Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.

file_006-2

 

Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird

img_1959

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a book talk to a women’s group in my  town about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. My only credentials for that talk are these: I’ve read Mockingbird at least 35 times and I taught the novel to 9th graders for 31 years.  Several of those 35 reads occurred before I became a teacher. In fact, my mother gave Mockingbird to me for my birthday just before my senior year in high school—the year that the book was published.  I read it start to finish in one big gulp and then read it again, under the covers with a flashlight.  Lee’s story captured me right from the start.

For all those 31 years of teaching, I began each class’s study of Mockingbird by reading aloud just a bit about Atticus and the small town of Maycomb:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began to summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said that we were both right.

And with that, Atticus is established as the authority, the hero, and even a god.  “Our father.”

And then this, the description of the small town of Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the street turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I love this passage. In two short paragraphs reside lessons in dating the setting via allusion, the art of alliteration and metaphor, the inclusion of exquisite detail that brings a scene and the mood so indelibly into focus.  And the black dog: a tiny, tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a successful and respected lawyer and for a time was one of the publishers of the local newspaper.  Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a strange woman—possibly she suffered from bipolar disorder—and she and Nelle did not have a close relationship. Truman Capote lived next door in the summertime (His parents were divorced and he spent summers in Monroeville with relatives), and Nelle and Truman were fast friends.  Legend has it that they spent hours writing stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.  Nelle went to college and even did a year of what we’d call today, pre-law.  But she wanted to be a writer, so at age 23 she went to New York City to live and work.  Working days, first in a bookstore and later for Eastern Airlines and later still for BOAC, and writing at night, she produced a draft of a book.  Her agent first made suggestions for revision—which Nelle dutifully made—and then an editor at HarperCollins, Tay Hahoff (who died in 1974) spotted the real story in what seemed like a string of short stories.  Hahoff saw promise in the prose, too, and encouraged Nelle to revise the manuscript. Friends gave Nelle a Christmas present of enough money to live on for a year so she could write full-time.  What resulted, two and a half years later, was To Kill a Mockingbird.

 Mockingbird was published on July 12, 1960—right in the middle of a decade that began in 1954 with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court—ordering the desegregation of the public schools—and ended with the passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.  That’s important because the Civil Rights Movement, as it came to be called, dominated the news.  To Kill a Mockingbird was—and still is—a stab at the conscience of America.

The setting of Mockingbird is Maycomb (read, Monroeville) in the 1930s. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is often cited as the inspiration for the Tom Robinson story, but it wasn’t. A local and far less sensational rape case was the true model.  A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was, however, the inspiration for Atticus Finch.

Mockingbird—sometimes lauded for being a charming coming-of-age story (which it is)–follows two main plot threads. One is the trial of Tom Robinson, a humble black man who has been accused by a white man, Bob Ewell (the “mad dog” of the book), of raping his daughter, Mayella. She is a lonely young woman who has been sexually abused by her shiftless, alcoholic father.  She accosts Tom, and her father sees it.  Tom runs, though he’s done nothing wrong, and Ewell accuses him simply because he can. He thinks the town will thank him for it. Atticus Finch takes the case on principle: He couldn’t look his children in the eye—couldn’t make them mind him, he said—if he himself doesn’t do what is right.  But he knows he is fighting a losing battle: There is no precedent for acquittal in such a case, even when the defendant is plainly not guilty.  Speaking to the jury, Atticus memorably characterizes the case as being “as simple as black and white.”

The other thread in Mockingbird is that of Boo Radley, a strange and reclusive man who lives in a house down the street. Boo befriends the children—though they remain “spooked” by him–and ultimately saves their lives when Ewell attempts to kill them on a dark Halloween night. The two stories are thus brought together and Scout articulates the meaning of the title when she assures her father that prosecuting Boo Radley would be like shooting a mockingbird; that is, persecuting innocent and helpless individuals—like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley—who “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”  Thus, a string of short stories is woven together by the symbolism of mad dogs and mockingbirds.

Atticus is the quintessential epic hero.  A little aside here: I also taught The Odyssey and directed my students’ attention to the epic tradition.  The students drew the comparison easily—because it is there. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book was translated into 10 languages within a year of publication—ultimately, into 40—and has never been put of print.  In the 1962 film version, Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus. The book is still the most widely taught novel in schools across the country (a few attempts at banning it notwithstanding—in fact, those attempts only increased its readership!).  Atticus Finch was elevated to the status of a god—one who looks just like Gregory Peck.

Then came Watchman in 2015.  The publishers provided a trigger warning—and many people declined to read the book.  (Me included, even though I’d preordered from Amazon.) Atticus, we were told, turns into a racist.  It was a year before I read Watchman because each review was worse than the last.  Like a lot of other people, I didn’t want to be disillusioned.  Eventually, I gave in.  I’d written extensively about teaching Mockingbird on my blog. It seemed like chickening out not to read Watchman.  Now I’ve read it twice. That will probably be enough.

People usually mark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. On the heels of that decision came two momentous events: the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the end of a long, hard day. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled again, ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery buses.

Emmett Till’s funeral was portrayed in a photographic spread in Life magazine. The bus boycott ended after a year with another Supreme Court ruling, this one ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery, AL buses.  Those two events are the backdrop for Go Set a Watchman.

