Archives for category: Literature

I chose to include this link on my birthday because it gave me an hour of aesthetic joy, following its links.

Maria Popova is a Bulgarian-born polymath who lives in Brooklyn and reads voraciously with deep understanding and love of knowledge.

On June 26, she wrote about the artist Keith Haring and his love of life and art, and how his art inspired her and others, and how his life demonstrated “the courage to be yourself.”

As I began reading, I started opening links, one of which sent me to her archive (not easy to find), and I was soon reading about Mary Wollstonecraft, the world’s first radical feminist, who died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, who survived the death of three of her children and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Reading Maria Popova is sheer bliss and an invitation to share her joy of reading. I signed up to send her a small monthly gift, to sustain her as she pursues knowledge and shares its fruits.

Garrison Keillor writes today in “A Writer’s Almanac” about Saul Bellow:

It’s the birthday of Saul Bellow, (books by this author) born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, in 1915, two years after his parents emigrated from Russia. He was born in Canada, but when he was young he was smuggled across the border into Chicago, and so he grew up as an illegal immigrant. His dad was an onion importer and a bootlegger. His mom was religious, and she hoped he would be a rabbi or maybe a concert pianist. But when he was eight years old, he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and he decided he would become a writer.

He wrote two novels that didn’t sell very well. But then he won a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Paris to write. And while he was there, he realized how much he loved Chicago.

So he started a new novel whose opening lines are: “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” That was The Adventures of Augie March (1953),which became his first real success and won the National Book Award. He continued writing plays, nonfiction, and more novels, including Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975).

He said, “In expressing love we belong among the undeveloped countries.” And, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” And, “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'”


Over the past few weeks, Peter Greene has written several articles on the subject of “Why Teach Literature?”

He writes faster than I can post, so I am far behind.

Greene includes all of the articles in this series.

Now you can read them all in one sitting!

On his daily “The Writer’s Almanac,” Garrison Keillor recognizes two important historical birthdays today. I must have read every Edward Lear poem and limerick to my children. His writings gave them a love of language and wordplay, which I believe is a firm foundation for learning..

Today is the birthday of the poet and artist Edward Lear (books by this author) who wrote lots of limericks and nonsense verse, including “The Owl and the Pussycat.” He was born in London in 1812. He was the 20th of 21 children, about half of whom died in infancy. Lear himself survived to the age of 75, but he suffered epileptic seizures and was prone to fits of deep depression, which he dubbed “the Morbids.”

He began selling his drawings when he was 16, and later found work as a drawing teacher, and a sign painter, and an illustrator of medical textbooks. He was hired by the London Zoological Society to produce a series of bird paintings, and he insisted on only painting from live specimens, not stuffed dead birds. His paintings impressed Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, so much that Stanley asked Lear to come and document the animals in the private zoo he kept on his estate. Lear lived at Knowsley Hall for four years on and off, working on the paintings, which were eventually published in the book Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846). He also befriended the Earl’s grandchildren and began writing poetry for them including “The Owl and the Pussycat.”

It’s the birthday of Florence Nightingale, born in Florence, Italy, to a wealthy English family (1820). Her parents didn’t have any sons, and they gave her advantages that would have gone to a son, though they still expected her to marry and be a wife and mother. When she was 25, Nightingale told her parents that she wanted to become a nurse. Since nursing was a working-class occupation, her parents were horrified, but she believed she had been given a purpose by God.

In London, Nightingale met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. Blackwell encouraged and inspired her, and she finally obtained her father’s permission to study nursing when she was 31. And in 1854, with the British Army crippled by outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and dysentery during the Crimean War, she took a group of 38 nurses to Turkey. She became known as “the lady with the lamp,” because she would quietly make her rounds among the patients at all hours of the night. Conditions in the field hospitals were appalling, and she began a campaign to reform them, but the military stonewalled her. She used her London newspaper contacts to publish accounts of the horrible way wounded soldiers were being treated. Finally she was allowed to reorganize the barracks hospitals. She thought that the high death rates were due to poor nutrition and overwork; it wasn’t until after the war that she realized the role that proper sanitation played in patient care.

