On Teaching Poetry

img_5830
“I ask them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” 1-3). Picture source: genius.com

More thoughts coming soon on my dramatic change in grading policy! (I sound like an advertisement…)

In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.

The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.

What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:

I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.

As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.

I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.

Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.

Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.

Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.

What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.

Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.

After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.

I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”

But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.

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?

Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?

I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (1996)

via poetryfoundation.org

More to come.

Catholicism and Censorship Part 2

Click here for my post “Catholicism and Censorship Part 1”.

With the advent of the Common Core and it’s suggested texts (also see the official document here), the question of censorship in Catholic schools becomes particularly relevant.

And, I might add, with the increasing acceptance of secular sexual norms, political agendas, and (sadly) the decline of parental religious education and formation, we are confronted even more so by the question: As Catholic high schools, should we shy away from stories/poems/etc. that deal with same-sex attraction and marriage? environmental issues/ideologies/questions? pro-abortion texts? anti-tradition/anti-organized-religion texts?

Should we only have them read the things we believe are “safe”?

worst-thing-about-censorship

I don’t mean to oversimplify this question, or to imply my own answer (?) in the asking. It really is serious business.

From a Catholic school perspective, the first uncomfortable thing to remember is that, for better or for worse, parents are the primary educators of their children (cf. CCC 2222, 2223, Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Families” 16).

As teachers, we groan. We sigh. We roll our eyes. We think about all the incompetent parents we have encountered over the years and we want, so desperately, to say that we know better than they do.

Perhaps, sometimes, this is true.

But the Church vehemently insists that parents are the primary educators and thus have a certain right / duty concerning their child’s education.

So:

Concrete Application 1:

If I encounter a parent at my school who does not want his or her child to read excerpts from Homer’s The Iliad, I have to respect that choice. I need to offer that child an alternative.

I may attempt to talk to the parent, to show the parent the value of Homer, the historical context, the attestation of various saints, etc. But, at the end of the day, if Achilles’ and Patroklos’  friendship remains problematic for the parent (don’t show my child ANYTHING that could possibly have homoerotic overtones), I must bite my tongue and respect that parent’s choice.

Is it ridiculous? Yes.

But there’s a certain maddening humility that the Church is always asking of its members, and it is asking it no less from its teachers.

In my few years of teaching, I have determined that no matter how “knowledgeable” I am about literature, or how much more I believe I know than certain parents do, I nevertheless must respect their wishes. For better or for worse, God has given them the charge of being their child’s primary educators — and all secondary educators must accept and respect this mystery.

So, You Want to Teach Like a Champion?

elementary_school_kids_raise_hand_in_class_4x3I have mentioned before that one of the most helpful books I have ever read on teaching (and I have read quite a few now) is Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. What I love about it is that, unlike most educational literature out there, it is not bogged down by ideology and theory. (Although of course all books are motivated by a certain perspective.) Rather, Lemov focuses on practical techniques that the best and most effective teachers use in the classroom.

I just discovered today that Lemov has his own blog, which he updates frequently with new ideas and examples of great teaching. I love the way he describes his blog:

Welcome to Field Notes. I’ve named this blog that to emphasize the idea that just about everything in my books is someone else’s brilliant idea. My idea was just to write it down. I like the role of the observer and think there’s a lot of power in it. Think about it—there isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved. We just need to find them and take some field notes. (Lemov, Field Notes Blog)

I don’t know if I completely agree that “there isn’t a problem in teaching or learning that someone somewhere hasn’t solved”–but his practical, hopeful attitude has been really helpful to me.

Take a look here:

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion Blog

As I prepare for my third year of teaching, I plan on re-reading his book and choosing specific techniques to focus on. If you’re a teacher, I recommend that you do so as well.

Teacher or not, if you’d like to see some of these techniques in action, take a look at this great video of a 9th grade classroom on day one. It’s not fancy, but it gives you some food for thought about developmentally-appropriate ways to establish your classroom expectations on the first day of class.

Home, and Other Destinations

One of my favorite movies growing up, but one I have not seen in a long, long time, is “The Wizard of Oz.” Our version was taped from a TV special hosted by the wonderful Angela Lansbury (“Mrs. Potts,” for those of you who don’t know her) and was interrupted by long commercials from the ‘90’s for cars, soap, and McDonald’s (thus I’ve somehow always associated those things with the Emerald City, scarecrows, and munchkins).

