On Curriculum, Charlottesville, and the People We Teach

School starts tomorrow. It is daunting, to say the least, but other teachers understand my mix of excitement and dread.

This past weekend, however, made the looming school year look even more threatening on the horizon. The Charlottesville incident inspired posts and tweets about posterity, along the lines of “This will be in our history books…” and “How will I explain this to my child?” “What is my responsibility? What will I tell my children when they ask how I reacted?” All valuable questions… but my thoughts turned, of course, to students.

In a Curriculum and Development class I took a couple of years ago, we discussed explicit and implicit curriculum. Though explicit curriculum choices often make it into the syllabus (for example, my freshmen are starting with The Iliad this week), the implicit curriculum are the values, learning environment, cultural assumptions, and practices that inform our explicit studies. And just as important is the null curriculum—that which we choose not to address.

As I saw pictures of the protesters, watched the video of the car driving through the crowd, and read about the horrifying chants of the white nationalists, my gut reaction was probably similar to yours: “Is this America? In 2017?” But then I remembered human nature and history and realized that this is just a dot on a timeline, and humanity is tempted yet again by power and pride. Tower of Babel, anyone? We’ve always wanted to be our own gods, to claim our place among the nations.

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from The New Yorker

And then I looked more closely at the pictures. Many who marched look about my age. Many who marched look only a few years older than the seniors I’ll welcome to my class tomorrow. All of them had some sort of education. Some of them went to private school. Most of them probably read The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hamlet. All of them studied American history. In a few short years, my students will have to make the decision: Which march do I join? Which protest? What do I say? What do I post?

Posterity is a concern of mine as well. Yes, one day I’ll tell the story to my children of the age of terrorism that we’re currently living in—my vivid memory of 9/11, the unending attacks in Europe, ISIS and the refugees trying to make their way to safety. But right now, my students are watching what I say in the classroom, my former students are watching what I post on Twitter, and we’re all living in a week of history. My fear is that issues like Charlottesville will become so commonplace that they become part of our null curriculum in the classroom—that which is not addressed. Not only does that take away from valuable discussion of what it means to live as a Christian in this country, and how Homer and Hawthorne and Augustine would react to such an event, but it communicates to my students that Charlottesville and similar issues are not worth being thought about deeply or discussed.

Like the beginning of every school year, teachers everywhere are thinking about goals for their students. Which equations should they have memorized by the end of the year? Which literary devices should they know? How many research papers should they write? Should public speaking be a requirement?

I’m there too, thinking about the number of pages a week, the books in a semester, the questions driving the entire year. But Charlottesville brought me back to the ultimate telos of education—the type of people my students are becoming. How are they being formed by my curriculum (the explicit, implicit, and null)? How will they react to the Charlottesville of their time?

Perhaps I have a certain advantage, being a literature teacher. If I wanted to, I could discuss Achilles’ rage, whether or not it is justified, and even compare it to protesting in general. But whatever we teach, the implicit values and null curriculum often speak louder than the syllabus. This year, I’m beginning to realize the weight of my responsibility as a teacher. May my curriculum choices invite compassion, charity, and wisdom into the lives of my students.

Hospitality in the Classroom: On Xenia, Open House, and Parents as Guests

I am thrilled to welcome the first guest post on Dappled Studies. Margaret is a fellow student with me in the Houston Baptist University MLA program, and we’ve shared countless discussions about Arthurian legend, poetry, and teaching. I am grateful that she has chosen to write about on oft-overlooked group when it comes to hospitality in the classroom: parents! 

How fitting that Allison should invite me to write a guest post as she features “Hospitality in the Classroom” on her beautiful blog. She has graciously welcomed me in to her space to share some thoughts, and in doing so has allowed me to ponder and pull together a few truths that have helped shaped my approach to providing a classroom that seeks to be a source of light to students and parents alike.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher from as early as fifth grade when much to the chagrin of my four siblings, I created my own schoolroom in the basement of our home. As soon as summer vacation began, I wanted to “play school” and set up my mini blackboard with stacks of colored chalk ready for clean strokes of cursive. I loved writing on the blackboard! My siblings thought I was out of my mind: “Who does school in summer?” they proclaimed, as they ran for their lives before I could assign them a seat in my classroom.

Eventually, when I did indeed become a teacher, it was very important to me to create a classroom environment that was both welcoming and safe, much like the one my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Schick created. Everyone was loved in her room, even Kevin W. who to no avail she patiently trained all year to organize his messy desk. My desire as a teacher was to also extend hospitality to parents. Early on in the school year, I would get the opportunity to meet them in an evening we all know well, called Open House. Don’t you just love that name?

Open House is often a time of first impressions, and I wanted the parents to know that I would always be open and available for questions or concerns about their child’s time in my class. What I’d like to share are some thoughts about hospitality and in particular about parents as guests in the classroom.

