Category Archives: literature

What Should We Teach?

“I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.” —Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life

Background

Raphael's "The School of Athens"

With all the education reform going on in the U.S. right now, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But one of the more disturbing changes is the emphasis on “core” content areas (specifically, math and science). As Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote in a recent CNN article, this shift is not only doesn’t make sense; it may end up having a negative effect in the long run. Liberal arts education are what have made the U.S. one of the most innovative countries in the world, and as he says, “Innovation in technology companies, automobile design, medicine or food production will not come only from isolated work in technical disciplines. Effective vaccine delivery programs, for example, require technical expertise, but they also require cultural understanding, economic planning and ethical reasoning.” This is his “philosophy of education” – that students should learn a broad set of skills and habits in order to better the world around them.

When I was doing my Masters in Education program, one of the first activities we did was to define our own “Philosophy of Education.” We took an inventory of roughly 30 questions, and the scores helped us determine which of 5 educational philosophies we were: Essentialist, Perennialist, Progressivist, Social Reconstructivist, or Existentialist. As it turned out, I came up strongly Perennialist:

Perennialists believe that one should teach the things that one deems to be of everlasting importance to all people everywhere. They believe that the most important topics develop a person. Since details of fact change constantly, these cannot be the most important. Therefore, one should teach principles, not facts…The focus is primarily on teaching reasoning and wisdom rather than facts, the liberal arts rather than vocational training. (Wikipedia)

Now, I have long considered myself a classicist. From a young age, I have loved reading and studying about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel. In high school, I enjoyed reading The Odyssey, Hamlet, and other older works much more than I enjoyed, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I simply found the stories more engaging and more interesting to think about. In college, those interests lead me to study philosophy, Shakespeare, and metaphysical poetry. Really, I agree with the Churchill quote at the start of this post – studying the ancients is as much a privilege as it is a necessity. So it should come as no surprise I came up as a perennialist – I did (and still do) believe that there are subjects and topics that ought to be taught because thinking about and discussing those topics make us better people.

For example, I think the subject of ethics and the nature of morality is an absolutely essential part of becoming a rational human being, and as such should be part of every educational curriculum in the world. We all have our own innate preconceptions about morality (largely based on that of our parents), but the majority of us likely have put little to no critical thought into the foundations of those ethical beliefs. It seems that this is the sort of thing that should be studied and discussed in an educational setting. Regardless of the conclusions students draw, there ought to be a place where they can safely study other perspectives, discuss and debate with their peers, and develop their own sense of morality.

What we do now

As an English teacher, I think there is a very clear place for this sort of discussion in the Language Arts classroom if we intentionally design it as such. Lately, as I have been reflecting on our curriculum and the content we teach, I see a lack of this sort of “great idea” thinking in what we currently teach students.

Right now, we teach 5 literature units in 9th grade English: The Foreshadowing, a Reader’s Workshop focused on the Hero’s Journey in a selection of YA literature (such as The Alchemyst and House of the Scorpion), Poetry (with a focus on forms such as odes and sonnets), Romeo and Juliet, and an introductory Film as Literature unit focused on genre and basic film elements. It can be a fun curriculum to teach, but there are times when it feels as though our units lack real substance, real depth of purpose. Primarily, we are focused on using the content to teach skills that will be assessed on state tests, so rather than go into great detail on the moral dilemmas and choices faced by Friar Laurence, we focus on whether students can use context clues to interpret vocabulary – certainly a valuable skill, but lacking that “human” value.

Unfortunately, some of our existing units simply don’t allow for extended discussions of philosophical ideas like morality, existence, or knowledge. Novels like The Alchemyst make for good reading and for talking about the Hero’s Journey, but there isn’t a lot of room for discussing those deeper issues.

What We Could Do (My Ideal 9th Grade English Course)

Rodin's "The Thinker"It’s one thing to raise a problem or complain about something, and that’s not my goal here. This whole discussion is the byproduct of some reflection on myself and my teaching – namely, what would I teach if I had the freedom to teach whatever I want?

Now, I must note that this discussion is focused mainly on traditional 9th grade English/Language Arts content – things that are taught in many classrooms worldwide. Thus, as much as I want to, I will not include much in the way of philosophical writing in the curriculum. Rather, since this is my “ideal” course, I can assume students are already discussing these writings in the imagined “Introduction to Philosophy” course, which would cover everything from Plato to Descartes to Kant and would, of course, be mandatory.

