Category Archives: challenge

astute student explains strife and grief

“It is common throughout the history of man that the failure of individuals to respect and recognize the beliefs, culture, and commonality of other human beings leads to, or creates, strife and grief. The inability or unwillingness to understand, also known as ignorance, is a generator of strife and grief.”


Although just a first draft of an essay’s opening,  these two sentences by a sophomore boy inspire me.  They remind me that the young people with whom we teachers work have deep appreciation for life’s challenges.  The job of adults in school communities is to give them chances to express such appreciation in ways that mean something to them and those around them.


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Tempestuous Questions: murderous quests

daggersWhen Shakespeare’s play opens, Hamlet’s father has been killed without anyone knowing how or by whom.  All Hamlet knows is that his father was taken unprepared, which for Elizabethan audiences means he had no chance to confess his sins before dying. He was murdered before he could confess.

Ironic, since his murder was a sin.

This idea of murder–in both  its literal and figurative senses–underpins my post.  Recently, I have recalled a family member’s memory, heard a friend’s story and read a newspaper essay on related subjects.  Each of these instances makes me wonder when and how competition, understandably rooted in nature, turns to murder of one sort or another.

In the memory I recalled, a young businessman with a wife and three children, was making plans to acquire the company for which he had been working.  He and his two partners were nearing the final arrangements of their joint purchase.  When the young man returned to his office early Monday morning, he saw two extra cars in the  parking lot.  Normally, he was the first to arrive. He began to suspect.  As he approached the building’s glass doors, his “partners” stepped out to tell him he did not work there anymore.  They owned the company, and he no longer had a job.  Who knows where he drove first, as he pulled out of that parking lot?

The friend’s story overlaps significantly with the young businessman’s.  In short, people to whom he had spoken in honest confidence rewarded him by lying in front of others about their conversation.  They publicly declared he had never spoken to them.  This “bold” lie created a tempest of worry, pain and confusion.  And, as often happens, the storm proved people’s mettle.  For example, not one person during that public declaration grabbed the helm or even offered a raincoat.  Speaking of “bold.”

The newspaper essay from today’s New York Times describes global strife during the seventeenth century–  fittingly, the same century in which Shakespeare wrote The Tempest.  This essay addresses the role of natural events, like increased volcanic activity, in contentious relations among people and states.  Such trying times, such  competition for food and other resources, such struggle to survive–all show us who is who.

Although I understand the need to physically survive, and the competition that natural events sometimes heighten, I do not understand all of the factors at work when “partners” turn on other members of their group.  What makes them knowingly injure, bewilder and “kill” someone with whom they have been working?  Certain psychological mechanisms or emotional needs silence our capacity for compassion.  I wonder what they are.  I believe that if more people understood these mechanisms and needs, we would have fewer personal stories like those above.  What sends us on these murderous quests?

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I’m a designer

As one of the guinea pigs canaries faculty members trying out our school’s new evaluation system, I received visits from two generous, respected colleagues.  One of my colleague’s comments helped me realize that though I often go by the label of “teacher,” I’m a designer at heart.  I design experiences from which students can learn about literature and its capacity to develop imagination, empathy and expression–especially written expression.

I am grateful for colleagues who help me reflect on my intentions and impacts as a designer.  I merely mean that I design experiences.  Then I stay alongside the students long enough to monitor their struggles and satisfactions.  A colleague from another school once told me that the term “assessment” comes from a word meaning “stand next to.”  I have not researched this etymology, but the idea has stayed with me ever since.  I am grateful for that colleague’s conversation, too.

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teenagers examine A Doll’s House

In the previous post, I said that young people’s abilities to think and write richly give me hope.   Below, I have posted two such responses to their exam question about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  A young woman and young man wrote these, both sophomores in high school.  See if you can tell who wrote which.


