Arizona teacher of the year semifinalist finds beauty in words, from Frankenstein to Coldplay

Karen Bristow and students in her dual-enrollment English class enjoy a few minutes sharing stories from their President’s Day weekend before evaluating a previous classmate’s short-story analysis. (Photo by Kaddie Stephens/Cronkite News)

SIERRA VISTA – Seniors in Karen Bristow’s high-school English class at Buena High School stared blankly at a screen as she pulled up Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” music video.

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

“I know all of you have heard this song,” Bristow said. “If you haven’t, welcome to the 21st century. Now, by analyzing the lyrics you will see thematic threads that tie both works together, and how they differ as well.”

Bristow’s students are studying the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley. They evaluated “Viva la Vida” to understand the rise of tyranny, the turn to redemption and the fall of tyranny that are found in works two centuries apart.

“I’m having them watch the music video so they can understand the relevance of themes, even from centuries ago, that are still part of the human condition,” Bristow said.

“The trick to teaching poetry is knowing that sometimes it can be tricky, but it’s also a tight, beautiful package of language and human experience bound in language and verse.”

(Video by Karla Liriano/Cronkite News)

Bristow started her teaching journey nearly two decades ago, leading her to this southeastern Arizona city and to her colleagues nominating her for a 2017 teacher of the year award. She was a semifinalist for the Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year award, with the top award going to an elementary-school teacher in Phoenix.

Bristow teaches three classes at Buena High School in Sierra Vista: a dual-credit class, advanced placement literature and composition, and senior English. She’s taught at Buena for five years, with most of her 19 years in education spent in rural Arizona schools.

Bristow said there is something to be gained from every town, whether it’s the rural cities of Arizona or the foreign cities of Japan and France she traveled before her teaching career, but the reason she teaches is her students.

“The beauty in what I do is I get to be engaged with curious, fearless and sometimes fearful young people who have the voice but also sometimes need a place for that voice to be heard,” Bristow said.

She remembers the first time she decided she wanted to be a teacher. She was speaking to students in Wyoming about her travels throughout Japan, France and Switzerland and was mesmerized.

“They were so curious and energetic. My passion for language and literature and writing translated into pursuing an education degree and an English degree as well,” Bristow said.

(Video by Karla Liriano/Cronkite News)

Seniors in Bristow’s AP class are reading and critiquing short stories. The class read A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines, and her classes will move on to Frankenstein, which she said is one of her favorite stories to teach.

“I often times teach the same text but I always find something new, and my students help me find new things in the text,” Bristow said. “I get to experience their first exposure to great stories and great writing for the first time, and that’s what is really generative for me as a teacher.”

Students said they appreciate Bristow’s teaching approach.

“She really cares about the subject and the students,” said Andrew Lawley, a student in Bristow’s advanced placement class. “She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

Shawnee Wright, a student in Bristow’s literature class, said she really tries to understand each of her students.

“She really looks at us as individuals and really cares about our education as well as our future,” Wright said.

In her dual-enrollment class, Bristow worked with students in teams and spoke with several individually to discuss the assigned reading and their own work.

“Composition is the most challenging, especially academic composition,” Bristow said. “I tell my students if you think well you’re going to write well.” She works with students herself and encourages them to peer edit. But practice is the key: “Ultimately writing happens when you write.”