7 Quick Takes Friday (1/31/14)



I bought a car today!

Yes, the first car I have ever bought!

It was a stressful experience. I have been looking for several weeks for a reliable used car, but everything came together over the last few days. A friend of mine suggested I particularly turn to Mary – “she will take care of you.” So I did.

And she did.

I am so grateful.


Speaking of milestones, Pope Francis had this to say while addressing representatives from the University of Notre Dame, my graduate alma mater:


The biggest way Notre Dame has done this has been the Alliance for Catholic Education, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. As I have written about before, my two years serving with ACE were filled with blessings–and also with the biggest struggles I have ever encountered.


You should really read everything Pope Francis had to say to Notre Dame. I hope everyone at Notre Dame reads everything he had to say to Notre Dame.

I hope they don’t just hear whatever they want to hear. People have a tendency to do that when listening to Pope Francis.

This is the part I would like the administration to focus on:

Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. (Pope Francis, via Vatican News)

I mean, I don’t want to foist my own personal biased political agenda (albeit backed up by Church teaching) on Pope Francis’ words, but that sounds a lot to me like: Don’t back down on the HHS mandate. Don’t give in. Don’t be like everybody else.

And, even more beautifully:

It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it! (Pope Francis, via Vatican News)



In other counter-cultural news:

I was really inspired by Natalie Grant’s decision to walk out of the Grammys–which, from what I hear, were particularly vulgar and demeaning to human dignity this year.

Best of all, this is what Natalie said on her Facebook page:

We left the Grammy’s early. I’ve many thoughts about the show tonight, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I’ll say this: I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.
Read more at http://theblacksphere.net/2014/01/christian-grammy-nominee-natalie-grant-walks-grammys/#pVifQ5MBSoDq05kB.99

How beautiful, that she professed Christ and did not, instead, vent her frustration at the antics that prompted her to leave.


Another example of respectful disagreement and engagement I found particularly arresting this week was Marc’s post over at BadCatholic in response to Rohin Guha’s thoughtful article about the “gay male subculture.” Guha’s lengthy article is rather explicit in places, so be fair warned, but well worth reading if you want to really listen to the perspective of a gay man wrestling thoughtfully with personhood and the dignity of men and women.

Marc’s response at BadCatholic summarizes well what is best in Guha’s article, and then ventures into some very Hans Urs von Balthasar-esque meditations:

For surely every encounter with the particular subject a woman is, an encounter with her as her — a particular Amy or Donna or Martha or Rose — surely such an encounter requires me to offer myself as the particular subject I am. We do not encounter subjectivity by disinterested observation. If we are to encounter the actual person, we have to meet them. We have to throw ourselves in the mix. In short, we have to communicate. But what is communication?

When I communicate I express my subjectivity — my hidden, interior thought — through my objectivity — through my words and my body language — and thus I lead my listener to encounter my entire person, which is a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity.  Communication is the revelation of subjectivity through objectivity, and thus requires a subject. (BadCatholic)

For Marc, the problem’s Guha’s article presents lies in trading in one (stereo)type for another: “gay” (and what that has come to mean) for “queer” (since it does not mean everything ‘gay’ has come to mean). The problem, though, is that in both cases, the human person is considering himself in the wrong way– from the outside in, as it were, instead of the inside-out:

How then, can we communicate, we who are happily estranged from our subjectivity, taking refuge from its loneliness in over-accentuated objective traits — or from our infinite responsibility before God, depending on what rubs your metaphysics the right way. How can we share express our interior if we are entertaining the illusion that our exterior life is our interior? It takes a person to encounter a person, and if we are going to encounter women as people, if we are going to love our neighbors at all, we must first begin the terrible task of holiness, of living as precisely the person we are, shirking the delight and ease and irresponsibility of living as a type. (Ibid)


Speaking of communication and intersubjectivity…

My students finished reciting their poems in my Coffee House/classroom. A lot of them did very well, and even surprised me.

One girl in particular stood out. She memorized a poem that is four pages long and somewhat unconventional – more in the “slam poetry” genre than anything else. I will give you the link to Janette Ikz’s own recitation of the poem, which is powerful.

But somehow, hearing this from a sixteen year old sophomore was even more powerful:

And yes. She memorized the whole thing.


And, ahem, Notre Dame, take note.

My beloved undergraduate alma mater is featured over at National Catholic Register: “University of Dallas Renews Catholic Identity.”

A taste:

Added the University of Dallas president, “Enrollment has never been higher, and revenue has never been higher. And we are joyful about our fidelity to the Catholic faith.”

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/university-of-dallas-renews-catholic-identity/#ixzz2s1rjIrU7

Catholic identity is, and I would venture to say, always will be, a struggle for universities. But I am proud to call the University of Dallas my intellectual home, and I am thankful for the amazing education I received there.

Catholic Schools Week, Personhood and Me

source: ncea.org

It’s Catholic Schools Week.

That time around the end of January, every year since I can remember,  we celebrate Catholic schools – by drawing pictures or writing middle school essays on “Why I Like Being in A Catholic School” or having special bulletin boards or signs put up in the hallways or extra cookies at lunch.

Strangely my school did not mention this annual celebration over the announcements today–or perhaps I was just distracted by Jake* who for some reason wanted to keep turning around to talk to Ben* during bell work–but at any rate I have been thinking about the meaning of this week and my place in it.

