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Teaching students to communicate through writing

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Peter Kempe

by Amy Rose Dobson

Few people remember much about their high school English teacher, but many of Peter Kempe’s students will. As a part of the faculty at Christchurch School he brings enough real-world applications to his English classes that students forget they are actually stuck in a classroom.

His recent letter to the editor to the New York Times was published amid a discussion about the merits of content versus skills-based education. Not surprisingly, he supports the latter. For this column we talked about the personal impact of certain books long after he had finished their last chapters.

Your classes read the book ‘A Separate Peace’ about a boys boarding school. In the story there is an “unsung’ moment” when Finny breaks the school’s long-held school record for swimming without anyone around to watch. Teaching is a career filled with “unsung” moments. Can you share a few?

Kempe: In terms of the classroom, sometimes the students don’t think they are doing schoolwork if there isn’t a worksheet or something they give back. When we have class discussions we are trying to get students to be inquisitive and curious so they aren’t actually motivated by the “I did something” mentality. They are getting understanding if they are immersed in learning experiences, but sometimes they don’t realize they are doing something worthwhile. It is the intangible things you can’t measure and somehow, if you measure them, it diminishes them.

Since you are the English teacher, are there any books that mean a lot to you both personally and professionally? I want to go for the gold here.

Kempe: If you want to go for the gold, go for “The Brothers Karamazov.” It has the parable of a wicked peasant who died without doing anything for anyone. When she dies the devils plunge her into the Lake of Fire. Her guardian angel stands over her, trying to remember any good deed that would convince God to let her into heaven. Finally, the angel remembers the peasant had once pulled an onion from the ground and given it to a beggar. God tells the angel to offer the onion to the peasant and if she can hold onto it and be pulled out of the Lake, she will get to heaven, but if it breaks, she will stay in forever. As the peasant begins to be pulled out, other people cling to her so they can get out too. She kicks them off and, of course, the onion breaks and she sinks back down.

I can see how this would have personal meaning, but how do you relate this to teaching?

Kempe: As a teacher if you think about the weight of everything that needs to be fixed, and ought to be fixed, it can be overwhelming. If I cannot fix anything that is fine, but if I have only offered one onion to a student perhaps that is the very deed that matters. If, through my class, they realize they can communicate pretty well through writing, or there’s actually something to be learned from books, then I have succeeded.

Teachers have to motivate students to do things they don’t necessarily want to do—like Tom Sawyer getting someone to “whitewash a fence.” How do you light a fire underneath your skeptical students?

Kempe: You have to leverage student’s actual interests. I’ll tell them to do something that shows me they understand the book—such as explaining their drawing of the most important scene or writing a song from different characters’ viewpoints. A few of my students just wrote a rap for “The Odyssey."  They wrote the lyrics all themselves—and one of them wasn’t in the class at all.  He just helped out!

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is about being afraid of an unknown and then finding out it is completely harmless. Has this every happened to you?

Kempe: Working at a boarding school could be an unknown. But I wasn’t really worried about it, though people did warn me that it would be all-encompassing. My first child is due the day before graduation. But that is more of an adventure to me, not so much a fear.

Shakespeare was famous for making up new words. Do you have any words that you have made up?

Kempe: I like the word ridonculous—it means extremely ridiculous. Other people are using that though, so it wasn’t me who came up with it first.

In the book “1984” law-breakers are locked in Room 101, which is filled with things they can’t stand. What is in your Room 101?

Kempe: We probably shouldn’t publish it in the paper.  That would just empower all the enemies, so don’t let this fall into the wrong hands.  It is chocolate, dark chocolate. Also, I’m very afraid of espresso.  If people left hot steaming cups of espresso on my desk it would be horrible. I would lose all of my powers and never be able to teach or give a quiz again! 

posted 05.29.2009

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