Monday, March 27, 2006

Yesterday in literature . . .

I didn't realize until today that several key things happened on yesterday's date (March 26) in the world of literature. And I couldn't just let them pass by! :-)

So yesterday in literature . . .

~ 1874 ~ Robert Frost was born in San Francisco

~ 1892 ~ Walt Whitman died in Camden, New Jersey

~ 1911 ~ Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi

I've always loved the story of Frost's poetry reading at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Because of the bright sun, Frost couldn't see to read the new poem he had prepared for the occasion. So he instead recited an older one he knew perfectly.

"The Gift Outright"

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Favorite Quotes

"Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression."

"Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing."

"I am never happy when the elements go to extremes."

Three favorite quotes from one of my favorite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. All three come from the main character, Cassandra. (A book well-worth reading. And far better than the movie, though that's not half-bad.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

When to read?

As an English major in college, I had numerous opportunities to consider what to read, how to read, and why read. But it wasn't until I began teaching that I truly encountered the question of when to read. In other words, at what age should a child encounter certain books? And spinning off of that primary question is the debate over having students (usually elementary age) read "children's versions" or "abridged versions" of classics.

Those in favor of handing kids these books argue that the stories are entertaining and can be enjoyed by younger students, though obviously the kid isn't able to handle the real thing. Why not? Well, it might be that perhaps the vocabulary, writing style, or form is over their heads. Or perhaps the book contains some elements that aren't suitable for younger students. Or perhaps this story will help prepare the child to later encounter the work in full. And so we have "children's versions" of just about everything: Homer for kids, Virgil for kids, Shakespeare for kids, and abridged versions of works by Austen, Dumas, Dickens, Twain.

And I can see the point that these people are arguing for. Somewhat. I'm not necessarily wholly opposed to a student's reading Black Ships before Troy as long as that child encounters The Iliad later on. And I can see the advantage in a child's grasping some of the stories of mythology and Shakespeare at a young age and then reading the actual works later. But I think this list of works that the child needs to somehow be "prepared for" is actually rather small.

What I dislike intensely about this viewpoint is the assumption that a child "needs" to read these books at a young age and that there is benefit from doing so. Why does a fifth or sixth grader need to read an abridged version of Pride & Prejudice? Why can't she wait until she's in the eighth or ninth grade (or even later) and then just read the real thing? Why read a "children's version" of A Tale of Two Cities or Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn? Wait a few short years, and, wow, the kid can read the real thing. I just don't get it. Why isn't the student using that time to read more age-appropriate books? Why must we rush them into these books that would be better read at an older age?

The other disagreement I have with this view concerns the nature of a work of literature. A book is much more than the plot it contains. And just because a student has read a story about a man whose father has been murdered and who is now obsessed with what action he should take against his mother and uncle doesn't mean that the student has read Shakespeare. He has read someone's retelling of Shakespeare, and it's not the same thing. I also consider it somewhat presumptuous of publishers to cut portions of a work and then have the audacity to use the same title and slap the author's name on the cover. You've just destroyed a coherant piece of writing. This is also why I don't like "cleaned up" versions of movies that cut out sections of a film. Either watch the movie or don't watch the movie. Either read the book or don't read the book. But don't take out huge chunks of a work and then claim that you still have the same work. If a child can't handle the content of a work, then just wait and let the child read it later. By removing content (for whatever reason), we destroy some of the essence of the story. I think these same concerns apply to the reading of Scripture (which, I suppose, is another post all together).

So now that I've ranted, what are your thoughts on the matter? Am I being too picky? Or do you have any similar concerns?

On this day in literature . . .

1846 ~ English artist Randolph Caldecott - illustrator of Washington Irving's Old Christmas and a contributor to Punch - is born in Chester. The Caldecott Medal for excellence in children's book illustration will be named for him.

Each year the Newbery Medal is awarded by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's books published the previous year. However, as many persons became concerned that the artists creating picture books for children were as deserving of honor and encouragement as were the authors of children's books, Frederic G. Melcher suggested in 1937 the establishment of a second annual medal. This medal is to be given to the artist who had created the most distinguished picture book of the year and named in honor of the nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott.

In college I took a class in children's literature, which gave me the opportunity to read many Newbery and Caldecott books. My favorite picture book was one that received the Caldecott medal in 1998 - Rapunzel, retold and illustrated by Paul Zelinsky.

Richly detailed oil paintings convey dramatic emotions and feature distinctive architecture, lush landscapes and authentic costuming of Renaissance Italy. Classically beautiful illustrations portray this complex love story which can be appreciated on many levels and by all ages.
~ 1998 Caldecott Committee chair John Stewig

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Snack Time

Today on the way home from school I ran by Wegmans, a grocery store that is quite the experience. Sort of like the Disney World of grocery stores. It's lots of fun. :-) They have a fabulous olive bar and a wide selection of cheeses, so I was able to pick up two of my favorite snacks: a mix of Greek olives (with pits) and brie.

So I'm hoping to finish schoolwork quickly and settle down with some olives and brie to a Netflix DVD and/or a chapter from my current non-school reading.

