For New Teachers

I like this:

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Teaching

Work and Leisure

1. Work (or the Lack Thereof)

I was really moved by this article by Peter Greene called “The Hard Part”:

They never tell you in teacher school, and it’s rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.


The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

(Greene, “The Hard Part”)

Go read it if you are a teacher or a student or have ever been either.

Really, anyone who has struggled with that frantic sense of “never enough” will sympathize.

Greene does a lovely job of describing the “never enough” that many teachers struggle with – but he does so in a way that does not descend into complaining. Instead, he indirectly shares his love for his students and his work. Ora et labora.

But I especially appreciated this:

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual’s instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals — wait! what?! That CAN’T be right!


Yeah. Do that math.

Although this past year of teaching was far easier than the previous ones (and they tell me they do get easier), I frequently woke up having had nightmares about failed lessons and crazy students and not knowing where my next class was and losing the essays and ruining students’ chances at college and NO MANAGEMENT. NONE.

It’s summer vacation, and I just had another bad dream two nights ago. It was the one where the bell had already rung and I couldn’t find my classroom and for some reason I had no idea what I was supposed to teach.

So basically it was really nice to wake up. Summer vacation is a gift.

But, well… it’s kind of boring.



Seriously though. I miss being in the classroom. I miss scanning the desks and faces constantly to make sure all is well. I miss teasing them. I miss being teased. I miss trying to get someone to really wrestle with an idea and not take the easy way out. I miss my student Vincent* waving at me in the hallway every 7th period as he attempts to spend as much little time in the class down the hall, and I miss telling him to get back to class.

And then I thought to myself: what do you want?

Um, a perfect medium of being busy and productive but not stressed out. Ever.

Dream on, Jess.

Dream on, Jess.

Okay, not very likely to happen.

But there’s something amiss here. Why must I be busy but not too busy? Why must I be busy at all? Why are so many people — so many of my friends and acquaintances — happier being busy? Why do we dread “down-time”? Why are we confused about what to do with unstructured hours?

Why is it hard to rest sometimes?

2. Leisure (or the Lack Thereof)

In Leisure: The Basis of Culture Josef Pieper argues the following:

Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence.

Isn’t that true?

I have friends who love making to-do lists. Sometimes this group also includes me. We all know how good it feels to cross something off of those lists.

When someone asks you, “So what did you do this weekend?” don’t you feel a little ashamed if the first response (promptly suppressed) that pops into your head is “well… nothing?”


How many times have I heard: “Well, at least I did something productive today!”

How many times have I said those words myself?


Pieper says we are “trying to justify our existence” by our work. But we will never rest until we are really “one with ourselves.”

Even Greene’s article suggests this lack-of-oneness:

But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothered, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn’t. (Greene)

In teaching, specifically, one is constantly  striving after perfection when perfection isn’t ever possible. Do you throw up your hands and give in? Do you keep your nose to the grindstone? It’s like that really annoying Zeno’s Paradox I learned in math class about how if you walk halfway across a room, and then walk half that distance, and then half that distance, and on and on… you will always be moving closer to the wall but you will never actually reach it.

Teaching is kind of like that. The better you get, the more you notice the distance left between you and the wall.

Hm. Teaching and work and leisure. Education and work and leisure.

What is leisure, anyway?

Pieper says:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. […] Leisure is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real. (Pieper, 31)

Another paradox, of course, is that you can’t really “work on” being better at leisure. Or perhaps it’s not a paradox but a full contradiction. You cannot “work at” leisure, because if you are working, then you are not at leisure. Leisure, according to Pieper, seems to be more something that happens to you than something you yourself bring about. It is a gift.

One last, very interesting thought:

For, when we consider the foundations of Western European culture (is it, perhaps, too rash to assume that our re-building will in fact be carried out in a “Western” spirit? Indeed, this and no other is the very assumption that is at issue today), one of these foundations is leisure. We can read it in the first chapter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And the very history of the meaning of the word bears a similar message. The Greek word for leisure (σχολή) is the origin of Latin scola, German Schule, English school. The names for the institutions of education and learning mean “leisure.” (Pieper, 3-4)

Yes, that’s right.

