Since we’ve moved to Siloam Springs, I’ve spent plenty of time watching my cat happily climb the old dogwood tree by our garage. Bark chips off as he climbs higher. He often looks back at me as if he wants to know whether he should jump or keep going on his elevated scratching post.
It brings to mind the wonder of tree climbing when I was a kid. I thought of trees as my friends, especially growing up in muggy Mississippi. In my mind, I can easily see a majestic magnolia with its fat arms resting on the ground. To climb under those branches, then into the cool cave of shade by its smooth trunk, was a magical experience. As a kid, I knew that tree.
Yes, I climbed its branches, read in its shade, maybe I secretly carved initials or a symbol in its bark. I rubbed a leaf between my fingers and let its curved shape become a boat. I peeled off bits of bark with my fingernails, broke off a small branch to dig at a hole in the trunk. I wiped a spider web from my face and learned the sound of the wind as it hit the waxy leaves. I knew that tree.
Understanding a tree begins with the experience of it as a whole and a realization that all knowledge about that tree is connected. I didn’t need a botany lesson to label things. I encountered the parts of the tree.
This understanding is a central root to classical education. . . .
I confess. I have asked students to make revisions to their essays. In fact, I may have casually said, “You just have some light revision work,” or “This needs heavy revision.” It sounds flippant to my ears now. Trite. But those comments all beg the same question—what does it really mean to revise our writing?
One of my former students reached out for help with a long essay. As a hopeful history major, Eric wanted to submit a college application essay on a historical subject he loved—the French Revolution. He had narrowed the topic to the role of Royalist journalists and had completed all the research, including the discovery of digitized letters and propaganda from that time period.
Unfortunately, the essay had practically become a list of quotes and sources and key figures. Some connections among them had been made, but it wasn’t coherent. Yet.
In the beast fables The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows, Walter Wangerin, Jr. crafted a living bestiary complete with a great and cosmic evil, one he carefully chose --
I discarded the notion of a human enemy, as it is in Watership Down since humans in that fantasy seemed, to me, to trouble the human reader’s ability to identify with the animals. I rejected next the notion that the enemy would arise from the animal kingdom itself since I wanted this to be evil, “das ding an sich” the thing itself rather than bad animals. Finally I hit upon the acceptable notion: that my evil would be framed in the solid, complex history of myth.
Thus Wangerin chose a creature that, by its nature, had always existed. The Wyrm of Old English and Old Saxon lore became a literal gargantuan worm trapped in the bowels of the earth, much like the Jörmungandr of Norse mythology. Wangerin says, “The apple has a grub in it, the earth a tapeworm.”
Though many bestiaries date back a full millennium or more, the Aberdeen Bestiary from the year 1200 AD describes similar dragon-type creatures with explicit teaching. Wangerin employs the serpent of old, the medieval snake or dragon of the Aberdeen Bestiary, “a viper that pours out its poison,” a living thing that preys upon hope, spewing doubt into the minds of the creatures of the earth.
"Of the dragon: The dragon is bigger than all other snakes or all other living things on earth. For this reason, the Greeks call it dracon: from this is derived its Latin name draco. The Devil is like the dragon; he is the most monstrous serpent of all; he is often aroused from his cave and causes the air to shine because, emerging from the depths, he transforms himself into the angel of light and deceives the foolish with hopes of vainglory and worldly pleasure. The dragon is said to be crested, as the Devil wears the crown of the king of pride. The dragon’s strength lies not in its teeth but its tail, as the Devil, deprived of his strength, deceives with lies those whom he draws to him."
Wangerin’s Wyrm must tempt and deceive God’s creatures if he is ever to escape his prison, but first Wangerin introduces us to his menagerie above the earth’s crust, borrowing from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
Once again, I turn to preparing for the summer conference season. I've presented several workshops on poetry over the years, but for this summer, I dug a bit deeper. I asked myself, "How have I taught poetry?"
In my first years of teaching high school juniors in a public high school, our American Literature textbook included the usual poets and poems—Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, William Cullen Bryant, and so on. My classes and I dutifully read those poems aloud and lightly discussed them. I dutifully assigned the printed discussion questions in the textbook as homework. And the next day, my students turned in their dutiful attempts at answers. Duty pervaded all. We had done our part and moved on through the textbook.
Duty pervaded all."
