Dear Angela Merkel

Dear Angela Merkel,

Thank you for leading our country these last sixteen years. I’ve admired your poise, your steadfast leadership, your resolve and courage, and the balance you brought to each difficult situation. While I by no means agreed with you or your party on numerous issues, I nevertheless am grateful to have lived in this world as a German citizen during the time of your chancellorship.

You’ve been a strong role model for us young Germans to look up to. You embody your values, live them out with charisma, and stand for what you believe in. Earlier this year, when you apologized to the entire country for a blunder on the part of your administration, I tried to remember ever seeing a world leader ask for forgiveness in such an unequivocal and humble manner. I came up short. It takes a great person to admit their mistakes and that humility is one reason that we trust you. It is easy to see that in everything you always put the good of others, the good of the people (German or not) above your own desires and aspirations. You have in many ways redefined the qualities we look for in a chancellor now, and you’ve left some very big shoes behind.

When looking at the world stage, it is easy to find so-called leaders that believe power and strength are the sources of their leadership and that they can only lead through bluster and bullying. Your approach of finding nuanced balance and carefully brokered compromise while standing firm on your values is an inspiration. Through some very difficult crises, you showed that collaborating with those that we might disagree with is always the better strategy over storming off in a huff, casting blame, or getting our way through might. We must all get better at not only acknowledging but also accepting the differences and differing viewpoints of others and finding solutions across those divides, rather than erecting walls or barriers. You’ve shown that this is possible on the large stage of world politics.

I’ve never been more proud to be German than in 2015. We younger Germans have grown up learning about the brutal history of our country, have seen the films, the concentration camps, the yearly memorial services and it is not always easy to find the right balance between knowing the atrocities committed in the past and finding value in our culture today. Germany stands for something different now, a place of opportunity, a land that strives to uphold everyone’s dignity no matter their origin. The way you handled the refugee crisis in 2015 will always stand out as the greatest moment of your leadership; you broke ranks with many in your own party because you knew that in this instance, something more important was at stake. It was your compassionate, warm-hearted embrace of those in direst need that showed the world that Germany is and always should be a welcoming country. I’ve rarely been so moved as watching ordinary German citizens cheerfully welcoming and embracing those who had been forced to leave everything behind. That’s what we should be known for; thank you for making that way possible.

My sincerest gratitude on your many years of service to our country. You’ve helped to reconcile me to being German, you’ve provided a strong model of leadership that others can emulate, and you’ve given us hope that change for the better is possible.

Sincerely,
A Grateful German

Teaching Dune

Speculative fiction makes for an excellent teaching tool, in particular with how it requires our minds to be flexible when reading. In stretching the bounds of our every day realities, fantasy and science fiction writers are still exploring themes common to the human experience (to the best of my understanding, most authors are writing for a human audience). The changes in perspective, the hypothetical realities, the extrapolation of ideas, all allow for a unique and valuable approach to teaching.

A few years ago, I convinced my school to let me add Frank Herbert’s Dune to my AP Literature curriculum. As it’s a longer text, I have students read it over the summer and then it’s the first text we study together. Some students love it, some struggle with it, and a certain number don’t quite get it until we start our discussions in class. It makes for a powerful beginning to our year together, setting the groundwork for much that is to come.

1. It helps to break the notion that there is a massive disparity between ‘genre fiction’ like SF and what we study in school: ‘literature’. Literary quality can be found in all manner of books, and it meets many students where they are. For so much of their schooling, they’ve differentiated between the stuff they’ve had to read for English class and what they read for fun. Numerous students, after reading Dune, mention that they appreciate being able to study a different type of text, something they might have picked up for fun, and that it has changed how they approach all their reading.

2. Structurally, it taps into a number of common narrative patterns, though without being too obvious. Yes, it’s a bildungsroman; yes, we can trace the hero’s journey; some of the non-linear components to the storytelling allow for really in-depth discussions about narrative purpose. What’s up with Princess Irulan’s epigraphs? Why do we get to know who the traitor is way before the protagonist does? These structural insights set the stage for many conversations to come about other texts.

3. Once students adjust to all the weird names of places, characters, and objects, it’s an incredibly vibrant and well-crafted sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s word). It lets me introduce setting as a significant component of the story; too often when we discuss setting in other classes and about other books, students can explain the times and places but have a much harder time actually showing the significance it brings to the text. And the planet of Arrakis, painfully forced into the position as a volatile nexus in an interplanetary conflict, readily provides lots of analytical opportunities; students see the role of the Spice not just for the Empire, but for the characters. The lack of water on a desert planet is closely tied both to the threat of death and the hope for an ecologically flourishing future.

4. Dune provides us with a shared text that we keep referring back to. I quickly lost count of the number of times it would show back up in our discussions last year as students made connections and saw similarities. When introducing new concepts or when I needed a ready example, it was easy to relate it back to Dune and I knew the student would be familiar with it. Christ-figures, symbols, passage of time, plot vs. story vs. narrative, contrasting characters, foreshadowing, and plenty of others. It was also an excellent book for teaching students how to discuss themes in a knowledgeable way, setting them up for seeing the topics that they’ve been taught to recognize in works of literature and having them grapple with how they introduce meaning into the text.

