The White Hills of Rockville

Author’s Note: Some of my more liberal-minded readers might not agree with my positions in this essay, and that’s okay. Read or don’t read, the choice is yours, these views are mine. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur: “Last, but by no means least, courage-moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle-the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

backyardIt’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning, and temperatures have reached their projected high for today of 30º. My family just “attended” Mass via the television, where we streamed a taped broadcast of this Sunday’s Mass from the television ministry of the Passionists order of priests. We are snowed in, thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #blizzard2016, so no trip out to attend Mass at our parish, the Shrine of St. Jude here in Rockville. As I look out my windows I see white everywhere; something in excess of twenty inches of snow has fallen in the last 36 hours. My yard and the surrounding landscape is a series of white, sloping mounds of snow, sparkling in the sunlight.

sideyardWe’ve already received word, via multiple social media sources, that school has been canceled for tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that we will have school on Wednesday at this point, and some of my teacher friends are saying the clean-up from this blizzard is so monumental we might be out all week. We were kept home on Friday, when I was slated to start The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. I start my Hemingway unit with a short story that is found in their 7th grade literature textbook, “A Day’s Wait”, a short, innocent yet poignant coming of age tale of a young boy who thinks he is dying because his temperature is 102º and he has confused Fahrenheit with Celsius.

EH 7018P

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. 

When we begin covering Hemingway I give them a brief bio to read and explain to them the significance of his winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel. We discuss his beginnings as a writer, working as a journalist overseas, serving during WWI as an ambulance driver, coming home from the war wounded in action, recuperating and healing through his writing and eventual success as a novelist. We discuss his life story: his four marriages, his adventurous and athletic nature, and his eventual suicide at the young age of 62. We talk about the political incorrectness of two of his passions: bullfighting and big game hunting. Mostly, however, we focus on his writing style in preparation for 8th grade when I use a unit on John Steinbeck to compare the writing styles of the two great American authors.

hemingwayWhile I do teach at a Catholic school, I don’t talk about one of Hemingway’s early short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants”, published just a year after Hemingway’s 1926 break-through novel The Sun Also Rises, which established him as a major literary force.

“Hills Like White Elephants” came to mind today, as I reflected on the events of the last few days. Winter storm Jonas made his appearance to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on the same day as the annual March for Life, where hundreds of thousands of Christians descend upon the US capital to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. Our 8th graders attend the March for Life Youth Rally and Mass each year, as a religion field trip, in support of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. This year’s field trip to the event was canceled, as was school for the day.

rod serling march for life imageA good friend of mine, a devout Catholic, posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story entitled: “CBS News Ignores March for Life, Attacks Pro-Life Presidential Candidate Instead”. It was accompanied by a meme of Rod Serling, creator of the sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone, who started each episode with a monologue, “Imagine if you will …”

snow altarIn spite of Jonas bearing down on the nation’s capital, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims did make the journey, some becoming stranded on the interstates on their return trip home. One high school group from Iowa created a snow altar and with the help of a priest from another stranded bus of Catholic school students, attended Mass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was captured by photographer Chris Coleman and publicized widely on social media.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the story of a couple traveling by train. In true Hemingway style, the background details are as sparse as the word count itself. The male character is unnamed and only referred to as “the American”, while the female character is called “Jig”. Even a cursory reading of this story gives the reader the niggling sensation that this is not an entry from a travelogue. It is much, much more. In casual, yet purposefully encrypted, conversation, the couple discusses “an awfully simple operation”. It becomes quite clear that the man is in favor of this operation and Jig is struggling with it. He goes as far as to say that it is all perfectly natural, “just to let the air in”, and then everything will be alright, back to normal, back to the way things were before.

Much like the media’s avoidance of the coverage of the March for Life, now in its 43rd year, the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” goes to great lengths to avoid directly confronting the decision to have an abortion. The baby is never mentioned, the medical procedure, which at the time and place of the setting of this story, Spain in 1927, was illegal and highly dangerous, is discounted to being absolutely nothing to worry about. The man goes on to say that he has “known lots of people that have done it” … “it’s perfectly simple”.

