Dr. Matthew McConnell
Head of Humanities Department

"The key concepts for instruction at Le Sallay include participatory culture, mastery-oriented goal-setting, and a flipped classroom"

How do you see your work at Le Sallay, Matthew?

I believe that students deserve a teacher who respects their individual interests and passions. I know that some of my early interests, which were only just beginning to take shape at that age, eventually became a career for me, so I think my work as an instructor is to expand their field of vision so they can develop their passions and discover new ones. It really is an important age because we begin to make educational decisions that are determinative. They set you on a path. My goal for students at this age is that they will learn how to learn. They need to develop the skills that will lead to lifelong learning. I help them do that by inviting them to set their own goals, to decide for themselves what they would like to learn and how they would like to improve. Of course, teaching necessarily requires a shared schedule of reading and learning goals, but I believe it is important to create space within that structure for students to learn the way that they want to.

What values does Le Sallay adhere to, as a school?

Well, I know that the founders Sergey Kuznetsov and Ekaterina Kadieva want to bring quality education to families who do not wish to separate their children from the family at an early age, and I share that vision. At the same time, we know that all children must develop the confidence to interact boldly with the world outside the family structure, and the learning camp is designed to fulfill that need. In my mind, it is about identity formation, helping the students to develop a sense of themselves in their families, at school, and in the wide world. We also value the ability to think independently, using critical thinking to avoid the phenomenon of "groupthink." Students must learn to resist the various forms of manipulation (advertisements, propaganda) that could diminish their capacity for creative, innovative thought.

What are your core ideas in teaching and how do they fit with Le Sallay’s key  concepts for instruction?

In writing, I believe that confidence is paramount. Some of that confidence comes from proper instruction in style and grammar, and some comes from a consistent affirmation that one's voice and experience are important, worth sharing, and valuable. I have encountered many students whose instruction has given them the impression that they are bad writers, and I seek to remedy this whenever possible. In literature, I have the same approach. Confidence is less useful when students lack the necessary tools to analyze a work, but those tools require experience and confidence to be used effectively. Building confidence is important, but also knowledge. The two cannot be separated.

The key concepts for instruction at Le Sallay include participatory culture, mastery-oriented goal-setting, and a flipped classroom. All three intersect at Le Sallay in a cohesive set of practices. In a flipped classroom, students receive input outside of class, while practicing and reinforcing skills in class with instructor assistance. Mastery-oriented goal-setting asks students to set goals for themselves, so that they are internally motivated, and participatory culture allows students to display their mastery of skills for the benefit of others. My goal is that students would be secondary instructors at Le Sallay because one of the best ways to reinforce learned content is to teach it.

Have you ever worked as a teacher with children or adolescents?

After college I worked as a high school teacher, during which time I taught thirteen and fourteen-year-olds. Several of my students demonstrated exceptional intelligence and were also learning to manage various forms of learning disability.

How did you get interested in literature and history?

I have enjoyed reading since I was in middle school, when I discovered authors whose work inspired my imagination. The fantasies of Tolkien and Lewis were foremost among these, but I later read and loved Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Madeleine L'Engle. I devoured anything that included fantasy and magic. Possibly that is why I eventually specialized in medieval literature. As the imaginative site of magic, the middle ages fascinated me. Of course, I discovered all the distortions and misrepresentations that plague our ideas of the middle ages especially, but I also learned that reality can be more strange and wonderful than our fantasies.

What are your favorite topics to teach? Why?

I enjoy teaching in my area of expertise, which is Middle English literature. Often this can be done in translation, which allows all students to enjoy the strange richness of this period, which is so familiar yet so foreign at the same time. I have also taught modern popular culture courses, about zombies, Game of Thrones, and superheroes. These courses are always a delight because students already have strong interest in these topics, and they invest a lot of attention and time in thinking and writing about them. Finally, I enjoy teaching poetry and prosody. The terms of art that give us the ability to analyze poetry well are often neglected, and I enjoy giving students the expertise necessary to appreciate a wholly new art form.

