Sacrificing Our Sacred Cows: Rethinking the Literary Canon in Secondary English

white ceramic man head bust      person holding opened book

In my class, I refer to literature in two categories: Real Lit and Junk Lit. Real Lit means texts that you need to unpack, that have layers, that speak to the human condition. Junk Lit is mostly comprised of those free titles on the Amazon e-books list—you read them fast, but never tell anyone, and they have catchy titles like, Southern Peach Pie and a Dead Guy (yes, that is a real book that I did really read, and it was hilarious!). (Orepitan, 2019)

For decades now the English language arts has been challenging its own standards for what books make their way into the classroom. The canon has been under fire for its lack of inclusive voices (traditionally dead, white males have formed the English canon) as well as its lack of relevance to modern issues or modern reading preferences. (In what other high school subject do you intentionally read so much “outdated” material besides the occasional excerpts of primary sources?)

However, I resonate with Vikki Orepitan’s statement above. If given their way, a lot of kids would probably just settle for “Junk Lit,” right? I personally love many of the classics. And these are classics we’re talking about, known for their timelessness and universality! These have been treasured texts in English classrooms for years. Our contemporary literature can even trace their own ancestry back to these foundational stories. Maybe students won’t like them now, but they’ll appreciate them when they’re older! (We say this like we would upon lecturing our own children, but let’s be honest, is that really the philosophy  we want associated with a passionate, voracious consumption of reading? And are you catching the blatant fallacy of appealing to tradition?)

When I’m being honest, though, it’s not that my own personal reading is mired only in the classics. I do enjoy reading classics during my free time (much to the dismay of students, friends, and even my wife), but that’s not all I read. Like the rest of the world, I too am waiting for Patrick Rothfuss to finish his Kingkiller Chronicles. I’m a fan of Stephen King novels. I try to keep up with Pulitzer prize winning fiction (currently reading the 2020 winner Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead). In fact, after finishing a dense classic, I’m usually intentional about finding more light reading. And if I’m being really honest, I wasn’t absolutely in love with my reading material in high school (my love for classic literature blossomed late in college, echoing the experience of Donald R. Gallo cited below). And if I’m being really, really honest, the last semester of my senior year, I used Sparknotes as a replacement for every one of my reading assignments. (I was overwhelmed by my high school commitments as a high-achieving, college-bound, student, so when I actually ended up scoring the highest I had all year on a test for a book that I had only studied the Sparknotes for, I was addicted.) So why don’t I extend this same grace to my students? Do I really expect them to read classics in class and supplement that reading material with Junk Lit on their own time? That’s a little naive on my part. And what if other scholars and experienced teachers are actually backing the need to rethink the canon?

In his article “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” Donald R. Gallo defines aliteracy by stating that “We are a nation that teaches its children how to read in the early grades, then forces them during their teenage years to read literary works that most of them dislike so much that they have no desire whatsoever to continue those experiences into adulthood” (2001, p. 34). This grim indictment is followed up by pointing to a study in Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books which concluded that, though teacher objectives point to a desire to increase reader enthusiasm and appreciation of great works, curriculum is set up to accomplish the opposite (Gallo, 2001, p. 35). Furthermore, in Workshopping the Canon, Mary E. Styslinger indicates a 2013 NAEP report (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that notes more than 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below the proficient level in reading achievement (2017, p. 2). However, she goes on to point out that recent research has highlighted that “We have discovered that many of our students possess secret literacy lives, not always evident or valued in schools,” particularly YA literature (p. 2). For Styslinger, this information has helped her develop a workshopping approach to better connect students to reading that matters. Perry and Stallworth take up this challenge as well:

Certainly, some of the works students are asked to read should mirror their own experiences. However, the reading curriculum must also reflect our global society, and to ignore the impact of technology on today’s young adolescents would be a disservice, given that media is endemic in the way our students interact on a daily
basis. As Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2011) state: “It is not possible to adequately prepare students for reading and writing in the twenty-first century without integrating new literacies into the everyday life of today’s classrooms” (p. 29). (2013, p. 16)

Additionally, Beach et al. point to several studies and examples in which students are reading in new and innovative ways.

