Teacher Talks: Ellen Kwon, Upper School English Teacher

Upper School English Teacher Ellen Kwon wants her students to see themselves in literature. As her students explore complex themes like race, gender and social class, Ellen introduces them to a variety of diverse authors and characters, giving Calhouners the opportunity to connect with the text in a personal way. 

Beyond just understanding the material at hand, Ellen pushes students to learn the art of analysis, exploring the various elements that make up a particular work both in and outside of the classroom. Through their work, Upper Schoolers build both the skills to formulate informed opinions about literature, and the confidence to share them.

Juniors read American literature, so we start with a broader discussion on the concept of the American Dream — who is included in that dream and who is not included. Then we focus on the theme of coming of age, examining beauty, race and class as we read The Bluest Eye and The Catcher in the Rye. In another mod, we focus more on gender and read A Streetcar Named Desire, with the students analyzing specific scenes. 

Ellen Kwon

I want students to see themselves in the material. I want them to see each other in it, I want them to see their parents' stories or other people that they know. I think it's important for the kids to see different voices and different people on the page. We read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Yes, the character is Chinese-American, but the issues he is facing can apply to anyone. As I move forward, it will remain important for me to continue to find works that represent different voices, but without [the work] having to represent a whole group of people on its own.

My goal is to teach literary analysis. I want students to have confidence in themselves to know that they have something to say about a piece of literature. I want them to see themselves as writers, to be able to sit with a piece of literature, a painting or a film and form an argument; to have the ability to write it, edit it, refine it and feel confident in their analytical writing. 

I also want students to start thinking about analysis of other kinds of texts. When we’re discussing what it is to be American and our ideas about the American Dream, we visit The Whitney Museum of American Art. I ask them to pick a piece of artwork and dissect the visual components, analyze it and create an argument. The museum trips are an extension of the text analysis we do in the classroom, only we’re focusing on the visual instead of the page. Students make connections to the literature from class, particularly around big issues such as gender, class or race. When you see those things represented in a painting it can spark a lot of connections. For example, there is one painting called Gettin' Religion (1948) by Archibald Motley that a lot of the students love to write about; they make the connection to our discussions on race. At the museum they are able to walk around those spaces by themselves and explore their own thoughts. I think that must feel fruitful and empowering.

My hope for my students is that they gain confidence in their ability to read, analyze and form an opinion about literature. I want them to be able to take a piece of literature and make a connection, form an opinion and be able to speak to a friend, a teacher, or just write about it for themselves. And I want them to have a personal connection, to see themselves in some way,  even in a character that seems different from them, by connecting with the common humanity in a character. 

Teacher Talks is a series spotlighting the educators of Calhoun and their approach to progressive education.