Yesterday at Mass I was somewhat surprised that our priest dedicated his whole homily to Catholic schools week, the history of Catholic education in America, and even a pitch to invite more families from his parish to join the elementary schools. He said something that struck me, though I have heard it many times before (usually in Jesuit contexts):

“Catholic schools are different because they educate the whole person–emotionally, physically, spiritually and of course academically.”

Whenever I hear this, I have to suppress my inner skeptic that says, “Huh. So public schools and charter schools only educate partial persons?”

I mean, oh all right. Yes. I get it. You can’t really talk about God in public schools, and you can’t pray unless you are very secretive about it. So they miss the whole “spiritual” dimension, narrowly defined.

But does that mean they don’t teach “the whole person”?

A secular version of the “whole person”.
Source: leadership-retreat.com

My experience in various mediocre Catholic schools, which neglect different “parts” of the person just as much as non-Catholic schools do, makes me glance rather warily at Catholic Schools Week statements like these. My own Catholic high school that I attended did not do very much for me “spiritually”–unless you consider as nourishment the fact that most theology classes prompted me to go read and find out what the Church actually says about certain things rather than dumbly swallow the political propaganda we were all being fed.

And yet…

Being a teacher in a Catholic school has altered my perception of the whole enterprise. I am both more pessimistic and optimistic–which hopefully means I am more realistic.

There is something to the idea that Catholic schools, in a way not available to other types of schools, educate the whole human person more fully.

Different Catholic schools do this with varying degrees of success or consciousness, but I believe the inner principle does hold.

The reason for this may be because the Catholic Church itself remains the largest defender of personhood left in Western culture.

If you check out Wikipedia’s article on Personhood, and you only have to read to the second sentence when you bump into the word “controversial.”  Personhood, rather obviously, is at the center of most of our political, legal and moral debates. Abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, the death penalty, and immigration come to mind. In all of these instances, it is the Church who stubbornly insists on not reducing the human person to the sum of his parts, to his location, age, sexual orientation, or criminal status.

There are other defenders of personhood, but they are few.

Even the secular Education world (which I muddled through to earn my Master’s degree) does not look at students primarily as persons–but rather as contexts. Teachers are taught to approach students in terms of the demographics they represent: social, racial, cognitive, rural, urban, etc.  Standardized Tests tell us to approach students in terms of percentiles. Even Learning Services and Title One programs often tell us to take a great deal of care to look at our students in terms of accommodations.

I’m not saying these views do not have their uses. They do. Reading about the “factors” you have to take into account when considering student learning and achievement has been very helpful to me.

But Catholic schools, because they at least must claim to promote the spiritual dimension, in fact kind of do.

Really, the spiritual “dimension” is really all of the other dimensions. It’s not actually very theologically correct to divide the human person into pieces: his academic mind, his physical body, his psychological emotions, his outward behaviors–and then add his spiritual life as if it were another thing on the list.

All the other things–academics, physical growth, mental development, academic achievement–these are the spiritual life. The human person we educate negotiates all of these facets of life before God, whether she knows it or not.

And Catholic schools, even the worst of them, do know it at least in some vague way. The connectedness of the Church, the way Eucharist and Community and Jesus can’t really be separated from each other, or the way Tradition and Scripture and Magisterium can’t either, are all part of a sacramental view of reality whose fundamental metaphysics is personhood. God is Three Persons. The human being is a person designed by God to know him in relationship.

It’s not perfect. It’s often pretty bad, actually.

But there is something very holistic (holy?) about the Catholic approach to education and to students. They are not statistics or contexts or demographics–or even, as some Charter Schools would have it, a collection of virtues and vices.

They are persons.

And teaching persons is a mysterious and scary enterprise, involving you to present not your ideology, not your theory of learning, not your in-vogue instructional practices nor even how you were taught in school however many years ago. Teaching persons, as persons, demands that you present your own personhood as fully as you can.

*All names have been changed.

Also, this:

Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization – an interview with Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education


Update – 1/31/14

Read this too:

Back when he was playing for the New York Jets, Damien Woody sent his children to St. Vincent’s even though his family wasn’t Catholic. At a Christmas concert, a fellow parent asked him why. He answered, “My wife and I believe that a school where they love God will love my children.”

(The New York Post – “Catholic School’s Secret: Love”)

7 Quick Takes Friday (1/24/14)



Obituaries usually make me feel sad. This one made me feel really happy. It’s an obituary all of us can aspire to having someday.

You should read it:

“If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop.”


I am a recent alum of the University of Notre Dame. Although I have not developed the same love for the school that I probably would have if I had attended as an undergraduate, I do love her a lot. Notre Dame is a wonderful place. It’s one of the few Catholic universities that still cares about being Catholic.

Moreover, I remember being surprised and pleased when Notre Dame lead the charge on the HHS Mandate back in 2012…

…but it looks like the university is giving in after all, for the time being:

“Today, the university advised employees — myself included — that its third-party administrator (Meritain Health) would be in touch about the ‘free’ services — which include abortifacient drugs and devices,” noted Gerard Bradley, a professor at the Notre Dame School of Law, in a post on National Review’s Bench Memos.

“[T]he university could refuse to ‘certify’ its conscientious objection to the TPA, thus holding back on the trigger necessary for Meritain to initiate coverage,” said Bradley, who expressed regret with the university’s apparent decision to sign the self-certification form authorizing a third-party administrator (TPA) to provide the mandated services.

