Traveling the World

This past semester I chose travel as a theme for my high school classes. What I expected: a clever way to explore World Literature –travel the world from your chair!–but something else came, something I hadn’t fully anticipated.

My fascination and passion surrounding the voices of authors, homegrown and from further afield, surges each year. I keep waiting for my job to get old. Yet every single day, I joyfully dive into the pages of books searching for ways to help connect odd couples — youth bursting with ideas and questions and great authors entreating conversation. This past term middle schoolers and high schoolers examined the works of Dumas, Coelho and Homer (as well as Wordsworth, Shelley and St. Vincent Millay). The questions raised make what I do the best job ever. Who else do you know grapples with defining justice, the corrosive impact of deceit, the concept of destiny and free will, the fervent hope and strength of a woman who is cast in the role of victim but surprises everyone, and the balancing act of contemplation and observation?

I anticipated the meaningful discussions students would lead. I expected writing analytical essays, especially from a group of academically inclined and prepared middle schoolers. What I hoped for, but didn’t dare presume was the impact of a focus on travel writing for another of my groups. Most of the students in the group/class who worked on travel writing could write a reasonably logical 5 paragraph essay. While evident was the need to tweak this and that, and learn such and such to improve writing, something hadn’t seemed so obvious: the detrimental impact of the five-paragraph essay. I had inspired plenty of bored students to improve and build confidence, but had I simply overlooked their disconnection to the question of why do we write?

Over the course of a semester, we wrote about must-see places and must-do events — both locally and abroad. Students wrote and reviewed each other’s work for elements of persuasion, information, description, narrative elements, and entertainment. We analyzed how other writers tackled subjects. Was it the intimate trusting writing community we had built, the examination of good writers (and a few poor ones) or had I hit upon an authentic, mixed-genre essay curriculum that promoted student engagement? Our time together covered the mechanics of writing and we discussed various topics, but most importantly, we honored the purpose of putting a bunch of words on a page. Students who truly wanted to communicate with each other and the world began reaching into the depths of their capability. How do we express the beauty of something heavenly? How do we inspire others to discover the joys of hot ballooning or the eccentric sculptures of desert artisans in a rare once a year event? Who will read our words? Does what we write matter?

This past semester what we wrote mattered to each other. This semester we will take another step towards publishing, to cast our words out on the sea of human discourse. We’ll also toss more research skills into the mix and explore how media colors the process of writing. I’m hoping the travel writing class I took at Stanford will enrich the writing experience of students.

I can say that while I always enjoy the shift that happens in January as we turn or deepen our learning, I don’t remember when I was this excited about what my students will bring to the table, er… page.


What is Love?

This student post was generated from an assignment while reading Twelfth Night— a play that focuses on love’s many forms and the foolishness of love.  Evelyn writes of love from a thirteen year old perspective:

What is love? A complicated question, a complicated answer. . . .I don’t know much about love to be quite honest. This is just what people say. I’ve definitely been lucky enough to experience love from my parents, my brother, and maybe 3 other people, but I’ve yet to experience a different type of genuine love- from friendships of people my own age, from my first love, my future husband, my future child. What CAN I really say about love? I would not even know how to describe such a powerful thing I have not fully experienced . . .

I’ve gathered that love can fade. It’s not something meant to last forever. And those who are lucky enough to experience it in its fleeting (sometimes one moment, sometimes sixty years fleeting moments) can happily say they’ve lived a full life. . . .  What’s funny about love is that we chase after it. But truly, it is love that controls [us]. It is the biggest motivator, the biggest jerk, the worst heartbreak, the deepest despair, the ray of hope. Love is all of those things. So why do people risk everything, feel everything, just for love? Some for validation, some for no more loneliness, some just want to be loved. Everyone needs someone. Someone to hold [us] when life gets hard, someone to share your joy with, someone to get you through everything, a rock, a personal support group. Someone who will bring you flowers on your birthday and simply repeat over and over that they love you.

