Wednesday, August 03, 2011


"Candles in the Wind", oil, by Karen Winters
“Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.”
-- George Eliot, Middlemarch

In this passage, Eliot could just as well be speaking of my English classes, since they often appear to be little more than words and actions “going everywhere impartially” but occasionally “produce[ing] the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement.” The word “scratches” seems fitting, because sometimes that’s what my teaching seems to be – just a scattering of scratches on the surfaces of the students’ minds. After many a class, I have marveled at how little seemed to have been accomplished – how random and roving my instruction seemed to have been, and how slight the students’ progress was. I may as well have been placing random scratches on “surface[s] of polished steel” as teaching English to human beings. However, there are also those days when, at the end of class, everything does seem to slide together in a sensible display of understanding and progress. Eliot says a candle can do this to haphazard scratches, and perhaps, on those days of conquest in the classroom, I could be said to be the candle, shining among our seemingly cluttered activities and producing what appears to be a prize-winning “concentric arrangement.” Perhaps I shouldn’t struggle against the seeming chaos of some of my lessons as we work through them, but simply wait with patience for the “candle” of good teaching to hopefully do its assigned task and turn our chaos into something like a handsome presentation of new knowledge.

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