Cliff Burke joined Nueva at the start of the 2020–2021 school year and teaches writing in the middle school. He is a published author, with a new book on the way in 2023, and a film buff, who, at the start of the pandemic, installed a projector in his home to stay connected to the movie-going experience. We sat down with Cliff to discuss this and much more about his teaching practice, collaboration with his teammates, and the experience of joining the community at such a unique and challenging time to be a student and educator.
Jim Morrison: You joined Nueva at a time that is, in many ways, far from normal. What have been the highlights of working with your students over the past year and half and what are you looking forward to in the years ahead?
Cliff Burke: It’s certainly been an unusual time. I didn’t even see the campus until six months after I was hired at Nueva. But everyone was so welcoming that I already felt a connection to the school and students once we started the hybrid format last November and then moved into full-classes towards the end of the year.
Throughout the past year and a half, I have been surprised and impressed by how the students have adapted their projects depending on the medium. One of my favorite projects last year with fifth graders was the Trickster Drama, where groups of three to four students teamed up to script, rehearse, and perform their own one-act drama featuring a trickster character. Some groups performed live outside in the amphitheater, some performed via Zoom with elaborate sound effects and backgrounds, and a few groups pre-recorded their scene, including one in a designed Minecraft world.
What I’m most looking forward to in the future are the trips! The fifth-grade team planned a virtual trip to Crow’s Canyon last year, and we have a local trip coming up in May that I think will be very exciting.
JM: How did your experience teaching in China inform your teaching practice?
CB: Teaching in China was my first job out of college, and it definitely helped with classroom management. The very first class I taught was a room of 45 fourth graders, followed by 45 fifth graders, and 50 sixth graders. I had to learn fairly quickly how to structure an hour-long lesson that would keep everyone engaged. I also learned how to read the room and adjust: If something is working, keep going; if something isn’t connecting, move on before you lose the whole room.
JM: In May you published your first book, An Occasionally Happy Family. Congratulations! I hear that you have another book in the works or perhaps even recently completed. While I am sure that your fifth grade students have heard about your writing process, what advice do you have for the greater Nueva community who might be struggling to find the motivation or daily practice required to get the stories they may be carrying with them out into the world?
CB: Thank you! Yes, the draft of my second book was recently accepted and should be out in spring 2023. My major piece of advice, and what I tell students, is to just get something on the page. Once you have something, return to it regularly, and don’t give up until it’s finished (even if it’s not up to your personal standards).
I wrote my new book as a full-time Nueva faculty member, so it involved finding pockets of time whenever I could, regularly writing after school days, and using almost every Saturday morning. If it feels like a slog, I will try to hit a word goal and will stop for the day when I’ve hit that goal. If I’m in the zone and things are flowing, I go back to sections where I was struggling to see if I can spruce them up.
Any time I’m completely stuck, I return to the beginning of the book and edit from page one. This gets me back into the initial rhythm of the book and usually helps shake loose some new idea.
JM: Can you tell us about a book you have recently read that moved or inspired you?
CB: I’m always reading too many things at the same time, with one book always leading me to several others. The book I’m currently working on has informed my reading list. My latest book takes place in France and the main French character has an interest in history and mysticism, so Lucy Sante’s The Other Paris has been an inspiration and reference.
For school, I have been teaching a graphic novel elective, and we went back to some of the early “wordless novels,” especially Lynd Ward’s series of six wood-cut books, starting with God’s Man and ending with Vertigo. That led me to a more recent wordless graphic novel, Here by Richard McGuire, which is a beautiful book that visually depicts the history of one plot of land.
Most recently I loved Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin’s Ain’t Burned All the Bright, which is a single, long poem that connects with an art piece on each page. It was a pandemic project for the writer and artist and captures many of the feelings of 2020 to now. It’s geared towards the middle and high school audience, but is valuable reading for everyone, I think.
JM: What can you tell us about the ecological writing collaboration you worked on with fifth grade science teacher Cristina Veresan?
CB: We just finished, and the project ended up spanning fifth grade writing, science, and art! Cristina had the original idea (explained in more detail here) of combining her ecology unit with the fifth grade nature writing unit. Inspired by Aimee Nezukamatathil’s recent collection of personal nature essays, World of Wonders, we decided to create Bay Area Wonders. In science, students were provided a detailed list of native plant and animal species, and encouraged to pick a species with which they felt a personal connection. They then went on to research the behavior, habitats, and characteristics of their chosen species.
In writing, we looked at the structure of the World of Wonders essays, which mix memoir with natural history, and students wrote down all of their connections (many literal, such as a student who has an owl in his backyard; some metaphorical, such as a desire to be as flexible as seaweed) and organized their research into a finished essay which combined personal experience, observations, and natural history.
To accompany the finished essays, students also made detailed scientific illustrations and clay sculptures in their art class. The finished pieces—essay, illustration, and sculpture—can be seen here.
JM: Something that we both have in common is our love of going to the movies. How have you stayed connected to movies and your love of film during the pandemic? What are some of your favorite films and why?
CB: It’s been tough! I love going to the movie theater. At the beginning of the pandemic, I bought a projector that I balanced on a stack of books and beamed onto the wall. It’s nice, but not close to the theater experience. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed the programming on the Criterion Channel, and I still have a digital membership to the Austin Film Society, which screens new things from the festival circuit. I also listen to a few movie podcasts—Film Comment and The Last Thing I Watched—which have pivoted to discussing films available online. Recently, I started listening to Blank Check, which goes through the filmographies of directors like John Carpenter, John Singleton, and Jane Campion.
As for favorite movies, some of the first that come to mind are movies that I saw too young to fully understand and have returned to multiple times over the years—Nashville, In the Mood for Love, and All the Jazz. There are also the movies I watched over and over in high school that were portals into the wider world: Rushmore, Being John Malkovich, Ghost World. The movie I’ve seen the most is probably Wayne’s World, which my sister and I convinced my grandma to buy from McDonald’s in the brief period when they sold VHS tapes. I still have it in a box in my closet along with other important mementos.
Do you have a favorite movie? Are you working on a piece of writing you hope to publish? What is something you have collaborated on with a classmate or colleague that you are proud of? We would love to hear from you at email@example.com.