My Hero

It’s been over a month since the 1145th anniversary of his coronation, but Alfred the Great is on my mind. It’s probably because my semester has just ended, and I’ve been reflecting on the past school year. I welcome any wisdom that can help me reflect, and where better to look for wisdom than in the rule of King Alfred?

Alfred the Great, born in 849 and crowned King of Wessex in 871, is known for many things, including uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms,  defending them against the Vikings, improving the navy, and issuing a legal code, as well as promoting education and the use of English. Although the Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred), written by the Welsh monk Asser, is surely not unbiased–Alfred had invited him, and other men of the Church, to help him in advancing his own education, and they benefited from their positions–surely it possesses grains of truth or, at the very least, reflects Alfred’s values.

According to Asser, Alfred possessed a “sapientiae desiderium” (“desire for wisdom”*), particularly in the “liberalem . . . artem” (“liberal artes”**). His mother, Osburh, encouraged his love of learning when she showed a book to Alfred and his brothers and promised it to whichever son could memorize it first. Alfred, the youngest, won. Years later, he passed down this tradition of learning by providing teachers for his own children and “omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus” (“all the noble children in the entire region, and also many common ones”). Making education available to “common” children anticipates much later movements toward universal education.

The young Anglo-Saxon students “utriusque linguae libri, Latinae scilicet et Saxonicae” (“read books in both languages, namely Latin and Saxon [English]”). Alfred was painfully aware of how important both Latin and English were. Although he had read English from a young age, Latin came only later and with the help of “magistros” (“experts”) from “ultra mare” (“beyond the sea”)–whom he rewarded with “magna potestate” (“great power”)–as well as, ultimately, “divino instinctu” (“divine inspiration”).

He knew that he was not alone in his ignorance of Latin. In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis (Pastoral Rule, known more commonly as Pastoral Care), he famously wrote, “S clæne heo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron       behionan Humbre ðe ðiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; ond ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren” (“So thoroughly had it [learning] declined in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English, or even translate a written letter from Latin to English; and I think that there were not many beyond the Humber”***). After this demonstration of England’s state of educational disrepair, Alfred points out the dangers of an educational and religious system that relies on a little-known language to transmit knowledge and enjoins the reader to  

“[g]eðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon” (“remember that punishment then befell us in this world, when we neither loved it [learning] ourselves nor passed it down to other men”). The “punishment” to which Alfred refers is undoubtedly the Viking attacks in which “hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned” (“it all was ravaged and burned”) and before which “ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefylda” (“the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books”). Alfred points out that people had received “lytle fiorme (“little benefit”) from those books, though, because the books “næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene” (“were not written in their own language”). The suggestion is, of course, that the inability to read and the ignorance it fostered were responsible for decades of suffering at the Vikings’ hands.

Although today most would not blame the Viking invasions on God’s anger at the state of education in Anglo-Saxon England, we can still admire Alfred’s prescience and intellect. His life and career reveal that learning was no less important than–and inexorably connected to–other aspects of kingship and citizenship, including military savvy and prowess. This lesson, certainly, is as valuable today as it was in the ninth century.


* The Latin is from The Latin Library’s “Asserius: Life of Alfred.” The translations are mine. My Latin was never good, and now it’s beyond rusty. If you see any errors, please point them out gently.

** These are not the liberal arts as we know them today. An explanation will be the subject of a future post.

***The Old English is from the University of Calgary’s King Alfred’s Preface to His Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.” The translations are mine. My Old English is better than my Latin, but if you do see any errors, please (again) point them out gently.


Oh, the Humanities!

(Many thanks to The Big Bang Theory for providing me with this entry’s title.)

I recently found myself, as I often do, defending the role of the humanities in public secondary education. (I will not discuss the context of this defense, but please trust that my words were relevant and heartfelt.) In the past when I’ve done such a thing I’ve been asked, “What do you mean when you talk about ‘humanities’?” I’ve wanted to answer, “The same thing that any educated person means when she uses that word,” but instead I explained what the humanities are: areas of study such as literature, history, philosophy, and religion that shed light on the human condition.

