Category Archives: Dream Course

New Class Idea: The Ambiguous Hero

I’ve been captivated, almost forever, with the ambiguous hero; the good guy who does bad things (and, conversely, the bad guy who does good things) and what role he plays in our psyche and, in a larger sense, in our culture.

A friend of mine wants to teach a summer class with film, and we were talking about this idea over dinner the other day.  I haven’t been able to let it go, and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I’m going to need some help zeroing in on the specifics – the assignments, the competencies and objectives, that kind of thing –  but here’s what I’ve got for materials so far:

The Dark Knight: the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – this is the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Christian Bale’s Batman is the perfect example, I think, of the ambiguous hero.

A Dry White Season:  This is based on a novel written by a white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid movement after someone he knows personally dies in police custody.

Gandhi:  You know this story, and I keep coming back to it as a conversation about civil disobedience and the question of how resistance is characterized on the different “sides” of the debate in question

Gone Baby Gone:  PLEASE tell me you’ve seen this movie!  It’s about a kidnapping, and centers around HUGE issues of “right” and “wrong” and where the law clashes with morality

Harry Potter:  I want to investigate Snape.  The idea of the double agent is always an interesting one.  I’m not sure which film I’d use, though; likely the last one.

Iron Jawed Angels: Another civil disobedience film – this one focuses on women’s suffrage and the outrages that some women suffered at the hands of law enforcement.

Milk:  About Harvey Milk and the early struggle for GLBTQ rights and recognition

Mississippi Burning:  This remains one of my MOST favorite films, mostly because of Gene Hackman’s REALLY complex character.  This scene alone is worth the film:

The Negotiator:  This is the story of a cop who takes hostages in order to reveal corruption in his department – a good guy doing a bad thing for a good reason.

Leon, the Professional:  A hit man who adopts his 12 year old neighbor after her family is killed by a corrupt cop (played terrifyingly by Gary Oldman).  He’s a good guy who does bad things, and we have to reconcile his work with his personality.

Schindler’s List:  You know this one, too, I’m sure.  I think that Schindler started out as a bad guy doing a good thing (though for selfish reasons) and evolved into a good guy.

Shawshank Redemption:  Andy as a wrongly convicted man who becomes a criminal in prison, but who never gives up his humanity.

Tsotsi:  I haven’t seen this one in a LONG time, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I think it’s about a boy who steals a car and discovers that he’s also stolen a baby.  The film tells the story of what he does after he realizes he’s got a tough choice to make.

Unforgiven:  This is a Clint Eastwood western.  Eastwood is a retired gunslinger who gets called back into the life of crime for reasons that he thinks are honorable.  His character is a tough one to suss out, and the film really makes the viewer work for the payoff (plus, it stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, which makes it that much better).

I was also thinking that I would have the kids read Bel Canto (which asks the “terrorist or freedom fighter” question) and, if they’re given permission from their parents, to look at a couple of episodes of Dexter (a serial killer in a Showtime series who only murders murderers who get away from the legal system).

I think there’s a lot of richness to be mined in this “good guy doing bad things / bad guy doing good things” question, I just need to think about it a bit more before it takes on any kind of substance that resembles a for-credit class.

What do you think?


Filed under colleagues, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, lesson planning, Literature, Mrs. Chili as Student, politics, Teaching, winging it, writing

A Ray of Hope

(author’s note; I wrote this whole post once already, but my internet went out when I hit “publish” and I lost the whole thing.  I frickin’ HATE that… Grrrrr….).


SO!  A few months ago, I was talking to Dude about CHS and everything that happened (and was still happening) there.  In the course of the conversation, I bitched about how difficult a time I was having looking for work, and he mentioned that he’d met someone in the local government who was looking to start a new charter school and suggested that I look this guy up to see if that was still in the pipeline.

It took me forever to track the guy down, but I did and I sent him a message.  He got back to me to say that he wasn’t involved in it, but he did put me in touch with the people who are, so I sent THEM messages.  They got back to me right away (which, to be honest, kind of surprised me) to tell me that they were holding off on making any decisions at the time because our whackadoodle legislature is in a pissing contest with the DOE and were holding up approvals for new charter schools.

Long story short, I corresponded with the director (let’s call her Sally) for a while, but nothing really came of it until last weekend, when I saw that the school had set up a tent at our town’s annual apple harvest festival.  I marched right up to it and introduced myself.  With a firm handshake, a level gaze, and with far more confidence than I really felt, I talked myself up.  I told Sally about my Master’s degree and my state certification, about my experience teaching at both the community college and the university level, and about my three years as the chair, curriculum designer, and primary teacher in a charter high school’s English department.  By the time I was done, I’d talked her into wanting to have me on the team.

