In Matt Callahan’s English Class, Students Explore Old and New Texts While Learning to Understand Positionality

Castilleja's Upper School English Teacher Matt Callahan discusses the latest reading assignment with the students

Step into Matt Callahan’s classroom and you’ll be transported into a universe of literature. The walls are adorned with literary device posters, from foreshadowing to simile, along with quotes by the canonical American novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne and George Orwell. Right next to them, you’ll see contemporary art by activists and social justice-focused illustrators: Noa Denmon, Shepard Fairey, and LMNOPI.  

Just like these posters, the reading material in the classroom also spans across genres and authors. Mr. Callahan, Upper School English teacher, introduces students to well-known writers while also uplifting the historically marginalized voices and perspectives. While exploring personal narratives and societies through books, Mr. Callahan often leans on an Antiracist Teaching and Learning Competency: Understanding Positionality, defined as understanding that an individual's "location" within a community, such as their rank and status, is impacted by social and organizational frameworks. 

Mr. Callahan, who’s been teaching English for 14 years, does this in two ways. “First is decolonizing what we read,” he explains, “and second is decolonizing how we teach it.” 

But beyond simply reading, he wants students to connect the material to their own lives and to examine it in new and different ways.

“The students bring something to the discussion that I don’t have access to, because of their unique positionality,” says Mr. Callahan, noting that many are students of color and come from immigrant families. “It’s really important that students have a voice and choice in the classroom, and that they can see themselves in the literature that we’re reading.” 

Today, his 11th grade Advanced Topics: American Voices class is tackling The Namesake by Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel about a young Bengali American man navigating his multifaceted identity, relationships, and the tangled immigrant experience. It fits with the theme of the class, which explores what it means to be American and to have a voice. 

For Mr. Callahan, it’s imperative to understand both the significance and the pronunciation of multicultural names. This is certainly the case for Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing, where characters have traditional Indian names (and, in one case, even a Russian one). 

“What’s happening on the level of language in our close reading?” he asks after the class has finished warming up by journaling.

One student raises her hand. She noticed points out that one of the characters in the novel doesn’t say her husband’s name out loud. To her, this sounds like the marriage lacks closeness.

“I think this shows an aspect of Bengali culture,” another student weighs in, noticing that cultural differences could be at play. “In Western culture, when you want to become closer with someone, you are more intimate and vulnerable. But maybe this is different?”

A third student disagrees. “I actually think it is intimate, and that’s why she doesn’t say it.”

Recently, each student researched and presented a book-related topic, be it Bengali naming conventions or the history of immigration in America. Some even shared personal stories, exploring their own positionality in a concrete way and thus helping peers understand the novel better. One student, for instance, brought baby pictures of herself as an infant during her annaprashana ceremony, a Hindu rite of passage when an infant tries solid foods for the first time. 

Throughout the semester, Mr. Callahan’s students read classic and contemporary texts, from Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to works by Booker T. Washington and Marcel Proust. Students analyze them through a variety of critical approaches, including feminist, post-colonialist, queer theory, African American literary criticism, and others. 

“By introducing these critical lenses, we're asking them to consider how power is structured and how that is depicted in a text,” Mr. Callahan explains. “All of this is related to antiracism as a way of understanding different aspects of being human. How do we know what we know? Whose knowledge is prioritized and how do we reframe it bit by bit? We can put together the meaning of a text that is life changing.” 

At the core of his pedagogy is the commitment to helping students find their voices, respect different viewpoints, and show up authentically in their writing and in the world. This scaffolded learning brings Understanding Positionality to life in a concrete and empowering way.

“I see my role less as a teacher and more as a gardener. I prune the tree so the soil can get more sun. I clear the ground a little bit,” explains Mr. Callahan. “I know how to ask the right questions and I encourage them to take a risk with their writing. And if they care about it, they work harder at it.”