Life of Pi Spiritual Journey Sequel Rubric


___ This essay has a focus and a message. It sticks to a main point about the author’s spiritual development.

___ The author uses compelling personal anecdotes or other well-articulated theories to back up her message about her spiritual development.

___ The author consistently relates his own journey to a specific aspect of the journey of Pi Patel.

___ This essay is a cohesive whole. It builds on itself to a logical conclusion.

___ This essay uses apt, specific words and collegiate level diction.

___ The author neither avoids discussion of the novel, nor overly relies on plot summary to “fill up space”.


Incorporation of Quotes

___ This essay features two well-selected quotes.

___ Quotes are neither too long nor too short.

___ The context of the quotes is explained, but not over explained.

___ The author relates the quotes to her own experience.


Organization, mechanics, and length requirements


___ The essay is organized into logical and cohesive paragraphs.

___ There is a clear and compelling lead and an insightful conclusion.

___ The essay is 500-700 words long.

You are having trouble with the following mechanics issues:

__ underlining/capitalizing titles                       __ run-ons

__ comma splices                                          __ capitalization

__ sentence fragments                                   __ passive voice

__ correct parenthetical citations                    __ overly informal language/slang

__ over reliance on clichés                             __ spelling: homonyms

__ spelling: random                                       __ spelling: typos

__ awkward phrasing                                     __ style ugliness (wordiness, over reliance on simple   sentences, lack of attention to parallelism, ineffective repetition)

_____/10            TOTAL _____/30


AP Literature and Composition Summer Reading Assignment

Ca-CAW! Hello future seniors! In a few short weeks you will be reporting to my AP Literature and Composition class, where our main three objectives will be:

1. Preparing to kick butt on the AP Lit/Comp exam in May 2013
2. Preparing to kick butt in college literature classes
3. Fostering, stewarding, jump-starting, and/or preparing for a lifetime love of literature

I hope you’re as stoked about next year’s class as I am. I’ve picked out two novels for you to read this summer: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Book Talk: I am so excited for you to read this novel. Life of Pi has got to be one of the oddest works of fiction I’ve ever read, but also one of the most thought-provoking. Depending on what you find interesting, you’re either going to love or despise Part One, in which Pi Patel talks. And talks. And talks. You’re going to learn a lot about zoos and theology. I urge you to take his thoughts on both subjects with a grain of salt. Part Two is where things get surreal, as Pi winds up in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. And Part Three…well, Part Three is either a cop-out on the author’s part, or a stroke of genius.

Watch for:

  • Pi’s unique, self-deprecating, highly observant narrative voice
  • The brilliant commentary on Christian theology
  • The frustrating ambiguous ending

Rationale: I’m having you read this because it’s just plain fun. There are several novels that are AP-exam approved that are possible to read and understand without a lot of teacher help or class discussion, and Life of Pi is one of them. I also find the discussion of religion in Part One fascinating, though ultimately (in my view) highly flawed. Since HBA is a Christian school, and you are getting to that scary age of having to make decisions for yourself on that front, I thought this would be a pleasantly risky read for you.


1. In ninth grade, you wrote a “spiritual journey” essay. This summer, I would like you to take inspiration from Pi’s spiritual journey and write a sequel to the essay you wrote in ninth grade. Please choose at least two quotes from the novel to incorporate into your essay.

Some possible topics (you are not limited to these topics):

  • Pi is encouraged and mentored by three spiritual guides in his journey. Who has your spiritual guide(s) been and how/what has he/she taught you?
  • Pi applies his understanding of faith to his vocation of helping with his father’s zoo. How have you applied your understanding of faith to your activities?
  • Pi goes through conflict with his faith, family, and the religious leaders in his life. What similar conflict(s) have you experienced, and how have you resolved them for yourself?

Please do remember to incorporate details from the novel in your essay. The essay should be about 500-700 words, typed and double-spaced. The essay will be worth thirty points, and will be scored based on the quality and fluency of your writing. For full credit, you MUST include at least two quotes from the novel, using correct parenthetical citations, signal phrases, and analysis.

2. Please choose two different quotes from the novel (different from the ones you use in your spiritual journey sequel) and write an interpretive level question about both quotes. Reminder: Interpretive questions are open-ended and have more than one possible answer, but they force the reader to return to the text in order to answer well. We will have a seminar discussion of Life of Pi within the first week of school. You will share your questions at that time. Questions will be worth five points each and will be scored on how thought-provoking and insightful they are. Please do not go to sparknotes or the internet for questions—I will consider it plagiarism and normal penalties for academic dishonesty will be invoked.

**THERE WILL BE NO READING TEST ON LIFE OF PI.** It’s up to you when you want to do your homework on this, but if you are the type who likes to get things done right away, you will be fine if you read this book at the beginning of the summer. It’s a very fast read. You might want to get your homework for this novel done at the beginning of the summer, and then skim the novel before our seminar discussion during the first week of classes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Book talk: Great Expectations is dense. Like most of Dickens’ work, it has a full cast of supporting characters, plot twists, subplots, sly, tongue-in-cheek humor, a sweeping narrative arc, and lots of amazing quotable quotes. This bildungsroman (a coming-of-age novel) follows Pip, the protagonist, through his late childhood, adolescence, and young manhood. He makes awful mistakes and is generally a most unsympathetic character. As is typical for Dickens’ protagonists, Pip does go through a redemptive epiphany toward the end of the novel.