The impression I’m getting is that this school managed to get all of its little ducks in a row before the aforementioned whacadoodle legislature decided to try to kill all new charter schools in the state.  Sally seems pretty sure that the school will open in September; she’s going to be accepting student applications in January and they have their sights set on a facility (ironically, the building where I first taught community college; I’m already trying to decide which room I’ll put dibs on).  She told me that I was to go straight home and send her an email (“Put the subject line in all caps,” she said, “so I can find it right away!”) so that she could add me to her email distribution list, introduce me to the other members of the team, and invite me to their meetings.

The first meeting is Monday.

I’m cautiously optimistic.  I really, really want this to happen; getting in on the ground floor of a school is literally my dream job.  I learned an awful lot about what NOT to do at CHS; I’ve seen firsthand where the energy needs to be put, and I think I have a lot to offer a brand new school.  I come equipped with a ready-made 4-year core curriculum that meets exceeds the State’s standards, several elective courses (including a writing minor complete with a course curriculum), and several years’ worth of lesson plans.  I can literally hit the ground running; I just need someplace to do it.

I’ll keep you all posted.  Wish me luck!


Filed under colleagues, concerns, Dream Course, job hunting, out in the real world, politics, The Job, Yikes!

Quick Hit: Brainstorming

I just got back from my first viewing of The Dark Knight Rises (oh, believe me; there will be subsequent viewings…).  My brain is positively churning  – seething, I tell you! – with ideas and thoughts and musings.

I’ve decided that the fact that I’m not employed doesn’t in any way keep me from designing classes, and I want more than anything right now to design a class – probably a film as literature course – around the idea of the ambiguous hero.  The Nolan Batman is a fantastic foundation for this course, into which I’m planning to weave Snape (and probably Dumbledore), the Creature from Frankenstein, and Oskar Schindler (though he might be a bit tricky as he was a real person, but I think there could be some critical thinking gold to be mined there).  I’ve also got some Shakespeare characters in mind, as well as Jax from Sons of Anarchy and Raylan from Justified (though, depending on the class level, I may or may not be able to show episodes from those shows, despite the fact they’re on television).

Here’s where you come in, Dear Readers.  Who are your favorite morally ambiguous characters?  These can be from movies, literature, or television; the only requirement is that they exhibit some sort of moral stickiness – so much the better if that stickiness makes them more intriguing or attractive.

Aaaand, GO!


Filed under analysis, critical thinking, doing my own homework, Dream Course, film as literature, lesson planning, popular culture

Why I Love My Job


Did you ever start thinking about something, and then discover, five minutes later, that that thinking led you to someplace COMPLETELY different but entirely connectible?  The other day, for example, I started thinking about Mr. Chili’s impending month-long trip to New Mexico for another instrument launch.  That started me thinking about what we can and cannot bring on airplanes.  THAT thinking led me to thinking about water bottles, which got me to these (which my sister hooked me on to and which I love, despite their hefty price tag.  Honest to Goddess, People; black flask in a black car in a parking lot in August for two hours while I watched a movie.  I came out and the tea inside was still refrigerator cold).  I went from Mr. Chili’s trip to my favorite beverage in three steps.  Kinda like six degrees of Kevin Bacon

So, here’s the scene, okay?  I’m on a lunch date this afternoon with my boss, whom I call Carrie here.  She’s awesome; smart, funny, and fiercely passionate and committed about what we’re doing.  She’s a truly amazing boss – the best I’ve ever worked with – and she’s also a dear and trusted friend; we know, almost instinctively, how to balance the friend relationship with the work relationship in a way that makes both relationships better.  We have a blast every time we’re together, and I’d been looking forward to this lunch for a couple of weeks.

ANYWAY, we’re having lunch and talking alternately about home things and work things.  At one point, we started talking about the fact that I’ve got Mac now, which means that I can teach electives this year.  We’re trying to decide which elective I should teach when, and we got around to the fact that my colleague is teaching his film appreciation class this term, so I’ll teach my Film and Lit class in second semester.  What, then, to teach starting in September?

Somehow, the conversation came around to the fact that Carrie and her daughter sat down to watch Interview with the Vampire the other day.  It seems that her kid was quite ticked off at Claudia’s fate, and Carrie spent a good bit of time explaining that her daughter felt that Claudia’s death was completely unfair.  That somehow led to a conversation about who the villains really are, which led me to observe that our villains change over time; when we were kids, all the bad guys were Russians.  Now, they’re all Arabs.  We go through phases in our entertainment; we get a bumper crop of football movies, then a run of mobster movies, then we get the alien invasion flicks, then we get the supernatural, ghost-and-vampire films, and so on and so on.  What is it, I asked, that makes a certain genre of film so accessible at a certain period of time?

