I’ve added a Poem of the Week page with links to multimedia and lesson plans for the poetry. Also, I’ve updated the Resources page to include monthly topical links, links to children’s book reviews, teacher pages, and other ideas.
Does it matter if a fact or two gets messed up? I mean, does anyone really care if their name is misspelled or their business gets called by another name. It’s not that big a deal, right?
It was a big deal to get everything right – down to how we used numbers and spelled names – when I worked at the Amarillo Globe-News. I was thinking of that while I read this line from Charles M. Blow’s column:
The press may sometimes get things wrong, but it most often gets them right.
The story of Hansel and Gretel has long been my guide, but only recently have I consciously been aware of it. It seemed to describe my life so well: adults who couldn’t be trusted, or adults who abandoned you, or adults who would, given the chance, eat you up whole.
Teaching it to bored, jittery seventh-graders helped me remember that it’s a story about conjuring hope in the midst of fear.
What I love about the story is that it centers on the bravery of children. Of their courage, their ingenuity, and their resistance. The first time they’re abandoned, well, it’s to be expected in their crazy family. Hansel knew that, which is why he picked up the stones to guide them back.
Hansel’s reaction to overhearing his parents’ plans to abandon him and Gretel always spoke to me. He models acceptance of what is, but plans for contingencies.
My anxiety — when it’s bad — makes me catastrophize. But in my better Hansel-mind, I remember that I can guide myself out. I can find home, no matter where I’m at. It’s in my power to pay attention, to be brave, to accept that the circumstances of fear and pain and panic are temporary.
Also, Hansel didn’t act alone. And I suspect a lot of his courage was a response to needing to protect his sister. She returns the favor for him when she pushes the witch into the oven.
It’s Gretel who really calls me to courage. She faced down a cannibal witch without the muscle of her brother. Like Hansel, she decided to plan rather than despair. And when it came time to do the thing she didn’t think she could do: BAM! Into the oven went the monster.
The witch underestimated Gretel. She thought, since Gretel was complying with her orders to feed Hansel, and her willingness to eat crab shells, proved that she broke Gretel’s will. But she didn’t. She just made Gretel more creative, more disciplined, more committed to the plan. But it’s that act of final resistance — that act under her own strength — of pushing the witch into the oven — that’s what sticks with me. That’s what I imagine, even five decades on in my life, when I have to do the thing that scares me.
I channel Gretel. I face the monster. And I fight back.
Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit — in state, in church or mosque, in a party, congress, in the university or whatever. That’s why. – Chinua Achebe
Stories have a unique power. They entertain even as they reveal truth. Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I would amend that to say that we, as teachers, must tell our stories in order that our students and our work may live in the public imagination.
Especially now when language has been weaponized in service of power.
George Orwell was obsessed with this same idea. I taught his essay “Politics And The English Language” to my AP juniors, and it seems to grow more relevant every year. Continue reading Story As Political Act
Try a thought experiment with me.
Let’s say you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan – I live in Texas, but please insert the name of your favorite team – and a new owner replaces Jerry Jones. A new owner that comes from Hollywood. He’s seen movies about football, but on the whole, he thinks it’s a pretty dumb game. This new owner then brings in a coach to replace Jason Garrett. The new coach is a friend of the owner who’s done him some favors, loaned him some money to cover some bills. But get this, the coach doesn’t like football. Not only doesn’t like it, but he’s campaigned against it on the grounds that it’s dangerous for kids. This coach has never played football, nor have any of his kids. He’s given all his time and money to – the horror! – soccer because he believes it’s a better sport for the country overall.
Would you tolerate this for even a second? Do you think the fans would tolerate it for a second? No fan would put up with such an absurd scenario.
I didn’t realize that posting a video showing a Muslim woman standing up in silent protest at a Trump rally would spark people to comment on my post (who have never commented on any posts of mine). I want to thank those people who argued with me for helping to remind me of my own values and how far I sometimes drift away from them.
“You can’t accept presents from black boys. They might get ideas.” “Are you going to the prom with your Abie Jew-boy?” “I got you these baby clothes, but I had to fight the Mexicans off them. They ruin everything.” “That boy is a secret-cell terrorist right there.” “AIDS is God’s punishment on gay people.”
All of the quotes were said to me. Except the last one. That one, shamefully, was one I said long ago and far away when I was a member of a Fundamentalist (some would say “extremist”) Baptist church in, of all places, California. And because I can own my own prejudice, bigotry, and hateful words, I know also that minds and hearts can be changed.