In A Doll’s House, a play by Ibsen, Nora is ultimately responsible for her decisions, but other people such as Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father influence her self-perception perhaps more than she does herself. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, plays a very large part in swaying Nora’s self-perception. Reaffirming his care for her, Torvald tells Nora that he going to help and protect her: “How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your beating heart.” This statement that Torvald tells Nora, along with many others of similar message, provides Nora with a mask of protection. Although Torvald seems to genuinely mean what he is saying, it is giving Nora a false sense of self-perception that she is happy with Torvald and sheltered by him. This sense of security lies on the surface of Nora’s feelings and self-perception and if she were to dig deeper into herself, that superficial mask would no longer be there.  Not only does Torvald influence Nora’s self-perception but others do as well. Mrs. Linde affects how Nora thinks of herself by putting Nora below her and making her seem less important: “You are still very like a child in many things, and I am older than you in many ways and have a little more experience.” As a result of telling Nora things like this repeatedly, Mrs. Linde affects Nora’s self-perception by leading her to believe that she really is less important than others such as Mrs. Linde, and lacks many skills and experience. This shows that by persistently telling someone something, it will begin to affect how they think about themselves as they will begin to believe what you are saying is true about themselves. Admitting and realizing that others have effected how she thought of herself and lived her life, Nora expresses her suffering to Torvald: “I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman—just form hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.” Nora, expressing her awareness of the impact of others on her own self-perception, shows that because of her father and Torvald she has been living an act. Nora says that she has “existed merely to perform tricks for you, Tovald” which shows that she thought of herself as being okay with simply living for others but now has come to the realization that this is not what she wants. She also conveys that this has been going on forever because of her father, which shows that others influencing her self-perception is not a new concept. Through Torvald, Mrs. Linde, and her father, Nora has formed a superficial self-perception of herself which, although seeming like it may have been correct, when she digs deeper she realizes is not fine and that it is not how she wants to think about herself. “I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me.”


In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the main character, Nora, is pushed to walk out on her family and leave her children behind due to her own warped self-perception. However, Nora is not the one who shapes her own beliefs and ideas. Instead, outside sources such as Torvald and Krogstad direct and control Nora’s self-perception. Torvald has a particularly large amount of power over Nora’s actions, being her husband. When Nora finally realizes that she has not been in control of herself, she says to Torvald, “You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you or else I pretended to”. Torvald nearly entirely controlled her actions, how she dressed, what she said, and everything else about her public appearance and demeanor. This escalated to the point, where Nora was more like Torvald’s doll than an actual human being, at least on the outside. Krogstad, however, influenced Nora in a very different way from Torvald, indirectly. Krogstad never forced Nora to do anything or directly controlled her actions like Torvald did. Instead Krogstad caused Nora to constantly dread and worry herself over the debt that she owed him. Nora was ashamed of this debt and told no one except her friend Christine about it saying, “Speak low. Suppose Torvald were to hear! He mustn’t on any account—no one in the world must Know, Christine, except you”. Nora could not pay the debt off by herself and also could not tell Torvald, due to the fear she had of him finding out. As such, Krogstad had arguably more control over Nora than Torvald. While Torvald controlled how she acted in public, Krogstad controlled her thoughts in private. When Nora finally came to understand her situation, she realized that she could not escape the control of either of these two men by doing anything but leaving and starting over completely.

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she’s a C student: naming the creature in FRANKENSTEIN

