Friday, October 26, 2007

Is “Eye for an Eye” Justice?

My students are currently finishing up Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, the story of an English boy growing up in apartheid South Africa. Told almost as a contemporary myth, the novel deals not only with the tensions between whites and blacks, but also between the English and the Afrikaans. It is the story of finding one’s inner strength to stand up for what is right (well, at least until you get to the end). We’ve had lengthy class discussions about the effects of racism, where prejudice comes from and how it takes hold, we’ve talked about apathy and inner strength. But a few days ago, we got stuck on the question of justice.

We’ve been picking apart themes of the novel – how can camouflage be a necessity and a hindrance in the development of one’s identity? What does it mean to have power? What is the difference between power over one’s self and power over a group? How do people maintain power? The class has come up with a number of important truths stemming from our discussions: evil exists when good men do nothing; real strength comes in being able to analyze, understand, and empathize with another person before taking action; to beat the system, you must first understand it; and, because man fears a loss of power, he will attempt to maintain it by fear and force. Unfortunately, when we came to the portion of the story where one of the characters is brutally killed standing up for what he believes and later his attacker is murdered in much the same way, my students were divided.

Some cheered this turn of events in the novel. In the end, the attacker, Lt. Borman, got what he deserved. This is karmic retribution, some students declared. At which point I asked, “is ‘eye for an eye’ really justice?” I was surprised by how many students argued that, indeed, it was. I tried to reason with them – “If Mary calls me a jerk, and I call Mary a jerk right back, aren’t I stooping to her level? That’s not justice.” They wouldn’t be moved. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself, Ms. Ward. Isn’t that what this novel is about?”

Since when did revenge become justice? The students argued that if the attacker lived, it would not have been just. However, I argued that his death came in the form of revenge for another wrong, which contradicts many of the truths we discussed earlier. Still, many of the students were not convinced, which will be problematic when they get to the end of the story where it is not another character that is exacting the revenge but the protagonist. Although, the story completes the hero’s cycle by returning to the beginning, the ending complicates, if not contradicts, many of the themes of the novel. The ending seems to validate my students’ argument that an eye for an eye is justice.

Do we really live in a society where “eye for an eye” is justice? Have I run into a development wall with the students or have the values of our society shifted?

About the graphic: Dries Buytaert is a graduate student who takes beautiful photographs. You'll find more of his work by clicking on the graphic above or by visiting

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing in all its forms

A fellow teacher asked me the other day, “How many essays have you done so far?” Already over six weeks into the school year, I replied, “One.”

It has taken me quite a long time to learn that English classes, especially honors English classes, are not essay driven courses. Instead, I wish that same teacher had asked, “What have your students written so far this semester?” I would have replied that my students have crafted letters to pen pals in foreign lands, written research project proposals, analyzed themes in many reflection journal entries, revised a personal narrative essay, and prepared a script for a video-taped speech. But most importantly, my students write every day in class, whether it is reflecting on a prompt related to what we are discussing or writing a brief reflection on a self-selected reading novel. Students must learn how to write in a variety of formats and in a variety of contexts. Although learning to write well-supported thesis-driven essays is important, it is a great disservice to focus on the expository essay to the exclusion of other forms of writing.

I should apologize to the students that I first taught years ago. Following every text we read in class, whether it was a book, poem, or short story, I fettered (my current students will appreciate the use of a vocabulary word here) students with predictable essay assignment after predictable essay assignment. What was the theme of this poem? Where and how does the author use symbolism in this work? What is the climax of this story, and how does this decision prove whether the protagonist is dynamic or static? My students dreaded finishing a text because they knew it meant all of them would be writing the same boring essay, which they would get back, look at the letter grade, and toss out.

I was trapped in thinking that I should teach writing like I was taught writing – through essay after essay. What I’ve learned over the years is that good writing is good writing, regardless of what form it comes in. Once I understood this, it freed me to use all sorts of writing assignments in my classroom and find better ways to engage my students in authentic writing experiences. Students talk about the best way to start a piece of writing when we analyze and write our own poetry. These same techniques can be carried over and used in academic writing. Students learn about writing effective thesis statements by first formalizing research questions into a research proposal. They practice grammar and punctuation skills when they write letters to their pen pals who are just learning the rules of the English language. I can teach students how to effectively organize an essay once we’ve written a few reflective journals based on what we’ve been reading and discussing in class. All good writing, whether it is a poem or a blog entry, starts strong, focuses on a thesis, supports that thesis with specific examples, is well organized, utilizes effective transitions, and ends strong. So my students don’t simply learn how to write expository essays, they learn how to write.

