The Unexpected

man canThe Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book. Biting, bitter, playful, and bizarre, Richard Condon brings a cynical and outrageously offbeat voice to his story of cold war paranoia. It’s a novel I could never bring myself to recommend (though I have suggested to friends the 1962 Sinatra film of the book) and yet it’s a book I find myself happy to be rereading.

I can’t believe he wrote that, is a common reaction as I’m turning the pages, and My god, really?

Condon’s prose is an odd amalgam of terse and flamboyant. It’s as if Edgar Rice Burroughs and William S. Burroughs collaborated on a spy story after drinking too much and reading Valley of the Dolls.

As a former English teacher, I know that there are books we teach students that smack of merit: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and anything by Toni Morrison. Even the rougher books we put in front of students (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or the really difficult ones (Huck Finn) bring enough importance to warrant passages that make readers wince.

On the other side of the aisle, wrapped in foil and raised embossment, Stephen King and PD James show the world that “popular fiction” has a place, and even if it is as serious as a Batman comic, English teachers everywhere shake their heads, muster smiles, and say, as the student holds up Clear and Present Danger for his independent reading project, “at least they’re reading.”

And then there are a few, the Margaret Atwoods and John le Carres of the world, who lure us in with colorful covers and hide literary ideas in airport gift shops. There, next to the issues of Time and Vanity Fair, lurk Offred and Magnus Pym ready to knock us off our chairs.

…and maybe be a little naughty.

So too The Manchurian Candidate. When Condon published the book in 1959, he threw conventionality to the wind and put together a potboiler that is a melange of spy thriller, beat prose poem, and political satire. As popular as it was in the year Kennedy was elected, I’m not sure how much it gets read today.

Contemporary audiences may not have the taste for exchanges like this, a Condonian version of flirting:

Do you mind cigar smoke,” he mumbled.
“Not at all,” she murmured. He turned away from her by made no move to find a cigar.
“Go ahead,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I wish you’d smoke two cigars at the same time.”
“You must really like cigar smoke.”
“Not especially, but I think two cigars going at the same time would look awfully amusing.”

And yet I think there’s a place for The Manchurian Candidate.

I make my living working with high school students, and I know the value at that age of experiencing some piece of literature, or film, or idea so unhinged that it invites us to see the world differently. Haruki Murakami, Citizen Kane, David Bowie. For different people different surprises and different inspirations.

Now I’m not suggesting Condon’s novel be put on the syllabus of Sophomore English; remember, The Manchurian Candidate is a naughty book, but in a world of black, white, and increasing gray, I will raise my glass to those artistic works that present themselves in psychedelic neon and gleaming chrome.

Our lives, particularly our lives in those formative years, are richer for including the offbeat and the unexpected.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is on my nightstand this summer, sitting atop From a Buick 8, and there on the top of the pile, my bookmark halfway through, is a used copy of The Manchurian Candidate.


“A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”
-Edgar Allan Poe

No one gets to the end of their life and says “I wish I’d read more Nietzsche.”

I was a philosophy major, taught English for a dozen years, and get kidded today for reading Sartre for fun. “Who reads Sartre anymore?” Evidently just me. And yet I know the truth that for most, Nietzsche is more a phase than a philosopher.

I’ve also reached a point in my life when rereading some books stems less from a desire to really understand them and more because I simply don’t remember as much about their content as I do have memories of them being good.

Tess of the D’urbervilles is on my list to reread, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch too, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It will be interesting this summer to see how the tastes of my undergraduate years have changed.

In the first draft of that last sentence I put “if” instead of “how,” though I know that there is no way those tastes (a way of summing up perspective, attitude, and understanding) haven’t developed as a result of the varied experiences of an adult lifetime.

I thought of this last week when my assistant principal, himself a former English teacher, mentioned to me that as he was walking with a student from his office to her Creative Writing class he asked her who her favorite writer was.

photo (5)“Poe,” she answered.

When he told me the story, he and I both had the same response: That will change.

