Lost Causes – Updated

Please take some time to read this beautiful post by a teacher whose blog I have been reading for some time now. Like, go click the link below and read the whole thing right now:

What I Wish I Could Tell Them About Teaching in a Title I School by Love, Teach.

A small part:

I’m also not writing this for proof or validation that I work hard. I don’t have anything to prove about my work ethic or value as a teacher, to myself or anyone else, and this is not meant to initiate a game of “who has it worse.”


No. I’m writing this because I care about what happens to my students, and other children like them in Title I schools across this country whose needs are not being met, and who are learning harmful lessons from the larger systems in place that are supposed to help them. I am writing this to give others a picture of the type of learning and teaching environments that are being created by these systems.  I’m writing because it’s 2015, and far too many children in this country are still receiving a lower quality education because of the neighborhood into which they were born. (Love, Teach)

I am in a much easier situation than this brave soldier. I do not, and have not ever, taught in a Title I public school.

But I am a teacher too, and so my heart breaks.

She says,

I would tell them that it feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about. (Ibid)

She’s in an impossible situation.

And yet, and yet, when I was reading her post, something inside me kept saying, “No!”

I don’t want this teacher to leave.

I don’t know who she is, and heaven knows I do not know what she has been through, but she is exactly the type of person — exactly the particular person — we need to stay with our kids, because she loves them. Because she gets it. Because she teaches with everything she’s got, and it’s only in losing your life that you can find it.

At least, I know many of her kids have found it.

Or maybe I feel so strongly about this because I need to believe that it is possible to stay, even under such circumstances.

If teaching drives away all of us who love our kids, by breaking our hearts and breaking our spirits, who will be left?

The teachers that don’t care enough for the injustice of our country’s school systems to affect them? The teachers that don’t try hard enough so that the job seems like the stereotypical “Christmas breaks” and “summers off” vacation? The teachers who print out worksheets every day and show movies so they don’t have to deal with the real intellectual and emotional challenge of encountering young human souls?

Not everyone is called to be a teacher. And not everyone who is called to be a teacher needs to be one forever. Perhaps I am overstepping my bounds.

But we need more teachers like this wonderful young woman who has given the last five years of her life to a seemingly “lost cause” — perhaps it is, indeed, lost for all practical purposes.

A wise lady once told me, “In every crucifixion there is a resurrection.”

Perhaps we are not going to see any clear resurrection for ourselves here.

But even for the lost causes, the most horrific crucifixions, I believe in the parable of the seed that falls to the earth and dies.

Jimmy Stewart’s character says, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about the lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason that any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ (Source. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”)

It’s worth watching the whole scene. I hope the author of “Love, Teach,” watches this:

Also, this, by Emily Genser at the Huffington Post: “Don’t You Quit”


The Washington Post is publishing Love, Teach’s beautiful reflection here.

Anyone who loves kids and education needs to read it.

On Teaching Poetry, Part II

I taught my annual poetry unit at the beginning of the semester and have already blogged a little about it here.  In that post I posted these key questions:

The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how. How can we help our kids get inside a poem? How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language? How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it? (“On Teaching Poetry“)

A lot of teachers take one of two conventional (and mistaken) approaches: have the students read easy, crappy poems, or have them read classical poems and force them to try to get some meaning out of it. I have chosen another approach.

Being a UD grad, I’m all about the Western Tradition and legit poetry. But I’m also all about respecting where my kids are and acknowledging the fact that, for most of them, poetry is pretty boring. So instead of teaching what a poem is about or even why a poet wrote it, I teach them to ask the question how.

The first thing the kids need to learn when encountering poetry is the difference between tone and mood. Why? Because recognizing tone and mood in conversation, in writing, in emails, in text messages, in any type of human communication is a basic life skill. If you can’t identify tone and mood, then you miss out on 99% of the meaning in any given sentence you read.

Tone is how the speaker feels about what he is saying. It is his attitude.

Mood is how the speaker is trying to make the audience feel about what he is saying.

I ask them, “Have you ever met someone who has a hard time picking up on sarcasm?”

They always say yes. “That person, who cannot pick up on a sarcastic tone, unfortunately misses most of the meaning.”

I then give a real life example. I walk up to Charlie and I say with sincerity and a bright smile, “Hey, Charlie, you did a great job in class today!”

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh.. good, miss,” he replies.