When our boys were older and I returned to teaching, in a classical school this time, I heard about how teaching with passion was contagious. Well of course!
I had to try it out with poetry. Trust me, my 8th and 9th grade classes were likely overwhelmed by my enthusiasm and my rousing rendition of Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain". Somehow I thought that keeping my students' attention equaled mutual enthusiasm. It did not.
I next began dissecting the poems into pieces, demanding that every tiny part be labeled. Unbeknownst to me, my actions sucked out the very life of the poem at hand. I continued this process for several years and could not understand why my enthusiasm and supposed expertise did not transfer to my classes as a whole.
It was not my students.
I came to see that only when I happened to read C.S. Lewis's Experiment in Criticism for the first time. He writes,
The literary sometimes ‘use’ poetry instead of ‘receiving’ it. They differ from the unliterary because they know very well what they are doing and are prepared to defend it. ‘Why’, they ask, ‘should I turn from a real and present experience—what the poem means to me, what happens to me when I read it—to inquiries about the poet’s intention or reconstructions, always uncertain, of what it may have meant to his contemporaries?’ There seem to be two answers. One is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne may possibly not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made. Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text, this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions, and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience were due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to, my own one?” (151-152).
I had been a thief! I had not given my students the space to delight in the poem itself. I had forced my students to use poetry.
In his Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis says that "the old critics were quite right when they said that poetry 'instructed by delighting.'" In all my learning, in all my best intentions, I had somehow missed this step.
My approach to teaching poetry in a classroom setting is quite different now, and I'm still learning. My students and I read a poem aloud and silently several times. I engage the class with questions that most resemble Charlotte Mason's narration approach. I make notes of the questions they ask me and each other. I rarely demand that my students identify parts and pieces unless the poem shouts at us to do so. I offer historical or authorial context only as their questions demand. This simplicity has created a freedom from legalistic analysis. It has given me and my students the opportunity to receive the beauty of words.
Caldwell, ID. In 1513, after serving for years in the courts of Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli found himself on the losing side of a Medici plot and was exiled from his beloved city. He was likely tortured before he left. In his new life, he farmed on his family estate and spent his days debating peasants in the local inn. But that was not all. He described the rest of his day in a remarkable and justly famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori:
When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer feel poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.
Roosevelt Montás, the author of Rescuing Socrates, was likewise welcomed kindly into these ancient courts after finding a whole set of Harvard Classics in the garbage and—due to limited space for books in the Queens apartment of his teen years—saving the Plato volume from suffering the fate of the rest of the series. Like Machiavelli, he is also unashamed to speak with the ancient men and to question them. His new book is a generous and magnanimous account of his own initiation into the world of classics via the Columbia College Core Curriculum, as well as a thoughtful record of his continued engagement with them in many classrooms at Columbia and elsewhere....
I’m no stranger to George MacDonald. In fact, I would say I often feel like his welcome companion when I’m immersed in his fiction. A Quiet Neighborhood, Castle Warlock, or Sir Gibbie are places I’ve been to, and people I’ve visited in my imagination. But MacDonald also wrote a number of essays commenting on the fairy tale genre and his own writing.
In “The Fantastic Imagination,” MacDonald clarifies that fairy tales really have nothing to do with fairies, or at least they don’t have to. They do, however, have a “natural law” unto themselves as MacDonald writes. Our imagination won’t work without it.
This is what he means. When we create from our imaginations and write a story, we naturally follow a pattern of harmony. MacDonald explains it this way: If you were to give a bizarre accent to “the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland,” then wouldn’t the tale sink then and there? The pieces of the tale must harmonize and not stick out...
In the history of education in America, many Americans no longer know how common schools became more than an idea. Nor do they know who made the first strides in these efforts.
Thomas Jefferson attempted to establish a decentralized public school system more than once, a plan based on localized districts within counties. In his 1778 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” he stressed the need for vigilant citizens who would constantly be on guard against the ambition of rulers, especially at the state or federal levels. Jefferson wanted to educate all students as future citizens in a republic and at the same time provide expanded opportunities for men to develop into the future political leaders of Virginia.
