Sunday, July 29, 2012

RealSchool: Inquiry-based, whole-person, student-centered learning

RealSchool is the academic program I created to promote whole-person, inquiry-based, student-centered learning. I posted this blog post on the RealSchool blog and am cross-posting it here, as I'm always looking for what educator Jon Mitzmacher calls "thought-partners."

We've been busy this summer investigating who else out there share's RealSchool's philosophies, and unsurprisingly there are tons of people and schools who do. Here is a collection of some cool and interesting ideas in education:

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey created the following chart, comparing personalized, differentiated and individualized learning. RealSchool, of course, is all about Personalized Learning:

In fact, Ms. Bray is a Creative Learning Strategist. Here are some of her thoughts on 21st-century learning:

I have an idea. Let’s flip learning. Your students have been 21st century learners most of their lives. They know how to use all of the technology. If they don’t, they figure it out. Why not make them more responsible for their learning? What if…
  • your students create the videos about the content to flip the classroom. 
  • involve your students in lesson design. Be partners in unpacking the standards and designing activities. Children today are very resilient and smart if we give them the chance. Check out this post from Kathleen McClaskey and myself on Personal Learner Profiles and the Common Core.
  • See Think WonderAsk your students to brainstorm and prioritize questions about the topic. This post on Making Just One Change where I interviewed Sara Armstrong helped me understand the importance of inquiry.  Michael Wesch encourages his university students to wonder. 
  • Imagine your students building lessons with you as partners in learning.

Dave Truss, an educator in Canada, is busy creating a new school built on inquiry-based learning:

Mr. Truss has these thoughts to share on his terrific blog:

1. Time- Pro-D, preparation, planning & play – CSS [his school in Canada] has significantly more prep & planning time than most public schools could ever afford, but I do think we have to start being creative about the amount of time teachers spend in front of students vs how much time they spend collaborating and learning… after all, we are just as much in the learning business as we are the teaching business.

2. Co-teaching & collaboration opportunities 
- I think this is where we can start to get really creative in two ways: First, we need to get two teachers in the same room, including doubling up the classes and having 50-60 students in a larger room, or in learning commons. Secondly, blended learning models could mean that at times, one teacher has 2 classes that are using a technology guided program or activity, freeing up extra time for other teachers to meet. It is ironic, and unfortunate, that tighter class size limits are factoring into play in BC right when blended learning is going to push the envelope of continuous supervision of students in set classes.

3. Models & Mentorship
 - We actually have working models like the Calgary Science School to examine. At CSS new teachers are told not to plan anything until they meet their colleagues. New teachers aren’t handed the toughest positions, and they aren’t handed packages of work or set programs to teach. As Stephen Heppell says, “…you get ideas from colleagues, and from other schools, and… when your experience touches someone else’s experience”.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Online, Ongoing, Collaborative "Goal Journal"

An Online, Ongoing, Collaborative "Goal Journal":

Alan November has charged schools with coming up with a "1st five days" plan, a discussion thread you can follow on Twitter (#1st5days). Mr. November's deceptively simple and fun task has gotten me thinking about how an entire school might collaborate on a First Five Days project, so that the students see each teacher in the school is thinking about them as individuals, is challenging them to be aware of their learning goals and, from day one of the school year, is developing their critical thinking skills and nurturing their creativity. The end products of the project foster peer-based learning and enable the school to have concrete markers of progress.

My First Five Days Project:

Days 1-2:

In each class, teachers ask students to articulate their individual goals for the course during the year and to come up with five terms that encapsulate those goals. Each student then has to choose a medium through which he/she presents those goals: a narrative, a visual, a movie, a song, an interview, or a pie or other scientific chart, etc. Students post their pieces on an online collaborative platform, such as a wiki, moodle or blog.

Day 3:
The teacher and students group the goals into categories, highlighting the presentations that represent each goal. The class discusses the goals the students have all expressed a desire to achieve.

Day 4: 
The teacher shares five terms that represent the goals he/she has for the course and a presentation -- Prezi, video, visual, etc. -- that encapsulates those goals. The students and teacher discuss the goals and then compare them with the ones the students have articulated.

Day 5:
The teacher shows the students the course syllabus and divides the class into groups or pairs, with each group or pair in charge of a goal the students and teacher have articulated. The students connect the goals with the material being covered in class.