Watch for:

  • The interesting contrast between Pip the narrator and Pip the protagonist. Just like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Pip narrates his own story with the perspective of an older, wiser version of himself. How does this impact your perception of Pip?
  • Joe: one of the kindest, most Christian characters in all of literature. You’ll fall in love with him. Think about how he functions within the novel and why Dickens created this character.
  • Miss Havisham: a caricature of a woman scorned. Is she a realistic character, or purely a symbol of unforgiveness? Does it matter?

Rationale: I’m having you read this novel this summer because, as you’ll see, it is so thematically broad that it often works well for the open-ended essay question on the Lit. Exam in May.  Great Expectations is challenging. It helps a lot if you keep a running list of characters and read slowly in order to catch all the plot twists. It is challenging, but incredibly rewarding. We will read it again at the end of April, right in time for the exam. You’ll see that reading it twice will be very valuable.

1. Three proverbs, three explanations: one proverb/explanation per volume

Dickens broke Great Expectations into three volumes: Chapters 1-19, 20-39, and 40-60. For each volume, I would like you to look to the book of Proverbs in the Bible. Any translation will be fine. Please select one proverb that applies to a problem that Pip is having in that volume, and write two paragraphs explaining how Pip could benefit from that specific proverb and/or how that proverb explains why he is having such trouble . If you cannot find a proverb, any Bible verse will do, but I encourage you to look to Proverbs.

This is a thirty point assignment, and will be scored based on how apt the proverb you have selected is to the situation Pip is facing, and how concisely and cogently you explain its application to Pip’s life. Please do not go over two paragraphs per proverb.

2. Be prepared to do an ICE (in class essay) on Great Expectations when we get back to school in August. This will be our first AP ICE (very exciting!). To be successful on this ICE, you should be very familiar with:

  • All characters’ names and how to spell them
  • Key events in the plot and why they are interesting to you
  • Important details of setting

I will be giving two scores on this ICE. One of the scores will be your first AP ICE score, based on the AP exam rubric for this particular essay. That score won’t count toward your grade, but will give you a baseline score.

The second score will be based on how well you are able to demonstrate in that you read and understood the novel. The second score will be out of twenty points, and it will count toward your first quarter grade.

**I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO SAVE GREAT EXPECTATIONS UNTIL THE END OF SUMMER VACATION.** You should give yourself about two weeks to read it (less if you are a fast reader). If you read this novel at the beginning of vacation and don’t reread it right before school starts, you will have trouble on your ICE. You want it to be fresh in your mind.

Have I mentioned how excited I am to have you in class next year? What larks we will have!  If you are a reader, I am including a list of novels that work for the AP exam but are also FUN to read this summer. You don’t have to read any of them, but perhaps some of you have already realized how wonderful literature is and would like some recommendations.

Once again—Ca-CAW! See you soon!

Dear children, I want to tell you an old story. It isn’t the oldest story, but it is pretty old, as far as stories go.

Now, the first thing you need to understand about this story is that it really happened. You know how some stories start, “Once upon a time”? They start that way because they never really happened, so you are supposed to use your imagination and pretend that they did happen.

But this story really happened, so we don’t say “Once upon a time.” We know when it happened. It happened 2000 years ago. And we don’t say “in a land far, far away” because we know where it happened. It happened in Jerusalem, which is a real city, in a real country, which is named Israel. And that real country and that real city both exist right now. You could go to them tomorrow, if you bought a plane ticket. It would be a very long flight, but you could go.

So it isn’t a fairy tale, or some made-up adventure story. It’s as real as a story that your mom might tell you about when she was a kid, or a story that your sister or brother might tell you about what happened to them at school, or a story that your teacher might tell you about what happened in America during the revolutionary war.

The next thing you need to understand about this story is that even though it happened 2000 years ago in a city called Jerusalem, it also can happen to you right now, today. It happened to me several years ago, and it keeps happening to me every day. That makes it a very different story than most other stories. The story is about one man on one day in history, but it is also about many, many people on many, many days, including today. I am telling the story, but I am also a part of the story. And you are, too.

That’s why it’s my favorite story.

Every story needs a main character. The story needs a “good guy”. This story doesn’t just have a good guy. This story has the “best guy”. The main character of this story is a man named Jesus. I want you to think of the very nicest person you know. It might be your father, or a teacher, or your mother, or your grandfather, or your uncle. Now think of how kind that person has been to you. That person made you feel like you matter. Like you are special. Jesus is like that person, but He is even better. He never gets in a bad mood. He is the best man who ever lived. He was a man, but He is also God. I know it’s confusing that He is both a man, and also God. To tell you the truth, we grown-ups don’t quite understand that, either. But it is the truth. He is just like us, but He is also perfect. He is also God.

So that is our main character. Every story needs a problem, too. There has to be a problem that needs to be solved, right? This story has a problem. The problem is US. I told you we are in the story. Every problem you have ever had is the problem of this story. Every problem that I ever had is the problem of this story, too. We call this problem SIN.

Have you ever been mean to your sister for no reason, except that she is annoying? Have you told your teacher a lie? Have you not picked up your toys even though your momma asked you to? Have you not felt like talking on the phone to your grandmother? Have you ignored your friend and pretended you didn’t hear her when she asked to borrow your pen? Have you spent the lunch money your mom gave you on ice cream, instead of lunch? Have you made fun of the weird kid in your class, or some weird person you saw at the grocery store?

