Showing posts with label high school english teacher. Show all posts
Showing posts with label high school english teacher. Show all posts

17.6.20

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Is As Relevant Today As It Was in 1955 (When It Was First Published)

There are a few short stories I keep coming back to in my life. I first read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in college. I was hooked. And don't read this blog post if you have not read the story. Here is a copy so you can return here after you've read it. You're welcome.
A black, empty vehicle idles in the driveway.
Photo by Anton Kraev on Unsplash
Reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in College
My professor, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc Kernion, was a senior Catholic Nun with a doctorate in English. She had been the mother superior of her monastery until it had dwindled in numbers. She was one of the few sisters left — her motherhouse was in Atchinson, Kansas — but she stayed in Louisiana until she retired a few years ago. She was one of the best English teachers I ever had because her instruction came with a love of fiction. She was always reading a new novel every week — and I felt like, for her, talking about fiction was as easy as making one's coffee with warm milk in the morning. I took her Contemporary Fiction course — which was a way for her to teach college-age students many of her favorite works of fiction she could cram into a semester.

Coming from the South We All Knew Someone Like the Grandmother (And More Spoilers!)
We read O'Connor in that class — and I think for me, at nineteen or twenty years old, I knew people like the Grandmother. So she wasn't that shocking. In the South, we had grandmothers before anyone ever heard of a "Karen"! I also remember being attuned to O'Connor's insertions of absurd details. For example, a monkey is tied to a Chinaberry tree in the story. Who does that? And the unnamed mother has a face, according to the text, as innocent as a cabbage! Those strange details hooked me to O'Connor's fictional world, which is why I devoured her other stories and two works of fiction with delight.

O'Connor's fictional world is inter-connected — while her stories do not feature repeat characters and there isn't overarching worldbuilding inherent to her storytelling — it is evident that the universe of the Grandmother and the Misfit are the same universe as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Shiflet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The universal theme that connects all of O'Connor's fiction is that our lives of dreary banality can often become undone by the macabre to shake us out of our complacency. In "A Good Man" — it's the innocent family vacation that ultimately turns deadly that shakes the reader out of their complacency. But, as you notice, if you've read the story repeatedly, O'Connor has signposted the narrative with heavy-handed hints that something awful is just around the corner.

O'Connor's Foreshadowing Technique is in Retrospect Obvious, But No One Gets it At First
I'm a high school English teacher, and I often teach the short story to Ninth and Tenth graders. I like to read the story out loud, and I have different students read different parts. I tend to read the narration. No one gets the foreshadowing until the end. Most of my students are surprised when I remind them that the Grandmother reads about the Misfit in the newspaper — it's mentioned in the first paragraph! And a quarter of the way in — Red Sammy's wife talks about a murderer attacking her restaurant. And there are other less than obvious hints. The Grandmother complains that she should dress formally for the car ride in case anyone who would find her dead on the roadside would know right away she was a lady!

Spoiler Alert! And Why People Don't See the Misfit Coming
There is also symbolic foreshadowing of the Grandmother pointing out to June Star and John Wesley a cotton field cemetery dotted with five or six grave markings. Oh no. In the end — the body count is six dead. I am assuming you, my reader, have read the short story, or you wouldn't be reading my review — but now I know you will return to the text and find the examples I just pointed out to you. My students are often shocked. And I think it says a lot about O'Connor's craft as a writer. She does not write a stray sentence. Every word, every line, is purposeful — even the details, that on first reading, seem redundant, at the end are memorable and shocking. Ironically, the Grandmother would worry about what her corpse looked like — as if people would wonder whether her dress color matched her hat! But it's those details that stick with us, the absurd and zany happenings of the Grandmother's storytelling and the insouciant children, June Starr and John Wesley — that catch our attention, and we are drawn into their world that by the end, we forget there is a Misfit on the loose. We don't see him coming.

