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.

Why Sometimes a Character Must Die

Death is waiting for everyone. Each one of us will some day experience dying, whether after aging, through sickness, or suddenly. There is an inescapable inevitability to death and many choose to live their lives ignoring the end as much as they can, as though it will somehow prolong life if they succeed.

I recently finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal after it was recommended to me by my grandmother-in-law. In it, this accomplished doctor writes passionately and very personally about human mortality. In particular, he focuses on the process of aging, which is a very contemporary issue as those that died of old age in centuries past were far fewer in number. How we care for an aging person and how we care for the dying are related, and yet they are not quite the same.

I was impressed by Gawande’s clearsightedness and ability to express succinctly the need for personal autonomy and purpose in those that are dying. He points to two major factors that have lead to a decline in care for the dying. One, is that doctors see themselves as healers of bodies and thus are frequently unwilling to accept the aging process; they are not often enough trained in how to present their patients with appropriate council, thus resulting in needless, painful, and often harmful procedures. The second is related: when doctors are not candid, then patients continue to have false hopes about returning to ‘normal’ and continue to push back the thoughts of death and decline.

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” ~Atul Gawande~

Not infrequently, my students ask me why a character had to die. A running joke in my English 11 class is that it doesn’t count as American Literature until someone has died. The follow-up question is why we can’t read something with a happy ending. Granted, we do read those stories as well, but they’re not quite as frequent. In part, stories with needlessly sweet endings don’t well reflect humanity and thus are often narratives of wish-fulfillment. One of the values of literature lies in its ability to reflect ubiquitous human struggles and grappling with mortality is one of the most uniting concepts we face. Our entertainment industry hasn’t always done a great job of providing stories that get out of the false dichotomy of happy vs sad endings. Yes, death is sad, but it need not be only sad; it can also be meaningful. Death is often followed by grief, but that grief can be accompanied by joyful reflection. Sometimes, death is the most fitting ending to a story, as it’s inevitability makes it both fitting and provides a level of resolution unmatched by other endings.

Each year, my AP Lit students read King Lear. It is undoubtedly a tragedy, full of blind foolishness and impotent wisdom. But the tragedy is not in the deaths, but in the blindness of the characters. In Act 5, when the stage is littered with bodies—as is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies—the fittingness to the narrative is paramount. Lear’s final illuminating insights are punctuated by the death of his three daughters, untimely brought to their demise in part by his pride, blindness, and inflexibility. These are the consequences of his actions and while he has aged, they never will. Earlier in the play, when a blind Gloucester seeks to kiss his hand, Lear warns him that it “smells of mortality.” Here in his madness and very old age, a sovereign king unused to weakness or being gainsaid has begun to grasp the finitude of his being. Thus, when he finally dies, it is not a moment just for sadness, but also for relief. The Earl of Kent says “The wonder is, he has endured so long: he but usurp’d his life.” It is the most fitting ending for a prideful king, too lately brought to humility. It is a warning, a call to see the world as it is, and a call to kindness and true loyalty. Without the deaths, those warnings ring hollow.

One of my favorite texts to teach each year is Margaret Edson’s Wit. It is a rather short play—with a brilliant film adaptation starring the amazing Emma Thompson—about a poetry professor dying of Ovarian cancer. Vivian Bearing is a determined, powerful, and driven woman who has spent her life tackling tough tasks and hoping her prodigious knowledge would see her through. And now, in dying, she realizes that it’s not enough. “Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.” The audience watches as she slowly embraces the need for kindness; a central irony in the play is Bearing’s specialty: the Holy Sonnets of metaphysical poet John Donne, who frequently grapples with death. Simply understanding death as a concept is not the same as experiencing it, and Bearing finds that she is utterly exposed to a mortality she had only grappled with in the abstract.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die. ~John Donne~

Death should not be only about fear and sadness. It is also about joy, fulfillment, accomplishment, and kind nurturing. When we only ignore the inevitability of death, we find ourselves wholly unprepared when it strikes a loved one, or finally makes its appearance before us. Recognizing death can help us to lead better lives. And, depending on our metaphysical beliefs, can be viewed as a comfortable door to a hereafter.

