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Five Questions for Jamie Biondi, Upper School English Teacher
Jim Morrison

Jamie arrived at Nueva after three years teaching high school English in Connecticut, where he was born and raised. He studied theater and English at Yale University before completing a graduate degree in dramatic literature at Oxford University. In addition to teaching, advising, and coaching, he has spent a lot of time in the theatrical trenches as a performer, director, and writer.

Having lived in the New York City area for most of his life, he is an obsessive theatergoer, with interests ranging from the classical to the avant-garde, and is excited to dig into the San Francisco theatrical scene.

He is also a lifelong avid New York Mets fan, a spontaneous traveler, and a decidedly amateur experimental cook.

 

In what ways has your experience with, and love of theater influenced your teaching?

Wherever you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum as a teacher, teaching is inherently performative. Theatricality in the classroom gets a bad rap from the outmoded “sage on the stage” style of teaching, but I see the theatricality of teaching as much more dependent on collaboration, spontaneity, and the forging of productive bonds as an ensemble class group. While there are certainly slow mornings and hectic afternoons during which I feel like I have to do a metaphorical theatrical jig to get the class awake, focused, laughing, and fully engaged, most of the time theater manifests itself in my classroom primarily in constant dedication to group meaning-making, vulnerable to the extremes of laughter and tears at any given moment, and cognizant of the fact that nothing in literature or art matters except insofar as it influences how we think about and behave in the world of embodied, lived experience. Teaching literature is particularly theatrical in the sense that both media depend on the fostering of empathy and the exploration of perspective.

Can you share a moment from this year that captures the essence of teaching at Nueva?

There are so many to choose from, but I’ll go with a recent one. We’re currently working in tenth-grade English on a culminating project for our unit on The God of Small Things, and Lily, Gretchen, and I worked hard to put together a list of options/suggestions to take the project beyond just an analytical paper: things like a podcast, a newspaper, or a poem are all options for students to show their mastery of our text’s intricacies and larger themes. I’ve been totally blown away by the projects my students have come up with, designed, and started to implement over and above what we thought was a fairly extensive list of recommendations. I have students making theme and character mobiles to represent the power dynamics of the story, others putting together classic rock playlists to musically track the feelings experienced by the novel’s characters, and still others building model caravans that take a tiny textual reference and explode it as something meaningful for every moment of a character’s experience in the text. Not a single student is just phoning in the task by straightforwardly completing one of the suggested projects; each and every tenth grader is adding to the project creativity, imagination, and meaning beyond my wildest hopes. The project isn’t even over yet, and already the experience has been VERY Nueva.

Great literature is often timeless, connecting to readers through the universality of the emotions and conflicts that drive its characters. What are do you think are some novels or plays that resonate at this particular time?

That’s a cool way of thinking about art: the good kind is “timeless” precisely because it speaks to each and every “particular time.” I’ve been thinking a lot about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers the past couple of years for its celebration of the freak in all of us, and the ability to connect and to care as the only thing that really matters when push comes to shove. My twelfth-grade students will laugh at me for saying this, but I’m ALWAYS thinking about Samuel Beckett, and especially in these times when there are so many failures of empathy, communication, and change. Plus, you’d have to be living under a rock not to be thinking of the characters of Tennessee Williams as tenderness, feeling, and empathy have a moment of relative celebration (especially in the form of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and #NeverAgain) on their long but inevitable uphill climb towards recognition.

Former Mets manager Bobby Valentine famously returned to the dugout in a disguise after being thrown out. If you could slip into a disguise and fade into the background, where would you hide out? Also, is this the year the Mets finally fulfill their destiny?

This will sound like a ridiculous answer, but honestly for years I’ve been dreaming of hiding in plain sight by embracing my Mets super-fandom and following the team to all 162 games in the season, including road games. I just feel like that would be a beautiful exercise in patience, endurance, and tracking the powerful storytelling of a baseball season. I’m a quiet baseball-watcher; the stadium, like the theater, is where I go to worship and to meditate. And, to answer your second question, it is my job as a Mets fan to simultaneously believe that this is the year they finally come out on top while also recognizing that, come October, I am almost guaranteed to wind up wallowing in the dejection of disappointment that I’ve grown to love out of habit since I first learned from my dad how to mutter the players’ names under my breath while shaking my head in despair during games.

It seems as though you have been fortunate to have had your educational and professional path tied so closely to your interests. What advice do you have for our community about finding that balance?

Woof. I’m always wary of folks offering advice. If you respect a person enough to actually follow their advice, then it usually won’t appear to you as “advice,” it’ll just be them living intentionally as best they can. So, this won’t be particularly good advice, but what I’ve always observed in my own experience is that if you care about something enough that you’d do it all-out to the peaks of your ability and the valleys of your depleted energy no matter what, the good people around you will recognize that and will throw good things like projects, grades, responsibilities, and even jobs in your direction. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to be able to follow my interests and be welcomed/rewarded for doing so, and I’m definitely aware of many of the privileges, almost all of which I had absolutely nothing to do with, that have made possible my lifestyle of reading books, watching students change their lives based on the powerful words that they read on a page, and wandering the earth writing things and soaking up performances.

 


 By Jim Morrison, VLP Director

March 28, 2018



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