New Teacher Temptation #1

There is a new English teacher at my school who is working with the freshman. I love her! She has done so well – especially coming in halfway through the year and working hard to establish great procedures. But like all new teachers, she is overwhelmed.

I have loved talking with her and remembering my own first year teaching. I am doing my best to help her not succumb to the same worries and temptations that I did – or, at the very least, to be aware of them.

One we were discussing recently is new teacher temptation #1:

The idea that unless you are talking the whole class period and exhausting yourself, you are being a lazy teacher and your kids aren’t learning.

Or, it can also manifest itself this way:

The idea that if your kids are working silently for long periods of time and you are not talking to the whole class, you are being a bad teacher.

Both of these ideas are completely false, but they are chronic worries for the new teacher and sometimes even for the more experienced teacher.

These tempting but utterly misleading ideas arise for many reasons. One is that some teachers, who merely pass out worksheets all day and sit behind their desks while the kids do them (or don’t do them), are being bad teachers. If that practice is your modus operandi, there is something seriously wrong. I saw this practice occurring a lot at my old school and I wanted to be as different from that as possible — and so I thought that it was my job to be the entertaining center-of-attention in my classroom.

Like this:

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So exciting. Source: publicdomainpictures.net

If you google “teacher cartoon” on google images, you’d see how most of the pictures look like this, because this is what society thinks teaching should look like. Teacher talking, chalkboard behind him or her, and coffee.

But that’s not always true.

New teachers: the center of attention in your classroom should not be you. It should be student learning.

Whatever methods get you there are good methods.

Sometimes that means you, as a teacher, need to do most of the talking during a certain lesson. Other times that means the kids need to do most of the talking. Other times that means nobody needs to do ANY talking for a certain period of time.

The point is, you want to find the most helpful and efficient way to facilitate learning in your kids.

This is a nice picture, but I bet you very little actual learning is going on here:

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source: alpinecommunitynetwork.com

I mean, how could it be? The blonde boy will have an aching neck in a moment, the girl with the pig tails can barely see the text, and the boy with his mouth open in astonishment is pointing at a conspicuously huge and picture-less volume that is probably not as thrilling as the picture wants you to believe. Only the girl on the right seems to be reading.

I mean, these pictures look a lot more realistic to me, albeit less glamorous:

GARZA STAFFORD

source: americanprogress.org

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source: blog.gonoodle.com

My friend, the new freshman teacher, was wondering if it would be okay for her to spend a few days having the kids read a challenging text individually in class (since they probably wouldn’t read it outside of class) and answer questions about it. I gave her some further ideas about how to differentiate.

“Are you sure that’s okay?” she said. “I mean, it’s going to be really quiet in my room for the next couple of days. It’s okay to have them read during class? By themselves?”

I affirmed that it was, indeed okay – in fact, wonderful – because it was the simplest way for her to help her kids achieve the learning goal.

I couldn’t help but think of Harry Wong saying “Get to work! Get to work! Get to work!” in his video on classroom management.  But he is right. The point is not to make yourself work (although, inevitably, that will happen). The point is to make the kids work:

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Source: dcmp.org

Here’s an example of a choice I made today that I would have had a very hard time making my first year:

We’re starting a new unit (our last unit!) on Dante’s Inferno. Here is my objective:

SWBAT explain historical context and background information for Dante.

My first year of teaching (and my second… and my third…) I would have felt it was my responsibility to give the kids information like this. After all, some of them haven’t even heard of Dante, and none of them know more than one or two facts about him. So I probably would have made a guided notes sheet and a power point presentation where I used “direct instruction” (translation: teacher talking, students listening and taking notes) to get the important facts about Dante into the kids’ heads. After all, “explain” is a very low-level Bloom’s verb and so taking on the more active role is not a bad idea.

But this year I realized that this method was not the most effective way for my kids to learn about Dante’s life and times.

So instead, this year, I created a packet with critical questions and suggestions for helpful websites. Then I took them to the library and they researched Dante’s life themselves and answered the questions, citing the sources. All I did was walk around, observe, keep them on track, and help them when necessary.

Tomorrow I will briefly go over the answers with them just to make sure they have their facts straight.

My classroom was not only quiet today, it was empty.

And the library was pretty quiet too.

But the point is, it was much more powerful for the kids to find the information for themselves rather than merely receiving it from me. They will be more likely to remember it, too.

