Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Confessions Of A Madman

From her LinkedIn profile you would find that Rachel Crovello is a linguist and editor currently engrossed in advertisement and search engine optimization.  This makes sense since she currently works for Yahoo.  You would also discover that her background in English, French, American Sign Language, Spanish, and Modern Standard Arabic makes her suited as a translator for Dalkey Archive Press.  What you would not know is that she was my Latin student and recently reached out to me in a way I shall treasure forever.

A short while ago, Rachel asked me for my home address.  She said she had something she wanted to send me by way of a thank you.  Since it had been a number of years since she had graduated from high school, I was curious and eagerly awaited whatever would show up in the mail.  A few weeks later, I received a small package with a delightful card enclosed.  The card expressed many kind thoughts, including the fact that she still remembers a passage she memorized for the Indiana Junior Classical League when she was my student (ubi nympha Echo Narcissum in silva vidit statim iuvenem amavit, "When the nymph Echo saw Narcissus, she loved the young man.").

After smiling at the contents of the card, I turned to the other item in the package and felt the thrill of excitement run up my neck.  It was Rachel's first, published, book-length translation.

I ran my fingers across the smooth surface of the book, turning it over in my hands.  My former student had published a translation of a novel.  I could hardly believe it.  I looked at the back cover to find the blurb about her listing but a few of her achievements.

In somewhat of a stammering awe, I called to my wife to show the book to her.  My former student, whom I could picture so well in our classroom, had published a translation of a novel.  I could hardly wait to read it.

Confessions of a Madman (also available on Amazon), a novel by Algerian-French author Leila Sebbar, is a bizarre tale of a nameless man who reflects on his family's devastation after the murder of his father even as he seeks revenge on the killers.  It is in no way an action-adventure story, but is more of a prose poem that caused me to think many times of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."  I have not seen the French original, but Rachel's translation is breathless and immediate.  Run-on sentences held together by nothing more than commas, blunt sentences of little more than subject-object-verb, and the occasional question for which there is no answer take you into and hold you in first person madness.  The chaos is ever moving, but not always forward.  In lyric fashion it swirls around upon itself.

I am sure the original is quite artistic, but in the true in loco parentis manner of a teacher, I will praise the translation of my student, for Rachel's slender volume is indeed a work of art.  I can hardly wait to show it to my students.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

If This Is A Great Teacher...

This post makes some bold claims, among them

Great teachers don't always have the best lessons.  But they always have the best relationships with kids.

Then stop demanding that they upload or submit those lessons, an act that serves no purpose for a great teacher.

Great teachers are not defined by their lesson plans... they are defined by their passion.

Then make passion, not lesson plan formatting, part of their evaluation.

Great teachers are in it for the kids.  It's not about the lesson plan, the rules, or the massive paycheck. It's always about the kids.

Then stop evaluating them based on lesson plans and rules.

Kids leave their class feeling better about themselves... because great teachers understand there is more to teaching than delivering instruction.

Then include truly human factors in the evaluation of this human enterprise called teaching and rely less on dehumanizing data.

Great teachers are not driven by courses of study... they are driven by the faces in front of them.

Then stop making assessment numbers related to courses of study the be all, end all of determining a teacher's worth.

Although I agree with most of the points in this piece, I do take issue with one.  Mr. Steel writes, "Great teachers are in it for the kids.  It's not about the lesson plan, the rules, or the massive paycheck. It's always about the kids."  This is absolutely true, and I would hope the same is true of my doctor, yet I have never once heard it said that doctors are not in it for the money.  Emphasizing repeatedly that teachers do what they do for students and not financial remuneration establishes the idea that financial remuneration is not important for teachers.  Of course it is, just as it is in any other profession, and I will call out the false ideal of teacher as willfully suffering servant wherever it appears.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Classics Saved My Life

"I am a college-educated American.  In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil.  I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages.  Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare.

