7 Quick Takes Friday (5/9/14)





The BEST THING happened to me the other day at school.

You know, it’s the end of the year. Everyone’s tired. Burnt out. Ready for summer. The kids are struggling through hell… Dante’s hell, that is… and I have been so proud of them for working so hard with such a challenging work.

We had a fishbowl discussion the other day in class. Two students raised their hands and asked me, “Hey, Ms. Shea. Are we going to be reading The Purgatorio and The Paradiso?”

“Sadly, no,” I said. “But I love The Purgatorio. It’s my favorite part of Dante’s poem.”

“Man,” one of them sighed. “I really want to know what happens next!”

“Yeah. So, if we buy a copy of those two books and read them this summer, and we email you with questions, would you email us back?”


I was so happy I almost fell off the desk I was sitting on. AND THESE WERE NOT MY HONORS STUDENTS. These were not my “I love to read” students. These were my struggling kids, who used to say The Inferno was way too hard… but who had decided to try. Sticky notes and annotations colored the pages of their books. They had come in for extra help a few times — completely voluntarily.

And now they want to read The Purgatorio and The Paradiso this summer… well, just because.

Psh. Who says teaching kids skills and reading strategies and how to “interact with challenging text” Common Core style cannot also, at the same time, encourage a love for goodness, truth and beauty?

“Yes!” I said. “Yes!”


So, I may or may not have played this video in all of my sophomore classes today…


My friend Katie, also a UD grad, has a great post for Teacher Appreciation Week (yes, that was this week!):

“Teacher vs. Teaching” at Drawing Near

A taste:

[…] here we are, two years into my unexpected teaching career and 165 students call me “Miss Prejean” every day and I’m slowly learning the ups and downs of the job. 

Here’s what I’ve figured out: I hate being a teacher. I love teaching. 

Go read the rest!


So I have been trying to pray St. Ignatius’ Examen every night before bed, and I had a really strange experience with it.

For those of you who don’t know, the steps of the Examen are roughly these:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence.

2. Think of the ways, both big and small, that He has been present to you. Thank Him for these gifts of the day.

3. Review your day slowly from beginning to end. Think about the ways that you loved God and others or failed to.

4. Ask for forgiveness / Act of Contrition.

5. Make resolutions and ask for help tomorrow.

On Tuesday I was having one of those not-so-great days. I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. I did not feel like praying. But I tried anyway. And I was a little shocked by the fact that as I tried to review my day for the gifts God had given me, and the ways that He had been present to me, I keep feeling worse and worse.

I thought of my students, and how I love them, and immediately two students came to mind who have not been getting along, and I realized how negligent I had been. I hadn’t even moved their seats away from each other. I was just letting the comments and the annoying interruptions continue. One of the students has a lot of emotional issues, and the other student bullies him because it is easy. The former student has begun saying really concerning things under his breath. And I have done nothing about it. I am a horrible teacher. How can I say I really love them when I let something like that continue? What if something happens? What if they get into a fight — or one of them seeks revenge in some way? And I could have stopped it?

I felt horrible.

I thought about lots of other gifts too – good things sprinkled throughout my day – but each time, I immediately thought about a way I had failed.

I stopped in the middle of prayer and was like, “Whoah. This isn’t supposed to be happening, is it?”

I tried again. But it happened again, almost immediately.

After a while, I finally said, “Okay, God. I’m sorry. I’m going to just go to sleep now.”

It was strange and kind of disturbing.

A few days later, during our bimonthly bible study, I brought this up to my friends. One of them came up to me right before leaving and said the exact same thing has happened to her while trying to pray the Examen. And she said quite simply, “That’s not God, Maura. That’s the Accuser.”

The Accuser? Oh yeah, right. The devil. Really?

She continued, “God is gentleman, and he is very kind with us. Often I just say, ‘Lord, please show me where I could have served you better today. Where do you want me to improve?’ It’s often in places I never expected. And he is always gentle. That other feeling — that does not come from Him. Discouragement, despair — that’s not God.”

