A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Tag: reading

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

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!

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.


In reading The Ghost Map, I became a detective

Before we had multiple children, I used to sleep in a bit every Saturday. It made for a lovely morning, perhaps even more lovely that we were renting apartments at the time so I was not burying my head in the pillow to hide from the drywall I should have been hanging in the basement. A particular bit of luck on these mornings was when I awoke right around 8:15. At that fortunate time I’d roll over and click on the radio just before the Car Talk Puzzler.

Car Talk’s hosts are funny guys, as anyone who enjoys the show will point out. Yet Tom and Ray’s humor is only one pillar of the show; the other is the detective story. These comical detectives are looking to diagnose troubles related to cars, and with the Puzzler they explicitly invite the listener to become detectives too. I cannot resist the involvement, though I have never sent in an answer. I want to figure out why, for example, Ray was worried about spilling a bowl of soup in his car early in the day but later was not worried at all. Sometimes, like with that soup Puzzler, I deduce the answer. More often I simply admire it and admit that when it comes to my own detective work, I am more of an Inspector Gadget than a Sherlock Holmes.

I thought of this detective work, this muscle flexing of deductive reasoning, as I read Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map. In the book, Victorian England attempts to solve a bacterial mystery: cholera. In particular, Johnson traces the 1854 cholera outbreak that occurred in Soho and the attempt of two men to determine and prove its cause. I fell into the story headlong, grateful for the background Johnson’s research lent to my favorite Dickens’ novels, and intrigued by the world before bacteria was known and before public sanitation had become . . . sanitized (In London, the original water closets and other waste plumbing dumped their contents back into one of the main water sources, the Thames).

At least four times while reading the book I cornered people like the Ancient Mariner and excitedly informed them all about the nature of cholera: how it occurs only in places where people are somehow eating their own fecal matter, how it attacks so fast in some cases that a person can go from perfectly healthy to dead in less than two days, and how its cure is basically lots of Gatorade (water and electrolytes). In our hindsight vision the attempts to cure it were morbidly comical: bleeding, castor oil, an opium mixture equivalent to heroin, and air freshener were a few choice methods.

The air freshener hints at the main antagonist in Johnson’s book: a theory called miasma, which held that diseases were transmitted through foul air. The miasma theory was so widely accepted that Dickens, among others, was convinced of it. Dr. John Snow, a diligent and gifted doctor who is the focus of much of the book, disagrees with the theory, but he has a difficult task convincing his fellow citizens and doctors that he is right.

With Snow’s task as the driving conflict, I read The Ghost Map like a detective story, knowing what the truth was but wondering what pieces of the puzzle Snow could discover to construct an undeniable case. The Reverend Henry Whitehead plays a significant role in the detective work as well, and it was Snow, Whitehead, and the pictures of 19th Century London that drove me through this book.

That said, I am convinced Johnson could have constructed the book better, to hold the suspense of the detective story longer. The way it is, my interest wanes before he fully explains the map that gives the book its title. After reading David McCullough so recently and experiencing his skill at holding me in a narrative, I may currently hold too high a standard for nonfiction books in this area. Yet it is a standard I hold, and a strong editor might have helped Johnson build more anticipation leading into Snow’s innovative map of Soho.

I might have been more willing to let this go if it were not for the somewhat weird epilogue at the end. Johnson’s morbid reflections on how cities could be destroyed, either by terrorist attack or a new disease, left me wondering why I continued reading. He seemed almost nervous that readers would not find the history on the cholera outbreak relevant, and thus he went out of his way to spell out how it could connect. Maybe this section of the book thrilled another reader, but not me. I couldn’t get through it fast enough.

Still, I enjoyed the first three quarters of the book and choose to look past these faults in giving it my recommendation. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Victorian England, the adoption of medical ideas, or the development of modern cities. When I opened it I began to think along side John Snow and Henry Whitehead, becoming myself a detective in Victorian London. In a sense,  I vicariously solved the Puzzler The Ghost Map presents, and solving a Puzzler is always a worthwhile pursuit.

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.


Voluntary newspeak: What happens when our students don’t know anymore

We get hemming and hawing in my English department about what students know or don’t know and what they can and cannot do. We love our students, so these truly are not kid-bashing sessions. Usually, these conversations are attempts to comprehend the whole, to ask fellow teachers if they are seeing the same things.

To take an example, one thing that seems to have dropped off in the last half-decade is our students’ comprehension of grammatical structure. That is, folks ain’t rightin’ wright. The speculation enters when we guess at the causes, but the base observation is there: ask a student what a preposition is or to find the object of the preposition, and you have likely stumped the high majority of the student-body.

