The following dialogue is taken from an interview between University of Minnesota student teacher David Gower and Mr. David Rathbun, an English/Language Arts teacher at South High School in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, MN, conducted February 1, 2008.
David Gower: Let’s start off with a general bio.
David Rathbun: I grew up in Detroit Lakes, MN – went to high school there, and went to college at Concordia – Morehead. English major, not a teaching degree. Then I went to graduate school and was gonna go on and get a Ph.D. in English, but dropped out. And, then I moved back up – I went school in Washington and Kansas and moved back up here – and I started substitute teaching in ESL. And I really liked it and went ahead and got my teaching license.
DG: How were you able to teach without a license?
DR: I had a temporary license, so I went to Hamline and St. Thomas to get my teaching license. So, I got my license in ESL and English. Then I started teaching ESL until the early-90’s. And when I came over here in ’95, I’ve been teaching English only since then.
DG: What was the demographic of students you were teaching ESL to?
DR: With me, it was the students who were refugees, and they were not immigrant academic types who wanted to improve their English for college in America.
DG: Where were you teaching ESL? Here in the Twin Cities?
DR: In junior high, here. Sanford and Falwell, Roosevelt High School. So, my students were primarily from Southeast Asia, and Africa. And, for them, English was thrust upon them as refugees. They were in survival mode, and they were not the privileged immigrants who wanted to be lawyers and doctors improving their English.
DG: Speaking about diversity, how diverse are classes in this school, and the classes that you teach?
DR: It depends on how you define that.
DG: Because I know there is the All Nations program for Native American studies.
DR: There’s ethnic diversity, and class and gender, if you’re talking about diversity. There have been traditionally more girls here than guys. At least it seems to be that way. My college classes have traditionally been more female than male. They’ve been the ones who’ve been taking those courses predominantly – those classes have been predominantly white, and middle- to upper-class. The Humanities classes have been more mixed, with Asian American, African American, Native American, and class diversity is more there, too.
DG: How do you recognize cultural diversity – any sorts of gender, race, socio-economic diversity – in either things you would just discuss off hand, maybe in the news, or in the curriculum itself?
DR: Well, the students. . . let’s say, they talk about their parents in discussion. Or, when I have conferences with parents, it’s pretty clear what kind of class backgrounds they have in terms of money and education. And you can see the influence of it in class on those students who come from that kind of background. They start out with an advantage.
DG: Aside from conferences with families, what other types of interactions would you have with students’ families?
DR: Generally, I don’t have interactions with family members unless I see them in conferences, or sometimes their parents may come in as a speaker if it’s relevant.
DG: Are these conferences usually with parents of students who are struggling in your class?
DR: Sometimes it’s the struggling ones, but more often than not, it’s the ones who are doing okay, and their parents are involved with their education. So, they are on a regular basis, engaged with the school – and they email me, or the call me, or they come to conferences. We have conferences once every quarter, except for the 4th quarter.
DG: Do you ever have any classes where special education students attend?
DG: How do you differentiate instruction for them? Or do you need to?
DR: Well, it depends on who they are. I don’t treat special ed students any differently than anybody else. I’ve got one now who literally does no work, and so it’s kind of useless to differentiate for him, because he doesn’t do any work of any kind. So, he just doesn’t pass the class. But he comes and he wants to be in the class. But I can’t pass him.
DG: Does he interact with any of the other students?
DR: Not very much. But I’ve had some special education students who get A’s. So, I think it’s a term that doesn’t fit everybody. And special education students, from my experience, don’t want to be given easy work or different work than others. I think that’s stigmatizing. So, everybody gets the same thing. Now, when I give grades out, I might be a little more judicious in giving grades to some people who don’t have the same skills as other people. . . might give ‘em a break, you know. But, at least they’re doing the work. And if people don’t do the work, I can’t help them out. Some of them shouldn’t be in a mainstream class because they can’t do the work, literally. This one guy, he just can’t do it. Academically, I don’t know what to do with him, and I don’t know if they know what to do with him. I don’t know if he’s learning anything, so I can’t assess that.
DG: What sorts of inspirations did you have? You mentioned you were a graduate student in English studies. What made you want to be an English teacher?
DR: I went to graduate school because I had a vague idea of teaching English, but I was somewhat soured on the whole experience in some ways in graduate school. I guess it was unfair of me to judge so quickly, perhaps, that I didn’t want to do that. But when I started teaching ESL, I found something that I liked, and didn’t even expect to like. I didn’t even know what it was when they called me to come in to sub for an ESL class. And I said, what’s ESL? And I found, I don’t want to say a calling, but it was something like that. I was really drawn to it. I loved working with the students. It was stimulating. And I just kept doing it. And, it was fun for a while, but the job got more difficult because we got more students and less support. It was sort of the last thing that people gave money or respect to in the school. So, it was sort of discriminatory.
DG: I imagine there are a lot of people who don’t realize that as more people come in as refugees, that we have to increase the money that goes into those programs.
DR: Yeah, we’re obligated to provide service.
