Get to know Manual’s English teachers

Yaara Aleissa

On a day-to-day basis, we see our teachers come into class and participate in the discussion that pertains to the topic at hand. But not as frequently is there the opportunity to learn much about our teachers beyond what goes on in the classroom. Four English teachers at Manual, from varying grade levels, discuss their teaching experiences, their academic endeavors, and some of their favorite hobbies through one-on-one interview sessions.

Ms. Jill Bickel AP Seminar
Question: “Did you ever consider any other careers outside of teaching? If so, what caused you to take this route instead?”
Ms. Bickel: “So I did not always think I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when I was your age, and in high school, the last thing I would have said I wanted to be was a teacher. I do come from a family of teachers, my dad, a retired English teacher of 30 years, my uncle was an English teacher, my mom is an English major. My other aunt was a teacher. I knew in general, I wanted to do something helpful to the world, and I wanted to work with people. So I actually wanted to join the Peace Corps. Until I knew that it was really hard to join the Peace Corps. So I decided to go to college and my original undergrad majors, which was at Bellarmine, our psychology and sociology. I worked at seven counties in social services for about a year with suicidal and homicidal kids. And I realized, this is really tough work. And I don’t know if I’m cut out for it.”

Question: “What have been some interesting experiences in the different grade levels you’ve taught and the different subjects you’re taught? Or even if you’ve taught at different schools, how were those experiences different?”
Ms. Bickel: “I taught at Seneca for 12 years. I have only taught freshmen one time my first year teaching, no offense to freshmen, but I don’t wish to return to teaching freshmen. I have taught sophomores and juniors the most in my first year at Manual. I taught seniors so freshmen and seniors only want one year each out of 21 years of teaching. AP seminar is, I don’t know if teachers would say it’s a fun class to teach the pacing is so rigorous, even compared to other AP courses. But I do love working with my sophomores and I honestly commend my sophomores for being as open minded and mature and dedicated to the workload. It’s a hard class, it would be a hard class for juniors.”

Question: And then at Seneca, what were some of the courses you taught there?
Ms. Bickel: “I taught a Great Books course. I co-taught that with another teacher, that was a lot of fun. Because we had a male perspective, he was male and a female perspective. And we got to choose really anything that we wanted to teach because it wasn’t connected to an AP exam, or even an end of course exam. And I taught that with him for one year. And then I taught that solely on my own for many years after that, also taught women in literature courses. My second master’s degree is that, my first one is a master’s in teaching English. I went back later to get another one in women in gender studies. So my passion is definitely women in literature. Part of my master’s thesis when I was working on that I was teaching at Seneca was to create a women in gender studies class for high school level.”

Question: “What are some of your main pursuits for students to take away whether this is content wise, or application to the real world?”
Ms. Bickel: “In my head, the first thing that I always think is you need to help them be prepared for college. Most of the kids who are in AP Seminar are likely college bound. I’d like to think that I teach critical thinking skills. And certainly, the two courses I’ve taught here, the most are focused on argumentation, and Seminar heavily focused on research skills. I do like to sometimes include minority voices, particularly women, people of color. And I think anybody who takes my class would probably say, we focus a lot on societal problems, and gender, race and class issues and how those things intersect.”

Question: “So what are some activities or hobbies that you think students would find interesting, you’d be surprised that you enjoy?”
Ms. Bickel: “I’m a runner. I have been running long distances for decades. And it is a major part of my identity. And I think not even just as a runner, but just I identify as an athlete. It’s really important to me, I was a cross country coach. So obviously, that had to do with a love for athletics, but also wanted to be around the kids and an atmosphere outside of the classroom.
I don’t think it’s understating it to say I am a diehard Avett Brothers fan. I have been to almost 68 Avett Brothers concerts, in cities all over the country, and have spent literally thousands of dollars going to see them. And I don’t know, their music to me is quite poetic.
Students might not know my husband is a guitarist. So we actually met, I worked at a restaurant in the highlands that he and his band came in. They said, ‘Oh, you should come listen to our band.’ So I go listen to their band a couple times and, and he worked, he drives a truck for UPS too, but he was doing music on the side. So that has been something that we share about the love for music, and he’s doing concerts with me.”