Anyway – the line I have been thinking of so often lately, as I drove from Louisiana back to Massachusetts, stopping in Athens, Tennessee one night, Washington D.C. the next, and later flying back to Notre Dame, Indiana, and as I now look forward to moving to Colorado next year, is: “There’s no place like home … There’s no place like home.”

Image

Home.

Since writing this post on Setting and World Making, I’ve been rather preoccupied with the concept of place and how it shapes us, just as setting affects plot in a story. This week I have been teaching setting to little middle school students (they are SO small!)–a simplified form of what I did with my big kids a few weeks ago. These incoming sixth graders were especially intrigued by how setting establishes what is possible and impossible. After using lots of adjectives to label various parts and objects of our classroom with sticky notes, we then made a chart discussing what COULD happen in our room (“we could have fun,” “we could learn,” “we could write”) and what COULD NOT happen (“we can’t have a circus–the elephants wouldn’t fit” “we can’t cook a pizza–there’s no pizza oven” “we can’t be underwater–we couldn’t breathe/the water would escape through the door and windows”).

Image
You have to see them to believe them.

And I thought about what is possible–and impossible–for me, being back here at Notre Dame for the summer. I can write a lot more. I can spend time with ACE friends. I can pray in the beautiful basilica, and run around the Saint Mary and Saint Joseph lakes. But I cannot be with my high school students. I cannot observe alligators slipping slyly into the Mississippi river. I cannot enjoy drive-through daiquiris (read about these unbelievable establishments here).

Reunited with other ACE teachers here at Notre Dame, I am able listen to new stories about their kids—spread all over the country—and the funny phrases, the accents, the struggles, the absurdities and delights of all the different places that have shaped them. “Do your kids say ‘swaggin’?” “Yes they do!” “I’ve never heard of ‘cuttin’ up’ before.” “Well, neither had I!” And I thought, my goodness, we have become a part of new settings and some of us have even found ourselves at “home” there.

Yet my decision to leave my ACE school and to move to a new place, to a new state–to uproot myself, as it were, for the third time in three years–has me feeling rather homeless lately. I haven’t lived in Massachusetts for more than a few weeks at a time since high school. As much as I would love to, I cannot become an undergraduate in Dallas again. And although I plan on visiting Louisiana next year, I will be doing just that: visiting. I will be a visitor, in someone else’s home.

ImageMy Dad told me about a new book by Rod Dreher called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, reviewed here by Michael Hannon. It’s very much about home,  one’s sense of place, community, and belonging. And, in our restless and mobile age, it seems also to be an appeal to us to re-evaluate our relationship with our homes, wherever they may be.

Hannon’s description has put this book at the very top of my reading list this summer: “The book tells two distinct stories, beautifully interwoven: an autobiography of Rod himself, and a hagiography of his sister Ruthie.” Rod is the restless one—who wants to leave his native Louisiana behind, to seek home elsewhere. Ruthie is the opposite—content to remain and to grow in her beloved little community:

An involuntary outsider from a young age, Rod never wanted anything more than escape. Philosophical by nature and restless by temperament, he annoyed his sister and the St. Francisville community at large with his constant curiosity, asking probing questions about ultimate realities that they were happier just to take for granted. Despite knowing that they loved him, he never felt understood by his family or accepted by their small-minded local community. Without disparaging the simple lives they led, he always longed for something somehow grander for himself.

Whereas Ruthie was born into the place she knew she belonged, Rod always felt like a stranger in their hometown. So after college, he left Louisiana in search of a place where he too could fit in, pursuing a career in journalism and wandering all over the Atlantic coast. But even there, from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, Rod never found the sense of at-homeness that Ruthie had always known in St. Francisville. (Michael Hannon, “Small-Town Saints for Our Placeless Age”)

As I read Hannon’s review (you should too), I found myself feeling a little sad, and even a little guilty. In a way, I’m like Rod–bouncing around the country, encountering new places, meeting new people–and always wanting in the back of my mind to find home. So many of the people I admire most, like my Grandma, my Mom, my Dad, my sister, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, all seem to have a very strong sense of place, of home. My Mom still has a strong attachment for Oklahoma where she grew up. My Dad, my Grandma, and my sister are New Englanders through-and-through. O’Connor, Tolkien, Dickinson, and Wilbur are great because their reverence for place helps all of us understand what home really means.