"The fifteen hundred years of Christianity from the end of the New Testament to the Reformation were a blank page, and I knew only the barest facts about Luther's revolution.  I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton.  My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment.  Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting."  The Benedict Option, p. 154, Rod Dreher

As I read these words, I was struck by the realization that there, but for the my chosen field of Classics, would have gone I.  Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil...why, of course, I thought, but then I paused.  Had I actually encountered them in any class not of my choosing?  I thought long and hard about it, and the answer was no.

In my high school senior English class we read a bit of Chaucer, and I will always be grateful for the introduction I received to Pope, Donne, and Keats from that teacher, Mr. John Richardson.  I also got from him Shakespeare's sonnets to go along with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar, the only Shakespearean plays I would ever be required to read throughout my educational career.  Somewhere there were bits of Homer's Odyssey.  There was no significant world history class for my high school diploma.

As an undergraduate at Indiana University, I took only two English classes.  Through one, a survey, I was introduced to Dante, though only parts in the Norton Anthology that included glimpses of the Old Testament as literature.  I took only one history class, and that was in ancient history for my major in Classical Studies.

Only in classes that I chose to take as a high school Latin student or undergraduate and graduate student in Classics did I encounter any of the following:  Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Plato, and Herodotus.  I was introduced to Montaigne and Hume in an elective freshman honors seminar.  Although we read part of Augustine's Confessions in that class, I had never heard of the church fathers until I casually encountered them through friends in graduate school, and then it was not in any class.  All that I know of Aquinas has been acquired on my own.  The same goes for Anselm, Descartes, and Milton.  Alexis de Tocqueville, The Federalist Papers, and The Constitution of the United States of America...if I had not read them of my own accord, they would hold no place in my knowledge.  In fact, as I survey the significant authors on my bookshelves, I find that at best I know of a few from any required class in my schooling.  Most I learned about on my own, and almost all I have read solely outside the classroom.

My encounter with Latin in high school sparked an interest in me that led me to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in Classics, and it was through that interest and study that I have come to know most of what I know of any importance.  Friends, such things ought not to be.  The human heritage bequeathed to the world through the history, literature, and theology of the West should not be a curiosity available only for a kid who studies Latin to discover.  Should everyone become a Homeric scholar or an expert in Dante?  Of course not.  But everyone should be introduced to the true gems of human discovery and achievement.  Whether or not a person picks up one of those gems and makes it his or her own is up to that student.  This much, however, is true.  Any school or system of education apart from a program of specific skills training that does not, as Benjamin Jowett wrote in the preface to his translation of Thucydides, "present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrance of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind," stands convicted of dereliction of duty and betrayal of its true mandate.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Teach What You Know

A teacher must be both a magister and a paidagogos, both a master of subject content and a leader of students.  The latter sense of a teacher's craft is explored through pedagogy, and while this is important, it seems to be the focus of many professional educators at the expense of subject expertise.  Many blogs and podcasts, workshops and professional development activities, focus entirely on how to teach, and even the sessions at content-specific conferences often present tips and strategies and ideas on the presentation of that content.

So let's talk about the importance of content mastery for a moment.  This means more than reading the chapter the day before the students do, and while we can certainly acquire good material from our colleagues, I am talking about more than asking your neighbor to send you the PowerPoint slides on a lesson you both teach.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

In 1711 Alexander Pope published his poem An Essay On Criticism about the relationship of the literary critic to the poet, yet many of his lines speak to education and the importance of content mastery.  Early in the work he writes,

Let such teach others who themselves excell.  (line 15)

We talk a lot in education about student-led approaches to learning, and this is fine, but at the end of the day, the teacher should be the content master, the magister.  Yes, students can access raw data from the Internet.  Yes, students can teach their teachers, and I have certainly learned much from mine.  Yet I must be a recognized master of my content for one very important reason.  My students need to have confidence in me.  Not only must they be confident that I what I teach them is accurate, but they must also be confident in approaching me with questions.

So how does one become a content master?  Is a college degree in that area sufficient?  At best it is a starting place.  There is simply no substitute for deep, ongoing reading.  

Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar'd, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.  (lines 124-129)

Commentaries are good, but read the text.  Read the laws and the primary sources if you are a history or social studies teacher.  Read the poems and the novels if you teach English or a world language.  Listen to and perform the music of great composers, contemplate the great artists and create your own masterpieces.  Come to understanding through other great works within your discipline, not merely through the study guides and commentaries and lesson plans of your contemporaries.  When Pope counsels comparing the text of the Mantuan muse, by which he means the Roman poet Vergil, with itself, he is suggesting exactly this.  As a teacher, a magister, you want the richest possible understanding, and this comes from drinking deeply of the original springs.

By doing this, a teacher moves beyond mere instruction and discovers the art and craft of the calling.

Musick resembles Poetry, in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.
From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,
And snatch Grace beyond the Reach of Art.  (lines 143-145, 154-155)

When Pope speaks of art, he is using the word in the sense of its Latin origin, meaning a skill.  Skills can be taught, and every craftsman must first learn them.  Yet true artists in any endeavor move beyond the "vulgar bounds" of mere methodology.  Teachers do this when they have become what they teach, when they embody the content and students can no longer tell where the content ends and the teacher begins.

You may be asking whether an 18th century British poet truly has anything to offer the connected, modern educators preparing students for jobs yet unknown as visions of technology dance in their heads.  This question betrays one of the most regrettable aspects of contemporary education.  We value nothing that was said more than five minutes ago.  With staggering arrogance we assume that we know more than those who have gone before us, yet with regard to what Edgar Allan Poe would later call "the glory that was Greece and that grandeur that was Rome," Pope cried,

Oh may some Spark of your Coelestial Fire
The last, the meanest of your Sons inspire
To teach vain Wits a Science little known,
T'admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!  (lines 195-196, 199-200)

Humility is a key disposition for learning, and if teachers are to become the content masters they are called to be, they, like their students, must be willing to learn from those who know more and whose knowledge has been tested and proven by the passing of time.  No matter how robust the data supporting the latest published strategies, nothing is as valuable as time-tested, time-approved wisdom and understanding.

It is human nature for each person to think he or she knows it all.  It is, and there is no point in denying it.  Pope certainly did not.

We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.  (lines 438-439)

Yet he leaves us with a wistful, hopeful plea that continues to call out to educators today.  Perhaps you can be one of those magistri who will answer it.

But where's the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?  (lines 631-632)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't Show Me Your Plans

There is an old joke that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.  If you want to give teachers one more reason to quit, ask to see theirs.

I have heard many stories from my mom about her elementary teaching career in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.  Often they involved her beloved principal, Mr. Montgomery.  Among her favorites is the one in which he told her, a young teacher early on the shared journey of discovery that is education, why he did not need to see her lesson plans each week as other principals did.  He considered her a professional and trusted her to do her job.

Patricia Perkins, my mom

She has reflected many times how good that made her feel.  She was new to the profession, but this seasoned educational leader trusted her, and he proved it by not looking over her shoulder or micromanaging what she did in her classroom.

As I have written, bad administrators are killing education, and this type of "quality control" is one more weapon in their arsenal.  As one Forbes article puts it, "No job worth doing breaks down into tiny, measurable parts.  Good jobs are whole. You know what your mission is and you work toward your mission every day, checking in with your manager as appropriate. Run away from any company that surrounds you with yardsticks and measurements."  Evaluations based on whether or not objectives are displayed on the board or on the proper filling out of suffocating lesson and unit planners reveal absolutely nothing about whether teachers are teaching well.  They reveal merely a person's ability to snap to attention when the jackboots come marching, their ability to jump through hoops that any sane person would recognize are insulting and ridiculous.

Is there a place for planning in a teacher's life?  There most certainly is.  When I dream some fantastic new project for my students, I have to come down out of the clouds and begin to plan.  I have to consider what I want them to achieve in the project, what their role and my role should be, what resources we will need, where we will get them if we do not have them, how long we can spend on the project, what must be shifted or removed to make room for it, and a host of other pedagogically responsible factors.