Mr. Daniel Zakem AP Seminar
Question: Did you ever consider any other careers outside of teaching? If so, what caused you to take this route instead?
Mr. Zakem: “I attended and graduated from manual, high school and my entire youth, I was a theater kid, I had done professional theater since the first grade. And so then when I got to YPAS, I was good. But the older I got, the more I realized that, like, two of my best friends who were also in the theater department, were just better than I was. I could do it. I satisfied the requirements, I even felt good about it. By my sophomore year, I started to realize, you know, that’s a pretty competitive profession. Once I was getting a little older. I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be doing that. So then my mind kind of opened up, like, well, what are you going to do? So I was a camp counselor. I loved that. And so I was like, okay, so I like being a camp counselor. I don’t think you can do that forever. Then one day my junior year at Manual the principal of our school Beverly Keepers, just a brilliant educator, saw me over at YPAS doing something, and she was like, ‘So what are you going to do, are you going to stay in theater?’ and I was like, ‘you know, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, I feel like I might be good at teaching.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, teaching. Yeah, that’d be great.’ So a year later, we used to have this thing I mean, we’ll call them like book night. And the counselors were like, ‘Are you coming to book night?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so, I don’t think Yale is not bestowing anything upon me’. They said, ‘Oh, you should really come’ and they convinced me to come and they told me to bring my parents. Principal Keepers had remembered that conversation from a year earlier and had signed me up and applied for this Future Educators program through Bank One, which isn’t a bank anymore, but they gave me this pretty big scholarship to go and become a teacher. And I don’t know I could have not ended up doing that. But I always knew by the time I graduated high school, I knew, I think I want to be a teacher. Teachers that inspired me like Mr. Curtis. I was like, I can do that. I can kind of be that to students.”

Question: Well, then branching off of that, what passion drove that continued pursuit of that career and how has that changed now?
Mr. Zakem: “My parents owned a small business growing up. They owned a nursery school, like a daycare. And they were really good at there were just a couple of, you know, young people that loved little kids and made a business out of it. And it was kind of a prestigious daycare in the neighborhood, like people really wanting to get their kids to go there. And I always felt like my parents liked that work. I just always grew up around parents that liked what they did. I think part of what part of the passion that drove me.
I think a lot of what drives me today with my teacher is to really nurture and cultivate that sharpness and that keenness as opposed to like, beating it into the ground with work. You know, I feel like one of the things that I struggled with at the end of Manual in my time at Manual as a student was like, I guess I learned a lot, but I don’t know if I would want to go through that again. And I’m burnt out. And I feel like, especially with minds that are like just primed for learning and leadership. You want kids to be excited when they’re leaving high school, excited to continue to continue to pursue educational opportunities.”

Question: “What are some other classes that you’ve taught? And what are some of the differences that you’ve realized in teaching different groups of students or different grade levels or even subjects?”
Mr. Zakem: “I started my career teaching Moore High School in JCPS, amazing school, amazing students. Amazing in totally different ways. I find that a lot of, I would say that a higher percentage of students at Moore struggle with like, childhood hardship, and childhood trauma, and just have had real world real life experiences that are challenging to navigate through. That was really interesting to me when I first started teaching because I had such a, not sheltered childhood but just protected childhood, nothing really bad ever happened to me, and unlike kids, at Moore who had experienced a lot of struggle in their young lives. As a result, either way, they were not maybe quite as academically inclined, they hadn’t had as much time to worry about school, maybe the emphasis of school was not quite the same in their households. I have loved teaching there, because it was an opportunity to kind of learn a lot about people and our culture and our society.”