It is interesting to consider the writer’s voice in analyzing this piece of fiction. Hemingway is careful not to tip his hand, offering not so much as an adjective or adverb describing how the bullet-like sentences are delivered or their underlying subtexts. We can, however, look to his own life for his views on marriage, family, and religion.

At the time of the writing and publication of “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway was in the process of exiting his first marriage to wife Hadley Richardson, with whom he had his first child, Jack, and after their divorce, he converted to Catholicism, in order to marry his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was a devout Catholic with whom he had two more sons. In spite of a divorce from Pfeiffer and two more marriages, history documents that Hemingway remained Catholic, donating thousands of dollars to churches and making frequent pilgrimages to religious sites. He spent much time in countries of predominantly Catholic status: Cuba, Italy, France, and Spain. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea can be studied from the viewpoint of an allegory of the Passion of Christ. Was “Hills Like White Elephants” some sort of statement on abortion or was it just a writing exercise on the dynamics of this one relationship?

In the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since the writing of “Hills Like White Elephants”, a lot has changed in America. Abortion is legal and “safe”, if the taking of a life can be considered safe. Political campaigns and elections are polarized by the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Hashtags, the bumper stickers of today, are created and disseminated, both for and against abortion. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the research and development of contraception and fertility. Millions of dollars are spent each year on abortions and the repercussions of those which were less successful. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the legal battle of overturning vs. preserving Roe vs. Wade. Millions of prayers are offered each day for the end of abortion. its a child not a choiceFeminists want the message to be that women should have total control over what happens to their bodies. Their message is that women should have the choice of when to be pregnant, when to have a baby, when not to have a baby. When it is all said and done, they are right: it is a choice. It always has been, even in 1926 Spain. Except in the cases of domestic violence, rape, and incest, it is a choice before, during, and after. It is a choice. Choose carefully.

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Color My World

Feb issue of Writer's DigestRecently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.

By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.

As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.

Drew Daywalt interviewI haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.

markers and colored pencilsI also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.

box of crayonsIt was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.

box of chocolatesIn the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.

As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. word cloud of favorite subjectMany list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.

Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.

crayonsWhether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. school bellAt the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.

 

The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.

conan doyle bioSir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.

scotland vhsBorn and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.

He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. deerstalker hatConan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.

Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.

the reigate squiresSherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

columboThe creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: body of proofHercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, bonesand many others.  While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.the great mouse detective

In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.

In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, we are not amusedI would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.

A Love Letter to Laurie Colwin

Everyone has a list of people, either alive or deceased, that they would love to have dinner with. I’m sure there is a BuzzFeed list of the top candidates for those lists, chock-full of celebrities and famous people. For me, however, at the top of my list, is Laurie Colwin.

Born and raised in Manhattan, Colwin was a writer and foodie who left us with a small repertoire: three collections of short stories, five novels, and two collections of essays on food, family, and entertaining. She died in 1992 at the far too young age of 48, leaving behind a husband, Juris, and an eight-year old daughter, Rosa. It’s that part that eats at me, the eight-year old daughter. I’ve had two eight-year old daughters in my lifetime, and I can’t imagine what life would be like for them if I had not lived to see them become nine, or nineteen, or someday in the very near future, twenty-nine.

In the late 80’s, I moved from Louisiana to the Washington, DC, area, taking up residence in a high-rise apartment in Bethesda. Unsure of how I would afford both the sky-high rent and a parking spot in the basement garage, I sold my car before I moved, knowing that my new job was a fifteen minute walk from my future apartment. On the way home from work in the afternoon I would stop in the little shops and markets along the way as I was exploring and getting to know my new neighborhood. One of my favorites was a bookstore just a block from my apartment. They frequently had an outdoor table piled high with books for sale. That’s where I found Laurie Colwin.

laurie colwin books 2There was something about the cover of Home Cooking that made me pick it up. Much like Laurie Colwin who was one of a kind, the cover of Home Cooking (as well as its sequel) was taken from a monotype by artist Janet Yake. To create a monotype the artist first paints the image on a flat surface like glass or Plexiglas, and then while the paint is still wet, transfers the image to paper by hand by pressing or rubbing—producing a one of a kind print, not leaving much room for error.

