Thursday, August 31, 2006

A comment about Fantasy and English Classrooms

I am a big fan of the Fantasy genre, although I have only explored the works of George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I know the genre has exploded in the past fifty years. One reason for the popularity of Fantasy is the lack of ambiguity and haziness so often associated with modern and post-modern literature. In a world of wizards, dragons, hobbits and knights, there are clear lines of virtue, character and morality that our current cultural context yearns for. The success of the Lord of the Rings and the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe films is an indication of our interest in clearly delineated roles for good guys and bad guys. A friend of mine who works at Chapters tells me that Lewis's Narnia books are still best sellers, even before the recent film. Our culture has become too cynical, and fantasy can act as an antidote for this disparaging attitude. The explosive success of the Harry Potter series underscores this interest among adolescents. Certainly fantasy should find a place in our English classrooms. In some respects, fantasy novels can be more real and authentic than a cynical, post-modern novel. Such texts could create very interesting discussion in an English classroom.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Demotivators by Despair Inc.

This is absolutely hilarious. Click here to view a fantastic new line of "Demotivator" posters. I am tempted to order a few for my classroom, but I think I would get into a lot of trouble.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Canoeing Algonquin

Last week, my 8-year-old son and I went on a three-day canoe excursion into the wilderness of Algonquin Park. We had a glorious time in God's Creation as well as celebrating my son's road to manhood. It was a challenge for him and he had responsibilities. I pondered how few responsibilites and challenges children have today, even my own son. It is no wonder so few grow up to be men who are willing to be faithful and responsible to their families and boldly face challenges. We live in an urban area, where water comes from the tap, food comes from the grocery store, fire comes from the stove and we drive to get where we need to go. In such a time as ours, it behooves us as fathers to create situations where life isn't so convenient. Even so, our little canoeing trip pales in comparison to the life of early pioneers. A few years ago, I read to my son a number of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls. I was painfully reminded how little I know about "work". If Pa Ingalls had been lazy or even mediocre in his work habits, then the Ingalls would have surely died on the American Frontier. There was also a greater dependency on God as Provider. The Ingalls lived off of the land; as God provided for them, so they had. From the books, I was also reminded how good and right it is for man to work. In Eden, God called man to work the garden. Paradise wasn't a wilderness; it was a garden that needed to be tilled, sown and reaped.

It is my prayer and active concern to point my sons towards the goal of manhood and encourage them in the calling God places upon them as men... men who know how to work, men who take hold of their responsibilities and men who are bold in the face of adversity... in other words, men who are like Christ.

Flannery on English Education

I continue to dabble in the writings of Flannery O'Connor this summer, and last night during my son's soccer game (he wasn't on the field at the time) I read a fabulous essay on a subject near and dear to my heart. Here is a gem of a quote from Flannery O'Connor:

"Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting. No one has yet come along strong enough to do it. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.

I would like to put forward a proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time and he has no perspective whatever to view them..."

O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. "Fiction is a Subject with a History" Library of America: NY, 1988.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

On Flannery O'Connor

Yesterday while taking my son to swimming lessons, I managed to read a short story by Flannery O’Connor. She has been a topic of discussion recently with an issue of Credenda Agenda devoted to her and a brief mentioning on Dr. Haykin’s blog.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer who lived in the Protestant American South. Although I have significant theological qualms with Catholicism, I am very fond of the writing of three other Catholics: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien. Given my affinity for these Catholic writers, and after reading Doug Jones’ take on O’Connor in C/A, I decided to check out a collection of her writing from the local library.

To my delight, the story I read yesterday was remarkable. I have never been a fan of short stories; as an English teacher I have bumped short stories out of the courses I teach. But O’Connor seems to have perfected the art.

The difficulty I have with short stories is that they are “short”. Authors are limited in their ability to develop convincing and authentic characters or developing a sufficiently deep, rich and layered plot. Life is complex; short stories, because of their restrictive length are too simplistic—in terms of form.

In her story, “A View of the Woods,” O’Connor masterfully uses her economy of words to narrow her focus on one character. Good writers say more with less, and she has done this. The story is only twenty pages long, yet O’Connor draws in her reader into a deep and complex arena by using a number of ingenious techniques. The most profound is her use of narration. The story is told 3rd person limited omniscience—in other words, the story is told from a 3rd person perspective but the readers are only given access to one character’s personal thoughts (as opposed to 3rd person omniscient, where the reader has access to all the major character’s thoughts as well as actions). The result is effective. O’Connor “taints” the “objective” narrator’s perspective with that of one of the characters. This gives us a much deeper picture of the main character and enhances realism. In life we only have access to our own thoughts when we are trying to make sense of the world around us. O’Connor could have used first person to accomplish this, but instead she uses the façade of objectivity. This is highly appropriate because the lead character believes that he is omniscient and that only he sees the world objectivity and accurately, untainted by pedantic and small-minded perspectives of his family. The irony is, of course, that he is “limited” and he is “tainted”. Also, by using third person, O’Connor is able to expose this irony “inadvertently”—in other words, although the narrator is tainted by a limited perspective, it still must record events and dialogue as they occur. A first person narration has the liberty to “revise” the events recorded, forcing the reader to read between the lines.

She also uses vernacular very well; she not only conveys an authentic sounding Georgian accent, she also conveys “personality” through the speaking style of her characters. Her physical descriptions are brief but meaningful. She does more than paint a picture of her characters in the readers mind; she uses physical description to tell the reader something about her characters. The names are also important in this story. The protagonist is named Mr. Fortune and his ne’er-do-well son-in-law is named Mr. Pitts. She playfully yet unobtrusively uses these names to deepen the sense of irony in this story.

Most profound is her use of humor. The story was not a “comedy” at all, yet I did laugh out loud on a few occasions. Referring back to my comments about the limitations of short stories, O’Connor adds depth and authentic complexity by incorporating a range of human emotions in her story. Humor is a part of life in almost all circumstances. She uses it authentically and effectively.

Because of her Catholicism, O’Connor also “says” something from a grounded perspective. Unlike many of her contemporaries that write as though they are jelly fish awash in a sea of relativism, O’Connor is judging her character. He is a fool. He does the wrong thing. This “judgmental” perspective is not overt in the story; it is assumed. O’Connor assumes a Christian worldview, where there is such a thing as up and down. This is the heart of her authenticity. The world actually functions according to the Christian worldview. O’Connor is not attempting to preach a moralizing sermon. She is simply observing the world with the clarity of Christian understanding. Tolkien writes LOTR with this sort of depth. He too assumes a Christian worldview; as a result, Midde-earth is an authentic place in the reader’s mind. The reader can relate to the world of Tolkien and of O’Connor because it is a reflection of the world as it is.