I reiterate, our students are not stupid. However, these appear to be the facts.

What are we to do about this? In answering the question we English teachers splinter again and fall all over the place with answers. Some want to send their students back in a time machine to their own 7th grade English teachers, others want to forget it and move on because the curriculum standards that stare us in the face are already too much to deal with, and I, often times, am tempted to agree with Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, who explains the following approach to Jem and Scout concerning her speaking with a grammatically improper dialect to her friends and family:

Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut and talk their language. (126)

Grammar is not the only area where we observe trends, however. The other major area is in students’ reading abilities. Perhaps they have better abilities than they let on (I personally suspect this), but I would guess most of my colleagues would sign off on the following statement: The majority of our students are not willing to work independently through texts that are complex or difficult, even if they know how to do so.

This is an important point that emerges often–particularly when the American literature teachers get to Poe–and the other day I stumbled across a nice articulation of the situation. The observer is Timothy Keller. He is a pastor in New York City, which means that, like a teacher, he is greatly interested in communicating his message effectively, no matter what that means. He does not consider himself a writer , by which I mean that though he has written books he is not going to say things the way he thinks they should be said and doggedly stand by his way because it is aesthetically best. He is more interested in the message he is passing along than the manner in which it is passed.

Asked in an interview about the difference between his audience and C.S. Lewis’s audience in the 1940’s and 1950’s, this is part of what Keller observed:

When Lewis was writing, people were able to follow sustained arguments that had a number of points that built on one another. I guess I should say we actually have a kind of rationality-attention-deficit disorder now. You can make a reasonable argument, you can use logic, but it really has to be relatively transparent. You have to get to your point pretty quickly.

That’s not a light claim, but Keller does not make it in the context of generation-bashing. He makes it to explain why he felt a need existed to essentially re-write some of the ideas Lewis put down in his book, Mere Christianity:

In New York City, these are pretty smart people, very educated people, but even by the mid-nineties I had found that the average young person found Mere Christianity—it just didn’t keep their attention, because they really couldn’t follow the arguments. They took too long. This long chain of syllogistic reasoning wasn’t something that they were trained in doing. I don’t think they’re irrational, they are as rational, but they want something of a mixture of logic and personal appeal.

I know for a fact that Lewis was just heavy sledding for even smart Ivy League American graduates by the mid-nineties. One of the reasons I started doing this was I thought I needed something that gave them shorter, simpler, more accessible arguments.

The overall effect in our day, Keller explains, is something that even Lewis saw beginning to develop as early as World War I, and the end result was that folks were not going to pick through difficult books anymore:

Even Lewis, in his Weight of Glory series, Lewis said that, before World War One, the average educational experience was twelve or thirteen people sitting in a room listening to a paper by one person then tearing it apart till 2 a.m. in the morning. And he says, now, the quintessential educational experience is listening to a celebrity lecturer, with a hundred or two hundred other people taking notes and then taking an exam. Even he said, between the wars, he saw a diminishment in people’s ability to really think hard and long about issues.

People want you to get to the point quickly. And they want you to tell them what’s going on quickly. And they just don’t have the attention span. You can look at television, you can look at the Internet, you can look at the so-called rise of narrative and loss of trust in logic—I think it’s cumulative . . . I don’t want to say it’s all relativism or all the Internet because people don’t read long articles anymore. But I just know that it’s very hard to find people who can wade through—unless you’re a professional academic, you’re not going to wade through these books anymore.

One of the things I like about Keller’s observations is that he is not out to explain the situation and rail about “kids these days” or how awful our culture is. He does not even extend a solid theory about how it got to be the way it is. He simply makes a straight-forward observation about the way things are, and I haven’t found anyone yet who disagrees with him about that basic observation (though I’ve found plenty who agree).

That leaves us English teachers with a bit of a task: our classrooms are full of students who no longer know the structure of the language they use and are not willing to apply themselves (or maybe are not able to apply themselves) to the reading of complex texts.  My worry as a citizen is that a trend like this could lead to the existence of a manipulable population who could unknowingly be held hostage by a powerful Elite. It feels like a voluntary adoption of newspeak, or a slow crawl back into Plato’s cave. Unfortunately, in a few years–or this year?–it may be that the only people who will know what that last sentence says are those who are qualified for the elite.

On a daily basis we teachers have to maintain sanity by focusing on one simple task: trying to do the best we can for the people before us. Somehow, and someway, however, we have to probe for ways to reacquire our high standards, so our schools can produce not schooled graduates, but educated ones.