Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Makes You Come Alive?

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  

Whether to teach is a question that many education students consider while in college.  I remember a friend of mine who had a job offer from a major accounting firm by the end of the first semester our senior year.  Education students are surrounded by peers who are bright with excitement about jumping off into the world, eager for the opportunities of honor and financial reward that our society has promised them.

Whether to continue teaching is a question all veteran educators ask at some point, often multiple times, and occasionally multiple times within a given day.  Our friends, too, are reaping the material and social benefits of jobs that our society has seen fit to honor more than ours.

This is why I love the quotation above from African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman.  Education is one of the fields in which the practitioners frequently question themselves and their career choice.  Thurman's philosophy shows how best to frame that question.  It is difficult to live by such a high-minded vision as Thurman's, for we must all eat and pay our bills, and the allure of other, more lucrative occupations calls to each of us.  Yet the high-minded road is the only road to take for human beings, who alone are capable of such a perspective.

So ask yourself the question.  Does teaching make you come alive?  This is not asking if every day is a stroll through a sunny park.  We have days when we feel defeated, unsupported, and ineffective, but that is true of any profession.  Does teaching make you come alive?  Are you the best version of yourself when you are in the classroom?  Are you operating in the zone, the sweet spot of your giftedness when you are teaching?  If the answer is yes, then do it.  By all means, do it and stay with it.  The world needs teachers like you.

If, however, the answer is no, then consider doing something else.  You would not want your surgeon to enter the operating room hating her job and doing it merely because the benefits were good and she got to vacation each year in the Bahamas.  Teaching is about life, both giving and receiving it.  It is a two-way interaction between teachers and students.  If what you bring and what you derive from the interaction is not life, no one is well served. 

I was recently interviewed by a writer for Torch: U.S., a publication of the National Junior Classical League, and was asked if I had any advice for aspiring Latin teachers.  I shared Thurman's quotation and added this about Latin students who have become Latin teachers. "They love their subject…no, scratch that…they live their subject.  They embody the Classical ideal and show the world what a life well lived can look like.  This is what makes a great teacher."

What do you live?  Not, what do you love, but what do you live?  What gives you life?  If it is what you teach, then your students are more likely to join and stay with you on that shared journey of discovery that is education.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nobody's Fault But Mine

Nobody's fault but mine
Nobody's fault but mine
If I don't read, my soul be lost
Nobody's fault but mine

So runs the chorus in the classic Blind Willie Johnson song.  I was reminded of that this morning as one of my sophomores talked with a friend before first period.  My student and her friend came into the classroom, and the friend began asking her about Latin.  She immediately began to talk about how much fun it was, and that made me tune in a bit.  I listened as she shared with her friend activities we do and even taught her friend how to say hello to one person, Salve, and to more than one person, Salvete.

My student then took out her vocabulary list and explained to her friend that all the vocabulary for the quarter is available on our website, as is a course outline that lists all the homework assignments, tests, and quizzes.  She said to her friend, "I have no excuse not to do well."

Needless to say, such a conversation was music to a teacher's ears.  This is the kind of responsibility we want to see students take for their learning.  I have done my job by making resources available, but she is also doing her job by utilizing those resources.  Lest anyone think this is a rare student, I would venture to say the majority, perhaps even a large majority, of my students take her approach.  Does everyone get an A?  No.  Is every student prepared every day with every assignment?  Of course not.  They are human beings.  They do, however, know the right way to approach their studies, and I could not have been more proud of this student sharing that with her friend.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cars, Cable News, and Makeup

It is not every day I sit in a chair while someone puts makeup on my face.  Okay, scratch that.  I have never sat in a chair while someone put makeup on my face.  It happened today, though, at the Kokomo Automotive Center where I was interviewed by Taylor Bennett of Comcast Newsmakers.  According to the information I received, the interview should air soon on CNN's Headline News.

I was able to snap a couple of quick pics of my favorite car...the Ford Mustang!  Classic coupe, fastback, muscle car, or modern rendition, it does not matter.  I am in love with the 'Stang, and one day, when I'm all grown up, I hope to have one, but that is a post for another day.

As you can see, I proudly represented the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township.  Our school board presented me with many nice items, including this lapel pin, to promote our wonderful schools.