Ongoing Project and End Result:

During the course of the year, the teacher and students can return to the online "goal journal" and chart their progress as a class and as individuals, seeing where the class and where each student is exceeding, meeting or falling below expectations. The students as part of a class or the school's teachers can monitor each class' progress; individual reports can be posted, depending on each student's comfort level with posting. At the very least, a student can post a periodic update as a blog post or complete a more challenging assignment in an area in which he/she excels. Over the course of the school year, every student should have a subject in which he/she has produced at least one meaningful artifact from which his/her peers can benefit.

At the end of the year, the school will have a "Goal Journal," presented in various artistic and scientific modes, to depict how each student, class and grade achieved their goals.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spotlight on Rembrandt and Artists Beit Midrash

Do you recognize these works? They are the competition panels for the
baptistery doors of the Florence cathedral, dating early fifteenth century.

This year in my AP Art History class, I'm going to be adding two new features: Spotlight on Artists and an Artists Beit Midrash. The point of the latter will be to integrate Jewish texts into the course and to enable the students to gain familiarity with media and materials. I've discussed media in my art history classes a lot, but since I want my all my courses to be much more experiential (and because I want to play with paints, too!), I thought allowing the students to be hands-on with materials would be fun and instructional. Frisch has a fantastic art teacher, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell, so I know she's going to make the experience meaningful on an academic and artistic level.

Spotlight on Artist #1:
Here's a PowerPoint presentation that spotlights Rembrandt and that gives students an understanding of baroque art and Rembrandt's greatness as an artist:


My first Artists Beit Midrash presentation has students read Chapter 22 from Genesis, look at four different works that depict the sacrifice of Isaac and analyze what the artists chose to include in their compositions. What I think is interesting for students to note in the analysis is compositional choices such as:

1) placement of the knife (near Isaac's neck, away from it)
2) position of Isaac's face (in one rendition Abraham's hand completely covers Isaac's face, so he doesn't have to see his son, yet Abraham is rendered so powerfully, one has the sense he's not hesitating to do God's command. Those compositional choices give the painting great tension.)
3) figures in the works (Abraham, Isaac, the angel, the ram, the servants (!))
4) placement of the figures


Mrs. Mantell introduced me to the idea of an Artists Beit Midrash (ABM), but this summer I've grown even more enamored with the concept because of the ABM I've been following at Brandeis University's HS Summer Program, BIMA. Here are the blog posts about Brandeis' Artists Beit Midrash:

Brandeis High School Summer Program: Artists Beit Midrash

To view my new AP Art History blog, with the flipped classroom and homework assignments I'm preparing for my students, visit:

Tikvah Wiener's AP Art History Blog

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cold Mountain and Postmodernism

What is post-modernism and how does Cold Mountain embody post-modernist characteristics?

First: Is there a difference between modernist and post-modernist works?

Modernism: 1900-1950
Post-modernism: 1950-today (as of now; I think we might need a new label for works from let's say 1980-today. Start thinking!)

We're going to use poetry to compare and contrast modernist and post-modernist works.

Modernist poems about Nature:

1) Desert Places by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last. 

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares. 

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express. 

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

2) The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Note: The trinity, symbolized by units of three here in the three-line stanzas and the three types of evergreen trees, is replaced by the trinity of "nothing's" in the last stanza, making this poem, in my mind, the quintessentially nihilistic Modernist poem.

And do we really need any more examples of Modernist works than these? The deep despair, the alienation from anyone and anything that is good or hopeful in the world. How did these people get up in the morning?

Post-modern poems about Nature:

1)   The Death of a Toad by Richard Wilbur
       A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsbleed goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia^Rs emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.
Note: Wilbur imbues the toad's death with nobility, even going so far as to say  the toad moves on to his Elysium, "Amphibia's emperies."

2) Digging by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Modernist poem on the parent-child relationship:

Daddy by Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. 

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal 

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du. 

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend 

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw. 

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene 

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew. 

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew. 

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--  

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you. 

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not 
Any less the black man who 

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do. 

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look 

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through. 

If I've killed one man, I've killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now. 

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Note: Give yourself a minute to recover from that poem. OK. Ready? Oy, poor Sylvia. I just want to hug her. Plath killed herself by putting her head in an oven, death of the "good little wife" and fulfillment of destiny as a Jew?