Although my reading agenda is jammed packed this summer, I hope to squeeze in a few more O’Connor stories. I also think that more can be said about Catholic writers. Good writers, whether Catholic or not, observe the world with clarity and reflect it in their work accurately. The further removed a writer is from the Christian worldview, the harder it is for the writer to see clearly and retell accurately. When time presents itself, I would like to explore a Protestant Christian perspective on Catholic writers and their work.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Why the best Allegory is Christian Allegory: III

Why Narnia is not Allegory

The first reason the Narnia stories are not allegory is because Lewis says they’re not allegory. Being a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature, he did not, ironically, like allegory all that much. His intention in writing the Narnia stories was to tell the Christian story without “stained-glassed windows.” Allegory would work to accomplish this but he wanted the freedom to tell Bunyan’s story while creating a new and different story. For example, the White Witch is a Satanic-like figure, but she is not "representing" Satan in an allegorical way (see comments on "How allegory works" on blog post below). The Witch is an evil sorceress who is inadvertantly brought into our world and then into Narnia by young Digory in the The Magician's Nephew.

The difference between allegory and Aslan is that Aslan actually is the Lion of Judah as he manifests himself in a different universe. He does not represent Christ, he is Christ in a fictional context. The parallel universe of Narnia that Lewis created is fictional, of course, but in the fictional reality of the novels, Narnia is as real as Lucy Pevencie’s England, and Aslan is as real as Christ. Narnia does not symbolize our world; it is an entirely different world all together. That being said, Lewis wasn’t attempting to create an alternative religion of Aslan-worship. His purpose was to lead his readers to the real Jesus Christ. In the 1950s, a concerned mother wrote to C.S. Lewis stating that her son “loved Aslan more than Jesus.” In a lengthy and delightful reply, Lewis writes, “But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.”

Next blog: Why Christian Allegory is the best kind of Allegory

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Why the best Allegory is Christian Allegory: II

How does Allegory Work?

In Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) the protagonist named “Christian” flees the “City of Destruction” and travels through the various literal places in the narrative that also carries symbolic meaning. He trudges through a slough called the Slough of Despond. While in the slough, Christian experiences despondency. Later, he travels to a city called Vanity Fair and encounters garish and vain citizens; he visits a Doubting Castle, and (you guessed it), he doubts. The culmination of his journey occurs when he finally arrives at the Celestial City. The entire narrative is a representation of the human soul's pilgrimage through temptation and doubt to reach salvation in heaven.

In an allegory, the various elements of the story systematically parallel other events on a spiritual, historic or literary level. This differs from allusions or symbolism. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for example, makes many allusions to mythological archetypes evident in the Christian story. Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo are all Christ-figures, but the LOTR is not an allegory. The allusions and symbolism are not systematic, nor are they intended to reflect a hidden Christian message. Providence is not only symbolically but literally present in the story.

Harry Potter is also a Christ-figure, as is Neo from the Matrix and Superman in the current film Superman Returns. Although these works carry symbolic weight, they are not allegories. Harry Potter does not represent Christ on a spiritual level; he is merely an archetype of Christ. Even the many Christ-allusions in Superman Returns do not make it a Christian Allegory. Here’s a few interesting allusions… Superman was “sent to earth by his father” to be a “light to humanity” and act as a “saviour”—Superman is beaten and humiliated by Lex and his gang is a bloodless homage to Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Superman “dies” saving the world from the new kryptonite continent… as he hurls the rock into outer space, Superman descends to earth is a brief crucifixion pose. After his death, he is resurrected. All this does not make Superman an allegory. Ironically, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is also NOT an allegory. More on that next time.

Next blog: Why Narnia is not Allegory

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Why the best Allegory is Christian Allegory: I

What is Allegory?

I would like to begin a series about allegory. The discussion recently came on church historian Dr, Michael Haykin’s blog, Historia Ecclesiastica, where he confessed to having not read Pilgrim’s Progress because of a dislike for allegory. I have always been partial to allegory, so I thought it would be fitting to write a bit about it in a seven part series entitled, "Why the best Allegory is Christian Allegory."

Allegory comes from the Greek word “allegoria” which translates as “speaking otherwise.” This concenpt is at the heart of what an allegory is. Essentially, an allegory is a piece of writing (poetry or prose) in which characters, events, and ideas in the piece represent something else on a symbolic level. The symbolism is systematic, functioning like an extended metaphor. In addition, an allegory usually conveys a moral lesson to its readers.

Among the most famous Christian allegories are such works as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Spencer’s Faerie Queene. During the English Medieval and early Renaissance, allegory was a very popular moral and religious didactic form of literature. But allegory is not an exclusively Christian form of literature. The Greeks also occasionally wrote allegory. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another famous allegory, as well as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The latter two works expressing decidedly political perspectives.

Next blog: "How does Allegory Work?"

Friday, July 21, 2006

An Odyssey in Reading

I have been reading Homer’s The Odyssey this summer. I will be teaching it in the fall. Usually I avoid work related reading during the ephemeral and fleeting summer months. However, I have been meaning to read this classic of Western literature for a number of years. I think my hesitancy to engage Homer was a result of my fear of the text. In the hidden depths of my being, I think I subconsciously perceived that The Odyssey and The Iliad were scholarly and enigmatic masterpieces that exceeded my ordinary and average cerebrum.

My subconscious, however, was wrong. The epic poem is a delight to read. It is very accessible and at times (surprisingly) very simplistic. I discovered that Homer was writing long before the absurd and truly enigmatic prose of the 20th century post-moderns. In stead of harping on complex and psychologically deformed anti-heroes of modern prose, Homer addresses themes and issues that ring true to the very centre of our humanity. As a Christian reader, I am given insight into a truly human hero, Odysseus, and I can compare and contrast this view with the truly divine Christ-hero.

Homer is not high brow. He is for the Everyman. Take up and read, Everyman.

(Robert Fagles’s recent poetic translation comes highly recommended. See also Peter Leithart’s Heroes of the City of Man for Christian commentary of Homer and other classic works)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Real Men Read Austen

A few months ago, I published this blog posting on the College & Career blog for my church, Pilgrim Baptist Fellowship. I felt it was worth publishing again on my personal blog.
When I was in University, I took a course on the "novel"--we looked at literature from Cervantes, Flaubert, Dostoevsky to Conrad and Angela Carter. Out of all the novels, my professor, who was a man, stated that his favourite author was Jane Austen. Another teacher of mine, Dr. Michael Haykin, Church Historian and Principal at Toronto Baptist Seminary is also a Jane Austen fan. What is it with men and Austen? Isn't Pride and Prejudice a romance novel? Yes, there is romance, but it is a real, tangible and profound sort of romance.

