My junior classes are finishing Huckleberry Finn soon, and last week one student showed me something she found in the copy of the book that I’d checked out to her.
There were a series of notes sprinkled throughout–little motivational conversations left by a former student, intended to cheer up whatever random readers might come across it in the future.
It took me a bit, but I now remember the girl who put those notes in there a few years ago. Her plan to spread some joy worked–at least one student has appreciated her efforts.
Here is the note she left at the end of the book. It says, “It’s been an incredible journey and I’m glad I was able to share it with you! I hope my little notes of encouragement helped you finish the book by making the task a little more fun! All I ask in return is that you keep this note and all of the others in place so future readers can have the same experience you did! Have a wonderful rest of your high school career and remember to follow your dreams and make an adventure, like our friend Huck, here did. [heart] Alexis, 2014”
Further proof that I work at the coolest school in the world!
I love dropping bits of pop culture and current events into my classes. They often involve insulting famous people–it’s not personal or ideological, but teachers need to make things relevant and interesting, especially dry 19th century novels.
Today, as one class started their unit on The Scarlet Letter, I read the beginning with them and then summarized the flashback at the end of chapter 2:
“So this story is about a beautiful young woman who escaped poverty and married a deformed older man whose wealth gave her a life of travel and luxury.” I paused and they knew some punchline was coming.
“And then she became first lady of the United States.”
Today I read my American Lit kids an essay by a French man who visited the American colonies and famously described their multicultural diversity:
He is neither an European, nor the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations.
After which I commented, “That should have been their motto: Colonial America–where a white person is free to marry a slightly different kind of white person.”
This might end up being the best received joke I tell all year.
My juniors just started reading The Scarlet Letter, that tale of the poor Puritan Hester Prynne, who has an affair, gets pregnant, and is subsequently shamed by society ever after. In chapter 2, she must mount a scaffold and spend part of the day being stared at and scorned by the entire town, in an act of public shaming meant to punish her sin.
After reading that part with them, I asked my class, “Can you imagine what that must have felt like for Hester? To be forced to stand on a stage while a thousand people stare and judge you for your human mistakes?”
They all looked a bit amused as the answer to my clumsy rhetorical question finally became clear to me.
You see, I teach at a school for the performing arts.
Last week my school district had semester exams–we’re halfway through the year! The week before, my classes spent a day doing this review of the semester’s units.
I put up six poster-sized sheets of butcher paper around the room, one for each of the major units we’ve done so far. In the center of each, I wrote the theme (Romanticism, logical fallacies, Revolutionary rhetoric, literary analysis, etc.).
I broke the students into groups of 4 or 5, assigned them to a poster, and gave them ten minutes to create a mind map on the poster, using markers I’d asked them to bring. They could use our textbook, online notes, whatever.
After ten minutes, I spot checked each poster, gave some quick editing advice as needed, and checked off that they were all contributing seriously (I’d told them that relevant illustrations were fine, but random nonsense like “buy my mix tape” was not).
Then they rotated to the next station, where they could edit what was there and add on more. Each team cycled to each station accordingly. Each student in each group had to contribute to at least one poster as a “scribe.”
By the end of class, they had produced mind maps like these below. I also posted these to our class web pages to help them study for the test.
Hey there, would-be American Lit mongers! Is “transcendentalists” too much of a mouthful? Here’s what I tell people to help them picture who these mid 19th century whackadoos were.
Think of a Jedi: empowered by spiritual communion with a nebulous universal essence. Then, think of a hippie: an iconoclastic rebel who wants only to be at peace with all. Finally, add a Boy Scout: an innocent survivalist with unbounded reverence for nature.
That pretty much adds up to Emerson and Thoreau!
In 1963, a precocious American student wrote to dozens of authors, asking them about symbolism. This article collects some of the most memorable responses he got, including this one from beatnik auteur Jack Kerouac. Others include Saul Bellow, Ayn Rand, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.
This year, I’m starting my American Lit Honors classes with The Crucible, the classic play about the Salem Witch Trials. I usually end my introduction to it with a joke like this:
“So this is a story about desperate, repressed, stressed-out people crowded into a little village in a hostile wilderness, whose desire for excitement and importance makes them break out in hysterical, paranoid drama, and then the innocent, unpopular people around them suffer greatly. So basically it’s a lot like 7th grade.”
One of my favorite jokes of the whole year!
In 2003 I read The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a best-of anthology culled from decades of previous best-of anthologies. When reading collections of various works, I track my responses to each by putting some notes on the table of contents. Besides written comments, I rank things with the classic, lazy teacher method of check /check-plus /check-minus, where the check is average, and the plus or minus pretty well explain themselves.
Here are my notes from this book. I see now how repetitive and banal many of my “reviews” were; I hope that if I read it again today, a lot of my notes would read differently. However, I think my overall opinions would still be positive.
Out of the 56 stories, I gave 7 check-minuses, 20 checks, 25 check-plusses, and even 4 unprecedented check-plus-plusses.
1915. Benjamin Rosenblatt, Zelig—Nothing more than a history lesson, and a poor one at that. √-
1916. Mary Lerner, Little Selves— Useful and pretty, but rigid. Irish. √
1917. Susan Gladspell, A Jury of Her Peers— As bad as Kate Chopin. √ –
1920. Sherwood Anderson, The Other Woman— A bland cliché. √- [unfortunate, as I loved Winesburg, Ohio.] Continue reading
One of the favorite tropes of professional education is that teaching an inch wide but a mile deep is better than teaching a mile wide and an inch deep, where the former suggests fairly little content covered in extensive detail, and the latter is the opposite: a curriculum that favors quantity of content over depth.
