Direct experience

I somehow failed to transfer this six-year-old post to my blog’s current WordPress iteration. A friend wrote me today about Texas’s new slavery-neutral history textbook, and it reminded me of my post’s subject – my class’s seventh-grade history textbook. I’ve lightly edited the post. As best I can tell, the lesson plans my post refer to have been removed from the Internet.

The Internet is a sweet place for finding lesson plans.  While looking for ideas to sharpen my students’ critical reading skills recently, I came across a set of plans entitled, “Using Excerpts about Slavery.”  The plans employ excerpts from four different works: a history textbook serving Virginia students in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a slave narrative, an Englishman’s travelogue, and a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1850.  According to the brief “Notes for the Teacher” that preface the material, the teacher should require students to consider and discuss the excerpts in small groups on successive class days, focusing on the excerpt’s credibility and engaging with a set of “Questions to Consider” that follow each excerpt.  It looked promising.

The notes begin with the lesson’s goal: “Students need to be cognizant that any historical account is one person’s truth. An author’s point of view is colored by his or her own experiences and belief system. Lack of direct experience can result in an author making assumptions that are not borne out. As an example, who but a slave could effectively understand the perspective of a slave or what the life of a slave was like?”

In order to judge the lesson’s utility for my own classroom, I read the first excerpt and the questions related to it, and I answered its questions. Here’s the excerpt (ellipses original):

Excerpt from Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964[1]
“How Negroes Lived under Slavery,” pp. 368-376

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.

Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

1Textbook used in Virginia schools as late as 1972.

The “Questions to Consider” and my answers:

1.  How long after the Civil War was this written?

Not quite a century.

2.  Who do you think the authors were?  Could they have been former slaves?  Why or why not?

I think all three of the textbook’s authors were Virginians.  I don’t have any direct knowledge about two of them, but the third was my aunt.

My aunt was not a former slave.  I presume that all of the authors, and not just my aunt, were white, and that the authors wrote the textbook somewhat contemporaneously. So, no, they could not have been former slaves.

3.  How do you think they came up with their account of slavery?

My aunt would entertain us from a black-leather wing chair pierced with brass tacks in a small library lined on all four sides from floor to ceiling with books, mostly leather bound, standing muffled on shelves caged by glass panes.  The house was always clean and slightly musty, like my college’s rare books room I would discover years later, and it had no air conditioning, serviced as it was continually from before the War with a fairly dependable breeze from the tidal Rappahannock River, which was framed by the library’s only window.

Years after college, my eldest niece, who was then about the age I had been when I first visited my cousins on the Rappahannock, held forth on visits to my parents’ house as the first and (at that time) only grandchild. She dished out nicknames at a holiday dinner, and my somewhat loquacious father became “Grandfather Sit-in-Chair.”  Similarly, I can’t remember my aunt anywhere else but sitting erect at her chair’s edge – the back of her chair serving more as a reflection and an extension of herself than as a support – with her legs crossed and her index and middle fingers slowly incising a long cigarette that accentuated her small, slim build.  She’d waive the cigarette back in conversation, and sometimes throw her head back in laughter, but her posture always held firm and her elbow always seemed to hold the chair’s arm under subjection. Her smoke smelled like elegance and hazed the fading and cracked binding on the red and tan and black books behind her.

My father was a raconteur, but my aunt was more of a conversationalist.  She would turn her head from my parents to my siblings and me and ask us questions with a frankness that serves adults better than the sugary tone many of them employ with children.  Our answers would elicit a comment from her that would get the adults laughing, but we never felt ashamed or excluded.  We were happy to sit on the antique, Oriental carpet and play with the wooden toys she and my uncle favored for our cousins.  If my generation had been raised on my aunt instead of on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, it would have had a better inkling of what an interviewer and conversationalist could be.

The old house sits on a large tract of land down several country roads from my uncle’s law practice at the county seat.  After paying our respects to the adults for a suitable length of time, my two siblings and I would reacquaint ourselves with the antique-filled first floor, and then, with our cousins, we’d head outside.  At some point we’d always see Floe and Sammy.  Floe worked in the house and Sammy worked outside in the fields, helping with the garden and keeping things in repair.  I don’t remember ever seeing Floe and Sammy together, but my siblings and I liked both of them immensely.

One day, when my brother and I were both teenagers, we became conscious that our conversations with Floe always started and ended with the same subject: our growth.  My mother would take us through the narrow kitchen blocked entirely by Floe, who was either ironing or, more often, baking.  “Ummm-mmm!  My how you grown, child!  My how you grown!” Floe would say to us, wagging her face at us with a hand on her hip but sometimes just glancing at us out of the corner of her eye as she prodded the family’s dinner around on a skillet.

