Liz and I had a great conversation with Scott Cameron for the August 3rd episode of “The Joys of Teaching Literature.” Listen to it here or wherever you listen to podcasts.
But today we did. It felt pretty good.
Here’s an English teacher teaching Science:
And here’s an English teacher teaching Math:
So homeschooling is going pretty well. Now, on Day 3, I just need to figure out how to teach Poetry and Shakespeare online to teenagers. Plus decide what to wear.
Yesterday—March 23, 2020—was my, and my wife Liz’s, first official day of working from home. We are both teachers, and Friday before last, shortly after arriving home and while helping our kids climb a tree in the front yard, we each learned via Robo-call that our school, like most others in California, would be closed for the next three weeks, the first of those three being Spring Break, which ended this past Sunday.
So our days of social isolation/at-home sheltering consist of a balancing of our own two children’s educational needs, their schools, of course, being closed as well, with the needs of our 150ish apiece students who are suddenly stuck at home.
Thankfully, Liz got a jumpstart on homeschooling our Pre-K’er and 1st-grader early into our Spring Break, filling a jeep with school supplies from the Dollar Store and repurposing our dining room as a Kindergarten classroom, where we spent 8:30 to 10:30am of each Spring Break day reading, writing, adding, subtracting, coloring, gluing, circle-timing, and singing and dancing.
For Liz, Spring Break was no break at all. Besides planning the modified instruction of our students, she also teaches night classes at a local community college—not on Spring Break last week and where, as of last week, all classes, including Liz’s, are now online classes.
So, in the course of a week, Liz has had to transition from classroom high school + junior college teacher to preschool/first-grade homeschool teacher + online instructor, the latter, as of yesterday, when Spring Break at our “day jobs” ended and “work from home” began, extending into her high school teaching.
Plus she’s co-writing a book (with me, manuscript due a little over 3 months from now). And plus she has a parent who falls into each and every COVID-19 “at risk” category and starts chemo next week.
I’d say she’s handling it well. But then she’s a remarkable person.
Back to yesterday: Liz and I both teach in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. We teach Year 1 (Liz) and Year 2 (me) of Higher Level English Literature (juniors [Liz] and seniors [me]), a two-year course that culminates with a couple of quite rigorous, quite high stakes standardized exams, taken in May of each year.
And on day one of this period of distance learning, having no idea how long said period will last but with the intention of remotely preparing my students for the abovementioned exams, IB, in the wee hours of the morning, announced the cancellation of all exams.
Some of my seniors have been in the IB program since the sixth grade. At minimum, they’ve been in it for the past four years. It’s a grueling program, and, at some point along the line, they’ve each and every one wanted to quit. But we told them that, in the end, it would be worth it. That nothing worthwhile is easy.
This class, though, got to the end, but the end is canceled.
All of that might seem less troubling if, say, you are imaging these students as privileged, private school students, as many IB students worldwide are.
But these students are not that. These students, if we’re labeling, have these labels: socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority, first-generation college-going. They worked really hard for this, with a lot stacked against them.
They’re going to be okay. They’re all still going to college. They’ve all still beaten the odds, but the news, yesterday, that their exams were canceled, amidst the larger context of a global pandemic, must have been…deflating.
It was deflating for me, anyway. For most of the day, I was distracted by responding to the sea of what-are-we-going-to-do-now emails (I counted 105, just over one each from one-third of my total number of students), but around the afternoon, those emails volleyed, I began to sink down an existential drain: we had been preparing for those exams for so long, and I had prepared students for those same exams for so many years, at this time of year, but with those exams cancelled, what on Earth was I going to/expected to teach, remotely or not? What was the point? From which I somehow jumped to And who am I? What is the point of me?
All of which opened to my eyes to my own guilt in perpetuating something I hate about education: putting the assessment of the content before the content. Teaching to the test. As if our teaching is only justified by a subsequent quantitative result.
My plan had been to teach students to read a poem critically—to interact with it and question it and break it apart and put it back together. And then write about it. Why was I going to teach all of that? Because they would need to do that on a standardized test.
So as I circled the drain, I wondered why, with no such standardized test, I would teach them any of that.
Until I remembered that I’m an English teacher. Teaching a higher level capital-L Literature course. And, so, teaching all of that is my job.
And we (English teachers, plural now) teach it because of the transferable skills: thinking critically, reading critically, writing clearly and persuasively.
And we also teach it because it’s poetry. It’s art, and we learn about life (and all its nooks and crannies) by experiencing art, which holds a mirror up to life (and all its nooks and crannies).
Anyway, I felt better. On to Day Two.
I love the TV show, The Office. So does my wife. And thanks to Netflix, we can watch it at any time. We’ve seen every episode, multiple times.
