Dissecting the Frog

Very much on the mind and heart again.

Mysteries and Manners

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids…

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“Any but the greatest”

It’s been too long since I’ve written about Flannery, but as usual her voice is on my mind and ever-ready to set me straight.

There have been a lot of difficult changes going on around me recently #beingateacher #catholicschool, and today this quote by Flannery came to mind:

Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving. I think it is impossible to live and not to grieve but I am always suspicious of my own grief lest it be self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing. And the worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason, for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve; and it is better to be joyful than to grieve. But it takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have. (Collected Works, via Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism: Essays on Violence and Grace)

That quote is worth rereading a few times.

I remember seven and a half (!) years ago while I was studying abroad in Rome, our Literature professor Dr. Roper framed our Lit Trad III course around the question “Is life ultimately a tragedy or a comedy?” We read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristophanes and Shakespeare and others that semester. Dr. Roper gave us that question again on the final exam.

These words by Flannery helped me, during that challenging semester and during the years afterward, to confront that question.

Dante (whom I always read with my kids this time of year) named his work the Commedia and gave us the traditional Christian response: life is ultimately comic (in the literary sense of the word) because Christ’s love redeems humanity.

But unless you yourself get a vision of hell, purgatory and heaven, it is much harder to see Dante’s vision of things except by faith. The ancient Greeks seemed convinced that life was ultimately tragic, and had a lot of good reasons for thinking so. Indeed their greatest works reflect the view that human beings are subject to fate or the whims of the gods and can only learn wisdom by accepting their humble (and tragic) state #Oedipus.

As an English teacher with a melancholic disposition, I tend to see my life, my work and my students very dramatically. This tendency can be good because it means I take everything seriously but it can also be bad because I take everything seriously.

I like that Flannery O’Connor, in the quote above, acknowledges but then pushes aside the question of whether or not life is ultimately tragic (note her friendly “Naw”, but not a firm “no”). If you read her stories, you might get the impression that she thinks life very tragic indeed. However, she pushes past the tragedy question and gets right to the heart of the matter, as she always does: “life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.”

Her tone is lighthearted here and characteristically critical of intellectuals, but it is not disingenuous nor dismissive. She is suspicious of her own grief lest it be “self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing”, but as is usual in her letters you can hear her own experience of loss in the background as she wrestles with what faith demands: “The worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason; for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve.”

Ultimately, she concludes, it is “better” also to be joyful than to dwell in grief, as perhaps Dante teaches us. Pope Francis, too, is always urging Christians to be joyful, going so far as to say that “without joy [a] person is not a true believer” (via Breitbart.com).

But I like that Flannery O’Connor openly acknowledges the challenge of joy: “It takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have.” She suggests that joy itself is a divine gift–requiring “grace”– and that it is an experience we cannot muster on our own.

Only “the greatest”–that is, the saints– have this joy, not because they are not well-acquainted with grief, but because they are actually more well-acquainted with it than the rest of us. Their grief is joined to the grief of Christ on the cross, and so too is their joy. If you read her letters I think you’d agree that Flannery herself is included in their number.


source: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org





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Tell Them You Care

I think one of the hardest things about being a teacher is that moment you realize that you care WAY more than your students do.

The kid you have been pulling aside all year long, who doesn’t know how to study, and who you beg to come in for extra help? You care more than he does.

The girl who rarely comes to school and always comes to your class late, who misses so many lessons and therefore fails almost every assessment? You care more than she does.

The kid who always wants to put his head down, who always wants to go to the bathroom, who wants to do anything to avoid interacting with you or the other students? You care more than he does.

At least, you think you do.

That’s what it feels like when you are a teacher.

And yes, you get it. There are all sorts of reasons – valid reasons! – why a lot of kids don’t care about school.

But after a while you want to throw in the towel. Why should I care about Jake failing more than he does? Why should I spend all this time making retakes and practice assignments when half of those kids never show up for extra help anyway? Why should I even bother trying to make my lessons engaging? Why should I assign this essay or write this sample? Why should I put all this effort in?