Bearing come to this conclusion as well. When she dies in the final scene (inevitably, as she has already told us from the beginning), the audience sees that death, like the comma is but a simple breath. As one of Bearing’s professors says to her in a flashback, “Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting…Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause…In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.”

By grappling with the reality of death, we can come to view it not as something to be feared. As Gandalf tells Pippin, “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtains of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

And that is a comforting thought.

Gradeless AP Literature: Standards-Focused Assessment

A few months ago, I wrote about teaching my AP Literature class sans grades (at least as much as possible). De-Grading the AP Lit Classroom

One of the main benefits has been a refocusing on the actual standards that the students need to master over the course of the year. My school does standards-based grading in the elementary and I was initially wary of the approach in high school. My concern was that by breaking everything down into individual skills and pieces of knowledge and only assessing them individually, a student could in theory master every piece and yet still not be able to put all the pieces together. That’s a particularly big concern in English, especially when it comes to writing. I don’t care if a student has memorized all the uses of a comma if they can’t use them effectively in their writing.

And while that’s still a concern, I’ve figured out how to design assessments that do both: measure the individual skills and still require students to put the pieces together cohesively. I like how the AP Literature standards are laid out by Collegeboard (though I’ll leave off ranting about their website design capabilities for another day), specifically that each strand is distilled down to just a few skills. If a student can master those skills, they will have learned a lot over the course of just one year. Yet, that’s not enough. While some of the writing (Literary Argumentation) skills do require putting pieces together, some of the others aren’t worth much just by themselves.

My assessments (writing assignments and projects mostly) will usually focus on several interconnected standards. Each standard is assessed separately (and it’s generally easy to see which skill a student met and which one they didn’t), but I also require that they put together some of those skills. The students know ahead of time which skills I’ll be looking for, so similar to a rubric, they know what they must include. But if they’re writing an essay–say, on picking a symbol and exploring its larger meaning in Frank Herbert’s Dune–it’s not good enough to just accurately identify and symbol, write a strong thesis, and spell correctly. There actually needs to be a compelling essay to hold those pieces together.

What has been so heartening these last few months has been watching students get their papers back and really grapple with what they did well and where they need to improve. They know exactly what didn’t work because it’s not just written out in my comments but because the listed skill will tell them whether they met it or not. They know which questions to ask me when they go about their revisions. And then watching a student, who for several essays struggled with turning their thoughts on a specific section of a text into literary analysis, finally succeed, is very rewarding—for me and for the student.

I’ve had students do optional assignments, and had a much higher percentage complete voluntary essay revisions, than in any of my previous classes. And it’s not because they’re concerned about a grade. It’s entirely because they know they have something more to learn and they want to demonstrate that they have mastered a certain skill.

I think when not done well, a standards-based approach can lead to just a long list of checked or unchecked boxes. In theory, students would still learn but it would likely be quite dull and routinized. Instead, through this approach I’ve become far better at designing assessments; I’ve learned to craft each assessment so that it measures the standards I need it to individually, but also requires cohesiveness, ingenuity, and creativity.

The Both-And Cake

I’ve begun to notice more and more a disturbing pattern in which ideas that don’t coincide are automatically assumed to be in direct opposition to each other. This leads to either/or thinking, often on topics that are far more complex and cannot be generalized into just two opposing camps. This is not new, but it’s only over the last few years that I’ve started to notice this pattern more and see the dangers of this type of thinking and talking.

I recently heard someone ask a group of students a series of questions—it was a harmless introductory activity and meant to get students engaged in what was happening and get their blood moving. This person asked students to stand up if they thought cats made better pets than dogs. And then, the reverse question about whether dogs made better pets than cats. This was followed by 30 seconds of hullaballoo with students vigorously arguing their preferences. Taken in isolation, this wouldn’t be problematic, but all too frequently there is an assumption that one must be either a cat person or a dog person. Since I have 2 cats, I must not like dogs. And those that dislike cats find it acceptable to be very vocal about that dislike. Rarely, if ever, do I hear anyone step into these conversations and say that perhaps one can like both cats and dogs. While I have cats now, I would love to have a dog or two in the future and honestly can’t say I prefer one over the other—yet this seems to baffle some people.

