Archive for the 'Gordon Pradl' Category


from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.


“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.


This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.


Images: top to bottom – posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review:

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.


oh my classroom! my wife!

Oh my Russia! My wife! 
                 Aleksandr Blok 1908, quoted in Lyric Poetry and Modern PoliticsLyric Poetry and Modern Politics
In Chapter 1 of Clare Cavanagh’s award-winning Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Blok and WB Yeats are paired as poets who employ the lyric, a language art of the middle class, to represent the peasants, the common people. Both Modernists used for their art a literary tradition alien to those they claimed to represent. In this I identify with them. Much of the material my students read is alien to them at first, though much of it part of our literary tradition.
This short week has borne witness to their sorties with the sonnet, tussles with Twelfth Night, and naunachies with the nineteenth century novel. How did they fare, you ask? What seems important to me is not so much how they fared, but that they engaged the alien forces at all. The moment a reader engages with a text, a transaction occurs with another living being. What I am pondering this morning is that perhaps the teacher’s job is to keep these living encounters frequent, numerous, and suited to the reader.
On the way to maturity as readers, our students are like subjects rebelling against the tyranny of alien texts, like the common people of a nation, divided against its gentry. Cavanagh writes,  “This divide between the gentry and the people is articulated in terms of an endlessly thwarted courtship between the poet and the elusive, beloved nation embodied in feminine form.” The relationship she describes between the poet and his country feels very personal to me, because it mirrors the one I have with my own classes. At the same time as I am courting a class, teaching it to dance to the rhythms of traditional prose and poetry, I am asking it to listen to its own voice, traditions, and folk rhythms, and to assert itself confidently and resistantly in the dance of ideas and action. I need them to write and perform their own music;  when the courtship ends, they will have become an independent people and I will be
Clare Cavanagh writes that “once achieved, this artistic nation will have no further need of the bards who helped to herald it s ascent or bring it into being.” Ha, I am in the business of planned obsolescence! Like lyric poetry in the hands of Blok or Yeats, the art and craft of teaching literature for democracy ought to terminate with a revolution. “Practiced properly, the genre should lead inevitably to its own extinction.”
I hope the analogy between the political poet and the literature instructor who shares authority with students hasn’t worn out yet. If by engaging in transactions with living texts students learn the democratic habits of exercising freedom and responsible action, then we teachers must offer maturing  readers and writers access to traditional and nontraditional texts and genres.
 Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing
Peter Elbow, in Vernacular Eloquence (acknowledgments),  mentions people well-known to this blog through their work: Craig Hancock, Sheridan Blau, and Tom Newkirk–active crusaders in the fight to offer all students equal access to their own language, and to the traditions of that language. Also mentioned is playwright AR Gurney, who not only uses language poetically, but simultaneously employs and questions traditions of theater and this American  life.
Engagement with text in a democratic classroom may produce democratic reading activities and, one hopes, a nation of students who choose to become involved not only in reading and writing, but in thought transformed into right action. Thoreau writes:
      For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better
      to talk about it: that we say is our mission. Reform keeps many scores of newspapers in its service, but not one man.
      (On Civil Disobedience)
No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems
Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, sings democracy in the pages of No Enemies, No Hatred.
     “If you yourself believe that you have a human conscience and are willing to follow it, then expose your conscience to
     the sunlight of public opinion and let it shine there for all people to see, especially for the dictators to see. (27)
Both he and Thoreau are describing ordinary people who become a “force that undermines the system of enslavement” – whether in China or Massachusetts.
How do we teachers carry on this liberating, life-changing work? Well, for a start, as Sherman Alexie said at Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe at his Absolutely True… signing, “Books, books, books, books, books, books, books, books, books.” He was speaking of the liberating effects of reading on readers. Do all we can to help students engage with books. But a second aspect of engagement is more puzzling to me. When I open the reading and writing notebooks students keep for class, I see a trail of evidence that I have tried to engage individuals by responding directly to their journal entries, asking a question that might extend the comment into an authentic dialogue. It has become disheartening to consider the minuscule percentage that actually continue this dialogue without further prompting.
If what I said at the outset is correct: that the moment a reader engages with a text, a transaction occurs with another living being, then even the few words we write down for our students in notes, letters, and comments may hold transformative power. I asked if the teacher’s job were to keep these living encounters “frequent, numerous, and suited to the reader”. The fear, I admit, is that even after having learned its personality, its academic needs, its reading likes and dislikes, my courtship is being “endlessly thwarted” by the “elusive beloved”, my classroom, my “wife”. Because the intended learning is never actually realized in such a case, then, my job is not made obsolete. Rather, its relevance increases. An element of trust is necessary from here. We must trust that into each students hands will fall the appropriate words, the note or poem or book that resonates within, awakening that reader and writer to the other living beings out there desiring to communicate with and even to set them free.
Maybe it is time to think back and recall the most vivid memories of writers who called us to action. That love note in a first grade lunch box with the Disney characters on it–the shock of seeing “OMIGOD” written across the page-top balloon in a sci-fi comic book in fifth grade–the jolt of Sikes’s dog’s brains being dashed out–Thomas Hardy’s description of Clem Yeobright–the first valentine from my real wife, Sara. And what were out responses? Imitations, replies. I also remember questioning my tenth grade teacher’s assertion that a symbol in Jane Eyre meant what she claimed it did. Somehow Charlotte Bronte had reached across time and given me courage to act on my question by posing it during class. To this day it is one of the only high school lessons I recall.
What are you doing to engage your students in fresh encounters with language and living beings? What are the words summoning you to action? Do you share these with them?