And it will, and that’s okay. Heck, I still keep a couple of old copies of Poe on my bookshelf, some essays and Eureka, and while I don’t consult them for wisdom or guidance, their presence, like some kind of talisman, reminds me of the person I was when I read them back in my younger years.

Working at a high school means that I get to be around students who are actively engaged in developing their own tastes. They’re in the process of reading Hamlet and Heart of Darkness for the first time and they get pushed in their four years before graduation to think critically and creatively about science, and history, and math.

Some might pick up Siddhartha or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and whether they agree with the author or not, they may find their minds stretched in ways that help them become the people they are becoming.

It’s our job as educators to nurture this.

And if some of the titles or authors who so inspired their teenage selves feel flat or flawed by the time they reach thirty, all the better. If that’s the case, they’ve continued to grow and learn.

We oughtn’t mock the stones we step on as we cross the stream, but thank them, imperfect as they are, for giving us the footing to walk to the other side.

On a high school campus that means nodding when a student tells us about the merits of Edgar Allan Poe or asks us to think about an maxim they’ve discovered in Beyond Good and Evil.

While we do, we might mention James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, or even Jean Paul Sartre. Well, probably not him. And all the while I’m convinced that it’s right to celebrate these authors our students connect with, these authors they may even find themselves rereading some summer when they’re in their forties.


When you want to strike up a spirited conversation with a room full of English teachers, start talking about books. I taught English for thirteen years, freshmen through seniors, and had my own favorite texts (Heart of Darkness, Their Eyes Were Watching God), books that my students loved (Gatsby, Frankenstein), and some that seemed to fall in the middle of the Venn Diagram of the two (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

photo 2 (7)I tended to change up the books I taught from year to year, whether a text worked or not, mostly, I suppose, to keep myself engaged and fresh. I found, through this ongoing experiment, that there was a short list of texts that provided something no other works did. They were works that I couldn’t substitute something else for; something about each made it, to my way of thinking, irreplaceable.

I should pause here, as any English teachers reading are sharpening their knives, to admit that this post is just one foolish fellow’s point of view. It’s almost certainly wrong. Well, at least not the only right way of looking at things. It’s a starting point, however, for a great discussion of curriculum (one probably best done over coffee, or perhaps something stronger, with friends who can disagree without malice. The ability to hold different opinions and to talk about these without coming to fisticuffs is vital for educators, and I suppose humans). So…

Part of what made the three texts I’ll mention “irreplaceable” was the richness of language, part the cultural significance, part the unique power of the story, and part …well, part that magic that a (former) English teacher like me can’t quite quantify.

I love Othello, for instance, but found that I could use Lear or Richard III to achieve a comparable experience.

One of my most rewarding teaching adventures came with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, an astounding book that provided more perspective on 20th century America than almost any other I taught. If push came to shove, however, I might have used works by Toni Morrison or Richard Wright and helped my students experience some of the same magic.

That said, the short list of books I found completely unique:

Hamlet,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey

Hear me out.

Please. This is all in good fun.

It’s not that Shakespeare, Twain, and Homer are the most important writers, nor that these three are the most important works. Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (among others) had sacred spots on my syllabi, but through years of trial and error (and error and error), I found that the title I chose from each mattered less; The Bluest Eye or Beloved, A Room of One’s Own or To the Lighthouse, the powerful point of view of the author shone through.

My evolution as a teacher, for instance, saw me move from teaching The Glass Menagerie to having students perform Tennessee Williams one acts. In both the full length play and the shorter pieces from Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton students experienced what Williams said was the purpose of his writing: “I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual.” When they got to wrestle more intimately with the shorter plays, I felt they understood this theme even more deeply.

I saw this for Shakespeare too. Once, when I was teaching at tiny high school in rural Oregon where my best friend and I were the entire English department, we decided that we’d expose our students to multiple plays by Shakespeare each year. Familiarity, we thought, was the ticket for demystifying the bard.

photo 4 (3)One of the best moves we made was to teach Macbeth to freshmen and then again to seniors. So seldom do high schoolers have the opportunity to reread texts, particularly longer ones, and so much do kids change from thirteen to seventeen. The experiment was a delight, but the truth is that we just as easily might have chosen As You Like It or Romeo and Juliet. Grand themes of love and power recur in many of the plays, and as with Williams (or Morrison or Conrad or Hurston) more than one option could open a door into the author’s oeuvre.

