Category Archives: Literature

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:

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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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Reading to Learn and Learning to Read

There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.

The first is that most high school students know how to read.

This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.

Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.

Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.

The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn. 

They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.

Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.

But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.

I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.

I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.

I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.

High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.

It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.

Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.

You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.

calvin-hobbes-read-dinosaur

source: smilingldsgirl.com

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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.

tumblr_static_everything-that-rises-banner-2

source: everythingthatrises.com

 

 

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