On Evil (and Forgiveness)

My thoughts as an English teacher on the lessons of The Holocaust, and as an American woman on the Las Vegas shooting:

I challenged my students to write about forgiveness, as it relates to their own lives, after watching a short film about a Holocaust survivor named Eva (BuzzFeed). She made peace with the doctors of Auschwitz who performed tests on her and her twin sister. We’re studying Night by Elie Wiesel.

On Evil

(written today)

Man, it it is not easy to teach Night or the Holocaust in general. The atrocities and sadness weigh on us as we sometimes fight back tears reading the intensely personal story. But, it makes a lasting impression. It’s one of the books I vividly remember studying in high school, whereas many fade or – let’s be honest – may not have been read in the first place.

I have a hard time teaching it in some ways because what exactly is the lesson? To make sure history doesn’t repeat the senseless horror? The stupidity? The bystanders? The problem of people who follow orders out of fear? Perhaps, the only useful thing we can take from the story is the plea to do better, to say something, to stand up to evil as we see it in our own lives. (Or in Eva’s case, the power of forgiveness.)

The problem with evil is it’s invisible. Who or what do we stand up to? Oftentimes, like recently in the horrific Las Vegas shooting, evil evades accountability with a self-inflicted rifle shot to the head. A loner, a red blip who surfaces to destroy, then submerges back into death, or anonymity, until the next time. Whatever motivated this man – did it die with him? Or is it breeding in the confused heart of another somewhere across the nation? When rationality, explanation, and sense fail, maybe it is just evil left. And how do you wrap your head around evil? I thought I didn’t believe in evil.

It defies logic, confuses, saddens, disappears. It leaves us with answerless questions. To paraphrase from Night, there is a power in a question which is lost with the answer. The power of evil and the answerless questions it leaves in its wake dumbfound us. We want to make it about guns, to take sides, to be right, to gain traction in our grappling, but we just can’t. It doesn’t get us anywhere. We’re left holding only the haunting residue of that which can’t be explained.

(Funny. I was just going to type up my response to Forgiveness, and not post about teaching on this blog for once. And now I’ve gone off on a tangent about Las Vegas. I never said this blog wouldn’t be rambling. And these thoughts are colliding this week. )

On Forgiveness

(written last Friday)

Forgiveness is perhaps the most powerful force anyone has at their disposal. True forgiveness is available to anyone. It’s free, but it takes work.

Read more On Forgiveness here…



On Forgiveness

I challenged my students to write about forgiveness, as it relates to their own lives, after watching a short film about a Holocaust survivor named Eva (BuzzFeed). She made peace with the doctors of Auschwitz who performed tests on her and her twin sister. We’re studying Night by Elie Wiesel.

(Written last Friday. The forgiveness I know about is so much less than the forgiveness of those who like Eva, came to forgive the people who inflicted horrific violence on them.)

Forgiveness is perhaps the most powerful force anyone has at their disposal. True forgiveness is available to anyone. It’s free, but it takes work.

Your first reaction is to punish the person who hurt you, as if somehow your anger or withholding will teach them a lesson. The truth is the withdrawal of love will only bankrupt your own heart and make you bitter. Forgiveness is the only way out. It’s empowering and maybe even selfish in some ways.

So what does forgiveness require? Empathy. You have to take on that person’s actions, see their errors, maybe even imagine their own pride, their own ego trappings, and beneath that, their own softening and willingness to exchange love instead of hate. This place of softness in another may be real or imagined, but I imagine and believe that each of us is love underneath it all. We must be. As human beings, we simply must be. And that’s why it’s so painful to witness others acting outside of that truth.

Forgiving someone – even if they never actually apologize – is genuine. Forgiving someone – even if it’s only in your own heart – is healing.

The reason forgiveness is so healing is rather simple. When you wish to truly forgive someone, you replace the hurt with love. You can’t just say it, think it, and it’s done. It takes time. If we look to the words of our teacher, Christ, he says, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” We know not what we do. In our own perspectives, we all have blind spots. We all have hardened places that hold up our ego, our persona, and our personal belief systems.