The idea is that the mile wide teaching confuses kids, goes too fast for them–in short, leaves them behind–without giving enough context for them to understand or care about what they’re learning. Mile deep teaching, on the other hand, posits that choosing a smaller core of priority material, and teaching it with enough care to produce mastery, will help students become self-sufficient learners, and end up giving them more material in retention, anyway.
This makes a lot of sense, and I used to subscribe to it. I no longer do, though.
For one thing, I’ve never seen anything substantial to show me that mile deep teaching does, in fact, produce better comprehension and retention. Like exercising any other muscle, there’s a limit reached fairly quickly, after which, you’re just burning what’s already there. Most times, if a student hasn’t grasped something after a few days of class, they’re not likely to get it ever, even after a few months.
For the past several years, I’ve taught a class called American Literature Honors. Immersing myself in that subject has made me realize that each of the three words in that title implies something powerful, and something contrary to the mainstream. In fact, I wonder if such a title will become controversial in the near future.
The first idea stated by the name of the class is that there is such a thing as an American identity, a nature that must meet some kind of criteria and that is discernibly different from any other identity. This is important to recognize.
It is undeniable that the term “American” exists, and therefore must mean something. Even relativism, the great intellectual cancer of the 20th century, can’t look the word in the face and say it means nothing, that it carries no more semantic weight than any current youth slang. It stands to reason that “American” can’t be defined as anything we want it to mean, but must have parameters that will include some things and exclude others. Simply admitting this is a victory over the foggy forces of multiculturalism.
The second is that “literature” exists, as opposed to other kinds of artifacts or fields of knowledge, and even other kinds of writing, and that this is worthy of being studied. Also, there is an area of intersection between the two, that some amount of this “literature” is decidedly “American” in character.
Throughout this first semester of American Literature, a pair of bizarre metaphors have stuck with me for their singular strangeness. Good figures of speech work because they connect a new experience with a familiar one. “Walking through the fetid jungle was like trying to swim through a soaking wet wool blanket,” for example. Never been to the jungle? That’s OK, because we can all imagine being swamped by a wet blanket. It’s like that.
In a famous scene in Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab admits that the white whale had bitten off his leg; Ahab savagely wails and screams the fact, “with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.”
So, how exactly did Ahab sound when he crazily lamented the loss of his leg to the whale? Well, he sounded like a moose when his girlfriend trots away, or something. You know. That sound.
Oh. Because we’ve all spent time in Alaska with lovelorn wildlife.
Melville’s contemporary Edgar Allan Poe was even more esoteric. Continue reading
After teaching Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” last week, in which he wallows in every chance to describe the building in as much awful detail as possible, I wondered how such skills would carry over to the modern world of real estate advertising. Thus, this, with obvious material lifted straight from the story:
FOR SALE. 4 bed, 2 bath, spacious lot. Bleak walls, vacant eyelike windows, rank sedges, decayed trees. Good starter home.
AVAILABLE IMMEDIATELY. 2100 sq. ft. Black and lurid tarn w/ precipitous brink and ghastly tree stems. Also, HOA dues.
Ranch house, gated neighborhood, close to schools, w/ a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, leaden-hued. A fixer upper.
Downtown duplex to rent. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled webwork from the eaves; no masonry fallen! No smokers.
Retail/office space available. A wild inconsistency between perfect adaptation of parts, crumbling individual stones. Reminds one of a long neglected vault. A barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the front of the roof of the building in front, makes its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it becomes lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. Zoned for commercial operation.
Cozy bungalow for sale. Carvings on ceiling, somber tapestries, ebon blackness on floors, phantasmagoric armorial trophies rattle. Take the virtual tour online!
Condo units for lease. Large and lofty. Windows long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light make their way through the trellised panes. Accented by vaulted and fretted ceiling. Fully furnished: profuse, comfortless, antique, tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about. College students preferred, pets OK.
Don’t miss upcoming mansion open house! Good for close family. Contact Usher Realty. Some remodeling needed.
It’s been a year since I read this review in City Journal of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s 1970 masterpiece, Mr. Sammler’s Planet. That’s how long something has to stand in line when it gets onto my to do list.
This young curmudgeon loved every page. The City Journal review lauds it largely for its precision in describing the squalid conditions of late-60’s/early 70’s New York City. The first chapter, especially, is a delicately, surgically rendered reproduction of a previously fine world that’s fraying, splitting, flying to pieces.
After about fifty pages I regretted reading a library copy and not buying it, because almost every page had these exquisitely quotable axioms about life that seemed like natural landmarks. I wanted to underline them and keep them. They belong in a museum. Here’s just one: “Perhaps when people are so desperately impotent they play that instrument, the personality, louder and wilder.” Yes.
This is also the most literate, philosophical book I’ve ever read. Usages of classic literature appear almost as frequently as the word “the.” Not just references–usages. No name dropping, but elements of everything from Norse mythology to Ulysses integrated into the text, gorgeously.
That actually leads to the book’s only soft spot: Continue reading