What will Le Sallay Literature and History courses include?

Le Sallay’s literature courses will be in English, so we will focus necessarily on the Anglo-American tradition, while making every effort to avoid excessive Anglo- and Eurocentrism. To that end, we will also include translated world literature appropriate to this age group, with special attention paid to the literature of countries and cultures of our students. History courses will include world history from ancient to modern, as well as geography and what is called social studies in the United States. This includes politics and civics. Since our students will be from all over the world, students will have a unique opportunity to study the civic and government structures of their own countries, and to teach students of other nationalities about their respective politics.

What are your strategies for making complex materials accessible to the students?

Complexity in literature and writing often comes in the form of paradox, contradiction, or ambiguity. Developmentally, our students will be in an age range when their ability to comprehend such things will be increasing. I begin with more concrete concepts that are graspable by anyone, and when these have been fully processed, students are ready to encounter works that challenge those concepts. So, for instance, students must learn that a story has a narrator, that narrators come in different styles, and have different levels of knowledge about their stories, and that these are choices made by the author of a work, who is separate from the narrator. We begin by introducing them to works with narrators of various kinds, and then ask students to come to conclusions about how this affects the telling of the story. Once they understand this, we can introduce them to a work with an untrustworthy narrator, who introduces bias or slant into the narrative, or who minimizes certain details or introduces outright falsehoods. In this way, they can eventually come to understand the narrating work that we all do in our own lives, how we can understand or even deceive ourselves in the telling of our own stories to ourselves. So, my strategy introduces students to a basic and concrete concept, which can be developed into a complex one through gradual exposure to the contradictions and ambiguities of adult life.

Do you consider modern instructional methods such as interdisciplinary approaches or co-teaching effective for Le Sallay?

I do. I hope that humanities teachers at le Sallay will work together continually to synchronize their units into cohesive themes. Students learn content best when it is presented in context. For instance, when I am teaching students how to write a persuasive essay, the history teacher might have them read an argument from the period they are studying. That way, they come to understand the role that persuasive rhetoric plays in history even as they learn to write their own.

Co-teaching will be more difficult at Le Sallay, since most of the time we will be spread across the globe. However, at learning camps, we will have the opportunity to work together, combining classes as we see fit, and using that part of our school format to best advantage.

What is your technique for encouraging reluctant readers at the age of Le Sallay students?

Encouraging students to read happens in two ways. First, I believe it is important to find the right book for the right student. There is so much good writing for this age group now, that it is possible to find reading that matches nearly any student’s interests.

Second, I hope we will encourage reading at Le Sallay by modeling it for our students. My goal is that each teacher would have a published list of favorite books, so that students can see that we love to read, and that reading is enhanced when it is a social experience. To that end, teachers will be available to discuss any of the books on their list, so that reading the books will also be a way of getting to know one’s teachers.

What, in your opinion, are the most essential books every Le Sallay student should read?

Oh my! It would be impossible for me to say what is essential for every individual. But I can give some examples of books that I think have the potential to change a student’s relationship to reading for the better. Le Petit Prince is a book whose loveliness only deepens over time, but is accessible to readers of many ages. The Giver by Lois Lowry is an excellent first dystopia for students of this age group, and requires them to manage both moral and narrative ambiguities. I also love Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. In poetry, which I think every student should develop a taste for, I enjoy T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Who is your favorite poet? Have you published any of your own poetry?

Picking a favorite poet is difficult, perhaps impossible. I love so many poets for different reasons. I enjoy Auden, Plath, Eliot, and Bishop. But if I had to choose one  poet who is the greatest (if there were such a thing), I would choose Dante for being the most ambitious, and for inspiring nearly every western poet who followed. I have not published any of my poetry, but I am seeking to publish my latest work, a set of fifty sonnets.

Nice to meet you

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