In our unwillingness to bend, to remain rigid, to hold up those walls, we sometimes sacrifice connection. Whenever possible, offering forgiveness may salvage that connection. When it is impossible to forgive another directly, forgiving them in our own heart might save our own softness, vulnerability, and capacity for love and happiness.


Design Work

Between advising the yearbook and planning a wedding last year, I have had some design fun.

Yearbooks, man! They’re a nine month endeavor. We call the book our “baby.” The kids work so hard, we open up the present, we smell the newly printed pages!

And then we find out all of our mistakes. We do the best we can to correct them – as I have been doing all morning.

But, now I’m on lunch break. So I’m having some fun.

Just sharing some of my work that I think is pretty cool!

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Thanks for taking a gander!

Dreaming of Truth in 2017


I’m still reeling from the fragmented fairytale of the American dream.

I was publicly educated to believe in American ideals, and everywhere I have looked, for as long as I can remember, I have seen hypocrisy. I hate to sound so dramatic. I do know people who live their values, but the larger system is corrupted by capitalism. It’s maddening that money is power and that power is becoming absolute.

If we’re going to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and keep indulging our youth in this dream, then as a society don’t we have to be accountable to those values somewhere? Shouldn’t it all add up? Or do people really prefer to remain deluded?

The Dream and the Dreamers, as described by Ta’Nehisi Coates, are devastating to everyone in this country, regardless of race. The Dream keeps the privileged afloat, buoyant in their arrogance and entitlement. It puts the privileged in an awkward position: wake up and be disillusioned or dream on ever batting away the nagging feeling that something doesn’t add up.

I want to talk about value, values, truth, and hope in America right now.

First of all, what has value? Money is the class-maker, the vacation-taker, and the wealth-faker. Many of us live in debt, terrified of being poor. Poverty, like a sickness, or worse, a sentence, looms above us.

Values used to come from church, I think. Maybe also from schools. Certainly from parents. As an educator, “Go to college so you can get a good job” doesn’t cut it. We’re equating the only value of an education with monetary reward. Dear God. I thought that was absolutely the stupidest thing I had ever heard when I was in high school. That logic is still circulating today.

I think I became a teacher because one of the few altruistic, and yes noble, people I came into contact with as a young person was a teacher. She introduced me to transcendentalism, Romanticism, the idea of an elevated life rich in art, beauty, and truth. It was just a taste, but left just enough residual intrigue and I had enough admiration for this single person to throw myself into an English Education program and find out what that was like. I never wanted to be somebody telling some kid to go to college to make money. I wanted to be the opposite. I wanted to bring value to learning. And I don’t believe that wealth should be the only thing that affords a rich existence.

If we worship money, if we hate poverty, if we reward greed, and we allow babies to be born in wildly uneven circumstances, if we allow vast fortunes to be inherited, then let’s quit saying that we’re an undivided country, with liberty and justice for all, and just tell ourselves the truth.

You see the problem with me is that I believed the lie, the dream, the once upon a time vision now corrupted before me.

And I don’t want to let it go. It’s not like I can just change, because I want to believe. Those ideals are beyond political, or idealistic; they’re deeply spiritual and human. I do believe that within us all, we want to tap into those values and live a life rich beyond imagination. Some people may not even know that exists. My dream is for all people to know their potential and the potential for greatness that lives in them. To truly be equal and  have self-worth and develop their personal strengths – their heart songs.

I think this is what men, women, and children were made for.

The Most Boring State To Drive Through

“Look at how pretty the grass is.”

“You’re the only person who consistently comments on that,” he said.

I thought about it.