A number of years ago, there was a heated discussion on the writing forum I frequent. Somehow, the line from Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was brought up and debated: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” It was an excellent discussion with some agreeing that in the end, actions are more important than intentions. Others, felt that inner character was more important; that had to come first and then actions could flow from that. That particular question has led to a lot of debate over the centuries by theologians, ethicists, and philosophers. Do we act out of who we are or is our being defined by our actions? Now, that discussion didn’t devolve into an either/or and so the complexity of the issue was maintained because almost everyone in the conversation recognized that there was a little of both at stake in this question: yes, our actions define our character while our characters should lead to actions.

One that I see creeping up frequently—not in open conversation but in underlying beliefs and worldview—has to do with the individual and community. This one varies quite a bit by culture as well. Are we an individual first that participates in communities? Or do our communities, our society, take precedence and then we are individuals within them? Entire political and economic theories are founded depending on where one stands. And yet, it’s a spectrum not an either/or. A good example of this is a sports team. Is Bayern Munich a team made up of individual football players, or are there players, coaches, and others that come together to make up the team? Again, I believe that this is a both-and scenario. Each player can only really be responsible for their own actions and words, yet it is as an entity that they come together to be successful in winning the Champions League.

This is not to say that there are not some arenas that really do fall into either/or. Is the world a flat disc or a sphere? Can’t be both and we’ve got enough scientific evidence that tells us it’s not really a discworld on the backs of four elephants that are in turn standing on a giant turtle. And even when it comes to things without sufficient empirical proof, there are times we must either believe something to be true or not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for his beliefs and actions in Nazi Germany and eventually executed, dealt with such complexities in his theological writings. What comes first: obedience to God’s call and thus believing, or believing in God which leads to obedience? Crucially, he lands on: “Only the obedient believe; only the believer obeys.” His other writings also dealt with the question of character and actions, specifically in his book Act and Being.

It’s dangerous when we automatically assume that there are only two positions on something and that they are mutually exclusive. That’s a way of simplifying and generalizing that rarely accurately describes an issue. This is why I stopped having debates in my classroom. Aside from the fact that many students had a hard time sticking to the debate frameworks, it became so much about being right, defending one side, and attacking the other, that all subtlety of the conversation around a complex topic was lost. In every instance, the nuanced, middle position was yielded to loud, blustery extremes.

Perhaps that’s why I find the study of literature so valuable. There is rarely a cut-and-dried answer. Interpretations of a single novel, poem, or short story can be as varied as the people that read them. It takes many students a while to realize that there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ interpretation. There are ways of reading a poem that are wrong, some that are more wrong, and otherwise we are left with equally plausible interpretations and all we can do is discuss which is best supported by the text. I tell them that it is not their job to write an essay in which they tell us what the poem means; no, they must write about the poem in such a way as to best convince their readers, with specific reference back to the poem, why their way of interpreting that particular text is the most compelling one.

Maybe there’s a fear that everything will lose meaning. If it’s not one or the other, if there’s not always a right and a wrong, does that mean everything is always subjective? But as with the poem interpretation, while there are more options than right or wrong, that doesn’t determine it’s all just up to the reader. Meaning is still there; it just might be a lot less simple and ‘right’ than we might like. I think it’s this fear of being wrong, and the false certainty that comes with holding a simplistic either/or position that keeps many from digging deeper into an issue. It’s easier to set up a shield and deflect anything that doesn’t fit into the other camp.

We can have our cake and eat it too. On a literal level, a cake is simple enough that we can either have it or eat it. But once we get beyond the level of cake, perhaps that adage isn’t sufficient anymore.

The Sin of Making Academic Success into an Idol

It would be futile to try and count the sheer multitude of assignments I have completed purely to get the grade. I’ve written elsewhere about how I wasn’t really that great of a student when I was in school (I Was Not a Good Student) and my attitude towards learning stemmed mostly from my view of Academic Success as the end-line of the race after having successfully managed to overcome the hurdles of assignments, tests, classes, and degrees. One hurdle down, chug to the next—jump—and keep running. Rarely did I ask myself what I was running towards, what these hurdles were that I was jumping over, and what the overall purpose of the race was.

In my years of teaching, I’ve encountered students all along the spectrum of sleepily apathetic to diligently studious. And yet, only occasionally do I teach students with a pure desire to learn. Academic Success and education/learning are by no means the same thing. Getting the grade or passing the class is not the same as having learned something. So frequently we’ve set up a system (teachers, schools, parents, peers) in which we enculture students towards ‘Academic Success’ and so actually rob them of a desire to learn, educate themselves, and grow into multi-faceted adults.