Meanwhile, researchers in the field of literacy (e.g., Jocson, 2013; Vasuevan, 2006/2007) have documented the diversity of adolescents’ literate practices, from slam poetry (Fisher, 2007), to engagement with comics and graphica (Low, 2012; Simon, 2012), young adult novels (Hayn & Kaplan, 2012), or digital storytelling (Hull & Katz, 2006). As young adult author Sherman Alexie (2011) notes, teenagers continue to engage with ideas and texts “because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books–especially the dark, and dangerous ones–will save them.” (Beach et al., 2016)

Thus, research clearly indicates that students are reading; they simply aren’t very interested in reading the material offered in class, and they continue to be in need of growing in their overall reading achievement. In her article at Edutopia, journalist and author Holly Korbey mentions an APA study which indicates an alarming trend in pleasure reading among high school seniors: a decrease from 60% in the late ’70s to 16% in 2016 (2018). She goes on to mention this growing concern among educators:

On social media, teachers are adamant about the risks of an uncritical devotion to the classics. Some teachers have argued that these concerns are especially pertinent for children of color, who are less likely to be represented in traditionally selected texts. Though U.S. classrooms are rapidly diversifying—in just a few years, half of American students will be students of color—the English literature canon, many argue, has remained mostly unchanged and mostly white. (hyperlink in the original)

Korbey goes on to highlight the trend towards student choice in reading as a means to stimulate interest. Thus, to summarize the research in this post, the following should be considered in future ELA curriculum design:

  1. Reading material should incorporate digital and other innovative modes that reflect the type of reading that students are doing in the 21st century.
  2. Reading material should encourage pleasure reading outside of the classroom.
  3. Reading material should reflect student choice to varying degrees.
  4. Reading material should champion underrepresented voices.

In addition to these curriculum suggestions, other methods and strategies will continue to come to the forefront as research continues. (Check out this recent article about the importance of phonics!) However, it should be clear that no strategy, no push for improvement can really take flight without proper motivation from the reader. As an added bonus, teachers can secretly celebrate to know that scholarly research is backing up what they’ve been afraid to voice all along because it sounds so, well, unscientific: We want reading to be FUN! (I bet every English teacher has a litany of books they’d really like to integrate into the curriculum.)

Some educators have referred to the current state of literacy in the United States as a crisis though others have disputed that label. Nevertheless, the conversation and battle over the formation of the English canon continues to rage. Personally, I wonder at the disservice I do my students by not joining the fray, by not examining my curriculum and asking the hard questions about how to best prepare my students for the future and–as is the passion of every ELA teacher–how to create life-long, passionate readers. What is the cost for not sacrificing my sacred cows? Sacrificing my students instead?

 

References

Beach, R., Appleman, D., Fecho, B.,  & Simon, R. (2016). Teaching Literature to Adolescents. Taylor & Francis.

Gallo, D. (2001). How Classics Create an Aliterate Society. The English Journal, 90(3), 33-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/821305

Korby, H. (2019). The Reading Wars: Choice vs. Canon. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/reading-wars-choice-vs-canon

Lenters, K. (2006). Resistance, struggle, and the adolescent reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 136-146. https://doi.org/10.1598/JAAL.50.2.6

Orepitan, V. (2019). NCTE Reads: Reflections from a New Member. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/blog/2019/07/ncte-reads-reflection-new-member/

Perry, T. & Stallworth, B. J. (2013). 21st-Century Students Demand a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon. Voices from the Middle, 21(1), 15-18. https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0211-sep2013/VM0211Century.pdf

Styslinger, M. E. (2017). Workshopping the Canon. National Council of Teachers of English.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Using Social Media As a Platform for Change

