Over the last three or four months, I’ve been presenting portraits of people thinking – teachers and students mostly, but laborers and a surgeon too – with the intention of demonstrating the richness and variability of cognition.
I’ve done this because there are so few examples of people actually using their minds in contemporary educational policy literature or in media treatments of schooling. We don’t get inside classrooms very much, and rarely see good teachers at work or students thinking things through. This absence is not accidental. To talk about learning (not “learning outcomes,” but learning) or pedagogy in many policy arenas is to be seen as soft, off-topic, beside the point. As for media, learning and pedagogy don’t fit typical media story lines about education: educational politics, funding, or the human interest portrait. We live amid constant talk about education with minimal attention paid to the experience of being educated. It’s telling how many of the readers’ responses to the portraits have addressed this experience. I think a lot of us are hungry for such talk. In my next entry, I will focus on readers’ comments over the last few months.
Now, let’s spend some time with Steve Gilbert, a wonderful teacher I wrote about in Possible Lives, from which this portrait is drawn.
The last portrait I presented of teaching was of the two teachers in an ungraded primary (June 11, 2009). Here we go to the other end of the K-12 pipeline, an Advanced Placement English course in Chicago.
I am especially taken with this teacher’s skill in forwarding inquiry, in pushing thinking, and his admirable ability to be rigorous and supportive at the same time. He listens closely and uses what a student says to frame the next question that will nudge the discussion along. As he does so, he creates the conditions for students to be intellectually adventurous, to wade into uncertainty, and to risk being wrong. This risk-taking is something that sadly has been schooled out of many honors students.
So let’s listen in as Steve Gilbert and his students think their way through William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I’ll begin by briefly setting the context and summarizing the book, then I’ll let the discussion unfold.
I apologize for the length, but I don’t know how else to give you a sense of how Steve and his students work with this difficult novel.
Before I arrived, the class had read Fathers and Children and Brave New World, two books with an omniscient narrator and traditional narrative structure. As I Lay Dying provided a radical jolt. It was published in 1930, drafted, Faulkner claimed, in six weeks while he worked nights at the University of Mississippi power plant, written, when the furnaces permitted, on the bottom of an overturned wheelbarrow.
The novel consists of fifty-nine vignettes told by fifteen characters, most of them poor rural Southern Whites, some of whom speak in a direct and uncomplicated manner—though in regional dialect—while others speak in a mix of direct address, recollection, reverie, and stream-of-consciousness.
The story is this—though it by no means emerges this readily. Addie Bundren is dying and has asked her husband, Anse, to bury her in Jefferson, her place of birth, some forty miles away. She has asked that her oldest son, Cash, a carpenter, build her a proper coffin, and that he build it outside her window, in her line of sight, so that she can be sure of its quality.
Once Addies dies, the journey to Jefferson begins—Addie’s coffin resting unsteadily in the Bundren’s old wagon—only to be disrupted by a washed-out bridge, where the coffin is almost lost, and a barn fire that nearly incinerates it. The journey provides multiple revelations (and takes so long that Addie’s body begins to decompose), and by the time the family reaches the graveyard, we realize that many of the family had their own private motives for accompanying Addie to Jefferson.
Addie has five children, Cash, the carpenter, takes a craftsmen’s pride in building his mother’s coffin, and is compassionate in a reserved, literal-minded way. Trying to save the coffin in the flooding river en route to Jefferson, he breaks his leg, and, with bones held roughly in place by a makeshift and mutilating cement cast, rattles along in silent pain atop the box he has built for his mother.
Darl is keenly observant and introspective. Though he and Cash share some feelings, we gradually discover that two of the three siblings, Jewel and Dewey Dell, hate him. He is the most frequent speaker, and, at times, seems to be telepathic, becoming almost a central narrator. At the end, however, he is declared insane for torching the barn in which is mother’s body was temporarily stored.
Jewel, the third son, is physical and harsh, but in truth is fiercely devoted to his mother and speaks of her in a language of violence and protection. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, about seventeen, describes things in a sensual and enticing way, but is not wordly wise and is secretly pregnant. Vardaman, a child, is retarded and prone to simplified and confused associations. Fearing his mother is suffocating in the coffin, he drills holes in the top and into his dead mother’s face. Because Addie died on the same day he caught and killed a huge fish, he gradually comes to believe—in a moment that sent Steve’s class over the top—that “my mother is a fish.”
“I like,” Qisha was saying, “the way people aren’t what they seem to be.”
“Can you give us an example?” Steve asked.
“You take Darl,” Qisha continued. “He seems to be the only one who has a lot to say, and we kind of come to rely on him, and then he’s declared insane!”
“Qisha,” Steve said, “given the point you’re making, this would be a good time to return to something you said earlier. You said that As I Lay Dying was not like a traditional narrative, was more like real life. Can you say more about that?”
“Well,” she answered, “there isn’t somebody in your life telling you what to think, someone to organize what you see, what you hear. And, like that, this book just gives you pieces of thought.”
Steve glanced from Qisha to the rest of the class, panning the circle. “One thing we do all the time,” he said, “is tell each other stories. We organize experience into narratives. So if we don’t have a single story, if we have a series of stories, how do we determine truth?”
Ayana, quiet up till then, looked over at Steve, touching her glasses. “We compare the stories, try to determine accuracy that way.”
“OK,” said Steve. “Let’s find a good example.” And he began flipping through his copy of the novel—which was heavily annotated—and read contradictory selections from Darl, from Cora, a sanctimonious neighbor, and from Jewel himself on the topic of Jewel’s feelings for his mother. “Now,” said Steve, “how do we come to the truth about Jewel?”