The book opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a visit. It appears at first to be a love story involving a boy who had lived across the street when Jean Louise was young, a boy whom Atticus has mentored and taken into his law firm.  In the book, Jem has died and Dill has gone missing. Two characters of major importance in Mockingbird aren’t in Watchman: the “ghost” Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose, the harridan who lives down the street and menaces the children but turns out to be a dying woman trying to get out from under a morphine addiction. Uncle Jack plays a much more important role in Watchman; Aunt Alexandra is still a foil for Atticus. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Scout and Jem, makes an appearance, but it’s a cold one.  And Atticus—well, Atticus at 72 is the same man in many ways, but there’s this disturbing thing about his stance on civil rights.

Indeed, in Watchman, Atticus is portrayed as a man with deep reservations about the events of the 1950s. In the book, he has joined the White Citizen’s Council in Maycomb—organizations like this had sprung up all over the South in response to those Supreme Court rulings.  In conversations with Jean Louise, Atticus espouses the policy of gradualism.  His remarks reveal not only a paternalistic attitude toward African-Americans, but downright racist ones.

I was prepared for Atticus.  It was Scout who appalled me.  Her outrage over her father’s attendance at the White Citizen’s Council meeting culminates in a scene full of excess, a confrontation with so much invective and vitriol that I was shocked.  Yes, Jean Louise is shocked by what she has learned about her father, but she screams at him, calls him names, and carries on beyond my ability to believe.  She’s also brutal in her attacks on her aunt—rude, profane, and frankly, unforgivable.  She knows better.

I told him in detail about our trip to church with Calpurnia. Atticus seemed to enjoy it, but Aunt Alexandra, who was sitting in a corner quietly sewing, put down her embroidery and stared at us.

“You all were coming back from Calpurnia’s church that Sunday?”

Jem said, “Yessum, she took us.”

I remembered something. “Yessum, and she promised that I could come out to her house some afternoon. Atticus, I’ll go next Sunday if it’s all right, can I? Cal said she’d come get me if you were off in the car.”

“You may not.”

Aunt Alexandra said it. I wheeled around, startled, then turned back to Atticus in time to catch his swift glance at her, but it was too late. I said, “I didn’t ask you!”

For a big man, Atticus could get up and down from a chair faster than anyone I ever knew. He was on his feet. “Apologize to your aunt,” he said.

“I didn’t ask her, I asked you—“

Atticus turned his head and pinned me to the wall with his good eye. His voice was deadly. “First, apologize to your aunt.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty, I muttered.

“Now then, he said. “Let’s get this clear: you do as Calpurnia tells you, you do as I tell , and as long as your aunt’s in this house, you will do as she tells you. Understand?”

I understood, pondered a while, and concluded that the only way I could retire with a shred of dignity was to go to the bathroom, where I stayed long enough to make them think I had to go.

That scene, a lesson in courtesy that couldn’t have failed to stick, is from Chapter 14 of Mockingbird, shortly after Aunt Alexander, the children’s nemesis, arrives to supervise Jem and Scout during the long, hot summer of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Watchman, to my mind, is more autobiographical than Mockingbird—in this way: It is far more revealing of Harper Lee’s state of mind in the 1950s.  The years of Watchman are the years that she was living in New York. She’d come back to Monroeville on the train for a visit—and undoubtedly she’d hear the rhetoric of the white families in her hometown.  At one point, early in the story, Atticus even asks her what the New York papers make of what’s “going on down here.”  It seems likely to me that in Watchman, Harper Lee was working through her own emotional responses to the events of the day and her reactions to the reactions of her family and community to these same events.

When I finally approached the book, I was already braced for Atticus. I expected to read amateurish writing—I did—but I also hoped I’d see a text that would make the power of revision clear to young writers, to my students.  With Mockingbird, I’d taught them more than how to read a novel, more than how to discover theme.  I’d opened their eyes to the elements of style.  So I hoped for early indications of that style in Watchman.  I found them.  Words, expressions, a proclivity for allusion, humor—though not much irony.  But the story seems thin to me—and disjointed.  There are some treats: a flashback to Scout, Jem, and Dill playing—not Boo Radley, but “Evangelist.” A long chapter featuring the loquacious Uncle Jack, as usual, circumventing a topic and making allusions to British history. A nice picture or two of various neighbors from Scout’s childhood days. It’s just that the richness, the fullness of Mockingbird isn’t there. Too much talk and not enough weaving of story line.  It’s as if the book had been stripped of its best parts—and it probably was. For Mockingbird.

Few critics like Watchman.

Some make a mistake that’s easy to make: It’s the same mistake I made by thinking Scout should know better than to be so rude to her father and her aunt.  The chronology of the two stories can be confused with the order in which they were written.  Watchman came first.  Atticus is 72 years old and the backdrop is 1956.  Mockingbird was written second—presumably as a revision of Watchman—and the backdrop is the 1930s.  In their responses to the publication, some people called Watchman the sequel—as if the two were intended one to follow the other.  Looked at that way, Atticus is indeed a disappointment.

Others knew something of the revision work Harper Lee had done and took the statement from the publisher at face value: Watchman was a draft and Mockingbird was the fruit of revision.  These reviewers looked at the “new” text for the seeds of Mockingbird and noticed that the story of Atticus and the rape trial is presented in just a paragraph and as a flashback. They noticed the shortcomings of a novice writer and expressed the opinion that Watchman should never have been published. The second publication tarnishes the first.

Many questioned the motives of Lee’s lawyer in providing the book to HarperCollins and HarperCollins for publishing it. They speculated that Lee, hard of hearing and poor of eyesight, ill and in a nursing home, had been manipulated into publishing the book.  There’s been so much confusion that we still don’t know the provenance of the book for sure.

