meaningful discussions I have had. Period. Yes, there was big picture planning and detailed logistics, but also a powerful letting go.
What I discovered is that driving in the dark, if supported and buoyed up by colleagues and the institution, can be truly wonderful. Now I am thinking about how I can continue to wayfind with headlights, whether that’s through letting go within my classroom, working to develop a 9-12 service learning program, or envisioning my role moving forward in the school. Maybe it will lead me to conversations with students I wasn’t necessarily “prepared” to have, but are critical nonetheless. I am confident that I can rely on my 14 years of experience to navigate these moments thoughtfully and with care for my students.
One important next step is learning how to find sustenance and support for this work, so that it continues to be invigorating, rather than consuming.