Category Archives: analysis

Justification

Every so often, I get an email from a parent asking about a particular assignment.  Often, they’re just asking for the details of the work so that they can ensure that their children are completing it properly, but sometimes they want to know the rationale behind the assignment.

I’m never bothered by these “tell me why” requests.  I want both the kids and their parents to understand that I don’t give busy-work; everything I ask the kids to do has a meaning and a purpose and a place in the larger arc of the class.  Being able to articulate the reasoning behind an assignment – what skills the work is designed to practice or what concepts it is intended to reinforce – helps to keep me thinking about the purpose of the work I ask the kids to do.  I remember wondering “what’s the point” about a lot of the work I did as a student, and I really wish that someone had taken the time to explain to me what I was actually doing – even if I didn’t understand it at the time, feeling like someone had a handle on things would have helped, I think, to ease my teenaged angst.

Anyway, here’s the email I sent back to the dad.  I feel like I did a good job at explaining, in clear terms, why I want his kid to do this work.

As for the short story assignment:  the students were given class time in which they were to go to the website I gave them and read TWO of the short stories offered (there was a list of about 50 from which they could choose).  I handed out a two-sided worksheet that required the students to discern details and nuance about the “elements of fiction” ideas – character, plot, setting, that sort of thing – and to make assertions and articulate comprehension of the theme(s) of the stories.  They didn’t have enough time to finish both stories, so I set the remainder of the assignment as homework; I put both the web link and a PDF of the handout on the assignment.

This assignment was given as part of a lesson arc designed to get the kids thinking in terms of story construction.  We’re working on getting past the “what happened” ideas – they had plenty of that in middle school – and moving on to the “how did it happen” ideas; the ways in which writing is crafted.  I know that kids tend not to think about writing as a process, and that’s what I’m trying to get them not only to see, but to be able to use in their own writing practice.  This assignment, and several others like it, was designed to get them to start seeing the “strings” as it were, to discern that there is purpose behind the choices a writer makes, and to start thinking about – and using deliberately – the choices they make in their own writing.

I hope this helps.  

Warmly,

Mrs. Chili

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Filed under analysis, doing my own homework, lesson planning, parental units, self-analysis, Teaching

Avatar

I decided to start my Aliens and Vampires in Literature class with the Aliens contingent (though, now that I think about it again, I probably should have started with vampires, since Hallowe’en is coming up… Oh, well…) and, while I’m waiting for them to score copies of Carl Sagan’s Contact, I am showing and discussing films.

We started with Avatar.

Image credit

I love this movie.  Is it formulaic and predictable?  Yes.  Does it tell a new story?  Not really; in fact, it’s nearly one-to-one with Dances with Wolves (which I also love, so there!).  Despite the panning that it received in some circles for its lack of originality, I think it is an important movie, and I was excited to show it to my students.

One of my goals in this course is to get kids to think about the functions that entertainment serves beyond simple entertainment.  We spent three classes watching the film (I got a M/W/F short-day class instead of the long-day T/TH class I wanted, so we’re making do; it’s going to mean covering less material, but I’ll make sure we do more with what we do see), and I patently refused to let the kids talk about the films in class before we’d gotten to the last scene.  (That made them CRAZY, especially since it turned out that I had to stop the film for the end of classes in some really compelling spots; the kids nearly lost their minds when I had to stop the movie when Jake drops onto the creature to become Toruk Makto on Wednesday.)

We had our culminating discussion yesterday, and it was amazing.  All but two of the kids had seen the film before – several of them more than once – but every single one of them said that, despite being very familiar with the movie, there were a number of things they saw when they were “watching it for a class” that they never noticed before.

My absolute favorite moment in the whole discussion came at the very beginning of the class and from my “school son” (whom I’m probably going to talk a lot about this year, so let’s call him Bart, okay?)  We were all talking about the idea that, in typical alien movies, the aliens are always the bad guys* when Bart pointed out that, in this movie, the aliens are still the bad guys.  I pointed at him with my eyebrows-up, “you-just-nailed-it” look on my face and waited for what he said to sink in with the rest of the kids.  One by one, the light dawned; we’re so used to thinking of the “aliens” as ‘whoever isn’t us’ that shifting our thinking to recognize that, in this film, we’re the aliens is a surprise.