There is simply no way around that. Deep down, everyone wants to be loved. To be accepted. I feel terrible when I see “alone people.” My heart squirms and squeezes at the pain those people are going through.

. . . I’m going through a period right now where I feel alone sometimes. Actually, let me rephrase that. There will ALWAYS be times when you will be alone. When I see people pushing themselves through life, hugging themselves, cheering themselves up, I realize and take note that that must take so much strength and perseverance for them to push themselves out of bed every day. It is utmost important to not confuse ‘lonely’ with being ‘alone’, ‘my own person’ with someone who cannot exist without other people. Those are people feeders. They take so much time and energy because they themselves do not have enough strength to take themselves out of bed. So they prey on other people’s kindness, on their pity. Others are always at blame for their own mistakes and they always need something from you. The best you can do for those people is leave them alone. They must realize that love is first born from within, not stolen from others.

. . . Self-love is probably the hardest love, as it means accepting all of yourself while remaining non-egotistical and non-narcissistic. I myself have two voices in my head. One is the kind complimenter, and the other is a harsh critic. Love both and you will be in balance.

For all the LONELY (NOT ALONE) people out there, you must realize first and foremost, you are your own best friend. LONELY PEOPLE: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. … Lonely: sad because one has no friends or company. Alone: having no one else present; on one’s own, solo. All of this brings me back to the question: what is so funny about love? Well, my friends, the answer is quite simple: We chase love when we must first love ourselves. It all starts and ends with us, with you. Love yourself.



A Simple Gesture

Connecting to literature with a simple gesture.

This year I feel like a traveler.   My students and I are in discovery mode. The theme for my small groups is travel literature, and though I’m staying put physically, I’ve chosen texts with journeys written by authors from various countries. We will inevitably discuss the Journey of a Hero (and a Heroine) and explore the demons that human beings battle, the mentors who guide us, and the muses that inspire us.

While I use novels I’ve taught a few years earlier, I always include a few texts that I haven’t taught recently, and at least one new title I have never taught. Teaching homeschoolers demands modification of curriculum from year to year, so those that return several years in a row aren’t reading the same titles. But this isn’t the only reason I change the text line up: new texts keep me on my toes, help me avoid dusty stale lessons, and remind me why I teach literature. I also love meeting delightful new friends as I research and construct curriculum.

One such new friend happens to be Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “An Ancient Gesture.”   The poem fit with two of this year’s small groups who are reading Homer’s Odyssey.

Through the use of an allusion to Homer’s Mythic Tale, St. Vincent Millay’s poem captures a personal moment of supposed weakness that becomes precious and almost sacred. A woman who wipes away tears with the corner of an apron whisks us away on a journey to a moment more than two thousand years ago; her reflection connects her simple gesture to Penelope who cries night after night, waiting in the dark. Touching a vein of humanity, the speaker says that crying is for when “There is simply nothing else to do.” Penelope’s and the speaker’s waiting, indeed our own hopelessness in the face of so much doubt, fear, frustration and vulnerability are expressed in our shared tears. The gesture of wiping them away hints that we guard our private moments.

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Course Offerings for Spring 2019

Susan Miller                                                                            Mentor, Educator, Writer                                                                                                           Approved Ocean Grove Vendor


“There is no frigate like a book.” -Emily Dickinson    “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust


All of the courses below will continue –same meeting places, different books and challenging assignments. Spring prices are noted for each class.  As we continue to pursue writing success with each victory of practice and seek out the strains of literary gold exposed with frank discussion and analysis, we progress in our journey, break the obstacles in our way and increase our scholarly muscles!

You may contact Susan at to request information.

Tuesday –to be decided
Wednesday meeting dates: Jan 16, 23, 30; Feb 6, 13, 20, 27; March 6, 20, 27; April 3, 24; May 1.

Thursday meeting dates: Jan 17, 23, 31; Feb 7, 14, 21, 28; March 7, 21, 28; April 4, 25; May 2, 9


FALL 2018

Pre-AP Literary Analysis HS level                                      Cupertino Tue. 2:00-3:30 p.m.

