Dr. Witt, English Teacher, (Top Left) – Interview Conducted by Nora W and Celia L-D
Friday September 4, 2020: It is 3:40pm — The end of the school week! The sun is coated in a thick blanket of smoke, but the birds are still chirping (we think- we were actually inside so, upon reflection, we have realized that we can’t really attest to that). The mood is light, the company is top-notch, and the Human of CPS makes small talk as we anticipate the beginning of the year’s third interview. I click record. “Welcome, Dr. Witt.” The interview has begun…
Celia: Do you have a favorite book or author out of the ones you are teaching this year?
Dr. Witt: That’s so hard! That’s your first question? Oh my gosh, I love so many of the books that I’m teaching this year. So let’s just go with the one that I was just teaching in my H block class, which was Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which I’ve taught a number of times. I also remember reading it in high school and having it be this kind of mind blowing experience. I still have my high-school copy, which has my very high-school annotations in it, which um, I kind of love looking at sometimes. I really love Toni Morrison. I think she’s such a remarkable writer and I love how she captures the complexity of American experience and human experience.
Nora: Why did you choose to teach English at College Prep after teaching at other schools around the Bay Area?
Dr. Witt: Obviously because of the brilliant students. Yeah, you guys are brilliant. It’s also a lot closer to my house than the other schools I worked at so partly commute and partly because I had heard amazing things about you all and the community. Every time I’ve come to campus or worked with CPS teachers on some kind of professional development, it’s been clear that it’s just such a kind and generous community of people that I wanted to be a part of.”
Celia: Did you always know you wanted to be an English teacher?
Dr. Witt: No, definitely not. I always enjoyed teaching, you know, whatever kinds of activities were like teaching, I enjoyed. I was a camp counselor, I worked with younger kids when I was a teenager, and so I always really enjoyed teaching. I wanted to be a musician when I was in high school. That’s where I thought I was headed. I’m not really skilled enough to be a musician, as it turns out, but I do really love music. And my academic work is actually in Art History and American Studies–American Visual Studies–and so I didn’t even major in English. So I definitely didn’t know I would end up being an English teacher, but the kinds of work I was doing in analyzing images and texts in graduate school led me directly to English work, and I love it.
Nora: When did you become passionate about Environmental Studies?
Dr. Witt: I’ve always been interested in the environment. I’m a hiker, I love the outdoors and I had a ‘save the whales’ birthday party when I was 12. We made t-shirts and posters! About six or seven years ago, as I was teaching transcendentalism and nature writing, I just sort of realized that I felt compelled to try to do something about climate change and about the urgent crisis in our environment from the position of English teacher— that having that work only happening in Science classrooms was not good enough given the urgency of the climate crisis right now. So I educated myself, and I participated in Exeter’s Environmental Literature Institute, a program that I now help to lead. I joined the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, and joined forces with a Science teacher at University High School, and we taught a cross-listed course on climate change. I’ve learned so much, and I feel really inspired by the students in my Environmental Literature classes.
Celia: Do you see any connections between the environmental field and literature?
Dr. Witt: Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean there’s an incredible amount of environmental writing. There’s nature writing that goes back centuries, maybe milenia, and there’s certainly a really strong field of American nature writing. I think that we learn about climate change and the environment through science and journalism in ways that are really fascinating, and we also need to connect sort of spiritually in our souls to that natural world, so that we understand it not just intellectually, and so that we want to protect it. One of the things environmental literature does is help us to connect to our love of the natural world. We need to write good stories about environmentalism, right? We can have all the data in the world but if we don’t tell the story in a way that’s compelling about why we should be protecting the environment, then it doesn’t land— we don’t convince people unless we tell the story really well. So I love environmental literature because it can connect us to the natural world, and then I love it because it teaches a really good story in a way that might effect change.
Nora: You mentioned you like to hike and spend time in nature. What else do you like to do when you’re not teaching?
Dr. Witt: “I love to cook. I cook and bake a lot and I love to spend time outside. I love to go camping with my kids, Will and Bee. And I love— or maybe enjoy, I don’t know if I love— I enjoy running, so I run very slowly for long distances, and I’m actually training for my first full marathon right now.”