The conversation took off from there.  We talked about the ways in which we create an “other,” and how that process of making a pariah allows us to behave in ways we likely wouldn’t otherwise.  We talked about where each character made his or her realizations (and about the characters who never got to the point of change) and about how some of the “good” guys in the film – up to and including the hero – were still complicated and flawed.  We talked about the film as modern social commentary in the context of the Iraq invasion after the 9/11 attacks, and about how some people – particularly Americans and those in positions of political power – don’t seem to understand that “our way” isn’t the pinnacle of human experience; that not everyone wants democracy or McDonald’s or jeans and sneakers.  We talked about the different perspective of this film – the human as alien – and about how the film asks us to think about things we do in ways that we might not have been able to if the Na’vi had come to Earth; that the position of the different ‘races’ impacted the way we think about them (and us).  We talked about power and economics; we talked about religion and belief, about what we value (and how we value what others value), and about the environment.  We talked about what it means to be connected – to our environment and to each other – and we talked about colonialism and its effects on both occupier and occupied (though they didn’t use the term, they still nailed some of the high points of the concept).

It was a wonderful, dynamic, interesting, and exciting conversation.  We’re off to a good start.

*I recognize that not ALL alien movies are about violent invasions and forced occupation – I’m also planning on showing the kids Cocoon and maybe E.T. – but I think it’s fair to agree that most of our alien genre is stacked with stories about invasion and occupation.  Those films bring up ideas I want to get the kids thinking about; I’m trying to train them to see beyond the explosions and action to get at what some of these stories have to say about us and how we treat each other.

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What is “Reasonable”?

I’m thinking I may cross-post this on the Blue Door; it echos a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing over there, so if you read both places, don’t be surprised if you get a feeling of déjà vu.

Each of my classes is currently engaged in a unit about public speaking. My freshmen are giving purely informational presentations – I’ve tasked them with learning about something interesting and then teaching the rest of the class about it.  Since I like to do my own homework every once in a while, I’m doing this presentation with them.  Mine will be about the first round of the Nuremberg Trials.

My juniors are taking on an opinion presentation – they’ve been told to format their presentation around “here’s this thing that exists, here’s what I think about it, and here’s why I think the way I do,” and my seniors are attempting an argumentative/persuasive piece – they’re crafting an presentation that asks the audience to consider – or to reconsider – a particular topic.

Each of these presentations has three requirements – they need to have visuals, they need a written component, and the kids have to speak for 3-5 minutes or (5-8 for the bigger kids).  Additionally, they need to have at least three reputable sources, and they need to be organized such that the audiences can follow along, even if they’ve never had any experience with the topic in question.

I ended up in a conversation with my seniors this afternoon that intrigued me.  It was a bit of an offshoot of the conversation we started on Tuesday when I brought up the concepts of ethical speech and what our responsibilities are to the words that we send out into the world.  While I had planned this part of the unit to fall on this week anyway, I’m often amazed by how timely the Universe is in dropping relevant, real-world stuff into my lap at the exact time I’m teaching them in a classroom.  The Arizona shooting and the conversation about rhetoric that has inspired were just such a thing, and we had a long and interesting discussion about whether or not we can (or should) link the speech of one to the action of another.

Anyway, several of the kids came to me with topics that really weren’t appropriate for argument, and I spent a while trying to get the kids to understand that I’m looking for them to tackle the kinds of issues about which reasonable people can disagree.  It’s highly unlikely, I explained to one kid, that reasonable people are going to agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church does, so arguing against their right to do those things is kind of a pointless exercise.  So, too, is arguing against animal rights abuses; most reasonable people would agree that it’s wrong to be cruel and abusive to animals.

Just about when I thought I was getting through to them, one of my (favorite) kids piped up.  “Mrs. Chili,” he asked, “what does it mean to be reasonable?”

Yeah!  Wow!  What DOES that mean?

We spent a good long time talking about the implications of making that kind of judgment about something.  How DO we determine what reasonable means?  What are the criteria by which we judge that kind of person?

The answers the kids came up with both surprised and delighted me.  Reasonable people, they decided, are people who, by their nature, are open-minded.  They’re willing to listen to others’ ideas, but aren’t necessarily swayed by them.  Reasonable people are critical thinkers and don’t just jump on the latest and greatest ideas.  They don’t give a whole lot of credence to the people who are making the most noise, but are more impressed by the people who make the clearest and most compelling argument.  Reasonable people take the big picture into account; a reasonable person may be willing to concede to something not-so-good in the short term to ensure a positive outcome long-term.  Reasonable people are compassionate and consider the needs of others when making decisions or taking actions.  Reasonable people may well be considered unreasonable by outside observers, they decided, but it’s not one’s reputation that determines one’s reasonableness; one’s behaviors, thought processes, and actions determine this (some of my kids are very sensitive to the fact that our school doesn’t yet have a very good reputation, and they take that personally).  Reasonable people do not generally abide extremes, they decided, nor do reasonable people generally rely upon “faith” to make their decisions; they are more influenced by their own experiences and observations and the facts that they encounter than they are by scripture or the words of their particular flavor of clergy.  Reasonable people are willing to change their minds about something when they’re presented with compelling evidence to do so.