When thinking about hospitality, my mind travels to ancient Greek mythology and the practice of xenia. It can be traced to the god Zeus who was called Zeus Xenios when he assumed the role of protecting travelers. Knowing that Zeus was acting as guardian induced the Greeks to show hospitality to strangers. It was also wise to honor a stranger in the event he was a god in disguise, for great reward might be gifted if he or she were treated properly.

The practice of the guest-host relationship became a ritual for the Greeks and required the host to offer something to eat or drink, and perhaps a bath if needed. The host would make the guest as comfortable as possible and not ask any questions until these needs were met. A departing gift by the host was also in order as a sign that the visit was successful and that the guest was honored. The guest was required to be grateful and respectful and not be a burden to the host.

 

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The Phaeacians welcome Odysseus 

The Odyssey is full of examples of xenia. The extraordinary patience of Telemachus as he serves the suitors who are seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage is proof that he did not wish to displease Zeus and suffer the consequences. The suitors, on the other hand were ungracious guests, eating and drinking in excess and threatening to kill Telemachus. Their irreverent behavior would eventually lead to their demise. My favorite example of xenia in the Odyssey is the kindness of the swineherd, Eumaeus towards Odysseus whom he doesn’t recognize as his former master, but as a travel worn stranger. In a touching display of hospitality, Eumaeus offers his own cloak to keep Odysseus warm at night. The shared courtesy required of xenia speaks to me in regards to how I treat parents as guests in and beyond the classroom.

Firstly, I see the relationship of guest and host as a type of partnership. I am partnering with parents to cultivate virtue and engage the minds of their children. This requires me to have the right perspective in regards to my role. I should not elevate myself above the level of a servant, for in serving properly I am able to provide a gift to the parents: at the end of the year, their child should show signs of growth and maturity

Secondly, the relationship of guest and host requires sacrifice on the part of the host. As a

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Eumaeus and Odysseus

teacher, I need to be willing to anticipate the needs of parents in regards to their child. Some parents need more reassurance about their child’s performance than others. I need to not see their frequent emails or phone calls as an imposition, but as an opportunity to build trust and even instill peace. Eumaeus gave Odysseus his own bed and cloak to ensure a restful sleep.

 

 

Finally, like Telemachus and Penelope sometimes you get some not so thoughtful guests. While in my experience this is rare, there are those times when as a teacher you may experience a disgruntled parent. Oftentimes these people like to invite folks to their misery party, and eventually other parents in the classroom get an invitation. As a host, I realize that I may not always please everyone all of the time, and in these cases I will need to exercise extreme patience and also let those in authority in on the situation. While the analogy gets a bit precarious here–eventually Odysseus took care of the suitors!

 

Margaret White currently mentors in the fullsizeoutput_744rhetoric class at The Covenant Preparatory School in Kingwood, Texas. She is a few short weeks away from completing her Master of Liberal Arts at Houston Baptist University, and looks forward to teaching full time again in the fall. She lives in Houston with her husband Robert, and they have four adult children, including a lovely daughter-in-law. 

Hospitality in the Classroom: Student as Guest

Tucked away in a short chapter of a very small book are a few wise words on receiving guests. Perhaps the author was unaware that his small book would shape centuries of Christian living, but his unflinching and pastoral look at the Christian life has captivated disciples of all ages. The author is St. Benedict of Nursia, and the book is his rule for a small monastery in the Italian Alps.

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If you have read the Rule of St. Benedict before, you are familiar with its themes and the gentle admonishings offered by the author. Those who aren’t actively following his rule in monasteries glean patterns of life from his schedules of prayer and service. But there is one small chapter—not often mentioned—that catches my attention during every reading. And, surprisingly, it charmed my students as well.

Two years ago, I taught a small class entitled Ecclesiastical Literature. Simply put, we learned the history of the church through its greatest works. We began our journey with Paul in the New Testament, then explored the Early Church Fathers; we argued with Justin Martyr, we confessed with Augustine,  and, of course, we discovered monasticism through St. Benedict. The rule was a much-welcomed relief for my students—especially after laboring through excerpts of City of God. But all of us soon realized that, though small, Benedict’s Rule pushed the boundaries of everything we assumed “living for Christ” meant.

Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” is no exception. Benedict begins simply: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Simple enough. Just think of everyone as Christ. Everyone?

He continues. In order to treat everyone like Christ, welcome these interruptions from strangers. Stop what you are doing and “meet him with all the courtesy of love.” Welcome interruptions?

Then, with no other background information on this said guest, address him or her with humility. Humility?

Of course, hospitality to Benedict is not a simple exchange of kind words at the door. Guests are to be taken in, prayed for, fed, and cared for. And not just anyone is suitable for this task: “The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely.” Wisdom?