Things get better between parents and children:
Post-modernist poems on the parent-child relationship:

1) The Writer by Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story. 

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale. 

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage. 

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which 

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent. 

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash 

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark 

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top, 

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure, 

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world. 

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

2) 35/10 by Sharon Olds

Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Post-modern poem on science:   

My love is as a fever longing still by Christopher Bursk

(You first have to know Shakespeare's sonnet for this, so here it is:
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love, 
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
   For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,   
  Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.)

So now here's Christopher Bursk's poem:

It didn't take a Harvard Medical School degree
to detect you and I were not lovers destined to wed
but two viruses doing their best to infect each other,
two fevers that'd spread, different symptoms of the same
sickness. Past cure I am, now reason is past care.
Did I really wish to die? The doctor dismissed me
with the professional ease with which one might swat a fly,
as if for the fly's own good. So what
if you loved me more intimately than anyone ever would?
A cancer cell could say that of any body
it refused to let go. Once the heart was infected,
how could it be corrected? So what was I waiting for?
The truth is, the doctor smiled,
the microbe adores the flesh it's dating.

Note: Post-modernism plays with past genres and eras, often mixing them in fun and amusing ways. Modernism may use humor, but Modernist humor is dark and deeply chilling, a knife slicing cleanly through the heart.

Conclusion: To me, there's a darkness and nihilism at the heart of Modernist works that is missing from post-modern ones. When I read a Modernist work, I seriously don't know how we humans are pretending we can make the world a better place. When I read post-modern works, I think we have a chance and I might be laughing at how that chance to improve the world has been presented.

One final post-modern work that I love as a teacher and that to me shows that though the post-modern world is fully aware that all sacred cows are gone and that life can be meaningless and harsh, we can make of our world what we will, if we have strength and humor and if we reach out to each other in positive and meaningful ways:
Did I Miss Anything? by Tom Wayman  
Question frequently asked by students after missing a class 

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours         

            Everything. I gave an exam worth         
            40 per cent of the grade for this term         
            and assigned some reading due today         
            on which I'm about to hand out a quiz         
            worth 50 per cent 

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose          

            Everything. A few minutes after we began last time         
            a shaft of light descended and an angel         
            or other heavenly being appeared         
            and revealed to us what each woman or man must do         
            to attain divine wisdom in this life and         
            the hereafter         
            This is the last time the class will meet         
            before we disperse to bring this good news to all people                        
            on earth 

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?          

            Everything. Contained in this classroom        
            is a microcosm of human existence         
            assembled for you to query and examine and ponder         
            This is not the only place such an opportunity has been     

but it was one place          

And you weren't here

 Returning to our point:

Is Cold Mountain a post-modern work? If so, how?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cold Mountain, the Odyssey and other allusions

Top Ten Similarities Between Cold Mountain and the Odyssey: (OK, there are 11)

The comeliest order on earth is but a heap of random sweepings. – page 25

1)   The journey home from war, with various obstacles in the hero’s path:
Kleos and nostos: Odysseus: One of great warriors of Trojan War, has earned glory for himself. Proven his cunning with his Trojan horse trick. Can’t help but brag to Polyphemus when he encounters the Cyclops that it is he, Odysseus, who has defeated him.

Only nostos: W.P. Inman: Has deserted, has become deathly sick of war (page 12) and wants peace, the peace of loving Ada. Great warrior; time and again shows himself skilled, brave and capable of fighting. Says he discovered his ability to fight and says it’s a gift, like any other given to a man. Never brags of it; has no desire whatsoever for kleos. Just the opposite: thinks war has ravaged him, made him less fit for human companionship and love (except at end when Ada “saves” him). Page 397: “You could become so lost in bitterness and anger that you could not find your way back. No map nor guidebook for such journey. One part of Inman knew that.” Page 420: Ada: “I know people can be mended. Not all, and some more immediately than others. But some can be. I don’t see why not you.” “Why not me?” Inman said, as if to test the thought.

