A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: education

David Brooks on the theory of maximum taste

I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.

The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks.

David Brooks at The Atlantic

Do not forget the amazing ear, for it remembers

One thing I’m finding is that it is easy to underestimate the human ear. Our mind has a knack for retaining things it catches, even things we didn’t realize it caught. Granted it can mix things up—my brother owned a book called ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, a book full of misunderstood song lyrics, using a Jimi Hendrix song as the title. As a side note, I can’t resist showing you a great interpretation of a Pearl Jam song whose words many people have memorized . . . sort of.

Despite such difficulties, we retain quite a bit through the ear, and one of the obvious helps to retention is repetition. Repetition is a bit of a dirty word, I suppose, but it does in fact work, if the ear is listening when the item is repeated. While reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I decided it was important for students to memorize a bit of Shakespeare, and I had them work on Puck’s monologue at the end of the play:

If we shadows have offended,
think but this and all is mended,
that you have but slumbered here
while these visions did appear . . . (and so on)

We memorized it mostly by repetition and saying it together, out loud. I’d say a line, and then the class would say a line. Then half the room would say one line and the other would call out the next line, moving back and forth until we’d finished. Eventually, using a memorization website I like, I’d reveal only so many words of each line, and students would call out what they remembered after I’d said the words that were on the screen. Ultimately they were getting it, repeating the lines even when I’d hidden all but the first words. It helps that the speech is written in couplets and the regular meter lets you know when something is wrong, of course—but that is why we chose Shakespeare to memorize instead of a passage from Night.

My favorite moments surfaced the day before we took the quiz, when a number of students had fully internalized it. With just the one word from each line showing on the projector, I’d start them off, saying the first line with them; after that, they’d continue on, not needing my assistance to stay together or to prompt the words. I’ve read many responsive and congregational readings in church, and they never go so well, being as scripture is not written in iambic pentameter. A passerby would have heard 26 students reciting the last lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if that passerby were someone like me, she would have stopped to listen. It was beautiful to hear.

Interestingly, many students who have not done well with memorizing things in my class did quite well on this assignment. A few students who bombed vocabulary quiz after vocabulary quiz nailed this monologue. I am absolutely sure that the difference was the use of the ear, an assurance arising from the spelling errors that riddle their written versions of the quiz. Some quizzes were the Shakespeare-version of that Pearl Jam video–words that they obviously heard but had no idea what they were. This means these students had not memorized the monologue by looking at the screen while we read it time and again, but had listened to the class and retained it like they retain the multitude of song lyrics they have absorbed.

Do not underestimate the power of the ear.

A couple nights ago at the dinner table our middle child, who is now in the later half of her third year, told an exciting tale involving Israelites battling captives and David fighting Grendel. In a further, more detailed version that I caught on video Hrothgar and David defeated Grendel, beheaded him, chopped him up, roasted him on the fire, and then ate him. After dinner they told everyone about God, providing an entirely original approach to the great commission.

She pulled Hrothgar’s name out on her own, which is not a total shock considering how many times it is used in Beowulf, which I’d been reading to them recently. Still, it was amusing to me nonetheless. After the video she strayed further into reenactments of David’s life and I was struck by the accuracy with which she told the account. David and Goliath, though told numerous times to both girls, has never been a particular favorite of theirs. They tend to opt for Esther, Jezebel, or baby Jesus when given total choice for reading, but our middle child here was including David’s comments about having slayed a bear and a lion and having the Lord on his side. What struck me in hearing such detail is a point Susan Shaeffer Macaulay makes often in For the Children’s Sake (and she is clear that she pulls her original thought from Charlotte Mason), that when reading the Bible to children, the far and away best approach is to read the actual text to them. Let the word as best as we know it begin to interact with them, and they’ll pick up what they are able and no retelling will match it for beauty and distinction. Listening to our daughter, I realized too that they’ll quite likely remember exactly what it says.

