Every semester, I must convince two thirds of my high school students that poetry is worth reading. First, we cover the most common mistake with poetry: Do not read it like you would prose. A newspaper article that doesn’t

yield its meaning on the first read means the journalist hasn’t done her job; a poem that yields all its meaning on the first read means the poet hasn’t done her job.

Step 2: We examine two very different notes about my failure to cut the grass as a teen. First, my mother, then my father’s:

Dear Jim: Yesterday, you didn’t…

Why people avoid short fiction

The most common reaction among high school students at the end of a short story is, “Huh? I don’t get it!”

Adults often have the same opinion.

People often don’t enjoy “short stories” because the term is a misnomer. Like most novels, a short story has a beginning, middle, and end — except the end is abrupt, as if pruned by the author. Like a rose, the pruning gives it a special life.

Take “Cathedral” (1981) by Raymond Carver. It’s about a blind man, Robert, who visits a woman who, years earlier, used to read to him when they lived…

Millennials find it a bore

The Great Gatsby is no longer great. Maybe it never was. I first read it in high school in the 1970s and recently taught it to high school juniors. I understand why it was a smashing success when published; every era loves to read about itself.

But what exactly has given the novel legs since its publication 95 years ago? It didn’t much work with my juniors, because of their scant knowledge of how World War I launched the merrymaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.

Secondly, Gatsby’s brazen wealth doesn’t shock today’s kids —…

All the News that Fuels Your Worry

If news coverage of COVID-19 is getting you down, read on…

That unstoppable anxiety generator, The New York Times, is once again covering a singular event with such breadth and depth that it’s hard to know what news angle its staff is missing. You’d think its editors, knowing the Apocalypse is near, have dispatched reporters to cover every last bit of life before the world blows up. Political, scientific, and human interest stories and charts on everything you might want to know about COVID-19, direct or ancillary, it’s all there. But in the…

Maybe COVID-19 comes with a positive.

Photo by McKaela Lee on Unsplash

I’m a high school English teacher. I’ve been teaching on-line for 10 days. Some classes have been surprisingly productive; others decay because of technology fails and student temptation to multi-task.

My students arrive in Google Meet for their 80-minute class having read a text. For the first 30 minutes, we discuss it; then I assign an in-class writing assignment; we log off so they can work; the final 25 minutes are spent discussing the assignment. They must share their work to receive credit.

The novelty of on-line learning helped propel the first week. However…

Luca and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birthday

A tale of the worst birthday party ever — if you’ve had worse, my hat goes off.

Story by Judith Voirs; illustrated by Ray Cruz; Atheneum Books for Young Readers

My son, Luca, was turning thirteen. He stated in no uncertain terms he didn’t want a party — neither with friends nor family. Nada. Niente. Nicht.

My wife, who worried what posterity might say about why there was no evidence of the special event in the family photo album, decided that “no party” was not an option.

A week before the mid-March day, she asked Luca where he wanted to celebrate with his…

My students viscerally relate to the protagonist’s integrity, savvy, generosity, and even hatred.

As a high school teacher, I find new novels to teach by reading The New York Times obituaries. That’s how I discovered Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years (1957), which has, in my opinion, one of the most complex female characters in literature. The tale resonates especially with female students, who viscerally relate to the protagonist’s integrity, savvy, generosity, and even hatred. The tale is set in Japan’s early Meiji period (the late 19th-century), when the patriarchy was resisting modern ideas then trickling into the nation.

The story…

Don’t over-react when your teen doesn’t give a hoot. Things change.

Want to better understand the teen rebel under your roof? Look no further than Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1959).

Colin Smith lives in an English working class neighborhood and turns to petty crime after the death of his father. His actions are, in part, a reaction to the niggardly death benefit provided by the factory where his father toiled for decades. He’s also enraged at his mother, who’s lavishing the newfound money on her “fancy man” (whom she was seeing well before her husband’s…

A Rockefeller Center tree on its way to holiday glory.

My grandparents had a neighbor named Anna Lanza. She was lonely because her husband worked evenings as a waiter at Sardis in Times Square. He was home late. She was so lonely, in fact, that on some evenings, she turned on her radio and danced around her apartment with a broom. My father watched from across the alley.

One Christmas Eve about 9 p.m., Anna showed up at my father’s apartment with a ragged Christmas tree. She said it was being discarded by a man who’d been selling them on Ninth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street, in the Italian/Irish neighborhood of…

Miss Virginia C. Bullock (1910–84) was fussy, cranky, and anxious. But she kept her family in one piece during trying times.

(This article, under the title “The Piecing of Her Past,” first appeared in The New York Times on October 26, 1997.)

SHE handed me the shopping list. This is how it read the first week and, with few exceptions, for hundreds of weeks after that.

2 qts. milk (latest date)

2 sticks Fleischmann’s Margarine (light)

2 bananas, not terribly ripe

Del Monte ‘’French’’ cut string beans


Scott’s Liquid Gold (sale size)

3 thin-skinned lemons

1 box Kleenex (pop-up only)

3 cans Canada Dry ginger ale

Whole roasted chicken — UNCUT!

Exactitude was the province of Miss Virginia C. Bullock. I did her grocery shopping for 10 years until she died in 1994 at the age of 84, and I learned early that there was…


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