That’s because I’m always startled and then momentarily consumed by the nuanced beauty of the prairie. It’s like déjà vu every time I experience this feeling behind the wheel, as I’m blasting through hundreds of miles of country. Picking out tints and threads of tufts and noticing larger smudges of rich color that stretch across the whole field or sky. It matters not whether I’m creeping up over a mountain pass or flying through the plains, but I do have a special, and maybe even somewhat unique affinity for North Dakota, unique in that it’s one usually reserved for natives of the state.

I revel in the reverie the prairie awakes in me because once, it was not known to me. When I was a child, I thought the country brown and tan and dead. Barren, sun-scorched, brittle, dry, and ugly. The enormous wind would knock me about. The wind would burn my cheeks and tangle my hair. My mom concurs; that’s the way she saw it as a kid, too. But something happens over time that turns it to treasure.

As I grew older, sunsets serenaded me. The sunset would hold me captive from so far away on the other side of the car window. My friends and I listening to some long ago song in an old car would wind down the road together, letting the golden hour cast warmth over our tender faces, emblazon strands of hair that bobbed along in the atmosphere of adolescent meditation. In the backseat was me: always imagining ways to paint the cathedral windows I saw in the kaleidoscope of bare black tree branches and the surreal sky that lay behind, sometimes catching with a start the whites of my own upturned eyes reflected in the window as I looked out.

Maybe next it was the slow promenade of clouds dragging massive shadows in their wake across the pale fields. Then dissipating and regathering wisps of white on a sky blue day. Then pure, raging electricity that was palpable when a thunderstorm arrived. Or a myriad of colors in a single field, a whole rainbow in tones.

I guess I can’t help commenting on the beauty of this place we get to call home.

So I Did Make Art

I finally made it to a Figure Drawing class. It was great! Art, I forget, is really relaxing and also makes time fly for me. It’s kind of like exercise. It seems like it will take your energy, but it actually charges you up. I really need to keep this in mind.

Here are some drawings that I did the other night.

Teaching: my thoughts on this day

As a person who holds the profession in esteem, I constantly question if I am “good enough” to teach. It’s such a unique career, and I think a lot about what my students need from me, and the truth is I can’t be everything to everyone.

Some days I think my students really need a teacher who knows they care about them on a personal level, to develop relationships with my students that will help them get through the day, get through high school. I have students who pop in and they just need me to see them, to support them in that small way, maybe even just make them feel like they belong somewhere in the building for a minute or two.

Other days, I think they need a teacher who will provide rigor and challenges. Some days I know they need a break, and some time to just be kids. I try to provide a balance and I strive to create engaging content and assignments. It kind of feels like feeding a ravenous beast with an insatiable appetite. They come into my classroom each day and, rightfully so, expect to be taught something, to do something interesting. (I’m under no delusion that all students find my class interesting, at the very least, they expect to have their time occupied.)

I have freshmen and they range in maturity, interest levels in the curriculum (or in school period), attention, quickness in work… they’re people and so of course they’re all different. Differentiation is a nice thought, but I have yet to meet a teacher who is able to plan 3 different lessons for each class period.

It’s challenging for me to see – or believe I see – what they each need and at least try to meet their needs… all while lesson planning, grading, running a yearbook staff, etc.. I think you almost need a degree of separation, to hide your heart a little bit, and to shelter yourself from the constant needs of students, just to make it through the week. But, I have a really hard time dong that.

I have students who I worry about because they’re crying or suffering anxiety, depression, or poor self-esteem. I wonder what kind of relationships they have outside of school.

There are students who I see developing a positive relationship with peers and with me as their teacher, and I love those moments. Those moments where I see students growing and becoming stronger, healthier, and feeling good about it. I love when there is the right culture going in a class. When we have hit the sweet spot: the kids are engaged, there’s just a touch of humor in play, the kids are respectful and know their boundaries. Those moments are awesome. And if that’s what teaching was for 8 hours a day I would be on Cloud 9, feeling like I just won the Super Bowl everyday. But then there are those other class periods.