“Great. Because I used a sincere or kind tone, I created a positive or happy mood in Charlie. But I could easily say the exact same words and create a totally different meaning.”

I walk up to Charlie again, this time with a bored and annoyed expression on my face. “Hey, Charlie. You did a great job in class today.” I make the sarcasm as evident as possible.

Then I ask, “How does that make you feel, Charlie?”

“Uh… kinda bad, actually…”

“Exactly. This time I used a sarcastic tone and that created a hurt or slightly depressed mood.”

So then we start to apply those terms to poems – usually simple Billy Collins poems first. Ask questions like, “Okay, what do you think the speaker’s tone is in stanza 1 – positive or negative? What words or images made you say that?”

Starting with the generic terms positive or negative really helps the kids at first. After they determine if the tone is positive or negative, they can more easily find a stronger tone word like “sad” or “furious” or “calm”.

So then we work on what I call “Tone and Mood Maps.” Basically, the kids get a poem with plenty of space in the margins. Then we go through the  poem stanza by stanza and put a plus sign + or minus sign – next to each stanza. Then, once we have mapped out basic positives and negatives, then we go back through the poem again and try to determine a tone word and a mood word for each stanza. Like so:

One of my students’ annotations. Notice the plus and minus signs on the left. Then the tone words on the left of each stanza, and the mood words on the right.

The next step is to put them in the place of the poet. Oftentimes students take for granted how difficult it is to write a poem. So I have them write their own “Introduction to Poetry” modeled after Billy Collins’ poem of the same name. The above picture shows one of these poems that was afterwards annotated by the student for tone and mood. Here is another one. The poem is worth reading!

Again, notice the + and – signs, tone words on the left and the mood words on the right.

And I really like the way this student models her poem after both Collins’ and Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: photo-3

Approaching poetry this way changes the question from what does a poem mean to how does a poem mean.

Which, in the end, is a much more meaningful question. It prevents the student from making assumptions about the poet’s intent, and instead forces him to watch what the poet actually does in the poem.

Even if I present them with (gasp!) a real poem, they can find a way into the poem through the tone and mood. Like this student, who wrote admirably about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. Here’s his second body paragraph:

Throughout the second and third stanzas of the poem, Frost tells of many similarities between the two roads. However, he twists and controls language in these stanzas using an appealing tone to help the speaker convince the readers that the second road was the correct one to choose and kindle in them a desire for it. After looking at one road for a while, the speaker “took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear,/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” (6-10). This is what makes this poem difficult to understand. As a result of the appealing tone that the speaker uses, the reader is led to experience an intrigued mood and get caught up in the appeal of the second path, but forget that it is the same as the first.

I love that this kid is comfortable admitting that this poem is “difficult to understand”. He doesn’t pretend to get the whole thing and turn it to some carpe diem cliche, like most people do when they read Frosts’ poem. Instead, he just describes how the poem means by analyzing the tone and the mood.

Judas, John and Jesus

Even when I read the Bible I am an English major. I cannot help but read the Gospels as stories. One of the relationships I find the most fascinating is that between Judas, John and Jesus.

The Last Supper by Natalia Tsarkova, 2002. Look how Jesus, John and Judas are portrayed in this scene.

I attend a wonderful Bible Study with a group of young Catholic women here in Denver, and this year we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark. We read Mark 14 and 15 the other night, the chapters that recount the events leading up to and including the Passion. Chapter 14 begins with “the anointing at Bethany,” where a woman anoints Jesus with a very expensive “alabaster jar of perfumed oil.” Mark then notes,

There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. (Mark 14:4-5)

Jesus, however, comes to the woman’s defense in a beautiful and powerful way:

Mary of Bethany

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you  will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9)

I have always found his remarks here to be so haunting. Indeed, though Mark does not tell us her name, he records the event so that everywhere in the whole world we remember this woman.

Interestingly, it is right after this scene at Bethany that Mark recounts the betrayal of Judas. Right after Jesus finishes speaking, it seems, “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them” (Mark 14:10).

It seems as if this scene at Bethany was somehow the last straw for Judas. Mark does not tell us why.

Last year, we were reading the Gospel of John, which also recounts this scene. But notice the differences:

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (John 12:1-3)

We have a lot more detail here in John’s Gospel, which is one of the reasons I firmly believe this gospel does come from an eyewitness, the youngest apostle himself. I find it moving that the author remembers, even after so many years, how “the house was filled with the fragrance.”