At his 1838 Lyceum Address in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln advocated that schools should teach a reverence for our American democracy: “Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”
Building on this idea of citizenship, William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873) strove to openly cultivate Christian character by developing readers in the growing American West independent of British influence. The McGuffey Readers introduced students to the classics, to morality, and to good character. Seven million readers were sold before 1850 with thirty-seven states adopting them by 1890. McGuffey’s influence held for decades.
In his examination of McGuffey’s life and curriculum, John H. Westerhoff weaves a biography within a fascinating history of education in the early 1800s. The idea of common schools was growing. Westerhoff’s research clearly shows how McGuffey and his original Readers made a significant impact on nineteenth-century education through the use of moral teaching, civics, story, and phonics....
Long ago I took an undergrad course titled Oral Interpretation of Literature. I needed two speech classes to graduate with my education degree, and it happened to fit my schedule. I had no idea what I was walking into. I didn't know that a drama professor taught it.
Like myself, most of the students were education majors thinking we had found an easy class to balance out our heavier ones. No textbook required. Our first assignment was to take turns standing in front of the class to read “Dover Beach.” We were to read aloud and keep eye contact.
What we didn't know was that we would be excoriated for everything from enunciation to volume to facial expression and posture. It was eye-opening to say the least. I had no expectations. But Professor Lewandowski did. Within two weeks I had two Cs and I was proud of them.
Professor Lew promptly coached us as he would an actor presenting a monologue, yet he told us the class was not about drama. Everything we said was about expression, the value of words.
He thought that teachers could perform not for performance’s sake, mind you, but because that was how you appreciated the words you said. He reminded us that we would have a captive audience every day of the week in our classrooms after all.
Every other week we presented a poem, a passage from a novel, or a bit from a short story or a play. We learned from each other's mistakes, but we also learned from each other's presentations. And by presentation I mean that moment of beauty when the words, the volume, and the expression create a moment of beauty for the audience, a moment of awe.
After presenting four times in class, I still had a C. I was dumbfounded because I was trying my hardest. So I finally stayed after class and asked for help. I wanted to figure out this riddle, this thing I didn't understand how to do. He spent ten minutes helping me polish one section of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” just one. But it was enough. After all these weeks, this little bit of practice and coaching was what I needed. By repetition, he taught me in those moments to read the lilt in the Rossetti’s rhyme, to play with different words.
I don't remember if I got an A or a B by the end of the semester, but I do remember improving, performing a section of Leo Tolstoy's “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” It was a challenge, but I tried and performed, reading and engaging the audience, and using the tools Professor Lew had shown me. I may have done a decent job.
After all these years, decades, I still have a file of notes from that course. I have not forgotten. But more than that, I know interpreting the literature and poetry I teach adds everything to how my students hear. I only hope that my efforts lead my students to the same wonder I experienced at age 19.
Sometimes I reread children’s literature because I enjoy being captured again by the quality of writing and the stir of imagination. I read Laura Ingalls Wilder alongside every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. Not one librarian said I couldn’t read them because I was a girl, and thankfully, those same librarians pointed me next to Zane Grey. At age 13 and 14, these westerns were deep to me, even if I did recognize the plot patterns. I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, and often, a misunderstood man.
In the same vein, Jack Schaefer’s very first novel creates a story that’s even more impactful. Shane (1949) began as a short story that was serialized in three parts in Argosy magazine in the late 40s. First titled “Rider from Nowhere,” it wasn’t intended for young children, though it’s certainly suitable. Through the eyes of a child narrator and from his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper cowboy character than most, perhaps because we witness Shane’s moral choices and his influence upon an entire family...
The world is not always a kind place, said Brother Edik.
We may lose those we love along the way, but unexpected friends, like a goat, can bring delight and comfort.
Yes, a goat. In Kate DiCamillo’s The Beatryce Prophecy, the monks of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowings are harassed by an ornery goat, one that soon finds a different purpose in comforting a lost girl.
Beatryce is found by Brother Edik, who long ago foretold that a girl child “will unseat a king.” But Beatryce doesn’t remember why she fled her home. She doesn’t know she might be important.
“Will you write of this in the Chronicles?” she asked. “Will you say that a girl named Beatryce, who does not know where she came from or who her people are, held on to a goat and sorrowed?”
“Yes,” said Brother Edik from above her. “It will be written so.”
“As something that happened?” said Beatryce. “Or as something that has yet to happen? Will I become a prophecy?”
“Oh, Beatryce,” said Brother Edik.