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.


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?


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?


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).


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


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?


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!



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

2 responses to “Working it Out

  1. Sometimes I think these students are the hardest to work with, because it’s such a mental block and not so much an ability issue!
    Totally off topic, but doom cake’s (Vickers) blog has been down for a while…do you know what happened to him? I miss his hilarious posts!

  2. Darci

    I saw the light bulb shining bright! I so wish I could have been one of your students – they are truly blessed.

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