Focus: In-depth discussion and analysis of classic novels, short stories, and poems to polish and apply students’ analytical and critical thinking skills to essay writing. Essay experience needed, homework required and laptops/tablets highly recommended.  We will introduce several tests that require analytical writing. This class is designed to expose and prepare students for high-level writing. A high level of homework completion will be expected. $520 if 13 sessions. More info to be posted asap.

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I recently contacted an organization that holds research articles hostage. Not really hostage, but behind a gate with a persnickety gatekeeper.  Information withheld.  Top Secret.  For their eyes only.

When I asked to read an article, I faced a form and another form, insisting that I must show evidence of current or previous research documents.  Well I know that a Masters or PhD candidate can drown in her dissertation without research articles.  I’m not either of these things.  And I will survive without the article to which I requested access.

But wait.  I am a researcher.  Isn’t being a teacher, an educator, a mentor –heck, a mom of young adults–enough to qualify as researcher?   A recent article on Edutopia (January 26, 2016) encourages teacher as researcher.  In Dorothy Suskind’s article, “Teacher as Researcher: The Ultimate Professional Development” she helps us imagine how teachers walk in their classroom every day having planned what to teach students.  In contrast, teacher researchers ask, “What will my students teach me today?”  An important distinction in my experience that demands constant learning, reflecting, and deep thinking. Other than believing teens are the coolest people on the planet, this list above is but a few of the reasons why I chose this profession and why I value research.

In her article, Suskind further differentiates the researcher as those who observe students as they “engage in authentic work; collect work samples, photographs, and transcripts to document what their students say and do.”  That definitely sounds like research to me!

These teachers’ practice evolves “as they celebrate and support the voices and experiences of the children.”  My favorite part of her article is when she calls us teachers ” innovators, curriculum drivers, agents of school change, and directors of their own professional development.”  As I examine my professional practice, I relate to each of these titles.

In my career, I have been fortunate to work with an incredible diversity of students and subjects within the field of Language Arts.  Every year, I teach several new classes that require me to learn all I can through doing, reading, researching the work of authors and digesting of a vast amount of material –all so I can walk through the door of my classrooms (whether they be at Starbucks or in a home or on a campus), prepared to guide students and provoke the questions all floating beneath the surface of their conscious minds.

This year, among other courses I’m teaching World Literature, Graphic Novel, and Breaking News (a creative writing meets apocalypse meets broadcasting course).  The latter two courses involves not only all I’ve learned and come to believe about teaching but also a colleague who delights in sharing her thirst for maker projects and hands-on experiential learning.  I’m excited to work with her as she provides a sounding board for what works and what doesn’t and because she is an energetic ally in the search for a better way to learn.  In researching for these courses, I’ve already learned more about the junction of the visual and the printed text as well as using new technology. 2016-2017 promises to be an exciting year for teaching and reflecting on 21st century ideas.

Although not new and sans partner, the first course above–World Literature–still offers opportunities for my professional growth. Unable to tolerate the idea of simply dusting off old and tired curriculum, I will spend my summer gathering new resources and exploring what novel ways I can both revive classics and access contemporary novels to help this generation of readers connect with them and call them their new favorites.  (This in addition to my own writing and reading.)  In my search, I have poured over websites (though mostly rehashed summaries that skim the surface of a text–hence why I wanted access to a more in depth examination of a text) and read books and skimmed hundreds of articles and talked to experts.

To be clear, this is not a blogpost touting all the exhausting work I  (and teachers across the globe) do to prepare for that first group of youth that walk in on a Monday morning in August.

All of this is to say that I take issue that an official school teacher email is not sufficient to be considered proof of research. Given my position as a teacher, let alone parent, my profession should be enough reason to benefit from reading an article.  However, in case I haven’t made it clear yet that I am a teacher researcher, in the coming year I hope to do more postings on the subjects I teach and post insights into the learning of students who I have committed my life to serving.

