Leitmotifs and LIFEmotifs

No, go back and watch that first! ^^

I showed this video to my AP classes the other week in order to help them enrich their understanding of literary motifs– which are recurring images, symbols, ideas or patterns in a story that help highlight or develop a theme. (See previous post for the difficulty with themes.)

As I explained to my students, in the video above, the Nerdwriter uses the word “theme” where, literature-wise, I would use the word “motif.” He does an amazing job showing how Howard Shore develops the same series of notes (eg: the “Fellowship theme” /  motif) throughout the trilogy of movies in a way that highlights and qualifies the meaning of the scenes.

Literary motifs are not too hard to spot once you know what to look for–and they can really enrich your experience of a story.

For example, proposals are definitely a motif in Pride and Prejudice:

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“Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. “

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“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

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“On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together […] the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all. Their situation was awkward enough […]”

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“It taught me to hope,” said he, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”

Notice that, although each instance of the motif includes different characters in different situations with vastly different moods, etc– (like different instruments!) there is the common pattern of notes throughout. In fact, there is a thread weaved in the plot, if you tug it, you might be able to pull in order coax out a theme somewhere. What is Austen saying about proposals? Or even — what are adequate grounds for making a proposal? Answering those questions would give you a modest theme that Austen is probably getting at.

Interestingly, I find it rather unlikely that Austen thought to herself– “Hm, I think I will put a proposals motif into my story.” Maybe she did think that. But likely the proposal scenes occurred naturally in the plot. Motifs, like so many other amazing patterns in literature, often arise out of an organic process that isn’t always the result of the author’s conscious or deliberate intent; yet they are there just the same. I think of the Eucharistic sunset motifs in Flannery O’Connor stories, or the confession-rehearsals throughout Crime and Punishment, or the countless goodbye exchanges between friends in The Lord of the Rings. They are meant to be there, but not always, consciously, by the author.

Previously, my students had been thinking of motifs in King Lear as sort of static key words that show up frequently in the work; oh, look! There’s the word “sight” again! And then King Lear is acting “blind”! And now Gloucester’s eyes have been removed… so he’s literally blind… But although they could notice repeating images or words, they did not yet have the sense of the richness inherent in motifs. That’s why the video above is so helpful. There’s an almost visceral level that music in movies can touch that is not so easily accessed (at least anymore) by literature– but once you are reminded of it you can return to the page with awakened senses.

So, now that we’re reading Beowulf, what I want my kids to see is that the images or ideas that recur throughout the poem — like gold and treasure, the concept of fate, the use (or uselessness of weapons)— do so in much the same way as the stirring “Fellowship” motif recurs throughout LOTR or the foreboding Darth Vader or mysterious Force motif recurs throughout the Star Wars Saga. Sometimes, the same motif is played with different instruments, or with a different tempo, or with a minor shift of some kind. The change in tone, in instrumentation, in context, is as important in musical scores as it is in literature– and these changes suggest something about meaning.

For example, the first time we see the treasure motif appear in Beowulf is in the context of death: Shield Sheafson, a paradigmatic king and warrior whose hallowed memory strangely opens the tale of Beowulf, is given a water burial. He is lain in a boat by his thanes and covered with treasure:

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,

Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
Were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
With battle tackle, bladed weapons
And coats of mail. The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway. (Heaney, Beowulf 34-42)
Yes, like Boromir.
The next time treasure in Beowulf appears, however, it does so in the context of the gilded gold in the hall of Heorot. The hall itself cannot protect the people from the brutal devastation of Grendel, and so once again treasure is associated with death. This time, however, it is clear that treasure does have some kind of protective mythic quality:
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,
Atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
Haunted the glittering hall after dark,
But the throne itself, the treasure-seat,
He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast. (Heaney, Beowulf 164-9, emphasis added)
Treasure is linked with death here, certainly– Grendel “took over Heorot” and “Haunted the glittering hall.” Treasure cannot ultimately protect men from their fate. However, treasure is also associated with kingship and a special kind of providence: “the throne itself, the treasure-seat, / [Grendel] was kept from approaching.”
One word for king in the poem is a kenning– “ring-giver”– that is, a treasure-giver. Kings and chieftains bestowed treasure upon their thanes in return for loyalty and mighty deeds. Their thrones are evidently “treasure-seats” protected by God, who keeps Grendel “from approaching.” It would be a mistake to think that treasure in this poem is a materialistic indulgence or source of vice in the same way that money is in, say, in The Great Gatsby. It is associated far too often with honor and nobility for that kind of dismissive interpretation. Yet at the same time, treasure and weapons and gold are left in the barrows of heroes long gone.
The more you notice the places in which this motif appears throughout Beowulf, the stranger and more mysterious it becomes. Beowulf lays aside his treasure, his arms, to fight Grendel– and only thus is victorious. Grendel cannot be defeated by ordinary means. And yet Beowulf needs treasure — a magic sword– to defeat Grendel’s mother. Much later, as he dies from battle wounds, the old King Beowulf asks his young thane to bring to him some of the treasure from the dragon’s hoard– pulling us back once again to the association of treasure with death.
I could be conflating different motifs here — perhaps it would be better to distinguish gold from weapons within this idea of “treasure.” But nevertheless I think the point holds; recurring images and patterns in stories are worth noticing. They can open up initially obscure tales in surprising ways.
The kids will be researching a topic in Beowulf for their first mini research paper, and each topic they can choose from is tied– at least obliquely — to a motif.
One of my students asked if he could trace rewards exchanged in Beowulf between king and thane in order to explore their impact on the rewards system in the RPG game Skyrim–which apparently borrows a lot from Anglo-Saxon culture. I said, go for it.
Ultimately, it would be cool for them to ponder the extent to which there are any motifs in their own lives. Admittedly, it’s dangerous to go pattern-hunting in one’s own life– it is better to cultivate a humble disposition that welcomes each day, acknowledging that day’s uniqueness, and that doesn’t too hastily categorize moments into pre-conceived patterns.
Still, I think God Himself sometimes has favorite ways of working with different people in a motif-esque kind of way: He seems to think exile is a recurring pattern that is necessary for the Israelites. Abraham is told to make all sorts of journeys– exterior and interior. Peter’s recurring motif is to make a fool out of himself. If we approached our own lives with prayer (the proper literary approach for this genre, if you will), I think we might discover some beautiful motifs woven throughout them. How much more intricate they are than movies and novels– and how much more strange and mysterious.
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Theme and the Holy Spirit

382467-Flannery-O-Connor-Quote-I-write-to-discover-what-I-knowI remember during my first year of teaching being rather terrified of students asking me to help them, because I wasn’t sure that I could.

I distinctly remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when one of my seniors asked if he could stop by during lunch and get help on his first essay for my class. “Sure!” I said cheerfully, as dismay and tension settled into my shoulders.

Fast forward to this afternoon during my planning block in the library of my new school. Another senior had asked for help on her first in-class essay. I’m teaching the AP classes how to write the dreaded “Open Prompt” essay in preparation for the exam— where, in roughly 40 minutes, you need to choose a play or novel “of literary merit” with which to respond to a thought-provoking prompt about life and literature. (See this link for all the prompts on AP Literature exams from 1970-2017. They’re really worth reading– some of them are fascinating to ponder.)

My student is writing about the motif of blindness in King Lear, but was having trouble formulating a theme statement, what the AP exam usually calls “the meaning of a work as a whole”. In other words, what is Shakespeare trying to say to us about blindness?

As often as high school English teachers talk about theme, I’ve realized it’s actually a very difficult concept to teach well. In fact, I never used to teach it ostensibly because I agreed with O’Connor that trying to “find the theme” of a story is actually the wrong way to go about reading literature in the first place:

The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it, but this is a contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not or some proposition or paraphrase. It is not the tracking down of an expressible moral or a statement about life. (O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners 129).