Question: “So what are some of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher and then on the latter? What are some of the most rewarding?”
Mr. Zakem: “The challenging part of being a teacher is that you can get, you can kind of get pulled in a lot of directions. The other thing that’s challenging about it is, even though there are like a lot of teachers and school building, it’s a fairly isolated position, you know, like, I teach next door to Ms. Lenihan, and she and I get along really well, but she’s kind of doing her Spanish thing and I’m kind of doing my English thing. I’m across the hall from Ms. Walsh, she’s kind of doing her French thing. I’m close to the math teachers, they have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what they’re doing. And so there are times where you get to connect with some of your colleagues, like for me in the English department, but a lot of times you’re kind of on your own. Now, you’re constantly surrounded by a lot of students, and that’s great. But sometimes it’s hard to know where my weaknesses are. Where, can I improve?
This is my 11th year, you start to realize that you’re teaching a couple of generations of kids. And so you kind of stay in touch, you know about what the cool slang terms are and what people are listening to musically. But the other part of teaching generally, like three generations of kids, you also come to find out what young people care about, right? And so 10-11 years ago the ways to kind of embrace members of our community that were rejected by so many the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, people of different different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, like 10-11 years ago, students realize, like, that’s important. But students today are so much savvier about that they’re just, there’s so much more.”

Question: “So, what are some hobbies of interests or activities that you enjoy that you think students might be interested to hear or would be surprised to hear about?”
Mr. Zakem: “I love to cook. The older I get, the more I love to cook. That’s probably not great all the time for my physical health, but for my like, emotional health it’s so nice to check out to the kitchen for a while. I’ve gotten really good at it because I’ve been doing it for like 20 something years now. I drum. I was in a band for years and years growing up, and I still love to drum, I still love to like, really plug into music. And I love being a dad. I have twin eight year old daughters and a six year old son. We’re kind of part of a blended, divorced and remarried kind of family dynamic. And I put a lot of energy into my kids just because I think my parents put a lot of energy into me. And so love being a dad and just having cool kids to play with and plug into stuff like that.”

Ms. Alesia Williams AP Language & Composition and AP Research
Question: Did you always know that you wanted to become a teacher? And along the way, were there any other careers that you had considered and what led you to teaching?”Question: “So, what are some hobbies of interests or activities that you enjoy that you think students might be interested to hear or would be surprised to hear about?”
Ms. Williams: “When I was really, really little, I actually wanted to be an artist. My parents, or my mom, made a little studio for me in the dining room. And, I would go back there and work. Then as I grew older, and in high school, especially, I still loved art. But in terms of a career, I actually was thinking about being a conservation biologist. I wanted to be kind of like Jane Goodall because I always loved animals, and was fascinated just by animal interaction and behavior. So I went to college, I went to Berea College here in Kentucky, thinking I would be a zoology major, that that would lead ultimately to being able to actually do research on animals out in the field. But I took my first entry level science classes. So just an intro to zoology class, and an intro to botany class. And I found them really boring. And at the same time, because it was a liberal arts school, I had to take humanities, so of course, I took art, because I loved art.
I actually graduated with my B.A in Art History and went to the University of Cincinnati, to start working towards getting a Ph. D. I was in a master’s program, and got into that program. And my advisor had just gotten her Ph. D. from Yale, and she was very ambitious. But for her, it was all about the research. And, and not necessarily the teaching. And so it was in the middle of that program that I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do, that I wanted to be an educator and, and getting a Ph. D. in art history wasn’t necessarily going to make that possible. So that’s when I decided to be a teacher. And I had debated between doing elementary school and high school because I love little kids. And ultimately, I went for the intellectual stimulation of high school, because I’m just an intellectual person. And ultimately, it was the best choice. But you can’t get certified to teach art history. There is not a certification for art history. So I chose English.”

Question: “Are there some things that you wish you could incorporate in your classes that you feel you don’t get to emphasize on enough?”
Ms. Williams: “There’s a part of me that really misses being able to read a novel and work through it, several chapters at a time and have lots of discussion and write about novels, so we only get to do that once really in AP Lang. And then I actually do miss teaching poetry. I don’t write poetry, but I have always enjoyed reading poetry. And, I think it helps students think differently to look at poetry because poetry is usually so abstract and so I think it can take students to a different kind of cognitive level if you get to do poetry.”