The Grandmother's Actions Are the Biggest Red Flag
Yes, people don't see the Misfit coming, and they miss the textual clues that point to a potential dumpster fire. Yet — the sticking point is that it's all the Grandmother's fault! I think many readers see the Grandmother as goofy and a nag — slightly annoying and hypocritical. But there is also something else about the Grandmother that bothers me (besides being an archetypical Southern nag).

She doesn't think about the ramifications of her actions. If you chart it out, the entire story is the Grandmother's series of mistakes that lead to her and her family's death. And she is oblivious to her moral responsibility in this fate until the end — when in the story's climactic moment, she sees the Misfit and reaches out to him and says he is one of her own babies. I think the Grandmother sees that she is about to die, but she also, in a flash, has a revelation about her own broken, human condition.

People sometimes quip that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. But for the Grandmother — I think — she sees everything she did wrong in painstaking detail. She saw how she didn't want to go on the vacation, and when she reluctantly went, she hid the cat in her basket so no one would find out. She never thinks that perhaps her son, in reserving a motel room, would need to know that there was a cat on board. She ironically is worried that in her absence, the cat will accidentally turn on the gas burner and asphyxiate itself. When in truth, her caviler attitude is one step that brings her to her own death. Telling her son and family that she knows the location of a house with a secret door — I won't riddle you with all of the details — she forces everyone to go on a wild goose chase, which eventually leads them off the beaten path and lost. The Grandmother realizes that she has no idea how to find the house — that's it's not in Georgia — but in Tennessee — and in that moment instead coming clean with everyone she jostles the basket with Pitty Sing the cat — who jumps out in a rube-goldberg scenario that causes the Father to lose control of the car and crash it.

You may miss it if you have only read the story once — but there is a moment when the Grandmother is crouched in the fetal position, another foreshadowing of her death? She fantasizes that she is injured, so her son will have pity on her rather than become angry about leading the family astray. Now — it is perhaps easy to whisk away the Grandmother's action as just a senile senior citizen. But if we take the Grandmother to court, it becomes clear that this is a person who would rather be hurt, to be injured, to put her family in danger, rather than act honestly and allow her words to match her actions.

The Grandmother's Racist Microaggressions Should Also Be Considered
Take her behavior earlier in the story when she and Red Sammy, the Bar-b-que restaurant owner, are railing on about the moral degradation of society. But the Grandmother enjoys touting moral platitudes, but easily her actions belie her words. She thinks nothing of taking a photograph of a little black child she sees on the side of the road, not wearing pants (or, as we say in the South, britches). And she thinks nothing of telling her grandchildren a story loaded with racist innuendo about Black people.

O'Connor inserts these insensitivities into the mouth of the Grandmother because it is another way to show that this is a person who does not reflect on the implications of their actions — at all. But the Grandmother is also a person who very easily will point the finger at someone else. So when the Misfit and his henchman find the Grandmother and her family stuck on the side of the road, again, the Grandmother does not hesitate to endanger her family further when she recognizes him and shouts out his name. I should add here that I am not a criminal murderer, but if I were, I certainly would not want a witness to recognize me and shout my name, for all to hear — especially if I am a recently escaped federal prisoner. Now I do not mean to suggest that the Grandmother directly planned and caused her and her family's demise — but I will argue that O'Connor is suggesting that much of society's problems lie in an inability to truly and authentically reflect on our actions.

O'Connor's Story is Radically Relevant in Our Times that Does Not Seem Much Different from 1955
Returning to the racist and demeaning behavior of the Grandmother — she has probably never been put to task for how she talks about and treats people of color. She has become smug in her moral uprightness that she is unable, or unwilling, to see her participation in oppressing those that are not like her. An inability to appreciate difference, to see color, to see racial division is why, O'Connor's short story, is relevant for today — written over fifty years ago, its portrayal of a white person who cannot zoom out and see how she is part of a bigger problem painfully rings true in the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd.