Some said, and I agree, that in terms of producing literature, Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hahoff, was brilliant: Here’s your story—the rape case—now run with it—and somehow, make all these short stories into a coherent piece.  Which Harper Lee did, producing, to the benefit of readers everywhere and especially to the benefit of English teachers who know the book is a cornucopia of lessons in narrative arc, character development, symbolism, irony, and style, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Long, languid sentences and hilarious scenes of children at play evoke the best of a time and place gone by.  Short, direct, blunt utterances, a scene when Atticus shoots a rabid dog, and carefully crafted court scenes carry the message that prejudice is a disease and reveal the hard truth that the justice system is imperfect. The climax—when Scout meets Boo Radley at last and discovers his humanity is a touching depiction of the moral imperative to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.

For a while after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee herself spoke of trying to write a second book.  It was going to be about race. Presumably, the setting would be Maycomb, or at least Alabama.  Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, ventured this idea: Did Lee return to the original Watchman years after Mockingbird was published?  Did she revisit her first draft when she was older and struggling under the pressure of success to write a second book?  Is Watchman actually a post-1960 revision of the original first draft?  Gopnik points out that Watchman is confusing without a prequel, without Mockingbird. He points out that the shock of Watchman is only felt if the reader already knows Mockingbird.  If not, he posits, who would care about Atticus’s “fall from grace?”

But we are not going to know the whole story. It remains a literary mystery.  Or at least it will until another manuscript is “discovered.”  The best we can do now is enjoy Watchman, if we did, for what it is: the incomplete work of a novice writer.  Or, if we hold with Gopnik, the unfinished work of an extraordinary writer faced with an impossible task: producing another book that could hold a candle to her first.

And, this of course: We can continue to relish Lee’s enduring masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ithaka

Bricks
Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

Traveling Companions

Was there ever a trip I took that didn’t involve a book—or a stack of books?

I don’t think so.

When I was a child, my family journeyed every summer from our home in Illinois to our grandparents’ summer cottage in northern Wisconsin—loaned to us by them for six weeks in June and July. We traveled in two cars—my mother and father driving, and we four children and our two Springer spaniels distributed evenly between them—on a journey that took (in those years before interstate highways) all day. Each of us kids brought along treasures to help the time pass. I brought books—as many as I could fit into a small brown cosmetic case that belonged to my grandmother. Stacked there neatly, and cushioned by a sack of anise candy, the books kept me company all day long and well into the weeks ahead.

During my elementary school years, most of my vacation reading material came from the last Scholastic Book Club order of the school year. A few of the books I brought were old favorites from my bookcase—The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Understood Betsy—and sometimes my grandmother gave me a new book as an early birthday present just before the trip got underway. When I was a little older, the books were fatter and there weren’t so many of them—Little Women and Jane Eyre lasted longer than the car trip—but they, too, traveled with me in the little brown cosmetic case.

I remember deliberating for weeks about those books. If they were to be new ones, I had to be sure I would like them—I didn’t want to waste space on something that would lose its appeal within a few pages. That meant a series book, or an author I already knew, or at least a topic that I knew would hold my interest. So yes to Betsy Ray and Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. Yes to Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott. Yes to books about children with problems and the teachers and therapists who helped them, yes to books about children in other countries, and yes to biographies of writers and pioneers of all kinds.

I kept that up every summer—selecting books to accompany me on my travels—never suspecting that my choices were doing anything more than sweetening my days.

Later in life (as an English teacher, of course), when I traveled to Russia with my students, I carried along books I intended to leave behind. I suggested to my students that they do the same. The books had to be ones I could part with (The DaVinci Code) because the space they occupied in my carry-on would be given over on the return trip to my purchases. The books had to be intriguing enough to compete with the novelty of living in a foreign country (Year of Wonders), but universal enough that my Russian friends would want them (Harry Potter).

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: left in a Moscow hotel.  The History of Love: left in a cardboard box filled with books in English that to this day circulates among young women working for NGOs in Rwanda. Something else, not so memorable, left in the airport in Lima. Another quick read, swapped out for The Human Comedy in a coffee shop in Colorado. I’ve left books behind all over the country and in places around the world. I see now that what I have done is leave bits of myself behind as well.

I still deliberate about the books I’ll read in the summer. These days when I travel, it’s often to a place where internet technology isn’t available and cell phones don’t work: it’s just the books I’ve selected and me, together for a stretch.  Of course, I’ve got a Kindle now, but not the ability to order a title from my living room or (yes) my bed.  So even the electronic library I amass each summer is carefully chosen ahead of time, and the same constraints apply: no set-asides if I can help it, yes to familiar authors and new information that I’ll happily anticipate settling in with, yes to long-time favorites.  That means that Maisie Dobbs and V. I. Warshawski can come along any time, as can anything by Barbara Kingsolver or Colum McCann. This year I’ve stacked up the audio tape of All the Things We Cannot See (my favorite read of the past winter), a reflective piece on health care called God’s Hotel (recommended by friends), Archangel (a National Book Award winner), and a classic I haven’t read in years: A Tale of Two Cities. And about mid-July, I am expecting a literary guest to arrive: Miss Jean Louise Finch.  Yes, I am anxiously awaiting To Set a Watchman. For good or bad or somewhere in between, it’s going to be wonderful to spend time with Scout again.

But as I was selecting my companions for this summer, I was struck not only by the longevity of this ritual, but by the impact of my choices. The books I selected in the summers when I was a child and the ones I choose today have done much more than help me pass time in a pleasant way. They’ve been formative, exerting on my personality the power and influence of theirs.