With that caveat, I think it only makes sense to begin with the course focus. And since it is something I already teach (and enjoy teaching), I think the easiest focus for me would be to center the course on the Hero’s Journey archetype. In all likelihood, I would borrow ideas (and probably some materials) from Dana Huff over at Huffenglish, who has shared numerous materials, ideas, and anecdotes about her own Hero’s Journey course.

As we started the year, we would likely look at the concept of the Hero’s Journey as a pattern. We would start with the first chapter from a great book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which is titled “Every Trip is a Quest…Except When It’s Not.” I would take excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s work – including his interview with George Lucas – and we would put together a map (or perhaps a board game?) of the journey that would remain with us throughout the year. This introductory unit would likely be when we discuss heroic traits, as well, such as courage.

From there, we would move through different eras of history, studying the literature poetry of those eras. Where better to start than with the original heroes of ancient Greece? It would be difficult to choose between several smaller myths – such as Hercules, Theseus, etc. – and Homer’s Odyssey, but I would likely go with the latter because it is both journey and poem. We might look at Hercules or another hero to compare with Odysseus, but the Odyssey would be the primary text. It is also a good place to discuss concepts such as loyalty and integrity.

After Odysseus, I would probably move on to Beowulf – something I have never taught, but a work that fits both the focus of the course and is an important historical text. We would be able to incorporate elements of Norse mythology, discuss ideas such as responsibility and sacrifice, and would also give us a good comparison text for the Odyssey.

From Beowulf, we would jump to Shakespeare, and I would be faced with an intriguing prospect – teaching Romeo and Juliet as a hero’s journey. It may be a good chance to talk about the antihero, look at the steps of the journey from a different perspective (the Return Home sure looks different), and still incorporate the best introduction to Shakespeare I can muster. Thematically, I love discussing the ideas of fate and free will, as well as love and choices when we read Romeo and Juliet. The play would, of course, be accompanied by a look at the poetic traditions of Shakespeare’s time, including the sonnet.

A side note: One alternative I have lately considered inserting here is to do some reading on the American Revolution. I would be curious what stories or novels others might use to discuss this time period in literature classes.

From there, we may move to the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including my personal favorite, “The Cask of Amontillado.” We would talk about the short story as a genre, the strange version of the journey archetype (and the antihero) in some of Poe’s works, and could look at how poetry was quickly evolving during Poe’s lifetime. Poe also gives us a good jumping off point to discuss death, justice, and humanity in great detail.

At this point, I would want to move into the 20th century and read a novel, though I am completely torn about what novel to choose. I definitely want to juxtapose the novel with poets like Robert Frost and modernist poets, so early- to mid-20th century would be ideal. I would also like to use the novel to discuss war, morality, and/or freedom. I’m really quite open to suggestions and would love to hear suggestions.

Finally, I would end the way my 9th grade class currently ends – with an introductory “Film as Literature” unit. We do a Reader’s Workshop style unit where students select a genre, watch 2 films in that genre, and use those films (as well as outside films) to discuss both genre and visual literacy elements. Not only is this a great way to end the year, but is a very solid look at how the medium of storytelling has evolved, especially looking in hindsight at the growth from epic poem to play to novel to movie.

So that’s my dream curriculum. Obviously it’s just a dream at this point, but I would love to get some feedback – what would you do differently? What ideas do you have? What is your dream curriculum?

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On E-Books, Reading, and the Course of Human Events

Nook

A Little Background

A couple of months ago, my amazing wife got me a great birthday present – a Barnes & Noble Nook. I had been conflicted about getting an e-book reader, but was ready to give digital books a shot. Since I’m both technophile and bibliophile, the gift made perfect sense. And given the amount of time I spend in front of LCD screens (laptop, iPhone, TV, etc.), I was grateful not to receive a Nook Color or an iPad, which would just add to the eye strain that I already experience. And the E-Ink screen has lived up to expectations – it really does mimic the experience of reading on a page quite well.

Of course, being something of a classicist, it’s a weird mental adjustment to read digital books. I’d always been the type that loves to smell the pages of old books and I really appreciate a nice leather-bound edition of Poe’s Complete Works. That’s obviously not an option any more, so I went with the next best thing – a beautiful handmade leather cover from Oberon, which at least gives it that nice leather smell, so I can feel a little more like I’m reading a real book (side note: I’m not affiliated with Oberon in any way, but I’m really happy with my cover). Even so, there are still books that I will insist on keeping in hard copy – classics, favorites, and so on.

