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Faculty Q&A: Tarra Stevenson, Upper School English
Posted 12/11/2017 02:00PM

In this interview, get to know Upper School English teacher Tarra Stevenson, who describes why the Perspectives in Literature class (pictured above) is like a "playground," why she chose to teach at Westridge, and more.

How did you end up at Westridge?
My first teaching job was at LA City College [something she still does one night a week most years]. That was a really nice way for me to stay connected to the literary world while I was writing and to get many unique perspectives on texts (because of the diverse backgrounds of students), but a sense of community, especially among faculty, was missing for me there. I had never considered teaching high school, but the idea of an all-girls school was really appealing, and it felt so in line with what I believe and my core values of women having a voice and being independent. My masters’ degree is in feminist literature, so I felt silly that I had never thought about it. When I gave my demonstration lesson here when I was interviewing, it felt like I was still teaching in a college. (Editor’s note: Stevenson is currently pursuing her MFA in Writing Fiction at UC Riverside and is writing a novel about women and voicelessness.)

How would you describe Westridge students?
I am struck by the students’ willingness to engage in the text and grapple with difficult material. They may complain sometimes, but the idea that something is too hard doesn’t seem to occur to them ever. I feel that I can challenge them in ways that they are totally up for and that they embrace completely because it is something new or a different way of thinking.

What have you learned from the Perspectives in Literature class?  
That teaching in an interdisciplinary way makes the material resonate in a way that it doesn’t when it is kept separate or siloed; that there are layers to a text that [in a traditional, single-discipline course] we don’t always get to explore that within this class we do; and that teaching with other faculty members is exciting and fun.

(Editor’s note: Perspectives in Literature, pictured below, is a three-year-old interdisciplinary class that is rooted in literature but brings in two additional disciplines, which can change but currently include art and science. Subject themes have been Documentary and Memoir, Monsters, and Weapons.)

What is your favorite class to teach?
I love teaching 11th grade because I love the texts―Handmaid’s Tale, Othello, In the Time of Butterflies, and M. Butterfly. But there is something nice about teaching seniors because [the class] is basically a seminar and they can handle adult themes. It is also nice having the trajectory of teaching students in 9th grade and then in 12th because I am able to see how discussions that are really challenging discussions for 9th graders―discussions teachers really have to be in control of―evolve into something that seniors are able to manage on their own.

This year you are the Faculty in Residence for the Westridge STEAMWork Design Studio, with the aim of facilitating the application of STEAMWork tools into the English curriculum. What have you learned this first semester of your residency? 
Right now, I am still in the “learning semester,” where I am learning to use the software, the 3D printer, the laser cutter, and the other tools in the studio. Next semester will be about thinking about how to incorporate those tools into the English curriculum, which is challenging because, in many ways, English is the least tech-heavy discipline. The Perspectives class is kind of my playground, and we are incorporating some software into a project as a first step. Our goal is to leverage these tools to enhance the text and to help the students grapple with the text differently. These are all tools to help refine students’ critical thinking skills. We won’t use them every day―but we want to give students one more tool to provide another layer of understanding to the text.

What do want your students to take away with them from Westridge?
I want them to carry their voice. I think back to their willingness… their willingness to have a voice and be heard, whether it’s through writing or speaking or… fill in the blank.

Who is your favorite author? 
Margaret Atwood.  She seems to be so far ahead of our time. As an aside, she is the first author in the future library, a public art project that aims to collect one original story by a popular writer every year until 2114, and to share them with the world only then. (https://www.futurelibrary.no/)

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