I still felt a little guilty. That New Teacher Temptation made me want to explain myself to our librarian, to assure her that I wasn’t just taking the day off.

But I resisted.

New teachers – trust yourselves. Pick the method that will help your kids learn — not the one that makes you look good.

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Lost Causes – Updated

Please take some time to read this beautiful post by a teacher whose blog I have been reading for some time now. Like, go click the link below and read the whole thing right now:

What I Wish I Could Tell Them About Teaching in a Title I School by Love, Teach.

A small part:

I’m also not writing this for proof or validation that I work hard. I don’t have anything to prove about my work ethic or value as a teacher, to myself or anyone else, and this is not meant to initiate a game of “who has it worse.”

[…]

No. I’m writing this because I care about what happens to my students, and other children like them in Title I schools across this country whose needs are not being met, and who are learning harmful lessons from the larger systems in place that are supposed to help them. I am writing this to give others a picture of the type of learning and teaching environments that are being created by these systems.  I’m writing because it’s 2015, and far too many children in this country are still receiving a lower quality education because of the neighborhood into which they were born. (Love, Teach)

I am in a much easier situation than this brave soldier. I do not, and have not ever, taught in a Title I public school.

But I am a teacher too, and so my heart breaks.

She says,

I would tell them that it feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about. (Ibid)

She’s in an impossible situation.

And yet, and yet, when I was reading her post, something inside me kept saying, “No!”

I don’t want this teacher to leave.

I don’t know who she is, and heaven knows I do not know what she has been through, but she is exactly the type of person — exactly the particular person — we need to stay with our kids, because she loves them. Because she gets it. Because she teaches with everything she’s got, and it’s only in losing your life that you can find it.

At least, I know many of her kids have found it.

Or maybe I feel so strongly about this because I need to believe that it is possible to stay, even under such circumstances.

If teaching drives away all of us who love our kids, by breaking our hearts and breaking our spirits, who will be left?

The teachers that don’t care enough for the injustice of our country’s school systems to affect them? The teachers that don’t try hard enough so that the job seems like the stereotypical “Christmas breaks” and “summers off” vacation? The teachers who print out worksheets every day and show movies so they don’t have to deal with the real intellectual and emotional challenge of encountering young human souls?

Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever. Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds.

But we need more teachers like this wonderful young woman who has given the last five years of her life to a seemingly “lost cause” — perhaps it is, indeed, lost for all practical purposes.

A wise lady once told me, “In every crucifixion there is a resurrection.”

Perhaps we are not going to see any clear resurrection for ourselves here.

But even for the lost causes, the most horrific crucifixions, I believe in the parable of the seed that falls to the earth and dies.

Jimmy Stewart’s character says, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ (Source. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”)

It’s worth watching the whole scene. I hope the author of “Love, Teach,” watches this:

Also, this, by Emily Genser at the Huffington Post: “Don’t You Quit”

UPDATE:

The Washington Post is publishing Love, Teach’s beautiful reflection here.

Anyone who loves kids and education needs to read it.

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On Teaching Poetry, Part II

I taught my annual poetry unit at the beginning of the semester and have already blogged a little about it here.  In that post I posted these key questions:

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how. How can we help our kids get inside a poem? How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language? How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it? (“On Teaching Poetry“)

A lot of teachers take one of two conventional (and mistaken) approaches: have the students read easy, crappy poems, or have them read classical poems and force them to try to get some meaning out of it. I have chosen another approach.

Being a UD grad, I’m all about the Western Tradition and legit poetry. But I’m also all about respecting where my kids are and acknowledging the fact that, for most of them, poetry is pretty boring. So instead of teaching what a poem is about or even why a poet wrote it, I teach them to ask the question how.

The first thing the kids need to learn when encountering poetry is the difference between tone and mood. Why? Because recognizing tone and mood in conversation, in writing, in emails, in text messages, in any type of human communication is a basic life skill. If you can’t identify tone and mood, then you miss out on 99% of the meaning in any given sentence you read.

Tone is how the speaker feels about what he is saying. It is his attitude.

Mood is how the speaker is trying to make the audience feel about what he is saying.

I ask them, “Have you ever met someone who has a hard time picking up on sarcasm?”

They always say yes. “That person, who cannot pick up on a sarcastic tone, unfortunately misses most of the meaning.”

I then give a real life example. I walk up to Charlie and I say with sincerity and a bright smile, “Hey, Charlie, you did a great job in class today!”