And yet strangely, in ACE, part of our job is to be displaced and a little homeless. And our foreign-ness is often a gift to our students, many of whom may never leave their home-state and may never experience, first-hand, the adventure of travel as we have. Sometimes over the past two years I found myself tempted to encourage my students to branch out too and to see new parts of the country, to apply to that reach-college out of state, to accept the adventure. And there is good in this. As Bilbo says to Frodo, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Yet of course this is a warning as a well as an invitation.

watermarked2
created by Shaylynn on her blog “Shealynn’s Faerie Shoppe”

There is that distinctly “progressive” tendency to despise insularity, to belittle the prejudices and notions of small-town America, to complain that some people refuse to widen their horizons and see the world in new ways. It is one of the many temptations of the ACE teacher, I think. And I think Bilbo’s warning should be considered. We may encourage our students to leave–but where are we encouraging them to go? Where are we hoping they will be “swept off to”? The journey is important in and of itself, but so is the destination.

I have been swept off to many strange and wonderful places in the past few years, but I am beginning to feel what Rod Dreher describes in his book, a longing for home. And so I recognize there is a wisdom in the people who choose to stay–to go to the local college, return for your high school reunions, live near your family, remain in your home-town. It is not the popular choice nowadays.

Having cut the ties that bind us geographically, we have become in many ways a placeless people. We have lost what St. Benedict called “stability,” man’s permanent attachment to a particular home in this life. “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all,” Dreher recounts. “They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility, they could never be happy.”

For Rod, the realization of this Benedictine truth required him to go home: “[If] I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.”

[…]

“There has to be balance,” Rod reminds us. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.” (Ibid)

O’Connor also insists upon seeking “harmony within the limits of what we are given.” We are all invited to some courageous act, and for some it is the task of staying, and for others it is the task of leaving and starting somewhere new. I think my fellow ACE teachers can relate. Some of them are staying at their schools. Some are leaving. Some, like me, will continue to be teachers. Others won’t. We all carry the gift and the burden of whatever setting we have been shaped by for the past two years, though.

I guess I am still looking for home. But I am grateful that over the years, different people have opened their homes to me.

“My Way Back Home” by Dawes:

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

Image

Catholic Schools are Better. Period.

I thought that title might entice some discussion!

My dad just sent me this article from Public Discourse comparing religious private schools in the US to public and charter schools.

You should read it, and I’d love to hear what you think:

The Data Are In: Religious Private Schools Deserve a Second Look

Jeynes begins his article this way:

An inquisitive elementary school student asked his teacher, “Is it wrong to steal?” The teacher replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” This incident in a major midwestern public school alarmed thousands of parents, and reminded myriad others why they value religious private schools: these schools are usually guided by a moral compass for academics and behavior that public schools patently do not offer.

As a Catholic school English teacher, I of course find this particularly interesting (and edifying). What is not explicitly stated in the article is the fact that the “religious private schools” Jeynes is referring to are largely the Catholic schools.

Image

That’s right.

Four thoughts though:

1) I am interested as well if there have been studies that also include home-schooled students. Due in large part to doubts about the quality of public and private education, a large number of my UD friends were home-schooled for most if not all of their lives before going to college. For more thoughts from an actual home-schooler, see Amy Welborn’s post on her wonderful blog, Charlotte Was Both: Homeschool Notes.

2) Additionally, despite the apparent benefits of religious private schools, there are some obvious problems. I can really only speak to my experience, but many Catholic schools do not have adequate resources for students with learning disabilities, English language learners, or other students who do not fit a certain mold. I cannot tell you how hard and frustrating it is to be a teacher who sees students struggling, but who is unequipped to really help them succeed. And to be honest, I know some of these students leave Catholic schools for public schools in hopes that they were be able to find the resources they need there.

3) Catholic schools cost money! Oversimplified version of the story: while originally founded and run by religious sisters and brothers to serve the poor and the immigrant families, Catholic schools over the course of the last century have had to make up for the lack of unpaid employees by raising tuition. So, many of those whom we originally sought to serve can no longer afford a Catholic education.

