One of the “Pedants”

I’m probably one of the “pedants” Stephen Fry so articulately criticizes.

I’ll admit, my favorite error in high school and college, and one I still commit frequently, is the “split infinitive.” And part of me agrees that language ought to be played with and enjoyed. Or to playfully be enjoyed.

See what I did there?

But I also think there’s sort of a deconstructionist, nothing-really-has-meaning, there-are-no-rules flavor underlying his comments that is both seductive and untrue.

Yes, language does change according to convention. And perhaps there is no such thing as “correctness” as the grammar nazis conceive of it.

But what’s truly amazing is that all languages DO have a certain order, a certain logic and sense to them. You know, kind of like buildings do. Yes, we made them up, so we imposed order on blocks and stones and “worse than senseless things” — but the reason the Pyramids of Giza and Hadrian’s Wall are still standing is because these structures we made up also adhere to the mysterious logic of physics. I would argue the reason language holds up is very similar – because it adheres to a certain logic of the world, of reality.

And it’s the mark of a humble and educated person to try to learn and adhere to that logic. If you break the rules for the sake of creativity and newness, fine – but you should be aware that you are breaking them – as Picasso was aware, and Shakespeare, other great artists.

Otherwise, you’re just a little kid throwing paint or words at a wall, hoping it sticks.

Some people call that art, but I certainly don’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Literature, Education

Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong, Part II

I’ve received some wonderful responses on my previous post “On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong,” and I thought I would show you two of them here and then respond.

1.

My dad writes:

[...] I’m wondering if there is a difference, or a distinction that should be made between teaching how to write, and how to read? While you are undoubtedly correct that the majority of high school students need “formulas,” if you will, to learn how to write, crawling before walking, as you put it, how about reading?

This got me thinking. Indeed, Esolen’s piece, especially the part where he says that “We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human,” it is clear that he has shifted from talking about writing (and the Common Core’s “Substandard Writing Standards”) to talking about reading.

Of course, the two things go together. As Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know.” One might alter her words and add, I write to discover what I read.

I don’t mean to be to carefree and conflate terms here, but in a way, writing is a way to read.

My dad continues:

I’m thinking about Professor Nagy’s approach to teaching Homer, which admittedly is at the college level, but still aims at taking the completely unintiated neophyte into a very alien “song culture,” but does it without formulas, without imposing preconceptions from the outside, but instead rigorously insists on reading out of the “text” not into it [emphasis added]. He introduces useful techniques, such as comparing “micro narratives” within the text with the “macro narrative” itself, but never in a way that reduces the work to an easy formula. Thoughts?

I guess my initial thoughts are these. I teach reading very similarly to how I teach writing. In fact, although my (sometimes distant) end goal is to get kids to read with an appreciation for Esolen’s “true, good, and beautiful,” my immediate goal is to get them to read at all.

Last year I realized many of my high school kids did not know how to read. That is, they could sound out letters and let the words wash over them, but they failed to realize that the act of reading is a complex process that involves the use of multiple skills. So, I spent two units, one in the fall, one in the spring, on teaching “Reading Strategies.” In essence, they are the same type of “formulas” and “ingredients” that Esolen seems to eschew in writing.

Here are two posts in which I write about how I did that:

“7 Quick Takes Friday, Last Week of School Edition”

Thoughts Forthcoming…

2.

My friend Jeff (also an ACE graduate) writes:

I’m not sure whether Esolen’s argument against the common core is based on the idea that teaching formulaic writing based on evidence wastes time better spent encouraging higher order, more creative thinking or that teaching formulaic analysis and writing about literature precludes more creative, organic analysis of literature, but I take issue with both.

If you can teach a student to find the beauty and truth in a poem but they aren’t able to communicate this truth to others, the value of that education is severely limited. One good thought able to be understood by others is more valuable, I would argue, than a million brilliant thoughts trapped inside the mind of one.

To which I can only say, “Amen!”

My kids say things to me all the time like, “I understand it, I just don’t know how to explain it.”

To which I always reply, “If you don’t know how to explain it, then you don’t really understand it.”

Again, Flannery: “I write to discover what I know.”

Best of all, Jeff continues and describes his perspective on all this as a Math teacher:

Furthermore, I don’t believe that being taught formulaic writing/analysis precludes being able to appreciate the beauty of a poem in a more creative way. I have never taught writing or literature but get frustrated when teaching math that I spend the vast majority if my time teaching basic skills instead of how to creatively apply math concepts. However, when I look back at my experience learning math, my understanding of it was very formulaic. Then I took calculus, and I realized that this understanding was limited and needed to be replaced with another approach. However, if I had never had a formulaic understanding if math, I would never have been able to understand the beauty of calculus. Even parts of calculus I only understood once I had worked out dozens of problems in a formulaic manner. I would think that a writer would outgrow his or her formulaic way of writing when it no longer expressed in a satisfactory way his or her thoughts.