5. Much later in the year, when we get to post-colonial criticism, we’ve got other texts we focus our analysis on (Things Fall Apart & Heart of Darkness), but even here, students keep coming back to Dune. They may not have recognized the colonial impact on Arrakis by the Empire when they first read it, but they do later; it helps them to see the pattern of how these questions and a lens like post-colonial criticism can be applied to multiple works, yield different answers, and yet still be bound around a similar topic or concern.

6. It allows me to readily introduce a running theme of my class that is vital to being successful in AP Literature: oftentimes, to make sense of something, we must be willing and able to hold different—even contradictory—ideas simultaneously and muddle our way through the complexity between them. Many of the questions posed by literature are not about finding the ‘right’ answer, but about identifying the areas of complexity and dancing in the tension, reveling in the ambiguity, and learning to articulate nuanced thoughts in areas where there is no simple solution. In Dune, the topic that most easily lets us begin talking about this is whether Paul Atreides is bound by the prophecies that surround him, by his own prophetic visions, or whether he is in fact free to choose and chart his own course. Questions of fate vs. free will, of determinism vs. choice, are never simple. By engaging with what Herbert has to say on the topic, students can take a step into the treacherous realm of literary analysis, where there is not the comfort of turning to the back of the textbook to check for the ‘right’ answer.

I love Dune. I really enjoyed it when I first read it back in high school (not so much the ones Herbert wrote after) and have found new details and ideas to appreciate with each rereading. I’m excited to share this experience with my students each year, and based on their responses, the discussions in class, the papers I get to read, they’re finding it as engaging as I do. This year, as we completed our final discussion on the text, a student said, “Thanks for having us read this.” I call that a success.

Dear Cats, I Promise You Won’t Starve

My dear cats,

I’m writing to inform you that our daily feeding rituals have become untenable. I ask that you consider my concerns and hope that we can come to an agreeable understanding moving forward, so that our cohabitation can continue to be a benefit to us all.

(I should probably get you a new scratching pad so you can trim those claws down a bit)

Findus, you joined our family almost 9 years ago. I appreciate very much how friendly and affectionate you are, that you like to sit on our laps, and your little toy-in-mouth yowl is incredibly cute. However, you are also a slow, picky eater and as you’ve aged, we need to adjust your food intake somewhat for your own health. I know you like to graze and that previously we could leave a bowl of kibbles out for you all day and you could snack whenever you wanted. I know you don’t like the wet-food packets here in Malaysia quite as much as the ones we gave you in the UAE, but we can’t get those here. I’m glad we’ve found a flavor you mostly seem to like so that you’re no longer leaving little crusty bits in your food bowl.

(You’re the reason that carpet always looks like the inside of a shearing operation)

Pixel, you’ve been with us almost the whole six years we’ve lived in Penang. We like how much you enjoy have the fluffy white underside of your neck stroked, your little meeping sounds when the tiny birds are on the balcony railing, and when you decide to sleep next to us. But I must be frank and say that you’re a whiny, hungry monster. I’ve promised you many times that you won’t starve in this house, and we’ve never given you the slightest indication that that is likely to happen. Your continued panic at missing a meal (unfounded since you were born into a loving foster-home before coming to us) is a bit insulting. You’ve never had to scrounge for sustenance, the world is not going to run out of food for you, and it really wouldn’t kill you to slow down a bit. The loud, slobbering, vacuum-like noises are a bit disconcerting, to be honest.

We’ve settled on fixed feeding times, even increased those from two to three times a day; just for you, Pixel. These times are very consistent and I must refer you to the clock; contrary to what you might think, just because you start whining at a certain time does not mean it is feeding time. I will make you wait, but your monotonous, annoying crying (sometimes up to one and a half hours non-stop) is very taxing. But it will not get you fed any sooner. I’ve tried waiting you out but you don’t seem to be getting the message that your meowing will not affect either the timing or amount of your feeding. And you’ve even infected Findus with this whining disease, though he is not quite as insistent as you are.

Just because you eat faster, Pixel, does not mean you can steal Findus’s food. You know that you have a weak stomach and should eat slowly and not too much in one go. That’s why we need to soak your dry food and mash your wet food into little pieces. That’s also why I’ve placed the rounded rock into your food bowl so that you have to eat around it. Do you remember why that was necessary?

No? Well, it was the vomiting, Pixel. Without my interventions, you eat so fast that you then proceed to throw it right back up. And sometimes it upsets your stomach for an entire day. I’m tired of cleaning up after you and so I must regulate your intake. Again, your insistence to the contrary will not change that.

(Rock is not edible)

Findus, stay at your own food bowl. And finish all your darn food because otherwise Pixel will come over and finish it for you and then start vomiting. I’m sorry about the more fixed feeding schedule, but it’s because you were getting chubby and your little brother was eating faster than you. It means you just have to eat when I feed you. There’s no need to follow me into the kitchen every time; sometimes, it’s my feeding time and not yours.