Peter Leithart, who wrote a number of excellent literary companions (Brightest Heaven of Invention about Shalespeare, Ascent to Love about Dante and Heroes of the City of Man about Greek and Roman epics) also worte a book about Austen, entitled, Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. In this excellent book, which I gave my wife (an Austen fan) on Dr. Haykin's suggestion, Leithart writes this about real men and reading Austen:

I insist that “real men read Austen” and can read her with interest and profit. Austen, after all, created some very striking male characters. Some of her heroes are more than a little effeminate; Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility is painfully silent in much of the book, though that is in part due to a depression caused by his secret engagement to the manipulative Lucy Steele, which is plenty to take the pluck out of a man… Austen’s other heroes, however, are strong and forceful personalities, and definitely not effeminate. All her great heroes—Darcy, Wentworth, Edmund Bertram, Knightley—are men who hold positions of authority and use those positions for good. Each of them is a Christlike lover who sacrifices, often at some cost to his reputation, to win his bride. They are servant heroes, not macho-heroes. For Austen, machismo is just Spanish for “bluster” and is the mark of villainy.Even without considering her strong male characters, Austen’s novels are highly instructive for men. The mere fact that her novels give men an opportunity to see romance through the eyes of an uncommonly perceptive woman should be enough to recommend them. Even if men do not want to see courtship through a woman’s eyes, who can say we do not need to? She has a strong sense of a man’s role in courtship and his responsibility for the course that courtship takes. More then one male character in her novels proves himself a scoundrel by playing with the affections of a woman. Austen’s first rule of courtship is one I have frequently repeated to my sons: Men are responsible not only for behaving honourably toward women but also for the woman’s response; if a man does not intend to enter a serious relationship, he has no business giving a woman special attention or encouraging her to attach herself to him. Austen sees clearly that men who play with women’s affections are fundamentally egotistical. They want the admiration and attention of women without promising anything or making a commitment...…Nothing happens in Austen… Yet precisely because of this limitation, because so little seems to happen, every nuance and contour of what does happen takes on considerable importance. We begin to realise that men can be cads without kidnapping women and confining them in dark towers, and women can be vicious without poisoning their rivals.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Taking Flight in Christ

George Herbert wrote a number of poems using a method called “concrete poetry” or “form poetry”, where the layout of the poem reflects meaning. Such a poem, called “Easter-Wings”, is shown below:

As you can see, the poem looks like “wings”. The poem is about the restored freedom we receive in Christ as a result of Easter. That freedom is symbolized by the wings. One cannot help but think of Isaiah 40:31, where we read “Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up {with} wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Take note how the form fits meaning:

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

The opening line begins with God creating humanity in “wealth and store”—note that the line is long. As sin enters the picture, the lines decrease in length until humanity is reduced to two words: “most poore”. Then, the turning point of the poem begins with “With thee”—in other words, with God. Herbert is emphasizing that spiritual healing, spiritual restoration, begins with God. As the lines increase, so does the crescendo of hope, which began with God’s intervention. Herbert draws in the flight metaphor into the text with renewed spiritual flight: “O let me rise / As larks […] further the flight in me” He also extends the metaphor to harmony of birds in flight as well singing. The second stanza in the poem set goes as follows:

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

The length of the opening line here implies the extent and weight of sorrow as a result of sin. The result is a withering of the soul and, as form suggest, the poem. This withering continues until the poem is reduced to two words: “most thinne”. Both the poem and the soul of the speaker have become thin. But! But “With thee” the crescendo of hope and promises is restored. “For,” the speaker argues, “if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is an obscure term meaning to repair or graft feathers into a wing to increase flight. When we are grafted into Christ, we can fly to spiritual heights. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” John 15:5. Like Christ, who endured much sorrow and affliction on the cross, we too will suffer affliction and rejection in this world. However, if we cleave to Christ, our suffering will not be in vain, as His suffering was not in vain. Our sorrow will turn to joy. The promised Holy Spirit will come as our helper, and will draw us to Christ. The Spirit is often symbolized in Scripture as a dove, and so the metaphor takes further significance.

"Easter Wings" is a superb poem that exudes both poetic and spiritual beauty. "With Thee, let us rise, as larks, harmoniously, and sing this day thy victories!"

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Poet On Prayer

George Herbert on Prayer

If you have been following my blog, you will know that I am reading 16th C English poet George Herbert’s masterpiece, The Temple, a collection of pious poems on various and sundry topics. I recently came across this beautiful poem on prayer. May it encourage you to be a man or woman of prayer.


Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels' age,

God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reverséd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The Milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's B-day Today!

Ever since I was a boy, I desperately wanted a magnifying glass, a double brimmed deer-stalker hat and a curved tobacco pipe like the iconic image of Sherlock Holmes. I still enjoy the stories of Holmes. I find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories to be extraordinarily entertaining.

The Holmes stories are one of the most popular and enduring serial stories ever published. Doyle wrote the stories for a periodical magazine called The Strand. The success of the series was partly due to the form in which the stories appeared. The Holmes stories are written “first person narrative” from Dr. Watson’s perspective. Watson is not only a character and participant in the adventures of Holmes, but also the reader’s personal guide. Since Watson is an old friend of Holmes, we the reader are able to see Holmes through his accustomed eyes. Holmes instantly becomes a man who we are familiar with. Combined with this familiarity, however, is an enduring sense of mystique. For although Watson is an old friend—who lived as a bachelor with Holmes for quite some time—Watson still doesn’t really “know” Holmes. As Holmes’ behaviour and genius surprises Watson, so he surprises the reader. As narrator, Watson is also able to ask the questions we, the readers, would like to ask Holmes. “How did you figure it out, Holmes?” Watson asks. Holmes then gives Watson—and us—the answer.

Since Watson is both an observer as well as a participant, his narrative is given additional credibility. The adventures are more realistic, since they are told by a first-hand witness. Because Watson is a Doctor, his approach to recording the adventures of Sherlock Holmes is accurate and methodical. I am reminded of Dr. Luke and his account of the adventures of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Like Luke, Watson pays close attention to detail and records these details as plainly as he witnesses them.

