Friday, April 18, 2014

Pimping the Pantheon

My vestigial teacher calendar notified me that it's National Mythology Exam season, so I though I'd re-share my favorite study too. I present, "Pimping the Pantheon." Enjoy! 

The National Mythology Exam is coming up in two weeks, and my Latin classes are knee-deep in Roman and Greek gods. We've been reviewing the stories, symbols, family trees, and domains, so today, it was time to test the kids to see how much they have learned.

I rolled my laptop up to the front of the room and projected this painting up on the white board:

This is the The Gods of Olympus, by Guilio Romano (1499-1546), a trompe l'oiel ceiling from the Sala dei Giganti that represents the gods and other immortals of Olympus. I blew the painting up so it covered most of the whiteboard, handed each one of the kids a marker, and told them to get to it: Identify all the gods.

I don't know what it is about markers and whiteboards, but my students go a little crazy. They circled and labeled and argued and voted...and watching was the most fun I've had all week.

One of my goals is to get the students to the point where they can identify the gods by their symbols - trident, hat, armor, owl, whatever. And today, they did really well. The seventh grade found (going counter-clockwise from Zeus at 6:00 with his thunderbolts that look like wheat sheaves): Artemis, Demeter, Heracles, Dionysus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, Pan, Athena, (they missed Hestia; she's too ambiguous to identify here),  Persephone, Poseidon, Cronos, Rhea, Hades, Ares, Eros, and Aphrodite.

I then put up Saturn, by Goya.

I knew they would know this one, and they did. Some had learned about Goya in their art history class (thank you Crossroads, for having an art history class). Here, Saturn, or Cronos, is eating up his children so they can't overthrow him just as he overthrew his father. Too bad he missed one; that will come back to bite him in the ass.

Next, I put up a more challenging scene. Before moving on to this one, I reminded them of the various ways to "read" a painting - left to right if it's telling a story, or, in the case of this painting, which tells two stories, from the center out in opposing directions. 

Starting from the center, you have the first man, as modeled by Promethius, who is on the right talking to the lady with the red sash. I had given them the clue that this was a painting to be divided in two, so they quickly identified Promethius' brother, Epimethius, on the left. Back to Promethius. He's being counseled by Athena, who passes her wisdom (remember that later on when I point out an owl in another painting) on to Promethius, who then shares it with mankind. If you look up to the right, you can see Athena flying off with Promethius in the next phase of the story, and he's clutching the fire that he's acquired from Helios (see that vague shape of a chariot with horses in the cloud on the right?) hidden in a fennel stalk. That ember in a fennel stalk is the precursor of the olympic torch, by the way. I love that tidbit. Down in the right corner is mankind suffering from the torments that Pandora let loose out of her jar (see the little jar over to the left of the statue, on the ground in front of the bench?). Back over to the left. Epimethius is shaping a man out of clay in to match the model Promethius made, and there's mankind suffering again in the left corner. Oh, and that monkey guy in the tree? That's Epimethius after Zeus got mad and punished Promethius and Epimethius. I'd take the monkey transformation of Epimethius any day of the week over Promethius' punishment: eternity (well, it would have been, but he got rescued) chained to a rock while eagles (Zeus' bird) eats his liver out every day. Yeah, I have dibs on the prehensile tail.

Next, an easy one:

Yep, that's Hades taking Persephone off to the underworld in his chariot. There are some fun clues in this one, including his bident under his foot and a shadowy Cerberus in the chariot and that nymph trying to stop the chariot, but the kids didn't need it. I also mentioned that while this painting is called The Rape of Persephone, it's really more of the "seizing" of Persephone, which is appropriate, as "rapere" in Latin, which is the root of "rape" is actually to seize. 

Another hard one. I told them to be silent, look carefully, and put the pieces of the puzzle together. 

 Hints: look at what people are holding and remember that the most important people are in the center and in the foreground. The guy with the crown - that's a bident he's holding. The guy on the right has a lyre, and note the wings on the guy next to the woman. And those three biddies on the left in the front? The one of on the right has a spindle with thread in her hand.