4) The voucher program. See what ACE has to say here: Program for K-12 Educational Access. See the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent decision here: IN Voucher Program Upheld.

A last thought, and the most important one, according to the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education:

The Catholic school is committed thus to the development of the whole man, since in Christ, the perfect man, all human values find their fulfillment and unity. Herein lies the specifically Catholic character of the school. Its duty to cultivate human values in their own legitimate right in accordance with its particular mission to serve all men has its origin in the figure of Christ. He is the one who ennobles man, gives meaning to human life, and is the model which the Catholic school offers to its pupils. (The Catholic School)

mother seton
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.

Graduation and the Final Exam Question

Some years ago a friend of mine described to me a concept that I immediately loathed: he called it “graduating from people.”

I hated it because my worst fear was (and probably still is) the fear of being left behind by those I love. “You can’t graduate from people!” I protested. “People aren’t like subjects or classes that you can master on a final exam! You can never graduate from a human being.” The concept was clearly utilitarian, narrow, immature. “People aren’t topics to be learned, papers to be written, puzzles to figure out.” I thought about how so many former subjects I have “graduated from” seemed to me. “You don’t just squeeze all the learning you can out of a person and then in a couple of years forget him! It’s not like you can earn a ‘grade’ on a friendship, or even worse assign a grade to one!”

heaven2
from the last chapter of The Last Battle

Didn’t C. S. Lewis say something about how we are always surrounded by immortal souls, destined for the glory of God? Eventually it would be like my favorite scene in The Last Battle, where—once again, from Lucy’s eyes—we meet all those we ever loved or ever knew or ever loved us or even the ones we did not know, but met fleetingly. There certainly wouldn’t be diplomas or report cards.

Thinking about it now, for all of my philosophical moralizing at the time, my younger self was probably most afraid of an idea implicit but unsaid: People leaving. People changing irrevocably. People not needing me or wanting me anymore. People graduating from me.

Ironically, my greatest fear has now become an essential part of my chosen vocation.

The words of another friend of mine, “your vocation is where your deepest desire meets the world’s greatest need,” come to mind—only now they seem a little adjusted: “your deepest fear meets the world’s greatest desire” or something like that.

I say this because being a teacher means to love people, help them learn everything you can teach them and give them, and then to let them go. You want them to graduate from you. Year after year, over and over again.

I’m sitting here in my empty classroom, gazing at the empty desks and the bare walls and the remains of a Great Gatsby project in the corner. I know where all the kids sit and where most of my last year’s seniors sat, where the posters should be, where the books should be, where everything should be—especially the noise.

Image
My classroom earlier this year.

But now they have all graduated from me. And it is good and right that they have. That’s my job. That’s their job.

The temptation when you’re an ACE teacher, I think, is to imagine yourself as a Mary Poppins or a Maria in “The Sound of Music” or a Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” or a Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, With Love”… or as any of those iconic teachers who transform the lives of families or schools or disadvantaged children by their charisma and determination.  That’s the temptation. When really you are, most likely, a self absorbed, middle class Northern college graduate who is the real one in need of learning—the truly uneducated one, the truly poor one, the truly needy one. Whether the learning you so desperately require can come from a group of second graders who teach simplicity of heart or a pack of fifth graders who offer courses in chaos survival or a mob of eleventh graders who can give you a Masters degree in humility and pride-annihilation.

But at some point, graduation day comes. They graduate from you, and you graduate from them. And this type of graduating from people does not exclude love but rather, for a teacher, constitutes it.

And not in some idealistic or Romantic (as in Romanticism) way, either. I got some awkward hugs and hesitant “see you later, Ms. Shea”s and a few beautiful notes scribbled on the back of exam essays yesterday that made me cry. But there is no good way to say goodbye.

When I graduated from college two years ago, I walked around the campus and promised to keep in touch and finally left with my parents to go have lunch.

A little anti-climatic to say the least, for the great Epic Story that so many of us former Romers feel we are a part of at UD! And it feels the same way now.