After the war, she continued to fight for military hospital reform and the education of nurses; she was soon one of the most famous and influential women in Britain, second only to Queen Victoria. In 1860, she founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses. But she had returned from the war an invalid herself, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and for the last several years of her life, she was in need of nursing herself.

Here is Lear’s most famous poem. Someone set it to music, and we used to sing it together.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Robin Lithgow titles this wonderful post Flores y Canciones: The Poet as Witness. She writes about a culture that values its poets.

She writes:

I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled “What You Have Heard is True,” by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do.

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Trotsky’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

Read on. Finish the post.

Lithgow shows you the beauty and importance of poetry.

What is the role of poetry in the Common Core curriculum? Will poetry help you write a market analysis? What does it do? Why does it matter?

If you have never read the poetry of Wilfred Owen, do it now.

Today is his birthday.

This bio comes from Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.”

“It’s the birthday of poet Wilfred Owen (books by this author), born in Shropshire, England (1893). When he was young, his family was well-off, living in a house owned by his grandfather, a prominent citizen. But then his grandpa died, and it turned out that the old man was broke, and the family had to leave and move into working-class lodgings in an industrial town.

“He started writing poems as a boy, and he was good at literature and science, but he didn’t do well enough on his exams to get a scholarship at a university. He enlisted to fight in World War I, and he became a lieutenant. In 1917, he was wounded, diagnosed with shell shock, and sent to a hospital to recuperate. There he met another soldier diagnosed with shell shock, Siegfried Sassoon, who was an established poet and mentored Owen. At the hospital, Owen wrote many of his most famous poems, including “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” He was one of the first poets to depict the horrifying realities of war, instead of writing glorified, nationalistic poems.

“But the next year, he went back to fight, and he was killed in battle at the age of 25. Two years later, Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920) was published.”

Garrison Keillor included these birthday notes today in his daily “Writer’s Almanac,” which is online and free.

It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was published (books by this author).

Two years before she had spent the summer in a cabin on Lake Geneva with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her sister Claire, and Claire’s lover, the poet Lord Byron. It rained a lot that summer, and one night, Byron suggested they all write ghost stories. At first Mary had trouble coming up with a story, but while lying in bed, reported having a waking nightmare, seeing a vision of a man reanimating a creature. She wrote: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” So she set to work on Frankenstein.

It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (books by this author), born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn (1916). The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, he wanted to be an artist, and that worried his family — but he couldn’t afford art school, so he got a job painting murals for the Works Progress Administration, and designed army camouflage during World War II.

The first book he wrote and illustrated on his own was The Snowy Day (1962), done all in collage, about a young black boy named Peter playing in his neighborhood after a new snowfall. It was one of the first children’s books to feature a black character. He went on to illustrate more than 80 children’s books, and to write and illustrate more than 20 books.

He said, “I love city life. All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people.”

This is a delightful post by Mercedes Schneider, whom we usually expect to write about scams, hoaxes, and frauds in the education biz.

But this time she shows off a student’s work in her English class.

What a delight!

She reminds us that this is what education is all about. Not dollars, but the joy of learning!


Today is George Washington’s birthday. I expect he would be weeping to see the caliber of the man who is now president and is engaged in destroying the federal government and our democracy. Imagine tossing out a highly qualified director of national intelligence and replacing him with a totally inexperienced loyalist who will purge the CIA of anyone who does not display loyalty to Trump, not the Constitution. Imagine putting loyalists in charge of every department whose job is to gut it.

On a happier note, it is the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Garrison Keillor wrote about her on his daily “Writer’s Almanac.”

It’s the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (books by this author), born in Rockland, Maine (1892). She was raised by her mother, who supported the family by making wigs and working as a nurse. By the time she was 14, she was publishing poems in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. Her mother couldn’t afford to send her to college, but when she was 19, she entered a poem called “Renascence” in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. Her poem didn’t win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.