Yet theme is a statement about life–some kind of claim, the theory goes, that a novel or play makes without ever coming out and spelling the idea out for you word for word. People often mistake the theme of a work for a mere topic like “revenge” or “ambition” or “the role of women”–but a full-fledged theme is a sentence with a subject and a predicate.

Flannery goes on to say in the very next sentence, “An English teacher I knew once asked her students what the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, and one answer she got as that the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, think twice before you commit adultery” (Ibid).

Okay, Flannery, but you could (with some fear and trembling) argue that a theme in The Violent Bear It Away is that “spiritual hunger is, for all its pain, a kind of poverty that makes way for satiety.” Or something like that. Couldn’t you?

51uTjOmSPXLFlannery responds,

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners 96)

I mean, I do plan to share that quote with my AP kids… but not until they have more confidence in developing themes and have written some good ones in a bunch of essays.

I’m essentially teaching them how to do something I plan on un-teaching them later.

Alas, the depths to which prepping kids for the AP exams will make one descend.

But my feelings about theme have softened over time through repetitive exposure and also through the private (perhaps naive) hope that I’m teaching in a way that does not encourage merely the “tracking down” of morals, cliches, or definitive life lessons.

So I’m sitting in the library, listening to this new student describe how hard it is for her to “come up with” a theme for King Lear that will “work” in this revised version of her essay. (I sense O’Connor’s non-plussed gaze–not on her, on me.) The good thing is, my student, like Socrates, knows that she doesn’t know– she sees that her essay can’t really go anywhere without a real thesis, without some kind of guess as to what Shakespeare is up to, but the reality is she simply doesn’t know what to say. “I don’t just want to say X is the theme,” she explains, “because that’s not what’s really going on.” Bravo. She cares about saying something true. (Another student I had spoken with earlier, after she had finally come up with a theme statement about undergoing trials in order to mature, when asked if she thought Cormac McCarthy was actually trying to convey that theme in his novel, replied that she didn’t care. She could write an essay about it, and that’s what mattered, and now, I suppose, she could go “feed the chickens”. Yikes.)

“I tried last night to come up with a theme, but they all just didn’t sound right,” my current student explained, gazing at her laptop screen with its strikethroughs and different colored fonts and other fragments of her labor.

As I listened, I realized, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know how to help her.

That is, how to really help her. I could pretty easily come up with a theme statement and just give it to her, or ask her extremely leading questions that would help her to think of something rather similar to what I had in mind–but how to help her discover a central theme in King Lear on her own? I recalled, momentarily, that sinking feeling I got during my first year of teaching.

Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, probably in one of her letters, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” (source).

It’s an idea I try to share with my students, especially those that feel like they have to have everything planned out before they can start writing. Although I fully support outlines if they are helpful, I do think kids need to learn that so often we only get to discover the deeper riches and beauty and meaning in a work while we write about it– not before.

Flannery says elsewhere, “I write to discover what I know.” Perhaps her preference for an organic meaning over a formulaic theme comes from her experience of what writing is really like. She knows that real writers don’t plant themes in stories like trophies to be dug up once you’ve cleared away enough of the distracting dirt of the plot. In fact, this is impossible. All they have is the dirt–the plot, I mean. There are no trophies to hide. Meaning simmers in the words themselves. The author only really knows what the work is going to mean after she has written it–and even then, not completely.

This rambling blog post itself, which has moved from a distant memory to an event in the library today to some musings on theme and the act of teaching illustrates her point too. I didn’t know, exactly, what I was going to write about until I began writing. (This post also highlights the importance of editing, and how once you DO discover what you want to say, you should probably go back through your work and delete all the irrelevant parts, if you have the time or inclination…)

I find O’Connor’s experience of writing in order to find out what she wants to say to be true of teaching as well. When I was a student I had this notion that teachers walked into a classroom with all of their thoughts carefully planned out–almost like a speech. And, perhaps, some teachers do teach this way, especially if they are giving a lecture of some kind. But there is so much in teaching high school kids that cannot work that way, that is unexpected, that cannot be planned ahead of time. The conversation comes and goes where it wills and often seems to have a plan of its own that you never could have anticipated. That definitely happened today.

