When the Answer Exceeds the Question

I was so excited to begin Unit 2 with my kids today.

We have finally (!) wrapped up our unit on essay writing (although of course I’ll make them continually write essays all year long) and are ready to begin a unit on mythology.

Last year, I got two weeks into the Mythology Unit before I realized that most of my kids can’t read.

Well, they can sound out letters on a page. They can read tweets and Facebook statuses and text messages.

Some of them can even read Harry Potter and the Hunger Games and Nicholas Sparks.

But ask them to tackle something hefty and meaningful, and all of a sudden, it’s “This is boring” and “I don’t get it” and “Why can’t Shakespeare talk normal?” and “I give up.”

So yeah. They don’t know how to really read.

imagesTherefore I’ve decided, this year, to spend Unit 2 teaching them. The Unit is entitled, simply: “Mythology and Reading Strategies.”

So we started class with a bell work on “Explain the word ‘myth’ in your own words” and a discussion on how our modern (mis)understanding says that myths are basically “made-up stories”. Myths are untrue – which is why we have shows like “Mythbusters.”

And then we read an excerpt from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in which she blows our modern conceptions to smithereens and defines myth very differently: myth is a type of “early science” (Hamilton, Mythology 10). It is an attempt to answer inescapable human questions: Where did we come from? Why is there suffering? How did the universe begin?

Of course, today, as I pointed out, science tries to answer these questions too. Where did we come from? Evolution. Why is there suffering? Psychology. (Well, anyway, psychology is the branch of science that largely tries to tackle that question.) How did the universe begin? The big bang. Et cetera.

So, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th period seemed to be pretty interested in all this. And then 6th period came in – my biggest class, and the class that has the largest number of struggling students.

Let me briefly inform you about how my 6th hour struggled with simple directions today, to give you some context for the real point of this blog entry:

Me: “Okay, today our table of contents is going to look a little bit different. Please write down our new Unit Title and objective…”

Student 1: “Wait, what? Where do I write this?”

Me: Raises hand as a reminder.

Student 1, raising hand: “I don’t get it. Where do I write this?”

Students 2, 3, 4, annoyed: “She said in the Table of Contents, Bryan!!”

Student 5: “Wait, Ms. Shea, I… [ raises hand, continues talking ]”

Me: “Jacob, please raise your hand.”

Student 5: Raises hand. Waits for me to call on him. Then: “Ms. Shea, where do I put the date?”

Student 6: “Yeah, aren’t we supposed to…”

Me: Raises hand to remind student 6 to please shut up.

Student 6: Raises hand.

Me: “Yes, Amy?”

Student 6: “Aren’t we supposed to put ‘2.1’ somewhere? Like, next to the thing? I’m so confused!” Panics.

Me, Employing Attention Procedure: “Everyone back to me please in 3… 2… 1… slant. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen. I know these directions are a little bit different than usual. Please just copy down the unit title and the objective. Do not worry about the date or the number.”

Student 5: “But…!”

Me: Shakes head, hand to lips, indicating that now is not the time for questions.

Student 1: Raises hand.

Me: Shakes head again, indicating that now is not the time for questions.

Class: Finally begins to write down Unit Title and Unit Objective. Some hands still flutter into the air. Ms. Shea shakes her head, points at the smart board, and considers whether or not she should get a new job.

(Shea, “Classroom Struggles” vol. 358)

You get the idea.

Basically, by the time we got around to discussing Edith Hamilton’s definition of myth, after going to the library and checking out our books, we only had a few minutes left in class. I was feeling very frustrated and confused, because I was wondering what had possessed these kids today, and why they had forgotten every single procedure I had taught them and rehearsed with them over and over again at the beginning of the year.

Well, I guess we’ll just practice more on Monday.

As the Chaos drew to a close, one student in the back of the room raised his hand as the rest of his peers labored to finish writing down Hamilton’s definition of myth.

“Yes, Ryan?” I said.

“So, Ms. Shea. I don’t mean to be contrary or anything, but I’m just wondering.”

“Go ahead, Ryan,” I said, hopeful that possibly some real thinking had been provoked by this debacle of a lesson.

“We’re saying that all myths – like the Greek gods and stuff – are ways to explain mysteries in nature. But we know that the Greek gods aren’t real. So… um… how do we know that Christianity isn’t just another myth?”

My 6th hour class, being what it is, let out a loud and scandalized “Ohhhhhhhh!”

I smiled, trying to hide my inner panic. It was a great question. Ryan actually had done some real thinking, and I was proud of him. But the bell was about to ring. There was so much to say. I mean, people have written books on that very question. But there was no time.

“Everyone,” I said, “Let’s give snaps to Ryan for asking a great question. Ryan -” I looked at him directly, as the class applauded him, “- that is a wonderful question and I’m so glad you asked. We will be tackling that question during this unit. Make sure you bring it up again on Monday.”

Another hand shot up in the air, this time from our village atheist. Let’s call him Thomas.

Encouraged by Ryan’s success, he asked innocently, “So, Ms. Shea, since now we know all those other myths have been proven false, won’t there be a time in the future when our science and our Christianity is proven false?”

My 6th hour, being what it is, delightedly chanted “Ohhhhhhhhh!” and “You can’t say that Thomas!” and “He’s so right!” and “Shhhhh! What’s she gonna say?”

“Everybody, back to me please in 3, 2, and 1… Thank you.” A hush fell on the room. All eyes were on me.

I glanced at the clock. The second hand had almost reached twelve.

“Thomas, you have asked a very good question too. We have to confront these questions in this unit…”

The bell rang.

Too late.

The thing is, Ryan’s question would take volumes to answer. And I am afraid that if I tried to answer it in front of that class (who, you remember, struggles with copying down unit titles), I would only confuse most of them more. But if I do not address the question at all with them, those that bother to think about it might believe there is no answer, or that I don’t care to give it, or whatever.

Thomas’ question comes from a slightly different place and more likely demonstrates more misunderstandings than it generates. Still, it should be addressed fairly.

I feel like handing Ryan a copy of At the Origin of the Christian Claim by Father Guissani and giving Thomas Mere Christianity by Lewis.

Ironically, both of these books are far above their reading levels right now.

But I guess I have planned to teach them reading strategies during this unit…

Eliade, as quoted by Guisanni, says, “In the archaic world the myth alone is real. It tells of manifestations of the only indubitable reality – the sacred” (Guissani, At the Origins of the Christian Claim 23).

Julien Ries, quoted in the same book, observes that “A myth is a story which is true, sacred, and exemplary, which has a specific meaning and which entails repetition[…]” (Ibid).

C. S. Lewis says, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history” (“Myth Become Fact”).

And further:

Christians also need to be reminded . . . that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. . . . We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic . . . shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight . . . (Ibid, 67)

“Doubting Thomas” by Caravaggio