Benedict describes hospitality in a way that goes a bit against my Southern roots. Hospitality in the south is sometimes considered a status symbol—are you the best host? Do you have sweet tea readily available for anyone who waltzes in? How is your dessert game? Did you think to buy some fresh flowers? Do your guests always feel oh-so-comfortable in your perfectly arranged living room?

And just like that, hospitality becomes connected with pride. There is nothing wrong with developing the skills of a good host, but the Southern host is often merely an entertainer. Benedict’s idea of a good host is encompassed in the virtue of humility. In fact, the abbot is commanded to wash the feet and hands of the guests, echoing that definitive act of Christ before the Last Supper.

But Monday morning rolls around, and teenagers stumble into our classrooms with excuses for late assignments and complaints about tomorrow’s project and gossip of today’s drama. Welcoming our students as if we were receiving Christ seems like a distant dream in moments such as these, and I no longer wonder about the vow of silence that monasteries often prescribe. But Lewis’s words come back to mind—and I remember that I am teaching no ordinary people, but immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

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Assuming that St. Benedict’s words are edifying for teachers also assumes that students are, to a certain extent, pilgrims and strangers. And though teachers do spend large amounts of time with students, remembering that they are pilgrims is helpful. Students come into our lives for a short time, like pilgrims stopping at a monastery during a journey. And like travelers, they are seeking care and wisdom.

A similar scene is described in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean is finally free after nineteen years in prison, but he is rejected repeatedly because of his past crime. When he stumbles upon a bishop’s house, he is welcomed without question, fed, and clothed. What seems to affect him most is the lack of suspicion that the bishop has of him; instead, the bishop respects him and treats him as any other guest. The bishop’s attitude of humility, rather than suspicion, disrupts Jean Valjean’s assumptions and becomes a catalyst for change.

However, Jean Valjean ends up stealing silverware and leaving in the middle of the
night, desperate to provide for his future needs. When caught valjean-with-candlesticks.jpegby police and taken back to the bishop’s house, the bishop claims he has given Jean Valjean the silverware, and tells him that he has forgotten the candlesticks as well. Valjean is amazed and confused at the bishop’s mercy, and vows to use this new wealth to live an honest life.

What is most pressing about this scene is not Valjean’s spiritual awakening or commitment to a new life—it is the fact that the bishop has something to offer Valjean that will benefit him for years to come. The bishop’s mercy cannot guarantee change in Valjean, but he offers what he has anyway. I think about this often in terms of the classroom; if our students are not remaining in the house of academia, do our lessons benefit them for life outside of collegiate endeavors? Are we modeling joy and confession and repentance? Do they see themselves in the texts we are reading? Do they see each other as made in God’s image? Are there things of worth in our classrooms that go beyond grades and transcripts?

The feast offered to my guests matters. I think through every possibility when hosting in my own home—why should it be any different in my classroom? If I can contemplate the pros and cons of tortilla soup or enchiladas with tomatillo sauce for an hour (you can tell I’m from San Antonio), considering what nutrition will be served in my classroom is well worth the effort. Am I providing something that nourishes my guests deeply for years to come, and not just for a number at the end of the semester? Do I have a vision that extends beyond the last day of school?

It seems that when we begin to view our students as guests, when we remember that they are on their own pilgrimages, when we let them join in the feast without suspicion, they return the favor. Just as a good guest returns the dinner invitation, some students begin adding to the hospitable classroom of their own accord: they serve the others, welcome others, are less suspicious of others.

May we humbly welcome pilgrims into our classrooms without suspicion, and may their interruptions give opportunity to provide feasts that nourish their souls.

Part 1- Hospitality in the Classroom: Teacher as Host 

Part 2- Hospitality in the Classroom: The Importance of Place 

 

Hospitality in the Classroom: The Importance of Place

 

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Students seemed mezmerized by one small change I had made to the classroom: a black cotton sheet that stretched over the waist-high bookshelf at the back of the room. It was the first week of class, and I was a second-year teacher who had just moved to Cincinnati and spent two weeks cleaning out and setting up my classroom. I had made other changes, too—my antique books were arranged on another bookshelf, book cover posters were displayed on the wall, and the brightly-colored posters with trite sayings about completing homework on time were thrown away. But what captivated students most was the idea of the black curtain, and a few days into that first week, they asked to look inside.

Of course, the only thing they found underneath it, as I warned them, were piles and piles of textbooks that we weren’t using that year, and a few empty shelves for the books I had already handed out. But they still seemed puzzled, so one student ventured out, “But why? What’s the black curtain for?”

“Because stacks of textbooks are ugly,” I said, “and I figured none of us would want to look at that all day.”

Some of them stared at me as if I wasn’t speaking English, and one student simply said, “Thank you.”