I’ve done all those things, too.

Almost everyone knows about sin. Almost everyone knows that they are not perfect, that they have done something that they are ashamed of, something they wish they hadn’t done. I bet you know it, too.

Now, what most people do when they know they have sinned is they try to make up for what they have done. Right? If you bite your sister, you say sorry. If you lie to your teacher and she finds out, you tell her the truth and tell her you’re sorry. If your mom yells at you for not picking up your toys, you pick them up and say sorry.

And then, most of the time, your mom or your teacher or your sister or your brother probably says it’s okay. And they might say something else, too. They might say: “Don’t let it happen again”. And you might even tell them that: “I won’t do it again”. But sooner or later you might start noticing that you ALWAYS do it again. You might notice that even though you really meant it that you never would do the thing again, you still did it again. Maybe not in the exact same way, but you kept messing up, saying sorry, and then saying you’d never do it again.

So that is the problem. We are the problem. We keep messing up, and we keep saying sorry and that we’ll never do it again. But then we always do.

There is nothing you can do about this. The sooner you understand that, the happier you will be. You will always make mistakes, and so will I. That is why we need a good guy to save us from this problem that we can never solve ourselves. But not just any good guy would do. All the good guys we know have the very same problem that we do, no matter how good they are. We need the best guy. We need the only guy ever who was like us, but also God—at the same time. He knew about our problem, and He knew He was the only one who could help us. So He came to rescue us.

He loved us so much, and wanted so badly to help us solve this problem of how we keep messing up. He wanted to help us to know God, His father. And we could never know God and stop messing up unless we knew Him, the good guy, Jesus. God is too hard to understand. He is perfect and holy, too hot to touch, like a stove when it is red. We can’t be near Him, because our problem keeps us away. God knows all about this problem, and He is very sad that we can’t be near Him. But He can’t be different from who He is. So He sent His son, who we CAN touch and know and understand and be near, and He allows us to come be near Him through His son.

We were given this beautiful gift of being able to know God through His perfect, loving son, Jesus. God says that knowing Him is the richest thing there is; richer than winning the lottery or being a movie star. Knowing God is like having every toy you ever wanted. All we have to do to have all these riches is to love Jesus and know Him and believe that He is the only way to solve your problem of how you keep messing up.

Now, remember when I told you that this is a true story that really happened? That Jesus was a real man who lived in a real city, 2000 years ago? He told all the people who were lucky enough to meet Him that He was God. He told them that He was the way to become perfect and have riches that they couldn’t even imagine. And what do you think some of these people did? Do you think they threw a party and were so happy and gave Him hugs and made Him a cake, the way you would probably do for someone who gave you riches?

I am sorry to say that they didn’t do that at all. The trouble with how Jesus solves our problem is that it isn’t the way we want Him to. We all know we have a problem, but we think the problem is other people. What we really want is for God to come and fix all the problems around us, because if those problems were fixed, then we wouldn’t have to sin anymore. If God would make us smarter, then we wouldn’t have to cheat on the test. If God would make our brother be nicer, then we wouldn’t have to  hit him when he won’t give us our turn on the video game. If God would make our parents have more money, then we could have a maid and not have to do any chores at all.

Most of the people in Jerusalem didn’t like God’s answer any more than most of us do. God doesn’t want to make us smarter, or richer, or nicer. He tells us that none of those things are really the problem. He says the problem is the person who looks in the mirror when we brush our teeth. That our problem is OURSELVES. It isn’t very fun to know that God thinks YOU are your problem. Most of the people in Jerusalem didn’t believe Him. He didn’t fix any of their problems, and they figured He must be a big liar when He said that they could only know God through Him.

So instead of throwing Him a party, they killed Him. It isn’t a pretty story, but I told you it is a true one. They killed Him because they hated the truth that they were their own problem and that He was the only person who could do anything about it.

Because He was a man, He really died. They really killed Him, and they killed Him in a terrible way that made Him feel a lot of pain. Because He was God, He could have easily stopped them. But He didn’t, because He wanted us to know that He knew all the pain we’ve ever known. He wanted us to know that even though He wasn’t going to fix our problems the way we want Him to, He knows all our problems and He knows how it feels to have problems.

But the biggest reason why He let them kill Him is because in a way, they were right. Somebody had to die for all their problems. Somebody had to die for the awfulness in the world. We all created that awfulness, and somebody had to die for it, and we couldn’t die for it, because we couldn’t do anything about it. So the only person who ever lived who WASN’T part of the problem had to die for the problem.

They killed Him, and He died. But God is bigger than them. He used their sin in His plan. He knew somebody had to die for the problem, and He knew that that somebody could only be His son, the one who never was part of the problem. The rest of us were too ruined by the problem to fix it. It could only be His son. So God let His son be killed by the very people He came to save. And He did a wonderful thing: He didn’t allow His son to stay dead.

And now we come to the part of the story that YOU are in. God made Jesus be alive again. He pulled Jesus out of death, because He is bigger than the people who killed Him. And Jesus lives still. He lives in heaven, and He lives in every one of us who loves Him and believes in Him. And His story keeps going every day. The story began 2000 years ago, but it is still going now. To be a part of His story, all you have to do is believe in Him. You have to believe in Him, and know that He is the only thing that will ever fix your problem, and that YOU are your problem. I am part of the story. Your parents may be part of the story. The grownups and many other children in this room are part of the story. But nobody can force you to be part of the story. You have to choose for yourself if you want to be part of it. You have to choose for yourself if you want this good guy, the Best Guy, to live in you so you can keep the story going along with us.