The altar of Academic Success is adorned with the bright accumulation of class awards, stickers, high GPAs and glowing recommendation letters. Students sacrifice countless hours that should have been spent asleep in memorizing the rote liturgy they must perform on the next day’s exam. The sins of sloth, friendship, childhood innocence, and rest are cast out of the holy classroom which demands serious and mediated worship.

Students frequently feel shamed into obedience and working harder, are driven to cheating not because it helps them learn but because by getting a few percentage points higher they hope to somehow redeem themselves from feelings of academic inferiority. Some get very good at ignoring the guilt they feel when procrastinating, and others revel in the short-lived divine ecstasy of the report card covered in A+s.

And then it all begins again, this unholy merry-go-round of offering up their essence and being to the glowing shrine of Academic Success. Does it work? Have they learned anything? What, if anything, does that transcript, that diploma represent? Academic Success?

I may have gotten a tad carried away there with my hyperbolic use of religious language (which I’ve also helpfully underlined so as to club you over the head with it). In attempting to be obvious, and presenting a caricature of ‘Academic Success’ I hope to get us thinking about what happens in classrooms a bit differently than we sometimes do. So why the religious imagery?

Religion, as I’ve portrayed it above, has almost nothing to do with faith, personal belief, spirituality, or the many ways that so many people daily embody these things. Instead, these images are meant to convey the oftentimes unhealthy, legalistic, manipulative, and shaming aspects of religion at its worst. As a person of deep faith and as I dedicated and invested educator, I hope that the distinctions start to become clear. When we strip the core out of something and leave only a rigid framework supporting worn-out rituals performed without meaning and use platitudes to corral those that stray, we’re no longer serving the true purpose of that house of worship but have supplanted it with a hollow idolatry.

So when we talk about Academic Success, what do we mean? Is it the same as when we talk about the value of a good education? When we preach about being ‘life-long learners’, is it truly about continually being open to new ideas, recognizing that our educational journey will never be over, and that no diploma or report card can ever capture the learning that has taken place?

Most importantly, what can we as teacher and students do in the classroom so that what happens there is done in pursuit of knowledge, learning, and true education instead of in service to the enslaving idol of success?

I’ve been a part of many healthy, thriving, and holy faith communities. Similarly, I believe that the classroom can escape the trappings of simulated academic success and rise to the level of true learning, expressed with joy, laughter, sincere questioning, curiosity, and changes in thinking. I haven’t been teaching for that long, so I’m still figuring out how to foster this type of authentic learning; I have some ideas and I hope to keep trying (and occasionally failing) to make my classroom that type of space.

Students and educators: if you have any suggestions, let me know. I’d love to hear your experiences of what worked, what didn’t, and how we can all learn better.

We Should All Read Books From Other Countries

My reading used to be very limited, mostly by what I could find in my school library. That and my devotion to my preferred genres. Once I began teaching and as I became more aware of the world around me, I’ve realized that I not only need to read more broadly, but that I enjoy it immensely. Here are a number of the benefits of reading books of all types from around the world, rather than only sticking to one geographic area, even if it is more difficult, less convenient, and requires more intention.

Language and Literature are Intertwined

Stories, ideas, culture, beliefs, and worldview are inextricably linked with language. I’ve found great joy in reading works translated into English because even in their translation, they carry with them the rich and varied flavors of their origin. Stylistic tendencies, choices of structure, careful selections of details can still be conveyed by a good translator. It makes me wish I could read these texts in their original language, but since I can’t, I must rely on doing my research.

I spent numerous hours figuring out which translation of Don Quixote I was going to read and I’ve greatly benefited from reading translator’s notes as they explain the difficulties of adapting a certain work into English. A great example of that is Van C. Gessel, who translates the works of Shusaku Endo; I not only have a sense of Endo’s writing style, but also know more about how description and narration work in Japanese novels based on Gessel’s explanations of his painstaking process. Despite not being able to read a word of Japanese, I have been able to appreciated comparing the varying styles of Murakami, Natsume Soseki, and others, noting their stylistic differences and yet the cultural overlap of these vastly different authors.

