Canon Literature

Since I teach Senior English, I get to read dystopian novels in the the late winter and all spring. One of my colleagues used a genius assignment this semester: he had his students report cheating, skipping, or other unsavory behavior and he made them name names. The purpose was to pull students into the paranoid mindset of Winston Smith. I spend two days going over the idea of Big Brother versus Little Brother, because I think it’s important for my students to see the real world parallels in the things that we read. Some books lend themselves more easily to the application of ideas. One of the things I’ve noticed in the last two or three years is that my students have an intrinsically different understanding of technology and personal information than I do. They think nothing of taking someone’s picture with or without (or even against) their subject’s wishes and posting it online. They either don’t realize or care that their phones and other devices are passively monitoring everything they do.

My generation is more aware of these things happening and our response (at least based on facebook and instagram) is to heavily curate our lives for the audience of our peers. These kids will happily post pictures of themselves in bed on day three of the flu looking like crap. I’m not really sure what their meter for shame is most of the time. They are also in a generation that has learned how to monetize their online presence. I can’t begin to fathom how people make money off their blogs or Instagram feeds; the video entries I sometimes get. Other times, I’ll see a video of an old man doing weird things while shouting Lady Gaga choruses. I just don’t get it.

While my seniors get overloaded with various types of indoctrination (which could never happen to people here and now), they also look at the other small ways freedoms are limited or learning is inhibited. A few of them understand what I’m talking about; a few of them shut down weeks ago, because “they are so much smarter than this”; and a few of them will carry the seeds of what I’m teaching into the future with them. [I’m not sure which is worse: “I’m too smart for this, so I don’t have to pay attention, because you can’t teach me anything anyway” or “This doesn’t matter in my career as a __________, so I’m not going to do anything more than the bare minimum to get a D”.]

I want them to read The Scarlet Letter and understand that single parents have been around a long time and they have a tough road to follow. I want them to read Beowulf and think about what people are hiding behind their personas–and why they have those personas in the first place. I want them to read A Separate Peace and realize teenagers do stupid and damaging things all the time, but we can learn from our mistakes. I want them to read Brave New World and be horrified by erotic play and open indoctrination while they look for the hidden indoctrination around them. I want them to read Huck Finn and recognize that the people we marginalize have something to say and a lot to offer the world. I want them to figure out that every story is an opportunity to learn about human nature and the world around us; then, I want them to apply those lessons in their daily lives.

One of the two most disheartening things about my job is, that there’s a whole world between what I want and what happens. I do my best to teach my students how to be active readers, how to pull information out of various texts, and how to use that information. I can’t force them to learn.

I keep teaching these stories and searching for new articles that relate to the novels, I keep tweaking what and how I teach, in the hopes that I am making a positive difference for the majority of my students.

Ultimately, I want them to learn how to be true to themselves. Yes, I do this by showing them a variety of characters who are true and untrue to who they really are. I also show them characters who choose the darkest truth or the most evil version of themselves to be true to–they need to know how to control their darker selves in order to be true to themselves.


Once upon a time a spinster decided to go for a walk in the woods. She checked and rechecked her satchel to make sure she had sandwiches, a bottle of wine, a pashmina, an umbrella, and a fan. Even though her friends all laughed about her walks and the inappropriateness of her supplies, they went with her often to the woods. On this day, however, she was alone.

She walked up small hills and around clumps of trees, always keeping to the path. Soon enough she heard pained little yelps, so she peered through the branches until she saw the source of the noise; a little fox had gotten itself stuck in a snare. With a little thought and the serrated blade on her multi-tool the spinster freed the fox. It rubbed its head along her arm in thanks and trotted away.

She walked back to the path, up small hills, and around clumps of trees. Soon enough she heard a loud squawking and peered through the branches. Seeing nothing on the ground, she straightened up to look around at eye-level, pivoting to see the whole area. Still seeing nothing, she remembered the most important rule the one time she’d tried a role-playing game—always look up. Soon enough she spotted a blackbird (magpie or crow, she couldn’t tell) stuck swinging upside down. The entire time the spinster worked to free the bird from its net, she chatted at it (any nonsense in her head). The bird turned its glittering eyes on her and pecked her forehead quickly with its beak before flying off.

