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A Rare Glimpse into a Poet's Notebooks

Story by
Nancy Joseph

David Quinn’s decision to switch to teaching came in his mid-20s. “I was working on a television segment about AIDS,” recalls Quinn, “and working closely with Ryan White, the teenager who brought national attention to AIDS. When Ryan passed away, I thought, ‘This 13-year-old boy changed the way we see AIDS. He changed the world. What will my contribution be?’ That’s when I decided to teach.”

David Quinn

Quinn (‘95, ‘97) moved to Seattle with his wife and enrolled at the University of Washington. After earning his B.A. and a master’s degree in education, he began teaching English at Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington. His classes are immensely popular—and challenging. But if you visit, don’t expect to see Quinn lecturing at the front of the room.

“I used to think teaching was about the teacher telling students things,” Quinn admits. “And I, and others around me, thought I’d be a great teacher because I’d been such a great actor. What I came to understand at the UW was that teaching is not about being the center of the room, being the person who amuses everyone. My power was the first thing I had to give up.”

On the first day of class, Quinn explains to students that he won’t appear in front of the class again for at least a month. “At first they are puzzled,” he says. “Then they begin to ask questions. My class becomes a place for critical thinking on their part and reflective practitioning on my part, where power is decentralized.”

The material Quinn assigns encourages critical thinking as well. His class reads Shakespeare—and the Unabomber’s manifesto. And a slew of literature from diverse cultures. “I enjoy teaching English because it asks you to look at the human condition and begin to understand what’s going on in the lives of others,” says Quinn. “I present different voices and then encourage my students to ask the hard questions.”

Some class discussions have led to action. While teaching gay and lesbian literature, Quinn noticed that students were publicly disparaging of homosexuals, using slurs they would not dare use for other groups. He spoke with the students, but also joined colleagues to change policy toward gay and lesbians at the district level. “The number one cause of death in teenagers is suicide, and the number one cause of suicide is sexual orientation,” Quinn explains. “Our district had no policy to protect gay and lesbian teens from discrimination. Now the district has changed the wording in its discrimination policy to be inclusive of gays and lesbians.”

With the change in discrimination policy and the impact he has on his own students, Quinn feels he is making the contribution he’d hoped for when he left television. “You hear back from students and realize what you do matters,” he says. “I remember getting a letter from one student that said, ‘You made me think about things in a way I’d never thought about them before.’ Now that student wants to become a teacher. In fact, he came to my class to observe. That was a great moment.”