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh.. good, miss,” he replies.

“Great. Because I used a sincere or kind tone, I created a positive or happy mood in Charlie. But I could easily say the exact same words and create a totally different meaning.”

I walk up to Charlie again, this time with a bored and annoyed expression on my face. “Hey, Charlie. You did a great job in class today.” I make the sarcasm as evident as possible.

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh… kinda bad, actually…”

“Exactly. This time I used a sarcastic tone and that created a hurt or slightly depressed mood.”

So then we start to apply those terms to poems – usually simple Billy Collins poems first. Ask questions like, “Okay, what do you think the speaker’s tone is in stanza 1 – positive or negative? What words or images made you say that?”

Starting with the generic terms positive or negative really helps the kids at first. After they determine if the tone is positive or negative, they can more easily find a stronger tone word like “sad” or “furious” or “calm”.

So then we work on what I call “Tone and Mood Maps.” Basically, the kids get a poem with plenty of space in the margins. Then we go through the  poem stanza by stanza and put a plus sign + or minus sign – next to each stanza. Then, once we have mapped out basic positives and negatives, then we go back through the poem again and try to determine a tone word and a mood word for each stanza. Like so:

One of my students’ annotations. Notice the plus and minus signs on the left. Then the tone words on the left of each stanza, and the mood words on the right.

The next step is to put them in the place of the poet. Oftentimes students take for granted how difficult it is to write a poem. So I have them write their own “Introduction to Poetry” modeled after Billy Collins’ poem of the same name. The above picture shows one of these poems that was afterwards annotated by the student for tone and mood. Here is another one. The poem is worth reading!

photo-2

Again, notice the + and – signs, tone words on the left and the mood words on the right.

And I really like the way this student models her poem after both Collins’ and Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: photo-3

Approaching poetry this way changes the question from what does a poem mean to how does a poem mean.

Which, in the end, is a much more meaningful question. It prevents the student from making assumptions about the poet’s intent, and instead forces him to watch what the poet actually does in the poem.

Even if I present them with (gasp!) a real poem, they can find a way into the poem through the tone and mood. Like this student, who wrote admirably about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Here’s his second body paragraph:

Throughout the second and third stanzas of the poem, Frost tells of many similarities between the two roads. However, he twists and controls language in these stanzas using an appealing tone to help the speaker convince the readers that the second road was the correct one to choose and kindle in them a desire for it. After looking at one road for a while, the speaker “took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear,/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (6-10). This is what makes this poem difficult to understand. As a result of the appealing tone that the speaker uses, the reader is led to experience an intrigued mood and get caught up in the appeal of the second path, but forget that it is the same as the first.

I love that this kid is comfortable admitting that this poem is “difficult to understand”. He doesn’t pretend to get the whole thing and turn it to some carpe diem cliche, like most people do when they read Frosts’ poem. Instead, he just describes how the poem means by analyzing the tone and the mood.

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Judas, John and Jesus

Even when I read the Bible I am an English major. I cannot help but read the Gospels as stories. One of the relationships I find the most fascinating is that between Judas, John and Jesus.

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The Last Supper by Natalia Tsarkova, 2002. Look how Jesus, John and Judas are portrayed in this scene.

I attend a wonderful Bible Study with a group of young Catholic women here in Denver, and this year we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We read Mark 14 and 15 the other night, the chapters that recount the events leading up to and including the Passion. Chapter 14 begins with “the anointing at Bethany,” where a woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive “alabaster jar of perfumed oil.” Mark then notes,

There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. (Mark 14:4-5)

Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense in a beautiful and powerful way:

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Mary of Bethany

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you  will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)

I have always found his remarks here to be so haunting. Indeed, though Mark does not tell us her name, he records the event so that everywhere in the whole world we remember this woman.

Interestingly, it is right after this scene at Bethany that Mark recounts the betrayal of Judas. Right after Jesus finishes speaking, it seems, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them” (Mark 14:10).

It seems as if this scene at Bethany was somehow the last straw for Judas. Mark does not tell us why.

Last year, we were reading the Gospel of John, which also recounts this scene. But notice the differences:

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (John 12:1-3)

We have a lot more detail here in John’s Gospel, which is one of the reasons I firmly believe this gospel does come from an eyewitness, the youngest apostle himself. I find it moving that the author remembers, even after so many years, how “the house was filled with the fragrance.”