It struck me that day that students, and possibly many of their teachers, hadn’t considered the aesthetics of the classroom as one would consider carefully the aesthetics of the home. But once I began thinking of my students as guests, I had no choice but to consider the setting in which our learning took place.

A frequent comparison with the modern school is the jail. As a teacher, I’ve always been offended by this, but the more I know about and visit schools, the more I have to concede this diagnosis. This, of course, is excluding schools that are attempting to do something different, like many of the classical schools and charter schools that are taking a distinct approach to the school day. However, students in more traditional school settings often feel imprisoned in their white-washed classrooms, with few breaks, being forced to sit in uncomfortable chairs, having to ask if they can stand or go to the restroom, and reduced to cattle being herded—or minds simply needing to be filled. And even if this isn’t true of your particular school, this is the common conception that students have in mind when they think of school, as it is the overarching cultural metaphor.

To defeat such an image, there is work to be done. My students would complain of this captured feeling, as if they were being tortured and held for ransom, and graduation was the opening of the gates of freedom when “real life” would finally begin. And no matter how many times I tried to tell them that it wasn’t true, I came to discover that the best way to demolish their imagined walls was to convince them that their humanity was valued in the classroom. This happened slowly and painstakingly, but that black curtain was the beginning. A large part of this process was the time I took on the classroom itself, creating glimpses of beauty that would refresh my students’ spirits when they walked in.

In my last post, I considered responsibilities of a host towards a guest. But before a guest ever enters your house, there are ways that you prepare the space for their arrival. It might be adding some chairs to your table, returning the clutter to its given place, vacuuming up yesterday’s crumbs, or arranging fresh flowers. And though a classroom has its limitations, it is possible to make the space more conducive to the sort of class culture that humanizes students, encouraging them to participate in their studies as guests participate in a meal.

Of course, not all classrooms will or should look the same. A teacher of literature must consider different aesthetics than a teacher of science. But the underlying idea is the same: in what way can my space welcome my guests?

Since I’m a literature teacher, I wanted my classroom to feel as though we were sitting in a library or living room for discussion, and I let that guide my classroom planning. I still had the normal classroom cinderblock walls, a whiteboard, and storage, but there were some things that I could control: eliminating clutter, dimming the bright white lights,  adding beautiful fabric to bulletin boards, and choosing works of art instead of popular posters to decorate with.
Another opportunity I had to IMG_3203welcome my students in my classroom was a tea table, complete with an electric kettle, sugar cubes, a tea box, and white ceramic mugs. The students were welcome to have tea during book discussions, and it even became a way for students to show a sense of ownership in the classroom as they often contributed boxes of tea or sugar to the collection. This is only one example, and one that won’t work in every classroom.

Hopefully, an outcome of fostering a hospitable environment for students is that they begin contributing to it. The most beautiful item in my classroom during my year of teaching was a piece of art painted by one of my students. I had told her that my favorite Lewis work is his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” so she crafted some of his best words onto a canvas: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit, immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Not only did these words remind me who I was teaching each day, but they welcomed my students as well. And not only were they words that reminded each of us that we’re human, but they were words encapsulated in a beautiful form, recognizing our human need for beauty and order.fullsizeoutput_739

The most basic question to ask of any classroom, like you would of your own home, is does this room feel stressful to me? Cluttered? Uncomfortable? If you feel that way in your own classroom, your students probably do, too. It could be as simple as covering the ugly textbooks with black cloth, changing the lighting, or providing Kleenex during allergy season. It could be creating a beautiful space that encourages lingering in long conversations about age-old stories.

When I arrived in Ukraine five summers ago with only four fellow travelers, we had been flying and in airports for thirty-six hours, and we entered Kiev disoriented and exhausted. Yet we still had to spend a night in Kiev with a Ukrainian family before heading out to the small village where we’d be spending the summer. But I’ll never forget arriving at the house in Kiev. The family had adopted several children, and lived in a fairly small house. But they had beds ready for us, towels folded for us, and breakfast set out. They took time to pick us up, and greet us, and make us feel at home. Even in those humble surroundings, the care that they took in preparing for our arrival was noticeable and appreciated—I slept better that night than I would the rest of the summer.

And though each classroom comes with its own limitations, may we strive to prepare for and welcome each guest that walks into our classroom, for none of them are ordinary people.

Hospitality in the Classroom: Teacher as Host

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I was in a new city, a new country, a new house—and that first day of class, Dr. Bennett welcomed his students with a pot of tea in the front room as the morning sun made its way through the bay window. We barely knew one another, except for a few short days of touring Oxford together upon arrival. After those first romantic moments of excitement, we were left to settle into our rooms and start classes and live in a foreign place for the next five months.

But I’ll never forget that tea pot that Dr. Bennett brought out on the first day of class. About eight of us sat around a table with our C.S. Lewis texts, not quite sure how to discuss with one another in such a new and strange place, but Dr. Bennett understood a simple truth: before we could offer hospitality and understanding to Lewis and his work, we first had to commune with one another.

