Dispatch NYC: On Teaching, the Classics, and Holding up a Mirror to Ourselves

Ryan Sheldon ’13: Alex Ray ’13 spent the 2011 Fall semester teaching in the New York Public School System while studying at the Bank Street College of Education.

Ray reads to a group of his students

Name: Alex Ray

Class year: 2013

Major: Classics

Favorite book: The Ask

How do you identify as a writer? Do you think of yourself as particular kind of writer, and does that identification extend beyond your conception of yourself as a student?

I don’t know if I identify as a writer. I’ve always written a lot for school, and still dread doing that kind of writing. I like to add weird items to my mom’s grocery list, if that counts. Also I used to write a lot for The Ampersand and still do sometimes, which is fun. This semester I have been keeping a weekly journal for myself, which is new for me. I guess I think about writing as either “fun” or “not fun.” Or funny or not funny. As a student, I am squarely in the not fun writing zone, but finishing an essay can still be rewarding for me.

What, if anything, has influenced the way you’ve learned to write? What if anything, has influenced the way you like to write?

George Saunders

I think that the biggest influence on me as a writer was my tenth grade English teacher. Her class turned me into a better essay writer and student in general. Since then it has pretty much been a plateau. But she was awesome. I think reading George Saunders has been the biggest influence on the way I like to write, because he is funny and critical.

What is your preferred medium of literary expression (analytical writing, fiction, verse, creative nonfiction, blogging, tweeting, some admixture thereof…)? How would you describe your writing style?

I guess my preferred medium is the first person voice. Tweeting makes me feel dizzy. I haven’t thought much about my writing style. I don’t know.

What is your background in reading? What sort of books do you read on a regular basis? Can you identify one or two books that loom large in the history of your personal development as a reader and/or a writer?

The teacher I mentioned above introduced me to a lot of really great books and authors, like Beckett, Camus, Kafka, Harold Pinter—things like that. I did a project on Faulkner in high school and got really into him. I think [Faulkner’s] The Sound and the Fury and [Saunders’s] The Braindead Megaphone both loom pretty large in my development.

You’ve spent a few months teaching in NYC now—can you speak to the importance of reading in the classroom? Is there much intersection between the theoretical study of teaching and the practical conclusions you might draw on a daily basis?

Reading and writing are both hugely important for elementary school kids. Through reading they build imaginative capacity, empathy, intrapersonal intelligence, all kinds of beautiful things, and you can see it happening. Reading time is when you get to ask students higher-order thinking questions about a story: How has this character changed? Where is she headed? Why did the author set the scene in this way? They’re responding a text but going deep within themselves and probing their own emotions and beliefs. These are important reflecting skills.

There is a lot of scholarly noise about reading, because it’s so heavily tested by the state. A lot of NYC public schools use a highly structured reading program called Balanced Literacy. It buries you in teacher lingo, but can also be a nice vehicle for going deeper into things. You might hear a first grader say (after careful instruction on how to do this), “I am making a text-to-self connection…” or “I am making a text-to-world connection…” That kind of makes me want to throw up, but what they say after the formal part is more important anyway, and the format is what gets them there.

A visual representation of Gardner

There is a lot of intersection between theory and practice. A lot of the helpful ones I’ve found are grounded in psychology, like Gardner’s [Theory of] Multiple Intelligences. You can learn a lot about “a kid” in a class, but when it comes to “your kids,” things might be totally different. But it is always nice when you observe a certain behavior or thought process you’ve spent hours reading about. But that doesn’t always happen. I think the theory stuff is more about moving towards a whole understanding of kids, and about shaping your mind so that you can plan and respond to different experiences in a developmentally appropriate and hopefully progressive way.

Comment on the discipline of Classical Studies: Why do we return to this literature? Are we merely paying a debt to history, or to our oldest established canon, or do these works still resonate vividly today? Have they stood the test of time? Why should we read them?

I think we return to this literature because there is always something new, or emphatically not new, but still interesting going on when humans write about human things. I think we have moved way beyond paying a debt to history, but I think it was that way in the past. And in England. I like to think about Classical Studies like a case study of people: What do we know about their story, how are they like us, when did they have the right idea, how have we moved away from them. It doesn’t even have to be real; it’s like push-ups for the brain—except these people actually did exist, [so it’s] even better.

Has any particular kind of literature had a profound effect on the way you interpret the world? Have your academic interests or goals changed at all during the course of your undergraduate education as a result of something you’ve read (or written)?

I think satire and social commentary have shaped my interpretation of the world quite a bit—anything that holds up a mirror to your face and asks you to look again at something mundane or disgusting, like Sea World. I definitely think my academic goals have been formed by things I’ve read.

What’s on your pleasure reading list semester? Are you looking forward to any book releases? If you feel the inclination, recommend a title that you’ve found particularly enjoyable or meaningful—what do you think we should be reading today?

I abandoned 2666 this semester. I read a lot of Sam Lipsyte because [his work] is more manageable. I recommend Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.


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