When books end, we don’t ever really set them aside. Oh, they take up space on our shelves, but they also take up residency in our minds. They are a part of who we are, remembered fondly as old friends, embraced as traveling companions on the trip through our lives.

Maybe that is why, when I encounter titles I know at a used book sale, or on a shelf in a coffee house, or in a collection set aside for hotel guests, they are immediately recognizable to me, dressed as they often are in tattered covers and battered spines. I can’t resist snatching them up, as if responding to a call:  “Remember me? Here I am!”

So yes, I quite often say. Let’s travel together again. You’ll be very good company indeed!

A version of this post appeared last summer in the online site Nerdy Book Club.

Beyond the Pages

A few days ago, a young teacher (once upon a time,  a student at my high school) approached me after a workshop I’d conducted. “Tell me,” he said, “that I really did meet Gwendolyn Brooks when I was in high school. Her poetry has made such an impact on me.  She’s the opposite of me: black/white; female/male. She was old; I was young. But, I really connected with her. ‘We real cool’…She gets it. She really gets it.”

He was about to introduce her poetry to his 7th graders, so I dug through my personal “archives”—fat 3-ring binders with memos, schedules, programs evaluations, contracts, and photographs that I’ve kept all these years—and found a poster, a program, and a newspaper article from 1994 to help him recall the events of that day. The search took me back, too—refreshed my own memory of what was, for seven years, an extraordinary interdisciplinary, literary arts program in my high school. We called it Beyond the Pages.

 Some snapshots from those days:

  • Gwendolyn Brooks carried books in her deep, omnipresent satchel. In the middle of an intense conversation with a teenage writer, this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reached into her bag, withdrew a volume of her poetry, and gave it to the student.
  • W. P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe, carried a photograph of the real Moonlight Graham in his wallet. While he was talking with students in my class, he casually removed the wallet from his pocket and passed the picture around the room.
  • Retired Chicago Tribune editor, John T. McCutcheon, Jr., carried words and images from history-making news events in his memory. He described the atmosphere in the pressroom during the Watergate era to a hushed audience of high school journalists and their teachers.

Beyond the Pages brought students face-to-face with authors whose work they had studied. In the library, in classrooms, in the halls, and even in the cafeteria, writers with international reputations talked casually with McCutcheon students, carrying them beyond the pages of their textbooks to interactions with the authors themselves.

The goal was simple: to spark students’ interest in reading.  National statistics showed then—20 years ago—that the percentage of students who read for pleasure every day dropped by half between elementary school and high school–from 45% in Grade 4 to 24% in Grade 12.  Beyond the Pages was a commitment to reversing this trend.

IMG_1755The program began with a dream.  The English curriculum already included W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe when I met the author at a writing workshop in (of course) Iowa.  After listening to Kinsella discuss his book, I approached him: “If we asked you, would you come?” He told me to contact his agent.

I did.

Dream became reality when the principal endorsed the idea and the English Department signed on to plan the visit.  The success of that first event spurred the decision to continue the program on an annual basis. Eventually, Beyond the Pages branched out beyond the English Department, becoming interdisciplinary and theme-related.  Not only did teachers in other departments incorporate the writer’s work into their lessons, but faculty from many different departments served on the steering committee.  Students were represented on the committee, too, and they helped with promotional activities, art work, and myriad details.

The authors were guests at the school for one to three days.  While they were with us, they participated in a variety of small group interactions and addressed the students in all-school convocations.  The format changed from year to year; activities were tailored to the writer and to the connection between his or her work and the curriculum. Delightful spontaneous events also transpired.

  • Before Kinsella visited, my students studied his work and developed a list of interview questions. When he arrived, the television production class filmed an hour long interview in the school’s TV studio. I still have the tape.
  • In 1996, seven local writers—in a warm-up to Esmeralda Santiago’s visit—discussed their careers in small seminars.
  • In 1997, actress Annie Corley (a graduate of the high school) conducted mock-auditions in the school’s sound studio using real television scripts from episodes of Friends.
  • Scott Russell Sanders’ visit occurred when one English class was writing term papers on Indiana authors. He graciously made time for the young woman writing about him to conduct an impromptu interview.
  • P. Kinsella took a break from filming his interview to meet the special needs students whose classroom was next to the TV studio. The students were studying careers at the time, so Kinsella talked to them about the writing life.
  • And Gwendolyn Brooks gave her home address to several earnest young writers and encouraged them to send her their poems.

Jerry ScottThe program served 1100 high school students and 70 staff members, and each year the literary celebration expanded to include students and teachers from elementary schools within the district.  In 1993, for example, cartoonist Jerry Scott taught an auditorium full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders how to draw the cartoon character NANCY.

Fundamental to the program’s success:

Teachers and students were given the opportunity to lead and the responsibility for the success of the program.

Teachers contracted with the artists, conducted the fund-raising efforts, organized the events, handled the publicity, planned the dinners, wrote the grants for funding, arranged transportation and accommodations for the authors, and conducted evaluations.  The Advanced Home Economics students prepared a luncheon for the guest author.  Students served on the steering committee, designed and printed the posters and programs, produced artistic displays, ushered, ran errands, and more.  The preparation for Gwendolyn Brooks’ visit took seven months of planning, 350 combined teacher hours of preparation, and the active involvement of scores of students—but it was done in a spirit of community. It felt like love, not labor.Brooks signing autographs

Beyond the Pages was grounded in the curriculum.