Monday, October 15, 2007

October 15: Blog Action for the Environment Day

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
Bloggers across the net are raising awareness today for a variety of environmental issues – from global climate change to conservation, from recycling to responsible agricultural practices. Today is Blog Action for the Environment Day, and nearly 16, 000 bloggers and 12 million readers are participating in this international day of action.

I’ve spent some time this afternoon perusing a number of blogs, checking out what other writers have chosen to reflect on today. A number of blogs focus on the significance of Al Gore’s recent Noble Prize and the need to take action to end climate change. I’ve stumbled across a number of interesting entries about how we need to stop thinking of environmental issues as fodder for partisan political debates and instead think of them as life issues. I’ve been ruminating on what I might share that would add to this larger conversation on the environment.

I didn’t grow up eating organic foods on a commune. My family didn’t compost, unless you can count chucking apple cores out the window on long car rides. I am not an environmental activist by birth. But as a result of how I grew up, I would consider myself someone who is concerned about environmental issues.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are playing in the cherry and apple orchards that surrounded my cousin’s home. With our legs dangling off the tailgate of my uncle’s truck, my sister, mom, cousin, aunt, and I would bounce into the orchard each summer to pick buckets of cherries. And each year, even though I knew better, I would gorge myself on sweet cherries. My sister, cousin, and I would line up among the trees for the annual contest to see who could spit her pits the farthest. Leah always won. She could curl her tongue around the pit and send in flying at least two rows. We’d race through trees, ducking under gnarled branches, playing tag in the orchard while our parents picked fruit for pies, breads, jams, and more. I took for granted the orchards of my childhood. I just assumed everyone grew up eating as much fruit as they wanted, playing hide ‘n’ seek among evenly spaced rows of trees and delicate white blossoms. As a kid, I didn’t know anything about the possibility of pesticides seeping into the well water of homes that surrounded farmland.

My family moved away from cherry country when I was 11. We moved into muck. Western Michigan is home to many muck farms where cabbage, lettuce, greens, and parsley are grown. My first real summer job at 13 years old was working from 6:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., six days a week, cutting lettuce from football-stadium length fields we had earlier in the season spent weeding on our hands and knees. I hated that job, but went back the following summer.

My parents still live in the same area. Their home, once surround by corn on three sides and squash fields on the other, is quickly being developed into subdivisions. Bulldozers have ripped through the fields I grew up in. They’ve made way for cookie-cutter homes and man-made lakes.

Although the current political debate around global climate change is important, I think many people find it difficult to connect to the doomsday warnings. Instead, I think we encounter environmental issues on a much smaller, much more personal scale. It is those personal moments that have meaning. I buy organic produce because growing up and working on farms as a kid, I’ve been doused by the pesticide sprayer more times than I can count. As a college student, I protested buying grapes from California where migrant workers became sick and in some cases died when the drinking water in their homes was contaminated with pesticides. I recycle everything I can because the dump near my childhood home has grown to mountainous proportions. I buy organic milk and free range meats when possible because I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and have seen inside industrial chicken coops. I support organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club because my parents took my sister and me camping every summer, and although I hated the mosquitoes, I loved every other minute spent in the woods.

So if nothing else, I hope that today someone reads this and is able to make a personal connection. Instead of throwing away that piece of junk mail you received today, recycle it. Instead of leaving the water on when you brush your teeth tonight, shut it off. Close the refrigerator door instead of letting it hang open. Don’t print out that last blank page and toss it in the trash. Take a walk this evening and listen for the crickets. Remember what it is like to connect to the world you live in.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Thoughts on Homework

I’m rethinking homework this semester. Alfie Kohn keeps popping up, whispering in my ear in that daily homework may not be the most effective way to help students learn.

I was sitting in a faculty meeting this week, half-watching, half-listening to the PowerPoint presentation on various school housekeeping items: dress code enforcement, improving state test scores, grant information, when up pops “Homework Committee.” Our district is establishing a committee to assess whether or not there should be a district-wide policy on homework. Our principal diplomatically attempted to moderate comments about whether or not homework is necessary. So now Alfie Kohn and his latest book The Homework Myth pops up in faculty meetings.