Between the whining, the vomiting, the picky eating, and the unnecessary underfootness, I must lodge my complaints. I love living with you and hope that we can come to a workable solution. As always, I promise you won’t starve.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Your personal poop-scooper

(At least you’re both really cute and fuzzible)

Expectations

I wrote the following piece for my school’s literary magazine. It’s a student-initiated, student-run endeavor that I loosely oversee. We take submissions from HS students and staff at the school and the student editors put it all together. This year, our theme revolved around expectations.

Expectations are a form of time travel. Almost inherently, to have expectations requires thinking about the future, to imagine ourselves in a time not yet present. And so, each day we travel forward, hoping, dreading, planning, worrying, and evaluating all the potential futures. And what we bring back from these travels are our expectations.

How often we assume the future is more fixed than it is. The structure, stability, and stationary bastions of our organized world stand as pillars to ethereal castles in the sky. We plan out our hopes, sift our dreams for reality, measure out the scope of our futures and congratulate ourselves on a tomorrow well ordered.

As fledgling humans, we inhabit a world of settled normalcy. We know our present and acknowledge little concept of past or future. Our parents’ childhood may as well have been as far back as Rome, Songhay, or Tang. Pictures of their cars and hairstyles depict the passage of time and the outdated eras they have come from, while stories from our grandparents can seem to hold little relevance.

One day we wake up and realize that the world has changed since we came into it. But the change is often slow and subtle, sneaking past us like a slinking cat. We remember a time before everyone had a phone in their pocket and the burgeoning novelty of the internet. The fanciness of a car was measured by whether it had automatic windows and no one took off their shoes in an airport. A sport might introduce a minor rule change, and a few years later we can barely remember what it was like before the offsides rule or VAR.

Every generation must have gone through this, growing up in what may appear to be a world of fixed normals and unchanging givens. What did the grandparents in ancient Egypt shake their heads over? What new-fangled contraptions were vehemently denounced by the staid thinkers of the renaissance? Who thought that the printing press was the next incarnation of evil?

Eventually we realize that the world is ever changing. Sometimes it changes slowly, gradually and at other moments it happens all of a sudden. Two planes fly into the World Trade Center. A tsunami takes thousands of lives. A world war devastates continents. A pandemic sweeps the globe with masks, protests, and misinformation. And afterwards, it’s not quite the same world it was in our childhood.

Thus our expectations change with the world. Our past, our experiences, our changing perceptions of the present inform how we travel into the future. There is almost nothing sadder than someone trying to recreate a past that is long gone. No, it is the future where our expectations are realized and we hold the capabilities of directing those expectations, like a skilled painter imaging upon a canvas.

How loosely we must hold those expectations dawns upon us only with the falling sands. We must travel forward, but instead of forcing what is to come into our tiny, inconsequent, and often limited perceptions, we should instead embrace the future and allow our expectations to change with the world around us. So let us travel into our futures with expectant hope, because we are not the first to do so.

The full 2021 edition of The Scrivener can be found here: https://www.dalat.org/web/sc-literarymagazine/

Teaching The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I first took over teaching my Honors 10 English class, the curriculum included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That’s an excellent play, but when I saw that many of those students had read Romeo and Juliet the year before, and that the only other Shakespeare plays in our curriculum were Macbeth in Brit. Lit. and Hamlet in AP Literature, I saw a gap.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are spectacular and I’ve since added King Lear to the AP Literature class. But none of our students got to experience a comedy and in college I’d mostly acted in (and co-directed) the comedies. So recently I made a switch and now teach The Merry Wives of Windsor to my 10th graders. I’ve noted a number of benefits:

  1. It’s really funny. In many ways, it is farcical and the students love it. When so much of the literature we study has serious themes and important discussions that often end with a character they cared about dying, the levity brought about by this play made for a good counter-balance. Falstaff in the buckbasket or being disguised as the witch of Brentford is funny whether they understand all the nuances of the character motivations or not. It makes it a bit more worthwhile to work out the difficult language for a student who is less familiar with early modern English when the payoff is laughter rather than tragedy.
  2. It’s fairly short and the language is a bit more accessible. There’s a lot less philosophizing and a lot more characters hatching schemes that we know won’t quite come about. I often tell students that they can become familiar with the language and the more of it they read/listen to, the more they will be able to make out on their own. As they are Honors students, I tell them of the Shakespeare plays we’ll be reading in AP Literature (should they choose to take it their senior year) and how the time they spend decoding now will ultimately help them down the road. The play also has slightly fewer scenes that contemporary audiences might find extraneous to the immediate plot—though the faux duel between Hugh and Caius comes close.
  3. It is one of very few Shakespeare plays where female characters take center stage. It’s not just a strong female character having to contend within her environment (such as a Lady Macbeth or a Portia) but the two wives actually command the environment. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, along with Mistress Quickly, are very much the orchestrators of the events and command their spaces with aplomb. In their toying with Falstaff, through exposing Master Ford’s jealousy, and in helping Anne Page get married to the suitor she prefers, the women come out not only victorious, but shining with wit, knowledge, power, and good grace. Mistress Page defiantly insists, “We’ll leave a proof, by that which we will do, wives may be merry, and yet honest too.”
  4. I firmly believe that a play must be seen on a stage to have its full effect and so I always show a film/stage adaptation of any play we read as a class. In this case, Shakespeare’s Globe has a spectacular production, filmed in the Globe theatre itself before a live audience that brings the text to life. It allows students to envision not only the scenes and characters, but also the original venue for which this play was written. Additionally, since I played Master Ford in college, I promise to show them a scene in which I unreasonably search for Falstaff–always a hoot. These adaptations serve not only as entertainment but to show that these plays are not old words on musty paper but that they can be brought back to life and that their themes hold relevance for us today.