  • Every English class studied Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry in preparation for her appearance, and students clamored for more. When she read aloud at an all-school convocation, students listened spellbound.  For the first time ever, some students told us, they felt the power of poetry.
  • When Jerry Scott brought his cartoon characters to life on an overhead projector and told students he was the “shortest short story writer in the world,” creative writing students had already written their own short stories and tried their hand at cartooning.
  • Before Scott Sanders visited McCutcheon in 1995, students in geography classes had created murals to illustrate his book Wilderness Plots. The murals were hung in the auditorium and became a focal point during Sanders’ special session with these students. In their biology and agriculture classes, students had begun creating a prairie on school property and identifying botanical species on an adjacent woodlot.  When the author arrived, the students took him on a tour of their “outdoor lab” and discussed the projects planned for the future.Sanders
  • In 1995, two other authors whose writing focuses on the geography and history of early Indiana appeared at the school in the spring to climax a year-long interdisciplinary study of “The Wilderness Experience.” Author James Alexander Thom, who had written about the Shawnee chief Tecumseh in Panther in the Sky, shared Native American stories with American history students.  Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee clan mother, assembled her collection of Native American artifacts in the school library and provided a narrated tour of her exhibit.

The program caught the imagination of the community.

The boldness of the project–inviting best-selling authors to a public school–captured the attention of the local media.  Newspaper, television, and radio coverage helped to spread the word beyond the school.  The program was even in the sports pages.  In 1992, Kinsella opened the baseball season at McCutcheon by pitching the first ball on the school’s own “field of dreams.”

Most years, members of the public were invited to attend an evening reading or a performance at the high school.  Attendance grew from 200 in 1992 to over 750 in 1994, the year that Gwendolyn Brooks spoke.  Beyond the Pages became a community event.  

We believed that these encounters with professional writers would be motivational for Santiagostudents. Indeed, English teachers saw an uptick in students’ understanding of how a writer works and an increase in their appreciation for books.  We provided students with rare opportunities to see professional writers at work and to ask questions about craft as well as biography.  One student wrote afterwards about Kinsella, “He taught me that writing takes a lot of preparation and time.”  Another student remarked that “it helps students write better if they understand how a professional does it.”

And individual students—like the young teacher who started me on this journey through my archives—were inspired and even changed by their interactions with the authors.

I’d be interested to learn about programs today in other schools in other places. Are author visitations still happening?  Who has come to your school? How was your program organized? What was the impact? Please respond in the comment box if you have memories from Beyond the Pages or stories to share about your own school’s program. I’m hoping events like this still go on.

About the Dog

But I must have been reasonably awake, or I would not have received the impression that was creeping into me. It was not unlike one I had last winter, and I shivered, though the night was hot. The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley place. A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

I thought I was done writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, but a colleague recently asked me a question about the dog.

Tim Johnson, I mean: the rabid dog that Atticus shoots in Chapter 10.

Sometimes Chapter 10—the mad dog chapter—is anthologized as a stand-alone short story. In that case, it’s a lovely piece about a boy coming to see his father as a hero. Chapter 11 isn’t accorded the same status—I don’t see it ever as a stand-alone—but these two chapters, which seem to most students at first read to be unrelated to either the Boo Radley story or the Tom Robinson story are, I contend, the two most important chapters in the book. In them, Harper Lee lays the groundwork for the major themes of the novel, and the story of Atticus shooting the dog does more than round out his character by giving us some background information on his “talent.” It establishes him for certain as the hero of the story: an epic hero, to be precise. The Mrs. Dubose chapter gives us the hero’s own definition of courage.

But back to the dog.

Tim Johnson is very much a character in this story. His name is the first clue. He’s not Spot or Old Blue or Rover or any other identifiable dog name. He’s Tim Johnson. A human’s name.

That Atticus kills him is the second clue that he’s important.

Tim Johnson is lurching down the street on a cold February morning. Calpurnia summons the sheriff in a frantic phone call, herds the children inside, and defies common sense and convention by running up on the Radley’s front porch to warn the occupants not to open their door. A mad dog is coming.

photo of rabies notesThe day before we discuss Chapter 10 in class, my homework assignment is for students to look up “rabies” online and write down its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment. The next day, we brainstorm all of that on the board.

The key thing is this: Rabies is a disease of the central nervous system, a disease of the mind. It makes the dog (or person) who has it irrational, unpredictable, and erratic. The victim will attack anything in its path. Rabies spreads by a bite—by mouth—and the treatment is painful. Treated too late, the disease is fatal.

For a dog as far gone as Tim Johnson, the only thing to do is to shootphoto 2 of rabies notes him. And that is what Atticus does. He stands in the middle of a deserted street, takes aim, fires, and the dog falls over, dead.

Like all epic heroes, though, Atticus is reluctant to undertake this task; he steps in only because no one else can or will. Heck Tate relies on Atticus to do the job because, as we (along with Jem and Scout) find out, Atticus was called “Ol’ One Shot” when he was a boy.

At this point, I just let that information sink in and we go on to Chapter 11. Here we learn that Atticus thinks the vitriolic Mrs. Dubose is the “bravest lady he ever knew.” She fights a morphine addiction so she can die free and clear. No need for that. She’s going to die, so who cares if she’s addicted? Atticus says she’s brave because “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

This is all groundwork for the trial. Established beyond a doubt as the hero of the book, we now want to know, will our hero live up to his own definition of courage in the second half of the book? And what about that dog? What does Tim Johnson represent?