Maybe it was because we were in an old Victorian house, in the front sitting room, or maybe it was because our professor knew the power of hospitality in a strange place, but that experience forever changed my view of teachers. Teachers, rather than being mere imparters of knowledge or guides in the land of learning, are hosts.

The teacher has the ownership of the classroom. Even if you’d like to think of your class as “student-centered,” it only becomes so at the word of the teacher. The teacher has the sole right to change the layout of the classroom, to make the rules about what can and cannot be consumed during class, and to decide what is to be offered to the “guests.”

Why go to the trouble of comparing the role of a teacher with the role of a host? Why not just discuss what a teacher is? It turns out that teachers function within an assumed role, a pre-conceived metaphor. The most common may be a coach, then a babysitter, and then a drill sergeant. And it also turns out that these underlying notions of our role deeply affects pedagogy.

There are several reasons for my affinity for this particular metaphor. The first is simply because I love food, and hosting is often joined with feasting. Secondly, the terms “host” and “guest” tend to humanize and bring personality to the student/teacher relationship. Lastly, “be hospitable” is a common command in Scripture, and we are called to this task for friends, strangers, and enemies (I think that covers all possible students?). There is also the sad reality that for most of us, students are travellers that will move on from our classrooms after a short period of time, and we have the privilege of hosting them for a few brief months.

So with this metaphor in mind, I’d like to suggest four responsibilities of a host.

1) A host welcomes

My parents are masters of hospitality. I loved when people came to our home when I was a child—I fondly remember the smell of lemon-scented Pine Sol, freshly melted queso, and brewed sweet tea as the prelude to these events. The door was not to be knocked: my parents would rush to open the door as soon as they saw a car pull into the driveway, waving and greeting before our guests had time to get out of the car. Y’all might call this overdone southern hospitality, but for them, it was the only way.

In the classroom, how does this responsibility affect the role of the teacher? I’m sure you’ve seen the viral videos of teachers who have individual handshakes with each student, and that’s not a bad thing—but welcoming goes much deeper than shaking hands with somebody. Is the host prepared for the arrival? Or dreading it when the bell rings? Is the host assessing the needs of the guests? Or focused on his or her own agenda? Does the host actively greet the guests as people, or shrug them off as mere students?

2) A host introduces

Perhaps when you think of hosts, you remember that the narrator of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a host. It is he who suggests the friendly competition of telling the best tale, and it is he who makes a group of friends out of strangers. If you consider the responsibility of a host during an event or dinner party, you’ll realize that a large part of his or her job is to facilitate new relationships among the guests.

Who might be the stranger in the classroom? Is it a new student? Perhaps we are introducing our guests to a new idea, a new author, or a new concept. What will we say about the item we are introducing? How can we best facilitate relationships within the classroom in order to teach them how to welcome others? Who would we like for them to meet?

3) A host provides

I’ve been reading through David Copperfield, and there’s a delightful scene when David obtains his first private dwelling and hosts his first dinner party. It is completely overdone, with food enough for a dozen when he’s only hosting four, and enough rounds of toasts that he ends up regretting the night drunk. Soon after, he hosts another party, but has learned his lesson: hosting is not about extravagance, it is about providing for the needs of the guests. In this second dinner party, he even goes as far as providing lavender water for his female guest, and near the end of the evening, the guests participate in finishing the dinner preparation.

What might students–in this metaphor, guests–physically need? What might our guests intellectually need? Spiritually need? Are we as teachers anticipating these needs? Do we provide only out of a desire to impress?

4) A host serves

Of course, one of the central images we know of a host is the Lord washing his disciples’ feet. Though he performed this task as a servant, as there was none there, this act connected the job of the host at the Passover meal (breaking the bread, pouring the wine, leading prayer) with the job of the lowest servant. Christ showed us that the leader is to be one who serves, not glorifies himself.jesus-washing-feet-of-disciples.jpg

Are our classrooms places of service, or of self-glorification? Do we stoop to do the dirty work at times, or do we always demand that those below us do it? Do we approach our task with humility and patience (think of being patient with a student like Peter!), or do we teach from a position of pride and mastery?

 

I have failed to act as a gracious host many times to my students (and discovered these moments mostly through examen), but being explicit and considerate of how I think of my role as a teacher has shaped my classroom, my curriculum, and the interactions with my guests. And it all started with a simple pot of tea.

Out, damned spot: Lady Macbeth’s Diagnosis as Cure

When I was leading my seniors in a close reading and production of Macbeth, their reaction to a particular character was first disgust and, later, enchantment. This character was none other than Lady Macbeth. As we read the first half of the play, students repeatedly characterized her as the “devil on Macbeth’s shoulder” in their writing responses, giving her the hefty load of single-handedly carrying the plot.