Once again, back on the path, the spinster wondered about just who was leaving these traps. They weren’t enough to do permanent harm, but they were a problem. Eventually, she reached her destination—a picnic table beside a small waterfall and a deep pool. Setting out her supplies, the spinster waited. She wrote in a small notebook, took pictures with her phone, and enjoyed the quiet.

She did not eat her sandwich or drink her wine.

She waited until the sun was heading west.

After quite some time a man stumbled out of the trees and into the picnic area. He looked around in confusion and set his axe and his pack down. “Where am I?” he asked the spinster.

“At the end of the story,” she answered.

He looked at her funny before inhaling the sandwiching and chugging the wine. “What are you talking about?” He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You of all people know the rules,” she said. “Don’t eat or drink when you wander into places you shouldn’t be.”

“I’m in the woods. I’m a woodcutter. It’s where I belong.”

“You wandered onto the path. You ate my sandwich and drank my wine. You’ll die if you try to leave the path again.”

The man paled and looked around. “How did you do that?”

“You got lazy and only trapped two of the three creatures you’d need to find a Green Well. You left them long enough for me to find and free them.”

“But…but…” he sputtered and stuttered and wondered if crying would be a good idea. “I’m bound to the woods,” he said.

“You won’t be the first or last to live on the edge of the woods. You killed your shadow and lost your way. The lesson you failed to learn is that sometimes you can’t go home again.”

“That doesn’t actually make sense,” the woodcutter said.

“Hopefully, someday it will,” the spinster replied.

Commonplace Thoughts

Everything worth doing requires a learning curve and a willingness to take criticism, analyze criticism, and incorporate the comments that are relevant into how we do things so we can get better. 

Failure is one-third of success: we have to fail before we can know what’s really required. Natural talent or a willingness to learn is one-third of success: everyone has something to teach us, but sometimes we are too wrapped up in ourselves to notice and that means the lessons get harder and the teachers get meaner and success is further away. The last third of success is work ethic: we have to be willing to actually work for the things we want.

Nothing is easy in life. Nothing is really meant to be easy. We need the balance between good and bad to remember to work for what we truly want. I spend my time planning, learning, updating the what and the why and the how of my lessons and units. I am not one of the truly admirable teachers who sacrifice family time, personal time, or reading time getting things graded for the next day. I do read everything my student turn in which means that I sometimes take too long to return work, because reasons. I’m still figuring out the right balance between necessary practice for my students, required assignments for the administration, and reasonable rates of return (which I would’ve thought would be finely tuned by now). When I finally achieve that magical balance I’m expecting a week turn around for most assignments and it’s what I work toward each semester (someday I’ll get there).

I don’t want to make a difference for one kid. I want to make a difference for all of them, but 100% is unachievable. I teach my students to analyze information (and the sources of information). I teach my students how to incorporate new skills and ideas into their worldview. I want them to be critical thinkers and eclectic learners. I want them to want to challenge themselves (as unrealistic as that may be). I can offer practice, model skill sets, fight to keep things relevant, and change with the times, but I can’t force anyone to learn and my teaching style (for some students my personality) can be a stumbling block. It’s not something anyone wants to think too much about—reflection and honesty are so important to growth even though they are sometimes hard to acknowledge.

For years I’ve wanted to incorporate my version of commonplace books into the projects my students produce. My first round last year was more successful than I would have thought and my second round will be fun to look through and grade next week. They are part journal, part scrapbook. I hope my students will use their commonplace books as an ongoing record of what huge events and small epiphanies shape their lives.

Something that came up today in class

Fairy Tales show us over and over again the dangers of ignoring our instincts or trusting the wrong people or giving up or giving in. We have to face a new world and in it the things we fear, the things we are, and the things we think we hope for. What we think we want is never what it seems.

Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose emphasize pushing forward even when stopping would be easier. If we want to survive, we have to keep moving forward. Like Joss Whedon wrote in Firefly: The Message, “When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl—when you can’t do that…You find someone to carry you” which alluded to Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech when he said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Moving from sophomore year literature into the literature of senior year, these messages can also be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Really, this message can be found in everything we read by its direct address or the consequences of its absence.