“The reasons for doing so would be, as Notre Dame asserted in its formal complaint in the local federal court, that so ‘triggering’ the coverage would be tantamount to facilitating abortions in violation of the university’s Catholic beliefs,” added Bradley, who noted that the Jan. 2 announcement “implies that the university has indeed pulled that trigger.”  (Joan Desmond, National Catholic Register)


The South Bend Tribune has even more sad news, that several ND students have sought to fight the University’s lawsuit because they are “very much in need of contraception” and “hopeful that they would finally be able access it,” according to Ayesha Khan of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Shearer points out, with an incisive response:

They [the students] are privileged to attend a university with a distinctive Catholic identity, and one would assume that, given their admission and the effort expended seeking legal counsel from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, they have both the intellect and resources to locate one of the two local Planned Parenthood clinics, either of which would be happy to help them with their contraceptive needs. Should they not wish to avail themselves of that organization’s services, a visit to any public health clinic or a general practitioner will likely result in a prescription for “the pill” which may then be procured at a quite reasonable cost at any given Walmart or Walgreens. Any notion that they “would finally be able to obtain access to it” (contraception) only in the event of university provision of it is absurd.

Birth control of all sorts is readily available in this area, from multiple venues at a cost, in general, which imposes little to no burden upon the user, thus not requiring denigration of the values of the institution to which they are supposedly committed in intellectual, if not spiritual, harmony. (Shearer, “Student’s Role in Notre Dame Lawsuit Utter Nonsense”)

You should read the entirety of Shearer’s excellent response here.

For better or worse, Notre Dame is in many ways the flagship of Catholic universities. She is wealthy and influential. When Notre Dame speaks, people listen. She carries a huge responsibility to be faithful to her mission, “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake,” and to the “basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and [to] the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion.” (ND Mission Statement)

I hope that the leaders of Notre Dame will be faithful to that mission, and to encouraging all members of the university to be faithful as well.



Over at Cosmos in the Lost, Mr. Rosman says, “Writing really is a process of discovery, a form of thinking. You don’t know what you’ll end up writing until you actually sit down and write it.”

I love this – and I repeat this idea all the time to my students. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “I write to discover what I know.”

I was especially intrigued by the title of Mr. Rosman’s post: “Everything Under the S(u/o)n: Von Balthasar’s and Milosz’s God Metaphors.”

If you know me, then you know that Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of my favorite theologians. I wrote my theology thesis about his work in Theo-Logic.

Go read Rosman’s post to find out what those God metaphors are.


Richard Wilbur notes that metaphor is the grounding of human language and thought–which is partially why metaphor is so essential to poetry. If you think about it, many of the everyday phrases we use to describe reality are, in fact, metaphors. We don’t notice this anymore because some metaphors have become so common they don’t even seem figurative or poetic:

“I need a minute to digest what you’ve said.”   Thinking:Eating

“Keep your eyes peeled!”  Eyes: Fruit? Potato?

“That’s music to my ears!”  Some statement: music

“That assignment was a breeze!”  Assignment: breeze

“She broke his heart.” Heart: Something delicate and breakable, like china.

“They didn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” Elephant: awkward truth

See here and here for more examples.


Father James Martin, SJ, is always showing up on my Facebook newsfeed and making insightful statuses about prayer or suggesting interesting articles like this one over at America magazine:

“Truth and Truthiness: What Catholic Catechists Can Learn from Stephen Colbert”

A taste:

Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. […] Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result. (Patrick Manning)

Really great article that even brings in Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine.

As a very imperfect teacher, what Manning says really resonates (uncomfortably) with me. I’m not Stephen Colbert–but it is the Stephen Colberts of the world who reach their audiences and effect change. They entertain, instruct and persuade.

All good teachers do this. You can’t really get around the entertaining part, either.

Especially in a high school classroom.


Speaking of high school classrooms, my classroom is going to be transformed into a coffee shop next week! Complete with coffee. And donuts. And tea. And yes, you may bring in muffins. Yes, breakfast burritos are okay, too. No, you may not come in dressed as a beat poet with a black beret. You have to stay in uniform. Yes, as I said before, coffee is okay. Yes, Starbucks too.

My students will be reciting their poems on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. So if you could spare a prayer for them, it would mean a lot to me.

The Skill of Life

One reader, who blogs over at Adam’s Task, has this to say in defense of poetry:

Poetry compels one to take a delight in language and in the single word, to have a feeling for subtle shades of sound and meaning, for the nexus of structure and syntax, and for the vast historic associations which lie in any developed language whereby even the most trivial instance or mode of Being can be made ostentatious, can be made to demand of us that we ponder it deeply. It requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself. This is why we should memorize it.

It reminds me of something W.H. Auden said reflecting on the life and death of W.B. Yeats: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making where executives/ Would never want to tamper, flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.” Yep, that’s why. It’s “a way of happening, a mouth.”

I like especially this: “[Poetry] requires that in some sense one make oneself translucent to one’s own experience, that one know oneself.”

source: savagechickens.com
source: savagechickens.com

I wonder if that might be why, when I myself was in high school, I used to hate poetry. I thought it was always trying to be difficult and confusing on purpose— that poets were playing a sort of maddening game with me in which they made their meaning as hidden as possible.