This seems worth remembering when introducing children to the Bible. Too often in reading children’s Bibles–even good ones like The Jesus Storybook Bible–I find the material reworded so thoroughly that it echoes translations only in content. Even that echo can become confusing when extra-biblical material is added, which it is. The same situations arise in verbal retellings of scripture. At AWANA we give the kids story time and it is always a Bible story, but it is never straight from the Bible. I do not quite understand this (and obviously don’t agree with the approach), especially considering how exciting so many scriptural accounts are. It is fine, in my mind, to add explanation and clarification to unfamiliar language, but why not read from the actual text rather than babble through an inferior retelling of the event? If for no other reason, the reading of the actual text is a superior idea because it would repeat the same words that children will hear other times they hear the story, helping make familiar the words young ears are perfectly capable of recalling verbatim.

This is one of my favorite tendencies of The Picture Bible: it often speaks exact phrases of scripture, so that reading the actual text immediately following can feel like an echo (though even this book adds a few details). And in reality, it is here, in The Picture Bible, that our middle child would have repeatedly heard these details about David and Goliath.

The details that stuck in those amazing ears.

Thanks for reading.


An irresitable practical joke: Alternate sub plans

One day last year I was out for some reason and my sub was a retired teacher from our department. I’ll call her Helena. I had known she would be my substitute and I left her with my plans rather than improvised nonsense (which is what I usually leave when I do not know the sub). As it happened, those plans were to introduce the works cited page to freshmen. They were good plans, I am convinced, and most of the material was on a page of instructions I left for students. Alas, Helena pointed out that they were not exactly the usual substitute fare, and she has repeated to a number of our colleagues how ludicrous my plans were.

On Monday I’ll be at a conference showcasing a digital citizenship resource that I helped build and I have Helena as my sub. With such foreknowledge, I could not resist a little fun, and I have left some “alternate” plans on my desk for her. The real plans are safely stored with another colleague, who has promised to intervene before Helena has a heart-attack. With you, I share the plans Helena will see first.


Sheehy English lesson plans for Monday, April 19

Red 1 Eng 10

This class is beginning A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Puck’s Monologue

Students need to memorize Puck’s monologue by next class. They have not seen it yet, but it rhymes so I figure they’ll be able to get it. Repeat it lots of times and let me know if they haven’t quite got it down.


The play is required reading for English 10, but we do have two more speeches to fit in, so we’re going to need to fly right through it, not wasting a moment of any class period. Please explain to students the names of the characters and who loves whom and how the fairies fit into the scheme. Then help them act out Acts I and II. If you have time, begin Act III, but if you don’t quite finish it, I understand—it’s long.

Red 2 Planning

I have planning but do need to cut through the stack of paper on my desk with the paper cutter. We like to make the paper into ¼ page sizes. Be careful with the cutter—you can really only put three or four sheets in at a time.

Red 3 Eng 10


This class is a bit ahead of the other English 10 class, so they’ll need you to guide them through Acts III through V and begin acting out Act V. Please assign parts and have them begin to memorize their lines.

Red 4 Eng 9

Students in this class are working on a research project.


It’s really important that students know how to evaluate sources for trustworthiness, so begin by explaining to the class how to do this. Then using the books in the back, they need to know how to make a works cited page and the author page citations. While hands on work is good, I understand if you’re more comfortable just lecturing with this material—it’s a bit of short notice for an activity

Helena,  thank you for coming in and helping me! It’s nice to know I can leave real plans.


Using Bill Bryson as a warm up for teaching Shakespeare

Next year I am teaching Shakespeare in our high school. It is a semester long senior literature class, and for two years it has not drawn enough enrollment to exist. I was convinced that the lack of interest was because it did not have a familiar teacher attached to it–like Lear’s kingdom, it lacked a king. After years of being taught by an icon of our department, it had been given to new staff two years in a row. These two individuals are good teachers (no Regan or Goneril situation here) but their newness and unknown entity worked against them, so the class faded out the third year.

Seeing the story as I tell it, one might wonder why I did not step in and teach this class earlier. Surely if I’d wanted it I could have taken it rather than let it go to new staff members, right? Yet I hesitated, for when Duncan is disposed of, it is not that simple to step into his throne. Also, a new class to prepare in the midst of graduate school never appealed to me (though it was once done to me without my consent) and unlike Macbeth, I resisted the temptation.

Years later, a masters degree finished, a mess of professional development credits behind me, I saw the gap as an opportunity and connived my way into teaching the Bard to 17- and 18-year olds. About this, I have grown exceedingly excited.

