Don’t use study guides!

We’re talking about SparkNotes, Cliff’s Notes, York Notes, and all such similar shortcuts used by lazy and/or desperate and/or insecure students.

Inspired partly by an online discussion among IB English teachers and partly by my own students, I’ve added a page to my English A1 class blog that makes things as clear as I can make them. It begins like this:

Study guides WON’T HELP YOU! In fact they will harm you, in several ways:

1. They often are inaccurate and of poor quality.
2. They prevent you from thinking for yourself.
3. They encourage you to think – wrongly – that the goal is to discover THE ANSWER or THE MEANING and then regurgitate it on an exam.

The rest of the page is here.

Not an Option, Not a Frill: Literature at the Core of Learning

[An open letter to my fellow English teachers near and far.]

Thought flows in terms of stories – stories about events, stories about people, and stories about intentions and achievements. The best teachers are the best story tellers. We learn in the form of stories.

—Frank Smith, Canadian psycholinguist

Dear Colleagues,

As the IBO prepares to join the crowd swimming downstream and dilute its English A1 course by splitting it into two ‘options’, one for Language and the other for Literature*, the Wiser Voice in my head says to me, “It’s over. Just shut up.”

But of course I won’t.

Humans are the only animals that tell stories. The most important stories we tell delve into the most profound questions about our existence, the questions at the heart of life and learning: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing, and what should we be doing?

We do not, contrary to the inane compartmentalizations of The School, tell stories only in English class. Religious beliefs consist of a series of interconnected stories: how the world was created, who created it, for what purpose, why we suffer, how we should live, etc. History (another core subject that has been devalued by the utilitarians and dethroned in the curriculum by “social studies”) is collective storytelling. Scientific theories are, at their core, stories explaining how things work. Even mathematics is based on certain ‘stories’ that assume, for example, that space is three-dimensional and parallel lines don’t meet.

We think in metaphors, and metaphors are nothing but little stories, or the germs of stories, or comparisons rooted in a certain story about how things are. This, we say, is like that.

Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us.

(“Thinking Literally”

It is virtually impossible to think without using metaphors, and thus storytelling is at the very heart of how we understand the world and ourselves. Any curriculum that makes the study of history and literature into ‘options’ fails utterly to understand how human beings live, think, and learn. If students do not become adept readers of stories, how can they ever hope to critically analyze and respond to the stories that will be thrown at them all their lives by politicians, by governments, by marketers, not to mention friends, family members, and perfect strangers?

We should keep the study of stories at the heart of education, and we should keep the most important stories at the heart of our curriculum. As Goethe wrote,

Anyone who cannot give an account to oneself of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without experience, living from day to day.

How can one possibly give an account of the last 3,000 years without knowing history and literature? When I began teaching nearly thirty years ago, students in my high school whose skills were poor were shunted off into courses with titles like “Writers’ Workshop”. These students were not taught Shakespeare, because it they were thought to be incapable of understanding Shakespeare. I argued then that this was a terrible policy. One can teach Shakespeare in a variety of ways. His original audiences, after all, included large numbers of illiterates. To exclude students from the study of Shakespeare is to commit a kind of cultural apartheid. The bizarre twists and turns of American ‘culture wars’, in which the multiculturalists go to battle against the misogynistic, Eurocentric ‘canon’, should not be allowed to infect our thinking and distract us from our essential task. The culture that we have inherited from our ancestors belongs to all of us, and it is immoral, in my view, to say to a student, “You are not good enough to be part of our cultural inheritance.” It is tantamount to saying to them, “You are not good enough to be considered fully human.” It is our duty as teachers to educate children, and that does not mean simply teaching them to “decode” language and numbers. It means transmitting to them our common cultural inheritance. One cannot be considered an educated person otherwise.

This duty weighs even more heavily on secondary teachers than it used to, because colleges and universities have, with a few noble exceptions, largely abandoned any effort to provide a liberal education to their students. If a student doesn’t read Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens in high school, it is quite likely she never will.

I earnestly hope that whatever new dispensation arrives from whichever curricular source, we will hold firmly to the conviction that the study of storytelling is at the core of any good education and must not be marginalized. All students should study history and literature, every year, and any curricular options should be considered only as additions, not as substitutes, for those core subjects. In the upcoming revision to the IB Language A1 offerings, if we have a choice, we should choose not to offer the Language option. If we must offer it, we should vigorously advise students to choose Literature, not Language. And if, as I understand is the case with the new IB Language A course, we have a choice of including more literature or less**, we should include as much as possible.

Notes, Clarifications, Corrections

*The two options are actually (a) Literature, and (b) a course that is half Literature and half Language.

**I am now not sure this is the case.

‘The Decline of the English Department’

William M. Chace, professor of English and former president of two U.S. universities, tells the sad tale in The American Scholar.

University students who major in business are so misguided: every intelligent and successful businessman or -woman will tell you that a broad knowledge of literature, history, science, people, and the world—in other words, a liberal arts education—is the best preparation for a business career. At the same time, most U.S. colleges and universities have simply given up on the liberal arts.

The only secure bastion of liberal arts education that I know of is St. John’s College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Anne Frank’s Diary as a work of art

Everyone who teaches Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl will be interested in Leonard Lopate’s interview of Francine Prose, whose new book is Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, in which she argues that the diary was not simply a diary, but a heavily revised work of literature that Anne hoped to publish after the war.

To listen, go to the show archives for WNYC’s ‘Leonard Lopate Show’ and scroll down to October 1, 2009. Or you can download the podcast from my public folder. The path is Podcasts / English Podcasts / Interviews with Authors / Francine Prose on Anne Frank.

ATL, TOK, MYP, DP: What’s the MYP analog to Theory of Knowledge?

