My GDS Memories: Jane Gutsell

Written by Dr. Jane Gutsell, Upper School English Department, 1987 – 2012

In the fall of 1987, coming from a college teaching background, I naively assumed that teaching high school seniors would not be appreciatively different from college freshmen. My first seniors and I can look back and laugh now, but that first year was a little rough for all of us.  The willingness of the school’s administration, Ralph Davison and Bob Demaree most importantly, to give me time to find my way and the freedom to make my own way meant everything. It took a couple of years, but by then I was all in!  Greensboro Day School was the best thing that could have happened to me. And – teaching high school students for 24 years was and continues to be profoundly rewarding. I love hearing from so many of my former students and, best of all, seeing them at alumni events, such as the big one coming up in May to celebrate our school’s 50th Anniversary.

            Some of my favorite memories have to do with the personal, not to say idiosyncratic, touches I added to my regular syllabus. My second year I initiated the Yule Tree tradition, honoring the ancient European practice of celebrating the Winter Solstice. Right before December exams I set aside a day for a party to decorate the tree with ornaments depicting characters or scenes from the literature we had studied that semester.  Most popular were Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Hamlet, Grendel’s bloody arm and the dragon frequently graced the tree top! Over the years my bulletin boards became archaeological sites of saved ornaments, postcards, literary cartoons, and all kinds of memorabilia.

            In the spring, studying the Romantic poets, each section of AP Lit would use colored chalk to draw artistic illustrations of Coleridge’s mysterious and haunting “Kubla Khan.” Their pictorial depictions were very competitive with lots of clever and funny visual puns and double meanings. Even the students who claimed to have no artistic talent contributed good ideas.

            Also early on, having learned that seniors need extra R&R after college acceptances started rolling in, I established “Kindergarten Day,” when we could all regress to our kid-selves.  Students could come to class in “jammies” and bring stuffed animals or “blankies”. Sitting on the floor, they happily nibbled on Vanilla wafers, sipped from cartons of apple juice, and watched episodes of “The Muppet Show.” 

            At the front of my classroom stood a long table with tea cups, a variety of teas, and an electric kettle so that anyone wanting a nice, hot cup of tea before class began could have one. My room had a sofa and some chairs, some years a futon or two, and even a few old-fashioned bean bag chairs. Scattered about were my beloved stuffed animals – Benjy the Bengal Tiger, Roscoe the Gorilla, Molly the Moose, and many more. I loved my classroom. An ADHD kid’s nightmare I admit, but it was warm and cozy and relaxed – a virtually technology-free zone as well, where I hoped most of my students would feel unstressed and at home.

            In 1999 a new challenge came my way in the form of sophomores, an age group with which I had absolutely no experience. I wasn’t at all sure that I could even relate to them or adjust my teaching style to their needs. But I needed something new so I thought English 10 Advanced was worth a shot. And what fun those students were!  It was a wonderful growing experience for them and for me. I was able to try out new approaches to studying literature and could introduce completely different types of assessments. Their biggest project was a full-length, formal research paper on environmental issues such as endangered species or air or water pollution.  In addition to the paper, students had to make oral presentation of their findings. One young woman who had written on the degradation of the Amazon rain forest came to class dressed as a tree!  We hated saying goodbye at the end of the year, but then a year later as seniors they would come bursting into my room singing “Together again”! Good times.

            For many years Pat Horvath, Upper School Registrar, and I coordinated Senior Projects, one of the Day School’s most significant and successful programs. During those years, my favorite activity was going to see my senior advisees on-site at their individual projects. They were involved in such a great variety of experiences, from medical and legal to architecture and civil engineering to theater and art and so much more. Some seniors were approved for out-of-town projects and some even as far away as New York City and Panama. One year, while I was visiting my daughter at Columbia University, I actually did an on-site visit to the art gallery project in NYC. I have always considered this experiential education opportunity to be one of the most important benefits of being a Bengal!

            Wonderful memories too of co-coaching our High I. Q. and Quiz Bowl teams. It was fun traveling to competitions in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and at Duke, even as far as South Carolina. In 1994 and 2009 the teams brought home the coveted High I.Q. Championship trophy. What a treat to work with such enormously bright and talented young people!