But John also remembers who it was that objected to the woman’s — here, Mary of Bethany’s– lavish act of love:

Then Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, emphasis added)

Note the commentary in italics. All four Gospels recount that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money. And, in their listing of the apostles, they always give Judas the epithet “the one who betrayed him.” But it is John who seems to feel the sting of the betrayal so personally — so much so that he always portrays Judas in the worse possible light. Here, he makes it clear that it was Judas to objected to Mary’s act of love– it was Judas who thought the breaking of the jar a waste of money, and who brought up the obvious objection inspired perhaps by Jesus’ own previous teaching on the poor.

John’s bitter commentary here– “He said this not because he cared about the poor”– seems very moving to me. Even after all this time, he is still so angry with Judas. Even after knowing about the Resurrection, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering, he– the youngest apostle, the “one whom Jesus loved”, the gentle, courageous one who stayed with him by the Cross, who was given the gift of caring for Mary as Jesus died– still feels so hurt and so bitter here that he cannot write unfeelingly about Judas’ actions.

Clearly, Saints Mark and Luke were not apostles of Jesus themselves. Mark, according to tradition, wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Saint Peter and Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. It seems unlikely to me that the author of Matthew’s gospel was the apostle Matthew himself — he writes with the same objectivity and restraint as the other synoptic writers.

But the Gospel of John is not written like that at all. There are all sorts of details and personal touches that suggest an eyewitness, and I think the treatment of Judas in this gospel is especially telling.

Even after all these years — John is writing sometime in the 80s or 90s AD, as an old man — the betrayal of Judas brings back his anger. He notes, during the Last Supper, that “Satan enters [Judas]” and “it was night” when he departs to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much earlier, in the famous Chapter 6 of the gospel where he recounts Jesus’ promise of the Eucharist, the bread of life discourse, John concludes Jesus’ words this way:

“But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (John 6:64)

Even here, John connects one of Jesus most profound teachings with the betrayal of Judas. John seems to think that Judas’ rejection of Christ began far earlier than the synoptic gospels recount.

Significantly, John says no more about Judas after the betrayal in the garden. For him, nothing else needs to be said.

But Matthew does. And he even seems to view Judas with some compassion:

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”

Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5, emphasis added)

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Judas betrays the Son of Man with a kiss. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

It will always be a mystery why Judas chose to betray Jesus. If he was the keeper of the money, as John says, in some way Jesus must have trusted him to give him such a task. Tradition seems to hold that Judas valued money more than Jesus — obviously he accepted the thirty pieces of silver– yet there must be more to it than that. I think the moment where the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus “for burial” is significant for Judas. Perhaps this is the moment where he realizes Jesus is not the Messiah Judas thought he was going to be. On the one hand, Jesus claims to be more important than even serving the poor, but on the other he indicates that his death is very near. He is not going to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Roman oppression, he is not going to restore Jewish life in the Promise Land. Instead, he is going to die. All of this is too much for Judas. He is disappointed.

I think Judas’ story is tragic and terrifying. We all betray Jesus for strange and stupid reasons every day, and we too are disappointed in Him. He disrupts our orderly plans and our constricted hopes and gives us the cross instead.

We all hope that when we do betray Jesus, we can be like Peter and seek His forgiveness. We hope that sometimes we can even be like John and not betray Him in the first place, and stay with Him by the cross until the very end.

But all too often we are like Judas. We are disappointed and so we give Him up — we stop praying, we turn away, we busy ourselves and ignore him. And then when we realize what we have done, we are so ashamed that we cannot bring ourselves to run back to Him. We refuse to go to Confession, we refuse to beg for His mercy because our pride says we do not deserve it.

Of course we don’t deserve it. That’s the point. Even John, the good apostle, the best friend of Jesus, the caretaker of Mary,  is clearly imperfect in his struggle to forgive Judas sixty years after the Passion took place.

The hard thing about Good Friday is that it remains only an invitation to mercy. You can kneel at the foot of the cross, or you can mock the cross, or you can simply turn away and go hang yourself on the tree of your own pride. But the cross still stands, and Jesus is still there waiting for us with outstretched arms.

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John holds Mary, our Mother, at the foot of the cross. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

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Who is Emily Eden?