A query on Twitter caught my eye this morning:

#MYP DP Theory of Knowledge … where is it in the MYP? Is it missing? Is it necessary? [from @krea_frobro747]

I replied, “ATL should be taught as a weekly or biweekly pre-TOK class.”

TOK is a great course, and the concept behind it is compelling, but its implementation in most schools falls far short. Typically, only a handful of teachers teach TOK or know anything about it. Its weighting in the IBDP grading system contributes to this marginalization, which belies the original vision of TOK at the heart of the program, the hub of the wheel connected by spokes to all the subject areas. I’ve long argued that the course should be taught by pairs of teachers, one more experienced, and that every teacher should rotate through a TOK teaching assignment. Then TOK would truly permeate the program, as it was intended to do.

But this morning’s tweet points to another issue for TOK: before the first day of Grade 11, students have little or no experience thinking about the sort of issues that arise in TOK. The first half-year of TOK is spent dealing with that deer-in-headlights shock and confusion.

Why, indeed, is there no analogous course in the Middle Years’ Programme? I can’t think of a good reason.

However, as my response above suggests, there is a solution at hand. Of all the ‘Areas of Interaction’ in the MYP, ‘Approaches to Learning’ receives the least attention. Not surprisingly. Schools have always done a lousy job of teaching students how to learn. It’s not just study skills: it’s work habits, study habits, personal habits . . . it is, in fact, ‘approaches to learning’. What could be more important? And yet, most teachers are far too busy teaching content to teach ‘approaches to learning’, except incidentally and by osmosis. Which is why I ended up writing my book, Good Habits, Good Students.

So let’s solve two problems at once. A weekly or biweekly ATL course in the Middle Years program would provide an opportunity to address learning habits and skills explicitly, and to engage in the kind of age-appropriate discourse that would give students invaluable practice thinking about how they think, so that when they arrived for their first TOK class in Grade 11 they would resemble fish in water, instead of deer in headlights.

SAT scores: not the last word

This may surprise you:

[Students who don’t submit SAT scores when they apply to university], with significantly lower SATs, earn [university] G.P.A.’s that are within five one-hundredths of a G.P.A. point of submitters, and graduate at rates within one-tenth of 1 percent of submitters.

This comes from the former head of admissions at Bates College, in Maine, USA, but presumably would be generally true.

Billie Holiday, d. 17 July 1959

I don’t know how I managed to miss the 50th anniversary of Billie Holiday‘s death, but as partial atonement here is Frank O’Hara‘s poem about the day she died. I’ve also uploaded a short podcast about her which you can find here. The path is Podcasts / Misc / Billie Holiday. If you don’t know Billie’s music, your life is poorer than it could be.

The Day Lady Died

by Frank O’Hara


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday

three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine

because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton

at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner

and I don’t know the people who will feed me


I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun

and have a hamburger and a malted and buy

an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets

in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank

and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)

doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life

and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine

for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do

think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or

Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres

of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine

after practically going to sleep with quandariness


and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE

Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and

then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and

casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton

of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it


and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of

leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard

to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing 

My Modest Proposal for School Improvement . . .

. . . is laid out in a modest (22 slides) and minimalist (black & white, mostly) presentation that you can download either as a Keynote file or a Powerpoint document (click on the one you prefer).

Like Ric Murry, I’ve been reading Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, in which he applies what we know about cognitive science to what we should be doing in classrooms, and this presentation is based on Willingham’s research, along with my own experiences teaching for almost three decades (!).

Lopate & Lopate

Phillip Lopate, the writer, is interviewed by his older brother Leonard, the former painter and longtime broadcaster on WNYC in New York, in a podcast from ‘The Leonard Lopate Show’ that will fascinate and entertain anyone interested in literature, the arts, and brothers. Both students and teachers will enjoy it.

Two books underlie the interview. Lopate’s most recent work is Notes on Sontag, a book-length essay reflecting on the work of the late Susan Sontag, one of America’s foremost essayists and critics of the postwar era. And he contributed an essay to a recent collection of pieces written by brothers about their brothers called Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry. Phillip’s essay, of course, is about Leonard, who talks with him about both books and a variety of related topics. What follows cannot begin to convey the charm of their conversation.

On Sontag, Phillip remarks on her conviction and courage as a writer. Born in the western United States, feeling alienated by mainstream American culture, she migrated to New York, studied philosophy, and turned herself into a European-style intellectual. Her writing style, densely philosophical and aphoristic, reflects this European sensibility. Lopate talks about the persona she creates in her essays, which he says convey a very strong sense of her personality even though she didn’t use “I” and strove to write impersonally. Noting that her fiction is less successful than her non-fiction, Lopate says this is because she lacked a strong sense of humour and a ‘ready sympathy’ for people.

Phillip begins by remarking that he wanted to write about Sontag because he is ambivalent about her. Ambivalence makes for a good topic, he says, because you are then forced to work out your mixed feelings on paper.

Some of these ideas spill over into the other part of the conversation concerning brothers. Phillip implies, without ever saying it, that there is some ambivalence in his feelings towards Leonard, or else he never could have written an essay about him. What exactly this ambivalence might be is unclear, since on air they both in what they say and how they speak to each other, it’s clear that they love each other very much. This makes me want to read his essay! He also discusses the problem of personal essays: how to know where to stop. It’s a question of both revealing and concealing at the same time, revealing enough to make the essay interesting but not so much that you ‘cross the line’ and reveal what would be hurtful or embarrassing. He also has interesting things to say about the process of writing. He ‘overwrites’, he says, and then goes back with a critical eye to censor, edit, and revise. Students who get stuck because they start editing too soon can learn from this.

