Old School in Hungary: Part 4

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“If they go to Kamchatka, I will be happy,” one student told me after class. “But they will never go.” He was referring to Robert Frost (the character)’s advice to George Kellogg, who won the audience with him: “Go to Kamchatka.” He was also complaining that nothing seems to be happening in the novel. “I’ve been waiting for some action,” another said. “But it is all in vain.”

This provided the opening for a discussion of action itself. What is action? I asked the class. A student defined it as something that has consequences. Does action have to be physical? I asked. No, several replied; thoughts and words can be actions. (Another time we will consider to what extent actions must be intentional, and to what extent thoughts can be considered actions, or part of actions.)

So the novel does have action, I explained, but it also has inaction, and this is important to notice. What has not happened yet that is waiting to happen?

A student who had made one of the original comments answered, “He hasn’t won a writing contest yet. Is he going to win the third one?” I wouldn’t answer that question, but I asked what else hadn’t happened yet, in relation to that. We talked about how the narrator’s character’s writing hasn’t taken off yet; he puts so much pressure on himself that he can’t write, he doesn’t like his own ideas, he’s holding something back.

Then we could look at his reaction to The Fountainhead, which he reads four times; the students were disturbed that he likes it so much, that he gets so caught up in the idea of selfishness that he even sees his grandfather and grandfather’s wife as pathetic bores who are trying to keep him down.

I began to feel their kindness as a form of aggression. Patty was pitilessly solicitous. I couldn’t touch a book without getting grilled about the sufficiency of light and the comfort of the chair. Was I warm enough? Did I need a pillow for my back? How about one of the five thousand Cokes they’d stored up in anticipation of my visit? Grandjohn kept telling me how lucky I was to have my mother’s eyes, and how proud of me she would have been. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom and scream silently, rocking from side to side like a gorilla, my head thrown back, my teeth bared.

Everyone could recognize this kind of situation. But his attitude? In many students eyes, reprehensible. How could he not see his grandfather’s wife’s kindness and good intentions?–but I asked them if they could see any hints that this was not going to be the narrator’s final attitude. A student pointed out “I began to feel” as a temporary state; others picked up on other things. We could then consider why he works himself into a fever of (supposed) confidence over a story he hasn’t written yet, and why he collapses in French class. And then–humiliation upon humiliation–Big Jeff wins the contest. Think what you will of Big Jeff’s story–some students found it preposterous–but he wrote it.

That was one section. In the other, on Monday, I was giving them some background on Nietzsche and Rand; we read excerpts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Fountainhead. But some students would not let me get away with telling them that Nietzsche said that “God is dead.” What does that mean? they wanted to know. Does this mean that God was alive before? How, according to Nietzsche, did humans kill God? Was Nietzsche an atheist, or was he creating a new religion of his own? All of these are important questions, and I had never been pelted with them in this way before, so I tried to offer answers, realizing that the more important thing here was the wrestling with these questions, the insistence on making sense of them. Then a few students got onto a seeming tangent about animals. Do animals go to heaven, according to Christianity? I said there was no clear answer on this issue. If they do go to heaven, a student asked, does that include all the animals over the course of evolution? I imagine so, I said, but I really don’t know! How do you expect me to know these things?

“Teachers are supposed to be smart,” a student quipped.

“Yes, and smart people admit that they don’t know everything.” (Ha! I got them there.) So we turned our attention to the text–and from here it made sense that the narrator would get caught up in The Fountainhead, as distant as Rand supposedly is from Nietzsche, as much as she liked to think of herself as indebted to no one.

At least at this stage, liking the book is immaterial here. Or rather, the dislikes are as important as the likings, as a way of opening up the book. This is partly a surprise for me. I knew that disliking was important, but I didn’t know how much it could fuel a discussion, and what kinds of understandings it could bring out. Some lessons are so lively I can barely keep up, and others are sleepier, but we’re now in the middle of the book, following it where it goes.

The book won’t go to Kamchatka, not on the surface, anyway (I’ll give just that one spoiler). But I think some students will be surprised by where it goes.

 

This is the third in a series of posts about teaching Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

I added a sentence to this piece after posting it.

Old School in Hungary: Part 3

IMG_0935 The third chapter of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, “Frost,” has the following exchange between the narrator and Purcell (p. 44):

Frost. I don’t even know why I bothered submitting anything, given how he writes. I mean, he’s still using rhyme.

Yeah, so?

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true–rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wishful thinking. Nostalgia.

The situation was this: At the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that George Kellogg, the excessively benevolent editor of the Troubadour, has won the first contest and will thus get to meet with Robert Frost. Purcell dismisses the whole enterprise.

