Dynamic Duo: An Interview with English Teachers Jeremy Michaelson and Jocelyn Medawar
By Noa Schwartz and Anthony Weinraub
“I mean…I hear we’re pretty good,” English teacher Jeremy Michaelson said, laughing, when we asked him and English teacher Jocelyn Medawar: “You guys have to know the mutual reputation that you share, right?”
Michaelson and Medawar have been friends for over 20 years, initially bonding over finishing college recommendations. Now inseparable, the duo are the creators of the popular senior elective AP English Literature: Same House, Different Worlds.
We sat down with the two to discuss their friendship, their working relationship and how they hope to enrich the lives of their students.
US: Do you guys want to start off with explaining a little bit of how you became friends?
MEDAWAR: It’s like ancient history now.
MICHAELSON: It’s hard to remember. For the longest time, Ms. Medawar wasn’t full time in the English department. I don’t even remember how it developed, but I think we just naturally kind of gravitated toward each other.
MEDAWAR: I think it was shared anxiety over getting college recs done and then in celebration that we were done, I seem to remember.
MICHAELSON: Was that why we went to Le Pain Quotidien?
MEDAWAR: Yes, because we finished our recs.
MICHAELSON: That was the first time we ever socialized together outside of school.
MEDAWAR: And it was because we finished our recs and we decided we needed to celebrate.
US: So Le Pain, perfect! A great place to celebrate.
MICHAELSON: It was more of a natural evolution than it was a moment when we realized, “Oh my god, we’re simpatico!” I wish we had a snappier story.
US: No, no Le Pain is great.
US: So what were you each teaching respectively? Do you remember which sections of English? Were you teaching the same classes at this point? What did the English classes look like?
MEDAWAR: We were both teaching sophomores. When I moved back into the department full time, we were both teaching sophomores and juniors for a while. And then we stayed teaching sophomores, and then when we split the junior classes, I switched to [a different course]. As soon as the idea of the senior electives came up, we were all over it.
US: That’s what we want to move into because we assume you guys kinda developed Same House, if we’re not wrong. So can you talk about the evolution of that, and what your goals were with that, and how you work together?
MICHAELSON: Well as soon as it became clear we were going to move towards a model of electives within an AP Lit and AP Lang program, four years ago I think, we kinda looked at each other and thought, “Ok, we need to teach a class together, obviously.” Going to this kind of system meant that teams of teachers were going to be very small, because there are six different senior courses, and so we knew it was a chance for us to work closely together to develop a course, and that was super exciting.
MEDAWAR: And we were lucky, let’s not leave Mr. Chenier out of this, he is on the team as well. And we were lucky he joined us because I think he liked our vision for the class. It was our creation, but he joined up and that’s been a good thing.
US: Same House is about childhood and your relationship with adults, and the legacy that it has, so you were talking about your vision in creating the program, how did that come up? You know, your shared vision?
MEDAWAR: It was, maybe your memory is different of it but I feel that it started with, we wanted to teach these books, at least some of these books and what do they have in common?
MICHAELSON: Yeah, we thought about the books we were already teaching that we didn’t want to give up, like Revolutionary Road, and we thought, “What do we really love about these books? What unites these books?”
MEDAWAR: No, we hadn’t taught Revolutionary Road. Had we?
MICHAELSON: Oh yeah, we had, yes. And so we isolated a couple of books that we loved teaching and wanted to continue to teach and kinda asked ourselves, “what do we love about these, what themes work?” And we realized where they came together and thought, “yeah that’s an engaging theme.” We’re both interested in it and we thought it would be a great theme from which to build a course and to explore other kinds of literature. It meant that other books had to go which we loved, which was hard, but so be it.
US: What was the process of deciding which books to teach and which had to leave? Did you pick the theme and think, “oh these books don’t really fit the theme” and replace them?
MICHAELSON: Yeah we know that when we went in this direction it would be too much of a stretch to include, for example, Mrs. Dalloway, which is a book we both love.
US: Someone’s reading that right now.
MICHAELSON: Yeah, in Good Grief. But we realized, we didn’t want to stretch too far to make it work with the stretch too far to make it work with the theme, we didn’t like that idea at all. So you know, that’s how we made those decisions. And then it came down to, “Oh, what are the different ways to approach this theme? What are the different angles to take on it?” And we used that as a guide our thinking, so certain books deal with the legacy of one’s childhood as one moves into adulthood and other books deal with “What is the nature of childhood as a separate state of existence?” So we thought of different sub-themes or ways to get at the theme, and I think that helped guide our choice and our structure of the class.
MEDAWAR: If I remember correctly, we went into summer with the text we knew we wanted to keep and teach like Ice Palace and Hamlet, Revolutionary Road, and then over summer, we had the theme and then it was “let’s just read a bunch of things and decide what we wanted,” and I think I must have insisted on Wuthering Heights.
MICHAELSON: Yeah you did, good call.
MEDAWAR: And then everything else just fell on the plate.
US: What was your shared vision for the impact you wanted the course to have on students, especially at this point in their lives?