In another part of the conversation they talk about old poems being like old photographs—snapshots of who we were when we wrote them. Phillip contrasts W.B. Yeats, who in his old age revised poems he had written years earlier, with Walt Whitman, who simply kept adding new poems to his grand opus, Leaves of Grass.

There’s lots more that interesting and entertaining, so have a listen at or iTunes, or if you wish you can download the podcast from my public folder. The path is Podcasts / English Podcasts / Interviews with Authors / Phillip Lopate.

Great Podcasts #4: BBC World Book Club

Harriet Gilbert hosts monthly interviews with contemporary authors that feature questions from both a live audience and BBC World Service listeners from all over the world. Recent programs have featured writers such as Nawal El Sadaawi, David Guterson, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx, and Chinua Achebe. Highly recommended!

As always, you can go directly to the BBC site, but the best way to ensure that you don’t miss a program is to subscribe via iTunes.

Summer writing help

All of my Gr. 11—>Gr. 12 students in English A1, and all Gr. 10—>Gr. 11 students going into English A1 are invited to work on their writing this summer through email tutorials.

Just send me a paragraph as an email attachment. I will mark it up with comments and suggestions and send it back to you. You can then rewrite and repeat the process as often as you like either with the same paragraph or a new one. Current English A1 students may not, of course, use actual paragraphs from one of your World Literature assignments.

My email address, in case you’ve lost it, is ericmacknight AT mac DOT com.

Best wishes,


The irony of Twitter . . .

is that whereas I thought at first it would be an unending avalanche of trivia and nonsense, instead it is an unending avalanche of useful and interesting links and ideas.

The trick is, I only follow people whose tweets relate either to education or to China or and have real value. Result? More unpaid professional development and Middle Kingdom enlightenment than I can possibly handle.

Today I was too busy to follow my Twitter feed, and this evening when I tried to read all the tweets I had missed I quickly realized it was hopeless, and gave up. That’s OK—there’s lots more coming.

In defense of the 5-paragraph essay

The usual attacks on ye olde 5-paragraph essay are a bit like attacks on the sonnet. Are formal constraints really the problem? After all, the vast majority of sonnets ever written—the ones that have mercifully made their way into Time’s recycling bin—were undoubtedly very bad pieces of writing. Instead of criticizing the 5-paragraph essay, shouldn’t we give our attention to the writers’ and teachers’ lack of imagination and art?

Even if we consider the 5-paragraph essay as a ‘mere exercise’, is that so bad? Musicians practice scales and chord changes. Cooks begin by following recipes. The 5-paragraph essay similarly teaches fundamental elements of good writing: beginning, middle, and end; stating a thesis; catching the reader’s interest; organizing one’s ideas; developing them with examples, illustrations, and explanation; constructing a coherent argument; concluding in a way that is both artful and interesting. Along the way, the student practices choosing the right word, crafting an effective sentence, employing rhythm and variety, and so on.

At a certain point in European intellectual history Aristotle became the whipping boy for the new philosophers, who for the most part had never read Aristotle but only the medieval Scholastic distortions of Aristotle. In the same way, I suspect that most attacks on the 5-paragraph essay are misdirected. The real problem is not five paragraphs, but bad teaching.

Holden Caulfield on Smoking: a Pastiche

In the first place, you have to buy the goddam cigarettes, unless you just bum ’em off other guys all the time and then don’t even say thanks like that sonuvabitch Ernie Morrow. Anyway, like I said, you have to buy them, and who do you buy them from?—these stinking-rich gigantic corporations with about as much social conscience as your average mass-murderer, that’s who. I mean, they probably hire all these poor people to grow the damn tobacco, pay ’em peanuts, then turn around and sell cigarettes to the poor bastards who can’t afford decent clothes, let alone cigarettes, but they probably can’t stop smoking on account of they’re so depressed about their lousy lives.

And in the second place, once you give your money to these fat corporations,
what do you get? You get to start stinking up everything in your life. Your breath stinks, your clothes stink, your house stinks, your car stinks, your whole life stinks, if you want to know the truth. Gorgeous.

The only good thing about smoking is, if you’re lucky, with the right genes and all, you’ll get lung cancer or emphysema or something and die an early death.

The problem is, you might not die an early death. You might live until you’re about seventy-five with yellow teeth and dried-up, papery skin and ashtrays all over your goddam house, and drapes that stink enough to kill a damn moose and then you get cancer and you spend about three years in the hospital with tubes sticking out of you all over the place and your grown-up kids come visit you and stand around your bed talking when they think you can’t hear them about all the birth defects they got from you and the asthma they got from you smoking around their cribs and playpens when they were little and all and then you wish to hell you’d given all that money to the Red Cross or something instead of buying all those damn cigarettes.

It just goes to show how stupid a guy can be who’s actually pretty smart, if you know what I mean.

—October 2003

Great Podcasts #3: 'In Our Time' with Melvyn Bragg

BBC Radio’s Melvyn Bragg explores history and especially the history of ideas every week in a breathless 42-minute romp through a huge range of topics. Gathering academic experts around him, he delivers a weekly mini-course on subjects such as the trial of Charles I, the Augustan Age, St. Paul, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, the Boxer Rebellion, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, and so on, to take just a few recent examples. Science, politics, literature, art, and philosophy are all included. ‘In Our Time’ is ideal for teachers and students of those subjects, and teachers of I.B. Theory of Knowledge (TOK) will also find it useful.

The speed and (for some) the British accents will make comprehension challenging, so for these podcasts even more than most, it’s far better to download episodes and then distribute them to students, who can then listen at their own pace, re-listen, etc.

You can download recent programs from the BBC web site, but older programs are available only for streaming, so if you want your students to be able to listen on their computers or mp3 players, it’s best to subscribe via iTunes.