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The Lady Emily Eden. Source: tribuneindia.com

I had never heard of her before, so when my friend explained to me that she was a contemporary of Jane Austen and had written a wonderful novel, I was immediately intrigued. Noel Perrin of The Washington Post, on the back cover, amusingly observes, “The Semi-Attached Couple is the answer to a good many prayers. It is the book you go on to when you have run out of Jane Austen’s novels.”

We all know Jane Austen and her enduring influence on our ideas of romance and strong women. The Wall Street Journal just posted a great article by Alexander McCall Smith exploring the mystery of her appeal even to contemporary people: “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry”. Smith wonders,

What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels. (Smith, “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry.” Wall Street Journal).

After reading Emily Eden’s delightful novel, The Semi-Detached Couple, I guess my question is this:

Why has everyone heard of Jane Austen and nobody has heard of Emily Eden?

Emily Eden (1797-1869) occupied a rather distinguished position in the upper class of her day. She, like Austen, never married– but unlike Austen did quite a bit of traveling, even to India with her beloved brother, where she wrote about her experiences.

The Semi-Detatched Couple was originally written around 1830 but not published until 1860. Interestingly Eden felt the need to include a caveat right after the cover page, explaining to her audience that this novel had been written a generation ago, “before railroads were established, and traveling carriages-and-four superseded” and thus really was “a strange Chronicle of the Olden Time” (Eden, Preface to The Semi-Detatched Couple).

Unlike Austen, who always writes about the pre-marriage adventures of courtship, pursuit, and misunderstanding–Eden in this novel writes about post-married life. The novel explores the challenges of a newly married couple who have a very hard time understanding one another. Lord Teviot is desperately in love with this wife but extremely jealous of her strong attachment to her family. Lady Helen is confused by her husband’s moodiness and misses her loving home.

However, like Austen, Eden creates extremely memorable, humorous, and occasionally infuriating characters–like the next door neighbor Mrs. Douglas who

had never had the slightest pretensions to good looks; in fact, though it is wrong to say anything so ill-natured, she was excessively plain, always had been so, and had a soreness on the subject of beauty, that looked perhaps as like envy as any other quality. As she had no hope of raising herself to the rank of a beauty, her only chance was bringing others down to her own level. “How old she is looking!” — “How she is altered!” were the expressions that invariably concluded Mrs. Douglas’ comments on her acquaintances […] (Ibid 21)

Eden, like Austen, is a very opinionated narrator whose frequent use of irony and wit had me laughing out loud many times throughout the novel.

Very aware of Austen’s influence, Eden even includes an explicit reference to her work. In a letter to her mother while visiting the enviable Ecksdales, Eliza Douglas says,

I write in such haste, that I have not time for more than several very important questions which I want you to answer. What am I to give the housemaids here? and do you object to my reading novels, if Lady Eskdale says there is no harm in them? They look very tempting, particularly one called Pride and Prejudice. (Ibid)

Like Austen, Eden makes frequent use of letter writing in advancing the plot and exploring the motives of her characters. But fascinatingly, unlike Austen, she explores the servants perspectives of their lords and ladies. In a letter from Mrs. Tomkinson, Helen’s ladies maid, we hear about the petty competitions between servants, their opinions on the upper-class interactions they witness daily, and their own concerns.  Eden treats them with the same amused attitude she has toward all of her characters.

Notably, Jane Austen never enters into the mind or heart of any servant in her novels. They are barely mentioned in her works at all. I wonder if perhaps, because Lady Eden belonged the the upper class and was safely removed from the servants’ circle, she did not feel threatened in any way by their perspectives and could enter into them in her novels without losing ironic detachment. Austen, being somewhat closer in class, perhaps could not share in this narrative perspective.

Austen also does not comment very much on the politics of her day (although I do not hold this against her). Eden does, and reveals all the ridiculous machinations of the political process of the period. In some ways she was far more worldly than Austen and this is very apparent in her work.

Although I do not think Lady Eden’s novel reaches the depth of Austen’s finest works, (like Emma or Persuasion), I think it certainly surpasses Northanger Abbey and, in some ways, even Pride and Prejudice. She is gentler toward her characters than Austen is. And the “villains” in her story are not soundly punished like Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham are, which perhaps better illustrates an irritating truth about human life.

I highly recommend The Semi-Detached Couple and wish more people knew Lady Eden.

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Flannery and the Incarnation

Yesterday would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 90th birthday. I always thought it was so appropriate [read: providential] that she was born on the feast of the Annunciation, when God became incarnate. In fact it was her stories and letters that first really helped me to appreciate the Incarnation and Catholicism’s insistence on the sacramentality of the world.