But then there’s Hamlet.

Elements of Hamlet appear in other plays: the taste of intrigue in Othello, the complicated love of Romeo and Juliet, the politics of Titus. But as a font of cultural significance, comprehensive wisdom, and great poetry, no single work comes close to the story of the brooding Dane.

Act by act, scene by scene, year after year, Hamlet separated itself from any other drama I taught, providing a complexity and richness to my students that continued to amaze me.

Complex and rich, but never easy, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all that Hemingway says of it and more. From the well worn arguments against (and for) the book to the unflinching engagement it invites, this novel more than any other captures the complexity of our country. Past and present, ugly, beautiful, mean, and moral, Huck is America.

I know I did a poor job of teaching Huck for most of my time in the classroom. It’s complexity and subtlety beat my best efforts year after year, and felt tired finishing the book, knowing I didn’t give my students all they deserved from their interaction with the text. Always challenged by its content and language, forever sensitive of Twain’s nuances and my inability to consistently explicate them, I lumped on, always believing I could do better.

And then Ralph Ellison showed me how I might.

My last year teaching Huck, and the only time I really think I got it right, I began my semester with slave narratives (mixing up four with my classes and creating book groups on them), moved to Frederick Douglass, touched on Sojourner Truth, and then introduced the class to Ellison’s Invisible Man. Filled with historical context, and fueled by an ongoing series of mini-lessons on the history of the blues, we read the first half of Invisible Man, got to the explosion in the paint factory, and stopped.

Enter Huck.

Students tucked Invisible Man away and we read Twain’s novel.

Better put: we laughed, winced, argued, loved and hated our way down the Mississippi. At one point I almost witnessed a fistfight in class.

And as we got to the end of the book and saw Jim’s story conclude, we pulled out those copies of Invisible Man and extended our education. Huck wasn’t really done. Beyond the references in Ellison’s novel, the shadow of Twain’s book loomed over Invisible Man, and the light of Ellison’s flame illuminated Twain’s characters and text.

I’m not saying that my approach was the right one, but it was the right approach for me. I wish for every one of the English teachers I know a similar struggle. I’m convinced that teaching Huck, and figuring out the way I needed to teach it, as difficult as it was, made me a better person.

As individual as one’s relationship with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, each reader’s response to Homer’s Odyssey has the potential to be as unique.

Unlike The Iliad, a brainpan busting war epic, The Odyssey tells the universal tale of finding home. There’s something primal and innately inspiring in the journey. Tennyson, Cavafy, and even Steely Dan riff on the story. Odysseus’ adventures fill our collective consciousness: the cyclops, the lotus eaters, the sirens, Ithaka.

Sure, there are other epics and other characters as large, but Gilgamesh, Aeneas, and even Dante’s Virgil don’t resonate with the same mythic tone or singularity.

And now is the time when you get to say: “No way!”

What about  The Great Gatsby? Where is Steinbeck? Austin? To Kill a Mockingbird?

photo 3 (5).JPGLiterature is rich and diverse. Books, beautiful books, spark conversations, connections, debates …and occasionally near fistfights.

My three titles, irreplaceable from my limited point of view, might not be yours.


What are?

Which texts, for you, have that one of a kind …something, that no other works have?

Not your favorites, that’s too easy, but what books would make your list of irreplaceable?

“Rat Attacks”

“Did you know that rats are responsible for more human deaths than all other predators combined?” The class looked at me. “Yeah. Rats!”