I’ve been feeling this way a lot (as I often do at the end of the year). It’s a hard time for everybody.

Today I passed back yet another test which an alarming number of students failed. I showed them the study guide side by side with the test–the study guide I had assigned for homework before the test that many of them decided not to do. There were murmurs of surprise when they saw how similar the study guide was to the test, and how the homework was clearly aligned to the assessment and was clearly meant to help them.


But instead, I just said to them, “Some of you did a great job on this test, and you have been working hard all year, and I see you and I am so proud of you. Some of you really struggled on this test. Maybe it was because you are not giving yourself enough practice outside of class. Maybe it’s because you’re confused and you needed to ask for some help.

“But here’s what you really need to know: I gave you this study guide because I care about you. I offer retakes on every assessment because I care about you. I stay up late and plan lessons every day, even though I’d rather go to bed or do a million other things, because I care about you. I do everything I can to help you be successful because I care about you. I push you and challenge you because I care about you.

“It’s not too late to learn and grow. It’s not too late to walk out of the dark woods and ask Virgil to help you. It might feel like Virgil is leading you through hell, but you have to do the hard and scary stuff in order to make progress.” (We’re reading Dante’s Inferno right now, so they get the allusion.)

“I care about you and I want you to succeed. That’s my job. Let me know how I can help.”

And I saw on their faces that some of them were moved  to hear that.

And I realized, I need to say that phrase – “I care about you” – a lot more often. Because sometimes they don’t hear that phrase as often as they should. And sometimes they can’t make the connection between what you do for them and how you really feel for them.

As with everything else in good teaching, you need to be clear. You need to say what you mean. Of course it seems obvious to us, as teachers, that we care. But it may not be obvious to your kids.

So, if you’re a teacher, insert “because I care about you” into your correction of a misbehavior.

Insert “because I care about you” into the consequence you give.

Insert “because I care about you” after you give some tough feedback on an assignment.

And see what happens.

They need to hear that phrase. All the time. And maybe if they do hear it all the time, over and over again, in big ways and small ways, verbally and silently, through actions and words, the message will hit home.


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Persuasion and the 8th commandment

The Archdiocese of Denver’s language arts curriculum for the 9th and 10th grade includes a seemingly simple standard:

“Analyze the truth of an argument in light of Catholic doctrine” (RI 2).

Okay, we’re at a Catholic school, so of course we should look at the explicit and implicit arguments we read in all sorts of texts “in light of” Church teaching. Would the Church like this idea? No. Okay, why? Would the Church like that idea? Sure. Okay, why? Etc.

But if you think about it, in order to get kids to read a text “in light of” anything, you need to enlighten the kids. They need to know what the “light” is in order to learn how to see by it.

So  I try to end almost all of my units using this standard. We step back at the end of a novel or series of poems or a play and see what the Gospel has to say about it all.

We’re (finally) finishing up Julius Caesar this week. The unit was about the art of persuasion, since persuasion is at the heart of this tragedy; Cassius manipulating Brutus and convincing him to join the conspirators who assassinate Caesar is only one of many examples of persuasion in this play. And most of these acts of persuasion, though effective, are bad. They are either riddled with logical fallacies or stocked with deceitful uses of pathos, logos and ethos.

See, for example, this masterful performance of Antony’s speech to the Roman rabble. He has to convince them that their beloved Brutus is a criminal. And he does:

He uses mostly pathos — playing upon the crowd’s hopes and fears. He establishes his credibility with ethos and pretends to be on the side of Brutus and the others. He repeats the phrase “honorable men” — at first with reverence, then with doubt, and eventually with increasing sarcasm so that the crowd begins to wonder why it ever considered Brutus honorable at all.

The whole play is largely about how people manipulate the truth in order to convince others to do and think what they want.


