November 17, 2020

Priscilla Karant: Teaching English and Building Community

By Philip Herter

When did you start teaching at NYU?

I started teaching in 1974. It was fun and challenging. From the very beginning, I loved it and realized how culture and community building had to be part of every course. I would teach square dancing at coffee hours. I would bring students home to meet my family and friends and make them part of my life. I would go to their homes and eat an Algerian couscous and they would come to my apartment to enjoy my brownies. I would visit students when I traveled abroad and their families and friends would visit me here in New York.  Teaching has been my life. The class has never ended when the term ended. I'm still in touch with quite a few students from more than 40 years ago and have even taught their children.

What was your life like before you started teaching at NYU?

Before teaching here, I taught English at a junior high school, a high school and at the University of Metz in France. When I came back to the States, I went to work for Ralph Nader in DC. There I was lobbying congress to help impeach Nixon and I was helping to do research and write a book about Campaign Financing. My father was a great writer and a fighter for the underdog. In a way, I was following his footsteps. He was also fluent in nine languages and believed you should read Chekov in Russian, Voltaire in French, Cervantes in Spanish. So I do think his love of languages influenced me in my love for languages and cultures - and for spreading that joy.

"The class has never ended when the term ended. I'm still in touch with quite a few students from more than 40 years ago and have even taught their children."

How do you describe your teaching method?

My method is to make it fun and intellectually challenging. I invite guests to class. The guest could be the author of an article we have read or an expert in a field we have read about. I assign documentaries and podcasts to help students better understand the United States.

Outside of the classroom, from sightseeing walks to political demonstrations, I get them involved. I organize going away parties, picnics, Thanksgiving dinners for 40, and outings to the movies or to the Hamptons. I even have sleepover parties in the summer. I invite alumni as well as current students so that students can make new friends.

I have had lonely students sleep on my couch. I have been to students' weddings and to their swearing-in ceremonies to become a citizen. I have introduced students for roommates, and some have met their mates at my parties.

Can you name a key to a successful course?

I always try to connect with my students as individuals. When I teach, I try to uncover the genius in every student and to understand how each student learns best. I think it’s important for teachers to understand how life can interfere with studying, and how even with the best of intentions sometimes one cannot do what one has set out to do.

What’s your advice for students trying to learn a new language?

They should take risks, meet people, not be afraid of making  mistakes - and above all, have a sense of humor when they do make mistakes.

Besides teaching remotely on Zoom, how has the Covid pandemic changed your life?

Some students were feeling isolated - living alone and without their families - and I worried about them. I decided to make some cooking videos to cheer them up and asked them to make cooking videos for their classmates. While we couldn't eat together, we could enjoy each other's food in our homes.

I also involved students in an on-going translation project of two children's books I wrote. One former student did the art; then I connected that student with other former artistic students to comment on the art. Now the two children’s books I’ve written – “One Eyed Jack” and “Go Go” – have been transformed into animations, translated into five different languages by groups of students working together. We have finished the Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean versions. Soon the Persian, Arabic, Russian and Chinese will be done. Over a hundred students, old and new, have been involved in these projects and have become friends during these projects. This was all done online. You can see the animations (and a growing collection of my cooking videos) on my YouTube channel:

Priscilla Karant specializes in teaching writing to the advanced international professional, academic English to graduate and undergraduate students, and speaking skills to the international professional. 

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