Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.

A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”

Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.

She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.

The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative. 

I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world. 

My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence. 

My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.

Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.

Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.

Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”

Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.

NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing

From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.

  • Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
  • People learn to write by writing.
  • Writing is a process.
  • Writing is a tool for thinking.
  • Writing grows out of many different purposes
  • Conventions of finished and edited texts are important to readers and therefore to writers.
  • Writing and reading are related.
  • Writing has a complex relationship to talk.
  • Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.
  • Composing occurs in different modalities and technologies.
  • Assessment of writing involves complex, informed, human judgment.

Read the full document here: http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/writingbeliefs

The hazards of sitting

Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. Levine and others reveals that  sitting for more than 2 hours a day is directly linked to health problems like obesity, metabolic disorders, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol.

Schools are going to have to change the way they do business, from the furniture they buy to the classroom routines that seem engraved in stone. The days of students sitting in desks for an hour at a stretch, hour after hour, are coming to an end.

Listen to this excerpt from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show:

http://www.wnyc.org/story/please-explain-why-sitting-bad-your-health/

Dear Google: an opportunity I hope you can’t refuse

I have a little project for you—a chance to do some real good in the world.

I teach high-school English. I know that my students need to read as much as possible, but I also know that reading alone will not give them the high-end vocabulary they will need for maximum success in school—for that, [...]

Writing advice from great writers

1. Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to Writers

2. George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effective Writing

3. William Strunk’s Elements of Style (Chapter III is the most important)

That’s a good start.

Music washes away my worries: composing and editing

Composing and editing are two distinct processes. Students staring at blank screens or blank sheets of paper are usually trying to compose and edit at the same time. It doesn’t work.

Composing is the messy, chaotic process of figuring out what you want to say. It’s like being sent to the attic to find something. [...]

My Suzhou

 

Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.

The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art [...]

Remembering Anne Osman

Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems [...]

Dear Maury

A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.

Dear Maury,

I was following reports about [...]

The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? [...]

Toni Morrison on teaching literature

I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give [...]

Aristotle on happiness

Bacterial Hosts

Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells? A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.

This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising [...]

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm

—————————————————————————

Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

HORATIO But how is this possible?!

HAMLET ‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth [...]

Ugly word of the day: “societal”

From DailyWritingTips.com:

What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” [...]

People are animals, too

In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese [...]

Shakespeare changes your brain

“How Shakespeare Changes Us”, at lit-hum.org. The first comment is worth a look, too.

Good Advice About Bad Writing

“Good Advice About Bad Writing”, from DailyWritingTips.com.

Brief, clear, and to the point.

A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories [...]

Ray Bradbury in the ‘Paris Review’

Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other [...]

Rebirth

Everything is—not perfect, but cosy When suddenly there’s a big lurch That you can’t explain Or control.

At first you think, no worries, We’ll be back on course in a moment. But we aren’t.

Then more lurches, some big Some small And long stretches in between.

Waiting.

Thinking, can’t we just go back To where [...]

“3 iOS items for writers”

A very useful article on the Mac Observer points aspiring writers to an iTunes U lecture series, a podcast, and an app.

The problem with e-books for students

How to take notes—that’s the problem.

With a Kindle book, forget it. The best you can do is select some text and then share it via Twitter or Facebook. Not useful.

With Apple’s iBooks, it’s a bit better. You can select some text, copy it, switch to ‘Notes’, paste it, and then add whatever comments [...]

Edward Albee: escapist art is a waste of time

All serious art is being destroyed by commerce. Most people don’t want art to be disturbing. They want it to be escapist. I don’t think art should be escapist. That’s a waste of time.

—Edward Albee, American playwright http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Albee#section_4

Cringely on teaching, inspiration, and technology

This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:

“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in [...]

Christmas Poem 2011

Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.

The View from an Attic Window

BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960) for Francis and Barbara

1 Among the high-branching, leafless boughs Above the roof-peaks of the town, Snowflakes unnumberably come down.

I [...]

