Constructing Trust

open to interpretation

As I browse through The Annotated Emma, Jane Austen’s novel annotated and edited by David M. Shepard, I pause longer than usual over his Notes to the Reader, where he signals plot disclosures and literary interpretations. He explains that Austen “developed … with great skill” several “mysteries … crucial to the story”, and I lean in to listen more carefully, because I have settled on this novel for an upcoming high school English course. Then I come to a complete halt, since I need to see him face to face as he tells me this: “Comments on the techniques and themes of the novel … represent the personal views and interpretations of the editor.” I realize that such a disclosure may be one of the most helpful aspects of my own instruction that I can offer to my students.


open to question

I have mentioned elsewhere how as a sophomore I asked my own teacher “How do you know?” What I was really wondering was, “What tools can I use myself to construct meaning, notice an author’s craft, or spy a symbol embedded in a landscape of detail?” I may have been curious about how much of what had been placed before us was open to question. As I design my course, it may be beneficial to students if I publish similar disclosures at the outset. I appreciate the way Shepard expresses himself, stating that while his views will “provoke disagreement”, he hopes that “in such cases the opinions expressed [will] provide useful food for thought”. And I sincerely trust that my students desire to think critically, needing only to be shown both where and how such questioning can be most productive; their questioning demands my openness to disagreements.

out of a job

I am describing a process by which students learn to be resistant readers. A full menu of theory and procedures for care and feeding of confident and resistant readers may be explored in Gordon Pradl’s Literature for Democracy. What I glean from Pradl’s work, including his NCTE session several years ago on a texts’ authority and context, is that authority, whether of a text, a teacher, or an interpretation, must be allowed to withstand scrutiny.

In a classroom, what would it look like for the teacher to invite questions about her, his, or their own interpretive process? When does a young reader become confident enough, feel free enough, to enquire of the instructor or tutor? It happens best when the younger apprentice sees themself supported by the tutor who guides, but who necessarily does not do all the leading.

apple norms size standards

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

I have heard it said that teachers hope to become obsolete – once our students think, write, and read independently, there is no longer any need for us. I want to revise this commonplace. There shall always be a need for experienced readers in a community of readers. If we press toward ensuring shared authority of both co-leaders and co-learners in our interpretive communities, anyone might feel not only welcome at the conversation table, but also enfranchised: having a sense that their full participation as members of such a community is worthwhile. The conversation should feel so lively, unplanned, visceral, and thrilling that no one wants to miss the new revelations or discoveries that might happen there.

a shift in control

Where discussions are thought-provoking and texts are inviting, according to Judith A. Langer, students learn literary language, with support of a teacher, from their involvement in “discussions that matter”. The focus of the course must be on readers developing their own changing perspectives and interpretations; she argues that “a shift in control from teacher to student is a necessary first step for the social interactions to shift from recitation and guesswork (What is it the teacher wants?) to substantive thought and discussion that can extend students’ range of understanding.”

Learning to listen to students’ ideas and to base instruction on students’ responses is a difficult shift to make. (99)

What can I do in September this year to make the shift easier for my own students?

close up of gear shift over black background

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For one thing, I can take a lesson from Shepard and demystify my own interpretive processes, by being transparent at the outset of year that my own analysis of a book such as Emma is not the content of the class; rather, their own emerging understandings will be.  I can focus less on homework and grading policies and be more upfront about shifting toward assessments and feedback designed with student thinking, social contexts, and multiple readings and texts in mind.

trust and voice

I have felt at my most vulnerable before students when sharing my writing with them: writing before them, or reading a poem or homework assignment I have written alongside them. Such openness to criticism was presumably a signal of my trust in them to be respectful of my fragile creations and ego. Yet a stronger and more intentional invitation of their trust in me would be issued by course disclosure of expectations at the outset.

