LWI Lives - April 2021
Ann Nowak: A Born TeacherApril 2, 2021
Ann Nowak: A Born Teacher
This is Ann Nowak. Director of the Touro College Jacob Fuchsberg Law Center’s Legal Writing Center since 2008, and adjunct professor of Law Practice Management, admitted to the bar in New York, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.Y., and the U.S. Supreme Court, optioned screenwriter, and avid tap dancer.
This is Ann Nowak, joyful and funny human, who writes comedy—screenplays and two finished novels so far. This is Ann Nowak, member of the Board of Directors of the Performing Arts Center of Suffolk County and one of the founding directors of the Jacobson Center for the Performing Arts, where she danced and acted under the stage name of KK Malone. This is Ann Nowak who now perfects the precision of her tap-dancing sound via Zoom tap lessons in L.L. Bean shearling-lined leather bed slippers. This is Ann Nowak whose cat, Alexander, is the first animal (that we know of) to do a full-length presentation at a national law conference. This is Ann, loving and happy wife to lawyer Joe. Ann, daughter of scientists, who thought she would have a long and storied career in journalism, and for whom the law wasn’t on the radar. This is Ann who says, “never pigeon-hole yourself or others; it’s limiting.” Ann, whose joy of learning, improving, making herself better ignites passion in her students and colleagues, and makes us all strive to do it better. This is a true teacher.
What is evident about Ann right away is the sparkle in her eyes and a little gleam of mischief too. These come from her love of writing, rhythm, dancing, music, and the theater, which are not only her joys and buoys, but also help her teach law students (and friends) the joys of verbal expression. Indeed, the joys of verbal expression have always been at the top of Ann’s list. In high school, faced with a choice to study mathematics (and possibly follow in the footsteps of her scientist/professor father) or to write, the decision to write came easily and naturally. “I was good at math, but not crazy good like some of my genius class-mates.”
With the encouragement of teachers like Pulitzer Prize and Critics’ Circle Award Winners John Updike, Ann Sexton, and John Cheever during her Masters in Creative Writing Courses at Boston University, she aimed to “write books.” But life takes twists and turns, and while yes, she has finished her first two novels, and is an optioned screenwriter, the road was not straight. Ann first became a newspaper journalist on Long Island, reflecting that, “I thought I would be a journalist writing about the law.”
At Newsday, she was a general assignment reporter. Newsday focused her on news and politics, and some feature articles with an emphasis on health and fitness. She wrote legal, financial, banking, retailing, and “smart money” columns. Then one day, she had a transformative experience.
“I was working at the paper, and one day I was looking for some material to write about. I had a newspaper, and … the newspaper just fell open. I’m not kidding; it literally fell open to this new law school forming that was dedicated to public interest law. I had no interest in going to law school. But I needed stories for the week. Anyway, for some reason I started reading the story. It was so well written. And the writing pulled me into this story that I had no intention of reading, and all of sudden I felt tears in my eyes as I thought ‘Oh my gosh I have to go to this school it will change my life.’ … And here I am talking to you.”
It did change her life.
No one in Ann’s family was a lawyer. Everyone had writing talent, but most of the family went into science. Her brother is a professor in biomedical engineering in Connecticut. Her father was an MIT-trained physicist and taught mechanical engineering at Northeastern in Boston. Her mother studied biology and chemistry, but became what we called at the time a “homemaker.” It was Ann’s mother who encouraged Ann to take art lessons and write. “My propensity to reside in the worlds of the arts came from my mother.”
“I never in a million years thought I would be a lawyer, running my own firm, forget about being a law professor.” But she followed her destiny and began the journey of the study of law. She learned how to take the LSAT on her own (she didn’t know there were “prep courses”). Nixon era invasions of privacy were still fairly fresh in the minds and hearts of the public, and she remembers feeling “appalled” that the test administrators took her fingerprints. It felt intrusive, as though they were treating the test-takers like criminals.
“I lucked out and did well enough to go to CUNY Law School in Queens, NY.” After graduation, she practiced law and worked as an adjunct legal writing skills professor at CUNY Law School. But Newsday wanted her to focus on journalism and gave her an ultimatum: journalism or practice law.
“I’m not big on ultimatums.” She left Newsday and continued in the law.
Along with practicing and teaching, Ann is still a prolific writer. Her prose has been described as “lucid and energetic,” and she says she works to “keep it graceful.”
When she acted in the theater, she loved playing quirky characters. She loves to write those characters as well. She writes mostly comedy. “Not pie in the face physical or slapstick comedies (though yes, I write those elements in as well). But I work from the heart. I like to write uplifting and fun pieces. There’s enough sadness and angst in the world.” She finished her first “lightweight” novel three summers ago, about a killer who leaves bodies on public toilets in the Hamptons, including one in Town Hall. She wrote part of it when she served on the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, and scared herself so badly that she couldn’t use that restroom in Town Hall ever again. While she waits for COVID-19 to pass, she is revising a “middle grades” book, and getting ready to write her first “serious – drama” novel. She says she wants to prove to herself that she can. Like so many other endeavors that give her joy, stretching this envelope is another adventure for her.