Thanks so much, Dad and Jeff!

As snarky as my last post was, I do not mean to give the impression that I am not one of Esolen’s “comrades,” as he calls them. In terms of fighting for the renewal of education, especially Catholic education, I am totally on his side. I would also like to think that I am also on the side of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”–but only the Lord knows the extent of my allegiance to Him.

But I think that in order to help our kids appreciate the Transcendentals at all, we have to get our hands dirty and take a very Sacramental, blood and sweat and dirt and bread and wine approach.

You know, the Jesus approach.

After all, He helped the blind man see by putting mud and spit on his eyes (cf. Mark 8:23, John 9:6).

And the poor man didn’t see everything clearly right away. He said that the people around him at first “looked like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24).

If thesis formulas and reading strategies are a bit muddy and dirty, that’s okay by me. I figure the Lord can use those things too to help my students write and read their way towards Him.

open-my-eyes-lord

source: google images

1 Comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Flannery O'Connor, Literature, Teaching

On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong

Anthony Esolen is a teacher and writer whom I profoundly respect and admire, and with whom I find myself almost constantly in disagreement. (Except for most of his stuff in the Magnificat publication. That’s usually great.)

This is a piece he wrote a year ago in Crisis Magazine that continutes to nettle me. You will basically get the gist of his argument from the title: “The Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards.”

I’m not going to tackle the whole thing here. Rather I’m going to obnoxiously excerpt two particular passages that make me roll my eyes whenever I think about them.

Esolen writes:

So, when I don my robe as the Unteacher, I never say to my students, “Follow these steps and you will be a great writer,” as if I were imparting the secret ingredients of an infallible potion.  I say, “Never pretend to know what you do not really know.  Never pretend to believe what you do not believe.  Never affect a certainty you cannot reasonably claim.  Never affect uncertainty so as not to offend the muddled.  Never use a word whose meaning and usage you are unclear about.  Never open a thesaurus unless you are looking for a word you know quite well but cannot at the moment remember.  Never put on airs.” (Esolen)

And, poof! With a few more inspiring speeches, he teaches them how to write about the true, the good and the beautiful.

Ahem.

Besides snarkily commenting on the “airs” he may or may not be “putting on” in this very passage, I would also like to point out that Esolen lives in the blissful ivory tower of academia, where of course following formulaic “steps” to writing is considered exceptionally mundane and lowly. In his Crisis Magazine bio, we learn that he “teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College.”

Thus I suppose many of the college students Esolen teaches already know, at least partially, how to write coherently. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be going to Providence College.

But the Common Core standards are not written for college students. They are also not written for college professors who seldom see the miserable sludge the passes for thinking in high school essays. Indeed, these standards were not written with you in mind at all, Professor Esolen, and so you cannot really fault them for not ringing true to your experience of pedagogy.

The Common Core Standards (imperfect as they may be) are written for high school educators who are still trying to get their kids to write in complete sentences.

I sympathize with how Esolen feels. The Common Core seems to be a dumbing-down of the mysterious art of writing. It talks a lot about using evidence and not very often about telling the truth–which is, in the long run, far more important. Esolen is right about that and I wrestle with that valid point here: “Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom”.

But Esolen believes the authors of the Common Core

do not read poems at all, really.  They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text.  When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table. (Ibid)

You know, he has a point. The Common Core does treat pretty much every work as a “text” you can approach in a systematic, perhaps even coldly scientific way.

As a high school student myself, I would have hated this. Writing always came naturally to me, and I glanced snobbishly at the formulaic outlines my silly high school teachers made me write and ignored them because I didn’t need them (or think I did). I was too busy, with Esolen, contemplating the true, the good and the beautiful.

But what I did not see then, and what Esolen does not see now, is that the “steps” and “secret ingredients” he so easily dismisses are very necessary to 90% of high school students.

Nobly, he professes his writing creed:

But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities.  We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human.  We do not invert the order of ends.  We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see.  We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it. (Ibid)

This is very noble, and even very UD of him–but as far as most of my high school kids are concerned, it’s also a bunch of crap. They don’t rejoice in poetry because they do not know how. They don’t “care” about “the good, the true and the beautiful” because most of them don’t know (yet) what those are. They ignore the “vision” of Keats because they have too much obstructing their own vision right now.