The humanities are part of the liberal arts, which also include art, natural and social science, and math. The word “liberal” is used in the original sense of “free”—meaning, in ancient Greece, the subjects appropriate for a free person, subjects that would help him participate in politics and society. In ancient Rome, the liberal arts consisted of the Quadrivium—arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music—and the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

I (and I’m not the only one) worry that many people see secondary schools as well as colleges and universities as places of vocational training only. According to these folks, the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs, not to teach them to think for themselves about the world around them. Therefore, it follows that schools should focus on STEM skills, and history and language arts departments exist to serve the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The thing is that many CEOs and other successful business people disagree with these claims, as is evident here and here and here. They want employees who can think and who can communicate and who can entertain multiple perspectives.

Lest I seem to value the humanities to the extent that they serve the market, let me that this is not the only (or even the main) reason they should play a larger role in education. I agree with Stanley Fish and David Brooks when they say that the humanities are valuable in and of themselves.

Sadly, it is those who are diminishing the role of the humanities who need them the most.

Published in: on June 1, 2015 at 10:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Trivializing Pursuit

Yesterday my Facebook news feed revealed a meme comparing Hillary Clinton to Adolph Hitler. (I will not dignify the meme by linking to it.) Suffice it to say that I told the poster what I thought.

That anything an American politician can do to approximate the horrors perpetrated by Hitler is highly unlikely, to say the least. More insidious than this suggestion is the trivialization of Nazi atrocities that such statements involve.

The analogy demonstrates not only an ad hominem attack but also the association fallacy of Reductio ad Hitlerum, a phrase coined by philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. Sadly, the use of Reductio ad Hitlerum (also known as “Playing the Hitler Card”) has only increased in recent years. It is not limited to one political party, and anyone is fair game, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is Jewish), former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, both Presidents Bush, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and President Obama. Individuals and groups compared to Nazis or the Nazi Party include the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), gay people in general, the National Educational Association (NEA), and police officers.

If everyone seems to be a Hitler nowadays, then everything seems to be a Nazi policy or a Holocaust. (Like many Jews, I prefer the word “Shoah,” or “burning,” to Holocaust,” or “sacrifice” because it is more accurate and less of a whitewash. I use “Holocaust” here because that is the word used by the people in question.) Examples include such diverse (and sometimes opposing) phenomena as abortion, the Affordable Care Act, animal abuse, criticism of the wealthy, criticism of Fox Newsimmigration laws, ending filibusters, Guantanamo Bay detention, gun control, the Iraq War, lack of health care, national debt, regulating for-profit colleges, refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, requiring a bakery to serve all customers regardless of sexual orientation, smoking bans, federal student loans, taxes, and vaccines.

These comparisons go beyond simple hyperbole. The problem is neither the logical fallacy nor the lack of imagination needed to commit it; rather, it is the aforementioned trivialization. If refusing to bake a cake for a couple is as bad as a Nazi policy that contributed to the deaths of millions of people, then it follows that Nazi policies that contributed to the deaths of millions of people were no worse than refusing to bake a cake. The dwindling number of Shoah survivors and World War II veterans distances us from the atrocities they endured and witnessed. We must keep their memories alive.

Several years ago, one of my students thought it would be funny to sieg heil me. (A classmate, to his credit, tried to stop him.) The young man in question was not evil, or even bad. He was immature, and he just didn’t get it. His dad got it; I could feel the man’s mortification over the phone when I told him what had happened. We are surrounded by words and phrases like “feminazi” and “Grammar Nazi” that dilute the reality of the Shoah, though, so it is not surprising that a teenager would not understand the gravity of the situation. As adults, we must set a good example by not taking the easy way out with shabby rhetoric, and we must set others on the correct path when they stray. When one of my students–or colleagues–tosses around the word “Nazi”–or “slavery,” or “rape”–I explain the idea and danger of trivialization and have the student find a less damaging and more accurate word or phrase. I owe it to those whose voices have been lost.

Published in: on April 19, 2015 at 2:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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I Long for a Bed . . . of Sloths!

The other day, I was creating a PowerPoint on subject-verb agreement and was working on a slide about collective nouns. Because several sample sentences on previous slides related to sloths (another story for another time), I typed “What is a group of sloths called?” into Google’s search bar. The first–and so far only–site I visited was Quizlet, which had a set of flashcards appropriately titled “Collective Nouns (Animals by NK).” I learned that a group of sloths is called a “bed.” Some other interesting names of groups of animals include:

a candle of anteaters

a cackle of hyenas

a prickle porcupines

a romp of otters

a wake of buzzards

an implausibility of gnus

an array of hedgehogs

a constellation of starfish

a wisdom of wombats

Finally: A group of bears–my second favorite animal–is called a “sloth.”