There are a number of features with the e-reader I really enjoy that I know I would never get with a book. One of these is obviously having one device that I am comfortable with, rather than learning the feel of a new book every few weeks. Oddly enough, another feature I love is the ability to quickly go from one book to the next, even download a book on the spot and start reading. Even if I’m thinking about buying a book, I can preview it on the Nook first and decide whether to purchase it. In the same vein, the Nook allows me to go to any Barnes & Noble and read a book for free while I’m connected to their wi-fi. All are very nice features.

The feature I most appreciate, though, is the Nook’s ability to lend and borrow books, particularly borrowing from a library. This is the sole reason I preferred the Nook over the Kindle. I think the ability to borrow books at will is an incredible feature. I can honestly say that I’ve checked out more books so far this year than I checked out in the last 4 years combined, all because they were quickly sideloaded onto my Nook. Thankfully, our public library (King County Library System) has a great selection of e-books available for checkout, so it’s been a pleasant experience. I simply download the book, load it onto the Nook, and then “return” it when I’m finished. I can keep the book for up to 21 days or return it early, just like a traditional book.

Certainly there are issues that bug me – highlighting is a nuisance and I wish I could view only highlighted passages (would be great for note-taking). The touchscreen often experiences a good deal of lag or is unresponsive. And E-Ink technology still has plenty of room for improvement. However reading books on the Nook has been a mostly positive experience.

Reflections

As I mentioned, it was the last feature – lending and borrowing – that really sold me on the Nook. As I see it, that Kindle did not (until recently) allow lending or borrowing was a shame. It seems like a good piece of hardware, but we need the ability to share. Whether it’s status updates on Facebook, links through Delicious, or books, sharing things we enjoy connects us to others. Even if it’s just the library, there is now a connection between borrower and lender. Consequently, when the lender (in this case, the library) needs something, I am indebted and likely to oblige (by voting in favor of the library system, in this case). Similarly, when a friend comments on something I share on Facebook, I am much more likely to return that comment. In doing so, the relationship is strengthened by a common bond or interest.

Thus, my preference of the Nook over the Kindle was not so much about the best device, but about which one will provide me with the better opportunities. And isn’t this what reading is really all about – opportunities? Opportunities to experience something you normally wouldn’t be able to, opportunities to learn from the wisest mentors in history, and opportunities to think about one’s own existence from a different perspective. As literary critic Harold Bloom shares,

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure.”

This is why we read – we read to better ourselves, to expand our minds, to understand the world around us, and to find a challenging joy – a difficult pleasure. Thankfully, my Nook has allowed me this difficult pleasure. While I know a Kindle would have met that need just as well, I guess in the end, I just couldn’t imagine choosing a device that limits opportunities for reading.

The other thought that runs through my mind (especially when I read articles like this one from CNN, reporting that Amazon now sells more digital than physical books) is what future generations will think of us as a result of this technology. I just recently started reading 1776, and as I read about the history of the American Revolution, I am struck by how most of the information in McCullough’s book is gleaned from letters and other hand-written documents. Because historical figures such as George Washington and William Emerson, Sr. engaged in such hand-written correspondence, we have a record of not only the events that occurred, but also the thoughts and emotions of the people involved. Will future generations be able to look back on us and say the same? Will emails, chats, phone calls, and digital books stand the test of time in the same way that ancient manuscripts have? Or will they disappear from the human consciousness, much like the original internet websites have slipped from our minds? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, but I can’t help but wonder what the consequences will be of this rapid advance in technology. As Isaac Asimov pointed out,

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Are we thinking forward about the consequences of this sort of change? Have we considered what the ramifications are – how the world will be? I just don’t have an answer.


Playing Without Fear

Mike Singletary

A guy who played without fear

When the last football season ended, there were several topics that our staff needed to do some research on. One of these was “Playing Without Fear.” In talking one-on-one with players after the season, it became clear to our head coach that many of them experienced performance anxiety – fear – before and during some of our bigger games. In hindsight, it explained a lot – blown coverages, missed tackles, dropped game-clinching interceptions. Our kids simply didn’t execute when there was pressure because of this fear. In researching this topic, we wanted to figure out how we could help them play without fear – how to coach them to play with confidence and “swagger.”