MEDAWAR: That’s a really good question. That’s a big question. I think we definitely want, we’re very aware that senior year is your last year in the Harvard-Westlake English department and we want you to read things that are both going to help you look back and sort of organize your experience and think about where you’ve been but also books that help launch you into your future with some mindfulness, so I think especially the texts coming up in second semester–Revolutionary Road, Brooklyn–those are the books that I think are going to make you think about, you know, now that your college course is pretty much set, well what then? What does it mean and what do you want it to lead to? You’ve been working so hard to get in, but I think we want you to read stuff that helps you think beyond that, right?
MICHAELSON: Absolutely. I mean I love finishing up with Brooklyn because it’s about a young woman emerging out of the last stages of her adolescence into young adulthood and given a pretty unexpected and dramatic opportunity [when] she has to emigrate after World War II from Ireland to America. And I think as soon as we read it, we thought this was the perfect book to end with because it’s about leaving home, the trials of leaving home, leaving behind some kind of safe space you’ve constructed throughout your childhood and what it takes to exit that space and kind of establish one’s self beyond it. And so we knew that teaching this theme would naturally allow us to allow stories that, at least in that case, are about people and circumstances not so unlike our students.
US: In discussing questions we wanted to ask, a common theme was that with all the changes happening in our lives, Same House just felt like the perfect relevant course for what’s happening now. I can’t tell if the relevance is as intentional as it feels sometimes, or if it comes from teaching students at this moment in their lives for so long.
MEDAWAR: I think it’s both. We’re always humbled to discover the impact of the texts on our students in ways we didn’t imagine, or definitely enlightened. But for me, to go back to the idea of friendship, and us developing this together, what I appreciate about the texts is that as we keep revisiting them every year, I think we each discover the personal relevance of these texts to our own lives, and I’ve found those shared insights personally invaluable. I think it’s great that we get to talk about these great texts with each other.
US: How would you say your teaching styles differ?
MICHAELSON: Coming up with lessons is such a wonderful, stimulating, illuminating process. I mean, it’s just an absolute stroke of luck that I work with Ms. Medawar, who sees literature in similar ways to me, but also challenges me, and pushes my ideas to better places, or keeps me from making mistakes, so that’s my favorite part of our working relationship.
MEDAWAR: Yeah, he’s the question master.
MICHAELSON: Just putting our minds together and coming up with a lesson that we realize honors the text and sets you guys up for a good discussion and moves naturally from one question to another–I just think that we’re really good at creating those kinds of revelations.
MEDAWAR: And we really enjoy it. But I also think that we both share the value that even the most well-conceived lesson, you have to be ready to jettison it if the class goes in a different direction and you feel like you can illuminate the text and get to some good places, you just chuck the lesson.
MICHAELSON: Sometimes the students ask the best questions.
MEDAWAR: We are different!
MICHAELSON: You’re a little less dynamic.
MEDAWAR (laughing): I’m sorry I have nothing to say to that. It’s so absurd!
MICHAELSON: Have we ever seen each other teach?
MEDAWAR: I don’t think so. I couldn’t do it, I’d start laughing, I don’t think I could do it seriously!
MEDAWAR: I love reading out loud, I like acting, so I think I’m a little more of a ham.
MICHAELSON: You are a much more natural actor than I am… so I guess you’re a little more dynamic…is that what you’re saying?
MEDAWAR: I proved it without asserting it!
MICHAELSON: I’d be surprised if our teaching styles differ all that much because the values that we share kind of drew us together in the first place. Of course I know that Ms. Medawar respects her students, and hears what they have to say, and I can’t imagine that you don’t earnestly listen to your students and let them take you where they’re going and honor their ideas… that’s the kind of person you are. I’m sure that happens in your classroom. I hope that happens in my classroom.
US: Why do you two do what you do? Why this age, why this moment? We’re sure you have some shared values on this too.
MEDAWAR: I think our stories are a little different. I had my fantasy jobs, like a famous actress–stage and screen. But practically, when I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. It was my dream job. I love this age because I felt like in college, students were maybe somewhat past the level of wonder, of being able to read and feel personally enlightened. I just remember that I had amazing high school english teachers. I just thought that they opened my world, and if I could do that for a few people, I wanted to do it. So that is why I do it, and I’ve never really wanted to do anything else.
MICHAELSON: For me, I just love it because, first of all, it feels very natural to do. I think the classroom is a place I just want to be. But as a job, I really love teaching because doing it really well calls upon all the best parts of yourself. You can be a great orthopedic surgeon and be, well, a total jerk. But, working with this age group, you have to be smart and have authority in the classroom and command over your material, but you also have to be creative, imaginative, sympathetic, patient, understanding. Those are some of the things you need to be able to bridge the divide between you as an adult and your students as kids, and you have to not let yourself be narrowed by your experience and remember what it was like to be a teenager. Between working with literature and kids and everything those two demand, it’s very fulfilling because it demands all of those things of you.
MEDAWAR: I think we can both say that we both have off days, but the minute you walk into the classroom and you’re called on to be your best self, the day just gets better and puts whatever you’re upset about in perspective.