TAPE: CROWD NOISE
AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and this week on WORDMASTER -- a visit to Baltimore, Maryland, for the ninety-first annual convention of N-C-T-E -- the National Council of Teachers of English.
These teachers take American kids through reading and writing, speaking and literature. I was curious to find out what's new in the field, but also how teachers have been addressing what's happening in the world right now.
TAPE: CUT ONE -- SZYMBORSKI
"My name is Renuka Chander Szymborski and I teach middle and upper school English at a small private school in Gastonia, North Carolina. Gastonia is a town close to Charlotte, and our population is predominately Caucasian; we do have a few minority students. I teacher primarily world literature. We found a need for that at our school mainly because we have a lot of focus on the British and the American and some of our students were lacking the understanding that there were other literatures and other cultures that perhaps we needed to be aware of. So that was a new course that was created about two years ago."
AA: Then with September eleventh, and several thousand dead at the hands of terrorists, the name of Osama bin Laden was suddenly all over the news and on the minds of her students.
TAPE: CUT TWO -- SZYMBORSKI/ARDITTI
SZYMBORSKI: "One of the interesting things was, we were working on Middle Eastern literature at that time, and so we did stop and many of the students did ask questions about, well, what is Islam and who is this guy and why do they hate Americans? So we did talk about the religious aspects and how that relates to the Koran and some of the literature. And they did seem to have more of an interest in global issues after the attack, as to what does literature have to say about the thoughts and feelings of people of those cultures."
AA: "And now, two months later?"
SZYMBORSKI: "They do bring up some things that are on the news and try to see how that connects. They understand that war and oppression have existed for a very long time, and that people have used religious doctrines to further their own causes. And so that kind of allows them to realize this is not the first time, and that perhaps we are not alone in this problem."
AA: Renuka Chander Szymborski wasn't the only English teacher at her school to find her curriculum suddenly overshadowed by events.
Jill Kazmierczak had her upper grade students analyze a speech by Osama bin Laden.
TAPE: CUT THREE -- KAZMIERCZAK/ARDITTI
KAZMIERCZAK: "We wanted to look at and to answer the question, well, why do they hate Americans. What is it at least that they are saying, how do they perceive rationalizing such an attack."
AA: "And how have the students reacted?"
KAZMIERCZAK: "It was fascinating. They really dug into the material. They started saying, 'He makes a reference to "eighty years ago" three times in that speech. What WAS going on, and what was America's role in creating Palestine and Israel, what is this League of Nations, how were we a part of this?' And so they got interested in it."
AA: "How is this considered English?"
KAZMIERCZAK: "We can analyze it not only for the content, but for the rhetoric. And so what kinds of arguments, what kinds of modes of arguments, do we have going on here. What rhetorical manipulations. So when you call Bush 'the head of all infidels in the world,' what does that really mean? What is the depth of that kind of statement?"
AA: I also spoke to Sawsan Jaber, a 21-year-old American-born Palestinian who is in her second year of teaching English at an Islamic school in Teaneck, New Jersey. A tan scarf covers her hair and neck.
The township of Teaneck, New Jersey, is close to New York and Ground Zero, site of the ruins of the World Trade Center. Sawsa Jaber says her students have been victims twice -- first of the attack on September eleventh, then of a backlash in their own community.
TAPE: CUT FOUR -- JABER/ARDITTI
JABER: "You can't leave out current events. It's happening in our neighborhood. I mean, we have [graffiti] spray-painted all over our building and comments from our neighbors."
AA: "As their teacher how are you using these events?"
JABER: "I actually did a novel with them -- 'Fahrenheit 451' -- about censorship in media and how the media has like a one-sided point of view sometimes and that's the point of view that they want the people to accept. So it fit in perfectly with what was going on, because I personally feel -- and they also feel -- that the media has taken a one-sided point of view on this whole issue and sort of stereotyped a lot of, you know, Muslims. And we see all of this negative stigma from the Middle East. So the novel that we did with my honors ninth-grade class was "Fahrenheit 451" which covers all of these points about media and representation and all of that."
AA: "Fahrenheit 451" is a novel by American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Published almost fifty years ago, it's about a society that burns books. The title refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire. And, it's the same book my wife uses to teach her schoolchildren about censorship.
Over the years, some teachers have taken heat from parents for using this book in class. But when you're an English teacher, that sort of challenge comes with the territory.
Next week, more from the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Baltimore. (If you have a question about American English, send it to [email protected] or VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA.) That's WORDMASTER for this week. I'm Avi Arditti.