But John also remembers who it was that objected to the woman’s — here, Mary of Bethany’s– lavish act of love:

Then Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.

So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, emphasis added)

Note the commentary in italics. All four Gospels recount that Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus for money. And, in their listing of the apostles, they always give Judas the epithet “the one who betrayed him.” But it is John who seems to feel the sting of the betrayal so personally — so much so that he always portrays Judas in the worse possible light. Here, he makes it clear that it was Judas to objected to Mary’s act of love– it was Judas who thought the breaking of the jar a waste of money, and who brought up the obvious objection inspired perhaps by Jesus’ own previous teaching on the poor.

John’s bitter commentary here– “He said this not because he cared about the poor”– seems very moving to me. Even after all this time, he is still so angry with Judas. Even after knowing about the Resurrection, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering, he– the youngest apostle, the “one whom Jesus loved”, the gentle, courageous one who stayed with him by the Cross, who was given the gift of caring for Mary as Jesus died– still feels so hurt and so bitter here that he cannot write unfeelingly about Judas’ actions.

Clearly, Saints Mark and Luke were not apostles of Jesus themselves. Mark, according to tradition, wrote his gospel based on the preaching of Saint Peter and Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. It seems unlikely to me that the author of Matthew’s gospel was the apostle Matthew himself — he writes with the same objectivity and restraint as the other synoptic writers.

But the Gospel of John is not written like that at all. There are all sorts of details and personal touches that suggest an eyewitness, and I think the treatment of Judas in this gospel is especially telling.

Even after all these years — John is writing sometime in the 80s or 90s AD, as an old man — the betrayal of Judas brings back his anger. He notes, during the Last Supper, that “Satan enters [Judas]” and “it was night” when he departs to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Much earlier, in the famous Chapter 6 of the gospel where he recounts Jesus’ promise of the Eucharist, the bread of life discourse, John concludes Jesus’ words this way:

“But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. (John 6:64)

Even here, John connects one of Jesus most profound teachings with the betrayal of Judas. John seems to think that Judas’ rejection of Christ began far earlier than the synoptic gospels recount.

Significantly, John says no more about Judas after the betrayal in the garden. For him, nothing else needs to be said.

But Matthew does. And he even seems to view Judas with some compassion:

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”

Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5, emphasis added)

Judas betrays the Son of Man with a kiss. From “The Passion of the Christ.”

It will always be a mystery why Judas chose to betray Jesus. If he was the keeper of the money, as John says, in some way Jesus must have trusted him to give him such a task. Tradition seems to hold that Judas valued money more than Jesus — obviously he accepted the thirty pieces of silver– yet there must be more to it than that. I think the moment where the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus “for burial” is significant for Judas. Perhaps this is the moment where he realizes Jesus is not the Messiah Judas thought he was going to be. On the one hand, Jesus claims to be more important than even serving the poor, but on the other he indicates that his death is very near. He is not going to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Roman oppression, he is not going to restore Jewish life in the Promise Land. Instead, he is going to die. All of this is too much for Judas. He is disappointed.

I think Judas’ story is tragic and terrifying. We all betray Jesus for strange and stupid reasons every day, and we too are disappointed in Him. He disrupts our orderly plans and our constricted hopes and gives us the cross instead.

We all hope that when we do betray Jesus, we can be like Peter and seek His forgiveness. We hope that sometimes we can even be like John and not betray Him in the first place, and stay with Him by the cross until the very end.

But all too often we are like Judas. We are disappointed and so we give Him up — we stop praying, we turn away, we busy ourselves and ignore him. And then when we realize what we have done, we are so ashamed that we cannot bring ourselves to run back to Him. We refuse to go to Confession, we refuse to beg for His mercy because our pride says we do not deserve it.

Of course we don’t deserve it. That’s the point. Even John, the good apostle, the best friend of Jesus, the caretaker of Mary,  is clearly imperfect in his struggle to forgive Judas sixty years after the Passion took place.

The hard thing about Good Friday is that it remains only an invitation to mercy. You can kneel at the foot of the cross, or you can mock the cross, or you can simply turn away and go hang yourself on the tree of your own pride. But the cross still stands, and Jesus is still there waiting for us with outstretched arms.

John holds Mary, our Mother, at the foot of the cross. From “The Passion of the Christ.”