I look forward to sharing these with my students, and when I finish the PowerPoint, I’ll post it on this blog.


Published in: on October 10, 2014 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Don’t Be Disconsolate

The other day, I was introducing my students to a new vocabulary list. One of the words, “disconsolate,” caught a young man’s attention. “If ‘disconsolate’ means ‘sad,’ and ‘dis’ means ‘not,'” he said, “does ‘consolate’ mean ‘happy’?” Not having heard the word “consulate” before, I looked it up.

Although I easily could have looked up the word on my computer, or ask the students to look it up on their phones, I walked over to  set of dictionaries and look it up. To me, for whatever reason, looking up a word in a dictionary conveys a love of words for their own sake in a way the other methods do not. Perhaps I’ll explore possible reason wshy in a future post.

“Apparently, the adjective form of ‘consolation’ is ‘consolatory.'”

The student thanked me, and we moved on. I hope that in some way I encouraged even one student’s interest in words, but, if nothing else, I fed my own curiosity.

Published in: on September 23, 2014 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My students are working on a poetry project, and I will do one, too. Each students chose a poet, but no two students could choose the same poet. They are doing some background research, finding three poems that they, like, and then finding criticism on one. They will then create presentations, which they will share with the class.

I have chosen William Dunbar, a fifteenth century Scottish poet. For some reason, I had been thinking about his “Lament for the Makaris,” and the refrain, “Timor mortis conturbat me,” has been stuck in my head. (A “makar” is a poet, and “Timor mortis conturbat me” means “The fear of death disturbs me” and comes from the Catholic Office of the Dead.) For my three poems, I will probably choose “Lament for the Makaris,” “Meditatioun in Wyntir” (“A Meditation in Winter”) and “On His Heid-Ake” (On His Headache”). I’m not sure what my presentation will entail. I’d love to do a video in a cemetery, but I’d have to work out the logistics. If I do it, I’ll post it here. I am also, of course, open to any suggestions.


Published in: on February 11, 2014 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wrong or . . . Write?

Yes, I know the pun in this post’s title is horrible, but it will have to do until I can think of something better. My concern at the moment is grammar and usage. I recently have come across posts and articles about grammar that, in the “Comments” section, spiral into arguments about whether certain rules are actual rules and even if such a thing exists in the realm of language. In various contexts, both print and digital, laypeople and linguists such as Columbia University’s John McWhorter discuss whether these rules (or “rules”) are fetters holding us to a version of English that never was or worn gates preventing us from tumbling into barbarism.

Of course, I see both sides’ points. I’m aware that:

1. Language evolves, and ultimately there is nothing we can do to stop it.

2. Many of our rules came about in the eighteenth century, when folks set out to standardize English, sometimes using Latin as their guide despite the fact that not only is Latin not English but it also is not even Germanic.

3. Because of #2, Shakespeare’s plays commit all sorts of atrocities that we would not overlook in our students’ writing.

It is these students that I often think about when considering my views of English’s rules. I never correct my students’ speech (unless they try to instigate the “Let’s find fault with each other’s spoken English” game, which I win quickly so that we can get back to the task at hand). I do, however, teach on the conservative end of the grammar spectrum. For example, I do not except “they” as a singular pronoun, and I differentiate between “lay” and “lie.” I do this not to strike a blow for civilization but rather to prepare my students for whatever professors will cross their paths next year. I see it as a question of dialect, and I explain that to the students. There is a time and a place for everything, and just as we naturally code switch in daily life, so must we do so when writing in academia. Yes, the dialect of the Academy might be that of old (or dead) white men, but if they want to navigate the Academy, they must learn the lingo.