First I asked the students to explain what Purcell was saying. They did it, point by point. Then I asked what they thought of it. In the first section, one student burst out, “That’s what I think.” A few others seemed to concur. They gave reasons: to rhyme, you have to invent something; rhyme sounds pretty, whereas the world often isn’t; rhyme imitates other rhymes and rhymers. Then I asked whether anyone saw or heard rhyme in a different way. Hands shot up. One student said that good rhyme is hard, so you can admire it. Another said that we are drawn to harmony. Another said that rhyme makes a poem memorable. Another suggested that Purcell was speaking out of jealousy. Then we started talking about how rhyme can draw associations between things.

The other section was more subdued but just as perceptive. Most of them rejected Purcell’s complaint from the start. One student pointed out that you can rhyme with the word “chaos,” in which case you aren’t creating harmony at all. Another said that we rhyme all the time, that rhyme is part of our everyday language. Others talked about how rhyme makes you think.

This set us up well for the next lesson, where we discussed the rest of the chapter. When I arrived, I saw students discussing the novel in the hallway.

At the start of the lesson, I played a muffled recording of Frost reading “Mending Wall,” which they had read with me. In the first section, no one seemed to know what was going on until the very end, when one student cried out in Hungarian, “Emlékszem!” (“I remember it!”). In the other section, they recognized it right away. We then talked about the passage in Old School where the headmaster introduces Frost, and the one where the narrator’s understanding of “Mending Wall” changes as he listens to Frost reading it aloud. (This is a fictional Frost, but I can imagine Frost reading like this.)

Then the teacher Mr. Ramsey’s challenge: Aren’t those poetic forms–rhyme, stanzas, etc.–outmoded? Shouldn’t poetry reflect modern consciousness? And Frost’s response (of which this quote, from p. 53, is just a fraction):

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

We talked about the difference between grief and grievance, poetry and petition–and everything seemed to be settling unsettlingly into place. Then in the last minute, I asked, “What advice did Frost give George when they finally met?”

“Go to Kamchatka!” they cried out. “Or Brazil!”

And what do you think this advice means?

In one of the sections, students called out: “Go see the world!” “Step out of your comfort zone!”

But a student in the other section heard it differently. He thought Frost was subtly getting back at George for (as he interpreted it) making fun of him. That left me in thought as we headed on to our next stops in the day.

 

This is the third in a series of posts about teaching Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 2

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I don’t want to say anything yet about today’s discussion of part of the third chapter, “Frost”–in particular, George’s poem, Frost’s take on it, and Purcell’s attitude toward rhyme–because the other section will be discussing this tomorrow.

On Monday, in class, we (both sections) read and discussed the second chapter, “On Fire,” and talked about many things: the class picture of the boys who had died, decades ago, in a fire supposedly caused by smoking; why the narrator was drawn to smoking, and why he finally stopped smoking at school; what it might say about him that he could imagine the consequences of his smoking; why Big Jeff, who started the current fire with a failed rocket experiment, does not get in trouble; why Purcell wishes (or claims to wish) that Big Jeff had been expelled; and why the narrator decides to submit not his fireman poem, but rather his elk poem, to the competition. At the end, we considered how the chapter wove together past, present, and future.

The discussions went gracefully–thoughtful comments, a good rhythm, enough time to slow down with certain passages. But today something took off. It surprised me. I hadn’t expected such a lively and moving discussion of rhyme itself. But more about that another time, after a little more time has gone by.

This is the second in a series of posts about teaching Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

Old School in Hungary: Part 1

Old_School_coverWhy would I choose to teach Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to 33 ninth-graders (in two sections) here in Szolnok? The first answer is that I saw a chance to do so, a chance that might not come back any time soon. If I didn’t take this chance, there’s no telling that they would ever read the novel, and I knew it would be worthwhile for them, even though (and especially because) they wouldn’t understand everything right away. It would not be forgotten.

We had our first lesson last week. Before we opened the book, I showed them pictures of Nixon and Kennedy. I asked them, on the basis of the pictures, who they would vote for. They selected Kennedy (unanimously, I think), mostly because he was the more familiar of the two. I asked them which of the two they could more easily imagine at Varga, our school. Again Kennedy. Why? He seemed like one of them, just older and part of the past and a different country and culture. Maybe this, too, had to do with the familiarity, the way his lore had entered their lives.

Then we opened up and read the beginning.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all.

