In 2008, Meggen Saka was driving to work in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood when she tuned her car radio to NPR, hoping to catch the latest on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Instead, a friendly voice inquired, “Are you a curious person? Would you like to expand your thoughts and ideas?” The questions grabbed Saka. Her answer to them was an immediate and emphatic yes. By the time the promotional message from the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts Program was over, she had decided to pursue study in the MLA Program.
Saka was a new arrival to the city. She was from Hong Kong, had majored in Secondary Education and English Literature in college, and taught for a year at one of Hong Kong’s prestigious K-12 international schools. Now, she was an English teacher at Upton Sinclair High School, an alternative campus of the Chicago Public Schools system dedicated to serving students at high risk for truancy and violence through counseling, small classes and conflict resolution training.
Many first-time teachers would be daunted by the assignment, but at Sinclair High twenty-five-year-old Saka found the opportunity she had wanted. She had grown up in a family of educators, all committed to the proposition that learning transforms the individual. So she had sought out a teaching assignment where she might make the greatest difference in her students’ lives.
Her interest in the Graham School’s radio advertisement was not about changing her career path. Rather, the message reminded her of her love for both roles in the teacher-student relationship. “Hearing those questions made me realize I missed being in a classroom on the receiving end of knowledge,” she recalls. Saka was drawn to the challenge “of taking my intellectual self to the next level by being exposed to different kinds of thought I’ve never encountered before.”
Saka had hoped the MLA Program would add new layers “to all of those things that make me who I am in the classroom, and transform the kind of teacher I continually try to aspire to be.” But she could not have imagined how far-reaching her own transformation would be. By the time of her graduation in 2015, Saka had upended her former teaching methods, pioneered a new approach to introducing her students to literature, and changed the way she worked to build relationships in the classroom.
Saka started the MLA Program by exploring a kaleidoscope of disciplines that were wholly new to her. Each weekend, trading the campus of her high school for the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center, she plunged into seminars on political philosophy, the theory of evolution, the origin and structure of the universe, and the role the X chromosome plays in human DNA.
Becoming a student again was “a rare and glorious feeling,” and the discoveries she made in each course she found exhilarating. Best of all, from her perspective, none of the classes “operated in isolation.” “While the different subjects came in different seasons, the whole idea of the MLA Program was to make them work in conjunction with one another. It was so much fun to have my brain completely light up, and to be exploring parts of it that I never knew existed. There was a warmth and excitement to each class, because I didn’t know where it might lead.”
Just as stimulating as the ideas discussed in these seminars, was the MLA classroom itself. “I remember liking the fact that we were at a group of tables that were in a circle. Yes, the professor was at the center of the circle, because he was the pillar of experience and knowledge, but we all had something to contribute to the class. Each one of us had completely different professional lives, and those experiences informed what we would say. That exposure to different ways of thinking about life experiences, not just the curriculum itself, I really appreciated.”
Her most surprising revelations, however, happened on familiar ground, in two courses rooted in her area of expertise: literature. James Redfield’s course on the novel Tristram Shandy and Lisa Ruddick’s course “Psychoanalysis and Literature” would have a direct and lasting impact on Saka’s work as an educator. The transformation started when she joined Professor Redfield on his eleven-week odyssey through Laurence Sterne’s comic, chaotic 18th-century novel. Redfield has taught Classical Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago for almost half a century, and his method of instruction was, for Saka, a revelation.
Redfield’s course exemplified learning as a communal process, with essential contributions from both teacher and student. “He had a way of making each of us feel valued, like we owned a part of the class, and that we all had something imperative to contribute,” she explains. “He cared so much about who was sitting around the table. He made clear the course was not about him, but about everyone in the room.” Inspired and moved, Saka began thinking of ways to use the same technique with her own students.