So, back in the library, I paused for a moment, cleared my throat, and—gathering some confidence in the Holy Spirit who also likes to come and go when He wills and “who intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words” when we pray, but also, hopefully, when we teach—I said,

“Tell me more about the first time you saw Shakespeare mention blindness in the play. What did you notice?”

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Teaching, Decision-Fatigue, and Getting Out of the Way

“May I go to the bathroom?”

“Do we have to ask to go to the bathroom or can we just go and sign out?”

“Can I go get more tissues from the office?”

“Can I have a pencil?”

“Can I write in pencil instead?”

“Can I make up my quiz tomorrow during H block?”

“Are you going to do the scrapbook thing Ms. Otten used to do this year?”

When I first started teaching, I had no idea how many little decisions I would need to make throughout the day, every day. I had anticipated the instructional decisions, and I had spent many hours worrying about classroom management decisions–but I never could have predicted the tiny, moment-by-moment micro-choices that are unexpectedly overwhelming.

And as a brand new teacher, I was plagued by self-doubt. I often did not know the “right” answer. I would go home and agonize about a call I made in a brief moment–a decision to intervene with a kid, a consequence I had given, a “no”,  a “yes”, a decision not to say something. Did the other kids notice? (Yes.) Did I think the repercussions through well enough? (Nope, didn’t have time.) Had I agreed to something I was going to regret later? (Possibly. Okay, probably.)

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via https://www.marksdailyapple.com/decision-fatigue/

Lots of people have talked about the phenomenon of “decision-fatigue” in connection to teaching — the idea that making decisions takes a lot of energy, and that throughout the day our will power, like a muscle, can get overworked and exhausted and progressively worse at discerning the right choice. According to a fascinating New York Times article, one response to decision-fatigue might be to start making hasty decisions; another might be to avoid making decisions altogether–although this avoidance, too, is a kind of decision:

The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. (Tierny, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” New York Times)

This first week at my new school has reminded me not only of how many decisions teachers have to make (a widely-circulated estimate is 1,500  per day!) but that the thinking we do about these decisions at the beginning of the year is far more intense and, therefore, far more exhausting than at any other time. We know that the first few days of school are crucial in relationship-building and expectation-setting. Like it or not, first impressions with kids do matter, and it is much easier to establish healthy and welcoming environments with them at the beginning of the year than to try to recover lost ground with them later on. And in order to do that, you have to make a LOT of decisions: where to put your desks. Who sits where. How will they enter the classroom? What will you do when they don’t do you what you want? How much of the syllabus to cover the first day. How much to tell them about yourself. What activities to welcome them into your classroom and to establish it as a place for learning.

(For some great ideas on these first few days of school and these kinds of decisions, see the great work Tyler Hester does on his website here: agapemanagement.org )

I’ve found that being at a brand new school this year increases this kind of decision-making anxiety for me– simply because I am still learning the culture of the school. What are the kids used to? Do they usually get seating charts from teachers? Have they ever had to follow an attention procedure? How do other teachers in the building handle going to the bathroom?

There are the written policies in the handbook and, much more importantly, the unwritten, day-to-day lived policies of the school that you really only learn by experience.

Here’s an instance of a tiny incident that involved a lot of mental decision-making for me this week:

During a senior class right before lunch, I noticed that one girl in the back of the room took out a sandwich and began eating it during the Do Now. Everyone else was silently working on the assignment on the board. A thousand things rushed through my mind as I calmly circulated the room, making positive comments on student work, standing in strategic places so all students could see and feel my active presence: Did I make my expectations clear about no food in the classroom when I was going over the syllabus the other day? Does this girl have an accommodation or medical condition I don’t know about that means she can take out food whenever she wants to? Do other teachers just let kids eat in the classroom, and so this is just what she’s used to? Do I have time to address this now, or should I wait until I get everybody talking during the Pair Share activity to create a greater sense of privacy? Is it really that big of a deal? What will happen if I just let this one go?

Then, the girl behind her took out a tupper-ware with some kind of green vegetable in it, and she began eating, too.

The thing is, later in the year this kind of thing really isn’t a big deal. And I often allow kids to eat in my room if they won’t have time during lunch, or didn’t have time during lunch, or are especially hungry, or whatever. But at the beginning of the year every move you make is setting a precedent and communicating something to the kids about what kind of person you are and what kind of expectations you have for them.

So I went over to the first girl’s desk and whispered, “Hey, are you doing okay? Will you not have a chance to eat during lunch today?”

“Oh– uh, no, I’ll be able to eat then.”

“Okay. The expectation is not to eat food in class unless you ask me about it first. Just make sure you let me know if you need to.”

“Oh! Oh, okay. Sorry!”

She put her sandwich away, and the girl behind her tucked her Tupperware into her bag.

It wasn’t a big deal. And they’re seniors, and they’re probably just used to being able to eat in other classes. And I tried to convey with my tone that they weren’t in trouble–but also that I do notice everything in my room. Dun dun dunnn.

I tell you this example of my over-analyzing of a micro-decision in order to give you an idea of the decision-fatigue many teachers, and people of countless professions, can fall into. And I think it’s important that as teachers we be very aware of the decisions we make, and plan them carefully every year so that we make the best environment possible for our kids, where they can truly flourish.

But I also give this example to illustrate the sort of false, self-absorbed analysis that I have found myself prone to this week–and the kind that I think perhaps other teachers struggle with as well.

I mean the sort of anxiety we feel that we say is about beginning of the year procedures and classroom management, when really it’s rooted in a powerful desire to be liked and admired and respected–to be the positive center of attention.

The Gospel from yesterday was one of the most famous and beautiful in the Bible, but it struck me in a new way this time:

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:13-14)

Given the horrible revelations about the ways in which our Church has failed to protect children and has actually kept them from experiencing the closeness of Christ, these words were especially painful to read. But I don’t feel ready to write about that part right now.

What I do feel ready to write about is much smaller: the fact that the disciples were just getting in the way.

The children were coming to Jesus–the whole point of discipleship, you know–and the disciples themselves were “hindering” them! Parents, relatives, other adults were bringing the kids to hear Jesus, to be prayed over by Him, to be healed by Him– just like the parents at my school are. And the disciples “rebuked” them!

I can imagine Peter, thinking he is being helpful, managing the crowd, trying to protect Jesus. “Oh, no, He’s in the middle of a sermon right now. This really isn’t the best time.” Or the ever practical Thomas, “You know, He’s talking about marriage and divorce and sexual morality right now–maybe another time would be better for the children to listen. Could you just have them stand over there until He’s finished?” Or even John, “The Master is tired. We were just about to get into the boat again. Can you bring the kids tomorrow when He’s had time to rest?”

They were getting in the way, trying to manage everything–making all of these little decisions, coming up with all of these solutions, thinking they knew best.

I thought, too, a little of John the Baptist, and his humility in saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I must become smaller, I must be willing to recede from view, so that people can see Jesus and not get distracted by me and my management skills and the way I want things to be run.

I realized how much of my own teaching, especially in the first few days of school, can get so caught up in me. What will they think of me? Will they like me? Will they take my expectations seriously? Will they think I’m strict enough? Will they want to engage in my lesson?

And of course, this is kind of ridiculous. The class isn’t about me at all. At some level, it’s about the invitation to a kind of beauty and adventure that only literature can afford. At a deeper level, it’s about them–about the kids themselves, and what they need, and where they are, and how they can grow. And at the deepest level of all, it’s about Christ.

I just need to get out of the way.

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

I began to think about my own decision-fatigue in a new way. Yes, the little choices are still there, popping up at every moment throughout the day. Some of them are voiced by student questions, some of them are my own silent internal questions, some of them are below the level of conscious deliberation. But I might feel a lot less exhausted if I stopped thinking about these decisions in terms of how they were going to impact me and my year and how I want my class to be run, and started thinking more about how each decision is going to impact these kids ability to feel loved by God. (Do I really need absolute silence right now because that is what is best for them? Or do I need it just to calm my own nerves? Or to make myself look strict?)