Thinking in pictures or s.o.l.

I hold before my mental eye Unfolding the Napkin, American Born Chinese, When I’m Playing with My Cat…, and Academic Conversations–distinctly different books using a variety of graphic images to convey distinctly different ideas. Just yesterday my sophomore English class enjoyed a Skype visit with Gene Yang, American Born Chinesewhose graphic novel caused an outbreak of reading and laughing, and whose warm personality translated as a love for people and joy at his craft.  His skill at combining eastern and western cultures in comic form led to great conversations about racial stereotypes, the juxtaposition of Judeo-Christian religious text with Taoist images, and the complex relationship between art and faith.Unfolding the Napkin by Dan Roam

An hour ago I was tilting both my head and the page in several directions, as I fiddled with the effect of the “anamorphic skull” in a Holbein painting appended to a chapter on the friendship between Boetie and Montaigne in My Cat… . I had wanted to teach a humanities class this year, but had too few sign-ups for the elective. I would have used a painting just such as the one they describe so well, full of contradictions and divisions brought into subjection under a timeless friendship. [The skull is at the bottom, a diagonal shape.]

At my elbow is Dan Roam’s napkin book, subtitled “The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures”, which led me promptly to begin illustrating every thought in my head. (I’m done.) And I previewed Zwiers & Crawford’s practical guide to classroom conversations in math, science, language arts, and history, which uses charts and graphs creatively and effectively throughout. I see myself as knowing and practicing the instructional principles they advocate, yet having learned to do so only through many years of trial and error,  the techniques found piecemeal; to see them organized here in a resource for teachers is a way of clarifying for me just how much classroom conversations can achieve.  The latter two books make me envious, because while I appreciate a well-placed diagram, I wish I could use one better when I present information to my students and peers. I also enjoy teaching young people how to use drawings, diagrams, and graphic organizers to arrange information and to both reflect thinking and to cultivate more thinking; I only wish I could do it consistently.

Behind me in the next room lies Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, a book whose heft, color, and imagination drew my AP students into a sensuous experience: they had to touch every page. Over the weekend I attended the Karl Jenkins Mass for Peace, which was accompanied by a slide-show and some motion picture images at the Salt Lake Choral Artists performance. I came away feeling the visuals detracted from the power of the music rather than enhancing it, whereas in the Matt Kish book, only a fraction of the original Melville novel is actually printed, so I don’t feel as though there is a competition between the word and image.

The marriage of text and image is undoubtedly as old as the melding of music and lyrics – if we allow text to mean verbal language either written, spoken, or sung. [I was intrigued by a definition of writing as “language choice on paper” in Writing To Learn, co-authored by Gordon Pradl, whichI have been adapting to include non-print media.] But the English classroom has done a pretty good job of obviating those pesky images that interfere with pure text, as if our classes are laboratories in which the practice of pure science is conducted and, like teenaged Kants or Descartes, the celebrants at the altar of philosophy remain unsullied by sensual experience, so as to render themselves more valid thinkers. Poppycock!