You see, I get to teach a class where the entire content is William Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful situation, where the curriculum can be practically as broad or narrow as I choose to make it. We may spend an entire quarter on Macbeth, and we may watch a few plays on film after reading only a Sparknotes version. It’s going to be great.

In my excitement I have begun to consume Shakespeare, beginning with a book that has been sitting on my shelf since Christmas 2008: Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage. So little is known about Shakespeare that, as Bryson explains, “the little we do know seems always to add to the mystery rather than to lighten it” (120). Bryson introduces readers to many of the controversies surrounding Shakespeare’s life and is clear to admit when anything is shaky, which at times appears to be most everything we know. I was recently previewing a film about Shakespeare (from the Famous Authors series by Lucky World Production–insanely boring) and I heard a number of details explained as facts that Bryson puts forth as technically unknown: his first play, his playing the ghost in Hamlet, the location of the original Globe–all these things were stated as definite in the film, and all of them are much more shaky in our knowledge of them.

With so little to go on, much of Bryson’s book sketches Shakespeare’s setting. In that, the factoids of Bryson’s book are fascinating. Like the American Revolutionary period, Elizabethan England is a place I feel like I know a lot about, but when I actually begin to learn something, I find I know next to nothing. I knew vaguely, for example, that folks had built buildings on the London Bridge, that it was a kind of city within itself, but I had not a clue that “some of the buildings were six stories high and projected as much as sixty-five feet over the river” (51). Nor did I realize that at one end of the bridge were displays of heads of various criminals, posted (quite literally) as a warning to others. “There were so many heads,” Bryson explains, “that it was necessary to employ a Keeper of the Heads” (51).

The best fun of Bryson’s book for me has been  to enter into that Elizabethan world and experience a bit of what it was like. I am so engrossed, in fact, that an historical novel on the period that Alan Jacobs commends has shot to the top of my reading list: George Garrett’s The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James. Such immersion enables me to experience the intended wonder of the day and what it must have been like. Bryson notes that in one stretch, after the erection of the first Globe theatre, Shakespeare wrote a triumphant series of plays: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra.

We thrill at these plays now. But what must it have been like when they were brand new, when all their references were timely and sharply apt, and all the words never before heard? Imagine what it must have been like to watch Macbeth without knowing the outcome, to be part of a hushed audience hearing Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time, to witness Shakespeare speaking his own lines. There cannot have been, anywhere in history, many more favored places than this. (127)

Part of what Bryson wonders at longingly, experiencing the plays without knowing the ending, is why I never tire of teaching Shakespeare. Though I’m approaching 20 teachings of Romeo and Juliet, I am eager to do it again, because the fascination of my students as they encounter the characters they’ve never conceived of is at least to witness that wonder.

Yet to read about Shakespeare’s day is not to be filled exclusively with longing to be there. The theatre has come a long way since the days it spent on the outskirts of London. In Shakespeare’s day, one man who’d seen Titus Andronicus sketched a scene of the play. His illustration shows “surprisingly motley costumes (some suitably ancient, others carelessly Tudor)” (76). Additionally, and more well known, “theaters had little scenery and no curtains, . . . no way to distinguish day from night, fog from sunshine, battlefield from boudoir” (75). Actors had to memorize tremendous numbers of lines, with companies performing “at least five different plays in a week, sometimes six” (79). These factors convince me that William Shakespeare would be pleased, and indeed, quite impressed, with some of the productions of his plays that have been performed over the years. Surely he would have liked King Lear as I saw it at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and I’d bet he would have appreciated Branagh’s Hamlet and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

I continue to read Bryson, and I am sure I will continue reading more on the Bard after I finish with The World as Stage. What a thrill it will be to teach teenagers about this tremendous dramatist and poet. I am a lover of language, after all, and it is hard to see how one can be a lover of language, particularly the English language, and not hold the works of William Shakespeare in highest esteem, for he was a man who, above all else, celebrated and pushed “the joyous possibilities of verbal expression” (110).

Next year I am the teacher for “Shakespeare.” I like the sounds of that.

He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail!

Thanks for reading.