“What are you doing today after church?” I asked Alice (not her real name). Alice is almost exactly the same age as my mother, and she and her husband, Tim, have taken me under their wing since I started going to our church a few years ago. Being  a single gal with very little charisma, I don’t usually bother instigating plans for myself and other people. Mostly, I just jump on the bandwagon with whatever everybody else is doing. This means I invite myself places a lot. It’s a little embarrassing, but one of the great things about church people (at least the ones at my church) is that they never seem to mind.

“Tim and I are going to the beach right now. You should come!”

“Dang it. Can’t. I have to teach Sunday School second service, so no beach for me, I guess. . .”

At that moment, an older man and his wife were entering the sanctuary when the man paused and made a half turn towards me.

“You don’t have to teach Sunday School! You get to teach Sunday School!” he said, and then waltzed into the sanctuary with his wife as if he hadn’t just said the sharpest words I’d ever heard directed towards me in three years of going to The Bible Church.

Alice and I gasped at each other. Even though Alice has the appearance of being as buttoned-up a church lady as she can be, she has a vibrant sense of humor and a sort of innocent wicked streak, and she’s loyal as the day is long. She raised her eyebrows at the couple’s backs and then turned to me.

“I know you didn’t mean it that way. Sheesh! Some people, huh?”

“Well of course I didn’t mean it that way! I mean, of course I get to teach Sunday School! I just meant, I mean, I have to teach Sunday School because I’ve committed to teach it! I mean, aren’t there multiple meanings of the phrase, ‘have to’? ‘I’m committed to teach Sunday School.’ There, would that have been better? Sheesh!”

“You know,” Alice leaned toward me, “that was actually the former pastor of this church. He’s visiting this week.”

“Whoa. . .well, I’m glad I made such an awesome impression on the guy. . .”

Alice went to the beach with Tim, and I went to set up my classroom for Sunday School. But I couldn’t get what that guy had said out of my mind. I couldn’t figure out the right way to feel about it.

I toyed with guilt for a while. Yes. I’m a jerk. I act as though teaching Sunday School is this big ordeal, and I always speak way too brashly at church. . .I need to keep my mouth shut and be more cheerful in general. Guilt never works for me for very long, though. A pastor once told me that guilt is from the enemy, whereas conviction is from the Holy Spirit.

So I moved on to play with anger. I hadn’t spoken brashly. I’d just used language, like anyone else would, to explain that I couldn’t go to the beach with Alice. What a jerk! Where does he get off, giving me some kind of correction when he doesn’t even know me? See, this is why I don’t like old guys/pastors/churchy people. They think they know everything. But the thing is, I actually really do like old guys and pastors. And I am a churchy person, myself. And he hadn’t really been a jerk. And even if he had been a little bit of a jerk, I’m not a fan of anger, either. It’s hard to learn anything when your fists are clenched and your teeth are set on edge.

I decided to just forget about it. Except that I couldn’t. I can’t help it; I’m introspective to a fault, and I can’t take criticism of any kind without trying to make sense of it and make peace with it. And this pastor, with his terse little correction, had really gotten under my skin.

Had I really spoken out of the things I had stored up in my heart? How did I really view teaching Sunday School? Has it been a have to? Or has it been a get to?

I think I have to admit that I tend to look at service as something that’s kind of a bummer, but somebody has to do it, and in the case of Sunday School, that somebody might as well be me. I don’t have any kids or a husband that I get to go home to and fix lunch for after church (a fact about which God has been subjected to endless whining from me) and I’ve been a professional teacher for almost seven years. I can keep order in a classroom, and I can make sure kids learn something. I’ve heard my share of sermons on Paul’s explanation of celibacy in 1 Corinthians and how just because you are single doesn’t mean you get to just sit around doing whatever pleases you. So okay. I’ll teach Sunday School. I guess that’ll just be my cross to bear, because I’m single (do you even care, God? Does our church need Sunday School teachers that much, that I need to be 30 years old and still single?) and because I’m such a good, selfless person. Maybe if I do this awfully nice thing, God, You’ll finally be proud of me and notice me a little, hmmm? Not that I need that. I’m so humble and selfless I’ll do it for no recognition at all. But, You know, maybe You’ll see my Selfless Sunday School Service and realize that I’m really coming along, here, teaching these kids, and that’s when I’ll really get Your attention.

The trouble with this whole little charade of mine is that it reveals a very murky theology. The reality is that were God to speak to me, I think He would say something like this:

Alex. You’ve had my attention since the day you were conceived. Even before that, actually. Calm down. I love you so much I prepared a bunch of really cool stuff for you to do that you will enjoy the heck out of if you’ll only come to it with the right spirit.

The truth is that teaching Sunday School is an amazing blessing. If you come to it every Sunday, excited to see God working in the lives of young people, I guarantee you will be extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to get a look at His beautiful story, happening in real time, right in front of you.