And by this time, I had already read lots of huge complex novels, books on religion and philosophy, and all sorts of convoluted prose. But there was something about poetry that was very annoying and elusive to me.

Many of my students feel that way now. “Ms. Shea, this is so hard.”

It wasn’t until college that I finally began to love poetry–and only then, after I was forced to learn about it.

But perhaps in high school I found poetry so confusing in part because I was not “translucent” to myself– I was still a such mystery to me. Moreover, I was still so new to my own historical context that the rich allusions so essential to most poetry, to millennia of human thought and art, remained quite opaque to me.

These “vast historic associations which lie in any developed language” elude most high school students and, unfortunately, more and more of the general adult population as well. Our culture is so caught up in what is easy and accessible–perhaps because technology has made so many parts of our lives easy and accessible–that poetry (which is neither) does not resonate with us.

Although I don’t like making logical fallacies about “the good old days,” I am inclined to believe that previous generations weren’t so annoyed by poetry. (Hence the older practice of making kids memorize poetry in school–from the time of Homer until 60 years ago). Life itself was very difficult and inaccessible for most of the human beings who have ever lived–so why should language be any different?

Dr. Gregory, one of my favorite professors at the University of Dallas, is a masterful teacher of poetry and of lyric in particular. She has this to say about the importance of poetry in the life of students:

The study of the lyric [poetry] teaches something quite other than critical thinking, and certainly something distinct from common or conventional notions of the interior life. In the context of a common culture that so brutalizes and trivializes the life of affection, desire, and reflection, lyric poetry offers a kind of counter-terrorism training of the heart and mind. (“Lyric and the Skill of Life”)

“A kind of counter-terrorism training?”

Yes- because poetry helps us to become vulnerable. We have to let go of our supposed power over language and allow it to have power over us.

“Something quite other than critical thinking?” But isn’t that what the Common Core — indeed, most educational standards– love to emphasize?

Yes, but poetry isn’t really about “critical thinking.” It’s more about critical feeling— the ordering and shaping of what is not really quantifiable or nameable in the usual sense.

Which is why, perhaps, terms like tone and mood are so essential to poetry. Poems develop our emotional intelligence, if we let them. The skills we use to read people’s faces, understand their feelings, anticipate their desires are the same skills we need when we read poetry.

Again, Dr. Gregory:

The lyric [poem] performs continually a sense of the risk and danger of reading.  The challenge in teaching lyric is to make its dangerousness felt, to allow its edge to cut.  At the heart of learning, one might say, is the capability of always acknowledging that condition of dereliction out of which alone we can know the preciousness of what we love.  The lyric puts us in this danger: that is its irreplaceable value within education. (Ibid)

Poetry, because it does not submit to normal conventions of language or our expectations about literature, invites us to take risks. In high school I really hated this– but since then my illusions about the conventions and expectations I used to have about life have begun to fall away. Poetry does not seem difficult on purpose any more– it is difficult because life is difficult. It is confusing because life is confusing. It is strangely beautiful–or ugly–or elusive, because life is all of those things.

That’s why there are Great Poets as well as mediocre ones. The Great ones are able to reflect or imitate, in writing, something of the mystery of human life. The mediocre ones try to explain the mystery away.


7 Quick Takes Friday (1/17/14)



Thanks to my friend Peter for alerting me to the fact that my students, too,  believe literally everything I say. Because I am not teaching them how to think, I am teaching them what to think. They are expected to regurgitate whatever New Critical theory I have about the texts we study. They do not earn their grades, of course–I give them out depending on how I feel and whether or not I like the particular student in question. However, I do aspire to the control Professor Mabrey has managed to achieve over the minds of her minions–er–students:

“I could, honest to God, ask them to tear their copies of the novel in half because that’s what Kerouac ‘intended the reader to do,’ and they would do it.” (The Onion)

Haw, Haw. As Flannery Would say.


One of my favorite Channels on Youtube is JustinGuitar Songs. Justin is a guitarist from Australia who posts really helpful videos to help people master the guitar. I mostly watch his videos to learn how to play specific songs or riffs that I can’t figure out by ear, but his website, justinguitar.com, has wonderful links for beginners, intermediate players and advanced players on everything from how to choose a guitar to music theory.

I’ve been playing guitar since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and play almost every day, but I peaked awhile ago and have never really improved my technical skills since. I’ve been pretty content being able to follow along by ear and write my own songs, but I have done little to challenge myself or learn new musical styles. One of my goals for this year is to push myself and become a better guitar player.


Speaking of better guitar players–


I play Tommy Emmanuel’s music all the time during Writing Fridays, when my students are working on in-class essays. A lot of them really love it.


“Does that mean you’ll play guitar for us again?”

I had just informed my sophomores about my exciting plan to transform my classroom into a coffee shop.

“We’ll see. This is a poetry coffee house event. You guys are starring in it.”

“But music is a type of poetry, Ms. Shea.”


Next week, my students will be bringing in poems they have chosen to memorize (though these poems must meet certain criteria) and the week after that they will be performing them in front of the class. We’ve worked a lot on tracking tone and mood, and they will be using their interpretations of the poem to give a successful, compelling delivery.

