WIHWT: Octavian Nothing


This Wish I Had Written That is a novel I’m about 65% through: Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson.

Did you ever buy a book, tried to engage, and then put it down? This is one such novel: I’ve had it for years (6 years? 8 years?) on my nightstand, and somehow it shimmied back up to the surface, and yes, the timing is perfect.

The narrative flawlessly stitches together constructs from the pre-Revolutionary period: from the Age of Enlightenment to the burgeoning economic and social demands of the Colonies to England. The mythic narrative told to me while I was in high school included a one-direction, one perspective: England/King = Crazy: Patriots=Good and Righteous. They lost. We win, and then sing a song with a weird F sharp. (But modern singers get over this hurdle with their flourishes and trills.) Women and slaves are not represented, except by the odd, racist background chorus of servants, and the token Betsy Ross or Dolly Madison mention.

This novel made me research: willingly and joyfully. There is much mentioned where my background and knowledge is lacking. Does everything come at a cost? Every piece of enlightenment that betrays humanity, is that the price?  Making the connections between when England began its emancipation process and abolition, and concurrently as the suspicions and fear of the Colonists grew over the slaves in their midst, it stands to reason that the U.S. would never willingly give up control over other human beings, and created a legacy we may never shake, and perhaps nor should we.

“…boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation. “Animum rege, qui nisi paret, imperat,” quoth the poet Horace. “Rule thy passion, for unless it obeys, it rules you.” I ask the Lord God Jehovah for strength to forgive. Whatever I have felt about those men, I have much to thank them for. They lavished luxuries upon me. They supported my every interest and encouraged my curiosity. They instructed me in the Christian religion. They taught me the tongues of the Greeks and the Romans and opened for me the colonnaded vistas of those long-forgotten empires, in this, the dawning of a new empire. They schooled me in music, which is my greatest delight. These are not little things.

I do not believe they ever meant unkindness.”

Anderson, M. T. (2011-01-25). The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (p. 13). Candlewick Press. Kindle Edition.

There is disturbing irony in this idea, of not intending harm.

This has my full attention now, in between grading, preparing for conferences, and relatives coming over to our broken-down house for Thanksgiving. But I am grateful for my home, and for my family, and those who strive for peace and equity.

The novel may be too much for my seventh-grade students. The voice is 18th Century Enlightened Man With Classical Education, a voice in a modern work I’ve never been exposed to  until now. But this isn’t just any Enlightened Man, it’s Octavian.

Thank you for voices as of yet unheard.

The Inflationary Defeat of Skittles.

2002 versus 1979

From Bureau of Labor and Statistics

This year for my elective class (cause yo-ho-yo-ho the teacher’s life for me!) is Computer Skills I. It’s a .5 high school credit class, and overall I was pretty excited about it. Me!? COMPUTERS! Bring it! A lot of it is prescribed, and that’s all right. There are certain tech skills many students are not only uncomfortable with, but disdainful of as well. One of the skills includes familiarity with Excel. All right, then, being all about the “real world” and authentic experiences, I thought I would go to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and have the students use real data, possibly about wage gaps, earning potential based on education, etc. That’ll show them! Look! STAY IN SCHOOL and The More You Know and all that.

And what did I see? 

The lies of Wall Street, Ayn Rand, and politicians who would maintain control of our citizens via institutionalized poverty.

You’re not seeing that yet? Look closer: In 1979, with less than a high school diploma, a man could make $578/week on average. Not great, certainly. However, in 2002 that same individual would make $421. So, I talk a student into not dropping out of school. Fantastic. Now I can promise him stagnant wages, and hefty student loans. Seems fair, right? And his job will most likely be in the creative class, like myself and my husband, who works, and always has, being a computer guru. What does his guru-ship get him? Ageist, capricious Gates-Jobs-Zuckerberg wannabes who are proud, and yes, boast, of being ‘slow to hire, quick to fire.’ Yes, he’s heard start-up owners say this in staff meetings after firings, said with pride and self-ascribed wit.

Yes, that’s funny. 

Consider a new house in 1979 cost $58,500. It is conceivable that with college degree the major income earner in the household could afford a home, and provide for his family. And this isn’t beginning to discuss the gender income gap.  In 2009, a new house may cost $232,800. Sigh. Wonder how that average faired when the housing bomb fiasco really sunk in?