At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her rebelliousness. Vassar’s president, Henry Noble MacCracken, once wrote to her: “You couldn’t break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don’t want a banished Shelley on my doorstep.” She wrote back, “Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole.” She moved to Greenwich Village after college, and most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her, including the critic Edmund Wilson, who proposed to her and never got over her rejection.

Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans. She recited her poetry from memory, delivering the poems with her whole body. Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy famously said that America had produced only two great things: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1923.

Millay wrote, “My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — / It gives a lovely light!”


Bob Shepherd, a frequent contributor, also a textbook writer, assessment developer, author, and classroom teacher, writes about the effect of Common Core on the teaching of literature. He omits my biggest gripe about CCSS: the arbitrary requirement that teachers must devote 50% of their time to literature and 50% to “informational texts” in the early grades. As students get older, the proportion of “informational texts” is supposed to increase. There is no rational basis for this prescription. It is based on the NAEP instructions to assessment developers; these instructions were never intended as guidelines for teachers. Literary reading can be as challenging as informational text. Teachers should make their own choices.

Shepherd writes:

For many decades now, as in any occupied country, the Deformer/Disrupter occupiers of U.S. education–the invasion force that went forward, financed by Gates and Walton dollars, to take over our federal and state governments, has dominated discourse about education in the United States. In Vichy France, the motto of the Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité, was replaced by the motto of the fascist collaborationist Pétain regime, travail, famille, patrie. These were high-sounding words–work, family, and country–but they masked a terrible reality as the Jews and Socialists started disappearing. Conservatives embraced the official collaborationist view as a corrective to the licentiousness of an era of jazz and night clubs, short skirts and sexual libertinism. There was a resistance, yes, but it operated in the shadows. Moderates found it easy to ignore the disappearances and the surveillance state and to embrace the discourse of the occupiers–to become de facto collaborators–because the alternative was dangerous.

For many decades now, the language of the Deformers/Disrupters has become the official language of the federal government, the state departments of education, of administrators of our schools, and of our textbooks, print and online. It’s as though there were an unwritten but rigidly, severely enforced rule that one was never to mention the puerile, backward Gates/Coleman bullet list of abstract “skills” without prefacing the term “standards” with the adjective “higher.” Everyone throughout the educational system is forced to speak in terms of “data-based decision making” and “accountability,” even if they know quite well that the tests that provide this supposed”data” are sloppy and invalid–a scam. Teachers are given no choice but to post their data walls and hold their data chats. All coherence in ELA textbooks is gone, their texts and study apparatus having been replaced by random exercises, modeled on the state tests, on applying random items from the Gates/Coleman list to random snippets of text. The goals set by the occupiers–school letter grades, the average test scores needed to get an “exemplary” rating as a teacher or administrator, the test scores for avoiding third-grade retention or necessary for high-school graduation–are very like the constant barrage of production figures for pork bellies and pig iron constantly broadcast by fascist regimes. And everywhere are the reports on the glorious successes of regime–the graduation rates, the improved scores, cheered and written about in news stories even as everyone knows them to be lies.

The Chiefs for Ka-ching are The Party running the Vichy Occupation.

But enough with the abstraction. Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s look at U.S. literature texts before and after Gates and Coleman. Before, there was no top-down curriculum commissariat, but habits of the tribe and tradition and teacher concerns about quality ensured that from one basal program to another, the contents were pretty much (about 90 percent) the same. Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Check. Wordsworth’s “I Wondered Lovely as a Cloud.” Check. Hughes’s “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Check. The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. Check. Substantive literary works. Classics from the canon. And almost all schools used these basal lit texts.

Every selection in these literature textbooks was followed by a series of questions, beginning with factual questions, moving to analysis questions, and ending with evaluation questions, that took students through a step-by-step close reading of the substantive, classic selection. These were followed by extension activities–language activities about grammar or usage or vocabulary in the selection. Writing in response to or in imitation of the selection. Walk into any school in America, and kids were using these texts. In high-school, almost all schools were using a basal world literature text in Grade 10, an American literature survey text in Grade 11, and a British literature survey text in Grade 12. In the non-survey years, the texts were usually organized coherently by genre–poetry, the short story, drama, the nonfiction essay–or, by theme. But always, one had the substantive, classic selections and the close reading questions–facts, analysis, synthesis, following Bloom’s taxonomy.