Published in: on December 27, 2013 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ten Things I Like about Conferences

I haven’t posted in a little while because I’ve been in San Francisco. My husband and daughter joined me for the first half of the week, and I attended the national Advanced Placement conference the second half. I hadn’t been to a conference in a few years, and this one reminded me of some of the things I love about them:

1. Paid travel, hotel rooms, and food (breakfast and lunch). Enough said.

2. Shopping. After hours, I managed to buy knick knacks in Chinatown and chocolate from Ghirardelli. Before the conference, I bought jewelry in Haight-Ashbury, a t-shirt from City Lights Book Store, and a beautiful skirt from a cute shop near City Lights. My daughter bought manga and a t-shirt in Japantown, but she left it in a taxi; depsite our best efforts, we haven’t gotten them back yet. I bought her some cute hats on Fisherman’s Wharf, and they seemed to ease her pain a little. I also bought some souvenirs for my sister and a young family friend.

3. Getting to know colleagues, such as my new friend Melinda, better.

4. Meeting and sharing materials with teachers from across the country, such as my new friend Michele.

5. Getting to collaborate with colleagues, such as my friend and department chair DeAnne.

6. Free books from the exhibition hall. I got so many books that I had to ship them home.

7. Attending informative sessions, such as Chad and Michele Cooley’s session on Alternating Assessment, Davis James’ session on How to Free Students from Restrictive and Formulaic Essay Responses, and Lawrence Scanlon’s session on Literary Detection.

8. Renewed energy for teaching.

9. Experiencing  a new city. I loved visiting the Castro District and Haight-Ashbury. The weather was beautful, and the food was delicious.

10. Last, but definitely not least, getting together with family and friends. We had brunch with my cousin Gene, my cousin Jeff, and my cousin-in-law Craig. The next day, we had dinner with my friend Karen and my friend-in-law Steve.

Granted, not every conference is held in such a wonderful city as San Francisco, but fortunately for me, this one was.

On Balance

One of the challenges I’ve faced for a long time is balance. Like many people, I’ve been working on finding a balance between family, career, and writing, not to mention other hobbies. I’m on summer break, so achieving balance should not be difficult, and it wasn’t for a few weeks. I devoted every other day to blogging and the remainder to other writing. If I got a chunk done on Blogging Day, I allowed myself to work on my latest  essay, and if I got a chunk done on Writing Day, I allowed myself to blog or conduct  blog-related research. I also made time to chauffer my daughter around, spend time with her, relax with my husband, and practice my drumming. This plan worked for a little while.

Now a new element has thrown itself into the mix—my day job. I’ll be back teaching in a few weeks, and the kids will be back in school the week after that. I made my daughter a deal: Every day she will work on her summer assignments, and while she does so, I will prepare for this school year. I’ve managed to keep all my balls in the air except one—my writing. I should be able to carve out some time during the day or evening, but it hasn’t happened in a while.

This last point scares me. If I’m having trouble now, what will I do next month, when I have three sets of AP essays to grade, and a bunch of other work to do, at any given time? I could wake up half an hour earlier, but I already wake up at 5:00 a.m. during the school year, so that’s not going to happen. Nor will going to bed half an hour later, as I get too little sleep as it is. I’ll have to work in some time in the afternoon. This possibility raises the question of why I am not doing it now. Maybe I’ll institute a “Sacred Writing Half Hour” and see how that works. Wish me luck!


Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Summer Reading

My daughter has finally begun her summer reading/work assignments. (We’ve been out of school since Memorial Day.) She’s a rising junior registered for three AP classes, so the work is plentiful even over the summer. She understands, as do I, the point of some of her assignments–for instance, the French and math packets that reinforce what she learned last year so she can start next year without missing a beat. Some of her assignments, however, are a little less clear. For example, she has to write three essays for AP US History. For one thing, the teacher hasn’t had the opportunity to teach the class how s/he wants APUSH essays written. For another thing, I’m sure that if essay writing over the summer is necessary, the skill could be assessed in one well-planned assignment. I wonder if this is a case in which an AP teacher confuses rigor of work with amount of work.

I’m not only the parent of an AP student but also a teacher of AP students–AP Literature, to be exact. I too give a summer reading assignment, but the assignment is to read one contemporary novel from a rather extensive list. The purpose of the assignment is for the students to get one more book under their belts for the free response question on the AP exam. During the school year I focus on depth rather than breadth of reading, so it’s good for the students to have another book in their arsenals. All they have to do is read the book; we’ll do something with it a couple of weeks into the semester, once we’ve practiced reading literary fiction. If a student wants to wait until school starts to begin the assignment, that’s his or her choice. It’s really more of a “head start on fall” assignment than a “summer” assignment, which works for me.


Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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