As a concession to the digital age, I am supporting my sophomores as they conduct an experiment in which half the class, randomly divided, watches the film To Kill A Mockingbird prior to reading the novel, and the other half reads the book first then views the movie. They want to determine how and if the experiences of the two groups differ.

But as much fun as it has been considering the illustrations for various purposes, from fiction to philosophy, I have a far less esoteric need for consulting a drawing at the moment: my old iron has left a yellow water spot on my new white french cuffed shirt, leaving me in a deep funk. According to the illustrations in the highly specialized plans at Proctor-Silex, which look as though a military expert must have been involved in their preservation (“Your secret mission: capture a seventh generation photocopy on microfiche.”) . My favorite is page 4, “Know Your Iron”. Apparently I was supposed to empty the iron of water after each steaming. Does everyone do that? Or am I the only one who perennially manages to get a water stain on the only white shirt I own as soon as it is out of its packaging and unpinned?

If I, who grew up poring over instruction manuals for stereo equipment and model cars, am mocking this online aid for its antiquated feel, I have to believe that my own digitally native students must react similarly when I turn on the old overhead (I made a pact with myself NOT to this year!) or crank out another handout in Times New Roman, where the greatest stylistic choice is between 10 and 12 point fonts (I have gone mostly paperless as well).  What is new is the expectation by a reader or viewer suckled on technology to be fed a diet of images that do some of the work that text has previously done. But what is also relatively new is that those of us who were used to a text-rich environment are learning to read visual matter in an image-rich environment as well. I am embarrassed when I look back at my manually typed college papers with their idiosyncrasies of uneven margins, variable ink supply, and erasures, and I compare them with the contemporary papers produced on word processors with variable fonts and optional illustrating graphics, which look so much sharper in presentation alone, regardless of content.

Visual presentation of ideas has always been important, whether it’s Jesus holding out a loaf and a cup, a font or typeset whose beauty is described in loving detail on the last page of any quality book, or posters for a Presidential campaign or the War Effort. Words and images matter to our culture. As a teacher, I can help create a media-rich environment for my students that begins with the bulletin board, but extends to my wiki, white board, walls, and web sites I encourage our class to use, such as Goodreads, or Diigo-style internet bookmarks, post-its, and highlighters. I like to use color when I comment on electronic paper submissions. Ultimately, the students assume control as they become the ones who design and create the look of the class wiki, compose graphic novels of their own, or put together a stylish and polished paper or power point presentation.

I would be interested to learn what others are doing to offer their students more control over their learning environments, and ultimately over their own writing and other productions. My secret fear is that some of my sophomores will prefer the film to the book, and civilization as we know it will tumble. My secret is out. I suspect that the very best thing I can do is to allow them the freedom to arrive at their conclusion, and encourage them to explore and evaluate the reasons behind their judgments. Now that Halloween is ended, what terrors and secrets do you hide?


Doctor Demento, Gateway Drug

As high school sophomores, we drama freaks knew Olympia beer was “piss water”, and our discriminating tastes praised concord grape wine above wanna-bes like Thunderbird or the yet uninvented Bartles and Jaymes. Shakespeare and George S. Kaufman put Booth Tarkington to shame. For real comedies and dramas depicted worlds that were tenuous, crazy, and unstable, not unfamiliar to us who were waiting to turn 18 soon and be eligible for the draft. We had watched tv coverage of troops sent home from Viet Nam and a President’s resignation, and in months would see that of the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. We had discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS and would soon discover twin late-night bulwarks against the world’s insanity and its taste for insipid sit-coms or milquetoast dramas:  our antidote? “Creature Features” and “The Dr. Demento Show”.

While Night of the Living Dead and the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing imports from Britain reigned as staples of my weekend horror film viewing, Shel Silverstein’s readings of his own poems became my FM listening highlights of the week. My friends and I would recite “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” in our own Sterling Holloway-swallowed-gravel voices, along with other artists’ compositions such as  “Dead Puppies” and “Fish Heads”. Both shows featured hosts who playfully enjoyed the fans, the genres, the creators of films and songs; and the worse the production values, the larger the audience. In fact, it seems to me that the songs and films actively resisted society’s definitions or limits of good taste and, naturally, we  followed.