Thoughts on using social media as a platform for social change
     Some argue that posting ideology to social media is pointless; people are too entrenched in their own thinking for it to make a difference. And that’s probably true for the most part. However, I believe that I am a product of the power of one’s voice on social media platforms.
     I remember when the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction back in 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown in my own backyard (Ferguson, about 30 min. from where I grew up). It was controversial and hotly debated (witnesses claiming Brown had his hands up in an act of defenselessness while other evidence suggested he was trying to disarm the officer that shot him, putting the officer’s life at risk), and despite acquittal of the officer by the justice system, a damning DOJ report highlighted the rampant racial bias existent in Ferguson’s policing system. To be honest, at that point, I had difficulty getting on board. In my head I was arguing that this was an anomaly; racism’s not that bad. Plus, the details in Michael Brown’s death were muddled.
     But you know what I began to see? Lots of strong stances on the matter being posted to social media. Many of them were defending my status quo. But many of them were challenging that narrative. Thankfully, I have some vocal friends, both white and of color (I hope you know who you are; you are appreciated), who painted a different picture, one of racial injustice and a lack of equity both historically and in the present moment. And you know what? Their voices mattered. They worked (on me at least). Not immediately, not right away (lest you accuse me of being too easily swayed), but incrementally, over time, I started weighing the competing voices. What I was challenged with most (including by white folk) was not to listen solely to the rhetoric of white opinion but to instead listen more attentively to those of color who have actually lived these experiences. I began to discover that many of my white brothers and sisters in Christ (including me!) had been dismissive or inattentive to voices of my colored brothers and sisters in Christ.
     For me, I had to come to the place of admitting, “You know, I don’t understand these issues. And for a long time I’m not sure I’d have said that I agree. But you are my brother and my sister, my fellow Christian, so if you say these things are happening (and that they’re happening to you and/or people you know), I trust you. I believe you. I’m going to stand with you.” Now, I’m not saying that I can’t or don’t listen to voices outside of the church (I most definitely do), but I was shocked upon examining my own life to discover that I had been choosing to not believe the testimony of the very people I call brothers and sisters of faith. As if it’s not enough that brothers and sisters of color experience injustice, I was part of the culture that was erasing their very experiences.
So now I make sure to listen especially close to Christians of color on these matters, not because white people can’t have their own views (we should!) but because I want to hear from those who have lived these experiences. I try to listen to those of color who are in my own community as well as public Christian figures. I like to follow key voices like author Jemar Tisby, music artist Lecrae, theologian Justo L. Gonzalez, psychologist Dr. Christina Edmonson, theologian Ekemini Uwan, pastor Thabiti Anyabwile (and, as an aside, immerse myself more in the full body of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s works). I know I could list countless others who have been using their voices as platforms to raise awareness about the fallen nature of our world (Why does this surprise us?) and how that fallenness extends to racial inequality. So, once again, let me end this long post with a word of gratitude to those who have used their voices to make a difference. I don’t believe it’s in vain.

The Beauty of Complexity

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Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book (1975), she writes the following:

The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork–for it doesn’t ….–but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz. (139)

In this profound chapter entitled “Intricacy,” Dillard adroitly explicates the strange details of nature, details so intricate and numerous as to defy reason. As an example, she mentions that “All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine” (134). In another place, she notes, “And it occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous” (130). And again: “… even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (133).

The truth that Dillard is driving at is that even though much of creation has a known and recognizable function, much of it does not. The brightest among us are wringing their hands, are shuffling their feet, looking a little bashful. We “simply don’t know, can’t imagine.” Thankfully, there are those scientists, those discoverers, those revelers in studying the universe that let out a sigh of relief at life’s mysteries. They are satisfied not to know. Or to know that they cannot know. There is a holy reverence of the universe due to our human limits, like an invisible wall declaring, “Try as you may, you shall go no further; indeed, you cannot.” Space is infinitely large, the quantum level simply too small and weird to nail it down with precision. (Check out this BBC article: What Is the Smallest Possible Thing in the Universe?)