letter sweater CMore than once I have heard teachers say something like “she’s a C student.”  Having taught in NY, OK, CA and now GA, I have heard such comments in each school.  Although I have tried, I never have understood precisely what my colleagues mean.  Traditionally, students take a variety of courses.  Couple this tradition with the knowledge that we all have affinities for certain subjects: she loves Biology, and he always look forward to History class.  Is she a “C student” just in Art or Math, but not in Biology?  How about him?  More importantly, once a teacher imbibes the thought that “she is a C student,” how does that belief affect the “C student”?
In the paragraph below,  a high school senior  addresses the power of naming.   Through this brief writing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she argues that when someone consistently receives  a judgment about herself, she starts believing that label.  Student readers, when thoughtfully engaged, have plenty to teach us about how to teach them.  We have to keep our minds and hearts open to such possibilities. (n.b. I have left this writing as is–without editing, except in one case of bracketed letters.  The student wrote this during class as an email, in response to a particular question about the story’s driving forces.)
Based on my reading of Volume 2, I believe that the most paramount concern that governs the direction of the novel is the questionable judgements by which physical differences are termed monstrous. Many times, society unjustly characterizes people’s qualities as “evil.” The monster in the novel “Frankenstein” was not necessarily created bad, but over time, after society socially exiled and evaded him, he turned into what they deemed him to be. One can only stay good for so long when everybody else is telling him that he is bad. “They are kind–they are
the most excellent creatures in the world; but, unfortunately, they are prejudiced against me. I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless, and, in some degree, beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ou[gh]t to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster” (102). Society’s preconceived notions of good and evil turn innocent people into monsters because they do not give them a fair chance to prove their innocence. If people are called something for so long, they will eventually turn into
that very thing. For example, the monster eventually turned evil and “the mildness of my nature had fled, and all within me was turned to gall and bitterness” (107). The monster could not control himself anymore after being repeatedly shunned and ridiculed by society. He gave up trying to be a noble and good person because no matter what he did, society always found a way to exclude and punish him. Society unfairly judged his differences as evil just because he did not look, speak, and act like everybody else did. As the monster became more and more excluded from society, he developed more and more negative qualities. This made people think that he was evil all along when in actuality, it was just their harsh judgements that turned him against mankind. The monster said “All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”(72). After being told so many times that he was “the wretched” because of his differences, such as his appearance, he began to believe it himself and accepted the hatred.  Overall, it is societies prejudice towards those who are different than the norm that turn the monster evil and shape the majority of the direction of the novel.
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everyday poetry

This poem from Wendell Berry’s New Collected Poems captures my feeling that poems do not have to change the world, though some do.  They can simply add a song from a person who is like no other.  That’s what we all have in common–we are distinctly ourselves.  Celebrate and develop that  unique voice by continuing to sing.


He comes along the street, singing,

a rag of a man, with his game foot and bum’s clothes.

He’s asking for nothing–his hands

aren’t even held out.  His song

is the gift of singing, to him

and to all who will listen.


To hear him, you’d think the engines

would all stop, and the flower vendor would stand

with her hands full of flowers and not move.

You’d think somebody would have hired him

and provided him a clean quiet stage to sing on.


But there’s no special occasion or place

for his singing–that’s why it needs

to be strong.  His song doesn’t impede the morning

or change it, except by freely adding itself.


p.s.  I don’t yet follow Berry’s statement, “that’s why it needs / to be strong.”  Strong in what sense(s)?  Why does not having a special occasion require this strength? I enjoy the poem because it renders one of my beliefs about the value of regular poetry.  Even so, I need to wrestle with this mysterious statement.  Any ideas, anyone?


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Growing Writers 18 stealing (voice vs. plagiarism)

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July 23, 2013 · 9:36 am

homegrown haiku 6

beech tree

             Old, gnarly beech tree

                   Living through many winters

                             Showing golden leaves

This is a haiku of symbols–one in each line.  The main image comes from a large beech tree, which looks like the one in the attached photo.  We parked under this tree, while visiting my parents.  As with the previous haiku (#5), I wanted a noticeable nearby natural image.  This tree rises proudly in front of the “Manor House” near my parents’ new home.  It is about fifty feet tall and almost as wide.  It has deep purple leaves and a large gray trunk.  If my wife and I joined hands, trying to reach around the trunk with the free hand, we would not touch.  During the hot, humid  summer months, the big tree gives welcome shade all day.