Where kids are so disrespectful and rude. This is what I have a serious problem with. It is incredibly difficult to deal with adolescents who are testing their boundaries, pushing the limits, and they’re doing it in a negative way. I try to withhold energy from them, but that is extremely difficult to do when they’re being disruptive. Those classes make me think perhaps I am not cut out for this job. Those classes test me every single day. (Okay, its not even those classes – it’s one class I have this semester. But it seems like there’s always one in every semester!)

Sending kids to detention. Why do I have such a problem with writing kids up? I think I hold them to a level of maturity that I want for them, but that they don’t have yet. When I send a kid to go get “punished,” then I feel like they aren’t coming to the realization that what they’re doing is wrong and they’re missing that opportunity to grow. When a student can come to that realization themselves and self-correct, that’s what I aim for and like to see. When that doesn’t happen, I really struggle.

I don’t like having to interrupt the lesson at hand to focus on disciplining one student. I also think if I send them to the office, a lot of times that doesn’t correct the behavior, and what am I going to do? Send them to the office every single day? So it’s a really helpless feeling and it isn’t fair to the student, myself, or the rest of the class.

If this kid were an employee of mine, they’d be long ago fired. If they were a friend, they’d be long ago forgotten. But that’s the thing, when you’re a teacher, you’re just kind of stuck with the kids, all of them: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Now I know you oughtn’t to stick kids into buckets with labels, and trust me I’d love for them to level up, but sometimes, they just keep breaking your heart.

So in a day, I just run through so many different emotions, and like I said, I respect the profession. I respect all  of my students’ time. I feel like there’s too much at stake. Maybe I take my job too seriously. Maybe I’m making myself way too available to my students. I am not sure if I can change that… that might be an essential part of my personality. I can work on it, though.

So this was my first pretty emo post. Ha ha. Send happy vibes my way if you feel so inclined. I’ll be back at it tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

Empathy in The Odyssey

  1. I’m getting close to the end of the semester and my class has just finished Part I of The Odyssey (required text), and we’ll hopefully complete Part II next week.
  2.  I need to have my freshmen students write a multi-paragraph narrative.
  3. I recently attended the #NCTE2016 conference in Atlanta.

In Atlanta, the most inspiring to me were the sessions that recommended, or rather insisted upon bringing your own talents and passions into the classroom. What really drew me to teach English in the first place was the American Transcendentalists. I don’t even teach Junior English currently, but I still love to find ways to make the curriculum relevant or put a twist on it, by bringing in things that I find truly interesting, so that hopefully I can hook some students into that, too. ELA is so flexible that way.

Additionally, I sometimes have to just roll with the curriculum, even if it isn’t something I’m an expert in, like The Odyssey. After teaching The Odyssey for the second time, I do enjoy it because the students get into it: the gods, the hero, the adventure. I also insist on the students reading the text translation closely, and I read it with them. I enjoy the role of the translator so to speak, and I think they need it to really appreciate the story. But, I digress.

Several different educators were working with digital storytelling, empathy, and personal narratives, sometimes all three at once! Herein lies my challenge. I am trying to figure out exactly how to combine The Odyssey, personal narrative, the Hero’s Journey, and empathy.

To create this assignment, I am informed by these ideas, the following quotes, and hopefully, the writing of this post.

From Homer: “Yet, taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other’s good, and melt at other’s woe.”

From Joseph Campbell: “The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it’s really a manifestation of his character. It’s amusing the way in which the landscape and conditions of the environment match the readiness of the hero. The adventure that he is ready for is the one he gets.”

From a blog I stumbled upon, on The Hero’s Inner Journey: “It is the story of fulfillment. But it is not one that is readily seen, and instead must be perceived through the interpretation of the plot and empathizing with the hero’s ever evolving character. Now within this internal journey, there are three basic character arcs:

  1. To risk being who you really are. The hero learns to stand up for who he is regardless of what others think.

  2. To risk doing what is right. The hero does the honest thing in spite of the consequences.

  3. To risk connecting with others. The hero opens up to relationships even if they bring trouble and sorrow.

I think the three basic character arcs will ultimately be the most helpful in planning this assignment.