That night, I read about half of Home Cooking in one sitting. I carried it to work with me the next day so I could read it while I ate my lunch at my desk. I was intrigued by her writing style, her homey attitude towards entertaining, and her very palpable love of her family. How I wished I could be invited to dine in her NYC apartment and sup on one of the dishes detailed in Home Cooking. I later discovered some of the essays found in her books originated as articles for Gourmet magazine. Again, at a used bookstore, I managed to hunt down several old issues with her work. Eventually I discovered the sequel, More Home Cooking, which was published after her death. Recently Laurie Colwin has been in the literary news, with the release of some of her work as e-books. I immediately purchased the e-book of Home Cooking, even though I have owned a print copy for over twenty years.

I know these two books very well; they are like old friends to me, friends I would gladly have over for a lovely cup of tea and a freshly baked scone. Each August, when I return to my classroom after a nice summer break, I begin literature class with my new 7th graders reading “Lemons and Limes” from More Home Cooking. It is the perfect example of descriptive writing, writing that truly appeals to the senses. As you read Colwin’s descriptions of the many things she does with lemons and the zest from their bright yellow peels, you can feel your mouth puckering, your tongue tingling. While the class discusses Colwin’s talented use of descriptive writing, we talk about their favorite foods and what their family dinners at home are like. It’s through these classroom discussions, under the guise of studying a piece of non-fiction literature, that they get to know me as a teacher and I get to know them as students. The fact that they also get to know Laurie Colwin is just a bonus.

I love trying to recreate the dishes from Colwin’s books. They aren’t so much recipes as they are narratives. Apparently, there are cooking clubs that meet periodically to cook and eat an entire meal from Colwin’s books. A cursory search on Google produces quite a list of articles and blog posts about Laurie Colwin’s writings. In her short life, she made quite an impact on many, some of whom weren’t even born when she died. And, she did that without a computer, a tablet, an iPhone, a show on the Food Network, or a blog.

It’s hard to imagine Laurie Colwin living and writing about food in today’s gourmand-crazy and technology-frenzied world. If you read even just one or two of her food essays you will see that she was a no-nonsense home cook, not a fancy haute cuisine multi-ethnic fusion type of chef. I read a 2014 article on the The New York Times website by Jeff Gordinier who interviewed Colwin’s daughter, now a grown-up foodie and writer herself:

“In some ways, Ms. Colwin prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam. ‘She was so ahead of her time with the organic stuff,’ Ms. Jurjevics said. ‘That was so hard growing up, I’ve got to say. I was the kid with the weird lunch.’

On the other hand, the surge in food media might have befuddled her. ‘I wonder what she would have made of so many things,’ Ms. Jurjevics mused. ‘Would she have a computer? Would she email people? She was so particular about everything. Would she blog? I wonder, would she compulsively Google herself?’”

I’ve always imagined Colwin sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of steaming coffee and a yellow legal pad, writing away, while stopping periodically to stir something on the stove or to read a book to her daughter. So, it’s a little difficult to see her, she of the bread-baking, jam-making, beef-stewing variety, sitting hunched over a MacBook Pro, sipping a chai latte, tapping away at her latest novel or food essay. I have an easier time visualizing her blogging, casually spinning out one of her food stories, drawing us in, making us want to rush to our own kitchens and roast a chicken stuffed with a lemon.

Whenever I am writing about food, whether it is a restaurant meal or one I’ve prepared at home myself, I hear her voice in my head. I know, however, that what comes out of my printer is not even close to the quality of what she herself would have written.  She was a master story-teller; she brought you into her kitchen, or, as she recounts in Home Cooking, into her kitchen-less studio apartment during her early days on her own. Even without a kitchen she cooked and entertained regularly, cooking on a two-burner hotplate and draining pasta in her bathtub. I’ve been told by family and close friends that I am a good story-teller, so I keep trying to tell a food story the way she would have. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that, but until then, I will keep re-reading her stories, and as I write, I will keep listening to her voice.

Bibliography

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Colwin, Laurie. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Gordinier, Jeff. “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 July 2015.

“Printmaking Methods.” Fitch-Febvrel Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 July 2015.

Grace on the Field

As many of you know, I teach middle school language arts in a Catholic school located in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. Yes, I spend all day with pre-teens and teens, awash in adolescent hormones, Axe body spray, egg-shaped lip gloss containers, and poor grammar brought on by texting and IM’ing.  Six periods a day, a surfeit of shuffling Sperry-wearing seventh and eighth graders file in and out of my classroom for forty minutes of literature, vocabulary, writing, grammar, and a fair dose of my unbridled enthusiasm for reading.