We ended the conversation by talking about the idea put forth on a church’s message board:

Learning to think for themselves, and learning to do that reasonably, is perhaps the most important thing I can encourage my students to do.  To that end, I give them every opportunity I can find, and I ask them to think in whatever ways they can, whether those ways agree with my way of thinking or not (because learning to disagree with civility is absolutely vital, and learning to disagree with those in authority is a life skill).

So I ask you, Dear Readers, what would you add to my kids’ definition of what makes one reasonable?  Do you think you embody those qualities?  If not, where can you strive to bring more reasonableness into your life?

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Working it Out

I’ve got this kid, let’s call her Hannah.  Hannah has been one of my ‘projects’ for the past year; she came to me convinced that she doesn’t have anything important to say, and convinced that she’s a rotten writer.  I’ve been working hard to disabuse her of these notions.  It’s not that she can’t do these things, it’s that she’s never been given the tools to do those things, nor has there been an expectation placed on her to actually do them.  In fact, she kind of hated me last year because I DID expect her to do these things, and I pushed her way beyond the edges of her comfort zone.

For all that I made her crazy last year, it very clearly did some good.  I have seen over these last 7 weeks an incredible jump in the quality of her writing.  Is she still struggling?  Yes, but the point is that she’s actually struggling – she’s trying, and I’ve been really excited to see the kinds of thinking she’s been doing.

This afternoon, she hopped onto instant message to talk to me about an assignment I gave her class in which I asked them to read and reflect on a fairly complex scholarly article about Alice in Wonderland.  My goal is to get them used to wading neck-deep into stuff that they may not understand until their third or fourth go-round with it; I don’t want them to have as rough a time adjusting to the kind of thinking this work requires as I did when I first got to college.  I remember slogging through my first article – it was about existentialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – and thinking that I was just too dumb for college.  I have very clear recollection of sitting in the L.U. library, not being able to make any sense of this work I’d been given, and trying to figure out how to break it to Mr. Chili that I needed to drop out.  Clearly, I got over it, but it was a lot harder than I think it should have been; I want to give my kids some experience with this kind of stuff now, with me right there to help them, so they have at least SOME practice with this kind of theoretical and analytical thinking,.  My hope is that, when they get to college, they won’t feel completely lost.

I think, little by little, I’m getting through to Hannah.  Witness our conversation this afternoon and tell me whether you think I’m right in my optimism; I really do think that I’m this close to getting through to her:

trying to write about the Studies in Alice is hard. this is the third time I’ve tried writing it

What are you focusing on, Sweet?

I don’t even know.its not easy to write about something that you don’t understand

I get that.  Which chapter are you looking at?

Chapter one like you assigned

OH!  You’re working on TODAY’S homework!
Sorry; I thought you were working on the things we started in class.

nope

Okay.  Basically, what this guy is saying is that there’s a LOT of cosmic imagery in the first chapter of Alice, and that almost all of it has to do with this idea of humans’ constant search for the divine; do you get that?

yeah

Okay, so what I’m asking you to do is to go through the chapter and talk about all the places where that fits. Think about her falling through the hole…what does that make you think of (and it’s okay to think about religion…)?

but that’s basically the only thing that happens in this chapter so i don’t know how i can make that into much writing

That’s so NOT the only thing that happens.  Think about it – she started out being bored and wanting something to do, so she followed this weird rabbit into its hole.  Can you connect that at all to Adam and Eve? It’s not a perfect comparison, but they ended up doing something they probably shouldn’t have and ended up… wait for it…. FALLING from God’s grace, right?

yeah

If you wanted to, you could totally go to Milton’s Paradise Lost.  There’s a whole scene of the rebellious angels (Satan among them) LITERALLY falling, just like Alice.   Hang on…let me see if I can find that passage… Yeah, I can find it, but I think it might frustrate you more (it’s written as a poem, and it’s hard to pull stuff out and have it make sense without all that comes before it).

okay

Let’s just agree, though, that “Falling” is a pretty hefty theme in Christian theology

it is very actually

So, Alice is falling, for a really, really long time.  She did it to satisfy her curiosity.  She lands completely unharmed, where she starts eating and drinking (and getting bigger and smaller) in her efforts to get to… wait for it…. A GARDEN!!  HELLOO!!!  Where have we see THAT before?

i know. I’ve been talking to pretty much everyone that I’ve talked to about Alice and why the garden is so important to the story.she is always trying to get to the garden which is like trying to regain “purity” to reenter the garden

GORGEOUS!  You should be able to write about this for a while, I think; there’s a lot in it.  The garden imagery, and ALL the trouble she has in trying to get to it… is that a metaphor for humans and our struggle to make peace with our existence?  Do you think you can make a case that Alice’s story is representative of our trying to figure our spiritual and cosmic shit out?

i know that there is a lot to write about with this but i don’t know how to go about writing it this time.

