Sometimes students will ask me about how, when, and/or why I decided to become a high school English teacher. That’s when I tell them about Mrs. Cangi.
Mrs. Cangi was an amazing teacher, one I was lucky enough to have for French.
I walked into her class in seventh grade knowing nothing about the language and walked out at the end of my sophomore year having finished French III, actually speaking the language fluently- or what felt pretty fluent for a high school student. Although I am sure I wasn’t a polished French speaker, I remember on more than one occasion traveling somewhere, overhearing someone speaking French, and initiating and maintaining a conversation with them. I had learned something in a class that had real-life application. Because of what I learned, I could communicate with another person that I wouldn’t have been able to speak with otherwise. What I had learned mattered! It wasn’t simply for a quiz or a test. I applied it and was successful.
Mrs. Cangi, especially after our first year together, made us speak only French in her classroom. As an incentive, she made a chart that included all of the students’ names, each with five empty boxes next to it. If she heard you speak English, she put an X in one of the boxes. For anyone with unfilled boxes by the end of the quarter, she would add a point to their final quarter average. For example, if four of a student’s five boxes had an X in in them, it meant Mrs. Cangi had heard them speak English four times; the student had 1 unfilled box. That meant Mrs. Cangi would add one point to the person’s average.
I will never forget during my sophomore year when I was the only student to have five unfilled boxes! I earned five points for my final quarter average, something no one else had ever accomplished. I’m sure I was probably happy to have earned extra points toward my grade, but I was proud of the fact that I had pushed myself to speak only French. I found creative ways to communicate using the words I did know and I asked, ”Comment dit on ________________?” (“How do you say ______________?” ) when I was stuck.
As I started my senior year, I applied to colleges thinking I would very likely major in French so I could become a high school teacher– like Mrs. Cangi. Because I wasn’t 100% sure, though, I went in as an Undeclared Major. I would take courses to fulfill my General Education Requirements- including French- and confirm that I would pursue it as a major.
Of course, the college that became top on my list was Bridgewater State College (now University). The reason? Mrs. Cangi went there. My logic was sound; she was an excellent French teacher, so that is where I should go to become an excellent French teacher. It was simple.
I applied, I was accepted, and I sent in my deposit. I was thrilled.
When I arrived at freshman orientation in June, I took the French placement test. Excitedly, I placed into Intermediate French II, the level equivalent of a second semester sophomore. Unfortunately, though, after I signed up for the course, there were too few students registered, so it was cancelled; I would have to wait at least another semester to take it.
Because I had taken Latin (one year) and Spanish (two years) in high school, I decided that if I couldn’t take French, I would at least take another language – Spanish- until I could get into Intermediate French II.
Although I loved the professor, the course itself was very different than what I had experienced in French. Instead of speaking the language, we learned words like “carburetor” and other car parts, parts I didn’t even know in English! Even though I knew vocabulary was necessary, it felt like memory work. We never even talked about carburetors, cars, or much of anything. We learned a lot of verb tenses and irregular verbs, but we never actually had the opportunity to speak, other than when we had to go to the dark, dreary language lab to listen to assigned recordings– and even then, we were really speaking out loud to ourselves. I know it is necessary to learn all of those things and that there is merit in learning them that way, but I had been spoiled. I had a high school teacher who understood that there was a big difference between knowledge and application, and she knew it was essential to connect the two.
During my freshman year at Bridgewater, as I trudged through Spanish, I also took English 101 and English 102, the required freshman composition/research courses. We were given opportunities to write essays and papers about topics of interest. For our narrative assignments, we could tell stories that were meaningful to us, crafting them in a way that created a desired tone. For our persuasive essays, we could argue a topic about which we had strong feelings, as long as we backed it up with research/evidence on both sides of the argument. We could develop our own writing style, knowing the rules of grammar but breaking the rules for stylistic purposes… such as when writing a blog about teaching…..
By the end of my freshman year, I had decided what my major would be– English. Although I struggled with the fact that I would not, after all, major in French, I realized that I loved English for many of the same reasons– it allowed me to communicate with others through the power of words. It was not something learned in isolation– like carburetor– but I could, through words, articulate my thoughts, make a case, explain something.
Funny how you often don’t understand the importance of a moment until long after it happens…. Walking into Mrs. Cangi’s French class, the five unfilled boxes, the under-enrolled Intermediate French II course….. All of these experiences led me to my twenty-five year (and counting) teaching career ….
In this, my very first blog post, I wanted to share the story of how I ended up teaching English…. Looking back now, the foundation of who I have become as a teacher today was set back in my 7th grade French class…
… And I can’t wait to share reflections on education, share teaching ideas, and share my journey as an English teacher for the past twenty-five years……