Source: home-treats.co.uk
Source: home-treats.co.uk

To make this daunting prospect more attractive, I am having my students transform my classroom into a coffee shop for this event. We will be arranging the desks in little circles, like the tables you see at Starbucks, and volunteers will bring in Christmas lights and other decorations to set the mood. Most thrilling of all (and they are really pretty psyched about this), they can bring in coffee and donuts. Last year in Louisiana, I had a couple of kids bring in coffee-makers so they could brew themselves fresh coffee!

I guess perhaps I am sort of distracting them from the real issue–memorizing a poem and trying to deliver it in front of your peers–but this tactic really works.

Some of them have already been showing me poems they like and want to learn.


It’s been popular in education over the last thirty years to jettison knowledge of “mere” facts and “rote memorization.” Memorizing things, in particular, has been condemned as uncreative, limiting, and requiring only lower levels of Bloom’s learning verbs.

But I’ve discovered that memorization is one of the best things you can force your students to do.

Especially when it comes to poetry.

At UD, during our legendary Junior Poet semester, all English majors are required to not only become intimately familiar with the entire corpus of a chosen poet–we are also required to choose an “exemplary poem” of said poet to memorize and deliver as part of our oral examination. Delivering this poem to a panel of professors and explicating it, and then being ready to answer any sort of question they ask you about your poet’s life and work, was extremely terrifying–but was also one of the best learning experiences of my life.

Essential to my experience was memorizing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur (and several other of his poems as well). It was amazing how much easier it is to understand a poem when you have memorized it–when you have allowed it to sink in and become a part of you.

Brad Leithauser, in a New York Times article on the subject, describes this phenomenon beautifully:

So why undergo the laborious process of memorizing a poem these days, when—tap, tap, tap—you have it at your fingertips? Has this become another outmoded practice?

[…] The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (Leithauser, “Why Should We Memorize”)

But best of all is when, unbidden, those cherished words come to you in a moment of need or joy or loneliness. I remember walking to class one day in October of my senior year, and seeing that the trees were absolutely radiant with color. And Wilbur’s words, which came to me then, helped me to really understand and articulate the beauty I was beholding–something I could not have done without those words:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,

Were never so unfallen as today,

And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve

The very light from which time fell away.

A showered fire we thought forever lost

Redeems the air. Where friends in passing meet,

They parley in the tongues of Pentecost.

Gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street. (Wilbur, “October Maples, Portland”)

If my kids are able to choose poems that they really love, I hope they may have a similar experience.


Over at First Things, Peter Lawler continues the discussion on the worth of the humanities, which I have addressed before in my post series “In Defense of English Majors,” Parts I, II and III.

Lawler adds some interesting fightin’ words to the debate:

The problem is the proliferation of all those techno-lite majors, such as marketing, beverage management, environmental studies, public relations, sports broadcasting, museum science, graphic arts,  and so forth.  They are allegedly VOCATIONAL majors.  But they are actually majors in limiting one’s options in life–or narrowing one’s horizon. (Lawler, “Are the Humanities a Shoddy and Overpriced Product?“)

Do you think “marketing,” “environmental studies,” “public relations” et. al. are majors that “limit” your options in life and “narrow [your] horizon”?

In a way, I think the answer is yes. As poor as liberal arts majors are stereotyped to be, those who “specialize” have different struggles. What if you major in “sports broadcasting” and aren’t hired by ESPN or even some more modest network? Or worse–what if you realize you hate sports broadcasting? Whatever skills you acquired while pursuing that major are less likely to serve you in other areas. The common argument for the liberal arts majors–English, philosophy, math, history, theology, etc.–is that they have a much wider applicability to various areas of life, professions and vocations.


Maybe it’s just by chance–or maybe it’s because I went to UD–but this story about a new Benedictine Brewery has been showing up a lot lately on my newsfeed. Jennifer over at ConversionDiary is actually related to one of these monks.

According to one label, “every bottle [is] brewed to the glory of God.”

Cheers to that!

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

This is part II of some thoughts  about language and power in the English classroom I posted a few days ago.

So, good English teachers try to teach their students to support their ideas with evidence. Indeed, the new Common Core standards state this objective specifically:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. (Common Core Standards)

And this is a very important skill to learn. You can’t just claim anything you want. You need to be able to back it up. That’s just part of good thinking.

because_i_said_so_thats_why_post_cards-p239452208012560831baanr_400However, Mallory* and her peers realized providing strong textual evidence was the way to earn full credit on my assessments, and I realized that this incentive was somewhat misleading. Many of my students were no longer concerned with finding out what the poet was really trying to say to them—instead, they were concerned with trying to use the poet’s words in such a way as to justify whatever ideas they could come up with. This is not to say they were intentionally lying—but they were no longer primarily concerned with being truthful, as I tried to demonstrate in my own expert mishandling of evidence.

However, in his “Discourse in the Novel,” Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that such manipulation of language is a challenge inherent to communication itself:

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (294, as quoted by Lee Honeycutt)

It is also, above all, a moral process that inevitably reaches beyond the borders of the English classroom. In his essay on the often-concealed relationship between power and language, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper succinctly describes the unique challenge language teachers face in helping their students learn to engage and even “expropriate” language, since their subject can never remain safely behind the confines of a class:

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. (Pieper, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power” 15)

imagesI think Pieper has revealed the precious—and precarious—nature of language in a way that should give English teachers pause. Are we aware of our own capacity to nourish or to “corrupt” our student’s relationship with language? Demolishing one of my shyest student’s arguments with our class’s agreed-upon standard for legitimacy—textual evidence—had indeed “corrupted” the word in my classroom and momentarily tainted the delicate relationship of trust I had formerly established with my students. I did this purposefully, but rather recklessly.