A Star Is Born 2018 Trailer – at smooth.com

You have a voice. The opinions expressed here are open to question, provoking disagreements, providing food for thought. Your thoughts matters. I will support your learning purposes. The texts we explore are avenues down which we walk together. There are also some great stories here. And we will get to know some people; and wherever avenues are explored, we’ll encounter more mysteries – “mysteries crucial” to our stories.

Recommended Reading

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. 1980. Harvard University Press.

Langer, Judith A.  Envisioning Literature 2011. Teachers College (Second Edition).

Pradl, Gordon. Literature for Democracy Reading as a Social Act. 1996. Boynton/Cook [Heinemann] .




My Passion, you ask?

I like finding things out with help.


This may actually be a key to some of the things I am passionate about.


Recently, for instance, I have joined several book clubs because I like to keep reading new things – whether they be volumes by Dickens and George Eliot or Shakespeare I have not fully read, new titles out across many genres and including Young Adult and multicultural authors; or discovering ideas about art, education, via a well-written essay or film review.


The club’s help comes by virtue of an ethos that we will arrive at a specific date and time and discuss the work without a prescribed agenda. The other part of this is when I discover a reading that encourages me to seek out a filmmaker or artist or musician or author I feel that reading HELPED me along toward something I was not aware I was missing.


I began taking piano lessons, getting some help in playing jazz piano from a jazz pianist. I was already interested but needed help with skills, hearing, listening, feeling rhythms. And the guidance offered was not the sort I would have found in books: direct and immediate feedback was helpful.


I joined a weekly bridge game several years ago as a substitute player. I would do my book and online learning during the week between Bridge Club meetings. But at the club we would play a hand and I would receive lectures by my partners if I ignored a rule I had not learned, or if I asked for help.

   I learned better when I asked for help than when I was lectured but had not even known the rule I was violating.  


So I apply a similar policy in my approach to classroom learning. We can all cover a reading together in my English class, or all work to bring a poem to life through dramatization in small groups – – – but students have more chance in those small groups to ask for individual help on a specific line, a gesture, a comprehension or interpretation than they would have if questions and investigations were handled one person at a time in large class.

   Socratic seminars are built around question-posing, and when students arrive after homework readings with THEIR questions brought to the seminar table, the interpretive community (See Stanley Fish Is There A Text in This Class?) becomes all-important. Here I am doing something WITH the students, not TO them. (See Self-Directed Education and articles on exploration vs. education – “Educare, Educere…”) We learn together about Henry James and the effect of his ghost story. I learned yesterday, by watching my students’ reactions to a dramatized scene from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that Thomas Hardy has as much appeal in this day and age as ever before – that we all clearly approve of the 17-year old woman’s resistance to the overt advances of an older male to whom she stands in an inferior position. I wonder silently how they will connect this scene and the male character’s later unwanted advances with the #MeToo movement. And I anticipate we all will enjoy seeing improvised role-playing where the tables are turned and what the scene might look like if a woman were in a position of power and a younger male or female were the object of emotional or physical abuse or harassment.


I need students’ help to understand such things; it keeps teaching literature FUN and INVOLVING!


I am passionate about learning not being confined within the classroom. I have enjoyed taking Pilates classes in recent months and learning with help of instructors and class members how to properly exercise, use equipment, and acquire better knowledge of anatomy/musculature. Now even on my independent hikes and bike rides I am aware of how to work out more wisely and safely. I am also learning how dancers think about their physical tools: I had known that actors see our bodies as tools for expression – but now I can appreciate dance in a way I had not before.


My passion for learning as “finding out, with help” aligns with Vygotsky theories of a proximal zone of development.


My ongoing passion in the language arts, then, is – to discover better ways to keep learners IN THE ZONE (I capitalize since there is a book on this topic by Nancie Atwell). How do readers and writers remain in the zone where they are able to do things ALMOST independently but still depend on another person to AID them? – to honor that fine line between challenge and frustration.     


Can you all – parents, learners, co-teachers, administrators, and co-leaders – please help me?