So today got a little weird…

Somehow, this came out of our senior discussions prior to reading The Scarlet Letter (my favorite fairy tale).

The Colonials had to band together in communities for safety and short-term livability. Eighty-five percent of European colonists died in the first 75 years of colonization; a similar number of indigenous people died from European diseases and mistreatment during that same time. (Admittedly, my numbers may be a little off, but it’s what I remember from a Bill Bryson book).

In the same way that Arthur Miller couldn’t talk about The Red Scare and the dangers of Joseph McCarthy, Hawthorne couldn’t talk about “the other” in the context of slavery or the rampant hypocrisy within religion and politics.

Today, when we have Native Americans protesting on their sovereign land to stop the US government from laying a pipeline across their territory, when we have #BlackLivesMatter in response to ongoing racism, when we have students who hear racial slurs directed at them in high school hallways, we have to look at the history of our country and its treatment of immigrants, the descendants of slaves, women, and children to understand the anger and hurt some groups carry from generation to generation and the fears that spawns.

The Scarlet Letter is about how people are shoved into the “other” category by people who don’t really have any room to judge them.

Thinking Things Again

Untitled Actress from Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn
Submission calls for an actress mid-to-late 20s. All ethnicities acceptable. Except Asian-American. Caucasian preferable. Must read teen on-screen. Thin but not gaunt. Lean. Quirky but not unattractive. No brown eyes. Not taller than 5’5”. Weight no more than 109. Actress should have great smile. Straight teeth a must. Must be flexible. Small bust a plus. Can do own stunts. Will waive rights to image, likeness, publicity, and final cut. Role calls for nudity.

Role calls for simulated sexual intercourse. Role calls for role play with lead male. No stand-in avail. Role pays scale.

Character is shy yet codependent, searching for love in all the wrong men. Character confides in others at her own risk. Character is fatigued and hollow, suffers from self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness. Character learns the hard way to believe in herself. No brown eyes. Character finally finds happiness when she meets Brad, a successful older businessman, 5’5”.

Log line: A woman fights to save her soul. Think a young Carole Lombard meets a younger Anna Nicole. Requires an actress that will leave an audience speechless, who’s found her creative voice.

Not a speaking role.

Like actresses, a few stand-out teachers get acknowledgement for excellence or atrociousness; however, we are replaceable in the eyes of most. We don’t do anything real. We choose careers that force us to a different social contract that most professionals. Young women (and young men) who choose acting have to look good: they spend hours at the gym, carefully monitor their food, and deal with all the people who look over their shoulders telling them how to live their lives better. Teachers may not spend hours at the gym, but we read, we learn, we plan, we assess, we adjust, we deal with all the bullshit from people who think our jobs aren’t worth their time. I get awfully sick of “those who can’t do teach”.

Let’s be real. In order to teach writing effectively I spent ten years working with the Oregon Writing Project. I write in my online journal, my notebooks, and occasionally my blog so that I can go through the same experiences as my students even if it’s on a different front. I can tell them how I get through writer’s block or why word vomit is such an important step in the writing process. I can tell them why I read my work out loud when I’m proofreading. I may not be Stephen King or a community college professor with several small press books, but I am still a writer. I am definitely a teacher. And while I could go out and do other things, this is what I love.

I just wish more people would listen. I’m sure the average actor or actress wish the same.

Thinking Things

Masks by Ezra Pound (1909)

These tales of old disguisings, are they not

Strange myths of souls that found themselves among

Unwonted folk that spake an hostile tongue,

Some soul from all the rest who’d not forgot

The star-span acres of a former lot

Where boundless mid the clouds his course he swung,

Or carnate with his elder brothers sung

Ere ballad-makers lisped of Camelot?
Old singers half-forgetful of their tunes,

Old painters color-blind come back once more,

Old poets skill-less in the wind-heart runes,

Old wizards lacking in their wonder-lore:
All they that with strange sadness in their eyes

Ponder in silence o’er earth’s queynt devyse?

