30 September 2006


This past week was the week I teach sonnets to my seniors. Sonnets are cool things to teach, because they are universally unpopular things. Kids are inundated with rules--14 lines, 10 syllables, set rhyme schemes, etc.--and forced to wade through the difficult language of Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare. The kids were groaning by the end of the classes, "Please no more sonnets!"

Until they had to write their own.

I have a funny way of teaching sonnets. I show kids how to count out the syllables by tapping my fingers on my chest (sometimes I use my face). Needless to say, once kids get the hang of banging out syllables, sonnet-writing becomes fun. I wish you could have been in my room on Friday as students were writing. There was so much finger-counting, it looked like a band of first-graders taking an arithmetic test!

One girl, Min, is an immigrant from South Korea. She had resolutely spent three hours hammering out a sonnet. She let me keep her scratch paper--it had so many crossed-out lines and edits, it was a work of art! I'm humbled that any student--even an honors student--would work that hard for me.

Of course I wrote a sonnet, too (I didn't want the kids to have all the fun). I'll include it below. Enjoy:

A Sonnet (for My Bride)

“Your eyes are stars,” I say, as hers eclipse,
Squeezed by eyelids into thin, crescent moons.
“Don’t flatter me,” she says. “My eyes and lips
Are hardly celestial residue.”

I’m stunned. “Well, they are planets then,” I say,
“Glowing with life”—just as her atmospheres
Cloud over. Hurricanes blacken as they
Grow dark—her blue skies now gloomy grey glares.

“I love you,” I add. “No telescope need
Tell me that.” And she with a twinkle says,
“Perhaps these stars would be much more agreed
When viewed up close and not light years away.”

Comets blaze, meteors stream, worlds collide:
My universe revolves around those eyes.

19 September 2006

Atypical Day (I Hope)

It's easy for teachers to make their classes look like one long version of Dead Poets' Society or some other inspiring movie. We can pretend that the bell always rings at the moment we make our best point, or we can point to the two or three projects we do each semester that really set off light bulbs over out students' heads.

I'm going to be real with you, however. I have a 9th-grade English class that is just incredible. It is simply one of the most immature group of teenagers I've ever taught (and I'm in my 10th year of teaching).

Last Friday was the worst. I was writing detentions right and left, and I had a vice principal come and remove one kid. After school was out, I sat down and unwound by writing a detailed letter to a kid's mom. I'm going to share this letter with you, my dear readers, just to let you profit a little from my 90-minutes of misery.

I don't think there is a lot of lingo. ISS stands for in-school suspension, which is a day-long time-out for disruptive kids.



[Student] has been back from ISS for a few days, but his behavior has reverted to prior levels. I am extremely disappointed in his performance, especially now that I have seen the natural talent that he has as a writer. I really want to develop that—instead of constantly having to get on to him for misbehaving in class.

Let me describe his performance in class today. [Student] is often a spectator in my classroom. He isn’t learning. Instead, he is slouched sideways in his desk, looking at all the other kids in the class, waiting for someone to do something inappropriate. When no one is disruptive, he is.

For example, at one point of the class today, he lifted up one leg and excreted a loud fart that I could hear halfway across the room. I sent him out of the class at one point, because while all the other kids had books out, Chip’s desk was clear: no book, no paper, no pencil, nothing. At other times he will blow into his pen to make whistling sounds or he will loudly criticize other students who try to make points in class. At the end of class he was given an assignment to do. He took this opportunity to walk around the room and bump into another student on his way. I ordered him back to his seat, and I gave him a detention when he talked back to me.

This was all during one day’s 90-minute block.

Frankly, I feel like I am his babysitter, not his teacher.

James Dittes
Station Camp High School

16 September 2006

Abram the Unremarkable (Continued from Below)

In my prior post, I tried to establish the true location of Abram's call in Haran among the Patriarchs. The Biblical chronology indicates that Shem was alive at the time Abram lived in Haran. Even if a reader doesn't take these dates literally, the purpose of the figures was to tie Abram directly to the era of legendary men like Noah.

We often think of Abraham as a sort of Patriarch of Patriarchs. It is ironic to think of him in Haran, a minor figure among even greater patriarchs like Shem, Arphaxad, Shelah and Eber (whose children would be known as a tribe called "Hebrews").