It is my goal to help them improve their vision so they can see and travel the road ahead, but unless you give them specific tasks and directions to hold onto, most of them will wander and get hopelessly lost in the jungles of adolescent thinking.

High school students don’t need a preacher. They need a teacher– a fellow-learner–who is willing to see how complicated and crazy it all looks, and try to help them make sense of it.

Esolen would probably cringe at the lessons I’m teaching my kids right now on writing: the 4 methods for incorporating a quote, quote sandwiches, the thesis formula (A is B because of 1, 2, 3!), the 3 parts of an intro paragraph, the 4 parts of a body paragraph, how to use textual(!) evidence…

I am offering my kids “secret ingredients.” I am giving them “steps.”

Because you know what? They work.

And I hope learning these steps will help my kids eventually make the long journey toward the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

But you can’t run until you can walk.

And if we have to start with crawling, then so be it.

 

 

More on the Core:

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

Getting to the Core

If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Literature, Poetry, Teaching

Literature and the Present Tense

yhst-19407479739211_2265_69282232

source: buzzymultimedia.com

Warning: the following thoughts are not completely coherent or organized.

A former student, now a freshman in college, contacted me the other day asking about whether or not she should use the present tense in the essay she’s writing for class.

I said yes, and gave her some examples.

And then I began to think about how strange it is that we say things like: “Emily Dickinson urges us to approach reality with care in her poem ‘Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant'” or “Homer challenges prevailing notions of war in The Iliad” or “Dostoevsky confronts the problem of evil like no other writer.”

Urges, challenges, confronts.

We say that these people do these things, now — even though we know they stopped doing things at all hundreds or sometimes thousands of years ago. The University of Richmond’s Writer’s Web and many other sources call this mysterious grammatical custom “The Literary Present”.

Why is that?

Why do we use the present tense in writing about literature — especially the literature created by the long-dead?

It’s a question that continually perplexes (and confuses) my high school students. Essay after essay, they slip into the past tense no matter how many times I tell them otherwise. For so many of them, practical and down-to-earth as they are, literary authors remain irrevocably entombed in the past – in the coffins of Romanticism and Realism and Colonialism et al. “Ilibagiza told her readers to forgive” and Shakespeare “used really complicated words” and that random poet “showed a sad tone.”

I think that for many of my students, Dickinson is always that weird lady in white from Massachusetts obsessed with death and dashes. Homer is a Greek or Roman guy (we can’t remember) who wrote about Brad Pitt – er – the Achille’s heel. And Dosto-who?

In some sense, aren’t they right? Why do we treat them like they are alive when they very clearly are not?

If you google “the literary present” you will find that lots of websites claim you should use the present tense when referring to art or literature, but not when you refer to historical events or scientific things.

But really -

Michaelangelo created his Pieta sometime back in 1499 and Charles Dickens published the final chapters of Great Expectations in 1861.

These things are no less historical events than Colombus sailing the ocean blue in 1492 and Martin Luther beginning the Protestant Reformation in 1517. (Thank you, Dr. Hansen, for forever ingraining these dates in my memory.) And yet we talk about how Michaelangelo decides to create a youthful Mary and Dickens illustrates the abject material and moral poverty of his time.

So why is it that art – and, most particularly, literary art – earns a special place in the “eternal present” while the conquests of Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Ghengis Khan do not?

It’s not even as though art always lasts, as Shelley reminds us in his famous “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. (Shelley – full poem here)

I don’t think the ironic transiency of the poem itself was (is?) lost on Shelley, either.

And I’m not sure that survival alone earns literary works the honor of inhabiting the present tense, while the impressive Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China, and continual influence of ancient Indo-European languages remain embedded in the past tense of history.

If you think I’ve got the answer… well, I don’t. That’s really why I’m writing about this. Why do you think we enforce this strange custom?

This is my experience. In college, I wrote about Flannery O’Connor like she was sitting right next to me (or, more probably, gazing skeptically over my shoulder). I read Augustine’s Confessions in high school and found myself constantly forgetting that he was some old saint from the 4th century. As I child I heard C. S. Lewis’ voice resonating in my ears: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia” (The Silver Chair).

For me, these people were there.

Better yet, they are here.

They are speaking now, to me, in this moment, as I lie on my couch under my blankets and type at the bright Macbook screen. Just as they spoke to me years ago. Just as they spoke to their first readers. Just as they whispered to the type writer, the blank page, the fresh parchment, the scribe.

