Monday, December 3. 2007
There's a saltwater film on the jar of your ashes
I threw them to sea but a gust blew them backwards
And the sting in my eyes that you then inflicted
Was par for the course – just as when you were living
It's no stretch to say you were not quite a father
But a donor of seeds to a poor single mother
That would raise us alone, we never saw the money
That went down your throat through the hole in your belly.
Thirteen years old in the suburbs of Denver
Standing in line for Thanksgiving dinner
At the Catholic church. The servers wore crosses
To shield from the sufferance plaguing the others.
Styrofoam plates, cafeteria tables
Charity reeks of cheap wine and pity
And I'm thinking of you.
I do every year
When we count all our blessings
And wonder what we're doing here.
You're a disgrace to the concept of family
The priest won't divulge that fact in his homily
And I'll stand up and scream if the mourning remain quiet,
You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won't buy it.
I won't join in the procession that's speaking their peace.
Using five-dollar words while praising his integrity.
And just ‘cause he's gone, it doesn't change the fact
He was a ___ in life, thus a _____ in death.
- Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), “Styrofoam Plates”
I’ve been struggling to reconcile my initial reaction to the “Beowulf” film with my slightly more cool-headed analysis now. (I wasn’t kidding when I told you my opinions take time to solidify!)
On the one hand, I’m really, really irritated that they changed everything about the poem – they even violated Wiglaf’s entire reason for existence!
On the other hand, I’ve slowly realized that these changes were done in order to drive home a specific point – even though it’s a point that people who have never read the book probably can’t notice, and even though it’s a point that people who have read the book will be too busy feeling angry to notice.
Those of you who have seen the movie may remember a seemingly irrelevant scene that takes place just after the fifty-year jump. Beowulf is no longer blonde, shirtless, and young (although he does continue to shed clothing; some habits die hard, even for octogenarians). He looks significantly older, wearier, and tired; the long years of struggle and guilt have weighed heavily on him. He yearns to be out fighting, just as he did during his service to Hygelac, instead of pulling back from battle.
When a fallen fighter challenges him, Beowulf dismounts his horse and returns the challenge with an almost palpable violence, daring the other man to strike him dead. There is an intensity to Ray Winstone’s performance here that is just magnificent – the self-loathing and exhaustion that constantly occupy his thoughts bleed through every syllable, although he doesn’t let it show in his words – and the fighter crumbles in the face of his forceful advance. Beowulf tells his men to give his opponent a trinket and send him on his way; in his words, the man “has a story to tell now.”
This scene is easy to ignore, because it’s almost anti-climactic. Yet my thoughts keep returning to this scene, and I’m now convinced that this scene is what the entire movie is about. In a nutshell, the film is about the differences between the substance of who we are and the ways in which we are perceived or remembered. The film destroys the poem because the poem never describes what actually happened – and the film purports to do just that.
You think Beowulf is noble? Are you sure? Are you simply taking the Old English Poet’s Word for it? The filmed events are very different from the poem – and the filmmakers seem to be arguing that these differences exist because history is written by those who gain the power to write it, and those with power often like to remember the rosy details – and omit the darker ones.
Think about how perfect Beowulf seems. His inflated pride, so damaging to him over the course of the film, is only a source of power for him in the poem (and never a flaw). For that matter, Beowulf doesn’t seem to have flaws. He’s strong, brave, intelligent – the man even lives for nearly a century!
Beowulf, quite simply, is impossibly noble. He is the figure we write about, not the one we meet in our everyday lives…for we live in an age where even our heroes must have flaws. He seems larger-than-life in death, in our fiction.
And that, the film states, is because he was decidedly less than that during his lifetime.
What does this have to do with Ben Gibbard’s father?
Besides the fact that I’ve wanted to use this song for academic purposes for a long time – it’s one of the most visceral pieces of music I’ve heard, and I have a soft spot for the visceral – both “Styrofoam Plates” and “Beowulf” are about how we remember those we’ve lost.
That is what Beowulf is, after all – a tribute to the fallen.
And that’s what this post is about: Loss, grief, guilt, hope, memory, stories, and love.
On with the questions. As always, respond to whichever ones strike your fancy - but please respond honestly and well, and write at least a couple of seven-sentence paragraphs. Your response is due by 11:59pm on Wednesday, December 5th.
Should you feel sad when someone dies?
When you lose someone, do you think about “missed opportunities” and feel guilty? Are you grateful for the opportunities you seized, for the good memories?
Should we feel sad when Beowulf falls? Should we be happy that he’s going out before the Geats crumble, and that he dies a warrior’s death – or does that make it more painful?
How do you deal with loss? How do you grieve? Is your grief a sign of your strength, or of your weakness? Is it honorable? Is it self-indulgent?
Have your feelings of loss been difficult to analyze? Are you afraid to examine the ways you react when you're emotionally wounded, or do you enjoy studying those types of feelings? (Can we even use “grief” as a label to describe our reactions to loss, considering that people react in such varied ways? Is the blanket accurate, or inaccurate?)
Let's say you could choose to remember your friends and family in a specific way - but only one way. Would you prefer to hold idyllic memories of them, or accurate ones? (Remember, the only person who holds these memories is you - and only you can benefit from or be harmed by them.)
How would you like people to remember you – at your best, or as you are? How would you like your friends to remember you? How would you like your family to remember you? Do you think they'd remember you the way chose here?
Are you afraid to lose the ones you love, or are you more afraid they'll lose you? Is the nun in Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" correct - is fear at the heart of love? Is love at the heart of your fears? Does love give you the strength to overcome these fears - or does it leave you vulnerable? (If it does, is this vulnerability a "bad thing"?)
I think that's enough to get you started! Good luck!
Today's Beowulf presentation has been posted.
I'll have a final sheet of noteworthy material that I pass around on Wednesday (before the groups begin their second-half presentations). I hope these are helpful for you guys; I know it's a lot of information, and it's hard to keep it "straight" at all times. Re-reading the poem after seeing these can be really helpful; I don't know how many of you read quickly, but you definitely still have time!
Friday, November 30. 2007
Here's the first-half Beowulf presentation.
All questions before the final section are rhetorical, and are meant to serve as food for thought. If you wish to answer them, you may; however, these answers are not required.
Her son lies mangled at her feet, torn in two, the little blood he has left dripping silently onto the ground.
She watches him die, slowly giving up, powerless to repair the brutal damage someone had inflicted upon him.
She flees the corpse, agonized, tormented.
The waters of the mere part before her, and she crawls onto the bank with a wretched, grieving scream.
She stands to see a trail of blood, her son’s blood – her blood – lining the trail back to Heorot.
She is grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge, thirsty for pain – following the trail.
She reaches the hall of men, sleeping men – men who will open their eyes in the morning.
Her son will never open his eyes.
Neither should they.
She launches herself through the doorway, frenzied and furious.
The humans rush for their weapons, thinking only of blood –
Her son’s blood lining the trail, lining it for miles –
She grabs the nearest human, crushing him within her hellish grasp, and flees.
She carries her victim in one hand, and a piece of her son in another.
She reaches her home, the haunted mere – her son’s graveyard – and rips her captive apart.
The human lies mangled at her feet, torn in two, the little blood he has left dripping silently onto the ground.
Grendel’s mother is a villain.
Or is she?
Someone is hurting your mother.
Someone is hurting your brother.
Someone is hurting your best friend.
Someone is hurting you.
Someone is doing it with a smile.
What do you do?
What do you want to do?
Are they the same thing?
Someone is hurting your child.
What do you want to do?
Don’t think about what you would do. Think the thought that occurs in the split-second after you imagined the scenario I listed above. Think that visceral thought, the one everyone expects you to think.
Are you proud of that thought?
Mohandas Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.”
Those words remain wise decades after he first said them, and will remain wise for decades after we have grown too old to remember them. Not only are they concise, meaningful, and memorable, but there’s a certain poetry in the image Gandhi evokes – a self-mutilated world, too bent on correcting wrongs by any means necessary to notice the damage the pursuit of “justice” has wrought.
But what separates justice from revenge? What is justice about, anyway? Rehabilitation? Education? Payback? A quarantine? A preemptive strike?
One could argue our justice system accomplishes – or strives to accomplish – any number of the choices I listed above.
However, the symbol of our justice system isn’t described above. As we all know, the symbol for justice is a blindfolded woman with a scale in her hands.
Justice, at its core, is about balancing the scales. The punishment must fit the crime. If the punishment fits the crime, the scale will be balanced. Everything will be normal again.
In our heart of hearts, we know that revenge, at its core, is about satisfaction – not justice, not even balance – but personal satisfaction. We cannot rest until we know a victim has been avenged. Once the victim has been avenged, we can be satisfied that justice has been served, and that things will be reset to normalcy (as best they can).
How do we avenge our victims? Do we go back and prevent them from being hurt? Well, no – we can’t do that yet.
But if we can’t prevent harm from befalling that victim, why punish the criminal? It’s not as though punishing him or her will stop them from hurting that person – they can’t be stopped, because the wrong has already been committed.
Well, we punish the criminal because we can’t travel back in time. Our justice system is our way of moving forward through time, preventing another wrong from being committed in advance. In the process, we can exact some sort of penance for the crime they have committed.
When we put someone behind bars, we’re supposed to feel like we’ve done our jobs. It’s supposed to be cathartic.
When a murderer is put to death, that should be the ultimate catharsis. We can rest assured knowing he or she will never end another life. The killer has been killed; balance has finally been restored.
So why do the families of the victims still look haunted after justice has run its course?
In our heart of hearts, we know that revenge, at its core, solves nothing. It’s a zero-sum game, a response to something that cannot be undone.
However...is revenge "bad"? Is revenge "good"? How can you tell?
+ Why are we almost drawn to it at a visceral level? Why do we think thoughts we’re ashamed to express when someone tries to hurt us, or tries to hurt someone close to us? Why, when faced with the idea that someone is hurting someone that we care about, do we essentially revert into Grendel’s mother – our bestial form? And why do we curse her for acting on these urges?
+ Why is it so seductive? Why can’t we seem to leave this urge behind, no matter how many times we’re told it’s wrong, no matter how rapidly and completely society evolves? Is it simply a matter of physics, of causality - actions and reactions? Or is it something else entirely?
+ Can you think of a scenario – a real scenario – where justice can be served through revenge? Beowulf and the Danes seem to think that the scales have been balanced once Grendel and Grendma have been beheaded. (Have we totally left the days of the Danes and the Geats behind?) Have the scales been reset? Or are the scales forever out of balance once someone upsets them?
+ Can injustice ever be alleviated by punishment? If so...why haven't dark acts been eliminated from our world? If not, why are we drawn to do the opposite?
+ Is there any way to stop a conflict between two parties who constantly react to the most recent wrong the other party has committed?
+ Should we rethink our ideas about justice? How should we grapple with the difficult challenges of our ever-changing world? (Remember that I asked you this question as you read the scene with the dragon-fight!)
Think hard about what justice, honor, and revenge mean to you. Think hard about the place of each in today's society, about their roles in our lives, about their effect on our national philosophies and psychology. Think especially hard about how the three have been fused within your mind - whether as a result of our national discourse, the latest action movie, or your life experiences.
OK! That was certainly...interesting to write.
Please respond to this post by 11:59pm on Sunday, December 2nd.
Your entries should be at least a couple of paragraphs long! You may respond to any, or all, of the questions. If these questions inspire you to pursue a slightly different train of thought, chase that train! (Just remember to tell us how the train got started.)
In this case, I'm expecting people to wander off on several different tangents. That's OK, as long as the tangents are related - and as long as the comments stay appropriate.
Don't forget to tag and print three posts before Monday's class!
NEW TAGGING RULES: Try to tag outside of your period; P2 students may tag P3/P5/P6 students, but not their peers in P2. Any post that is named as one of the "Best of the Best" on Monday by three groups will receive two points' worth of extra credit.
If you have any questions - or suggestions for new questions in this post - please feel free to e-mail me.
Wednesday, November 28. 2007
By popular demand, here are some "stricter" guidelines for the Heroic Poem.
In a poem of at least forty lines (of reasonable length – use Beowulf as your model!), describe someone or something in bold, poetic language. Heaney tends to write in a direct yet descriptive style – you saw how easy it was to imagine an image of the situations he wrote about. Try doing something similar – bold, direct, and descriptive language. The topic is up to you – it can be about yourself, about someone you know, or someone you’ve invented. For that matter, it can be about something real or imaginary…again, it’s up to you! All that matters is that you write about it, and write well! This is your major individual assignment for the unit.
Progress (20 lines) due Thursday, November 29th.
Final Draft (minimum 40 lines) due Monday, December 3rd.
Monday, November 26. 2007
Believe it or not, the first two blog posts from the Beowulf unit are interconnected – through your answers to the questions I posed!
The first questions were about the nature of heroism, while the second post dealt with your source(s) of strength. In many cases, you responded to one (or both) thread(s) by writing about people who are close to you – family, friends, or significant others.
I’ve always been fascinated by two common human urges which seem to contradict one another. On the one hand, many humans strongly desire independence – even when they’re too young for true independence to be feasible! On the other hand, many humans also desire relationships with one another; we often feel stronger when we are connected to people through our families or communities. (It’s less easy to find a person who is so self-reliant that they have little to no interest in forming relationships with others, or to find someone who is completely dependent on other people yet unable to form relationships with them.)
When I come across an idea or concept that interests me, I usually respond by forming questions about it. In this case, I’m curious about the following:
Why are human beings drawn to one another? Why do we feel the urge to bond with other humans?
Why are some relationships (family, etc.) “easier” to form than others? In fact, why do we form relationships with our family members – why do we care about our siblings and parents? What is the basis for these relationships – the old “blood is thicker” argument – and why is it important?
Why are we so bad at forming these bonds at times? Nobody forms and sustains every relationship flawlessly; what can cause relationships with others to suffer, and why?
Finally, while some will insist they are unaffected by the opinions of others, some will also confess that they care how other people see them - even if they only value their family members' opinions. Why do we care about these opinions - or, conversely, why do we trivialize them?
Please respond to this post by 11:59pm on Tuesday, November 27th.
Your entries should be at least a couple of paragraphs long! You may respond to any, or all, of the questions. If these questions inspire you to pursue a slightly different train of thought, chase that train! (Just remember to tell us how the train got started.)
Don't forget to tag and print three posts before Wednesday's class!
Thursday, November 22. 2007
Tuesday, November 20. 2007
Here is the Poetry/Characters PowerPoint from today's lesson. Enjoy!
In no particular order, here are ten of the top lines from the "Nobody's Hero" thread:
A hero cannot be all talk and no action—consider the “heroism” as the action backing up the talk. – Amy S.
What’s so appealing about heroism is the rarity and significance of it. – Esther K.
Anyone and everyone has the ability to make a difference in the world. It doesn’t matter how big or small the good deed is, but rather that the person choose(s) to make a difference to help others – that is a real hero. – Sharlotte T.
I’ve never really noticed a hero that wasn’t charismatic!…Anyways, people usually respect them tremendously, unless they are their arch-nemesis. (Then they just want to slaughter them.) Being respected means being admired. You must be admired, by at least one person, to be a hero. – Nikki C.
I see heroes as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. – Jessica S.
A human who values another’s life to the point where they’re willing to risk their own is without a doubt considered a hero in my mind. People who don’t let fear become an obstacle are heroic. – Angela Y.
Parents, doctors, scientists, teachers, and many more all exemplify the term “hero,” for they all possess a similar trait: Dedication, determination, and the will and heart to further benefit the society and the world around them. – Julian V.
A hero is defined as a person who is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve…his/her initial goal. – Karen K.
To me, a hero is someone who exemplifies the characteristics that I would like to see in myself. – Jasmine P.
A hero can make mistakes, but there must be something that no one else can achieve except him. – Maxine B.
Monday, November 19. 2007
Beowulf draws strength from a number of sources. For example, his pride sustains his courage, while his faith and honor provide him with guidance. This can, at times, lead Beowulf to do something reckless – but it is that recklessness that allows him to claim the highest glory a warrior seeks.
Students often tell me that they won't start their essays until the last minute in part because they "work better under pressure." This mantra always makes me smile, particularly because I adopted a similar "courage-under-fire" credo when I was a high-schooler. I was convinced - and still (somewhat) believe - that I work best while barreling toward a deadline; when you examine the total body of my work, you can find quite a few gems whose genesis stemmed from a few Monster-fueled all-night rushes. (However, I'll never know how great those pieces could have been had I kept a more normal schedule, because I was a chronic procrastinator...do as I say, not as I do!)
Part of the reason I work well under pressure is that I refuse to crumble in the face of adversity. I'll fight off an occasional panic attack, but I can usually lock in while the chips are down and produce some writing that I'll be proud to submit. Whenever I lose hope, I remember Shannon's wise words: "Have you ever just stopped writing and refused to turn in an essay? (No.) Have you ever just gone to class without finishing your essay? (No.) See? It always gets done. Just finish it!"
I'd say that I draw the strength I require while writing from both external and internal sources. I often wonder how others motivate themselves, and what drives students to do the things they do.
So I'll simply ask: What are your sources of strength? Do you draw strength from external relationships with friends, family, and significant others? Do you draw strength from situational circumstances – the old “I work better under pressure” idea? Does honor sustain you during difficult times, or do you rely on a code of ethics or principles of your own design? In short, what drives you to be a better person today than the one who fell asleep last night? (If nothing drives you…well, I'd like to know why!)
You may respond to any, or all, of the questions. If these questions inspire you to pursue a slightly different train of thought, chase that train! (Just remember to tell us how the train got started.)
Please respond to this post by 11:59pm on Tuesday, November 20th. Your entries should be at least a couple of paragraphs long; I have a feeling many of you will have a great deal to say.
Don't forget to tag three posts! You'll print out the tags before Monday's class.
Thursday, November 15. 2007
The grades are officially in; all they're missing are Period 3's Matrix rough drafts and Period 6's personal statements, both of which I'll try to have entered tomorrow so I can a) pass them back and b) post the brand-spanking new grades on the wall!
In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out how to salvage this Beowulf unit. I talked to Mrs. Cordero after school today, and she gave me some surprising (if logical) advice about the UC application and the rest of the semester.
I'll go into greater detail tomorrow; suffice it to say that the news will be interesting...
In the meantime, enjoy your night off, or sift through the blog/polish your Matrix essays/start another draft of your personal statement. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone again tomorrow!
Wednesday, November 14. 2007
Respond to as many of the questions as you prefer – just write and reflect for the rest of the period! You may answer as many questions as you like over twenty-five to thirty minutes. The only requirement is that you write for the entire time. You may also respond less formally than usual – contractions, first/second person, etc. – although you know better than to use Internet/text message shorthand and language by now!
This is meant to be a de-stressor, a quiet time for you to stop, take a look around, and process everything you can about yourself and the world around you. These times are rare, particularly during senior year; I hope you enjoy this activity, and that you feel free to reflect honestly and productively. Good luck, and thanks for a great quarter!
1) Reflect back on the Star you drew a long, long time ago. (Imagine it – Enlightenment, Independence, Identity, Security, and Love!) Have any of the points shifted during the past two months, in any direction? Do you see anything on the horizon that will cause them to shift?
2) What do you feel you have learned this year (if anything?)
3) What is your favorite type of lesson that we’ve done so far? What has been your least favorite? Do you prefer to study and work alone, in groups, or a mixture of the two?
4) Where do you want to be sitting when we start the next quarter? How do you want to sit – groups, rows, etc.?
5) Do you feel you have improved as a student since you enrolled in this class? Has this class strengthened an area of weakness for you, or played to your strengths in a way that makes your experiences here meaningful?
6) Do you want to learn something that the class hasn’t addressed yet? Do you feel prepared to handle the challenges that the rest of the year holds? Is there anything you feel we SHOULD be doing as we head forward into the Heroism and Tragedy units? Is there anything you specifically want to examine?
7) Are your experiences in this class meaningful? Are your class experiences outside of class (blog, studying, work, etc.) meaningful? (Why/why not – as always)
One of my goals at the beginning of the year was to establish a community within each classroom. Has a community been established in your class? Are you part of it? Do you feel respected and included by others? Do you feel I respect you? Does anything need to change?
9) How can I improve, as an instructor, during the next quarter? What should I continue doing that you feel works well already?
10) Several of you have complained that the workload has been too heavy. How would you suggest adjusting the course to reduce your workload while still covering the material?
11) How would you describe this class – the material, the community, your experiences – to someone who’s never taken it before?
12) In your opinion, has this class been successful? Knowing what you know now about it, would you sign up again? Would you go elsewhere? Would you “re-enlist” with reservations?
Has the Matrix unit affected you in any way? Have your perspectives or ideals shifted? (Will you ever watch movies the same way again?) What effects, if any, have these films had on you? (Remember to explain why you felt these effects.)
If nothing has changed for you, why hasn’t it? (Details!)
*Feel free to reflect on the unit itself (packets, lessons, etc.) as well as the films.
Tuesday, November 13. 2007
Should I try to knock out a quick UC personal statement tonight to use as a model in class tomorrow? If so, which prompt should I choose?
It is extremely important that you follow these instructions in order! Don't "skimp" on any of the steps - give this a solid, honest effort. Remember, these posts (when combined with tags) are worth twenty points apiece now, so make sure you're earning full credit!
Each step is separated by a line of plus signs. I recommend opening a separate Word window and working there until your "final draft" of your post is complete.
In a separate window, try to brainstorm/word-vomit "hero" for the next two minutes.
Now write out a list of ten people you consider to be "heroes." They can be anyone - real or fictional, family or friend, even someone you've never met (like an athlete, statesman, or actor). Don't worry about the way the list looks - write as quickly and honestly as you can.
When you're done, answer the following questions (inside your head!):
What did you come up with during the "word vomit" stage? (Re-read your list if necessary.) What sort of terms did you end up with? Were they descriptive? Did they pertain to physical features, emotional qualities, personality characteristics, or external actions?
Now, for all the marbles...try to answer the following questions in a narrative reflection (as opposed to answering each question in list form, one at a time):
What does the term “hero” mean to you? What about “heroism?”
Think about the types of people you labeled as "heroes" during the brainstorming section. What makes them seem heroic to you? In fact, have you ever had heroes who weren’t particularly or stereotypically heroic? (You may post your list if you like!)
Does one have to be "worthy of legend" to be considered a hero? (Why/why not, as always...if you have examples, share them!)
Finally, what is so appealing about heroism? Why do we "respect" heroes to begin with? (If you really want to bake your noodle, try thinking about why anyone is worthy of your respect - as well as what individuals must do in order to earn it...)
This may take a bit longer to write than your usual response. It may even require a "rough draft" so you can organize your thoughts. However, it shouldn't take too long - and you have until tomorrow night at 11:59pm to finish!
Don't forget your tags...