Genesis12.4 shows that Abram left Haran at the age of 75 with a retinue which included his barren wife, Sarai, his nephew, and all of their possessions from Haran. His journey would take him down the western arm of the Fertile Crescent to the place where it ends apruptly at the edge of the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea.

What happens on this journey? Prior to his circumcision in Genesis 17, nothing much. Abram travels to Egypt to avoide famine, but he gives Sarai over to the Pharaoh as a wife, bringing plague to Pharaoh's house (Gn 12.10-20). He settles Lot near Sodom--and appears willing to live there himself if Lot chooses another place (Gn 13.8-10). He even accepts Sarai's council and takes Hagar as a concubine, betraying God's direct promise and bringing upon his house much discord (Gn 15 & 16).

His only remarkable achievement is the rescue of Lot and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in Chapter 14. There is no sign that God sanctions this action. In fact, God may have brought military defeat on those cities, for only a few years later He destroys them in a more direct fashion.

What does this tell us about this man? First, I find that patriarchs come from real men who blunder in the ways described above. Abram made huge mistakes--the ancestors of Isaac and Ishmael are bitter enemies to this day, for example. He placed his wife in an adulterous situation, and he became an adulterer himself after he and Sarai had given up on God's promise of a son.

Second, I am reminded of the fact that all of these mistakes happened in Caanan, not Haran. Abram blundered, yes, but he trusted God. He left his home among his own patriarchs and went to the very edge of the desert. He followed God's leading, and that was "credited to him as righteousness."

It is here that I consider the places I have left behind--the people in whom I have placed trust, and my trust in God as well. In many ways my journey as a husband, a father, a son, a believer, has itself been unremarkable. I can point to many blunders along the way and self-inflicted disasters. I can think of many more times when my trust in those close to me has been tested--times when I have felt like I was wandering in a desert of my own.

I guess that is where the great lesson of Abram shines through. Thanks be to God, we are judged not on whether we have been right or wrong, but on whether we have trusted or not. As Paul would show later, the perfect righteousness given to us by God is a covenant of trust that purposefully overlooks imperfections as galling as those of Abram.

Trust, then, is not what happens when we attempt to present a Blank Slate to God and say, "I have done everything correctly as you have directed. It is when we say to God, our spouse, our family, or our closest friends, "I have come this far because I believe in you; I have no other hope than in continuing along this path together."

15 September 2006

Abram's Call Reconsidered

It's interesting to get into the story of Abram as I did in a recent Bible study, trying to unravel the real life of the man from the legend of "Abraham: Father of All" that we get from the post-covenant man.

His story is told in Genesis 12-17 (after Genesis 17, his covenant with God transforms him into Abraham).

It is interesting to read some of the misconceptions we have about Abram. For example, in Genesis 12.1, "The Lord had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.'"

I had always believed that God gave Abram this instruction in the city of Ur, for that is where Abram was born, raised and married. However, Genesis 11.31 tells that it was Abram's father Terah who moved the family from Ur. Abram's journey actually began in Haran, a place where rivers flow out of the Taurus/Ararat Mountain Ranges and fertilize the northernmost arc of the Fertile Crescent.

In returning to Haran, Terah wasn't going "where no man has gone before." Instead he was returning to the ancestral home of Shem and his descendants. In some way, Terah was the prodigal son returning home to Haran. In others, we might know him as a "Mama's Boy" or a "Great, great, great, great, great-grandfather's Boy."