It is somewhat true—Lady Macbeth, within several lines of meeting her for the first time, is praying to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…”, so that she can rid herself of feminine tenderness, replacing it “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” It is Lady Macbeth who convinces Macbeth to murder their king by questioning Macbeth’s very manhood. It is Lady Macbeth who calls Macbeth foolish for saying that his blood-covered hands are a sorry sight. And it is Lady Macbeth who seems to have no hesitations about their evil designs, as Macbeth himself continues to search for reassurances of his plan by summoning the witches, and reports that his mind is “full of scorpions.” Even as Macbeth appears to be going crazy as he sees Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth moves forward with the banquet as if they have done no wrong.

But I have never seen my students so captivated by a Shakespearean scene than the moment that Lady Macbeth appears sleep-walking in sight of her servant and a doctor near the end of the play. The one character that they had quickly dismissed and blamed for the entire play suddenly captured their attention, and they watched as closely as the doctor who is attempting to diagnose Lady Macbeth’s disease.

Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene echoes the night of Duncan’s death, when she was resolved to commit the murder of the king, praying that she be relieved from the “passage of remorse.” And it does seem that throughout the play she is free from guilt, unlike Macbeth himself. But Macbeth’s concern of his bloody hands (“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”) transfers to Lady Macbeth in the last act as she sleep-walks, attempting to scrub her hands clean. Likewise, Macbeth’s fear that he has “murdered sleep” foretells Lady Macbeth’s inability to rest as she wanders the castle nightly, trying to clean her hands that will “ne’er be clean.” Her sleepless guilt is even more striking when taken in light of Macbeth’s description of sleep the night of Duncan’s murder:

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher of life’s feast.screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

Flannery O’Connor once said that every good villain is one that we can relate to. I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have agreed. This “devil on the shoulder” of Macbeth becomes the very picture of remorse. In one of the shortest scenes of the play, Lady Macbeth suddenly captures our feelings of guilt: “Yet here’s a spot… Out, damned spot, out, I say!” And though the audience knows what crimes haunt her, she lives in that damned night of the past every time she sleep walks, as she goes to bed at the cue of a knock—the same end of that dark night of Duncan’s death.

I imagine that the scene captivates audiences for several reasons: the oddness of sleep-walking, a character that we thought less than human suddenly tormented by her former sins, but most importantly, her expression of the inner guilt that each of us have felt at one time or another.

The most recent remake of Macbeth cuts this scene short, and leaves out two of its major characters—the ever-watchful servant and doctor. Without the servant and doctor, the audience is left to themselves to make what they will out of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking monologue. But Shakespeare does something beautiful here with the presence of the doctor, who quickly realizes that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is “beyond his practice.” His diagnosis may be the wisest words in all the play: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

M.H. Abrams, in his book Natural Supernaturalism, calls attention to our use of physiological terms to describe our moral well-being. He points out that the “reigning diagnosis of our own age of anxiety [is] the claim that man, who was once well, is now ill.” Since these terms are so common in our own age, perhaps it can be difficult to see Lady Macbeth as anything but a victim of madness—but Lady Macbeth and her prophetic doctor show us otherwise: her malaise is due to the guilt that engulfed her the night of Duncan’s murder.

Lady Macbeth’s character works on us in mysterious ways; first we see her as a devil that sits on the shoulder of her tragic husband, and then suddenly she appears to us as a mirror of our own guilt, of which only the Divine will heal. Perhaps we would all benefit from the doctor’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth’s ills:

“More needs she the divine than the physician.

God, God forgive us all.”

See Part 1 of the Macbeth series.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series.

Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?: Confessions of a Macbeth-Obsessed Teacher

img_2841When the air gets cooler and my preference switches from iced tea to hot, I have an insatiable desire to immerse myself in the story of Macbeth. Maybe my craving comes from the early-falling darkness that demands a tale to follow suit; perhaps it’s the talk of witches and spirits that haunts each October; but just maybe my inclination stems from a classroom tradition I established: the reading and performing of Macbeth every fall.

First, I’ll quickly confess that the playing-out of this tradition is evidence of my evolving philosophy of education. The first year, we rushed through: the students read mostly at

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My students are talented! Sammy Reuscher, “Macbeth”, whiteboard, 2015.

home, I quizzed, and then we did a very brief day of student-planned performances. Perfect! We had “checked” Shakespeare off the list. Onward to the rest of British literature! Of course, this was a sorry excuse for a study of Macbeth.

The second year, I slowed it down a bit: we read the entire play in class, spent a few weeks rehearsing an abridged version, and then performed it for the entire high school during morning classes. The students also submitted five journals reflecting on the experience and themes from the play. But there was something lacking: complete engagement with the text, as the play itself was still an attempt to “get through the material.”

