Category Archives: Flannery O’Connor

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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Everything That Rises

Summer is a good time to be reading Flannery O’Connor again.

On a flight to Boston a few weeks ago I read one of her more disturbing and controversial stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

You can read the full story online here.

The title comes from the philosophical work of a French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and like all of O’Connor’s titles ought to be closely attended to while reading. You can look up excerpts from Chardin’s “The New Spirit” here and try to decipher his complex mystical theology, but just considering O’Connor’s title “innocently,” with the plot of the story in mind, I would guess it could mean that as things “rise” closer to the truth, they also come closer to — that is, “converge” upon — one another.

There are also several instances of “convergence” in the story itself.

Brief summary: the plot centers around a young man (whom Flannery herself would probably call a “big intellectual”) who is bringing his mother to her exercise classes at the local YMCA. He is embarrassed by her racism and narrowness, and she is proud of his college education.

Some instances of convergence that I noticed: The mother’s ugly purple hat, described in detail at the very beginning of the story and a frequent topic of conversation, is echoed by the narrator’s description of the sky: “The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.”

So – the hat and the sky converge? I say that with a complete lack of authority.

Later, the hat comes up again while they ride the bus. A black woman who sits down across from them is wearing the exact same hat as the mother. Despite racial and societal divide between them, they match. (The son is delighted by the irony of this convergence).

The black woman also has her own son. The mother plays with the little boy and condescendingly offers him a penny — which the black woman angrily rejects.

The mother’s intellectual ignorance is matched by her son’s emotional ignorance.

And the son’s persistent judgment and disgust throughout the story is completely reversed at the end to… well, I won’t spoil the ending. If you’ve ever read O’Connor, you know it will be interesting.

But it’s the title itself that continually arrests me – everything that rises must converge – and the following story acts like a lyric poem – responding to the entitle, enfleshing the title, challenging the title – but never really explaining the title. I don’t pretend to understand it.

Still, this short story gives me hope that no matter how twisted and damaged our attempts at truth are, they nevertheless eventually converge into the truth of God, rising little by little until they finally reach His peace.

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source: everythingthatrises.com

 

 

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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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Thanksgiving Thoughts

“[I]t all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

She wrote that somewhere around 1946 when she was just 21 or 22 years old. Flannery’s Prayer Journal, which was never intended for publication and which I finally read only with great trepidation and shyness, has so much to say about thanksgiving, and grace, and vocation.

In the journal she is continually begging for the grace to be a writer. She is sure, at this early stage in her life, that this is her vocation – that this will be her way of giving herself to God.

Her cause for canonization should have been underway for years, in my opinion, but as far as I am aware it is not.

I’m sure, if she heard me say that, she would send me some incendiary remark in a wryly composed letter with lots of “innocent spellings”.

She continues, “My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly.”

Thanksgiving as self-sacrifice. Like the Eucharist.

They say the saints are more keenly aware than the rest of us of sin.

What’s so interesting, reading this journal, is looking at it with the perspective of the years of suffering Flannery was about to endure. She did not know, at this time, that she would contract the disease that killed her father and eventually die from it at only age 39.

And yet, when you read some of the prayers, it’s almost like God answered them by sending her lupus. And that she knew, even in her early twenties, that the life of holiness she so desired was only possible via suffering. And that her longing to be a good writer would never really have been fulfilled had she not suffered.

G. K. Chesterton also has some beautiful things to say about Thanksgiving. I saw this on the IgnatiusInsight page a couple of days ago, and immediately I thought how Flannery-O’Connor-like he sounds here:

A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.

turkey

source: Ignatius Press facebook page

 

Flannery has similar things to say about peacocks.

The beautiful thing about giving thanks for things is that you really only begin to understand them when you notice how grateful you are for them. Like the turkey. You could pass by a turkey farm, but if you stopped, got out of your car, and gazed at a turkey like Chesterton suggests, the beauty and absurdity of this strange-looking animal might start to dawn on you. The longer you looked, the more mysterious this bird would seem. The fact that it has become the traditional sacrificial lamb of our yearly American holiday would only increase this sense of strangeness. And if you looked long enough, you would finally forget about yourself and you would just be totally given to the being in front of you.

The turkey’s goodness is very much tied to its death and consumption by us. It’s very humbling, because of course we do not deserve it.

Chesterton also says,

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I think that what Flannery and Chesterton are getting at is that the gesture of gratitude and thanks is actually the truest response toward life. No matter how little we may initially feel we have to be thankful for, and no matter how irritating cliches about ‘be thankful for what you have’ and ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ can be, if you stop and seriously look around you, at the couch you are sitting on, or the hum of the heater in your house, or the cup of coffee by your elbow, you may begin to see it.

It is an act of sacrifice to give thanks, because you have to give up your sense of discontent, your sense of wanting other things, of wanting some other life or some other place, and ultimately you have to give up even your sense of yourself. When you are really thankful, you are not thinking about yourself at all anymore, but the goodness of being.

Even babbled thanksgiving “once over lightly” is better than none at all, and I am going to really give it a try this year.

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Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong, Part II

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

1.

My dad writes:

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

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

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

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

My dad continues:

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts Forthcoming…

2.

My friend Jeff (also an ACE graduate) writes:

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

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

To which I can only say, “Amen!”

