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Faculty Q&A with English Teacher Michelle Koza

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

Michelle Koza comes to The Beekman School from the trenches of New York City public schools.  Born in Brazil to a Brazilian mother and an American father, she grew up loving books and left her home country in 2001 to attend Boston College, where she earned a B.A. in 2005. After working for a year, she attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, earning an M.L.S. in library science. In 2008, she was chosen to become part of New York City’s highly selective Teaching Fellows Program, which placed her in some tough inner-city high schools.

How did you get into teaching?

Even as a child growing up in Brazil, I knew that I wanted to read literature and bring great books to students for a living if I could.  When I landed in college in the United States, I set my sights on becoming an academic, though I soon saw that, with the job market flooded with English Ph.D.’s, it was going to be a tough road.

So what did you do after graduating?

In college, I’d worked in a fine arts library. My love for books not only includes what’s inside them, but the books themselves.  So, I went to Pratt for a degree in library science, hoping to get a position as a rare books librarian.  I seem to have a knack for picking hard-to-obtain careers.  Rare books jobs are rare, and I didn’t want to spend my career answering the most common questions librarians get: (1) Where’s the restroom? and; (2) How do I get access to the Internet?

What happened next?

I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, which trains people who don’t have teaching degrees to be teachers.

So, you found your career?

Yes, and no.  Let’s say that my five years teaching in the New York City public school system was as much, if not more, of a learning experience for me as for my high school students.  Like most of the fellows, I entered the program with idealistic notions about bringing books I loved to students.  And there was certainly some of that—I had some amazing kids from backgrounds where the odds were really against them.  They devoured the literature and asked probing, mature questions that even shed new light on the texts for me.

What happened?

Those small victories were hugely offset by the school bureaucracy, which makes it so difficult to teach.  I found myself not so much teaching as “managing a classroom” and teaching to tests and getting little support from administrators.  After several years, my love of teaching was being extinguished, so when a job opened up at Beekman, I leaped.

How’s it going?

I feel like a bird that can fly again.  Fittingly, one of the first books I taught this semester was To Kill a Mockingbird.  The students were riveted by the story of Atticus Finch and his fight for justice.  Without all the distractions I had in public school, I can show students how literature helps us look at the world.  It challenges us.  It’s rearranges our brains so we see things differently.

So, what are some of these books you love that you’re finally going to get to share with your class?

The list is practically endless, but I am looking forward especially to T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which chronicles the education of King Arthur, his rule as king, and the romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenever.  White’s medieval fantasies make us as readers examine ourselves.  We read about Lancelot, who’s an incredibly honest and accomplished knight, and see that, like all of us, he struggles.  At times, he’s downright weak.  White asks compelling questions about notions of “fulfillment” versus “contentment” (which also loom large in another book I’m also teaching—Brave New World).  I ask my students: which of these two would you rather have, and why? What does it mean to lead a truly human life?  These are the kinds of questions we ought to spend our whole lives trying to answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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