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All boarding, grades 9-12 in Alexandria, Virginia

Team Teaching Sparks Class on Nobel Literature

Reading Naguib Mahfouz’s complex novel Midaq Alley can feel like driving the streets of an unfamiliar city. But Episcopal students analyzing the Egyptian writer’s book have the benefit of two guides, not one.
English teachers Tim Rogers and Mitch Pinkowski teamed up this spring to lead an elective course studying Nobel Prize-winning writers. Together they are helping 16 seniors tackle the work of literary notables ranging from Mahfouz (1988 Nobel winner) to Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (1996) and Canada’s Alice Munro (2013).

One recent day, the students assembled in a sunny Townsend classroom and considered the romantic entanglements of characters in Midaq Alley, which is set in a seedy Cairo neighborhood near the end of World War II. Rogers and Pinkowski posed questions to stir discussion and tease out subtexts, passing the lead fluidly without even exchanging looks. Pinkowski says the two found themselves in sync not long after the class first met in January.
“I feel like we can almost read where the other guy’s going,” he says. “And questions from multiple angles get the kids to think at an elevated pace.”

Students say the perspectives of two teachers add value to the typical class experience. “They bounce off each other, and sometimes they disagree, which I like, because it shows that there are always disagreements in analyzing literature,” says Olivia Morton ’19.

Team teaching, which has been deployed in American schools since at least the 1950s, is practiced in various forms at Episcopal. Pinkowski, for instance, teaches an advanced seminar, From the Page to the Stage, with Bill Patti, head of the theater department. In physics, teachers lead 9th-grade classes solo but develop schedules, curriculum, and exams jointly in order to give first-year students a shared experience.

The Nobel class came about by chance. Pinkowski, a third-year Episcopal teacher, and Rogers, a 26-year veteran of the School, had talked casually about their shared interest in various authors. When Rogers began planning to reboot a class he had taught years ago on Nobel Prize-winning authors, they discovered that Pinkowski was already teaching works by prize winners in his world-literature class, It’s All a Matter of Perspective.  

Once the course began, the two recognized that they favored different teaching styles. In discussion, Rogers tends to pepper the class with rapid-fire questions, aiming to trigger responses that build to a conclusion. Pinkowski, meanwhile, likes to throw out big, profound questions and let the students wrestle their way to answers. Both say they are learning from the other.
“I’m not as patient a teacher as I’d like to be,” Rogers says. “Mitch has mellowed me out a little bit.”
“It’s daily professional development,” Pinkowski says. Each of them learns from how the other prepares for class, leads a discussion, and even grades papers. “You get bonus conversations with a colleague. You get to review the class with someone and bounce off them what worked and what didn’t.”
Sol Ahn ’19 says the two teachers often focus on different aspects of a work. Rogers tends to explore the authors’ backgrounds and how their lives or historical period shape their work. Pinkowski, on the other hand, pushes for a close examination of symbolism and other literary devices. Class discussion becomes almost like a conversation, Sol says, as a single plot point or symbol gets examined from multiple perspectives. “It’s like seeing one thing through many different eyes,” she says.
Olivia says she initially had to adjust to the dual instruction styles. She also worried that her teachers evaluate her papers using not altogether complementary standards. Ultimately, however, she found enormous value in critiques from teachers who focus on different aspects of her writing.
“They’ll make sure I’m getting better as a writer,” she says.

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