< Back

Meet the Expert Tooling Up for Back to School with Mary McDonald

NMSI’s Meet the Expert series taps the expertise of our cadre of experienced teacher trainers and consultants, many of whom hold leadership roles in regional and national education organizations in addition to earning recognition for outstanding teaching in their own classrooms. We’ll call on these experts to share their experiences, challenges and lessons learned and to provide commentary on timely issues pertaining to STEM education and college readiness.

Today we meet Mary McDonald, one of our expert AP* consultants who currently teaches AP English Literature and Composition, in addition to English IV, at Enid High School in Enid, OK. Mary is helping us implement NMSI’s College Readiness Program at her school, which joined the NMSI family last year alongside two other Oklahoma high schools. She has also worked with the College Board, serving as a guide for AP exam graders for more than 18 years, and is co-author of the College Board curriculum module Developing Analytical Skills through Poetry.
Mary McDonald AP English Literature and Composition

We asked Mary how she addresses the challenges of starting a new school year as an English teacher and how she improves her students’ critical thinking skills with literature. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of starting new school year, and what advice would you give to a new teacher facing a similar challenge?
A: I'm always concerned about the writing ability of incoming students, especially AP students. What kind of writers will they be? How hard will we have to work this year? I address this concern by planning an in-class writing task the first or second class period so that I can obtain a first-hand sample of individual writing. Having a fresh writing sample early in the year helps guide me as I plan a "writing boot camp” because I can readily see my incoming students' basic strengths and weaknesses; the topic of this writing could be a recent AP exam prompt or even a general topic.

Q: What is your favorite piece of literature and how do you teach it?
A: Anything by Shakespeare – especially Hamlet; students relate to the character and enjoy the story. I love to use the play as a way to teach syntax and imagery. I sometimes have them act out short 3- or 4-minute scenes in groups.
I also really enjoy teaching Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods – it’s a mystery without a solution. I enjoy teaching this because most students cannot put the book down. The novel offers opportunity for thought-provoking discussions about deception, mystery, trust and relationships. It offers the opportunity to take a critical look at point of view and narrative perspective. Students also get to learn about Vietnam and Harry Houdini (the main character loves magic). I think that reading the novel is also a good experience for students because there is NOT a simple solution at the end. The reader must wrestle with ambiguity.

Q: What is your best piece of advice to a fellow teacher who is trying to teach poetry?
A: I also love to teach poetry. Students can't write poetry if they don't read poetry. Like all sorts of writing, the best writers are readers of good writing. Teachers need to allow and help students read poetry for pleasure before we (teachers) start dissecting all of those poems. Billy Collins' work Poetry 180 is a good start.

Q: If you could enter another profession besides teaching, what would it be and why? 
A: Some type of acting. I enjoy community theatre now, and I occasionally do historical characters for our local history museum; acting and the theatre offer the opportunity to play a role.

Q: What’s your favorite school supply and why? 
A: Colored folders, because they help me feel organized. Actually, I love to wander the school supply aisles and just browse the rulers, glue, and markers – all of the stuff that elementary kids take to school.

Click the Button to Tweet: "Students can't write poetry if they don't read poetry." - Mary McDonald #MeetTheExpert #ELAchat