Writers, editors, and school

The assumption of sole authorship underlies writing assessments in school, but in reality good writing almost always results from collaboration.

This post by American free-lance writer Dan Baum—

Writing as Contact Sport

—makes me wonder about how we teach writing in schools. Baum’s post is a response to criticism he received after revealing that his wife, Margaret Knox, is also his editor. But he got my attention with his remarks on the important role of editing:

Maybe some people write brilliantly entirely on their own. I don’t know any, though. And I’m certainly not one. Back in the day, people understood the importance of editors – Max Perkins, etc. Back then, editors edited. They engaged the copy. They made good writing better. That’s what Margaret does for me. (I’ve been thrice blessed. I’ve had great editing, in addition, at several magazines. And the editor of Nine Lives was an energetic genius who really improved the book.)

There’s no shame in relying on an editor. That’s how it’s always worked.

And yet in school, most of the time, a student whose work is edited by someone else is regarded as . . . a cheater!

I know: the teacher is the editor; there’s peer-editing; etc. But I’m not sure any of that adds up to an adequate defense. It appears that the need to assess is in direct conflict with the best practices of good writers.

Let’s look, for example, at the declaration that all IB students sign when submitting work for external assessment:

The assignment(s) I am submitting is (are) my own work. I have acknowledged each use of the words or ideas of another person, whether written or oral.

Is that a standard that professional writers collaborating with editors could meet? I doubt it. Now let’s look at a piece by Paul Graham, one of the best essayists I know. It’s called “Why Nerds are Unpopular”, and at the end of it we find this:

Thanks to Sarah Harlin, Trevor Blackwell, Robert Morris, Eric Raymond, and Jackie Weicker for reading drafts of this essay, and Maria Daniels for scanning photos. –PG

When we read Graham’s essay, we accept it as his work, and understand that he had help thinking it through and revising it. But if he were a student and handed in the same essay with the same notice of thanks appended, how many teachers would refuse to give him credit on the grounds that we can’t tell which bits are his, and his alone, and which bits came from Sarah, Trevor, Robert, Eric, and/or Jackie? A lot, I would think. And that disconnect between the way we teach and assess writing in school, on the one hand, and how real writers work, on the other, seems to me highly troubling.

Some essential questions . . .

. . . for our secondary school:

  • Is our MYP curriculum rigorous enough? Does it prepare students to succeed in the Diploma Programme?
  • How are we dealing with the ‘Areas of Interaction’? Is our approach effective? Can it be improved?
  • ‘Approaches to Learning’: are we teaching students how to learn? Are we helping them to cultivate habits that will lead to success in school?
  • What are we doing to encourage students to become ‘lifelong learners’? Is that phrase just empty rhetoric? If not, what do we do, as a school, to encourage ‘lifelong learning’?
  • Where and how do we as a faculty engage in professional discourse? Could we benefit from more professional discourse? If so, how can we promote professional discourse both within the school and with our peers in other schools?
  • What is technology good for in a school? Are we getting maximum benefit from the technology we use? If not, how can we do better?

Great Podcasts #2: Writers & Company

Eleanor Wachtel interviews writers on her Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, “Writers & Company”. She and Leonard Lopate are the two best interviewers I know. She talks with famous and not-so-famous authors, and their conversations are invariably interesting and informative. Few ‘media personalities’ are as well-informed as Wachtel. Older students in top-level literature classes will find these podcasts stimulating, sometimes challenging, and very worthwhile.

Subscribe via iTunes, or directly from the CBC web site.

Great podcasts #1: WNYC's Leonard Lopate

Leonard Lopate interviews a wide range of people on New York’s public radio station, WNYC—authors, musicians, actors, visual artists, dancers, and many others, on a huge range of topics. A remarkable number of these podcasts are wonderful to share with students.

For literature and drama teachers, he interviews many actors, directors, and playwrights whose work is appearing on one of New York City’s many stages, along with contemporary novelists and poets, and biographers of great writers. But his topics also include the environment, current events and politics, science, psychology, mathematics, philosophy, and religion.

Lopate is one of the two best interviewers I know, along with Eleanor Wachtel. His rich, smooth voice is a pleasure to hear. He seems to know a good deal about almost everything, asks excellent questions, and comes to his interviews incredibly well-prepared.

You can subscribe to The Leonard Lopate Show via iTunes, or directly from the WNYC web site.

I finally got Twitter.

For a long time, I couldn’t believe that intelligent people would want to waste their time telling the world what they were doing at every moment of the day, and reading what tons of other people were doing at every moment of the day.

I still have trouble with that.


As a professional networking tool, Twitter is fabulous. I follow and am followed by people interested in teaching and learning. Instead of trolling through scores of blogs, or even scores of headlines from blogs in my RSS reader, I just wait for the little ‘bling!’ and birdies chirping from Twitterific, and have a look. My network has gotten bigger, I spend less time keeping up, and I find more and better ideas.

Give it a try.

PS: To find people with similar interests to yours, try WeFollow. Just enter a ‘tag’ like “education”, and you’ll get a list of all the people who have chosen that tag for their own Twitter identity.

UPDATE: Someone has started a wiki for IB teachers (PYP, MYP DP) using Twitter—a good way to find professional peers.

UPDATE 2: Switched to TweetDeck.

"Depersonalized teaching"

Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher) and I had a Twitter conversation the other day. He was reading Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book, Schooling by Design, their follow-on to Understanding by Design, and he twittered the question that is the title of Chapter 4:

Bud: “How Should Teaching Be Appropriately Depersonalized?”
Me: “The same way love should be depersonalized. It shouldn’t be. Schooling is depersonalized. Teaching is personal. It’s like saying learning should be depersonalized.”
Bud: “I think it’s a question of what’s a good system – and a good system is larger than a person.”