They were hooked, or at least interested. It wasn’t just that the prelude helped them understand the opening sentence. Rather, they understood what came later: the narrator’s discussion of class, an unmentioned topic at a boys’ elite boarding school that professed to uphold “a system of honors that valued nothing you hadn’t done for yourself.” They understood how the school could exist at two levels: that of its ideals, and that of its undercurrents.

But would they understand these boys who were vying for the literary award, whose prize was the honor of a private audience with a famous visiting writer, who would select the winning piece? They have known nothing quite like this; they take part in contest upon contest, but the prize is money, an academic award, or some modest fame.

But they realized quickly that they did not have to match the story directly to their lives. It unrolls its own meaning. They grasped a passage that explains (at least partly) why the boys cared so much about that competition: the narrator talks about writers who were welcomed by other writers (p. 7):

My idea of how this worked wasn’t low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

Even if the students reading this had never wished to be anointed themselves (and I imagine a few had), they could imagine these boys battling their hearts out for the prize.

Today, in our second session, we read the part with Hartmut’s tune, Gershon, and Dean Makepeace: the narrator unwittingly learns a Nazi tune at YMCA camp from the chef, Hartmut; whistles it later at school, in the presence of Gershon, a handyman who (unbeknownst to the boy) is a Holocaust survivor; and is summoned by Dean Makepeace for an explanation. Some students picked up on details: they recognized the time period, noticed that Hartmut was Austrian and understood what this might mean; they understood that the narrator hadn’t realized that he was whistling a Nazi melody in Gershon’s presence, but that for Gershon it brought back the sick cruelty and degradation of the concentration camp. They understood, also, what was missing from the narrator’s apology to Gershon: how he held back the fact that his own father was Jewish. (He reveals it to the reader just at the moment that he admits that he didn’t say it to Gershon–or to Dean Makepeace.)

One student thought that if the boy had told Gershon that his father was Jewish, he would have been trying to get Gershon’s sympathy, instead of offering sympathy. He has a point there. But we were all left thinking, along with the narrator in retrospect, that the apology was lacking–not just imperfect, but dishonest. We talked, especially in the first section, about what makes a genuine apology: how it requires opening yourself up to pain, acknowledging the pain that you have caused. (I do not believe in perfect apologies; nor does this book, I think. Apologies don’t have to follow a script or check all the boxes. But they require a basic willingness to see and be seen.)

It so happened that we read the passage about Gershon today, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it brought even more intensity to the discussion, especially in the earlier session. (One of the two sections meets with me on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the other on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.) It was striking that the narrator didn’t portray himself as noble. After imagining a melodramatic story of reconciliation and bonding between himself and Gershon, he rejects the idea (p. 23):

Fat chance. I wanted out of there, and I was confiding nothing. I’d let Gershon think the worst of me before I would claim any connection to him, or implicate myself in the fate that had benched him in this room. Why would I want to talk my way into his unlucky tribe? All this came over me as a gathering sense of suffocation. I stammered out a final apology and left, taking the stairs at a run as soon as the door clicked shut behind me.

Forget about “relating.” Who in the world has not done this? Who has not rejected a human connection, simply because it seemed too inconvenient, too unlucky, too miserable?

No wonder the boys in this story throw themselves into the writing contest. The narrator suspects the same: “Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class” (p. 24). It seems to them, ironically, that to be a writer is even to escape yourself. At the end of the first chapter, everything seems to come together, just momentarily.

It is not an easy book. The words, details, references, ideas, emotions, evasions, and bare truths would be a lot for some college students, not to mention ninth graders. But here we are, and such chances do not come every day. They will be able to reread the book in the near and far future. The copies are theirs. But they can’t reread it unless they’ve read it in the first place. That’s why we’re doing this now. Some students will respond to it more than others, or in different ways from others–the “they” is a generalization–but that, too, is part of the point. For a few students, this is already a revelation. They didn’t know that writing could be like this–but what is “this”?

We will find out as we go along. I have read the book four or five times and returned to certain passages repeatedly over the years. I have carried it in my mind. I have written about it on this blog. But I didn’t know what it would be like to read it aloud with my students, to hear the words, to sound them out in time. I will write about this as we go along–not describing every class session, but keeping track of this so that we can look back on it later.

I am grateful to my colleague Marianna, who made this possible. While we read onward, she will continue working through the textbook with them. They are already far along in the textbook, so we have some room. Last week and this week we have been reviewing for a test, but beginning next Monday, they will focus on Old School in all their classes with me, until we finish reading it. I can’t wait to see and hear what comes.

I made some edits to this piece (for clarity) after posting it.

This is the first in a series of posts about teaching Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School to ninth-graders at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. To view all the posts, go here.