Turn your school into Paris

The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection [...]

Andy Ihnatko: There Is No Such Thing As Writer’s Block!

A great piece that ought to be printed out and put on the wall next to every writer’s desk. That includes you, students.

http://ihnatko.com/2011/10/07/there-is-no-writers-block/

Lu Ping

On Sunday I went to meet Lu Ping, a wonderful Suzhou artist who works in Beijing but who has just built a country vacation home for himself and his wife in the nearby ‘water town’ of Luzhizhen.

You can see some of his work from the 1990s here:

http://www.chineseartnet.com/LuPing/lp10.htm

I bought several of his woodcut [...]

Fake Apple Store, Fake IKEA, Fake Dairy Queen. What’s next? — Fake France!

The news about entire retail shops being copied by clever Chinese entrepreneurs leads to the obvious question: where do we go from here? Clearly, fake stores are an intermediary step in the development toward a much more ambitious project: fake countries.

Think about it: millions of Chinese people would love to visit France, for example, [...]

Amy Winehouse and the Norway killings

The death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 connects, I think, with the terrible events in Norway. Both stories concern mental illness of a certain sort, and in both cases the social and cultural context plays a role.

For Amy Winehouse: She was clearly ill, and yet in our culture she could [...]

Steve Thorsett, President of Willamette University

Congratulations to Steve Thorsett, Willamette University’s newly-appointed President, who was a student in my ‘World Literature & Philosophy’ class at South Salem High School in 1982-83. Steve has had an impressive academic career already, including a stint teaching physics and astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, where I studied as an undergraduate.

Administration of anything—much less [...]

Questions, not answers

‎The clumsy formulations I grew up with—what is the moral of the story? what is the hero’s or heroine’s tragic flaw?—still influence and flatten the questions people often ask about literary works, as if there were one answer, and a right answer, at that. The genius of literary study comes in asking questions, not in [...]

Poem: The empire was attacked

The empire

was attacked.

Babies cried, or lay lifeless

Mothers sprawled awkwardly

Young men, old men, old women, girls and boys

Body parts and fluids everywhere.

Only whimpers, or dazed silence as the sun shone indifferently.

 

It struck back.

Babies cried, or [...]

Success with Independent Reading: making me smile

I just received a note from one of my “cyber-colleagues” on the English Companion Ning, and part of it was about Independent Reading:

I also want to thank you for some advice you have given me last year regarding Independent Reading – I have taken some of your ideas, changed and implemented them in my [...]

Reading (Again): great advice for literature students

I just came across this blog post by Barbara Kerley. Although aimed at people learning to write fiction, it matches exactly the advice I give to students in my literature classes, especially at the IB Diploma level, where they need to analyze how the authors’ choices and techniques produce the effects we see in the [...]

Does reading great literature make us pessimistic?

Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:

In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit [...]

Do university students learn anything? It depends.

I am usually wary of stories in the U.S. media about education issues—almost always I find distortion and oversimplification.

This piece by the Associated Press is no exception, but it caught my eye, particularly these two findings from the report it cites:

_Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and [...]

3 Reasons I Love Class Blogs

Reason #1: They show me what students are thinking.

Here’s a recent post from one of my Grade 9 students about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:

Response to chapter 12

The main event in chapter 12 is that Jem and Scout follows Calpurnia to the church where Cal goes. They experienced some uniqueness in ‘blacks’ church. [...]

Larry Ferlazzo: What Was The Best Education-Related Book You Read In 2010?

Larry Ferlazzo asks that question, and many others reply: a great resource if you are looking for valuable education books to read. Thanks, Larry!

Good Habits, Good Students

"It’s simply awesome and highly inspirational. Thank you so much for this book." —Student in Grade 9.

Click here for info. Available now from most online booksellers or by special order from your local bookshop.

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