Who was in Haran? Genesis 11 offers some tantalizing clues. Shem still lived--if you take the chronology literally, he lived until the days that Abram's grandson, Jacob was exiled there. Noah lived too. It is pretty easy to figure out from the chronologies of of the 10 generations between Noah and Abram found in Genesis 11:
  • Noah lived for 350 years after the flood (Gn 9.28)
  • Shem lived for 502 years after the flood (Gn 11.10-11)
  • Arphaxad, born two years after the flood (F + 2), lived for 403 years (Gn 11.13) [died F+405]
  • Shelah, born (F + 37) also lived 403 years (Gn 11.15) [died F+440]
  • Eber, born F+67 lived 430 years (Gn 11.17) [died F+497]
  • Peleg, born F+101, lived 209 years (Gn 11.19) [died F+310]
  • Rau, born F+131, lived 207 years (Gn 11.21) [died F+338]
  • Serug, born F+163, lived 200 years (Gn 11.23) [died F+363]
  • Nahor, born F+193, lived 119 years (Gn 11.25) [died F+322]
  • Terah, born F+222, lived 205 years (Gn 11.32) [died F+427]
  • Abram, born F+292, was given his call in Haran at the age of 75: F+367
I asked Bruce Feiler, author of the book Abraham, about these chronologies at a writer's Q&A a few years ago. He wasn't one to take the Bible so literally, so he didn't really answer my question. It is tantalizing nonetheless. By the chart there, Abram would have lived in Haran with his father and his great grandfathers, including Shem, Arphaxad, Shelah and Eber.

We have no record of when Abram actually returned to Haran with his father from Ur, but Noah himself had died just seventeen years before the Call, and one could date the arrival of Abram to this time, when he would have been 58 years old.

This is getting long, so I'll post it and continue below.

12 September 2006

Chasing Chaucer

I'm leading my seniors through The Canterbury Tales at the moment. It's a great project through which to bond with the kids. Most of the tales focus on relationships, and since relationships tend to be the primary focus of 17 and 18-year-olds, the kids are more than willing to share opinions and make judgments about the characters.

In 2 1/2 weeks we will have read the bulk of the tales (10, I expect) and the kids will have written short stories and character sketches of their own.

I always assign the Miller's Tale early in the unit. This includes some hanky-panky, a man being tricked into kissing someone's butt, and a "thunderous fart" (from a different bottom). After that tale, kids who missed it are thinking, "I've got to keep up, there's some crazy stuff in here."

This year I divided up the boys and the girls and had them write "The Rules of Relationships" after each reading. What do you do when you and your friend like the same person (Knight)? Can you really trust a woman (Clerk and Franklin)? What do women want (Wife)? These are just a few of the quesions that are answered definitively by Chaucer in this work.

Today I was reading the Franklin's Tale with the kids and I came upon a great quote about love. I'm beyond the age where my friends are marrying, but if I knew of some that were, I would recommend this quote (from the Glaser translation).
Lo, here we see a wise accord.
She gained a servant and a lord,
A servant in love, a lord in marriage--
A lord who showed a servant's carriage.
Servant? Yes, but still a lord.
He gained the lady he adored
To be his lover and his wife,
To comfort and adorn his life.

What a great quote about the way a marriage should work. I'm just not sure if we've gotten wiser since the 14th Century about these things.

04 September 2006

Labor Day at the Hogan

Today was a great holiday--one of the best I can remember. My brother-in-law Johnathan visited with his family, and we devoted the full day to the hogan.

I'm happy to report that the walls are up, the door is cut, the firepit is dug, and we are in business. For the record, we still need to top off the roof. I'm about two layers into the dome that will be, and I need to pick up some nails and a hammer to finish the job. (Johnathan wouldn't brag about this, but he bent the head off my hammer today while we were working.)

Anyway, here are some pictures for you to enjoy.

This is Johnathan, nailing in the ends of some logs. By the time he arrived, I had seven of nine levels placed. Working with him and his wife, Shadya, we had the final two layers placed in about 45 minutes. If you look through the cracks, you can see me working on another nail.

Here are the kids in the door of the hogan. From left to right, Ava, Nathan (my niece & nephew), Ellie and Owen. If you look off to the right of the hogan, you can see a yellow slide that we also set up today. In keeping with Navajo tradition, this door faces due east. If you look over Ava's right shoulder, you might be able to see all the way to Arizona: site of our great adventure this summer and source of the inspiration for this hogan. (We all spent much time thinking about the Van Eyks--from whom we took the hogan idea during our road trip last summer--and celebrating what inspiring people they are.)

One more picture. The kids wanted to climb, so we took one last picture of them from the inside of the hogan. If you look next to Owen, you might see the beginnings of the roof: cross beams that move in from the walls of the hogan. Eventually they will create a dome, which we plan to cover with tar paper and pine needles.