During the offseason, I’ve been to a couple of clinics and heard some good talks, but none that really hit home on this topic. The closest I came was at the “Marine Combat Fitness” session, which talked about training your body to be in peak performance mode. What has really influenced my thinking on this subject, though, are the books I’ve been reading. I have made a conscious effort to read as many books by great coaches as I can, from John Wooden (Wooden on Leadership) to Vince Lombardi (What it Takes to Be #1) to Bill Walsh (The Score Takes Care of Itself) to Pete Carroll (Win Forever). In the course of reading these books, I have noticed that each coach has a similar way of addressing this topic of playing without fear. To me the solutions they describe are simple, easy to implement, and (based on the success these coaches have had) they work.

1. Strive for Mastery. The common message on the topic of playing without fear in all the books I read is very simple. In Win Forever, Pete Carroll says, “That state of mind, when you are truly competing for the sake of performance alone, is when you are performing in the absence of fear.” This seems to be the primary focus of all these great coaches: they focus only on what they can control – attitude, effort, concentration – and strive only to maximize their own performance. By focusing on improving yourself, you focus on something you can directly influence and cannot be influenced by others. Others have called this a “mastery orientation” to performance, meaning they focus on perfecting their skills rather than on the outcome. This is true in other sports, such as golf, where constantly competing with oneself is an obvious key to success.

John Wooden said this a little differently: “Success is found in the running of the race. How you run the race – your planning, preparation, practice, and performance – counts for everything. Winning or losing is a by-product, an aftereffect, of that effort.” It’s never about the winning or losing. Wooden goes on reiterate this point many times – focus on doing everything you can to maximize your own performance. He said he never talked about winning or losing because those were never the goal – being the best you could possibly be was the goal. Even Coach Wooden’s famous definition of success says nothing of winning or losing; it’s all about “knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Vince Lombardi’s philosophy was no different. Though many point to his “winning is the only thing” quote, Coach Lombardi believed that the goal was to do the best one is capable of. “Not victory for its own sake, but victory as a test – a test of how far you could push yourself to your limits and beyond, a test of your ability to overcome your doubts and weaknesses, and a test of how much your G0d-given talent and ability you were willing to expend in the pursuit of success and victory.” Even for Lombardi, who preached winning to his teams, victory was only a way to measure how well you were performing. Games are simply a measuring stick to see how good you are and where you can continue to improve.

And Bill Walsh, well, he said it simply. “Control what you can control; the score will take care of itself.” Like these other three coaches, he believed that playing without fear means to focus on making oneself better at all times. He talks about his “Standard of Performance” – the way of doing things, the end goal, the ideal. All members of the 49er’s organization strive for the Standard of Performance in their own job. Winning was nothing more than a byproduct of being the best you can possibly be – aiming for that Standard of Performance. By doing this, they are able to play without fear.

2. Opponents are Only Opportunities. For all of these coaches, the opponents were never “the enemy.” They did not try to demonize the opposition or make them seem stronger or weaker. Rather, your opponents are simply a means to an end, a tool that will help you become the best of which you are capable. The better the opponent, the better test of your ability. As Coach Carroll said, “My opponents are the people who offer me the opportunity to succeed…At the end of the day, that opponent is the person who makes you into the best competitor you can be.” By viewing one’s opponents as a means to an end, it takes away the aura (or lack thereof) of whomever you may be playing that week. When that opponent is viewed in this way, there is no reason to fear that opponent; rather, it is a reason to appreciate and thank that opponent, because they will help you see where you are at.

Each of these coaches add that an added component of playing without fear is playing with supreme confidence in what you are doing. How do we accomplish this as coaches? Preparation. We prepare our players for every contingency, every possibility, every look that might arise during a game. And when we do, our players are confident in their ability to react to that situation when it arises. As John Wooden says, “You must be at your best when your best is needed. Enjoy the thrill from a tough battle.” So we must practice critical situations frequently, we must create pressure so players get used to the butterflies in their stomachs, we must help our players gain the confidence they need in the game. And when they do, they can play without fear.