As I read an essay in last Sunday’s NYTimes in praise of the “scary, silly, and sophisticated” books by Sendak, Dr. Suess, and Silverstein, I thought about the role those “gateway” programs played in forging my literary and dramatic tastes. The article, which reminds us that at one time these “classics” forced readers to ask “‘Is it appropriate for a children’s book to be raising such questions?'”, struck a chord with me because this week in my classroom students were engaged in dialogue about the appropriateness, even for adults, of the subject of Anna Karenina, and the role of literature.

“Aren’t books supposed to make you happy?”

I was delighted to hear my students articulating various points of view, and referring back to Tolstoy’s opening sentence about happy and unhappy families as a basis for their defense of a literature esthetic. I have held for about five years or more now the opinion that a primary goal of high school education is that students graduate with a personally worked out ethics of reading, something along the lines of a reasoned defense for being life-long readers. The culmination of many years of such ruminations might be the writing of an article such as Bill Keller’s mid-life defense of poetry, or a book-length treatise like Edward Veith’s Reading Between the Lines; but where and when does our sense of literature’s purpose begin? I am certain I was observing its sprouting and growth this week, and I am grateful for the glimpse I was given.

I overheard juniors and seniors grappling with the question of the appropriate subject of a book,  sophomores asking whether a graphic novel was blasphemous or reverent in its use of biblical allusion, and freshmen pleading for time to write poetry and read books, bending their definitions of poetry around the uses, tastes, and preferences of every person in the room.  There was an impulse however, as the observing teacher, to influence each of these situations. As will be clear from the foregoing, my preconception allows for any ethical point of view–providing it considers as a staple of the literary diet copious reading. More particularly, I hope the diet is hearty and well-balanced, consisting of lots of roughage and no artificial sweeteners. Honestly, though, I didn’t start eating like that until my forties, and I don’t read like that most of the time even now. Can it be that I am looking to my own students to reinforce my own self-imposed restrictions and assumptions about what is worth while to read? I am so certain about my own convictions that I can be certain I am teaching them, both consciously and unconsciously.

What I must guard against, then, is the impulse to discount any opinion which may run contrary to my own. I have to be silent in the classroom long enough to hear the voices of students who do not yet (and may never) share my convictions about good books. Just because I might have reached the conclusion that books I read ought to cover a breadth of human experience, as Tolstoy’s does, I need to act on behalf of the liberty of young people to disagree, and to shape their own ideas and definitions of what literature can be and should do.

Such disagreement relates to Gordon Pradl’s notion of the usefulness of resistance. By providing a social environment in which, and a text against which, readers may freely respond, we teachers strengthen a student’s ability to resist a given or accepted reading or standard, and to argue more skilfully and confidently. It is enough–and I must trust that it is enough–to select the best words (and images) by women and men which do invite student questions, Tolstoy, Robert Cormier, Gene Yang, and Adam Zagajewski, Anne Overstreet, Sara Zarr, Madeleine L’Engle, and Toni Morrison. Words that spark a conversation so compelling that readers will never forget the feeling associated with the opportunity to define the world for themselves. It may be such clarifying questions that Richard Peck has in mind in his Invitation to The World:  “Novels need to raise the questions no one else is raising in the lives of readers.

If for this teenager Dr. Demento’s radio show was a gateway drug to the silly, scary, sophisticated inebriation of the written word, how are young people today getting hooked on the hard stuff? Books, graphic novels, SLAM poetry, music lyrics: some of these have traditionally been in students’ control.  Does the term “controlled substance” deserves to be reexamined? Who is in control of what we read? Is there a proper substance for academic reading in secondary school? One might argue for an appropriately stuffy canon of books that deal with the human condition as tragic dramatists or metaphysical poets do; but I urge you to let them read Shel Silverstein alongside a Shakespearean sonnet or The Chocolate War before Paradise Lost. Students, fascinated by the ethics of truth-telling Tim O’Brien’s “Ambush”, will discuss, write about, and read further in relation to the topic in Kant, Bonhoeffer, and The Bible, in search of words that support their point of view, or that suggest how they are to construct a view they hadn’t yet considered.

“The novel is called The Last Safe Place on Earth because there isn’t one”. – Richard Peck, Invitations to the World: Teaching and Writing for The Young, Dial Books NY 2002.