Why is it that my action seemed so violent?

Because I had abused Emily Dickinson’s language and Abbey’s interpretation of it with my own misuse of skillful argumentation—I had been untruthful. In doing so, I presented the problem of what ‘rightness’ really means (or, at least, what it does not mean) to my students, with rather powerful results.

However, I had also inadvertently touched upon the twofold reason why sensitivity and care is required in experiments like these. Pieper expresses it this way:

Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose […] First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (Ibid, emphasis added 15)

Inevitably human beings are given the responsibility of trying to “name reality” in an “interpersonal” context—and perhaps this is the real reason why teaching English is so challenging. Finding authentic ways to help  students name reality involves approaching the question of truthfulness in a developmentally-appropriate manner for adolescents.

Accosting Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson’s tone worked to an extent—it roused her peers to come to her defense, for they could see the issue was, at heart, an important moral one—but unfortunately I did not know how to follow up my experiment. I certainly made an impression, but probably a fleeting one. In the rush of that first year, I did not pause to tie up any loose ends I had unstrung in that conversation, nor did I really give my students the opportunity to do so because in many ways I was fumbling around in the dark as much as they were.

I had, indeed, observed my student’s cognitive construction of a certain skill—that of learning to use textual evidence to back up claims—and I responded spontaneously to the moral dilemma that arose as a consequence. However, I failed to follow through on my experiment by giving my students a way to process this experience. For instance, I could have given them the opportunity to write about it—and to provide evidence demonstrating why my response to Abbey was unjust. This would have been a metacognitive task indeed—and one that would have reinforced the moral possibilities in writing and providing evidence for one’s claims.

Although I had successfully shown that the academic task of providing evidence for one’s claims is morally complex and problematic, I hesitated to pursue the issue further. I fear that, if we get this far at all, many English teachers are also hesitant about going further. We are not philosophy or religion teachers. Besides preaching against the evils of plagiarism, how else can we justify an exploration of truthfulness in language?

I would respond to this question with another: how can we justify not exploring the issue of truthfulness in language in our classrooms, when it remains the implicit moral dilemma students face on every test, every quiz, every essay—indeed, every conversation?

7 Quick Takes Friday (1/10/14)



Right before Christmas break, my apartment complex sent out an email warning us about the dangers of frozen pipes. Since I’m a Boston native, this news came as no surprise to me. Here’s a wonderful reflection about frozen pipes… well, really, frozen hearts that you are worried will never change by Simcha Fisher: “How to Thaw a Frozen Heart.”

You think you are probably heating it up, and making that little gob of ice smaller and smaller, but what if you’re not?  What if the real trouble spot is icing itself up more and more as you speak, and you’re sitting there like a moron, concentrating all your time and effort on a bit of pipe that is fine?


Since our school began doing the Poetry Out Loud program last year, and will be doing it again this year, I began teaching my kids a poetry unit. Here’s an interesting fact you may not know:

There are always THREE people involved in every poem you read. Yes, three. And no, they’re not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as many of my students guessed). They are 1) the reader / you, 2) the author/poet, and 3) the speaker / narrator. Everyone always forgets #3, or assumes that the speaker IS the author. This is largely due, I believe, to the confessional poetry of the last century a’la Sylvia Plath in which the speaker usually WAS the poet, or at least expressed the poet’s feelings. But it’s a BIG mistake to assume that this is always the case. The poet has the freedom to create a fictional speaker–and, in some sense, ALL speakers are fictional. They are perpetually feeling and expressing the content of the poem, whereas the poet is a historical person who moves on with her life even if she intended to express herself through the speaker.


Whenever I teach poetry, I also teach mood and tone.

Lots of people get these two things confused. The distinction between them is simple, but also very important.

Mood = the way the reader is SUPPOSED to feel / i.e. the way the author WANTS his reader to feel.

Eg: Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories usually have a suspenseful or creepy mood, because the reader is meant to feel in suspense or frightened.

Tone = the way the speaker feels toward the text / the speaker’s attitude

Eg: The speaker’s sarcastic tone alerts the reader to the fact that he is being mocked.

The nice thing about teaching mood and tone is that the kids usually accept the fact that these are useful things to know. Recognizing the tone of voice of someone with whom you are conversing is obviously important, since meaning depends so much upon how we say things, not just what we say. Sarcasm in particular can make all the difference in statements like this: “Great job today!”

Mood, on the other hand, is the feeling somebody is trying to get you to feel. Thus, tone influences mood. If someone says “Great job today!” kindly, you are supposed to feel encouraged or happy as a result. If someone says “Great job today!” sarcastically, you are supposed to feel ashamed or embarrassed as a result.

Poetry habituates us to tone and mood and can help increase emotional intelligence.


I know you’ve always wondered why our Solar System is Flat. So here is MinutePhysics to the rescue, to tell you why:


One of the things that really troubles “conservative” Catholics (for lack of a better word) is Pope Francis’ relative silence on abortion (although he has, actually not been utterly silent on the issue).

Francis Rocca at Catholic News Service just came out with an interesting article on the topic:

“Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said in a speech to the Knights of Columbus in August. But the cardinal added: “I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the church’s teaching on abortion.”