DG: It must be challenging for many teachers, as it’s a new thing to bring in people from a whole different culture, and then not only work with their language skills, but trying to teach other subjects. I remember a Japanese student from my first year of college, who had limited English-speaking abilities, and he would go back to his room and just read and improve his English, and do everything he had to do to do well. And the next year, he was speaking pretty regularly with a lot of people, which was pretty impressive to me. Of course, he’d been getting an English education all his life. . . I imagine a lot of teachers working with ESL students may be frustrated in having to restate abstract subjects like Math or Science, when they’re unsure whether their students are understanding the language itself.
DR: Well, that’s where bilingual education comes in.
DG: What are your purposes for teaching literature?
DR: Purposes? Like, agendas?
DG: I guess what I mean is: why do you feel that it’s important that students get an English education? That is, the Humanities, and literature.
DR: Well, of course, some people believe that literature doesn’t have any value in the education system, but you’d have to be a fool to believe that. I mean, a lot of our culture is based on the Arts. People go to movies; they go to theatre; they go to symphonies; they have book clubs, you know, Oprah has a book club. I mean it’s part of our culture, that people read. And obviously you need to read books as part of cultural awareness. The Scarlet Letter, you know. When people say, "scarlet letter," you have to know the reference point. It’s part of your culture. Even if you don’t go to college, people still need to know about these things. And, of course, reading literature improves your reading skills, your critical reading skills, your analytical skills that transfer into other reading areas: history or science, or whatever. So, it’s not like they’re separated skills. You know, there’s a connection. So, if you want to be practical about it, there’s a practical reason. Besides the aesthetic awareness, cultural awareness – things that are important, too. And I think it helps people grow as human beings to read literature – figure things out about themselves, the world around them; that kind of thing.
DG: What is your philosophy on classroom management? That is, how active are you in managing your classroom? Such as, do you have a required seating arrangement?
DR: Well, I’m a lot less autocratic. I don’t see myself as someone who needs to have things rigidly structured. So, I like to give as much freedom as I can to the students without having things get chaotic. So, I usually don’t have seating charts, but this one class drove me to it this year. And, so they do have a seating chart. I tolerate chatting occasionally. You know, I don’t want people to be silent, but I don’t want people to be distracting. So, I tolerate some freedom of chit-chat, but not too much. I don’t have a lot of rules about this or that, because I think students tend to react negatively from too many rules. It’s just a sense you get from a group. You feel your way through it, and you know which groups you can push hard on a little bit more, and which groups you can back off occasionally. So, it’s kind of like a dance. At times, you can give them a little space, a little rope. Other times, you have to come down harder on ‘em. It’s not the same every day. Because the school week has a certain rhythm to it; every month has a certain rhythm to it.
DG: Can you think of any non-verbal means of communication that you might have with students?
DR: Well, I think moving around the room. Sometimes just looking at somebody – staring them down. Or, just pausing, waiting. Not saying anything, just stand there, and people eventually say he’s waiting for us. Things like this you can do without yelling and screaming. Yelling and screaming is, you know, the worst thing you can do.
DG: Somebody can get the job of being an English teacher, but that doesn’t make them a good English teacher. What sorts of things does a good English teacher do? Or, maybe what do some teachers do wrong?
DR: I would say that the worst example would be people that teach the same thing the same way over and over again. And students are very attentive. They get very good at telling whether you’re just going through the motions, or that you’ve done this over and over again the same way – they know that. And they’ll turn that off. Or if you aren’t committed to what you’re doing. If you hate what you’re doing, or if you hate the book, or if you hate this story or poem, or whatever. Someone has told you that you have to teach this, and you don’t like it. They’re going to turn off to that, too. So, they know. They have a good sense of how you’re delivering the subject matter. And they’ll say that if you’re not into it, then I’m not into it either. But if you’re engaged with it and you’re doing it because you want to, and you have a real sincere interest in it. And having them have a sincere interest in it, then they are more likely to go along with it, even though they don’t, right away, like it, or it doesn’t look like something they’re interested in. That’s one of the things about teaching English is that you’ve got to get them interested in stuff that they don’t normally get interested in. Otherwise, they’ll just do the same thing over and over again. They’re very conservative in that way – teenagers are not that rebellious. They’re stuck in their ways a lot. And so part of your job is to break them out of that mold they’re stuck in. You can’t give them too much of one thing: you can’t give them too much reading; you can’t give them too much writing; you can’t give them too much grammar at one time. You’ve got to vary it, and have a kind of a pattern or rhythm that’s kind of back and forth. They don’t like a lot of doing the same thing over and over again. And throw a film in there occasionally; you know, have a day off occasionally. Keep them engaged in that way, where it doesn’t become, “Okay, you have to write another essay again, today." So, I don’t overwhelm them with a lot of writing, and I don’t overwhelm them with a lot of reading. I try to pace it so that when they do it, they don’t feel like it’s drudgery, or they have to do it. You know, one more time, one more thing.
DG: Can you think of any teaching methods that you’ve had to work on specifically, that you felt that you might’ve been doing wrong, or needed improving upon? I mean, in a way, you’ve already answered that in talking about differentiating instruction for students.