Photos: Top – Socratic seminar group – St John’s Salt Lake City Alumni Group; Bottom – students generated and led an activity using art to understand a concept. 



a little learning is a dangerous thing

I came upon this allusion to Alexander Pope in Jane Austen yesterday. She writes:

Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice [fastidious or scrupulous]. Birth and good manners are essential, but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company; on the contrary, it will do very well. My cousin Anne shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious.

In Persuasion, protagonist Anne listens to cousin Mr Elliot, and disagrees on this point. If I recall it properly, from freshman year at college, Pope’s Essay on Man declares it this way:

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierean spring.

I stand corrected – checking my source, I see it does indeed come from Pope, but is found in “An Essay on Criticism”, the spring being the “metaphorical source of knowledge of art and science, according to Wikipedia.

I equated Anne’s listening to her cousin with my class reading, reading aloud, and  listening to Flannery O’Connor’s phrases this week “good country people” and “nice people”.  Like Anne, we hear the words but are uncertain how to judge them. Are they spoken ironically? Which characters are conscious of their own and others’ use of the terms as cant, or platitudes? I remember my instructor, “Lord” Grundt, telling “Clear your mind of cant” (another line from Pope, I believe).

For several days now, beginning when one student missed an assignment and offered to make it up, students have taken turns volunteering to lead class, with my support. Their decisions can frustrate me, but I proceed with the knowledge that they are taking small steps toward full self-directed learning and self-regulating.

It feels dangerous to me, as if perhaps these stories are too fragile, these students too delicate to read the best of short fiction without an experienced guide. I once had a friend who had led river raft trips in Utah and Colorado, and who explained that an experienced guide knows where all the rocks and currents are: navigating in June is very different from running the same rapids in August, as water levels change so much. What terrors might await us at the hands of an inexperienced pilot?

Well, so far this week we have survived the perils of two 45-minute classes and even the cataracts of a 90-minute block. Among the dangers well behind us are decisions about

  • how much time to spend on free reading
  • accountability
  • taking turns reading aloud
  • making sense of complex texts
  • discussions
  • analyzing diction

If I must me honest, no one fell out of the boat. Each leader had the opportunity to actually make decisions about how we spent our class time. Classmates all respected and responded to instructions given by the leader.

The class demonstrated that they were practicing self-directed learning and self-regulation.

I occasionally flourished and fluttered my reams of little notes, big notes, stacks of books, wildly and recklessly displaying my knowledge, preparation, willingness to bend over backward to assist if the ship went down, became worried that no Captain was there to steer them in a specific direction. I held my tongue until it was bruised.

In our case, a little learning was not a problem. We passed the dangers. I am pretty sure the students are better for it. As I listened to their conversations, circulating around the room, so many had picked up interesting insights about the characters and meaning of the stories. Certainly, I heard crazy interpretations and even one fascinating retelling, which I am pretty sure was a student embellishing a summary with many false details to see if his friends had actually read one of the sections for homework.

The morning felt relaxed, casual, yet businesslike. The uncomfortable knot I get in my stomach when we read a significant work of literature dissipated and I was able to enjoy the ride. 

Are you enjoying the ride today? 

Offer students more opportunities to take the helm. You may be in for the ride of your life.  






run away! ! !

Yes, I am obsessed with, and keep returning to Monty Python.

As inspiration, as nostalgia, as poultice; as philosophy.

Thanks in no small part to the gift of the COMPLETE Python collection on DVD, courtesy of best friend and science educator extraordinaire, Susan Berrend. Beneath a shared love of British gardens, humor, and baking shows (and no small affection for Oxford commas and Anglican prayers) resides an even deeper shared commitment to pedagogy, an unwavering interest in discerning student needs and experimenting with new ways to meet those needs.

Which brings me to the force of my allusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. King Arthur and his knights are on a quest, but when nearing a treasure horde which may yield the coveted grail, they are frightened by a rampant rabbit.

avoidance strategy

This year I have seen students avoid reading. Some practice what Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide – where students get assignments done without actually reading. This is ascribed to teacher expectations. One of my students, fascinated by problem-solving, is absolutely convinced that by dedicating time and energy to memorizing punctuation rules and grammar definitions she will inch her way forward and improve her standardized testing score.


running from or running toward?

