A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: books

A pool of preserved bison meat

I’ve been reading Pekka Hamalainen’s Lakota America and enjoying it, feeling like it’s a book I’ve been waiting for for quite some time. I particularly love this paragraph:

In the winter of 1703, Sicanu Lakotas walked above the bison, a thousand beasts under their feet. Beneath them they could see the broad faces and glimpse the massive bodies halted in mid-motion. There were rows and piles of them, a vast, jumbled pool of preserved meat. A lake’s ice coat had collapsed under a buffalo herd and then hardened again to seal the drowned animals in, leaving Sicangus a huge natural refrigerator of meat. Whenever they needed food, they could simply cut through the ice and bring up a carcass. The meat lasted an entire year. A Sicangu winter count remembered it as “Camped cutting the ice through winter.”

My Book Broke

I had a problem with the book I was reading over the break.

It broke.

So that was problematic. The night it happened I jumped online and bought another copy (used—$4) but it took a couple weeks to arrive. I’ve been milling about not wanting to start another book because I really want to read this one (it’s The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff). I had markings in it but now those are basically lost since this one is destined to be a decoration in my classroom (I use old books for decorations–I’ll talk about that another day perhaps).

I tried to read this copy last night in bed but I was having to hold the left pages at the top to pin them against the cover, while resting it on my chest. My right hand had a firm grip on the right side and cover. Turning pages was slow, but it got me through 1/2 a chapter.

Thankfully today the new copy arrived.

But my daughter got through the old copy for school and I read 1/2, so we got our $4 out of it. And with the new one, we’re still only $8 in the hole.

So goes the life of the used book connoisseur. There are bumps in the road, but it’s worth it.

Reading makes me a better conversationalist

Developing a reading practice has served me well. First, and most obviously, intentional reading expands my mind, acquainting me with ideas that I’d never otherwise encounter. It also makes me a much better conversationalist, and has the side benefit of letting me instantly identify people with whom I will likely “click” based on the books they like. As I absorb the sentences penned by experienced writers, I learn how to become a better writer, too. And reading, of course, provides me with an enormous amount of pleasure and relaxation. To quote Thomas Jefferson, these days, “I cannot live without books.”

– Alissa Wilkinson

From my experience: 10 Books for High School Boys

While I am a lover of literature and thoroughly enjoy books like The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice, I am still a guy, and the books I tend to obsess over are  much closer to what is typically of interest to guys–adventures, heroism, external struggles, and the like.

Possibly due to how obvious my fascination with such books is, a friend recently asked me for some titles to read with his sons when they were gone on a trip. It got me thinking about boys and books and what kinds of titles I tend to suggest when boys are looking for something to read. I thought I’d share a few titles I constantly put in front of my 9th and 10th grade boys when they’re looking for something.

It seems important to mention that I am not talking about “struggling readers” with these–that brings up an entirely different category of suggestions. Neither am I necessarily talking about AP Literature bound students. These are books I find don’t get rejected by grade-level reading ability males in their freshman and sophomore years.

Without further ado, here are 10 books I think boys will like:

Lord of the Flies by: William Golding

Golding has said that he chose to feature boys in this book because boys tend to show the traits he wanted to explore in a more obvious manner. He included no girls because themes of sexual tension were not what he was after. I remember reading this novel in high school and only half joking with my childhood buddy which characters we would have been. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a good one.

Shiloh by: Shelby Foote

This book utilizes the same research Foote uses in his Civil War: A Narrative, but the book is fiction. I listened to the CD from the library this summer and it was one of the best read audio books I’ve heard. It certainly does not glorify war, but it explores it and considers the battle from many angles; that is something I think many guys want to do.

True Grit  by: Charles Portis

Obviously this novel has been adapted for film twice with great results each time. The protagonist is a girl, so it may not seem manly on the surface, but the themes easily open up conversations about what grit is and why it matters, and most guys can appreciate the kind of grit on display here (I’ve actually read about some interesting research that shows that what we call grit is the single biggest predictor of success for individuals–far more accurate than GPA, extra-curricular involvement, or test scores).