Her words were so helpful to me. I prayed that night, and the same thing started happening again, but then I just redirected my attention to God. “God, you are a gentleman, and you are much more merciful to me than I could ever be.” It was kind of a struggle, but it helped to realize that some of those thoughts weren’t coming from God.

Funny how I’m teaching my students about The Inferno, and yet forgetting that the evil one is real and wants to sabotage our efforts and discourage us.

Pope Francis says the same. All the time. He’s always referring to the devil and how tricky he is. None of our bad, self-abasing thoughts come from God. Many of them may come from ourselves. But sometimes they come from the outside.


On that note:

via Fr. Robert Barron



That night I couldn’t (or didn’t) finish my Examen, I picked up a book to get my mind off of it.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

I finished it that night because I couldn’t sleep.

It’s so good. So, so good. Please do yourself a favor and read it.

A taste:

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve. (Robinson, Gilead)


“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (Ibid)


Lastly, a great article over at Ignatius Insight about suffering and art:

“Suffering and Inspiration by Meryl Amland”

source: ipnovels.com

7 Quick Takes Friday (2/7/14)



Last Friday I mentioned the Pope’s powerful words to the University of Notre Dame, and how I hoped the university would really take them to heart.

In particular, I said:

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. (See last Friday’s post)

However, my dad brought an article to my attention by Richard W. Garnett, a current law professor at ND, entitled “Solidarity, Not a Scolding.” He argues that interpretations (like mine) that discern a critical tone in the Pope’s message are off the mark:

Surfing around the more “conservative” sectors of the Catholic blogosphere, though, one might get the impression that Pope Francis had called the university on the carpet for a Petrine scolding, or for a finger-wagging session dedicated to chastising Notre Dame for its various failings, or for marching orders regarding the handling of the university’s lawsuit challenging the HHS contraception-coverage mandate. (Garnett via National Review)

And, quite honestly, Garnett does a good job of explaining his view. Perhaps I was too hasty in detecting a critical tone in Pope Francis’ words. I thought about this for a while and reread the message, as well as Garnett’s article.


But then I remembered that I am a teacher. And though it sounds absurd to compare myself to Pope Francis, I feel like I recognize what he is up to as the primary teacher of Catholics and Catholic institutions.

He is teaching, and he is using the method my karate instructor used to call “praise, correct, praise.”

Yes, Pope Francis is very laudatory about Notre Dame’s “outstanding contribution to the Church” over the years and its “commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue.” He praises the university for what she has done well.

But I think the critique remains. He then uses the subjunctive mood–“shoulds” and “oughts”–and speaks of what the ideal Catholic university ought to do in more general terms.

Finally, he ends his message with an uplifting, encouraging tone.

Praise. Correct. Praise.

I do the same thing when some of my kids are misbehaving or, at least, thinking about it:

“Good job staying focused, Andrew and Emily. All of you should be writing silently and answering the question on the board to the best of your ability. The best answers will not only be in complete sentences, they should also carefully explain the evidence they provide, Peter. Nicely done – keep up the hard work, everyone.”

You see?

I am correcting and critiquing certain behaviors without drawing undue attention to them. I am focusing instead on what the kids ought to be doing in order to remind them.

I think Pope Francis was doing something very similar.

But Garnett argues:

To the extent [Pope Francis] was being critical, the object of his criticism is not the university for its alleged half-stepping but those “quarter[s]” — such as the United States Department of Health and Human Services — that are trying to undermine and dilute Catholic universities’ and institutions’ “uncompromising witness” and commitment to “missionary discipleship.” (Garnett, Ibid)

But Pope Francis was not speaking to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. He was speaking to the administrators of Notre Dame–the ones who are actually in control of the university’s “uncompromising witness” and “missionary discipleship.” While I agree his critique of entities that are seeking to undermine the Catholic identities of American schools is evident, I also think it’s clear that he is addressing these remarks to the people who have the responsibility to resist such forces.

What do you think?


Speaking of Pope Francis’ praise-correct-praise style of teaching–

My friend Molly recommended the Pope’s Message for World Youth Day: “Resist ‘low cost’ offers of happiness and embrace the revolutionary Beatitudes.”

You should really read this address. It is beautiful and motivating.