As I was making my case for the cyclical nature of our entertainment choices, Carrie’s eyes got big.  “I KNOW!” she said, “YOU need to teach a seminar on aliens and vampires!

I swear to God, that’s really what she said.

Do you see now why I love working for/with this woman?

We spent the rest of the meal discussing what that course would look like.  I rattled off a bunch of stories that could be the foundations for the course – Dracula, of course, and War of the Worlds – and things like Contact, Alien, Men in Black, and Star Trek set up alongside Dracula, The Lost Boys, Buffy, Blade, and I am Legend.  The objectives would include an investigation of the stories’ history in popular culture and possibly some investigation of some of the earlier treatments of the genres, some critical analysis of the parallels (if any can be found) between the number of pieces in a genre during a particular time and the sociopolitical climate during that time, and some sort of creative component in which the students fashion a story (or a play or a skit or a mini-series) that uses one of the genres to interpret a current issue, like immigration, civil rights, or international diplomacy.

You should have seen us, geeking out over dessert, imagining how much pure FUN this class will be.  I’m off to write a course description; I’ll post it here when it’s ready.  Any thoughts, suggestions, or advice you can offer are, as always, gratefully accepted.


Filed under admiration, book geek, colleagues, critical thinking, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I can't make this shit up..., I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Mrs. Chili as Student, popular culture, success!, Teaching, winging it

Finding My Stride

We’re into our second week in school, though neither week has been a full five days (because of the Labor Day holiday last weekend, last week was Tuesday through Thursday, this week is Tuesday to Friday).  I’m coming to realize that I had no idea how much I missed my job until I came back from summer vacation.

I’m teaching four classes this year; freshman, junior, and senior English and a Film and Literature class.  So far, they’re all going really well, though I’m still trying to adjust my brain to how much work I should reasonably expect from the students.  I’m settling into the routine of taking attendance in the new platform our Tech God launched for us this year, and that same Tech God got my (messed up) classes set up (correctly) in the class management system we started playing with last term and are running full-time this year.  In terms of logistics, I think I’ve got it figured out.

We’re running a college-inspired schedule this year, which, so far, is working out GREAT.  On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, my professional life is almost obscenely leisurely to look at from the outside; I’m only scheduled for the freshman class first block and the freshman portfolio advisory right after lunch.  I’m finding, though, that my M/W/F is packed much fuller than my Tuesday/Thursdays where I have a class literally every block.  Those “easy” days are the ones where I’m doing all my grading, planning, copying, and scheming, not to mention trying to keep up with three reading assignments (and that’s one fewer than there’ll be soon; I doubled up the English III and Film and Lit readings for the first outing).

My freshmen are reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver and are trying to figure out the writing process ahead of composing their own personal narratives.  Most of the kids have read the novel already – most in 7th grade – but I think they’re going to be pleased, and not a little surprised, by how much they DIDN’T see in the story two years ago.  I’m going to get them started on their personal essays at the end of next week with an eye for having a finished draft before the end of the first grading period in mid-October.

My English III kids are reading The Secret Life of Bees (as are my Film and Lit kids).  I’m thinking that I’m going to use the same lesson plans for both classes for this novel, and of showing the film to the core class kids, as well.  I’m dying to start talking about this book; a couple of students have come in and boldly declared that Lily is a little girl with daddy issues and I think it’s going to be fun to watch them come to the realization that her issues are all mommy (as are, consequently, her daddy’s issues.  Yep; that’s going to be a great conversation!).

My English IV kids are reading Frankenstein, and I absolutely cannot WAIT to see where they go with it.  I got a lot of complaints during the first reading day; they couldn’t get behind the language and they were completely confused about what was going on.  A couple of the kids came back to me today, though, and told me that once they got going, the ride smoothed out a bit.  I figured it would, but it was good to hear it from them.  I’m trying something different with my seniors this year in that I’m giving them, right off the bat, free rein to decide how they’re going to approach this novel.  I’ve told them that they’ve got to come up with some other supporting experience that they can interpret to show me that they’re engaged with Frankenstein on a level that goes beyond just the plot and setting, but that they have complete autonomy in how they do that.  While I’m expecting them to fall on their faces this first time out – they’ve never really been given this kind of absolute freedom before – I’m hoping that they’re observant enough of the text to be able to come up with some academically substantial ideas.  Maybe some of them will choose to examine some excerpts of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women, or they might investigate the current issues in medical and scientific ethics that Shelley so presciently wrote about in her novel.  I’m also hoping that some of them will go off and do something creative and original; one long-ago student, when faced with the same assignment, decided to write two more chapters to the book in which the Creature returns from the Arctic and confronts Ernest.  It was delightful, imaginative, true to the voice of the novel and completely in keeping with the characters, and I’m hoping that someone sees fit to try their hand at that kind of creative effort.