Author Context and Time Period

Much of what I do in my classroom, I end up doing myself before reading a work from another country. Frequently, I know absolutely nothing about the author, the time period in which they are writing, and the events that might be influencing their story. I’ve found that my enjoyment of a story is heightened by an increased understanding of the context in which it was written.

In my World Literature class, we spend some time setting the stage for each novel, understanding the context of the story and the author. This aids us in interpreting what is happening. Not that the story can’t stand by itself, but frequently our ignorance of another country or culture can lead to misunderstandings or confusion, and spending time on gleaning some context not only aids interpretation, but also enriches the reading experience.

Reading the works of Tan Twan Eng has been illuminating, as he deals mainly with certain time periods of Malaysian history. His works of historical fiction are engrossing, well written, and feature incredibly complex characters. These stories have awakened in me a newfound interest in the history and peoples of the country that I currently get to call my home. It reframes the architecture I see when driving through Georgetown and adds stories to the colonial style houses of Tanah Rata and Penang Hill.

Who is Telling the Story?

It took me far longer than I care to admit to realize how important it is to determine who is telling a particular story. When only a certain type of person, a certain age, race, people-group, or socio-economic status gets to tell a story, it’s very easy to lose sight of the complexity of humanity. And too often, books have not presented more than one or two types of stories of a certain area of the world. We now live in an age of unprecedented plenty with regards to access to other stories; bookdepository.com means I can get almost anything free of shipping costs, so where in the past, physical access might have been limited, it isn’t anymore.

To my great joy, I’ve found that there are authors the world over that write in my favorite genres. They bring their own perspectives, views of the world, experiences, beliefs, and cultures and infuse them into genres I thought I was familiar with, presenting me with new variations in story, characters, and setting.

It makes it much harder to assume that the life I live is the normal, standard, or usual way to live. Reading about a multiplicity of lives from all manner of cultures and time periods shows me both the extent to which human lives can differ but also that we have so much in common with each other.

When we only hear one story, one narrative, we have a very narrow and often false impression of the world and the other people in it. Each semester in my World Literature class, I show this excellent Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

We give in to our one view of something far too easily. By hearing a second and a third story, we turn our perspective into a 3D image, a richer, more authentic tapestry.

Other Realities

Other human lives, realities, and experiences are as valid as my own. I don’t have to agree with someone’s worldview in order to value and appreciate it. In exposing ourselves to these other worldviews, we gain a better understanding of the many realities that people live on our planet and this builds empathy for those that on the surface may seem so very different from us. Yet we all have many of the same cares, concerns, desires, and hopes.

I’ve learned to appreciate the absurdity of life and it’s bizarre coincidences from reading the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude. I recently enjoyed relating to the reluctantly caring curmudgeon in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, because it so well highlights the structure and orderliness prevalent in northern European countries and that it can go too far. The grim future of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death presented me with not only the desperate lives some people navigate but also the extreme courage of going up against the fearsome spectres of our past. I was challenged by Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, particularly in how we deal with hopelessness and despair.

I’ve written before about Octavia E. Butler but would be remiss not to bring her up here again. No other writer of fiction has more changed how I view the world. On the surface, we would seem to have little in common, yet I feel a kinship with her. I’ve learned how we can build truly diverse communities, how we work towards constructing identities when we seem to be made up of conflicting parts, the importance of negotiating with and accepting what seems alien to us, and how nurturing, caring family should be at the heart of our relationships.

So my challenge for you is to read something from a country or culture you have little experience with. And that might even be your own: my World Literature class each semester is filled with students from Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and other countries; many of these students have never read a text from their home country, so I encourage that they choose something from there for their ‘book of choice’ project. Initially sticking to your favorite genres can offer an avenue in; spend some time doing research on which people from other countries are known to write them and then go out and buy/borrow those books. And when you come across something that you don’t agree with, that makes you somewhat uncomfortable, or causes you to question your own worldview, don’t shy away from that—use that as an excuse to critically reflect on the world around you. You don’t have to change your religion, give up your foundational beliefs, or toss your worldview aside to truly appreciate and value the lives other people live. Lean into the difference and just maybe it will help build greater understanding, appreciation, and empathy towards those who on the surface don’t seem to have much in common with you.