2)   Blind bard: Homer said to be blind, but even if not, strong blind bard motif in Greek literature. Also, blind man in Book 8 who sings of quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles at Troy
Page 5: Balis: his eyes are “too weak for the wannest form of light” and he had attempted to master Greek. He sits translating Greek texts in the hospital. At end of book, when Ada and Inman are happily planning their life together, Inman says he’ll take up Balis’ work and learn Greek, even though it’s a dead language.
Page 6: Blind man near the hospital. He’s been blind his whole life.
Page 30: Ada is educated, even knows a hint of Greek.

3)   Lot of omens, especially with birds or other animals:
Odyssey: Odysseus’ victory is often predicted through the symbol of an eagle or other predatory bird eating or carrying in its mouth a dove or other prey
CM: Importance of animals as carriers of messages from the spirit world (page 23); importance of omens (page 47). Inman’s death is often predicted because of the crows constantly circling basically everywhere in the book.
Crows make another interesting comparison. Ada says she’d like to be like the crows, because they are clever and make jokes of everything. Seems like a good quality to have, especially in bleak times. Odysseus, we know, is known for his cunning – “wily Odysseus” is the epic nickname he’s given. Penelope, too, is equally cunning, keeping the suitors at bay with her “trick” of chastity. So the cunning in the crows reminds us that 1) Inman is cunning, like the crows; he does know how to keep himself alive, 2) Ada admires cunning, 3) like Penelope, Ada will also become cunning and will keep herself chaste for the love of her life. So the ambiguity of the crow symbol is also established and that will lead us to the ambiguity of the book’s ending.

4)   Inner journeys:
Odyssey: Telemachus has to come of age and he does so successfully. The Odyssey begins with his asserting control over the palace and establishing himself as the man of the house.
CM: Ada must do the same and does so successfully as well. In fact, when Inman FINALLY meets up with her, she is dressed in trousers (a la Merchant of Venice: same word used “accoutered”)

5) Intervening, antagonistic gods:
Odyssey: Poseidon hates Odysseus and doesn’t want him to go home; sets obstacles in his way
CM: Obviously Home Guard is the vicious antagonist of the hero and the obstacle between him and his dreams
In fact: Odyssey: Storms sent by Poseidon constantly mess Odysseus up!
CM: One of the initial and many times Inman’s life is in danger is near a river, places that are usually plagued by monsters – like the catfish – and other obstacles in Greek mythology and that require appeasement. Inman’s river guide is a young girl, and he and the young girl are shot by the Home Guard who are on horseback and shoot at as they attempt to cross. Of course, the Home Guard keep cropping up to thwart Inman as Poseidon does to Odysseus.

6) Interludes with women:
Odyssey: Calypso and Circe, women Odysseus is tempted by and has affairs with
CM: gypsy camp: Inman sees a woman who reminds him of Ada; he is entranced; dreams a dream there and then wakes in morning to find camp gone (very mythological feel to the story); Inman could fall into Sara’s life easily, he says; he could be her “John,” a replacement for her dead husband

7) Forgetfulness and a journey to the underworld:
Odyssey: Lotus eaters: This is one of the most famous obstacles in the Odyssey and is constantly used in works of literature and film. The latest is Ice Age 4! Odysseus’ crew ends up in the land of the Lotus Eaters and they are given the intoxicating fruit of the lotus, which causes them to forget their desire to return home.  They long only to eat more fruit.
CM: The crooked house with Junior and Lulu is the place where Inman is drugged and cannot think or function properly.

Odyssey: Journey to the underworld where Odysseus is supposed to ask the blind prophet Tiresias for the way home; in the underworld, Odysseus finds his mother, who has died over grief of Odysseus’ absence. Odysseus also speaks with Achilles who expresses regret over his decision to choose kleos over nostos.
CM: Inman is depicted almost like a walking ghost the entire story (reread chapter 1), but the idyll with the goatwoman could be thought of specifically as a meeting with a mother figure. She cares for Inman as a mother would. She can also be compared to the servant Eurycleia, who recognizes Odysseus because of his scar. The goat woman comments on Inman’s scar and gives him herbs to heal it. She tells him the smaller ones will one day only be recognizable to him and his wife, establishing herself as a kind of Eurycleain character.

From the episode of the goat woman until Inman arrives at Cold Mountain,  death is a constant: Inman finds three hanging skeletons and then buries a young girl for her mother. At the burial, he notices the graves of four people, three children and their young mother who died at 20.  Thus, the idea of Inman journeying through the underworld is reinforced. Then again, the whole book could be said to be Dantean.