We just finished Willow in the Film class, and the kids are tasked with writing a short essay in which they argue who that story is really about; my interpretation is that it’s NOT about the main character, and I’m eager to see not only who they choose, but also how they defend those choices with evidence from the movie.  They’re also finishing The Secret Life of Bees, and next week will be spent in conversation about the ideas of prejudice, faith, confidence, connection, and determination that the novel forwards, as well as in discussion of some of the creative choice the director made in the adaptation of the book to the screen.

See?  Busy!  How’s YOUR school year going?


Filed under about writing, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, composition, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, little bits of nothingness, reading, success!, Teaching, the good ones, The Job, writing

Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things we’re working with in my classes this year:

1. My film and lit class is watching Willow as I write this.

2.  The Secret Life of Bees, both the novel and the film; Goddess, but I love that story.

3.  The Giver.  My freshmen start this novel tomorrow.

4.  Frankenstein.  My seniors start reading this today.  I’m thinking about showing them a couple of film versions, to boot.  I so love this novel.

5.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  I’ve never read this, but I’ve always wanted to.  One of the cool things about my job is that I get to decide what we read, so I get to pick stuff both that I love and that I’ve always wanted to read.

6.  Atonement.  I finished reading this about a week ago, and I’m eager to read it with my seniors.

7.  The Client.  My film kids are going to read and watch this.  I can’t wait.

8.  The Book Thief.  Another of my most favorite books.  I’m dying to read this again.

9.  The Empire of the Sun.  Another film class film.

10.  Night.  I’ve read this about a dozen times, but I’ve never taught it.  My freshman get it this year, and I’m eager to see what they do with it.


Filed under book geek, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I love my job, lesson planning, reading, Teaching

Want a Project?

So, here’s the story; I’ve been given 100% free rein to do whatever I want in building, from scratch, an entire English department.  From scratch, People; I have absolutely no constraints – I can pick whatever books I want and teach them in whatever order I want using any projects and assessments I want and….

You get the idea.

While I’m in love with the idea that this is entirely mine to create – how many of my colleagues fantasize about being able to teach the books they love instead of the books they’re ordered to read by the administration or the state? – I’m also here to tell you that absolute freedom isn’t necessarily conducive to creativity.

I need edges.  I need guideposts.  I need something.

When I met with Mike the other day to talk about getting the planning started, I told him that I was almost paralyzed by all my freedom; I had no place to put in, I said, and I found myself staring at a blank computer screen, wondering just where the hell to start.

That’s when he suggested that we create a canon.  We’ll compose a list of books that we feel deserve a quasi-permanent place in the various curricula.  The idea is that we’ll have a list of books that we go to whenever we’re teaching, say, a freshman core class, and choose some anchoring texts from among that list that fit with whatever the school-wide theme is for that year (as opposed to teaching the same books every year – if it’s freshman, it must be Romeo and Juliet! – which, frankly, we teachers just don’t want to do).  That way, we figure, we’ll never teach a book to a junior class that already read it as freshmen and, in the process, we make sure we hit at least some of the more widely-read novels that colleges expect students will have some passing familiarity with (and that we either love or never got to ourselves in our own educations).

So, I’ve got this list.  It is by no means a complete list, and I’m leaving it entirely open to revision and/or suggestion, so that’s the first part of your project; if you see something on the list that shouldn’t be there – or there’s a book that is dear to you that you think should – speak up.

The second part of my request is a bit more involved, though; I’m going to ask you (especially you English teachers) where in the course of four years you’d place a book.  It’s pretty much decided that freshmen will get To Kill a Mockingbird and The Book Thief, and that seniors will get Frankenstein and Beloved – and there are a couple of other novels that will sort themselves out simply because of their subject matter or their voice – but I’m really interested in finding out what you all think about where the books should go.  You don’t even have to take on the whole four years; if you teach sophomores, for instance, tell me what books you either teach or wish you could teach to that bunch.  If you teach college, tell me which books you want your incoming freshman to know in order to have discourse about the novels that you teach at your level.  I’ll take any and all input any of you wants to offer up… and thanks!

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Book Thief
Native Son
Invisible Man
The Sunflower
Ender’s Game
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
King Lear
Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew
The Great Gatsby
The Things They Carried
The Kite Runner
Watership Down
Fahrenheit 451
The Giver
The Color Purple
A Christmas Carol
This Boy’s Life
The House on Mango Street
Oliver Twist
Catcher in the Rye
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
As I Lay Dying
A Farewell to Arms
Brave New World
A Member of the Wedding
The Bluest Eye
Cry the Beloved Country
Things Fall Apart
Pride and Prejudice
The Scarlet Letter
Lord of the Flies
A Clockwork Orange


Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, Dream Course, great writing, I love my boss, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, reading, Teaching, winging it