Makes You Mom: Congratulations on your new book! Let’s start with the T word. What was your path into teaching? What have you taught and where?
Callie Feyen: Thank you! I’ve taught in both public and private schools over the years. I did my student teaching in the Chicago Public Schools in an 8th grade English class. Right after that, I got married and moved to South Bend, Indiana, where I taught in a 5th-6th classroom of 12 students. I stayed there for a couple of years, and then moved to another school in Indiana, Goshen Middle School, where I taught 7th grade reading.
I went from having 12 students and teaching most of the subjects to about 100 students and teaching one subject. To this day, I’m not sure which is better. I think there are positives and negatives to both situations. I love small class sizes, and I love to get to know the kids both individually and as a class. I think my most powerful lessons were taught because I knew the class and what they could handle. On the other hand, if you’re teaching one subject, you get to really hone in on that art, and at GMS I was able to take a lot of courses and work with other people to learn more about how to teach reading.
Jesse and I moved to Washington, D.C., once he finished his Ph.D., and I taught at Washington Christian Academy for a couple of years. I taught two 6th grade classes and two 8th grade classes, both English. I am forever thankful for that school because those students and the people there made me feel right at home in this brand new city.
I took a break from teaching once I had Hadley, and then Harper, and pretty much vowed to never go back once I became a mother. I decided I can’t be both. I don’t know why I make up these rules for myself, but there you have it. Anyway, I broke my little rule and when Harper started kindergarten, I went back to WCA to teach English to 8th grade. I stayed there for two years until we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
When we moved to Ann Arbor, I took a job in a Detroit charter school teaching 6th grade English, but sadly, left in December 2016. I wish factors were different and I could’ve stayed because I admire that school and what it’s trying to do. I am now in the Ypsilanti Public Schools working as an At-Risk Literacy Specialist. I run two libraries, and I help with Literacy Support. It’s a really fun job.
MYM: What do you remember from when you were a student studying Romeo and Juliet? How did that inform the choices you made in teaching the play?
Ha! I don’t remember a THING from when I was studying Romeo and Juliet. Well, that’s not true. Actually, I remember coming late to class after getting into a fight with a boy. We had lockers next to each other, and it was one of those ridiculous situations when kids don’t know how, or are too scared, to just be nice to each other, so instead, we show affection by play hitting. In this case, that got out of control. He spilled grape juice on my sweater, and I hit him in the face with my locker’s combination lock. Not OK.
I don’t endorse this kind of behavior. HOWEVER, I do think that this is at the heart of who teenagers are — volatile. I also think Shakespeare got that, and the thing that helped teach his play was remembering, as awful and awkward at times as it was, what it was like to be a teenager. It’s wonderful and hilarious too, but there are a lot of painful and awkward moments. I wanted to take all of what I remembered and bring that into the classroom. This is not to say I shared all my teenage years with my students. What I think is important, when teaching middle school and high school, is to remember what it was like: to get as close as you can to how it feels to be a teenager. I think lesson plans change a lot when we do this.
When I walked in late to class, my teacher was annoyed, and he let me know it. I felt terrible about it. I was felt terrible that I was late, and I felt terrible about the incident in the hallway. I was so confused. I was having fun with this guy, and then it got out of hand. How does it happen so fast? ENTER ROMEO AND JULIET. I know it’s not my teacher’s job to understand what I’m going through, but he had a good opportunity to allow me to get lost in this story while also figuring out my own. Instead, he spent a good chunk of his time shaming me, and I was always uncomfortable in his class. This is not to say I’m not at fault. I’m sure I knew better. But love, or a crush, or whatever it is that happens to us when we are in the midst of it, is a force to be reckoned with. I wish I had a few more teachers who were willing to walk me through stories that allowed me to see others who were going through the same thing.
It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable. It’s not OK to stop trying.
MYM: Can you talk in general about some student “types,” and what you do to reach and encourage each of them, possibly to help them do better work than they think they can?