A Way of Hearing the World

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Isn’t reading literature in the original one of the fundamental reasons for learning a language–and not just a side benefit or frill? Isn’t reading Shakespeare one of the great rewards of learning English? You can’t come close to Shakespeare in a translation, though some are of exceptional quality, or in “Shakespeare made easy” editions (which are watered down beyond pity). You have to plunge into Shakespeare’s language, struggle with it a bit, and then start to see it make glorious sense all around you.

Overall, I admire the gimnázium curriculum here in Hungary. What students learn is valuable not only for their future careers, but for independent thought and life. Literature is central to their learning; they read poems, novels, stories, and more (in Hungarian). They also learn math and sciences (to advanced levels), history (in depth and detail), grammar, technology, languages, arts, and physical education. My two criticisms are (a) that the curriculum is crammed, with little or no flexibility or choice, so that students have no time to absorb what they are learning; and (b) that in the language courses, literature is treated as an extra, something the teacher may add to the lessons if time and inclination permit. (My school has been very supportive of my Shakespeare projects–but still, in relation to the official curriculum, they are something added on.) Language instruction–and all the textbooks I have seen–focus on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation on everyday topics (health, food, family, nature, school, the environment, technology, etc.), which repeat and repeat, at increasingly advanced levels. All of this is good and important–but language instruction without literature is like music lessons without music. I am not the only one who brings literature into class–many teachers do–but still, it may seem an appendage, not an internal organ.

I have sometimes been asked why I am having students read Shakespeare in the original, when they will not need to use Shakespeare’s language later in their lives. My response: they will use it! They will recognize words, phrases, quotes, allusions all around them; they will gain a way of hearing the world; and they can return to the plays and poems throughout their lives.

But to the point: this year, the tenth-grade students (who last year adored A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are getting a little restless with Hamlet, or many are. The reasons are understandable: we read only in class (since the books stay at school, and I am reluctant to add to their already hefty homework); we meet only twice a week, and have not always devoted both sessions to Hamlet; there have been various interruptions and absences, so many students have missed at least one key scene of the play; it’s longer and more difficult than Midsummer; and in my desire to continue onward through the play (so that we can later go back and focus on certain scenes), I have not explained certain passages as well as I could. But we are close to the end; and I am confident that when we go back, reread, and enact particular scenes, the experience will be different.

Also, they have fond memories of Midsummer–and this is a very different sort of work. Comparing the first to the second, they may well feel some disappointment at first (though some have said that they find Hamlet more interesting). Last year their readings and performances were joyous and funny, and here a different mood sets in, though there is plenty of humor in Hamlet too.

Why Hamlet, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays? Well, for one thing, Hamlet is a play of the mind; it takes us into thinking itself. It is also full of play and trickery; the play itself is full of plays, not only the play within the play, but other enactments too–so that we are not always sure whether Hamlet is speaking his thoughts or acting for a perceived audience. Also, there is the question of metamorphosis: what must happen to Hamlet, how must he change, to do what he has set out to do? And the question of “minor” and “major” characters: might Polonius and Laertes be more important than they seem? The whole play has to do with “seeming” and “being”–so that when Hamlet first replies to his mother (in Act 1, Scene 2), his words, in a sense, introduce the play:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

And there you have the beauty of Hamlet: despite all the changing appearances and illusions, despite all the plots and tricks, there is an integrity, something that cannot be reduced to “just” this or that. It can only be revealed, though, through the illusions. We see Hamlet playing with Polonius here (in Act 3, Scene 2):

LORD POLONIUS
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET
Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS
By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET
Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS
It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET
Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS
Very like a whale.
HAMLET
Then I will come to my mother by and by. [Aside.] They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
HAMLET
By and by is easily said.

Here Hamlet tests Polonius (craftily) to see whether he will continue to agree with him. But Polonius’s continued agreement reveals to Hamlet that he himself is being played with, in a more serious manner–that is, that Polonius has made some plan with the king and queen (or a larger “they”). So the play reveals the play–and Hamlet speaks through it all: “They fool me to the top of my bent,” suggesting that even his outwitting of Polonius may be partly an illusion, as there may be something beyond Polonius that he cannot outwit.

In some ways Hamlet cannot be a group experience. Last year, a few students took strongly to the play, not together but alone, and their responses set the tone for classes. I see this happening this year as well, but it has yet to come through. I believe that this will be worthwhile for everyone, not only now, but later. But to make it worthwhile, I have to think more about the scenes that we will study closely: how to interpret them, stage them, “character” them. Then, I think, good memory will be built.