Yep, it's the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, the guy with the wings, has led Eurydice down to the underworld after her death (by snake, nasty stuff), and Orpheus has descended with his lyre to sing for Hades and his wife Persephone in order to beg to get his love Eurydice back. Persephone talks Hades into it. The Fates are there on the left because they are the ones who determine human life and would have something to say about allowing Eurydice to thwart death. Clotho ("the spinner") spins the thread of human life, Lachesis ("the drawer of lots") measures it out, and Atropos ("the inevitable") cuts the thread. Even Zeus could not go against these ladies, despite the fact that he often wanted to. Back to the story. Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice back up to the world, but he had to NOT LOOK BACK, which of course, he does, and she disappears. When the gods tell you to do something, do it. That's the moral of that story.

Another story:

This one goes left to right. The quality isn't great, so I'll just describe it. This is a panel on a wedding chest, so it's the love story (not the sad bits) of Cupid and Psyche. On the left, Psyche is born and her two sisters hold her lovingly. Once humans start worshipping her more than Venus (see the suitors and the woman in white?), it's bad news for her and her parents, so they go to the temple of Apollo (background) and they are told to leave her on a hilltop (center) and she flies through the air and lands on the ground (follow the flying lady in white) where invisible servants take her to Cupid's palace, where she's told not to peek at her husband WHICH SHE DOES and all hell breaks loose. Do people not listen?? That's him, flying away on the far right. There's a happy ending, but not in this painting. On a wedding chest. Go figure.

Another easy one:

Hunter with arrows and dog stumbles upon bathing of the ladies has a moon on her head...yeah, that's the story of Artemis and Actaeon. Poor bastard came upon Artemis and her nymphs bathing in her secret grotto. Big no-no. She couldn't reach her bow to shoot him (her weapon of choice), so she splashes the spring water on him and he sprouts antlers, turns into a stag, and his dogs tear him to bits. Doh.

That's by Titian, incidentally.

Here's a more obscure story:

Check out the fingers. Yep - those are branches. Eros (hiding under the woman's dress because he knows he's in BIG trouble for starting this mess) made Apollo fall in love with Daphne, a nymph. You can tell that's Apollo because of his quiver and golden bow (and glowy head with a laurel wreath). Daphne was so horrified by Apollo that she ran away, shrieking for her father to help her out, and he rose out of the river (he was a river god) and turned her into a laurel tree. Now, I am always dubious when I teach this myth - how is being a tree better than being seduced by Apollo? As a parent, I give Peneus a break; he was protecting his children the best way he knew how.

Another story, left to right:

The kids nailed this one right away because of the labyrinth on the right, but the story starts on the far left with Ariadne meeting Theseus (with her sister, Phaedra). Moving to the right, Theseus takes her lovely string to the maze, goes in, kills the Minotaur, gets out, takes Ariadne away (the three figures walking back toward the center of the painting), and takes off for Naxos, where he sadly abandons Ariadne and she married Dionysus. There's also a ship with black sails in the background - Theseus had promised his father Aegeus that he would return with white sails if he survived the Minotaur, but Theseus got so excited he forgot to change the sails. His father thought Theseus had died, and he threw himself into the sea...which is why that sea is called the Agean Sea. Sweet story. 

On to one of my favorites...

Yeah. She's naked. Get over it. That's Leda. You can tell because she's having a moment with a swan - Zeus, actually - and there are babies coming out of eggs. Zeus wanted Leda, so he went to her in the form of a swan, she got pregnant and had egg-babies, two of which were Castor and Pollux. They are often portrayed with little skull cap hats to represent fragments of the eggs on their head. I know this because I looked it up last week. You never know when these sort of facts will come in handy.  

This next one's a classic, for so many reasons.

