English teacher William Martino is excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author and novelist Tayari Jones as KO’s 2022-2023 Symposium author.
Students in next year’s first-semester Symposium class taught by Mr. Martino will uncover Jones’s work through hands-on classroom activities such as creative writing, analysis of her novels, and art projects; the semester will culminate with a dinner with Ms. Jones herself.
Ms. Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia to parents who were active in the civil rights movement, an experience that has influenced a lot of her work. She graduated from Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. Ms. Jones currently teaches at Cornell University as well as Emory University.
She is the author of multiple novels, including “An American Marriage,” “Silver Sparrow,” “The Untelling,” and “Leaving Atlanta.” Her most recent novel, “An American Marriage,” was released in 2018 and focuses on mass incarceration in the United States and the effects it has on African Americans. This novel was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and secured a place on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. It was also awarded an NAACP Image award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the Aspen Words prize.
Throughout her career, Ms. Jones has received several other awards for her work, including the Hurston/Wright Legacy award, the United States Artist Fellowship, and the NEA fellowship. She was also a recipient of the 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship, a prestigious organization which has existed since 1929. It awards fellowships to people who have pursued scholarships and have displayed academic excellence. Most fellows of the 2021 Guggenheim are winners of the Field Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Bancroft Prize, and are scores of the Nobel laureates.
This will be Mr. Martino’s first time teaching Symposium, and he thought carefully about choosing an author. “I chose Tayari Jones because I really wanted an author whose work is not only timely, but also captivating,” he said. “Honestly, you can’t put her novels down. She writes with extreme precision, striking a delicate balance between colloquial expression and high eloquence. Her characters are incredibly complex and fully realized. Without a doubt, her novels will spark interesting conversations across our Harkness tables in Seaverns.”
All current juniors had the opportunity to apply to be in the Symposium this spring. The application contained three parts: a Google form questionnaire, the submission of an academic essay, and an interview with two members of the English department.
Mr. Martino explained why many students are attracted to taking the class. “The prospect of studying one living author’s body of work is really exciting to some students,’’ he said. “It’s really just such a special part of the KO English department that I think a lot of students are drawn to it.’’
Moreover, English Department Chair Catherine Schieffelin added that students have the chance to dine with the author and speak one-on-one with the author about their work. “I think students are turned on to the idea of being able to delve deeply into one author’s work and the idea is really intriguing to them, having dinner with the author, breaking bread with the author, and talking face-to-face about their writing,’’ she commented. “I think that experience is why students really love it and apply to be in the class.’’
Mr. Martino said that he feels that for any Symposium class, there should be a mixed variety of students with different experiences and backgrounds. “I don’t think Symposium teachers give their best students anything more than they can handle,” he said. “We love having students of all sorts of abilities be in the class. I think when you have a real homogenous group of students, that doesn’t make for much fun.’’
Not to mention, Mr. Martino said that he felt great privilege and honor to serve as Symposium teacher next year. “It’s such a huge responsibility, to not only get your students excited about an author, but the whole school community,’’ Mr. Martino said. “And, for us to provide this opportunity for students is incredible. I don’t think I would describe myself as prideful or glorious – I am humbled.’’
Junior Alyssa Temkin who was recently accepted into the Symposium class, said that it is a privilege to meet the author and be able to take the class, as it was something she longed to be in ever since she was a freshman. “As a freshman coming here, Symposium was something I really wanted to do,’’ Alyssa said. “Being in a class with a visiting author, then eventually getting to meet them, and just being with a group of people who share the same excitement as me for reading and writing is an incredible opportunity that I am lucky to have.’’
Although Mr. Martino hasn’t taught the Symposium class before, he has featured the works of previous Symposium authors in his sophomore and junior classes. “My past experience is just teaching the works of previous symposium authors, Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad,’ Sarah Ruhl’s ‘Eurydice,’ Min Jin Lee’s ‘Pachinko,’ and this year Tracy K. Smith’s poetry,’’ he said. “So, I’ve just loved teaching all of their works and supporting the Symposium teacher and getting the community excited about the particular author.’’
Mr. Martino’s expectations are to take his students out of their comfort zones and have them take on more critical thinking and elaborate projects. “It’s really important to balance the types of assignments you would have your students complete,’’ Mr. Martino said. “I think that as much as analysis is such an essential skill, you want to provide creative outlets to students to express themselves creatively, obviously through the works of their readings.’’
The Symposium class began in 1983, when the first Symposium author, E.L. Doctorow, visited KO. Ever since then, many Wyverns believe that it is a unique opportunity at KO – one that other private schools in the Greater Hartford area do not offer to students. “It’s something really specific to KO which I love,’’ junior Faith Potter said. “My initial thoughts would be that it is a really interesting opportunity, and a one-of-a-kind thing.’’
Ms. Schieffelin agreed. “The one thing that unites the experience from year to year is the way that it builds the community at KO, the way that it energizes students around literature, and the way that it allows students to take the lead,’’ she said. “Students in the class really want to be there and really want to spread that energy to the school.’’
The projects have been diverse throughout the years, including Slides presentations, art-based assignments, interpretation of the author’s message in the story, and in-depth research into the life of the Symposium author. In addition, by the end of the semester, seniors in the class will have read all of the author’s works and will be able to speak face-to-face to Ms. Jones about her work.
The accepted students are looking forward to next year’s Symposium class, and KO is excited to welcome Ms. Jones. “I am beyond excited to study Ms. Jones in the Symposium class next year,” Alyssa said. “ I am very much looking forward to getting to meet her and not only sharing my thoughts about her books, but also gaining a new perspective of the passage and understanding of what she was actually feeling in her writing.”