It also demonstrates the pope’s awareness of one of the primary weaknesses of young people: the tendency to embrace easy happiness rather than lasting happiness.

To be blessed means to be happy. Tell me: Do you really want to be happy? In an age when we are constantly being enticed by vain and empty illusions of happiness, we risk settling for less and “thinking small” when it come to the meaning of life. Think big instead! Open your hearts! As Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati once said, “To live without faith, to have no heritage to uphold, to fail to struggle constantly to defend the truth: this is not living. It is scraping by. We should never just scrape by, but really live” (Letter to I. Bonini, 27 February 1925).

Text from page http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/02/06/pope%E2%80%99s_message_for_wyd:_resist_%E2%80%9Clow_cost%E2%80%9D_offers_of_happiness_and/en1-770756
of the Vatican Radio website

Notice that the Pope is pointing out an error — the error of “scraping by,” the error of “settling”– that so many of us (young and old alike) struggle with. But he sandwiches this critique (for lack of a better verb) between encouraging images.

The young people don’t end up feeling criticized or judged, even though they have been given the opportunity to examine their own consciences.

As a teacher of young people myself, I know how important this is. Yes, sometimes I need to be harsh with them and be more explicit in my criticism–but these occasions are rare. Most of the time my students respond best to encouragement and challenge.


Speaking of encouragement and challenge–

I finally shuffled my way through a mountain of essays. I was a little disappointed in a lot of the essays, and thus my comments on the papers were copious and critical. My kids repeatedly forget their audience. They assume their readers can read their minds, and they don’t see the need to thoroughly explain evidence.

Most distressing of all was that errors we had discussed and learned how to fix many times before– unclear pronoun references, pronoun / antecedent disagreement, lack of parallelism, etc. — kept occurring.

Even worse, it was obvious that some of the kids had not really put any effort into proofreading.

source: scifi.stackexchange.com

So, really, I was frustrated.

But telling them I was disappointed wouldn’t do anyone good, except perhaps to relieve my own feelings.

So I did my best to find the things they DID do well – like the thesis sentences (granted I gave them a formula for this) and the much-improved conclusion paragraphs. I made sure to tell my classes what they had done well first, and then I explained to them that I was going to give them a more structured way to explain evidence and be sensitive to the audience:

Quote Sandwiches.

They look like this at their most basic level:

source: ereadingworksheets.blogspot.com

But you wouldn’t believe how challenging they can actually be for many of these kids.

The top piece of bread is Context – and I broke this down further and told the kids they had to tell me two things: 1) Where in the poem the quote is from and 2) what they plan to do with it / their topic sentence.

The nutella in the middle (I always call it nutella) is the quote itself, incorporated using one of the four methods I taught them last semester.

The bottom piece of bread is the analysis. Again, I explained this more simply: 1) Paraphrase what the quote means in your own words and 2) Explain how this quote proves your topic sentence.

I hope this helps them.


My friend Mary, who teaches 3rd graders, suggested that I watch this video.

If you are a teacher, you will love this.

Even though this video is about addition, the struggle it reveals is something I encounter on a daily basis with high school kids. How do you help students do their own thinking when sometimes it seems like… they can’t… think…?



I guess I’m sounding pretty darn critical about my students. But actually I am also impressed with them many times!

For instance, I replayed my evidence-experiment-scenario I first explored my first year of teaching with my honors students this week, and then had them discuss the meaning of seeking the truth in a poem, and how using evidence factors into that.

I did it more gently, of course, and with a lot more thought and preparation than I had when I tore about poor Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson.

My honors kids did really well, and even gave me a lot of suggestions about how I could do a better job of encouraging truth-seeking in my classroom.


I mean, this is my dream job.

So I look like this most of the time:

source: hecticparents.com
Hectic parents? How about hectic teachers?

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.

In Defense of English Majors, Part II

Source: udallas.edu

So I have been thinking a lot lately about being an English major and the value it has, ever since exploring the topic in my first post here.

And then a good friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel. In this highly interesting (and highly irritating) critique, Siegel argues that it is a good thing that the humanities–and the English major in particular–are falling into decline. 