I’d love to have students create a narrative and a digital storytelling piece to accompany it. One example I saw showed the students’ voiceover along with stop-motion, illustrations, film, or photography.

The thing that struck me as so special about this assignment was that the focus was on empathy and teaching students how to a) be vulnerable, and b) experience empathy.

So the students described being an outsider (the accompanying text was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton). Now, I realize The Odyssey is a bit more of a stretch, but  I think I can pull it off.

Currently, I’m thinking of having my students work in pairs to do a close reading activity with the quotes from Homer and Campbell.

I have a series of empathy articles that I will have my students jigsaw.

Then, I’ll introduce the idea of The Hero’s Inner Journey and the character arcs, with special emphasis on: risk, consequences, trouble, sorrow, and empathy.

These activities will lead into the narrative assignment:

Choose the basic character arc that you can relate to the most and tell the story of your own Inner Hero’s Journey.

This is my rough draft anyway…. I’d be interested to hear any feedback. Thanks for reading!

10 Easy Steps: How to survive Thanksgiving (without talking about Trump or DAPL)

I’m heading into Trump Territory to eat turkey with my family in a few hours.

I voted for HRC and I support resistance to fossil fuels in most cases. North Dakota went something like 70/30 for Trump and people are decided about the protests: “Those outsiders are stirring up trouble and they gots to go.” Add the recent alt-right victories and people are coming unhinged. Some of the social media comments even advocate for killing these protestors. Really. Look for yourself. They won’t be too hard to find. They are pretty much applauded for taking this hard stance.

After posting my thoughts on the violence of Sunday night’s tactics toward water protectors, as they like to be called, I was treated to an appetizer course in what lies in store for me six hours down the road.

I do not want to spend my holiday arguing politics or pipelines.

Here’s a list. I’m writing it more for myself than for anyone else:

  1. Come bearing gifts. Bring a bottle of wine, a pie, or hot-dish to your mother/aunt/uncle/brother. In my case, it will definitely be wine. And beer.
  2. When the pipeline issue surfaces, and it will, do not under any circumstances, make it your responsibility to inform or argue the points of the water protectors.

    Instead, ask how this can all be resolved.

    What most locals want is for these people to leave. Well, how is that wish to be granted?

    Hint* The so-called rioters aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They believe passionately in their cause.

  3. It’s not a black and white issue. There are idiots on both sides. There are also people who have the best intentions on both sides. (By sides, I am referring to police and protesters, and those who support them.) Deescalate the situation by acknowledging that there are jerks on both sides.
  4. Do not try to argue the cause for the protesters. I repeat, do not try to argue their cause. It is up to them to do that themselves. And it will just raise your blood pressure.
  5. Play Cards Against Humanity. Yeah. With your mom. It’ll be fun. Get the wine.
  6. Watch Elf. Or Home Alone. Or one of those stop-motion Christmas movies.
  7. Don’t talk about Broadway.
  8. Pray that Trump will just let us all enjoy our holiday and stay the hell off of Twitter for the next week. At least until we have to go back to work next Monday. For the love of God.
  9. Pretend that Donald Trump does not exist. Just for a few days. We owe it to ourselves to take a trip back to that alternate reality we lived in before Election Night.

  10. Don’t forget. All the troubles of the world will still be there next week. So, if you’re like me and you feel like you’re heading into a war-zone (because you kind of are actually), prepare yourself to relax, avoid, and deescalate. You may feel passionately about these things. That’s okay. You still can. Remember that you love these people. They’re your family.

Does it seem like my mantra is to avoid? Well, it is and it isn’t. Like, I said, these issues aren’t going anywhere, but I really don’t want to spend my break trying to convince people to see things my way. I don’t want to hear their opinions. I know what they are. I’ve been watching. I don’t need anybody to repeat talking points for me. I just want to enjoy my couple of days off. Sorry not sorry?

I might head down to Standing Rock to witness what is happening there. If I do, I’ll probably blog about it.