In his convocation address to us, Dr. Roper warned us how it would be. I’ve been thinking about his words a lot as I approach my second graduation—from ACE, from Notre Dame… but most importantly from my kids here in Louisiana. And I actually think now that my friend’s idea of “graduating from people” is not wholly incompatible with Dr. Roper’s final address to us. In fact, like my friend, he described life and people in academic terms. He said there was one last final exam question we have to answer, which he posed to us as we sat all together as a class in the Church of the Incarnation for probably the last time:

Are you ready to die?

Now, I want to assure you that, proposed legislation in the Texas House aside, under this voluminous late-medieval guildsman’s ceremonial outfit, I’m not “packing”.

And I know what else you’re thinking:  “Sweet Holy Job, Roper, I know you Irishmen like to read the obituaries, but could you make this any more depressing?  It’s supposed to be a happy time, a celebration—we’re heading towards Commencement, a beginning, not… that.”  Well, I promise I’ll bring this back around; the nature of reality is, after all, comic.  I mean, you can’t hold back grace and comedy in a world where Michael Kelsey can become a multinational pick-up artist, right?

But in fact graduation, leaving UD, can have as much a sense of a little death as of new life; students often feel bereft, find themselves grieving, over losing daily contact with the immediate and close circle of friends, the great professors who are my colleagues, the wonderful, endless yack about texts and ideas.  (When I walked down the Mall after my own graduation too many years ago, a five-foot Cistercian, Father Chris Rabay, the Charity Week jailbreak expert long before Father Maguire assumed his mantle, asked me how I felt. I thought I felt great, but surprised myself by choking out, “It’ll be hard to leave this place.”  “Oh, we have a saying in Hungarian,” he responded: “‘Life is one long goodbye’.”)  And soon after graduation you will find that student loans, marriages, children, mortgages, careers, all involve daily dying to self.  I think it’s providential that this remarkable class ended its time at UD with the events of Holy Week so close to finals, so I’m going to ask you my final exam question, whether you like it or not.

Are you ready to die?

The entire education you have received here, if we look at it in one way, has had this question looming from the beginning.

graduate.ju.top

Teaching and World-Making – Or, the Importance of Setting

So I’m finishing up my unit on short stories with my sophomores. Our last lesson has a relatively simple goal, but it gave me a lot to think about: SWBAT analyze the effects of setting on plot in short stories.

We define our terms first:

Plot = what happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

Setting = when and where the plot happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

This is what Eudora Welty has to say:

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…

Home-By-Dark-Eudora-Welty-631
Eudora Welty was a photographer as well as a writer. This is “Home by Dark.”

I don’t think we often think about this potential power of place over character and action. Setting is one of the things all teachers talk about in English class, along with plot, characterization, exposition, climax, resolution, etc. But I think it is sometimes left in the background.

(Pun intended. Go back if you didn’t notice it… )

Yet Welty insists upon the importance of setting, and even that events and characters somehow depend upon it. Or, as my students had to write down in their notes: setting defines the logical possibilities and limitations of plot.

It defines what can or cannot happen in a story.

I think Southern writers have a particular sensitivity to the importance of place or setting. The setting IS the story. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Or Katharine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (the setting is both exterior, the rural South, and interior, the wandering mind of Granny). Or Flannery O’Connor in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, largely due to her sacramental view of reality, expands the traditional notion of setting so that it transcends the physical:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

hogwartsI gave my kids a different example that I thought might work better for them. The reason why the Harry Potter series works so well, I believe, isn’t so much because of the plot and the characters (although of course these are important). The plot and the characters work because Rowling spends so much time in the first book carefully developing her setting, creating her place, defining the possibilities and limitations of the Muggle world and the Wizarding world.

Think about the detail given to describing Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley, and of course Hogwarts itself. Her world is magical but consistent – it has it’s own logic and it’s own rules. Indeed, really what made me read book two, and three, and all the others was this sense of wanting to return to that place. Yes, I cared about Harry – but I cared about returning to Hogwarts even more.

middle earthI think one of the very best examples – that really sets itself apart from any type of comparison to other stories –  is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What is so good about The Lord of the Rings isn’t just the wonderful characters, the stirring struggle between good and evil, the languages, the recalling of myth. Rather, it’s the fact that all of these things are at home in Middle Earth itself,  – a world we believe in, and want to return to, or learn about, because it feels like our own history.  I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time when I was little just looking at the maps in the opening pages of the book.

