A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Classes and Curriculum

The Bourne Identity: The Best Action Flick There Is

This is my example for the best movie ever essay my sophomores are working on. I have invited them to argue what they think is the best, but clearly I’m a biased reader. I posted this essay as a Google Doc with comments pointing out to students what I was doing.

In a dark theater, in an intense moment of  The Bourne Identity, my mother-in-law clutched her popcorn in a death grip. A man was sneaking behind the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, and it was not clear whether Bourne was aware of his presence. Unable to watch him die, my mother-in-law broke down the fourth wall and called to Jason: “Watch out behind you!” The moment created one of the great memories of our family’s history added one more anecdote proving that The Bourne Identity is the greatest action movie ever made.

Part of what makes The Bourne Identity so  good is the way it is full of regular people doing amazing things. While Matt Damon has immortalized the role, Brad Pitt was actually offered it first but turned it down because he was busy with other films  (“Bourne Identity Trivia”). This was good for the film because Pitt, while a great actor, would not have brought the same Everyman sense that Damon brings to a role. With Damon, viewers are able to believe (for a couple hours anyway) he is a normal guy who is surprised to discover he’s a trained assassin. But the sense of regular people carries into the other characters.  Critic David Edelstein argues that Marie, the innocent bystander who gets wrapped into Bourne’s adventures, “seems to be having the time of her life,” which is precisely what the viewer is doing even as they imagine themselves in her place. It is the juxtaposition of these normal-seeming people with extraordinary situations that creates excitement a viewer can imagine being a part of.

Yet while the everydayness of the characters adds a sense of believability, one could definitely argue that Bourne’s amnesia, which continues throughout the film, is hardly realistic. Bourne doesn’t know who he is but he knows everything he’s ever learned about being a modern spy and soldier. Would a person’s memory really work like that? This is part of what critic J. Hoberman is getting at when he describes t he “general superfluity” of the film. But while this rejection of the amnesia’s premise has validity , it does not necessarily follow that the amnesia ruins the film. With the height of the excitement in The Bourne Identity, who cares whether there are any cited cases of this kind of amnesia? Viewers are given the key quandary with an immediate  inciting moment, as wonder with Bourne himself why he is floating on the sea with bullets in his back. From there the movie never relents, piling mysterious complication upon mysterious complication, withholding the climax until the last moments of the movie. With such nonstop intensity, critic David Edelstein claims, “it doesn’t give you time to reflect on the inanit y . . . of its premise.” It moves so fast, in fact, that viewers are likely to miss even fundamental mistakes. In the opening scene, when the fisherman cuts open Bourne’s wetsuit to reveal his bullet wounds, Bourne is wearing only the wetsuit (as is normal). Yet for the first half of the film following the boat-scene, Bourne wears a sweater with b ullet holes in the back–a preposterous situation since he was not wearing the sweater when he was shot (“Bourne Identity Goofs”). Does a viewer mind such things? No, because the pace of film’s action is so quick few of them will even notice such basic mistakes.

Not that the film is full of such mistakes; in fact, the film’s flawless and creative chase scenes are what sets it so far apart from other action movies. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Jason Bourne escapes from the United States embassy in Switzerland. The  paradox of a man escaping from such a highly secure building (dozens of Marines are sprinting to catch him the entire time), single-handedly and without running or looking stressed, creates a thrill. And the directors have made sure nothing interferes with the thrill. For example, to ease the feelings of any conflicted viewers who would not want to see innocent American soldiers or security guards harmed, Bourne never kills any of them, only knocking them cold and leaving them behind. Thus, part of what works in this film is it “summons up a thriller era when the only people who ever seemed to die were spies, counterspies, and the odd, overweening dictato r” (Edelstein). In fact, by the time the movie ends,  only eight people die (“Bourne Identity Trivia”), showing blood and gore is not the essential ingredient to a great action film.

W ith such creative action occuring at such an intense pace to seemingly regular people, The Bourne Identity succeeds as no other action movie has. My m other-in-law might have enjoyed worrying over Jason Bourne’s safety, but she need not have. His spot as the ultimate action hero is still secure.



Using Serial (season 1) to teach journalism

I am not a great journalism teacher. I’ve been teaching the class for four years (it’s a semester long writing class for seniors) and have altered my approach drastically in many ways, experimenting with our working time, with what I ask of students and how I motivate them, with the direction of my lessons. This year I wanted to improve their grasp of investigative journalism, to help them see what it is, both how hard it is and what is really going on with it. In truth, I have struggled to spark students’ interest in journalism, in its relevance, and since I see investigative reporting as the most exciting part of journalism (real change brought about from diligent reporting, the whole watchdog for a Democratic Society ideal) I thought emphasizing this area might be the best way to spark interest and build the relevance of the whole enterprise.