Endurance by: Alfred Lansing

    My obsession with Shackleton is well documented, so there’s no need to recount it here. The book starts slow but gets entrancing before long.

Into Thin Air by: Jon Krakauer

I loved this book. Granted I have always had a fascination with high altitude climbing anyway, but what guy with an adventuresome spirit wouldn’t? This book really brings up questions about how far is too far when it comes to taking risks, as well as questions about what is most important when pursuing a goal. Plus that it’s all true is fascinating.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by: Sherman Alexie

A former student of mine–an American Indian student–told me he was reading this book and that I should read it. I did and later asked him why he liked it so much. “It’s so true,” he said. Alexie captures what it is to be a teenage boy and from the perspective of my student, at least, what it is to be an American Indian boy. There are a couple sections with crude talk, but to be honest, it’s far less crude than what I used to hear in the locker room, and it arguably does much to contribute to the genuine nature of the character.

Friday Night Lights by: H.G. Bissinger

This is about Odessa, Texas more than the games, and many students hate the book because they think it’s going to be an exciting sports novel. If, however, a student is thoughtful about the culture that surrounds sports, he will find a lot here to like.

1984 by: George Orwell

The power struggle in Orwell’s novel seems to be something guys can understand. When boys in my classes begin this book, they usually finish it. When girls begin it, they often quit. I wouldn’t call that a scientific study, but it might make me want to conduct one . . .

The Lord of the Rings by: J.R.R. Tolkein

This isn’t a surprising or shocking title for such a list, but these books are so good they shouldn’t go ignored. Also, since the years of Peter Jackson’s movies are getting lost in the past, fewer high school students have read them.

The Iliad or The Odyssey by: Homer

The textbook excerpts of The Odyssey in our Prentice Hall literature texts have sapped the life from Homer’s work, especially the life that a student would enjoy. When my students hear some of the cut parts–like the battle in the hall that our text summarizes by saying, “Aided by Athena, Odysseus, Telemachus, Eumaeus, and other faithful hersdsmen kill all the suitors.”–they ooh and ahh over them. A decent reader, encountering an exciting translation like Robert Fagles’s, is able to love these works.

That’s my list. It’s far from complete, but these are the 10 that came to mind first. Thanks for reading!

Duty: A virtue without glitter

When it comes to conferences, some topics glitter. At the TIE Conference I recently attended in Sioux Falls, the session on homework packed its small space to standing room only. And why shouldn’t it? The title was amorphous enough to pique curiosity and the topic universally difficult enough to draw a needy bunch. So full was it that I opted not to squeeze in, choosing instead to prepare for my own presentation that immediately followed it.

My own session did not glitter. It was on digital citizenship and in it I was sharing a resource that a colleague and I had created for TIE, called My Footprint. Though an important topic, digital citizenship is not the kind of thing we want to teach. Classify it next to messages about drinking and driving, suicide, and organizing notebooks: we’ll teach these things because we are convinced they are important, but what we really want is for someone else to teach these things to our students. It’s a glitter free environment.

Teaching such things seems instead to fall under the label of duty. It is our duty as teachers to make sure our students know these things. Ultimately the duty is a parental duty, of course, but we have a role even when the parents are doing their duty. We are the airbag meant to compliment the seat belt, and like the airbag, we are not intended to replace the seat belt; also like the airbag, many consumers insist on relying solely upon us, often to their own demise.

This idea of duty has been on my mind a lot lately. I am reading Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s formative years. Much of the beginning of the book focuses upon Theodore Roosevelt Sr., the President’s father, and it is clear our 26th President was raised in an atmosphere where duty was inculcated and taken very seriously. Roosevelt Sr.’s own mother-in-law once said of him, “Thee is a good young man. I really think if anyone ever tried to do their duty, he does.”

Like many ideas, once I became attuned to this, it became the thing I saw wherever I turned. Reading late in my hotel room the night before my presentation, I was struck by part of Jeremiah’s prophecy to the sons of Josiah:

Do you think you are a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him. (Jer. 22:15-16 RSV)

Shallum had enjoyed the wealth of kingship but not the responsibility. He missed the duty that accompanies such a post.