Where do you want to start?

i don’t know. i was thinking of going backwards in a way

Yeah?

but i don’t know how that would work really. i think that i want to start with the food and drink and relate it back to the fall and the “garden”

DO that!  There’s nothing that says that you need to take the chapter chronologically.  Let’s try to keep in mind here that she’s DREAMING.  All she really has to do (like Dorothy) is click her heels and will herself to get what she wants.  She goes for all kinds of ritual and outward stuff, though, without doing the “cosmic” work.  There’s every reason to start with that and explain why she ends up so frustrated and confused as a result…

i don’t think im going to have enough time to do it now though.

That’s fine; you can have an extension; you’ve proven to me beyond a doubt that you’ve been thinking about this stuff, and you get major points for that.  Can you get it done by tomorrow?

yeah

Okay, then.  If you’re still having trouble with it tomorrow, come and talk it out with me; I only have first and portfolio, though I have a meeting during second, I’m free the rest of the day

alright. well i’m going to start working on this now.thank you Mrs.Chili

You’re welcome, Sweet.  I’m excited by the thinking you’ve done with this!!

alright.i’ll talk to you tomorrow.have a good rest of the day

You, too!

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Filed under about writing, analysis, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, I've got this kid...., Learning, rhetoric, success!, Teaching, the good ones

The Alice Light Bulb Moment

Yesterday, I posted an entry on the Blue Door in which I said that I was too busy to blog about some things, and one of the things I was too busy to blog about was the fact that in every single class I ran on Thursday, I was able to pull off  what I call “Helen Keller” or “light bulb” moments; that glorious few seconds when a kid leaps from “I don’t get it” to “OH!  NOW I see!!”  I live for these moments, and the fact that I was able to execute the same one in all three of my core English classes was kind of a record for me.  I needed to share.

The entirety of CHS is reading Alice in Wonderland.  Several of the kids have read it before (and a number of them are familiar with bits of the story through various film interpretations), but none of them has analyzed it yet; they’ve read it for the surface stuff, but really haven’t taken the time to really think about all the weird shit that happens in the novel.  I had suspected that the kids were blowing through the book without really getting what they were reading, and I suspected that they were missing some of the funny stuff, so I decided to point something out to them to see if I was correct.

At the very outset of the story, Alice impulsively follows a waistcoated white rabbit down his hole and finds herself falling for what feels like forever; she has time to observe the walls around her and to investigate an empty jar of orange marmalade, and then she starts thinking about how she’s going to apply this experience to her life when she returns to it (though she doesn’t really give a thought as to how she’s going to get out of her predicament; her impulsivity is something which serves as a constant through the novel).  She thinks to herself:

“After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (which was very likely true.)

I read that passage aloud and asked the kids to really think about what was being said here, both by Alice and by our narrator (who, it turns out, has a flair for snark).  They read it, and read it again, and really didn’t see anything much to it.   Just when they started thinking that I was seeing something that wasn’t really there (“because English teachers do that all the time, you know; they try to find something deep and meaningful in everything!”), one girl gasped and her eyes got HUGE and I pointed at her and said “SHHHHH!  Let them work it out for a little longer!”

Of course, this got them all riled up; they HATE it when one of them is in on a joke that they don’t get, so they went back to the passage and tried to will themselves to figure it out.  One by one, a few more kids got the joke, and when about five of them were bouncing in their seats wanting to explain it to all the other kids, I pointed back to the first girl and said “GO!”

“YOU GUYS!” she said, “The narrator is telling us that she wouldn’t say anything if she fell off the top of the house because she’d be, like, DEAD!  She LITERALLY wouldn’t say anything about it because she’s be a smear on the sidewalk!”

Yes, my lovely; that’s it exactly.

That scene played out, in almost exactly that way, in all three of my classes.  It was awesome.  My hope is that this little exercise will inspire my babies to read more carefully, and with an eye toward the snarky and ironic.  We shall see if my hope is well-founded.

I love my job.

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First Draft: Fourteen

My husband and I celebrate 14 years of marriage today (or, we would be celebrating, except that he’s away on business and I’m at this writing conference, but that’s kind of beside the point).

To commemorate the day, I worked out this first attempt at a poem.  Now, I should note here that I’m not a poet… at least, not yet.  I have a great deal of appreciation for poets; I marvel at the way just these few words can unearth so much meaning.  I remember explaining to my kids once that writing poetry is like making maple syrup; the idea is to take these gallons and gallons of feelings and experiences and boil them down to a few sweet, rich, perfectly balanced words.  I also use a keyhole metaphor; poetry is this tiny little opening through which one can see whole worlds.