When I have details I on the airing of the interview, I will post them.  Now it's time to go watch Bullitt.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Eating To Think

Pascal famously observed that the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.  Something similar can be said of education, whose genuine challenges and victories lie deeper than the reach of most legislation and the awareness, or at least acknowledgment, of most communities.

A recent article in The Washington Post shines a light on one of the key challenges to students and why current efforts to improve education are actually hurting those who are already in need.  Poverty is not something that affects so-called "poor countries" that exist somewhere "over there."  As one organization puts it, the world is next door.

I know this from first-hand experience.  In my classes have sat the children of business titans and high-ranking government officials.  They have been sitting next to those who had no money for lunch and were unlikely to eat when they went home.  My students whose parents ask about their day work in groups with those whose parents are abusive and worse.  Unless you are a teacher reading this on Mars, I imagine your classroom is much the same.

What the Washington Post article gets correct is this.  Poverty is perhaps the most significant issue affecting education, and many of our efforts to double down on certain courses to the exclusion of others exacerbates the problem.  When it comes to being hungry or malnourished, it really does not matter if everyone in the class has an iPad.  For children who come to school weak, tired, and bearing emotional burdens that cause adults to take a day off, it really does not matter whether my curriculum is properly aligned with certain standards.  I was struck with this thought recently as members of our church and I served hot soup, pizza, and drinks to those in need in Indianapolis.  How could the children in line be able to focus on their studies the next day when this was all they had?  Say what you want about adults in poverty and whether or not it is their own fault through bad choices, no child ever did anything to warrant an empty stomach.

So what do we often do in schools were the academic performance is low and the poverty is high?  As the Post article notes, we "drill and kill."  I have said many times in various situations that I could not understand it when an art or music program was cut.  Why was math or English not cut?  Is it because those subjects are more important?  No one would want to say it, but that is clearly the belief.  It reminds me of a scene in Schindler's List in which the character Chaim Nowak expresses his incredulity at being labeled a non-essential worker.  "Not essential? I think you misunderstand the meaning of the word. I teach history and literature, since when it's not essential?"

So what do we do?  Does this mean we need more opportunities to eat during the school day?  Perhaps.  Let's face it.  When adults go to conferences, there is usually a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break, lunch, and snacks throughout the day.  You can even pick up a sucker just for filling out a deposit slip at the bank.  If we are denying students opportunities to eat when they need food simply because of classroom management concerns, we may need to rethink classroom management.  Maybe we need to get community volunteers and parents to help during the day.  Maybe it is as simple as having some granola bars in a bowl for students who need them.  And when it comes to art, music, and other classes deemed not essential, the jackboots of pragmatism begin to march a bit too close to home.

Let's start the conversation.  What are some practical next steps we can take?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Teaching Is Not Women's Work

A recent article in The Atlantic looks at why teachers leave and why they stay.  Drawing heavily on research conducted by Dr. Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania's education school, it begins by painting the familiarly grim picture of low pay, lack of respect turned disrespect, and the astronomical turnover rate that is the natural consequence.  In the second paragraph, though, we find an interesting quotation from Dr. Ingersoll, who said that teaching "was originally built as this temporary line of work for women before they got their real job—which was raising families, or temporary for men until they moved out of the classroom and became administrators. That was sort of the historical set-up."  I do not take issue with the historicity of Dr. Ingersoll's statement, but would like to suggest that this past view of education, whose ramifications we feel today, was entirely misguided and that any current practice derivative of such a view must lead to devastating consequences.

Education is not women's work, if by that it is meant a pastime to keep women occupied until something else comes along.  It is not a low-skill, unimportant job to be relegated to second-class citizens, a status under which women have long labored.  Nor is it a trivial exercise worthy of little more than disdain wrapped in polite condescension because the principal participants are children, another often disregarded group.

Education takes place when one human being helps another understanding something.  It happens when we share the stories of our past, whether those stories are about a world war or a mathematical formula.  Education is, quite simply, communication, and that is a most glorious gift among humans.  It is true, of course, that other animals communicate, but only humans compose sonnets, write music, and develop theories about the subatomic world, and make no mistake, all these are forms of communication and therefore educate those who take part in them.

We have rightly extolled the efforts of certain groups of communicators, the physicists, say, who are working to understand the fundamental workings of the universe.  We give them Nobel prizes, and so we should.  We exalt groups who communicate musically, often requesting musical communication for the honoring of kings and presidents, and those who have listened to a symphony play Mozart know deep in their souls that it was a learning experience.  There have been cultures, perhaps now fewer than we would like, who revered the individual communicator, the elder who taught the young of the tribe around the fire.

