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Home  >  Reading and Writing  >  Inspiring Readers
Excerpts From a High School English Teacher's Diary
By Joann Congdon

8/16/00
Joann Congdon

Was told, "Don't teach anything that can be understood the first time it's read." Students'll love that. I can hear the whines now, especially with Oedipus the King and its declamatory dramatic style. Maybe if I teach the book of Job at the same time, they'll explore the issues of pride and suffering with more verve.

Glad I ordered plaster bandages for masks [the Greeks used masks in their plays'. Heard they're somewhere in the building -- now to find them.

8/25/00

They made their plaster masks today (a biology teacher found the bandages); no one refused to smear his neighbor's face with Vaseline and spread strips of bandage over it. The classroom looked like a Red Cross emergency station while the masks dried on their faces. I kept asking if they could breathe -- much humor/sarcasm expressed by students who couldn't even move their mouths. Only a few went to sleep. As we shared scissors, plastic wrap, and dipped strips of bandage in Tupperware bowls of water, I got to hear who went biking last weekend and who was climbing Flat Top next. Squeals as water dripped in ears.

Masked Student

They took the masks home to decorate.

Open House coming -- must get something on the walls.

Got Vaseline on my new suit -- hope Bob's auto grease remover gets it off.

8/28/00

Arranged chairs in a circle for sharing masks. The outsides were decorated with objects/symbols/pictures of how they believe others see them, and the insides with how they see themselves. They each described the meanings of the things on the outsides of the masks, and about half mentioned the insides.

One athlete had covered the outside with parts of an actual basketball because she loves the sport, along with words cut out of magazines saying "fun," "happy," "emotional," and "individual." On the inside, she had "God," "run don't whine," "sister," and "smart".

Another mask was painted bright orange with sunglasses, a toy car, chewing gum, a dollar bill, and a calculator attached to it. On the inside was a "Far Side" comic of a string quartet playing in the woods while a raccoon hunted frogs, the background music indicating to the raccoon that he was safe from the unseen mountain lion, and a picture of a bunch of girls mobbing a guy. Ooo-kay.

Joann helps with a mask
A new student had half the outside black and half white, saying no one here knew him, yet. On the inside were the words "loner," "saved," "honorable," "quiet," and "sadness."

They made themselves vulnerable. No one had the inside all black this year. Only three didn't do the insides.

Got some of the Vaseline off my suit jacket -- will try a second application of the cleaner.

Three-night school retreat begins tomorrow. Must remember to pack earplugs.

9/5/00

Back from the retreat -- hope they haven't forgotten what we've begun.

Masked students in class

Oddly, them seeing me at the retreat in my old sun hat and big sunglasses which go over my glasses made them much more chatty with me, asking me silly questions about how old I was when I was first kissed, and telling me what they hated to eat or describing with fresh, vivid details all of their injuries. Happy I'm getting to know them, though I don't find my hat that remarkable. One asked if I was wearing a costume.

9/6/00

I used clothespins to hang their marvelous masks on a cord along the wall -- perfect for open house. Also a visual reminder of a unit theme that the inside is not the same as the outside: Things are not what they seem.

Students got the implication of the repetition of the first person singular pronoun in Oedipus' opening speech. Then they argued about Kreon's reasons why he wouldn't plot against Oedipus. One girl called Oedipus "tight" for losing his temper at Kreon. Another student said if he were Kreon, he'd have asked Oedipus to "step." Must pray for that student.

I suggested that the blind man in the film The Matrix in the room outside of the Oracle is an allusion to Teiresias in Oedipus.

They looked at me, incredulous: Something from ancient Greece in a popular film?

Yep.

"But what about all the Christian symbols in The Matrix?" they asked.

"The Matrix," I answered, "is postmodern. And Athens is still exerting influence."

Then I drew the lines on the board in the shape of a horizontal hypodermic needle indicating how western literature is a merging of Athens and Jerusalem at about the time of Constantine.

Back to the murder mystery in Oedipus.

9/11/00

Handed out the drawing of Mt. Kithairon, and we reviewed Oedipus' journey of self-knowledge as he learns who he is. Then, referring back to their tremendous masks, I asked them to write incidents on the slopes of the mountain about times when they'd gained self-knowledge.

Lots of, "What do you mean?"

So I told them how I came to realize I really wanted to teach teens. They smiled at that, then sighed and got to work.

9/12/00

Began Job. With Oedipus engaged in the process of self-discovery and resistance to the truth, I wanted them to see how Job's well-meaning, self-righteous friends resisted the truth.

Right off students asked, "What's Satan doing up in heaven?"

"Ask your parents and pastor that one," I answered.

"Had Job's kids who died sinned?"

"We don't know."

"But it's not fair."

"No."

They labeled Eliphaz the Temanite "The Termite." And those who've often visited the office of the Vice Principal of Discipline particularly identified with Job's feelings when being accused of sin.

Masks drying

One girl wrote in her journal on Job 5:6-8, "These words are true, but not in this context." She's got it. She's understanding the mistake Job's friends made. That we make.

9/13/00

A student pointed out Job 6:21 wherein Job says to Eliphaz (will I ever again be able to read that name and not think "termite"?), "and you, too, are afraid," that Eliphaz must accuse Job of great sin, because if Job didn't do great sin, then what happened to Job could happen to Eliphaz.