So I teach my kids about what the Church says about the truth and the 8th commandment — the rule that God gave us to safeguard the truth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

6.5 SWBAT apply Church teaching on the 8th commandment to persuasive arguments.

That way, maybe my students will not be so easily manipulated. And maybe they will think about their own reverence (or lack thereof) for truth.

So we look Christ’s intriguing conversation with Pilate:

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him.”

(John 18:33-38)

We discuss how since Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic, and Pilate’s was Latin, that they were both probably speaking Greek to one another (the universal language of commerce in the ancient world) and that therefore the word Pilate used when he asked that fascinating question “What is truth?” was probably ἀλήθεια (aleteia).

At any rate, ἀλήθεια is the word John’s Gospel uses, as John wrote his gospel in Greek.

The Greek word for truth has a literal meaning akin to “unveiling” or “disclosed-ness”. Truth, then, has many philosophers have discussed, is the “unveiling of being” or the “disclosure of reality.”

Yeah – I guess that’s pretty intense for 10th graders.

But it is very beautiful, too. Going to a Catholic school that talks about “Truth, Goodness and Beauty” a lot might have given them the impression that “Truth” is some sort of abstract object in the sky they ought to adhere to or else.

But thinking of truth as the uncovering of reality, the unveiling of being, gives my kids a fresh look at their own relationship with the truth. How do they try to uncover the truth about themselves and others? What is the right way to approach the truth? What is the right way to unveil ourselves or to unveil truths to other people?

When you try to persuade someone, hopefully you are trying to persuade that person toward the truth about something. But so often we merely use the truth – or facts, perhaps – to manipulate and to control others, as Antony does in his speech to the gullible Romans and [insert politician’s name here] does to the gullible Americans.

We then talk about the 8th commandment and what the Catechism says — how the 8th commandment is about much more than simply not lying, but that it also forbids gossip and detraction and calumny.

The kids are pretty floored that you can say something 100% true about someone else, and yet still break the 8th commandment.

I even give them a little Hans Urs von Balthasar to consider:

“Even though man is predisposed to communication in general, he is not compelled by nature to any one conscious communication in particular. He does not have to say what he knows. He has the command of his treasury of knowledge, so that he can make a free gift of every particular disclosure. No one can wring his truth from him or manipulate it without his knowledge and consent. Truth as self-unveiling is, in the case of man, a free, hence responsible, ethically consequential act.”

Theo-Logic: Truth of the World

Every act of self-disclosure is “a free” and “ethically consequential act.” How beautiful, and how humbling.

Basically, this seeing things “in light of Catholic doctrine” part of every unit is my way to be a theology teacher and an English teacher at the same time.

Happily, at a Catholic school, those two things are not mutually exclusive.


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Classroom Discussions

You know it’s been an intense few weeks when I haven’t had the time or energy to write a blog post!

In the meantime, here is a great video on creating productive classroom discussions. This teacher is using “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor – and she slips in a nice definition of grace:


Since it is the Ides of March, check out this version of Julius Caesar I have been watching with my kids as we make our way through a unit on persuasive techniques:


I find this unit to be very timely. We have been using excerpts from the Republican and Democratic debates to identify and explain pathos, logos, ethos — as well as plenty of logical fallacies.

I have been doing my best to restrain myself in not drawing too many analogies between the events of the play and current events in the U. S.

“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Marullus says to the Roman people as they take a day off of work to celebrate Caesar’s conquests.

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Three Pseudo-Christian Approaches

Some two and a half years ago, Pope Francis told us about the Christian way to encounter God in the world:

“We need to touch Jesus’ wounds, caress Jesus’ wounds, bind them with tenderness; we must kiss Jesus’ wounds, literally. Just think: what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed. To touch the living God”, Pope Francis concluded, “we do not need to attend a ‘refresher course’ but to enter into the wounds of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, VIS)

Read the rest of it here: Vatican Information Service


via thoughtsfromacatholic.wordpress.com

In this homily, the Pope contrasts this Christian approach of touching the wounds of Jesus with three other approaches: the “Gnostic” approach (pursing “knowledge of God” rather than a relationship with the God-Man, Jesus Christ), the “Philanthropist” approach (doing good things, creating the Kingdom of God rather than working to receive it as a gift) and the “mortification” approach (earning one’s way to God through self-denial).