It is not my goal that all students must love Shakespeare, but I do tell them at the start of the unit that each of them will be able to appreciate Shakespeare more than they did before. Across the board, students have indicated that by the end of the unit, this is true. Students write a final paper in which they can explore any theme of their choice from within the play, and in their writing I see their earnest engagement with a text over 400 years old and the applications they find. They explore the dangers of jealousy, of greed, of wantonness. They write of the empowerment of women, of the right to agency for everyone, and the qualities it takes to be an upstanding member of a community.

I’m glad I made the switch and so frequently recommend this play as a good entry point for those less familiar with the bard and for younger audiences.

The Simplicity of the Cat Life (and why Complexity is a Good Thing)

When I watch my cats napping in the sunshine, I occasionally wish for the peaceful simplicity of the feline life. Sleep, eat, chase a moth, then race around all bushy-tailed at 3am—what fun. But then I remember that their limited lives exclude many of the beautiful complexities and wonderful depths of mystery that make living a human life so worthwhile.

I want to know everything. From astrophysics to marine biology, through the intricacies of meteorology to the cutting edge of AI development–I want to be an expert. And I know that’s just not possible; there are not enough hours in a lifetime to understand the depths of every fascinating field of study. I’m left with knowing a little bit about lots of arenas and choosing a few areas of expertise.

Practically everything is both very simple and at the same time incredibly complex. I’ve got the routine for making my morning coffee down to muscle memory and my enjoyment at consuming that tasty beverage is genuinely uncomplex—good beans, french press, no milk or sugar. And yet cultivating coffee, drying and roasting the beans, blending the right mixture, and even the actual preparation must be done just right. And that’s not even looking at the interconnected elements of the exploitation of labor, the environmental impacts, and the transportational logistics that go into that one simple cup of coffee. Basic, yet also complicated.

Reading a good short story in a single sitting is very satisfying, but the hours of agony and pruning that went into writing it followed upon years of failed writing attempts. It takes me less than 10 minutes to eat that fresh char koay teow, but the uncle who made it has spent 40 years perfecting his craft; I can use the same ingredients he does and will never be able to get it to taste right. The joy of cultivating a healthy ecosystem that keeps my fish alive in their aquarium is not even remotely close to understanding the difficult dynamics at play in marine conservation.

The world is incredibly complicated in all of its facets, yet we can experience many of those areas through the expertise of others. Likewise, we can appreciate the gorgeous shades of blue and the billowing clouds of a beautiful view without knowing the atmospheric conditions that bring it about.

Photo Credit: Craig Roylance

But we live a lesser life when we assume that just because we do not see or comprehend the complexity of an issue that it must therefore be only as simple as we experience it.

I do not understand nor know how to appreciate abstract art. Part of me gets the scoffing at bananas taped to walls, urinals, and seemingly blank canvases. But I also know that it is not an area I have spent any time studying; I do not know the artists’ intentions, the traditions they are drawing on, nor the conversations they are taking part in. I expect an artist to have a much better understanding of what is happening there than I do. Likewise, I listen to music but play no instruments (and certainly don’t sing); if I don’t know how to appreciate a genre or musician, I should see that as a limitation in my knowledge of music, not in the craft of the artist. I can admire a good violin solo but will never appreciate it the way another violin player would.

I get this a lot when it comes to literature. I have exactly two areas of real expertise: Octavia Butler scholarship and how to teach high school English (American curriculum). Put me in a room with other experts in those fields and I will unabashedly hold my own because I’m confident in what I know because I’ve put in the hours and diligence. But I also know I still have more to learn. Snide comments about English teachers making up interpretations and that we can get anything to mean anything don’t bother me; they just highlight the ignorance of the person speaking. I think most understand the suppressed eye-roll when listening to someone talking about something that they don’t know anything about.

So please let us listen to experts and enter conversations with humility. A youtube video and one article do not constitute research. I’ve read many books on theology, audited theology courses, and regularly listen to theology podcasts—and I am in no way an expert. I’ve spent thousands of hours on my creative writing and have yet to complete a polished final draft of a novel—I am still an amateur. Just because I enjoy cooking and have a pretty decent repertoire up my sleeve does not make me a chef.