I read C. S. Lewis long before I read O’Connor, and yet for all of his generous help to me in navigating Christianity, and his beautiful exploration of Christianity as a story in the Chronicles of Narnia, “Myth Became Fact” and other writings, I never really got the sacramental approach from him. It was in O’Connor’s bizarre works that are almost overwhelmingly “of the flesh” that I began to experience Christianity in a new way.

Christianity always seems to struggle in every age from gnosticism – from a desire to separate the body and the spirit. Flannery O’Connor’s writings are a very strong antidote for this chronic malady, I think because she herself was struck by the Church’s teaching on sacramentality and had to overcome a certain natural resistance to it:

For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)

When I was a junior in high school, I chose The Violent Bear It Away as my novel to read and to write about for the major paper we were writing in English class. This novel disturbed me and irritated me to no end (it still does), but I was arrested by how the moments of grace in the book were not abstract but firmly grounded in earthly imagery–fire and blood and bread and landscape. In this powerful scene, the protagonist, a young boy running away from his calling to be a prophet, is coming to terms with the fact that the mysterious “hunger” inside of him which has haunted him throughout the story cannot be satisfied:

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood. (O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away)

Reading Flannery O’Connor is very much like reading the Old Testament. There is violence and sin and some very unlikable people — and yet somehow it is only in this broken realm that grace chooses to work.

Oddly enough, that previous sentence also aptly describes the Catholic Church. It is not noble and abstract, nor clean and tidy, nor even very holy (except insofar as it is the vessel of the Holy Spirit). Rather it is full of violence and sin and some very unlikeable people. And yet somehow Christ has chosen to work his grace in it and through it.

As Flannery says, “Sometimes you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it.”

I love that. It comforts me when I’m impatiently enduring a banal liturgy or rolling my eyes about my Catholic friends’ Facebook posts or gaping at the comment some cardinal made or fuming over yet another scandal.

And of course I too am sometimes (perhaps oftener than I think) the cause of someone else’s “suffering from the Church”.

But Flannery understood this and explained it beautifully in her sharp, concise way: “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it” (Ibid).

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Flannery with her self-portrait. Source: full-stop.net

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Why I’m Changing My Mind About Grades – Part IV

20140331-203836So, I have not written in a long time.

The biggest reason?

I’ve been grading a lot more than usual.

Yes. Unfortunately, the verdict about my new grading policy is that it definitely creates more work for me. And, hopefully, more productive work for my kids. But it has been a lot and I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Still, I think the extra effort on my part has been worth it — I just need to find a way to make this system more sustainable in the long run.

For instance, because my school has a stacked schedule  (the same seven 50 minute periods every day), the only time kids can meet with me for help or to retake something is before school, during lunch, or after school. So I don’t really get any kind of break from them during the day now, which is okay, but kind of hard for an introvert like me. I always have someone signed up (usually four or five kids) during lunch time and a bunch of kids after school. (Fewer of them seem to want to get up earlier and meet with me in the mornings, so that’s good).

Next year if I continue to teach sophomores, it may be easier because I will already have created multiple versions of the same assessments. Right now, though, if I make a test and offer a retake on it, then I have to create at LEAST one more test and usually more versions to help prevent cheating.

However, all of this work is just part of the job. I think that’s the thing I really need to accept. I love teaching, but part of teaching involves devoting a lot of time to grading. That’s true of most jobs — in order to do what you love, you have to sacrifice a lot of time.

Here’s a summary of the results of this new policy for my kids:

For my strong students: The grading policy makes a small difference for them, but not a big one. Many of them learn the stuff the first time around and do not need to do retakes. A few of them have retaken their Poetry Essays and benefited from meeting with me about them.Peanuts_-_school_advice

For my struggling students: The grading policy has made a HUGE difference for the kids who just don’t get it the first time but want to improve and get better. It’s really helped some of my kids get motivated and not give up on themselves. It’s for these kids that the retake policy really matters, and seeing them improve has made me a big believer in it.

But then there are a few struggling students who do not benefit at all from the retake policy because… well… they never retake anything. It’s too much work to meet with me and get extra help and then write a letter explaining their mistakes. Or perhaps they have already given up on themselves. Or maybe…

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Part I

Part II

Part III

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