I thought this one would be the easiest myth to identify, but it took the kids a while. Maybe it was because the women are naked, maybe it was because they are, "a little chubby," as one girl put it, but either way, I had to really lead the younger kids through this one. I point them to the guy on the right. What do you notice? Shepherd staff, sheep, sheepdog. Sitting on Mt. Ida. Right. Paris. And the other guy? Winged cap, staff in his left hand - a caduceus, to be precise - and what is that thing in the shepherd's hand? Ah. An apple. I suppose it would have been an easier ID if the apple had said "To the Fairest" on it, but once you put the whole picture together, the story is clear. Three women. One with a peacock, one with an owl and a shield bearing the face of Medusa, and the one in the center stepping forward as if she's been selected (because she's that vain). Note the figure in the sky. That's Eris, companion to Ares, who just loves to stir things up. She's the goddess of strife, and she's the one who instigated this whole apple to the fairest scenario. This is The Judgment of Paris. And those chubby ladies? I call them Rubenesque, which is handy, as this painting is by Rubens. 

When we finished going over each painting, they begged for more, so I gave in and launched iPhoto on my computer. I found my album of photos from the Met's Greek and Roman collection, photos I had not really planned to use yet. I had a grand plan for them; last time I was there, I spent an hour taking photographs of gods and goddesses that might be identifiable by their stance, symbols, tools, clothing, and context, and they were supposed to get organized into a fancy-schmancy PowerPoint presentation. 

Oh well, whatever. I used to be OCD enough to care about this disorganization, but now...when my students plead for more, I can hardly complain about the frayed edges.

There are days I come home exhausted, ready to collapse on the couch, and then there are days like today. Days that propel me into the next day, and the next. 

And the next, which marks the start of February vacation. I plan to thank the gods by making an offering of the choices cuts of fat and meat in my backyard. 

But today? Today rocked. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education*

I had a lovely day in Tarrytown, NY yesterday. I was the keynote at a fundraiser put on by the Hackley School Parent's Association at the Tappan Hill Mansion, formerly owned by Mark Twain. He bought what was formerly known as the Hillcrest mansion for his daughter and lived there for two years at the end of his life. As I looked out over his view of the Hudson River, wishing I had thought to bring my white Twain suit and black bow tie*, I had one of those sappy gratitude moments. I get to meet some very nice people in some really cool places.

I also noted, as I gazed out on this awesome view, that if you figure inflation into the mix, Twain got a damn good deal for the mansion and its 19 acres when he paid $47,500.00 for it in 1902. The purchase amount was well under the asking price of $50k, which makes sense. He was heavily in debt to his buddy and occasional benefactor Henry H. Rogers (Standard Oil money) at the time, so he was feeling the economic squeeze. He even resorted to the notably un-cool move of contesting his taxes and successfully had his town assessment reduced. Among the "Tarrytown Millionaires," lofty tax assessments were a boasting point, so his request was notable - and perceived as odd - at the time. It was not the first time Twain was ID'd as a quirky guy, nor would it be the last.

But back to the point of my post. As promised, Hackley parents, here is the bibliography for the long version of the speech I gave yesterday, including all of the books and studies I specifically mentioned and lots more I would have mentioned given more time.

Thanks again, for inviting me!

Books referenced in my talk:

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I

Study: inflated praise makes children with low self-esteem feel worse.

Not referenced, but also very interesting:

James M. LangCheating Lessons: Learning from AcademicDishonesty (kids don’t cheat on tasks for which they are intrinsically motivated)

*This quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but there is also some controversy about the veracity of this attribution. You can read more about this debate here.
**People tend to picture Twain in his white suit, but this was not a daily get-up. According to some quick research I did before showing up at the Tappan Hill Mansion (what can I say, I like to cover my research bases in case there's an appropriate moment for a Twain joke), he wore the white suit at a 1906 congressional committee meeting about copyright. Notably, he wore it in photographs, so it came to be his "thing" just as people tend to picture Emily Dickinson in black even though she usually wore white. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why Children Want - and NEED - Risky Play