Sammy was also genial – a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows – but our conversations with him were equally limited.  I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives and pointed questions, responsess like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.”  My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit.  I grew up addressing all adults by their titles and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names.  I don’t think I addressed them at all.

Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter.  He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words.  His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.

When my brother and I were in our late teens, we speculated that the pay must have been pretty good for Floe and Sammy to act the way they did, and we suspected that they shed their roles with my cousins’ family when they were off duty.  But we didn’t know for sure.  We never really talked to them.  They didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything that animated us: news or politics or sports, for instance.  Looking back on it, I would have been surprised, I think, to have stumbled on Floe with her feet up, reading the newspaper at my aunt’s place, even though she lived there for a while, or to have seen Sammy in front of my relatives’ black-and-white TV.  In fact, I would have been shocked to have caught him in the house at all, now that I think about it.

To answer the question, I’m not exactly sure how my aunt came up with her account of slavery, but I know that she was a real historian and that she was certain of her facts.

4.  Do you believe the account is an accurate portrayal of slavery? Why or why not?

I first read this account in history class as a seventh-grader in the Newport News public school system.  It’s funny reading it now, word for word, because none of the wording surprises me but only bolsters my recollection of what I was taught.  I remember the general points from my textbook: the slaves were happy, happy to work hard, appreciative of their masters for taking the risk and the responsibility out of life – appreciative in a way children never are – and disdainful of the far-away, brooding political storm that centered on them in the abstract.

I don’t think I believed it or disbelieved it.  I remember wondering about it.  I remember trying to put myself in the slaves’ shoes for a little while in our all-white classroom at Riverside Elementary, not a half mile from the James River near its mouth.  My aunt’s words seem to paint a picture in my head of how the slaves could have enjoyed a simple life of labor under the beneficent hands of their masters.  But (I remember thinking) who would want to always do what someone else said?

Maybe they were dumb, I remember reasoning.  Too dumb to survive on their own or too dumb not to know it was not much of a life.  We had two blacks among our four classrooms of seventh graders when I was there, a girl and a boy.  I wasn’t friends with either of them, but both were popular and seemed smart enough.  They seemed to act like white children, mostly, except for certain phrases they would use as well as a manner of speech that ran counter, in some critical respects, to what we were learning in English.  I remember thinking how long it had been since the Civil War and wondering how much the slaves might have been like these two.

I remember my mind working on Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year before my seventh grade, on the Watts riots I saw on the news, and on the vandalism King’s assassination had occasioned in my town’s downtown, which seemed as far from home as Watts.  I thought two ways, and I had two pictures in my head – one of happy slaves and one of angry slaves.  I don’t remember either picture winning out.

I do recall reading my aunt’s textbook and concluding that slavery would not be a life that I would choose for myself.  But if the Negroes really liked it, I thought, more power to them.

5. The excerpt is from a book that was once used to teach children in Virginia about slavery. Why would a textbook want students of Virginia to believe slavery was a positive experience for slaves?

You may or may not learn your roots in history class, but you learn your place.

On rubrics and reading

On Grading like readers. I’m going over the following piece with my college comp students this week. I’m overly sanguine here about the possibility of objective readings even under the guise of a rubric, but teachers must play along.

Some of you have given me your papers for me to critique ahead of the due date. You’ll probably discover that my comments, now that I’ve graded your papers, are to some extent different from my comments then. I’d like to tell you why this is both unavoidable and good.

I hope I’m consistent with how I grade your paper. In other words, if I grade your paper one day, have a memory lapse, and grade it again another day, I hope I’d reach the same result. That’s not hard since we English teachers must use rubrics for our more important assignments.

But I think my grading of your paper with a rubric is not as helpful to you as my reading of your paper. Before I tell you why, I want to explain the difference between grading and reading. When I grade with a rubric, I am not doing the kind of reading your piece deserves. Instead, I am reading for: reading to see if your paper meets some preordained criteria. Your paper exists outside of those criteria, however, and it deserves a subjective reading.

Readers are subjective, thankfully, but rubrics, no matter how loosely they’re written, are inherently objective. The premise behind a rubric is that all teachers reading your paper would judge it the same way. Is that the way people really read, though? When you annotate a text with connections you find between it and your experiences, realizations, and previous reading, you are making explicit what your mind does when your read. Do you expect those annotations to mirror your classmate’s? Good reading is always subjective. I can be objective when I grade your paper, narrowing myself to a rubric’s strictures, but I can be only subjective when I read your paper.