Forty years ago you could walk into a factory and work a living wage. People thought that was horrible. We watched commercials to “Look for the Union Label,” and politicians heaped scorn and dismantled unions.

A choice: do I cover this up, dust it under the rug, and have students do Excel spreadsheets on the colors of Skittles in a bag, or music popularity polls? Can I in good conscience continue to promote education, being a critical thinker, voting when they turn 18, etc. if it’s all for naught? If their hard work and grit gets them nothing but stagnant or dealing values for their hard-earned dollar? And what about me? I can’t survive in a modest, worn-down home, pay a car payment, or save for retirement on my salary. And I am getting older, and closer to potential disaster. Trust me, I am well aware my bullet-proof fugue is lifted.

It’s more important than ever.

No more hiding behind vague standards, or skills, but include and underscore content area. Inform students about economics. Inform students about how to read political platforms, get involved, and make their voices heard.

Admittedly, I’m a little tired of “we’re teaching students things that won’t even be jobs…” rhetoric. It really, truly is okay to teach handwriting. And making. And growing. And doing. Get out of a chair. Consider how do things WORK? How are they made? What can and should a human do versus a robot? What gives young people hope and purpose? 

We constantly lament about how young people are disenfranchised, and we allowed it to happen. We allowed the back-end deals, and the trade agreements, and now the shared-economy that allows for one singular owner to earn hefty profits based on the cost burdens of people desperate to earn a little extra money with their cars, homes, and talents. Yes, I do see Uber as being a new-age form of feudalism. But I also know a young millennial who doesn’t drive, nor has any interest to, and I may be using those services. How can I “make” someone learn to drive when the road is full of texting dangerous drivers? Okay: I meandered a bit here, but to clarify -it just seems like we’re subletting our own lives. We are giving others our power and mobility, literally, and not directing our own course, and not paying attention to the real and abstract costs.

So maybe that’s what it comes down to. We pay for what we want to protect, even if it’s false. We spend $80 BILLION on prisons, because apparently we don’t know what to do with our human resources. 

Meanwhile my millennial has another tuition payment due soon, and because of job insecurities not sure how we’re going to pay it. We usually seem to find a way, but to say it’s stressful is an understatement. It’s not cute, or quaint, this Norman Rockwell construct of ‘off to college for a better future.’

breaking home ties

I almost want to tell the kid to stay on the farm and grow organic, GMO-free quinoa to sell to Whole Foods. Get back in the truck, dude.

So: what’s next? Economics 101? How domoney, budgets, and the government work? Yup. Think that’s about it.

The Myth of Working Your Way Through College

Department of Labor and Statistics: http://www.bls.gov

The Rise of the Creative Class*

*For the record: I hate the subhead of this article written in 2002



Fair is fair.

Mrs. Love's Big Themes of How the World Works Exploration
Mrs. Love’s Big Themes of How the World Works Exploration

Did you ever think to yourself, “Just what are those OTHER teachers doing?”

Yes you have. Be honest.

Say you’re a language arts or math teacher, two of the most scrutinized, analyzed, dissected, and “held accountable” of all the content areas–did you ever wonder how your students are ‘being supported’ in other classrooms, or are the other teachers basking in the glory and luxury of simply teaching their content areas, bohemian in freedom and reaching the teacher-movie trope levels of ‘student engagement?

Well, let’s flip that question around. What are you doing to support the other classes? In social studies, are you providing economics lessons and true costs for raising a family, or the war on the middle class, to support Family and Consumer Sciences? Are you introducing famous paintings throughout history with literary connections to support the arts? Did you explain the nature of health and how current Physical Education practices have changed with new knowledge?

An alternative may be to have one of those difficult conversations of what our students’ full day look like, otherwise it is my contention we will continue to lack progress. And I don’t just mean higher test scores–I mean fail in helping students be able to tackle their whole lives. We can’t do it all, nor should we. Instead of a language arts or math teacher asking the elective teacher how she is supporting their content area, perhaps they needs to flip that question to how they can support the elective. Narrowing the scope, and not providing authentic learning experiences stunts growth. We all need purpose, and practice, with our knowledge.