I haven’t quite got there yet, though I have to admit that I’ve not worked too terribly hard at poetry, either.  I’ve been thinking more about it, though, since taking Will into my classroom.  He has a gorgeous way with poetry (I may ask him permission to post his piece about writing the dates on the bellies of stars), and the truth of the matter is that I aspire to write with the kind of depth and intensity that he does.  I’m still dabbling at this poetry stuff, though, and I’m still trying to find whatever it is – my stride, my rhythm, my feet beneath me – that will make it click.

I wrote most of this piece in my head in the car on my way home from yesterday’s workshop.  I’m not sure I like it… yet.  I find, as a result of keeping a couple of blogs, that I do a lot of personal writing; there’s a lot of “I” in my work.  For this reason (and because we had a really great conversation in my workshop yesterday about using voice to create a creative and critical distance from an experience), I decided to try to write this in the third person.  I like the effect of it, but I’m not sure I’ve captured yet what I’m really looking to convey with this.

I beg for welcome your critique.  Please; ask me questions, make suggestions, or even tear it apart.  I want to figure out what my poet sounds like, and I’d like your help in finding her.

People say that they can finish each other’s sentences,
but what those people don’t understand
is that they don’t need to.
Words are unnecessary.
Their shared vocabulary
is wide and deep
and most often conveyed
with the twitch of an eyebrow
or a sly glance.

They dance to each other’s music
their movements quick and light
and seemingly effortless
to those looking in
on this pair as they move through the world
in near perfect rhythm
never once looking down at their feet.

Their world is made of innumerable small things.
She doesn’t eat breakfast, but makes sure
his favorite cereal is always in the cupboard.
He doesn’t mind the cold, and so
ventures into the freezing basement in winter
to retrieve the laundry.

To those looking in, the facts don’t add up;
how can so much mundane and commonplace
equal such unmistakable contentment?
Yet there they are,
still radiating
their particular brand of quiet, certain, and
unshakable joy.

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Filed under about writing, analysis, critical thinking, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, Poetry, self-analysis

Decisions, Decisions

Dear Readers, I need your help.

I have the choice of two workshops this summer.  One is the Belfer program for teachers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC (which, really, is the fallback because it’s pretty clear at this point that I wasn’t chosen for the teacher fellowship there).  The other is a week long writing workshop offered at a very prestigious boarding school relatively close to my home (yes, Carson, that one).

Both will cost me about the same amount of money; the DC workshop is free, but I’ll have to pay for transportation, lodging, and food.  The boarding school program costs about a grand, so I figure it’s a wash financially.

Both workshops will give me a lot of material – intellectual and concrete – to bring back to my classroom.  Both will be very impressive on my resume.

The DC workshop is three days; the boarding school program is a week.

Which would YOU choose?

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STOP, Already!

I’ve got this kid….

Ugh, you guys…

Jimmy is making me insane.  I’m trying to practice compassionate detachment, but it’s just not working; this kid gets me going nearly every day.  He’s been kicked out of class pretty much every day since we got back from vacation, first because he didn’t bother to buy the book we’d agreed – as a class – to read together and subsequently because he’d never read to the assignment.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I took a poll to find out which students had finished the reading (and, no surprise, Jimmy was among those who hadn’t).  Instead of heading for the door (like the other kids who hadn’t finished)*, Jimmy decided he needed to tell me why he didn’t do the assignment… again.

“Jimmy, it doesn’t MATTER to me why you didn’t do it.  You haven’t finished the work, so you need to leave the room.”

“Yes, but I really need to tell you…”

“No, you don’t, because it doesn’t matter to me…”

“But it matters to me.  It will make me feel better to tell you why.”

“Okay, but it will make ME feel worse, you understand that, right?”

“Yes, but I really need to tell you…”

Whatever.  I folded my arms and let the kid tell me his tale of woe; about all the things that he did that were more important than passing his (required to graduate) English class.

When he was finished, I told him that it was a lovely story, but it doesn’t matter.  He’s making excuses, and excuses don’t fly in the real world.  When, I asked him, had he heard ANY of his teachers making excuses for not being prepared for class?  The answer, of course, was never.

“Look,” I told him, “you’re making choices.  You need to understand that this is about your commitment to your responsibilities.  You want to get into a profession that demands professionalism.  Right now, you are not demonstrating any professionalism to any of us – and I KNOW I’m not the only teacher whose class you’re bombing.  I DO NOT CARE why you don’t do the assignments, any more than you care that I have two kids and a husband and a household to run and classes to plan for and bills to pay.  I get my work done because that’s what’s expected of me.  That’s what I expect of you.  Now get your book, go find Ms. Director, and finish the damned reading.”

