Year 21

I’m from wide open spaces, endless horizons, and Oklahoma skies. I grew up dancing in studios on Main Street and dreaming of city lights and bigger audiences. A performing arts high school was beyond my wildest possibilities. There was no such thing in the rectangular strip of Oklahoma called The Panhandle, but never mind all that.

This coming fall I begin a new chapter, post grad school, and an exciting upcoming job. 1) I’ll be teaching seniors at a performing and visual arts high school downtown. 2) In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach whatever I want. Until now.

Back in May, I received an e-mail from my new department chair. He asked me for my book list. The PTO would be ordering the following week. I had no time to lose. I scrambled to put my list together. I chose some texts that have worked for me in the past and some I haven’t taught before but LOVE. In my experience, if I love it, the majority won’t hate it. I’m determined to make readers out of non-readers this year. Some of my choices are edgy. I’ll need to prepare for alternatives. We’ll see how it goes.

During July, I must go about deciding exactly how I will go about teaching my anchor texts, and so here I brainstorm. With my AP Literature and Composition classes, we’ll begin with a mix of short stories and poetry before they tackle Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel will pair well with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” probably William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ll have to think more on poetry, but Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” should work along with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Jane Eyre is gothic, while  contemporary and feminist. As for Jane herself, she was orphaned and outcast her whole young life. Despite it all, she makes her way in the world and finds love. Granted, the love she finds has major issues, and so Jane picks herself up and moves on. There are some big plot twists here that make this novel oh, so worthy of reading and, of course, a classic.

My English IV students will also begin with short stories and poetry that transition to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. I see opportunities for more Dunbar, more Angelou, some Langston Hughes, maybe “Theme for English B,” Alice Walker’s “The Flowers,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” That should work. I need a calendar.

Both classes will end the fall semester with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins with the story of Kya, a young girl whose mother walks out on the family, leaving the children to fend for themselves at home in the North Carolina marshes with an alcoholic father. Kya’s siblings flee, her father is mostly absent. He eventually never returns. Kya must learn to care for herself. With gorgeous prose, a dual timeline, and the suspense of a murder mystery, Kya’s story is one of resilience. The same could be said of the stories of Jane Eyre and Maya Angelou. I may have stumbled onto a theme for first semester. Resilience. I know I’ll need some beginning a brand-new job, and I know my seniors will, too, as they prepare for their lives post high school.      

After the winter break, both classes will read Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. In medieval Scotland, three witches appear to Macbeth and prophesy that he will be king, except there is already a king. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king, and this murder causes Macbeth some post-traumatic stress. The witches return with another prophecy—Macbeth has a friend named Banquo, and Banquo’s son will become king. To keep his title, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son, but the son escapes. At this point Macbeth goes mad. Macbeth returns to the witches one more time. Their third prophecy is more bad news for Macbeth. Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” works well here.

I’m thinking this semester will be loosely connected to avoiding traps. I have some related short stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates is dedicated to Bob Dylan and influenced by his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hopefully, I can squeeze them in along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

After Macbeth, my AP Lit students will read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Did I mention edgy? I’ll probably need a Plan B here. This seems like a good time for a movie—Oedipus the King. Maybe my Plan B is the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles. (That just sounds mean. This is supposed to be a brainstorm.) In the novel, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. (We should probably discuss the real Kafka). Anyway, our protagonist travels incognito. Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally. Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound. In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life. I’m thinking my English IV classes will read a book of choice during this time, which gives me the opportunity to recommend a plethora.

Both of my classes will end the year with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2018, it’s the story of a failed failing novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging, loneliness, creativity, grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy.  

These are the books I’ve chosen to reread with students, and they have been ordered. Of course, I’m nervous about how the ones I haven’t taught before will resonate. Now what’s left is my mission to make Year 21 the best one ever—for me and my fellow creatives. I’m guided by this thought: The kids won’t care what I know until they know I care, and I do. That usually takes care of the rest. 

60 thoughts on “Year 21

  1. This is exciting! Congrats on new opportunities. What I’ve found in the past is that students are more appreciative of honesty when teaching new novels. For example, I was always up front about teaching or reading something for the first time.

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  2. I’m not familiar with the Murakami or Greer books, but the other ones I’ve read except the Crawdad one that is in my yearly reading challenge but I have yet to get to it. A long sentence, that one. I’m glad you finally get to teach what you want to and that you shared your choices here. Obviously I need to up my reading game to keep up with you.

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    1. I don’t know if you use Goodreads, but if you look at reviews you will find people who love them and people who hate them. I’m drawn to the prose in all three cases. And if you only had time for one, go for Less first.

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    1. I think I’m going to borrow one of your activities, Priscilla. You might be able to lead me back to the post. It was about mapping out the plot. I also love your one-sentence reviews. I think I could work that in.