Question: What are your main pursuits as a teacher for students to take away, whether this is content-wise or in application to the world outside the classroom?
Ms. Williams: “My main goal as a teacher in both AP Lang and AP research is to prepare students for a rigorous college experience, because the students that take the classes that I teach, that is what most of them want. And some of them perhaps know that they want to go to college, but maybe didn’t quite realize that they are perhaps ready for really rigorous experience in college. So I want my students to be able to apply to any school that they would really like to get into and feel confident that if they got accepted and went there as a student, that they would be able to be successful. And they’d be able to find something that they were passionate about. But in terms of big lessons that are not necessarily directly connected to a classroom, I really want my students to be critical thinkers, and civically engaged.”

Question: Have there been other courses that you’ve taught? I know you’ve mentioned that you taught at Liberty High School.What are some differences in that teaching experience and some of the different courses you have taught?
Ms. Williams: “So I got my first three years of teaching at Liberty High School. I was hired actually, because my French teacher from high school was the counselor at Liberty High School. So Liberty really is a great place to get your start as a teacher because it’s an alternative school for students who have either dropped out or failed out and decided to come back and for whatever reason, the classes were filled with students who had many challenges that could have been that they had experienced trauma at some point in their life that could have been poverty, that could have been some type of mental health issue. So part of it was just trying to teach them and motivate them to realize that they could actually be successful. At Liberty High School, I actually taught freshmen and part of that was teaching an actual class that was called corrective reading. That was a class for students who were far below where they needed to be. This would have been freshmen in high school who might have only been reading on the first second grade level, in trying to help them make growth to get as caught up as they could be.
I always knew I wanted to get hired at Manual high school. I did my student teaching here, because I knew I wanted to get hired here. And ultimately, I was able to get hired after only three years at Liberty High School, and I was hired as a humanities teacher. So I was hired to teach for humanity sections, and only in one freshman English, for the first three years that I was here. I loved teaching humanities, it was to seniors. And my goal was to try to improve their cultural literacy, but also maybe to help them understand that they could love classical or traditional kinds of art and music. I taught freshman English and Humanities for the first three years. Then I was asked to teach AP LANG. So then I taught humanities and AP LANG. And I did that for many years. And then I think it was my sixth year of teaching AP research.”

Question: “What has been one of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher? On the other hand, what has been the most rewarding?”
Ms. Williams: “It’s just really challenging is the amount of time it takes me to grade papers. I mean, if you just stop and think, right, if you spend 10 minutes on a paper and you have 100 students, right, that’s 1000 minutes, that you’re spending on one assignment. And so, inevitably, alright, I go, typically, it starts in about the middle of September, and goes through January, where I rarely get any days off at all. I really do work 50 to 70 hours a week, and I’m getting compensated basically for 35 of them.
In terms of positives, it is the little moments that happen. When I see the light bulbs go off in a student’s head, right, when I can see that they’re going, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ When I can see that they’re able to, to actually understand how they have grown and improved because of the things that we’ve actually done. I had a letter that I got this past summer, from a student that I had in one of my first years of teaching AP Lang, and she was turning 25. And she wrote 25 letters to 25 people who had an impact in her life. And I mean, it was amazing to get those kinds of thank you’s, and that, that really is why I do it. So I keep those thank you notes, I have a box in my cabinet. And if I have bad days, all I have to do is take a few of them out. And then I know that I am doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. And so that, that really keeps me coming back. Because I really do love what I do.”

Question: “What are some activities or hobbies that you enjoy doing that might be interesting for students to hear or that might surprise them?”
Ms. Williams: “I actually love to be outside, and hiking is actually one of my favorite things to do, and doing that with my dog. So I have a black lab named Callaway. For example, the last two nights in a row, we’ve gotten to take sunset hikes at Cherokee Park. It’s just been absolutely beautiful, fall is really my favorite time of the year. Then I am a baker. And that is actually something I do to relax. So you know, it is self care for me to actually bake. I like to be able to bake things and bring them in and share them with my colleagues because it brings them a little bit of joy and that joy that they get brings me joy. So I toy with the idea when I retire, and which you know, is still a ways away, but when I retire that I will have like a cookie cart, or a bakery cart, so not like an actual brick and mortar building, but something that I could choose to do when I wanted to do it, as opposed to like, had to do it all the time. And then my family we like to like to play games. So, you know, and that can be card games or dominoes or board games, you know, etc. So those are probably the biggest things that take my time.”