A strange thing has recently happened, though. My tenth-grade students—all of whom had my wife last year, but independent of our influence—are watching The Office.
I’ve been teaching tenth-graders for thirteen years now. Usually I don’t know anything about the things they are interested in. When I started teaching, it was Twilight. Now it’s Fortnite. But here’re these fifteen and sixteen-year-olds who are obsessed with The Office and who, like this forty-year-old, have seen every episode. They wear Dunder Mifflin t-shirts. They paint portraits of Dwight in art class. They play Office trivia.
A few weeks ago, near the beginning of a unit on Oedipus the King, we were discussing Aristotle’s Poetics and applying three-act structure and reversals to the novels we’ve read (plus a couple of movies we’d all seen).
One of these Office devotees raised her hand and asked, quite earnestly, if this could be applied to “Dinner Party” from Season Four (yes, she cited the season and episode title). Her reason for asking, she reported, was that she had been thinking about it and the episode seemed to be all bad; she couldn’t place the reversals to good fortune.
I asked for 24 hours, came home, watched the episode, and here’s the answer, delivered to the student the following morning:
The Office Season 4, Episode 9: “Dinner Party”
The runtime is 22 minutes. Like most episodes, it begins with a pre-credit opener. Often, these are separate from the main plot, but not this one. In this one, Michael elaborately tricks Jim into revealing that he and Pam have no plans that night, forcing Jim to agree to come over for dinner. This is the INCITING INCIDENT (at minute 1).
Act One begins with Jim and Pam’s arrival at Michael’s condo. In fact, all of the Act divisions are marked by the arrival of a new couple. Jim and Pam arrive at minute 3. Andy and Angela arrive about one-third of the way in (end of Act One). Dwight and that lady arrive about two-thirds of the way in (end of Act Two). They all literally cross the threshold, which signifies a change or entry into a new world. At the end of Act Three, two cops arrive.
In Act One, Jim and Pam get a tour of the condo, which sets up the ready-to-boil-over antagonism between Michael and Jan, demonstrated by their growing passive aggressiveness. We see this develop throughout the party, and we can all see that this relationship is over.
In the Act One climax, Andy and Angela arrive. REVERSAL: the party seems to be progressing toward its conclusion (how much longer could it last?), but Jan reveals that the dinner won’t be ready for hours (good to bad).
At the midpoint of the episode, Jim seems to have resolved the entire conflict by faking a flooding, but in a good to bad reversal, neither he nor Pam (who comically betrays him) gets to leave.
The awkwardness of the party game (caused by M and J’s passive aggressiveness) leads to a parallel reversal. Pam is able to escape the ugly scene to the kitchen (the archetypal female haven) with Jan and Angela, but, in a good to bad REVERSAL, she is erroneously confronted by Jan about dating Michael. In a parallel scene, the boys escape to the garage (archetypal male haven) but, in another good to bad REVERSAL, Michael awkwardly asks J and A to invest in Jan’s candle business.
Act Two ends with Dwight and the lady arriving. The major REVERSAL here is that Jim and Pam now have more buffer and some entertainment (Pam says, “Awesome!”), but the arrival instead leads to a bitter and personal fight between Michael and Jan about having children.
Act Three begins with the dinner scene, and the climax is Jan breaking the little plasma TV with a Dundee, followed by the cops arriving.
The denouement (unravelling) is the musical montage (Hunter’s song) of all the couple’s after the party.
My three-year-old watches a lot of Toy Story. Daily, you could accurately say, sometimes to the chagrin of the six-year-old, the thirty-five-year-old, and the forty-year-old he lives with. But a couple of weeks ago, during that week’s fifth-or-so screening of Toy Story 2, I came upon a teaching idea.
My 10th-grade students were reading Oedipus the King and had just received a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics during which we defined the terms anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), those definitions, according to Aristotle, being as follows:
ANAGNORISIS = RECOGNITION = “change from ignorance to knowledge”
PERIPETEIA = REVERSAL = “a change of the actions to their opposite”
Here’s what Aristotle had to say about these:
“A recognition is finest when it happens at the same time as the reversal, as does the one in Oedipus.”
Cue Toy Story 2. I showed my students a short clip that starts at around an hour and four minutes in and ends a bit past an hour and eight minutes.
In the clip, Woody’s friends have come to rescue him from Al’s apartment and bring him back to Andy, but Woody doesn’t want to go. Instead, he wants to go to a museum in Japan with his new friends, the Round Up Gang.