To think, then, that the organized communication that takes place in our schools is anything less or other than a different, yet necessary, component of the human euphony, is short sighted in the extreme.  Like any act of creation, teaching, which is communicating, is a distinct act of humanity.  It is part of our greatness, to be participated in by all who will, and therefore worthy of every honor.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Teens Will Be Teens...And That's a Good Thing

Make no mistake, the students in my classes are genuine teenagers.  Some bring to class a stunning array of colored pens so they can take notes in alternating colors.  Others write in multi-hued Sharpies on their backbacks.  They wear t-shirts promoting their favorite bands, are quick to talk about movies like The Avengers, and display all the enthusiasm and humor of young people trying to discover their place in the world.

It is important to preface this post with such words, for when I describe the depth of thought displayed recently in our Latin II (3/4) and Latin IV (7/8) classes, one could easily think I teach an elite group of savants.  This is not the case.  These are normal teens, and this is what normal teens are capable of.

Yesterday, our Latin IV Advanced Placement class was reading Aeneid VI.594ff in which Venus speaks to the hero Aeneas.  She tells him that it is not Helen who is responsible for the fall of Troy, but cruelty of the gods.  One of our students observed that humans often made reference to the gods in a vague way when in fact they were speaking of the fates, some unseen force above them directing the circumstances of life.  He asked if the fates were above the gods, as they often seem to be in ancient stories, and if so, whether the gods would refer to them as gods.  The answer to this with regard to this particular passage comes in lines 610ff, where Venus points out specific deities who are undermining Troy, but this young man's question was a good one, and it led us to consider three scenarios:  (1) humans-gods-fates, (2) humans-fates-gods, (3) humans-gods/fates, with gods and fates being at the same level in the third option.  We also discussed the how our answers would differ whether the gods and fates were seen as anthropomorphic characters or purely as metaphors.  I had not anticipated this line of discussion, but it was just one more in a long line of meaningful digressions that we often encounter in this class thanks to the brilliance of normal, everyday teens.

Then today, one of our freshmen in Latin II (3/4), who began her studies as an 8th grader coming to our high school last year, asked a brilliant question in our introduction to the perfect subjunctive.  We drew the comparison in form between the perfect passive subjunctive and future perfect passive indicative.  This young lady offered a hypothesis as to why these forms are so similar.  She noted that the subjunctive already carries with it an uncertain, almost future feeling, and that it made sense for the perfect passive subjunctive to share forms with the future perfect passive indicative.  That one stunned me.  It was not that this young lady has not said brilliant things before.  It was the breathtaking depth of linguistic speculation.  In a freshman.

As I said at the beginning, my students are just regular kids.  They joke and act silly just as we would expect.  Yet they are also capable of intellectual engagement like what I have described.  Such behavior really can be the norm.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Professional Associations

The word "association" is derived from the Latin socius, socii, m., which means "ally" or "comrade."  While membership in professional associations may look good on a resume and may even provide avenues for ongoing learning, they also provide something else.  They are places for us to share the highs and lows unique to our fields or disciplines.  They are places where we find true allies as we continue the battle on the front lines.

I recently had the opportunity to make a presentation at the Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association conference.  During that time the Indiana Classical Conference also met, and I was reminded of why belonging to such associations is a good thing.

In a different age, belonging to associations and attending conferences was the norm.  It was par for the course.  Now, thanks to social media and the Internet, many my find it unnecessary to join professional groups, and we all know that it is increasingly difficult to take off a day from school.  Of course, it has always been a challenge to teachers to be absent, and we would often rather teach through pain and illness than create lesson plans, but with shrinking funds to support professional activities, taking time off for a conference is harder than ever.

Yet there is value in the time spent with colleagues who understand your particular challenges and who rejoice with you in your triumphs and those of your students.  We come away feeling renewed, re-energized, and supported.  We know that we are not alone.

It is also an opportunity for us to discover the rising stars in our disciplines, the new and beginning teachers that we can mentor.  I met several at the IFLTA conference that fall into that category.  In them I can see that future of Latin instruction in Indiana is in capable hands, and they inspire me with their energy and enthusiasm to think of how we can work together on exciting ventures for students.