I love teaching language arts; that is, I love everything that happens “inside the bells”. I love the energy of the kids as they come in and settle in to their desks. I love telling them about my favorite books and my favorite authors. I love teaching vocabulary and unlocking the vagaries of the semi-colon. I love connecting the literature we read to major world events and historical eras. I particularly love the Victorian era, complete with its formality, rigid social class system, and of course, great pieces of literature like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Importance of Being Earnest, both of which I teach to 8th grade.

After the final bell of the day rings, however, well, let’s just say that the next three or four hours are not exactly what keeps me in this grossly underpaid and overworked occupation. As much as I love teaching English and literature, the expectation is that the students demonstrate their new-found knowledge of literary devices, story triangles, figures of speech, and the like, in a never-ending stream of assessments such as compare/contrast essays, tests and quizzes, personal narratives and research papers. These things take forever to grade. My husband (not a teacher) keeps telling me to make my assessments more objective so they will be easier and faster to grade, but in order to prepare them for high school they must learn how to write a decent essay and that can’t be accomplished with multiple choice or true/false questions.

As dismal as this nightly ritual of endless grading may seem, there are other things “outside of the bells” that I dislike much more. Je déteste le recess duty! Recess duty (one day every other week…I know, quit complaining) consists of standing outside, swatting gnats or freezing, walking up and down an asphalt driveway overlooking the school’s artificial turf soccer field, while watching 140 middle school students for thirty excruciatingly painful minutes.

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet...no outdoor recess this day!

Our turf field in the dead of winter, a carpet of white velvet…no outdoor recess this day!

Winter months, especially the winter we just experienced here on the East Coast, brings respite in the form of “indoor recess”, with the field barren and empty, often blanketed in a carpet of white velvety snow. When the weather is good, however, out we go. Occasionally I will strike up a conversation with a group of sixth grade girls who are sitting on the school steps, but it is really their time away from teachers and school work, so eventually I move on. If there was a bench, I could tolerate it. If there was a bench and a book, I would be ecstatic. If there was a bench and a book and a cup of tea, well, I would be in heaven.

But, alas, no bench, so instead I walk the driveway and survey the soccer field littered with various balls, nets, and dozens of pairs of Sperry slip-ons, kicked off to make running and kicking easier. Some days I focus on one particular group and watch them play. A few years ago, a group of 8th grade boys regularly gathered to play touch football, and one bright and sunny spring day I watched them intently for about fifteen minutes. I knew those boys well, having taught them for two years. Half of them were in my home room, the other half just two doors down in the science room for home room. As with any class, some of them were good students with the academic skills to do well, some were decent students who worked incredibly hard, and some were students who struggled daily with reading comprehension, writing, grammar, and of course, with maintaining any sort of interest level in the literature they were assigned to read.

Of the latter group, on that bright and sunny spring day, I watched one particular 8th grade boy catch the football and run like the wind the entire length of the field. He ran with long easy strides, perfect posture, ball tucked securely in the crook of his left arm, head tilted back, in a style reminiscent of “the flying Scotsman” eric liddell quoteEric Liddell, born in China to missionary parents from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was brought to fame via the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. With his unorthodox running style, Liddell captured Olympic gold for the track team of Great Britain at the 1924 games in Paris. He did it in his own way, however, refusing to run in a heat for his “favored distance”, the 100 metre, which was to be held on a Sunday, being the Lord’s day of rest. So, instead, he ran the 400 metres, which had never been his best race. The qualifying heats for the 400 metres were held on Thursday and Friday, and while not the fastest he qualified. In the final event, with the crowd cheering him on, however, he threw back his head, lowered his arms, and finished the race in first place.

In his school uniform of navy Bermuda shorts and a navy sweatshirt, his white athletic crew socks sharply contrasted against the bright green artificial turf, my student was the very epitome of grace in action, relaxed and happy. No one could catch him, in fact, after half a length of the field, they all but quit trying. When he reached the end, he turned in a semi-pirouette, and started back, running in the same graceful style, back to his group of friends he had left coolly behind. He was all smiles, very different from his gloomy look in my classroom.