These three approaches are what you could call “pseudo-Christian”. Each has an element of Christianity in it, but each neglects something or exaggerates something.

As a teacher, especially a former ACE teacher, I think I am very much tempted to adopt these mistakes:

1) The Gnostic Approach: Let’s face it, I’m what Flannery O’Connor disparagingly calls a “big intellectual”. So are a lot of people who went to liberal arts colleges. We thrive on ideas, and connections, and relationships, and books. We love learning ABOUT God. But of course, that is not the same as learning to know God. The former is fascinating, the latter is frightening–and causes us to change. Gnosticism treats one’s relationship with God as an elite journey into higher levels of spiritual knowledge and tends to either despise the world or ignore it.

2) The Philanthropist Approach: ACE teachers, and members of other service organizations, are especially prone to this error I think. The theology goes something like this: Jesus was always talking about “The Kingdom of God.” This “Kingdom” is “the reign of God on earth,” or a society founded upon peace and justice. As Christians, we are responsible for creating this society by opposing and changing the pre-existing unjust structures.

There IS a lot of truth to this approach–but like all distortions, it’s all the more dangerous because it has only part of the truth. This was the Christianity I learned in high school and many learn at colleges that are comfortable professing only the parts of the faith that no secular person could be offended by.

The philanthropist’s mistake is a misunderstanding of what “The Kingdom of God” really is. Notice Jesus never says, “Go out and build the kingdom of God, and as soon as you manage that, I’ll come back!” He says “The Kingdom of God is at hand” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That is, the Kingdom is the gift of God’s presence that we can choose to participate in or reject–but it is not something we can bring about by our own efforts.

Often I think it’s up to me to change education single-handedly. Really, it’s God’s work in which He invites me to participate.

3) The Mortification Approach: This is the approach that, I believe, the Philanthropist approach (ie. “Spirit of Vatican II) was trying to correct. This more “traditional” mistake falls too far in the other direction– it makes the journey of faith a bunch of requirements. It encourages people to remove themselves from the sinful world and focus on personal acts of self-denial and good works. It is rigid and prideful. It’s the error of the Pharisees.

Interestingly, it makes the same fundamental mistake as the Philanthropist approach: it relies far too heavily upon human effort and not enough upon God’s grace. Unsurprisingly, the Self-Mortifier and the Philanthropist fall into similar sins of pride and lack of charity toward others.

The Christian approach, according to Pope Francis, is quite different. Unlike the Gnostic, who prizes knowledge and esoteric ways of knowing God, the Christian realizes that knowledge of God is available to everyone, and that the only real way to know God is through love. Unlike the Philanthropist, who focuses only on trying to bring about a utopia on earth, the Christian remembers he is a citizen of heaven and that the Kingdom is a gift, not a political agenda. Unlike the Self-Mortifier, who focuses so much on his idea of heaven and his own advancement in the spiritual life that he cuts himself off from the world, the Christian is willing to walk boldly into the mess to find Jesus in everyone he meets.


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If there were another Narnia book

There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…

Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.

This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.


Now then–

The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created just for them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.

They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.

There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:

  1. Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
  2. Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
  3. We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.

Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.

But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.

The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.

And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

I was crushed.

Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.

Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan? 

And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?

If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:

It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.

My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.

Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.

I’ve written about the connection between faith and memory before, and so have Popes Francis and Benedict in Lumen Fidei. How often does our faith in God waver because we forget what he is really like?  How often do we sin because we forget ourselves?

How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”

In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.

But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).


Concept Art via Narniafans.com

Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:

“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”

via Matthew Alderman, “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things

His words still echo in my mind.

I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?

I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.

And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.

Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.

Neither is ours.

I can see the beginning chapter now.

They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…


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