Often I’ve wished we could take the needle of the record –postpone big tests–just for one year. Just one. Just to get our bearings, see the big picture, and feel enlightened and inspired not only for our own content area, but make connections with other colleagues and collectively share our expertise in a meaningful way, not just some PD that glosses over these issues. Find out what others are doing, and showcase their talents.

I know I’m not the only one who thinks about this, but it sure would be great to hear from others, too.


WIHWT: Preparation Heck No.

This Wish I Had Written That comes courtesy of Emily St. John Mandel, the author of Station Eleven. Granted, again I am sharing a novel with a few adult/mature audiences overtones: when I search through my Kindle and look for profanities, a few bubble up, but nothing I noticed while reading. Not sure what that says about my numbness to vulgarities. There is a tame love scene, but many allusions to much more difficult ‘trigger-warning’ level events. Hey, it’s the end of the world as we know it–people who didn’t behave pre-post-apocalypse sure aren’t going to be better post-post-apocalypse.

station-eleven-logoI include this as my WIHWT, however, because it struck me how much and how little all of us are prepared for world’s end, both literally and figuratively. How much we encourage our students to do “maker spaces” and “genius hours,” to construct whole notions of thinking based off of the borg known as the Internet, encourage them not to learn how to write by hand but by keyboard, yet cherish and make precious artisanship. We send so many mixed messages. Learn to code, but forget teaching math basics: Project-Based learning of ‘real world’ problems but don’t teach them fundamental sciences such as the process of cell division or photosynthesis. Students look at my “teacher” handwriting with such longing, as if I know how to bake a pie from scratch and deny them this knowledge.

They are not prepared.

What the heck are we doing anyway?

When the machines are no longer ghosts, but taking over every aspect of our purposes, how will we adapt? Just what are we making in our maker spaces?

I realize at this point you’re fashioning a lovely tin-foil hat for me, and I’ll take it and wear it with pride. That’s what a good story does: makes us take long, painful looks at the current situation and consider other possible worlds. Perhaps these quaint ‘how to’s’ will serve our future well. In the meantime, I’m thinking of converting all my e-books back to paper and ink ones. Those things are going to be worth something someday.

Stitching themes.

vintage sewing victorian

As a follow-up to “How To Teach A Novel,a treatise on theme. I contend that all the close reading strategies in the world only serve to engage us in the bigger conversation, the “grand conversation’ as my master’s mentor instructed us. (I thank you every day, Dr. Schulhauser.) 

One word: Patterns.

Patterns in terms of speech, actions, reactions, resolution and take-aways. What does the writer believe, what is she questioning, and what is she exploring? Did she take us with her, or leave us confused and behind? 

Theme is, as most language arts concepts, deceptively simple to define, and yet a chasm-size leap of thinking. Like novel teaching, it is process, not a prescription. But there are a few steps to help students over the rickety bridge of thematic analysis.


Yesterday I tried the old stand-by of having them think about their favorite singers/performers. They were instructed to NOT say the names out loud, because I didn’t want to get into a Nicky Minaj/Drake/Bieber war. (Haven’t heard of the great Swift war? Hundreds left homeless, and memes abounded.) I then asked, individually, to name, and then analyze how type of songs they sang. They were very excited dos share their ideas, and didn’t get into musical taste battles (too much). We talked about how we choose music to listen to depending on our moods, and we know who will help us with that mood. And yes, they all talked about how Taylor Swift writes a lot of break-up songs.

This access of thinking, breaking it down, helps build their internal trust, of trusting their instincts, and then thinking further to take risks. In other words, it’s one thing to build up all the preparation with close reading, etc. but quite another to have them take a leap of faith over that bridge.

The bridge looks a lot like:

rickety bridge

I want students to feel:

golden gate

A fabulous special education teacher, brand new, young, but an old soul, showed this old dog a new trick:

(seed idea/topic) CAN _____________.

 Think about the beauty of that simplicity:

Racism CAN create monsters out of honorable men.

Misunderstandings CAN create a lifetime of hurt.

Love CAN create wholeness out of destruction.

This clear path to discussing theme may help those lightbulb moments for a few students still struggling to walk across the bridge…and that’s a key component…let them walk across, don’t carry.

Here are some resources about theme:

From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.
From Helping Writers Become Authors: I want to tweak this a bit for students.

11 Tips for Teaching About Themes

Teaching Themes: Reading Worksheets