From all of my years of experience in the classroom, I already knew that the best way to learn something backwards and forwards is to teach it. How true that has been with Sunday School! In the past year I’ve learned about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago, Paul’s travels in the book of Acts, the prophet Ezekiel, and countless other stories in the Bible. Some of these things, I have to admit, I had never heard of (I’ve only been a believer for three years). Some of them I knew about already, but never had any great insight into until I tried to explain them to a roundtable committee of 10-year-olds. . .most of whom had been Christian longer than I had!

Not only have I developed new and deeper understanding of His word, I have also developed meaningful relationships with a group of kids. These things take time and work, but what beautiful fruit they yield!

When I look at service as a gift from God, everything becomes brighter. When I know that His love for me is at full intensity no matter what I do, it makes me want to serve Him more. A trip to the beach can wait–I get to go teach Sunday School!

Read strong!

When I first started this blog, I was nonplussed at what I could do with it. I love to write, and I love to teach, so I thought maybe I could write about teaching, share some curriculum, and maybe include some funny stories that I tell to kids.

But writing a blog to students feels weird. I found I couldn’t really trust it for curriculum because the majority of students either can’t get access to it or wouldn’t bother reading it. And I find I get constipated as a writer when I know students are going to read my work. If I TELL students to read my work, that’s even worse.

The problems are:

1. I’m Christian, and I teach in a public school, where sharing my faith in anything but the most cursory manner is not only illegal, but also (in my opinion) unethical. However, my faith is my favorite thing to write about in the world.

2. I’m really, really far from perfect. And if you’re a teacher, you have to keep this illusion going that you basically are perfect. I mean, sure, you might slip up every now and then and say “Aw, HECK!” when you stub your toe, and maybe you got jealous of your little brother when he got a nicer bike than you in fifth grade. But that’s about the limit to the allowable imperfection. Nominal imperfection only, please. That’s what we like in our public role model adults. Which is at it should be. Except it makes for boring writing. And also, I’m not nominally imperfect. I’m real deal imperfect.

So, um, what do I write about? I love to write, and people keep telling me I ought to write a book about something. I’ve done some research on it, though, and in order to write a book, you have to like, write stuff. Which I don’t do. Unless it feels like there’s some reason to write something. Is putting my writing into a public forum a good enough motivation for me to write regularly?

Actually, I think it is. My expectation is that pretty much nobody will read this, because it will be boring. And I’m not planning on publicizing it to my students anymore. So I’m going to write whatever I want (within reason).

And what I want to write about, lately, is Sunday School.

Yes. Sunday School. I’ve been teaching Sunday School every week at my church for over a year, and I want to write about it. A lot. A real lot. It’s funny and beautiful and interesting and God keeps showing up and I love it. And nobody gets how awesome Sunday School is. The truth is, it’s really kind of a joke, Sunday School. The pastor will pay it some lip service, if he’s a good pastor. He’ll talk about how church is actually just to keep the parents busy while the kids are in Sunday School, ha ha ha. But if you watch what actually happens in a church, really, nobody actually cares what’s going on in Sunday School. I mean, people hope the kids are getting saved and that the teachers are nice but also capable of managing to keep the room from disintegrating into chaos, but that’s about the extent of it.

And I hate to say it, because I don’t want to be a dissenter, but that’s really not enough. At least in my opinion.

I was only saved three years ago, and I did not grow up in a church-going family, so I don’t have many stories from my personal childhood about church school. But I have many unbelieving friends who have stories about it, and from the sounds of it, Sunday School is capable of inflicting a lot of damage on the spiritual formation of kids.

Now, personally, I get a little irritated when we go overboard with the problems of church/life in general keeping people from the Lord. At a certain point, if you’re going to love Jesus and follow Him, I think you have to think through the evidence and accept the difference between God and sin, regardless of the tragedies that have befallen you, whether or not they were caused by people who alleged to be working in His name.

Still, it would be nice to have a Sunday School that encouraged children towards an authentic relationship with the Lord, instead of either leaving them totally apathetic towards Him, or even worse, actively repelled them from Him.

I’m a professional teacher, and I have a master’s degree in curriculum studies. I take education very seriously. I consider teaching to be my vocation, given to me by God. And I’d like to try my hand at applying my teaching skills, experience, and knowledge, honed in the secular world, to bringing children to a true understanding of who God is, and developing a strong, authentic relationship with Him that would continue for the whole of their lives.

That’s such a tall order. But I can’t think of anything more important, or more rewarding, that I could do.  And I want to write about it because I am so passionate about it and so excited about it, but I am also full of questions and doubts and I would love so much to find out what other people think. What do other Sunday School teachers do? What have they found that works? What have they found doesn’t work?

I pray that this blog is fruitful, and that it blesses children and humbly serves the Lord’s purposes.

Read strong!

Hawaii school furloughs. A sign of the coming apocalypse, or just one more epic fail by Hawaii’s state government? Not that I’m talking smack about our state government. Not at all.

All I’m saying is that 17 days off from school this year may SEEM like a good idea if you are a teenager, sort of how all candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner SEEMS like a good idea when you are 8 years old, but it really isn’t that good of an idea at all.

I’ve been thinking and thinking about it, and I can’t come up with a great solution to this problem.  In my experience, when nothing comes to mind, it means there isn’t an easy solution. There’s just a lot of lousy compromise options that make the best of a bad situation. Sometimes it seems like life consists almost solely of things that fit that description, actually.