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      1. I do try to read, right now I am in need of replacing my rigid contacts because my eyesight is not what it should be making reading difficult. But no, there is no sense in judging anyone’s reading habits, each have their own..

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  3. I love reading your plans and the enthusiasm you carry with them! I need to read Less, I hadn’t heard of that one. Anyway, it sounds like you have a great year ahead and you are right on with your nugget of wisdom at the end! 🌟💛

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    1. Hi Collette! Thank you! I was a little hesitant about Less based on the age of the protagonist and the age of my students, but another teacher at my new school and I bounced ideas back and forth as I finalized my list. He’s twenty years younger than me and loved Less, too.

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    1. Thanks, Rosaliene! I go to an Advanced Placement Summer Institute in July, so I’m holding off a bit to see what I learn. I am definitely idea gathering though. Fun and meaningful is the goal.

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  4. Wow, Crystal. You certainly know how to stage a come back! It’s great that you get your pick of where to teach. I know your students are going to enjoy the journey. And if some of them don’t, well, you’ll think of something. I love your thought at the end: the kids will care what you know because they know that you care. I believe you care too! Look out seniors…..SHE’s BAAACK!

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    1. Thank you, David! I’m super thankful for both the where and the what! Part of my two-part interview was teaching a lesson to this past year’s juniors, the kids I will teach. And the first part of my interview included two students on the panel. I thought it was so cool that the kids had voices in the process.

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  5. Thrilling news, Crystal. Last month, the degree, and now, just like that, you have another opportunity to continue the discussion your thirst for knowledge – for exploration – has launched.

    I certainly hope this isn’t the last you’ll write of this, because I just would love (Love, LOVE) to participate in the great discussions you and your students are bound to have.

    Given your enthusiasm, and your eclectic list of titles, I sense greatness unfolding. Years hence, people will ask, “Remember when this was just a performing arts school?”

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    1. It was all happening at the same time. I couldn’t quite keep up. Plus, how do you write about a job you haven’t started? So, so excited about the fine arts ahead. Not to mention the literature.

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  6. My goodness, Crystal, you make me wish I were still in school and could take this class. In the meantime, I think I’ll reread WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, especially since I hardly recall what it’s about — and that after reading it twice already. It’s a powerful story.

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    1. Sarah, thank you! Now I have the tune stuck in my head, trying to remember all the lyrics. “I’m gonna live forever…they will remember my name. Fame…” 😂 Now I have to look them up. Oh, and please read along!

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  7. I love so much that you’re putting so much care and thought into your curriculum in order to change some young perspectives! Teaching is truly a selfless vocation!

    I have Maya Angelou’s book but have yet to get to it but I will now! And I really, really enjoyed “Where the Crawdads Sing”. It was heartbreaking beautiful (it’s not a typical pick for me but I stuck with it and a quarter of the way in I was hooked).

    Thanks for the recommendations 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Jen! It’s hard to pick my very most favorite, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings might be it. I hope you enjoy. I’m excited to read all of these consecutively and decide what I think about them for another time and to hear what kids have to say. If they overall don’t like one, I’ll be keeping my eye out for the next must-read.

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  8. I bet this was a lot of fun to pick out which books, short stories, and poems you would like for your class to read. What can be more fun than reading?! I have read some of these. But some I am not familiar with. So I will be sure to pick up a couple of them as well. I pray your year ahead is blessed and fulfilling, for you and your students.

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    1. Yes, this is the fun part. The less fun part is nailing down the assignments and assessments to be graded. I would love to teach with no grades. Thanks for joining me in prayer for my upcoming school year, Bridget. My mother always did that for me. 🤍

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  9. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your new adventure!!.. all the best with your teaching and I know the kids will be impressed, will learn and will enjoy learning with you as their teacher!.. you go, girl!!… “The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.” (Frederick Buechner )… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May the dreams you hold dearest
    Be those which come true
    May the kindness you spread
    Keep returning to you
    (Irish Saying)

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  10. This is amazing news! Wish I could audit your classes 🙂 I read Where the Crawdads Sing and found it to be both sad and beautiful. I read somewhere it’s going to be made into a movie. I hope they hire a fantastic cinematographer. The beauty of the land in this novel is almost a character itself, know what I mean? Anyway, I’m excited for you and think your students are lucky to have you!

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  11. Crystal, I have wondering about your plans for this school year. You definitely are eager to return to the classroom, and the students will quickly pick up on your enthusiasm and caring attitude. I’ll be cheering for you and your students. Blessings.

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    1. Kionna, thank you! So far, so fun! And we’ve only read short stories and poetry so far. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings starts Monday. 🎉 I think you should be a guest speaker so you can be in my class (room).

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