Will anyone see these plans?  Possibly.  One of my colleagues who teaches French frequently collaborates with me on a project her students and my Latin students engage in together.  We share these ideas and plans with our department chair, sometimes to get her input, other times to ask for her assistance, and often just to bring her into the sheer fun and excitement of it.

There are also sound reasons for a leader or administrator to see the written plans of a teacher.  Pre-service teachers in field experiences or student-teaching programs benefit from the slow, careful process of writing out plans and can gain much from discussing those plans with a trusted leader or mentor.  And of course there are times when even experienced teachers may need guidance, whether because they are teaching something new or for whatever reason are not at their best.  Working with a valued leader on planning can help teachers reach their potential.

But consider what is gained by not requiring veteran teachers who are experts both in their fields and in pedagogy to submit lesson and unit plans for evaluation.  It sends the clear message that they are trusted professionals and valued colleagues.  Any administrator who has to check whether an objective is written on a board or whether plans have been uploaded in a certain format in order to determine whether a teacher is teaching well should be fired, for that administrator lacks true discernment.  Good education leaders are in classrooms.  They work with, not above teachers.  They watch and listen to students.  Do your neighbors really have to knock on your door to tell you they are pulling the lawn mower out of the garage for you to know whether they are maintaining their yards?

My wife and I recently cleaned the blades on our ceiling fans, and our daughter, age 12, wanted to help.  I set up the ladder and showed her how to detach the blades and the glass covering of the light.  I helped her a bit on the first fan, but when we took the ladder into another room, I only stood nearby and did not help.  At one point she was uncertain if she could hold the glass covering with one hand and unscrew the nut with her other.  I told her that although she may have felt uncertain of her abilities, I was quite confident in them and then proved my confidence by not interfering.  Can you imagine what it would do for teachers if their administrators demonstrated such confidence in them?  My mom can not only imagine it.  She remembers it fondly more than fifty years later.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bad Administrators Are Killing Education

Perhaps more than any other single factor, bad administrators are killing education.

That is a bold statement when the ability to educate our young people is under assault from poverty, poor home situations, a runaway obsession with testing, the misuse of data to malign teachers and hurt students, blind worship of technology that in some cases brings more harm than good, and insulting attempts to make educators feel like professionals instead of allowing them actually to be professionals with appropriate salaries and control over how they practice their craft.  Yet the ham-fisted, utterly misguided, and at times cruel leadership at district and building levels has produced "the most unkindest cut of all," leaving too many teachers with the choice of either crying, "Et tu, Brute?" to the those who should have had their backs instead of stabbing them, or leaving the profession.

I recently shared an article* on Facebook, one more in a seemingly endless series of its kind, about a good teacher leaving the profession.  This was not a new teacher who got in over his head or an older teacher who left because she was burned out.  I sarcastically suggested in my preface to the post that there was no problem in teachers leaving for, as some administrators say, there are plenty to take their place.  I had no idea the hornet's nest I had poked.

In the days that followed, Twitter messages, emails, and Facebook messages bombarded me with stories from around the country of teachers bearing witness to hearing what is quite possibly the stupidest line of thinking that should get any leader fired for speaking it.  Please note that the stories you are about to hear must remain anonymous.  I will give no indication of any teacher's name, subject matter, or state, and that alone is a matter worthy of concern, because the prevailing emotion in so many of our toxic school environments is fear.  Teachers are afraid, and it is not because they are emotional snowflakes who need to grow up.  It is because too many administrators, far from doing their job of fostering an environment in which teachers can do theirs, have created, whether through ignorant neglect or genuinely malevolent intent, a sweatshop mentality complete with dread of the overseer's whip.  Fear is completely incompatible with education, but that will be a topic for another time.

What follows, then, are comments shared with me from teachers across the country.  After a few responses to the article linked above, I asked whether educators had heard administrators say that there were plenty of teachers to take the places of those who leave, or a variant of that.  The results were as follows, and there is no pattern of their coming from certain geographic regions or from one type of school or district over another.

