a sample front-of-book piece written for CMNS 190: Magazine Article Writing
Those who believe high school English is about identifying poetic devices and writing essays, think again. Trevor Takasaki, an English teacher at Thomas Haney Secondary School, is shifting the focus from acing exam questions to helping students find their personal voice.
His own journey of personal expression began with an unassuming black Moleskine notebook when he was nineteen years old. On the title page, he placed an image of a stone gargoyle. The resemblance between the monster and the short, 42-year-old Japanese man is not immediately apparent, but Takasaki says he has always identified with the gargoyle. “I like to be protective,” he says, “and I also like to be scary if I have to be.”
Over the past two decades, he has slowly filled the notebook’s pages. “I tend to be pretty judicious about what goes in there,” he says. Everything in the book holds significance, from the pictures of friends, family, and his travels, to quotes from Seneca, Dostoyevsky, and Victor Hugo. “I wouldn’t say that too many aspects of myself aren’t in there. It’s got probably the best and worst of me.”
One particular quote from Walt Whitman captures this sentiment: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
As a collection of ideas, the book equals something greater than the sum of its parts. “It has evolved as I’ve evolved,” Takasaki says. It has also aged as he has, marked by “all the little tears and blemishes and wisdom and experiences that are encapsulated in it.”
At the thought of losing it, he says, “I’ve always consoled myself knowing that it’s the ideas that matter.” Still, that’s not to say losing it wouldn’t be a disappointment. “I’d be crushed,” he admits. “I couldn’t replace it…and it would be artificial even if I tried to. I wouldn’t. I’d just let it go.”
The scrapbook, which has travelled around the world with him now lives in his classroom at Thomas Haney, where students freely flip through it. “That’s where it’s got to be, somewhere where it’s being used,” says Takasaki. “It’s only meaningful in sharing it.”
As a teacher, he knows merely memorizing ideas and terms isn’t an effective way for students to learn. According to a 2013/2014 satisfaction survey, less than 25% of grade 12 students feel that school is preparing them for post-secondary education. For Takasaki’s students, the creation of their own scrapbook is a departure from the typical English assignment. It requires them to be creative and express their own opinions. “A personal voice to express who you are is probably one of the most important things to develop,” says Takasaki. This is the heart of his teaching philosophy, to encourage students to find their voice and be independent minded.
As for his own book, it’s a lifetime project. “I’ll run out probably before the book does.”