Teacher Interview: Dr. Maxwell
Nothing is quite like room 311.
Droves of students walk through the door every morning, a profound sense of optimism filling the air around them. It seems as if any worries that may have once consumed them are left to fade at that door. While minds cram with algebraic formulas and test dates, hearts succumb to a pleasant symphony that the English teacher plays just for us.
Tapping her feet to the sound of the music, the English teacher watches as students make their way to their seats. The ascending melody seems to open things nicely, as a stir of classical notes cue an almost confessional relationship between teacher and student.
Allow me to introduce you to Dr. Marilyn Maxwell.
Dr. Maxwell has a unique teaching style here at North Shore, with which I would bet a good number of you are not yet familiar. Class begins with a brief discussion as to what we are going to do today: maybe we should talk about the book…does anybody want to review a sample AP essay response-or someone could decide it would be best to raise their hand and steer the class onto a fifteen-minute tangent. Whatever we decide, it is nonetheless agreed upon that not one minute has gone to waste. In room 311, minds are always encouraged to think inquisitively, empathetically, and wisely. Dr. Maxwell motivates her students not just to learn but to love learning.
Dr. Maxwell invokes her students’ personal histories and current learning experiences, integrating their perspectives into an overall understanding of the world. All are encouraged to ask questions about what they have once observed, read, or heard but did not fully understand; Dr. Maxwell then challenges her students to detect the ways in which, through power and privilege, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
Some educators view the classroom as a place for learning only the semantics of the English language. However, Dr. Maxwell has taught me that language cannot be understood in isolation. All functional aspects of language are interconnected with historical, current, and future uses of English. As a result, educators may feel uncomfortable and slightly unprepared when analyzing social issues with their students, of which many they may not have all the answers. However, if our educators must task young minds with the goal of critical thinking, it is more beneficial for students to be treated as grown adults in a complicated world.
Over the course of her teaching career, Dr. Maxwell “started out with a diverse population in Long Beach. Blacks, poor whites, Jewish kids, all different backgrounds and cultures. That was harder. And it was humbling. Those kids taught me more than I taught them,” said Dr. Maxwell.
To hear from a diverse collection of voices promotes an environment in which ranging ideas are founded on a multitude of perspectives. “Most of my career has been spent with a major Jewish population, which I love,” continued Dr. Maxwell. “But, it’s not as diverse. So I try to bring in things that maybe you wouldn’t be reading.” Whether it be Frederick Douglass or Lady Macbeth, Dr. Maxwell encourages her students to explore a philosophy that deviates from their upbringing. “One book that I would love to get back into the curriculum which forces us to come to terms with the poor white dialect, the slave dialect-Huck Finn,” Dr. Maxwell added. “It’s hard to read and people tend to look down upon it. Well, they shouldn’t. I think we agree on that. It’s part of it’s own autonomous, self-contained language.”
When asked about how to adapt to new uses of language prompted by the age of the internet and its changing standards, Dr. Maxwell stated: “You guys have been raised on visual media. For us, of the older generations, to pretend that that doesn’t exist or that we’re going to ignore it and concentrate solely on the written word, I think does every body a disservice.” However, Dr. Maxwell noted that she has become more open to analyzing film as text. “Is it different from the written word? Yes,” Dr. Maxwell recognized. “I’m not saying to eliminate the written word, but to pretend that kids haven’t been raised on that,” pointing to the SMART Board against the wall, “is burying our hands in the sand.” As an avid reader, myself, I admit that this is fair. Film, just like text, can be interpreted thematically, while also differing from the written word.
When the bell ran and our interview was forced to come to a close, I quickly asked Dr. Maxwell what she would be if not an English teacher. “A conductor,” she called out amid the bustle of students shuffling in for seventh period. While I had not realized this at the time, it has become so obvious to me just how similar are the roles of a teacher and a conductor. Dr. Maxwell is our teacher, yet she is also the conductor bringing ensuring harmony to the orchestra of the classroom. A single voice can erupt into heated contention throughout the classroom. Then comes the interruptions, and the name-calling, and the judgements. Although in room 311, our voices flow in harmony. The right to voice one’s opinion is always respected. While we disagree, the symphony sounded in room 311 is never in dissonance.