Not comfortable responding to your fb post, however, our HR Director told us in negotiations "...that there is a line of teachers waiting to take [our] place."

Teachers talk about administrators feeling that way; colleagues have throughout my career.

I've had it said to me two minutes before I was supposed to start teaching for the day.

At a new teacher hire, I heard, "With all due respect, as Beyonce says, 'Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.'"

I've heard it as well, multiple times and once through my own experience.

It makes me sad to say, but yes I have heard that at least once a year during my 15 years as a teacher.

Regrettably, I've heard it.  I heard it said of some of the best educators with whom I have worked or co-taught.

On more than one occasion, I've heard a district administrator...state, "If they [teachers] don't like it, there are plenty of openings at McDonald's."  Also, a district administrator...sent an email to a colleague with a link to a job opening in a neighboring district after she pointed out the potential impact of budget cuts on her department.  It has been an interesting few years to say the least.  It is one thing to deal with external perceptions of education and teachers; it's another when it is from within, especially from those in "leadership" positions.

"Everyone's replaceable" has been spoken many times in my school.

Quote at a school board meeting when a good young teacher decided to switch schools, "There is no one who can't be replaced."

Spoken by the principal to a colleague and me in his office when we told him about ill-will among the faculty, "When they leave, we will cry for three minutes and get back to work.  I have a long list of people wanting jobs."

I've heard it in [name of state].

Yep, in [name of state] I've heard it.

A former superintendent used to say that -- she used to say that teachers should be grateful for the jobs they have because there are lots of people lined up waiting to take them.

I've heard it several times in my own district and others in [name of state].  It's so disheartening.  We have so many vacancies.

One of many reasons I moved into administration.  I have heard it across the state in several districts. 

I've heard it -- especially at negotiation time.

I've sadly heard it when I taught in [name of state] and a few years ago back in [name of state].

My superintendent said a couple years ago that English teachers are a dime a dozen.

It's said regularly.

If you are a parent, talk to your children's teachers and administrators and find out for yourself the true culture of their school, making sure to encourage those leaders who are serving well.  If you are in a university school of education, visit some schools in your state and discover for yourself their culture and then set yourself to the task of crafting leadership training programs capable of producing the leaders our children and teachers need.  If you are a teacher, work well with your administrators.  Lead up by sharing good leadership materials with your department chairs, principals, and superintendents.  Encourage them when they do well.  And if the environment of your school or district is such that you cannot be the teacher you were made to be, do not leave the profession, but find another place where you can thrive.  The power of Pharaoh was broken by the exodus.

Whoever you are, as you go about the shared work of ensuring our children are well grounded in the past and present for their callings in the future, allow this extended email from a colleague of mine to motivate you.

It was via email, and regarding an extracurricular position I held. I have done this position for years, and the district has been very pleased with how I managed it, having brought it back from kind of a mess, thanks to my insane organization. However, it's a ton of work and for several years I've been feeling tired of being taken advantage of and tried to give it up. 

This year there were some particular concerns I was raising, ethical concerns about some other staff members' conduct. When I approached admin about the fact that I wanted to give up my position, I told him I was concerned about handing it over to someone not as conscientious of the potential issues, as they've had difficulty getting the position adequately filled in the past, and I wanted to make sure to leave it in good hands because the integrity of the program meant a great deal to me.

Rather than addressing my concern he said, "Do the position or don't do the position. If you don't, someone else will"  (paraphrase... i'm uncomfortable using his exact quote, but he did use the word *replaceable*).  My immediate response was that he'd just made my decision really easy, and I emailed him back and said I wouldn't be doing it anymore.

This was said via email, at 7:28AM, as my 11th graders were walking in the door. I stood up to start class and as I was going over the agenda I just broke down. I had to excuse myself and took a couple of minutes to calm down. I told them "I'm sorry, something just happened that really upset me, and it has nothing to do with you."

There are a few things to this:

1) The fact that it was said in response to me raising concerns... it felt like he was saying "we'll find someone who's not going to raise a fuss" and it discounted all the heart and soul I'd put into the program for six years and trying to do the right thing.