The best solution? No furloughs. I’d rather just have everybody in school on Fridays. I’d have taken a pay cut without furloughs, no whining. I’d take anything over this furlough thing. There’s a reason we have schools, and as much as people like to dump on them, it’s actually not that easy to pull off all the things schools do without, well, schools. If you ask me, the State of Hawaii has lost its mind, because schools are one of the most essential, invaluable parts of our community, and not something you can barter around like the price of eggs or bricks or oh, I dunno, oil. We know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, apparently.

But anyway. This isn’t a blog about me being bitter. This is a blog about a proposed solution. It’s not a great solution. It may not even be a possible solution. It’s not a solution that’s going to solve the problem. It’s a solution that will sort of inadequately help a very small number of students. But it’s something.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re one of my students. I put a link to this on my facebook page, and most of my facebook “friends” are students and former students. Which means that the furloughs affect you, and also that you know me. And you know that I’m a Christian. I’m not going to talk about this idea in my classroom. It wouldn’t be appropriate (there are conflict of interest issues, and church and state issues). Furthermore, I actually don’t think most of my current students would be that interested in it. So if you are reading this and you are one of my current students, be aware that this is outside of school and not in any way affiliated with school. I can’t teach you anything that I would have taught you in school, and I can’t help you with the homework I assigned at school. That may seem weird, but it makes sense if you think about it.

Anyway. . .

Interested people at my church met on Sunday to discuss this problem. We had a lot of ideas. But we don’t really know what people need, and we also don’t really know what we are capable of providing.

But we want to help. You know, if people actually need help. And if they need help that we can give. As you know, I’m certified to teach grades 7-12. As you also know, I don’t really have much of a life. Here’s what I came up with for high school kids.

Discipleship with Dante

My proposal is that I would offer an hour and a half-long class called “Discipleship with Dante”. The class would be open to anybody who wanted to take it: public school kids grades 9-12, homeschool kids, college kids, and even adults. I’d probably offer it at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning on the Furlough Fridays.

I’ve been wanting to teach a Dante class with an emphasis on scripture and journaling for a long time. If this were to be approved, I’d submit a syllabus with a detailed plan of what I was going to do each week. It would be more in-depth than the version I give kids in 8th grade, with more emphasis on the Jesus side of things (I mean, I’m teaching at a church, so it makes sense). It would give the high school kids a productive way to spend part of their Fridays off from school, but still leave them with time to do their homework (I know the secondary school kids are concerned about the “homework packets” their teachers have said they are planning on assigning for the furlough days).

I was also thinking that after the class, I’d stick around and offer an hour or two of “homework help” for kids who need a place to get those homework packets done. Kids who came for “homework help” could also be Dante kids, but they don’t have to do both. I’m pretty strict with high school kids. It wouldn’t be a time for goofing off. It would be a place to get help from peers and from me on whatever the teachers from their regular school assigned. Sometimes it really helps teenagers if there’s an adult around making sure they are actually being productive. I don’t want to sound horribly harsh, but if kids weren’t being productive, I would ask them to leave. I’m the kind of teacher who hasn’t sent a kid to the office in years–I have my own ways of handling discipline, and I’m no pushover. But I don’t kick kids out with no warning, and I am very big on keeping the relationship with the kid even while I’m disciplining them. There would be rules for homework help time, there would be a contract signed by parents and students prior to the program starting–I’d be as formal as I can be, because that’s what would distinguish “Homework Help” from just kids hanging out at Taco Bell.

What if I have to be absent for some reason?

I am a pretty faithful attender of stuff I make a commitment to, but I get sick or have emergencies just like everyone else. Because I’m teaching upper-level kids for whom childcare is not a concern, I would probably either cancel the week before, or if there was an emergency, I’d make a phone tree for the people taking the class. I’d also ask people taking the class to let me know if they were going to be absent.

Would I have an assistant/another adult in the room?

I don’t know who would fill this role, but I’m open to it. Truthfully, I spend my entire day at Kailua Intermediate with just me and 147 kids, no other adult in the room, and I do fine, but if there’s somebody available to help, I sure wouldn’t say no.

What about money?

To be honest, I want to offer this class so badly I’d do it for free. I just think it would be a neat way to disciple others. Dante has helped me understand God so much, I’d love other people to be blessed, too. I’ve taught Inferno to 8th graders for five years, and I taught it to The Well (the college/career group at my church) a few years ago. The idea of being able to use scripture in a study of Dante just thrills me. It’s a really great study no matter what age you are. But I think when people pay, they value things more. I also notice that when I am paid, I tend to take things more seriously and prepare more carefully. Not to be horrible or anything, but I do see that in my own behavior. I was thinking along the lines of having a suggested donation of $100 for a school year’s worth of my class and/or homework help, payable to Kailua Community Church. KCC would buy the books (they are around $11) , and then people could pay KCC for the books. If people couldn’t afford the $100 or just didn’t feel like paying it, fine. If they wanted to pay more, that’s fine, too.

So that money would go to KCC. Now, if I were really going to teach this class right, I’d like to offer a sort of binder of resources, the way it is done with the Discipleship classes, and that binder of resources would cost the church money in xeroxing. It also would cost the church money for the electricity.  So I think the board should figure out what percentage of money collected should go to the church, and what should go to me as a stipend.

How many people can take the class?

