Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Once A Teacher

There is much that is wrong and bad in education.  It fills articles and podcasts, and quite frankly I don't really need to read any more of it.  That's why I don't take to social media to air my problems.  Actually there are several reasons I don't take to social media to air my problems, chief among them that I am an adult.

Yet we all have days when a thousand different cuts begin to threaten death and we need to reach out to someone, and there is no one better than a colleague to understand what you are going through.  You do need clear perspective, though, and complaining to a colleague in your school can prove counterproductive.  It can lead to a general session of whining that brings you both down, or worse, it can help spread ill will throughout the school.  This is bad and should be avoided at all costs.  If a building-level colleague can be a proper support for you, then lean on that person and offer the same in return, but if your conversation is merely to rehash old grievances, it does little good and more likely brings harm.

Enter colleagues from a distance.  Colleagues at another school, in another district, or in another state know what it is like to be a teacher.  They understand the core issues we all face, but not being involved in the particulars of your situation, they can provide some balance, some perspective.  This invaluable, and it is why networking is so vitally important.  I am deeply grateful for colleagues across the country and around the world.  Whether we talk frequently or infrequently, I know that they can listen and provide the kind of feedback I need to get up off the mat and back into the ring.  Hopefully I can offer the same to them.

And then there is a special circle that few get to enter, the circle of colleagues who were once your own teachers.  A few years ago I had emailed one of my former high school teachers who is still teaching Latin in another state.  Apparently my messages were grim enough to concern her, for as my family arrived at a restaurant on a Friday night, I felt my phone go off in my pocket.  It was from Marcene.  She wanted to talk, for she was worried about me.  She gave me some practical advice (have student helpers alphabetize your tests and quizzes so the grades are easy to input, saving you time), but most important was the love and care she showed.  She was worried about her former student, now a teacher, and wanted to call.

I am writing this post because it just happened again.  I had messaged Marcene yesterday with a few of the thousand cuts that were starting to bleed me dry.  This was even before the day stretched into a fifteen hour monster thanks to back-to-school night and I arrived home utterly exhausted and having sweated through every stitch of my clothing five times over.  This afternoon I was working on a letter of recommendation when my phone lit up.  Marcene was video calling me.  Once again, she was concerned for her former student.  Now, I have been teaching for more than twenty-five years, but that made no difference.  She was there to offer advice and to remind me of the higher calling that has nothing to do with foolish things like tests and evaluations and administrivia.  She did not use these words, but she was reminding me to mount up with wings as an eagle, to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint.  She did this because she is a teacher and my friend.

Who plays that role in your life?  For whom do you play it?  Hamlet may have felt he could be the king of infinite space even when bounded in a nutshell, but the four walls of a classroom can become, well, just a tightly bound nutshell.  We need our colleagues if we are to run our race to completion.  I hope you have someone as special as my former teacher, now colleague, Marcene is for me.  If not, find that person, and be that person for someone else.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Discovering Secrets

Indagatio ipsa rerum cum maximarum tum etiam occultissimarum habet oblectationem.  Si vero aliquid occurrit, quod veri simile videatur, humanissima completur animus voluptate.  (Cicero, Academica II.XLI.127)

"The investigation itself of very important and at the same time quite obscure matters holds pleasure.  If indeed it happens that something like the truth is discovered, one's spirit is filled with a most human pleasure."

My first discovery of what seemed like secret knowledge occurred in high school.  Although it was a public high school, we were reading in Latin the text of the Christmas story from the Bible during a Latin club activity.  When we came to Luke 2:14, I had to hide my emotion, for it simply would not have been cool to express the giddiness overtaking me.  The rendering I knew from both the carol "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" and the King James Version was, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men," yet the Vulgate had, "gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis."  I knew enough Latin to realize this was not at all what the versions I knew said.  The Latin translates, "glory in the highest to God and on earth peace in men of good will."  The English of the carol and the KJV make it seem as if the phrase "good will" is parallel to "peace," but if so, it would have been in the nominative case in Latin, yet the Vulgate has it in the genitive.  Furthermore, those English renderings suggest universality, whereas the Latin indicates that the peace on earth is limited to those of good will rather than good will being for everyone.  Theological thoughts aside, I was beside myself.  While I was not reading the Latin from any special edition, and it might even have been from a Xeroxed copy, I felt as if I had stumbled into something wonderful, the truth.  Here in my high school hands was the Latin text of the Bible, and it was different from the English that I had known.  I now knew something I supposed others did not.  I was reading the original, or as close to it as I had come, and in so doing I had discovered a secret.

There is great pleasure for anyone in discovering a thing, and for young people especially, it can seem like a gateway into something almost magical.  I have made many more linguistic discoveries in Latin and Greek over the years, and they have all thrilled me, but these days I get as much joy out of seeing the light of discovery and revelation flare in the eyes of my own students when they suddenly make a connection between a Latin root and its English derivative or in the meaning imparted to a line of poetry by Vergil's masterful word choice or word order.

