Category Archives: Education

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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“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.

FO

source: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

 

 

 

 

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Meaningful Questions, Meaningful Discussions

So I use “Fishbowl Discussions” in my English classes.

They are whole-class discussions in which an inner circle of students talks about questions related to a certain topic, and the outer circle observes, takes notes, and–in my version– can raise their hands to ask questions of people in the inner circle.

So the desks are set up like this:

fishbowl

via nwlink.com

It’s called a fishbowl because it kind of looks like a fishbowl:

fish-bowl-600

via people.com

See?

Only the fishes on the inside can talk, whereas the fishes on the outside of the fishbowl… well… can’t breathe?

The thing with fishbowls is you need to have something to talk about. And in order to do that, the kids have to be prepared. So usually I give them a reading and create questions in the margins to help guide them and to help push them toward the objective. Then we discuss the questions in the fishbowl.

Sample from the text we discussed in class yesterday:

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 5.35.24 PM

This system works pretty well, but I find myself having some doubts.

A lot of my questions are pretty basic comprehension level questions. I stick with lower-level questions because a huge number of my kids really struggle with basic reading comprehension. These questions help those kids identify a purpose for reading and help them focus on what is important in the text, but they tend to limit my stronger students.

Example:

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 5.44.05 PM

Those are pretty low-level questions, but they are really helpful for my struggling kids. And discussing those basic-level questions in class, even if the “stronger” students answer them, provides a helpful model for the struggling kids about how to look for textual evidence, etc.

But my stronger students often are limited by these basic questions. They want to dig deeper, but the format I’ve established seems to limit them to the questions I have created.

One possible solution to this would be creating multiple versions– like include more advanced analysis questions for the stronger kiddos. But this solution wouldn’t work very well in a fishbowl when we’re all trying to answer the same questions together. And it would confuse the struggling kids who already have a hard time following along as it is.

Another solution, related to the first, is to keep the margin blank for the stronger students so that they create their own questions. But that would be really confusing for the struggling kids if they could not actually see the questions in front of them. It’s really hard for a lot of my kids to follow along with a conversation if they don’t have visual anchors.

Maybe I could give everyone two versions–one with the basic, anchoring questions, and one with a blank margin. They could read and answer the first version, and then in smaller groups they could create their own “higher-level” questions about the text after I had modeled examples for them.

Teachers – what are some other techniques you use to create meaningful discussions in your classroom?

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“Beauty Will Save The World”

The other evening I attended the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. Dr. Jonathan Reyes came and spoke about how to preach the Gospel in a skeptical age–and an age in which reasoned arguments no longer have much purchase.

Jenny over at Mama Needs Coffee has a beautiful reflection on his talk. An excerpt:

That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin. (“My Little Lepers”)

She goes on to recount Dr. Reyes’ reflection on Mother Teresa. The reason the world loves Mother Teresa is because although it cannot comprehend faith very well, or the idea of “objective truth” (the phrase even makes me cringe a little), or rational argument, it is still attracted to beauty, for all of its infatuation with ugliness. And because Mother Teresa went to the ugliest human places with love, she reminded us of what real beauty is like. And the world noticed.

Dr. Reyes encouraged all of us to “get our hands dirty.” The world will not really listen to what Christians have to say anymore, but it is still watching us closely, and it may yet be moved by something beautiful.

Dostoevsky famously said, “In the end, the world will be saved by beauty.”

I thought about this in the context of my own world–my students. They are, as I am, products of a “skeptical age” that has lost the ability to reason. Our generation does not have the patience careful argument requires. Just watch the Presidential debates. We prefer slogans, soundbites, tweets, and hashtags.

I’ve noticed this countless times when I try to teach essay writing at the beginning of the year. Especially this year, I have been bewildered and discouraged by my student’s intellectual poverty–their struggle to form coherent thoughts, never mind reasoned arguments. Many of them still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what an “arguable thesis” even is. They can parrot back cliches and soundbites, but they cannot prove a basic claim.

It is my responsibility to try to teach them how to do this.

And yet, Dr. Reyes’ talk gave me pause. Maybe I am starting in the wrong place. Maybe I shouldn’t start off the school year with essay writing– essentially, teaching kids how to think and prove a point.

Maybe I need to start off the year with beauty.

Maybe they would be more open and eager to learn how to think, how to write, how to formulate a thesis and use evidence to support it, if they were at first struck by something beautiful.

I’m still not sure what that would look like. But I’m going to give it some thought.

 

 

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Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”

 

I’m in the middle of a mythology unit with my kids and we’re learning about archetypes–recurring character and event patterns that show up in stories from all different cultures, times and places.

For instance, the orphan-turned-hero archetype: the young boy in the Native American Blackfeet myth we read, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Jane Eyre, , even Luke Skywalker if you admit that Anakin is kind of dead, practically speaking.

cfe-little-orphan-annie

And of course, Lil’ Orphan Annie.

Or the mentor figure who must die/disappear so the hero can become a hero: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch.

frodoscream

So sad.

Or the flood myth archetype: Noah and the Ark, Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek story, and stories in practically every culture on this planet.

Or the hero’s journey archetype. Here’s a fun video we watched in class about that:

Or, perhaps more provocatively, the dying and rising godlike hero: the Egyptian Osiris, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Persephone, Hercules going to the Underworld and bringing Theseus back, Odysseus, Aeneas… and Gandalf the Grey coming back from the dead as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn passing through Dunharrow.

And, of course, Jesus.

Whoah. Yes, it’s true. Jesus fulfills archetypes big time.

