Teaching teachers how to teach Austen

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Teacher Pamela Fitzpatrick, who has studied the work of German educator Edith Stein.

By Jennifer Abella

Even teachers need guidance sometimes, and that’s a key part of the Jane Austen Summer Program. Educator Pamela Fitzpatrick, who led last year’s teacher’s forum, returns this year, holding a plenary session as well as more intimate lunches to address questions about teaching Austen in the classroom.

A teacher since 1977, Fitzpatrick is a district-wide literacy coach for Orange County (N.C.) schools and teaches writing at the University of Mount Olive. She has a PHD in educational studies from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and is an expert on Edith Stein (1891-1942), a German educator whose focus on the relationship between student and teacher —  “the essence of what it is to be a good teacher,” Fitzpatrick says — was contemporary at the time.

As it is for so many Janeites, Fitzpatrick’s love for Jane Austen stretches back to her youth: “It just clicked with me.” She held two books close to her heart when she was a young woman: “Jane Eyre” and “Pride & Prejudice.” “The words leapt off the page for me,” she says.

Some might say Jane Austen is too “upper-level” to teach to some students, Fitzpatrick says. These days, teachers can have “differentiated” classes — meaning their students are on widely varying reading levels. In her session at the Jane Austen Summer Program, Fitzpatrick aims to answer such questions as: Can I teach Jane Austen to differentiated middle- and high-school classes? And how can I do it?

“Reading the same book now in a class is impossible unless everyone is on the same reading level,” she says. But she has found success teaching “Pride & Prejudice” to different reading levels using:

  • “Anchor texts”: Excerpts from the original text that every student reads.
  • Different versions of the text (graphic novels, the original, abridged versions) tailored to each student’s reading level.
  • Short clips from the film adaptations.

That combination of resources helps children have many of the same discussions and opens them up to the time period and vocabulary, says Fitzpatrick, who adds that she also includes Austenian teas and lunches into the mix to make the learning experience fun.

Fitzpatrick says teachers face many challenges in the classroom today, including their own unfamiliarity with Austen’s text, as well as managing large class sizes. They also face a bigger emphasis on modern literature over the classics. Fitzpatrick stresses the universality of the human condition in Austen’s works and the author’s deft examinations of societal differences in her era. “It’s a perfect opportunity to talk about opportunity” in Austen’s era and the opportunities students have in today, Fitzpatrick says.

Fitzpatrick hopes to be able to discuss larger pedagogical issues regarding teaching Austen: how to pace lessons or teach vocabulary, and how to address the philosophy that children should choose their own books to read.

She says she enjoys the immersiveness of the Jane Austen Summer Program, celebrating dancing,  food, “everything that makes the period intelligible to the participant.” And most important, especially for teachers:  “The program is understanding of how people learn, which I think is really marvelous.”

TEACHERS: Don’t forget you can earn CEU credits by attending our program, and we offer discount rates for educators. Or why not apply for one of our scholarships? Apply by April 4!

Remember to like Jane Austen Summer Program on Facebook and follow @JASPhotline on Twitter!

Jennifer Abella is a TV/movie/pop culture/knitting/sewing/Jane Austen geek. Oh, and a total Anglophile. Follow @nextjen on Twitter.

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