Here’s the thing; I had a discussion with the counselor and the director about Jimmy this morning, and we’ve come to the realization that we have two choices with him: we can either kick him back and make him do it again (well, not really again, because he’s done nothing the first time, but you know what I mean) or we can boot him and let the real world deal with him (and all three of us agree about the likely outcome of that scenario).  If we kick him back, he’ll have to reapply to CHS, and we unanimously decided that, based on his performance this year, his application will be denied.

Honestly?  I am this close to giving the kid a (barely) passing grade, just so I never have to deal with him ever again.

* just as an aside, one of my other students called me “Moses of the Classroom” the other day.  He’s digging how I part the seas between those who do the work and those who don’t, and he heartily approves of my booting the slackers.  I love it.

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Smiley Faces

Do you guys remember Kiki?  She’s not in my classes any more (much to my disappointment), but we sit together a lot at lunchtime.  I adore this kid, and I’m really sad that she’s a senior.  More on that in a minute.

Anyway, the seniors are putting together their final portfolios – and by “final,” I mean final; these are the representations of the entire span of their development at CHS and is intended to demonstrate their growth not only as students, but as citizens and people, as well.

Kiki came to me and said, “Mrs. Chili, I’m a little bit mad at you.”

“Really?  Why, Honey; what did I do?”

“It’s not what you did,” she said, “it’s what you didn’t do.  I had to take three years’ worth of English before you got here.  THREEYEARS.”

“Yeah, so… what’s your point?”

“My POINT is…  well, come and see for yourself!”

I followed her into the classroom where she proceeded to flip through her portfolio.  “All of the work I did for you is in the front.  See all your notes and suggestions and, you know, grades?”

“Yes… and…?”

She flipped further.  “I’d like for you to note the proliferation of smiley faces and the noticeable lack of grades.  No notes, no corrections, no workshop suggestions – I get smiley faces.  OH!” she said, “just LOOK what we have here!  One, two, three.. THREE smiley faces on ONE paper…. and no grade.  What the HELL?!”

Kiki is clearly frustrated because she feels that, until she had me as a teacher, she didn’t get the kind of critical feedback that she now understands makes her a better writer and thinker.  She’s right – her portfolio is full of not-so-helpful smiley faces, and I wasn’t sure quite what to tell her; none of that is her fault, but she does have to reconcile what she feels were wasted years.

I value the work my students do, to the extent that I take the time to offer them helpful, careful, considered feedback on that work.  Do I sometimes throw a smiley face on a paper?  Sure – particularly when a kid writes something that makes me giggle – but I always balance that with a question or a suggestion or a “tell me what you mean by this” in an effort to get the kids to push just a little bit further than they went on their own.  I love making the kids feel good, but I also want them to DO good, too (and yes, I know that’s not grammatical… shut it).  Throwing a check mark or a smiley face on a paper doesn’t tell the student anything useful (and is, I think, a way for a teacher to avoid doing any real work).  Kiki is recognizing that she was kind of cheated in some of her classes, and she’s rightfully indignant about it.

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Doing My Own Homework

Yes, I’m one of THOSE teachers; I gave my students homework over the week-long April break.  My writing workshop kids are reading (and, Goddess willing, taking good notes on what they read so they can engage each other in a conversation about the book when we get back from vacation).  To my juniors and seniors, I have posted this assignment:

For homework over the break, please compose, using the notes you’ve done for homework over the past week, a critical essay in which you explore, in depth, one of the central themes of Dances with Wolves (if you choose to investigate a theme we didn’t touch on in the homework assignments, please feel free; you’re not limited to those few we discussed in class.  I plan on doing my paper about the theme of trust, which is one we didn’t journal about – and yes, I’m doing this assignment, too).

Please refer to the handout you received last Friday (Writing the Critical Essay) and the OWL site on critical essays for guidance about putting a paper of this genre together.  Your rhetorical purpose is to analyze – you’re looking carefully at a theme of the text and using that text to support the claim you make about it – so you’re going to need a strong, defensible thesis statement.  Nailing a thesis statement is going to make your writing much easier, so please do put some thought and effort into composing a claim that you can really dig into.  Remember that the entire work needs to be firmly grounded in the text, but assume your audience is familiar with the film; you needn’t waste a lot of paper explaining a scene.

I am going to STRONGLY recommend that you get together with a classmate to workshop your papers (you can even post them on the Ning and send a notice to everyone that it’s up).  Get someone else to read and respond to your work; you’ll find that your writing will be better for it.

Your paper should be no more than 5 pages and should follow the Writing Standards outlined on the Ning page (papers that fail to follow this standard will be returned as incomplete).