Question: “How would you describe a perfect break where there’s no grading or requests from administrators, students, just your idea of a perfect break?”
Ms. Williams: “There’s really two different kinds of breaks that I like to take. So one of them is actually going to a city, right, so I am a city girl. And I love to go and explore different cities. Chicago is one of my favorite cities, I enjoy New York City. So really just being able to go and experience the city. And that often for me includes eating a wide variety of what the locals would actually want to eat. And just walking around, I like to see, yes, I like to go to some of the tourist things. But I also just like to walk around in neighborhoods and just see how the people in that city actually spend their time. But that is one of the things that would be perfect. But the other kind of perfect break really is one that would be more connected to nature. So my family just took a break, a little vacation over the fall break in the beginning of October. We got to a house on a lake. And we didn’t go anywhere. We played games, we made meals together and ate together. We got to be outside, we got to be on the lake. And so that kind of just being in a beautiful location without any responsibilities.”

Dr. Jacqueline Scoones HSU 101, ENGL
Question: “There were many interesting things I was able to find from your LinkedIn account, and I would like to thank you for allowing me to browse through it. Something that stood out was the fact that you’ve only taught high school one other time in your life (according to your online resume of course). Is there a reason you are back teaching high school again now?”
Dr. Scoones: “I taught in two different districts for a total of five years, both in California. In the Central Valley 96% of my students were English language learners, and mostly the children of migrant workers. And so it was a very unique and magnificent setting, it was also one of the more violent communities in the country at the time, gang violence. And so the two very different teaching experiences I had at that time, one in a rural mountain community, ski resort community, and then another with a very different population in the Central Valley. In those five years, there was a really broad sequence of skills that I had to develop as a new teacher. Even when I held administrative positions, I was always teaching. So when I managed an honors program. And the students who were in that honors program were in a pipeline into UC campuses. And then when I was running the Graduate Studies program, I was still teaching research and working with graduate students on their research and their master’s theses.”

Question: “What would you say are some differences in teaching a dual credit college class in high school versus within a university?”
Dr. Scoones: “I tease my former colleagues and say you have an easy job. The life of a university academic or college academic, from my perspective, now that’s a heck of a lot easier in a lot of different ways. You’ve got enormous pressure to complete your own work, you know, your research and you’re teaching, it’s enormous pressure. But being responsible for the day to day facilitating, of 150 or 200, students for some faculty, that’s just a completely different way of thinking about what your primary purpose is. In a college classroom, there wasn’t, until very recently, a whole lot of talk about meeting your student’s emotional needs or attending to the student holistically, or considering triggers. This is all a discourse of the last 10 years. Whereas of course, in public schools, in particular, you know, K-12. You’re not just teaching English, you’re teaching a person. So it’s much more student centered. At the college level, the emphasis tends to be on the content. ”

