“Because you haven’t lived.”

– a friend on why writing was not coming easily for me

Thursday, as I walked the aisles, a kid asked an odd question: had I any lead? He raised his mechanical pencil and, by way of explanation, clicked it vainly.

I walked to my cart. When I returned, I held before him the same pencil, down to its bright, green plastic barrel — a Pentel Twist-Erase Click 0.7, PD 277. He reached for it, but I opened it and instead gave him two leads. He opened his, too, smiling.

I asked him, as the class finished its freewrite, if he had found that the eraser retracted into the barrel as he rubbed it against the paper, but he didn’t know. There hadn’t been much to erase.

I’m writing this post with a black version of the same pencil — my home version, perhaps no older than my student’s. I hope I don’t lose it. I want to find out if its eraser, once you have to start twisting it out, retracts with use, too. If it doesn’t, then my school one may be an aberration and I’ve found my pencil.


Photo “Palimpsest” by waterboard. Used by permission.

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

Preschool suspensions

I don’t think the New York Times‘s “outrage” over preschool suspensions or the implementation of its suggestions found in today’s editorial will amount to much. I submitted this comment:

I wonder if the inappropriate discipline of preschoolers is in part due to, and not counter to, what the editorial board describes as “the very mission of early education, which is to promote school readiness.” I hear in this standard mission statement a sickening preparation of children for institutionalization. Compare this “prep school” notion of early education with, say, Montessori’s: “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers… At no other age has the child a greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.” Instead of preparing the youngest children for school, then, we should prepare schools for the youngest children. I don’t believe Montessori had to suspend anyone despite teaching children from some of the poorest families in Italy. Once we stop putting the cart before the horse and begin to guide with understanding the youngest among us in their education, we’ll find that preschool suspension issues will evaporate.

Trompement: Making the grade

[This] is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a racecourse, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Kindle Locations 2678-2683)

To teach literature as if it were some kind of urbane trade, of professional routine, is to do worse than teach badly. To teach it as if the critical text were more important, more profitable than the poem, as if the examination syllabus mattered more than the adventure of private discovery, of passionate digression, is worst of all.

George Steiner, Language and Silence (page 67)

And yet perhaps, after all, it is better for a country that its seats of learning should do more to suppress mental growth than to encourage it. Were it not for a certain priggishness which these places infuse into so great a number of their alumni, genuine work would become dangerously common. It is essential that by far the greater part of what is said or done in the world should be so ephemeral as to take itself away quickly; it should keep good for twenty-four hours, or even twice as long, but it should not be good enough a week hence to prevent people from going on to something else. No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it. There can be no doubt that this is what our academic bodies do, and they do it the more effectually because they do it only subconsciously. They think they are advancing healthy mental assimilation and digestion, whereas in reality they are little better than cancer in the stomach.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon (Collected Works of Samuel Butler, Kindle Locations 2953-2961)


Above: Karl Popper

Squirming, reading Stoner

John WilliamsIt snowed enough to cancel school today. In lieu of teaching, I spent the day reading Stoner, a novel about a lifer teacher, from cover to cover. John Williams’s 1965 book is scary close.

So close that I think I learned something about myself. I’ve often wondered why I had came so close to pursuing English through grad school before deciding instead to become a lawyer. Certainly, close to half of my college credit hours were in English. Looking back on it, though, I had been fairly inarticulate in class discussions, and sometimes I had loved books that I later realized I had hardly understood.

So why have I been rereading my college books for the past few years? Why have I thought I might have pursued graduate studies in English?

“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher. . . .”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.” (Page 20)

I didn’t have a Professor Sloane who understood that my inarticulateness was a matter of love, not did I have a Bill Knight, at least back then, who understood that my never wanting to leave college may have had some bearing on my eventual profession. (Bill also introduced me to this wonderful novel, quoting one of the above lines.) No one had described to me the possibility of having, as the narrator puts it, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words” (page 98).

(I can’t really blame my college’s English department. I did have one of my professors pick me out of his giant English lit survey to take to lunch one day freshman year. I remember his pleasant patter at the University Cafeteria, but I never remembered anything he said. Like Stoner with his professor and, later, Stoner’s students with theirs, I must have been staring at my hands for most of the meal.)

But the novel’s scary closeness isn’t just from Stoner’s profession. Stoner has my view of learning, my view of the ideal college – indeed, my view of the ideal:

“Stoner, here, I imagine, sees [the university] as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful. They’re just around the corner, in the next corridor; they’re in the next book, the one you haven’t read, or in the next stack, the one you haven’t got to. But you’ll get to it someday. And when you do— when you do—” (page 29)

Stoner’s buddy Dave Masters then settles in on William Stoner himself:

“ . . . you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. . . . You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong” (page 31).

Is it necessary that I have my faults thrown in my face like this? My lack of ambition, followed by my frustration over my lack of influence in an organization? My willingness to concede in battles I think are rooted in people’s insecurities, but my stubborn refusal to back down when one of my core principles is threatened? My desire (witness my political science writings) to change the world?

Stoner spends the novel, which serves as Stoner’s cradle-to-grave biography, reconciling his quixotic tendencies with Masters’s message: it doesn’t matter in the long run. The reconciliation is sad and satisfying. The novel also has something to do with hard work, as Williams is quoted as saying in the current edition’s introduction. Whether he’s 24, 34, 44, 54, or 64, Stoner always seems to be grading papers and preparing lectures.

The reconciliation and hard work are not enough for me to live by, however. Even as a confirmed idealist, I wouldn’t mention this except that Williams gets more strident about his take on life the older Stoner gets. Sometimes, for instance, Stoner, Stoner’s lover, and the third-person narrator all hammer home the same viewpoints in much the same way. In fact, Stoner’s lover always sounds like Stoner. The two of them spend much of their relationship repeating each other’s reactions and realizations, thereby affirming each other’s feelings they seem to experience and life lessons they seem to learn at the same moments.

Though, except for the stridency of the themes’ treatment in the second half of the novel, the book’s right real. It feels like a cross between Thomas Wolfe’s earnest and autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel and James Salter’s realistic and conjugal Light Years. All three novels take in great swaths of the life of a misfit idealist (well, Light Years’s Viri Berland is at least an innocent of sorts), more content to show the outcome of certain personalities over time than to hew to a tight narrative. Not that Williams spares a single word. In that regard, he’s a lot more like Salter and Raymond Chandler than like Thomas Wolfe. And as far as turning a phrase just enough to improve on the English language, well, think of Salter again.

And think of Cervantes. Both Stoner and Don Quixote end with long death scenes in which the books’ namesakes discover who they really are beneath their strident idealism. Is this also really necessary?

Photo of John Williams.

Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.

Creating taste

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

So ends Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade” (from Mystery and Manners (1970), her posthumous essay collection). Allan Bloom starts his volume Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) where O’Connor leaves off:

The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination.

Emotional narratives

A lyric poem progresses, but how? The concept of emotional narratives has helped my students enjoy poems, recite poems, write poems, and write about poems.

Our ninth-grade curriculum reinforces the stages of narrative: exposition, initiating event, rising action, etc. My students get that. And plot progression is a nice, concrete set of stairs for students to climb to something more abstract, or at least more subtle. Lyric poems feel like they move, but the shifts often involve tone instead of time or place.

Check out “Lesson Plan: The Tone Map” starting on page 20 of this year’s Poetry Out Loud teacher’s guide. The referenced CD is free, but you don’t need it to learn the lesson yourself.

Once you get through “Jenny Kissed Me,” try your new skills on another lyric poem in which, roughly speaking, nothing happens. Maybe keep it seasonal: here’s my favorite snow poem — Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

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