Alexia Dochnal ’22 interviewed High School English Teacher Ms. Carolyn Rosenberger, who has taught both IB and AP Literature since arriving at TASIS in 2018.
When did you start teaching at TASIS?
I came to TASIS in August of 2018. This is my third school year here.
What do you teach?
Since the start of my time at TASIS, I have taught three courses: 9th-grade Introduction to Literature, Year One and Year Two of IB Literature depending on the course cycle, and AP Literature to primarily 12th-grade students.
I was a live-in dorm parent for my first two years here. I also tutor and do library duty on Wednesdays.
Can you please describe your educational background and your career in education prior to TASIS?
I went to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where I majored in English and Secondary Education. I studied abroad in Rome during that time and fell in love with Italy while I was there. Then I graduated and spent a gap year in Australia.
When I returned home, I was hired as a long-term sub at Absegami High School in Galloway Township, New Jersey. I was there temporarily, subbing for a teacher who was on maternity leave. When I started subbing, I was unsure if I wanted to fully commit to my career as a teacher just yet. But the minute I got into the classroom and started teaching, I fell in love with it. At the end of that school year, another spot in the English department opened up, and I got the job. I taught at Absegami until 2018, for almost 15 years. It was a large, public school in New Jersey that had a highly diverse student population. It was diverse in terms of every bracket of socioeconomic status, race, culture, and religion, with multiple languages spoken in the hallways.
As I was teaching, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in English Literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. It was a unique program that spanned five summers. During these summers, I traveled to different satellite locations, where I studied for six weeks at a time. For example, I studied in Oxford, England, for two summers, where I focused on Shakespeare; in Vermont for one summer; and in Asheville, North Carolina, for the remaining two summers. It was an amazing experience. I explored areas of literature that interested me specifically and tailored my courses to what I was really passionate about. After I graduated in 2010, I became the AP Literature teacher at my high school.
How would you describe your approach to education?
I feel very fortunate to do what I do, and I truly believe that teaching is my vocation. My mother was a teacher, and I have three sisters, two of whom are also teachers. It’s in my blood. When I hear other people complain about their jobs, I really can’t relate. When I’m in the classroom, I am my best self. My main goal is to engage students with literature in a way that they will carry with them through the rest of their lives. I want to teach my students to enjoy literature and to enjoy learning as a whole. Even if they don’t like my class per se, and even if they don’t enjoy the books they read in my class, I want them to feel comfortable and confident in other environments that stimulate them, and I want them to realize that there are other books that will appeal to them and help them grow.
Essentially, my approach to education is that I want my students to feel as passionate about learning as I do about teaching.
What do you like most about working at TASIS, and what makes the school special?
One of the reasons why I came to TASIS was because I felt that I had hit a plateau in my career. I had been teaching AP Literature at my high school in New Jersey for six or seven years, and the only possible next steps for me would be working as an administrator or teaching at a university, neither of which I wanted to do because, as I said, I feel that teaching high school literature is my vocation. I began thinking about new ways to challenge myself and to grow in my field. I had always wanted to live abroad more permanently than I have in the past. When I interviewed at TASIS and heard that I could teach IB Literature, that felt like exactly what I wanted. The IB curriculum has introduced me to so many new works that I would not have otherwise known. The Global Service Program and Academic Travel are also two things that I think make TASIS very special.
As an adult, I feel like it is easy to become complacent and get into a routine where you don’t necessarily learn new things. I did not want to be like that, and at TASIS I have learned so much from my students about their cultures, their perspectives, and their experiences. The internationalism at TASIS has pushed me to think about how I approach literature and how I approach teaching in a new way.
I also love my colleagues here. I have made some really great relationships that I cherish, and I have grown as a person thanks to the wonderful peer collaboration in which I have participated.
What do you like most about teaching literature?
Everything. I couldn’t teach anything else. I have other interests and hobbies, but nothing like how I feel about books. I love teaching literature. I love the moments when kids make connections and realize something. Just yesterday in my IB Literature class, my students voted on the question of how old they think Hamlet is. They came back into class today having found out his real age through last night’s reading and were shocked by the revelation. Those moments are thrilling for me to witness. I’m reading Oedipus the King by Sophocles with my 9th-grade students, and every day their horror is renewed!
I showed a spoken-word poem to my AP students yesterday, and we watched it twice. Both times, I got chills from head to toe. I have a visceral reaction to good literature, and that never goes away. I have taught Hamlet every year for the past 10 years, and here at TASIS, I teach it twice a year. I have chills every single time I teach it and never stop marveling at the scope of it. Sharing that joy with young people and getting them to engage with it in their own way is thrilling.