The word for leisure is where we get the word for school.



Filed under Education, Literature, Religion, Teaching

Catholicism and Censorship Part I

Q: Why is it that when I am on vacation and have more time to write, I don’t write at all?

A 1: When I’m teaching, I’m thinking. When I’m thinking, I usually have something to say about it eventually.

A 2: I thrive on being busy / I have not mastered the art of leisure.



Well, here goes. One thing I have been planning to write about for a long time is censorship.

Also known as: which books are appropriate to teach in Catholic schools? How do we determine “appropriateness”?

This question came to my attention this past year when a parent strongly objected to teaching Homer’s Iliad in another teacher’s class because of some “vulgar language” contained in the translation.

As in, the parent demanded that The Iliad be taken completely off the reading list.

My guess is that this request came from ignorance and fear than rational concern, but it certainly got me thinking again.

The question had arisen earlier as well during my job interview. I was asked which books I would be unwilling to teach in a Catholic school, and was strongly pushed toward excluding anything by Toni Morrison.

I am no fan of Morrison, but quite honestly, if I were asked to teach one of her books, I would not have any moral qualms doing so.

Here is my abbreviated answer, in which I replied in as measured a tone as I could muster:

“Well, my usual approach is to be unafraid of controversial literature. I believe all works can be studied with a Catholic perspective, even if the work itself challenges Church teaching. Especially at the high school level, students are being bombarded constantly by anti-Christian propaganda. Sheltering them from this is very unwise. It would be far better to teach them how to encounter and wrestle with such texts.”

This of course is not to say that ALL texts are appropriate for secondary school.

This is also not to say that all texts merit serious reading at all. There is plenty of trash out there that we can rule out.

The real question arises, I believe, when you are confronted with a work of literary merit that rather obstinately challenges Church teaching or, worse, advocates an anti-Catholic worldview.

It’s difficult (and, I believe, rather unhelpful)  to talk about this question too abstractly. So, what books do you think are especially relevant to this question in terms of the Catholic high school classroom?




Filed under Catholicism, Education, Literature, Religion, Teaching

My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop

Thank you to David Mosley over at Letters from the Edge of Elfland for suggesting I undertake this “blog hop” task.

I will let him describe the process for you:

Michelle over at Soliloquies––an excellent blog that mixes philosophy, life, and writing––has invited to participate in a Writing Process Blog Hop. She has previously invited to a similar ‘event’, though in the previous case it was an award of sorts. I was remiss in not attending to the previous invitation and so willingly and gladly do I participate now. The Writing Process Blog hop invites bloggers to answer four questions about what, how, and why they write. The bloggers are then encouraged to recommend three other bloggers to do the same. (Mosley, “My Writing Processes: A Blog Hop”)

Here they are:

1. What are you currently working on?

I feel a little abashed by this question. It implies that I actually am working on something literary.

Up until a few days ago, I was working on trying to help my students learn how to write. Most of the time I am teaching persuasive writing, but this past semester I agreed to teach a Creative Writing class for the first time. So I had the much easier job of being the literary critic rather than the anguished author.

Still, I learned a few things. My favorite unit was murder mystery stories. As we investigated how these stories work, I began to realize just how important form can be. Mysteries demand attention to plot structure and physical objects more than most other genres do. Character development is ideal but not essential to a good mystery (witness the success of relatively static characters like Columbo, Magnum P. I., Miss Marple, etc).

Interestingly, it is all too easy for inexperienced writers to wander too far into the psyches of their characters and their motivations rather than into plot. Too often my students tried to turn their mystery stories into novels– they got the emphasis all wrong. They wanted to focus on character and dialogue primarily like Jane Austen, because, for a new writer, that seems easier.

Am I writing anything besides this blog?

I write music. I play guitar and write songs. It’s really interesting how similar – and how VASTLY different – writing music is in relation to writing poetry.

