Introducing HxA’s new Q+A series where we chat with members about their scholarship, intellectual life, and issues around open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement. 

Today’s exchange is with HxA K-12 member Dana Stangel-Plowe.

Q. What drew you to the HxA mission?
I was an early supporter of HxA beginning in 2015. The HxA mission resonated deeply with me as I was becoming increasingly concerned about the orthodoxy and spiral of silence at my K-12 institution. Since then, I’ve been inspired by the consistent and open defense of intellectual diversity, as well as the resources that HxA created, which I often used with my students.

Q. What does “heterodoxy” mean to you?
A. Heterodoxy means the freedom to ask questions, to explore ideas without committing to them, and to remain open-minded and curious about facts, points of view, and new information not previously considered. I value heterodoxy as essential to the kinds of open and constructive discussions that are at the core of true learning.

Q. What or who inspires you to advocate for viewpoint diversity and open inquiry on your campus or in your classroom?
I’m inspired by my students’ natural curiosity and motivated by a positive vision of their future. I love seeing students discover — often with pleasure, humility, or surprise — that issues, when viewed from multiple perspectives, are more complicated or nuanced than they had originally thought. 

Q. Give us a two-sentence summary of your work and/or academic interests.
I’m interested in finding the balance between giving high school students the freedom to think for themselves while also providing intellectual guardrails by insisting that they ground their ideas on textual or other evidence. As an English teacher at an independent school, I had the freedom to choose one book as part of my 9th grade curriculum. I chose 1984

Q. Tell us something cool you have done in the classroom or in your research / writing.
I created an authentic academic community that empowered high school readers to see themselves as thinkers. Inspired by the work of Professor Sheridan Blau, detailed in his book, The Literature Workshop, I had my students write and share commentaries on our texts. Their commentaries became the basis for ongoing online discussions and helped foster authentic engagement, risk-taking, intellectual curiosity, and a willingness to change their minds. My students found this activity enjoyable and empowering, and year after year they told me that the activity helped them discover their own thinking. One student even called commentaries a “safe space for thought.” For me, that was like getting a gold medal.  

Q. How do you define “success” in your teaching?
A. My goal in teaching has always been to light a fire in my students, to spark their excitement for learning, and to help them discover and achieve their potential. Success is when students are excited and energized (rather than frustrated) by the realization that asking good questions will always lead to more questions.

Q. Is there any advice you would give to new teachers?
Be strong. Have moral courage. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. You will make mistakes. Forgive yourself and others. Model positivity, curiosity, and humility to bring out the best in your students.

Q. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the classroom, researching, or writing?
I enjoy hiking and meditation. I find that the older I get, the more important it is to appreciate the present moment. The best place for me to do that is the outdoors. 

Q. It’s been a tough two years, but what’s one thing that you feel most proud of looking back?
I am proud of my decision to take a public stance against the orthodoxy that I experienced as a teacher. It was a difficult decision, but I was struck by how many people, including my students, shared a sense of relief, inspiration, or gratitude upon hearing my story.