What are your favorite down-time foods?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sunday Hymn

"Romans Doxology"

Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God,
How unsearchable are His ways.
How profound are His judgments, so high above our thoughts,
And His pathways no man can trace.

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things
To Him be glory forevermore
To Him be glory forever
Amen, Amen, Amen.

Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God,
How magnificent are His ways.
Who has been His advisor and who has counseled Him?
All He gives us who can repay?

Oh, the depth of the riches, the wisdom of God,
How immeasurable is His grace.
How unfailing His kindness, so far removed His wrath,
And His mercies are new each day.

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things
To Him be glory forevermore
To Him be glory forever
Amen, Amen, Amen.

Author: John Elliot, 1989

Thursday, March 16, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

The point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer, —so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time, —was that scarlet letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

On this day in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published. This book ranks, deservedly so, as one of the major American novels and is well worth reading (and rereading).

Though some seem to think that Hawthorne simply skewers the Puritans in this novel, I find that accusation to be simplistic. Hawthorne actually had quite the ambiguous relationship with his past (his ancestors were Puritans, one of whom was a judge during the Salem trials). Unfortunately, in our rush to claim that Hawthorne stereotyped the Puritans, we have stereotyped Hawthorne. He sees guilt as something that passes from generation to generation, sin as a pursuer we cannot escape. And I find great truth in that perspective. Though Hawthorne may leave us without a solution, I think his novel skillfully examines the nature of sin and guilt - that guilt is not merely imposed by outside forces but rather resides inside even those who appear most pure.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rereading: The Call of the Wild

The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.
~ C. S. Lewis

If you go looking for a copy of The Call of the Wild, you'll have the greatest chance of finding it in the children's section of your local bookstore. In fact, though I somehow avoided reading this book as a child (probably too caught up in Nancy Drew), I first encountered it not in an American Literature class but in a Children's Literature course. I remember being appalled by the philosophy. And completely taken with the story.

But, Miss Ruffner, that's a kids' book. No, dear, you may think it's a kids' book; it's anything but. London expertly weaves the philosophies of Darwin and Nietzsche into his naturalistic tale of a domesticated dog adapting to the rugged north. I suppose that's why I've always believed fiction to be perhaps even more powerful than non-fiction. It's easy for my students (and for me) to find the problems in Darwin and Nietzsche's views and to dismiss those views. But give those same people a good story, a story of a dog who's stolen from his home, who's thrown into a harsh and unforgiving environment, who adapts and adjusts to that new world by learning to survive in any way possible, who finds within himself the natural instinct to conquer and lead - well, then it's not so easy to "dismiss" these philosophies. We are firmly on Buck's side. We rejoice with him as he learns to flourish in the wild. We're sad when he's beaten. We're thrilled when he proves his great love for John Thornton. And we're more than satisfied at the end to see this dog take his rightful place in the wild.

I've read much of this book out loud to my 11th graders this year. I heard the laughs, the gasps, the small sounds of sympathy from the students as I read. I'm thrilled that they find this story as compelling as I always have. And I don't want to destroy that mystery. Though we will certainly discuss (and have been mentioning all along) the philosophies London weaves into the story, I also want my students to learn to resist the impulse to "neatly package" a writer into categories of ideas. A truly good story has to be more than simply an "idea" with characters and a plot pasted on top. And so I enjoy rereading The Call of the Wild, a book informed by unbiblical philosophies and yet whose story I find irresistable.

That's the mystery of common grace.

And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and the cold, and dark.

~ from Chapter Two, The Call of the Wild

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sunday Hymn

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th’incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Joseph Hart, 1759

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Headed into DC today with my dear friend Megan to the National Gallery of Art where we saw three exhibits: Dada (strange yet sort of interesting), Cezanne (an extremely crowded exhibit), and Frans van Mieris (delightful and stunning).

Then lunch at Teaism, browsing at Ollson's Books, and coffee at Caribou. Combined with spring-like temperatures in the 70s, it was quite the delightful day.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Make your mouth happy

Christa's Tuesday post on poetry reminded me of a poem I love, one that is particularly suited to reading out loud. This poem actually reminds me of the old Twizzlers slogan, Makes mouths happy! This poem makes your mouth happy. And on another level, this poem speaks to our need to name things, to say things, and our delight in doing so, in giving life to these things through words. One of my favorite lines of the poem is to speak is to step out of your skin, stunned. Read this poem out loud and have fun!

"Saying Things"
Marilyn Krysl (1942 - )