Ronnie Lott3. Press On Toward the Goal. Bill Walsh tells the story of Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety that played with the 49er’s. Lott, he said, could be characterized in two words: commitment and sacrifice. “Lott,” Walsh says, “was constant in his drive to excel.” He goes on to tell the story about Ronnie Lott’s finger – rather than risk missing the first game of the season, Lott chose to have part of his pinky amputated. That’s how passionate he was about the game. “‘Ronnie Lott’ character reveals itself most starkly in two completely different circumstances: when victory or success is almost a given, and conversely, when there is little or no likelihood of victory. The former tempts an individual to start bellyaching and quit. Ronnie never gave up or let down. Consistent commitment and sacrifice in all situations was his trademark.” It is this ability to commit completely to a cause – the team, the Standard of Performance, whatever it may be – that made Lott and the 49er’s successful. Because of his ability to continue striving for perfection, Lott had no problem playing without fear, regardless of the situation.

Similarly, Pete Carroll mentions that, “We never dragged the past along with us, because the past is not a place where we can compete…We never allowed the disappointment of losing to diminish the attitude and energy we needed to bring every day.” Whether winning or losing, we must put past results behind us because lingering distracts us from striving to be better. While we must certainly reflect on what we did, we only think about past successes and failures as a measure of where we used to be. They are the markers of our journey towards perfection. When we are able to commit ourselves completely to that end goal – that ideal – and when we are willing to sacrifice to achieve that transcendent cause as Ronnie Lott did day in and day out, then we can play without fear.

When I have told players in the past to be confident, to play without fear, I’m not sure these are the concepts I had in mind. However, they make sense. When a player is focused on being the best he can be, when he sees every practice and every game as an opportunity to improve, and when he is committed and willing to sacrifice to make himself better, regardless of the outcome, he is certainly not going to be afraid of the opponent. In fact, there is nothing to be afraid of for this player – he is only continuing what he has done in the past. He is only finding another way to make himself better.

And if I believe John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, and Pete Carroll – four coaches who had more than a little success in their careers – this mentality is the key to playing without fear.


Classroom Tech, Part IV: Shelfari

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

A snippet of my "Books I've Read" shelf, complete with ratings

I’m in the middle of  a series of posts outlining how I plan on using technology during the coming school year. I’ll share some tools, resources, and ideas that I intend to use with students in the classroom, and hopefully you, the reader, will share some advice or thoughts of your own, either in the comments section, or on your own blog (just let me know if you do!).

Unlike the other tools mentioned in the previous three posts, Shelfari is not something I am just now starting to use with students. I’ve used Shelfari with my students for a year and a half now, with a mixed bag of success, and I’ve posted before on what it is and on some of my experiences with Shelfari. All told, it’s been a great tool, and my experiences using it with classes have yielded a couple of strategies to make it more effective.

  • I primarily use Shelfari in my English classes as a way for students to document their outside reading. To do this, I ask that they write a book review (which includes both summary and evaluation) on Shelfari. From a management standpoint, the most effective way for me to grade this is to create a group for each class period and work through each class separately. This is really nice because I can stay up to date on what kids are reading, they can recommend books to me or their peers, and their reviews can be read by anyone on the website.
  • Shelfari would also be a great resource for students who are looking for books to read, particularly if you’ve been using class groups. They could use other students’ shelves and reviews to find books that they might be interested in. This could also include an added writing component in which students have to explain why they selected the book that they did, encouraging them to use some metacognition and think about the criteria that they used to select that book.
  • There are numerous other groups on Shelfari that students could be encouraged to join, many focused on a particular literary interest such as a genre, title, or author. Students could interact with other Shelfari users in these groups and hear from like-minded people. There is an obvious safety concern here, as we don’t know who students are interacting with, so that is something that would have to be discussed thoroughly before encouraging this activity.
  • One oft-neglected feature of Shelfari is the “on loan” check box for individual books. Say you keep an inventory of all your books on Shelfari. If a student borrows or checks out a book from you, you can find that book on your shelf and go to the details page. Under the “Editions” tab, there is a check box that says “loaned to a friend.” If you check that box, you can fill in the information – who you loaned it to and when – and save that until the book is returned. While I do wish it was a little easier to access this feature, it’s pretty handy nonetheless.
  • I often use the Wish List shelf to keep a list of books that I’m interested in reading. This might be a really great way for students to build up some interest in a variety of books and let you see the kinds of books they want to read. This opens the door for recommendations, reviews, and other great interaction. You might even make it an assignment to add 2 books from different genres that the student is going to read. One additional benefit to doing this: if students have a list of books they want to read on their Wish List, they should never be telling you they don’t have a book to read.