Lest I forget that learning is social, and that literacy processes do not occur in a vacuum, these avoidance strategies serve to alert me to the motivating factors in my learners’ worlds.

One learner is driven to complete tasks as quickly as possible in order to move on to the social interactions they look forward to that day. Therefore they will do precisely what the teacher demands, in order to prove to their parent that their calendar is now open to schedule play dates and plan parties. My skill set allows me to integrate even those plans into journaling, research, organizing, and writing-to-learn; I can also involve cooking, makeup, and executive function lessons in authentic and meaningful ways.

For such a student, part of my challenge is to de-school the learner, who will benefit when they see learning as something one does for oneself, as opposed to what one does for others in authority. True, there are wonderful social benefits to the greater community when individuals grow intellectually and acquire wisdom; but one does not learn to love reading just to complete a checklist whose goal is to free one FROM reading.*

race to the finish

Today’s Preakness Stakes reminds me that other learners, like my prescriptive grammarian pupil, run headlong toward a clear goal they have set for themselves, which motivates them. Even if I do not understand the full enticements of these goals, I must acknowledge their power in putting a student in charge of her own learning.

My student can tell me how she learns best, what I should focus on, and how quickly she is improving; she can also relate which fall semester class she wants to qualify for, and how many minutes a day she will dedicate to this finish line. Now, I am no genius, but if you don’t like reading I am not sure why you would want to get into a course that expects you to do a ton of it. The challenge? Actually, I suspect that, like thoroughbreds, the air of competition somehow drives them to top performance.

Yet what role do I play as a democratic instructor who advocates for student voice and shared authority? As a trusted teacher and coach, I can offer advice and exercises that stretch the reader, inviting her take up a text and enjoy it.

I suspect that my I do not fully understand my influence at this time.

A couple of nights ago a school parent from the past recognized me at a concert, and made a point of telling me “Mr. Hultberg got me to like Shakespeare!” The parent also said that our production of King Lear made Shakespeare clear to them. This was poignant, since the performer on stage was Michael Bigelow, a jazz arranger and saxophonist, who had played Lear in that show, which I stage directed and Berrend tech directed.

I have also received a printed invitation to an upcoming ceremony at my current school, and I R.S.V.P.-ed in person to the preteen who had handed me the slip. She said, “I knew you would dress nice, because you always show … respect for people.”

At this moment I simply want to show my respect for the learning choices my students make, and to honor the freedom I claim to value.

When it is most important in their lives, I have to trust that my role as an engaged reader and lifelong learner will exert its due influence some day.

rabbit rampant

So the next time you are frightened by a rampant rabbit, or notice students running quicky in the opposite direction from which you wish to lead them, P A U S E. Remember that they are on a personal quest of their own, and nothing you can do will alter its course. Confide in your trusted friend as I do in mine; value your relationships with students and colleagues, knowing that others will be inspired by your commitment. Trust that what is most important to you – a garden, music – will not fail to exert its due influence in its time.

*Checklists: As I write this post, many of my students are actively engaged in reading ten books this summer in order to win free passes to the state fair!

Image at http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_7FAsUT6FePU/SWOhlsoMZgI/AAAAAAAAAdA/1Emq5jvchOc/s1600-h/Holy-Grail-Killer-Rabbit-Posters.jpg cited in Moviedeaths.blogspot.com

Degas painting public domain

Photo by GH pradlfan 5/17/2018


yesterday once more

When the emailed Groupon ad for Barry Manilow in Las Vegas at half price finally fell into my IN box, I wondered if there really might be something to this “algorithm” thing.

