Review of The Teacher Diaries
In The Teacher Diaries: Romeo & Juliet Feyen has created a rare opportunity: a book about teaching, learning, and literature which avoids educational and pedagogical theory, and speaks directly to the process of remembering how our own experiences provide the basis for meaningful interaction with literature. The book is comprised of fifteen short chapters that reflect on the play’s key moments chronologically and a list of briefly-described classroom activities. The chapters themselves are each a lovely blend of the play’s thematic elements and the author’s experiences and memories as a teacher, mother, and young woman.
The volume strikes a delicate balance across the range of details that make her reflections so compelling. She braids her own memories, the diverse–but not overexposed–identities of her students, light doses of pedagogy, and the play’s iconic (and hotly debated) themes. As a teacher of literature, I found this particularly striking–that fine literature’s depth can intoxicate and induce expounding. Our desires to explore ourselves, our memories, and our relationships with art can be boundless. Feyen demonstrates remarkable ability to construct chapters that invite the reader back in time–both Shakespeare’s and her own–and into her classroom with swift, precise prose and detail selection, all while routinely avoiding cliche or schmaltz.
The chapter titles bespeak a wonderfully engaging mix of concepts and images: “Dancing with Frankenstein;” “Meeting in the Dark;” “Polka-Dotted Shoes.” Her focal points for each slice of the play as she guides students through it run the gamut from whimsical to weighty. Feyen deftly, conflates modern reality with the plotlines unspooling in Romeo & Juliet. Each chapter begins far away from the play: at the piano of Feyen’s living room; under the tree just off her property; in a memory of an epic high school foodfight; in her final days of high school, facing consequential young adult decisions and peer tragedy. The backdrops unfold naturally and directly; none feel like tricks or inappropriate conceits. Her use of chapter-contained motifs is skillful and unsaccharine. In this way, the word “diary” feels insufficient, as her intersections of Shakespeare and modern life bear the marks of careful structuring and reflection. Alternately, “diary” is utterly appropriate given that the highly personal descriptions of her teaching style and thought process are almost confessional, as when she acknowledges a spectrum of teacher emotions, including the need to send a student out of class, to become sharp and loud with a rowdy group, and to feel pangs of empathy for her loneliest students who hide it as best they can.
Working as an educator is not necessary to appreciate her clear, perceptive prose, but certainly secondary educators, particularly of English Language Arts, would find much that resonates. Feyen is clearly a dedicated, intuitive educator. Patient awareness of how young humans actually work, versus how we wish they would, saturates the ideas she employs and the practices she espouses. She addresses the obvious question many parents, students, and educators have faced: how do we manage the fact that this story features lusting teens? Feyen addresses the struggle shrewdly as a quick parenthetical within a direct discussion of engaging reluctant learners: “Usually we have to pause and clatter on about the word loins. In my professional opinion, it’s best to let them giggle or it only gets worse” (20). She knows them and how they tick. But she also knows what they crave: opportunities to revel in language, to access their knowledge of love, to watch seminal characters of a distant past grapple with struggles between duty and delight, parents and self.
The chapter “Juliet Moment” poignantly describes a perceptive parallel between the tension Juliet feels as makes her bold choice and the tension the writer felt as adulthood began and life at home ended. Throughout the book, she consistently reminded herself, her students, and her readers that the title characters’ depth and range of feeling as they simultaneously reckon with the intensity of love and come of age is the heart of the play–and the heart of human experience.
Feyen impressively remembers that she was once one of the young students charged with facing challenging literature. She writes in awe of them and with contagious, though not overzealous, enthusiasm for the continued relevance of Shakespeare’s characters and their struggles to modern humanity. Feyen admits that teaching the darkest hours of this play might scare her–that she sees the barely exposed inner pain of students struggling to hide it. And thankfully, she is unwilling to wrap each section with a pithy bow to provide a sense of security so that we can trust everything will be “okay.”
One of the most masterful examples of this occurs within the chapter “Tricks,” in which she blends her students’ and her daughter’s variety of anxieties–storms so swift they cause soccer games to be cancelled, their changing bodies, the “body talk” just before middle school–with heady decisions and consequences the characters face. About assisting young people to carefully work through the “slice of awkward pie” which is facing the changes of adolescence, Feyen asserts that “…this kind of deep thinking and creative work helps students to not so much run away from the tempest, but stand in it for a bit. Because, after this, the stars begin to cross, and lightning is no longer a strobe in the clouds, but a pulsing vein searching to strike and electrify. Cardinals sent to protect can make fatal mistakes, and children are left on the open field to play the game for themselves” (68). Feyen knows this is everyone’s destiny, that we will all have to face fears, to make painful decisions which may not end well, and that no parent–or teacher–can hope to prevent this from happening. Readers will certainly appreciate her clear-eyed yet highly personal narration of this reality.
Our reviewer Katie Chicquette Adams teaches English at Appleton’s public alternative high school, holding BS and MA degrees in English and history. She is a live storyteller with Storycatchers, Inc. Her work appears or is forthcoming in River + Bay, Mothers Always Write, Heavy Feather Review the radio segment “Soul of the Cities,” and on the Storycatchers blog. She lives in her hometown of Appleton, WI, after more than a decade studying and teaching in Milwaukee.
The Teacher Diaries author, Callie Feyen has an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. She’s served as a middle school teacher, is the Teaching and Learning Editor and Children’s Editor for Tweetspeak Poetry, is a contributing writer for Coffee+Crumbs, and serves as the At-Risk Literacy Specialist in the Ypsilanti Public Schools. You can visit her at calliefeyen.com.”