Woody’s friends try to persuade him to come with him, but they fail and then leave. After they’re gone, Woody sees an old videotape of a little boy playing with his Woody doll. As Woody watches, his eyes widen and his mouth opens. Suddenly, he calls after his friends; he wants to go with them after all, and he has very nearly convinced the Round Up Gang to come with him when Stinky Pete the Prospector blocks them from doing so. End of clip.
I asked the students to tell their neighbors what they had just witnessed, and because we had just reviewed the aforementioned terms as well as Aristotle’s opinion as to their “finest” application, the students were able to report that Woody had a recognition (anagnorisis) that he couldn’t abandon Andy, and this recognition caused and therefore occurred simultaneously with a reversal (peripeteia) in the action.
So: Toy Story 2 ended up being a great setup for the students’ reading of Episode Four of Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus experiences the simultaneous recognition and reversal that Aristotle had deemed “finest.”
Next week, Liz and I will be presenting at our third straight CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference. This year, our session is titled “Rigorous and Authentic Interdisciplinary Novel Units: Effectively Pairing Literature and Informational Text Standards.”
Here are links to posts about the last two conferences:
I have an essay on Shakespeare’s Five-Act Structure in the February issue of California English. Here’s a link: https://cateweb.org/journals/february-2019/
This week, I have been re-reading John Barth’s The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction, which is John Barth’s ninth book (and first book of nonfiction, though the subject throughout is fiction).
The Friday Book, along with Barth’s story collection Lost in the Funhouse and Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, were the books about which I wrote my critical thesis as an MFA student nine or so years ago, and this current re-reading is the ninth stop in an (aforementioned here) reading (or, in some cases, such as this one, re-reading) of Barth’s entire bibliography, an effort that has now lasted several years (due to [also aforementioned] all of the side roads that those readings/re-readings have suggested exploring) and that (among many other things) I have “written into” my current metafictive work-in-progress.
In the introductory remarks to one piece in The Friday Book, Barth recounts a panel discussion on teaching creative writing, at which Wallace Stegner was a panelist and during which Stegner, in occasionally equestrian terms, gave the following description of teaching, or approaches to teaching, paraphrased by Barth and numbered by me:
“The writing teacher, Stegner declared, can be (1) an authoritarian who breaks his colts with a two-by-four; or he can be (2) a rebel who by his unorthodoxy tries to stimulate originality in his charges…; or he can (3) abdicate responsibility and let go the reins entirely, admiring everything his students do and being correspondingly loved by them; or (4) he can really teach, declaring his principles and stating his standards and obliging his students to demonstrate that any innovation they make is better than what they give up to make it.”
I’ve been a teacher for twelve years. Not a newbie but by no means a veteran. I’m somewhere in the middle of the labyrinth, still making my way, appalled at the flawed navigational decisions I made upon entering, each turn around each corner now simultaneously producing greater understanding of where I am and where I’m going but more questions about the same.
At various points in my twelve-year career, I have been each of the four teachers described above, some more often than others, but, after a couple thousand days in the classroom, each often enough.
My observation, though, is that good teachers (despite a protean nature day-to-day, mostly early in the career) will tend toward the fourth type—toward “really” teaching.
I believe (and hope that my belief is true) that I am mostly (nearly completely) the fourth type.
I used to teach night classes part time for University of Phoenix. At their twice-a-year general faculty meetings, they would give awards to the teachers who gave the lowest grades while getting the highest student reviews. U of P was (is, I suppose) a somewhat ridiculous institution, but I thought that that measurement had merit.
I get along reasonably well with my students, including with (sometimes particularly with) those who struggle the most in what I believe (and hope my belief is true) is a rewardingly difficult class.
There are teachers whose students love them despite rigid expectations and rigid adherence to those expectations, and then there are teachers whose students love them precisely for the lack of such standards, or for the inability to adhere to any.
It’s important (I think) to always be honest with students (brutally honest, when that is called for).
And establishing unmovable principles and standards and applying them with the rigor they demand is a type of honesty.
And to not do so is not only dishonest, according to Stegner (according to Barth), it is not even really teaching.
For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.
I even put it in a book.
But I don’t think any of it is right.
Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.
What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:
Act I = Exposition
Act II = Rising Action/Complications
Act III = Climax
Act IV = Falling Action
Act V = Resolution/Denouement
I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:
As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).
The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.
This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.
About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.
I started drawing this, instead:
The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).
A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.
The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).
The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.
This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).
The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).
What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.
I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.
After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.
I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.
So, then: Shakespeare.
Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.
When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.
The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).
Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.
Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.
Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.
Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).
After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.
How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?
From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).
Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.
That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).
Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).
When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:
Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).
Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:
So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.
In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.
A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.
Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).
This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.
The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)
Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.
We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.
Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.
(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)
We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).
We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.
But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.
This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).
So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.
Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).