June 2, 2002
Marie Pappalardo. Salvatore Lopes. Susan Sauer. On September 11, these three young people came to work at the World Trade Center at about the same time that I came to work at CM: 7am. By 8:58 that morning, though, their lives were in peril. Mine was not. I was standing in front of twenty-five juniors, my “C” class. And I was about to tell them what I just saw on TV.
Here’s to the power of teaching, an ephemeral act sometimes at best. Monday I’m standing in front of them, trying to scare them into worrying about their summer reading exam, Tuesday I’m sitting among them and we’re watching the twin towers collapse on television together. Everyone is watching but me. I’m covering my eyes and wondering whether to get up and teach or run for cover. When I uncover them Michael Christopher has one eye of concern on me and one eye of fear on the television, his brow wrinkled in bewilderment.
The event was packed with enough mystery but what was even more disconcerting was that on September 10, I had opened our first day of class by reading from Genesis, chapter eleven.
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
We all knew what God did to that tower. My challenge on September 12—and all year— was to wrest some meaning out of that first day’s lesson without implicating our loving and merciful God in the destruction of these latter day towers of Babel.
My lesson on the tenth had been simple: the tower is an etiology that helps us understand (as it helped our ancestors) how “foreign” languages came about, and helps us explain how it is that we speak and study English today. My lessons on the twelfth and thereafter became more meaningful, however, as I soon discovered what profound metaphors could be unpacked in the devastation of the eleventh.
Over the course of the year, through our study of vocabulary, for instance, we made flash cards. I told the juniors that the best way to learn new vocabulary is to read, and failing that, or in addition to that, to study through a direct attack in a vocabulary book via flash cards. I told them that their junior year was most important not only because SAT’s awaited them at year’s end but because this was the last time many of them would study English vocabulary in a formal setting. From time to time, I called the making of flash cards a “rebuilding of the tower” as it meant trying to construct the one language again that those men in Shinar had. Those men understood how important vocabulary was, that language would help them make a name for themselves. So, too, I see now, will it help make a name for our young men as they prepare to write college essays and speak mellifluously to a troubled world. Packed with the mortar of language they leave this week, ready to build from what they have studied.
Another lesson from the eleventh emerged for us on the twelfth. In our study of American literature we began with John Winthrop’s sermon for the new world:
We shall be a city set on a hill…The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause us to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.
Many of American history’s epigrammatic touchstones became more poignant after the eleventh, and Winthrop’s warning is no exception. In our study of literature we became cognizant of the fact that the world has looked to it not only as a political and economic refuge over these four centuries but also as a refuge for the hitherto voiceless in literature. And though Winthrop might not have envisioned Boston as such, the city became much like Babel, with many peoples working with and speaking a common language to prevent this already storied society from becoming a “byword.” Later, we heard Walt Whitman sing of “the divine power to use words” and ask Americans how proud they were of their words: “Do you move in these broad lands as broad as they?”
In our own writing this year we moved in broad brush strokes across the country, beginning with the genesis of our families in America. We wrote about nature as we read the transcendentalists, about humor as we read Mark Twain, about literature as we read T.S. Eliot, and about sports as we read Into the Wild. Each student’s portfolio is a tower of words that attempts to make sense of a world that often does not make sense and tries to define America through some of its trademark qualities. We wrote haikus, terza rimas, quatrains, and sonnets back in February, hammering together the load-bearing walls and affixing the syllabic beams of verse to make sense of rhyme and meter (and to try to woo, of course, too). Our parent bulletin board scrolls down to reveal a tower of inspiration, tricks of the trade and encouragement from those who love us—even my own father checked it weekly.
On the back wall of the classroom in January, I began tacking up the full-page “Portraits of Grief” that the New York Times printed in its Sunday editions. Beginning in January, we read one a day, a little snippet of a life, a little glimpse into happiness, most of them. Each essay finished with a promise of what was to come—children, memorials, other legacies—all subtly and cautiously pointing towards Dickinson’s hope, that birdlike feathered presence trying to buoy us in each new year,
That perches in the soul
Three such hopeful pieces were written of Marie Pappalardo, Salvatore Lopes, and Susan Sauer, the last of the memorials we heard this month, as workers excavated the last piece of debris from the World Trade Center.
So Michael and his eleventh grade classmates, I hope, will remember the eleventh with a certain solemnity. Not only was it a day that testified to the power of hatred through terror and love through sacrifice; it reminded us of the magnitude and amplitude of words and of America as the place for reconstructing the tower of Babel. On the plain of Shinar they succeeded in making a name for themselves, despite God’s humbling sense of humor. So too will these young men.
Parents: I hope that everyone is having a restful and safe vacation. The break has afforded me the opportunity to finally read all of the humor essays on which we worked, draft after draft, since the new year. We wrote them as a follow-up to reading arguably America's greatest humorist, Mark Twain, who had a reputation for being much more satirical and biting in his prose than did his counterpart, Samuel Clemens. Interestingly enough, in today's New York Times Book Review appeared an editorial by Margo Jefferson about the merits of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an argument with which we are quite familiar by now, and one which I hope we can convincingly make ourselves.