Image Source: Getty Images (in Keller’s NYT article)


Discerning Wisdom, Reb Saunders style

Yesterday’s entry featured a picture of illustrator Barry Moser (beside his “Moby Dick” illustration), whose Pennyroyal Press “Frankenstein” illustrations have led several classes of my students in Brit Lit to name that novel as a favorite. Photograph of American artist Barry Moser, by Cara MoserAs questions about compassion and justice arise for them, students refer to the text and to Moser’s artwork. As Moser told me on Saturday at The Glen in Santa Fe, the book is “not a great novel, but it’s a great myth”.

Among the book’s mythic qualities may be its ageless wisdom, which calls for acts of attention. It would be wise for Victor to pay attention to his creature, to have empathy, to discern one like himself in the hideous face of the daemon. We too ought to consider the obstacles and prejudices that keep us from caring for the people (and created things) around us, and acting justly toward them. Treasuring wisdom and acting with discernment are twin virtues; practicing one without the other is a useless exercise.

Here is Pascal: “Justice.–As custom determines what is agreeable, so also does it determine justice.” (Pensees #309)

File:Blaise Pascal 2.jpg

I have been wondering if it is a teacher’s role to model the enactment of social justice, as a new book seems to argue, or rather to model what it looks like for us to think things through, then act on our beliefs. Is the learning objective for a student to act as we would have her act, or to use discernment, even if it means she will act contrary to our desires?

How do we live out global justice if Pascal is correct, and its definition truly changes with custom – with time and place?   Because the multiple narrators of “Frankenstein” allow us to feel with various characters, we can see that their sense of justice depends upon “custom”: Victor, the Daemon, and the aptly named Justine each see a view of justice determined by custom. The Daemon, for instance, self-taught and observant, understands justice in a way that contrasts with the society’s definition of it.

While I do believe we can teach in order to help students become active participants in democracy, teaching for “justice” may be an incomplete objective. If understanding justice may be said to be a kind of wisdom, then discerning whose definition of justice prevails or is most true is a complementary (and necessary) skill. Reading Plato, Pascal, and the prophets on “justice” would raise thought-provoking questions about who determines what is just – revelation? the State? the individual? the oppressed? the majority? the wealthy? – and it requires us all individually to evaluate competing alternatives and draw conclusions about how we will live, and whose justice we will work toward. This sounds like democratic citizenship.

I get a sense that if disagreements about how to practice our justice become too heated, with one person’s justice another one’s injustice, teachers hoping for a peaceful and serenely wise interpretive community could feel threatened. Of all people, we are the ones who need to model risk-taking for our students, providing an environment where their questioning of established wisdom is allowed, for it is only through the practice of such negotiations of meaning that they can construct a system of beliefs and understandings that will enable them to move out into the world and act in accordance with their beliefs. It seems like we have two choices as teachers: to establish a classroom which instructs people in selected virtues, and then expects our selected virtues to be lived out in the room and in life; or we participate as co-learners, practicing reading texts of all kinds together, encouraging vigorous yet civil discussion and discernment between multiple viewpoints. In the first scenario we must trust in ourselves to select and instruct carefully, building an environment which privileges those with the same views. The alternative trusts the students, the democratic process. Which takes more faith?

I feel like the character Reb Saunders in “The Chosen”, who shares as his source of wisdom the same Hebrew Scriptures as Mr. Malter, yet while Malter preaches the need for leaders to establish their own Jewish state after WWII, Saunders places faith in God to establish such a state through a Messiah – even if it means waiting patiently while suffering. Both men pray for justice, but they disagree about how to enact it.

For them, the conversation is over. For us, it must begin every day. Our skill must be in keeping the dialogue open, in valuing the exchange. Our options are not really that limited; it does not have to be all action (as if we were Macbeth) not all inaction (as if we were Prufrock). A balance requires patience for student inquiry to unfold in its own time, and appropriate intervention to help keep the conversation productive. As we exercise discernment about what to say and when, students will learn that we value an environment that permits inquiry, invites risk-taking, and shares decision-making. We model discernment, based on a belief that such an environment contributes to growth in individual responsibility.

If we teach students to practice discernment, we (and they) can choose almost any interesting text and will find that students employ it to engage in compelling discussions. The best texts offer examples of thinking and feeling individuals trying to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. As students struggle with identifying whose voice has authority (a character’s, author’s, teacher’s, or peer’s), they negotiate wisdom. The art of such discernment goes hand in hand with the arts of attention and the hope of living wise and caring lives.