I’m not sure what I love more about this poem: the archaic language meant to tease those who had change, the discussion of stories, or why we think story tellers are so strange. Pound’s rhythm is so steady and his rhyme scheme is soft enough that the reader has to really consider pronunciation to keep that rhythm and rhyme. As time passes we get lost in our memories, we rewrite our lives to make them fit our dreams better, and we lose something of ourselves in that process. Every poem is a code that can evoke fairy tales or romantic love or longing for the ideal. Not many people are familiar with this poem, but every time I read it I find myself thinking about it for the rest of the day.

I suppose this resonates with me right now, because spring represents so much change in my world. We are wrapping up the school year, trying to make sure kids have the skills they need, bemoan the skills we can’t teach them, and start thinking about what we can do better next year. Seniors are getting ready to launch and they usually aren’t ready. The last few years attendance has lost its importance in the whole scheme of education, so some students think that they don’t have to show up at work either. A culture of quitting before being proven incapable has grown up while we were boning up on NCLB, ESEA, CC, and whatever is now.

But I keep looking back. I’ve come so far. I’m getting older. I’ve forgotten important things and learned old lessons anew. I’ve looked inside and outside for inspiration, for how to do better, for how to be better and it all just makes me want to take a nap or lose myself in a novel which is not how a responsible adult behaves.

Gatsby’s Light

Most readers are taught that the light at the end of Daisy’s dock is hugely important to understanding The Great Gatsby. Their teachers wax poetic about the symbolism and meaning behind the light referencing Gatsby’s comments in chapter 5 and Nick’s comments at the end of the book. I tend to think that the light, like the parties, is just an illusion. They are there to distract us as readers and to distract the characters within the story. The parties are the perfect place to do business, to not notice smugglers at the water’s edge, for illicit meetings between people who shouldn’t normally be seen together. Fitzgerald spends three paragraphs naming all the people and types of people who come to the parties. And, yes, the parties are obviously for Daisy, everything Gatsby does in an increasingly shady manner is to be worthy of her financially.

Like Myrtle, Gatsby doesn’t understand the agreement between Tom and Daisy, none of us do. However they appear at different moments, they are ultimately loyal to each other. Faithfulness in a marriage isn’t always about sex. As we can see with many political or celebrity marriages, the ones that stay are the ones that often surprise us; who knows what agreements are constantly renegotiated by the wealthy? For a long time marriages were arranged at the highest end of the socio-economic ladder and at the lowest end; in both situations they were for business, money, and contacts.

We fool ourselves today by believing marriage is about love. Love as a feeling is an illusion. Love in action is real. We love our friends and are loyal to our patrons. We love ourselves (sometimes). And some people love the idea of love, the twitterpation that comes from a new crush, the sexual attraction that feels like a magnetic pull. Many people get married for that feeling thinking it will always be around. Other people are serial monogamists because they want the feeling and understand that it is fleeting. This is the essence of why Daisy Buchanan would never have worked with Jay Gatsby. She is too pragmatic and he is too much the starry-eyed romantic.

Every glimpse we get in the novel of the Buchanan’s relationship makes it seem toxic. We are supposed to be rooting for Jay Gatsby to get the girl. Jay Gatsby, who determined his whole persona at the age of seventeen, is still stuck in that mentality. It’s the same pattern of thinking that has men today shoving their “niceness” at women and then their misogyny at those same women for “friend zoning” or otherwise rejecting their romantic overtures. I find it hard to see Jay Gatsby in a positive light with my modern perceptions about how people treat each other. I feel for his character, trapped in that teenage mindset of what’s cool and what’s real, but I don’t root for him to get Daisy. There are hints throughout the book that she will destroy him. In the end Tom will never leave Daisy and Daisy will never leave Tom because they are far too conventional to consider divorce. Part of their social standing stems from the drama and rumor they evoke. They are entertainment for many of their peers and they take as much enjoyment from the pain or drama their peers inflict on each other.

Love is an illusion as presented in The Great Gatsby. The parties Gatsby throws are clever misdirection and brand building. The light at the end of the dock is unreachable. However, loyalty and friendship carry the book. We can’t ever fully believe first-person narrators, but we can tell how they really feel about the subjects of their stories. We can see Nick’s real respect and love for James Gatz.