To that organization or entity: Your key won’t make or break the year, but allowing me through the gate would have made it a tad easier to fulfill my purpose of being the best educator I can be and your purpose of collecting articles to be read.


the vague map to this bold journey

This post is by one of my students, Amanda Flowers. Choosing what she learns and how she learns it, she is an auto-didact; though she allows me to give her guidance and bask in her intelligence and youthful insight occasionally.


In the used bookshop on the corner of Main street, right next to the police station and city hall, I was in the middle of a re-evaluation. It all started with the volunteer job I’d taken, the one that my mother claimed would ‘widen my horizons’ and help me become more mature. At the moment I was just sorting box after box of dusty old books, for free. Homer, The Pearl Poet and Plato, along with some other well-known authors sat in the box, just waiting for some adult to whisk them away and have long philosophical debates about the meaning of adulthood and maturity.

Looking at the cover of The Odyssey I could imagine how a philosophical debate would go.  It would start simply with one of the grand philosophers asking a question, something along the lines of what is adulthood, or how one can tell if we have come of age. Then someone else would say, quite emphatically, “It seems that this question has been asked by authors throughout the ages. But I believe Homer’s protagonist in The Odyssey conveys the ideals of adulthood the best.”

“I must disagree” interjects another man, “I perceived Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as a wonderful example of the strife of adulthood, and the…”

“What is this nonsense?!” exclaims a fourth man. “The Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight  surely answers the question of coming of age better than either of the two authors posed here.” Smiling I put the books on the shelf, Homer, Plato and Chaucer, all classic writers of the ages, weighing in on the matter of adulthood, as if they could give any insight on the life of a sixteen year old girl.  If Homer, Plato and The Pearl Poet really did have the answer to adulthood, then by their definition, I should be off saving lives, slaying dragons or doing some other daringly heroic deed, not sorting dusty old books.

Take Odysseus, for example, who went off, fought in a war, pillaged some villages, saved a few maidens and blinded a Cyclops. This adventure makes him into a legendary adult figure, while the most exciting thing I have done is ring up an old woman who couldn’t decide whether to buy Fifty Shades of Gray or the sequel. While my odyssey consists of sorting dusty old book and helping old ladies choose which saucy book to buy next, Homer’s book gives the impression that adulthood is about the journey; the bigger our quests, the more of an adult we become.

Odysseus was the first of his kind; he made his own path, from land to sea and didn’t let anyone stop him from getting home to Ithaca. But his strong-willed and prideful nature got him into more than his fair share of trouble: “For Fate has wove the thread of life with pain!” (260). And he knew his fair share of pain–from the battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops, his feud with the sea god Poseidon, and the act that caused war–his journey was not that of a life without pain; though, some of which could have been avoided if he wasn’t quite as prideful.  Not only did he tell an evil man-eating, one-eyed giant his name and address, he practically murdered his men by leading them astray. Odysseus has not always been as cunning as he is praised for, but one has to admire his resolve. He took the hard road, made the journey back home, and  despite all of the trials, he thought of his family instead himself.  We are called to emulate this man, described as: “ What he greatly thought, he nobly dared.” (307-12) He dared to defy a god, travel half of the known world and face hundreds of men to see his family once more. His was not a journey of the faint-hearted; this was the odyssey of a man who was stubborn enough to pay no heed to fate’s plan and make his own way.

Homer starts The Odyssey in the middle of the story with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son; later, we are told the beginning of the journey by Odysseus who expresses disdain at having to repeat his tale for all to hear, “Why cover the same ground again? … It goes against my grain to repeat a tale told once, and told so clearly” (488). Like Odysseus, I am repeating a tale once told, but there is no glory in shelving books, no hard choices, no battles to be won. There are no stories to be told of the girl who shelved books. Homer’s story suggests that to be a great adult we need to make our own way in the world, to “nobly dare.” But how?