[Illustrations: Pascal portrait 17th C. anonymous; Barry Moser credit: Cara Moser]


Whose Wisdom? (“Teaching Literacy” Part 2)

In the second half of Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom, Wilhelm and Novak share a vision for the future of education. I am aware of the irony of a “Christian school” -teacher feeling uncomfortable with the evangelical fervor with which the book makes its case, as it calls for us to  “spread” this “worldview” to the “masses of world citizens” (192). They call for nothing less than a “reawakening”, arguing that it is “our central task as human beings to teach others to “bring their separate odysseys into fruitful convergence” (195). But I am uneasy. I hope I can explain why.

Building on a foundation laid by Gordon Pradl and Sheridan Blau, the authors’ ideas of students dialoguing about texts shift away from conversations about texts of all kinds toward texts that resonate with the ideals of a classical era – books from the eastern and western canons, especially sacred texts.

What is important and valuable in their book is the attention it gives to why we feel called to teach in the first place: the souls of our students, the desire to make a difference, and the belief that education must address the needs of the whole child, not intellectual, physical, or spiritual growth alone. Because practicing wisdom means (in this book) learning about and acting upon our desires for justice and compassion, I agree with their concept. The Hebrew scriptures contain the following in Micah Chapter 6:

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

But one of the drawbacks I see as possible with educating children for wisdom as a national “American” practice (American democracy is foundational to the theory that drives the vision) is that such wisdom is inextricably merged with a view of God as well as of humanity. Therefore, if the highest aim we have is the establishment of peaceful, kind, and just communities worldwide which change culture, create hope, and eventually offer happy coexistence to all citizens, this seems a supernatural feat. The authors admit that nothing short of spiritual awakenings, one soul at a time, will succeed in altering the world positively, given its track record. In the verse above, doing justice and loving kindness are requirements–not options. It seems to me that the whole program of education set forth in “Literacy” would be much easier if we stopped teaching literature altogether, and began teaching Hebrew prophets. If, as they see it, all wisdom teachers (sages) essentially agree, then why not simplify things, and read only one or two who put it most concisely. Really, how much easier could a  life statement be than this: be humble before your God, and do good to others?

If the end result is really to have a whole culture made up of people who follow such a spiritual practice devotedly, performing acts of mercy, and pursuing justice, with the understanding that only spiritual renewal will allow such transformations, then by all means begin to teach only the sacred books, and make it so easy a child could understand it – a portion of St John, a dash of Jeremiah. We could all appeal to an influential God who arguably has made a big difference in societies all over the world (the God of Abraham), asking for the enlightenment that will let us see Him, see each other, and to “know as we are known” (an allusion the authors make to 2 Corinthinas 13: 12, which in context says: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”) But as an English teacher this would severely limit the value of my credential and all that reading! What do I do with all that Melville knowledge? No, we turn to the great books because they communicate their wisdom in vastly diverse eloquences, available not only to those whose eyes have been opened, but to anyone in a learning community who is willing to make sense out of words on a page, and open to listening.

[Barry Moser’s image]

One of the puzzling things for me in putting together the worldview presented in “Teaching Literacy” is to determine whether this is a spiritual undertaking in a mystical sense or a psychological sense. Profoundly theological statements in their book and in my own faith tradition acknowledge human dignity. But I am uncertain how to integrate the anthropocentric worldview presented here with my own theocentric worldview. That is, I assent to the dignity of human beings because I believe all people are created in God’s image. For me to educate children for wisdom would be to help them fully realize their potential to be awakened and used by God to serve (love) others. Caring for them and working for their justice would have little meaning apart from my seeing them in relation to myself as fellow human beings and to God as expressions of himself. Are we being asked to teach children to do good because it is good? or because it is right? a healthy mental practice? what are the grounds for the claim that it is morally good? As a teacher who aims to make his classroom more democratic, I can get behind reading Kant and St Paul on the reasonable or spiritual roots of goodness; but will my own philosophy get in the way of students forming their own opinions?

How welcome am I, using Wilhelm’s and Novak’s concepts, to teach an author such as Marx, who asserts that all human relationships are economic ones. His own wisdom, once adopted by me and my class, could lead to our action on behalf of oppressed people. (But could I guarantee that such action would be non-violent?) Or a reading of Ayn Rand, opposed to collectivism of all kinds, could push us to adopt individualistic goals. In one respect, it seems like conversations about their great books would foster a wonderful conversation about democracy and equality – its limits and liberties. Yet texts and wisdom must be selected somehow; all along, I have felt one question will have to come up: whose wisdom? whose texts? whose worldview?