8) Minor characters:
Odyssey: In various places in the epic, Odysseus’ men are carried away by greed (book 9; book 10; book 12) that often leaves Odysseus’ life in danger; these episodes show the temptation to sin is real and human, but must be overcome if one wants to "get home," obtain his dreams, be successful. In the end, the men’s greed leads to their downfall and only Odysseus makes it home alive, often through sheer luck or because Athena has her eye out for him?
CM: Veasey is the character who represents Odysseus’ crew and he obviously is tempted by anything and everything. He too, like the crew members, ends up dead. Inman also has to overcome temptations and distractions such as the gypsy and Sara in order to be successful in making it home, though like Odysseus is when he plugs his ears to withstand the Sirens' song, Inman's inner strength and moral code make him more fortified than the average person to succeed in his physical and spiritual journeys. Is it fate then that forces him to kill the bear and break his own moral code? If so, that incident reinforces the idea of the bitter end moira often works out for us, but Inman and Ada's decision not to act so that they have regret -- what Inman names the eighth deadly sin -- gives man a way to rise above fate. 

9) The reunion:
Odyssey: Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar and only the servant Eurycleia recognizes her master because she notices his scar, which he has had since an infant. Odysseus passes the suitor test Penelope devised: she said she would marry the man who could shoot an arrow through holes of twelve axes set in a line. Penelope sleeps through the endeavor as well as her husband’s and son’s slaying of all the suitors.

Odysseus proves his identity when Penelope tricks him by saying she will move her marriage bed, and Odysseus announces that their bed cannot be moved, since it was made from the trunk of an olive tree around which the house was built. Obviously this is a a fact that Penelope knows. Thus, Penelope establishes herself as the right woman for Odysseus. She is just as clever as he is in devising ruses and tricks to get what she wants, in this case a confirmation that the man in front of her is the husband he claims to be. When Odysseus and Penelope embrace, she is shown "pressing her white arms around him as if forever.”

Once they’re reunited, though, Odysseus tells her he has to find his father and tell him he’s alive, as per the prophecy he received earlier in the epic; Odysseus also says he needs to lie low so the suitors’ families don’t seek revenge for killing all the young men of Ithaca. The Odyssey ends well, because while the suitors’ families do seek revenge and come looking for Odysseus when he is meeting with his father, Athena arranges things so peace prevails. She doesn’t let tensions flare.
CM: (page 404): It doesn’t get clearer than this (except in a few pages): “She [Ada] examined him [Inman] and did not know him. He appeared to be a beggar in cast-off clothes, rags thrown over a rood of sticks.” Finally Ada does recognize Inman and the reunion begins, with Ada proving she is a worthy companion to him and he is open to her and Ruby being his equals.

And sure enough, when they embrace, Frazier doesn’t hide the comparison with the epic: though Ada has said in a letter to her cousin Lucy that she has grown brown from being outdoors all the time, nevertheless, Frazier writes, “She put a hand to the back of his neck and pulled him harder, and then she pressed her white arms around him as if forever” (page 430).

These lovers, too, have to separate immediately, and here their reunion begins to unravel, because while Inman proves successful in slaying the men who outnumber him – the Home Guard – he is, as we know, killed by a young man, a complete neophyte. Moira has not been kind to Inman. His premonitions – particularly the one he felt when he is forced to kill the bear, an act which violated his own moral code and which perhaps led him to show unearned mercy to the young man he should have killed – have been accurate. Or have they? What is death? What is abundance and life? Page 445 shows us love and peach and death in intertwining ways, gives us an eternity in a single moment. Inman also lives on in the daughter and in the fruition of the plans he and Ada shared with each other, spoke to each other in the short time they were together -- a tale they wove together, so to speak, and which in this story about tales and the things people say to each other becomes significant. There are also so many 3’s in the novel, and Inman and Ada's daughter is 9 in the epilogue, the most magical of magical numbers. Finally, the last story Ada tells -- to the makeshift family she has created in her home -- is of Philomen and Baucis, an old and contented couple who are favored by the gods because of the hospitality they show when some gods come calling. The end of the book hints that though Ada and Inman had such a brief time together, they really had the lifetime they planned. In depicting their end in this ambiguous manner, Frazier asks us to reconsider traditional notions of time and eternity and what love and loss mean. 