These are just a few of, I’m sure, innumerable ideas for using Shelfari in the classroom. Unlike some of the previous tech tools, I can say with complete confidence that most students – particularly young adults – enjoy using Shelfari. They laugh and make fun of it early on, but once they start getting into the different possibilities (particularly interacting with their friends), they really do start to engage a little bit more.

Next up in the Classroom Tech series (Part V) will be an oldie, but a goodie: PowerPoint.


Reality Television…in the Classroom?

Eye of the Camera by fensterbme.

"Eye of the Camera," by fensterbme

One of my big “kicks” this year came after I read Teaching for Tomorrow as part of our building-wide professional development. This book advocates a sort of project-based learning that is based on authentic, “real world” problems. For example, we spent some time learning about the economy, and the guiding project for the unit was to compose a report for the Secretary of the Treasury explaining how to spend the $700 Billion in bailout money. This project required a basic understanding of our economic system, underlying causes to the economic crisis, and an idea of how the bailout money could help improve our economy. I liked the idea so much, I’ve been trying to use it, though with varying levels of success. I’ve come to realize that it requires a balance of freedom and guidance for the students (especially my 9th grade English students) to be successful.

Our most recent attempt at a “real world” problem is, I think, a very creative and very engaging one. I’d like to take credit for it, but the idea came as I was asking my students what sort of projects they would like to do during mythology. During my 1st period class, one student suggested dressing up as gods, another student suggested doing skits, and yet another student suggested doing a video. Finally, one student synthesized all those ideas into one brilliant, totally valid thought: “We could do like a Jerry Springer Show where we have to act like someone else!” And boom goes the dynamite.

Even as I took ideas from 5 other classes, this idea began to blossom in my brain. Some of the details:

  • Students pick a god or goddess and they must “be” that god or goddess in a reality TV show.
  • Using a real casting call as a template, I created a fake “application” and asked the students to research their god/goddess
  • They had to create a biography that includes information like a fake address, email address, and why he/she would be perfect for one of three reality shows: “The Real World: Mount Olympus,” “Survivor: Tartarus,” or “The Gary Stringer Show.”
  • Students select their own groups of no more than 6 and prepare a 5-10 minute video or skit in which they interact on a reality show
  • The reality show has to be TV-PG, and should use costumes, props, etc. It can either be traditional Greek (i.e. tunics, togas, etc.) or can be modernized (tank tops and flip flops). What matters is that the characters are accurately portrayed (i.e. Zeus can’t be a quiet, shy person).

You should have seen these kids research. Since I made them sign up for a god or goddess before they knew anything about them, they had no idea what was coming. When they got into the library and onto the computers, they started laughing, looking at each others’ computers, and there was even a little yelling at each other as they found out that another “person” had mistreated them in some way (though they did need to be warned ahead of time that they were learning a subject that isn’t exactly G-rated).

As we have progressed through the project, students have engaged in the subject and learned a lot about their gods and goddesses. Today, students were planning out and preparing the plot of their reality shows, and there was a lot of yelling going on. At first, I desperately wanted to yell at them and have them quiet down, but as I listened to what they were yelling about, I realized they were practicing for the “Gary Stringer” show – something about Aphrodite being pregnant. So I did ask them to tone the noise down a bit, but encouraged them to keep doing their thing.

I think there have been a lot of advantages to this project:

  1. Students are learning all about the gods and goddesses better than they did last year
  2. They don’t have to sit quietly and listen to me talk at them.
  3. They don’t have to read an old, somewhat poorly written anthology.
  4. They’re engaged in a school project to the degree that they actually talk about it outside of class (they’ve been overheard by other teachers saying things like, “I’m the god of love!”)
  5. The understanding of mythology that they have developed is much deeper than I would have imagined – they see the connections between stories and characters and even connections to their own lives. And I didn’t “teach” them any of it.

I know how I feel about the project (love it). A couple other teachers are waiting to see how it goes before they decide if it’s a worthwhile effort. I’m wondering what others think:

  • Have you tried something like this in your class?
  • Does this seem like a worthwhile idea to attempt?
  • Are there any “holes” that need to be filled before you try it?