Peter Gray, Boston College professor and author of Free to Learn (a book that is well worth your time) is out there, day in and day out, lobbying for the freedom to play. To climb trees, leap from great heights, and yes, maybe even get hurt. To introduce you to Peter's work, here's a recent article of his, "Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It," a great piece that goes into the evolutionary biology of play and the "emotion regulation theory of play," from Psychology Today. If you like that one, here's an an index of his articles on play.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Talking About Books on the Today Show

I got to spend the morning on the Today Show set talking about some of my favorite picks for books that transcend gender. Embed code is not working for some reason, so here's the link to the segment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Logical Conclusion

I heard today that my brilliant, lovely, and generous editor, Eleanor Barkhorn, is leaving The Atlantic for I'm absolutely bummed but thrilled for her, as she's going to be fantastic wherever she goes. We'd been working on a piece together, something we'd been discussing for a long time, and it seems fitting that it went live today, on the day she made her announcement.

Thank you, Eleanor. You have made me a better writer, a more organized thinker, and I will miss working with you so very, very much.

Our most recent post, on why now is the perfect time to get rid of points-based letter grades, is here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Those That Understand

How do we know great teaching when we see it? If students can be sure of it in ten silent seconds of video, as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink, what do they see? What is that thing, that spark that resides at the heart of great teaching? Is it apparent the moment a teacher  first enters the classroom or does it take a lifetime to achieve? Can great teaching be taught, or is it part of a larger talent - for performing, for attracting, or for creating some intangible, magical tether with students that allows for the transfer of knowledge and enthusiasm?

I certainly don't have the answers to these questions, but I'm hoping that by interviewing a series of great teachers we can chip away at the superficial exterior and get at some answers. As our nation attempts to uncover teacher and school effectiveness with their blunt tools, I worry that the details we really need to bring to light will get obliterated in their clumsy hands and destroy the truths that lie underneath. 

The first interview in this series will appear next week, but I'd like to get this party started with an excerpt from a book you've likely never read, or even heard of. Getting to Noh is a self-published book, the story of how a good man became a great teacher. Its author, Don Cannon, now retired, was once my English teacher. He is a gifted educator, and the first person to show me what great teaching looks like. He was not interested the simple transfer of information, he craved honest exchange. He was as interested in us as we were captivated by him, and in him, many of us found a love of literature, a thirst for deeper, greater meaning in those books, and a bit of direction on our own paths toward....well, wherever they lead. 

Rather than put words into his mouth, I will share his, from the introduction of his book, Getting to Noh

What I loved about teaching was the difficulty of it. Nothing was tangible or predictable. What worked one day, fell flat the next. What made someone else a good teacher, in my hands became muddied. When one problem was solved, another was created. More than skills, the young people before me craved vision. They wanted me to tell them what I saw when I looked at them. They wanted to be free to laugh, and sometimes to cry. They wanted to share thoughts they believed no one else had ever had. They wanted to know it was all right to be confused and to have dreams that were unrealistic. They wanted to be told then they had gone too far, so that they could tell me that I was wrong and unfair. They wanted to know that they would be forgiven when they fell short of expectations. But, most of all, they wanted someone to believe in them.  

What I didn't know at the time, however, and which complicated things considerably, was that teaching for me was a selfish act. I worked tirelessly to serve my students. I prepared constantly, reread every text before coming into class, corrected and commented on papers well into the night. I revised my "lessons" yearly, sometimes daily, to find ways to stimulate their interest and excite their thinking. When I came into class, I had lists of questions that personally I was looking to answer. I had ideas and possibilities I wanted to test against my students' thinking. Yet I wasn't interested so much in their receiving my knowledge as in being given access to theirs.  

Whether in need of their approval, in fear of being unsuccessful, or simply being caught up in the power and intoxication of self-discovery, meaningful dialogue, and occasionally the trappings of thinking for its own sake. I was working more for me than for them. Their exuberance, their defiance, their lack of barriers, excited me. Their need for discipline, for encouragement, for recognition, mirrored my own. I labored under the basic premise that anything is possible, that intelligence is universal, that change is a necessary fact of life. I longed to see them define their fate, invent themselves, imagine new possibilities, because it gave me faith that I could do so as well. At my best, I overcame my own needs and simply concentrated on satisfying theirs, but those moments were rare and all the more precious as a result.  