Standing before colleagues to discuss digital citizenship, this sense of duty struck me as a crucial piece to the puzzle I was trying to assemble. Here my students thrive in a rich western nation with all the power the world’s consumer economies can provide, and they seem to lack a sense of duty or responsibility that should accompany such riches. They are in too many ways like Shallum, thinking they are kings because they compete in pocket-technology. Yet what are they doing with this power, with this wealth?

The burden of teaching digital citizenship grew heavier the moment I made the connection between Shallum and my students, but it’s breadth made it unwiedly. This was more than digital citizenship, it was citizenship. Call it global citizenship, or call it something else, there is a sense of duty I longed to convey to my students that they obviously lacked. The reality was that if they needed a special lesson to teach them not to use Twitter to bully others, something more than digital citizenship was missing.

Yet when I grew fully honest, I admitted it was a sense of duty I too lacked. What am I doing with this power, with this wealth? Am I dealing in my own cedar and considering it a sign of something I think I have earned?

For me, when I begin to think I have earned something or deserve something, that is when I know I have gone off track, that an entitlement attitude has infected my thinking.  How to get on track is another question, one which I continue to explore. One place I have begun is where Josiah had succeeded:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well. (Jer. 22.16 RSV)

I am not in the place of a king, to judge such causes, but this Internet connection I am enjoying is indication enough that I have the power to assist the poor and needy.

Thus I began my cogitation upon duty, an unglittery virtue I have seemingly forgotten, but one which I definitely need to reconsider.

Thanks for reading.

How Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers breaks my heart

I don’t generally cry at books. It’s not because I am tough; I can choke up at slightest twist of emotionalism in a sub-par movie or at a close up view of another individual shedding tears. I sometimes wonder if my dry-eyed habit with books comes because when reading I have enough lead-time to steel myself for the event, or because when coming to such a time my eyes fly down the page almost against my will and I am given a clue before the full impact of the scene can overcome me. When reading Bleak House recently, I had to grab a piece of paper and cover the bottom half of the page when I reached a particularly moving climax. I knew some key piece of information was coming, and without the paper I could not ensure that my eye would not catch it a tad early.

I did tear up while reading about Abigail Adams’s death in David McCullough’s John Adams. It caught me off guard a bit; since women tend to outlast their mates I kind of assumed she would do the same. She was such a wonderful person, too, and the way McCullough shared Adams’s reaction to his wife’s death worked at my heart in a deep way.

I also teared up this weekend when I finished a children’s book I was curious about: Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers. My wife read The Wheel on the School to my eldest daughter recently and they enjoyed it, and I was curious about DeJong’s other work since The Wheel seemed to be of a style I could greatly appreciate. Sixty Fathers was wonderful, and though it is too intense for my five-year old (she still insists when we read anything suspenseful, “Don’t read me the bad parts!”) I am putting it on the Must-read list for later.

In it, Tien Pao, a small boy in China, gets separated from his family during the Japanese occupation of World War II. His sampan floats behind the enemy lines and he and his little pig, whom he names Glory-of-the-Republic, struggle to follow the river back to his family. Along the way he helps an American pilot escape the Japanese and gets adopted by 60 members of a bomb squadron who are friends of that rescued soldier.

I loved the book and was fully choked up by the final scenes. Through and after all of it, however, one little image, tossed in as Tien Pao climbs ashore after his sampan has floated far away from his family, captures the painfully moving aspect of this book and sums up the general nature of its theme–that heartbreaking reality of what happens to children in a time of war. Tien Pao had been in charge of his family’s pig and three ducklings, which means they are on the sampan with him when it breaks away, and as he wades to shore he realizes he will not be able to bring the ducklings with him for his travels over land.

He looked at the ducklings, then he shut his eyes tight and gave the dishpan a hard shove back into the bay. Without looking back, Tien Pao climbed up from the river and up the first rocky cliff.