In a widely quoted interview published the following month, Pope Francis acknowledged that he had “not spoken much” about “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” and that he had been “reprimanded for that.”

“But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context,” the pope said. “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” (Rocca)

The whole article is here: “With Few Words on Abortion, Pope Francis Shows a New Way to Be Pro-Life.”

What do you think? Does it bother you that Pope Francis doesn’t say very much about abortion? Pope Pius XII was also criticized for being too reticent about the Nazis–although Rabbi David Dalin and others argue that the pope’s approach to the great evil of his time was actually quite appropriate.


Throwback to my first year of teaching. This is what I was writing about in January of my first year:

At a few faculty meetings, my principal has mentioned “rigor and relevance.” I feel that though I have been pretty successful with the “rigor” part, I still have a lot to do in trying to help my students connect more personally with these classical texts. I didn’t use to like the idea of “selling” literature as if I were a salesperson trying to manipulate an audience—but I’ve begun to realize that some “selling” is necessary. This quest to make English “relevant” to my students does not have to be superficial or dishonest (as I used to perceive such efforts). The truth is, we do not live in an ideal world and education of any kind can’t simply speak for itself—educators are responsible for revealing the true worth of their subject as much as they can. Ultimately “relevance” is about taking my students seriously where they are and being sensitive to their opinions and interests in order to bring them into a relationship with literature, and more particularly, into conversation with the authors and ideas that have shaped our culture whether we realize it at first or not.


A dear friend of mine from ACE just invited me to join her in starting a blog that is going to be “a collection of female thought.” I think you’ll be hearing a lot of great perspectives here, so I’ll be keeping you updated and will send you a link when things get going!

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom

source: reallifebh.com

“So even if I have a different opinion than you, you won’t mark it wrong?”

This had been an easy and gratifying question for me to answer during my first year teaching English; I was the young, open-minded teacher a’la “Dead Poet’s Society” who would encourage my students to think for themselves and to trust their own ideas.

“Of course not,” I said, smiling as I added, “so long as you support what you have to say with evidence.”

My students’ dubious glances gradually turned into confident nods as the first few months passed and they realized I not only valued their ideas, I was eager to hear them. Moreover, I had done my best to demystify this process of supporting claims with evidence. Like many secondary English teachers, I had prided myself on requiring all of my students to incorporate “evidence” not only in their writing, but also in their oral responses to questions in class. My students had become much more proficient in practicing this skill, and now we were working on how to incorporate evidence in more sophisticated ways. Instead of haphazardly attaching a quote to various claims, I was trying to help my students take quotes apart and use only the pieces they needed to incorporate them elegantly and seamlessly into their arguments, whether verbal or written.

“So, as long as I support what I have to say with evidence, I’ll get it right?”

The first time I heard Mallory’s* revised version of the initial question, I had replied, “Of course.” But something bothered me about its implications that I could not quite put my finger on. What did she mean by “right”? For that matter, what did I mean by “right”? To what extent had our formal assessments become a kind of business transaction based upon our previously agreed upon deal—you give me the evidence, I’ll give you the grade? And why did this ostensibly fair economic approach seem untruthful?

As I began to hear Mallory’s request of assurance echoed frequently by other students—usually before tests, essays, and other formal assessments—I found myself hesitating before coming up with an inarticulate affirmative: “Yes, you’ll get it ‘right,’ but of course you have to demonstrate strong evidence”—“Probably, so long as you incorporate specific details”—“Well, don’t forget to explain who is arguing what here. Is this what you think or is this what Walt Whitman thinks?”—“Before I say yes, what do you think ‘getting it “right” really means, David?’”

I began to see that the age-old expectation of all reasonably competent English teachers—that their students learn to support their claims with evidence—actually raises not only academic, but moral questions. What counts as ‘right’ or ‘true’ in the English classroom—and how is this connected to grades and success? Indeed, the almost daily exchange between teachers and students about what counts as “enough” evidence and what qualifies as a correct answer exposes the difficulty of language’s potential for truthfulness, power—and abuse.

I decided that I needed to find a way to help my students see these complexities. I needed to give them more than just a way to cultivate an analytical skill; I needed to give them some context about the responsibility involved in exercising that skill. But I did not know how to do this.

Fortunately, my juniors and I were in the midst of an American poetry unit in which Emily Dickinson’s ambiguous expressions of truth provided a good place to start exploring Mallory’s question in depth. I had my students analyze an Emily Dickinson poem of their choice for tone and mood. Abbey, one of my shyest students, offered her interpretation bravely to the class, admirably including multiple examples of textual evidence.

Inspiration dawned on me (my students would chide me for using such an obvious cliché). But it certainly did feel like enlightenment: I decided in that moment to take a risk that, as a more experienced teacher, I would be much more cautious in taking now.

“Abbey, I’m sorry, but you are absolutely incorrect. Dickinson’s tone here is neither somber nor sad—actually, she is delighted, and she wants her reader to be, too.”

Abbey’s surprise was expressed by her more vocal peers. “What do you mean, Ms. Shea?” They were used to me finding some kind of good in every response, even if I usually pressed them for more.

“Well, I’ll explain it to you,” I said calmly.

I proceeded to re-explicate the poem on the spot, carefully refuting every single point Abbey had made with devastating speed and ease. I made sure to back up every single statement I made with unmistakable evidence from the poem. I made sure to speak quickly, confidently and seriously. The result was rather alarming.