Did it know that I secretly hum Carpenters songs and “Could This Be The Magic?” as I ride my bike this spring?

image Fanpop.com

I had the same nostalgic feeling this morning as I stumbled upon a remark about teaching the art of conversation. It recalled me to the sense of purpose and excitement I had first felt as I completed my bachelor’s degree in Speech and Communication Studies.

Nostalgia is a persuasive tool.

Classroom Conversation

In an essay on Slow Teaching, Mike Grenier of Eton College describes using educational research to inform good teaching. Not much of a surprise, but one detail hurled me back to the ‘eighties with all the force of a Barry Manilow anthem:

I vividly recall the evenings sitting on the floor of our instructor’s home, circled up, reporting back our observations from that afternoon’s Human Interactions class small group discussions. It was the charting and turning of such discussion into data, and analyzing that through conversation theory that sparked my classroom practice of recording book discussions in English class.

I developed new charting systems – replacing Symlog with Kathleen Andrasick’s Opening Texts seating chart, tracking the added element of time with Martin Nystrand’s Opening Dialogue, and coaching student co-leaders to monitor their own participants’ contributions employing Victor Mueller’s In The Block series (e.g. Socratic Seminar in The Block).

Slow Teacher

According to Grenier, there are 4 essential maxims for the Slow Teacher, first established by conversation theorist Grice:

1. Manner

maintaining the most helpful order and structure in what we say

2. Quality

truthfulness or accuracy

3. Quantity

when to lecture, to talk, to prompt, or in fact to say nothing

4. Relevance

sticking to the topic

I strive to be an effective slow teacher, but find myself hurrying to catch up to students who are scurrying away.

In my next post, I want to take a look at why they are running, and what they are hurrying toward.


best practice

The funniest play I have directed is the one-act “Sure Thing” by David Ives. Two strangers–a man and a woman–meet in a cafe, and the man make many choices that abruptly terminate the conversation. Each time, the conversation is punctuated by the ding of a bell, and resumes immediately from the beginning, a little like Groundhog Day. For instance, he asks “What are you reading?” and when she tells him, he says “never read it.”


“What are you reading?”

“War and Peace”

“Ah! Tolstoy.” And this time the conversation is allowed to continue its path.


When I wish that life were like art, I wish it worked like the conversations in this play. Take job interviews.

In January I was asked about my favorite author. “Charles Dickens.”

February, the interview got to the next stage, with a different cast.

Best book you’ve read all year? “Leo Strauss and The Problem of Political Philosophy“.


March. Favorite American author? “Truman Capote.”


Favorite historical period. “That’s easy. Victorian. Oh, and Regency. Uh, pretty much the whole Nineteenth Century. British.”


“And the Enlightenment.”


“O.K. Medieval and Renaissance. Chaucer, Shakespeare … Sorry, I can’t leave out Jane Austen. And then there’ Middlemarch, the best novel of all time. So, yeah, like I said – Victorian England. But the book is set 30 years before she writes it, see?



Once recently, I was practicing naming the best book of the year and why i thought so. I was on my bike, riding and riding, constructing a free response answer. Modifying, revising, editing. I tortured myself because I wanted honesty, but also depth.

My final answer: Robicheaux by James Lee Burke. Not too political, not too highbrow, a good solid literary hardboiled.

The next interview, though, they didn’t even ask.


I think the best practice for interviews is more interviews. I have been practicing a lot lately. I though one went really well a few months ago. I could work here. Before leaving I asked, “Hey, do you know Bob Smith?”


I saw Bob later that day, and he said he had been let go for refusing to post positive mentions of the American President on his Facebook page. A friend overheard us and said “That’s illegal”. Not in this state.


I have been practicing saying very little: keep it brief.

What do you know about [our organization]? “Oh, I know everything, are you kidding? First, there was — And then — After that you added — And then I come to the — [I continue telling all I know about the company – and I mean everything]”


A “DoNotReply” email expresses gratitude, “Applicant”, for my interest in their organization.


And then there is my favorite:

Do you have any questions for us?

“Do I!!??? I thrive on curiosity! Can I ask you …”

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!

