“Practice What You Preach: Learning While You Teach”
By Greg Howard
Many of us wouldn’t be where we are, or who we are, without the one or two teachers in our life, the one or two kind, challenging, motivational people that over the course of a year, or a semester, or a lecture, filled us with the confidence we need to open our eyes and bare our souls to the world through the written word.
Erin Ponton Fiero is one of those teachers. A current adjunct Global Literature professor at St. John’s University, Fiero is literally changing the way her students interact with classic texts from all over the world. And as much as we like to think our teachers as products of Immaculate Conception, in our worlds just for us, Fiero’s path actually started years ago, in a place not so different than ours.
Fiero has always been attracted to literature and remembers even at a young age being different than most of the kids in her diverse hometown of Lanham, MD. “I just loved to read, and dream,” she recalls.
Fiero had an active imagination, and an insatiable thirst for reading and creating stories of her own. After a stint in Prince George’s County public schools, Fiero went to Catholic school, attending Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in the nation’s capital. “I used to write little stories about angels and saints,” Fiero remembers fondly. “I loved it. But it wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized that you could actually do something with it.”
Following graduation from Georgetown Visitation, Fiero attended Loyola College in Maryland, and flourished in the school’s strong humanities program. Loyola’s biggest contribution to her growth, however, was its study abroad program. Fiero spent her entire junior year in Leuven, Belgium, an experience that would prove to be life-changing.
“We traveled around Europe so much that you sort of become this confident traveler.” Fiero says. “It just gave me that confidence to look at the world in a bigger way, to see a global possibility for my life. It opened up my worldview.”
She loved her time in Europe so much that when she decided to pursue her Master’s degree, she applied to programs abroad, eventually settling on a British and American literature program the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England.
“I’ve always loved Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf was inspiring to me, but African-American female authors really spoke to me,” Fiero says.
She treasured works by writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. “I’m a white girl from Prince George’s County,” she says, laughing. “But I could feel a real spiritual connection.” Admitting that she never had urges to really write about her own life, she dove into researching and learning about African-American female literature.
By the time she graduated, Fiero was confident and filled with purpose. “I was like, I know I can teach this. I want to see what it’s like to bring this literature to young people.”
She taught in Catholic schools for six years, but felt “a real restlessness.” So in 2006, Fiero married her college sweetheart and moved to New York, where she enrolled in St. John’s University Doctor of Arts in English program, one of two such programs in the country. Also signing on as an adjunct in the undergraduate English program.
“St. John’s students are incredibly diverse,” Fiero says. “I have students studying abroad here, students who are immigrants themselves, students who are second generation…I have this amazing responsibility to be culturally relevant to my students. Why not take from the voices from a lot of the countries where my students are from?”
In teaching global literature, Fiero’s actually learned a lot about literature herself. One of the biggest revelations is that there’s more than one way to engage with a literary text.
“Education’s missing out on so much potential because we have only one voice and one way to interact with the text,” she explains. “That one way is the traditional, patriarchal, dominant voice.” But the works she reads and assigns shows that that’s not the only voice.
Fiero embraces the cultural differences, and teaches as such. She now offers around fifteen final project ideas each semester, and allows her students to come up with their own. Sometimes, students write journal entries in the language of lesser-represented characters in assigned readings, researching work from scholars to make the entries as accurate and believable as possible, down to the characters’ dialects. Her favorite project was one where a student planned a Virginia Woolf book launch.
In her teaching, Fiero pushes the boundaries of her students’ imaginations, even as they examine classical works. She even tries to refrain from using the word “paper” in the classroom to describe projects she assigns. “It really opens up the possibilities of what you can do in the classroom,” Fiero explains.
What makes Erin Ponton Fiero so great is that she is learning, even as she’s teaching. She’s opened up her worldview, and what pours in is heaped tenfold upon the ears of her students. Just as much as the Hurstons and Morrisons and Woolfs, the Fieros in our everyday lives keep writing alive.