CF: Generally speaking, there’s always the quiet kid, and the funny kid (usually there are 14 funny kids because everyone wants to be that guy). There’s the student who swears he/she will die if 99.99999% is put on his/her paper. There’s the other kid whose main focus in life is soccer or ballet, or what have you, and if there’s no hint of said extra-curricular in the subject I am teaching, that kid will check out. (I once had a student who loved horses, and found a way to integrate them into every single assignment. At the time I was teaching art, math, science, social studies, language arts, and Bible. It was impressive!)
I try to get to know each student as best I can. The way I do that is telling stories about myself, paralleling what we are studying in class. I find this gets them talking, and in turn, I pick up on personality, and even fears and anxieties. I can plan lessons accordingly. I also try to get middle schoolers moving as much as I can. At WCA, we went outside a lot. To review some of the characters and events in Romeo and Juliet, I taught classes how to play SPUD. In the 7th grade classes I taught, when we were studying The Hobbit, I had the students go on a journey with tasks along the way (one leading to the principal’s office, where they were asked a series of questions about the story). That was a fun project.
I like to think of my classroom as a place of adventure. But adventure is risky, and so I tell my students a lot of the time, they are going to feel uncomfortable. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable. It’s not OK to stop trying. I try really hard to set up a classroom so that students feel comfortable to be uncomfortable (if that makes any sense). I think that produces vulnerable, better work.
MYM: You use all kinds of activities people might not expect in an English class. How do you come up with these, and how do they help students to better understand and even to love literature?
CF: I don’t know. These ideas come to me in the shower, on runs, when I’m driving. I think my favorite one from the Romeo and Juliet study was my DIY Queen Mab assignment. I wanted the students to write in iambic pentameter, and I wanted them to create a being, as Mercutio did, that both helps and haunts. I think this concept of a being that can be helpful but also cause trouble hits home for middle schoolers, and many of us, too. After they wrote their sonnets, the 8th graders made puppets of fairies and helpful monsters, and we went down to the kindergarten class to share them. Before they did that, I typed up a little script that I wanted the 8th graders to follow. This was a great activity to teach early readers rhyme and rhythm. This group that I did this with was a rowdy group, but they were the sweetest when they were working with the kindergarteners. They were responsible, kind, they colored with them, and helped them write their words. It made me see Mercutio in a totally different light.
Another assignment I’ve done before that was a lot of fun is called “Soundtrack of Your Life.” My classes were supposed to learn how to use quotations in their writing, not just cut and paste words in without any correlation to the rest of what they were writing about. The model we used was something called a “quotation sandwich.” What you do is you introduce the quote, you use the quote, and then you say something about the quote. 1,2,3. I liked that, but I didn’t want to teach it like a math equation, so I came up with the “Soundtrack of Your Life” project. They were to choose 10 songs that represented who they were, what they loved, how they feel, what they believed in, etc., and write about those songs, using quotations to support their opinions and feelings in their paper. This was a great way to analyze lyrics, express, and defend opinions. I also had the students create an album cover for their soundtrack.
MYM: You often write about your daughters. How do they influence your teaching and writing?
CF: Hadley and Harper have taught me that I am not just one thing, and that in fact, I am better when I am working different parts of myself. I think teaching makes me a better mother, as does writing. I think that both of them help me release them into the world without as much fear as I would have if I weren’t doing these things. I also love hearing what they’re doing in school, or watching them at practices for soccer or ballet, because it helps me see a different side to them as well. The world opened up a lot for me when I became a mother. Suddenly, I saw all these possibilities up for grabs. I didn’t expect that to happen, but I’m glad it did.
MYM: Can you talk a bit about your own path to writing?
CF: I think my own path to writing might be best summarized in the Darius Rucker essay on Makes You Mom! I’ve always liked to write. I have journals from back when I was 6 through today. I always feel better after I’ve written. I love stories.
I think writing became necessary for me when I became a mother, and because of that, I became afraid because I didn’t believe there was room for me to do that. Things started to change when my dad sent me L.L. Barkat’s book, Rumors of Water. Here was a writer and a mother of two girls, and she was sharing how she went about mothering, and teaching, and writing. I think it was that Christmas that my dad gave me a gift certificate for my first Glen Online course, and I met Lindsey Crittenden, who introduced me to creative nonfiction. After that, I took a class with Paula Huston, and from there, I decided the next step was to apply to the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University. I had no goals about writing books, or teaching, or anything. I just wanted to read and write, and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
When I’m running, scary and sad things don’t seem so scary and sad anymore.