Enter Gates. Gates wanted a single bullet list, nationally, to key depersonalized education software to. He saw the current system for educating Prole children as terribly wasteful of money spent on facilities and teachers, who could be replaced by computers. And by doing that, he and others in the computer industry could make a LOT of money. So, when he was approached by Coleman and another guy from Achieve, he was all over the idea of national “standards.” Any bullet list would do, and any guy, even Coleman, despite his lack of relevant expertise.

And what did Coleman do? Well, he and his pals reviewed the mediocre, skills-based, lowest-common-denominator existing state standards and cobbled together a list based on those. And his list, like the execrable state “standards” that proceeded it, was almost content-free–it was a list of vague, abstract “skills.” In his ignorance of the fact that there was a de facto, default canon in U.S. literature textbooks of substantive works from British, American, and World literature, he called for “reading of substantive works” for a change. In his ignorance of the fact that EVERY basal literature program was organized around close reading questions, he called for “close reading.” In his ignorance of the fact that every high-school in the U.S. was using a basal lit text in Grade 11 that contained a survey of American literature, including foundational documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, and in ignorance of the fact that almost all schools were doing a Brit Lit survey in Grade 12, he called for reading of “foundational documents” in American literature in Grades 11 and 12 (one of the very, very few actual bits of content-related material in his “standards.”

And what was the actual result of this? Well, before Gates and Coleman, editors and writers of U.S. literature texts would sit down and coherently plan a unit to teach, say, the elements of fiction. It would contain substantive short stories from the canon and treat, in turn, such elements as the central conflict, plot structure, character types and methods of characterization, setting, mood, and theme. After the Coleman/Gates bullet list and the high stakes attached to tests based on this (school, administrator, teacher, and student evaluations, punishments, and rewards), the bullet lists and the tests became all important. Educational publishers started making TEACHING THE BULLET LIST the goal of education. (They didn’t do this when there were differing, competing state “standards.”) The publishers started beginning every project with a spreadsheet containing the bullet list on the left and the place where the item from the list was “covered” to the right. The “standards” and the test question types became the default, de facto curriculum. COHERENCE AND CONTENT IN US LITERATURE TEXTOOKS WAS GONE. They became a random series of random exercises on random snippets of text meant to teach incredibly vague “skills,” some in print, some in online replacements for textbooks. Vague, content-free kill drill.

And now, a whole generation of teachers has entered the profession and grown up under a Vichy regime that treats this madness, this devolved, trivialized curriculum, as ideal.

And after decades of this, after the utter failure of Deform to improve test scores or close achievement gaps, the Deformers want to double down. Stay the course, but add a national Curriculum Commissariat and Thought Police to serve as curriculum gatekeeper. And, ofc, put some idiot like Coleman in charge of it–someone who gets his or her marching orders from Gates or the Waltons. Kill any possibility of innovation by researchers, scholars, and classroom practitioners, whose ideas for modifications of the curricula won’t matter because THEY ARE NOT ON THE LIST. Hew to the list! Do as your betters tell you to do! Yours is to obey. Your superiors will take care of the command and control (and coercion).

Enough. It’s time to start challenging the Deformer/Disrupter NewSpeak at every turn. No, this is not “actionable data” because it comes from invalid, sloppy tests that don’t measure what they purport to measure. No, writing that applies the “standard” to the text doesn’t reflect normal interaction with texts, in which we are interested primarily in the experience of the work and what its authors and characters had to say. No, these “standards” are trivial and vague and backward, not “higher.” No, these test questions are tortured and awkward and invalid and do not reflect normal interactions with texts. If anything, they are superb examples of misreading that misses the point of why people write and why others read. No, teachers are autonomous professionals not to be scripted. No, teaching is a human interaction between people, and computers can’t do it.

Enough. Send the Deformers packing. Vive la révolution!