Wow. Perceptive insight.

Got all the Vaseline off my jacket. Memo: wear denim next year when doing masks.

9/14/00

I asked, "How does Job answer Bildad differently from Eliphaz?"

"To the Termite, Job says, ‘You are all miserable comforters'" (16:1).

"Good. And to Bildad?"

Silence.

"What is Bildad's reason for assuming Job has committed great sin?"

They jumped on that with, "You mean, ‘what his fathers told him'?" (8:8)

"Tradition, like that's what everyone says."

"Yeah, how they've always done things."

Then I asked, "What kind of reasoning is that?"

"Like, he's refusing to think for himself?"

"Good," I agreed. "Pride is the refusal to see what is. So how does Job respond to him?"

One student said, "Job talks about how God is ‘way off there in the heavens'."

Another said, "Job wishes he were dead."

I nodded. "That's right, and we get his light/dark metaphors. What else?"

"He says he's crushed with their words."

A student in the back added, "I know how that feels."

His buddy asked, "Why are these guys called ‘friends'?"

"And?" I asked.

"Wait, that stuff about -- here it is, ‘For I know that my Redeemer lives ... then, out of my flesh I shall see God'" (19:25).

"Great!" I answered. "So to the guy who says we know this because our fathers said so, Job answers?"

"He, you know, like, says what he believes, that he believes in God."

I nodded. "And our theme about things not being what they seem, about the refusal to see what is?"

"Just because we've done it that way a long time doesn't mean it's God's will."

"You guys are brilliant!"

"Does that apply to curfew?"

I moved on. "Is Job in any way like Galileo when he discovered the earth revolves around the sun rather than the reverse, and the Church put him under house arrest?"

"Yeah," they nodded.

9/15/00

Back to Oedipus.

After they quieted down all their gagging noises over Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus' blinding of himself with her brooches, I asked, "Why did Oedipus choose a punishment greater than that the gods decreed?"

"His pride?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Like, since he'd been the greatest ruler, now he'd be the greatest sufferer?"

Cries of, "Sick!"

One student observed, "Even at the end, Oedipus yells at Kreon."

"Like I said, Kreon should have asked Oedipus to step," the student in the back added.

I asked, "Where'd Oedipus get his pride?"

"You mean, how his parents defied Apollo and tried to kill him?"

"Yeah, failure to submit to the deity."

"Is what the Greeks did, leaving babies they didn't want on the mountain to die, their form of abortion?"

I nodded. "How else was Athens like the U.S.?"

They chorused, "The greatest nation."

"Affluent."

"Educated."

"Stuck on themselves."

"Thought they didn't have to do what God said."

"You guys are brilliant." And I added, "So what did their most famous playwright tell them?"

"Like, wake up to your pride or you're going to crash and burn."

"Yes. The Greeks also celebrated Oedipus' courage and the self-knowledge which he gained from his suffering. The name "Apollo" means sun or light and connotes those moments of self-discovery. So back to our theme of things are not what they seem. What films have had the same themes?"

"Wag the Dog."

"The Spanish Prisoner."

"The Matrix."

They get it.

9/18/00

They liked Elihu in Job.

One said, "He's the youngest, yet he sees that none of them could answer Job's arguments, even though the friends, so-called, blamed Job."

I could not resist pointing out, "And Elihu waited until they were done speaking -- he didn't interrupt."

They ignored that, but said, "It's the youngest who says, "... to make him give up his pride" (33:17).

"Yeah," another agreed, "the youngest gets it."

"Plus God doesn't say that he's angry at Elihu, like He is at the others."

I asked, "So what groups does God not condemn in Job?"

"You mean, like, teens?"

"And what about those who are suffering?" a girl added.

I nodded. "Did anyone find a feminist statement?"

Silence.

"Skim the last chapter."

Groans from the guys: "You mean because his daughters inherited with their brothers?"

"And," I asked, "what's the translation of his youngest daughter's name?"

Silence.

"Horn of eye-paint," I announced, and grinned.

More groans. They didn't think that was nearly as funny as I did.

9/19/00

"What is Job's self-discovery, his moment of light?" I asked.

Silence.

"What about when he repents? What's going on there? What does he repent of?"

Silence.

"What does the Bible say in chapter 42?"

A girl raised her hand: "I have it. Job says, ‘I then have expressed what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me ... Heretofore I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now My eye sees Thee: wherefore I retract and repent in dust and ashes.'"

"Good," I commented. "And our theme?"

"The ability to see what is. Job finally sees what is."

"Yes," I said. "And what is the error Job's friends made?"

"They didn't speak the truth about God."

"They didn't see what is."

"Why?" I asked.

"They were afraid?"

"They were proud."

"They wanted to feel in control."

"Have I told you guys that you're a dream class? You're brilliant."

9/20/00

Their projects blew me away. They found ‘way more ways to compare and contrast Job and Oedipus than I'd ever thought of. They pulled data from all kinds of reference books and commentaries. I didn't know the ashes Job sat in indicated a garbage dump.

Now, we head into the Dark Ages, armed with what we've learned from Oedipus and Job about light.


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About the Author: Joann Congdon teaches at Grace Christian School in Anchorage. She was recognized for her inspired teaching with a Community Recognition for Educational and Teaching Excellence Award by Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom.
 

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