“The internationalism at TASIS has pushed me to think about how I approach literature and how I approach teaching in a new way.”
What do you like most about teaching in the High School?
I’m a high school teacher through and through. What I love about teaching literature is sharing the complexity and artfulness of it and making key connections with my students. I think that especially applies to teenagers.
Something I appreciate about the High School English department here at TASIS is that all of my colleagues here are very well-read. They are both educators and readers, and there is a shared literary-mindedness in the department. We are always recommending books and texts to one another, and I really enjoy that.
Why is literature important in the education of young people and in our world today?
I think that literature is art, and I will never back down from that statement. There’s a quote from Dead Poets Society that says, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
From the earliest times in our history, human beings have told stories. Telling stories and explaining our world through metaphor and imagery and archetype—that’s how we process our experiences. We need that common language, a language that unites us all. That’s why we need to decorate our homes, enjoy a good meal, and hear a beautifully crafted line. We aren’t just survivalists. We are fully realized people who have the capacity to appreciate and enjoy the world around us and to feel alive. That’s why literature is important. It unites us all by universalizing the human condition.
What is your favorite book?
That is an impossible question for me to answer because I feel so strongly about so many books! I would say, though, that the most formative reading experience of my life was when I was in 6th grade and read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time. I really connected with that book. My dad is a lawyer, and he is very similar to the way I perceived Atticus Finch, so it really resonated with me. I had memorized parts of the book by 8th grade, and when I first started teaching it, it became even closer to my heart because I remember being 11 years old and reading it for the first time. I can imagine what it’s like for my students to read it because I was that child. Teaching that book here is special, too, because I’m American and a lot of students in my class are not, so it’s a way for me to share my culture with them.
I also think that The Master and Margarita is one of the best works of literature ever written. I love that book, too, but in a different way.
Another impossible question…what is your favorite poem?
Lately, I have really gotten into spoken-word poetry, especially social justice poetry, so I have been exploring and falling in love with that aspect of poetry.
When I was in college, I read “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, which follows the strict structure of a villanelle, a very rigid, specific, orderly method of poetry. I think it was the first time I really understood how thoughtfully a poet crafts a poem. It’s not necessarily my favorite poem of all time, but I have a personal memory associated with the experience of encountering it, so it also holds a special place in my heart. I also teach it to my AP students every year, and I love it, although, of course, there are other poems I have read since then that I have also loved!
What qualities of a literary work make it canonical and taught over and over again age after age, and just as relevant today as it was hundreds of years ago?
To me, if something qualifies as literature, what that really means is that it has to span continents, span genders, span religions, span time, and speak to the unifying characteristics of humanity. There have to be things that are happening within the text that speak to you no matter who you are because on a fundamental level, we are all connected.
How do you choose the literary works that you teach and why?
Creating the syllabus for my classes is almost like creating a jigsaw puzzle! One of the things I really try to do is choose a variety of voices, and choose things that show a great picture of where literature can go. Often, students think that all the important written works span up to the 20th century, and that nothing written in the 21st century qualifies as good literature. I try to challenge that view by incorporating contemporary works into the syllabus. And, of course, I teach the works that I love!
Students describe you as a teacher who inspires them and makes them passionate about what they are learning. Where do you find the inspiration and the passion that you later pass down to your students?
I think I find my passion in my content because I really love the literature that we read. I don’t think I have ever taught a piece of literature that I didn’t personally love and enjoy. Even if a lesson goes badly or if I don’t feel particularly inspired some days, I find my passion by trying to get my students to appreciate and enjoy what they are reading. I am also a passionate person, so the enthusiasm I try to pass down in the classroom partly comes from who I am.
Because I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, I used to sit in my classes and evaluate my own teachers and think about what I would do differently or what I would try to imitate in relation to what they were doing. I have had several inspiring and uninspiring teachers throughout my life, and I remember what it felt like to be in both of those situations, so I try to either emulate the positive or to react against the negative that I have experienced.
You often say in our class that literature is, above all, art. How would you define art in one sentence?
In one sentence, I think that art is the creative expression of the human condition.
“I loved Ms. Rosenberger’s AP Literature class due to her enthusiasm and passion for her work. I will never forget the experience of reading Hamlet and Catch-22 under her guidance! Remember: ‘To be or not to be’ is not related to Yorick’s skull.”
– a former 12th-grade AP Literature student
“I always leave Ms. Rosenberger’s class feeling inspired thanks to the meaningful discussions we have about the works that we read, and thanks to her enthusiasm, her energy, and her passion. She makes me look forward to literature class everyday!”
– a current 11th-grade IB Literature student