English Teacher of the Year lets students lead 'Class is basically what they bring to me,' Liberty High instructor says

November 02, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

With affectionate respect, her students call her "Far." Dorothy Farley considers the name "a term of endearment."

"Far" also reflects the lengths to which the chairwoman of the Liberty High School English department takes her students. The Maryland Council of Teachers of English recently recognized those efforts and selected her as the Maryland High School English Teacher of the Year.

"Mrs. Farley's dedication to her profession extends far beyond the walls of her classroom where she is a known and respected master teacher," wrote Barry D. Gelsinger, Carroll County supervisor of English and modern/classical languages, in his nomination letter.

For 22 years, the woman who "never intended to teach" has been a dynamic presence in the high school classroom. Students respond with an enthusiasm that does not stop when the bell rings. At the end of class, students often crowd around her desk asking questions or seeking a final comment.

While studying at Lynchburg College in Virginia, Ms. Farley did practice teaching "to please my parents." After she graduated, a former professor asked her to try teaching.

"I found I liked teaching for all the right reasons, especially for the kids and the flexibility," she said. "I also need people, and kids are a lot nicer than most adults."

In her "20th-Century Novel" class at Liberty High, one of four courses she teaches, she leads her students through the pages of "Siddhartha," as Herman Hesse delves into Eastern mysticism.

Using a "student-directed inquiry" method, she encourages her classes to "think analytically, not in terms of plot line."

"I don't want answers; I want questions," she said.

Homework includes the compilation of questions from any problematic passages on note cards. Every night, the teacher does her homework, too, and reviews the cards.

"If anybody is 20 pages ahead of the class, I can still talk to him and address his questions personally," she said.

In class, Ms. Farley helps the students find the answers to their own inquiries.

"The class is basically what they bring to me; no one person does all the work," she said.

"Is Buddha Jesus?" asks one student.

"No, but they share qualities," answered Ms. Farley.

"Siddhartha" may offer the class the opportunity to view a different culture, but without the guidance and innovation of "Far," the college-bound seniors could get lost in Eastern thought.

"We are going to go east, young man," she said with a laugh as she began lessons in meditation.

Ms. Farley introduces a new book every two weeks to her two novel classes. Those students are, for the most part, academically accelerated. Along with each new book, she also passes out the final test.

"I want them to read anticipatorily; they have to pay attention," said Ms. Farley.

The students also keep a journal of "double-edged quotes," wherein an author intends the reader "to go beyond the literal level," she said. Hesse quotes seem to be favorites, she said, and the Swiss author's words are piling up in the student logs.

At the request of the National Council of Teachers of English, Ms. Farley has frequently conducted workshops on her teaching methods at national conventions.

None of the course novels is what she calls "easy reading."

"It's all varsity-level stuff," she said. "The idea is to get the kids to want to learn. I hope to turn kids on to reading on their own."

She tries "hard not to inject my perspective" into discussions that allow students to form their own ideas. She does not ask students to change their views on any given subject.

"I want them to see someone else's ideas without feeling threatened," she said. "I know not every kid sees the same thing."

With her students and her own two elementary-age children, she uses "let them read" as a guide.

Mr. Gelsinger called Ms. Farley "a tireless fighter against censorship in the county and the nation."

Two years ago, Ms. Farley led a fight to keep a translation of "The Epic of Gilgamesh" -- a poem written in ancient times -- in the county curriculum.

"I knew if 'Gilgamesh' fell, the whole '20th-Century Novel' course would be in jeopardy," she said.

If any book makes a student or parent uncomfortable, she offers an alternative reading assignment.

"I have no problem with a parent who doesn't want a child to read a certain book," she said. "I do have a problem when the parent wants the book out of the curriculum because he personally disapproves."

One parent's objection cannot erase everyone's "right to read," she said.

"The right to read cannot be interfered with in this country."

She said she knows that when the reading gets tough, students may resort to "Cliff's Notes."

"I try to show them how dangerous society can become when people quit reading," she said.

If a student is having difficulty understanding an assignment, she offers insight and encouragement. Her courses take the focus away from grades, right and wrong answers and fill-in-the-blanks tests, she said.

"By now, these students can memorize and recall, compare and contrast, but can they think?"

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