Wiggins and McTighe want to make schools better. They see that much bad and ineffective teaching hides behind the defense of being ‘personal’, and they want to replace such practices with better teaching—”depersonalized teaching”—based on rational, proven procedures that result in effective ‘transfer of knowledge and skills’.

If Wiggins and McTighe succeed, schools will be better, but they will not be any different. That is, they will be doing the same thing they are trying to do now, but more successfully.

My problem is, I am fundamentally uninterested in what schools are doing, or trying to do. Since I’m a teacher, this is perhaps a surprising position to take, so let me explain.

Schools are the servants of the State and the Economy. The State wants good citizens; the Economy wants productive workers. Parents by and large share these goals—they don’t want their children to be criminals or bums. So they send the children to school, where it is hoped that the children will learn to be Obedient and Productive.

If I emerge from my schooling a good citizen and wage-earner, the State is happy, the Economy is happy, and my parents are, well, at least happier than they would be if I were a criminal and a bum. But am I happy? I don’t know.

I don’t know because while good citizenship and productivity are necessary prerequisites for a good life, they are not sufficient to create a good life. Real education pursues a good life by asking important questions. Nancie Atwell, a great teacher, identifies the big questions as these: Who am I? Where am I? and What am I doing? The pronouns can change—Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing?—and the last question can become “What should we be doing?—but the basic three questions remain. And they were asked first, of course, by the ancient Greeks.

And the answers are, 1. We don’t know. 2. We don’t know. and 3. We don’t know.

People interested in maintaining the State, building the Economy, and improving schools will at this point say, OK, let’s move on: questions without answers are not useful to us.

You see, the State, the Economy, and the schools that support them have absolutely no interest in me insofar as I am an individual human being trying to understand my existence. If I never ask such questions, the State and the Economy will be perfectly happy. (Schools and parents usually regard such questions as an adolescent phase similar to acne.)

Mind, this does not make me an anarchist. I appreciate living in a well-ordered state, and enjoy having a certain amount of freedom. I am happy to pay taxes to the state so that roads, schools, hospitals, etc., can make my life and everyone else’s better. A certain amount of obedience is a good thing; being able to support oneself is a good thing. They are good, however, in the way that engine oil and gasoline are good in a car: necessary, but not very interesting. I want to know where the car is going.

It is those three questions—Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing?—that interest me, that seem important to me. And while as a teacher I do traffic in knowledge and skills, and do try to ‘transfer’ them efficiently and effectively, that’s not what’s really important. Because ‘transferring knowledge and skills’ is not real teaching. Or to put it another way, as Socrates said, there is no such thing as teaching—there is only learning. The teacher, as Socrates put it, is a kind of midwife, helping to bring ideas to life by asking questions. Not questions like, “What were the major causes of World War I?” but questions like Who are we? and Where are we? and What are we doing? Once a student begins seriously considering such questions, there is only one path to follow: learning.

So for me good teaching boils down to two tasks: 1. Inspiring students to want to learn, and 2. Helping them when they need help. And most of Wiggins and McTighe’s excellent advice about structuring learning boils down to this: Don’t waste students’ time. If the activity’s purpose is unclear and/or trivial, then it is a waste of time. Such an activity should either be re-designed or scrapped. If the curriculum has no coherent rationale behind it, it will waste the students’ time. Here we totally agree.

But Wiggins and McTighe don’t talk about inspiration because inspiration is personal. It can’t be systemized. It can’t be measured or counted, nor can its effects always be perceived, even. As I wrote to Bud, Wiggins and McTighe are working for baseline competence—which would, yes, be a big step forward in many cases. But when I think about great teaching, I think of those gifted individuals who inspire their students. Socrates, of course, is the archetype. But Ron Jones, Diane Mensch, and Bobbie Booth, three of my high school teachers; Page Smith; Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy; Jim Manuel, who supervised my student teaching; Tom Ferté, a “personal” and unsystematic teacher if there ever was one; Charles G. Bell, eccentric genius of St. John’s College, Santa Fe; Henry David Thoreau—these are some of the teachers who have made a difference in my life. If you asked me what knowledge and skills Charles G. Bell transferred to me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But he certainly inspired me to learn. The work of these teachers was intensely personal, not because they got to know their students personally, but because they themselves were persons who recognized their students as persons and understood the mysterious power of a person seeking to understand his identity, his world, and his life: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?

Of course, as school administrators see it, the view is rather different. They are trying to manage a system, and the system is inefficient because teachers are not like machines. Some of them are mediocre, some are pretty good, some are excellent, some are terrible. The mediocre and terrible teachers are, of course, a big problem. But even the good and excellent ones don’t work in the same way, so that inequity is built in to a school. Johnny, in Mrs. A’s class, will not have the same experience as Lucy, who is in Mrs. B’s class. The ‘system’ is not systematic. Wiggins and McTighe are trying to improve things by introducing rational methods that will ensure greater consistency and more effective teaching, i.e., ‘transfer of knowledge and skills’. They and the teachers and administrators working with them or along the same lines are doing noble work, in their own way—quixotic, perhaps, but admirable nonetheless. Few tasks in life are as discouraging and soul-destroying as trying to improve schools, because this is essentially a political problem, and it is a rare soul that is not destroyed by politics.

So I wish them all well, but having dipped my toes in that pool a time or two, I will be off elsewhere, thanks, doing what I see as the real work of teaching, as best I can: trying to inspire my students, and helping them when they need help. It’s very personal work.

Charles G. Bell

A recent Twitter conversation got me thinking about great teachers who have inspired me, and one of the names that came to mind was Charles G. Bell. I met him in his ‘preceptorial’ about American literature in the summer Graduate Institute of 1984 at St. John’s College, Santa Fe (New Mexico). He would have been 68 or so at the time, but he still climbed trees for exercise and was infamous for, among other things, skinny-dipping when invited to parties by pool-owners.