“What Cora says, that’s just heresay,” Anyana continued. “She’s a busybody. But Darl, he was there.”
“Was he?” asked Steve. “Or are we getting his perception?”
Ayana pondered that. “No, actually, he sees Jewel through is eyes—and he has a funny relationship with Jewel.”
Steve came to class knowing that, at some point in the day, he would go to the board and ask the class to list all the things they thought they knew, the events they felt sure of. And at that moment, when Ayana was pushing on the provisional nature of so much in the novel, he uncurled himself from the desk and palmed a piece of chalk.
“Let’s make a list of what we think we know,” he said, turning to the board to become the students’ scribe.
“Well,” said Brian, “we know Addie died.” Steve wrote “Addie died.” “Dewey Dell is pregnant,” ventured Tequia, speaking for the first time.
“They’re taking Addie to Jefferson to bury her,” Raina said. But, as Steve was writing, Qisha interjected: “Wait, isn’t that a difficult question—I mean, what do you mean, ‘What we know?’ Do you mean what people tell us or what we finally think happened? I mean, people have different reasons for taking Addie to Jefferson—so what each one would know is different.”
“Absolutely right,” said Steve, appreciating Qisha’s tough-mindedness. “Good point. So maybe the best we can do is continue this list provisionally, listing what we think we know.” The class continued: Addie’s body is decomposing; Cash breaks his leg; Addie’s body has holes in it; Darl sets fire to the barn. Steve was keeping a watchful eye on the clock, and just before the bell, he held up his hand, palm outward, and said, “OK, nice going, class. I’d like us to test these ‘knowings’ over the next two weeks.”
And as the bell rang and everyone was wedging books into stuffed backpacks, Brian laughed and asked, “Yeah, but does anyone know why Darl set the barn on fire?”
Fast-forward a few class meetings.
Steve began by asking for someone to “indicate what he or she thinks a central theme might be.”
Brian: “Truths are subjective.”
Steve: “OK, how would you support that theme?”
Brian took a moment, started to page through the book, looked up, and laughed. “Ah, let me get back to you on that.”
Ayana: “How about the fact that Darl and Anse give us different versions of certain events?”
Qisha: “Also, there’s the different reasons they’re going to Jefferson.”
Steve: “Fine. Now let me ask you this. Is there a better way to summarize those examples than saying ‘Truths are subjective?’”
Alastair: “Everyone has their own version of truth.”
Brain: “People perceive reality differently.”
Steve: “OK, not bad. Let’s come back to that. Any other themes?”
Alastair: “It strikes me how religion is depicted in the book. I mean, there’s Addie and the minister; when Cash broke his leg the first time, he fell off a church; some of the townspeople talk piously but are hypocritical.”
Steve: “That sounds promising. There’s also Addie’s belief about deception…”
Alastair: “I’m not sure that’s religious.”
Steve: “All right, good point. Ethics, maybe. Can anyone see a theme developing?”
Alastair: “Some of the people who act religious aren’t religious at all.”
Steve noticed that Tequia wanted to speak. He also knew she was a religious person. “Tequia” he said, “I want to bring you into this discussion. Any thoughts?”
Tequia: “Well, Cash is faithful to carpentry.”
Steve: “What’s he say about carpentry?”
Ayana: “Regardless of the materials you have, you should do it well.”
Tequia: “It’s a kind of philosophy.”
Steve: “Who is the most famous carpenter we know?”
Tequia: “Some of the other characters don’t realize it, but for Cash, carpentry might be a kind of religion.”
Steve: “So different characters might express religious feelings in different ways? Fine. Other themes, people?”
Qisha: “How about ‘Blood relatives don’t guarantee love.’”
Aisha: “There might be a simpler way to say that.”
Steve: “Give it a try, Aisha.”’
Aisha: “I’m not good at this.”
Steve: “That’s OK; try it.”
Aisha: “Love is tainted by obligation?”
Steve: “That’s very interesting. Can you say more?”
Aisha: [pausing, looking for words] “All the characters in the novel seem to classify their love…uh…I don’t know.”
Steve: “I think you’re on to something.”
Qisha: “That there is no simple way to define love or emotion in general…I mean, usually you can only do certain things that will be thought of as love.”
Steve: “Going back to Aisha’s word classify—is it easy to classify or categorize the emotions in this novel?”
Qisha, Brian, Aisha, Raina: “No.”
Steve: [looking at Brian] “Remember you were talking about truth being subjective?”
Steve: “Well, another way to talk about that might be to say that there aren’t easy slots or categories for truth or, for that fact, for emotions. Some of the characters may feel and express something that could generally be called love, but it wouldn’t fit traditional definitions of love. It’s a wide spectrum.”
Qisha: “It’s as though emotions between family members don’t follow guidelines.”
Steve: “OK, but push yourself, Qisha—‘guidelines’ is not the best word there.”
Chris: “How about ‘Emotions can be defined with different vocabularies?’”
Steve: “That’s promising. How about what Brian was working with?”
Brian: “Appearance is not really reality?”
Aisha: “This is really clichéd, but, ‘Nothing is the way it seems.’”
Steve: “What’s wrong with that?”
Aisha: “It’s too broad, I think.”
Tequia: “Maybe ‘It’s impossible to know other people’s reality.’”
Chris: “It’s impossible to know the entire truth about someone’s life.”
Steve: “I think we’re developing some major themes, and they all seem to deal with the subjectivity of knowing, of truth, with appearance versus reality…That was wonderful.” [Turning to me] “Wasn’t that just wonderful?”
And the bell rang.