Black Americans have rallied together and protested the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And cries have been shouted across the nation that we as a people, must come to terms with our conflicted relationship to race in this country. The axial moment of "A Good Man" is that the Grandmother only comes to realize her cooperation at the moment of her death — as I mentioned earlier in this blog post. The Misfit shoots her twice in the heart — which is telling — because the heart is the symbol of emotion and love. And the Misfit shot her in a moment of recoil when the Grandmother, in an almost tender moment of love, reaches out to him and calls him her child.

"'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life'"
I think readers miss something relevant to what happens after the Misfit kills the Grandmother. The Misfit is taken back by his violence and is shaken more than he would typically be, wiping his glasses of the blood of the woman he has just shot. His henchman criticizes him, and he retorts, it is no real pleasure in life. And at that moment he says, perhaps, the most quotable line from the story — "'She would have been a good woman,' the Misfit said, 'if it had. been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.'" I read this to say, that the Misfit recognizes that it was something good, something preternaturally good, about the Grandmother's final action, that causes him to recoil like a snake and kill her.

I think of a person tending to a wounded dog — and the dog, not recognizing the person's kindness, bites him. The Misfit has had a life of criminality, disavowal of goodness, and a childhood deprived of love and care. In the Misfit, we see a man who has indeed been a "miss fit." He does not fit into society's fabric, so he has isolated himself and chosen a life of delinquency. It is hinted that he killed his own family. And that his father physically abused him.

When O'Connor Alludes to Jesus She is Being More than Just Religious
And the Misfit's theological discussion with his Grandmother — that Jesus threw it all off balance is telling. The Misfit cannot accept a person like Jesus because the Misfit's own life has been absent of the kind of love that Jesus represents. In fact, in an almost desiring way, the Misfit wishes he had seen the person of Jesus with his own eyes and witnessed his miracles. He would have to see it to believe it. But isn't that the final irony of this messed up tale? That a racist, empty-headed, middle-class, commodity obsessed, superficial white woman becomes a beacon of love that infiltrates the misfit's hardened heart. Let that sink in.

Now we don't know what happens to the Misfit. Because the story ends. And as a teaching tip — have your students continue the story! And you may be aware that O'Connor herself gave a rendering of what she believed will become of the Misfit. She sees the Grandmother's action as a moment of grace that plants itself in the heart of the misfit that will grow like a mustard seed into a crow-filled tree! That's an interesting visual metaphor, the action of grace. And I get it. Grace (or call it a moment of aesthetic judgment) is this instantaneous moment of undeserved love — or mercy — that humans are capable of — but we often do not consider it — taken in more by reports of humanity's baser nature or propensity for violence and harm.

So how are we to come away with this story? What is the message that it leaves us with, ultimately? I think the message of "A Good Man is Hard to find" is that "the good" is something that does not come out of moral uprightness or outward bearing signs of good behavior. Do you remember who says the title of the story? It's Red Sammy — and he certainly is not the paragon of a good man. Or is he?

Goodness is Not a Polite Profile But an Eruption
In this story, the good cannot be a profile we affix to a person. As when we say, "Oh, he's good because of XYZ." Goodness is an eruption, a sudden moment of grace that can spring up when we least expect it — come in at a moment of otherwise sheer terror to open up the world anew. Perhaps the Misfit is right — Jesus threw the world off balance. Jesus — here — being an analog for that which comes into the world, despite its own gnarly roughness, and can shine forth.

Isn't it absurd that in O'Connor's worldview, that turns out to be a miserly old woman? I guess that is the truth of "A Good Man is Hard to Find". So now. I try to judge people less harshly. I also try to be more aware of my own words and how they match my actions. When I first read the story with Sister Jean d'Arc, I saw myself as a good man. I was in school, and I tried my best to go to Church, to help others. But I feel like this story is about how the usual trappings of goodness often don't reveal our true selves. For example — remember bratty June Starr and John Wesley? In the story, the children, even though they are spoiled brats and do not show respect to their elders, see the adults' hypocrisy. The family in this story do not listen to one another. They regularly talk over one another — and I think O'Connor presents us with this family for a reason. For they are not unlike many families I know — or the family I come from — in which we often bicker and complain, but rarely take a breath, and achieve quiet. And listen.