2) While on the surface it's a logical and true statement, it's certainly not a great way to get your people to want to pour their heart into something that has few extrinsic rewards.

3) Our school has a major "positive school culture" initiative. Our principal is a driving force behind it, and goes out of his way to do special things and make it a positive environment. In many ways, he's wonderful at that task. But when he gets stressed out in the spring, he lashes out at people... and often times he lashes out at his best people, the ones who are going above and beyond, the ones who are truly giving their all. But those day-to-day interactions mean just as much, if not more, than all of the positive murals and pep talks and recognitions and assemblies. I suspect he said it out of frustration with something that probably had nothing to do with me, but that's not an excuse, and I will never forget how worthless and unappreciated it made me feel that morning. I don't think I will ever have an interaction with him not colored by that experience.

*Here is an important and related article, whose comments are equally worth reading.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Disposition to Learn

Being willing to be told one is wrong is a necessary disposition for learning.

Docility is crucial for a learner.  In fact, it is a necessary condition for learning, which means that without it, learning cannot occur.  Unfortunately, docility, or the quality of being docile, has taken on the sense of being quiet and meek, shy and retiring, unable or unwilling to raise one's voice.  Yet, as with so many ideas and words in English, if we look at the Latin root we come to a better understanding.  The word "docility" comes from that Latin verb docere, meaning "to teach."  Docility is, therefore, quite simply the quality of being able to be taught, which is not an inherent quality or one shared by all people at all times.  In other words, not everyone is docile.  Not everyone can be taught.

Consider for a moment the obvious.  You could not be taught how to change the oil in your car if you were asleep.  Your dormant state would leave you incapable of learning.  The same would be true if you were listening to music loud enough to render people unconscious.  Unable to hear what the instructor was telling you, you could not learn.  You would likely learn little to nothing about changing your car's oil if you were being instructed while observing the bone protruding from your broken leg.  The intense pain and shock would make you less than docile.

These, of course, are circumstantial limitations to docility, and many people recognize similar limitations at work in the lives of school-aged children.  Poverty, violence, and abuse are but three.

Yet there are other behaviors, attitudes, and mindsets that can limit or entirely block or support a student's docility.  Some of these are derivative of circumstances and others are within the direct control of students themselves, but taken together they form the disposition for learning that every student brings into the classroom, and it is this disposition that determines whether a student at any given moment in any given subject is docile enough to learn.

Perhaps the most significant attitude leading to a docile disposition is the willingness to be told that one is wrong.  Consider two proverbs and the lyrics to a pop song.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.  (Proverbs 12:1,  ESV)

Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.  (Proverbs 15:32, ESV)

One night, me with my big mouth,
Couple guys had to put me in my place.
When I see those guys these days,
We just laugh and say,
"Do you remember when?"  ("Cherry Bomb," John Mellencamp)

It is no insult to be told that you are wrong about something.  Admittedly, there are better and worse ways of telling someone this, but regardless of how the information is communicated, a person must be willing to accept it when it is true or he cannot learn.  It is a necessary, a without-which-not characteristic of being docile.

One the best ways parents and those entrusted with the care and nurture and education of young children can prepare them for a lifetime of learning is to help them understand what it means when they are told that they are wrong about something.  It means that they are wrong, nothing more and nothing less.  It does not mean that they are bad.  It is not a statement about their character, unless, of course, that about which they are wrong is a moral action.  It does not mean that the one stating the fact thinks ill of them or will no longer love them.  This last statement is vital to understanding this key component of docility.  My telling a student that he or she has formed a verb incorrectly in no way indicates my lack of love for that student, but rather is proof of my care and concern.  I would not want my students to make fools of themselves by writing something incorrectly.  I love them too much.