Picking up the next book, I am yet again struck with the idea of a debate on adulthood. If Homer’s story alludes to the idea that adulthood is an odyssey–an adventure to be nobly dared and traveled off the beaten path–then what does The Pearl poet’s tale about the Green Knight, and Sir Gawain’s unchivalric behavior add to the debate?  Sir Gawain is young, inexperienced, and is no where as prideful as Odysseus: “I am the weakest [of your knights], I know, and the dullest-minded/ So my death would be the least loss, if truth should be told;”(354 – 357). But despite Sir G’s compliant character, he still offers to face the ominous green stranger. The fact that the poet’s main character is younger makes it slightly more relatable, but I still don’t see how The Pearl Poet can give any insight on my uneventful life.

Unlike Homer’s Odysseus, Sir G. is not shouting his name from the rooftops and challenging every man he sees, but he still has an epic journey. Accepting the Green Knight’s challenge of a deadly game, Sir G. would cut off the Green Knight’s head and a year later, Sir G would have to journey to find the enigmatic knight who would cut then cut off Sir G.’s. And whether it was a leap of faith or just leaping without thinking, the Green Knight’s challenge stirs Sir G. to adventure.  Like in Homer’s Odyssey, the Pearl Poet describes a long and perilous journey: “Half dead with the cold Gawain slept in his armour more nights than enough among the bare rocks…Thus in danger, hardship and continual pain the knight rides across the land.” But despite his hardships, and the natural obstacles, Sir G. manages to survive. Different from Homer’s story Sir G. does not fight to see his family, his journey is an attempt to maintain his five virtues which were said to be “Generosity and love of fellow-men above all; His purity and courtesy…And surpassing the other, compassion.” (651 – 655)  Having Sir G. strive for this knightly ideal, the poet alludes to this notion that for any journey or quest one needs to have a moral foundation.

Unlike either of these heroes I have neither an overabundance of pride or strict moral compass. It wasn’t my high-minded idea to volunteer at a used book shop, it was a meddling mother and an abundance of free time. So maybe I just haven’t found my drive, maybe the book store is like a hero’s limbo, Ithaca before the Trojan war, or the round table before Christmas, a begging to the adventure, a break before the battle.

Unlike these two stories, Plato’s tale of adulthood is an allegorical one. With an unknown hero and a theoretical journey, this story is one of ignorance. Plato sets the tale in a cave, where our unknown hero is kept prisoner. Born in the dark and trapped in the cave our hero knows nothing of light or sunshine. Plato’s allegory uses darkness as a metaphor for ignorance. The people in the cave are like children, ignorant  of the outside world and the people in it. He is forced out into the world above and, “when he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled and he will not be able to see anything at all of what we now call realities.” This abrupt change from darkness and ignorance to the light is like throwing a child into the world and expecting them to live and function like adults.

But coming out into the world, without understanding it, seems comparable to adolescence. My life as a young adult is not something I can easily comprehend. Like Plato’s hero, I am often dazzled by life; there is a kind of safety in ignorance and darkness, and the bookstore no matter how monotonous it is, is just a glimpse of sunlight, not a dazzle but a glimmer. It’s just a small spark, but it might be the spark that lights the flame. By staying in the light,  Plato’s hero becomes accustomed to being dazzled; despite discomfort, he takes a journey just as difficult as the one taken by Sir G. or Odysseus: becoming an adult. Plato says ”Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not more reflections of him in the water but… his own proper place.” Even though he was temporarily blind, he stayed and fought. His journey like the others, was one of strife.

If nothing else these stories hint at the idea that adulthood is not just about saving maidens and defeating dragons but about the journey and “nobly daring to go on an adventure.” It is about finding something to journey for with the understanding that sometimes we have to be dazzled in order to see clearly. Homer, Plato and The Pearl Poet suggest that I may need to have some great aspiration to keep me warm on cold nights.