Whose new orthodoxy?

In my educational paradigm, each individual must take responsibility for forming and integrating his own worldview, determining how best to practice what he believes about the world and the people in it. Literature and philosophy and history, as well as writings in the sciences and arts, provide a rich array of texts which touch on essential aspects of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life, allowing their wisdom to emerge through democratic conversations. I don’t quite see the benefit of an agenda that pushes readers to find a particular brand of wisdom. If anything, during a democratic conversation about a text, we teachers need to set aside our agendas long enough to allow students opportunities to explore meaning for themselves. [Away from what we claim is a democratic conversation, there is ample time in a Christian school Bible or English curriculum for teachers and students to apply biblical wisdom to readings and experience. In carefully orchestrated classes run by a sensitive teacher or facilitated by student leaders, it can occur even during open dialogue.]

My own prejudice shows through here: I bristle a bit when any thematic unit announces its literature’s theme prior to the students’ opportunity to read it. In a perfect conversation in a democratic classroom the students, not the teacher, will explore and discover (or construct) themes and meaning; it may also happen in concert with the teacher as co-learner and co-leader. Wisdom’s themes, as the authors suggest, will be truths that are acknowledged universally. They also posit the co-creatorship of the world which will ensue during a series of classes. It is something like a return to Eden. Because they have chosen a powerful religious myth as their conceit, the new life they are selling in “Teaching for Literacy” has powerful appeal to teachers, who already want to save the world, one student at a time.

It seems there are models of wisdom education already in practice. What would have to change in order for these to comply with the new literacy, the new and generous orthodoxy promoted by Wilhelm and Novak? Am I already engaged in this kind of reflective learning and teaching?

1. Jesuit education: for education that honors spiritual wisdom, academic rigor, and emotional connections with the personal practice of mercy, justice, and compassion, look no further. There must be many classrooms in this model which promote democratic conversations.

2. Classical or classical Christian schools: liberal arts schools built on foundations of the eastern and western canons, often featuring Socratic dialogue seminars, get to the heart of the texts which the authors deem worthy of attention – those from the high period when wisdom flourished.

3. Matthew Lipman’s research: integrating philosophy from an early age in classrooms, so that young people begin thinking about wisdom and truth and continue throughout their lives.

I am unsure of a few things as I continue to muse about the reasons I need to teach this coming year. Is it so that I can start my students on a journey, or involve them in the democratic process? Is it to make them grow wise or become good? Is it to provide them a space where they can explore their faith in human beings, or their faith in God?

I do think I want to be part of this conversation, but I do not think I am clear about what is expected of me. I do feel certain of several things: students need to be acknowledged holistically, and teachers are in an excellent position to help them become aware of their own growth and potential; a democratic classroom offers good opportunities for students to listen to and express ideas, and teachers are in a privileged position to help them think about the implications of accepting various wise and true things. I think that an experienced teacher should have a grasp of various worldviews, sources of wisdom, philosophies, and critical schools, in order that when students do find or challenge the apparently wise and true, we may respond in ways that help them question, understand, and apply the new ideas, so that as they form their identities, they are continually growing as confident and resistant readers (as Pradl has it), and who are reflective about the way they practice what they believe.

They do not have to save the world in order to love it and its people.

[Photo credit: St John’s College website]


Emergent Church Meets Language Arts (Part 1)


AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker

How do you market the gospel of English class to a lost and fallen culture? Adopt the most Christian of terminology, appropriate the most theological of rhetoric, and you too can save the world.

Wilhem and Novak’s new book Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom (2011, NCTEdescribes a blend of  philosophy, science, and literature that wants to be new, but I don’t think it acknowledges the roots that have run deep in Christian thought, providing a context and a vision for a fully integrated intellectual, vocational, imaginative, and spiritual life.