I taught reading intervention for three years, and had a hand in revamping reading intervention programs at a few schools as an administrator. Helping struggling readers has always been a passion for me, and with each opportunity to make a difference in this pursuit, I did my best to always remember the fear and wonder of talking with struggling readers about rats.

ratattacksMy rat facts came from a book given to me for a classroom library I could use with my reading intervention class. Titled Rat Attacks, a feral looking creature staring from the front cover, it was my go to book in the opening days of the semester as I showed my students how the class operated.

Together we read about the vicious rodents, puzzled through vocab, and answered questions like those they’d see in the comprehension quizzes they’d take on their own independent reading. That Rat Attacks was almost unanimously agreed upon as interesting, or at least compelling, made it a useful tool. All reading intervention is about engagement.

The first, vital, connection when working with struggling readers is between the teacher and the kids. Students don’t learn to read (or read better) from someone they don’t trust, and when we talk about engagement in a reading intervention class, it must not only be an engagement between the students and the subjects, but also between all of the people, adult and adolescent, who fill the room.

Culture trumps program, and a healthy classroom environment is more important in an intervention class than almost anywhere else.

Within that classroom there must be opportunities for students to engage in reading and writing that is both interesting (to them) and relevant. The independent reading that students engage in as well as their shared experiences should be appropriately rigorous and appropriately compelling. This isn’t always easy, but more often than not I’ve found reading intervention teachers to be some of the most creative and widely read folks I know. Add to that an uncompromisingly student centered approach, and success is sure to follow.

A third component for engagement in reading class is student understanding of the importance of improving. This, coupled with student set goals for increasing reading ability, either built in or teacher inspired, is a cornerstone for progress. Students must know why they’re striving to improve.

When they do, they thrive. Engaged students, who know their teacher is an ally, have access to relevant content, and are inspired to reach goals, do become stronger readers.

They may even learn a thing or two about rats.

Beyond Batman

photo 1 (3)It was the Classics Illustrated Robinson Crusoe that captured my six year old son’s imagination. Filled with swords and shooting, pictures of Crusoe’s nightmarish hallucinations and a gory melee with a band of “cannibals,” it brought all the fruit forbidden in a liberal 21st century household to his nightstand in glorious technicolor.

For me growing up it was The Fantastic Four, entertaining companions on long road trips and always ready to engage my daydreaming thoughts with the possibilities of a flying fantasticar and traveling into space.

Moodier superheroes took over as I got older, Batman and Moon Knight broadening my world view, even as they wore masks and capes. Storytelling, visual and otherwise, has the capacity to stretch minds and get readers to think about the world in new ways. Before Shakespeare, Twain, and Ellison, for me that meant comic books.

photo 4 (2)Not to sell short some of the best of my youth (Moench and Sienkiewicz’s Moon Knight is still a favorite), today the term “comics” hardly captures the depth of the medium. Serious novelists from Brad Meltzer to Michael Chabon have penned comic books, and others like Neil Gaiman jumped from comics to novels. Add to that the sheer variety of illustrated stories: Fanny Britt’s Jane, the Fox, and Me, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s 300, and the broad appeal extends well beyond the familiar confines of Gotham City.

What this means is that today’s comics, relevant and resonating, have the capacity to invite even reluctant readers (though certainly not only reluctant readers) into the world of text.

The benefits are many.

photo 2 (3)Offering opportunities to read and think about big ideas, comic books and graphic novels from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant to the latest incarnation of Moon Knight can serve as a welcoming portal into the realm of ideas.

For my six year old son those ideas of exploration jump off the page like a flock of birds startled by Crusoe’s flintlock. For my ten year old daughter, it’s Raina Telgemeier’s Sisters and Smile side by side on her bookshelf with Colin Meloy’s Wildwood and the indefatigable Harry Potter.

photo 3 (4)At Diegueño I’ve seen Gene Luen Yang’s Boxer and Saint, collected Avengers comics, and plenty of anime. Bright young readers gobble up graphic novels like The Golem’s Mighty Swing, Watchmen, and The Graveyard Book, and their lives (both reading lives and otherwise) are richer as a result.

I suspect that these excursions into comics are like scouts sent into the woods of adult literature, curious, capable of bringing back information, and starting the first maps into literary adulthood.