On top of the cliff, Tien Pao turned. The empty sampan had pulled back into the current; it was going down the river. Below in the bay the white dishpan drifted and twirled. Two ducklings swam in the dishpan, but one must have gone overboard with Tien Pao’s hard, blind shove. The little duckling was chasing the dishpan, scrambling desperately to get out of the big river back into its little dishpan home. When he saw that, Tien Pao’s lips trembled. He turned away, and looked no more toward the river. (39)

In books where children are learning to read with more sophistication, I love a good, rich symbol that helps them see how symbolism and metaphor can work. The dog in Of Mice and Men serves such a purpose–it might be heavy-handed and obvious to a mature reader, but to one getting started, it is perfectly catch-able and if not caught, comprehensible with guidance. In Sixty Fathers, this duckling symbol, while apparent, is actually more flexible than Steinbeck’s, as its meaning ranges farther than the story itself.

Within the story, that little duckling serves as a symbol of Tien Pao’s predicament, but more powerfully, beyond the book, it expresses the painful reality of separation that Tien Pao’s story does not achieve. It is so painful that the above passage is what convinced me that my daughter was not ready for the book. It is far too sad to think about. My daughter would surely ask for reassurance about the duck’s chances, but having read what DeJong has written, I know that duckling will not reenter the pan. DeJong has not led me to believe it, no matter how desperately I want it to be true.

The author’s own story affirms the poignancy of the duckling. The back of the book explains that DeJong wrote the story as a kind of autobiography.

During World War II Mr. DeJong was official historian for the Chinese-American Composite Wing, which was part of Chennault’s famous Fourteenth Air Force. A young Chinese war orphan, the Tien Pao of this story, was adopted by DeJong’s outfit. The boy chose DeJong as his special “father,” and the two were devoted to one another.

Mr. DeJong wanted to bring the boy back to the United States with him, but because of legal complications he was unable to do so. However, the men in the outfit left the youngster well provided for when they returned to America. The Communists then took over that section of China, and DeJong has never heard what happened to the boy.

You can clearly detect that long-lasting heart-wrench in DeJong’s dedication:

For Wally, in memory of the compound in Peishiyi, China, and of little, lost Panza

By the end of The House of Sixty Fathers, Tien Pao experiences a happy ending–one that did not occur for Panza, the boy DeJong vividly remembers. In that light the little duckling serves more as a symbol of DeJong’s little boy than Tien Pao, and the reality of that moment with the dishpan is perhaps why it is the image that stays in my mind and presses upon my heart.

As I think back to this little, seemingly forgotten children’s novel, I realize it is the happy ending that made me cry, but it is that early symbolic moment that breaks my heart.

Thanks for reading.


Treasure hunting and finding Robert Louis Stevenson

On a date with my eldest daughter today we went to the used book store and I drilled her on part of the fun of a used bookstore–hunting for treasures. What I didn’t tell her was that part of the fun of looking for treasures is knowing what is a treasure and what is simply twaddle. She’s not ready to make the distinction at a glance, and, quite honestly, now that I think about it, neither am I. It is very difficult to wander into a used book store (or a new book store–is that how you say it? Suddenly the phrase used book store seems odd) and find something wonderful just by browsing. It can happen, I suppose, but it is much more helpful knowing something about the world of books and writers.

Thus, my being the one who knows something, I helped us hunt for treasure this morning. We found way up high, on the top shelf, a copy of Meindert Dejong’s The Singing Hill and grabbed it, knowing nothing of the plot of the story but knowing that Dejong’s The Wheel on the School was wonderful and that, so far, his The House of 60 Fathers is wonderful too (I’m reading it currently and will report on it later).

We also found a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a picture book made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of poetry. I’ve stumbled across a number of Stevenson’s poems from this volume and brought them home for my children. They are wonderful, and my middle child, who is three, has basically memorized “The Swing.”

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

My eldest and I read through a number of these poems in the coffee shop (the second half of our date) and my hunch about the appeal and quality of these poems, based on those few I’d read, was right. Their content works for children, even though it was written in the 19th Century, and the rhyming sings (see Give her rhymes, not poetry, for more on the importance of that). If my children are to love and enjoy poetry, and I hope they do, not because it will make them smart but because it can bring them joy, it seems to me that this is the kind of poetry to start on. Our favorite today was “Block City,” which I’ll post in full here for your pleasure, knowing Stevenson’s copyright has long disappeared.

WHAT are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I’ll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on the top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things.

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea.

Thanks for reading.