About Little Bit

My name is Elizabeth Jane Fordahl, though most people call me Liz.

(Sooner or later I’m going to have to file some kind of affidavit about that. )

When I was just little, my family called me “Little Bit,” I guess because it sounds like Elizabeth. It doesn’t get much cuter than that.

I’m named after my grandmother, Elizabeth Jane Small, then Swenson, finally McCormick. She went by Betty Jane. She probably signed Betty Jane, not Elizabeth. She probably had to file an affidavit of identity a few times.

My grandma was a rancher’s wife and she was married twice. Her first husband, Bill, drowned in the Missouri River, leaving behind his wife and four children. Grandma Betty remarried, Gene, and raised a family of seven, my mother being the baby of that big family. Blended families were far less common back then I think it is safe to say. I never knew that my aunties were “half-aunts” or anything like that. Although, in retrospect, it is quite obvious that the family genes are not all the same, in the way that my aunts look. I have uncles, too. One, dear Monte, the entire family’s love, who passed away early into his life. He is survived by three beautiful children who now have their own adult families. The fact that my mother was the baby of the family makes my siblings and I the babies of the grandchildren for the most part. My little brother is the youngest on both sides. He’s twenty-one.

My mother and Uncle Monte used to make salsa together. She used to harvest chokecherries and squeeze out all of that tart juice by hand through cheesecloth to make syrups and jellies. We make lefse about once a year. My mother always baked fresh sourdough bread when we were growing up. We always wanted store-bought bread instead. She has always collected antiques. She has long since repurposed an old foot pedal sewing machine as an end table, she owns a harpsichord, and there are little tins of Albert’s tobacco and other things sitting around somewhere. We took piano lessons and ballet, jazz, and tap.

My mom plays piano and guitar and is a devout John Prine fan. Yes, devout.

She went to graphic design school before computers did everything and she painted giant signs in our basement for extra cash when we were kids. She made us rhubarb slushies back then, too. Don’t worry. I’ll get all these recipes up here…someday.

My dad also grew up on a ranch. I always say that my mom’s family were cowboys and my dad’s family were farmers. My mom’s family Catholic, my dad’s Lutheran. My mom’s family threw wild branding parties; my dad’s family attended pot lucks in church basements.

My dad’s mother, Henrietta, is one of those women who is bordering on sainthood. That’s how I see her. She always has a way of explaining things like, “That’s just the way God made her,” or “Well, that’s completely natural and nothing to be ashamed of.” Everything just so, just the way it is, simple. Always serves dessert. Always has lemonade. Had a bin in her house that would maybe be filled with potatoes and onions at your grandma’s house, but was always filled with candy at hers. She is originally from Wisconsin and my grandpa from North Dakota. They courted each other with a letter-writing correspondence and I know she has them all saved somewhere.

My dad is a product of the lonely prairie. He grew up forty miles out from the nearest town and he always said we kids were lucky to have paved roads to ride our bikes on. We lived on that ranch for a short time, when I was in the fourth grade. We were the first on the bus, and the last off. I think we got on the bus before 6:00 a.m.. Often when we visited there, my cousin and sister and I would play dress-up and take “old-fashioned pictures.” No smiles. The place just had that kind of feel to it. That homestead feel. (My favorite book when I was little was “The Courage of Sarah Noble” by Alice Dalgliesh. It’s a book about a girl who helps her settler father out in the wilderness while her mother and siblings stay back home.)

So my dad is typically Lutheran, Scandinavian, and from the prairie in many ways. In other words, a somewhat instrospective, very hard-working, deep-thinking, stand-up man, who grew up on the world’s prettiest sunsets.

I have a sister, a wisp of a woman, and a brother, a smart, funny, and philosophical young guy. My boyfriend is a Detroit Tigers fan who works to represent people, like my family, who own land in our state as we face great changes here in North Dakota. The most handsome possible dog in the world belongs to me. I’ll tell you more later.