Category Archives: language arts

In Which the Teacher is Sacrificial Poet at His First Poetry Slam

In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)

You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.

Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.

Chinese Scholar-Gardens: Research as Performance

Chinese scholar-gardens are incredibly interesting. Just ask Will, a very sharp sophomore in my History of China class. His screencast on the origins and aesthetics of these gardens lays it out for you quite well.

No high-tech razzle-dazzle is intended here at all. On the contrary, the allure is in the relative simplicity of screencasting for student research projects (here are the simple assignment sheet and simple storyboard template, for the simplicity-lovers out there who don’t like it when “tech” means “complicated”). It hits so many of the common skills in one fell swoop — researching, writing, speaking, visually presenting — and, as an added bonus, makes “grading” far more pleasurable than merely reading the work.

As in Joy’s piece last week, Will’s below, too, takes a minute or two to warm up. After that, it kicks into a teach-in on this exquisite 1,000-year tradition in China that, I think you’ll agree, easily meets the rhetorical obligation to “entertain as it informs.” (I’ve already told Will, in my best Moe Howard voice, to “remind me to kill him later” for using a watermarked image in such an otherwise high-quality production.)

Seriously: Give it a watch. Most Westerners are incredibly ignorant of how refined Chinese civilization was for all but the last two centuries. Somehow Japan gets all the credit, when both its Zen and its gardens are derived from Chinese Chan Buddhism and scholar-gardens. Will teaches it well.

Next up: Megan on the history and culture of Chinese tea.

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Too Beautiful to Teach

The finest poetry — an ode of Keats, a lyric of Tao Yuanming or Li Po — is too beautiful to undress before indelicate teens.

This is why, though I’m formally an English teacher, I prefer to teach — and do teach — history. Sharing it seems less indecent.

But even that is becoming problematic, now that I’m teaching the history of China — in so many breathtaking ways, a 3,000 year vista of unparalleled world-historical beauty.

I may have to stop teaching Chinese history too, because of this.

I’m jealous of teachers who don’t find beauty in what they teach. They must feel so much cleaner at the end of the day.

Image: De Petale, by Christiane Michaud



Mailbox: On Reading at Fifty

image: embraced by wordsFrom the mailbox, from an old student now in college. The short version seems to be, “What’s the point of studying literature in the 21st century? What’s the point, ever?” I remember having the same questions at times when college made literature seem pointless. So it’s interesting to answer now, as a reader long out of college who is nearing 50. I’m sure the student would like to hear your answers too.

She writes:

I have a burning question that I think many of your lit students are also pondering, and something you could ask your colleagues and see what they say. Every lit class I’ve taken so far has left me with this: What is literature supposed to do? Chronicle social history  through personal accounts? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Sure, we can analyze bits of a novel, poem, play, etc. but what of it? I was researching the reasons why God favored Jacob over Esau when it dawned on me that scholars have made it a life’s work trying to find an answer that doesn’t seem to exist. And when they do propose an explanation, it seems only worthwhile at that moment. A life’s work rooted in a single moment’s satisfaction.

You emphasized learning in class, but learning what? About the human condition that doesn’t seem to or ever will change? All those authors and books that will never make it to the “must-read” pile – what happens to them?  Why do they not transcend time? Is it because they reiterate themes that someone has done before? Are their efforts wasted? Should their time been better spent elsewhere?

If you were to go back in time, would you have spent your time studying technology instead of literature? As I’m sure you’re well aware, computers seem to be synonymous with progress. How does literature improve us as a society? Why do we need it? What is it supposed to do? For a generation that doesn’t bother reading newly published books (or anything besides what’s on the front page of yahoo or msn), what is literature’s part in today’s society? You’re a teacher, why do you teach lit? What do you want your students to take out of and do with it? It’s a lot of questions I know, but I couldn’t find a way to articulate all of them in a single sentence.


The answer that wants to come out of my mouth is this: it’s about a love that’s deeper and richer than most other loves. That’s what reading means to me.

I read once that John Adams was fond of saying, “With a poet in your pocket, you’re never lonely.”

I’d up it by saying you’re with the best company humanity has to offer.

The brilliant (as in shiny) dead are more alive to me than the mediocre (as in dull) living. I’m so glad I spent that year or two reading every word, public and private, that Nietzsche wrote (chronologically, too, while reading a biography of him as I went through his works), and Keats, and Wilde, and others, and now, Confucius. It is simply capital-L Love.

But it takes climbing for a few years in order to be able to enjoy those vistas. The climb is worth it, if you’ve ever experienced a reader’s high. If you (or anyone) hasn’t, then maybe they’re not cut out for that sort of life. Literature is certainly not for everybody, any more than physics is. It takes a certain temperament and intelligence.

I’m one of the most alone people in the world, but never lonely. I love my solitude — mostly because I use it to get high on language, ideas, beauty. Theirs, mine. In Paradise Lost, Milton has Adam ask the angel Raphael if there is sex in heaven. Raphael answers yes, but without bodies. It’s souls uniting instead. That, to me, is what the union of reader and writer — when well-matched — brings.

So I don’t regret those seemingly pointless literature classes at all, now. In retrospect, they weren’t teaching me literature as much as equipping me with the ability to fall in love, over and over, for the rest of my life.

[P.S. I stopped teaching literature to high school students. I teach history here in Singapore. Teens are too young to drink the finest literature. It requires too much adulthood — heartbreaks, triumphs and failures, betrayals and devotions, losses of innocence and experiences of the sublime. That stuff happens only when we escape our parents, finish growing our frontal lobe, and, if lucky, leave the beaten path for some roads less traveled.]

Image: “ Embraced by Words” by Robbert van der Steeg