Occasionally, an alert student will remember that Atticus referred to “Maycomb’s usual disease” when he was talking to his brother, Jack—and that we all read “prejudice” into that remark. Once in a great while, a student will remember (or the teacher–that would be me–will recall) the description in Chapter 5 of Miss Maudie vehemently attacking the nut- grass in her yard, telling the children that “one sprig of nut-grass can ruin a whole yard.” The wind, she said, would spread the seed all over Maycomb County—an occurrence that would resemble an “Old Testament pestilence.”

If they do remember this early groundwork, that reinforces the unmistakable connection students make when Bob Ewell takes the stand in Part II of the novel. Irrational, unpredictable, and erratic, Bob spews his verbal venom on Tom Robinson, Mayella Ewell’s target and the only witness to Bob Ewell’s vicious response when he sees her through the window, accosting Robinson. Rabies, of course, is meant to represent prejudice…

“And Bob’s the mad dog!” I usually don’t need to draw the analogy myself. The students get it.

Atticus knows how the trial will end before it even begins—but he goes forward with his defense of Tom anyway. Why?

Because he must.

He’s already explained that to his brother Jack. It’s the right thing to do, but he runs the risk of his children being morally injured—the trial and the vitriol may be so hard on them that they’ll be resentful and catch the disease. But if he doesn’t do the right thing, he tells Jack, he couldn’t look his children in the eye. So it’s at great personal risk—typical of the epic hero—that he steps forward to do what heroes do.

And why does Ewell bring charges against Tom? Tom isn’t going to report him. No way. So why does Ewell do it?

Because he can.

Prejudice has completely consumed him.

Prejudice has so poisoned the town (except for a few souls like Atticus, Miss Maudie, and we later discover, Judge Taylor and Heck Tate) that Ewell seizes his opportunity to attack Tom. He knows full well that Tom will be convicted. For once in his life, Ewell thinks, he will be the recipient of the town’s gratitude and be “one up” on his moral superior, the black man who lives down the road.

Except that, when the trial is over, the town despises Ewell all the more. The people know the truth, even though the men on the jury convict Tom. Except for a Cunningham who makes the jury deliberate for a few hours—a record for a case like this in the 1930s—the men on the jury are, after all, only men. They’ve been infected, too, and can’t see beyond society’s unwritten black and white rules.

Just as Atticus is only a man. He lifts the gun in the courtroom, fires—and misses. But everyone knows the truth. He has made them know it.

Mayella is shamed, Ewell is despised even more, Atticus is sickened, and Jem learns a bitter truth: The justice system he idealizes is flawed. An innocent man has been convicted. Even his father, whom he idolizes by now, can’t make things right. With this loss of innocence, Jem comes of age.

A lot is being said about close reading these days, and that’s exactly the way all this about mad dogs—and later about mockingbirds—is revealed. With that and some carefully placed questions. I don’t lecture—that’s not my style and not my forte. But we read and reread, the students and I, and through that process, from all corners of the room, comes the understanding that the dog and Bob Ewell are inextricably linked, that the two episodes are meant to be compared.

A single, strangely-constructed sentence seals it: A deserted, waiting, empty street, and the courtroom was packed with people.

So about the dog…

Call and Response

Once in a while, someone is gracious enough to invite me into their room, not to observe or to lend a hand, but to teach the class. To orchestrate the lesson. To set the purpose, plan the activity, lead the students, and make the close.  Last week, a colleague asked me to do just that. I’ve been singing ever since.

It isn’t easy for a high school teacher to surrender his or her classroom to the instructional coach. In elementary school, people come into and leave from classrooms all day long. The principal drifts in and out and is not just there for formal evaluations. Volunteer parents, reading tutors, paras, aides, and specialists of all kinds are constants in the elementary classroom background, and when someone else leads a lesson, it’s not a big deal. Kids don’t wonder why.

But in a secondary classroom, there are no reading tutors and parent volunteers. Aides are largely silent, and when the principal is present, it is almost always to conduct an evaluation. So if someone else leads the class, unless it’s a guest speaker with credentials to warrant a special presentation on the topic at hand, inquiring students are likely to wonder, “Why isn’t my teacher doing this?” Or the teacher may fear that the kids are wondering that.

It takes an unusually confident person–or a person who’s comfortable saying he or she isn’t an expert at everything–to let the coach model a strategy or demonstrate a technique.

It’s not without danger for me, either, teaching that class.  My reputation is on the line and so is my own self-esteem. The students aren’t mine. I have no relationship with them. Nothing to draw on if the lesson goes awry. No prior knowledge about their dispositions, proclivities, interests, or backgrounds. I don’t know their hot buttons or what might make them laugh or cry. I’ve got to establish credibility in the first fifteen seconds and maintain momentum for the whole fifty minutes. If it goes right, it feels at the end like a song.

Recently, I had a conversation with a singer-songwriter new to my town and at the beginning of her career. On a nippy Saturday morning, I watched her perform at our local Farmers Market. She was pounding the keyboard with gusto and singing her heart out. The people gathered around her were swaying back and forth, keeping time with their feet, nodding and bending in sync with her rhythm. It was as much fun to watch them as it was to watch her.

Afterwards, I remarked on the energy she expended, the connection she’d created, and the fun she seemed to be having. “Call and response” she said, using the term to describe the electricity between the performer and the audience–and I thought to myself then, that’s just what teaching, when it goes well, is: call and response. Like an old-time preacher and the congregation.