If you have any questions, problems, or concerns, or if you want to talk about your ideas (or get a refresher about a scene from the film) please either email me or leave a comment on this post.

Please remember that we’ll have a guest speaker on the Monday we return from vacation.  I expect you to be respectful, engaged, and participatory; please honor the time and effort this man is offering us by coming to our class.

Have a great week!

Here, then, is my essay.

The essential relationship in Dances with Wolves isn’t between Dunbar and the Sioux people; neither is it the relationship between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist, the woman who would eventually become his wife.  While those bonds are certainly important, both to the evolution of the narrative and to Dunbar’s growth as a person, the most significant relationship in the film is the one between Dunbar and Wind in His Hair.  It is through that deep and profound friendship, forged grudgingly between two strong-willed men for whom confrontation is a central part of who they are, that both men are able to see beyond their own prejudice and fear.  It can be argued that Dunbar isn’t the main character of the story at all; Wind in His Hair seems to be the person who undergoes the most significant change over the course of the film, and it is he who is most profoundly affected by the appearance of this white man into the Indian society.

In his first encounter with Dunbar, Wind in His Hair charges the white man yelling “I am Wind in His Hair! Do you see that I am not afraid of you?”  Both men are armed – Dunbar with his gun and Wind in His Hair with his spear – but neither man attacks the other, though the situation is highly charged.  Instead, they seem to be at an impasse; neither one is sure of the other – or of himself where the other is concerned.  That neither man either attacks or backs down during that first meeting lays a necessary foundation for their relationship; they recognize the warrior in one another and are able to relate, at first on a limited basis, as equals.  It is this foundation, based on trust and mutual admiration, that serves the men well as they begin to build a deep and abiding friendship.

Wind in His Hair approaches this first encounter having discussed the presence of the lone white soldier with the other men of his tribe; his attitude and behavior are tempered by the thinking of those other, deeply respected voices.  Wind in His Hair’s elders are thoughtful and curious; they see the strangeness of a white man alone on the prairie as a possible sign that this white man may be unlike the others they’d encountered, and they see that as reason to investigate the matter further.  Despite his stating that he wants to test the white man’s “medicine” with arrows, Wind in His Hair’s hand is stayed in that first encounter with Dunbar not only because he trusts the wisdom of his elders who told him that more must be known about this strange man before any action is taken, but also because he sees this man hold his ground in the face of the imposing figure that Wind in His Hair presents.  The Sioux warrior recognizes, in this other, a bit of himself.

Dunbar has no context for that first meeting beyond the fact that this is the third time these Indians have tried to steal his horse.  Everything he knows – or thinks he knows – about the native peoples of the frontier offers him no reason not to shoot this screeching Indian off his horse and be done with it.  Dunbar’s culture taught him that Indians are dirty, thieving, bloodthirsty savages.  Timmons echoes the popular sentiment when he tells Dunbar “you’d just as soon not see ‘em less’n the bastards are dead.  Nothing but thieves and beggars.”  It doesn’t seem a great leap to think that, given the Indians’ three attempts to acquire Cisco, Dunbar would think that the popular assessment of the native peoples is correct.  With Dunbar’s upbringing in white culture – and his recent experiences with these particular Indians – the audience is left to wonder exactly what keeps Dunbar from pulling the trigger.

That first and confrontational meeting with Wind in His Hair is the spark that Dunbar needs to do something.  To this point, he has been “waiting for something,” and he writes in his journal that it is now clear to him that he has “become a target, and a target makes a poor impression.”  He steels his resolve, outfits himself in his dress uniform, and proceeds to ride out and meet his Indian neighbors.  Of course, this does not go as he intended, and he finds himself walking into the village carrying a bleeding tribeswoman he encountered on his way.  It is Wind in His Hair who receives this woman, yelling and gesturing at Dunbar that he is not welcome in the village and ordering him to go away.  It is interesting to note in this scene that it is Dunbar’s horse, not Dunbar himself, who flinches at Wind in His Hair’s menacing gestures.  Even though he can’t understand Sioux, Dunbar clearly understands Wind in His Hair’s intent – it would be difficult not to, given the warrior’s fierce face and the club he’s carrying –  yet Dunbar makes and maintains eye contact with Wind in His Hair through the entire encounter.  This fact isn’t lost on Wind in His Hair who, after dragging the injured woman back to the gawking villagers, turns to stare back at Dunbar with what seems to be a mixture of confusion, admiration, and open disbelief.