Grading Research Papers: A rubric and a method of moiling

As I work through a pile of research papers I find great enjoyment in digging through the thesaurus to discover how to describe my task. What is it I am doing while grading these? That is what I must decide. Am I slogging through them? Toiling? Plodding captures my pace, though not the mood of the work. Drudging captures the mood, but perhaps is a bit dramatic. Grinding is good but implies that I am faster than I really am. Sometimes I can work for 15 minutes and grade only one paper; that will not qualify as grinding. Moil I like. It made a recent appearance in our poem of the day, via “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and though it also implies hard and ceaseless work similar to grinding, it seems to withdraw the speed aspect . . .

As I moil through these papers, then, I have been grateful for the method I currently use. It is an adaptation of my World’s Greatest Essay Rubric, something I modeled after my favorite college professor. I have chopped the written assignment into its basic components (no, I do not use the 6-traits as the basic components here) and then have a four-box rubric style scale, creating a table. For most writing assignments, the basic components are

  1. the introduction,
  2. the supporting paragraphs,
  3. the conclusion,
  4. writing style, and
  5. directions.

Pretty much anything I want to critique falls under those categories. The description of the quality moves to the right in basic analysis:

  • Weak
  • Okay, needs some work
  • Solid
  • Strong

By releasing my rubric from the tyranny of numbers, I am able to call the same box two different things. For a poor writer who just wrote his first attention grabber, ever, I can award a “Solid” without giving him more points than he rightly earns, according to our manner of grading. For a student who writes well and shirked a transition between her attention grabber and thesis, I can say “Okay, needs some work” and still give her the B the paper earns when compared to the criteria.

With research papers, I change the left hand descriptions, choosing to shy away from an over-analysis of the writing, since the bulk of our instruction was devoted to citations and other particulars of research papers. Thus, the left side examines

  1. Citations
  2. Sources
  3. Works Cited
  4. Writing Style, and
  5. Organization.

I also shy away from using my pencil too much anymore, as it slows me down. I read the paper with a pencil in hand, marking papers as necessary with small symbols and notes, but whenever I am tempted to comment, I write a number. I then type my comments onto the bottom of the students’ rubric and speak just as I would if I were writing in the margin of the paper. The difference is that I am not trying to squeeze all these words into the margin and am sputtering them out at a clip far superior to my pencil pushing prowess. I will also comment generally within the boxes where I mark students’ scores, so when they receive their paper they have a fairly full idea about what I thought about their paper and what I think they might do to improve it.

The end result is the fastest method I have yet devised for giving useful feedback to students. Unfortunately, it still takes what feels like forever to grade the papers, but there is no helping that, after all.

Thanks for reading.


Reading The Story of the World

I am completely fascinated with Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World books. In my car I have the audio version of the third book in the series, covering the “Early Modern Times” (there are four volumes total), and despite my measly 10 minute commute, I have already worked through four of the CDs. Though they are targeted to children ages 5-12, I consider myself a fitting audience. Previously, I had no idea how Oliver Cromwell fit into the history of London; now I am as least passingly informed (with a few amusing stories to go with it).

I also have the first book checked out from the library and have been reading snippets from it to my girls every night after dinner. We have learned about Roman gladiators, the legend of Romulus, aqueducts, Julius Caesar, and Augustus Caesar. Did you know Julius Caesar was once captured by pirates and held for ransom? He was not yet a consul of Rome, but he was growing more powerful and popular. After his release he raised a small group of soldiers and set right back out to sea, where he engaged the pirates who captured him, arresting the leaders and killing many of the rest. The leader was then executed in Rome, and Caesar’s reputation with the people leaped in its growth.

Curiosity is an interesting force. Do I enjoy these books because I have a general knowledge of these figures and places but little knowledge of the wonderful details, enabling my brain to attend fully to the fascinating particulars? This was certainly the case with Cromwell, whom I’d heard of but knew nothing about.  Or are the stories themselves so wonderful and inviting that any listener is drawn in? I suspect it is a combination of the two. My hunch is that the stories draw me in, just like they suck in my three-year old and five-year old daughters, but then since I am already familiar with many of the names and places, for me the stories actually stick a bit better.

At least for now. If we keep reading these books, I have a feeling it will not be long before my daughters will know far more than me.

Thanks for reading.

When it comes to reading, patience is a discipline

I love those phrases that reside in my head in the voice of the person who said them. When I hear the phrase my response is to say it like that original voice, and though the resulting imitation recalls little of the original, the memory remains strong. Many of these stockpiled phrases are lines from movies. Thus, when I need to use the word “erased,” I don’t hear the memory of my own voice uttering “erased,” I hear Doc Brown from Back to the Future whispering dramatically, “Erased! . . . from existence!” (I actually once hijacked my roommate’s computer and made Doc say this whenever my roomie emptied the trash can.)