            Talk about talent – I was fortunate in teaching the Creative Writing class for several years and in adding an Introduction to Philosophy elective to the department’s offering. Both of those relaxed workshop-style classes gave me an opportunity to experiment with non-traditional teaching methods. Yet another example of the freedom we teachers and our students enjoyed.

            Among my favorite and most challenging experiences was working with Linda Sloan and Ruthie Tutterow as the dramaturg/assistant director on many of our spring plays. I am proud to say that I talked Linda into undertaking her first ever Shakespeare play – the hilarious and transcendent A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After the success of that production, she and later Ruthie went on to Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and the grand finale my last year before retiring, a Las Vegas version of A Comedy of Errors.  What a trip!  Some of the other productions I was gratified to help with were The Importance of Being Earnest, Tartuffe, The Cherry Orchard (Ruthie and I agree one of the most challenging of all), and a personal favorite Pride and Prejudice. The incredible talent of these young actors never ceased to amaze me. Being an integral part of GDS’ drama program was definitely one of the highlights of my life at GDS.

            The freedom to design my own curriculum within the overall expectations of the English Department’s program and particularly with regard to AP Literature and Composition was paramount to me. I could teach the literary works I loved and create assessments that suited my writing and critical thinking goals – never anyone else’s. My AP syllabus included works such as Gilgamesh, the oldest extant literary text in the world, and The Master and Margarita, a strange satire on Stalinist Russia – both very unusual readings for high school English classes, but my students loved them.

            When it came to technology, I was decidedly old school. My students were never allowed to use their laptops in class, and for a number of years they were required to write with FOUNTAIN PENS! Many of the students from those years remind me of their fountain pens with great fondness. They felt special. They were special. One of my young women even passed her pen down to her younger brother when he became a senior. 

            The freedom to be creative reached its height when the department instigated a program allowing a very select group of ninth-graders to enroll as sophomores in AP Language and Composition, which then placed them in AP Lit as juniors. The issue then became what this group of students would take as their fourth Upper School English requirement for graduation. That honor fell to me – and what an honor it was. I created a year-long study of the British Victorian period, my favorite academic field.  What a joy! The seminar-style course had a very demanding syllabus but also the fun of tea parties with scones and cucumber sandwiches and students learning to write thank you notes using dip pens and ink wells in flowery, 19th Century style.  My “Victorians,” as they liked to call themselves, dove enthusiastically into challenging works by such masters as Dickens, Tennyson, and Browning, but also important but seldom read authors such as Christina Rossetti and William Morris. We studied art and social culture and theater and philosophy.  We watched movies set in this period and went on a field trip to the UNCG Rare Book room.  It was as broad and as rewarding a course as I had ever been able to offer in any academic setting.

            If one were to ask my students about their favorite memories of my classes, I feel sure that many would say, “Northern Exposure”! I decided sometime around the turn of the century (how strange that sounds) to incorporate this award-winning television series as an example of contemporary culture.   “Northern Exposure,” heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell and especially Karl Jung, was deeply mythic and philosophical, full of literary references. Each episode usually contained three separate story lines. I would show a particular episode because its theme related to a reading we had just finished but without revealing its relevance. As homework, my students had to write an essay identifying the central theme uniting all subplots and the connection to the literary work and email it to me by the following day.  Some of the responses were brilliant!  I wish I had kept them all.  My students loved the characters and the universal themes – and the challenge of analyzing a TV show, of all things! Again, the Day School’s educational culture of trusting in its faculty to make good choices and create significant learning experiences made it possible for me to follow my occasionally oddball pedagogical instincts and preferences. 

            No stroll down memory lane would be complete without acknowledging the spirit of collegiality and friendship I found when I arrived that life-changing fall of 1987. The atmosphere of cooperation and support and sharing was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my previous educational environments. Many of those friendships are with me today and even cross divisional lines.  These wonderful men and women have celebrated with me when times were good and been there for me when they weren’t. We should all be so fortunate. They are the best! Thanks, GDS, for so many special memories.

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