By Jeremy Shulkin
Jeremy Shulkin (’07) is an English teacher at University Park Campus School as well as a freelance writer.
My 9th graders know the routine. There to greet them at the beginning of each of my classes is a “starter” – an opinion-based question on the board that gets their brains ready to think about that day’s lesson. For example, after meeting Romeo for the first time in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, I may ask them to explain whether they think they’d be friends with him. At the start of The Odyssey I ask them if they’ve ever been separated from an important place or loved one for a long period of time. At the start of the podcast Serial they try to explain why humans are so interested in stories about violence, murder and crime.
English majors know the importance of asking questions when analyzing a text or conducting thorough research, but in my post-Clark journalism and teaching careers I’ve found the best way to begin everything from a newspaper story to a lesson plan is by asking the same questions I got so used to asking during my four years in the Anderson House.
My first full-time job post-Clark was as a reporter for Worcester Magazine. I went into the job with little journalism experience, just a desire to write true stories about real people and events.
Immediately, I realized that a successful story or story idea starts with a very familiar slew of questions: How do you structure a good story? Whose perspective is missing or unexplored? What is the broader context of the conflict at the heart of this story?
As my writing sharpened and expanded to broader outlets like the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, those questions served as the framework for the stories I’m most proud of: stories about the opioid epidemic, bank foreclosure practices and the disregard of environmental impacts by developers (or even local governments). Each of these stories came from a distinct point of view, one shaped by my time as an English major at Clark, and one that made my take different than others’.
The questions that informed my style of journalism now inform my approach to high school English curriculum. How do we tell stories? is a catch-all question. Each text that we study affords us the opportunity to break the sum of the work into its parts, allowing us ask about the author’s choices, explore a character’s motivations or wonder how the context of the life and times of the author affected the writing. Asking who has been left out of the conversation has helped me take great strides in diversifying my curriculum. Many of my students either have or know someone who has done their own modern day Odyssey, which is why I’ve had the most success I ever had teaching Homer’s epic poem alongside Enrique’s Journey, the true story of a 17 year old Honduran boy’s campaign across Central America to find his mom in the USA. These kinds of questions have helped me open up my curriculum to a much more diverse group of texts, authors and storytelling modes. Without these starting points, my teaching of The Great Gatsby, for example, would be very dry, very by the book and no different of an experience for my students than it would be for them at hundreds of other high schools around the country.
Of course, teachers and journalists often have more pressing questions at the forefront of their minds. But, the kinds of questions us English majors ask about complicated texts also provide us with the creative beginnings for any new project, be it literary or otherwise. Can pop culture be examined like classical literature? Whose perspective is being ignored? What do you notice? These are the questions that Clark professors asked of me fifteen years ago and I’ll still be asking them of myself in another 15 years. I hope my students will be too.