I have an entire collection of Kohn’s essays and books on grading littering my bookcases. As an honors English teacher, I am particularly intrigued by his work on grades and how they function in the classroom. Do letter grades actually help students understand and reflect on their learning process? Kohn argues that letter grades are merely a form of external motivation - bribes - which work for the short run, but ultimately do not help to motivate a student’s individual desire and drive to learn. Similarly, Kohn’s latest work on homework contends that most homework does not really help to reinforce or practice the skills of a particular teacher’s lesson. Instead, most homework is another form of competition for grades. Homework is used as a grade collection tool instead of truly assessing whether or not a student has mastered a particular skill. Students struggle through new material at home, potentially mislearning it, in order to earn a good grade. Kohn argues that such homework only motivates students for the short term, teaching them that education is about jumping through the appropriate hoops. Homework, Kohn argues, deters real learning.

So what is an English teacher to do? I agree with most of Kohn’s contentions. The day I return essays or quizzes, students want to sit and compare percentages and letter grades. They do not spend much time reviewing and correcting items they missed. In honors English, it’s all about the grade. As a result, I’ve started to change some of my grading practices: not giving grades on initial drafts, preferring to use comment-only grading; giving students multiple opportunities to re-take quizzes to show that they can master the concepts; and having students complete self-reflection and goal writing activities for each writing assignment. I’ve also been rethinking homework. I generally do not give daily homework in the form of worksheets. However, my students usually have reading assignments. If not, they are working on revising the draft of an essay. I’m curious what other English teachers do. What are your thoughts on homework? What are your homework practices?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Crying in Class

Every day is different. It’s what I love about teaching. Even though I’ve taught the same tenth grade World Literatures course for the last four years, it’s different each semester. It’s different each class period. It keeps me on my toes, always thinking about the content, the curriculum, anticipating student questions and concerns.

It was a conversation that started last year in one of my classes that prompted me to make some changes in my curriculum. When a student emphatically declared in class that one person can never really make a difference, one person cannot change the world, I knew I had to rethink my curriculum. How could someone so young feel so disempowered? So this fall instead of immediately jumping into didactic grammar lessons, I decided to begin on the very first day with an essay. I began a few short weeks ago by having students brainstorm and later draft essays on the theme of belief, taking inspiration from the weekly National Public Radio’s broadcasts of “This I Believe,” a program where listeners write and share short, personal narratives about a core belief. I knew adding in another essay would mean rethinking how I structured my course, but what I never anticipated was how much my students’ writing would change me.

I didn’t anticipate tearing up in class as my students began to brainstorm ideas together on the board. I believe in taking inspiration from those around you. I believe in the power of a pet. I believe that what you put into the world comes back to you. I believe loss teaches you to live. I never anticipated choking up at Back to School Night as I explained to parents their students’ progress on the essays. Having read initial drafts, watched students peer revise, and commented on good drafts of essays, I saw how students took a vague prompt – what do you believe? – and crafted responses that were meaningful, but I did not anticipate wiping away tears as students presented their essays to the class last week. I believe in the power of kindness. I believe in learning to love myself. I believe in everyday heroes. I was awe-struck by how much students were willing to share of themselves so early in the class. I have been carrying their essays around with me for the last week, their words echoing in my head.

I am impressed by the student who could stand up and so eloquently share her fears about being the only black face in a sea of white peers. What will they think? I am touched by the student who shared how she takes inspiration from her mother who chose not to let a medical condition tell her what she couldn’t do. I am humbled by the essay from a student who rediscovered the gift of happiness while sharing a meal with her mother in the food court at the mall.

During the first few days of class, I asked a group of 15 and 16 year olds to let down their guard and share their inner-most beliefs with their peers and with their teacher. I never anticipated that they would earnestly take up this request. I should have. I am ashamed of myself for expecting less. And I am saddened that I do not think most adults could have completed this same assignment with the heart, integrity, and honesty that my students did. I believe age does not equal wisdom, and for that reason, I believe students must be heard. When they are, they change the world, one person at a time. As their teacher, I am proof.

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