Where do you draw your professional support?  Are there young teachers you can mentor to lead the way after you?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Caesar on Leadership

In a recent post, I wrote about a leadership lesson from a simple story in our Latin I textbook.  The theme of leadership continues for our students in Latin II as they explore the war writings of Julius Caesar.

When I took a history of education class at Indiana University from Hornfay Cherng, (now at National Hsinchu University) we read Machiavelli's The Prince.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Yes, it was that Machiavelli.  To this day I have maintained it was one of the best educational texts I have ever read.  There are sound principles of leadership and classroom management to be gleaned from it.  You simply have to get past the notion of killing people.  In other words, you have to distill whatever good and valuable principles there are in the work and discard that with which you disagree, and that brings us back to Caesar.

Statistics tell me that the majority of my students will not enter military service.  A reasonable question, then, is why we would read the war commentaries of a first century B.C. general.  As with Machiavelli, Caesar shows sound leadership characteristics that can be applied in a variety of contexts.  You do not have to lead troops to benefit from his leadership.  You certainly do not have to agree with his acts of war for the purpose of conquest.  You do not need to like the guy to learn from him, and important lesson in itself for all students.

One of the passages we read each year comes from De Bello Gallico I.25. Caesar primum suo, deinde omnium ex conspectu remotis equis, ut aequato omnium periculo spem fugae tolleret, cohortatus suos proelium commisit.  "Then Caesar, with his own horse sent away first and the other horses removed from everyone's sight so that, with the danger made equal for all, he might take away any hope of retreat, encouraged the men to begin battle."

Caesar was not the kind of general to issue orders from the rear of the army.  He fought with his men.  He was not the kind of leader to command others to do something he would not.  He endured the same conditions as his soldiers.  As a result, his men loved him and were willing to follow him anywhere, even if it ultimately meant waging war on their own homeland years later.

Our students look at this from the perspective parents or coaches or bosses on the job.  We talk about how this principle could be lived out in various contexts and why the opposite, leading from behind or unwillingness to share hardship, makes for poor leadership.

What leaders, good or bad, throughout history can serve as models for leadership today, especially in education?  If you distill the valuable points and discard some of the particulars, you may find leadership models in unlikely or overlooked places.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Latin Lessons in Leadership

I am passionate about leadership and have often said that good leadership inspires me, while bad leadership motivates me.  It is why I love books like The Multiplier Effect:  Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools and regularly attend the Global Leadership Summit, where leaders from the worlds of business, government, non-profits, and churches (including heavy hitters like Gen. Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Jim Collins, Liz Wiseman, and Bono) gather to help each other stay sharp.  As a result, leadership is a running theme throughout the levels of Latin I teach.  I point out to students that they will all lead something...a company, a Little League team, a project at work, a government, a family.  It is never too early to start thinking about how.

In our Latin I textbook, we read a story about the first king of Rome, Romulus.  It is historical fiction and based on the limited, simple vocabulary in the early part of a first-year textbook, but there is a line that always draws our attention.  Romulus says to the people, "Rome will be great.  You will be famous."  There is no ancient source for this, but that does not matter.  This quote illustrates a key leadership principle.  It is not enough to tell people their organization will be great.  Leaders must connect vision to the lives of the people themselves.  A leader may have a fantastic idea, but the people all want to know, "How does this affect me?  How will my life be different?  Will it make things better for me?"

We do not spend a long time discussing this.  After all, we have our basic grammar to learn in Latin I.  It is not enough, though, just to learn our nouns and verbs, and even when reading a bit of historical fiction, we must take time to draw out what is important.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The High Tide

Former principal of North Central High School C.E. Quandt used to say often in faculty meetings that the high tide floats all boats.  By this he meant that raising the academic bar helps all students.  I am proud to say that the academic culture at NCHS has remained amazingly high for many, many years.

His comment reminds me of something said by my freshman science teacher at Hazelwood Junior High (now Hazelwood Middle School) in New Albany, Indiana, Mr. Keith Hofmeister.  He told us one day of being on a committee to review science textbooks and questioning one publishing representative why his company had watered down a previously rigorous textbook.  The rep quickly tried to deny that anything of the sort had taken place, but Mr. Hofmeister pointed out numerous examples of omitted terminology and the absence of important mathematical components.  His telling of the story made me feel proud that I was in a class that was not watered down, but grappled directly with the challenging aspects of science.