Image credit: M. C. Escher, Metamorphosis I (1937 woodcut printed on two sheets).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

The Blessing of Slight Neglect

Almost a year ago, I commented on William Faulkner’s Nobel speech. I focused on how the sprawl of our lives–the pressure to be available around the clock, the leveling and spreading of our intentions–tends to break down our sense of sanctity (broadly defined),* and how, without a sense of sanctity, we lose touch with what he calls the “old verities.” Today I would like to comment on a different aspect of his speech: the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” I begin, though, with a change of direction. Last week, I started a post along these lines and ended up dissatisfied with it. I realized that there was great danger in implementing Faulkner’s words in a literal way.

From Faulkner’s speech:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

One could nod vigorously and say, yes, we have forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, and that’s part of the problem in education today. We look at social, political, economic problems–but not the problems each of us carries in our private minds: problems of love, loyalty, hate, betrayal, and their limitless combinations. Therefore, it seems that we should turn our attention again to these problems.

Yes, but how? The worst thing–and the thing likeliest to happen–if someone were to present this argument to education policymakers–would be for schools to mandate daily attention to the “old verities.” Teachers would be required to write an “old verity” on the board every day. When reading a work of literature, students would have to identify the “old verity” that it addressed. This is deadly and counter to Faulkner’s meaning–for he is speaking of fiction and poetry, not of dogma. (The links in the previous sentence point to the etymology of these words, which is interesting in terms of the “kneading” and “piling.”)

Something would likewise be forced and false about addressing “old verities” through so-called “informational text” (heavily touted in schools, even in English class). It cannot be done. Philosophy and history can tackle the central human problems–but to do so, they cannot rely on abstractions and information alone; they need insight and form as well. Insight and form belong to fiction and poetry, which in turn rely on a certain concealment, or a complex kind of revelation. That is, to see truths of this kind, you must also have room in your imagination for the unseen.

A passage from José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Quixote sheds some light on this. (Note: These texts are among the shorter readings in the Epic course at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers, where I am currently teaching. The past two weeks have been filled with the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and other works–all of these read in their entirety–and we will finish next week with Moby-Dick.) Here’s Ortega y Gasset:

There are things which, when revealed openly, succumb or lose their value and, on the other hand, reach their fullness when they are hidden or overlooked. Some men refuse to recognize the depth of something because they demand that the profound should manifest itself in the same way as the superficial. Not accepting the fact that there may be several kinds of clarity, they pay exclusive attention to the clarity peculiar to surfaces. They do not realize that to be hidden beneath the surface, merely appearing through it, throbbing underneath it, is essential to depth.

Maybe there’s a blessing in having Faulkner’s “old verities,” the problems of the human heart, overlooked in schools. Maybe a certain kind of overlooking is the best kind of honor. I think we can honor them through curriculum and general bearing, without pounding themes and messages into the students’ heads. Give students room to hear the works, to wade through them, to feel their pull and counter-pull. Show, through selection, intonation and gesture, that something worthwhile is there.

I think of these lines from the beginning of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover:

The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.

One can go barefoot as a reader, too–and this means reading and interpreting in an unfettered way. Yes, one analyzes what one reads, often in great detail and depth, but one does not try to map everything onto a specific external meaning, method, or theory. One allows the literature its life, not all of which can be explained in external or technical terms. (Some of the most inspiring criticism is fiction of its own kind.) When one does this, when one enters literature with heart–in the Hebrew sense of “lev,” not our current sentimental sense–one will confront those verities willy-nilly.

There is a focus and clarity that comes from not fretting over what we are going to get from a given thing. Unfortunately, schools have been trained into a “customer service” mode. They are supposed to deliver a product to the students–who, for their part, are supposed to expect one. There is partial good to this; one does want students to learn and do concrete things. But one can accomplish this with recognition that it is not the whole.

Beyond this, I have started to think that certain kinds of “neglect”–not extreme or irresponsible kinds, but the kinds that let things hide just a little–may hold more good than we know. In the same way that a poem or essay revises itself when one steps away from it, so we, too, may take shape when others are not looking. We get to putter around and think things through. The neglect must be slight, though, and not self-justified. A world shrivels when it asserts that the things it ignores don’t exist.

 

*Sanctity: the quality or state of being holy, very important, or valuable (Merriam-Webster); I would add: the quality or state of being set apart from other things. (In the earlier post on Faulkner’s speech, I didn’t use the word at all; rather, I used terms that conveyed a similar meaning.)

Note: I made some edits to this piece after its initial posting.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core’s emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.

[…]

One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.

 

Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text: too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones in various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”

 

Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.