This display of power—for that’s really what it was—stunned my students. They looked at one another, and then they looked at me—with reproach in their eyes. But they did not feel they could refute what I had said. I had used my authority and position as a teacher in a way they had never seen me use it before.

After a moment, I asked them, “What do you think of my interpretation?”

There were shrugs and exchanged glances. They were more upset with me than I had thought they would be.

So I said, “Was that fair to Abbey?”

I encountered a resounding “no” and many other indignant responses as well. I was a little overwhelmed by their anger. “Why did you do that?” “I thought Abbey did a good job.” “She’s not an English teacher like you.” “That was really mean, Ms. Shea.”

“Yes it was,” I said. “Will you let me explain what I was trying to do?”

After I had apologized to Abbey, my students were more willing to listen to what I had to say. I explained that Abbey’s interpretation was actually very strong, and that she has supported her ideas with evidence well—but that I had decided before even hearing her explanation that I would respond with an opposing argument, no matter how ridiculous or untrue I thought my position was—and that I would back up whatever I claimed to be true with lots of evidence from the poem. I wanted to show them that evidence could be manipulated in all sorts of ways—that in English, you could prove almost anything, whether or not you believed it to be true.

“Do you think, if I answered that way on a test, that I would get full credit for my answer?”

My students nodded slowly—and unhappily.

“You backed it up with evidence,” they said, echoing the mantra I had instilled in them over the past five months.

“But you weren’t being real,” one of them added.

As I have indicated, the heart of the matter exists somewhere in the tenuous relationships among truthfulness, freedom, and power. As English teachers, we want to empower our students by giving them the tools to understand, use and even create language. That is, we are responsible for helping our students feel the power of language and negotiate its demands.

But the question about evidence and correctness—what constitutes the “truth” in an English classroom—affects both strong and struggling students alike. The ability to manipulate language and evidence is a skill struggling students often feel they were simply born without—and it is a skill strong students sometimes abuse because they do not understand it. They are often too worried about the ‘right’ answer to bother finding the truthful one.

More to come on this.

*All names have been changed.

7 Quick Takes Friday! (1/3/14)



I have decided to jump on the 7 Quick Takes Friday bandwagon, hosted at Jennifer Fulwiler’s Conversion Diary blog! I think it will work as a sort of New Year’s resolution — a way to keep me accountable for posting on a regular basis and prevent me from overanalyzing every post before hitting the “publish” button.


Speaking of New Year’s Resolutions, check out this wonderful post for millennials over at Verily Magazine: “New Years Resolutions for the Millennial.” A taste:

Stop counting your Facebook friends and start making real friends. Neuroscientists report that humans are biologically wired to form strong social communities in order to truly flourish. Yet in recent history, authentic communities have been dissolving in favor of a digital individualism.

I am even going to try to call a different friend every week, as Ms. Crouch suggests. Ambitious, I know.


source: rogerebert.com

I just saw “Saving Mr. Banks” the other day and LOVED it. Although I admit I also caught the distinctive whiff of what Mr. Casey calls “the smell of fresh Oscar bait cooling on the window sill, waiting for eager audiences and Academy voters to catch its scent,” I believe this aroma is well-deserved. The movie is about formidable, and, I think, sympathetically portrayed P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the Mary Poppins’ books, and her decision to allow the charming but slick Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to work his film magic upon it.

I think this movie has a lot to say about the art of storytelling. According to Hanks’ Disney, Travers’ creative work and his own both attempt an act of redemption–“if not in life, then in imagination” for the Mr. Bankses of the world, particularly their own troubled fathers. As Flannery says, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”

Yet this redeeming creative work is not merely a whitewashing of history, either–contrary to this very shortsighted LA times review by Amy Nicholson. The movie does a good job of conveying how love really is the way of seeing people for who they truly are. And I think Ms. Nicholson fails to notice that the movie is also about itself–it is sort of a metanarrative that provides the rational for its own structure. Just as Travers and Disney attempt to redeem Mr. Banks, perhaps the movie also redeems Travers and Disney themselves in some way.


I am going to be teaching Creative Writing next semester. Yikes. I’m rather nervous about returning to six classes a day–though very excited to be teaching juniors and seniors again. I’m thinking of starting with a unit on Children’s Literature first–it’s a good way of analyzing stories, because children’s stories have much less to hide behind than adult stories do. And having my students bring their favorite childhood books to class as a first homework assignment seems to me to be a good way to start off the semester. I’ll keep you posted. And here’s some advice from C. S. Lewis on good writing.


While in downtown Boston the other day (I am home for the holidays), I found myself surrounded once more by the fabulous accent I grew up with but never really adopted (except for words like “wicked” and “jimmies”). Wikpedia has an in-depth and rather fascinating article on the subject, and probably others for whatever region you hail from, as well. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover the etymology of my favorite Louisiana phrase, “Come see.”


Jesus Christ the Apple Tree? Check it out!


 From Pope Francis, via Catholic News Agency:

“And this is the question we should pose ourselves: do we too have great visions and zeal? Are we bold too? Do our dreams fly high? Are we consumed by zeal? Or are we mediocre and satisfied with our theoretical apostolic plans?”

 He has the talent of making me uncomfortable. Which is a good thing.