Teaching is a symbiotic exercise much like play, a vital exchange of energy and creative potential that can be grounded in rote or repetition (which has its place), but ultimately is realized in moments that feel timeless, the product of effortless grace. For me, all disciplines of any worth are like this, inherently interesting and full of unexpected wonder, whether they be sports like basketball, soccer, or even golf, or work like carpentry, planting a garden, or painting a house. All tasks have meaning and purpose if we are open to them. At my best, I helped my students understand that fact. Frustration, anxiety, and failure are part of the process. We must learn to embrace the pain of life. Whether learning a skill or creating a Self, we are ennobled by trials and surprised by their results. 

And with Don Cannon's sage words, I welcome you to "Those That Understand." Sign up for the posts over there on the right-hand side of the screen and I'll see you back here next week with my first guest, one of the most naturally talented educators I've ever seen.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

Uniquely Portable Magic

I got so many nice responses to the bibliography I put up for reference after a keynote I gave in Chicago, lots of sentiments such as "I love knowing what other people are reading!" so I thought I'd extend the thread. Now that I can read again (no concussion symptoms for a MONTH!) I'm going in big. Here's what I'm reading this week, starting at the top:

1. Dan Ariely's The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves. (Harper) I found out about this book via James Lang, who wrote another book on honesty, Cheating Lessons. I wrote about that book for the Atlantic, and figured I'd go back to the source, as Lang is a big fan of Ariely. So far, it's fascinating. I'm about halfway through, and I particularly liked chapter two, "Fun With the Fudge Factor." Great book.

2. Amy Sutherland's Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers. (Penguin) I'm a voracious reader of nonfiction, particularly life experience/adventure nonfiction, so I was shocked when I heard about this book at Dan Jones' reading for Love Illuminated at the Brookline Booksmith and realized I had not read it. I purchased it that night and have been devouring it. Amy heads off to Moorpark Exotic Animal Training and Management Program and, of course, a book results. She wrote about her experiences using some of these training techniques on her husband for Dan's New York Times column, Modern Love, and got a book deal out of that, which resulted in What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People From Animals and Their Trainers. Both books are a blast. I'm loving them. And, of course, now I want to enroll in Moorpark.

3. Melissa Atkins Wardy's Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. (Chicago Review Press) I have to admit to a reading bias here: I tend to read books about boys more often than I read about girls. I have two boys, my house is saturated with testosterone, and I've never been a very girly girl myself. That said, I really enjoyed Melissa's book. It gives practical advice about how to avoid inadvertently stereotyping or sexualizing girls. Melissa has some great ideas, and a perspective I don't think about much at home, but certainly have to pay attention to in the classroom (and there's a specific section for teachers). I've even shared some of her thoughts with my older son, in an attempt to get him attuned to the issues girls face, and how men should think about girls and women. I interviewed Melissa for my Atlantic piece on baby talk and upspeak, and her insights were invaluable. If you have a girl, or are a teacher, you should absolutely read this book.

4. Nathalia Holt's Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science. (Dutton) Nathalia and I share an agent (the fabulous Laurie Abkemeier, but I found out about this book through my husband, Tim Lahey, an HIV physician and writer. A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, I was an HIV researcher with Duke University and the CDC, so this is the one medical topic I can actually wrap my brain around and sink in with some comfort. Not that I needed the background knowledge; Nathalia does a fantastic job of clarifying and summarizing some really challenging material for a lay audience. I highly recommend this book if you are a fan of science writing (me! me!) and want to understand where things stand regarding HIV medicine and our pursuit of a cure.

NB: The title comes from Stephen King's On Writing, one of my very books in the world. In it, he writes, "Books are a uniquely portable magic."