As many as God leads to the class, I say. When I think about this, I kind of figure it will be a miracle if anyone signs up at all. Still, adults always are saying they wish they could be in my class, and the kids I teach always come back to me from high school and say they wish they could take my class again–so here’s your chance! I think I’d need a minimum of six people to sign up, and I guess a maximum of thirty. Maybe that’s foolish. I’m just so used to teaching enormous classes, it doesn’t really put me off.

For homework help, I think a maximum of twenty kids and a minimum of six.

How would the schedule go?

A few proposed options (open to discussion/change):

8:30-10:00 Discipleship with Dante
10:00-10:10 Break
10:10-12:00 Homework Help

10:30-12:00 Discipleship with Dante
12:00-12:45 Lunch (bring your own lunch and keep it in the fridge at the Androtti House, or go get lunch in Kailua if you’re an older kid and want to drive)
12:45-2:00 Homework Help

As you can see, these options do not take childcare under consideration. Kids would have to find their own way to church (although I might be able to pick some kids up and bring them to church, if necessary).

What about on Fridays that are not furloughs?

I would consult the people taking the class, but I’d probably have Dante class in the evening or afternoon of those Fridays, depending on demand.

So that’s my idea. I’m okay with it if it doesn’t happen. If you think it’s interesting or you have suggestions, let me know. Either comment here or email me at Or leave a comment on facebook underneath this post.

Read strong!

Everyone wants to know who they are.

I don’t mean that everyone has some kind of amnesia problem that makes them literally forget their identity. I mean everyone wants to have a definition; some kind of understanding of what one’s life means, what one’s life is worth, what one’s role to play is in life. If you don’t believe me that this is a universal human need (and maybe you shouldn’t; I’m not entirely sold that every person ever has had this feeling. It’s only a theory), listen to grownups at a party. They usually get around to asking questions about what a person does for a living. Often, this point is brought up during one’s introduction. What do you do? Oh, I’m a schoolteacher. How about you? Occupational therapist. Ah. Identity of the person in front of me immediately established. With a lot of people (I would venture to say most people, although of course some people feel this much more strongly than others) the what-do-you-do-introduction is like a game of rock-paper-scissors. Occupational therapist beats schoolteacher beats bank teller beats fast food worker beats unemployed person beats drug addict beats street criminal and on it goes. If this little synopsis makes you uncomfortable and irritated (hey! My MOM is a bank teller!) you are on the right track for the rest my little epiphany about Susan Boyle, here. Although I have more to say before I get to her.

With children it is (slightly) more subtle. All children have the same answer to the what do you do question. I go to school. But rest assured, they are looking at each other all the time to figure out who they are in relation to who everyone else is. Okay. He is tall and is a swimmer and is kind of quiet, so the girls like him. But he seems shy and intimidated, which means if I am a little bit mean to him, he’ll do anything I tell him to do. She has costly-looking shoes and nicely-styled hair and a lot of friends, so I’d better be really nice to her.

I know I do this. I size people up all the time. I want to know who I am as much as anybody else, and I often rely on other people to tell me. If someone smiles at me and agrees with something I say, then I know that I am quite a decent and intelligent lady, and if someone sends me a crabby e-mail about something I’ve done that in their opinion I ought not to have, then I know that I am not that great after all. This believing what other people think of me gets less and less as I get older, but in adolescence I had it so badly it was almost unbearable.

Lots of people have figured out that letting others tell you who you are is ultimately a zero-sum game. It’s no secret that it is terribly unpleasant and unreliable to take your self-worth from the opinions of fellow human beings. They so rarely actually know what they are talking about, and when they DO know what they are talking about, it’s often even worse, because what makes them so great that they know the truth about us? Didn’t we just see them picking their nose, or yelling at their child in an unbecoming tone, or putting it’s when it should have been its? This is why we so often hear adolescent children proclaim that they do not care what anyone thinks of them.

But the trouble is, even if you don’t care what people think of you, you still want to know who you are. Which leads many people to come to believe that the best person to tell you who you are is you. And that can be quite a satisfactory answer, and a great deal of poetry and novels have been written to that general end. The oeuvre of Ayn Rand comes to mind, or that William Henley poem about being the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

Now. Being the master of your fate and the captain of your soul is well and good, and tends to impress many, many people. Until you make an error about yourself. You had always told yourself and anyone who’d listen that you were an outstanding Scrabble player, for example, and then you made the mistake of playing against a really clever seventh grader and setting her up perfectly for a triple word score and she crashed down on you with all seven letters and there was no way you could recover from that in time for second period and you lost fair and square to someone 18 years younger than you and suddenly it is plain as day that you AREN’T that hot of a Scrabble player, after all. This happened to me on Friday, actually.

The cognitive dissonance involved in this situation leaves you with two options. You can either become the most irritating, oblivious person ever and ignore all evidence to the contrary of your self-proclaimed excellence, or you can admit that your assessment of yourself must have been a bit flawed all along and perhaps in some cases (only some, mind you) you aren’t really the final word on who you are.

Which puts you right back to where you started. If you don’t really know who you are, then perhaps others do. But as I’ve said before, others tend to be unreliable on the subject, as well. And who are they to judge? The whole thing is quite frustrating if you think about it too much. Which is why most people don’t.