We do not need to be experts to gain pleasure and enjoyment from something. I plan to learn how to play the piano (probably poorly), and I want to learn how to paint clouds with watercolors, and I hope to keep bees and make my own mead someday. And I will never be an expert in any of those areas. And when an expert comes along and gives me advice, I sincerely wish to have the humility to listen graciously.

My cats don’t know what they’re missing out on. I can learn to enjoy a simple nap in the sunshine as much as they can. But they will never know the satisfaction of finishing a good book, the sublimity of watching a multi-colored sunset, the flavor of eating anything other than cat food and dead geckos. So let us learn both to appreciate the simplicities of life and to value its complexities. Because as humans, we can.

The Importance of Connotation

Words only hold meaning in context. Speak any word in a place where no one else understands that language and it holds no meaning. That is true for the denotation (a word’s literal or most common meaning) as well as for connotation (whatever else it signifies along with its denotation). English is such a rich language that the sheer mountain of synonyms can seem overwhelming—but it’s just this choice that allows for shades of meaning because while the denotations might be similar, the connotations can differ vastly.

As writers or speakers—or even during every day communication with a colleague, friend or debate partner—we are responsible for how we get across what we mean to say. Careful word choice can keep us from accidentally imparting unintended meaning. By knowing the context into which we are speaking or writing, we can adjust the connotation of our words so that they best convey what we mean to say.

I’ve written elsewhere on how this is true for swearing (On Swearing). Words come loaded with meaning and they can mean different things depending on who is listening. If I say ‘football’ in the US, the listeners imagine a very different sport from when I say ‘football’ anywhere else on the planet. When speaking to people from the US, I use ‘soccer’ because otherwise my meaning does not carry.

More than that, words carry historical meanings. Often, when reading a text from an earlier time period, the specific choice of words can be jarring as we must learn what they mean in context (not just the context of the sentence or the work, but the society into which it was written). Sometimes, a fringe meaning can become the primary denotation of a word over time; ‘gay’ once primarily mean happy and carefree though is now used primarily to describe sexual orientation. ‘Awful’ meant primarily ‘worthy of awe’, similar to ‘awesome’ but now means something closer to ‘unpleasant’ or ‘terrible’–and the root of ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’ are both ‘terror’.

Words, in both their primary meanings and connotations change over time. And they change within their contexts. This is a good thing as it allows for the flexibility of language and gives us better ways to express what we need to. English teachers are sometimes cast as a fixed and unchangeable bunch who insist on the immutability of language. I’m sure those exist, but I know far more English teachers that understand and value the changing nature of the language.

In this way, language always has more than one layer, whether it is intended or not. Whether a person chooses their words carefully or not, their hearers and readers will understand the connotational layer. It is the speakers job to choose those words as carefully as possible to suit the context. However, when we read or listen to a work from another time period or culture, it is our job to match our understanding to the intended context. Any biblical scholar will emphasize that pinning doctrine onto a single word or phrase after it has been translated out of the original language or context can result in massive theological misunderstandings. No, it is in the original language, speaking into a specific context, that the words must be understood to retain their intended meaning.

For this reason, poetry is so hard to translate into other languages. Perhaps more than other writers, poets understand and intentionally use the connotations (and sounds) of language to engage in meaning-making. The differences between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ are subtle; the first is peaceful, the other far more unsettling. ‘Carefree’ is far more relaxed while ‘lackadaisical’ implies a careless laziness. ‘Interesting’ is far more likely to be used sarcastically than ‘intriguing’ while ‘unique’ is more positive than ‘different’.

It is through precise word choice that writers and speakers create layers of meaning. Even the seemingly simple and surface-level texts carry connotational meaning. So let us with precision choose our words with care. Simultaneously, let us hear with humility the words alongside the context into which they were spoken.

What Does Orange Juice Have To Do With Literature?

Seven or eight year old Jens woke up somewhat earlier than usual that morning. His parents and brother were still asleep so he trundled into the dining room and found his grandfather eating breakfast. Likely his second breakfast, considering it was after 7AM. Jens plunked himself at the oblong table and filled his bowl with plain Kellogg’s cornflakes and looked around for the milk. But there wasn’t any.

A closer inspection of grandpa’s bowl showed that the cornflakes were not floating in milk but in orange juice. Not to be outdone, Jens went to the fridge, found the orange juice and nonchalantly poured it in, as though that were a normal thing to do. His grandfather, never one to be particularly talkative, didn’t say much.

Jens took his first bite and was pleasantly surprised: the citrus tang of the orange juice brought life to the corn, while the crunch of the flakes was as satisfying as ever.

It was many years before Jens would think about this moment again; many years of eating cereal with milk.

***

One of the skills some of my AP Lit students struggle with the most not giving in to their first reactions, impressions, and judgments of a text. We all of us bring our own interpretive frameworks to a text, whether we are aware of that or not. The gut-level reaction to scenes of violence, the fierce grin when something fitting happens, the desire to throttle a character making a dumb choice. Beyond that, our worldview can also blind us to what an author is attempting to say, to another way of looking at an issue, and to other ways of living life.

