The Happy Days / Scarlet Letter Crossover You Never Knew You Needed

At the end of major reading units, I often have students do a series of small creative tasks to demonstrate understanding by extending or reinterpreting material in various ways. This pivotal scene from The Scarlet Letter has been combined with a classic TV reference. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Several months ago, the same student who did this drew the courthouse scene in The Crucible with Sesame Street‘s Big Bird sitting in the rafters. Very clever.

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Romanticism PowerPoint

I did up this presentation to start off our current unit in American Lit. I started with this Powerpoint I found online, and gussied it up a bit. Students filled in these notes while we discussed the slides:

Romanticism Notes

As always, my pop culture and arts references are meant to spur further connections in the minds of students–I try to draw these out from them while we talk. Each piece we read and analyze in this unit includes a discussion of which elements of Romanticism are present in the text and where: this leads to some very natural compare/contrast exercises.

How To Use Turnitin.com and Why

I’m a big fan of the website Turnitin.com, which assists in grading written work and in checking for plagiarism. If you’re a teacher and your school doesn’t subscribe, bug your admin until they get it for you.

It streamlines the writing process, collects all documents and communication electronically, simplifies feedback, and even reveals nearly any kind of cheating a student writer may have done (it was even once used to demonstrate that a professor at UNLV was a serial plagiarist and got him fired!).

It’s thanks to things like this that I don’t carry around boxes of papers to grade any more–all I need is a computer–and it even goes faster, since I don’t have to laboriously scribble my sorry handwriting on each paper. And everything is automatically documented! (More than once, I’ve had a parent insist that their perfect angel turned in an assignment that I’ve marked missing, and where I used to only have my word to go on, I can now take a screen shot of the empty submission page and send it to the parent.)

Last year I put together this quick illustrated user guide for teachers. In case it might be useful for any of you out there in Internet Land, here it is. I also hope you enjoy looking for the little jokes I worked in.

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2017: My Year In Reading

I finished 30 books in 2017. It was a good year for reading–nine perfect scores, including three in a row! The biggest development was getting new glasses over the summer–after suffering headaches that slowed me down for far too long, I finally took care of this, and I got much more done after. On the downside, I now see some big holes: no poetry, no science fiction or fantasy, not nearly enough of what I started the year wanting to read. Alas. Still, a great time.

  1. Eliza, Keith and Ann Terry (1.8, biography)–B
  2. Where Love Is, There God Is Also, Leo Tolstoy (1.14, literature, Dole trans. / Jordan intro)–A
  3. Eclogues & Georgics, Virgil (1.21, poetry, Mackail trans.)–C
  4. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (2.11, classics, poetry, Neville Coghill trans.)–A+
  5. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (3.11, literature)–B
  6. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block (3.20, mystery)–B
  7. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher (3.27, biography)–A+
  8. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher (5.29, religion, politics)–A
  9. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (6.23, history)–A
  10. Born Fighting, James Webb (6.27, history)–A
  11. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov (7.1, drama)–C
  12. Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw (7.27, drama)–A
  13. Everything That Remains, The Minimalists (7.27, memoir)–A+
  14. Purgatory, Dante (7.29, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A
  15. The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (8.22, fiction)–B
  16. Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson (8.26, horror)–A+
  17. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (9.17, satire)–A
  18. Paradise, Dante (10.17, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A+
  19. How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher (10.23, literary criticism, memoir)–A+
  20. Speak To The Earth, Rachel Peden (10.31, nature, memoir)–A+
  21. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  22. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  23. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  24. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  25. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  26. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  27. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  28. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  29. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  30. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C

C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

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In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

The Declaration of Independence Rhetoric Unit

One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.

I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).

Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.

Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.

I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.

A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.

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Gulliver’s Travels

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Google images result for the title…most of these are the famous scene from chapter ONE.

I read this last summer, and while it starts out strongly enough, it gets much better as it goes on–the satire gets far darker and more biting. Maybe that’s why the single part everyone seems to know and like–Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputians–is from chapter one. Nobody ever talks about the better parts later on.

The second half of the book really ramps ups the social commentary to Voltaire levels of savagery. Consider these observations of a university, from part III:

I saw another at work to calcine Ice into Gunpowder; who likewise shewed me a Treatise he had written concerning the Malleability of Fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses, by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundation; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects, the Bee and the Spider.

There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.

In another Apartment I was highly pleased with a Projector, who had found a Device of plowing the Ground with Hogs, to save the Charges of Plows, Cattle, and Labour. The Method in this: In an Acre of Ground you bury at six Inches Distance, and eight deep, a Quantity of Acorns, Dates, Chestnuts, and other Maste or Vegetables whereof these Animals are fondest; then you drive six Hundred or more of them into the Field, where in a few Days they will root up the whole Ground in search of their Food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their Dung. It is true, upon Experiment they found the Charge and Trouble very great, and they had little or no Crop. However, it is not doubted that this Invention may be capable of great Improvement.

And this rather wry bit where the joke about government working purely and productively might seem like a lame cliche today just shows us, yet again, that there’s nothing new under the sun:

In the School of Political Projectors I was but ill entertained, the Professors appearing in my Judgment wholly out of their Senses, which is a Scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity, and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: Of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimaeras, that never entred before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.

The final section of the book has the darkest humor, such as this almost invisibly veiled swipe at expansive governments spreading their influence:

But I had another Reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s Dominions by my Discovery. To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with Relation to the Distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For instance, A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Three Old Poems From Las Vegas

I saw this page in a now-defunct alt-weekly sixteen years ago, and fell in love. I don’t often like new poetry, but I really enjoyed all three of these. I tore out the page and put it up in my classroom. It’s followed me from school to school since. Sometimes I’d refer to it, sometimes students asked about it, usually it just sat among the detritus that teachers collect year after year.

Last summer, I came across it while doing some decluttering, and took these pictures of each poem, and here they are, preserved now in Internet amber.

I like these because they each tell a specific yet oddly relatable slice-of-life story, told in vivid language, but not at all flowery. These are unadorned decorations on small moments, as most of my favorite poems are.

I just Googled the titles and authors–none of these poems are available elsewhere online, it seems (indeed, none of them seems to have been collected at all), though the authors all seem to still be writing, with some professional success. That makes me quite happy.

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The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

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Beautiful Biblical Writing

I recently read 2 Kings 8, where a sick king sends a servant (who is secretly plotting to kill the king) to the prophet Elisha to see if he’ll recover, and Elisha tells the jealous servant that illness isn’t the enemy the king really needs to worry about. In verse 11, Elisha stares down the servant with classically stoic Old Testament severity, and the scheming servant breaks down under his guilty conscience, but then Elisha likewise breaks down, weeping over the corruption of humanity.

This sweeping drama reaches its climax in that single, short, simple verse: “And he settled his countenance steadfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept.”

I’m impressed by all that goes on there–first, the three major emotional peaks: the prophet’s cold scolding, the servant’s shame, and the prophet’s apparent 180 of attitude from scolding to open sadness about the violent weakness of human nature.

But I was also floored by the sparseness of the prose. It echoes with an empty disregard for decoration, sending out its story with the plain directness of folk art. It’s the kind of style that is actually so often affected in modern times by writers trying to look wise or macho. This tiny sentence perfectly illustrates the way that, for example, Hemingway would punch out prose with a lack of clarity for who’s speaking.

I underlined 2 Kings 8:11, not because it’s profoundly doctrinal or because it provides direction for discipleship or because it’s a useful proof text or for any other such reason. I just underlined it because it’s beautiful.

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Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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