DR: Well, I think when I first started teaching English in Minneapolis, I didn’t have a very good sense of what the students expected. I guess my image of them was that they weren’t all that great of students. You know, I had a kind of negative image of the American high school student. After working in ESL, I had a negative impression of the mainstream students as goof-offs, screw-off, and not very serious. That’s part of it – at Roosevelt High School – is fairly accurate. So, I didn’t really want to be working with them that much when I did teach English. Compared to my ESL students who were very eager, very motivated, very much in love with their teacher. It was a great experience, and the more apathetic, turned-off American high school student turned me off. And so, I think I probably came across as not being very interested in them.
DG: Do you think that attitude has sort of sprung up in the past 50 years, or is that something that’s changed all that much?
DR: I think it’s something that’s always been there. My high school classmates were like that. And then, do I want to be in the same room with these guys? I mean, do I want to spend eight hours of my day with them? Turned off, cynical, bored, you know. But that is, to some extent, a stereotype. And when I came here, that was certainly not true. This place is different. You had to really work to keep up with ‘em, because they were very bright students and I was almost intimidated by the students here, just how good they were.
DG: I noticed in the CIS [College in the Schools] class, with student presentations. Those guys are really bright. It’s not just them repeating something they read somewhere else. I’m glad I sat in on that class.
DR: Well, you know I’ve had students go off to Dartmouth, and Columbia, and NYU, and University of Chicago – places I never could’ve gotten into coming out of high school.
DG: Well, my guidance counselor didn’t suggest any school outside of Kentucky. No awareness of it at all, and that seems like a really big problem to me. I don’t necessarily feel that any college education is the same. But I’ve never gotten all A’s in my life until last semester.
DR: Yeah, I guess my last year in college, maybe. I got mostly A’s, but I was never a great student. My English education was adequate at best in high school. It was pretty good at college; it was pretty good in graduate school. But I never went to any elite school – I never could’ve gotten in.
DG: Can you think of any text you studied when you were younger, or used to be part of the canon 20 or 30 years ago, but doesn’t necessarily ring true with students now?
DR: I think that anything can ring true with students at any time. I think there’s too much emphasis put on “relevance of material", that it has to be something really recent to appeal to them, or that it’s got to be something currently in their life for them to relate to. I think that’s kind of a stereotyping or condescending way of looking at teenagers. I think they’re very willing to look back at things from 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, and find that relevant in some way. So, I just think the curriculum has evolved, generally speaking, towards a more multi-cultural curriculum, and I think that was a rather necessary evolution that’s held up pretty well. But I think a lot of people went overboard with it and brought in a little touchy-feely kind of curriculum that might’ve turned students off even, that they thought it was kind of superficial stuff – that they were just being pandered to. And that would be one thing I wouldn’t do. Just because it’s a black writer, doesn’t mean a black student’s going to relate to it. The black writer who went to Harvard is going to be different from the one that grew up as a share-cropper, or something. So, it depends upon who you’re talking about. So, you can’t just say well, this group of students will relate to this or that. It doesn’t work that way.
DG: What skills do you hope that students take away from your class? Maybe the high-end student and the low-end student who are engaged.
DR: Well, I hope they all get interested in reading. A lot of them already are interested in reading, the college ones. But it brings them to a higher level of aesthetic appreciation. You know, literary analysis and being able to think and write about literature in a more sophisticated way, and then being able to go to college to be ready to do that more quickly than the regular high school graduate. Then, for the other ones, like in the 10th grade Humanities, to get them ready for AP English or College in the Schools or something, but they can raise their critical reading and analysis level and writing about literature, and also getting them to think about words, vocabulary words they choose when they write – the importance of language in their lives and their school. And some skills – some grammatical things, but I don’t do a lot of grammatical work. I think reading and writing is better preparation in developing grammar than doing grammar worksheets. And also, just to foster a positive learning experience that would carry over into other situations.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to have this discussion, David. You’ve covered a lot of territory here.
I feel that my beliefs about the value of teaching English/Language Arts in schools fall in line with David Rathbun’s feelings, as does my belief that students want to be empowered and treated with respect in all their classrooms. I feel privileged to be working with him as I begin the student teaching experience this March, 2008. In relation to Wiggins and McTighe’s six facets of understanding, I feel that Mr. Rathbun would agree that all of these points are important to consider as a teacher, but I’m sure he would recognize other (less tangible, possibly) facets to consider, as well. His comments on the validity of studying any textual work in a language arts course seems to relates the “All the Worlds that Fit" argument by Rudy J. Miera in Zancanella’s text Dripping with Literacy, a Jazz-Fueled Road Trip, a Place to Breathe.
I wouldn’t say that Rathbun’s comments caused me to rethink my own beliefs. I recognize that his thoughts are his own, and while I intend to consider his perspective as a teacher, I feel the need to authenticate my own instruction with my own core positions. Again, I feel that many of his thoughts are in line with my own in many ways. After working with students from other cultures in ESL studies, I also cannot help but feel a certain amount of impatience with “typical" American high school students, at times. His claim that he doesn’t treat special education students any differently than others may be slightly misleading, but he makes a good point in stating that they [special education students, as well as all other students] have to be willing to make some effort before he meets them (halfway, if need be).