To be sure, this is a mature concept to grasp, but then education is largely an enterprise for the mature of any given age.  Those called to the shared journey of discovery that is education must help those on the way know how to accept when they have been told that they are headed down a wrong path.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Teacher's Jewels

When I attended the commencement for our high school's senior class, I took pictures.  I was hardly alone in this as parents and grandparents and friends of the graduates took enough photos with their phones and tablets to have exhausted Kodak's store of celluloid back in the day.  As a teacher, whose legal responsibility is to act in loco parentis, I shared their pride and beamed widely as my Latin students joined over eight hundred of their classmates to receive their diploma.

Once they have graduated, these students may join a Facebook group of my former students, which spans more than a quarter century.  There we share photos and memories.

Why do I take pictures of my graduates?  Why do I want to keep in contact with them?  Why do I take as much pleasure in their announcements of collegiate and work achievements, marriages, and births as I did when they won a ribbon in a Junior Classical League competition?  It is because of Cornelia.


In his Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Valerius Maximus reported this about a woman named Cornelia.

Maxima ornamenta esse matronis liberos, apud Pomponium Rufum collectorum libro * sic inuenimus: Cornelia Gracchorum mater, cum Campana matrona apud illam hospita ornamenta sua pulcherrima illius saeculi ostenderet, traxit eam sermone, <donec> e schola redirent liberi, et 'haec' inquit 'ornamenta sunt mea'.  4.4.init.

"Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, when a matron from Campania showed her her jewels, the most beautiful of that time, plied the woman with conversation until her children returned from school and said, 'These are my jewels.'"


My wife and I have two wonderful children, and they are, of course, the crown jewels of my life.  Yet these students are jewels as well, filling the treasury of teaching.  I take pride in them much as their own parents do.

This young man spent as much time in the French teacher's (pictured here) room as in mine!

And I love sharing this pride with those parents.  I text them the pictures I have taken and tag them with the photos on Facebook.  I know how much it means to my wife and me when we hear from others about our children.  Many teachers take pictures of their students, and I would encourage all to share those pictures with the students' families.  Like Cornelia, they already see their children as jewels, but it is always nice to know that others think the same.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Teacher's Natural Habitat

There is a natural habitat for a teacher.  It is a "sound and sweet and wise place" that is "surrounded by beauty and sanity," a place where "the whole human being, not disembodied chunks of him, is the focus of education."

And what may teachers expect in their natural habitat?  They should expect "the joy of teaching" and perhaps even a certain "happy boyish enthusiasm" as "souls [are] born in wonder."  They can expect "cheerful faces, and plenty of them" and "happy students" who are "not eager to leave, because they [are] having too much fun."

You will likely have one of two reactions to such a description of the teacher's natural habitat.  You may sit back and sigh with a faraway look of longing as you heart yearns for such an Eden.  You may also find a certain anger rising within you, a burning, righteous indignation that someone would even dare to describe a place that is so far from your present circumstance that it could not be glimpsed with the Hubble.

I know both of those reactions, but I also know that the descriptions offered above are about what should be, what can be, and what in some places actually is.  These descriptions come from two articles, one about and one by Anthony Esolen.  Tony Esolen was a tenured professor of literature at Providence College in Rhode Island before moving, after decades at that institution, to Thomas More College in New Hampshire.  In addition to being a teacher of literature, he is also a poet, an acute critic of contemporary culture, and a translator, perhaps most notably of Dante.  I have read him for years and can say only this...if you see his name on it, read it.

From the Kindergarten teacher to the dissertation supervisor, any teacher who has spent more than one year in this calling has known the joy of teaching that he describes.  They have known it at least once, or they would not have returned.  

In one article, Esolen writes, "Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means."

This is what teaching is...raw, unbounded, childlike enthusiasm. And if something like justice should come from it because it has been about the work of the true, the good, and the beautiful, then so much the better, but teaching is not first and foremost about justice or someone's finding a job or gaining a credential. It is not, as Tony Esolen puts it, politics by other means.  It is something much grander than that, taking in far more territory, and, when it is allowed to flourish in its natural habitat, it produces a harvest of many of the best things known to man.

And then in that same article he writes of one group of his students, "They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears."