And somehow we know this and therefore require our students to speak of them in the eternal present tense.

I can’t help but wonder if all this may have something to do with God being “I am”?

Leave a comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Literature, Poetry

“Who is Christianity?”

First week of school: check.

I was so tired today that I gave in to exhaustion and went to bed at 7:30.

7:30!

And then, three hours later, I woke up and started thinking about my week. It’s keeping me awake and I thought I’d write it out, because sometimes that helps.

So this was the bell work I posted for all my kids today:

Slide2

We were finishing up our lesson on Growth and Fixed Mindsets, which I use at the beginning of the year to set the tone of the class and help the kids think about themselves and their learning in new ways. We then reference it and reflect on it throughout the rest of the year.

Our new (and awesome) principal has been encouraging us to incorporate a “Faith Connection” into our lessons more explicitly and purposefully, and so this bell work was my attempt this week as a way to wrap things up right before they took their quiz on Mindsets.

I guess I knew ahead of time that the phrase “human dignity” might cause some issues for some of the kids. And, indeed, throughout the day different students raised their hands to ask me what the phrase meant. So I was already kind of breaking the cardinal rule of bell work: that it should be straight-forward enough that all students can do it without extra direction from the teacher. (This does not mean bell work cannot be rigorous, but that it’s not usually the best place to introduce new words or phrases.) So I anticipated the issue by encouraging students to raise their hands if they were confused or had any questions.

But during my first class of the day, one of my new foreign exchange students from Korea came bustling into the room a solid minute after the tardy bell rang.

The rest of the class looked up, but having been pretty well trained by now to understand that bell work was silent work time,  they got on with their writing without commenting. She excused herself and asked me anxiously if this meant she was going to receive a detention (since she had been tardy earlier this week as well), and I said yes. She accepted that consequence with grace, sat down, and began to work.

A moment later her hand went up and she called my name again: “Excuse me, Mrs. Ms. Shea?” (I have not corrected her yet on how to say my name, but I need to next week.)

I went over to her desk and knelt beside her, encouraging her to lower her voice by whispering her name.

She looked up at the projector screen, her eyes wide. “Mrs. Ms. Shea,” she whispered, loudly. “Who is ‘Christianity’?”

I felt many eyes look up from papers around the room and fix themselves on me.

Who is Christianity?

I looked up at the projector screen briefly, confused by her confusion. I swallowed and whispered, “Christianity is a religion.”

“Oh!” she nodded, but not comprehending.

“Do you have a religion at your home? A faith you believe in?” I was still whispering, and relieved that the other students seem to have reluctantly returned to their writing.

“No,” she said, smiling. “No religion!”

I looked up at the projector screen again, the incomprehensible word looking more incomprehensible by the second.

“That’s okay,” I said, grasping for words and speaking slowly–as much as for my sake as for hers. “Christianity is a religion… a belief, we have here at this school.  A big part of it is being loving to others… being good to others.” I searched her face for comprehension, and saw some of my words made sense. “For now, I want you to answer the question this way: How does ‘Growth Mindset’ relate to being a good person?”

“Oh, yes! Yes! Thank you, Mrs. Ms. Shea.”

I stood up and stretched bell work time by an extra minute so she could jot something down. I glanced at two of the other foreign exchange students in the class and wondered if they had had the same question, but had been too nervous to ask me.

Who is Christianity?

“Christianity” is a proper noun. She saw the capital letter. She thought it was a person’s name.

Who is Christianity?

She was right. It is a person. Jesus is Christianity.

And John the Baptist, too, whose memorial of martyrdom is today. And Edith Stein and Saint Kateri and Saint Paul, the apostles, and John Paul II, and the old gentleman at the Senior Support Center, and the Gentiles, and the Jews, and the Iraqis being brutally persecuted right now, and the religious sisters, my students, my family… a thousand faces flashed through my mind.

Who is Christianity?

But how could I explain all of that in a matter of seconds? I had not even mentioned His name to her. I had said, “It is a religion.” And suddenly it seemed small wonder to me that either she had not heard the word “religion” before or that she had, but only in some remote context like, “Some people on the other side of the world have ‘religions'”… along with political parties and horoscopes and economies and special holidays and other vague things that people in other countries “have.”

Who is Christianity?

I had only a few seconds to contemplate my clumsy answer before the timer went off and it was time to start class.

“Pens and pencils down please,” I said automatically. “It’s okay if you are not 100% finished with your bell work… Please stand for prayer.”

