Upper School English Teacher
A Special Edition of Know Your Pelicans
This year’s recipient of the PA Excellence in Teaching Award, Celeste Tramontin, is a beloved member of the Packer community, as an adored English teacher, respected colleague, and a kind face for students and faculty alike.
After graduating from Notre Dame University and receiving a masters degree from Seattle University, she taught at a number of schools across the country prior to arriving at Packer in 2004In his presentation of the award, retiring Head of School Dr. Bruce Dennis called Ms. Tramontin “a stand-out in every single respect… for making students more thoughtful readers and better writers, for bringing positive, upbeat, and unbounding energy to class every day, for taking interest in her students’ personal passions, and for challenging them to dig deeper.”
He lauded her care for her students “both as learners and as people.” A comment by a member of the English Department echoed this praise: “I’ve never met, or worked with, a more dedicated teacher — ever.”
Q: Have you always been a teacher?
A: Right from the start, I knew I always loved reading, and I loved teenagers. So my first teaching job [at a high school in Kentucky] was a perfect fit, if I could survive it — it was a rough school.
Once a kid threw a garbage can at me as I was throwing him out of class. I came into the faculty room afterwards, and I said, "A kid just threw a garbage can at me", and their first reaction was, "You didn't cry, did you?" And I was like, "No". But that was the kind of place.
Q: But did you cry afterwards?
A: Yes, because you can't show weakness!
After that we moved to Seattle for five years while my husband got his Ph.D., and I taught at a wonderful Jesuit school out there. We team taught. So it was English, Religion and History, and we taught a classroom of 60 kids.
But I had to grade all the papers, because the religion teacher would give everyone A's. And then my other class was 45, so I had 105 kids there. But team teaching really taught me how to teach because you see what people do. I could think, "Oh, that's a really good idea,”
Q: In your teaching practice, where do you get your inspiration?
A: Talking with other people. . . Besides being with the kids, one of my favorite parts of teaching is thinking, What's the best way to present this? What are the key questions, the kind of wide-open questions that will allow students their own way in? If you give students a lot of latitude and keep saying, Let's go back to the text, that they come up with things that are just genius.
They get at some points that I hadn't even thought. Most days, I leave thinking, "Oh, that's a great point," or "That's such an interesting perspective." And it comes from places you don't always [expect].
Q: Can you put your finger on what generates the most productive and alive conversations?
A: One [thing] is that literature itself is so rich. But then [discussion] broadens to things that I think are probably more meaningful like, "What does this mean for me, for the culture, for the school, for the wider world?”
So it gets to these big questions of how you want to live your life, how these literary characters can act as a litmus test for what it means to be a human in the world, which is so important. … Literature becomes sort of an instructor's manual for how to live and how not to live.
I think that literature just gives so many ways in, but even more importantly, so many ways to see other ways of thinking. More and more people are saying, "I want literature that reflects me," which is good. But more important is literature that you have no idea what it means, and then all of a sudden you get to understand, for a little bit, what it means to be, say, Tish in Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. I'm never going to be a pregnant, African American girl, but I can start to understand by reading that perspective… So, I think we need both the mirror and the window for literature, so that we see ourselves, but also the world and then figure out how to live and shape that world.
If you go back to Melquíades [in One Hundred Years of Solitude], who has [spoilers removed for the benefit of Ms. Tramontin’s future Latin American Literature classes], he's the one that brought the drink of a gentle color that restored memory to the town. I think what Garcia Marquez is saying at the end is that literature is the drink of a gentle color. This is what restores our memory, reminds us that we shouldn't engage in solitude, that we should remember our history, that we should connect.
These books are the ones that can break us free and help us to live better, to be better, to connect more fully.
Q: Do you think consciously, I've got to get my students to a place of trust and vulnerability to have the conversations that I know that they can have and are going to want?
A: I don't ever think consciously about it, but I think that is a huge part of the class — I always try to know the kids. Like, "What do you do besides this work?" Or, "How was dance class?" Asking questions to really know [them]. I say “always kindness in here" or "above all, we have honor," like we're not ever going to be unkind, we're always going to listen to each other. It builds.
It's not a conscious thing, but it's a really important thing. [The students] know that it's a safe place, and you can say anything. [There’s] just a real willingness to listen, and [it’s] encouraging other people to really listen and to take risks — and rewarding it when they do it.
Q: What does your classroom look like? If I look in the window to your classroom, what do I see?
A: The wall is covered in post-it notes because anytime there's a beautiful sentence, I'm like, "Who needs a post-it?" So it’s just covered in quotes we like, words we love, poetry on the wall. I tell them at the beginning of the year, the idea is to fill the whole room. We want to cover it. I think it's just a place where we love words, we love your words. So if someone says something great, they're like, "Can I have a post-it note?" and they put it up on the wall.
In terms of discussion, you'll see kids listening to each other with their hands up calling on each other. They'll be writing all over the wall. There will be kids going to the text, deeply engaged, and kind and generous with one another.
Q: Clearly there's this reverence for language in your room. Is there anything else you want to impart to them all? Like, if you’ve done this, you’ve really achieved your goal as they leave your class?
A: I want them to love reading: to see all the layers in it, and to think of themselves as good readers. I want them to be better writers, so one of the things that I do is always allow revisions. Always. And then they get the grade that they get. The point is that it's a process. And sometimes with the transformation, I go, “look at what you've done! You took a step back, you thought through, you thought about these comments, and look how much stronger a writer you have been.”
And I want them to be kind. I think that it is important that there is a generosity to their listening and thinking and their interactions with others. So, I'm never unkind in my classroom. I never yell at kids. Sometimes I'll just get quiet, and then they're like, "You guys, shhhh." But I want it to feel safe for them so that they can experiment.
And I always, always try to find the best in all of the kids. There are kids sometimes that are prickly, but no teenager wants to be a [jerk]. I really believe that. I think they want you to see the best in them, so if you can keep pushing kids to be their better selves, they're just lovely. I feel lucky every day.
Q: What's something that most Packer people wouldn't know about you?
A: I played flag football at Notre Dame. In my freshman year, I made the MVP team, so I could play in the stadium, and then in my senior year, we made the championships. I called my father, and he was like, "Of course, it's one of my daughters who played for Notre Dame!" We were four girls and one boy ...
Q: If you had an inspirational fridge magnet, and I'm not saying you would, what would it say?
A: Well, I did have poetry magnets, and I put a quote up from Gatsby: “In his blue gardens, the men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” I'm so glad to live in a world where people can write like that. Where there is someone who is so touched by the gods that [he] can put seemingly simple words together in a way that is so transcendent.