Too many of us assume that the life we’ve had, the events we’ve experienced, the societies we’ve lived in are the normal standard by which to measure all others. And the more entrenched we become, the harder it is to see others as potentially equally valid. We can’t give a fair evaluation until we remove some of our own expectations.

I use the metaphor of lenses quite a bit in my classroom. Our worldview is a lens—and it can be a good lens. We need it to make sense of the world, to interpret what happens around us. We also have a hand in shaping that lens, when we are intentional about it. We can also temporarily add lenses to our view that allow for a particular focus on one aspect of a thing. And other times, we must remove our own, innermost lenses to actually experience something for what it is.

An example of this often shows up when reading somewhat older texts and a character ends up getting married to their first cousin. Students frequently cannot see beyond their initial revulsion at the idea, likely picturing their own cousins and themselves. But within the context of Victorian England and other parts of Europe at the time, it was not uncommon, especially among the upper class or middle class. Similarly, the age-gaps between the men and women getting married often receive fairly scathing comments from my students.

But by the time we’ve distanced ourselves a bit, talked about the reasons and causes, removed ourselves from our immediate context and instead situated our mindsets into a Victorian one, it seems less outlandish. That doesn’t mean we can’t still look critically at the marital expectations of the time, but we’re doing it honestly, rather than only from our own preconceptions sitting here in the 21st century.

A chapter of a book we read in AP Lit discusses the need for readers to not just read with their own eyes. This works similarly to how I use lenses. To be good readers, we must first attempt to remove our own lenses and view a text for what it is, before we bring in our interpretive skills. It is too easy, especially when a text was written in another time period, or is from another culture, to pass judgment without considering the unique context.

***

So a few weeks ago, I had my students try cornflakes with orange juice. This is the second time I’ve attempted this illustration and both times it went really well.

After discussing the need to distance ourselves from our preconceptions, I try to set the stage. I place cornflakes within the context that brought them into existence: an easy, store-able, filling breakfast that working-class people could eat in a hurry. The ready presence of various grains helped, and the crunchiness of corn when toasted made for a very versatile breakfast. We talk about dairy products, how the industrial revolution brought more and more milk cows into the cities (resulting in a need for pasteurization to keep the milk clean) and how we don’t actually need dairy to survive—in fact, there are numerous places in the world were a large majority of inhabitants are lactose intolerant. We drink milk because we like it, because it is used in awesome products like cheese and ice cream, but it’s not strictly nutritionally necessary.

I ask students why we put milk in cereal (named after Ceres, the Roman goddess of grains and agriculture). Couldn’t we use other fluids to soften that crunchiness up? Water? Cocoa? Juice? What difference does it make whether I use a fluid squeezed out of a citrus fruit as opposed to one squeezed out of a bovine udder?

By the time we actually get around to trying cornflakes with orange juice, there’s quite a hullaballoo in the classroom. A few are excited, some have very skeptical looks, while others can’t shake their repulsed expression. One or two remain silent, stoically approaching the ordeal ahead. I don’t require that anyone try it unless they want to, though most students do eventually give it a go.

Their reactions run a pretty wide gamut. Some try half a bite and can’t get over the fact that it’s not how they’re used to eating cereal. Some don’t like cereal or orange juice to begin with, so that usually doesn’t go very far. And most give it an honest attempt, set aside their lenses as best they can and try to appreciate the flavor and texture for what it is. Some don’t mind it, some prefer it another way, one or two really just dislike it, and a few absolutely love it.

But it’s not until they can set aside their expectations of what cereal is that they can give it an honest try and evaluate it on its merits, rather than on their preconceptions.

And cornflakes are fairly uncontroversial. Yet we struggle to give even that a fair trial. How much harder it is to fairly evaluate our deeply held beliefs in other areas of our lives. And yet, that is how we should read literature. That doesn’t mean we don’t bring in our worldview, our interpretive lenses at a later point, but that should only be after we have considered the text within its context and for what it is. Only then can we say we’ve given it an intellectually fair reading. We might still not like it, might still find it problematic, but we didn’t let our own preconceptions get the better of us. And occasionally, we discover a new favorite way to eat cornflakes.

What I’ve Learned from Teaching Online

We’re about to head into week 6 of this current stint of teaching online. Like many teachers the world over, I’ve had to figure out how best to adapt my teaching style, my curriculum, and my interactions with students to the virtual realm. And I’ll be honest, it’s not my favorite. There are a lot of downsides and not terribly many upsides. However, I have learned quite a number of things about myself, about teaching, about learning, and that is worth something.

1. It’s exhausting. Seems like a silly insight since that is the common theme of most people’s lives at the moment, but it is an important realization nonetheless. Even at the best of times, I have to be careful to balance my responsibilities so that my energy levels are sufficient. Particularly tasks that involve other people can be quite draining.

