The Books We Teach #5: Interview with Ryan Call

The Books We Teach series will feature primary, secondary, and post-secondary educators and their thoughts about literature in the face of an evolving classroom. Posts will highlight literary innovations in teaching, contemporary literature’s place in pedagogy, and the books that writers teach. In the spirit of educational dynamism, we encourage readers to contribute their thoughts in the comments section.

Picture 1Ryan Call, author of the acclaimed short story collection Weather Stations (Caketrain), is the winner of the 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award in fiction. Call is a frequent contributor to HTMLGIANT, and his stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, New York Tyrant, Conjunctions, Annalemma, The Collagist, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He has taught at the University of Houston and George Mason University and now teaches high school English at Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas.

Here, Ryan and I discuss the challenges of teaching high school students how to analyze chunks of text, his love of teaching The Great Gatsby, and the old piano practice room that he uses as his private writing space during the school year.

Tell me a little about the classes you taught this past year and any new classes you will teach this coming year.

This past year I taught four classes—two 10th grade classes and two 9th grade honors classes. They’re the typical English classes you’d find in a private high school, in that they’re usually small—about fifteen students per class on average—and for the most part they’re seminars. I do lecture occasionally, and they take tests and write essays and study grammar and so on, but for the most part I try to lead my students in discussion of what we’re reading and how we’re writing, or I try to lead them through activities that apply concepts we’ve discussed.

Next year, I’ll teach three 9th grade honors sections and one 10th grade section. In addition, a friend and I will co-teach a seminar on Russian literature that’ll function as an elective for students interested in taking a second English class. I am really excited to teach this class; we’re reading, among other texts, Notes from the Underground, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, as well as plenty of supplementary readings: stories, plays, poetry, essays, and so on.

As a high school teacher, you engage with canonical works on a daily basis. What works in “the canon” are you excited to teach?

I’ll offer one example here: I enjoy teaching The Great Gatsby. I love The Great Gatsby, and my experience with the book has changed since I first read it as a high schooler. I love reading it with students because the book changes as its reader matures, and I’ve found that even across a year, my students continue to refer to the book. I like the idea that I, hopefully, have shared with them a book early in their lives that they might one day reread and perhaps understand a little bit more about who they used to be and what sort of person they’re becoming.

Certainly many of my sophomores do not yet have a clear emotional reaction to, for example, Fitzgerald’s final sentence, and yet, they can sense its importance, just as I once did. So I love seeing my students experience literature at a point in their lives when many of them have just begun to discover intense meaning. Yes, they’re nearly constantly drowning in intense meaning, often cannot control themselves when overcome with meaning—and I include sarcasm as a kind of intense meaning—and because of this, many of them respond so strongly to literature, which I present to them as “language charged with meaning.”

As a high school teacher, how much flexibility do you have within your curricula?

I’ve been really lucky to join an English Department whose members are collaborative and open to change. We all work very well together, and we’re willing to reevaluate what we’ve done in the past, even if it creates more work for us, because we want to do what we can to give our students the best experience in their English classes. This year we decided to move Their Eyes Were Watching God from our freshmen classes to our sophomore classes because we felt that our freshmen were not quite ready to experience such a book. Additionally, we’ve added Persepolis to the curriculum for our freshmen in hopes of exposing them to yet another genre while also giving them a sense of life as it might be lived on the other side of the world.

As an honors teacher, I have a little more freedom to supplement our curriculum and add more texts, which is how my freshmen came to read Slaughterhouse-Five this past spring and how they’ll have a chance to read The Awakening and The Metamorphosis this year.

What innovative practices have you brought into the classroom that make use of contemporary literature?

I don’t often teach very contemporary literature, as our curriculum already fills our year pretty well; however, I’ve had a chance to use relatively recent literature to supplement our units, and hope to do this a bit more in the next few years with newer online writing. Last year my freshmen read a handful of classic stories for our short story unit, and these I supported with some selections from The Anchor Book of New American Fiction, which, in my opinion, is still perhaps one of the best anthologies of contemporary stories available. We read, for example, Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and then “Do Not Disturb” by A. M. Homes.

I’ve also tried to work with my students to create new literature with mixed media. A teacher in our department likes to mix in some activities with McSweeney’s lists and open letters, and when I heard about this, I asked if I could visit his class and share some image macros with the students to see if I could get them to produce a few pieces. I showed them a few that Steve Roggenbuck had created (such as this one; they had read Whitman earlier in the year), and asked them to look through their chat histories, texts on their phones, status updates, tweets, and so on for any small grouping of text that might create an interesting effect against some image they found online.

It was a quick activity, a sort of break for them between two units, but I was surprised at how well the students embraced it. Much of what they created surprised me for its depth of emotion, whether that was humor or sadness. It’s something I’d like to explore a little bit more and maybe put some more thought into.

How do your students respond to contemporary literature transposed atop a more traditional curriculum?

I think many of them are surprised to see a story like Aimee Bender’s “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” or Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” simply because those stories explicitly and profanely upset a lot of their notions about literature and English class: it’s boring, the language is hard to understand, it’s a puzzle that only the teacher knows how to solve. When I present to them a work of literature I too have difficulty reading, I try to share with them my confusion and use it as a way to work with the text.

I’ve had the best results when I’ve been able to pair a more contemporary story with another canonical work: Barthelme’s “Game” and Lord of the Flies, for example, helped my freshmen talk a lot about imprisonment and war. Once my students tease out those connections, I think they better appreciate how works of literature ‘talk’ to one another and that they themselves can be a part of that discussion.