For example, the authors seek to link or “consiliate” various strands of human thought and education into a coherent whole, much as John Henry Newman effectively did in his The Idea of a University (1852). They skim over accomplishments of important thinkers who came before them in this realm. Appropriate attention is given to Dewey and Rosenblatt, and a smattering to Pradl. The wisdom of peace, love, and caring is linked to art, as Christian humanism has shown for hundreds of years, and as journals such as Image, whose supporters have included Denise Levertov, bear witness today. (Levertov’s poem “Writing in the Dark” is used in the book.) But the book should be praised for its noteworthy achievement of modeling how a dialogue between peers can evolve into a paradigm for viewing their teaching. Their conversation can inspire us, serving as it does as a model for our own inquiry and reflection. It lets me know how important my own reflective correspondence with a colleague of 21 years has been to our evolution as teachers. A distinctive feature of their language is its excessive use of charged spiritual terms of renewal, awakening, and healing to feed readers (or the Pharisaic standards-based culture we hope to justify ourselves to) the spiritual “milk” needed as “nourishment” of democracy. A little of this is effective, but it can feel as though it overstates the case.

Terminology such as “new life” and “transubstantiation” is playfully and joyfully used. As a Christian myself, I am enthused about the interplay between faith language and pedagogical goals. Yet when alluding to the object of such faith, the writers suggest that creativity’s life force has been inherited from past and present writers, passed along a chain whose beginnings recede into the distance “ad infinitum”, whereas logic and biblical faith would force a conclusion that all created effects have an origin – a prime mover, a first creator.

As to saving the world (a stated purpose for literature study), one concept from Brian MacLaren may help to point the discussion in a new direction: to focus on salvation and world peace as the authors have done is to formulate the question too “low”. It is “down here”, but meaning and spirituality are actually “up there” somewhere. The uses and emotions excited by good reading, writing, and thinking may have broader and more life-changing aspects than even the authors suggest (and they suggest literature is well able to cause change). While they speak of “joy”, we ought properly to speak of the sources of joy. Although the authors deny claims of any “mystical” or “magical” properties inherent in a meaning-making experience, their arguments seem otherwise to be drawn from Christian reasoning and experience, but may be neglecting the role that belief and the supernatural play in changing the world for the better. That is, what would be the harm in allowing a possibly mysterious process at work in literature’s effect on readers, or in the joy of teaching and learning with our students?

Perhaps, rather than focusing (as it seems to in Chapters 1-4) on the lower (yet noble) aim of how democratic literacy can mend a broken humanity, the “worldview” they present could describe how many of life’s noble enterprises (human actions) follow from deeply held “personal truths” (human beliefs). They declare that one goal of dialogue, no matter what other divergent feelings or opinions of individuals, is to cause people to evaluate their actions in light of their beliefs. Such self-examination will produce responsible students and citizens.

No doubt, a poem can spark a conversation among equals about life’s value and meaning; but if the goal is to : “collectively choose life” and “to save the human world” (p. 72) would a participant feel free to suggest that the human world is not worth saving, or that death is a valid choice? Is this also a bit of a heavy burden to place on literacy teachers, and on imaginative literature itself? What would be the role of revealed literature in that case? (The Hebrew scriptures, Christian New Testament, Qur’an?) Such sacred texts often have the acknowledged purpose of offering life, improving the world, or saving and renewing it.

If there is a hierarchical linchpin over the classroom conversation such as a deity or a founding document (Judeo-Christian God or The U.S. Constitution) which serves to equalize participants and if necessary arbitrate between them, it may help. A foreseeable problem with the evangelical marketing of “English class” as a life-changing enterprise is its possible clash with skeptics on both sides: those suspicious of the transcendental flavor of the arguments found in the book because a) they are not quite Protestant enough or b) thy are not secular enough.

One understands that Wilhelm and Novak want for every teacher and student is to experience what it means to be fully human, and they see that literature is a start, but that every area of academic study belongs to that experience. Specifically addressing spirituality in connection with Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, the authors clearly understand that their territory intersects with the deepest of human experiences and meanings. Christian educators subscribing to a philosophy of religious education already accept that spiritual education is significant in a young person’s life, and have probably adopted a perspective that all subjects, curricular, and co-curricular activities serve as opportunities for teachers and students to practice integrating divine and human truths into daily life.

In brief – the authors’ project dovetails so well with Christian educational goals that it is foreseeable that they will partner with faith communities and teacher education programs at religious universities to communicate to the nation at large their holistic vision of “reading, writing, and living as creative and imaginative pursuits”.

To be continued…

Gordon’s Tweets

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