The third year, I must admit, was a highlight of my teaching career thus far. I still failed in many ways: not addressing the needs of every student, not drawing some students into discussion, not giving enough time for rehearsals… but we read it together in class, discussed each act, contemplated particular lines from the play, and then students performed excerpts, memorizing the original language instead of an abridged version. Finally, we were living together in the narrative, reflecting on Shakespeare’s words, recognizing our own souls in the confessions of the characters.

 

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Rehearsal, Fall 2015

The Scottish play is a frightening narrative, but what’s even more unnerving is when you and most of your students can admit: “I understand Macbeth as a character.” This was a statement much more prevalent in that third year of our tradition, as we journeyed together through Macbeth’s tragedy. If you haven’t read the play, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of Macbeth as a character: he is tempted by a prophecy to take matters into his own hands and consequently kills the king and becomes a tyrant.

Wait—isn’t my goal to lead students in wisdom and virtue? How is it virtuous and wise to say that I can understand—nay, even identify with—Macbeth?

Despite growing up in a Christian home, attending Christian schools, and teaching at Christian schools, it took me three years of teaching to realize that traditional Christian rhythms are helpful in leading students to wisdom and virtue: the pattern of daily prayer, the cycle of work and rest during the week and then the Sabbath, and the repetition of repentance and renewal each year during Lent and Easter. By this time in my teaching career, we were practicing the daily prayers at noon with my church history class, contemplating Berry’s Sabbath poetry in my AP Literature class… but I had yet to turn my “lectern into a confessional,” as Josh Gibbs often proposes. Some Christian practices in the classroom are encouraged, even by teachers in progressive education: addressing the marginalized, being hospitable to the stranger, giving to the poor. But the practice of repentance is inherently against the model of progressive education, where the teacher is seen as the ultimate guide and guardian to the students’ education and self-esteem.

Yet the Christian narrative does just that: subverts the worldly institutions and interrupts the secular narrative. In the third year of teaching Macbeth, I had decided that to truly encounter wisdom and virtue in this study, I had some repenting to do: his attempt to control his own fate, his power-hungry, ambitious self—well, that’s me. And some of my students followed in the confession, soon recognizing this downfall of human nature: the desire for power, the grasp for control. Macbeth himself confesses, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition…” and soon after realizes that he must attempt to hide his sin: “False face must hide what false heart doth know.”

After we recognized this downfall of Macbeth (and, if you will, the human race),  the unexpected occurred.

Macbeth is considered by most the darkest play that Shakespeare ever composed. But instead of the students agreeing with Macbeth that life “is a tale // told by an idiot, full of sound and fury // signifying nothing”, they recognized this manifesto as an extension of his pride. Suddenly, we could no longer follow Macbeth into insanity, as modern readers often do. Rather, the story itself showed us the way to renewal after repentance.

This redemptive reading of the tragedy is, I suggest, impossible to discern with the modern, nihilistic view of life. And that is why no contemporary production of Macbeth has ever satiated my autumnal cravings. But that’s for another post.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series. 

See Part 3 of the Macbeth series. 

 

The Man Behind the Masterpieces: A Review of MFAH’s “Degas: A New Vision”

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Edgar Degas has recently been hailed the hero of many: from dancers appreciating his ability to depict movement to women acknowledging his realistic portrayal of the feminine form, there is much contemporary interest in Degas’s work. But a new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, Texas aims to revitalize the interest in the artist himself. At the entrance of Degas: A New Vision, the museum features a complex timeline of both Degas’s personal life and concurrent events in his beloved Paris and the wider European world. The timeline offers a context, both personal and historical, to what the exhibit features: more than 200 paintings from his life—one of the most extensive surveys of Degas’s work in thirty years.

Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834 and entered the art world in the 1850s—a time of immense change, as artists began to break from the Academy. Degas followed suit: throughout his career, he was closely connected to major artists in the impressionist movement, namely Monet, Manet, Cassat, and Renoir. He is mostly known for his candid and realistic portraits of women bathing, colorful scenes of theatre and ballet, and studies of horseracing.

But this is the Degas we all know. The exhibit invites the viewers to meet another Degas: one intensely personal, who relishes in perfectionism and fears his own blindness. Before entering the collection, guests encounter the final impressions of Degas upon his peers: a friend described him as “looking like the blind Homer, possessing a gaze that appears to contemplate eternity.”