Mr. Bell had, apparently, read every book ever written on every subject under the sun, and could read, write, and speak several languages. He was a polymath who started out studying physics but then switched to English. The St. John’s ‘tutors’ teach all the subjects, but he was one of the few who could rightfully claim expertise in almost all of them. He was also mentor and friend to the poet Galway Kinnell and, most importantly to me, a wonderfully kind, sympathetic, and inspiring teacher.

I keep writing in the past tense because I haven’t seen him in many years, but he apparently is still alive, well into his 90s, in Maine with one of his daughters. If anyone knows for sure, please drop a comment! UPDATE: Mr. Bell passed away on Christmas morning, 2010. His obituary in the Santa Fe New Mexican is worth reading.

Mr. Bell wrote both poetry and novels, but his great opus is Symbolic History, a comprehensive slide-and-sound history of everything. His autobiographical sketch, also on the Symbolic History site, is well worth reading.

Supporting teachers—when they deserve it

Years ago I took a job as Head of a small private school with about 200 students, K-12. It was my first job as an administrator and I wanted the teachers to regard me as their colleague. I soon found out, however, that they wanted a boss, not a colleague. I met with each of them individually and asked what they needed from me. “Support”, they said.

Here’s what I wish I had said in response:

When you put students first, I will support you. When you model integrity, honesty, hard work, and lifelong learning, I will support you. When you do everything in your power to inspire your students, I will support you. When you are a reflective practitioner, a teacher who reads and talks and searches constantly to find better ways to help students learn, I will support you. If you need time off because of illness or family problems, I will support you.

However, if you fail to treat students with compassion, courtesy, and respect; if you are dishonest or lazy; if you make no effort to inspire students, and show no interest in developing your knowledge and skills as a teacher; if you go through the motions, make minimal effort, and repeat the same uninspired lessons year after year; then you will get no support from me—quite the contrary.

It would not have made a great difference, perhaps, but it would have been the right thing to say.

On stories

From the archives . . .

When we tell stories, or read or watch or listen to stories, we are (in part) searching for our own story: the story that will explain to us who we are, where we are going, and why; the story that will make sense of the world we live in, and our place in that world. To put it another way, through stories we both rehearse for the performances ahead (courtship, marriage, career, middle-age, death) and review our past performances, to see whether, with hindsight and the storyteller’s angle of vision, we might understand them better.

Our choice of stories, and the nature of the stories which really move us, can be understood as having something to do with the problems and questions that concern us personally. Fears of all sorts; doubts of our own ability, courage, or moral strength; questions about romance, marriage, parenthood–such elements arise in many different kinds of stories, from fairy tales and nursery rhymes to the most sophisticated novels and plays.

Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic and teacher, once remarked that all stories may derive ultimately from one archetypal story about the loss of identity, and the search to rediscover it. According to other critics, death is the central issue of story-telling: we rehearse our own death endlessly, by reading about the deaths of others. How and when will we die? Will we behave admirably, or shamefully, when death is upon us? And, of course, what is death? According to this view, our compulsion to understand death, prepare for it, or escape from it, fuels our obsession with story-telling.

These generalizations about the nature of story-telling are no substitute for reading a particular text closely, and analyzing it in detail, but they may help you find a “way into” a story: look again at the issues I’ve raised, and see whether any of them are present in the story you’re reading now. These reflections about stories may also help you appreciate better the value of the detailed studies that you are forced to undertake in school: if your own story, your own identity, your own death are really at stake, then perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to look very closely, and think hard about what you find.

—June 9, 1998

Ancient Greece, Modern Readers

A man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, fulfilling a prophecy made years before. When he discovers what he has done, he gouges his eyes out with his mother/wife’s hairpins. A young woman defies the law and risks her life to give her brother’s body a proper burial. The general of an allied army agrees that his eldest daughter should be put to death so that he can lead the army in a war to defend his brother’s honour. A woman, abandoned by her husband, wreaks her revenge by murdering their children.

These are just a few of the more memorable stories from ancient Greek poetry and drama. Written 2500 years ago, they still capture our imagination. Students known to doze in class are suddenly awake and engaged. These Greek stories have amazing power.

Their power is not merely the power of lurid plots, as the brief descriptions given above might suggest. The Greek stories are often lurid, it’s true, depicting unspeakable acts of seemingly primitive ferocity. Some readers—Sigmund Freud, for one—believe that they enthrall us because they conjure our deepest wishes and fears. “Moderation in everything”, said the Greek philosophers, “nothing overmuch.” Reading their stories and their history, one can’t help feeling that they extolled moderation because they could never achieve it themselves.

But the power of ancient Greek literature is not merely sensationalist. As Aristotle pointed out, our experience of these stories as stories—not actual events—gives us the emotional distance we need to reflect on them, and learn from them. (Aristotle also asserted that learning is the highest—not the greatest—pleasure known to humans, which helps explain why we enjoy these sometimes horrific tales.) We are appalled when Orestes murders his mother to avenger his father’s death, yes; but we are also made to think, and that thinking can lead to the most profound reflections concerning law, society, duty, taboos, the relationships between children and parents, and on and on.

Moreover, the culture of ancient Greece, along with that of the ancient Hebrews, lies at the root level of Western civilization. We cannot really understand European culture without knowing the Greeks; we cannot know ourselves without knowing the Greeks; we cannot, in the end, claim to be educated without knowing the Greeks.