There is Narnia, too. What we really desire, why we keep reading, is because we want to go back to that place created by Lewis.  I checked every closet in my house, several times, just to be sure. “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

narnia-map

I was thinking about all of this as I sat in my empty classroom during 5th hour, normally the seniors’ class. I was sitting in one of the student desks in the middle of the room. I like to sit in the student desks sometimes so I don’t get completely locked into my teacher-desk perspective. The room looks pretty different out there.

And I realized that teachers are engaged in world-making, too. We create a setting – our classrooms. And, in a way, we help define what is possible in our classrooms by creating a particular environment, unique to our personalities and our teaching style, but also hopefully open to our students’ personalities and their learning styles.

This year I have worked hard to make my classroom more accessible. Places for papers, folders, essays, are all labeled. I try to keep the space as clean and organized. This is a setting for listening and discussing and writing and reading and writing and revising and writing and writing and writing… and the classroom has to reflect that just as much as my words and actions do. My kids need to know that as soon as they walk through my door they have entered a place for learning.

I have substituted this year in many rooms where there a papers on the floor, dirty desks, and bare walls. I remember my own classroom last year – “disorganized” is a gentle way to describe it. And I think such classrooms limit the possibilities for students. Carelessness, even in the details, suggests a lack of thoughtfulness and purpose. A question I found myself unable to answer a lot last year was, “Ms. Shea, where do I put this?” “Um… I’ll just take it for now…” This year, I love when the kids don’t  have to ask me that any more. They know where to go, where to put things, when to do it… setting setting setting.

Anyway –

To what extent does the setting affect the plot in your favorite stories… in your classroom… in your home?

If you really want some tough but tasty food for thought on setting, you should go read O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person.”

Love II

So, let’s be real.

Sometimes being a teacher really sucks.

I know I just wrote a post about love in which I talked about teaching as my answer to Reverend Mother’s challenge to “climb every mountain” until I “find [my] dream.”

And, if you’re a teacher, and you read that post, and you were thinking does this girl actually teach real high school students or is she just making this up???? … Well, I have an answer for you.

I teach real high school students, and I had a bad day at school today.

A really bad day.

There. I said it.

I won’t go into all the gory details, but suffice it to say that, among other things, a severe lack of classroom management was suddenly involved. I felt like I had stepped back into my first year of teaching. When I turned off the lights in my classroom at the end of the day to quiet the kids, or at LEAST get their attention (sometimes this makes them calm down and feel sleepy… no really, it does), I had unfortunately forgotten that it was raining outside. And when it rains outside in Louisiana, it can get really dark.

So, of course, when the kids in my last hour class suddenly found themselves in eerie twilight, they did not quiet down as I had hoped.

They screamed.

And kept screaming.

For a long time.

The office called my classroom, and within moments the principal was at the door (rightly) demanding to know what was going on.

After impending doom had been announced, and after the principal left, and after a brief silence in which I looked at them and they looked at me, I was barraged with angry comments. “Ms. Shea why did you do that? Why’d you get us in trouble? You was the one who turned off the lights! Hey you’d better make sure [insert student name] gets in trouble too, cuz she was here even if she’s not in our class!”

After the day was over I sat at my desk and cried. I haven’t done that in a long time. And then I thought about how angry I was that the kids were treating me this way when I was really trying to help them with this project and all the grading I’ve done lately and how giving them an inch of freedom was a big mistake and WHY did I decide they didn’t need bell work today and how dumb I was to trust them and… blah blah blah.

I mean, I’m upset because I love them. I wouldn’t feel this horrible otherwise.

But I’m also disgusted and exhausted.

So, basically, I’m just trying to say that this is the other side of love. Love Part II. And I feel a little bit like Maria when she finally comes back to be with the children only to discover that the Captain is engaged to someone else. And that’s the moment when she probably thinks to herself, “Well, Reverend Mother, I guess I climbed the wrong mountain.”

The-sound-of-music-the-sound-of-music-32316585-500-333

Actually, I think I feel more as if the children had turned on me and screamed “WE LIKE BARONESS SHRAEDER BETTER.”

Really guys?

baroness