And the kids do want to come to Jesus, whether they realize it or not. They want to learn, to be joyful, to make strong friendships, to be challenged, to be cared for. They are approaching Him all the time. And like the disciples, maybe all I need to do is get out of the way.

Pray that I am able to do that this year.

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New Year, New School

One of the nicest things about being a teacher is the school year schedule.

And I don’t mean primarily the summer break, though that certainly is a gift.

It’s the fact that every August, I get to start over again. The kids get to start over again. We all do– a clean slate, a mini-jubilee. And this year my start is extra new, because I have finally moved back to Texas…

t-shirts-texas-home-1

via https://www.textualtees.com/products/texas-home-t-shirt?variant=18590873089

…and I am teaching at a new school–new for me, but also just new itself–only about ten years old. There’s a freshness and excitement about the place that I haven’t felt in a long time. Maybe I brought it with me, since I’m new, or maybe it was already there, but I have been struck by how positive the atmosphere is at all the in-service meetings–and as every teacher knows, positive in-service or PD meetings is something pretty special. Granted, I’m sure a lot of people don’t want to be sitting in the library for hours at a time listening to administrators, but the library itself is beautiful and clean and new, and everyone seems to like one another a lot. There is a lot of laughter– a happy laughter and playfulness. So I’m full of hope.

It’s not perfect. No school is. We are still wondering how to enforce parts of the uniform (has any Catholic high school figured this out? Anyone?) Having been a part-time administrator myself last year, I am definitely picking up on the procedures that have not been thought through completely—but since the school is undergoing a change in administration, that is understandable.

So tomorrow is my first day with the kids. I’ve written about first days before, and looking back on my older entries from a few years ago, I’m struck by the confidence I felt then. The older I get, the less sure I feel about some things, and even though this is going to be my eighth (!) year of teaching, I still feel brand new.

I suppose that is partially why I have written here less frequently. I feel less sure about giving advice and making any kind of pronouncement about teaching—though I have thought about it more than ever these past couple of years as a teaching coach at my previous school.

One of the things I’m trying to discern more clearly this year seems pretty basic, but is pretty important. It is the difference between teaching seniors and teaching underclassmen. I have no problem making sophomores (and this year, freshmen) enter my room silently, but this year I will be teaching mostly seniors, and although I think a lot of structure and firmness is important for them too, I want to balance that with acknowledging their (potential) greater maturity. Seniors tend to resent anything that smacks of condescension or strictness for its own sake.  And, in some ways, I feel they actually have a right to those feelings. Many of them are going to college next year, or to a job–and when they turn eighteen they will be able to vote. They need to sense my respect for them right away, but also my confidence in the respect I will be able to earn from them.

So tomorrow, I need to communicate that somehow.

That’s all I’ve got right now.

Except here’s a teacher I’ve been learning from. His videos are worth checking out, especially if you’re over-obsessing over the first day of school, like I am. I don’t do all the same things he does, but I like that he is so thoughtful about his craft. Here’s some gold worth stealing (remember, we’re teachers. We are encouraged to steal from one another):

“I like reminding them [on the first day] that I like to teach.  […] I just think it’s worth reminding people sometimes that you’re excited to be where you are. And this is in your whole life, right? It’s worth your time to tell your friend, to remind them, ‘Hey, I’m really glad you’re my friend.'”

Thanks, Mr. Reynolds. I need to remember to tell my kids tomorrow how excited I am to be with them, and what a gift it is for me to be their teacher.

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Looking forward to learning from this teacher…

I have a friend who is blogging about teaching in a Catholic school. I’m looking forward to learning from him!

The origin of Catholic education was not college preparation for the social elite. If we look at the history of Catholic education, we find that it is rooted in the dream that especially the poorest and most oppressed members of the human race need a sense of Hope that they are more than what the rest of their society may tell them they are. It is a Hope rooted, not in mastery of academic sciences or arts, but in relationship with One who Loves perfectly and without exception.