This is a joy like no other, and I have been blessed to taste it. Teenagers in a last period class on a Friday, deeply engrossed in their Latin and asking questions and contributing meaningfully to the great friends, this, this is what education can be, and we must fight each and every effort to turn education, which, because it is a supremely human endeavor, must be characterized by life, into a zombie, the walking dead version of its true self.
So where is this blessed abode of teachers, this Elysium of education?  Some teachers find it by carving it out of the blackboard jungle in which they find themselves.  They must make bricks without straw as they guide and shape minds all while trying to turn their own schools into suitable learning environments.  This, however, is not as it should be, and while decent-minded folk rightly laud their efforts, families of students and the citizenry at large should never for one moment think that this is good.

There are also those who leave a toxic environment for one in which their teaching arts can be given full expression.  Esolen himself is in this category, and it would be pharisaical in the extreme to fault him for it.  He writes, "Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion."  By contrast he observes, "I came home recently from a day at Thomas More College, full of good cheer and energy, and for somebody who isn’t getting younger, those can take you a long way. They can add many years to your life as a teacher, whereas discouragement and disappointment lead to exhaustion."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

To Be A Child?

And in my heart you will remain forever young. -- Rod Stewart

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. -- 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV

Our school's chapter of the Indiana Junior Classical League offers a scholarship each year to one of our graduating seniors.  Part of the application requires that candidates pick a Latin quotation and use it as the basis for a discussion of the benefit of Classics to them and their own interest in Classics.

This year one of our seniors chose, "Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum."  This is Cicero's famous statement, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child," and it comes from Orator, 119.  At the end of a thoughtful essay, this student, who began as an 8th grader and thus took five years and prepared for the A.P. and I.B. tests along the way, had this to say.

 "Being able to understand and parse themes from the Classical era develops a mindset for understanding the out-of-reach parts of the world, separated by either time or by distance.  That ability turns a person from a child, trapped in a singular world of self, to a person of the world, conscientious of those they have never met and may never meet.

"So ask me why I have spent the last five years studying a dead language of a people long since passed.  Ask me why I have bothered to translate classical works from the Latin instead of just reading someone else's translation.  Ask me why it matters if Horace was able to openly attack his contemporaries in his satires like his predecessor Lucilius or not.  My answer will remain the same:  I refuse to remain a child when I can be a person of the world."

It is not news to say that ours is a youth-obsessed age.  "I don't want to grow up.  I'm a Toys R Us kid."  That is the theme song of the present day.  I do not know whether this is the cause or the consequence of our failure to expose children to the great works of literature, art, and music.  Likely as not the two are now caught in a vicious cycle.  Anthony Esolen, yet again, sounds the alarm by merely stating the facts.  Would that those who had ears to hear should do so.  In that article, he cites Henry Van Dyke from an 1893 piece in which Van Dyke will not give in to pessimism with regard to literature, but expects a recovery from poets who merely "please a degenerate race with the short-lived melodies of earthly delight and the wild chants of withering passion."  Esolen is not so sure.  Actually, he is sure...that Van Dyke was wrong.

I would tend to agree with Esolen with regard to our literary and cultural landscape.  Yet there are, as there have always been, the remnants who know and are shaped by the true, the good, and the beautiful.  They are as Aeneas described the Trojan refugees in Aeneid I.30, "reliqui[ae] Danaum et immitis Achilli," the offscourings, if not of the Danaans and savage Achilles, of a society whose systems of education no longer read to become human and to make connection with humanity, but for much duller, more ephemeral, and sadly utilitarian ends.

Aeneas in the storm
I say these remnants exist, for I am blessed to see them in my classes.  Will those who read Caesar and Cicero, Horace and Vergil in high school turn the monstrous and sinking ship of our society, barnacled as it is with grotesqueries imaginable in another age perhaps only to a Dante?  Titanic's rudder was indeed too small.  Yet small is also the mustard seed, and while I am not sure I have its quantity of faith, I do have at least that amount of hope, and that hope stems from students like this senior.