Monday, September 26, 2016

Walt Whitman and Frankenstein's Creature Walk Into a Classroom...

Walt Whitman. Photo credit: marcelo noah 
via / CC BY
My AP students are reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein right now, and, as in previous years, the students' responses to the appearance of Victor Frankenstein's Creature have me thinking. This year, I'm thinking about a poem by Walt Whitman called "This Compost" (published originally with the more evocative title "Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat"). 

In the poem, Whitman marvels at the Earth's ability to transform dead organic matter (including human corpses) into new life. "What chemistry!" he exclaims, "that blackberries are so flavorous and juicy," even though they grow up out of "those strata of sour dead" (lines 31, 37, and 30). The Earth "grows such sweet things out of such corruptions," and "the resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves" (lines 43 and 23). 

Boris Karloff as Victor's "beautiful"
and "hideous" creation (42-3).
Photo credit: 
twm1340 via / CC BY-SA
Victor Frankenstein's act of creation is much different. Although Victor says he had "selected [the Creature's] features as beautiful" from the "charnel-houses," "the dissecting room[,] and the slaughter-house," the result was nevertheless "hideous" (37, 39, 43). 

So what makes one act of transformation (the production of Life from Death) wondrous and sweet, while the other is horrific and disgusting? I think Uncle Walt might have been able to tell poor Victor where he went wrong. 

"Hey, Vic, old buddy, it doesn't matter what bits and pieces you chose to cobble together--your project was doomed from the beginning. Let me tell you why..." 

AP Lit students: Read Whitman's poem and tell me in a comment what you think Walt would have said next! 

And then read, or listen to, this NPR report about a very recent experiment in human DNA editing, which I think Muna I made reference to in discussion. 

Someone, I can't remember who (remind me in a comment) brought up the Creature's vegetarianism, which is discussed at length in Carol Adam's book The Sexual Politics of Meat. You all should read the relevant chapter. [Update (9/29): Take a look at this article, too, as it touches on a topic we discussed yesterday!]

We had a great discussion on Friday--let's keep that trend going!
Look at all those hands up! 

Friday, September 16, 2016

(E11) "Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make"

This year's English 11 class dramatized the poem "To Althea, From Prison" by Richard Lovelace, as an introduction to our unit on Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Here is the video of their performance. They worked hard on choreographing everything smoothly. If you wish, you can compare their interpretation to that of last year's class.

I think they did a really good job! Their next task is to imagine how they would deal with being in prison...

Monday, September 5, 2016

It's the Little Things (or Little Ones) That Matter

One of the many recently-deceased RODS
I've found on the Trail. Actually, it's not a
rodent but a shrew. I think a well-fed cat
is killing & discarding them. 
I spend a lot of time on the Munger Trail, between Duluth and Jay Cooke State Park. Most of the folks who use the Munger Trail are bikers, joggers, and snowmobilers. 

I'm not a "real" biker, because my primary motive is taking photographs of wildflowers (including orchids), fungi, lichen, and recently-deceased rodents of diminutive size (or RODS*). I move slowly, paying close attention to what's on and alongside the Trail, and I stop frequently, to take photos of what I see. 

Those who are moving much faster than I am have other reasons for being on this multi-use Trail; their priorities are much more common, much more typical of Trail-users. I know I'm in the minority. Most folks don't care much about wildflowers. Oh, people care in a general way--they'd notice if all the flowers suddenly disappeared--but they don't get really, really upset when the trail-sides are mowed each year at this time to control the vegetation. 

Murdered Bottle Gentian flower--it won't
be producing any seed-pods this fall.
They don't care, for instance, if the Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) are less plentiful along the Trail this year because of the timing of the mowing. And most folks don't sort angrily through the cut vegetation, searching for murdered flowers. 

The Trail is mowed and trimmed for the benefit of the majority of users, especially for the snowmobilers, I'm guessing, who don't want untamed vegetation getting in their way. And no one is likely to change their habits and policies because of one wildflower freak who talks to the plants and stops to move every dead shrew or mole to the side of the Trail...I get that. 
Star-nosed mole, Munger Trail, May, 2013.
But I think the world is a slightly better place if even these tiniest of critters are treated with respect and a bit of compassion. Shrews are really cool animals and an important part of our ecosystem. Some can inject venom into their prey; others use echolocation to navigate and find food. Star-nosed moles are pretty interesting, too (thanks to Mr Schonfeld for the video link). All these little RODS are living beings who have suffered violence and deserve to be treated with dignity. I'm like their funeral director, I guess. Using a leaf to pick them up, I make sure they're laid in the bosom of Mother Earth, rather than left on the Trail to be squashed by the next bicyclist or runner who comes along. 

This is the smallest RODS I've ever found--possibly
an Arctic Shrew.
It's important to care about both big and little things--which brings me to another story about little beings. On Friday, all the students, grades 4 through 12, participated in a scavenger hunt. Students were divided into teams that included at least one student from each grade level. 

We teachers stood in small groups in the hallways as these teams wandered around the school, finding their clues and completing their tasks. It may not have seemed like it, but we were watching all of you, noting how you behaved and interacted with each other.

I wish I had taken a photo of the most important interaction I witnessed. Eli's team was passing by, and the 5th grader in the group (I don't know his name--Sam, maybe?) needed to stop and tie his shoe. The other members of the team (hungry for the prize donuts at the end of the game, perhaps) moved on, but Eli stopped and waited, even asked the youngster if he needed help tying his shoe (he didn't). 

This is precisely the kind of caring and inclusive behavior we teachers hope to see during this exercise. I know that a lot of you Upper School students get impatient or bored with these all-school activities, but a real community is one in which everyone, even the smallest, the youngest, the different, and the "other," feels included and taken care of. In a real community, someone stops and waits for you when you fall behind. Someone checks on you, to see if you need help. 

Now, I don't know what it is about Eli that made him do this--I don't know much about Eli yet, but I do know that his interaction with Sam left a positive impression on me. Perhaps no one else on Eli's team saw what happened, but I noticed, and so did my colleagues. And I bet the next time Sam sees Eli, he'll think of him as a friend.

You have three options for your first blogging assignment. Write a post about 

  • the little things you care about that perhaps no one else notices, or 
  • some snapshots of your summer (model your post after mine), or 
  • the numbers that describe you--see my example, or
  • if you learned some important lessons during our big summer storm, when so many folks lost access to power and/or water, you could write about that.

Include captioned photos, taken by you or a family member, and relevant links; apply sensible labels (tags) to your
post, and give it a catchy title. Due date TBA. 

*Let's see who's paying attention:  1 extra-credit point to the first of my students who identifies the allusion in my acronym. Put your answer in a comment. Alumni, you may provide SUBTLE clues in the comments...