Watson also acts as a “foil” for Holmes. Watson is in many ways the exact opposite of Holmes; as much as Holmes is extraordinary, Watson is ordinary. The reader can relate to Watson: he is married, he keeps ordinary hours, he enjoys a good meal, he is concerned with people. Watson’s humanity is set against Holmes’ purely logical mind. Holmes is never interested in a case because of the people involved unless there is some curios aspect about them; he is motivated by the case itself, the mystery. He is a scientist of the truest sense. Watson, who is a medical doctor, is less interested in the science of medicine as with helping people with the science of medicine. So Watson provides not only contrast, but also balance to the Holmes’ adventures.

Holmes is not inhuman though. We see glimpses of his humanity when he plays his violin or when he is on a heroine binge. We can relate to his need for a “thrill”—whether it be solving a strange mystery or from a narcotic. In some ways, we the readers are addicted to Holmes himself. He is an intoxicating character.

The Watson-Holmes appeal rests also on the simple fact that we love to read about this wonderful friendship. Some of the greatest stories in English literature celebrate friendship. There’s Sam and Frodo, Crusoe and Friday, George and Lennie, Ralph and Piggy, Harry and Falstaff.

Holmes never actually said, “Elementary, my dear Watson”—but, Doyle could have very well said it himself. He created one of the most enduring yet elementary and formulaic story-characters of all time.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Art of Teaching Writing Part 2

Boring Lessons 101 "How to Write"

A challenge to teaching writing in the English classroom is that it can be a really boring subject. “Writing” as a topic seems to be deficient when compared to other topics of the English classroom; it lacks the excitement and natural appeal of a novel or play and the provocation and mystery of poetry. Part of the problem is that students feel they are already experts. Why rehash material they already know? Students have been hammered over the head with “how to write” every single year of their educational stint. They have encountered the “hamburger” model, the "layered cake" model, the "tossed salad" model (I just made that one up now), the pre-plan chart model, the five-paragraph model… the list goes on. For some students the notion of teaching “writing” in English is like the teaching of “walking” in Phys-Ed.

As my students prepared for a comparison essay that I am currently marking, I told them that in real life, they will never write an essay like this again. In other words, academic essays serve no purpose in themselves outside the academic world. (How’s that for a motivator?). I made the case, however, that essays require you to think critically and creatively on a subject. Essays require you to develop a logical and persuasive argument. Essays require you to know the text and to evaluate evidence. Essays require you to communicate, on paper, with clarity and style. All of these skills you will use in life. That being said, Bruce Pirie, in his book on English education, recently rocked my world.

Alternatives to the Essay?

In Reshaping High School English, Bruce Pirie argues that student writers need to ask, “What shape is demanded by what I am trying to say?” (77). I felt I was encouraging my students to ask this question by having my students write with these question in mind: How many paragraphs, points, factors, pieces of evidence should be included in an essay to best make my case? What the student is trying to communicate to the reader should determine the number of paragraphs, points, style, etc. Pirie, however, goes beyond number of paragraphs and factors. He wants writers to ask what “shape”—by which he means that the “essay” is only one possibility. Pirie argues that there are other means to teach communication and critical thinking skills and he suggests some ways. I agree. He also argues powerfully that essays encourage students to view themselves as authorities rather than encouraging “tentative and cooperative exploration” (86). I do not want my students to consider themselves to be experts and then just give their opinions; rather, I want them to give a position based on the text—to submit their thinking to the text. I was hoping my students would not spout off unfounded opinions; I was hoping they would give intelligently considered positions based on a solid, evidence-laden argument. But, in the end, I believe I am asking my students to become an “authority on some aspect of the subject,” as Pirie suggests (80). Blast you, Bruce Pirie!

In a daunting and formal arena like academic essays, most students doubt their own thinking anyway and replicate teacher lectures, Spark Notes, and other fine resources. Uncertainty of one’s own position is an important step, sometimes, to true learning. Pirie points out, however, that teachers sacrifice “uncertainty” on the altar of the “illusion of mastery” (80). Despite the alternative options—“shapes” as Pirie calls it—for communicating ideas, the essay still stands out as a formidable assignment. The essay is a serious arena for critical thinking; students tend to apply themselves with greater gusto because the essay presents a serious and sophisticated venue for their thinking (when they do, actually think). I am torn. I must get to work marking these blasted essays, which may or may not be of any pedagogical value.

Story-telling vs. the Essay

Let me close with C.S. Lewis. Awhile back, I was reading The Horse and His Boy to my son and I came across this little tidbit: “Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one. For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you are taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” Too true.

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S.. The Horse and His Boy. USA: Harper Collins, 1994.

Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. Toronto: Natl Council of Teachers, 1997.

Click here for Part 1: Bacon, Chickens and the Art of Teaching Writing

Monday, May 15, 2006

Christians and their Imagination

“Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
G.K. Chesterton

Every year I make a list a books that I feel I ought to read. I sort my annual reading list into categories. Some of my headings include such books as Theology, Pastoral or Homiletic, Church History, Christian Biography, a Journal or Collection of Letters. Added to the list of clearly “spiritual” headings are such books that fall under the categories of poetry, novel, mystery/fantasy novel. I believe that fiction has as much importance in my spiritual growth as does my yearly “theology” book.

Christians need to nurture their imagination. It takes a mind that is able to “imagine” in order to savour the beauty and to understand the depth of the work of Jesus on the cross. It takes an imagination to empathise with and love your neighbour. Nowhere in scripture are we commanded to read fiction; however, Jesus not only taught using “story,” he also lived the greatest story ever told. As Douglas Wilson writes, “The story of the gospel is a glorious story.” The gospel is a story, a true story. A story that regenerate and Spirit-filled men and women understand, a story that regenerate and Spirit-filled imaginations love. Christian imagination can be fostered by reading fiction. Over the next month or so, I plan to make a case for Christians reading fiction.

On the subject of poetry and Christianity, Christian poet, George Herbert, writes in his definitive work, The Temple,

Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bacon, Chickens and the Art of Teaching Writing

“Reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
Francis Bacon

I always begin my school year by telling my students about Francis Bacon. Bacon, I tell them, pioneered the Inductive Method of Scientific Inquiry. In a nutshell, he proposed that philosophers actually test their theories and make conclusions based on observation. I also tell my students that Bacon died as a result of his Inductive Method; after completing an experiment with raw poultry and ice (hypothesizing that ice could preserve raw meat), he caught pneumonia and died. I embellish the story by adding details about Bacon inventing bacon and experimenting with frozen turkeys. Lastly, I tell my students he invented the “essay”—it is at this point that my students suddenly lose all interest in this man. The image of a 16th Century man stuffing snow inside a raw chicken out on some wintery snow covered slope does not repulse my students. It is the essay. Why is it that essays inspire such dread and despair in our students?