The way Redfield engaged with Sterne’s novel also felt radical and new. For him, a reader’s spontaneous, creative response to a literary work is as important as the author’s original intent in writing it; reader and author are equal players in the act of interpretation. Saka was entranced by the possibilities of a point of view that granted power to readers. Sharing this insight with high school students might help them approach classic works with greater confidence and authority in themselves as readers and independent thinkers. “It was so exciting,” Saka remembers, “because as a teacher I knew there were things I could start doing differently in the classroom, new ways I could present literature to my own students that I hadn’t thought about before or even questioned.” Lisa Ruddick’s course awakened Saka to yet another way of diving into a literary text: by decoding the metaphors and symbols of a poem, play or novel in the manner of a psychologist interpreting a dream.
Saka enrolled in “Psychoanalysis and Literature” just as she was making a change in her professional life, transferring to a high school in Lawndale serving predominantly African-American students from low-income households. For her new classes of Sophomore English scholars, Saka had developed an Honors curriculum that included A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play about housing discrimination in Chicago, and Richard Wright’s Native Son. She had also become involved with anti-racism activism in her local community.
In the midst of these endeavors, Saka says working with Ruddick “was exactly what I needed.” She had been searching for an MLA Master’s thesis topic that would weave together the multiple strands of her life—her commitment to being an educator, her interest in social justice, her new ideas about literature. With Ruddick as an advisor, Saka began work on a thesis essay entitled, “Jung in the Classroom: Dismantling Racism by Applying Dream Analysis to Poetry.” She focused on a 2015 poem, “In Two Seconds,” by Mark Doty.
“The poem is about Tamir Rice, the boy who was shot in Ohio when he was playing in the park with a toy gun,” Saka explains. “The police responded to a 911 call, and within two seconds of coming to the scene they shot him. Doty’s poem haunted me, and I couldn’t let go of it.” The effort she devoted to this thesis project, Saka says, “came at a time when it related to my work life, to my personal life, and to significant things happening in the world. The thesis distilled everything; it was a platform for me to write about all of it.”
As part the process of developing her thesis, Saka also learned how to use criticism constructively, something she acknowledges did not come naturally at first. “Originally,” she admits, “I took criticism very personally. The ability to hear critiques as a way of building up, instead of tearing down, was a new skill.” However, once developed, Saka used this newly honed skilled to enrich her final product: “by practicing a response, by saying, ‘No, here is why I feel this part of the argument is right, why it is strong enough,’ you actually strengthen your writing, because you realize how to state your position more clearly.”
Saka presented her thesis to University of Chicago faculty and students a few weeks before the MLA graduation ceremony in 2015. “For me, the evening was so lovely because it felt good to say out loud what I had been writing. My parents were there, my husband was there; it was really special to have them hear what had been going on in my head.”
The results of her work now reach an audience beyond the Graham School auditorium. Saka explains, “the central part, the heart, of my thesis, is that every person matters in the room when students are learning. It is not just what the teacher’s interpretation is.” Writing about this concept and about other ideas she discovered through MLA has caused her “to teach differently, and do things that I haven’t done before.” She is reinventing her methods, altering the equation of what happens in the classroom.
When Saka uses Doty’s “In Two Seconds” in class discussions, she does so with the consciousness that “I’m not the expert in the room. I don’t have the experience of what it is like to be a young adult in America, because I didn’t grow up here, and I don’t have the experience of being a person of color. I never can. So there are large parts of the class where I surrender the lead to my students.”
The MLA Program made Saka aware that while it is important for teachers “to focus on leading students forward in the right direction,” it is equally important “to figure out the things we cannot be leaders on, and find ways to hear from the readers in the room who aren’t the teacher.”
Saka continues to teach English to fifteen- and sixteen-year-old students in Lawndale. Recently, a girl who took Saka’s Honors course a year before stopped Saka in the hall to say how much she missed being in her class.
“Well, I miss having you in my class,” Saka replied.
“Really? Why?” the student asked, surprised.
“You allowed me to be the teacher that I want to be.” Saka answered. “The freedom to explore ideas is quite a gift, and you gave that to the room.”
“I never thought of it that way,” the student said, smiling.