I’ve begun calling this phenomenon the “Better-Than-But-Not-As-Good-As Game”. As in: “I am better than YOU but not as good as YOU”. The Better-Than-But-Not-As-Good-As-Game is what we play when we try to figure out who we are using other people or ourselves as the rubric for the assessment. Eventually I shortened it to the “Better-Than Game”. And then just: the BTG.

Once you get the hang of identifying the BTG, you begin spotting it absolutely everywhere. Last Wednesday night I was watching one of the first Holocaust documentaries ever made, Night and Fog directed by Alain Resnais, and as I was watching the shocking and horrifying old footage of walking corpses and warehouses of human hair I suddenly thought. . .Better-Than-YOU-But-Not-As-Good-As-YOU. By which I mean that the Nazis’ whole agenda was pretty well defined by the BTG, though of course they took it to the extreme point where there was no one as good as them. I may as well point out that I also think the BTG is a good general definition of the sin of pride, which is, according to Dante, the root of all other sin.

So what has any of this to do with Susan Boyle, the Scottish woman whose audition on Britain’s Got Talent is now viral on YouTube, and whose name is inevitably preceded with “never-been-kissed” or “dowdy” in all the media attention surrounding her? Glad you asked.

Susan Boyle was on a competitive talent show: literally, a BTG. So one might argue that my dismay at the timbre of all the attention surrounding her is ill-conceived. And it probably is. But.

I implore the media to stop being so self-congratulatory about looking beyond Susan Boyle’s dowdy, unsexy, unsexualized, furry-eyebrowed, double-chinned, frizzy-haired, middle-aged, single-living, cat-owning exterior to praise her lovely singing voice. My God, isn’t this big of us! they all seem to be saying, we aren’t really ageist or sexist or materialist or horribly prejudiced against overweight people at all! Those scolds in the public had us all wrong all this time! All along, it was really only about talent! You see? When a painfully ordinary-looking person comes on with a great, large, angelic voice, we praise her to the rafters and have a media circus just like we do with Britney Spears!

Not that I begrudge Susan Boyle one iota of the attention she has been getting. I welled up at her audition video just like everybody else. But I must strongly disagree with the media’s implication that Susan Boyle proves that they were never playing the BTG after all, that our whole culture isn’t dripping with it, alongside the sarcasm in Simon Cowell’s miserable comments.

It’s all in the judge’s remarks after Susan Boyle finishes singing. All that snarky, backhanded meanness about how “everyone was laughing at you until you opened your mouth”. So what you’re saying is that Susan Boyle is worthless without her talent? That the only thing standing between her and mockery and scorn is a lovely singing voice? I know she went on a talent competition, which does up the ante on the expectations, I suppose, but I do not think we should be any too excited about a society that plays the BTG with this level of cruelty. Whoever gave Simon Cowell the right to tell Susan Boyle who she is before she opens her mouth? Perhaps he has the qualifications to tell her the level of her talent after she opens her mouth, but anything beyond that I think we can safely say is out of his pay scale.

What about all the Susan Boyles who can’t sing a note? Does Simon Cowell laugh at them, sitting patiently at the bus stop, as he whizzes by in his undoubtedly shiny and expensive car? Or does he just ignore them, not even seeing them, really, just part of the wallpaper of his incredibly important life? Lest I get too haughty and self-righteous at Simon Cowell, I should point out that I probably ignore the Susan Boyles nearly as much, although I at least have the decency to ignore them from a 1995 Toyota Corolla that mostly consists of rust. My point is that I do not think we deserve to be self-congratulatory about praising Susan Boyle until we are able to be kind and humane to all the dumpy women who live alone with their cat, are a little bit odd, and are prosaically lower-than-average in every possible respect until the day they die. And I don’t mean that we should be this way to show how nice and unprejudiced we are by looks and age and those things. I mean we should be this way out of an inherent sense that we truly are no better than anyone else, though of course that also means that nobody else is any better than us.

And in my opinion, this understanding cannot come from anywhere except God. Simon Cowell cannot tell Susan Boyle who she is, but neither can Susan Boyle tell herself who she is. She, like all of us, needs an outside source; something perfectly reliable and perfectly good, to tell her this information. And I think that source is God, who finds us all equally sub-standard, no matter what we do, and who loves us all equally perfectly, despite that fact.

I spend the bulk of my time among secular people. The most popular attitude that they express to me about my faith is the same attitude that I saw recently in the New York Times (see Judith Warner’s Easter blog): they process my love for God as nice, warm-fuzzy feelings that spirituality brings, without the uncomfortable inconvenience of a God who laughs at the attempts of others to define me, and laughs still harder at my attempts to define myself. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Christianity in its fullest understanding is a source of unspeakable comfort. But to get to that understanding involves accepting a few unavoidably difficult premises, and Susan Boyle is a nice crucible for understanding all of them.

Until we stop playing the BTG game, all we do when we praise Susan Boyle is substitute one Better-Than trait (talent) for another (sexiness). The only way to stop playing the BTG is to put God into the judge’s seat, instead of Simon Cowell. If you were feeling uncomfortable listening to the judges’ backhanded compliments, it’s because the BTG leads to terrible places, and we all know this, and (worst of all) we are all guilty of it.

Susan Boyle is valuable because she is a human being. That’s it. When your mother told you that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, she was only part right. If you’re comparing the book in that aphorism to people, it ought to be that you shouldn’t judge a book, full stop. Would everyone please just enjoy her singing and stop smirking?