Teaching writing is perhaps the most challenging aspect to teaching High School English. This is especially true when teaching the formal academic essay. Getting students to communicate their ideas in a clear and intelligent fashion—even getting them to have “something” to communicate at all—can be difficult. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting on the topic of "Teaching Students How to Write Essays"


One of the big issues surrounding writing is “process”—taking the time to edit, refine and polish writing, sometimes multiple drafts. Process is essential to any good writing, but the problem is that students lack the desire to wrestle with their writing. I always remind my students that “nothing is sacred”—even the most beautiful sentence, if it detracts from your overall intended meaning, needs to be hacked. Lack of clarity is the first reason to hack a sentence or two. To help my students understand the need for clarity, I have them read each other’s drafts. I also do one-on-one conferencing, but I feel peer editing is an important part in the process. Peer editing has many pitfalls; some peer editors are better than others, and peer editing doesn’t work in all situations (e.g., writing an essay on the same topic). However, with peer editing, students begin to see themselves as readers as well as writers. If they can experience what a reader goes through when they read a sloppy, unpolished piece of writing, then they will have a better understanding of how they need to revise their own work for clarity.


In creative writing, good writers are good readers. We all agree on this point. To prepare a class to write a short story, we would have our students read and discuss the craft of a variety of short stories. Ironically, we often expect our academic students to write essays without actually reading essays. I think many teachers are leery about having students read published essays because published essays—dare I say—never follow the five paragraph model. If teachers were willing to reject the five paragraph essay formula (more on this topic later), then teachers would be willing to have their students read and respond to “real” essays. Why not have our students read essays in preparation of their own essay writing?

The last thing I want is my students writing an essay the way Mr. Johnston wants it because he gives out the grades. What I want is my students writing in the way that best communicates their ideas. Reading published essays—not just student exemplars, I mean the real deal—reading published essays will help our students to see essay writing as “communication” not “hoop jumping”—communication that needs to be refined and honed, in order to best convey their intended meaning.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Poetry in the Pulpit

This morning Pastor Kirk Wellum, the pastor of my church (Pilgrim Baptist Fellowship), drew our attention to the lyrics of one of the Church’s most beautiful hymns, “The Love of God” by Frederick M. Lehman. He recited the third stanza to us during his sermon:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Tho stretched from sky to sky.

I have sung this hymn many times and I have heard many ministers recite these lines, but it never ceases to move my soul. How powerful these words are, not simply because of poetic potency, but because they words are immensely true. “O love of God how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forever more endure. The saint's and angels song!”

For the complete lyrics, music and background info, click here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Whole Language Debate

New ideas die hard: Learning to Read

hole language: A decade ago, the “whole language” approach to learning how to read made inroads into education. Some scholars suggest that “whole language” has failed, and has done more harm than good. In many schools, teachers have reverted back to phonics. New ideas, however, die hard. Frank Smith, (PhD. Harvard) recently published a book entitled Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices (2003). The book addresses what he considers to be “flaws” in the way we teach reading—namely, phonics. He asserts that the phonics method is neither natural nor effective in teaching children how to read. He calls this the “Just So” method (“just sound out”) and he is intentionally drawing a correlation between phonics methodology and Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” In other words, the Leopard didn’t actually get his spots from an artistic Ethiopian… and children don’t actually learn to read by sounding things out.

To make his case, he cites the word “cat” as an example. Smith writes, “C-A-T is not necessarily k-a-t. We only think C-A-T is cat because we know how the word cat is spelled. Therefore it’s obvious. C can also be s (city), a can be uh (about) and t can be ch (picture)—so C-A-T could equally well spell such” (41).

What he is arguing for is whole language methodology; he views C-A-T as a complete package—“cat”—the same way Chinese pictograms function. The problem is that English is a phonetic language, not pictorial. Regardless of the fact that various letters can have alternating phonemes and despite exceptions to the pronunciation rules, the word “cat” is made up of three phonemes: K-A-T. English, like all languages, is an oral language; words are collections of sounds. Children learn to speak before they learn to read. Consequently, Smith does make a good point about word recognition; we know C-A-T spells “cat” because we recognise that configuration of letters represents “cat.” We also know how the word “cat” sounds when it is spoken. Long before my sons could read, they knew how to say “cat.” But what about words we have not spoken before or seen before or words that are more complicated, i.e., words that consist of a variety of phonemes? How about the words “preponderate” or “supererogation”? I bet you just sounded these words out.

It goes without saying that children will often begin to read a word and “guess” what the rest of the word is; sometimes they are right. Eventually, as they mature as readers, the children will recognize most words without sounding out each letter. They will also use context to help predict words. Context is central to being able to read anything. Smith overlooks this fact. For example, “The mouse ran away from the such…” or “The mouse ran away from the cat…” A child will sound out the word that makes most sense.

As their reading level increases, they will also encounter new words that go beyond their vocabulary. One of the many values of reading is that it expands our vocabulary. At some level, people will always need to read words—phonetically—especially when an affix (suffix or prefix) is added or in the case of inflections, which will change the meaning of a word.

Because English is a language made up of parts, it behoves us to teach our children about these parts. I also teach my Latin students using the “parts” to “whole” approach. In spite of the fact the Latin is a heavily inflected language (meaning parts matter a great deal), there is a movement afoot to push whole language approach in the teaching of Latin. The barbarians are at the gate once again.

Work Cited

Smith, Frank. Unspeakable Acts, Unnatural Practices New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2003

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

George Herbert's "The Sacrifice"

One of the top ten books that C.S. Lewis considered to be the most influential in his life was The Temple, a book of poetry by the 16th Century poet, George Herbert. I am reading this book, and I recently came across a poem entitled, “The Sacrifice.” It tells the story of the cross from Jesus’ perspective. Herbert repeats the structure and the line “Was ever grief like mine?” after each stanza. I was greatly moved. I am reminded again how powerful poetry can be, how powerful the imagination is when kindled and set ablaze by poetic language. This is especially true when the poet chooses to retell the greatest story in the history of the world. I will write more on imagination later. I have included the first stanza.

The Sacrifice

OH all ye, who passe by, whose eyes and minde

To worldly things are sharp, but to me blinde;
To me, who took eyes that I might you finde:

Was ever grief like mine?