This has been a guiding principle for me in every level I have taught, from middle school through undergraduate.  Students are usually quite capable of handling considerable depth and rigor.  Subjects need to be presented in a way they can grasp, but there is no need to water things down.

I remember once leading a group of middle school boys at a church retreat.  We all decorated our water bottles with markers, and I had written on mine in Greek a phrase from the Nicene Creed......ομοουσιος τω πατρι.  One of the boys asked about it, and I was confronted with the challenge of how to explain to an 8th grader one of the most challenging theological concepts of the Christian faith, the belief that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father.  I reached for the example that just as he was made of the same, hair, his parents, he was yet distinct from them, his own person.  Now, the theologians out there will quickly point out that this is a horribly imprecise comparison, one that, at its deepest level, may actually be inaccurate.  My point here is not to engage in theological discussion, but merely to say the boy left with a bit better understanding of a vast and challenging point of theology.  To have brought out all the Aristotelian and Thomistic notions of essence and form would have been going too far.  Yet to have brushed the young man off and said, "This is too complicated for you" would have been an equal dereliction of duty.

What challenges do you face in keeping the rigor without watering down your content?  How do you handle those challenges?

Friday, October 11, 2013

From Whom I Learned

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius began his Meditations (Latin, English) with a list of the important people in his life and the lessons they had taught him.  Teachers are often the most keenly mindful of their own teachers, for they not only taught us the particulars of various subjects, but inspired us to enter the profession of teaching.  I can think of no better way to begin this blog than with a post reflecting on the master teachers in my life who have without question shaped the way I see education and go about the daily work of teaching.  Perhaps my reflections will prompt fond memories in those who read them.  If so, send a quick note to one or more of those special teachers in your life.  If there is one given in education, it is that teachers love to hear from students.

My formal education began with Mrs. Anne Roberson, Kindergarten teacher at Grace Lutheran Church in New Albany, Indiana.  I can still remember her classroom and the fun of learning there.  Since our public schools did not have Kindergarten in those days, I entered the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation in first grade at Slate Run Elementary.  My teacher was Mrs. Zelda Everbach, although I spent quite a bit of time in the class of Mrs. Maxine Dersch, as both teachers shared students for different subjects.  Mrs. Everbach reminded me of one of my grandmothers and remained in close contact with my mother for many years.  With Mrs. Dersch I encountered geo-boards, Digitor, and the rigors of first grade math.

Second grade introduced me to Mrs. Debbie Kimeck, who had been my mom's student when she taught fourth grade at Mt. Tabor Elementary.  I remember well the special reading area she had set up in her room.  It looked like a house, and we could go in, sit down on a rug, and read or have someone read to us.  It was always fun having my mom come to our class as a reading aide!

In third grade I had Mrs. Marcia Austin as my teacher, and a more cheerful person you were not likely to meet.  Not only did she boast a mile-wide smile, but yellow smiley faces adorned her room.  We all like that she drove a small, silver sports car that she nicknamed "King Kong's roller skate!"

Mr. Donald Dewey was my fourth grade teacher, and it was there that I was introduced to Indiana history and the honorable challenge of learning.  He told us we would be learning to work with algebraic equations, something that in times past had been reserved for high school students.  I still remember the excitement and pride that came with the thought of learning something so advanced.

My fifth grade teacher was Mr. Neal "Corky" Lang, and he introduced us to the concept of writing down our assignments in an assignment book.  So impressed was I with his neat, organized, and methodical way of teaching that I began a list that year of things I wanted to do when I became a teacher.

Sixth grade was my last year of elementary school, and Mr. Irvin Goldstein gave us the best possible preparation for junior high.  I could write forever about the things we did in his classroom, from making pickles and root beer and stained glass windows to being challenged with a bonus list of vocabulary words, the first nine of which I still remember (vague, sham, redundant, verbose, articulate, gregarious, mediocre, magnificent, loquacious).  Most significantly for me, Mr. Goldstein gave us many creative writing assignments.  To this day I have not stopped writing both fiction and non-fiction.

My teachers at Slate Run set me off on a most wonderful path of discovery.  I learned from them the fundamentals of reading and writing as well as the study skills necessary for success in any kind of learning.  I also found in them models of teaching.  Having taught in many different environments and at levels from middle school through undergraduate, I can honestly and proudly say that my elementary foundation was superlative.  I would not change a thing.