Rubrics anticipate, but good writing often turns those anticipations on their heads. Shakespeare, you must know, would have gotten some bad grades using some of the finest rubrics English teachers have ever written. But, for some odd reason, I choose not to read Shakespeare with a rubric.

Because reading is subjective, my first reading of your paper is different from my second reading of it. Isn’t the difference between one’s readings of the same text the unstated assumption (the warrant) supporting every English teacher’s assignment to reread a text? The realizations, the connections, and sometimes the laughter and tears a student’s text gives me — would they be the same each time I read the text? And do you consider your writing so facile as to think that someone could exhaust all of its charms and faults in a single reading?

So I think I should model deep reading — subjective reading — when I can. I can’t make it the basis of a grade, but I can make it the basis of my celebration of your work and part of the basis of my suggestions for your subsequent drafts and for your writing in general. I just won’t often look terribly consistent if I do it to the same text twice.

The bad teacher

3PictureHelenKellerCenturyCoverA teacher must be selfish. While her classroom must be something other than her private laboratory, it must also be her private laboratory. In fact, her classroom cannot be something other than her private laboratory – something dynamic and good other than her private laboratory, I mean – unless it is also her private laboratory.

She must be selfish not because she will be more dynamic for it. I’m done with dynamic teachers: learning is dynamic enough. She must be selfish because she must be awake.

This past summer I learned more about why I teach metaphor the way I do. I do not say that I learned how to teach metaphor better. Being awake with my students over past few years taught me that. The three graduate composition courses I took this summer were flexible enough for me to walk my own intellectual paths, and one of my paths was metaphor.

Here’s what I learned, teaching. I want my students to write with metaphors, particularly implied metaphors. Stealing from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, I ask my students to list ten nouns in one column and ten cooking verbs in another. They combine them. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth” is one of Goldberg’s combinations (87 – 88).

I want to show my students why metaphors work, so I break down how I think we experience them. Take Paul’s aphoristic implied metaphor “the letter kills.” First we’re in shock: letters can’t kill. Then we see that the writer speaks metaphorically. We’re relieved and open to him again, and we make the connection between sign and signified. The final stage of experiencing metaphor is meditative and results in our greater understanding of the metaphor’s subject – in this case, the written word.

I illustrate my three stages of metaphor with a viewing of “Metaphor,” a British ad for Tango, the European soft drink. An office manager watches as his Tango-sipping employee gets hosed by a fireman, cooled by a palm-wielding Polynesian, and dumped with ice by an Eskimo. She explains to the manager that the fireman, Polynesian, and Eskimo are “not really here. They’re just a metaphor.” She takes another sip, and the three repeat their actions, just as we’d reread a metaphor at this stage. By the end of the ad, the manager and the viewer have, presumably, a greater appreciation for Tango’s capacity for refreshment by having gone through the three stages of experiencing metaphor.

I learned this summer that, as Ann Berthoff puts it, “meanings are not elements but relationships” (Berthoff, Sense 36). She means that metaphors, analogies, allegories – something and something else, however they relate – are how we learn anything (Berthoff, Mysterious 129 – 131). The novelist and theorist Walker Percy equates metaphor with naming and therefore with the onset of language in general. He discovers “the delta factor” – the way we humans learn – from Helen Keller’s transformational moment at the pump house, the moment when she associates the water flowing over her hand with the word “water” that Anne Sullivan spells onto her other hand. Keller is seven, and her more-self-conscious age allows her the metacognition most two-year-olds can’t muster, though they learn speech the same way. Percy goes so far as to claim that Keller discovers what separated us from the beasts long ago: “the spark jumped, language was born, the brain flowered with words, and man became man” (Percy 42). Keller discovers how we make meaning, and how we became human.

Bertoff and Percy help me see how I often make meaning. I feel my way toward it in the classroom. Then I read and write to understand what I start to teach.

They also help me see what I’ve been up to these last few years. In teaching metaphor, I’ve been unconsciously extending to education what I had been learning in other fields. Over the past decade I had learned to put the reader at the center of Constitutional, biblical, and literary interpretation. Without the reader and the experience and spirit that animate him, we misconstrue text. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. We make meaning; we don’t receive it predigested from our teachers. The reader is the fulcrum of meaning-making, as Louise Rosenblatt posits in her transactional theory, and not an afterthought, as in New Criticism and structuralism. In the classroom, I had felt my way to how metaphor models this understanding. This summer, I merely fleshed it out.

The classroom had been my lab, then, and the papers I wrote this summer were my belated lab reports.