Theology of Catholic Pedagogical Theory

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By Words and the Defeat of Words

Nine years ago, I stood on the steps in front St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, looking east down the Via della Conciliazione in the twilight, and I saw something very much like this:

I was mesmerized.

I remember gazing and gazing, drinking in the strange juxtaposition of that wild, restless image with the stately columns of Bernini’s colonnade–the whole scene washed in that special golden light that settles on Rome in the autumn evenings. I remember trying to describe what I had seen to my friends who were back on campus south of Rome, to my parents back in Boston, to my journal, to God. “That’s neat,” they said. Or, “Wow, I’ll look out for that next time I’m in the city.” Or, “Beautiful, honey.” And, of course, God didn’t need me to explain it to Him.

It wasn’t until a year later, however, back in Dallas, that I discovered words that gestured at what I had seen. They were written by a poet who lived in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, who had visited Rome himself back in the 1950’s. And I knew at once he had seen it too:

An Event

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,

They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this place
Shaping these images to make them stay:
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own,
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away.

Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

That poet’s name is Richard Wilbur, and he died this past Saturday.

How lovingly he shows us in “An Event” what it is like to see starlings swirling in the twilight: they appear “as if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand” or “like a drunken fingerprint across the sky” (1, 8). Just savor those two images for a moment. Grain, going back into the hand that cast it! A fingerprint, drunkenly scrawled across the sky–both intricate and unpredictable! How well he captures their wildness and strangeness and beauty!

And yet how humbly the speaker admits that even his words cannot capture the birds or their movements: they “refus[e] to be caught / In any singular vision of my eye / Or in the nets and cages of my thought” (10-12). Indeed they, like all truly beautiful wild things, abandon us and the poet as well: they “leave me in this place / Shaping these images to make them stay: / Meanwhile, in some formation of their own, / They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away” (15-18). The poet, “shap[es] [his] images” to pin down what he sees, but even a master like Wilbur realizes that this is a futile endeavor. The birds themselves have their own sort of poetry, their own sort of “formation”, and their language forever eludes us.

Note how the speaker’s tone shifts throughout the poem: he is full of wonder in the first stanza as he gazes upon them–in the second, as soon as he takes his eyes of the birds and thinks of himself, he falters a bit; he is unsure, abashed: “Or so I give their image to my soul” (9). Perhaps his image is inadequate. And when he realizes his words really aren’t doing the birds justice at all, that these starlings refuse “to be caught” in any fancy metaphor or poetic device, that they “shatter” and “madden” space itself “with their divergences”, he admits a touch of loneliness and even a sense of deprivation in the third stanza (13-14). They have left him, and they refuse to remain with him even in his words on the page.

But then it’s that last stanza, with its rather sudden hopeful turn, that is so characteristically Wilbur.

The speaker is “Delighted“–not only with those beautiful birds, but even with himself, in the very face of failure (19). Wilbur delights not only in the natural world, but in the human capacity to love it, however imperfectly. And so he gives the birds “leave to be.” Their beauty and strangeness is beyond his power to articulate, and that is just fine.

Yet this gentle acquiescence is not some sort of meta-poetic anti-noetic white flag. The battle we wage with words isn’t over, even if we are always bound to lose.

Wilbur reminds us that “It is by words and the defeat of words” that we arrive at some small revelation of truth. It is worth it to write poetry, to write music, to write anything, to speak at all–to try to honor, with our feeble syntax and impoverished vocabularies, the reality we see and feel.

Even if only for a “flying moment”, Wilbur assures us that we can glimpse the strange “cross-purposes” that mysteriously dreamt up our mysterious world. And that brief look is worth the ultimate defeat of all our words.

richard-wilbur

Source: allanmurraypoet.com

Best Article I’ve read on Richard Wilbur: “God’s Patient Stet”

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Filed under Literature, Poetry

The Sacramental Approach, Part 1

I have written about trying to teach the sacramental approach before, when my Louisiana kids and I were tackling Flannery O’Connor stories:

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

“Sacramentality and the Short Story” April 2013

I’ve been weaving the sacramental approach into the way I try to encourage kids to embrace mystery in stories and other works–but until I taught Christian Authors for the first time last semester, I had never made it the title of a unit or an explicit part of the curriculum.

