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Freshmen English students “see themselves in stories” in their course material

Outside class hours, English teacher Paula Moore remarked on a recent interaction with one of her freshmen students, as her class was working their way through Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The student bashfully questioned, “I kind of like Lady Macbeth—is that wrong?” Mrs. Moore chuckled while sharing the exchange. She had been teaching English for decades, doing instructions on “Macbeth” for more than 20 years, but she is only halfway through her first year teaching at Mayfield Senior School. “I’ve never taught all-girls,” said Mrs. Moore, but explained that she had found that her 9th graders were “so savvy picking up the gender motifs… in understanding Lady Macbeth and what her position is” and that “she is this woman who is supposed to be in the background.” As a teacher, Mrs. Moore is always trying to get students involved in the subject material, and encourage them to think of characters from multiple perspectives. For a student to feel connected to a character so often painted exclusively as a villain? That displayed a lot of critical thought and personal reflection, and Mrs. Moore couldn’t disguise her pleasure in that.

“One of my goals is to make Shakespeare accessible,” said Mrs. Moore, “for this not to be a scary thing, or ‘this language is too hard,’ and just removing the intimidation of reading the classics.” And this approach is evident in the way Mrs. Moore conducts her classroom activities. On a stormy afternoon, her E block filed into their classroom on the third floor in Strub Hall. They were studying Act 4, and as a class they would be reenacting the scene with “Macbeth” and the witches. She had already acquainted the class with Shakespeare’s traditional iambic pentameter (5 iambs, 10 syllables) but wanted to focus on the trochaic tetrameter (4 trochees, 8 syllables) inside the witches’ sections. With the knowledge that exploring the distinction between these two types of meter might be less than thrilling to a 9th grader, Mrs. Moore made the lesson overtly tactile. She passed around a bucket of castanets to the students, instructing everyone to take one. Peals of rain were pelting the windows, and while some students were reciting the lines from the witches, their classmates clapped their castanets on the down beats–and the trance-like sonic affect of this rhythm-keeping was downright spooky–like it might actually call forth more elemental forces from the sky itself. And when the clapping rhythm stopped, the silence brought a palpable absence. The lesson was clear: the power of this language device was both persuasive and hard to ignore.

The timing of this course selection shared a lucky coincidence this year, with Mayfield Theatre Conservatories mounting their production of “Macbeth” in the fall. A few of Mrs. Moore’s students acted in the play, or helped with technical elements, or supported family members or friends in the cast. Encouraging as much participation as possible, Mrs. Moore also hosted a reception with drinks and snacks for any students who wanted to attend the play after school.

Claire Pruyn ’26 mentioned that she “saw ‘Macbeth’ multiple times” because her sister Anna Pruyn '23 played Lady Macbeth. Claire admitted, “I didn't really understand it at the time. Once we started ‘Macbeth’ in class, I could put together the pieces and I enjoyed it a lot more.”

Lilly Santizo ’26, who ran mics and sound effects for the play, found insight in both the performance and the academic approaches to the subject material. “This English class really focuses on analyzing text,” she said. “We get to see different interpretations of the play. This helps me understand each character better.”
 
Even performers in the play, like Madelyn Hammer ’26 or Carissa Choi ’26, found the classroom explorations useful too. Madelyn said that Mrs. Moore “created a very fun environment for us to learn in,” and Carrisa felt the class helped her understand the source material better, even after the run of the show. “Being in the play gave me a rough understanding of what ‘Macbeth’ is about,” she explained, “But after studying it in English class, I learned a lot more about what was happening and the meanings behind the complicated language.”

“Macbeth” is not the only text this class will cover their freshman year. They already studied “The Oedipus Cycle,” and after “Macbeth,” there will be “Like Water for Chocolate,” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God”—and students will also bring their literary analysis to the poems, sonnets, essays and short stories compiled in their class reader. And whether the material is ancient, or deeply stylized, Mrs. Moore draws comparisons to Marvel movies, to Harry Potter, to the Hunger Games, forging bridges to make seemingly unfamiliar material much less distant to teenagers. 

“The goal of the English department is to hear a lot of different voices,” Mrs. Moore remarked, and added that this was “a conscious decision.” She explained the problem she often encountered in the past, “I’ve taught survey courses that started with the beginning of the timelines and you are only getting male voices until Jane Austen.” Mayfield curates their curriculum with a focus on deep reading, analytic skills, identifying devices or—as Mrs. Moore described it—“teaching students to build an argument and take a side.” Having diverse voices in the first texts students explore at Mayfield is meaningful to Mrs. Moore. “Growing up Latina…I know it’s so important to get those voices…and the classics too...it’s hard to find a marriage of those things.” 

“Even though I've never particularly cared for English, I enjoy the challenge of the class and the way it is structured!” said Eleanor Cockriel ‘26. She said she liked “the way Mrs. Moore has incorporated things….building knowledge on top of one another within lessons.” Isabelle Buckwalter ’26 felt that Mrs. Moore provided illuminating tools, with “a great way of explaining,” that “helps me comprehend parts…that I would have missed if I read it on my own.” 
 
And Victoria Chan ‘26 was even effusive with her praise, “This English class is special to me because of Mrs. Moore’s effort.” She felt Mrs. Moore not only “makes class fun,” she also “opens conversations and introduces us to new perspectives every day.”
 
Mrs. Moore is one of six sisters, has raised two daughters, and feels honored to be in such a nurturing and empowering environment, where her students can feel comfortable enough to “see themselves in these stories.” She joked, perhaps half-seriously, that “without exactly realizing it,” she had been “training for a job like this my whole life.” And as much as the students express that Mrs. Moore makes them feel at home, the energy these students bring to their classes is how Mrs. Moore has also found an immediate home in the Mayfield community too. In spite of Mrs. Moore’s breadth of teaching experience, and these students who are still early on their academic journeys, they connect in this rare stretch of time. They get to share in the joy of being newcomers together.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.