Educator Spotlight: Teaching Literature’s Living Canon

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Topher Kandik, this week’s Educator of the Week, is Washington D.C.’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. Throughout his nine years teaching, Topher has worked to elevate young voices as much as possible. He believes the best learning experiences come out of student ideas. Topher is a high school English teacher at The SEED School of Washington, D.C.

After writing short stories for a book project, a group of students attended a book release party at the Vice President’s residence, hosted by Dr. Jill Biden. Photo courtesy Topher Kandik

You started your career in arts administration. How did that lead you to become an English teacher?
Well, I used to work at the Shakespeare Theater [in Washington, D.C.], and at the end of my workday, I would volunteer for this program called the Southeast Project. Kids who lived near the theater would come and write a play over the course of two or three months. Then, the theater’s actors actually performed the play, which was really neat.

I was working with a boy named Marcus, and I couldn’t tell if he liked the program or not. He produced maybe a page. Then about seven or eight years later, I was in a place in my career where I was feeling a bit lost. And I was on the Metro when suddenly there was this guy standing over me. He was like, “Topher, you don’t recognize me? It’s Marcus from the Southeast Project.”

He had gone from this chubby boy of 10 or 11 to this young man who was 18 or 19. He told me that he had had so much fun, and he asked if I still had a copy of the play. It blew my mind that he remembered it. And I thought, what a difference you can make in someone’s life. Why am I not doing that as my life’s work? So I went home and applied to grad school. I became a teacher right after that, and it was really because of Marcus.

Did that experience teach you anything about how to read students or what to do if they seem disengaged?
Yeah. With students, you get to be really good at understanding a kind of second language. They’re not going to tell you, “What I need is this,” but they’re going to tell you what they need.

Even the ones who seem disengaged or angry sometimes are telling you something. Usually, something else is going on and you need to figure out what it is. You have to be a psychologist, a linguist, a counselor, and a mom or dad.

After taking the Why New Orleans Matters elective, students traveled to the city. Photo courtesy Topher Kandik

As a white teacher in a primarily African-American school, how do you talk about race in your classroom?
I’ve had a lot of really frank discussions with my students about race. My AP English class is basically a survey of African-American nonfiction starting with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs up through Ta-Nehisi Coates and other folks who are writing today. I tell my students that they’re the next writers of this story.

Sometimes they’ve asked me, “Who taught you these books?” and I tell them that nobody did. My school didn’t teach African-American literature. There was a canon and it was mostly white, mostly male, and mostly dead. As an adult, I learned that there’s a living canon, which is changing and diverse. I think they appreciate knowing that I’m trying to learn new things as well.

Do you have advice for teachers who are wondering how to bring up topics like race in their classroom?
The big one is this: Kids know when you’re being fake and when you’re not. You don’t have to be cool. Look at me! I’m not cool at all. There’s a perception that if you’re cool, kids are going to be more likely to open up to you. But that’s not true. If you’re authentic and you make yourself vulnerable while honoring their voices and creating an environment where it’s okay to ask questions, those discussions will be a lot easier.

Also, use literature. Studies have shown that literature really does make you more empathetic. It can help you empathize with a variety of people. What is race besides a discussion of “other”—of someone who is not you? Empathy is the gold standard emotion that I would like to see students have.

In conjunction with their Food Corps volunteer, 10th graders harvested yams from the school garden after reading Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart. Photo courtesy Topher Kandik

What’s a teaching method that you use in your classroom that you feel really strongly about?
I like to become a student and let the students become teachers. So when we start a book—let’s say it’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs—we sit down with a calendar. I’ll tell the students when we need to be done, and they’ll tell me how much they’re reading and when. They plan it out around their other projects, and they all take one day to lead class.

I’ll lead the first and second day so I can set up some themes and model what the class should look like. We do a close reading, an assessment of what happened in the reading, and then a discussion using thoughtful questions that are submitted ahead of time.

After that, I’m a student like them. The student leading is responsible for any paperwork and for the timing of the class. They make choices and pull ideas out from the book. And from the sideline, I can comment and help support the discussion. They’re a little shy at first, but after they do it a couple of times, they’re much better at listening to each other and learning directly from each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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