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Dancer in the role of Harlequin, bronze

Degas’s contemplation of physical form and eternal search for perfection takes center stage in Degas: A New Vision. Sketches and sculptures—only one of which he chose to display during his lifetime—fill the gallery. At the entrance of the exhibit, viewers are greeted by Degas’s earliest sketches during his student years in Paris and Italy. As the gallery progresses, sculptures interrupt the direct path through the paintings, a reminder of Degas’s continual striving for perfection. He often destroyed his sculptures, recreating them time and time again before painting the sculpted form on canvas. Yet the figures that appear on his canvasses obviously benefit from these multiple drafts; it seems that his painted subjects are in motion, as if Degas expressed movement instead of merely an object. There is a tendency to think of “impressionism” as ungrounded and airy and unrealistic; but Degas successfully combines impressionism’s use of light and color with the perfection of form. Degas: A New Vision does not allow the audience to forget the artist’s knowledge of form with multiple sculptures featured and sketches enshrined alongside masterpieces.

The collection moves from early life to late life, beginning with Degas’s student paintings of human forms and ending with his famous Bathers and his lesser-known portrait photography. Yet even with this progression, the man himself never disappears from the exhibit. The placement of the paintings do not communicate a particular progression of style or philosophy, or even a definitive statement of Degas’s contribution to the world of modern art; instead, the arrangement reveals an artist in unceasing pursuit of expression, relishing in the possibilities of the sketch. There is a particular focus on Degas’s constantly shifting choice of medium: charcoal, paint, monotype, photography, and sculpture. He finds his voice in each, with echoes of his charcoal sketches seen in his landscapes and repetitions of peculiar framing of subject in both his paintings and photographs.

For all of the emphasis on novelty in the exhibit’s advertisements, there is a lack of focus on the lesser-known pieces of Degas. Perhaps the collection would more fittingly be titled A Complete Vision, as the audience benefits from the chronological layout and inclusion of the sketches. But Degas: A New Vision falls short by minimizing some of Degas’s most intriguing works of inspiration in the space. There are remarkable, lesser-known works by the artist that deserve the spotlight: Degas’s Japanese silk fan pieces, which so clearly show the artist’s love of tones and colors and dancers; his portraits and sketches of other artists, namely Eduoard Manet and Mary Cassat; and his moody photography, which is hidden in the back corner of the exhibit like a well-kept secret.

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Self-portrait with Christine and Yvonne Lerolle, Gelatin silver print, 1895

But even with this disregard of novelty, perhaps Degas: A New Vision accomplishes what every exhibit should: just enough intrigue to give the viewers at once a knowledge of the subject and an increasing desire to know more. Degas’s passion for art is what overwhelms the audience, and we leave with a portrait of the man behind the masterpieces. Most tellingly, hidden in the cluttered timeline at the beginning of the exhibit, are the words Degas ordered to be written on his tombstone: “he loved drawing very much.”

Why “Dappled Studies”?

img_2700Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.
“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

If you know me well, you’ll gather two things: 1) my likelihood to name a blog after a poem, and 2) my obsession with Hopkins. This poem completed my long journey back to faith after an arduous crisis; how could I read it without experiencing both confession and praise?

Like most literary obsessions I now have, I discovered Hopkins’ poetry because of my students. When I taught AP Literature, I devoted an entire quarter to poetic structure—and, of course, Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a textbook example (quite literally in our AP textbook). Intrigued by his mastery of sound, I began researching and discovered that this poet-turned-priest burned all of his pre-conversion poetry. He then swore off poetry because he didn’t see the connection between his vocation and art. Thankfully, seven years later, his rector pressured him to write a poem in remembrance of five monks drowning in a shipwreck, and afterwards he couldn’t put the pen down. What does this conviction of Hopkins’ to refrain from poetry reveal about his view of art?

Hopkins understood the power of art to speak to the human soul; he appreciated the responsibility of the artist; and perhaps above all, he realized the importance of language in pointing us to the Word Himself.

Yet Hopkins, for all his wisdom and clarity concerning art, had a dappled life. He was surrounded by darkness in his later years (see his poem “Peace”). And this idea of “dappling” reminds me of reality: there are shadows that we don’t quite understand, moments that will never become clear. There is a fickleness, a constant change to our lives, that may confuse us. This dappling affects even my studies: every grasping at truth seems to terminate in both beauty and mystery.

I remember discovering this poem last winter, and it became so sacred to me that I didn’t even want to teach it. But I eventually gave in–even if it was just for the beauty of Hopkins’s language–and brought it into the classroom. My students, being teenagers, were experiencing immense changes every day; they were struggling to see the beauty of life, wondering who would be loyal in the end, and perhaps seeking something eternal. Hopkins, in eleven short lines, encapsulates my goal in the classroom: to communicate beauty, mystery, and an unchanging God while inviting moments of doxology and confession.

The line that surprises me every time I read this poem is the last: “Praise him.” For all the things we encounter in life, those things “counter, original, spare, strange,” our response should be doxology. What begins as a description of spotted things ends in a simple response: praising the God of all.

And if you haven’t read this poem all the way through–aloud–now would be the time; you may soon come to appreciate Hopkins’s mastery of the English language and his insight into the human soul.