Teaching online is one of the most exhausting quests I’ve ever had to engage in. Finding the balance between putting forth my best effort, supporting my students, preparing for classes, and also keeping myself from collapsing under the strain has not been easy. And yet, I’ve learned that taking each moment, each class period, each day as it comes makes that much more manageable. I continually remind myself not to think or plan too far ahead (very hard for a planner like me) but instead to just focus on the next item on my list, on the next class, on the task before me at that moment. And sometimes, what’s next is a break, a snack, or a nap.

2. I’ve only taught something if students have learned it. I kept hearing that in my education classes in college and it’s come back with more immediate importance now. It doesn’t matter how engaging, or snappy, how brilliant my lesson is; if the students haven’t learned what I’m teaching, then I haven’t taught it. Many teachers are having to reinvent themselves, their methods of content/skill delivery, and how the students demonstrate their mastery. Just ‘covering material’ and then having students regurgitate through some sort of assessment is not teaching.

While not new, I’ve relearned the importance of making sure that my students have not only interacted with what we’re learning, but internalized it to enough of an extent that it fits into the larger matrix of the purpose of the class. In English, that means that they are still improving as writers, become more insightful and observant readers, and can articulate their thoughts an ideas clearly and with purpose. If they are growing in those areas, then I’m teaching. If not, then I’m not doing my job.

3. I’m very space-oriented. I’ve known this for a long time but its importance had fallen into the background. I’d taken my spaces for granted—in particular, my classroom. My teacher-brain works in my classroom, is ready to teach, to engage with students, to grade and to gain life and joy from doing those things. My teacher-persona turns up when I step into my classroom. My teacher-persona does not show up at home—but now he needs to. My intentional separation of work and home life has been not only a source of pride and comfort, but has allowed me to live a healthy, balanced life. I gain the rest I need at home so I can teach the next day.

And that’s not possible at the moment. Of our three teaching-online stints since last March, there have been times when we the teachers have been allowed to work at school. The sheer difference I experience in motivation, focus, energy levels, and purpose have been very telling. My classroom is my sanctuary and not being able to teach from there has robbed me and my students of something. I’ve intentionally set it up to be a place that is comfortable, soothing, peaceful. It is my desire that students want be there. It makes the loss of being stuck in a virtual zoom-box each day that much worse.

4. I miss my students. I don’t generally miss people—it’s not a feeling I experience much, perhaps because I’ve gotten so used to moving around and having people (even close friends and family) that I sometimes don’t see for years at a time. But now, I miss seeing my students. I became a teacher not to teach English, but to teach students and I feel as though in many cases, I only get a sliver of them through the screen. I miss their vibrant banter, the snarky comments from the back row, the excited barging in of one of last-year’s students, and the heated back-and-forth of two students respectfully disagreeing about a text. I’ve worked hard to incorporate class discussions in the online setting as that is one of the cornerstones of my classroom, but it’s just not the same. I’m incredibly proud of how well most of my students are attempting to replicate this at the moment, because of all people, I know how hard it is to do this through limiting vehicles like Zoom.

So when the Malaysian Ministry of Education gave us the go-ahead to hold live, in-person sessions of AP classes on campus once per week, I was overjoyed. I get to see 10 of my brightest students for 75 minutes, in my classroom, each Monday morning. And it’s life-giving. It provides me with motivation to read their essays and give feedback to them because I know I’ll be handing them back in-person. It makes our discussions, our interactions, our learning not only more personal but more spontaneous. There is more laughter, more opportunity for depth, and a greater appreciation of each other as people. And I carry that energy with me for the next few days into my other classes as well.

5. Teaching online isn’t for everyone. And certainly not for me. I’ve taken brilliant online classes that were designed that way and are very productive, meaningful, effective, and a joy to engage in. Online learning is important and as a teacher that finished his Masters degree entirely online, I’m incredibly grateful that such opportunities are available.

But I became a high school teacher because I like teaching high schoolers. I like interacting with them, joking with them, listening to their stories, and helping them become the people they are growing into. All the little bits of teaching, the non-academic parts, the impromptu conversations, the silly question after the class, the personal growth stories—those aren’t really happening. Many of my students are suffering and I can’t help them. I’m sure we’ll see many differences to how education is done over the next decades. Some are predicting the rise of online schooling as a norm, rather than an exception. But I rather think that a deeper appreciation for in-person schooling will help us get better at it. Some things, we just can’t do online and I sort of suspect that many teachers, many students, and especially parents will have a renewed regard for ‘old-fashioned’ classroom teaching.

I look forward to a future when I get to see my students every day. I long for a time when they can come and go through my classroom doors. I look forward to the day when I can once again ‘read’ a classroom full of students and know what they’re thinking, and whether something was clear or not, and how best to help an individual. I hope for the day when the group enthusiasm for a topic starts pulling in that one student, who didn’t think they cared, because of the energy in the room. And not that those things don’t or can’t happen online, but it’s just not as frequent, as deep, or as rich. We’re all virtual ghosts of ourselves, and I very much look forward to our resurrections into a new, perhaps different, but hopefully recognizable future.