You can see Berthoff working the same way I prefer to – classroom as personal lab – but in the other direction. She theorizes first. Then, steeped in Charles Pierce’s triadic semiotics and I. A. Richards’s triadic rhetorical theory, she writes a freshman composition textbook, Forming, Thinking, Writing, as a means of testing her theory in the classroom. Forming is credited with introducing the world to the dialectical notebook, a tool I’m using in my own dual enrollment composition class. My students are making meaning, discovering how much they have to say through their examinations of overlooked organic objects, such as plums and sprigs.

I’ve read four of Bertoff’s books, so I can see where her textbook and classroom-as-laboratory fit in her intellectual and spiritual journey.

Bertoff teaches me that even some textbooks should be selfish, like teachers. Students should hear some of their authors think (we call it “voice”), and they should watch their teachers learn. Composition teachers may wish to journal beside their students and model their messy rough drafts. They may wish to send their classroom-generated writing to publishers, just as they may ask their students to do with their own writing.

Our selfishness in our professional practice can make us seem somewhat unprofessional, I admit. But I think one can be too professional. I practiced law before I began teaching, and sometimes I was my most professional in my sleep. On three or four occasions, I counseled in my sleep. I don’t mean that I was in bed asleep, dreaming. I was in my law office with my eyes open but lulled by my own voice into dreaming. Twice I fell asleep telling clients what to expect at their depositions and how, in general terms, to answer questions there. I’ve always wondered if those clients knew that I was talking to them in my sleep. My advice was necessary, honed, and rote. And I was learning nothing.

Teachers, like lawyers, must be conscious. Perhaps they should be conscious first of what teaching school has the misfortune to supersede – apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is the better model because we can teach only in the context of our struggle to work at our calling. Apprenticeship is the better model because we are the better models. Discipleship is at the center of apprenticeship because our struggle is at the center of our callings.

Classrooms are inherently silly.1 They don’t call, and they betray no signs of a calling. Teachers return each August to redeem them a little, to cover over the walls and the confinement. To rearrange the desks, at least. And many of them do silly work for maybe twenty hours a week as the price for spending at least twice as many hours on the important parts of teaching, including the selfish part.

I’ve heard an administrator call some teachers selfish, teachers who resist teaching in lockstep, teachers who lose sleep at night, working extra hours to keep from teaching in their sleep. They know that covering material for the sake of tests leads, metaphorically speaking, to dropping the fish predigested into their babies’ beaks. It is education completely stripped of apprenticeship. It is a bland, dyadic misapprehension of learning, and of what it means to be human.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Print.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Helen Keller, 1880-1968.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

“Tango Clear Metaphor TV Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

  1.  My view about a classroom’s inherent silliness may seem to denigrate my own profession. It doesn’t. I’ve come to believe that we teachers can’t teach well unless we know what we’re up against. Worse than the current public policy and budget cuts is the classroom – or, rather, what the classroom symbolizes and reinforces. Our educational system trains students to act like consumers receiving an “educational package” and not like sovereign individuals discovering things for themselves, to use Percy’s distinction. The classroom’s four walls are part of the package: the sonnet, for instance – Percy’s example closest to my own field – “is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators for some reason believe to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins – these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves” (57). We struggle against a centuries-old mindset reinforced by the classroom – the environment and the system. Our struggle is to guide a student into his or her own sovereignty. Someone making a genuine discovery “is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He . . . could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife” (57 – 58). But a student’s sovereignty over his or her own education is impractical, given our educational system, as well as essential. Thankfully, some districts and schools, including my own – and, more importantly, a great many teachers – are taking steps to avoid, to an extent permitted by the environment, “the educator’s direct presentation of the object” (59). Teachers may wish to model genuine discovery as a necessary but insufficient step toward returning sovereignty to students; hence, the personal laboratory.

What I mean by sharing

It’s Sunday morning, and it’s 34 degrees outside. I haven’t turned on the air conditioning in over a month, and I’ve yet to turn on the heat since we moved here. Of course, the weather has been fairly moderate. But in the condo now it’s 67 degrees, the lowest it’s ever been in here. The president asked us to keep our thermostats in the winter at 68, so I’m doing him one degree better. (It was President Nixon, admittedly, but I don’t believe his successors ever rescinded the request.)

My theory is that the units around us are paying for our heating and cooling. They moderate our quarters’ temperature since we adjoin them at two sides and at the ceiling. Sad to say, we have our own water heater. And when Victoria wakes up, she may make me try out the heat. Maybe she’ll sleep late — its supposed to get into the 50’s today — or maybe I’ll turn on that lamp against the thermostat.

It’s our first fall in a condo. So far, so good. As my fellow boomer and new condo resident Abby Imus said on the front page of today’s Washington Post, “There’s not one thing I miss about my house.”