We stood up, faced the Crucifix on the wall, and made the sign of the Cross.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Religion, Teaching

Binder Control

I thought I’d share with you some practical things I’m working on this year.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recommends a technique called “Binder Control,” whereby you show your kids how you want them to organize their stuff.

My first year of teaching, I thought this was silly and too elementary for high school kids. Wouldn’t they think I was being a control freak? After this many years of school, didn’t they have their own organization methods?

By the end of my first month, I was cured of that delusion.

Yes, some students will have their own methods. But a majority of them will not. And if everyone keeps your class’ information, handouts, etc. the same way, you will save a lot of time and prevent a lot of “but I can’t find it” or “I left it in my folder back home,” etc.

1. First, I ALWAYS have my kids use binders with loose leaf paper because then you never have to worry about torn pages and scruffy edges.

2. They have 5 labeled dividers, called: Bell Work, Notes/Handouts, Vocabulary, Grammar, Passed Back.

3. This eliminates the question “Where should I put this?” because you always pre-empt it by saying: “Please open your binders to the ______ section.”

4. Make it clear that this binder, appropriately labeled and stocked with college-ruled paper, is a homework assignment due the first week of school. Assure them that if they think they may have any financial or logistical difficulties getting these supplies, that you will provide them. (So have some extra binders, divider labels, and paper on hand). I have offered this for several years and students have NEVER taken advantage of the offer without good reason. It shows them that you care and you are willing to go above and beyond to help them succeed.

5. Make it clear that you will conduct “binder checks” once in a while, and then give them notice ahead of time. “On Friday, while you are working on your quiz, I will be checking your binders for these elements… You can earn up to 5 points.”

People, don’t try to surprise the kids by saying “And now, put your binders on your desks. I am going to check them to make sure you’re all doing what I say.” Any kind of “gotcha” technique creates resentment, not respect.

Master teacher Tyler Hester of TFA even includes pictures in his syllabus:

binder

source: Tyler Hester HW Binder assignment

binder2

source: Ibid

You’d be surprised at how many of my kids brought binders with no dividers, or binders with no paper, or binders with dividers that weren’t labelled, etc.

 

But I learned something new to add to my “Binder Control” technique this year!

My friend and fellow teacher told me about how she has her kids organize their Notes section by using a table of contents. On the first day you take notes, you explain with them how this process works and why it is helpful.

Here’s a slide of hers that I modified to show them how to correctly format their table of contents. I did this with my students today since we are learning about growth and fixed mindsets:

Slide13

 

The “1.1” stands for Unit 1, Lesson 1. That way, when they are preparing for a quiz or test, you can tell them: “For this assessment you will need Notes 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3″

Make sure they do not write anything else on this table of contents page, front or back.

Then you have them open to a new, fresh page and label it before beginning to take notes:

Slide14

 

Explain to them that this method will also help them if they are ever absent from school. They can ask a friend to for notes and look them up by date.

Fellow teachers: what ideas do you have to help keep your kids organized?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Teaching, Uncategorized

First Day of School!

Tomorrow is my first day of school!

I’m thinking about class culture, setting the tone, and practicing procedures with my kids. I’m pretty nervous, but that’s okay. I’m excited too.

Here’s a video I’ve found helpful and maybe other teachers will as well!

Setting the Tone from Day One

This the kind of thing I would have been really uncertain about my first year – especially since I teach high school. The kids in this video are clearly in middle school. My line of thinking used to be – “I don’t have to be that strict with h.s. kids. They already know how to behave. This will seem silly to them.”

Biiiig mistake.

Whether or not it seems silly to them, having high school kids practice what you want them to do and HOW you want them to do it in the first weeks of school is crucial.

Yes, most high school kids will behave really well on the first day of school, because they don’t know you and they’re a bit nervous.

But fast forward three weeks and you will wonder why it takes you 5 minutes to settle your kids down every day. You’ll be frustrated. You’ll think: “They know better!”

When really, it’s your fault.

If you don’t show your kids from day 1 what your expectations are, you have no right to expect them to read your mind.

I try to tell my kids that I’m super strict in the beginning of the year, and super clear about expectations (especially no talking at the beginning of class) because I care about them and I want them to learn.

Keep it simple, people. Remind them that you care and then tell them what expect from them. Students rise to expectations.

 

By the way, the video above comes from teachingchannel.org, a website I have found very helpful. Yes, it’s super aligned to the Common Core (for good and for bad), but the teachers are great and share some wonderful ideas for all grade levels and subjects.

Check it out!

7 Comments

Filed under Education, Teaching