Those "a ha" moments are indeed the perks of being an educator, but they are much more.  They are what education is all about, for the eureka moment is shared human experience.  Everyone knows that feeling, and, truth be told, everyone wants it.  There is a natural curiosity in people and a natural thrill in discovery.  Oh, it may be something you have long known, but for the person just finding it, it is a moment of pure revelation.

Celebrate those times of discovery in your classrooms.  Let your eyes widen and a smile stretch across your face as you join in the thrill of a student who has discovered something.  For as Cicero also said,

Qui esset tantus fructus in prosperis rebus, nisi haberes, qui illis aeque ac tu ipse gauderet?  (Cicero, De Amicitia 22)

"How great would be the benefit in favorable circumstances if you did not have someone who would rejoice in them as much as you do?"

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Bell Is Tolling

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

I am a human being:  I think nothing pertaining to that which is human is alien to me.  Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos, 77

There is no end to the issues that can prompt people of good will and vocabulary to start screaming obscenities.  It is easy to find such provocation anywhere and even easier to yield to it.  The afternoon of September 11, 2001, just as we were learning that the United States had been attacked, my students begged me to turn on the television, but I told them I would not do so.  It was not that what we were doing in class was more important, but at that moment I was not about to allow terrorists to steal from us what was rightfully ours, the opportunity to learn.  They had already stolen too much, and I was not about to concede one inch to them, and I explained that to my students.  For a similar reason I will not yield to the temptation to rant and rave about racism or any other sin in our country.  There is too much ranting and raving these days and, quite frankly, I have better things to do.

One such better thing is to teach my students tomorrow.  Monday morning I will enter my classroom and encounter what sometimes feels like an unrelenting schedule:  six, 50-minute periods of six separate classes (Latin I, Latin II, Latin III, Latin IV AP, and Latin V IB) filled with over 180 students.  Lest you think I teach at a private school, know that mine is a large, urban, public high school in Indianapolis with more than 3,800 students, wide ethnic diversity, and a free/reduced lunch rate at nearly fifty percent.  Oh, and according to one recent report, we are the eighth best public high school in the state.

I teach Latin, and because the Roman playwright Terence was correct, I am called to teach my students as widely and deeply as I can.  We discuss it all in my classes, from quantum physics to music, with history, grammar, art, government, poetry, warfare, love, and literature along the way.  I often joke that my students can drop all their other classes, for we cover the whole spectrum of humane studies in Latin.

The anchoring quotation for all our classes is this one by Cicero, the first century B.C. statesman:

Ceteros pudeat si qui ita se litteris abdiderunt ut nihil possint ex eis neque ad communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre.

Let others be ashamed if they have so hidden themselves in literature that they can bring forth nothing from it for the common benefit or into the light to be seen.  Cicero, Pro Archia, 12

This line has become the foundation for our flagship community service project (we do others as well) in which our students read aloud the entirety of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid one Saturday each April to raise money to fight poverty in Indianapolis.  We call it Reading The War On Poverty, and this year will be the tenth anniversary of this project that has raised over $1,000.00 each year.  In honor of this, we will be inviting alumni to participate as well as current students, and we have set the goal of raising $10,000 for our tenth anniversary in April of 2018.  You can find out more about the project here and can get involved here.

Young men and young women of different backgrounds and identities have been inspired by their studies of the language and culture of people two thousand years removed and half a world away to do something of true value in their own community.  They could just as well have found inspiration in the words of another of my favorite authors, John Donne, who famously wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  (from Meditation 17)

The classroom bell will soon toll for me, and I will not have time to rant and rave about the sins of our age.  I have better things to do, as I hope you do, and if one of those should be helping young people in their better work of Reading The War On Poverty, then I hope indeed you will join them here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Self-Indulgent Rock and Roll Post #3

R.E.M. once had an album titled Life's Rich Pageant.  I think of that phrase whenever I reflect on the wildly different threads, so intricately woven, that form the tapestry of life, and yes, I know I am mixing metaphors here.  Can there be only one metaphor to capture the complex beauty of human life?  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand indeed.

Part of my life's rich pageant involves classic rock, hard rock, and heavy metal.  I love these kinds of music.  Nothing else even comes close.  Okay, blues comes close.  And some country.  And the classic hymns.  Gotta love the '80s pop, too.  Throw in some Motown and ballads while you're at it and don't forget the crooners.  But on a regular basis, it is the sounds of rock and metal that blast through my speakers as I drive to and from school each day.

A few nights ago, a dream came true when I interviewed Michael Sweet, founder and lead singer/guitarist of Stryper and Sweet & Lynch and also a former member of Boston.  Yeah, that's right, a high school Latin teacher got to interview one of his rock heroes, a guy who has enjoyed multi-platinum success and tours to millions around the world.

Back up the story to around 1985.  My youth minister, John Cutshall, introduced me to a cassette tape of Soldiers Under Command by a Christian metal band called Stryper, and I went to Beethoven's, the music store in Greentree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, and purchased it.  It went straight into my Sony Walkman and hardly left.  Okay, I did put it in my boom box so I could play it for my grandma one Sunday.  I told her it was church music.  The point is, I was hooked and immediately went back to Beethoven's to get their debut album, The Yellow And Black Attack.