For the rest of the poem as well as a modern version of “The Sacrifice” then click here.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Lord of the Flies and the Lord of Creation

Lord of the Flies and the Lord of Creation

Tomorrow is Yom Hashoah, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is an important day to remember what godless human beings are capable of, what we are capable of, without the divine intervention of God. I am also reminded of William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies. When he wrote his novel, Golding was wrestling with the disturbing realities of the Holocaust that was still coming to light in the late forties and early fifties. How could such a civilized, refined and advanced culture (Germans) be so ruthless, barbaric and evil? How could the 20th Century, the great century of promise, end up being one of the bloodiest centuries in human history?

Golding’s premise is that evil is inherent in all humanity. Golding argued that if human beings find themselves immersed in a deluge of fear and chaos, then the evil within them will surface. This is the scenario he creates on his deserted island filled with stranded British schoolboys.

Ever since William Golding published The Lord of the Flies, in 1953, his novel has been a staple text in English-speaking classrooms around the globe. Students and teachers have wrestled with Golding’s ideas about evil. The story about civilized, well-bred school children becoming ruthless savages and murderers is just as disturbing today as when it was published—perhaps more so given the recent onslaught of school-age killings all over the globe.

If you are familiar with the novel, then you will know that the boys establish a democracy to govern themselves. But it doesn’t take long before the democracy deteriorates and a self-serving, fascist-like dictatorship emerges. Fear of a “beastie” on the island combined with general disorder leads to the rise of evil. Three children die in the story: one is killed as a result of negligence. A second is murdered while the children are chaotically dancing and in a state of terror. A third is murdered deliberately and calculatingly.

As the microcosmic civilisation declines on the island, so does the macrocosm of the global civilization. Golding sets his book in a fictional Nuclear Holocaust, where fear and chaos on a global scale has resulted in a globally destructive nuclear war. As the nuclear war lays waste to the planet, the island is likewise destroyed by a fire the boys start in order to smoke out and murder a boy named Ralph. The boy, Ralph, who at the outset of the novel was the democratically elected leader, becomes the hunted at the end of the novel.

All is lost, so it seems, until a British Naval officer appears and rescues Ralph and the boys. The officer’s presence intervenes and, with his Battle Cruiser and weapons, restores order and a sense of safety. The irony is that the boys are rescued from a wasted and destroyed paradisiacal island, only to be delivered to a wasted and destroyed planet. Golding leaves his readers with a resonating question: who will intervene for humanity? Who will save us from our own evil?

Golding has no answer to give. Looking to Freud, Golding tries to explain the “good” in humanity as the result of the “superego”—a sense of shame and guilt imposed on us by our parents and authority figures. The superego suppresses our animalistic and evil desires, which he dubs the “id.”

If Golding only understood that man is created in the image of God and we bear His communicable attributes of goodness and kindness and mercy and compassion... If only Golding understood that the Lord of all Creation is sovereign over the affairs of men, restraining us from the total depravity, of which we are capable... If only Golding understood that there is indeed a Saviour who not only forgives us of our evil deeds, but also empowers us to live righteously. Golding asks, “Who will save us?” The answer is Jesus.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Shakespeare the Pirate and Pirating Shakespeare...

Shakespeare the Pirate and Pirating Shakespeare…

Out of all of the Bard’s plays, only one is “original.” The original play is A Midsummer's Night Dream. All the other plays—tragedies, comedies and histories—are based on various “sources”. In other words, Shakespeare copied other people’s work. He was a pirate of sorts. Today, we copyright intellectual property. That is why Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is in court for plagiarizing Holy Blood, Holy Grail. You cannot copy someone else’s idea and publish a best seller. Yann Martel, author of the best seller Life of Pi, a novel about a tiger in a boat with a boy, was also accused of plagiarizing Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar’s novel—which is also about a tiger in a boat with a boy.

Whatever you think of Dan Brown’s writing and whether he plagiarized or not, Shakespeare clearly did. But so did everyone else writing in his day. Authors understood that creativity does not occur in a vacuum. They recognized that their craft depends on the craft of others who have gone before them. Only God creates Ex Nihilo. All artists have, in the end, copy God's creativity. Consequently, all writers have sources. Even C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was inspired by Roger Lancelyn Green's never published, "The Wood that Time Forgot", about children entering an enchanted wood and encountering a fallen angel. He was also inspired by the works of George Macdonald and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are many similarities and common threads in Lewis's Narnia books that can be clearly linked to Lewis's sources.

Building off of other's ideas is not a sign of an author's lack of ability as a writer. In fact, it confirms his ability. We celebrate Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet, not Matteo Bandello’s novella Giulietta e Romeo (1554), or William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure(1580) or the poem by Arthur Brooke called "The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet", written in 1562. Shakespeare took these stories and he added breadth and depth of human experience. He changed events, developed characters and enriched the stories with his observations of the human condition. Shakespeare made his sources into better stories that have endured.

Additional confirmation of Shakespeare’s success is the amount of works that have "plagiarized" Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays have inspired countless creative endeavors—music, art, plays, novels, poems, films, TV shows, etc. Even in the 21st Century, Shakespeare permeates our popular culture. In addition, each year hundreds of Shakespeare plays are still being performed all over the world. What a playwright!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Technology and Education

About a month or two ago, I came across an article by Lowell Monke on Computers and Education. His observation about computers limiting personal interaction is a profound consideration. He writes, “Students could best learn the lessons implicit in Charlotte’s Web—the need to negotiate relationships, the importance of all members of a community, even rats…” The business world continually emphasizes this point; employees need “soft skills” more than any other skill to succeed in the workplace. That is, communication and interpersonal skills.

However, Monke goes beyond mere success in the workplace. He goes on to relate that computers can hamper children’s capability to appreciate “what it means to be alive, what it means to belong in the world as a biological, social being.” These are powerful accusations, and they must be duly considered. Computers can expose students to a breadth of knowledge, but such breadth makes students less enthused by real life learning. Going to a local museum or a local historical site can be very dull when compared to a virtual tour of the Coliseum. At a museum, students need to engage their minds, read signs and imagine how things once were in bygone days. Students also need to understand these things in context—social, geographic, cultural, etc.. Local history, although less glamorous, allows students to see the far-reaching ramifications of historical human interaction in their own community. Technology cannot offer students this context, nor can it challenge students to patiently engage their minds and make connections. If a web site is boring or not uploading fast enough, students can click away. This promotes lazy and impatient “learning”—with very little depth or contextual meaning.