My friends don’t believe me when I explain that I used to be a hard-right, Fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who went door to door trying to convert “unbelievers” (read: any other belief than mine). But it’s true. It was only when I actually read the New Testament for myself and thought my own thoughts, rather than those of the pastor of that church, that I began to see how I labeled the “other” in my life. And how that labeling gave me a false sense of superiority.
It’s so easy to be right when you never get challenged. It’s so easy to label people if you don’t ever try to know them as people. It’s so easy to judge and condemn people. I loved that life because I didn’t have to think very much or very hard.
Listening – really listening to people who disagree with me, argue with me, and point out my flaws is humbling, hard, and painful. Meeting new people, especially those who speak a different language than me, is intimidating, anxiety-provoking, and difficult. Being empathetic to another person’s experience is really hard when that person behaves in a way that is uncivil, ungraceful, awkward, or embarrassing.
Carl Jung believed that we could find wholeness by embracing what he termed our shadow – that part of ourselves that is frightening, embarrassing, awkward, and sometimes evil. Dr. Phillip Zimbardo created a terrifying experiment that proved how, given the right conditions, any of us are capable of evil.
No one, it seems, bothers me more than someone who exhibits behaviors that I am ashamed of having myself. This American Life recently did a brilliant piece featuring how this shadow self motivates Internet trolls.
What helps is to admit it, to be aware of your own tendency to put labels on people and dehumanize them. Einstein believed we all could get better at confronting what he called humanity’s infinite capacity for “stupidity.”
The picture illustrating this post is from my all-time favorite children’s book The Sneetches, which I read often to remind myself that all labels are created by us to make us feel better about ourselves. There are also quite a few real-life McBean’s who make money off of labeling, and encourage all of our prejudices and bigotry. It’s a great, short read. This link is not so short, and not so easy to read, but it’s an important reminder that the main world religions command believers to treat others the same way they want to be treated.
“Would you be willing to give up your seniors if…” my principal asked me.
“Yes,” I said, cutting him off. “However you’re ending that proposition – yes is my answer.”
And that’s how a group of lackadaisical seniors became my entryway into teaching refugee students six years ago. It had been a frustrating year and I was ready for something different. The fact that the offer was sweetened with the chance to co-teach alongside my mentor (and the smartest teacher I know) was just icing on the cake.
However, we saw that it would quickly be much more difficult than we had anticipated, even after we were given funding, a 90-minute block, and creative freedom to design our classes and curriculum. Continue reading Building Bridges With Visual Literacy
Like many, I am horrified by the recent attacks on not only Paris, but Beirut. The same group took credit for the fear and destruction in both cities. Which has put me to thinking: How do ISIS and similar death-loving, nihilistic cults recruit people?
Part of me wonders if it’s because destruction is so easy, so satisfying, so dramatic, and so quick. On the other hand, creation is difficult, frustrating, meandering, and so slow. Every artist, every builder, every teacher can tell you that’s true. It takes incredible amounts of energy to sustain creativity, but not much to tear something down, whether that’s an idea, a building, or a life.
Obviously, I’m not a physicist, but an English teacher, so I’m not speaking about Newtonian laws. I’m much more confident in considering the emotional forces that cause attraction to and repulsion from ideas. Hope, Emily Dickinson once wrote, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. As a teacher, I not only believe this to be true, I know it to be true from the experiences of building a community with students every school year. Hope is an energy that fuels creation and possibility. Hope is what draws all of us to show up on Mondays because down deep, we have hope that our efforts will be for the good.
This is why I believe the despair marketed by ISIS and its imitators will swallow itself. Despair is not an energy, but an inertia, an entropy, a drain and a parasite. There’s nothing to draw on, nothing to build on, nothing to fuel movement except bursts of rage which will spin down like a tornado unraveling in furious, but brief seconds. Unfortunately, the destruction spawned by both tornadoes and ISIS causes tremendous amounts of suffering.
Fortunately, hope recruits many more people to bind wounds and build peace than despair can to its banal and boring plans for ruin. Destruction is essentially a cliché, working as it does with the same blunt tools of anger and hate to scar the same material. That’s why I bet on the French people, as well as those drawn to help and heal. Creation has hope energizing it, blooming into myriad regenerations of itself. Watch for it, it’s building even now. The whole universe is for with those hope.
Only hell waits for those who hate.