Not surprisingly many of the memory phrases are from my parents, so when I hear about one thing that does not naturally lead to another, I immediately hear my dad say with an exaggerated New Hampshire accent, “Ya can’t get theya from heeya.”

I have found lately in conversation with colleagues that I am recurringly making this claim in one particular area. I do not know if that is because we are repetitive and have trouble talking about other things (a serious possibility), or because I am fixated on it (another serious possibility), or because I am right (the least likely possibility), but I am definitely establishing a position when it comes to teaching students literature and the fruit of using easier, more exciting, and “relevant” texts to accomplish this. The position is this: giving students new and exciting books (particularly what are identified as young adult books), picked because students will like reading them and with the hope that an enjoyable reading experience will lead to a love of reading, cannot accomplish the goal of creating educated readers. “Ya can’t get theya from heeya.”

A few events jarred this into my head more clearly than usual. The first occurred with my freshmen. This year I have asked them to read a book each quarter. At the end of the quarter they turn in a two-page writing assignment and a verification form and they receive a ton of points. To earn as high as a B, they can choose basically any book they want. To earn an A, they have to choose a book from one of the lists I provide for them. Students like earning A’s, so most of them begin by perusing the lists and seeing if there is anything they would like to read. A story that has recurred more times than I have counted, however, goes like this: student picks a book from the A-list, begins reading it, says it’s boring and switches books. Student then reads a little of the next book, declares it equally boring, and proceeds to give up with the A-list, finding instead an exciting title like Crank.

Meanwhile, as a second event of interest, I am reading Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. The first couple pages were a bit confusing (some stuff about the English Chancery Courts) but I was soon enjoying myself thoroughly, meeting an assortment of odd and intriguing characters. When I hit the inciting moment,  my enjoyment transformed into an eagerness to chug espresso and read by the company of the clock’s single digits. This relatively normal reading experience struck me in light of my students’ troubles, because that inciting moment came at page 130.

I stopped to wonder what my students’ opinion would be of a book that withholds its narrative hook until after the 100th page. Boring? Crazy? Cruel and unusual?

I do not mock my students in observing this. I certainly would not have willingly finished Bleak House while in high school, and I understand the desire to read an immediately exciting book. When trapped beneath teaching books, for example, I openly long to return to a story where plot pulls me through the pages. Yet despite the empathy, I find myself wondering what the difference is between me and my more daring students (one chose to read The Illiad, another Huckleberry Finn, and another 1984) and their less eager classmates, the ones who are perpetually dissatisfied with the A-list.

An easy answer is to tag those who dislike the A-list books as victims of a modern onslaught on their attention spans. The flashing choices inflicted upon them from Sesame Street through Ipods has left them incapable of fighting their own impulse for distraction. It’s a plausible sounding scenario, but a recent essay from Kelly Foster, a teacher, observes the flaw in declaring attention spans the problem.

If a night’s reading requires twenty minutes of undivided comprehension, I can guarantee [my students] will come in the next morning moaning, “Ms. Foster, it took me forever to read that homework last night! I worked so hard!”

And yet, I will just as often hear them talking about how they watched an entire season of Gossip Girl in a single day. Talk about forever.

My students are literate and smart, and like Foster’s students, they will devote their attention to a task they value, though often they do not value the work we educators present to them, instead appreciating the easy distraction of devices and media. What seem to be more relevant differences between the readers of challenging texts and those of easier texts are the levels of tenacity and patience the rigorous readers employ toward the task.

Impatient strikes me as a more apt label for our youth than attention-span-less, especially considering that impatience is a mark of our entire culture, not just our youth. We are not just materialistic, we are impatiently materialistic, building an economy on consumer credit so we can have it now; we do not just have the right to the good life, we are entitled to it now, consistently easing discomforts and difficulties by borrowing money posterity will pay back. That is not to say that credit is bad and borrowing is evil, or to endorse a particular political position–it is more to observe that impatience appears to be part of what has driven us to the new levels of borrowing as modus operandi. Why wait? Here’s a way we can have it, whatever it is, now.