So this year we listened to season one of Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast. We listened in class, which we can do because our school uses a block schedule (95 minute classes), and I asked students to answer particular questions about each episode. After listening we continued working on our regular news stories for the school paper.

I thought our listening to it might show us a good example of investigative journalism but also lend us a view inside the process, what goes into putting all this together, because Sarah Koenig is so conversational and open about what she is trying to do and how she does it.

We finished the last episode today, and I am on the fence about its worth.

That was a lot of class time. Early on it felt completely worth it, but somewhere around episode nine I began to wonder whether I’d do this again. The episodes vary in length but generally run 40 to 50 minutes. With 12 episodes, that’s a lot of class time to give to this project (at least nine hours).

But then again, I have taught this class for years and know that what I had been doing with that time was not working. I was continually disappointed with the results of my instruction. The content was good, but somehow it never hooked my seniors, whose minds were set more on completing their high school careers than the nuances of clutter in their prose. No matter how good the lessons’ content was, if the students didn’t learn them, they weren’t good. So did Serial lead to greater net learning?

I am happy with students’ responses to my questions about each episode. They were thoughtful and insightful. They were clearly listening (no napping, no playing on their phones). They were developing their own opinions. They were understanding what Koenig was doing as a storyteller when I asked them to consider her methods. And they were ready to riot when one person affirmed Adnan should have been convicted (they voted 17-1 to acquit him, not believing he was innocent so much as not sure he was guilty).

All the students said they thought it was worth the time we spent on it. One qualified her comments a tad, recognizing that we spent twelve class periods on it and I might not want to do that again, but she still voted for it. Another student told me, “It helped with how I view journalism,” which is encouraging, though it’s possible I primed her for that kind of feedback, as I had asked them what they learned about journalism and whether I should do it again.

Likely the key measure of the experience will be how students respond in their own work, their own journalism. Their big project for the quarter is to write their own investigative piece. The results from past classes have been mixed (many students have passed off basic news reports as investigative pieces), so if this group writes a series of truly investigative reports, I would be encouraged. But I also have to admit that such results can depend as much on the topics students discover as on their understanding of the skills. If I can suggest a number of great ideas, students will seize them and frequently write good stories, but if I can’t think of enough topics, a dearth of interesting stories may result.

I have done worse things than this Serial unit–though nothing as long–so I’m not scared to try it again. While students enjoyed it, I’m not particularly confident in its place and am definitely fishing for other ideas. If I come across one, I will be content to toss Serial back into the pond.

Memoir as a Unique Expression in the Literary Canon

I would claim that, as a genre, personal memoirs and autobiographies provide something crucial to the literary canon and historical records. They are unique expressions, distinct in significant ways from novels and poetry; they are highly crafted true stories where the writer is free to tell whatever outlandish tale really happened. In them the writer’s ultimate purpose is to say, “This happened” and “This is what I believe it means.” And with them a unique trust exists between the writer and reader, with the reader willingly ceding incredulity toward the chronicled events, accepting them as true in an historical sense.

I’m working on something for my students and wrote this paragraph as an initial volley to which they could then respond–agree, disagree, or both. Is this what I should say about memoir? Am I missing something, or have I overstated or misstated anything?

A Knight’s Tale Relishes Its Silliness

My students are practicing using the “they say/I say” rhetorical structure in class by responding to a movie review of A Knight’s Tale. This is my own contribution. I find the “they say/I say” structure a very practical and flexible structure for students to use. It almost instantly adds a maturity to their writing they otherwise have not had.

In his 2001 review for New York Magazine Peter Rainer offers a harsh critique of the film A Knight’s Tale. Rainer claims the movie attempts to demonstrate “that there’s no essential difference between then and now.” To make his point, he likens each character to our modern equivalent: the hero’s friends are groupies, complete with squires as buddies, a herald as PR agent, and a pretty lady oogling from the luxury boxes.

By focusing on his thesis that the movie wants us to see how “the fourteenth century was as glitzy and starstruck as our own,” Rainer entirely misses the film writers’ self-consciousness. Surely the writers were not trying to convey a real parallel between the middle ages and the modern world. A noble woman sneaking around men’s tents at night? A prince declaring a peasant a knight because the peasant was tough? Next, a historian might counter, you’ll tell me a king wrote the Magna Carta. At practically every turn, any historical record shows the medieval world is strikingly different than the way the movie portrays it. But before criticizing the movie for this difference, shouldn’t a viewer stop to realize the writers were surely aware of how discordant their story is with history, and that it must have been part of their point? In A Knight’s Tale, filmmakers have reveled in setting the archetypal rags to riches and David & Goliath plots of sports movies in a completely new place. They’re committing the same old clichés in all the new ways, and like homecoming dress-up days, we revel in A Knight’s Tale because we know it’s silly and we think its clichés are fun. In the climactic moment of this movie, William jousts against the world’s second best jouster without armor or a helmet. Somehow—through quick edits and close-ups—his opponent completely misses him, and William knocks the guy off his horse. In sum, anyone who sees an ending like this and does not recognize its aspirations to silliness has been weighed, and found lacking.

