7 Quick Takes Friday (3/7/14)



My twin sister is coming to visit me for the next week! I am so excited! Perhaps I will bring her in for show-and-tell at school…



Something to meditate upon during Lent.

Whatever your views on the violence in Syria or what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, I think this video is very beautiful and very powerful. So often we take for granted that certain parts of the world are experiencing violence–in some vague, other-worldly kind of way. But what if it were happening here? Or what if it were happening in a country we don’t usually think of as war-torn?


Here are some samples of my students’ recent work on Julius Caesar. The assignment was to draw a cartoon of Act 1, Scene 3.

(Click them to enlarge)

source: One of my students drew this! See the lightning storm? And all the crazy prophetic events happening on the upper right? And Casca freaking out in the bottom left? So, so good.
source: Another student! Here are the strange, prophetic signs in much more detail. Caesar will notice all of these and decide whether or not he wants to go to work on the Ides of March…
source: Another student! A very nice summary of the discussion taking place between Casca and Cassius.


Speaking of old, classic literature that was written such a long time ago in weird language I don’t understand and which cannot possibly be “relevant” to my life now, Ms. Shea…

A UD student has a wonderful article over at Public Discourse: “A Rational Defense of the Humanities” by Antonio Sosa.

A taste or two:

Here, Sosa summarizes not only the arguments of scholars like Rebecca Schuman, but also of some of my own beloved high school sophomores who grumble about having to plod through Shakespeare:

More than being simply obsolete, the thought of previous times is thus seen as unintelligible and hence inaccessible in any meaningful way; only the thought of the present, of our time and our concerns, is intelligible and hence only the thought of the present can be studied seriously. In other words, the study of humanistic thought is ideological by definition. (Sosa, via Public Discourse)

And, further:

By this line of reasoning, Macbeth, for example, cannot guide us with respect to the problem of tyranny. Macbeth cannot teach us what is always true concerning the problem of tyranny as it is found in disparate moments across human history, but only what was true relative to a particular moment in history, i.e., Shakespeare’s moment.

On the basis of this view, the study of Macbeth should indeed be neglected in favor of more contemporary works. Or, if it is to be read, it should be studied in light of the recognition that the value of what it has to teach is obsolete. (Ibid)

Okay, I should stop before quoting you the whole article, but one last quote that reminds me a lot of G. K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”:

If the greatest works of literature cannot emancipate man from his historical parochialism, then the greatest works of literature are merely the greatest statements of historical parochialism. Rather than study literature in order to acquire breadth of perspective, and so learn to distinguish the ephemeral problems that concern certain men at certain places from the fundamental problems that concern man everywhere and always, we would study literature to become further confirmed in the views to which our particular time has predisposed us. (Ibid… GO READ IT)

And this is the narrow, limiting sort of “broad-minded” English class I would like to eradicate from the face of the earth.


Here is G. K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” quote for you to ponder and enjoy:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. (Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,”Orthodoxy)


About my last post: If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…

What I find really interesting is that so often, posts I spend a lot of time and labor over do not seem to resonate with people as much as posts (like that one) that I wrote rather quickly and did not revise or change very much. I wonder why that is.

It is true in my songwriting, too. I  find that a song I write in 10 minutes is usually better appreciated by most people than a song I begin, and stop, and begin again months (or years) later and finally finish after a lot of agonizing.

“Write drunk, edit sober.” – Hemingway

I wonder if that phenomena has to do with what Flannery says about “the truth being in you.”

Now, don’t tell my students this, but…

maybe too much editing and revising is a bad thing sometimes. Because then you rethink what you want to say, and you worry about “the message” you are sending, and you can be tempted to ignore whatever truth has miraculously bubbled up to the surface of your page without you really realizing it.

Of course, this would be contra to Hemingway’s dictum: “Write drunk, edit sober” or this interesting take on the art of writing:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)

Source: http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/rewritequotes.htm

What do you think? Does revising sometimes inhibit the art of writing– or is it, as Hemingway seems to claim, itself the art of writing?


And this is a PERFECT ending to a 7 Quick Takes Friday in Lent, especially for someone who spent a little too much time in Louisiana:

Is it okay to eat alligator during Fridays of Lent? Does alligator count as fish or as meat?

Archbishop Gregory Amond’s Letter in response to a special request. Diocese of New Orleans.
source: Catholic News Agency

Read it all here.

Happy Lenten Friday! Enjoy your alligator!

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom

source: reallifebh.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I said, “Was that fair to Abbey?”

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

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

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

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

My students nodded slowly—and unhappily.

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

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

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

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

More to come on this.

*All names have been changed.