With impatience, like with many vices, the trouble does not seem to lie so much in the occasional incident. Every once in a while I quit reading challenging texts and spend an hour reading about the Red Sox or the Tour de France, or I will grab a Harry Potter novel. Why should I not do such things? Is there anything wrong with a few indulgent, easy pleasures of this kind?

Yet a steady diet of immediate rewards, an unfettered practice of such behavior, leads to a kind of decadence, a deadened sense of what is good. Ironically Dickens himself frames this most obviously for me in Bleak House with Lady Dedlock, a fashionable woman who has everything she wants and grows bored with anything, anytime. After a trip to Paris, the Lady and her husband

cannot go away too fast; for, even here, my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. . . . Weariness of soul lies before her, as it lies behind . . . but the imperfect remedy is always to fly, from the last place where it had been experienced.  (159)

As they travel, she notices her husband’s correspondence and asks him about it despite her lack of interest. Her reason for inquiring appears to be the same reason they are flying from Paris: she is fleeing that which bores her.

“You have an unusual amount of correspondence this morning?” says my lady after a long time. She is fatigued with reading. Has almost read a page in twenty miles. (160)

Her symptoms are eerily similar to my students, showing that boredom is not a modern invention, but at least in part the logical result of decadence and easy satiation. Lady Dedlock’s ennui renders her incapable of surmounting the obstacles of boredom; to fight, to stay and battle, would require a tenacity and patience she no longer practices. In the face of such effort, as in the face of her book, all she can think to do is retreat.

The literature lover marvels as, once again, Dickens “tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are” (Varese).

Yet Dickens takes us only part way there. What we are is not the business of the educator as much as what we should be. Certainly what we are and why is crucial–without such knowledge how could we begin?–but if we are to bring a student to a goal, what is that place? Concerning the life of the mind and our students’ impatience and lack of tenacity, is this issue of work ethic the teacher’s job to address? Is it the business of the teacher to guide a student beyond immediate reward?

It seems to me that it is, especially on the basis of the superiority of the reward for one who waits. Certainly I dabble here in absolutes. I am affirming the superiority of certain texts, media, and behavior. Yet I fail to see why educated minds should pretend Lady Dedlock’s situation is not perilous or pitiable, or that a life doused in low pop art is dissimilar from being chained in a cave watching shadows. I am not suggesting there exists no difference of opinion concerning what greatness is, but that the line between great and what our culture produces en masse is more of a chasm than a line. I am suggesting that too often we apply too narrow a criteria for relevancy in English education, which means I am suggesting that we should not be comparing Roland Smith with Jack London, for example.

Not that anyone consciously pits such writers or that there is a raging debate over it. The very existence of a curriculum reveals a broad agreement in this area, yet as educators we often respond to our students’ negative reaction to challenging texts by substituting Smith for London, or Hopkins for Poe. We look for relevant texts, and by relevant we seem to mean anything they like and can read easily. When faced with the confrontation over content, we often waver, wondering as we look at the life our students will lead whether they have a point about Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s irrelevance. In this we question the reward, its value, and the possibility of setting another person’s sights on it.

Christ, that foremost of teachers, spoke clearly about the virtues of awaiting a better reward during his Sermon on the Mount. The implication is clear when he describes the hypocrites (“hypokrites” a word surely meant to recall for his listeners the actors they had watched on the Roman stages). The “hypokrites” prayed, fasted, and gave to the needy in ways that performed for the crowds, and with the crowds’ approval, Christ observes, they received their reward. Their reward was immediate and pleasurable, but if they had better contemplated what they traded for that reward, they might have reconsidered.

He continues to explain that for those patient enough to forego immediate gratification, to give, pray, and fast in secret; for those willing to uphold righteousness even at the cost of losing material treasures, the “Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6). The reward of which he speaks is not immediate and it takes patience to be willing to wait for it. Patience is then a key element of faith, the term the writer of Hebrews later uses when lauding those who were willing to wait for a reward not received in this life.

In this sense, my students lack faith that the reward of reading a book like A Tale of Two Cities will be worth the expense of effort it will cost to read it. They are not patient enough or faithful enough to overcome the obstacles of a difficult text. Rather, they would like to experience something whose meaning is immediately apparent, be it a new and exciting young adult novel, movie, or text message. They want the reward now, not then.