That I need write my own story is clear. What it will be about I don’t know yet, but it will be an odyssey; by its end, it will be filled with great deeds and youth and ignorance, and age and wisdom. It will start with a young girl in a bookshop on the corner of main street, right next to the police station and city hall, who was ready for an adventure.

by Amanda Flowers

What’s not to love?

Sitting down to lunch in P.F. Changs with a friend a few months ago, I set my copy of The Odyssey on the table. The server promptly told me it was one of her favorite books in high school. She gushed about her favorite parts. This book does that to people. Though it’s been awhile, reading the story of Odysseus and Telemachus is like sitting down with an old friend.  At first my students tend to grimace, like teens might when an old friend comes to visit their parents with cries of “I knew you when you were in diapers.”  Eventually, students recognize the Cyclops, perhaps Circe, the Trojan War (though that’s the main feature of The Iliad) and the Sirens–from movies and tales they’ve heard. Finally, my student readers feel proud– they’ve made it through a piece of literature so revered, once so daunting in its epic-ness, and then, if we’re lucky, they tell others about the journey of Odysseus.

Conflict and Kindness
Though I still enjoy my reunion with the Cyclops and such, there’s so much more. Id’ have to say it might be the troubles with gods and the loathsome suitors that interest me, but then there’s the run-ins with pride, and I can’t forget the love of tradition. Yes, a respect for tradition is the groundwork for my love affair with this book.  Like Nestor, Menelaus, and the Phaeacians, my grandmother followed traditions as if they were handed down from god. She served men first (much to my modern sensibility’s dismay, and she never left a guest leave her home hungry.  Hospitality was ingrained in me at a very young age, though I confess I find it difficult to come out of the shell of my sacred retreat to invite guests. Yet I love reading about the people who follow long-standing customs, especially the one about helping all those who cross their thresholds. This speaks of some different world where people could reach out to each other.

Ironically, my favorite part in the epic by far is the extreme act of anti-hospitality at the end when Odysseus, in modern terms, kicks butt.  Of course, taking up the bow isn’t simply a reaction to being kicked about by moochers in his own home, and it’s not just about the flagrant way the suitors treat guests.  He takes the sadness he’s long felt, the anger of hopelessness, the desperation of humanity’s cry for all that’s right and channels it into the force behind the bow.   As I tell my students that modern day Hollywood has nothing on Homer, we look at the blood and guts, courage and might that is the backbone of this story. Who wouldn’t love to aim an arrow against all that troubles each of us.

Wouldn’t any one of the women in this epic adventure like to do the same?  I guess Circe has her own power–she who seems to want to dominate men is surely an interesting character.  What provokes her to change men into swine and animals?  Is it their true nature or hers? I love the scene when she expresses surprise at Odysseus’ forceful reaction countering her bewitching. She’s been discovered, been bested by a mere mortal. Of course, he’s no mere mortal; he’s a legend.

Then there’s Calypso who utters one of my favorite lines. When Hermes gives her the message from Zeus to give up Odysseus, she says the gods are so unfair.  She’s kept this man for many long years. Her anger recalls Clytemnestra who cheats–the root of her anger in the sacrifice of her daughter isn’t disclosed–but the fact that her lover kills her husband upon his return from war is.  While Calypso softens and gives Odysseus his freedom, complex Clytemnestra strikes out against the man she once loved.

Finally, there’s long suffering Penelope, who could have had any one of the lordly suitors but elects to stay faithful to her husband. We would have forgiven her despite a disappearance so long that any one of us would have surrendered completely to our despair. By our modern pro feminist standards, she doesn’t seem the picture of strength with all these men in her home harassing her and her household. But I do believe her position is one of strength and I admire her for what I imagine is the regal way she holds herself, the grace she exudes, despite all of her tears and her fears.

This last time my students read Homer’s story, we compared Odysseus to the heroes in other classics, Sir Gawain for one, and pondered what they all could teach us about manhood and the transition to adulthood. As always, it was enlightening.

If the last time you picked up this classic was in high school, it’s time to read it again.