Montgomery “Monty” Ogden, affectionately referred to as “Teacher Monty” by his many adoring current and former students, stands at the front of his classroom, surrounded by student-created posters mapping out themes from the novel Ru, climate action for peace signs, and a wide range of books by authors of varying genders, races, and ethnicities. His students sit wide-eyed and poised to contribute to the class discussion of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley in the English Seminar course “The United States of Crime.”
Teacher Monty listens carefully to every insightful offering, acknowledging with appreciation the engagement and understanding of the text being provided by his students. He adds key ideas to the board and draws the connections between them, often quoting from memory important lines from the text to help move one idea to the next. The discussion moves naturally and feels much like an upper level college seminar: teacher and students, adventuring together into unveiling truths, diving deep into the depths of literature, and then going one step further still.
A graduate of Amherst College and the University of Pennsylvania, Monty taught in a Philadelphia public school before joining the FCS faculty in 2015. From 2017 to 2019, he taught at Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica before returning to (very lucky!) FCS in 2019. A devoted English teacher, Monty is also dedicated to climate change activism and social justice work, which he uses to help shape his teaching. He’s also a pretty great ultimate frisbee player.
We caught up with him after one of his English seminars to learn more about what makes Teacher Monty so incredible.
What initially drew you to teaching?
Two of my grandparents are teachers, and I have two uncles who are also teachers, one of whom is now a principal, so it's a little bit of a family tradition. And I always loved school. I really, really loved my high school teachers, and after I graduated, I would go back twice a year to visit them.
What drew you to Friends’ Central School?
Well, I grew up in Jenkintown, and I went to summer camp in eighth grade and met some people who, as it turned out, lived very close to me and went to Abington Friends School. I can remember being very curious about this school I had gone to once in fifth grade on a field trip to a Friends Meeting. I liked it. And so, as I got to know people at AFS, I remember just trying to kind of poke my head into this place and see what it was about. I knew they called their teachers by their first names. I knew that graduation felt profoundly different because I went to their ceremonies several years in a row, so there was a real interest in Friends education from early high school, even though I didn’t go to a Quaker School.
What keeps you teaching?
I love the idea of being a lifelong learner. Honestly, the English Seminars and the opportunity at FCS to develop new courses and to follow your passion and creativity have been huge, huge boosts for me as a teacher.
Speaking of English Seminars, this year you are teaching “Love in the Anthropocene” and “The United States of Crime.” How did the subjects for these courses come about?
About six or seven years ago, I was feeling pretty helpless in the face of the climate crisis, and I read about a professor at the University of Oregon who was doing an arts and literature course helping students make sense of climate change. And at first I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool, I’d love to go take this person’s class,” and it took me probably a month or two before I woke up in the middle of the night and was like, “oh, I can just do that!”
Friends’ Central has also provided me the opportunity to co-teach with people, so when I’m doing something new, I’ve had the chance to collaborate and bounce ideas off someone else. I particularly enjoyed collaborating with [science teacher] Anna Schall and [Director of Equity and Justice] Dwight Dunston ’06.
I first taught the climate course with Anna and then later with Dwight. In the first case, Anna helped to bring a combination of scientific understanding and Quaker grounding to the class, and Dwight helped me to maintain that spiritual thread while also bringing the lens of equity and justice to the class. Dwight and I previously taught a seminar on the writing of James Baldwin, and it was really exciting to notice the threads there and to fully recognize the ways in which climate action and social justice are entwined / inseparable. Dwight, Anna, and I have also engaged in climate justice activism together outside of school, so that is another form that our collaboration has taken. How to let your life speak inside and outside the classroom.
Do you think there is something unique about the culture at FCS that impacts the way that you teach?
We are a highly relational school, and I felt that really clearly when I first got here because of the number of “thank yous” that I got from students as they were leaving after my first class. I was pretty shocked, actually. So yeah, I would say students here have a real gratitude for their education. Also, our students are brilliant, so if you empower them and you give them the opportunity, they will take charge of the space in really exciting ways.
You left FCS for two years to go teach in Costa Rica before returning back here in 2019. What attracted you to that experience, and how does it affect the way you teach now?
I am half-Cuban, but really never had the opportunity to learn Spanish at home because my biological mother was unable to parent me after age two or so, and so Monteverde was a chance to really claim Spanish for my own and to get to do it in a place that also was steeped in Quaker education and where there was profound interest and attention to the natural world. The idea of combining those three things was really exciting to me.
And I think as a teacher, I learned to make much more effective use of outdoor space as part of the classroom experience. I was the only English teacher in the high school at Monteverde Friends School, and so if I wanted to collaborate, I had to do it across other subject areas. That was incredibly gratifying and definitely provided me with lots of ideas for projects then and projects going forward at FCS.
You mentioned outdoor space. Do you try to incorporate that into your classes with FCS students?
I would say yes, but often in the simplest ways. One of the odd gifts of the pandemic was that I taught in the atrium of the Language Building. And it was just a single glass door between us and the outside. I’ve always done things like “turn-and-talks” in class - you ask a question sometimes and kids aren’t quite ready to share ideas aloud to the full group, but if you give them the chance to turn and talk to a classmate, as it turns out, they have a lot to say.
I think as humans, we do that naturally when we go on walks together. And so, I started sending kids outside to do a loop or two around the beautiful oval, to do a turn-and-talk, sometimes to brainstorm something we were working on with a paper. And I was shocked by how much it meant to them. At the end of a few of the courses that were taught in the atrium, some students said it was the thing they would remember most. And it’s seemingly so simple, but I think, a real game changer.
By Frankie Zelnick