Monthly Archives: October 2012

Flowers for Algernon: Literature and Character Education

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My seventh graders are starting to be mean to each other. It’s not a secret. In fact, it’s practically expected at this age. Our study of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon came not a moment too soon.

We’re working up to NaNoWriMo, which starts this Thursday. I had originally planned for our discussion of Flowers for Algernon to focus on style, character development, and unreliable narrators. Instead, we had a few throw downs in the lunch room and I changed the focus to “how we talk to each other”. In particular, what words we use when we talk to each other.

I’ve always felt that English teachers have a special responsibility for the moral development of their students. Long after we’ve forgotten the rules of grammar, we remember the stories we read and the examples our teachers provided. Given that I teach in a Christian school, I couldn’t help feeling that Flowers provided an unprecedented opportunity to talk about loving our neighbors. In light of recent events, (and a few inappropriate short stories) it became important to look at the power of words- how we use them, how they change, how they change us.

We began with a discussion of how the meaning of words changes over time- how we can change a word by imbuing with emotional content. “Pulling a Charlie Gordon”, for example, changes drastically depending on the context in which it’s used. Calling someone with intellectual disabilities “mentally retarded” was perfectly acceptable thirty years ago. We discussed that word, and how the meaning has shifted. We talked about personal responsibility, and whether public figures have more or less for what they say. Then we read this letter.

Ann Coulter provided me with half a lesson plan when she chose to call President Obama the r-word on twitter after the debate. John Franklin Stephens did a beautiful job responding to Coulter. Hearing from someone with Down’s Syndrome shed new light on the event, the word, and the short story we’ve been reading- especially since the novel is written in  letter/journal form. Although I can’t claim that it was a life changing discussion, the class left with a lot to chew on.

I can’t, in fact, claim that anything we do in my class is life changing. All I can do is go in armed with the best of literature and intentions and pray. You pray too, please.

 

 

Poem of the Week #8

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weeeeeeeird

We’re discussing character in preparation for National Novel Writing Month… which begins next week. My personal goal is 25,000 words. I would go for the 50,000 word goal that’s set for adults- but with 1984 opening halfway through the month it’s just not going to happen. I challenge you to match my seventh graders’ goal of 10,000 words by November 30th.

Back to our poem. I am not a fan of the musical Cats- just want to put that out there. People dressed as cats with fur all over their faces does nothing for me. In fact, it kind of wigs me out. The one song I sort of kind of maybe like though, is Macavity: The Mystery Cat. Catchy, catchy, catchy. So I pulled the poem from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. As we think about our “novels”, it provided a great example of creating an intriguing character through imagery and action. I liked being able to introduce T.S. Eliot, so when they encounter his poetry and plays later in life they’ll have some context. It’s even grade-level appropriate, for once. Enjoy!

Macavity: the Mystery Cat

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movement like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found on any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair—
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
‘It must have been Macavity!’—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place—Macavity wasn’t there!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just control their operations: the Napolean of Crime!

Poem of the Week #7

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Chosen partly because I memorized it for a competition in high school and looooooved it. Unreliable narrators, imagery, style, etc. Again, one class loved it, and the other did not. All of them loved the last line, though!

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar Allan Poe

Poem of the Week #6

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We’re continuing our discussion of metaphor. Students in one class loved this, in the other absolutely hated it. Go figure.

The Panic Bird

just flew inside my chest. Some
days it lights inside my brain,
but today it’s in my bonehouse,
rattling ribs like a birdcage.

If I saw it coming, I’d fend it
off with machete or baseball bat.
Or grab its scrawny hackled neck,
wring it like a wet dishrag.

But it approaches from behind.  
Too late I sense it at my back —
carrion, garbage, excrement.
Once inside me it preens, roosts,

vulture on a public utility pole.
Next it flaps, it cries, it glares,
it rages, it struts, it thrusts
its clacking beak into my liver,

my guts, my heart, rips off strips.
I fill with black blood, black bile.
This may last minutes or days.
Then it lifts sickle-shaped wings,

rises, is gone, leaving a residue —
foul breath, droppings, molted midnight
feathers. And life continues.
And then I’m prey to panic again.

 

Robert Phillips

Poem of the Week #5

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If

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Things I’m Currently Reading- October Edition

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my life!

This post starts with a shameless plug for the fabulous Josh Cole, who I saw play in concert last week for the first time. He’s both a friend and your new favorite musician, so check out the website for fantastic free downloads! (And then pay the man the suggested $7.)

September has been a fantastic, fantastically busy month. This list is most definitely shorter than usual, since the first year as a full time teacher is everything they said it would be- sleep deprivation included. That said, I’m loving it. The English classes satisfy my not-so-inner twelve year old, and my theater classes are divine.

In case you didn’t notice, I’m also directing 1984 for the high school. Production dates are November 15-17th.

November, you say? Don’t you mean… NaNoWriMo?

Why yes, I will be writing a novel as I put up my first show of the year. Thanks for asking. Stay tuned, stay warm, and enjoy my favorite month. It goes fast.

Daily spiritual reading-

  1. The Bible (via http://jordanville.org)
  2. Hermitess Photini, Joachim Spetsieris

Pleasure reading-

  1.  The Other Woman, Jane Green
  2. The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
  3. Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth
  4. Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns

Work-

  1. The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
  2. The Actor’s Art and Craft, William Esper and Damon DiMarco

Books that have been on hold, but want to finish-

  1. The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
  2. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Just finished-

  1. Pitch Black, Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton (graphic novel)
  2. Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, Victor Afanasiev (finally!!!)

Stopped because I couldn’t take it anymore-

1. The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (but I WILL finish it)

Next up-

  1. Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare (still need to cut it down for work)
  2. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

Enjoy fall while it lasts folks! Drink some cider for me, and send good vibes for my trip to Chicago this weekend!