At my school, each year we spend thousands and thousands of dollars on updating computer labs, lap tops, software, on-line service subscriptions, etc. I think we need to think more carefully about technology in the classroom and in education for that matter. Computers do not necessarily “equal” better. Exposing students to more information does not mean the students are thinking critically, researching effectively, synthesizing or even understanding what they are exposed to.

To paraphrase McLuhan, technology has indeed become a “message” unto itself. Case in point is student use of Power Point. Somehow students believe that they have put together a fabulous presentation if they slap their notes up on the screen. Content becomes secondary.

Not all that glitters is gold. Students need to realize that just because something looks “good”—flashy Power Point presentation, colourful image-laden website, neat-looking Word Processed essay—doesn’t mean that it IS good. As Monke points out in his article, students take for granted all the work and expertise that went into the creation of computer software. All the spell checking, grammar checks, built in thesaurus… Students need to learn how to work for themselves. There are too many “auto-pilot” modes when it comes to technology. Too much dependence on technology will result in schools preparing the road for the child, instead of preparing the child for the road.

Link to the Lowell Monke article originally published in the Toronto Star (of all places…)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why Study Shakespeare?

Why Shakespeare?

Teacher: Why do we study Shakespeare?

Student: We study Shakespeare because he is a famous writer.

Teacher: OK, but how did he get famous?

Student: He was a white guy who wrote famous stuff. In the olden days, we only celebrated dead white guys.

Teacher: There are plenty of dead white males who wrote pretty decent stuff… Could it be that Shakespeare is famous because his works exceeded the works of others? Could it be that Shakespeare captured something unique in his writing? Could it be that Shakespeare’s works communicate something of great importance, which is still relevant for today?

Student: Can I go to the bathroom?

The question—why study Shakespeare—is an important one that teachers need to ask each time they teach Shakespeare. I always begin my study of a play with this question. With my students, I argue for two main reasons. At the heart of it, I believe Shakespeare is a unique writer who captures the human experience in—ironically—the most accessible way like no other English writer. Shakespeare’s characters are diverse, three-dimensional, and authentic; they reveal a broad and deep picture of humanity. Dickens creates caricatures of humanity, Austen creates miniature portraits of humanity but Shakespeare creates an almost God’s-eye-view of humanity. He puts the world on display in all its beauty and ugliness.

I call Shakespeare “accessible” because it is a play that was meant to appeal to a diverse audience. Shakespeare works as a “show and tell” of the human experience.

The second reason I argue for Shakespeare is for cultural literacy, to borrow E.D. Hirch’s phrase. Shakespeare’s works permeate our culture so exhaustively that we are doing our students—I suggest—a disservice by not giving them the context of our current culture. From words and phrases, idioms and clichés, to films, music and art, Shakespeare is present.

The problem in our current culture is that we celebrate “fame” as an achievement. There are many famous actors and musicians who are neither unique nor do they excel in their craft. Then, these famous people get behind a “cause” that they know very little about and they have not demonstrated any merit other then being famous. Case in point is the great Canadian seal hunt controversy. Among the people who oppose the controversy are famous actors and musicians. Among those who support the seal hunt are ecologists, academics and some lesser known celebs from intelligencia acclaim. No debate should be determined by a “who’s who” list. That’s just stupid propaganda. If I was accused of a crime I did not commit and I was on trial, facing the death penalty, then I would want an expert in the field of law to represent me. I would not want an actor, even if he or she played a lawyer on TV or the silver screen. It is no wonder students are cynical when it comes to “famous” writers. We must remind them that in the “olden days” people often achieved fame because they actually merited it.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Terence, Socrates and Herbert On Opinions

Quot homines tot sententiae
Terence, Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

This Latin phrase idiomatically translates as, “There are as many men as there are opinions.”

So much of modern education is encouraging our students to have “opinions” instead of well-informed positions. It takes time and effort to develop an argument defending a position. For an opinion, on the contrary, it only takes a heart-beat and the ability to form words. Socrates states, “Wind puffs up empty bladders; opinions, fools.”

I am reading English poet George Herberts’s (1593-1633) classic work, The Temple. I recently came across this little poem, which seemed to me to be very timely:

In conversation boldnesse now bears sway.
But know, that nothing can so foolish be,
As empty boldnesse: therefore first assay
To stuffe thy minde with solid braverie;
Then march on gallant: get substantiall worth.
Boldnesse guilds finely, and will set it forth.

Shakespeare in the 21st Century?

Shakespeare in the 21st Century?

Every educator must ask themselves this question: How am I meeting the practical needs of my students in the 21st century, particularly students who are disadvantaged intellectually, socially, economically, etc.?

There is a movement afoot in North American Education that answers this question with resume writing skills and language training; these are important skills, no doubt.

However, resumes do not inspire students. Literature does. Even… nay, especially Shakespeare. The value of Shakespeare is that it transcends time and place and meets us on the level plain of our humanity—we have all loved (like Romeo), felt pain and pondered our mortality (like Hamlet), succumbed to temptation (like Macbeth), been blinded by jealousy (like Othello).

Educators ought to give all their students the opportunity to experience the wonder and beauty of literature. I have worked with essential level students and they often perceive themselves as “second class citizens” intellectually. By demystifying the supposed “elitist” literature like Shakespeare, students are empowered. They CAN read Shakespeare, they CAN understand Shakespeare, they CAN recite Shakespeare.

The beauty of English is that we teach with stories. The narrative should drive the class. The students’ desire to know what happens next in the story motivates them to learn and keep learning.

A student will ask, “What does Shakespeare have to do with me?” I believe it gives us hope of something better. It gives us an understanding of who we are as human beings; it gives us a glimpse of a world that is bigger than the world we think we know.

This sounds pretty idealistic, but I believe it is true. I taught Essential Level English students at a vocational school and now I teach Academic students at a private school. I find that students from both ends of the academic spectrum love to be inspired and empowered. I believe that teaching good literature is at the heart of it. For the Essential level students I also taught them how to write resumes, food service menus, how to use a phone book. The Academic students learn how to write essays and critical arguments. But more importantly, they learn why resumes and essays matter—they matter because life matters. This central purpose of English teaching does not change. What I mean by “life matters” is not simply the mundane aspects of life. I mean the spiritual, mind-enriching and soul-searching aspects of life. I believe literature helps my students see beauty in their lives. If they can see this beauty, then they will also begin to see the God of beauty Himself.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Classics & the "Weak" Student

Classics & the "Weak" Student

Should we be teaching Shakespeare and other “classics” to Academically weak students? Literature that is well chosen should communicate the fundamentally human experience that exceeds a particular time period and goes beyond a specific culture—including the academic culture. If this is true of Shakespeare, then we must teach Shakespeare to high achievers as well as academically weak students. The approach may differ, but the content is the same—the human experience.

