Christine Gentry: Teaching is Performing ☆

Christine Gentry

Christine Gentry with her students

You’ve been living in Boston for a few years.  I lived in the area for a while so I’m familiar with the dispute over where to get the best burrito. Let’s settle the score between the big rivals: Anna’s Taqueria or Boca Grande?

Boca Grande!  Grilled veggies, both beans, guac.  I mean, come on! (Laughs.)  I’m from Texas, so I know real Mexican food.  The choices in Boston are good, but they’re nothing special.  I know a few places back home that have the real thing.

I’m excited to come to New York for the diverse food.  I read somewhere that you can eat out at a restaurant for every meal and not go to the same place for two years!

Tell me about your move from Texas to Boston. Seems like a pretty big move.

I grew up in Dallas, Texas and got my Bachelor’s at Baylor in Waco, Texas before moving to Boston.  Most people think of Texas as a racist state, and it certainly does have its share of racism, but to be honest, I was surprised when I first moved to Boston because I saw more racial tension here than I had ever seen in Texas – this city is more segregated and has a more recent violent history with the bussing in the ‘70s.  It’s shameful about the textbook changes happening in Texas; I’m embarrassed by it.  I definitely miss Austin; at Baylor, I spent most of my weekends there. It’s like an independent biodome and much more my style. (Laughs.)

I went to strictly tracked public schools in Texas.  There was a test in first or second grade that essentially decided my track. The test was silly and by no means a true measure of intelligence.  I remember one question asked, “If Goldilocks and the Three Bears took place under water, how would it be different?”  I said, “I guess the bears would be eating fish instead of porridge.”  They liked that; I was put in the highest track.  A few years later, when my brothers took the same test, they said the perfectly logical thing—“Why, they’d all drown, of course!”  But that’s not what they wanted to hear, so my brothers were put in the lowest track.  They were never expected to go to college, and now they’re both Marines.  I happened to give the answer they wanted, which was lucky.  But educational opportunity should never be based on luck.  Being the only person in my family to go to college has made me think a lot about the way my education was laid out for me and has led to my general disdain for strict tracking systems.  After I was placed in the highest track, the only time I had classes with people who weren’t white or Asian was health and gym.  It was weird to be in segregated classes, especially because I grew up with a lot of diversity in my neighborhood.

I was into theater growing up.  It started in my classes at school and then my interest developed from there.  For a long time, my plan was to become an actress, so at first my undergraduate degree was more of a backup plan.  In the year between undergrad and grad school, I had three jobs, each representing something I was interested in doing; I was more or less trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was interested in teaching, so I got a job as a substitute teacher. I loved animals, so I worked at a zoo. I still wanted to act, so I found an agent.  I did some acting work in Waco – mostly plays.  There is a film floating around NetFlix, but I don’t recommend it.  (Laughs.)

I made up my mind that teaching was my passion when I went back for my Master’s.  I had an English professor at Baylor, Dr. Tom Hanks (amazing name, I know), who inspired me to go back to grad school and is probably still inspiring others to do the same.  The first time I saw Boston was in a U-Haul.

What are you doing in Boston now?

I’m getting to the end of the year teaching at City On A Hill Charter School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.  My sophomore class just finished the math MCAS state tests.  City on a Hill recently got a lot of press because of its MCAS scores.  We had the biggest increase on MCAS scores from 8th to 10th in the state of Massachusetts.  I was featured in a Boston Chronicle episode that recently covered City On A Hill and the current debate over charter schools.

I love my school.  We have heterogeneous classes and everyone has the option to take AP classes. Open enrollment does make teaching more difficult, however; a lot of our students come to the 9th grade with a 6th grade reading level, or lower. We’re honest with the kids.  We tell them, “It might take you 5 years to graduate.” The school is very rigorous, with a longer school day and Saturday school. 100% of our graduates get into college.

Another great thing about City On A Hill Charter is that all of the administrators teach.  I designed my sophomore curriculum with the principal.  There are some books that I am required to teach (Shakespeare, for example), but I also have free rein to include other things I love to teach like Things Fall Apart, Native Son, and The Color Purple.

Are you still involved in drama or creative writing?

Teaching is performing.   I’m also involved in extracurricular activities like the drama club and the creative writing club.  I love teaching kids to write.  I was lucky enough to be able to teach a creative writing class when my school offered one a few years ago. We did publication celebrations where the whole school came to read the students’ polished short stories. This year, the creative writing club had a showcase.  A few students sang original songs, many performed poetry, and a few rapped.  I did a spoken word piece – a cover of Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” – except I changed some parts to better fit my experience, and I didn’t give the school the finger.  (Laughs.)

I write flash fiction. It’s supposed to be a flash of a moment in a character’s life, revealing as much as possible in as few words as possible.  My short stories always stay within one page.  When I try to explain what I do, I say that film is to photography what novels are to flash fiction.

I’m in a writer’s group in Boston and I’ve been published a few times.  I was published in Word Riot (an online magazine), and an excerpt from my novel was published in Printer’s Devil Review. My writing has also been featured on a couple of podcasts.

How does a doctorate at Teachers College fit into the plan?

I’ve heard wonderful things about TC from one of my colleagues who got his Master’s there.  There’s something about being a part of a community, especially when everyone is the best in the field.  I’d like to study African American Literacy with Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and Diversity with Dr. Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz.  After speaking with Dr. Sheridan Blau, I’m also interested in a collaborative study between the Applied Linguistics and the Teaching English programs.

My long-term goal is to teach future urban English teachers, but to keep one foot in the high schools. It’s important to stay relevant – to keep teaching kids.   I’d like to be a professor but teach one class in a charter school. I imagine myself staying in New York.

Working with Student Press Initiative will keep me working with teenagers while I’m pursuing my doctorate.  I’ll spend 10-15 hours a week with high school kids, which I’m really excited about.

You were awarded a Zankel Fellowship to work with Student Press Initiative.  Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to?

I think Erick Gordon is my teaching soul mate.  Our teaching styles and backgrounds are very similar.  And Student Press Initiative is amazing.  There is a freedom that SPI gives to students by publishing their stories.  It’s important to give kids the tools and space they need to practice writing.

To have books professionally bound does honor to the kids – it empowers kids who are rarely empowered.  My teaching dream is to help a kid who doesn’t know or doesn’t think that she has talent; I want to find the kid who has no idea that he’s actually a brilliant writer.

I would love to teach kids how to write flash fiction.  Depending on what Erick has in store for me, maybe I’ll put together a student publication of flash pieces about moments.  Students would have to write about a moment – really just a few seconds long in 500 words.  But I’ll learn more about my role in July, when I go to the SPI Summer Institute.