Stories from the Field

California Casualty Awardee James Harris: Cultivating a Shared Passion

California Casualty Awardee James Harris: Cultivating a Shared Passion

Great educators have great stories. This series gives a glimpse of the ideas, practices, and experiences of the recipients of the NEA Foundation’s California Casualty Awards for Teaching Excellence. Today, we’re sharing the words of James Harris, an English educator at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska.


I often shift between, and experiment with, new instructional practices, with the constant objectives of enhancing student engagement and meeting each of my students where they are.

Central to my instructional philosophy is building strong relationships with my students and providing an environment where we can cultivate a shared passion for literature, writing, communication, and lifelong learning.

Although my community is a small town in a large rural borough, my students come from diverse strata of cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, and they approach the works of literature we examine from varying viewpoints. Not every student will love Moby Dick. But within every student is the faculty of empathy, and in every novel is the opportunity to exercise and develop that empathy alongside the critical thinking skills required to analyze a literary text.

Just as empathy is the core element of analyzing and understanding literature, it is also an essential skill for any teacher in understanding the challenges, motivations, and potential of each and every student, as well as how to best engineer opportunities for their growth. There is an incredibly fulfilling feedback loop that occurs in the lively literary discussions in my classroom where I gain from my students’ first emotional responses to a piece of writing new insights into works that have been part of my curriculum for many years.

Meet more of the 2018 NEA Foundation awardees here. We’ll celebrate them at the 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education gala in February. Hope to see you there!