The Great Ideas

I just started reading a book that’s been on my Shelfari “Plan to Read” shelf for about a year. It’s called Six Great Ideas by Mortimer J. Adler. As I started reading this book, I realized that it touches on both of my academic passions: literature and philosophy (more of the latter, to be sure). I also realized that I would want to respond to it. A lot.

Solution: Online Reader’s Journal. I plan on posting some key quotes and my responses to the text as I read through the book. Hopefully it’s not too tedious to read, especially since I’ll start it now.

o  o  o

Reader’s Journal, Six Great Ideas, chapters 1-2

QUOTES

  1. “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.
    Acknowledging this is not enough. It is also necessary to understand why this is so and what philosophy’s business is.
    The answer, in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is great ideas – the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live.”
  2. “Ideas, as objects of thought, do exist. The idea of truth or of justice does not cease to exist when I cease to think about it, for others can be thinking about it when I am not. However, unlike the chair I am sitting on or the book you are holding in your hand, which does not cease to exist as a perceptible object when no one is perceiving it, objects of thought do cease to exist as intelligible objects when no one at all is thinking about them…Ideas exist objectively, but not with the reality that belongs to physical things.”

THOUGHTS

  • Adler’s comments in the first lines of his book (Quote 1) line up very well with what I continue to believe – that everyone should “do” philosophy. Philosophy covers the most elemental aspects of what it means to be human, and requires developing strong thinking skills and good habits of mind – exactly why I’m trying to put together a course curriculum for a Philosophy class.
  • The 6 great ideas, which he mentions in the first chapter, are truth, goodness, and beauty (the ideas we judge by) and liberty, equality, and justice (those ideas we act on). These strike me as being very elemental ideas and very much worth studying/discussing in school
  • While I found Adler’s discussion of the nature of “ideas” and the two types of ideas (subjective ideas and objective ideas) interesting, I’m not sure a lot of people would feel the same way. The writing is definitely slanted towards those with a predisposition to philosophical thinking and reading
  • The final idea, though (Quote 2) is fascinating to me. What is an “idea”? Is it a “real” thing, or just something that doesn’t really exist? Adler makes an interesting argument – that there are two distinct kinds of ideas. The first, subjective ideas, are those thoughts that only I can have. The second, objective ideas, are those “big ideas” that everyone can think about (like truth, justice, etc.). I like this distinction, though again, it might seem boring and meaningless to the average reader.

So far, pretty interesting book.


Edumacation Greatest Hits

Have you ever watched a new episode of your favorite TV show, only to find that it was a compilation of clips (usually “flashbacks”) from old episodes? The Simpsons, my favorite TV show of all time, certainly had its share of clip shows. Since it’s wise to emulate success, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider this post (which arrives at the one-year anniversary of this ridiculous blog) an attempt to reach that level of quality. So without further adieu, I give you Edumacation’s Greatest Hits (A Clip Show):

1. Whale Rider Teaching Resources: A collection of links to online and print resources for those who are teaching the novel, The Whale Rider. How ironic that my most popular post is one that I haven’t yet gotten to use myself. In any case, it’s rewarding to share something that a great many people are excited to read and use.

2. Short Story Mentor Texts: A collection of links to short stories that teachers can use as both reading material and as mentor texts for writing workshops. The idea hinged on Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, which has since inspired a great many posts.

3. Google Lit Trips: My first “huge” post (I couldn’t believe 50 people had visited my blog that week) was an introduction to a great resource that combines literature with the amazing Google Earth – always worth checking out. This was my first foray into sharing the cool tools I’m trying to use.

4. Government and Education: A surprising member of the list – a probably weak summary of the history of the U.S. government’s role in the education system and how it has evolved. I include this in spite of my regret for having written it – in retrospect, it seems like such a waste of time.

5. In Search of Hope: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: The first post I ever wrote that got past 20 visitors (what a huge deal that was). Really it was just a book review I wrote as part of our Reader’s Workshop unit last year. It turned out to be the start of a long, painfully reflective journey.

One observation I had from looking over these posts should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t: people gravitate towards resources, not opinions. I don’t know if it was the tags, the content, or something else, but every one of these posts was attempting to share resources I had discovered for myself. As I move into Year 2 of Edumacation, the single goal I have for this blog is to provide more resources and less personal opinion and commentary. The way I see it, there’s a lot of good stuff out there that I’ve found – why not share it with people?