Advertisement for a TpT Short Discussion Guide: A Good Man is Hard to Find Made by Stones of Erasmus © 2020

21.4.20

Philosophy in the Classroom: Friedrich Nietzsche's Concept of "Eternal Recurrence" Paired with Groundhog Day — the 90s Movie Starring Bill Murray

Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Higher Education, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com
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In this post, I re-package a previous post I did on Nietzsche's concept of eternal recurrence and turn it into a meaningful High School English lesson for Ninth and Tenth graders.
Henry Fuseli's "Nightmare"
The demon on your chest — would you curse the demon or embrace your fate?      
      A while ago, I posted a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche's book The Gay Science on my website. I was really struck by a section of the book I call "The Allegory of the Demon." It's a thought experiment and Nietzsche has his reader think about how does one live out their life? How would you live your life differently? What if you had to repeat your life over and over again without change? Would you "gnash your teeth" or would you embrace it? 
      I thought the passage was dense enough and short enough, to elicit a response in my Ninth and Tenth grade English classes. So, I created a lesson to think about Nietzsche along with a classic 1990s movie Groundhog Day. None of my students had heard of the movie, and their knowledge of Nietzsche was slim — but we dug into the reading and I was pleasantly surprised by how much critical thinking we were able to do with such a small passage from World Literature. So. I put together the lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers. Here is the outline of the lesson:
Philosophy in the Classroom Lesson Plan: Nietzsche and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day 
What is the meaning of life? You and your students are sure to come up with many answers to this question. Get your students engaged in philosophical inquiry by presenting them with Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of "eternal recurrence," paired with clips from the movie Groundhog Day (1993) starring Billy Murray and Andie McDowell.
This resource includes the following features:
Essential Question: What is the meaning of Life?
Supporting Questions: How does Friedrich Nietzsche provide a possible answer to this question. / How can I apply abstract ideas to everyday life?
This resource includes the following features:
The text of the story is included in this resource.
  • Teacher's notes on using this resource
  • 7 reading comprehension questions
  • 1 Entrance Ticket
  • 1 Movie View Guide
  • 1 Writing Prompt
  • 3 Editable Google Slides handouts
  • Further Reading List (To go deeper into the topic with your students)
Suggested Uses:
  1. Ninth or Tenth Grade High School English Curriculum
  2. World History Course on the History of Ideas
  3. Introduction to Philosophy Course
  4. Literature Course
  5. Ethics Course
  6. Introduction to Philosophy Course
  7. Student Advisory Course
  8. A Lesson on the "Meaning of Life"
Suggested Classroom Time: 3 Hours + Independent Worktime for Students' writing
See a companion lesson "Plato's Allegory of the Cave in Plain Language" - on searching for truth in a crazy world.

7.4.20

A Pro Tip for Teachers: Using Text Sets on Newsela

Newsela is a website that curates news articles for teachers to share with their students. The idea is straightforward. Students engage with non-fiction texts to improve their reading levels (and critical thinking skills). Each news article on Newsela is calibrated to at least five reading levels which can be tweaked according to a student's grade level and reading proficiency. Articles come equipped with quizzes students can take (and teachers can see the results) and writing prompts students can respond to (which teachers can edit to align with their own classes).

Use Newsela for Non-Fiction ReadingI have been using Newsela for a long time. I use it to assign articles to my students that supplement what we're doing in class. For example, for a Ninth Grade English Shakespeare unit I have kids read about Shakespeare in the Park or after talking about whether or not "video games rot your mind" I have them read an opinion piece on the subject before they write their own essay.

Go Further With Teacher-created Text SetsA really powerful tool on Newsela is the ability to create text sets. I teach a series of "Philosophy in the Classroom" units that I developed with middle and high school students at my school. We read Plato and Nietzsche in class but I want to connect the abstract ideas of philosophers to current and relevant events going on in our society today. Newsela makes that possible. Here is a text set I recently made for my students that I have paired up with my unit on Justice.

