Sarah Bartlett Analyzed: Exploring the mind behind AP Literature

Sarah Bartlett brings her giant “designer” bernedoodle, Murphy, to school. Art by Karina Chan.

Adding just the right amount of lemon juice to accompany her green tea in her distinctive glass mug, Sarah Bartlett is finally ready to begin teaching her Advanced Placement Literature class. For her last 14 years of teaching English, Bartlett always brings her zany, candid and wise personality to her students and classes at Palo Alto High School.

VERDE: What is your relationship with tea?

Sarah Bartlett: I drink tea pretty much all period long. I won’t drink tea out of plastic mugs. I threw out most of my plastic food containers years ago because I suspect it’s not good for you. There’s a lot of cancer in my family, so I try not to drink out of plastic and try not to drink Coke all day. I read somewhere that it’s [green tea] supposed to be good for you, and I don’t get all hopped up on caffeine.

V: Who is your mentor in life and why?

SB: My high school English teacher, Patricia Weaver. When I was 16, I decided I wanted grow up to be her. The best part is that now I get to go to her house for tea and we talk about teaching, and we remind each other of all sorts of things we don’t remember about ourselves in 1989.

V: How do you choose your books for AP Literature?

SB: I pick books that are on the master AP list, but that list is very long. I try to pick books I really like and can get excited about or that I think kids can get excited about. I think that teachers are able to make things interesting for students if they’re interesting to us. I wouldn’t do as good a job teaching a book that I hate as I would teaching a book that I really enjoy or I think students would enjoy. I just pick books that I like.

V: Who is your squad at Paly?

SB: I hang out with and know best mostly English and social studies teachers. I am good friends with Ms. Tokheim and Mr. Blackburn. Mr. Blackburn, his wife and my husband and I go on double dates sometimes.

V: What is the best thing that has happened in your career?    

SB: One of the best things is when former students come back to visit after a semester or a year in college and tell me that my class really helped them in college, not just in English classes but across the disciplines.

V: If you had the power to change the English curriculum or system, what would you change? 

SB: I would make 11th grade English a year-long course.

V: What are some changes you’ve seen in your 14 years at Paly?

SB: There’s definitely been a shift in trying to be more understanding and flexible with regards to students and how much work we give. I feel like 14 years ago, people felt differently about a student flunking their class, getting a D or a F, than they do now. Philosophically, I feel that we have gotten more invested in trying to keep that from happening, whereas before we said, ‘Everyone has the right to fail’ and now, we’ll ask ourselves ‘What can we do from keep this kid from failing? What outside support do they need or how can we structure our class differently or how can our grading policies be more flexible so more kids can succeed?’

V: What is your biggest pet peeve?

SB: I’m afraid to tell you because then students will know how to get to me!

V: How do you balance your work life and personal life?

SB: Sometimes I don’t think students have any idea how hard teachers work.  The job will take over your life if you let it.  I could easily spend two hours on every lesson plan and 20 minutes on every student essay … but I have to balance the demands of my job with my husband and my daughter, and not be a total stress case or always distracted when I’m with them. My mom and I both survived breast cancer eight years ago, and that  experience is a constant reminder that it’s OK to set limits because time with those we love is just the most important thing we have.