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.