Unfortunately, the Greeks have largely disappeared from school curricula. In secondary schools, younger students have a few sanitized Greek myths thrown at them, usually along with a potpourri of Norse, African, Asian, and Amerindian myths, legends, and folktales. Older students rarely return to the Greeks, and if they do, the visit is brief: an excerpt from The Odyssey, perhaps. “Advanced” students may read Oedipus Rex or Antigone. For most, nothing at all. In universities, very few students read any ancient Greek literature.

Why is this a problem? A while back, I saw a television interview with Bill Joy, who was at that time “chief scientist” for Sun Microsystems. He had written a magazine article discussing the ethical problems raised by the prospect of having in the near future a million times the computing power of a typical contemporary computer, on every desktop. His article provoked a small storm of debate about how or whether we should try to control such awesome power, and in the course of that debate someone referred to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Joy was prompted to go back to the Greeks, to see what they had to say. His conclusion? “The Greeks”, he said, “understood all of the issues raised in my article”.

Writing about what he thought was a new problem soon to be caused by an astronomical increase in computing power, Bill Joy discovered that the essential issues involved had already been explored, 2500 years ago. Bertrand Russell, who remarked that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, would not have been surprised. It’s a tribute to Mr. Joy that he had the insight to raise these questions. I can’t help wondering, however, how much sooner he would have achieved his insights, and how many others would have foreseen the same problems, had a thorough exposure to Greek literature and philosophy been a part of everyone’s general education.

Greek philosophy, by the way, is not as scary as it might sound. Like Greek literature, it combines a surprising simplicity with amazing depth. The Greeks, in the infancy of Western thought, produced literature and philosophy that can be read and enjoyed by children, and re-read over a lifetime with increasing understanding and appreciation. Soon after his election as President of the United States in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice. Noticing a book on the table, FDR asked Holmes, who was then in his nineties, why he was reading Plato. “To improve my mind”, he said.

Plato wrote philosophy as literature. His dialogues feature a wonderful protagonist, Socrates, who delights his young friends and infuriates his opponents by asking seemingly simple questions they cannot answer, all the while professing to know nothing himself. The best introductions for secondary school students are the “Apology”, which recounts the trial and conviction of Socrates, and the “Crito”, in which Socrates refuses the opportunity to escape death by fleeing. Both will provoke vigourous discussions. My other favourite is the “Meno”, in which Socrates famously claims to to demonstrate his theory of learning by helping an unschooled slave-boy to learn geometry. The “Allegory of the Cave”, which forms just a small part of the very long dialogue named “The Republic”, is also a must-read. As is common in literature, the surface often deceives in Plato’s dialogues. It is not at all certain, for example, that Plato’s description of the ideal state in “The Republic” is really intended to be a blueprint for political reform. In the “Meno”, similarly, Socrates may not really believe that the demonstration with the slave-boy proves anything; he may simply want to convince Meno not to give up searching for the truth.

If your school is lucky enough to include philosophy in the curriculum, Plato will provide enough material for all the lessons the school could possibly offer. If not, I would argue strenuously for adding Plato to the reading lists for English. A dialogue, after all, is literature, and few alternative works will provide as much stimulation. English teachers who are used to finding ambiguity and layers of meaning in works of fiction will have no trouble finding them in Plato.

As for Greek literature per se, The Odyssey is first on my list. It can be read profitably, in different ways, by students at any grade level. The great myths–the Oedipus cycle, the story of the Trojan War, the Agamemnon/Orestes saga–should be taught in the middle years so that students can later read Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides with the benefit of their earlier experience. Once their interest has been piqued, students can explore the lesser myths on their own and in groups, and then share their discoveries with their classmates in speeches, presentations, and written work. In Grades 10-12, students should read the full versions of The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Agamemnon, and as many other plays as possible. Remember: if your students don’t read these great works in high school, it is almost certain that they will never read them at all.

For a teacher who has never studied Greek literature or philosophy, getting started teaching it can be intimidating. My advice is to start small, and go slow. Begin with a re-telling of The Odyssey, or a selection of myths, or a re-telling of the trial and death of Socrates. The response of your students will convince you that you’re on the right track.

Teaching narrative technique

I’ve just discovered a great resource for teaching narrative technique: H. Porter Abbott’s Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge Introductions to Literature), 2nd Edition (2008). The paperback edition is under $20 on (U.S. dollars).

Abbott writes clearly and uses examples that high school students will be able to understand. More arcane points are covered in sidebars, where they may be ignored if you wish. He defines terms carefully but avoids jargon. He is aware of all the various schools of narratology that have sprung up in the last generation or so, refers to them from time to time, but is not enthralled by any particular theory. His view is broad and tolerant, but he is not afraid, either, to take his own positions and defend them. 

This is a great book to help students begin thinking about how stories work, instead of reading naively. Highly recommended to anyone teaching literature in Grades 10-12, and beyond.

The right to life

I’m 56 years old as I write this, with a net worth of zero on a good day. I figure they’ll let me keep teaching English for another 10-15 years. After that, what?

When I was a kid, men would retire at 65, putter in the garden or on the golf course for a couple of years, and then drop dead of a heart attack. The widows would collect the pensions and life insurance payments and live on for a few more years. Retirement was not such a problem.

Today many of us are likely to be laid off or encouraged to retire at 60, at which point we can look forward to 20-30 more years of life without an income. Even if we had done everything we were supposed to do, it’s highly unlikely we could have saved up that much money. And of course most of us didn’t do what we should have. Like me.

Living in China, I see lots of grandparents taking care of babies and toddlers whose parents are both working. Great-grandparents live with one or another of their children, or grandchildren, and are taken care of by the family. This model has much to recommend it, but do I have any right to expect my children to take care of me when I can no longer take care of myself? I am not sentimental about these matters. The fact is, they didn’t ask to be born. If I have cared for them, that’s because I chose to do so and because I feel an obligation to do so. If they choose to care for me, it should be just that—a choice. Certainly I don’t feel I have any right to be cared for at their expense.

