From the depths of hell, Caitlin Meehan-Draper found her life’s calling.

A teacher’s discussion of the nine circles of hell created in an epic poem by Dante Alighieri so fascinated a young Meehan-Draper that she was transformed. “I’m hooked,” she recalled. “I’m going to read books forever.”

Now, after six years of teaching New Orleans eighth graders the joys of Shakespeare and other important writers, the state has recognized her as a finalist for Louisiana’s 2019 teacher of the year award. The ultimate prize went to a teacher in Bossier Parish, but Meehan-Draper feels honored just the same.

“Just to get nominated is – wow, it’s very validating,” she said.   

 After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in literature and completing a Teach for America stint in Alabama, Meehan-Draper’s love of the written word brought her to New Orleans and Samuel J. Green Charter School. Green nominated her for the state teacher of the year award last year, but that application didn’t yield a nod. This academic year, the state asked her to resubmit because she had come so close to being a semi-finalist the first time around.    

At the time, she thought “this will never happen to me. This is reserved for a certain echelon.”  

But it did happen. She gives Green charter school credit for the recognition. She learned her craft at Green, she said, a school that welcomed her with warmth in 2012 when she first arrived in New Orleans. She also furthered her own learning by getting a master’s degree in English and teaching at the University of New Orleans.

Impressive scores earned by Meehan-Draper’s students on state achievement tests fueled the recognition, an outcome she believes reflects her own discovery of Dante and Yann Martel’s  “Life of Pi,” when she was an eighth-grader herself. Martel’s 2001 novel about a teenage boy claiming to have survived months on a life boat with a tiger “shifted the way I saw the world,” she said. “I saw it in a broader, more beautiful way.”

Although she always wanted to be a scholar, teaching teenagers to enjoy reading became a priority. That first-year teaching high school students in Alabama taught her what not to do, she said. One of her favorite books to teach is “Night,” an autobiographical account of Elie Wiesel’s teenage experience in a Nazi concentration camp. The first teaching attempt flopped.   

“A kid threw the book in the trash right in front of me,” she said. “I was devastated.”

Reflection on the incident led to teaching style changes. She developed techniques that encourage students to “discover” the wonders of the text themselves. Now the presentation includes “a lot of conversation” and “a lot of movement,” she said.

Discussion of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, includes tackling questions such as: “Are Romeo and Juliet really in love?”

Students write an answer and then find a partner for discussion. About half believe Romeo and Juliet are not really in love, she said.  Some peg Romeo as a “player.”

Meehan-Draper left classroom teaching recently to develop curriculum at Bricolage Middle School, located on Esplanade Avenue. Literature still dominates her days, though.   

“I get to talk about books all day,” she said.  “I am so lucky.”