As I watched him, I realized I was envious of his obvious and natural athletic abilities. I never played a sport, other than a few miserable weeks one summer when my mother attempted to “make” me play softball. In high school I lifeguarded at the pool in my hometown, but that was more people-watching than sport. Sure, I jumped in to save the odd child, over-confident and under-skilled, slipping beneath the surface, head bobbing up and down, but I was a strong swimmer so it didn’t require much effort, and hardly a display of athleticism. Another summer, as an adult, I traded English lessons for tennis lessons with a wealthy Iranian exchange student whose family had fled when the Shah’s regime fell. The tennis was just a bit more successful than the softball, but neither was as enjoyable as watching Wimbledon or the French Open from the comfort of my living room.

No, my natural talents are for letters and words, not rackets and balls. I love reading and writing, and I find vocabulary truly fascinating. The graceful athlete down on the field would rather be anywhere other than a language arts classroom. I wonder where he will end up as an adult. He is in high school now and I wonder if he is finding success as a high school athlete. Will he go on to play college sports? Will he figure out a way to be successful in the language arts classroom as well, so as to keep his grades up to stay on the team?

Watching him run that day, I truly hope that he finds a way to work it all out. I hope he ends up with a career in sports, coaching or commentating. I hope he spends many, many hours running the length of a field, deftly weaving in and out of contact with the opposing team, his long, graceful strides the envy of all watching, especially his middle school English teacher.

Poetry 101

artic avenue forsythiaIt’s early April and a damp, gloomy day out. Yet, in spite of the temperature being in the 40’s this morning, signs of spring are visible. When driving my daughter to the metro today I pointed out to her the forsythia in full bloom up and down both sides of the street. I told her how much my mother loved forsythia and how she always hoped it was in bloom when she and my dad visited me here in Maryland. My daughter and I talked about where we could plant some in our own yard. As happens most of the time, my thoughts turned to literature, and I asked her if she knew the poem “Forsythia” by Mary Ellen Solt. It’s a concrete poem, meaning the words of the poem are arranged in a deliberate way with some symbolic meaning or connection to the subject matter of the poem itself.

When I started teaching eight years ago, I spent a lot of time reviewing the poetry unit in the eighth grade literature textbook. I wasn’t very strong on poetry, and had always thought I didn’t care for it. But, after a few years of searching for the right combination of poems to teach to my 8th graders, I developed a new appreciation for poetry. The more I researched and read in preparation for teaching my poetry unit, the more I began to love studying poetry myself. Reading a poem and rereading a poem, looking for metaphors or allusions, digging for the deeper meaning, all of these things were like working on a challenging crossword puzzle or playing a word game with a well-matched foe.

Teaching poetry became something I enjoyed as much as teaching the fiction pieces in my curriculum. There are many positives to teaching poetry. Choosing a class novel for 40-50 eighth graders is tricky. Along with analyzing a potential novel for its use in covering the standards, one must also consider whether it will be appealing to the majority of the students. Is the protagonist male or female? Does it contain age-appropriate language and subject matter? Will it encourage intellectual curiosity or a broader world view? All of these things are much easier to take into account when selecting poems for a poetry unit.

For struggling readers, the thought of delving into a 300 page novel is daunting but for those with even the shortest of attention spans, a poem is manageable, and, if chosen carefully and presented in an engaging way, it can even be enjoyable. For example, the masterpiece “Oh Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, is a great poem to help students understand an extended metaphor. First, students read the poem silently to themselves. Then we read it aloud. Then I read the poem to them, using my dramatic voice and facial expressions. Finally, we begin to take the poem apart and break it down.