Plus, comics are fun.

The Game is Afoot

HolmesArthur Conan Doyle changed the world in 1887 when he introduced Sherlock Holmes in the pages of The Strand Magazine. I got to know the great detective about a hundred years later, devouring stories from the thick illustrated book I still keep near my nightstand.

Before I became a principal, I taught more than a little Holmes in my thirteen years in an English classroom, inviting students to enter the foggy world of Victorian London alongside Watson, Lestrade, and the Baker Street Irregulars. Over time I found the stories that worked and the ones that didn’t, so when a stint of subbing inspired me to take a turn in front of a class, I knew the first lesson I wanted to teach would be about Sherlock Holmes.

I chose “The Musgrave Ritual,” a relatively short adventure with most of the hallmarks of a great Holmes story, as well as an opportunity to cut across disciplines and teach a touch of history and some math and measurement that struck me as very common core.

I didn’t want to shy away from the term Common Core State Standards (CCSS), in fact I wanted to understand what they looked like in the classroom from the teaching and learning point of view. As a site administrator I have one point of view, but I knew I’d have better perspective after building an English lesson that involved close reading of the text, integrated some primary source nonfiction, promoted creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, …and was fun.

Not that any of those CCSS notions are new; I’d done them all in my best lessons, and even for this Musgrave adventure I knew I’d crib a thing or two from my experience as a teacher.

I started planning with the notion that the kids might not have any familiarity with Sherlock Holmes. Maybe they’d watched a movie or seen Sherlock on TV, but I didn’t want their picture of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective to come in the form of Iron Man or a rebooted Khan.

I put together some images from the original illustrator, Sidney Paget, and found a photo of a handwritten letter from Doyle that expressed his confidence in the artist. Happy with this primary text, I worked up some questions I thought would get the kids thinking.

Next, I wanted a hands on experience, and I reworked an experiment I’d used with my students on observation and deduction. I asked friends for objects or articles of clothing that I could give to groups of students with the challenge that they were to make close observations, think critically about what they noticed, and deduce information about the person that object belonged to. They’d do best if they worked collaboratively and communicated their opinions clearly, and would have a chance to do a bit of writing at the end. This could fly or flop, but I thought it would get them thinking in a way they might not have before.

Holmes and his methods introduced, I prepared to teach the story itself. I knew that I’d use that line from Holmes as a starting point for talking about close reading, which has some similarities to detective work. In “The Reigate Squire” Holmes tells Watson: “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” Sounds like critical reading skills.

Thirteen years of teaching English taught me that detective fiction was a great vehicle for teaching close reading, and that Holmes on observation and deduction was good advice when a book was open in front of a student.

Beyond close reading, I knew I wanted to take the lesson beyond Doyle’s words. It’s why I’d chosen this story rather than one with the snakes or hounds or creeping men I knew middle schoolers would love.

I’d used “The Musgrave Ritual” before, in my first year of teaching, when a marvelous math teacher, a big Hawaiian who seldom wore shoes and routinely used triple negatives, joined me to present a short lesson on similar triangles. In the story, Holmes uses triangles to measure the shadow of a tree that had been cut down, leading to the discovery of a missing butler.

I knew I wouldn’t have a big Hawaiian for my lesson, so (inspired by my current math department) I came up with a few prompts I thought might work to get the students thinking about how they might solve Holmes’ puzzle. I found a video online that seemed like it could provide a hint if they got stuck, and to cement this part of the lesson I borrowed long tape measures from my science department so the kids could go outside and measure the height of a big tree in our own quad. I felt ready to go.

Well, almost ready.

After putting a skeleton of the lesson together, I sent it to four teachers on special assignment (ToSAs), who work with teachers in my district to support the implementation of common core. Collaboration can elevate instruction, and I knew these intelligent folks could give me honest feedback that could make my lesson better.

It’s Saturday night as I type this post. I step in front of my first class of 8th graders on Tuesday morning. I’m excited about engaging with the kids in the adventure of learning. I’m looking forward to seeing what works and what doesn’t; it’s teaching, so I know there will be both.