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks so much, Dad and Jeff!

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

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

You know, the Jesus approach.

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

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

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

open-my-eyes-lord

source: google images

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7 Quick Takes Friday – Louisiana Edition – (5/16/14)

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So Tom asked me what the highlight of my day was yesterday.

I have two:

1) During Maria’s 7th hour class, which is pretty huge, I got to walk around and help some of the kids. These are current sophomores, so I never taught them when I was at this school, but they seemed to accept the fact that I knew what I was talking about. So when I knelt by their desks when they raised their hands, their surprise was quickly replaced with matter-of-fact questions. “Yes ma’am, I don’t get this.” “Thank you, ma’am.” “Can you come see?”

In Colorado, some of them (especially the boys) call me “Miss.” “Yes, miss.” “Okay, miss.”

2) After the Mass last night, we stood outside the church talking to one of the parents. Most people had left by then. All of a sudden, the door opened and one of the graduating seniors walked up to me, gave me a quick hug, and left almost before I had time to say hello to him. He had not come up to me earlier when most of the others had. In fact, I haven’t talked to him much since his sophomore year when he and the “three musketeers” used to hang out in my classroom using my trashcan for paper basketball.

So great. I’m so blessed to have known these kids.

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the door to my old classroom

 

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Myriad conversations with students I had here in LA and in CO have come to mind when I read this really great article from a college professor’s perspective on the ridiculously challenging art of grading. It’s very applicable to secondary (and, I’m guessing elementary) school as well.

“Confessions of A Grade Inflator” by Rebecca Schuman

A taste:

Where did students get the gumption to treat a grade as the opening move in a set of negotiations? As a professor, there is little worse than spending an entire semester attempting to connect about a subject you find both interesting and important, only to have them ignore everything you do until the moment their GPA is affected. And then, of course, it’s war. (Schuman)

Schuman admits that she inflates her grades, and explains why she feels she has to do this. When I first started teaching I was determined not to do this.

And then I realized life is a bit more complicated.

This is what I think grades “mean”:

A = Demonstrates exceptional mastery

B = Exceeds expectations

C = Meets expectations; that is, achieves the lesson goal.

D = Does not meet expectations; that is, does not demonstrate ability to do what I taught them to do.

F = Earns failing grade.

This is also the description I put on all my rubrics and the description whispering in my mind as I grade all my tests.

But then there is also this:

A = Demonstrates exceptional mastery for this student.

B = Exceeds expectations for this student.

C = Meets expectations / demonstrates achievement of lesson goal – at the level this student is capable of.

D = Does not meet expectations / This student does not adequately use whatever gifts she has been given to demonstrate achievement of the goal.

F = Earns failing grade / This student demonstrates profound lack of understanding of lesson plan goal or profound negligence. Basically, he did not really try.

Because, you know, Honors Student A writes an “A” essay that looks VERY different from ELL struggling student B — and yet Student B may have “demonstrated exceptional mastery” with the lesson goal within the context of her particular challenges and current skills.

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“Ms. Shea, Teacher X doesn’t teach writing like you did. She says ‘A is B because of 123’ is too basic, middle school stuff.”

“Yeah but I still used it!”

“And I used the format you taught us anyway but she took points off!”

I cringed.

Yes, I know ‘A is B because of 123’ is the basic middle-school formula for thesis statements. But I teach it to my high school kids as a starting point because they need it. You have to learn to walk before you can learn to run, people.

Once they master that version, I try to get them to leave it behind as soon as possible. “You don’t need this formula any more. I want you to write a thesis statement without using it. Change the words.”

I think that’s one of the downfalls of one teacher having the same kids 2 years in a row. They got used to me, and no matter how many times I told them “this is just ONE right way to write an essay. There are others,” they seem to believe that their new teacher (the third this year) is wrong and I am right.

I encountered this a lot during my first year. “But Ms. X always said…” “We never did it this way before…” “We used to listen to music every Friday, can’t we go back to that?”

Sigh.

One of the things you have to teach students is how to be a student. For better or for worse, that means being flexible enough to adapt to different teachers different expectations.

-5-

Maria is doing something really cool right now.

It’s a simple idea, but I’ve actually never done it.

I’m totally stealing this from her.

She has a series of questions on the board. The kids are answering them in groups. But here’s the catch:

They have to receive teacher approval on their answer to every question before the assignment is considered complete.

So this is what happens:

They work in their groups. One of them brings up the paper. “Ms. Lynch, is this right?” She will look at it and say, “Try again. Look at the second part of your answer.”

This starts to happen more and more.

“Good job, you got it!”

The groups begin to feel competitive. They begin to walk more quickly to Ms. Lynch. Then they run.

“Ms. Lynch, Ms. Lynch! Is this it?”

“Almost. Try again!”

They run back to their groups and scribble furiously. They laugh in frustration.

I love it.

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“You guys gotta try this…!”

 

-6-

This is the song I sang before I came to teach in Louisiana:

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Actually, it’s also the song I sing before I do anything scary – like when I went to college, flew to Italy, began ACE, moved to Colorado…

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Look. It’s me and my guitar. And the bag I bring with me when I move all around the country.

…And this is what I said after my first day of school here in Louisiana:

(and, let’s be honest, almost every day after that):

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-7-

“Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being)

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