But this past summer when I was thinking about what were the essential things I wanted kids to learn in a Christian Authors course, this was the very first thing that came to mind. I learned about it myself through extensive reading, largely thanks to Flannery O’Connor, of course, but also through Dostoevsky and Greene and Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson, all of whom engage this approach in very different but powerful ways.

I also learned about it from two professors in college: Dr. Lowery taught it to us explicitly while we were in Rome so that we could enter into that experience more deeply; Dr. Gregory taught it to us far more implicitly by the way she approached lyric poetry. She describes something very akin to the sacramental approach in her profound essay “Lyric and the Skill of Life”:

I would like for a moment to take seriously this sense that the discernment and preservation of “grace” within the world entails art: that is to say, a deliberately cultivated skill, an habitual focus of both mind and affection, a discipline of attention. The arts enacted by the poet are open to the reader willing to accept their difficult conditions. The steady and serious reader [Emily] Dickinson hopes for comes to share in the economy of grace – the ascetics of perception, feeling, and thought – that grounds her discipline.

The tough thing about the sacramental approach, however, is that the only way to really learn it is to discover it yourself–to gradually become aware of a common thread, a particular vision, weaving itself through the best art, the best books, even the best movies.

What is the sacramental approach, you ask?

That is the question my students are asking right now. I have not given them a definition, and I don’t plan on giving them one until they can already come up with a good account of it themselves. So, I’m not going to give you one right away either.

However, I have given them definitions and examples of some other approaches Christian Authors (and any authors, really) often use–so that by contrast they can see what the sacramental approach is not:

The Didactic approach – from the Greek didache meaning “teaching” – an approach that openly tries to teach or inform. Good examples of these are Church documents, many parts of St. Paul’s letters, large sections of the Gospels (esp. the Sermon on the Mount), theology texts… even The Chronicles of Narnia, which try to teach a younger audience what Jesus is really like. Even the parables of Christ are largely didactic–though, I would argue, not exclusively so.

The Apologetic approach – from the Greek apo “from” and logos “word, speech, account, reason” – an approach that tries to persuade using logic and evidence. C. S. Lewis’ Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Problem of Pain and other works are examples of this. Chesterton also used the apologetic approach–even in many of his Father Brown mystery stories.

Propaganda – from the (relatively modern) Latin propagare “to propagate, to spread” – an approach that tries to spread ideas, often by biased means, often by manipulating emotions

Obviously, one would hope that Christian authors would not use propaganda. Yet even certain members of the Pro Life movement use it (and feel justified in doing so). And a lot of modern Christian music and movies really earn this somewhat dishonorable label–because the art they create (manufacture?) is bad, and it exists only in service of (or subjugation to) the message.

An example of Christian propaganda we looked at in class today:

I mean, all you have to do is look at the title of the movie to know the message. The atheist professor is the stereotypical meanie who has a painful past and lots of resentment and pride to boot. The young handsome Christian has to make lots of cliche choices and engage in a final showdown of some sort.

In these first few days of the semester, I am trying to help my kids come to their own understanding of the sacramental approach by giving them lots of experiences–both of what it is, and what it is not.

An example we looked at in class today is Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem about the experience of waking up in the morning and that half moment of semi-consciousness between dreaming and waking, spirit and body: “Love Calls Us to Things of This World.” You will notice that it is neither didactic nor apologetic–and nor is it propaganda.

But it is surprising. There are lots of images and juxtapositions you wouldn’t expect–and I bet you can easily find the one line in it that rather shocked everybody.

Nor is this poem explicitly Christian. As one of my students pointed out, it mentions “nuns”, but not really in the most flattering way.

As I said to my students today, the sacramental approach is one of the hardest things to teach. To just give them my definition of it would miss the point–and would deprive them of the chance to discover this deeper vision, to enter into a new way of looking at the world, to start noticing it everywhere, to begin fumbling for their own words to give it voice.

More to come.

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