David Ives knew what he was doing.




Moonlighting until tomorrow

I always thought there was something fundamentally broken or unfair about people needing to “moonlight” by taking a second job outside their vocation. I had consumed a steady diet of TV police dramas featuring daytime cops with evening jobs as bouncers, security detail, bodyguards, driver safety instructors. Then I began to notice teachers working extra jobs, too. Last year, one of my colleagues supplemented her full time teacher pay working as a waitress at a local restaurant. When did she see her family?

The job of teacher is demanding enough, consuming all one’s time and energy, without the added stress of more time and work. It would feel more whole, be more just, if our teachers could just remain dedicated to their professional art and craft and have time for family, friends, and community; for rest and remaining current in their fields. How do I remain true to my calling while earning enough to survive, now, and retire, later?

Other professions, too, require clean hands: a similar investment of time, service, and diplomacy that appears both impartial and above reproach. The teacher’s craft compares with the doctor’s, clergy’s, governor’s. Many of us cheer the idea of a politician whose hands are not sullied by an inordinate desire for money, and who can practice the wonderful work of statecraft without becoming dependent on the money offered by the pharmaceutical industry or gun lobby. I am thinking that there are noble ideals in teaching; but in acknowledging them I must be wary not to judge myself against an unrealistic ideal. Where do my ideals come from?

The movies

If we applaud the home-y philosopher-stateswoman who is not beholden to special interests, we are not necessarily alienated by the Western-genre myth of a person hired to “clean up the town”. See our mythic heroes John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. A higher ideal guides such characters, now seen as archetypal, who have come to be embodied in John Ford and Frank Capra movies.

Sometimes these characters step into volatile situations, act to temporarily bring about equilibrium, and leave the town stronger, cleaner, and more whole than when they arrived. All of us humans are touched by some evil or threat of harm, and even if we temporarily gun it down or fight it off, it will outlive us because only something like a love altogether more powerful will disable it. Hints of such better futures are also found in ideal film performances by Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. But they are perpetuated in new and original films such as The Post and The Shape of Water in performancesby Meryl Streep and Sally Hawkins.

Both Casablanca and Gone with the Wind end with lovers parting, and someone walking off into a mist, the words “beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “tomorrow is another day” reverberate in the theater as the score swells and the camera zooms out. But we overlook the romanticized heroism or love that redeems such flawed people. Rhet and Rick are profiteers with “hearts of gold”, but they admire idealism in others. Rick sees Ilsa’s and Rhet sees Scarlett’s. Louis is a Nazi sympathizer by convenience; Rhet will fight on the side of the South if it pays better. Everyone is caught between the real world, with its demand for practical tasks, time, and money; and the ideal world, with its tough and courageous love that sacrifices all for family, love, and justice. And most of us, rather than being in love with a single task-specific aspect of our teaching jobs, such as grading papers or taking attendance, are aligned to a more general, abstract habit, such a coaching learners toward independence or encouraging creativity in others.


That is why I feel the vocation of teaching is caught at this moment in history, caught, like night club owner Rick in Casablanca, between the practical responsibility of running his business (casino, black market) and the romantic heroism of aiding the helpless. In an early scene establishing his virtue and higher calling, he protects a married woman from having to compromise her marriage at the hands of a ruthless, predatory male (who can give her safe passage out of Casablanca in exchange for sexual favors) by fixing the roulette game to ensure her husband wins, then sending them away on an alternate route to safety.

In traditional and archetypal film style, the heroic male is costumed in white and lit strongly; in this shot, I see how Hungarian-born immigrant director Michael Curtiz focuses on the woman’s idolizing gaze at Bogie (Rick), as he, a knight in shining armor, defends her; and while the real love of her life, the man in the foreground, entrusts his savings to Rick. The romantic triangle in tableau foreshadows the actual one eventually played out when Ilsa bargains for her own husband’s safe passage, in order to continue fighting against the Nazis and leading his countrymen to freedom through resistance.