But many of us don’t like the mysteries. Everything must fit tidily in the library catalog of the cosmos; every jot and tittle must have a function. However, as Dillard elaborates, “There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, ‘Now that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’ If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet.’ Is our taste so much better than the creator’s? Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration” (136, emphasis added).

Everything must have a function. This is why the arts are dying. We can accept a piece of art that has a message. But what about a bowl of fruit? Can we appreciate the expert contours of a master painter, one who bends light and darkness and the perfect amalgamation of color and texture, message-less save for beauty? This is why there’s a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to aesthetics; we simply can’t agree on what to do about it. That’s the mystery, though, that so much of our lives are surrounded by gratuity; it’s inscribed into the infinite. Dillard quotes Thoreau, “‘Nature,’ said Thoreau in his journal, ‘is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work'”  and adds herself that “The creator … churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point” (128).

Finally, I want to finish my post with this final passage from Dillard’s chapter:

The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.

May we all embrace the spirit of wild, inexhaustible, gratuitous, and extravagant beauty.

 

 

Work cited:

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. HarperCollins, 2007.

10 Years Ago Today: “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines”

*Follow this journey on my former (now inactive) blog: Europe 2010

My memory is hazy since my departure for Europe ten years ago (to the day). I can’t remember all the sensations of saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, laden with my brand new North Face 60 liter backpack, stuffed to the breaking point (I’d really test the limit before the end of my trip by adding several antique books I found at a shop in England) with one pair of jeans, a rain jacket, one fleece shirt, one flannel shirt, a long sleeve body thermal shirt, a pair of thermal leggings, a pair of shorts, a few t-shirts, socks, a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner (just an extra layer between me and the sometimes not-so-thoroughly-washed linens of hostel beds, a suggestion from an REI employee), my toiletry kit which included Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 hemp soap, a journal, a Bible, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I hadn’t finished the last book). The rest of my travel gear was worn on my body.

I can’t really recall what was on my mind when I boarded the flight. I don’t remember feeling particularly scared. I think maybe it felt surreal, an opportunity I never imagined as a freshly minted 22-year-old college graduate. I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventuresome. My first time out of the country had only been less than four years prior, and my list of foreign travels included only Costa Rica and Mexico (for no more than one week). I just decided to go. At one point in college I had somewhat of an internal crisis which caused me to re-examine my college experience. Was I really taking advantage of that stage in my life? I felt like the answer was no, so I made plans to study abroad, something I had never previously envisioned in my life. However, when my “best laid plans” fell through, at the suggestion of a friend, I just took all the money I had been saving for studying abroad and decided to go abroad anyway.

I spent three and a half months backpacking around by myself. Today I would say that experience is unusual but by no means unique, especially when you consider the travel habits of other nationalities. I have talked to so many individuals and couples who were spending a year or more backpacking around the world. So in the game of comparisons, my little adventure wasn’t so noteworthy. And yet, if you’ve spent any amount of time around me, you’ve probably heard me mention that experience several times (perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at me; maybe I sound like I’m trying too hard to impress by name-dropping these random travel experiences). I promise, I’m not trying to be pretentious. It’s just that to this day, despite the myriads of adventures I’ve been on since, that trip was one of the most transformative for me as a person.

I left on January 14, 2010. I had no smartphone (or regular phone for that matter), tablet, or computer while I was there; these forms of technology–though growing–were not as ubiquitous as they are now. I occasionally posted travel updates via archaic hostel computers or (now nearly obsolete) internet cafes. While staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts (no, not Airbnb), and people’s homes (and once on the streets), I was not able to distract myself with Netflix or social media. I was forced to spend time with fellow travelers or read a book (I read LOTS of books). I was forced to spend time in my own head. I went on walks. I sat on trains and stared at the stunning scenery outside my window. I filled multiple journals with musings and stories that I began writing, my imagination exploding with life and vigor. Occasionally, if I wanted to “check out,” I could plug in to my 3rd generation iPod Nano. I remember listening primarily to Switchfoot’s “Hello Hurricane” album and a playlist that a friend made for me before I left (to this day I can’t listen to the “Hello Hurricane” album without being transported back to those endless train rides).