I have been reworking a paper I wrote in college on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, and I hope someday to publish it. It has already been rejected, however, so I have lots of work to do! There is a lot of pressure in the literary academic world to say something new, although the writing I admire most simply tries to say what is true and usually results in being ancient.

And a private fun project of mine is writing my own Narnia book. It’s about Susan Pevensie’s daughter, and in the last six months I’ve made it to chapter three. The fact that Susan never made it back with the others “beyond the Stable door” has always bugged me to no end.

It’s the Hans Urs von Balthasarian “universalist” in me.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Well, I suppose I can say two things about that.

1) Although all blogs, even if they fall under the “Catholic” genre, are as different as the writers who create them, I do think that my blog is attempting something unique. It is a sort of casual, musing way of reflecting on the art of teaching — in particular, teaching in Catholic schools, which for better or worse is a whole epic educational saga in itself. Many other blogs have a more political, theological or family-oriented focus: for example, the mommy blogs, the “public square” blogs, the ecumenical/theology-debating blogs, all of which I love reading.

But I’m not really doing any of those things. I touch on theological and political issues insofar as they relate to my experience working with high school kids, but my writing focuses on the act of trying to engage in a very specific type of relationship and to perfect a very particular type of art. (Teaching is an art, by the way.)

2) Because I am an English teacher, I often end up writing about literature. But I don’t really write about it in the way many other blogs do– I’m not usually evaluating it on its own merit, or providing reviews of it, or even really describing my own personal reactions to it. Instead, when I talk about literature, I almost always talk about it in reference to a very particular and frequently hostile audience: teenagers in a “school” setting.

For better or worse, I often think about literature as a vehicle for learning certain skills. I suppose that’s very “Common Core”-ish of me. Notice that my primary successes with Dante seemed to be using his illustrious Commedia as a vehicle for reading strategies.  Julius Caesar was great for teaching persuasive techniques.

Sounds rather utilitarian I guess, but that is a hot topic for another time…

3. Why do you do what you do?

What do I do again?


I feel that teaching is primarily what I do, and writing is an extension, a goal, a byproduct, and even an “efficient cause” of my teaching.

Well, then I suppose I write and teach because God is pushing me into it, and I’m trying my best not to get in His way (with varying results).

4. How does your writing process work?

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but I have found that my best writing (the stuff I don’t scrap) is pretty spontaneous. As Flannery says, “I write to discover what I know.”

In high school and college, friends of mine who painstakingly outlined their ideas beforehand seemed to be engaging in an impossible task. Even others who think a lot about what they want to say, even if they never create a formal outline, are engaging in something I have never been able to do. I have no idea what I want to say until I say it.

A wonderful professor in college (painfully) taught me the importance of revising. So now I do that instead of just allowing my unsupervised thoughts to wander about.

Most of the time.

Well, like David Mosley, I am going to nominate three other bloggers to try this out.

1. Ironical Coincidings by Joseph Simmons. Joseph is a friend of mine from college who takes a much more analytical, philosophical approach to his work than I do. So I’m really interested in what insights he will have into the writing process.

2. Comos in the Lost by Artur Rosman. I am relatively new to Rosman’s blog, but I read it almost daily, which is saying something since most of my time is spent sifting through high school essays. His own “About” page says “He is husband, father of three, professor, public speaker, translator of several books (Polish to English), and onetime television personality (several times) on Polish TV. He is presently writing a dissertation on the Catholic imagination of Czeslaw Milosz at the University of Washington in the Comparative Literature department.”

He is also a fellow admirer of Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Rosman writes, I often feel like “oh, that is what I want to say, but am not really equipped (intellectually and otherwise) to put into words!”

3. The Wine Dark Sea by Melanie Bettinelli. I have actually been reading Melanie’s blog since I was in high school. I found it while looking for stuff about what the University of Dallas was really like. She is a UD grad and writes with clarity, humor and grace about family life, poetry, and more.


1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Teaching

7 Quick Takes Friday (5/30/14) – LAST DAY OF SCHOOL EDITION




It’s the last day of school. It’s the last day of final exams.