I like hopeful endings: they satisfy my acknowledged preference for justice and honor. I fear that, with many other people today, I also share an unacknowledged preference for the unreal Western myth to be realized in the midst of our daily real lives.

Thus it comes about that we have an national dicussion on the table about whether I, a classroom teacher, should be armed with a pistol in order to protect and defend my students.

The film buff in me has always wanted to be Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart — with a little Hercule Poirot and Fred Astaire thrown in.

Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, PUNK?

But I sense there is a collision of worlds in this scenario I have not acknowledged. It is a clash between the Platonic ideal of Teacher and the practical reality of Bodyguard. Yet some idealism about my work remains implanted in me. I am hopeful that my vocation and my workplace can retain their integrity of purpose. Learning happens in an environment that is safe, peaceful, and fun; when Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith makes his stand in Congress against corruption, he uses his proper tool, his voice, until it wears out; when Eastwood as Dirty Harry patrols the streets of San Francisco to stop a deranged serial killer, he carries the appropriate tool of his trade, a handgun. Movie teachers, in their fictional worlds, carry their spectacles, their Browning versions, their chalk, and their occasional cane or ruler.

Just what America needs in the classroom: one more phallic symbol of authority and force. I remember a much earlier national conversation steered by the Western myth. We considered the “Star Wars defense system” proposed by Hollywood actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan. To most of my friends, such a mistaken idea was a collision between two worlds: one fictional, in which war was glamorized because it symbolized noble human deeds and ideas (Jedi Knights and The Force) pitted against monstrous cruelty and power (Darth Vader and the Death Star); the other nonfiction, in which human beings on either side might bleed and die, and no one could say with certainty which were the monsters and who the humans.

Fortunately, there are women to compete with this myth of masculine power. Katharine Graham, whose strength towers over the men in her Washington, D.C. world, those attempting to exert force over her publishing The Pentagon Papers in The Post, resists their influence in order to make her independent choices.

Graham shown here with Truman Capote

As another Academy Award ceremony is telecast, viewers have a choice of new myths in which to believe. The stories themselves may not be new, since they include historical accounts of such events as The Battle of Dunkirk and the fight to publish The Pentagon Papers. Yet the expression of such stories is meaningful and original.

We witness Katharine Graham make a choice that exposes years of top level government officials’ knowledge about the unwinnability of the Viet Nam war; and in The Shape of Water we feel a tyrant’s monstrous contempt for life, beauty, and weakness countered by a mute cleaning-woman’s love and respect for a captive and complex being. Filmmakers, actors, and writers are only a few of the craftspersons serving as today’s “shapers”, the scops [singer-poets] John Gardner wrote about in his 1971 novel Grendel, a reshaping of the Beowulf epic from the creature’s point of view.

empowered teachers

The decisive Moments in our lives are born in the moments we feel the most powerless. We still need heroes, underdogs, and champions; but we must choose them more carefully today.

On Friday I saw a refreshing film hero with an ancient weapon.

I enjoy knowing that the students next to me during the screening admired this teenage girl’s tenacity; two weeks earlier, I had noticed a couple of others picking out the perfect airsoft assault rifle from an online catalog.

Clearly, we are not the first generation to critique the Hollywood commercialization of the myth of the Old West – its glamor, its icons, its hostility to indigenous peoples and disempowerment of women. Unlike some, though, I don’t feel the need to remove all traces of a trigger-happy culture or of a past for which anyone with privilege used it without a second thought. Warhol alters an iconic image so that we can never see it again as we did before. As summer scholars in El Paso at the recent NEH-sponsored “Tales from the Chihuahuan Desert: Borderland Narratives”, we secondary teachers and UTEP program directors Joseph Rodríguez and Ignacio Martinez saw value in keeping old monuments standing alongside newly erected ones, in order that the whole story could be told and no voices silenced. This new figure of a Tiguan woman stands not far from the Chamizal Memorial and U.S.-Mexico border, whereas previous Texas statues tended to honor conquistadors.

