Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pursuing Happiness

Evil Academic Weaver of Webs

Like an academic version of 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, all literature and concepts studied my class connect and then refer back to one another: where we start, we end.  I tell my students that what we learn in my class is like getting caught in a spiderweb: Everything connects together, and like when one walks into a web unknowingly, the web will get stuck to one's face and is annoying to remove. As they can attest (and sometimes protest), Pygmalion, Steinbeck,  The Odyssey, "Priscilla & the Wimps," & Romeo & Juliet, "Cask of Amontillado" et al will forever be stuck in their heads.

My students also picked up on my habit of mimicking Dr. Evil's riiiiiiight, Mr. Burns' "excellent Smithers," in class discussions, but they really fear my evil laugh because they never know what I will come up with next.

But I digress, the point of today's post is to show connections and the pursuits of happiness... Muhahahaha....

Common Threads, Common Core

Literature is a time machine and time so tying History and English classes is appropriate given that many English teachers provide historical context for novels taught in class -- and, of course, there is the Common Core (that is for another post). As part of  the Steinbeck Unit, my fellow 9th grade teachers and I at SRHS tackled the theme of the American Dream analyzing the inability to achieve the dream, the reality of the dream, and how one pursues it while reading Of Mice and Men and The Pearl.  Obvious connections to history include the explanation of the Great Depression and the cultural climate of the 1920's & 30's. Every teacher who has taught Steinbeck has lessons on this. I won't bore you with mine here, but if you are interested in sharing resources, let me know! 

One part of the unit I want to highlight is in defining the American Dream. Identifying the Declaration of Independence as one of the first (if not the first) manifestations  of the American Dream defined as having the "unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," students connected Steinbeck, history, and their own pursuits of happiness. Through textual analysis and some later help from Chris Gardner's film, The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, my students finally realized something that they take for granted: people are not entitled to be happy (ie. the American Dream); people are only entitled to PURSUE it-- everyone is allowed to chase the dream and be happy, but few are able to achieve it. Life and liberty are not a guarantee that one will be happy.   For 9th grade students who are embarking on the transition from childhood to young adulthood, this lesson is extremely relevant and necessary to learn.  

What is at the core of all of this is the notion that in order to achieve anything--- and happiness is an appropriate word to generalize our goals & lump all goals together, because our goals are a manifestation of wanting to be happy in the most simplest terms--- we must be active and move towards it.  As Will Smith's character muses in the clip, Jefferson's word choice is specific:  Why did T.J. use the word pursuit in the declaration?  

I could make this post really long with a lesson on close textual analysis on the Declaration, but I won't today-- if you are interested, I'll send you some materials...keep in mind this is an English teacher's version of interpreting the Declaration. I may be missing some of the finer historical points, but academics aside, I will say that my bicentennial birthday on the 4th of July provides me with a strong personal connection to this text. And I'm a sap for the Star Bangled Banner, too.  A quick point about word choice though: the word "declaration" is a strong word--  that in naming, identifying, knowing what one wants and shouting it aloud, there is finality and commencement inherent in the word: "I know what I want" and/or  "I know that I have achieved it." Is the declaration a beginning or an ending? In teaching critical thinking and analysis skills, students need to learn how to declare and speak with conviction, using strong words. Take a look at this clip from Taylor Mali:

Pursuit & Achievement of Happiness

Many of my friends are noting that I've been spending time poking around on the internet & tweeting & sharing educational stuff. Given that it is summer and technically my time off from teaching, they are perplexed. But, I'll be honest; I really like researching, reading, and writing about education. Poking, tweeting, and sharing relaxes me and makes me happy.  (I can hear your thoughts: "Awwww, how sweet and totally dorky that is! Gag me with a spoon and get me to the beach! Whateverrrrrrr." ) Hey! just because it is summer, doesn't mean my brain shuts down.  

What I have to declare 

I am not declaring my independence; on the contrary, I'm declaring the connections I've made and showing my convictions. My active  pursuit of happiness this summer has lead me to get tangled in an awesome web of learning about technology and flipping instruction, following threads of ideas from...

Cheryl @guster4lovers, 

Andrew @thomasson_engl

Crystal @crystalkirch, 

Karl @kls4711, 

and others on Twitter.  Follow them & check out their blogs too. Links are to the right! 
Who knows what wicked things we'll weave for students!

So, go, be active, pursue what makes you happy and you may just make some new connections and achieve your goals.

BTW, I did it again: made some wacky connections a  la 6 Degrees: Dr. Evil, Steinbeck, Jefferson, Will Smith, Taylor Mali, Twitter...

And can you guess my favorite & overly used literary devices?  Provide 3 examples from this post and you'll earn a gold start! 


  1. I really like what you're saying here! Great post! Some of your comments sound eerily like me: we're both English teachers, who teach Of Mice and Men, both share Pursuit of Happyness with others, both connect it all to the American Dream theme (i like the declaration of independence as a informational text to include in the unit this year! Got to hit CCSS 9-10.RI.9 somehow!), both are enjoying our "summers off" being tech explorers despite the befuddlement of co-workers, both love Edmodo, and, well, that's six. I'm sure there's more. May we share in expanding our invisible "webs" of connectivity by being Edmodo connections? Guess I'll find out!

  2. Thanks Rob for your comments! As you know, the texts & documents have to be relevant to students or we lose our audience. The D of I was an obvious choice considering the themes we study in 9th grade. We've also looked at presidential speeches and found one by Reagan after the Challenger explosion and the other by G.W. Bush after the Columbia disaster. Great for comparing & contrasting!

    BTW, I accepted your Edmodo connection! :-)