Asking Student Writers to Keep a Commonplace Book

First, an admittance: I’ve never liked Nancy Atwell’s “writing territories” method for coming up with ideas for writing. I see how it works but having been employed outside of education a little and written a bit myself, I have never recognized its similarity to what writers do. Maybe some writers have the liberty to pull from such lists for topics, but I can’t envision people who write for a living–say a marketing or PR employee or even David Brooks or Marueen Dowd–checking their writing territories for ideas about what to say.

More often I see writers entering into or attempting to begin a broader conversation. (This is one reason I so value Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say, a book that frames academic writing as participation in an ongoing conversation.) In this regard, writers are not exploring personal territories so much as responding to ideas they have discovered. That is why for years I have given my high school students more direct prompts to which they need to respond. Each prompt has flexibility and usually I offer multiple prompts, but I am convinced the act of responding to a concrete idea is more “authentic” to what writing in life is like than diving into writing territories. It also, I find, offers students more opportunities to stretch beyond the personal narrative.

Happily, a personal experience of my own has pushed me into a new way of exploring writing ideas, one I hope will combine the positive aspects of Atwell’s writing territories with the relevant conversation-framework of Graff and Birkenstein. For Christmas a student of mine gave me a notebook that reads on the front, “Shakespeare never tweeted a sonnet,” which is of course a cute knock on my penchant for playing with Twitter. I wanted to use the notebook for something I’d treasure and decided I’d take my informal commonplace book and move it offline (I used to use a tumblr but later merged it with this blog).

Allow me to pause to explain the commonplace book. A commonplace book is more scrapbook than journal. Most sources, like Wikipedia, observe that it is “filled with items of every kind.” In this sense a writer of a commonplace book gets to choose entirely what goes into it. Most commonly people place quotes, ideas, reactions to passages (with portions quoted), poems, or more. Alan Jacobs observes that “a book full of such passages would be a treasure-house,” which means that it is filled with materials “that you expect will repay repeated consideration.” That is, it contains passages, quotes, and ideas you’d want to look back on and reconsider.

Using my new notebook for this commonplace book purpose struck me as a good idea because when I come across great passages in my reading I usually do not transfer them to the computer and thus rarely write them down (hence the relative infrequency of posts here). Plus, I never return to browse my old entries online, though I have searched for passages in my blog when I know they’re there. This behavior misses the purpose of the commonplace book and falls under the warning of Jacobs’s nicely aphoristic point: “wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.”

Shortly after rejuvenating my own (and loving the process), it hit me: why not have my students keep a commonplace book, if only for a time? Through the process they can not only see how writing is engaging in a conversation but they can learn how to enter one. Plus, the process will encourage good reading habits, like reacting to particular passages and noting key ideas.

So my juniors are keeping one for a month to enable them to discover what the process is like. At the end of the month, I’ll ask them to write an article using some of the material they’ve collected in their commonplace books. I’d like to see if we can roll the task over and convert that article into their research paper (and why not, since the commonplace book is in part a way of tracking research?), but exactly how to do that will take some additional time and thought.

To begin, I’ve created a handout explaining what commonplace books are and am encouraging students to read whatever they want (I do have a nonfiction reading list to give folks some ideas in case they need one). They seem amendable to the idea, perhaps since it gives them so much freedom and because “just” jotting quotes and passages is less straining than composing journal entries.

It’s a “we’ll see” project this year, but I am excited, because it mirrors the process “real” writers are using. Consider how much it echoes Kevin DeYoung’s process, as he describes it in Crazy Busy:

I suppose every writer has different routines for writing. When I know what my next book is going to be, I start reading for it about a year in advance. I collect articles and blog posts. I jot down stray thoughts. I usually read twenty to twenty-five books before beginning to write.

DeYoung and others like him may have writing territories that invisibly guide them to their choice of topics, so I acknowledge such territories may have a place in our teaching of writing, but since his process so clearly mirrors the keeping of a commonplace book, I get the sense that in assigning one, I as a writing instructor am exposing my students to a proven process for writing intelligently and substantively.

And that’s worth noting.

Thanks for reading.

Reading The Road as a father, vulnerable to McCarthy’s probing tension

I remember enjoying Life Is Beautiful while in college: the quirky Roberto Benigni created a character I’d hope to be, and the peek into one story struck me as a poignant way to capture the tragedy of the broader genocide that was the Holcaust. At least, that’s how I remember thinking about it, and the positive memories are why I assigned my sophomores to watch it fifteen years later when I was out of class for some meetings.

