Spurred by my recent foray into ideas for increasing critical thinking, here’s an idea that I think combines a lot of different ideas, including critical thinking and logical inference, into a skill-building activity that engages a virtually universal student interest: music.


I’m up late grading papers, about to quit for the night, and somehow in my distraction, I got to thinking aimlessly.

My thoughts for some reason turned back to my eighth graders last year from student teaching, many of whom I still think about and wonder how they’re doing in high school this year. And as I thought about that, I thought about the last day of student teaching and how my cooperating teacher for that group acted.

I admit that I am a little bitter still about being robbed of a final moment with a class that was a struggle to connect with. I think singing them a song they had talked about for the majority of the time I was there would have solidified the memory, and instead, the time was spent watching narcoleptic cats, which none of the students enjoyed as much as the co-op did. And the send-off that we got as a class was almost entirely provided by me, since the teacher bailed on bringing drinks as he had agreed to.

But I am a believer in learning what I teach, and this practice has affected me profoundly during the discussion I’ve had with my sophomores over To Kill a Mockingbird. The model of Atticus Finch and his saintly heuristic of “walking in someone else’s skin/shoes” provides a high moral standard, and the fact that he turns it to people in the novel that seem at first glance to be just bad people (Mrs. Dubose, for one; Bob Ewell, for another) demonstrates how difficult it is to hold it consistently.


I got a mailing quite a while back about an interesting professional development opportunity: a workshop entitled Teaching East Asian Literature in the High School, held in July at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. It sounded like a cool opportunity: pay $60 registration fee; receive a set of books to study and discuss (via Moodle) before the workshop; get put up for 5 nights with a free meal each day, study East Asian history and literature, and learn pedagogical techniques for the material; get a $300 book grant for producing a lesson plan on some of the material within 5 weeks afterwards. A great opportunity for a world literature teacher, I thought.

The problem: limited opportunities. And I happened to call just after they had filled their 25 seats, so I went on a waiting list.

But the good news is that I was informed this morning via E-mail that I had been given a placement because someone else dropped out. So I’m going now, and I’m quite excited. This will be my first professional development opportunity not provided by our district or regional office, and I’m glad to have it.

…a mask and a cape. (No, not like these guys…)

We’ll be in day 2 of talking about Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and instead of going with a traditional veil (which I think might be somewhat awkward on a guy – but I could be wrong, since Mr. Hooper is the veil-wearer in the story), I decided to do a mask for the de-facing effect. I actually somewhat wish I could have found a Darth Vader mask in time since I sometimes refer to the anti-transcendentalists as the “dark side of the Force” (I also compare the Over-Soul to the Force when we talk about transcendentalism), but for today, a simple black mask that covers most of my eyes and my nose will do.

The cape, of course, is flair. It also has a hood, but I haven’t decided whether to wear it or not since it’s a little small. (The whole deal was homemade but not quite custom-made.)

As always, circumspection is required before getting hopes up about possible success, but I’m not worried about that so much – I just want to shake things up a bit. We’ll see if I at least do that.

Since today was officially declared a snow day about 10 minutes ago for me, and I’m already up, here’s a rant for you on movies and books. (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT)


This is take #2, due to a stupid browser and WP failing to auto-save properly.

My sincerest apologies to faithful readers – or perhaps in this case, wait-ers – for the absence; things have gotten a little more complicated this semester, and that’s the best excuse I can offer for my weeks-long blog silence.

One such complication – in a good way – is my own doing: getting our school involved in the national Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition, which I was fortunate to experience when student teaching last spring. I’m taking six students in total this week to our regional competition, three who were involved in the school contest and three other students who I’m hoping will be inspired by seeing the contest play out in person. I’m excited about going, in part because I’ll get to see my former co-op, who I have certainly missed, and perhaps (I hope) some of my former students.

This experience has allowed me to learn some important lessons about setting up extracurriculars that I will certainly remember for the next time (and certainly for POL next year, especially the importance of starting earlier). I just hope that the experience is useful for the students, that they will see the point in it. (I keep thinking of Marianne Moore’s great poem on the subject.)

Maybe eventually I’ll get back into a routine of writing; I would greatly enjoy that. For now, I’ll keep trying to get caught up and simply – to use an old cliché – keep on keeping on.

Short version: Sometimes they’re wrong.

Okay, the background – I purchased a small class set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for my novels class, and we’re getting through it right now. While the students are digging into the monster’s narrative about his life after being created (and rewriting/paraphrasing it), I’ve been reading ahead to have some ideas for discussion.