One of the essential questions we are considering in this unit is What do Archetypes Suggest About Human Nature?

Well, what they suggest about human nature is that such a thing actually exists– and that human beings all over the world are caught up in the same search for meaning and often come to surprisingly similar answers.

Archetypes suggest there may be eternal truths about human beings. The stories we tell are similar because we are all similar. Among these standards are moral standards that all cultures recognize but some cultures realize more fully than others do.

And there you go: Backdoor Natural Law Theory. Sort of.

Next up on the unit plan: Is Christianity just another myth?

I mean, it is pretty similar to a lot of other myths. Sometimes uncannily so. There’s the whole scapegoat archetype thing going on. And isn’t Jesus basically like the half-god, half-human heroes of old? And doesn’t that prove that Christianity just adopted other mythologies and so basically our God is just an updated Zeus, or something?

We’ll have some interesting discussions, for sure. But to guide us, we will be reading excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ “Myth Become Fact.”

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, “Myth Become Fact”)

This is going to be a bit mind-boggling for some of my kids, but I think it’s worth a try.

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A Letter to Parents

Dear Parents of my Students,

I am writing you this letter to let you know that we are on the same team. It may not always feel like it, but we are. We both want your child to succeed in English class this year, to learn a lot, to improve in writing and reading and grammar usage. We also want your child to be responsible, kind to others, and hard working. Above all, we both want your child to be happy and to be close to God.

You should know that I love all of my students, including your child.

I hope you know it would be much easier for me, as a teacher, to just give everyone a “good” grade. I would avoid a lot of angry emails from you that way and a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of heartache.

But what is easy isn’t always right.

I hope you know that when I give your child a grade, I am not grading your child at all. I am assessing his work. I am trying to give him as accurate feedback as possible on what he has demonstrated he has learned, and what he has demonstrated he hasn’t learned yet. Your child’s grade in my class is a grade he has earned.

So when you say to me, “My child is not a D student!”– I completely agree. She might have a D in my class right now, but she is not a “D student.” There is no such thing as a D student–or, I might add, a “B student” or “A student.” Because, whether or not he or she is doing well in my class, your son or daughter cannot be defined by a mere letter grade.

The grade merely attempts, as accurately as possible (but certainly not perfectly) to reflect the learning your child has demonstrated so far.

I am on your team. I love your son or daughter and I hold them to high expectations not in spite of, but because of that love.

I promise to give them help, support, encouragement, and guidance. I promise to show my own love of learning and of English literature.

Anything you can do to support that effort is greatly appreciated. You are the primary educator of your son or daughter and I very much honor and respect that huge responsibility. I honor the fact that you are making many sacrifices to send your child to a Catholic school. I thank you for entrusting your child to me. I can only imagine how challenging it is to be the parent of a teenager, and I know you are doing your best. You have your own crosses to carry every day that I know nothing about.

I ask you to believe that I, too, am doing my best. I ask you to respect my professional background, my dedication, my experience, and my dignity during parent-teacher conferences this week.

Let’s work together for your child.

Sincerely,

Ms. Shea

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What Education Can’t Fix

I’ve been having a lot of good–but difficult–conversations with teachers about the state of Catholic education in the United States.

And as I was talking to one of my former ACE roommates about all the struggles I’m having this year with my kids, I realized something that maybe I had only been aware of before on a subconscious level.

Education can’t fix the problems it faces.

That sounds pessimistic. But it’s true.

And maybe also a little bit liberating.

I was frustrated a few days ago with a kid who did not come to finish an essay we had written in class. I was offering her support and extra help, and she did not come after school even after I had reminded her. And then I reminded her the next day and she did not come. And I had made myself available during lunch this time even though originally I had planned on trying to keep my lunchtimes this year. I was upset. Why oh why won’t you come when I am bending over backwards trying to help you?

And suddenly, later, on the phone with my ACE friend, I realized — this kid doesn’t really give a damn about my essay. And that’s kind of reasonable. From the little I know about her situation, she has so much going on at home that if I were her I wouldn’t give a damn about some essay either. She has bigger battles she’s fighting.

I mean, she still has to write that thing and I reminded her again today and she did come, thank goodness.

But sometimes as a teacher I get so caught up in my goals for my kids– or the curriculum standards — that I lose some perspective.

And I starting feeling like it’s my job to “save” them, when of course that’s God’s job.

But I think all educators–not just Catholic ones– are suffering from an identity crisis. We think that education can save these kids from their apparently grim destinies. But although a good education can make a big difference, it is not the only thing.

We get kids with learning disabilities. We get kids from broken homes. We get kids who have never met their dads. We get kids whose parents are struggling to pay the bills. Many of these parents — for all of our Catholic talk of “primary educators”– do not have the time or resources to read to their kids or get them books or help them with homework. Some of them may not know how to read well or at all. Indeed these parents are the primary educators, but many of them do not have the ability to educate. And no matter how good a school is, a school cannot fill the role of a parent.

Education isn’t just trying to overcome ignorance– its trying to overcome material poverty and broken families and cultural decay and entitlement and prejudice and despair.

But really all educators can do is try to teach kids who may be unwilling or exhausted or distracted by bigger problems.

Even the best charter school networks with all the money and resources and professional development and “best practices” in the world cannot quite make up for those things.

All we can do is help. All we can do is love our students and hold them to high expectations and give them the support they need to meet those expectations. And some of them will get there, and some of them won’t.

As Mother Teresa says, “We are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful.”

Let’s be faithful to our students and leave the success part to God.

images

via Roy Bennet @ InspiringThinkn

 

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