The lesson I taught last week was Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.” The class had just finished Of Mice and Men, and the teacher had asked me to model for the students the close reading technique I love so well, the one I call the “slow reveal,” where line-by-line the teacher guides the student from the beginning to the end of the poem, helping the students discover for themselves the gradual accumulation of meaning.

I had created a two-columned handout for the students, the poem as Burns originally wrote it and, beside it, the standard modern translation. I asked the students to skim the original first to find the line that Steinbeck was alluding to when he wrote Of Mice and Men, and then my colleague played an online recording of that original poem. They could find the line–The best laid schemes o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley–but the poem mystified almost everyone.

We dispensed with the Gaelic for the time, and worked our way through the modern version, focusing our attention on words they didn’t know– timorous, dominion, social union, ensuing–and the capitalized words–Man and Nature. I drew their attention to the two colons–a punctuation mark with authority, used twice in this poem, in both cases to announce a key idea. In the first instance:

But Mousie, you are not alone

In proving that foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go oft astray

And  leave us nothing but grief and pain

Instead of promised joy!

More words to be sure we know: Foresight. Vain. Prospects. I hear a few gasps as students make the connection to Lennie and George and the collapse of their dream of a little plot of land where they could live and raise rabbits and live off the “fatta the lan’.”  I slip in the word allusion again and move to the turn, a word in a poem that signifies the poet is going to stand an idea on its head.

And Burns does. Nice as the connection of the penultimate stanza is to George and Lennie’s schemes gone awry, it is not all that Burns has to say. The last stanza features  another colon announcing another idea, the one that has propelled this poem about a mouse whose home has been plowed up by a farmer from the realm of simple and sweet to profound and memorable.

In this last stanza, the poet makes the distinction between Man and Nature, between the farmer and the mouse, (as Steinbeck implies centuries later, between George and Lennie): Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

What? The mouse is luckier than the man? How can that be?

I say: “See that word Still? What does it mean here?”

They say: “But.”

“Yet.”

“However.”

“Even though everything I have said is true, there’s more.”

I say: “Yes!”

Still, you are blessed, compared with me!

Only this moment touches you:

But oh! I backward cast my eye

On prospects turned to sadness!

And though forward I cannot see,

I guess and fear!

They say:

“The farmer is cursed by his memory of the past!”

“By its disappointments.”

“He fears the future!”

“He can’t see what will happen and he’s afraid.”

“The mouse lives only in the present!”

“So what do you think?” I ask. “Who is luckier? Lennie or George?  Don’t shout it out. Think before you answer. Relate your answer to the story and explain yourself.”

Hands everywhere.

“Lennie: He dies happy, looking across the water and imagining the farm.”

“Lennie: Because George has to live with what he’s done for the rest of his life.”

“George: Because at least he’s alive!”

“Lennie: Because he doesn’t experience regret. Or fear. He just thinks about those rabbits.”

Then my colleague played the recording again–the original.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear! An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

Ah…it makes sense now. Some of the students even prefer the Gaelic. Especially Gang aft agley. Much more expressive, much more memorable than Go oft astray.

At the end of the hour, as the class was filing out, a boy approached me. He’d been too shy to speak up in class, but he was brave enough to say to me privately, “I was going to say George because Lenny has only one emotion, really. One idea. He’s limited. George can experience things. He can do new things and feel things and see color and well…learn.”

Call and response. Like a song.

Break It Down: Scaffolding Style

All right.  The kids “got it.” They saw that Capote has a distinct writing style and that his style has something to do with lists and parenthetical remarks and sensory detail.  Is that all they’re expected to know? That the author—any author—has a style?  Or do I want more?

Of course I want more.

I want my students to recognize what style is and be able to articulate the stylistic elements in any author’s work.  I want them to distinguish one author’s style from another’s and describe the differences using the appropriate language.  What I want is analysis: a higher level thinking skill. Not so easy as simply recognizing the author has a style or that there are differences in writers’ styles.

It’s a skill that has to be taught—and in the beginning, students will benefit from some “scaffolding.”

So, once they’re “hooked” (See my blog post “A Matter of Style”), I provide my students with a checklist prepared by teachers at a school in Seattle, Washington—the Lakeside School—called Checklist: Elements of Literary Style. Yes, I thieved it. (I prefer to say “borrowed.”  After all, when people put items on the Internet, it’s an invitation for others to use them, not unlike the teacher down the hall pulling something from her file cabinet and saying, “Try this!”) I noticed, when I searched online again for the checklist, for this blog, that another teacher has borrowed it, too. Like me, she gives credit where credit is due.  Frankly, it would be hard to improve upon this checklist, so thank you, English teachers at the Lakeside School!

Pause now to go to this site:

http://teachers.lakesideschool.org/us/english/ErikChristensen/WRITING%20STRATEGIES/LiteraryStyles.htm

I also provide the students with a handout (below) that can be simplified by including fewer categories, depending upon the age and stage of the students or the characteristics of the particular author whose style they are analyzing, or by combining two categories (like #3 and #4):

Element of Style Example or explanation
1. Sentence structure
2. Pace
3. Diction
4. Vocabulary
5. Figures of speech
6. Use of Dialogue
7. Point of View
8. Character development
9. Tone
10. Word Color/Sound
11. Paragraph/Chapter Structure
12. Time Sequence
13. Allusions
14.  Experimentation
15.   Metafictional techniques

The students’ task—independently, in pairs, or in small groups, depending again upon all the variables of instructional planning and strategy—is  to examine the designated writer’s work—and find examples in the text of each of the elements on the checklist—if they apply.