They didn’t finish the film with the sub and I had to show the last 30 or 40 minutes or so when I returned. It did not go well for me. Within five minutes of hitting play my stomach was tied. When we finally reached the scene where little Joshua hides in the junction box and his father is taken away and shot, I left the room, afraid I’d throw up. What was different from my college experience? Becoming a father had made the movie unwatchable.

I wonder, as I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with my students, if they can comprehend this fatherly perspective, or are they as clueless to the gut-level connection as I was the first time I watched Life Is Beautiful? The first time I read The Road I withheld any positive acclaim until the end, muttering to McCarthy with every page, “Do not do this. If you do this, I will hate this book like no other.” I never had to utter to myself what “this” was any more than McCarthy’s narrator has to explain what is on the man’s mind: “He watched the boy sleeping. Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” (29). I knew with the first mention of “it” what McCarthy meant. The pit in my stomach, the one that drops into place the moment I read a sentence of The Road, told me what “it” was.

The pit, or whatever it is that leaves me on the edge of sickness and threatens to push me off it, arises particularly from the juxtaposition of the father’s knowing watchfulness and the boy’s sweet peacefulness, which we see immediately in the novel. For example, with the pistol out and ready, the man sees the same sweet sleeping idiosyncrasies any parent sees from their child: “He just sat watching the boy sleep. He’d pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets” (5). The boy’s sleep prevents him from seeing what consumes his father: “He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day” (5). And when the boy wakes the two elements crash:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I’m right here.

I know. (5)

The tender boy sees his father and greets him, a moment in which any father would want to bask and respond in reciprocal tenderness–that is to say, it’s a moment where I would, so I assume any father would as well–but instead he answers by assuring his son that he is watching, that he is here, because that is what consumes him and how he must express his love. It is sad that it must be this way, but it works, for the boy’s response acknowledges his understanding and trust in his father. He knows his father is there, he doesn’t have to be told.

What a pang such tension brings me as a father. I know what it is to watch over my sleeping son, his face relaxed, his body vulnerable. Yet the joy of my looking at him arises from the contrast of his sleeping self with the buoyant energy that fills our home when he’s awake. Like the father in The Road, I see him as my charge, my “warrant,” but to me this is a responsibility within my grasp. It’s a duty of character development and moral guidance, not a task of raw survival and violent protection. In my gut I know no extremes exist to my willingness to protect him, but I need not imagine such circumstances, let alone plan for them or expect them.

This book is a long metal pole McCarthy has probed inside me, and with it he is pressing the nerve endings of my fatherly spirit. That nerve is central to what it means, to what it feels, to be a father, and even when aware of the novel’s ending, I find myself muttering, “Don’t press me too hard, McCarthy. If you rupture that nerve, I’ll never forgive you.”


An example of my students’ insight into Gatsby:

The following is a comment on a discussion thread with my students. We were processing The Great Gatsby, and this student was interested in the relationship between Gatsby and Nick:

I was wondering what draws Nick to Gatsby. In a way, Nick is obsessed with the mysterious Gatsby. It can’t be because there haven’t been great things said about Gatsby only awful rumors. Because Nick is not used to the aristocratic society, Gatsby’s wealth is alluring to him. It goes the other way too. Why does Gatsby trust Nick so much? They have never met before and now that they have met, they don’t spend that much intimate time together. Gatsby has no true friends so Nick acts as a sort of safe zone from all of the wealthy men and women around him. I think that the Gatsby-Nick relationship symbolizes the relationship that Gatsby hopes to have with Daisy but never achieves it which could be an explanation to why Gatsby hangs on to Nick until the end because he never gets the dream relationship with Daisy so he holds onto the relationship with Nick for as long as possible. Of course Nick has ties with Daisy but I think that Gatsby has more complex motives than the apparent surface motives, a complete example of modernism.

I’ve added the italics to highlight the part that blows me away. I hadn’t considered that before at all, but it’s a seriously astute observation.  Gatsby can’t have that relationship with Daisy because his love for Daisy is based in the past, but his relationship with Nick doesn’t carry that burden of the past and can be what it is and just what it is. Nick views him without judgment (possibly not to Nick’s credit, as he overlooks some things that perhaps shouldn’t be brushed aside so easily) and is able to accept Gatsby for who he is, admiring his wealth and charm instead of looking down upon him for being new money . . .

Teaching is amazing. With barely any effort I could find another batch of insightful comments from my students about this book, insights that make be a better reader and more intelligent person. Why do English teachers  know the books they teach so well? Because they remember all the brilliant insights their past students have shared.

Needless to say, I love my job.