El Paso Times photo

I do believe there is room for a plurality of voices; new monuments and new myths can help to reinterpret the past and to invite participation in a more hopeful future. In a scene from Middlemarch, author George Eliot composes the view from the window of Dorothea’s future house, “happy” on one side, but “melancholy” on the other; she establishes that in “this latter end of autumn”, in the house’s sunless interior “air of autumnal decline” Dorothea’s fiance Casaubon has “no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.” Dual images compete for Dorothea’s attention, the happy side including a small park, a fine old oak, a pleasure-ground, and an avenue of limes “melting into a lake in the setting sun.” The landscapes and interiors represent a choice between two futures: from the same single vantage point today, any of us might look ahead in time in multiple directions and project either dismal and sunless or cheerful and pleasant days ahead. We may not have the agency to effect a change in our circumstance when things appear hopeless. Yet our outlook might take on a new shape given the myth in which we find ourselves.

vocational training

Our teaching can take new shape in response to new students. As Philip Davis writes in The Transferred Life of George Eliot (Oxford 2017), George Eliot had begun one novel in 1869 and set it aside, only to begin a “different novel instead” in November 1870, more than a year later.

The story was of an ardent young woman, Dorothea Brooke, a modern St Theresa though ‘foundress of nothing’, seeking, without the structure of a clear faith, a vocation and an epic life in the modern world. … As D H Lawrence said of George Eliot … ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’

Eliot sets aside one kind of work for another, and her result is Middlemarch, in which she eventually found room to accommodate both stories. And in contrast with film, which by its nature externalizes action, she transfers action to the inside. Her influence is felt in genres as diverse as the mysteries of P.D. James, the hardboileds of Ross Macdonald, and the YA of Sara Zarr.

Marian Evans as the novelist George Eliot is a true teacher, having used the art of poetry to fashion little worlds in which characters investigate vocation, question faith, and imagine better futures. Just imagine if all our classrooms could be little laboratories like hers!

One of the drawbacks to such rooms, worlds, and communities is that it takes a good deal of time to read and probe, through open dialogue – true Socratic dialectic – and reflect on vocation, faith, future, and authority. I feel helpless and disempowered when the school schedule, class size, curriculum, and student interest and inexperience prohibit frequent use of such authentic investigations. Such lack of agency can lead to shame when I seek part-time work for which an education is not required. I have applied for my share of odd jobs in recent month, from library aide to UPS clerk to cafe attendant; and I have done some moonlighting that puts my expertise to work as a copy editor, test-prep tutor, and background actor. At this stage, for me, it is realistic to work part-time jobs, in order to press on toward an ideal class in which students use their voice, participate in community decisions, acquire abiding understanding of ideas and how they work, and have agency.

Such ideals are shaped less, I find, by the myth of teacher-as-hero than by the ability of my students to see themselves as having a role in their own future. Maybe it is time I acknowledge learner-as-hero mythology. [Icarus, Bildungsroman, Fellowship of the Rings, Karate Kid]

changing the narrative

When my students have agency and hope, I am able to step in and guide, support, or nudge them in my role as a learning coach. I can replace outdated or unrealistic myths with models and mentors who show me how to be flexible, patient, and strategic as a teacher. There remains for me a temptation to put off tomorrow, as Scarlet O’Hara does, till “another day”; and to subvert the traditional broken and unjust systems of authority as the anti-hero Dirty Harry does. I have even been attracted to the notion of placing it all on the roulette wheel, cashing out, and leaving the game, like a Casablanca character.

But my calling goes deep, and has a history dating at least back to Socrates, who believed there was justice in showing young people how to question received traditions, systems, and authorities; and there was poetry in the art of speaking properly about humans and divinities. Today social justice is a key term along with agency, and a motivating force in pedagogy which seeks to empower both students and teachers as literate citizens making a difference in society.

Movies and teachers can work to change the narrative stars by which young people sail on their journeys.

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