This is where I am convinced my dad’s old saying applies. How can such texts lead a student to the great works of our culture? I return to my college days for an appropriate analogy. My roommate dragged me into the weight room our freshman year and we followed a crazy regime he must have discovered on the last page of the Internet. In a year of lifting I gained almost 20 pounds, not a bit of it attributable to cafeteria food. Our goal was not to gain weight, but to grow stronger, and eventually I–a guy who had never lifted a weight before–was able to bench press more than 200 pounds. I got there by pushing myself to lift as much as I could, until I could do more.

Concerning our literature classes, though, our students and segments of our culture have said that 200 pounds is too difficult and not a relevant achievement, and we have responded by telling them that bench pressing is important, but that they should go ahead and work with just the bar. Then, when we add a weight to either end, they put the bar down and look for a way to go back to what they had been doing. These books are so simple for students to read that they are bench pressing a bar, and though they enjoy reading the books and seem to be growing a love for reading, some day, when faced with choices for how to spend their time, what is the likelihood that they will choose to lift an empty bar up and down? In that day, when it comes to reading, it seems more likely they will choose some machine in the corner that imagines for them, because by the end of their education, they are no more capable of lifting those heavy weights than they were before.

“They can’t get theya from heeya.”

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay pitches education’s role as one of not only teaching students how to lift heavier weights, but how to keep oneself from remaining satisfied with just the bar. She quotes Charlotte Mason’s perspective:

It is the business of education to find some way of supplementing that weakness of will which is the bane of most of us as of the children.

Education here is in the business of instructing students how to overcome obstacles when their wills are weak. This would necessitate presenting obstacles to students–appropriate, overcome-able obstacles, but obstacles nonetheless. Impatience strikes me as a weakness of will. Thus I need to instruct students how to supplement, or overcome, that impatience and lack of tenacity, and one way of accomplishing this is with books often labeled boring by impatient readers.

Surely this would be easier if we could convince them that the reward is greater with meatier texts, but arguing students into this place seems similar to arguing a man into a love of baseball. A man does not love baseball because another fan convincingly persuaded him that the sport’s rules and framework bring about a beautiful performance. He loves baseball because he watched games and was drawn in and won over by what he saw. If I had magic powers and wanted you to love baseball, you and I would travel back in time to Fenway Park, 2004, and watch the Red Sox beat the Yankees in 12 innings. Then we would hop a ride to Cape Cod and eat hot dogs in the sun watching college students play in a summer league, and in both of these trips, I would not accompany you as a 30 something year old father, but as a 12-year old boy with visions of baseballs dancing in my head.

With books, Macaulay describes this process of winning over children as exposing them to “living books,” books with richness of language, theme, and plot that increasingly lead children to greater texts, or, to retreat to my previous metaphor, to heavier weights. From this perspective, getting students to read a book, “any book,” is not sufficient. Getting them to read carefully selected, challenging texts is crucial; texts that scaffold their learning, to use the teacher-jargon; texts that provide them with opportunities to learn the disciplines of reading that could help them overcome their weakness of will.

High school in 2010 in America is a tricky place. We teachers are tagged with pulling every student through grade 12, regardless of their interest or attitude towards school. Knowing that these students will not submit to the challenge of Great Expectations or The Scarlet Letter, we replace these texts with Night or The Secret Life of Bees, or something of their own choice.

The switch is not necessarily a bad one, as long as we realize that the new path does not take students to the same place they previously went. Without a proper challenge, we do not push them to overcome that weakness of will. With easier texts, we allow a bit of impatience to determine much of the choice. With this training, they will not be able to bench press 200 pounds, and they may even think it was impossible ever to do so.

Yet for many students, it is possible. I have students in my classroom capable of reading Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. If I never assign them such a challenge, I will have abandoned one aspect of their education and allowed them to focus upon a more immediate, lesser reward.

Recently, Sally Thomas lovingly described the potential of great literature to push “the borders of our particular landscape farther towards a common horizon.” Literature like that is the kind of reward my students deserve. What I as a teacher would like to do is encourage in them the patience and tenacity required to grasp the greater reward. To do so, I need to choose  consciously and carefully to travel the road that gets “theya from heeya.”

Thanks for reading.