By Anthony Rivera
Ms. Chiavola is a popular English teacher at MCSM. She has taught literature and composition here for nine years now. One of her main goals is to help students write at a college level, and to make sure that they are prepared for college level work. Last year, she worked closely with former Vice Principal Brian Bradley to strengthen the expository writing skills of incoming MCSM students. She accompanied RamPage staffers last fall to CUNY’s annual High School Journalism awards ceremony at Baruch College, and witnessed one of our writers win two major awards. In the following interview we ask her to reveal the origins of her love of teaching, and some of her plans for the future.
Q: How long have you been teaching at MCSM?
Ms. Chiavola: ” I am in my eighth year at MCSM, but I was a student teacher here first, so technically this is my ninth year working in the building.”
Q: Where were you were born? Where did you go to college as an undergraduate, and what school and program are you going to for your Ph.D?
Ms. Chiavola: “I was born in Paterson, New Jersey. As an undergraduate I went to Montclair State University. For my Masters degree I went to NYU, and now I am back at Montclair for my Ph.D.”
Q: Have you always wanted to become a teacher, or were you considering any other professions?
Ms. Chiavola: “At first, I majored in communication studies and public relations, then I got my masters in English education, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But I really enjoyed student teaching so I decided to stick with that.”
Q: How do you remember your past English teachers? Did they have any influence on your career choice?
Ms. Chiavola: “My English teachers were always really interesting people, and my English teacher from my senior year in high school is actually one of my favorite teachers. But I don’t have many memories of my teachers in general so they didn’t really influence me to become a student teacher. However, sometimes when I’m teaching I’ll think back to their energy, and it’s their energy that inspires me most.”
Q: What would you say has changed the most about the way High School English is taught between the days you were in high school, and now?
Ms. Chiavola: “I don’t think too much has changed right now, but I think with the Common Core coming in, things have the potential to change. As of now things still seem pretty standard because I remember in high school we read a lot of novels, we talked and wrote a lot about books, and at the end of the day I feel like we still do.”
Q: What do you think about the Common Core?
Ms. Chiavola: “I think the Common Core, in theory, is a great thing, but there hasn’t been much direction given to teachers on how to properly implement it. So teachers are a little overwhelmed right now, trying to meet all of these standards.”
Q: In the past two years, what was the best or most unexpected reaction to a book you taught?
Ms. Chiavola: “Last year my seniors really enjoyed Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son, and A Streetcar Named Desire, which they really enjoyed talking about. But the most exciting reaction came from Native Son. I think this was because the students had never read a book like that and it helped open their eyes to literature that they didn’t really know existed, so this was probably the ‘game changer’.”
Q: What was the most original piece of writing you can remember receiving from a student?
Ms. Chiavola: “I once had my students base their poetry on visual art, and there was this really famous painting of some guy in a swimsuit called “The Bather” which one of my students decided to write a poem about. The poem was about how he had just gotten back from a date where a girl rejected him, and it actually turned out to be really funny. The best essay I’ve received that I can remember is one where I had asked my students to compare the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, to the book. One student wrote a review so good that I felt like his calling was to do reviews, because he did it so naturally as a tenth grader.”
Q: In addition to teaching at MCSM you are also back in school yourself, going for your Ph.D. Tell us what that process entails.
Ms. Chiavola: “Getting into the school was an intense application process. I had to write three essays, find three people to write recommendations for me, and I had to take the GRE, which was really difficult because I hadn’t taken math since college. Then I had to go to an interview where I had to provide another writing sample. Now that I’m in, I’ve been taking two classes per semester which has been really tough being that doctoral courses are really intenseâ¦ but I am really enjoying it. I’m in a program now called teacher development, so Iâm really learning about how teachers learn, and how we teach teachers.”
Q: Do you think your advanced degree will eventually contribute to the MCSM English department?
Ms. Chiavola: “Definitely. My goal is eventually to work with teachers who need help, or are just interested in collaboration and reflection, things which I think are important for teachers to improve and grow. On a larger scale, I eventually want to work with teachers on a college level. I want to help support them as they student teach and get jobs as first year-teachers being that the first few years can be extremely difficult, overwhelming, and even lonely.”
Q: At MCSM most of your students are aiming for STEM careers. What would you advise students here who are thinking about majoring in English or the humanities instead?
Ms. Chiavola: “I think it’d be really interesting to influence students to find innovative careers in which they can combine both, such as writing about science or writing about STEM. I think that would be really important. But I also think that the STEM path is a really smart one, and if that is where someone’s passion lies, then I believe they should go for it. Still, I think it’s interesting to turn everything into art, and make this sort of contribution in that way.”