Wind in His Hair’s chief, Ten Bears, sees something between the men in that scene in the village, and he sends Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird, the village’s medicine man, as ambassadors to meet Dunbar at the fort.  Ten Bears’ intent here is twofold; he sees in Dunbar much of the same stuff he knows Wind in His Hair is made of – strength of character and bravery – and he wants for Wind in His Hair to recognize that in this strange “other” because that point of commonality may be helpful in establishing a rapport between the tribe and the soldier.  Ten Bears also needs Wind in His Hair’s cooperation in the chief’s plans for dealing with the soldier.  Wind in His Hair is clearly the alpha warrior in the village and, as such, his attitude toward the village’s new neighbor will have a great influence on how many of the other warriors behave toward him.  Ten Bears’ decision to send Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird on that first formal diplomatic mission is both political and personal; Wind in His Hair is acting as an ambassador from his village, but he’s also opening himself up to the possibility of a relationship with this white man.  Ten Bears, as wise and observant as he is, just sees that possibility long before Wind in His Hair does.

For all of Wind in His Hair’s impatience and incredulity – he tells Kicking Bird that Dunbar’s “mind is gone” as Dunbar is on all fours imitating a buffalo during that first formal meeting – he is fascinated by this man who is so clearly different from himself but who bears, nevertheless, an energy and character that Wind in His Hair understands.  Dunbar recognizes that sympathy of spirit as well, saying that “the Fierce One, as I call him, seems a very tough fellow… from the little I know of him, he seems to be very honest and direct,” qualities that Dunbar clearly admires and which, judging from his behavior throughout the film, he himself exemplifies.

After the buffalo hunt, as Dunbar is becoming more and more integrated into the village culture, he and Wind in His Hair make a trade – Dunbar’s coat for Wind in His Hair’s breastplate.  While Wind in His Hair doesn’t see much in the exchange – for him, it was simply one ornament for another – Dunbar interprets the trade very differently.  He openly admires the breastplate – we’d seen him eye it earlier in the film – and the gift of such a fine thing impresses him.  Later, in the lodge, we see that Wind in His Hair has truly turned a corner in his relationship with Dunbar when he stands up for the white man when an Indian comes into the lodge wearing the hat that Dunbar had lost in the buffalo hunt.  Wind in His Hair argues that the hat belongs to the soldier and that, if the man wants to keep it, he needs to offer something in exchange.  This is done, Dunbar accepts the offering, and Wind in His Hair, who was once in favor of killing this white man, has instead become his advocate.  Dunbar writes in his journal at the end of that scene that “many times [he’d] felt alone, but [until he left the tribe to return to his fort after the hunt, he’d] never felt completely lonely.”  He recognizes here that he’s making genuine human connections in the tribe, and one of the most significant connections is the one with Wind in His Hair.

Perhaps the most important scene in understanding the distance that Wind in His Hair travels in becoming Dunbar’s friend is when Wind in His Hair is telling him about Stands with a Fist’s first husband.  This man, who died early in the film in a battle with a rival tribe, was important to Wind in His Hair.  “He was my best friend,” Wind in His Hair explains.  “He was a good man.  It has been hard for me to like you.  I’m not the thinker Kicking Bird is.  I always feel anger first.  There were no answer to my questions.  But now I think that he went away because you were coming.  That is how I see it.”  In telling the story, Wind in His Hair explains that Dunbar didn’t just come for Stands with a Fist; he was coming for Wind in His Hair, too.  We are led to understand that, despite his claims to the contrary, Wind in His Hair really is a thinker; his friendship with this strange white man has given him much to think about, and it is clear that he is pleased with the outcome.

Late in the film, when Dunbar announces to the council that he will be leaving the village because his staying represents too great a threat to the people, Wind in His Hair cannot stay in the lodge; he yells “No” over and over and leaves in a rage that he uses to cover his pain and fear.  We watch as Wind in His Hair struggles to find the courage to approach Dunbar’s lodge later in the scene; he wants desperately to talk to Dunbar, but can’t bring himself to do it.  His pain and frustration are plainly evident on his face, and we understand clearly that Wind in His Hair is anticipating a loss that will be difficult for him to reconcile.

The final scene of the film is an incredibly touching look into the depths of Wind in His Hair’s feeling for Dunbar and the relationship that they share.  High on the bluff, Wind in His Hair yells to Dunbar “Dances with Wolves!  I am Wind in His Hair!  Do you see that I am your friend?  Can you see that I will always be your friend?”  His voice breaks, and it is evident that he is crying.  With this parting, Wind in His Hair comes full circle; he heralded his first encounter with Dunbar by challenging him with, “Do you see that I am not afraid of you?” and solemnized his last meeting by asking “Do you see that I am your friend?”  The emotional distance that Wind in His Hair had to travel to come to that final scene was vast; he overcame fear and prejudice and was able to see himself in the face of another who he originally thought could not be more unlike himself.  He came to understand, in a profound and almost visceral way, that if one is willing to take the chance, one will likely find that there is no such thing as an “other.”

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