How did we get here?

Not to sound lame, but I’m mostly sad about this. Although I’m relieved that the end of grading is in sight, I know that in two weeks or so I will be bored out of my mind and ready to get back in the classroom.


Speaking of grading.

The more tired I get, the more snarky my comments seem to become.



Whoah there, Ms. Shea.

But really. Some of these illogical assumptions are starting to get to me.


Don’t worry. They know I’m not completely evil. Witness this gem from… let’s call him Jimmy*. This is part of his Reading Strategies booklet.


Note that despite my scary appearance (I am the figure on the right) I am “not evil”.

Casey Hamilton?

Let’s just say he was an example I gave in class while I was trying to explain to them that Dante’s love-from-afar for Beatrice is not creepy.


So this whole Dante unit has made me really excited for next year. And although I think it was a good idea to save him for last few weeks for these kids, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t start off with Dante right off the bat.

The text is so challenging that students really have only two choices: actually USE the reading strategies I teach them and try and try and try and try… or give up and fail.

It sort of puts school into starker terms.

Maybe that would be too much of a baptism by fire in August, but it would be a great vehicle to teach the future sophomores HOW to read right away. Then, when they encounter “less-challenging” texts like Antigone and Julius Caesar later in the year, they will know what to do.




Either way, I’m going to go pretty heavy on the reading strategies at the beginning of the year. And I think I will ask my friend and the junior English teacher if I can borrow some of my former students so they can do some presentations on reading strategies for my new kids.

Some of those kids did such an AMAZING job with their Reading Strategies booklets. They explained things far better than I could (or did).

Adam*, in particular, really impressed me with his sensitivity to his audience. He knew exactly the “type” of student he was speaking to (read: every type) and he did a lovely job addressing their fears and frustrations.

Exhibit A:


Look at how he made copies of Longfellow’s translation of Dante and then demonstrated what annotating looks like.

Exhibit B:


Sorry, high school moms.

Exhibit C:



I suppose I’m pretty much letting my kids write this blog post for me. But I’m so proud of them. So I’m going to keep doing it.

From Molly*:




And Adam insists you should be “sassy” with the text. It helps to prevent you from getting bored as you read tough material:


Sarah* has some advice for you on the difference between “good” and “bad” annotations:



Okay, I guess I should go back to grading my final exams now.

Happy weekend everyone! And happy end to the school year!

*All names have been changed.


Filed under 7 Quick Takes Friday, Education, Literature, Teaching

I Know Why the Caged Bird…

Maya Angelou died today.

I have loved her and respected her from a very great, hesitant distance. Like with John Paul II, however, death has made me determined to try to become closer to her.

This interview with her is very beautiful.

And for any students who may be reading this – past or present – this woman knew how to write. She knew what it means.

Aren’t the extraordinary events of your life very hard for the rest of us to identify with?


Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story. (Maya Angelou via Paris Review)





Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

Thoughts Forthcoming…

In the meantime, I’m grading approximately 1.54 billion essays and performance assessments.

Okay, fine. The performance assessments are done now.

They had to create Reading Strategies booklets. That is, they had to create “How to Read Dante’s Inferno” books for the future sophomores based upon what they had been learning.

Yes, I teach my high school students how to read. If you don’t do that – and you teach ANY high school subject – Science, Math, Religion, Social Studies, whatever – you need to start right now.

Or maybe next fall. You get the idea.

A preview of my students’ awesome stuff, which I’ll be writing about soon:


I have so many things to say about this booklet. This student impressed me so much with his attention to detail and to anticipating future students’ misunderstandings.


This is the best advice ever. I keep trying to give it, but they forget easily. So I’m glad this girl remembered:


Note: “If Dante can get through hell, you can get through this book!” Amen, sister.


And this is probably my favorite:


Now if she would only follow her own advice…


Ah. As I said on my Facebook page, I feel so blessed. But now I have a whole new batch of kids to miss.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Literature, Teaching