For example, students will note that the sentences in “A Christmas Memory” are long (#1), full of lists and adjectives and subordinate clauses. The pace (#2) is slow, with much description—sensory images like the stove, the tipsy dancing in the kitchen, the tinfoil stars ornamenting the trees—and emphasis on the setting (the South—pecans, pine trees; and the Depression—FDR was the President, it cost a dime to attend a movie).  His diction (#3) is expansive—he’s long-winded and that contributes to the affectionate feeling he has for Sook and his lingering description of these Christmas memories. His vocabulary (#4) includes some unusual and/or multisyllabic words—for example, inaugurated, dilapidated, mingle, sacrilegious, skinflint, prosaic—but these alternate with simple words that describe images and scenes that are easy to understand and with figures of speech (#5) such as like a drunkard’s legs, blaze of her heart, turned our purse inside out that are easy to visualize. There is not much dialogue (#6), but lines such as “It’s fruitcake weather!” move the story along and signal significance.

And so on.

More sophisticated students might write for Truman Capote that his portrait of Sook (#8) is almost a caricature of an eccentric and solitary older woman, perhaps a simple-minded one, but by inserting his own parenthetical comments (#15), he not only softens our judgment but endears her to us.

The checklist provides a scaffold for students when they attempt to describe style.  It’s  a difficult literary concept—more difficult by far than outlining the plot or figuring out point of view or even determining theme—so the checklist and companion worksheet break the task up into manageable pieces.

Done often enough, the exercise will help students develop their understanding of what style is and, with practice, come to identify its characteristics with the same automaticity with which they identify the stages in plot development or analyze character.

Furthermore, the language of the checklist plus the examples they find in the text will provide the students with the support they need when their teacher—could that be me?—asks them to write a formal analysis of an author’s style.

Whatever the skill you want students to learn, break it down, break it apart. Make the goal attainable.

A Matter of Style

The blog post I wrote about “A Christmas Memory” got so many “hits” this season that I thought people might be interested in the follow-up; that is, what we did after the kids realized that Harper Lee had modeled Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on her real life friend, Truman Capote. I wrote to a friend of mine about that day in class—the first time I taught this lesson—and printed out my email because I never wanted to forget it. So here is the rest of the story, all about a lesson in style, taken from a dispatch fifteen years ago.

“Dill?”

There was a kind of silence and others began to say things like, “Yeah, that’s true.” Very quietly at first, as there wasn’t yet a lot of confidence for this idea.

I waited a minute for them all to make the connection and then said, “You’re right. Harper Lee and the author of this story grew up together. Dill is Buddy.” The girl who had ventured her idea was stunned—and very quiet herself. The idea had to sink in with all of them—and my girl had to believe she could have been so intuitive. And then we began to talk about the real lives of authors.

When I told them about Capote’s In Cold Blood, several wanted to read it. I happened to have a copy in the classroom, so the boy who was at the top of the class jumped up and took it from me. He said he would read it over Christmas Break and then exchange it with another boy in the class. I told them that Harper Lee had accompanied Capote on his trip to Oklahoma and had served as his secretary during the research phase of the book. The boy turned to the beginning of the book—sure enough, there was an inscription: “To Harper Lee.” I could feel the chills running through the class.

So, my assignment that night was to come to class the next day having identified two specific passages in “A Christmas Memory” that they particularly liked. My plan then was to launch a discussion of style—without telling them that that was what we were talking about.

They were excited when they came into the room, eager to talk about “their” passages. We identified the cataloguing, or listing technique; appeals to the senses; metaphors and similes; artful creation of symbols; parenthetical remarks; “special effects,” like typography and non-words; abundant use of detail. One boy said, “My favorite sentence in the whole story is the one where he talks about (and he directed us to the page and column) “the buggy wheels wobbling like a drunkard’s legs.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when a 9th grade boy, a big, hulking athlete, says something about “his favorite sentence,” chills run through me.

Then another boy mentioned the parentheses. He said, “These parenthetical remarks seem like they are made to protect Miss Sook.” He went through them. Sure enough, in the list of things she’d done, for example, was “Take snuff,” but the parenthetical remark was “Secretly.” She had done a number of other things that would have made her seem strange—except that in parentheses, Capote would say “You just try it,” or “I did, too,” or “Just once”—something that mitigated the extreme and made her seem quaint, not weird.

The boy who had taken In Cold Blood piped up: “That’s the same thing he does here! He uses the parentheses the same way. And he lists things. Here, let me read.”  And the boy read us quite a long passage which, since the others didn’t have the text, didn’t impress them quite as much as it did the boy who was reading—except that they all were impressed by the dawning realization, the discovery they made for themselves, that writers have identifiable styles.

An education professor had been in my classroom observing me a few months before this. He had told me then that mine was a “constructivist classroom.”  He had seen me doing something similar to this discussion about style in a class called Novels that I was teaching with seniors and also in a discussion about the Odyssey with these same 9th graders. I like to lead kids to make discoveries on their own, but until then, I hadn’t had a name for this approach.

Having a name is so legitimizing—I had thought, up until then, that I was doing something unidentifiable and vaguely unorthodox as no one had ever taught me any of this. My method of instruction, this line of inquiry, hadn’t come packaged with operating instructions.  I just like kids to discuss what we are reading and have them do the thinking—it always means more that way.

So, I found there’s a name for it. Well, well. That’s kind of like discovering authors have identifiable styles, isn’t it?