I know I’ll be tired (and inspired) when it’s over, though you won’t hear me complain about being exhausted at the end of the lesson; teachers do this every day.

What will the kids think? What will the kids learn? Right now, as I type these pre-lesson thoughts, that’s a mystery.

I can hardly wait for that school bell to ring on Tuesday, when I’ll take a deep breath, look out at that sea of middle school faces, and whisper to myself: “The game is afoot.”

Hit It

057-moon-knight-26-bill-sienkiewiczI was in middle school when Moon Knight #26 hit the comic book shelves. A seventh grader who liked reading Edgar Allan Poe in Ms. Sarver’s English class, but honestly not too much beyond what was assigned to me at Parrish Junior High, I remember picking up the comic and being confronted with something more relevant, more real, and at least as literary as “The Black Cat.”

I happened on the comic book again a couple of weeks ago, buried in a bankers box in my parents’ garage. Captured again by the artwork on the cover, I opened it up and re-read it with the eyes of the middle school principal I’ve become.

What struck me as I read was how important stories can be during the transitional time that is middle school. Beyond Roald Dahl and not yet ready for Shakespeare, though both authors sometimes make it onto the middle school reading list, students in middle school span a large range of maturity and reading levels. Recent decades have seen dystopian literature flourish, catering to the sense of fairness in our tweens. Vampires, unreliable narrators, and steampunk have all found or lost popularity.

For me, as for so many boys, reading in school meant reading stories I wasn’t really interested in. The twelve year old I was fixated on justice as much as kids today, but Dickens and du Maurier didn’t yet strike a chord. Jack London? Maybe. Poe? A bit.

Moon Knight? Heck yeah.

Written by Doug Moench, the Moon Knight story pictured on the cover is titled “Hit It.” It’s set against a jazz motif, which I most certainly didn’t appreciate as a youngster, but dug as an adult, and follows a man assaulting people on the streets of New York. Flashbacks told through Bill Sienkiewicz’s striking drawings show the man’s own childhood abuse and dare to equate the caped hero Moon Knight, at least through the man’s eyes, with his abusive father.

As an adult rereading the story, I realized just how much the story was an indictment of violence in contemporary society. Riffing like jazz musicians within the established structure of a superhero comic book, this author and illustrator pushed boundaries and challenged readers to face something serious.

Crazy, daring, unlike anything I’d read before, in twenty pages Sienkiewicz and Moench were able to shatter the expectations of a comic book, or any story a twelve year old like me had read. This was contemporary, morally challenging, and took on a grown up subject matter.

And it did so with (literary) style.

The result was the result good literature can provide: broadened understanding, new perspective, and a memorable story.

In retrospect, “Hit It” may have been the best 75 cents I ever spent.

As I talk with readers at Diegueño Middle School I love seeing them excited about the stories that they love, from oddball detectives to anime. Their teachers, gifted as my own Ms. Sarver was -though less constrained by textbooks and tradition- inspire them to engage with the texts, ask meaningful questions, and think critically about the world around them. They aren’t limited to reading in class; our library does a brisk business in YA fiction, and it’s common to see kids carrying novels around on campus.

The students I talk with read beyond books as well, pages and pages of print on portable devices, volumes of text (well, texts), and paragraphs of information online that relate to their own lives. I don’t worry that kids don’t have enough to read, or really that they don’t read enough. Our world has become a more literate one (in its own way), even as Dickensian sentences fade away like the images on thirty-five year old newsprint.

mk1As I closed the cover of that comic book, and tucked it away until my own son is about twelve, I sent a quiet wish out to Khonshu, or whomever the kids today think of as a literary deity. I hope that every young reader, male and female, finds her or his own “Hit It.” I wish them all a Ms. Sarver to inspire them in class and a Moon Knight of their own to help them love reading and thinking about what they’ve read outside of class.

It’s not always easy to know what the perfect story is for any one middle school student, but they know when they find it. It’ll hit them.