In the course of three and a half months I visited Ireland, Norway, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy, and then back to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales, and England before heading home. For two of those months I had a two-month Eurail pass, hopping on trains as often as I wanted and only paying nominal seat reservation fees here and there. I saw the world in a new way.

Most importantly–and the point I’m trying to make–my eyes were opened. I met new people, new ideologies, new lifestyles, new beliefs, new perspectives. I got a taste (of course hopping city to city for three and half months could only provide a taste) of new cultures: new languages, foods, and traditions. I grew as an individual, accepting silence and solitude and personal companionship where before I was very uncomfortable being by myself. I developed new habits of voracious reading and writing and deep reflection. I learned to take even more risks and continue to seek new experiences when I can (side note: I might never have met my amazing wife in El Salvador if it hadn’t been for this initial experience). In short, my bubble burst. My myopic and limited view of the world had broken, and there was no way to stuff my old way of seeing the world back inside the box I had been living in.

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Nice, France

I recognize that the opportunity to travel as much as I have demonstrates the incredible privilege I was born into. It’s easy to judge others who have limited travel experiences, but the majority of the world simply does not have the means or the opportunities that I have had (even if I have worked hard to realize those opportunities). HOWEVER, almost everyone can do something. While living in El Salvador, I had friends who couldn’t afford to travel as I have but who had been on trips to Honduras or Nicaragua. Even in their own capacity they had ventured outside their comfort zone to know new places, people, and cultures (yes, the language is basically the same, but if you know much about Spanish, the variation from one country to the next can be extensive both in accent and in local vocabulary). So the challenge I want to make still stands: POKE THE BOX.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, poke the box of nominalism. Step outside your comfort zone. Do something new. Spend time with someone different than you.

If you have the means, travel. If the timing’s okay, try traveling solo. (All of my solo traveling took place while single; I’m not advocating shirking family ties to travel. Instead, bring your family along!)

Bring a journal with you. Bring some thoughtful reading material, too.

Try to unplug when you go (I’ve gotten worse at this since that first trip).

Perhaps the quote is overused, but let me leave you with this:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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Journal entry from the day I left

Stay Curious

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Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

“How do you fight cynicism? Stay curious.”

This is my third year teaching at a school in the Kansas City area. Each of the past two years we have begun back-to-school teacher training with a sermon from a local pastor, a message reminding us of our duty to mold the children and young men and women in our charge.

This year my attention was particularly piqued by an idea from the sermon. The pastor asked us, “How do you fight cynicism?”

“Stay curious,” he followed up.

As teachers it is easy to become cynical towards human nature, but this isn’t just a teacher issue; people in general become cynical to human nature, even our own! And these critical attitudes are often amplified in a Christian context.

“His dad is a deacon!”

“She sings on the worship team!”

“I saw her acting so righteous last summer at Christian camp!”

“I’m supposed to be a Christian!”

We find it difficult to see past the moment, and one “bad apple” becomes a bushel until we feel impelled to echo Paul’s words in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one” (ESV).

However, this group of teachers gathered to be encouraged for the upcoming year, and we were challenged to fight cynicism by staying curious. Curious about what?

We must remain curious about the potential for good in each and every human being we encounter.

“For we are [God’s] workmanship,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus (ESV, Ephesians 2:10). Another translation says we are His “masterpiece” (NLT). In fact, the apostle Paul was an ardent advocate of grace. Why was he able to stay curious? Because he saw the great odds God overcame in saving him, a religious extremist with hands stained by the blood of his mission to persecute the early followers of the Way. “I was the worst sinner!” he declares to his protege (1 Timothy 1:15). “If God can save me, I want to stay curious about what He will do in all the lives of other ‘lost causes.'”

One of my favorite bands is Anberlin whom I’ve had the incredible opportunity to see live a few times, and I’m reminded of the song with which they’d finish all their performances: “*Fin.”