Newsela Text Set: Philosophy in the High School Classroom: "The Ring of Gyges"
Essential Mystery: Why should I be a good person?

Cover Image of Philosophy in the Classroom: The Ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic
I based the Newsela Text Set On 
Supporting questions:
Should I be a good person even if I know I can get away with being bad?
Is being a good person in of itself a good thing? Why do those who do bad things not only sometimes get away with it but seem to benefit from their ill deeds while those who do good don't often prosper nor get as much recognition for the good they do?

Student/ Teacher Instructions:
Why be good? The texts in this set contribute to an overarching moral question first brought out by Plato in his book, The Republic. Plato's young student Glaucon complains to Socrates that good people never seem to benefit from their good deeds, while bad people who do bad deeds not only profit from it but seem to be better off than good people. So why be good at all?

  • Pre-Reading Assignment: Before going further watch the following video “The Myth of Gyges”. Copy and paste the link: https://youtu.be/4qjGp6TWqe4
  • Optional. Read the primary source material from The Republic. Copy and paste the link: http://sites.wofford.edu/kaycd/Plato/
  • Choose THREE compelling stories from this text set to read and to annotate. Respond to all prompts in YELLOW. These are my questions to you. 
  • Be both Glaucon and Socrates as you read. Highlight in RED ideas in the stories that support Glaucon. Highlight in GREEN views that support Socrates' view. 
  • Take the reading comprehension quizzes for the three stories you selected. 
  • Prepare the writing prompt for the article that you thought was the most compelling. Read the prompt carefully. 

In class, be ready to share your annotations for the articles you selected. You will be paired with different students to discuss the ideas of each article. Your grade for this assignment is a combination of your quiz scores (20%), your annotations and appropriate highlights (20%), group participation (30%), and finally, your writing prompt (30%).

Extension Resources:

Intended Grade Level(s): 7-10

Content Areas: English Language Arts, Social Studies, Humanities, Civics

Skills Practiced: This text set and its activities conform to the following Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2 - Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6 - Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5 - Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Estimated Time: Three 45-minute class periods.

27.4.10

Passive Aggressive Email from Parent about how Kid is not Going to do Homework because of a Funeral

 Parent to me

date: Apr 14 8:08 PM
        subject: re: online quiz (to be done at home tonight)

When is this due? We are at a funeral and cannot do this right now. Last nights assignment came in after Koumba was already in bed so she didn't even know about it.  I won't be happy if she recieves "F's" for these. Let me know if she can do these tomorrow night. Thanks, 

C. Parent

(504-272-7134)  
Director of Consulting
Anysuch Company
Hey, LA

25.4.10

Notes from a High School Teacher-cum-Chaperone: Snazzy Prom

In this amazing blog post, I write about the night I chaperoned the Senior prom - and it wasn't pretty.
How would you feel if you were asked to turn away from your junior/senior prom because the school decided they didn't agree with your facial hair, choice of dress or even, in some cases, your selected partner?
High School prom dances are social experiments. Prom season creates news headlines when the desires of students do not coincide with administrative rules. Prom for me represents a tumultuous time for adolescence. Prom is the end of high school innocence. From the word, promenade, a vestige of the old-style formal walks, prom in America is still a showcase. At this school, a mixed group of middle-class to socially high class, black, mostly white, and a smattering of Asian and Hispanic groups, Prom is a smorgasbord.
I notice boys and girls who label themselves as gay at school are noticeably paired up with the opposite sex at prom night - or in some cases, going stag. A lone freshman looks confident, but out of place tagged with her junior date who keeps grabbing at his shirt collar legs.
One boy, dressed in tux asks me where's the keg? No alcohol, I say. He sniffs my straight cola. Another girl bemoans she's dateless. The seniors vote for the funniest, the friendliest, and the prettiest. One of the song choices is "Thriller." Young people bump and grind. The dean of behavior informs his teacher squad to watch out for indecent behavior.