Question: As a high school teacher, you have been able to teach the first students that come into building their first high school level English class and send off seniors with their last high school English class. What are your main pursuits as a teacher for students to take away, whether this is content-wise or in application to the world outside the classroom?
Dr. Scoones: “All of the above? Can I say that? Everything, everything you said. With ninth graders, of course, there’s some basic skill sets that you’re always expected to help students develop, right, just basic survival skills for Manual High School, in particular, what the ninth graders need to know, to survive. But really, to me, is engaging curiosity and facilitating creativity. And helping students recognize what their own wonderful strengths and possibilities are and to really work that around a bit and mess that up a little bit, so that they’re willing to try lots of different kinds of things, and don’t get stuck on labeling themselves in particular ways because I tease them. They don’t know enough yet about what their own possibilities are. And I think that’s a wonderful thing to discover in high school, you know, what are my possibilities, because they don’t even know what those possibilities are. The other part is, of it is that’s exactly what I do with seniors. What do you need to know in order to be successful your first year of college? And that’s where my experience, you know, many, many years too many to count. So it’s like, okay, all those years of teaching first year undergraduates, that’s my place, that’s my thing. In terms of their communication skills, whether that’s there in class discussion ability, their presentation skills, their writing skills, whatever, English covers a lot, you know, critical thinking, reading. Most importantly, always, the ability to listen and respond in productive ways. So it’s exactly the same thing you do with ninth graders. And so the material is different, and my vocabulary might shift. One of the beauties of this year is that I have many former students now, so I knew them when they were ninth graders. And now I’m seeing them — talk about a truly wonderful payback is like, oh, my gosh, this is just too wonderful.”

Question: “Now, this is something that you are a gold medal winner in. Can you talk about your training in skydiving and what that means or means to you?”
Dr. Scoones: “I’m one of those children who just always wanted to fly. You know, it’s that simple. And you know, when you take the swing and you swing as high as you can, and you jump off. And I would climb everything, climb trees, I would climb rocks, you know, like get me up there. But it’s something that was a huge lesson. Even though I could have gone skydiving, once I turned 16/18 I kept thinking I needed to go with someone. And then years passed and then finally I literally woke up one morning and went ‘What am I waiting for?’ And I went, you know, I just went and did it. And literally the moment my feet left the plane, I was out in the sky. And the addiction started. Sometimes it felt as though there been some sort of colossal mistake, and I should have had wings, not legs. But then, you know, years later, I finally took dance classes and grew more fun with my legs. The competition came from loving what I did, just loving what I did. And I was very fortunate that an incredibly respected, highly regarded camera flier in skydiving was interested in being my teammate. So I have a couple gold medals, but what I’m actually more proud of is that after winning the advanced and being, you know, the National Women’s champ, or what was more important to me, actually was getting my AFF Rating, and becoming a skydiving instructor. I was nervous going back to teaching ninth grade, they said, ‘Look, you teach people how to jump out of planes and live, I think you’re gonna be okay.’ I’m like, okay, all right. I got this. I got this. Like, where’s the ripcord? But the good news is that the distance of the ground is not so large. And if I splat, I usually can pick myself back up again.”

Question: “This question I thought might be interesting for the seniors to hear. From your profile, it seems that you have a wide variety of activities and educational pursuits. As you entered college and after leaving high school, what are some things you had known ahead of time you wanted to pursue, and what were some things that you were exposed to after leaving high school and grew to love?”
Dr. Scoones: “Like many, many Manual students, I was absolutely certain about what the rest of my professional life was going to look like. absolutely certain. And if you had told me that I would end up teaching high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, you would have had to get a spatula to scrape me off the floor, I’d be laughing so hard. I would have argued strenuously with you with a great deal of humor, and how, what an idiot you are, right. And I share that because i Everyone believes that they know themselves. But you know, the glory of being a teen that is all you are.
I had the privilege of studying exactly what I wanted to and loved. I went in thinking, I want to be a director. And I want to teach at a university that has a fantastic theater program, so that I can teach theater history and directing and direct political theater. I wasn’t particularly interested in musical theater, which was a big deal at the time in the United States. I’ve been over London, and was really fascinated by a lot of the street theater and really fringy stuff that was going on over there. And I wasn’t old enough and wise enough to know that there were places that that was happening in the United States, I just want them right. So that’s what I went to college intending to do. And I also had a minor in history. And I, I think I ended up three credits short of a minor vocal studies. So I did exactly what I wanted to as an undergraduate. So art history, and well, you don’t need to go down the list, but you know, political science and art history and Chinese intellectual history. And, you know, I just took a whole broad swath of stuff, which is the beauty of a liberal arts education, right? Because every bit of that informed me as a thinker, an artist, and I was very lucky, and then graduated, and did absolutely nothing like that at all.”