We’re not questioning God.
Just those he chose to carry on His cross.
We’re no better, you’ll see.
Just all of us, the lost causes.

Aren’t we all to you just lost causes?
Are we all to you lost?
Lost causes
So all we are to you,
Is all we are, is all we are
All we are is all we are

I’ve always been drawn to the faith and lyrical depth and authenticity (and power of Stephen Christian’s voice) present in Anberlin’s work, and “Fin*” is an anthemic reminder of our own lostness but also a subtle nod to God’s grace. If you listen closely to the tone and context, you too might hear the unhinging of that all-too-familiar phrase “lost causes.” Here “lost causes” is not a moniker of our worthlessness but rather our immense value that is identified by Him amidst our wandering. We are causes who are lost, but we are causes nevertheless. There is One who still sees us and pursues us.

I hope to stay curious this year. I hope by God that I abandon no lost cause because who am I, chief of sinners, to turn my back on anyone?

What you don’t hear on the album version of “Fin*” but what is sung at the end of their live shows is the final refrain of ultimate Christian hope:

“We’ll live forever, forever, FOREVER!”

 

Why Poetry Is Still Important (Period).

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Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Recently I wrapped up a unit on poetry both for my ninth graders and tenth graders. I’m going to rag on them a bit (they know how much I love them–I often joke that sarcasm is my love language, so if I don’t sass you, we’re probably not too close). The reason is that I want to use their voices to reflect a greater societal value: Education is merely utilitarian. In other words, the “When am I ever going to USE this?” blasting like endless cannons nearly every day of the unit is indicative of a modern understanding of learning and personal development. If it doesn’t give me something resourceful (a greater skill, a greater experience for my resume, something tangible, etc.), it’s not valuable.

I think we pay lip service to the arts through our offering of art-related classes in our schools and communities, but they’re relegated to secondary or tertiary status rather than prominent, inter-disciplinary aspects of life.

I found myself explaining the importance of reading poetry as the ability to interpret difficult texts (meaning that isn’t always immediately clear) which will be useful as they continue their education. Don’t get me wrong, as an English teacher, I believe in the importance of developing the types of skills that will serve them well in college and careers: grammar, composition, communication of ideas, and everyday work-related reading. In fact, I think I once naively assumed teaching English would be me sitting in a circle with a copy of Shakespeare in hand and discussing the deep implications of Macbeth’s gloomy reflection: “Out, out, brief candle!” I now know I was wrong AND I’m okay with that (but I also get to do that from time to time as well which makes me so happy). However, poetry should never be (and arguably CAN never be) relegated to utilitarianism. It just doesn’t work.

Poetry is mystical.

It is hard to define the lifting up and setting down on a higher mountain that poetry blesses a person with or the soft, spring grass on the feet or the embrace like my great-grandma’s old afghan that hugs me with warmth, truth, and memory.

Poetry teaches (sometimes preaches), and poetry caresses. It holds our hands in loss, kicks us out of the house in apathy, and transforms narrow thinking.

Poetry is life wrapped up and handed to us on a page, often messy and corporeal.

I like how a literary resource page of Abilene Christian University eloquently describes literature (and poetry):

Literature is something that reflects society, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, it can be didactic, and it reflects on the human condition.  It both reflects ideology and changes ideology, just like it follows generic conventions as well as changing them.

But read what some famous poets have to say about poetry:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.

-S.T. Coleridge

or

Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.

-Carl Sandburg

or one of my favorites

The poet is the priest of the invisible.

-Wallace Stevens

Unfortunately, “all [we] want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. // They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

Poetry doesn’t make you a more capable person, it makes you a better person.

Poetry makes you more well-rounded, perceiving life both intellectually and viscerally. It puts you in touch with reality. It breeds compassion and understanding.

Poetry is still important.

 


 

What are some of you favorite poems? Add a link to them. Here are a few of my favorites you can start with (or revisit).

“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry

“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

“The Poet” by Pablo Neruda

“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes

“Death, be not proud” by Johne Donne

“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

“The Story-Teller” by Mark Van Doren

“Invitation” by Shel Silverstein

“Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman

“of course I want to be successful but…” by Rupi Kaur

 

 

 

He Knew How to Keep Christmas Well

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Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

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…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.

This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.

I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.

My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.

Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”

 

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From JNCO Jeans to Jesus: Musing on True Popularity

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Sixth grade was a transitional year for me. I never really thought about style and appearances before that, but all the sudden looks mattered. That year in particular stood out to me because, wanting to appease one crowd, I began the year dressed in JNCO jeans (if you don’t remember those, they were like denim dresses with an inseam). If you knew me in sixth grade, you’d laugh at the discrepancy between innocent little Caleb and the alternative brand I felt compelled to don. By my birthday in October, though, I was begging my parents for gift cards to the mall in order to fit in with an entirely different group. I went 180° the other direction in my style choice: Gap, Abercrombie, and American Eagle (out of those brands, today I only own Gap).

Back then popularity mattered. Or at least I thought it did. I remember my middle school years being difficult. In sixth and seventh grade I was arrogant, warmly embraced by the cool kids. By eighth grade, though, I lost all those friends as I refused to join them in their initial experimentation with sex and booze (yes, that was in eighth grade!), and, thanks in large part to my amazing parents, I had to slowly rebuild a healthier sense of self-worth.

In eighth grade I had an identity crisis. You know what? I still do.

Every day I wrestle the temptation to find my worth in something other than the only One whose opinion is worth anything.

Salary, stuff, success, fitness.

At thirty-one years old, I’m still fighting the popularity contest. Ironically, that contest is normally a one-man show. I put the pressure on myself. Don’t get me wrong; people can be very judgmental. But I actually find that many people really could care less how many career awards I’ve won or that I live in an apartment or that my wife and I share one Honda Fit (or they just talk about it behind my back).

One of the beautiful aspects of teaching is that, in my classroom, I’m also a learner. Here’s what one of my students wrote the other day in her narrative essay:

“[My] experience has made me realize that it’s okay not to be popular. Ultimately, the people who look like they have it all figured out, [sic] are the people who are hurting the most. We therefore find our “popularity” in Christ and who he says we are.”

This wonderfully wise student echoes the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

I could list so many verses that speak into the unique masterpiece that is YOU, a divinely carved image of the sovereign God. Let me also mention one of the great paradoxes of the Bible: the people who thought they had “IT,” Jesus let them know they were lost, and the people who had nothing, they were the ones who were found by Him.

Jesus eternally marked the popularity of His children on the cross when He said, “It is finished.”

It is finished. God already thinks you’re cool. Let that be enough.

“Advent”: A Poem

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Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

“Waiting Is an Art”

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“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men to do us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his fiancee while he was in prison, December 13, 1943 (bold and italics added)

I am currently reading God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, a compilation of notes by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of these notes are gathered from letters written while in prison, an enemy to the Nazi regime for his involvement with an assassination plot against Hitler.

I love Christmas. I love the simple, silly little traditions surrounding the holiday: decorating the tree, Christmas movies, music, hot chocolate, snuggling up with my wife (okay, this is actually just my first year celebrating Christmas as a newlywed). I also love the slightly deeper aspects of sharing the holiday with friends and family.

Traditionally, though, the season of Advent is about waiting.

Unfulfillment.     Anticipation.     Hope.     Anxiety.     Wondering.     Wandering.

Will God come through?

The Israelites encountered the deep, wintry silence of God for approximately four hundred years between the final book of the Old Testament and the Immaculate Conception.

God is in that waiting, though. All the build up, the fear and trembling, the white-knuckling it through life (and often the holidays) is really just meant to call us into grasping more tightly on to something beyond our immediate situation:

the deep waiting that will be redeemed in the manger.

So, if you feel restless, you might be on to something.

“For to us a child is born… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)