My student desks are arranged in a big square with everyone, myself included, facing the center of the square, so no one is left out, “in the back”, or excluded. As we discuss the poem, I am on the lookout for any early signs of recognition of the metaphor. If necessary I will ask some leading questions, such as, “What could the ship represent? Who is the captain? What was the prize sought?” When the light bulbs start going off and I see the signs of comprehension rippling around the room, I can sit back and let them take over the discussion. It is a great teaching moment, and I look forward to it each year.

bea swindell

Mrs. Bea Swindell

In phase two of the poetry unit the students select a poem to memorize and present to the class. While required in the academic standards, the announcement of this assignment brings wide-spread fear and terror throughout the room. Most overly self-aware adolescents will do anything to avoid public speaking and combining that with memorizing something for a grade is not something they look forward to. However, this is something of a rite of passage for all middle school and high school students. My husband can still recite the poem he memorized for school, and I can proudly share that in high school, as somewhat of a dare as well as to impress my beloved English teacher Mrs. Bea Swindell, I memorized the entire poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, all eighteen stanzas of it. I can still recite from memory the first two or three stanzas but to be able to recite it in its entirety would require some work of this middle age brain.

New to poetry? Or, perhaps do you wish to reacquaint yourself with it? Along with Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia”, here are the ten poets and their poems chosen for my 8th grade poetry unit, a collection that most of my students find enjoyable and approachable. Half of these appear in our textbook, others I selected. Most can be found on the internet or at your local public library. Read them a few times and then take them apart. Look for those extended metaphors! Broaden your world view, one poem at a time!

  1. Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon’s poem “Morning Has Broken” was the basis for the well-known Christian hymn, but its popularity reached new peaks when Cat Stevens turned it into a hit single. Examples of her poetry: “Cat!” and “Morning Has Broken”.
  2. Walt Whitman. Whitman’s collection of poetry Leaves of Grass made him a literary superstar, so much so that when he died his funeral became a public spectacle. Examples of his poetry: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider”.
  3. Emily Dickinson. Largely unknown throughout her lifetime because of her reclusive nature, after her death nearly 1,800 poems she had written were discovered in her room by her sister. Examples of her poetry: “The Sky Is Low, The Clouds Are Mean” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death–“.
  4. William Shakespeare. No study of poetry, or literature for that matter, would be complete without including the Bard of Avon. Writers of love letters as well as students of literature can find themselves lost in his sonnets, filled with wonder at his mastery of the English language. Examples of his poetry: “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”.
  5. W. H. Auden. An Anglo-American poet, Auden’s famous poem “Funeral Blues” made it to the big screen in 1994 when it was featured prominently in the Hugh Grant/Andie MacDowell movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Examples of his poetry: “Three Short Poems” and “Funeral Blues”.
  6. Cecil Spring Rice. Another example of a poem being set to music is “The Two Fatherlands” by British poet Cecil Spring Rice, who was the British Ambassador to the United States from 1912-1918. Written in 1908 while he was serving in the British diplomatic corps, the poem speaks of service and loyalty to the two “fathers”, God and country. British composer Gustav Holst adapted a section of the movement “Jupiter” from his symphony The Planets as a setting for the poem. The music and lyrics were later modified for use as a Christian hymn. Examples of his poetry: “Day” and “Urbs Dei” (“The City of God”) or “The Two Fatherlands”, better known as “I Vow to Thee My Country”.
  7. Robert Frost. American poet Robert Frost is well-known and widely studied. Frost was asked to recite a poem for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the first poet to do so but a tradition continued with Presidents Clinton and Obama. In the car on the way to the swearing-in, Frost was very nervous about the weather conditions on the bitterly cold and windy January day in 1961. When called up to the podium, he found that the wind and glare from the sun and snow prevented him from reading a poem he had written especially for the occasion, so instead he recited from heart his 1941 poem “The Gift Outright”. Examples of his poetry: “The Road Not Taken” and “The Gift Outright”.
  8. e. e. cummings. American poet Edward Estlin Cummings, known for his irreverent use of lower case letters, intentional misspellings, and irregular word/line placement, was a prolific writer, amassing nearly 3,000 poems in his lifetime, along with several novels, plays, and essays. Examples of his poetry: “Your Little Voice Over The Wires Came Leaping” and “a pretty a day”.
  9. William Carlos Williams. Another American poet who excelled in multiple careers was William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician and general practitioner, who famously said he worked harder as a poet than as a doctor. A contemporary of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, Williams’s final book of poetry, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, earned him the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Examples of his poetry: “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Willow Poem”.
  10. Edgar Allan Poe. Only 40 years old when he died in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left behind a treasury of literature. His death and the circumstances surrounding it are so mysterious and compelling it is almost as though he is a character in one of his gruesome short stories. Examples of his poetry: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”.