In European social democracies, they take care of old folks, but the demographics in Europe, as in America, are not good: declining birthrates for several generations mean a huge population of seniors whose upkeep must be financed from the earnings of a shrinking pool of workers. In North America there is only a token effort to care for the aged, and that is likely to dry up altogether under these demographic pressures. Either way, we old folks should not expect the government to look after us.

And at what cost, exactly, should we wish to go on living? The intermittent debate concerning assisted suicide or euthanasia centers on extreme cases of physical debilitation, but as I imagine my future I wonder just how worthwhile my life will feel when I am living in some hovel or upstairs room, unable to work, with little or nothing to occupy me. What will be the point of continuing to occupy space and consume resources? If I’m teaching immigrants to read, or writing a novel, OK, but if I’m just watching the telly or sitting on a park bench, what kind of a life is that?

As I said, I’m not a sentimentalist about life, nor is my view complicated by any religious beliefs about immortality. I think the Greeks had it right when they used the same word—psyche—to mean mind and soul, and modern neuroscience has clarified things much further: the mind is the brain; consciousness results from the functioning of the brain, and when the brain dies, we cease to exist. There is a kind of immortality in genetics. I’ve read enough of my family history going back several generations to know that just as a frog is highly similar to his ancestors, so I am highly similar to mine, and my children are similar to me. But when my brain shuts down my personal consciousness will end.

So at what point will checking out seem like a good option? At 65? 75? 90? And whenever it is, who, exactly, should have the right to tell me, then, that I must go on living? It has long seemed absurd to me that governments can impose restrictions on where I can work or travel, and demand money from me if I decide to marry and even more money if I decide to divorce. But how much more absurd is it to assert that someone else has the right to tell me that I must go on living when my life has become persistently unpleasant for me? It’s my body, it’s my life, and when my circumstances reach the point that I really have nothing to look forward to, then I won’t demand a comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle, or free health care: but I will demand that no one stop me from ending my life. It’s mine, after all.

The death of liberal-arts education

High-school teachers who think their job is to prepare students to succeed in their university studies will be sobered by this column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times. In it he reviews and comments on “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the University,” by Frank Donoghue.

According to Fish and Donoghue, liberal-arts education is fast disappearing and being replaced by “a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment”. This new model has no place for “an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration”. 

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Is that sobering enough for you? 

Of course there will always be a place, even if it is off in the corners here and there, for real teaching and learning, because the human spirit will demand it. But the capitulation of the university to the marketplace makes it even more important for elementary and secondary schools to focus on real learning. It may have once been possible to think, ‘My job is to get these kids into college—then their real education can begin’. If Fish and Donoghue are right, however, we who teach children and adolescents now bear the burden.

I have known for a long time, as an English teacher, that if students don’t read Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Dante, and Chaucer in my class, the chances are very good they will never read these authors at all, because the fashions of literary criticism have dictated for a generation or more that such Dead White European Males are unworthy of attention. 

Now it appears that if we want to turn our children into educated persons—literate readers and thinkers—we will have to do it before they graduate from high school, because after that they will simply be buying job skills.




A quotation for Natasha . . .

. . . who complained today, at a moment when everyone was working in silence, that the class was ‘boring’:

Perhaps in the end the question one should ask of any scholar is what purpose he feels his work serves. I could claim great nobility of character and tell you that I work for the good of humanity. Or I could try to shock you and tell you that all I care about are the financial and professional rewards. Neither would be entirely false. I am, indeed, a bit of a romantic who believes, rather in the face of the evidence, that good ideas eventually prevail and make everyone’s life better. I am also not an ascetic: I will not sneer at a nice honorarium or a free trip to a pleasant location.

But the honest truth is that what drives me as an economist is that economics is fun. I think I understand why so many people think that economics is a boring subject, but they are wrong. On the contrary, there is hardly anything I know that is as exciting as finding that the great events that move history, the forces that determine the destiny of empires and the fate of kings, can sometimes be explained, predicted, or even controlled by a few symbols on a printed page. We all want power, we all want success, but the ultimate reward is the simple joy of understanding.

Paul Krugman

(New Times columnist, Princeton professor of economics,and 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize)

The challenge for students and teachers is to dig beneath the mundane routine of school and find the ‘simple joy of understanding’ in every moment.

Wordle: toy or tool?

I just began playing with Wordle, a web app that takes any text and turns it into a graphic ‘word cloud’, with each word a different size based on how often it’s used in the text.

I tried it out with a student’s essay comparing two WWI poems: Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Here’s what I got:


It’s easy to pick out words that the writer uses too often: two, way, and think jump out at me. She overuses understand as well. She could improve the essay just by reconsidering each of these words and either omitting them where they are unnecessary or replacing them with synonyms.

(The app allows multiple versions of each ‘cloud’, with different colours, fonts, and arrangements.)

It would be interesting, as well, to “Wordle” a professional writer’s work and see what insights it offers.

Early verdict: Wordle is a useful tool for writers—a simple way to see at a glance where editing is needed.


Our diction—choice of words—can dramatically alter the effect of what we say or write, even though the literal meanings of two optional wordings are identical. My students and I often contemplate the effects of diction in literature, but today I found a nice example from the world of politics in an article about the current financial crisis in the U.S.

“The Times/Bloomberg poll asked respondents whether they believed it was ‘the government’s responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ dollars.’ A majority said no.

“The Pew poll, by contrast, asked respondents if ‘investing billions to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure’ was the right thing to do. A majority said yes.”

So, they’re for it if you say it one way, against it if you say it differently. A lesson for us all.