For Astoria High School instructor Sheri Billett, class doesn’t end with summer vacation. It just travels more than 4,800 miles east – as the crow flies – to Great Britain and one of the world’s premier universities.

The ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher leaves for Oxford University at the end of June as one of 50 global students accepted to an English Literature Summer School Program, which runs July 1 to 21.

“I knew I really had to convince them I was right for the class,” said Billett, 47. “I can only assume I have enough experience. I’ve taught a lot of literature courses; I’ve taught poetry; I teach British poetry in my honors class.”

At Oxford, Billett will take two courses: The English Romantic Poets and Jane Austen. In addition, she’ll attend morning lectures with the other program participants.

“In the Austen course we learn a lot about the context of Austen’s novels, which enables us to read them in an informed way,” said Sandie Byrne, a tutor of English literature (and of Jane Austen for the last 12 years) at Oxford who helps run the summer program.

“Knowing something about the events and culture of the time, and the ways in which the language of Austen’s day differs from modern English, can make a huge difference to our understanding of the novels.”

Billett, who said she first discovered Austen during a 19th century British literature course at the University of Wisconsin, must read all six major Austen novels – “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion” – before arriving at Oxford for the three-week course. She must also study a broad selection of Romantic-era poetry, all while finishing her three courses at AHS.

Teaching ninth-, 10th-grade and honors English, Billett incorporates a mix of American and British literature into her curriculum, tending more toward the international in the more advanced courses. Ninth-grade students read four books, rounded out by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Tenth-graders also read four books, albeit with more freedom. One of their two choices for classroom reading is “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie.

The most English literature comes in Billett’s 10th-grade honors English course, including Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and “A Tale of Two Cities” and Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.”

Throughout all the courses, she mixes in British poetry when she can – AHS has no dedicated course. She learned the most about British poetry while teaching students – and herself – the subject at South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Wash., before coming to Astoria.

“My goal is to open their eyes to other things that are out there,” says Billett. “They’re reading for plot – to see what happens next. I’m teaching them to read for details and deeper comprehension.”

“Anytime you can have a teacher with those type of experiences ... it creates more of a story to what” you’re teaching, said AHS Vice Principal Lynn Jackson, who added that most teachers don’t go so far out of the way for professional development, mostly staying as close as Portland to complete licensure requirements for educators in the state.

“She’s very meticulous,” said Jackson. “She really puts in time and effort to make sure her students acquire the fundamental skills to communicate.”

Some of that meticulousness and dogged effort might come from Billett’s previous political life. She first joined the associated student government at the University of Wisconsin while earning her bachelor of the arts degree in English, graduated in 1992, lobbied for Pro-Life Wisconsin in Madison just after graduation and served as research assistant to state Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., beginning in 1995.

“That lasted two years, then I got burned out on politics,” said Billett, who re-entered the education world, teaching adult computer courses at iNet Computer in Wisconsin before moving back to Lynnwood, Wash., in 1999. She taught courses for Gateway Computers until 2003, when she earned her master’s degree in teaching from Western Washington University.

“I graduated in August, and I started teaching in September,” said Billett. After a three-year stint at South Kitsap, she was hired by Larry Lockett at AHS.

After completing the course at Oxford, Billett will travel to English locales such as Yorkshire, hometown of 19th century literary sisters Charlotte (“Jane Eyre”) and Emily (“Wuthering Heights”) Bronte, Stratford-upon-Avon, hometown of Shakespeare, and Bath, the location of multiple Austen novels. She’ll also visit “A Tale of Two Cities” locations in London and France, including the Paris’ Bastille Saint-Antoine and Versailles.

Billet said she hopes to share her experiences from the course and her travels in Europe. After graduating from Hillsboro High School, Billett joined Youth With A Mission, an international Christian volunteer movement. She spent nine months living in Switzerland, another three traveling Europe and three years living in Sweden before moving to Wisconsin.

Learning from British professors, said Billett, will help her with pronunciation and the deeper meaning of the texts she presents in class, and might translate into more of the island’s texts being presented in her classes.

“I’ll just incorporate it into what I’m teaching,” she said. “I’ll probably include more British poetry in what I teach.

“I give them a little taste. That’s my hope ... so they can see if there’s something they like.”

— Edward Stratton


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