MYM: Tell us a bit about how this book came to be.
CF: This book is all Laura Barkat’s idea. I was actually working on another manuscript, but it was falling flat. Laura said, “Something needs to shake loose,” but I wasn’t sure what it was. During that time, we’d just moved to Ann Arbor, I started and quit a job, and I was all around feeling miserable about myself. Laura suggested I write about how I taught Romeo and Juliet for Tweetspeak Poetry. I didn’t tell her this, but I didn’t want to do that. After this Detroit job, I was really confused about teaching, and unsure I’d done anything right ever in my career. Teaching felt too risky. Too dangerous. It felt like there were too many mistakes to be made that couldn’t be redeemed. I didn’t want to think about how I used to do things, because I believed I’d done them wrong.
But I told Laura I’d give it a shot, and did some thinking. I went on a run on a nasty day in January, feeling miserable because I was out of work and confused about my role in life, but around mile 2, I started to perk up. I began to think about Romeo and Juliet and teaching. When I’m running, scary and sad things don’t seem so scary and sad anymore. Or they’re at least manageable. I remembered my first kiss. That made me remember Rainbow Rowell’s book Eleanor and Park, specifically the first scene. It is almost exactly like the first scene in Romeo and Juliet, and just like in R&J, after reading it, I thought, “I don’t think I can finish this book.” It was so dirty. So vile. But I did finish it, and it’s an incredible love story, and it made me think that there must be a reason Shakespeare and Rowell put these first scenes in here.
When I was in graduate school, one thing we practiced is asking ourselves why an author makes the choices she makes, and then we try to answer those questions. I think it helps us appreciate the story and get away from “I like this story. I don’t like this story.” Maybe in the case of Shakespeare and Rowell, show the stereotype of the teenager and how disgusting they can be, but also show what love does to teenagers. Further, I think both scenes show that teenagers are grappling with so many emotions at any given moment, it’s no wonder they forget their homework from time to time.
I’ve always like the idea of “re-writing” a story. For example, Cinderella. I have a draft somewhere in my notebooks of a Cinderella story that takes place in Chicago. The arc is already there; I just have to plug in my own details. Well, I started to think about my first kiss, and the events surrounding it, and I figured it paralleled very well with the first scene in R&J. It was such fun to write because it was squeamishly awkward, and I thought, “Laura will never accept this. I’ve gone too far.” I sent it anyway, and a few days later, she wrote back, “This? This, I’ll take.” From there, the project took off. I wrote a chapter every two or three weeks, and sent them in until I had about 15. Then Sara Barkat, who is my editor, read through them and helped me really refine and polish off the story. There were a couple chapters that were dropped, and some that were added, and it was all around a fantastic experience. I love working with everyone at T. S. Poetry Press. It feels like play.
MYM: Are there more Teacher Diaries to come?
CF: Yes! We are planning one on The Hobbit, and I think another on To Kill a Mockingbird.
MYM: Besides here, where else can we read your writing?
MYM: What kinds of readers do you hope this book finds its way to?
CF: That’s a tough question. I guess I want anyone who believes that a story can live inside you and help you see the world differently to read it. Or anyone who agrees with that Faulkner quote about the past never really being the past.
Wednesday, March 7 — Chapters 1-4: Kissing a Dragon in His Fair Cave, Dancing With Frankenstein, Pernicious Rage, Walking in the Sycamore Grove.
Wednesday, March 14 — Chapters 5-8: “Where’s My Daughter? Call Her Forth,” Wild Mercutio, Tragic Give
& Take, Hooked
Wednesday, March 21 — Chapters 9-12: Tricks, Polka-Dotted Sneakers, At the Door, Meeting in the Dark
Wednesday, March 28 — Chapters 13-15: Set to Music, Juliet Moment, Go Hence