Three things quickly - pineapple, sparrowgrass, whale -
and then on to asbestos. What I want to say tonight is
words, the naming of things into their thing,
yucca, brown sugar, solo, the roll of a snare drum,
say something, say anything, you'll see what I mean.
Say windmill, you feel the word fly out from under and away.
Say eye, say shearwater, alewife, apache, harpoon,
do you see what I'm saying, say celery, say Seattle,
say a whole city, say San Jose. You can feel the word
rising like a taste on the palate, say
tuning fork, angel, temperature, meadow, silver nitrate,
try carbon cycle, point lace, helium, Micronesia, quail.
Any word - say it - belladonna, screw auger, spitball,
any word goes like a gull up and on its way,
even lead lifts like a swallow from the nest
of your tongue. Say incandescence, bonnet, universal joint,
lint - oh I invite you to try it. Say cold cream,
corydalis, corset, cotillion, cosmic dust,
you are all of you a generous and patient audience,
pilaster, cashmere, mattress, Washington pie,
say vise, inclinometer, enjambment, you feel your own voice
taking off like a swift, when you say a word you feel like
a gong that's been struck, to speak is to step out of your skin,
stunned. And you're a pulsar, finally you understand light
is both particle and wave, you can see it, as in
parlour - when do you get a chance to say parlour -
and now mackinaw, toad and ham wing their way
to the heaven of their thing. Say bellows, say sledge,
say threshold, cottonmouth, Russia leather,
say ash, picot, fallow deer, saxophone, say kitchen sink.
This is a birthday party for the mouth - it's better than ice cream,
say waterlily, refridgerator, hartebeest, Prussian blue
and the word will take you, if you let it,
the word will take you along across the air of your head
so that you're there as it settles into the thing it was made for,
adding to it a shimmer and the bird song of its sound,
sound that comes from you, the hand letting go
its dove, yours the mouth speaking the thing into existence,
this is what I'm talking about, this is called saying things.

from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Did I sign up for elementary ed?

My 9th graders are listening to Beowulf rather than reading it. This situation was somewhat of a happy accident. In the past I've always played parts of the recording (Seamus Heaney translation) while the kids still did lots of reading on their own (in a different translation that the school has). For some reason (not quite sure why), I felt I needed to use the books. This year I couldn't find the books. I checked all the literature cabinets, but still couldn't locate them. It turned out that they had ended up in the science cabinet (I have no idea how). But having already started to use the recording, I decided to forego the books this year and just use the audio book. Besides, this sort of poetry is meant to be heard.

Anyway, all that to say, I let the kids sketch or draw while they listen. I noticed that several were coloring the map I'd handed out, so I thought perhaps I ought to be more proactive about locating coloring sheets for them. I found a few dragon coloring sheets online (the third enemy Beowulf fights is a dragon) and brought them in today with various markers/crayons.

But I teach 11th grade right before I teach 9th grade. And when the 11th graders saw that the 9th graders were going to get coloring sheets in the next period, they were quite jealous. So now I've been commissioned to bring in coloring sheets of wolves or dogs for them that they can color while I start reading to them from The Call of the Wild (we're studying Naturalism in American Lit).

Sometimes it feels like I'm teaching 2nd graders.
Really tall 2nd graders.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sunday Hymn

"I Could Not Do Without Thee" is another hymn I first heard at Heritage Bible Church and have so missed hearing since. The words are by Frances Havergal (1873), arranged by Craig Curry.

I could not do without Thee
O Savior of the lost,
Whose precious blood redeemed me
At such tremendous cost.
Thy righteousness, thy pardon,
Thy precious blood must be
My only hope and comfort,
My glory and my plea.

I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, beloved Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And weakness will be power
If leaning hard on Thee.

I could not do without Thee,
O Jesus, Savior dear;
E’en when my eyes are holden,
I know that Thou art near.
How dreary and how lonely
This changeful life would be,
Without the sweet communion,
The secret rest with Thee!

I could not do without Thee,
For years are fleeting fast,
And soon in solemn loneness
The river must be passed;
But Thou wilt never leave me,
And though the waves roll high,
I know Thou wilt be near me,
And whisper, “It is I.”

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Look and Wonder

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation. Up this way therefore did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the Load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a Sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his Burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me Rest by his Sorrow, and Life by his Death.” Then he stood still a while to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the Cross should thus ease him of his Burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.

~ from The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Long Day

5:20 am
Wake up to Sara Sant'Ambrogio on the cello

5:30 am
Actually get up

7:15 am
Arrive at school

7:50 am
11th grade math class reports burning smell and smoke upstairs

7:51 am
Pull fire alarm

8:00 am
Cheering students (shivering in the parking lot) greet arriving fire trucks

8:33 am
Huddle in another teacher's car, having foolishly left coat in school

8:47 am
Back inside, but morning now completely off track. High hopes for grading quickly fade.

9:55 am
Defend Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman against "femi-nazi" charges brought by oh-so-intelligent 11th grade boys.

10:48 am
Encourage 9th graders to listen for features of Old English poetry in Seamus Heaney's recording of Beowulf. Encourage 9th graders to actually stay awake as they listen.

11:28 am
Mindlessly eat lunch while sitting in on student government meeting.

1:14 pm
Discuss Emma, Harriet, Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Martin with AP Lit students. Admit to students inability to talk and write on board at same time. Also feel compelled to confess inability to talk and drive car at same time, which students find quite amusing.

2:43 pm
Give up trying to teach/review dependent clauses with 9th graders. Will begin again tomorrow.

3:12 pm
Begin after-school drama practice

3:50 pm
Relieved, after several panicked seconds, that student has not in fact choked to death after trying to swallow Pepsi and laugh at same time.

4:22 pm
Refrain from strangling student who needs line prompts continuously.

5:17 pm
Head home, wishing today were Friday.