The principal announces Prom king and queen. No blood à la Carrie. Thank god. No shaking of constitutional rights tonight. The chaperone shift is almost up. I go home to have a drink and read Stephen King.

1.2.10

Teaching Journal: A Nonsensical Rant on Teaching Ancient Literature to Ninth Graders

Uncredited Photograph of a Road

Why None of My Students "Dig" Homer (Or Virgil) 
I finally figured out why none of my students likes the Odyssey or the Iliad, or the Aeneid (except in an anti-nostalgic, oh yeah, my parents read that in High School, kind of way; or oh yeah, I am supposed to like this story because my grandfather read it in the original Greek, or oh yeah, someone told me it was good; I'm supposed to like it, like I am supposed to like Catcher in the Rye because my English teacher read it as an adolescent).

There are better narratives to pursue. That’s why. 
I would love to teach Six Feet Under as an epic - or Angel the Vampire with a soul - or even fuck, Mio, my Mio by Lindgren. I am fucking tired of Odysseus. He was a fucking unlikeable twat. I really don't like him anymore. Why do we stick to the tried and true "classics"? Folks are swayed by better narratives that fit their current milieu, but we still drill them with Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Here I am teaching about the rage of Achilles where most kids have figured that out living with themselves nowadays is tantamount To Achilles’ rage. I don’t need to teach an ancient greek epic for them to figure out their own narcissistic tendencies. Now, granted, as a ninth grader, I loved the tale of the Odyssey, but my teacher was unique. She did not care if we actually “read” the book. What she would do is weave stories in class based on the epic story relating to events in real life. For example: Penelope. She would talk about the plight of the single mother — something we could relate to in the classroom, because a majority of us came from single family homes. But, even the kids who didn’t read got the gist of what my teacher was saying and passed the tests. Here I am teaching the Odyssey, about a man longing for home, but most kids don’t have a home (at least in the metaphysical sense of the word) so the story is lost on them in the reading, only to come alive when I mention that perspective.
 
But, I am being hyperbolic. 
Both the Odyssey and the Iliad are vibrant tales. Home, loss, anger, curses, fathers, mothers, sex, honesty, revenge, you name it. The issue isn’t the brilliance of this ancient epic, but rather, the children I teach are already subsumed in their own epics. I know I am going to get fire for saying this, but TV shows nowadays — if you scan through them — have their own brand of epic tonality that beats the Ancient Greeks. Take for example Skins — a brilliant TV series from the BBC. The beginning scenes of its first episode about a Telemachus named Tony— the shenanigans of a British teenager — beat out the tumultuous fatherloss of Telemachus in the first four books of the Odyssey. Like I said, it is not that the ancient epics were not good — but fuck — I am trying to teach a beautiful epic here, where kids are completely toned out. They won’t read the thing, save for a few of them, who are secretly bitter that they are the only ones reading. I have too much to compete with: Madea, Fuel, Adult Swim, American Idol (okay, here I will say the ancient epics are paramount). I am not sure anymore what makes a narrative great. I am not sure anymore about the CANNON.
 
I will parse my argument out better here: 
... take the epic of the Odyssey. What do we want to teach when we introduce this story? Home? Right? Isn’t that the core of the story? the return home? Why the Odyssey? Why can’t we teach the same theme with something like Skins? I really don’t understand. It is funny: because an epic is more than a thousand years old, it’s legit. But, god forbid we teach a story that is only a few months old. The naysayers will say the ancient epics are better written. But, I say that is a bunch of bullshit. I could create a lesson that teaches everything I already teach using film and popular culture: heroes, antagonists metanoia, epiphany, journey, inner journey, archetype, you name it. I think if I teach Ancient Lit again, I am going to only teach the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Oedipus Rex as primary texts. Everything else will be excerpts, mixed in with television: Angel, Six Feet Under, Dexter, and Welcome to the Dollhouse. 

What do you think? How do I teach the themes of Ancient Literature? Is it still relevant? Post your comments.