One of Ann’s screenplays has been optioned by a producer. Yes, it’s quirky. It’s about a “plus-sized motorcycle mechanic from Brooklyn who inherits a high-end fashion house.” She wants to sell the fashion house and open a motorcycle maintenance school for women. But no one wants to pay attention to a plus-sized rough around the edges Harley Hog rider with a pig for a pet. Ann says it’s a “fish out of water story, inspirational, cute, funny.” I think we will all have to screen it at an LWI conference when COVID-19 is over!
We talked about grades and how Ann’s own relationship with learning and grades has transformed. “I grew up in the competitive Newton, Massachusetts public school system, and went on to Barnard, and I can truthfully say that if there was an ‘A’ to be had, I was going to have it. It was all about the grade, and not about the learning.” But later, when she went to CUNY Law School where there were no grades, life transformed, academic and otherwise.
Now that she has experienced learning with and without the pressure of grades, Ann is clear: “It’s not about the grade; it’s about learning.” (Don’t so many of us wish we could help our students see that?) She makes it all about the “fun of the learning.” In her Law Practice Management class, “My focus is to teach them enough so when they finish the class, they will feel comfortable starting a firm. I also make sure that what I teach are skills that are transferable to working in someone else’s firm. It’s a holistic approach. We do a lot of simulation—things I did in practice or watched others do. I remember how we learned, and help the students enjoy that process.”
In her Writing Center, the explorer in her comes alive. In the physical world as well as the cerebral, she loves to puzzle through things, learn new things, and go on new adventures. She’s one of us gluttons for punishment who tinkers with her syllabus constantly, never content that it’s right, and certainly not convinced that one syllabus will work the next year, or month, or even the next day, as the context and the students themselves change. “Teaching is not about teaching. It’s about learning.” The best teachers are the best learners. She takes from her own experience learning to write and uses that to help her students at the Writing Center. She enjoys using her creative and artistic knowledge to help the students learn.
She sees that each writing student has to be taught differently, uniquely. For some, this means reading their work aloud, and accompanying it with drumming on the writing table like a poetry slam, to work on rhythm and tone. “Lessons in rhythm can show students why semicolons are interesting,” she says. (We both took a moment to bless our lucky stars that we work with people in LWI who understand that’s real.)
Ann has writing coaches (“teaching assistants”) who help with the Touro students in the law school’s Writing Center. These assistants must be excellent writers, who have also shown a willingness and talent to teach. She and Writing Center Assistant Director Stephanie Juliano try to keep these writing coaches on for two years, which provides consistency and knowledge.
In any event, it is clear that every student learns differently, and Ann makes sure she provides resources for all of them. And speaking of resources, learning differently in the age of COVID-19 and Zoom brought Ann’s cat, Alexander, to stardom at a CALI conference where, I kid you not, the cat taught a sixteen-minute session about what to do and not to do on Zoom. Ann says, “If I do it, it sounds preachy. If Alexander does it, it’s cool and funny. I thought CALI would think I am nuts, but they loved it.”
Learning differently in the age of COVID-19 also brought Ann to tap dancing in her dining room wearing her LL Bean shearling lined leather bed slippers instead of her tap shoes, so she doesn’t ruin the wood floor. She says it’s been wonderful to continue studying tap on Zoom from her dining room on Long Island—with a teacher in Manhattan. She loves that dancing “gets me out of my head; I love to keep challenging myself physically….Dancing in bed slippers has caused me to be a more precise tap dancer. You have to hit the heel or toe cleanly, or it sounds muffled. But I do miss the sound of the taps.”
I was fascinated by the way Ann always finds inroads to better learning and improvement in everything, including this. “I love learning on Zoom! I can see the tap teacher’s feet, unlike in a crowded in-person class” Ann found the pressure was off when she was learning tap on Zoom. “No one hears my mistakes. It’s like in law school when there were no grades. With the pressure off to be perfect, I’m just learning and getting better at it.” She stopped worrying about where her body was and how she looked, and “I let my body go. Style emerged.”
The tap teacher—a former Rockette—is in a way an archetypal role model in Ann’s life. Her joy and love of teaching ignite every-one in her path. Ann also admires her own mother who still worked out on the treadmill at the age of 96. Ann talks about a moment of clarity when her 96-year-old mother said, “I gave up tennis at 70, and now it would be hard to get back to it.” Her father reinforced that sense. In his mid-90s in independent living, he did neurological experiments with borrowed scientific equipment. She says she learned from her parents that if you keep stretching, you will never be “too old.” The lesson is that she cannot imagine not trying to do better, be better.
Ann is currently working on a grant paper, studying why young people are suffering from what’s been identified as “reading disfluency.” Her family’s scientific background is converging here with her own love of learning theory and creative talents.
Ann is grateful that her husband Joe appreciates and supports her in this and all her varied interests. “Although he doesn’t love dancing the way I do, we DID take a swing dance class together and he was really good. But dance is not in his blood. What he loves is to read.” I could hear the joy in her voice as she told me this.
“Ann, is there anything you can’t do?” “I can’t sing well.” The truth is, though, she probably could learn. In musical theater, Ann went from trying to “remember two entire dance numbers” to “someone who could do fourteen numbers a show.” She stretches. She pushes her own limits and the limits of her students. She is joyful. Ann truly cannot be pigeon-holed. Her creativity, drive, graceful and fun energy, and commitment to teaching and learning are seemingly boundless. This is a born teacher.
To get in touch with Ann you can email her at: email@example.com