When I bought their album To Hell With The Devil in 1986, I had no idea I was getting such a rare treasure by purchasing the cassette with the controversial "angel" cover that was quickly replaced for later issues.  This album led to one of the iconic rock poster's of the '80s gracing my bedroom door and my first rock concert ever when I saw the band perform in Louisville, Kentucky.

When Stryper released their fourth and fifth albums, In God We Trust and Against The Law, I snapped them up as fast as I could get to College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana.  Studying to become a Latin teacher at Indiana University for many reasons, including my introduction to cable television and MTV, which played videos by Stryper, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi and even had a show dedicated to the greatest musical form on the planet called Headbangers Ball.  The Stryper albums I purchased in those years were on the still relatively new format of the compact disc, which meant hair metal in all its digital glory cranked to 11.

And then came the long cold winter.  The band pursued other projects, and it was not until 2003 that I, as a now married man and father, found a new Stryper CD.  It was staring at me from the music rack at Wal-Mart in Westfield, Indiana, and was a compilation with a couple of new tracks.  Was Stryper back on the scene?  A year later saw the release of 7 Weeks:  Live In America, a live album from a tour the previous year that ranks with Deep Purple's famous album Made In Japan as my favorite live recording.  Something was up.  It seemed that Stryper indeed was making a comeback, and that was proved accurate from 2005 to the present.

Since that live album, the band has put out Reborn, The Roxx Regime Demos, Murder By Pride, The Covering, Second Coming, No More Hell To Pay, Live At The Whisky, and Fallen.  During that time Michael Sweet has continued his solo projects, done a stint with Boston, and formed Sweet & Lynch with George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob), James LoMenzo (White Lion), and Brian Tichy (Whitesnake).

After nearly twenty years, I saw Stryper again playing an acoustic show in Pekin, Illinois, in 2014.  I met up with my own former Latin teacher and now colleague, Marcene Farley, and took my son to his first rock concert.  As we waited to enter the venue, Michael came out to meet the crowd, and Marcene got his attention.  I was like a kid myself as my son and I got our pictures with him.  Later that night as the band members tossed Bibles to crowd, I yelled to drummer Robert Sweet, and he tossed one directly to me.  Since then I have seen Stryper twice in fully electric shows and have seen Michael perform solo twice as well.

The first time I saw Michael Sweet play a solo show, I was with my friend Dr. Brad Oliver, an education leader in our state and a huge Stryper fan.  We met Michael afterward, and I gave him a copy of the lyrics to their 1985 hit "Soldiers Under Command" that I had a translated into Latin.  Shortly afterward, he tweeted out a picture of it, and earlier this year he autographed a copy for me.

And that brings us to the present.  When I knew I was going to attend Michael's solo show in Richmond, Indiana, I reached out to him and asked if I could interview him.  Amazingly, he messaged right back and said yes!  I was so excited!

Michael Sweet is a humble and honest man.  His faith in Christ makes him who he is, which is pretty amazing given his incredible talent.  The world is filled with people who elevate themselves, but Michael is a down-to-earth guy and the real deal.  So check out the time a Latin teacher got to interview a rock star!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Of Fountain Pens, School, and Shawshank

It could not matter less that I use fountain pens as I teach in a public high school with over 3,800 students, nearly fifty percent of whom receive free and reduced lunch assistance.  Some may even see it as a shameful extravagance, although I will note that many of the pens in my collection were given to me or passed down through our family.

Yet recall the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plays the duettino from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro over the loud speakers.  Watch that scene again and note Ellis 'Red' Redding's (Morgan Freeman) narration of what it meant to the men who were incarcerated.

I teach Latin and with it the literature and history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  I deal in the true, the good, and the beautiful for a living, and because true teaching involves an incarnation, an embodiment of the content in the lives of both teacher and student, my life should display the true, the good, and the beautiful on a regular basis.

No, there is nothing false about using a ballpoint, and using a fountain pen does not make a person good.  There is, however, something beautiful and elegant about a fountain pen, both in its external features and the way in which it transfers thought to paper.  If nothing else, it is eye catching, and I have had numerous students comment on my pens over the years.  They ask where I got them, how much they cost, and whether I will let them try one.  The answer to the last is yes, of course.  And there is the direct historical link to reed pens used by the ancients and the quills of the Medieval scribes, all of which we study in a unit on paleography, epigraphy, and calligraphy in Latin III.

Yet the true value they bring to my day is through elegance.  They offer a bit of elegance in an often inelegant world, and they show my students that the beauty of human thought expressed through elegant means can achieve a certain sublimity, which, after all, is as necessary for the human soul as food is for the body.  Perhaps, then, precisely because I teach in the school I do, where much of life is hard for many, it actually matters that the Latin teacher uses fountain pens.

The Pelikan, with Regal Purple for grading, and Waterman, with Empyrean Blue for general writing, with which I am beginning this school year.


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.