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Q&A: Want to Write a Memoir?

Virginia teacher proves that an educator’s everyday lessons make a heck of a story, and explains how to start telling yours.

Douglas Graney, of Herndon, Va., has taught U.S. history and political science for more than 30 years, but his lessons are as fresh today as they were three decades earlier. That’s largely because Mr. Graney’s classroom routinely extends well beyond the physical confines of Herndon High School, which sits about an hour outside of Washington, D.C. 

Graney’s current and former students don’t just learn history from the well-worn pages of textbooks; they’re also active participants in the making of history. Whether meeting with an ambassador in the host’s embassy, marching on the frontlines of a demonstration at the Supreme Court, standing up for a social cause at a rally, listening to a candidate’s stump speech, or working in the Capitol Hill office of a member of Congress, Graney’s pupils have been up close and personal as history is being made. 

The educator’s recently published memoir, American Teacher, Adventures in the Classroom and Our Nation’s Capital, (available from Mascotbooks.com) shares how those experiences came about, how they can be replicated, and why it’s vital for American educators to think “outside the box.” Importantly, the memoir also hopes to inspire teachers, active and retired, to grab a yellow legal pad and pen, to sit down with a laptop, or press “play” on a recorder and start preserving memories from inside and outside the classroom. 

NEA Today for NEA-Retired Members (NEAT-R) recently had a chance to speak with Graney about his book and to hear his thoughts about why all teachers have a story to tell.  

What inspired you to write about your teaching experiences?

GRANEY: As a high school U.S. history teacher, I know I have an unusual career. Using all sorts of methods—coordinating 100 field trips, 50 visits from guest speakers, and starting the largest intern placement program on Capitol Hill—I think I showed that one person can blaze their own trail even within a large bureacracy. I wrote American Teacher because I want people to know they too can make a difference by trying new approaches. It’s a lot more work to create something new, but it’s worth it.

The Capitol Hill intern placement program you started in 1994 sounds like quite an undertaking. Tell us more about how this program grew from having a handful of participants to one that now boasts more interns than colleges such as George Washington University and the University of Virginia. 

GRANEY: It took a lot of work. It started out with just a handful of students being placed in offices on Capitol Hill, but eventually grew to some 70 high school students working not only for members of Congress, but also in Congressional committees, influential law firms, and even embassies. It wasn’t always easy placing all kids who wanted to participate, but I take pride in saying that we always managed to do so. I’d tell the kids, “This is opportunity knocking.” And it really was. The students ended up with a better understanding of our government and some have even ended up working for the government (notably, a former student became a special assistant and deputy director for speechwriting for former President Barack Obama). 

Veteran teachers often retire with decades of memories and achievements, so how difficult was it for you as an active teacher with more 33 years in the classroom to sort out what you chose to showcase?

GRANEY: I think it may have been easier for me to recall details because I started a website in the 1990s to keep a record of special events, guest speakers, field trips and the like. But, in general, I tried to write about the more dramatic things that I was a part of. I am proud that some of my students have stood in the Oval Office and have taken part in a naturalization ceremony (one student led the Pledge of Allegiance at a citizenship event)—those are the things you can’t forget. The events that have stayed with teachers over the years are important to note even if the details aren’t as sharp as they once were.

As a full-time teacher (who like many teachers, has worked a part-time job in the past), father, and husband, how did you find time to write your story?

GRANEY: It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have a set routine or a specific time to write. I wrote whenever I could; sometimes it would be for only 15 minutes. It ended up taking me 17 months to finish an 866-page manuscript, which I then had to pare down to 350 pages. 

Although it was important to you to become published, what would you say to those who may just want to capture their memories in writing for personal reasons?

GRANEY: I’d say to go for it! Write as much as you can. I think the process may not only be cathartic, but it will also be a valuable piece of history. Memories that are preserved will be important to your family. It will be a way of letting them gain a better understanding of who you are as a person and who you were as a teacher. You are a part of them and they are a part of you, so it’s a wonderful thing to share. 

Your book will certainly inspire many, particularly those new to teaching. Is there anyone—any teacher, in particular—who inspired you?

GRANEY: I hope American Teacher does inspire those who teach to fully develop their craft. I’ve been inspired by many but three teachers stand out. I credit my high school teacher, Gerry Martin, for stimulating an intellectual curiosity in me. Now, as a teacher myself, I know how it feels when a student who has never liked history before develops a love and appreciation for it. That’s a great feeling.

That love and appreciation for history and for Graney was on full display earlier this year at the launch party for American Teacher, as students—past and present—were eager to have their booked signed by their favorite author and American teacher. 

American Teacher is available at MascotBooks.com. It is also available through Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

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Published In

1-Nov-17

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