Archives For “The Man in the Water

Busines_heroThe association of midterm exams with freezing is both literal (I teach in the Northeast) and figurative  (many students “freeze up” during an exam), so at the end of this semester, I took one of the writing standards from the Common Core State Standards  hoping at the very least to stop the “freeze” in the classroom during the exam. Instead of a multiple choice exam with essay questions, I prepared my 12th grade students to write an inquiry paper that would be due the morning of the exam. Yes, even those seniors who had repeatedly assured me that they will never go to college would be tasked with a three to five page paper academic paper that touched on the material that we had read over the course of the semester.

The Common Core State Standard I had in mind was ELA Literacy Standard W.11-12.7:

Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

I admit, the draw for me was the “self-generated question”. We had started the “Hero or Monster” English elective brainstorming the following questions:

  • What is the difference between a hero or monster?
  • What criteria do we use to determine who or what is a hero?
  • What criteria do we use to determine who or what is a monster?

We read about monsters in Louis Stevenson’s  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We read excerpts from Milton’s  Paradise Lost, and we  studied the monsters of mythology (Cyclops, Widiego, Fenris, Leviathan).

We read about heroes in the Iliad and in Roger Rosenblatt’s essay The Man in the Water. We looked at Joseph Campbell’s study of The Hero’s Journey, and we created our own superheroes. Students also read an independent book and determined the hero (or anti-hero) in that text. Finally, we used current events to discuss the monsters and heroes in everyday life.

As the quarter came to a close,  each student had to come up with a “self-generated” question. I was happy to see how these texts had served to inform their line of inquiry. Questions included:

  • Was the hero really a hero before the monsters came along? Does the Hero need a Monster to be a hero?
  • How does our exposure to monsters when we are children inform our views of monsters when we grow up?
  • How does “bad parenting” figure in the development of a monster?
  • How has the criteria of strength in a hero changed since ancient times?

The students had two weeks to frame their questions and find evidence that would support their positions. Our “Bring Your Own Digital Device” (BYOD) policy was an important part of the organization and writing of the paper. Students had access to e-texts, and they had links to sources or discussions that we had placed on the class wiki during the semester. I created a Google doc folder and their papers were available for peer editing or for my comments as they worked. One night, I popped in on a few papers to see their progress. As I was leaving comments on one paper,  I saw the following text appear, “Mrs. Bennett, you are on my paper as I am writing….this is creeping me out.”  Creeping them out or not, I was able to provide guidance as they incorporated citations from the texts we had read in class into their arguments.

I am pleased to write that my gambit for this midterm exam worked. The papers are in, and many exceeded my expectations, proving that the writing standard 7 for grades 11 and 12 that requires a self-generated question is appropriate for this grade level.The self-generated question kept them more engaged because this was their inquiry, and as they wrote,  they came to conclusions that they incorporated into their papers:

Throughout the course of writing this paper, I have come to a surprising realization. It has come to my attention that the heroes that we idolize and fawn over (Hector, Achilles, etc.) are not always as heroic as the everyday, ordinary people who rise to the occasion when chaos ensues.

When Hector went into battle in the Iliad in ancient times, he may have had the same thought as the “Man in the Water” in 1982, the thought that “I might die doing this.” That thought did not stop either of them, and both men are still talked about; they are held high and admired. Time does not change our appreciation of heroes.

Some of these true monsters, (Satan of Paradise Lost and Victor of Frankenstein) have used their cunning ways to confuse or deceive the reader so they cannot be seen as the monsters they are.

The inquiry paper, which does permit the use of the pronoun “I”, has been a much easier way to teach academic research and improve a student’s understanding of an author’s intent. Furthermore, the research students included in their papers reflected a wide range of texts; papers were longer, and the evidence was organized according to information rather than the ubiquitous five-paragraph framework.  More than one student remarked how their fingers seemed to know what to write; more than one told me how the inquiry gave them ideas they found surprising.

While I may not yet know the impact of all the standards from the Common Core, I will state unequivocally that the self-generated question allowed me to successfully measure what students learned about heroes and monsters in both literature and in real-life. Correcting these papers has been less of an “ARRRG!” (insert monster voice) and more of a “Hurray!” (insert heroic cheer!).

Here is how to add an informational text to appease the Common Core State Standards without throwing out literature. Find an exceptionally well-written piece of non fiction and use that informational text as a centerpiece for a thematic unit.

Here is my example: On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into Washington DC’s 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River. There had been a heavy snowstorm which had closed National Airport earlier that day. Improper de-icing procedures were credited as a major reason for the crash; 78 people were killed, four of these fatalities were motorists from the bridge who had been caught in the traffic jam caused by the storm. Only five people were rescued from the icy waters, and their rescue was broadcast live during the evening news. A news media crew, stuck in traffic only a few hundred yards away from the plane crash, filmed one rescuer’s memorable plunge to pull a flight attendant  from the icy water. I remember; I watched that happen live on the evening news.

Twelve days later Roger Rosenblatt’s piece The Man in the Water appeared in TIME magazine (January 25, 1982). His opening paragraph starts with an ordinary sentence, “As disasters go, this one was terrible but not unique, certainly not among the worst on the roster of U.S. air crashes” He continues to comment on the setting, “There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting another and disrupting both.” But then, there is a shift; Rosenblatt suddenly shifts into the kind of figurative imagery usually reserved for poetry:

“Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a single slap of metal on metal. The jets from Washington National Airport that normally swoop around the presidential monuments like famished gulls were, for the moment, emblemized by the one that fell; so there was that detail. And there was the aesthetic clash as well—blue-and-green Air Florida, the name a flying garden, sunk down among gray chunks in a black river.”

Rosenblatt’s purpose was not to comment of the disaster itself, but rather to focus on the actions of one individual who rescued other crash survivors floundering amid the frozen chunks of ice and crash debris floating in the Potomac. This individual Rosenblatt christened “The Man in the Water.”

“Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant moustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and flotation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers.”

Rosenblatt called attention to the other resuers in this disaster including, Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor, a park-police helicopter team and Lenny Skutnik who jumped from shore to drag flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to shore. But it is the “Man in the Water” that Rosenblatt immortalizes in the essay:

“When the helicopter came back for him, the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.”

I use this essay, which is anthologized in an English literature textbook, as the thematic centerpiece for the senior elective Hero or Monster. The essay sets up the essential question: What makes a hero?

There are other resources to use with this text. A National Geographic Video Plane Crash in the Potomac (credit – Discovery/ National Geographic channel Seconds From Disaster)

After reading this essay and watching the video, student are charged to consider what makes a hero in literature. The required reading for the thematic unit will including selections from the Iliad, James Thurber’s short story The Greatest Man in the World, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and an independent reading book. Students will also read about the monomyth or hero’s journey and trace the journey of a hero in a book of their choice.

While Rosenblatt’s essay never identifies the man in the water, forensic experts determined that his name was Arland Dean Williams Jr. Of course, by not naming the man in the water, Rosenblatt suggests anyone can be a hero,and concludes in a memorable last line, “He was the best we can do.” Similarly, if informational texts are required in the Common Core State Standards, than including an essay of this caliber for our students is also the best we can do.