What makes a “classic” a “classic”? The answer, I believe, is three-fold. A classic is a work that was written in a particular time and place by a particular person but has risen beyond its cultural context to apply to humans in any time and place. A classic also needs to have influence on subsequent literature and cultures. Lastly, a classic is a work that reflects the beauty and excellence of human creative ability; in other words, it is well written. I think students need to be exposed to works other than “classics”, but I believe that the cornerstone of an English program needs to be classic literature.

Too many students are disinterested in literature because much of what they have encountered has been blasé or mediocre. As a teacher of Creative Writing, I believe it is essential that students distinguish “good” literature so they are able to write their own. Great Canadian writers Timothy Findley, Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies, Carol Shields et al were all prolific readers and they all had countless “classics” under their belt. Without an excellent goal to aim for (or surpass) how can we expect our students to excel beyond mediocrity?

Why teach kids about literature?

Why teach kids about Literature?

The central purpose of English teaching goes beyond mere literacy skills. It is the role of education as a whole to facilitate the growth of student literacy. What makes English unique is that it is a subject where the student can grow as a human being. Literature is the gateway to the human experience, by which students are able to explore who they are in context with people who have lived and are living on this planet called Earth.

Teenagers are typically heliocentric. For our students to travel further along the road to maturity means they must become “other-orientated”. Through literature, students are able to live—sometimes intimately—the lives of another person or persons, whether it is the lives of the characters or the authors themselves. Students experience passions, hatreds, evils, acts of courage and heroism; they encounter worldviews and philosophies broader and deeper than their own, all of which allow them to transcend the suburban jungle of X-boxes and MSN. Literature helps to put the students in chronological context as well. Literature connects students to the past, the history, philosophy, worldviews, etc., that laid the ground work for the world we currently live in.

By gaining a better understanding of the human experience, students will become better communicators. Ultimately, people talk to people. The best writers or speakers are those who can empathize with their readers/listeners. I would argue that communication is a fundamental aspect to the human experience. As an English teacher in a secular school setting, I have the privilege of encouraging my students to become better communicators by teaching them—through literature—what it means to be human. Everything else I do—grammar, essay writing, critical thinking, vocabulary, literary devices, etc.—are secondary to this the central purpose of English.

The implementing of this central purpose requires a “good” selection of literature, which is not as nebulous to discern as the average post-modern critic would suggest. In my classroom, we spend considerable time discussing and working through texts, paying close attention to characters’ thoughts, actions and motivations and their mistakes, acts of courage, judgements etc.. We also look at authors of texts as well as characters in the texts themselves. For me, the historical and cultural context of a work is almost as important as the work itself. In other words, I am not a New Criticism subscriber. I believe my students need the historical context to benefit most from the text. I want my students to come to the text listening for a “voice” from the text. I want my students, before they come to the text, to leave behind what they “know” and seek instead to learn something they don’t know. Once they have heard the story of other human beings, heard the voice of characters, writers, philosophers, then they can compare their own worldviews. I ask my students to listen first, talk second, to take in before they opine. I believe this will make them mature humans, good citizens and effective communicators.

Jesus said, "YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." (Luke 10:27). In good literature, as in all good art, we see the evidence of God’s communicable attribute: creativity. We also see the beauty of God. By reading, understanding and enjoying good literature, we can come closer to “loving the Lord” with “all your mind”. As for “loving your neighbour”… If reading literature is like walking in another man’s shoes, then literature can help us how to love another human.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On teaching English Literature...

On teaching English Literature...

One of the struggles all High School English teachers seem to face is choosing texts, poems and short stories that will “interest” the students. When justifying a text on the course syllabus, I have said (as well as many other English teachers), “The students really enjoyed this play, novel, etc.” We certainly want our students to “enjoy” what we are studying. But here’s some food for thought… what if we had a mandate to teach students how to enjoy… or dare I say, what to enjoy? I am reading a book by C.S. Lewis on English education and he raises this point. Besides being a writer of fantasy and science fiction, Lewis was also an Oxford Don, Cambridge Professor and renowned literary critic; on the topic of English education, Lewis presents an interesting argument in his book, “The Abolition of Man”. He cites Classical, Christian and Eastern tradition to make his case. For example, he quotes Aristotle who states that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Plato writes in his Republic that a well-trained youth will have a “just distaste” for what is ugly and have a “delighted praise” for what is beautiful (29). Lewis goes on to cite other writings from Hindu and Oriental origin as well as Christianity. Lewis was obviously reacting to the logical consequence of the emerging modernism of his day: post-modern subjectivity. He calls this “the doctrine of the objective value,” which he explains as “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false” (31). What Lewis is proposing is that educators need to show students how to appreciate good, beautiful literature and how to loathe ugly and poorly done literature. The post-modern asks, “Who decides the criteria to determine what is beautiful and what is ugly?” Lewis would say no one “decides” it is discovered because it can be discovered, learned and passed on. Lewis cites an anecdote about Coleridge visiting a waterfall with two travellers. One traveller calls the waterfall “sublime” and the other calls it “pretty”. Coleridge endorses the former and rejected the latter. Most of us who have been inculcated with post-modern thinking cringe at this notion.

We have difficulty accepting the legitimacy of “sentiments”—we will not argue with Coleridge if he accepted the one traveller calling the waterfall a cataract but rejecting the other calling it a tsunami. Reason tells up it is not a tsunami. We have trouble with the notion that sentiments of beauty and the sublime can be as definitively recognized. Lewis believes we need to train our students to recognize beauty. Educators are unwilling to “teach” sentiment. In fact, we sometimes relegate sentiment to a role of least significance. Lewis writes, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts” (27). Students need to learn what merits praise and what deserves disdain.

As Christians, we recognise that God is the ultimate standard of beauty. He is the one worthy of ultimate praise. By teaching our students to learn how to give praise to that which is worthy, we are helping our students appreciate Him who is ultimately worthy.

“All great art is the expression of man’s delight in God’s work, not his own.” John Ruskin

Work Cited: Lewis, C.S.. The Abolition of Man. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1996.

Galumphing is a VERB

colloquial: To stride along triumphantly
Etymology: 19c: coined by Lewis Carroll

"With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God." Acts 3:8

...some might even say "galumphing and praising God."

Here's the crazy poem that inspired it all... or at least, inspired me to call my blog "Galumphing".

"Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.