On February 15, we concluded a short, two-week unit on American poetry, 1860-1920, during which we read selections in our text from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, and others. During this time, we also wrote some poetry of our own. I shared some of my poems with the class, and encouraged them to share their "works in progress" as they developed them. We wrote six poems in all--a haiku, a couplet, two quatrains, a terza rima, and a sonnet. I have encouraged your son to read these poems to you. I was impressed! Some of the best can be found on the portfolios page.
We will revisit poetry via the Harlem Renaissance after our study of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which every student should own a copy of and which every student should be reading over the break.
Thank you for your continued participation in our study of American literature. I read your responses daily, as do many of the students, judging from my web log. I got a lot of good song recommendations from you in considering what to play in class! And this new question, on African American literature, will be a good starting point for our study of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Please continue to keep an eye on the parent bulletin board for updates and new questions. And if you have not yet done so, please look at some of your son's work on the practice page where he does much of his homework. He has a password to this protected site which I have encouraged him to give to you.
Please feel free to call, leave a voicemail, or drop me an email anytime.
We have just concluded our third unit of American Literature on transcendentalism and romanticism. Students brought home their graded tests on this unit yesterday. Our next vocab quiz will be right before the holiday break, next Thursday.
We begin reading Huck Finn today, and I want you to be "behind the scenes" with me to give you some perspective on how I am teaching the text. We started out with a brief discussion of that horribly pejorative word used to describe Jim and other African American slaves throughout the book. I gave students a brief background to how controversial that word and Mark Twain's use of it has been over the years, and encouraged them to judge his use of it only after reading Huck Finn in its entirety. Having a diverse class as we do, I hope our discussion of Twain's approach to racism through Huck Finn will be a lively one and one that leads us to a greater understanding of the complexity of race in America, both then and now.
One resource that has been helpful to me, and may interest parents as well, has been Huck Finn in Context, produced as a supplement to a WGBH documentary which we will watch in January. Another great resource will be the Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain which airs (quite conveniently) in January on PBS.
I encourage all parents to discuss with their son and with us (online) the issues that arise from reading Huck Finn for the first time.
I am thrilled to see so many parents taking part in our parent bulletin board. Thank you. Not only does your presence in our “online classroom” help us read your perspective on some of the curricular topics, it also gives you the opportunity to catch up on some of your son’s writing.
Recently, I’ve made some changes to the structure and format of our online work:
I moved our homework to a secure site that is password protected. I mused in class that this will protect us from any creeps who want to do our homework for us, but on a more serious note, it provides for us as secure a place to do our work as any real classroom offers. The new bulletin-board-system has all sorts of extra features that make the technological setting for homework more interactive. And for those students who have trouble remembering to put their names on homework, it does so for them! NOTE: Your son has a username/password for the new “Practice” space. To view his work, have him share these with you, as I have encouraged him to do.
Your son’s portfolio is now available for you to view off of the “Portfolios” link. His first essay should be there, and I gave him an evaluation for it in class. For each of the five essays our class will do this year, I will pick three top essays that demonstrate both excellence in writing and a depth of critical thinking. These I “show off” to the world-at-large under “Expletus Est” off of the portfolios page.
I put some extra-credit reading opportunities on the “Extra Credit” link off the main page. These include the “Suggested Reading” pages in our book at the end of each unit. To redeem the reading extra credit, I encourage your son to read one of the books (on the weekends, before bed each night) and give us a brief report in class on his reading when he is done. This would count as a fifty-point extra credit component, which could ameliorate a troubled quarter grade.
Again, thank you for your involvement in our English class in this critical year of your son’s work with his acquired literacy skills of thinking, reading, speaking, listening, and writing. As always, please email me with your comments or concerns at email@example.com or call me at school, extension 5025.
September 10, 2001
I am thrilled to be a new member of the Catholic Memorial faculty this year and particularly pleased to be teaching eleventh-grade English. I look forward to a successful year.
Two years ago I bought this web space at trueteacher.com and have since used it as a space for my students to submit homework, launch research projects, continue discussions of curricular issues, publish their writing, and develop their effective use of technology. It has served, in some respects, as an extension of the classroom. This year at CM, I want to add another important component to this extended classroom: parent involvement. Your son will be contributing work to this space on a weekly basis and I will be monitoring and interacting with him there as well as in the classroom. I hope that you can participate from time to time, too, and that this space can be one of the places where you, your son, and I can "see" each other.
Throughout the year, your son will choose pieces of his writing to publish in his portfolio which will be available online as well. As we progress in our study, you should feel free to see the work your son has been doing for our class, keeping in mind, of course, that what he does here is only part of his overall work in English. My objective, however, is to give you as much access to your son's work as possible, that you too can witness his growth as a student.
In English this year we will be using Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. This program combines a wide variety of quality reading selections with literature analysis, critical thinking and reading skills, and composition. I especially like how it connects the literature to students' own experiences through the development of themes relevant to students' lives. Additionally, I will be looking to develop relevant connections between the literature and Christianity.
You can help your son get the most from this program by continuing to provide him with optimal study conditions at home. Encourage him to share his writing with you, invite discussions about the issues brought forth in the literature, read an occasional piece of assigned work with him, or participate in the parent bulletin board that I will set up online.
We have a lot of work to do. Not only will we be reading, writing, thinking, and speaking about American literature this year, we will also be studying our vocabulary as we think ahead to SAT’s, honing our writing skills as we think ahead to college and scholarship essays, and constructing our identity as Catholics in America as we think ahead to the future.
I hope that you will watch this space to see where our work takes us.