My students have also expressed difficulty in understanding much of this novel, which is due in no small part to the fact that all of the novels we have thus covered – Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Great Gatsby – have been 20th century American novels, and Frankenstein is early 19th century British. One of the nice things about this text, however, has been a glossary of endnotes and a vocabulary reference at the back of the book, broken down by chapter so that students can refer to them. It’s worked okay for some, not as much for others; one student has been asking me about certain words, and I’ve found that explaining some words – like traverse – takes a little more than a simple denotative explanation. Still, it’s reasonably helpful.

That is, when it’s right.


Since finishing my last book, I have moved on to a book I have wanted to read for ages, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As a parent of a child with autism, I have heard interesting things about the fact that this story is written from the point of view of a person who has autism and speaks frankly about it. I can’t speak directly to how an autistic person sees the world, but I think that the way Haddon approaches the writing is very authentic, and it is written with first-hand experience of autistic individuals: Haddon had worked previously with autistic children. It’s a very compelling work; I started it today and am already about 75% done with it.

So far, two very interesting topics have jumped out to me. The first is a literary issue, concerning metaphors:

The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words μετα (which means from one place to another) and φερειν (which means to carry), and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person is talking about.  (p.15)

And shortly thereafter in a footnote concerning the sentence “It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils”:

This is not a metaphor; it is a simile, which means that it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, and if you make a picture in your head of a man with two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, you will know what the police inspector looked like. And a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile. (p.17)

Forgiving some obvious errors – the phrasing “a pig is not like a day” indicates a simile, which is explicitly not problematic according to the narrator Christopher, and “the apple of my eye” is not so much a metaphor as an idiom – I find the evaluative distinction between a metaphor and simile to be fascinating, mostly because both are examples of figurative language, language that is explicitly not meant to be taken literally. (Of course, one can reliably assume that an autistic narrator will be prone to errors of hyperliteralism; it’s a stereotype. Christopher in particular is also very opposed to lies in general, so bringing out this point isn’t surprising.) It should give us pause, however, in our own language use to consider those disadvantaged groups that may have problems with comprehension: language learners and those with linguistic delays or deficiencies.

(I also had never really thought about the etymology of the word metaphor: it is definitely very meta.)

The second is more contemplative, which is Christopher’s musing on prime numbers:

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them. (p.12)

Dead on, in my opinion.

I don’t even have to finish reading this book to tell you, faithful reader, that you should read this book if you haven’t already. If nothing else, it will give you some insight into a more diverse way of seeing the world, and you will find yourself entertained in the process.

The name of the late Alan Turing has been popping up in a number of places lately, with a coalition of computer scientists, historians, and LGBT activists coming together to petition the British government to issue an apology for what was done to Turing. See, Turing was a brilliant codebreaker and the man most responsible for cracking the Nazi Enigma code, which undoubtedly changed the course of the war in favor of the Allies; his work with theoretical computing (such as his thought experiment, the Turing machine) is directly responsible for the rise of computers as we know them today. Turing was also gay, and he was subjected to chemical castration when this fact was discovered. Turing committed suicide two years later.

British PM Gordon Brown did issue an apology, and it’s a pretty good one as far as that goes (Geoff Pullum notes here that it’s remarkable to see a politician utter the unambiguous words “we’re sorry,” and I tend to agree). The fact that an apology was issued is remarkable and a worthy tribute, but I rather like the tribute that poet Matt Harvey gave to Turing (HT: Geoff Pullum at Language Log):

Alan Turing

here’s a toast to Alan Turing
born in harsher, darker times
who thought outside the container
and loved outside the lines
and so the code-breaker was broken
and we’re sorry
yes now the s-word has been spoken
the official conscience woken
— very carefully scripted but at least it’s not encrypted —
and the story does suggest
a part 2 to the Turing Test:
1. can machines behave like humans?
2. can we?

Can we, indeed.

Note: This piece contains details of sexual anatomy and gender-related issues.

My most recent excavation into the seldom-visited realm of “reading for enjoyment” (“seldom” because I generally have to keep up with other reading professionally or other work) was Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. I had originally run into this title in an issue of English Journal (see here for more discussion of the EJ issue in question), and I was curious despite some initial skepticism after seeing that Eugenides’ last published novel was The Virgin Suicides. (In truth, I shouldn’t have judged his work based on the title of one book, just like it would be unfair to judge Salman Rushdie on The Satanic Verses.) When I found a hardcover edition on sale for approximately $7-8 at my local chain bookstore, I decided to jump in.

It was a good move.


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