Some years ago a man I respect, whom I was telling about my Teacher's Daybook, asked if I "ate my own dog food." "Excuse me?" I asked with some confusion. "Do you use it yourself?" he wanted to know. I assured him I did.
This brief encounter stayed with me and challenges me to ask that same question at times of my other books, methods, or even my daily lessons. Of course it is nearly impossible to do all our own homework--i.e., what we ask the kids themselves to do--and yet it's worth it sometimes to "eat [our] own dog food."
Why? Because it helps us better understand what we are trying to accomplish and what we are asking our students to do. Tonight, for example, my AP seniors had to write two different introductions for an essay in which they are supposed to define what literature is and how it is, if they believe it to be, different from mere stories or other writing. You can see the whole assignment here on our class wiki if you wish.
Anyway, I just did the homework--which I admit I found an interesting challenge--and will share here by way of going public with this moment of my own teaching. I should add that I know there are flaws, even errors; these are points I will make to the kids in the morning about drafting, thank you very much.
Admittedly, I got carried away: They had to write two versions; I wrote three.
Mr. Burke’s Three Attempted Draft Introductions
Literature is a religion we no longer believe in, a faith we no longer practice. It is a set of questions we stopped asking long ago, trading in the deeper truths of poetry for the profits of finance. We exchanged one set of truths for another we told ourselves mattered more, only to discover—in the ecstasy of love, the dark waters of sorrow and loss—that these stories offered us mirrors and windows when all else offered only facts that never somehow amounted to the richer lives we told ourselves we would lead and live. Yet as the poet William Carlos Williams said, "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” For what is literature made of if not our lives? And what else does it offer us if not some means by which we can not only better live but also understand this life—and ourselves?
One day your son will leave, walking into the sunset, never looking back, his anger radiating its accursed judgment on you as he vanishes. Or you will find the person you love most unable to recognize you or speak your name, their eyes like unwashed windows looking out on a world they do not know. Perhaps it will be otherwise: You will find yourself so pregnant with love you cannot speak its name for the lack of language. Or you watch your own story unfolding before you, each day a chapter that traces your ascension and describes the arc of your happiness, leaving you as you reach for sleep restless for some way to understand and capture what is happening to you. Whatever it is you are feeling—loss or love, grief or greatness, pain or pride—it is not entertainment you seek but understanding, consolation and comprehension, not contentment. Thus it is to literature we turn, seeking in its words a way to know who we are and whom we might be in the story we find ourselves living.
When Charles Hill advised President Reagan throughout the Cold War years, it was not to legislation but literature that he turned, finding in the great works of literature those insights about the human condition that would guide him, and thus the President, in “matters of high politics, statecraft, and grand strategy” (4). It is through the careful and lifelong study of literature—by which we mean here not only fiction but also such seminal works as The Prince and Herodotus’s Histories, as well as the more predictable works of Shakespeare, Dante, and, from the sciences, Darwin—that we see how “literature informs leaders whose actions may later become the stuff of literature” (Hill 8). Here then we will examine the idea that literature offers not just entertainment or even enlightenment, but a useful guide by which one might not only steer the ship of state but understand and triumph over those obstacles it encounters along the way.
In case anyone feels inclined to say that I would do for my AP classes what I would not for my other, CP classes, here are the two versions I wrote last night for their essay which is a descriptive essay about food (see that class's wiki for more info):
The trees were as old as Jesus, older even if you consider they were planted in the time of Caesar. Against the pale sky of late October, the ancient branches of the olive trees looked arthritic, their darkening fruit punctuating the foliage. All about dirt streets of El Alia, a small town in Tunisia, the people hurried to gather up the olives from their trees—every house seemed to have at least one tree no matter how small, how poor—so they could get their olives into the press before the others. Old women and young girls, who had taken the day off from school to help with the harvest, carried loads of olives in their sagging aprons or worn guffas, a woven bag everyone used to carry their food. The air of the village was ripe with song as each family worked its trees or carried the small hard olives to the mill house where they piled them up like gems in the yard, writing their family name on small pieces of cardboard they would anchor down with the olives.
Our food in America is so rich in fake, processed chemicals it would make more sense to describe it as just that: chemicals. We live so far from the land we forget that our food began as a living organism, some chicken plucking its way around the yard or a carrot slowly gathering into itself before pushing up out of the ground. Along with an sense of taste—when was the last time you actually ate a tomato that tastes like a tomato?—we have lost our appreciation for the smell and texture of real food, accepting instead food that all seems to smell and taste the same despite the visual differences. It was not always this way, however. Nor is it even this way today in other parts of the world. In Tunisia, for example, where I lived for several years, the food was always natural, coming from the fields around you or the trees you used for shade, trees that were planted by the Romans thousands of years ago but still yielded olives today every fall.
Okay, that's more than enough. Back to work for tomorrow's classes...