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Teaching and learning at ASU, with love

Graduating ASU student Anthony Celaya poses with Sparky the Sun Devil / Courtesy photo

Anthony Celaya poses with ASU’s beloved mascot at Sparky Slam in 2017, a high school spoken word event, hosted by professor Wendy Williams at ASU Polytechnic campus.

April 29, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

This May, Anthony Celaya will continue a family tradition by donning an Arizona State University cap and gown.

OK, that might be a metaphor — since ASU ceremonies are virtual in spring 2020, Celaya will likely wear something Zoom-worthy — but the second-generation Sun Devil will earn his third ASU degree: this time, a doctorate.

Celaya, who formerly taught high school in his own hometown of Mesa, Arizona, is completing a PhD in English (English education). He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in education (2013) and a Master of Arts in English education (2015) from ASU.

It’s clear that this loyal ASU fan loves his profession as well as his alma mater. Celaya cares deeply about his students — past, present and future — and sees great potential in them as agents of positive change. “I believe in the power of young people to tackle the problems they see in their schools and communities,” he said.

If Celaya needed confirmation that he made the right career choice, he got it: In 2017, he was awarded the Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award by the National Council of Teachers of English. Part of the award included mentorship and leadership training at a summer meeting. At that meeting was born the impetus for a new Arizona-based position and that fall, Celaya became the first diversity director for the Arizona English Teachers Association, where he worked on projects to increase support for rural teachers.

Back at ASU, Celaya worked alongside English education faculty to organize and plan ASU’s El Día de los Niños, El Día de los Libros event for three years. The annual literacy celebration welcomes 500 high school and middle school students to the Tempe campus to interact with young adult authors from all over the country. The 2020 event was unfortunately sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Celaya’s work lives on in the hundreds of young lives he helped impact.

We sat down with Celaya to find out a little more about his family legacy and about his plans beyond ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I always knew that I wanted to work with future teachers. When I was a high school teacher, I wanted to mentor preservice teachers who were assigned to complete their internships or student teaching in my classroom. However, as I was working on my master’s at ASU, I realized that I could have an even greater impact on future teachers by conducting educational research and teaching English methods courses for preservice teachers. So, I decided to return to ASU for my PhD to work more extensively with undergraduate teachers.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: During my first semester in the PhD program, I took a course on literacies with (Associate Professor of English) Peter Goggin, and he would always say, “It’s not what’s in your head, but what your head is inside of.” And that’s something that has always stuck with me. Whatever my ideas are about teaching, learning or research, those ideas are informed by what I’m consuming. If someone has differing ideas from mine, it’s not because one of us is necessarily wrong, our heads are just in different places. Over the years, I’ve tried to stick my head in new places with my students, colleagues and professors to engage in more critical discussions about why we do what we do.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’m a lifelong Sun Devil. My father graduated from ASU in 1977, and some of my fondest childhood memories include walking through campus along old train tracks to ASU football games. I always knew I was going to be a Sun Devil for my undergraduate degree. But what brought me back for my PhD was the support I had from the entire English education faculty to continue on in my graduate studies. Without their encouragement, I don’t know if I would have taken this step in my career.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: It is impossible to single out one professor. I have to shout out both (Professor of English) James Blasingame and (Assistant Professor of English) Sybil Durand for teaching and modeling this lesson for me over the years. It can be easy to get caught up in the different titles and ranks that exist within higher education, but at the end of the day, the work we do as researchers and as teacher educators is all about people. And all people deserve to be treated with love and respect. It didn’t matter at what stage of my program I was in, they always made time to hear my ideas and mentor me along the way. I hope that my future students and mentees feel the same kind of caring support from me as I felt from them.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I tell my undergraduate teachers all the time to embrace the discomfort that new or challenging ideas bring. My favorite learning experiences at ASU were times when I tried something difficult or unfamiliar. When I was an undergraduate, I designed a teaching unit using Ernest Hemingway’s play “The Fifth Column” and George Orwell’s memoir “Homage to Catalonia” to study the Spanish Civil War. I never taught that unit, but the experience of taking two lesser-known texts to design something new helped me to become a teacher who was willing to try new things. School should be a time to take risks, to try something new, and the discomfort and tension we feel will make us better at the end of it.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I love Hayden Library. Studying late at night, working on group projects in a study room, rushing to get a study room — some my greatest friendships were forged in Club Hayden. As I was wrapping up writing my dissertation, I made a trip to campus just so I could spend a few hours writing in the newly remodeled library. I was hoping to finish my dissertation in Hayden, but of course, I needed more time.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: In the fall, I’ll be joining the English department at Southeast Missouri State University as an assistant professor of English education. I’m excited to be able to continue my work with undergraduate preservice teachers, teaching courses in young adult and children’s literature, composition instruction, and teaching with technology.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million, I would set up a program that provided grant funding exclusively for students who seek to use their literacies for civic action. Students who wanted to start a campus food pantry, bring in a guest speaker, buy books, or host poetry slams could apply for funding to support their self-determined initiatives.

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