This is also a harsher, more pragmatic and realistic haiku than the others so far.  Starting with the word “old,” it describes disfigurement and struggle.  Granted these initial descriptions end in “golden leaves,” but the poem’s rough start is undeniable.  Once I saw the strength of this old tree, amidst its gnarls and winters, I thought of a marriage’s lasting sixty years.  We know this takes persistence from both partners.  The last line of the poem, however, paints this commitment in gold.  In other words, loving and lasting marriages weather storms that bend branches, and those branches keep growing.  Line two echoes this growth with the word “living.”  The use of “winters” as a symbol of struggle reveals the writer’s life in areas where plants, animals and humans fight against the colder, darker days. This symbol also, incidentally, reflects my reading of a book called Black Elk Speaks, in which the Lakota medicine man who narrates the story asks, “What is one man to make much of his winters, even if they bend him like a heavy snow.”  At certain times of year, before winter, the leaves turn gold.  (Here, I used artistic license by changing this tree’s deep purple leaves to gold, for symbolic reasons.)  In this last line of the poem, I wanted to remind my parents, myself and others of this large tree’s  beautiful presence.  Yes, a close look reveals some crooked branches that have grown through strong winds and reached for sun.  On occasion, though, as during this anniversary weekend,  we step back and  reflect on its graceful grandeur.

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homegrown haiku 5

Tall tree overhead

              Trunks sprouting like fireworks

                             Green celebration

In this haiku I wanted to render a tree outside my parents’ new home.  This tree, which none of us could identify, grows just off their patio.  It rises about forty feet, or so.  Its leaves are a translucent emerald green, and this poem is one of several in the series meant to help them remember beauty that surrounds them.  The tree is in their yard and will likely be there for a long time, but I wanted to leave a reminder of what they had already told us they liked.  It seems presumptuous to write a poem that tries to give something, like an appreciation, that they already have.  I suppose that the poem shows, more than anything, my desire that they enjoy their new home.  Like most writing, these poems are meant for someone else, while meaning at least as much to the writer.  The first line of the poem begins with a suggestion of protection.   The tree is tall, and its leaves create a canopy overhead to help shield my parents from sun and rain.

The second line made me work hardest; I wanted to capture the shape and arc of the multiple trunks.  They grow from a tight beginning then flare out and up.  I don’t recall the images I tried, but I like this one, and my niece’s endorsement confirms my satisfaction with it.  I suspect that I like the fireworks image not only for its physical description, but also for its association with the celebratory event.

p.s. I have attached no images to this post because I found none that match this particular tree.  Readers will have to use the poem to imagine it.


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homegrown haiku 3

Window PanelA close friend looks in

              From outside the window pane

                             Wishing to see love

This haiku comes from a dream–a dream of some substance because it arrived just three nights before my parents’ anniversary dinner.  In this vision, a man stood outside a set of patio doors.  He peered through the sheer curtains that covered each door’s two columns of six panes, from the inside.  As I watched him wish he could pull the curtains gently apart, I saw that he was a close friend of parents, especially of my father because he and his twin brother had been born on the same day as my father and his identical twin.  My parents had known this friend for a long time; they loved to laugh with him.  I remember laughing with him, too; he always worked to include me and other children nearby.  If I had ever dreamed of David before, I didn’t remember it.  So, he, effectively for the first time in my life, appears in a dream.  He wants to be part of my parents’ celebration, but can’t.

The feeling of David’s longing lies at the heart of the dream and therefore fuels the haiku.  My initial impulse was to write a poem that brought my parents’ friend to the table.  As I wrote, though, I began to see not only that David wanted to join the celebration, and thereby be connected to old friends and the experience of love, but also that everyone else at the table had some relationship to his feelings.  All of us, for various reasons and to different degrees, have experienced and desired love–love for a companion and love from such another.

The poem’s middle line, by referring to a “window pane,” echoes the hurt that comes from feeling outside the experience of love.  Many of us around the table have known, either first-hand or second-hand, directly or empathetically, the feeling of being  outside of the patio window looking in.

And this feeling helps explain my choice of “wishing” in the last line.  I may have tried “wanting” or a similar two-syllable verb, but “wishing” captures the  spirit of David’s longing.  A wish is a kind of dream.  What I wish for is what I dream of.  So then, David’s wishing to be part of the marriage celebration becomes my dream, too.  In this way, what he wants is what I want.  As it happens, then, he does join the table–in a real sense, a sense that began with a dream but became more than that.

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