In the swirl of recent online articles about why the humanities are disappearing and how  we can possibly save them lest we suffer intellectual and moral armageddon, Siegel’s approach offers a kind of appealing, unique alternative. He offers the ever attractive counter-intuitive advice: Don’t attempt to stem the tide–roll with it. The English major in particular is not worth saving, anyway.

Now he’s got our attention.

After outlining the brief history of the English major–which Siegel proposes developed chiefly as a  post WWII response of academic people trying make sense of the moral devastation the world had just experienced–he describes how the academic study of literature actually ruins  “the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation.” Indeed, he claims that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

I can hear my students cheering in the background (especially the ones who don’t read).

Siegel describes how, in his own life, he loved reading at an early age but so many of his college classes twisted what he had loved into some kind of unrecognizable intellectualized ideo-babble. The English major is, hence, both harmful and unnecessary:

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies. (Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?”)

It’s a rather compelling argument. I, too, learned to love literature long before I really studied it. And I majored in English because of that love, that incandescent experience Siegel describes. I try to show my students all the time how works that seem at first so distant from us–Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice and Antigone–are actually speaking to our deepest questions and fears. “All you need to understand [them] is a heart.” That is true.

But the English teacher in me, who also loves analyzing syntax and diction and discovering the intricate ways authors create those works of art, objects very strongly to the rest of his argument. Here are my two main objections:

1) This is perhaps the most obvious point: poor English teaching does not, by itself, discredit the value of good English teaching. As Siegel himself acknowledges, there are both wonderful and horrible college professors who can either foster or destroy students’ love/understanding/interest in almost any subject. Although it may be true that many (perhaps even most?) literature departments across the country are doing more harm than good with their ideologically-driven abuse of art and language, there are also many that approach English the proper way. See the University of Dallas English department website for a stellar example. To entice you:

The [UD] program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers. (from website)

This is hardly the stuff of books being “taught like science” and “reduced to mere facts” or “occasions of drudgery and toil” (Siegel).

Okay, and I have to include this too:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

-Robert Hollander

Princeton University Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus.

You can’t really get better praise than that for a humble Catholic liberal arts school.

2) And then there is this idea that literature is too “sacred” to be taught. What nonsense. (Please excuse my irritated tone in this paragraph, but I’m using it because I’m feeling irritated.) I suppose we should dismantle all theological studies in all universities as well since God–much more so than literature–is too sacred for our prying minds. Or perhaps the biological sciences because the earth is too beautiful and too sacred for the taint of intellectual inquiry. Or the medical fields since the human body, this mysterious and intricate composition of ensouled matter, is too sacred for X-rays and CAT scans.

Is literature sacred?


Is it therefore something *only* to be “experienced” and “appreciated” by the emotional and spiritual sides of us, and protected from our ravenous intellects?

Of course not.

When functioning at its best, human reason approaches mystery with an audacious kind of humility. Dare we approach Homer and Dante with our fallible intellects and our flawed academic theories? Yes- just like Saint Augustine, with far greater trembling, approached the Holy Trinity with his clouded mind, sinful heart, and theological talent.

For more great reading on English majors, and the “cognitive empathy they bring to the table,” check out this interesting article that adds more fuel to this conversation by Bruna Martinuzzi.

When my kids this year ask me why they have to study all this stuff in English class, I’ll just tell them I’m helping them develop “cognitive empathy.” And when they say “Why do we have to analyze this? Can’t we just read it?” I will say, “Yes, let’s just read it. And then we’ll analyze it.”

Dante warns his readers that plunging into his Divine Comedy is dangerous, and is a journey that cannot be taken lightly. But I think a good English teacher, like Virgil, does his or her best to guide the student through the labyrinth of analysis and context and all the other academic jargon, and does so as a fellow-traveller, filled with wonder at the images they encounter together.

Students during their Rome semester. Source: udallas.edu

Speaking of Amazing Catholic Schools…

A recent UD graduate just published a beautiful article about my alma mater – capturing not only the love so many of us feel for her, but also a glimpse into what Catholic education should be like. It is on the University News website.

Very much worth the read: Goodbye, Farewell, Amen: An Adieu to UD by Daniel Orazio

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.
– Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins