Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 17, 2014

Too Many Cooks

I whipped this together while watching football.


And if you’d like a gentle poke in the ribs and good procedural mystery, try this:

Absentee List: An Old Horse Mystery

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 28, 2014

213. Anecdote of the Jar: Wallace Stevens

Last week I spent two days at a conference on standards based learning, hosted by the New England League of Middle Schools and run by Rick Wormelli.

Wormelli’s writings are well known, but his live show is just that–a show. If you liked Robin Williams in “Aladdin” or “Dead Poets Society”, this is two days of that. A tad distracting from the main ideas, with lots of 80’s references (his analysis of a clip from “Song of Music”, though, is priceless). This is not to take away from the content or ideas, but know that if you get a chance to see Wormelli you’ll a) be subjected to that type of performance, b) if you have a decent background in standards based teaching and grading much of it will be review. So, be prepared before you sign up.

It got me thinking, though, about the use of rubrics and our system of instructing and assessing rubrics. One of the exercises I do with kids–and adults–is something called “Clapping University”. Here’s the procedure, and I think you’ll see the point:

  • Welcome your students to “Clapping University” where the outcome to produce quality clappers.
  • Ask for three volunteers. They will be “judges” and have them sit in a prominent place at the front of the room. Each will have a marker and four pieces of paper.
  • As for four more volunteers–students at Clapping University. Have them leave the room, where they cannot see or hear what the previous student does when called in.
  • Tell the judges that they are to say nothing, and to follow your directions and your directions only.
  • Call the first student in. Tell them to clap. They’ll seek direction, but give them none. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student (A, B, C, D…. or whatever your grading system is) and keep it to themselves. That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Call the second student in. Tell them to clap. When the student is done, instruct the judges to grade the student. This time, they are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Now, ask the class what makes for good clapping. Pick two characteristics (pace, volume, enthusiasm, etc.). Tell the class and the judges, “When the next student comes in, you will judge them only on those characteristics.” This is your rubric.
  • Call in the third student. Tell them to clap. Again, no one should say anything and wait for your cue. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.
  • Finally, call in the fourth student. Share the rubric with the student. Have them clap. When the student is done, instruct the judged to grade the student based on the rubric. They are to share the grades with the class (one by one, to keep some drama in place). That student then sits and joins the class.

The point?

  • In the first case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and never give feedback.
  • In the second case, the judges have no common characteristic, grade, and share. But the feedback is useless because, from the varied grades, it’s clear no one has defined success prior to the performance.
  • In the third case, the judges have a common rubric. The student claps and the assessment is uniform. And, the student gets feedback. Except, because the student did not know the standard beforehand, the grade is unfair with regard to what they could have done.
  • In the last case, the student knows what’s being judged. And they do it. And they get a universally good grade. Having a clear expectation, sharing it and providing feedback works.

You can talk to your students about their experiences with each kind of teacher (judge); they love to share their horror stories.

But what of Stevens?

There are, apparently, a host of interpretations of this poem. You can read them here, at Wikipedia.

But I like to imagine, and my students come to this conclusion year after year, that placing the jar down creates order to the wilderness. It becomes a fixed point–made by man–that all else relates to. Much like creating a rubric and taming the wild that is student work.

There is probably more there, but I would recommend going outside and placing a jar in the field or wild near your school. Read the poem. Ask, “What’s with the jar?” Have them defend it.

Anecdote of the Jar
Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 6, 2014

212. the genius of the crowd: Charles Bukowski

I don’t know if the title is capitalized or not. It is where I got it from, but I suspect that’s wrong, or an auto-function of the website.

Bukowski is probably not one of the most middle school appropriate poets you will come across, but doesn’t mean your students should be denied genius where it falls.

Like many of my age, I first encountered him through Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of him in the mediocre independent movie “Barfly”. Ah, 1987. That was when Rourke was huge, and the advent of home video gave independent films you’d have never seen a second life and a certain cache. I remember that when Bukowski died, papers printed a publicity photo of Rourke next to the announcements. Anyway….

So, watch out for the references of not listening to preachers or whatever else is in here that will offend your particular community. Know this, because you need a job and your students need you.  

But, here’s something you might use.

the genius of the crowd
Charles Bukowski

there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day

and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace

those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love

beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect

like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
like hemlock

their finest art

Posted by: Tom Triumph | September 1, 2014

211. To Be of Use: Marge Piercy

Last week was the first day of school, so, belatedly, I’d like to remind you of this old post: 105. First Day at School: Roger McGough.  As these posts tend to be more-or-less timeless once posted, this might not make sense in your time-scheme, but the video is worth the click.

Along with the start of school, our superintendent kicks off our supervisory union’s annual gathering with a poem.  I hate this, but that’s because I have a knee-jerk reaction towards anything calculatingly twee.  You’d think I would be glad–poetry!–but I don’t believe our super is a fan.  I suspect there is an intellectual cache involved, but that says more about me than her, I suspect.

But the poem she chose was quiet appropriate: Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use”.  Some of the audience scoffed a bit, noting that, as our boss, she WOULD like us better if we put our shoulder to the wheel every waking moment.  That, I feel, is a misinterpretation.  This is not about work, but attitude.  


My career has been spent trying to deflect negative energy.  As a skeptic and critic, I tend to be the one who sits in meetings and hacks at initiatives.  Oddly, it comes from romantic impulses–I want things to succeed, so I attack the weak points before the roll-out so that fixes can come earlier and in private.  From the outside, it can seem negative.  I’m the teacher who makes a paper bleed, and when a student asks why I hated it I reply, “You got a B-plus–above the standard–and if you fix these things you’ll attain greatness.”  Misunderstood, and perhaps with reason.

We are, though, surrounded by negative people.  

Deeply negative people.  

One sort are the truly negative–nothing will work and they are practically insulted that anyone would even try to make things better.  The more insidious ones, though, are those who generate positivity, yet see any criticism as a torpedo.  Recently, our Essential Skills program came under fire from the board and they were asked to demonstrate success.  I suggested pulling some data that showed progress, but the mere suggestion that the success of the program even needed defending was taken as betrayal.  What makes these people so dangerous is they make any questioner into an enemy, poisoning the goodwill of a group.

I know it comes from fear, but sometimes don’t care.  Who has the energy?  It’s bad enough batting down a hundred negative students and their parents–I don’t need it from my colleagues!

Here, Piercy writes about the lightning caught in a bottle.  I see it like that.  Energy.  Potential energy, ready to spring, but even before you let it out it’s clear that there is probably more energy in that bell jar than anyone has an ability to harness.  

It’s something I’d like to aspire to.

With your students, you might talk about their “hopes and dreams”.  In my head, it sounds sappy whenever I use the term.  So be it.  By returning to “hopes and dreams” time and again, I find classroom management problems are mitigated because a) there is a focus, b) students feel I am listening.  Why, after all, are they here?  Hopes and dreams provides the start of an answer.

More direct to this poem, who are the models for their own lives?  An idol is one who has blazed a path a person wants to travel.  What are the characteristics of those people?  Do your students see them in this poem?  Is it any wonder why Ms. Piercy loves them the best?

And that energy is contagious.

Note: Two good links you might want to pursue. First, a look at Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs”. Check out the Wikipedia entry here, but, basically, he modeled it after healthy, successful people (like Ms. Piercy looks to here). Second, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code–I can’t recommend this book enough.  It dovetails off of Gladwell’s “Outliers” book, but is more applicable and less scattershot (in the end, I found little in Gladwell that would guide me towards a growth mindset classroom).

To Be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 12, 2014

210. I started Early – Took my Dog -: Emily Dickinson

What do you do with texts that may or may not be sexual?

I’m not talking about handling clearly sexual material, like a Judy Blume book or a racy poem. This is more about innuendo, and not clear innuendo but what a reading might interpret from the text.

For example, a very good professor I had at SUNY Cortland was fond of gender criticism. It was the lens he saw literature through, and he would always share a gender–often homosexual–interpretation of the text. By having most of the action happen on a boat, for example, the author was able to explore male relationships without the reader wondering why no one had a wife. This isn’t even sexual, but a look at how males interact with each other without women about. He never pushed it, but made us think about the author’s intent and what, as T.S. Eliot notes, we, as critics, bring to the text. I benefited from it greatly, even as I thought some critics pushed things a bit far.

It is not something I would even mention to my students, but what do you do when you know it’s a possible reading? I teach Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, but stop short of talking about the “wolf” wanting to “Eat you up.”

See, now it’s in your head. And while I have no doubt the Brothers Grimm did not have that in mind, gender criticism would argue that the deeper lessons about the dangers that prey on young women in society underlie many of the cautionary and horrific stories we tell each other. The Grimms were just collecting established folk tales, after all.

And I would not touch it. But, every time I do this unit, I get some boy who snickers when that line comes up. As a scholar, I can’t deny anything. Not wanting the topic to dominate the lesson–and it would–I give the “joke” a nod and move on. The child is, after all, acting immature and not providing an alternative interpretation of “The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.”

My wife came home from a week-conference on Emily Dickinson that was held at Amherst College, the holder of most archival information you might want on her and a stone’s throw (literally) from her house. She had a great time. But one of the professors there looked at all of Dickinson’s work as being sexual. I can see it. She’s an intelligent women who explored passion and life in great depth.

But then the professor examined “My Life had Stood–A Loaded Gun.” The link to my post on that poem is here.

My argument is that Dickinson was experimenting with point-of-view and giving an inanimate object a personality–a soul. Simple. Looking at the development of American literature, and her groundbreaking work, it seems the obvious answer. Occam’s Razor and all of that.

But the more I talked about it with my wife, the more I thought it might be both. It’s certainly an interesting idea, which was fleshed out through discussion. I’m skeptical, but the door is open.

So what do you do when something else might be there? As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And certainly, a gun is often just a gun. This was written long before Hemingway and the cliche of phallic symbols existing on every page. You CAN find sex everywhere, but where does that get us? I think it diminishes greatness. But I also don’t want to be naive. And we seek truth.

That professor tipped her hand, a bit, when she kept emphasizing the loaded gun was dangerous. Not only was it sexual, but Dickinson, the professor argued, saw that topic as to be handled with kid gloves because guns are dangerous. But that’s a modern view of guns. At the time Dickinson wrote, guns were useful tools. Powerful, but not seen as inherently dangerous as we often see them in our post-Columbine world. Again, I defer to T.S. Eliot’s concerns that the critics sees him or herself in the poet.

My solution, as I’ve noted, is not to raise the issue. I tend to steer towards safer poems and push interpretation in all sorts of directions. Still, we know that even innocent children’s stories often have deeper allegories and symbols.

I leave with a link to a post written by Professor Lilian Milani for a course she taught at CUNY Brooklyn on Emily Dickinson. It offers a balanced look at the many interpretation of this Dickinson poem. One is sexual, but several are not. Her final thoughts are worth noting, but she’s also writing for mature adults.

Looking at my old post for “Loaded Gun”, I noticed I had used Milani there, too. For a better analysis of that poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis.

Milani’s final thoughts bring around, for me, a point I’d raised earlier: Where does that get us? I cannot imagine Dickinson’s be-all landing on sex, although I can see it being a stepping stone to several deeper themes. Perhaps I’ll just skip that stone as I make my way down the path.

In fact, I’d skip this poem and focus on her other works. But my wife doesn’t feel comfortable with “Loaded Gun” now that her professor’s argument is in her head. Don’t get me thinking about “A narrow fellow in the grass”, an old staple of my classroom which has only a kid’s snicker of underlying sexuality (it’s a nature poem!)….

How would you teach this poem, if you’d teach it at all?

Update: When I mentioned this post to my wife, and the water imagery and its possible sexual nature, she looked at me and said, “No, she just really loved that dog and went for walks with him every day.”

I started Early – Took my Dog -
Emily Dickinson

I started Early – Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground – upon the Sands -

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too -

And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve -
And then – I started – too -

And He – He followed – close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -

Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know
And bowing – with a Mighty look -
At me – The Sea withdrew -

Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 4, 2014

209. Burnt Norton: T.S. Eliot

It was the quote “distracted from distraction by distraction ” used in the article “Surrounded By Digital Distractions, We Can’t Even Stop to Think” that made me choose this poem. It has been awhile since I got lost in an Eliot poem (lost being the most accurate term–he turns me around quite a bit) and untangling the ideas in them is a test for any middle school classroom.

But it was the content of that article that intrigued me as a teacher.

It would be tough to think up a more plum assignment for a test subject: Simply step into an empty room, sit down, and think.

Just think.

But in a study to appear in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, participants found the experience within their own heads surprisingly difficult to manage — if not downright unpleasant.

Stripped of their books, cellphones and other distractions, many, including a majority of men, preferred to instead pass the time by reaching for the sole form of electronic entertainment in the room: a 9-volt battery administering a “severe static shock” when touched.

I think I’ve taught those kids.

Long have I made the claim that boredom is the pathway to reading.  Given nothing to do, and a book in their hands, I believe students will read.  If that is done often (say, daily sustained silent reading time with no bathroom breaks), the switch will, eventually, click.  My theory.

Speaking to many readers, when I ask them about the day (they have to remember the specific day, and they often can) when they went from being someone who can read to someone who is a reader, they all pin it to a day they had nothing else to do.  Long car ride.  Week with relatives.  Ski or summer cabin vacation.  My own experience was a rainy day in front of a rare fire in our living room.

My article on this can be found here.

Moving forward, try boredom and reading.  It has to be better than a 9 volt shock!

Burnt Norton
T.S. Eliot


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.


Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.


Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
Wtih slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movememnt; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.


Time and the bell have buried the day,
the black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.


Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always-
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 26, 2014

Shooting an Elephant: George Orwell

Not a poem, but a very useful story….

Because of the nature of our blocks, I recently read this aloud four times in two days. With each reading, I appreciated the story more and more.

While not a poem, “Shooting and Elephant” is a stock essay in many anthologies. It is used for most any point the anthology editor is trying to make (personal essay, cultural differences, peer pressure, etc.) because it is pretty straightforward and written by George Orwell.

I enjoy it as a read aloud because there is plenty to ponder as the story presses forward. Originally, it was part of my unit on India, which followed units on Western Civilization (where we focused on the United Kingdom) and colonialism. In that context, it made sense. As we eased into Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the view of people like Orwell dovetailed nicely with Kipling’s white man’s burden. But now I am teaching just Language Arts, so the context of the British Empire is lost. Now, I focus on the choices we make versus the ones we want to make.

Much of the focus is on Orwell’s attitude before confronting the elephant. It’s pretty cavalier. That pretty much sums up the moments before every bad decision a middle school student makes. Then, as the moment presses on Orwell, we see the doubt and finally the regretful, inevitable action. In the end, the results are not too bad for the speaker, but that’s not the point. The reader knows that’s not the point.

This is a great essay to use before you ask your own students to write their own personal essay. First of all, it is distant enough not to be copied. The elements are there, but no student is going to identify or not identify as they would with the typical teen story. This is too foreign. Second, everyone has an opinion if Orwell should or should not have killed that elephant. It’s also graphic.

And it s a classic, Orwell and is chock full of good vocabulary. The older stories have so much valuable vocabulary, now lost in our wealth of more accessible YA literature. For this last reason, I do it as a read aloud. Between the vocabulary check and the discussions it works much better than a silent read.

Note, I skip the second paragraph. It goes over their heads and is meant more for the British audience at the time of the writing. And, in the end, I tend to use “native” instead of coolie. Censorship, which has its own Orwellian irony, but I let the kids know I’m doing it. Sometimes I don’t edit at all.

In the next post I’ll return to poetry.

Shooting an Elephant
George Orwell

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism — the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palm-leaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of “Go away, child! Go away this instant!” and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant — I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary — and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant — it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery — and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 2, 2014

208. Knots: R. D. Laing

I tend to find that the best education books are business books. There is a certain bluntness in speaking of widgets and organizational structures that appeals to me at just the point when I’m going to tear off a head during a scheduling meeting.

The problem, of course, is that education and business are two different things. Few businesses run on a model where the supplier backs up a truck and dumps a heap of materials of various levels of quality on the loading dock, and then expects near identical product of high quality to be shipped at the end of the day. Under NCLB and our own morality and ideals, we can’t reject defective kids.

So, the business model has its limits.

Still, management books and systems do help. A cursory glance of the Toyota Way shows a precursor to the Standards Based Grading model currently being touted in our district.

It is, though, economic theory that most gives me context when looking at scheduling, teaching assignments and the like. Recently, the work of David Ricardo and his theory of Comparative Advantage had me thinking. Here is a case study, adapted for education:

At David Ricardo Middle School, both Bob and Sally teach Science and Math. Because of the teaming system old DRMS embraces, students have one or the other teacher for both subjects. Every year, when the scores come out, Bob is shown to be the better teacher in both subjects. In economic terms, his class has an absolute advantage in Science and Math instruction. His Science instruction is by far better than Sally’s, while his Math scores indicate only a slight-but-clear edge.

When DRMS gets a new principal, she looks at the numbers and decides to departmentalize. All students, she decides, will have Bob for Science and Sally for Math. It is, she tells the school board, best for all students.

Now, all students get excellent Science instruction. Scores have gone up. The gap has been closed. In Math, the overall scores for the school have dipped, settling in at where only Sally’s students had been. It is not a huge dip, but noticeable.

Did the principal make the right choice?

This was inspired by Comparative Advantage, but the case study loses some of its edge when you think about the fact that kids won’t all have an all around excellent academic experience. We all know that mediocre teacher. When scanning the lists on move-up day, we know which teachers are sending kids prepared, and which are less so. If only you could clone Teacher Bob.

But Ricardo’s original theory, dealing with developed nations and trade policy, was set up so that it was a win-win situation for all. Although one party might have an absolute advantage, the trading brought a certain efficiency that still made that party gain in the transaction.  Everyone gained.

In this case, the students who would have had just Bob gain nothing by having Sally for math. They, in fact, lose. If you are a parent of one of the kids who would have had just Teacher Bob, you are clearly angry at the principal. Your child has to suffer for the good of Sally’s students.

Within the limits of this scenario, though, the principal made the right decision for all students. he will, no doubt, balm his conscious by providing some mentoring or professional development, but that’s not going to help the first crop of students under the new plan.

Of course, a microeconomic look at Ricardo can poke holes, especially when the human element is put into it–perhaps the workers in his scenario did not find personal satisfaction in making that other product?  And, in our situation, Sally might have been a more pleasant person while Bob got results from being a rageaholic.  From a kid’s perspective, logic often goes out the window.  But economics and data still, for the most part, guide us to the right choice.

If only poetry was so logical.  Wait, it can be.

Let me say for the record that it is unclear to me if the poem below is, indeed, “Knots”. It is from the book Knots. But I don’t have a copy of Laing’s work in front of me, and the internet, for all of its worth, is often full of holes and easy answers when time is short.

Let them follow the logic.  Perhaps only give them each of the three sections at a time.  What is Laing getting at?  Can they even follow the logic?  It will, guarenteed, wake up the math kids sitting in the center-middle and the jailhouse lawyers in the back row.   Then, roll out the next section and compare.

Laing is a therapist who rallied against therapy, of sorts.  That’s a simplification of his life.  Then he wrote the book “Knots” with the temperament of a rebellious scientist.  An interesting post about the book can be found here.  Logical kids will love it so much that they will either embrace it or throw the book across the room–get a second copy.  Those who profess to love moon-spoon-June poetry, not so much.

R.D. Laing

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

it hurts Jack
to think
that Jill thinks he is hurting her
by (him) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by making her feel guilty
at hurting him
by (her) thinking
that he is hurting her
by (his) being hurt
to think
that she thinks he is hurting her
by the fact that

da capo sine fine

They play a play. They do not play
on plays of a play. If I show it that I see, they are, I
break the guidelines and they punish me. I
must play their play, from not seeing me see the play.

it hurts Jack,
in order to think
that Jill thinks, it it to be hurt,
through (it) be hurt
to think
it hurt that it thinks, it,
by forming their feeling guiltily
at hurting it
through (it) thinking
that it hurts it
that through (seins) it are hurt
for thinking
that she thinks, it, hurt them
by the fact the

dacapo Sinusgeldstrafe

They play a play. They do not
play on plays of a play. If I show it that I see, they are,
break I the korrekturlinien and they punish me.
I must play their play, from seeing I do not see the play.

it hurts Jack,
in order to think
that Jill thinks, it to be hurt it,
through (it) is hurt,
in order to think
that it that it thinks, hurt it,
by forming guiltily its feeling
at hurting it
by (it) thinking
that it hurts it
that by (seins) it for thinking
that it thinks,
hurt it it
by the fact

dacapo sine fine

Look, there’s only so much grading you can do. And when you assign writing, you might as well resign yourself to a long week of commenting. After such an assignment, I offer up work that is easy and quick to grade.

One such assignment is to find an author interview. Students choose a book or author they really, really like and find an interview with the author. Text, video or audio, the interview has to be focused on the creative process. Nancie Atwell has written about the importance of students identifying themselves as writers, and seeing themselves as peers of their favorite writers. I find this assignment does the trick.

For assessment, I have created a Google Form where they submit their name, author, book/series and the URL of the interview. Next time, I’ll add a check box for content being mature (the interview with the author of “The Kite Runner” is a tad graphic, considering the subject matter). At the due date, I can look at the responses and see who did and who did not. Then, I post the spreadsheet and use it as a resource for a later lesson.

While creating an “exemplar” (a word I try to sneak into every conversation, because it is so edu-speak), I read a series of interviews with Robert Cormier. ‘The Chocolate War’ is one of the first YA books I saw, as an adult, as being real Literature (capital L). I still love it for its honesty and violence and serving a theme and never letting the reader go from it. The ending is still the best YA ending ever (it was tied by ‘The Giver’, but then Lowry ruined it with the sequels. But, I guess, Cormier did the same thing with ‘Beyond the Chocolate War’, so….) In scanning one site, I read his other works and saw ‘The First Death’. I have a vague memory of this being an After School Special that still sticks with me, but that might have been another kids-surviving-in-a-school-bus movie. Then, that same week, I happened to be reading some Atwell (which I do every few months when I feel insecure about my program) and she mentioned reading this Dylan Thomas and connecting it to the book.

All of which leads to the obvious class activity: What is the significance of the title of your book? An old saw, but one I love. So simple. So concrete. Yet, complex and deep. Support with evidence, blah, blah. You can push them beyond the literal (‘Yes, they are selling chocolates, but what does the ‘war’ indicate?’)

You can/could also have them find a new title. Have it come from a poem that matches the theme.

I don’t think this poem comes from this book, but the cover’s great!


Reworking book packaging can have many lessons. Redesign the cover (the one above is great, even if the dog is a poor role model). Rewrite the copy on the back (a lesson in summary writing, details and creating writing that hooks the reader). Even crafting a quote from the book–THE quote from the book–into a bumpersticker.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Posted by: Tom Triumph | March 31, 2014

206: Paradise Lost: Book II: John Milton

Common Core a bit overwhelming?

One afternoon, I was going to do the hard work of going through my ELA Common Core standards line by line and pulling out the recurring verbs–dull stuff–when I figured that, in this computer age, there must be a better way.  

And it hit me: Wordle.

Like Xerox, a Wordle is a specific site and not a generic noun or verb, so let’s call them “word clouds” because…. we care about words and being exact.  Plus, my chosen word cloud renderer is called ABCya!, as Wordle demanded I download a program that I didn’t have time to install, but you can find half a dozen sites that do the same thing.  Word cloud.

This is a word cloud of the English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Literature: Grade 7:



Of course, that doesn’t tell us much (too many words), but ABCya! lets you adjust it a bit.  It came to this:


ABCya! also allows you to delete specific words, so “eg” and “CCSSELALITERACYYRL73″ can be deleted as they are probably not very important in designing lessons for next year.  But, looking at the word clouds above, you can see the patterns: Analyze, text, story, compare, contrast, determine, etc.  Theme, on the other hand, is less important.  And while “poem” makes the cut, “verse” does not.

It is a quick way to cut through the clutter.  You can drop all of your standards in there (both Reading and Writing, for whatever multiple grades you teach) and see what the big ideas are.  Then, hit those concepts again and again.

This came up in a unit on symbolism.  Besides the fact that I love symbolism, I wanted to have kids break down text so that they could understand how it works.  Since as long as they remember, students have been drilled on how to write, but in middle school they start to wonder how it all actually works.  Nancie Atwell embraces this, inviting experimentation and reflection as a reader and writer, but in this age of NCLB those types of programs are rare.  Why do we write in five paragraphs instead of four?  Six?  Hmmmm….  But important questions to ask if we want kids who can really write.

In this unit we also looked at experimental writing and criticism.  Let me give you a few links before I continue:

It was this last presentation where the issue of textual analysis, formalism and semiotic criticism came up.  It so happened that Slate magazine did a piece on the frequency of certain words, sentences, adjectives and adverbs in popular YA literature.  One of the lists was this:


My Google Presentation for this can be found here.  Looking at the lists above, you can see the clear difference between the “Twilight” series and “Harry Potter”.  My students could see it, too.

Which brings it all back to poetry and text.  If textual criticism can be used on YA novels and the Common Core, why not use it to analyze poetry?  Using Book 2 from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, here is the results of Stanford University’s WordSift:


Not only did it give me a word cloud, but it began graphing the words and offering up visuals that might (or might not) go with it.  I don’t know if the results are useful in a real, critical sense, but they can get kids thinking about hard texts.  More important, it can get them thinking about text in ways other than the traditional lines of a poem.

Below are the first few lines from “Paradise Lost: Book II”, where Milton makes the devil a really interesting character (William Blake’s knock on the poem), but also sets up his doomed fate that plays out through the rest of the poem.  Ask the students about the images they see in this wonderfully over-the-top chapter.  Can they picture it?  Then, throw it through a word cloud.

Paradise Lost: Book II
John Milton

HIGH on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshon the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised 5
To that bad eminence; and, from despair
Thus high uplifted beyond hope, aspires
Beyond thus high, insatiate to pursue
Vain war with Heaven; and, by success untaught,
His proud imaginations thus displayed:—


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