10) The major trope of the Odyssey, as it clearly is in CM, is the longing for home, the yearning, despair and hopelessness man sometimes feels. If the Iliad is about the glory of war and man’s place in it, the Odyssey is a more interior story, as CM is. Both focus on man’s psychological pain and inner life as he yearns for the place where he is most cherished. And yet the Odyssey ends well, becoming a bitter and ironic contrast with CM, which is more like the Iliad in showing us that the gods have a plan from which man cannot escape. CM also offers a balm from this painful realization, having as it does a sometimes Native American attitude towards life and death, showing the world, nature and human inhabitants as part of one great wheel, a cycle of life that war takes us out of, to be sure, but which we can enter into again if, like Inman, we choose to walk the long road home with moral courage.

The ending of CM also seems to me more like the Iliad in a way. Achilles' shield is a famous one; it was forged by the gods. On it, scenes of civic harmony, peace and abundance proliferate, scenes that seem to contrast what Achilles is always doing: fighting. The scenes make sense, though, when we consider that warriors fought to protect the peace of civic life, and there was nothing more glorious to a Greek than that life. So Achilles is constantly reminding himself of what he is fighting for, and he knows he will die for that honorable cause. Though he expresses regret over his death in the Odyssey, a book about home and the longing for it, the Iliad reminds us of why he fought. The brave warrior Inman ends up dying, felled as Achilles is, by someone far less experienced than he -- Achilles dies by the poisoned arrow of Paris, the lover, not the fighter. But the world that springs up after is one straight off of Achilles' shield: Ada's farm becomes a place of abundance, peace and fertility, a place where the arts are embraced and flourished. It's true that fate still plays a role in making that happen, but the Greek stories understood fate's power as well. 

* 11) Extending hospitality, kindness to and feeding of strangers, seems to be the most important moral act in which one can engage in the Odyssey and plays almost as strong a role in CM, but CM explores sin and punishment in more depth than does the Greek epic. In that way, CM seems more American, concerned as we Americans are with truth, justice and Our Way.

CM and The Red Badge of Courage:

Henry Fleming, in the famous American tale, deserts the Union army during the Civil War, is ashamed of himself, and then returns to battle to become standard bearer in his unit. Henry is an obvious contrast to Inman, who feels no fear about fighting, is in fact an accomplished warrior, who chooses to desert because of the pointlessness of war. Frazier’s book is dialoguing with ancient and even nineteenth-century attitudes about war and the romanticization of it in society. Inman, in this way, is a post-modern character, the work he’s in, a post-modern one.

Other allusions to American literature:

Names of horses are Ralph and Waldo, and Ada is constantly quoting her father who quotes Emerson. But that also puts us in mind of the American Romantic hero, who, like Emerson, is someone who thinks for himself. Romantic heroes in general put away books and learn through nature and their own observations. Thus, we have Ada and Ruby, Ada being the bookworm who cannot actually make her way in the world, and Ruby, her foil, who is uneducated but who comes to Ada to represent wisdom and knowledge.

Ada never fully puts away her books; Frazier's American-ness blends strongly with an admiration for the classics and for the arts. Instead, this work becomes a post-modern collage of American Romanticism and its characteristic of pursuing one's own personal dream; of the Greek epic as told through an American lens; and of oral tales and histories our world values today.

Inman's desertion is also an American Romantic heroic one, and Inman's adherence to his own internal moral code a strongly American and Romantic ideal. Native American tales and Southern yarns also round out the American-ness of the novel. 

And finally, telling tales:
Humans love to tell stories. Homer’s are some of the world’s oldest; the American yarn is famous as well. Everyone in the book is constantly telling tales, constantly has a story to tell, and yet Ada and Inman sometimes get so tied up in themselves they cannot speak. Ada sends Inman a note with someone else’s words, and she never even mentions that letter to him when he returns. Inman reads from Bartram’s travel book (page 416) at a crucial moment in their reunion. The book, fortunately, lets her know how much he wants her. Inman’s very name suggests his inwardness, his lack of ability to sometimes speak the right thing. So again the book delivers a kind of dialectic between saying and not saying, what we know to be true and what we cannot know, and I think it offers a kind of reconciliation at the end about our roles as the frail humans we are, a condition we try to mitigate with the endless stories we tell about ourselves.