Sometimes I feel like the toughest—but also most rewarding—challenge as a secondary educator is encouraging students to get excited about language.

Yes—I think the biggest question I face as a teacher of 9th and 10th graders is this: how do I encourage my students to analyze a chunk of language? They’re very good at paraphrasing and summarizing what an author has said, and they’re very good at telling the plot of a story, but they struggle sometimes when they must analyze language. I haven’t yet really figured out how to solve this problem, though I’m certain the solution is in somehow getting my students to believe that their critical reactions—meaning their participation in the creation of a critical meaning in response to a text—are valid and worthwhile!

For now, I ask them to echo the language of a quotation in their own analysis and ask why an author might have chosen that particular phrase. My most successful students tend to write analysis by specifically pointing at the language of the quotations they’ve chosen to include in their papers.

Tell me about one text that elicited a mostly positive response from your students. What about this work caused such collective enthusiasm, do you think?

Of all of the books they read last year, Slaughterhouse-Five elicited the strongest reaction from my honors students. Sure, some hated it, but the majority enjoyed it for its humor, its challenging structure, its science-fiction aspects, and Vonnegut’s humanism. My students wrote perhaps their strongest papers of the year concerning Slaughterhouse-Five, and many turned in lovely creative projects that reinterpreted the novel in clever ways.

One girl created a psychological folder for Billy Pilgrim, in which she included letters his daughter had written to a doctor concerning her father’s health. Another student created a Tralfamadorian novel: a stack of photographs onto which she had inscribed an alien language. When she handed it in, she shuffled the photographs and told me to read it however which way I wanted, but I couldn’t possibly understand it—she didn’t understand it herself as she claimed this particular novel had been found in the wreckage of Dresden. The photographs were charred.

When you read and write do you often find yourself thinking as a teacher? What was it like to write The Weather Stations while also teaching?

Picture 2I think it’s important to keep these two lives separate because I’m generally a disorganized and easily distracted person, and if I did not consciously try to make these little compartments in my life, then I’d never get anything done. When I read for class, my annotations usually consist of what sorts of questions I might ask my students or what sections of language I find to be interesting for discussion or what in the book might present a bit of confusion that we as a class can examine. I’ve found that if I can keep in mind a teacherly purpose for my reading and writing, then I rarely slip into thinking about my own writing.

I wrote The Weather Stations while I was teaching at the University of Houston, and I had somehow lucked into a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, which allowed me to stay home three days a work-week, all alone and with nothing to do but drink coffee and write all day. It was quite a different experience, writing that book, than what I’ve had with this new project as a high school teacher.

What is your day-to-day writing schedule like during the school year?

Until about April, I had not written very regularly this past school year or the year before that—I think perhaps because I didn’t separate my life as much as I should’ve. Although I’ve been teaching for a while, I’ve just completed my second year as a high school teacher, and so I’ve had to take some time not only to learn how to teach again, but also to make my place in the school’s community. I’m the head coach of our cross country program, for example, and my daughter was born last summer, so I’ve had to devote a lot of time to my own family. I’ve had to learn about what it means to be a father.

About four months ago, the headmaster of the school offered me a separate office area on campus—really an old piano practice room—that I could use as a writing space. It’s quite far away from my teacher-desk, which is a horrible clutter of disorganization, and it’s a bit away from home, obviously, so it’s a nice calm space in which to write: it overlooks our front lawn and trees, so that’s pleasant, I suppose. The headmaster’s generosity this past spring restarted my writing in a certain sense—I’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. I was able to get to school around 7:15 or so and write to the end of my first free period almost every school day.

Once I forced myself into that schedule I was able to write a lot and again feel good about writing, and, as a result, I then began to feel even better about my teaching. So, while my teaching and my writing lives rarely directly influence each other—in that, I don’t use material from my teaching nor do I bring my writing into the classroom—I have realized that if I’m writing adequately, then I feel less guilty about my teaching, which means my teaching improves, and then I feel less guilty about my writing.

Do your students know and/or ask about your writing? Do they find out about, say, HTMLGIANT? Or read your fiction online? How do you respond?

To my knowledge none of my students has found any of my fiction online, though a few of the snoops track down interviews I’ve given or like to gawk at the content on HTMLGIANT and tease me about it, in particular this silly post from a while ago. Students, in general, are fascinated to hear that their teachers do other things beyond the campus fence, like play video games, or ride motorcycles, or love to eat Tex-Mex.

I don’t mind talking to my students about my writing, to be honest, but I’d much rather talk to them about their own writing. If anything, I try to present myself as a model—someone who enjoys the writing and reading life from whom they might learn a few habits to carry with them into adulthood.

Once, one of my sophomores brought in my book for me to sign for her during class, and I thought that was incredibly sweet of her. She said she had read the whole thing the night before and couldn’t sleep, which fascinated me to hear.

What is something that you’ve read lately that makes you think, “My students would enjoy reading this.”?

I read Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds in a day last fall and couldn’t help but think that my sophomores would love to read it, especially because they reacted so positively to The Things They Carried. In fact, one of our teachers has added the book to his War Literature elective for next year. It tells the story of a young man, not a few years older than they are, cast into another world—one that contrasts incredibly with their own, one to which they might have great difficulty relating.

I often talk to my students about ‘relatability’ and how, perhaps, they ought to avoid easy-to-relate-to-characters—after all, Nabokov says that the worst thing a reader can do is to identify with a character. This often surprises them because for so long many of their discussions of books revolve around their ability to relate to characters. Instead, we talk about empathy, reading about characters who experience life quite differently from how we do, and how our abilities to empathize with different kinds of people help us become better human beings.

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