Dear Mr. Wilson & Mr. Katzman: I am not quite sure how to start this letter other than to let you know that I recently received an email from a former student of mine, and it made me wonder if I had ever written to you to thank you for the lessons I learned in your class. I was a student in your American Studies class during the 1987-1988 school year.
After my three years at Hotchkiss, I wanted to work with students to support and challenge them the way I had been, and you were both an essential part of that decision. I had been a student at a large, anonymous, public school in Texas where I had become a cheerleader to fit in. School was a place where I was bored and an exercise to be endured. At Hotchkiss, I was thrilled that I could be an athlete, a performer, and a scholar and be celebrated for each of these strengths. I appreciated the new challenges presented by the culture of teaching and learning at my new school. After college, I became a high school teacher for five years, and am now a teacher educator and am constantly reflecting on my own experiences in school. I am currently writing an article on critical ontology, or self-study and teacher education, so I’ve been doing a lot of reflection recently. This is an exercise that I regularly encourage future teachers to do in order to critique and analyze their own understandings of education and what they know and think they understand about schooling. In my own reflections, I keep coming back to my experiences in this class and your teaching because it was so revolutionary for me and it was my first exposure to what I now call critical pedagogy.
American Studies was a sort of curriculum experiment (as far as I can remember) where our English and History classes were harmonized so that what we studied from a literary and cultural perspective intersected and aligned with what we were learning from a political and historical perspective. You brought in guest speakers to teach about Jazz, art history, and religion. I remember reading poetry in the woods, a field trip to Hancock-Shaker village, and studying powerful literature such as My Antonia, Invisible Man, The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, the poetry of Walt Whitman, the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, and the short stories of Mark Twain. Looking back at this curriculum, I am impressed with the diverse selection of authors and perspectives since many high school English classes still are dominated by the white, European, heterosexual, male Christian perspective. This class brought important works by women, gays and lesbians, and writers of color into my “canon” of American literature and is the foundation of my critical approach to "reading the world". I remember grappling deeply with the topics of racism and discrimination in Ralph Ellison’s novel and being stunned when Mr. Wilson actually called our attention to the homoerotic imagery in Whitman’s writing– this was the first time such topics had been introduced into my formal schooling experiences.
I can still remember Mr. Katzman’s mnemonic for us when analyzing any historical event: PISER. We had to understand and explore the political, intellectual, social, economic, and religious implications of these events. We never studied anything in a single dimension – everything was questioned and examined from multiple points of view. This approach to learning and understanding American history and culture was rich and fascinating and was strengthened by the brilliant peers who were also in this class. Although you were both passionate presenters, the discussions you facilitated allowed such deep understanding and co-creation of knowledge to emerge that I still have visceral memories of moments and conversations with my peers in that class. The major assignments you gave us helped me to develop essential research, writing, and critical thinking skills through the interdisciplinary research paper (I did mine on American Impressionism), as well as an ‘identity paper’ based on reflective journals we’d been keeping throughout the year.
I am writing this as an open letter because as an educator, I feel it is so important to publicly celebrate our mentors and to help others understand how deep learning and critical thinking can be sparked in schools. I want my fellow alumni, current colleagues, and students to be able to be a part of my ongoing learning and dialogue about how to infuse more critical pedagogy in K-12 education as well as teacher education programs. Thank you so much for being such passionate educators and enduring role models in my educational career.