Some of the information from the above post can be found in a very interesting article about Cold Mountain and its similarities with the Odyssey:

"Frazier Polymetis: Cold Mountain and the Odyssey" by Emily McDermott
Click on the link below for access to the article:

Sacred Space: Contemplating Colorado, Diablo III and the Destruction of the Temple

Last night’s shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater is obviously shocking and disturbing, and following on the heels of another upsetting article I happened to read yesterday – about an 18-year-old Taiwanese man who was found dead in an Internet café after a 40-hour marathon session playing the game Diablo III – it got me thinking, as I sometimes do, of the culture we have created.

Today is the first day of Av, which begins the countdown to the Ninth of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. I know that for some the practice of mourning and fasting for the destruction of a two-thousand-year-old building seems perhaps meaningless and outdated.

Sometimes in my daily prayers, I too wonder why I am beseeching God to rebuild the Temple. Do I really want to see animal sacrifice reinstated? Mary had a little lamb and then brought it to the Temple Mount for slaughter? Will I look stupid walking through the Mamilla Mall with a ram trailing behind me?  And won’t PETA be all over Israel and the Jews for this? I mean, doesn’t Israel get enough bad publicity without adding dead cows to the picture?

The shooting in the theater and the death of the video game player, events that have occurred as close as they have to the Ninth of Av, are reminding me of what the Temple and its loss really mean. I teach AP Art History, and if you ask any AP Art History teacher (and this should be pretty easy to do since there are about six of us), the idea of Sacred Space is one we return to in the class repeatedly.

I’m constantly asking my students, Do you see how this society created its sacred space? Do you see what was important to these people and how they chose to honor their God or gods by enclosing space in a particular way and with particular materials? How did they view themselves in relation to their Deity and how did they use their space to honor that relationship?

Lord knows, we have many malls in America, many movie theaters, arenas, Internet cafes, fast-food restaurants. We have abundant choices and areas where we can relax, enjoy ourselves, buy what we need and want. But these areas are not sacred. Sacredness comes from carving out a space in the world where people can contemplate quietly what it means to be human. For religious people, a sacred space is a place to honor and thank God and to remember that our role in the world is to improve it.

The shooting and gaming death are the opposite of what should happen in sacred space.

In addition to art history, I also teach English literature, and I spend a lot of time discussing Gothic literature, its pull, its fascination with the culturally transgressive. I even show Batman Begins in some of my classes, discussing its ‘Gothic-ness’ and the role that the twinning of good and evil plays in depicting how easily people can slip from good to bad. Most people know that stories should stay in books and movies, but some do not.

We don’t yet know the motives of the killer in the movie theater, but it seems to me that both he and the gamer in the Internet cafe got lost in stories they could not get out of. One ended up hurting only himself, but the other enacted a sick and twisted tale on others.

As a teacher and lover of the arts, I often ponder, with my students and alone, what role art should play in the world, and it seems to me that art should always make us think. Rihanna came under fire last year for making a video in which she kills a man who has raped her. Her initial response was that she is an artist, and it is not her duty to monitor what children or people view. It’s her job to make art.  

Art often uses violence as an aesthetic tool. Remember Andre Breton’s famous claim in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and tiring blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” That’s an eerily accurate description of what happened in the Colorado movie theater and what the Diablo III player was busy doing in his game when he forgot to feed himself, sleep and live.

I don’t think it’s art’s role, necessarily, to get you to do the right thing. That’s the job of ethics and morality, and, because I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’d add, religion.

Judaism, like the cultures my students and I study in art history, places a premium value on sacred space. And the tragic events of the past few days – to which I’d add the murder and injury of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria – remind me that no movie theater or Internet café is going to show us how to be moral agents.

The public spaces we have created for ourselves, so abundant in America, the malls and movie theaters, the restaurants and coffee houses, will never teach us that our primary role in the world is to help, not hurt, others. We need more spaces where we can go not to indulge in or plug into dark and deep desires, but where we can find ethical sustenance and food for the soul.

This Ninth of Av, it seems to me meaningful and timely, then, to mourn the loss of the most sacred space that my people once created and to think that rebuilding it might offer the world some of the moral nourishment such a place should supply.