Being a Good Sports Fan

I’ve come across some very annoying sports fans. We all recognize the type: opinionated, unwilling to take gainsaying, trash-talking, loud, obnoxious. I’ve heard it said that the modern sports fandom is a socially sanctioned way to express the fanaticism and warrior-like need to denigrate an opponent that in past centuries would have been reserved to the battlefield in defense of ones homeland.

Whether that’s true is debatable, but I would like to posit a way to be a sports fan that is centered on camaraderie, tactical enjoyment, and constructive support of ones team. I’ll be sticking to football (soccer, for the Americans) as that’s the sport with which I have the most familiarity, though I imagine this would work equally well across other sports.

Picking a Team

There is no one approach here, but frequently we inherit the team we support from a family member or a group of friends. For example, my father has been a Bayern Munich supporter since he was seven. Naturally, whenever we watched the Bundesliga together when I was growing up, I too supported Bayern and do to this day. In middle school, most of my close friends were Manchester United supporters, so it was not hard to make that my Premier League team—though I had lived in England, I’d never even been to Manchester. I’ve supported Manchester United since seventh grade, whether they’re winning under Sir Alex Ferguson or going through a series of very lean, often disappointing, transition years.

Those with a more stationary upbringing than my own are likely to support their local team. I sometimes envy the passion and genuine connection supporters of much smaller teams have, not only because of family or friend connections, but because that’s the team that plays in a stadium down the road. That level of fandom is closed to me, but I admire the strength of the fan support they have.

Whatever way a fan comes to their team, one should support them whether they are winning or losing. Support doesn’t mean blind allegiance; it can entail criticism. But it also means not jumping ship to another team at the first sign of trouble. Whether they’re not playing well, whether the owners have a bad transfer strategy, or the coach is a jerk, we keep supporting our team.

Watching Games

Being a fan means watching games, either in a stadium or on TV. And that means in their entirety, not just the highlights. It means not just following the players’ instagram accounts, buying the newest kit, and smack-talking the opposition fans. Spending time and enjoyment in taking in the actual games is paramount.

And that’s not just for when my team is playing. Yes, I feel a closer investment when watching Bayern, Man United, or the German National team. But watching other teams play can be just as rewarding. There is a freeing relaxation in knowing that I can simply watch skilled players without being in any way invested in the outcome of the game.

This can lead to an understanding of the underlying frameworks of the game. My wife likes to joke that when she watches football with me, it just seems like a bunch of sweaty men chasing a ball across the grass. But with the investment of time and many years of joyful watching, I see much more. I can tell what a team is doing well, which players are pulling their team along, where the coach may have made a tactical mistake in setting up the team formation. This understanding brings a deeper appreciation when watching and makes the successes that much more satisfying.

The Opposition

It can be hard for some fans to remember that those who support another team (even a rival) have the same passion for the same sport. There is even the false sense of accomplishment that comes when an opponent loses even if it is to another team.

It took me numerous years (and watching a lot of Premier League games with the Varsity coach at the school I teach at) to understand that that’s not necessary. My support for my team does not hinge on bashing or belittling another team or its supporters. Among close friends, a little joking can be lively, but I’ve met enough fans—unfortunately a lot of Manchester United fans—that seem more bent on tearing down the opposition than supporting their own team.

The truth is, I can appreciate watching good football regardless of who is playing. I’m a big fan of Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool coach. I do not support Liverpool as a fan, but I very much look forward to watching their games because I like how Klopp engages with his players, am very impressed by Mohammed Salah, and am entertained by their football. The same can be said for others coaches, players, and teams.

Once I realized this, my enjoyment of watching all football increased significantly. I can talk to fans of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, or other teams and genuinely engage in the conversations of how their teams are doing well, where they are struggling, and what new players they might bring in. And I find that those fans are then much more willing to discuss the teams I support in an even-handed way. We have great conversations that aren’t simply about which team is better but as people who love the same sport, even if it is through different teams.

Play the Sport

I’ve never been very athletic. The day of the mile run in middle school was usually my least favorite day of the school year. I have almost no hand-eye coordination and short of having pretty good balance, anything that requires physical prowess is hard for me to be good at.

Yet I love playing football. I’m not very good, never made a team, and was usually one of the last people chosen in a pick-up game. But I’ve been playing for years, first on the dead-end street where my family lived in Nairobi, then some intramural games in college, and now a weekly game at my school. And in over two decades of playing, I can say I’ve gotten a bit better. But I’ll never be a great player.

It’s easy to criticize the football players through the screen and imagine that we could do it better. We can play through all sorts of scenarios in our heads of what we’d do on the field, but when we actually get there, it is significantly harder. Those fans that have been in stadiums and watched the professional athletes up close will recognize the sheer level of athleticism that they inhabit. The least significant player in the lowest team in the Premier League would stand head and shoulders above anyone on a high school varsity team. But that’s doesn’t always translate through the screen. Playing the game can give us a more accurate perspective of what is actually happening on the field.

We should enjoy the sport. Enjoy watching it, playing it, talking about it. And that should come from a place of genuine investment not a misguided sense of antagonism.