Friday, November 22, 2013

Outlawing Tire Irons

Abigail Walthausen has written a brilliant piece sure to anger some, as most brilliant pieces usually do.  She has dared to defend the classroom lecture.  Take a moment and catch your breath.  Yes, that's right.  She defends the classroom lecture.

As she points out, the lecture has drawn fire for years now, eventually giving rise to the ludicrous dichotomy between the "sage on the stage" versus the "guide on the side."  Yet she cites several articles and studies that suggest the lecture can have a meaningful place in education, but more on those in a moment.

Walthausen's key statement is, "If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well?"  Let's consider that.  I have never understood why, especially in a time that embraces diversity in all things, we would rule off the table certain techniques or approaches.  The quick answer, of course, is that lectures can be boring, soporific to the point where students fail to learn anything.  The problem with this response is its lack of logic.  I find a tire iron quite helpful when changing a flat tire.  Now, it can be used to bash in someone's head or smash a window in a burglary.  In other words, it can be put to a bad use.  That, however, is no reason to outlaw tire irons.  As Walthausen points out, the lecture can be quite good, the perfect instrument even, when put in the hands of a master lecturer.

To push another analogy, I collect and use fountain pens.  I find them elegant and a delightful connection to a bygone era.  I would under no circumstances force everyone to use them.  I realize that others may prefer a ballpoint, a roller ball, or even a good old #2 pencil.  Teachers are adults, often well-educated ones.  Surely we are capable of determining for ourselves which method of instruction is best in a particular circumstance and should not have one particular tool, in this case the lecture, denigrated or removed from our choices simply because some do not know how to use it well.

In an article Walthausen cites by former Indiana University professor and general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, Mary Burgan observes that "students benefit from seeing education embodied in a master learner who teaches what she has learned."  She continues,

It is in this context, it seems to me, that teachers are irreplaceable as models of knowledgeable adults grappling with first principles in order to open their students' understanding. Indeed, surveys have shown that such modeling is critical in students' responses to their teachers: The two features of an individual instructor's pedagogy that most engage undergraduates are control of the material and concern with students' understanding of it. No matter how recondite or obscure the ideas may be, the phenomenon of a grown-up person capable of talking enthusiastically and sequentially can show students how they themselves might someday be able to think things through.

The modeling of how a human being thinks and explores the world is one of the vital roles that a teacher plays, a role eloquently examined in George Steiner's Lessons of the Masters.  Steiner's book should be required reading for anyone entering the profession of teaching or presuming to talk about it.

Another article Walthausen cites is by Dr. Richard Gunderman, also of Indiana University. In it, he sets for the purpose and the look of the ideal lecture.  "The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information. The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners.  A great lecturer's benefit to learners extends far beyond preparing for an exam, earning a good grade, or attaining some form of professional certification. The great lecture opens learners' eyes to new questions, connections, and perspectives that they have not considered before, illuminating new possibilities for how to work and live. Without question, it also helps learners who pay attention earn a better grade, but it manages to make the topic take on a life of its own and seem worth knowing for its own sake, beyond such narrow, utilitarian advantage.  Great lecturers often share responsibility for solving ... problems with learners, working with them in real time to find a solution."

I have been fortunate to know great teachers who utilized the lecture format as a master violinist wields a Stradivarius.  This method makes its way regularly into my own classes, not as the dry and dusty talk that some have suffered through, but, as Gunderman sees it, as an opportunity to work with students in the shared journey of discovery that is true education.  I know the effectiveness of this method, for it has produced deep and passionate conversations and writings, both between my own teachers and me and between my students and their magister.  When these happen after class, after school, through email, on Facebook, and often at a remove of several years, you can be certain in a way no multiple choice test could confirm that true education has taken place.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

When Students Lead

We all have those days.  Why did I go into teaching?  Do I really want to continue doing this?  Maybe I should consider doing something else.

2009 NTOY Anthony Mullen shares why he has stayed with it, and this is a piece worth reading.  Check it out Education Week.

My own response to those questions that plague every teacher is here.  It describes what happens when students of their own accord begin to lead.

If you are struggling with those questions, don't ignore them.  Talk about them with those who know you and know education the best.  Listen to the stories of others.  Perhaps you will find something that will help you find the answers.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Popeye Challenge

What follows are the remarks I delivered at the 2013 Indiana's Future Conference, hosted by CELL, the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning .  Special thanks to 2013 INTOY Suzanne Whitton for encouraging me to attend for introducing me to some of the educational leaders in our state.

I want to thank Dr. Janet Boyle, the Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning, and the University of Indianapolis for inviting me to the 2013 conference.
He began as many leaders do.  He came from a humble background and through raw perseverance achieved greatness.  After growing up an orphan, he found a career in the navy, eventually leaving the service, finding love, and caring for a young boy of his own.  He had a special kind of strength he could tap when facing the toughest challenges, a power that always seemed ready to help him achieve success.  I’m sure by now you have identified this person, one of the most famous people of the 20th century.  I am, of course, talking about Popeye the Sailor Man.
I first came to understand that Popeye had uttered one of the greatest leadership principles when I was at the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek a few years ago.  Leadership author and pastor of one of the largest churches in America, Bill Hybels observed that when he was being attacked by Bluto and things seemed at their darkest, Popeye would say, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.”  At that point he would obtain a can of spinach, often inhaling it through his pipe, and the result would become cartoon history. 
As leaders, we are motivated by the things we can’t stands no more.  We observe a wrong, an injustice, an inequality, and it sticks in our minds.  An issue becomes a cause, and we are off and running.  When I consider the Popeye challenge and pause to ask what it is that I can’t stand, I know immediately the answer.  As a Latin teacher, it is true that I love Classical Studies, the academic engagement with the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.  I thrill to the literature, philosophy, and deeds that have captivated the world’s attention for thousands of years, but my answer to the Popeye challenge is not about that.  What I can’t stand is to see someone not operating to his or her potential, someone who is not living from the sweet spot of his or her giftedness.  The reason this sets me ablaze and motivates me is that as a teacher I have been blessed to see so many who were operating in that sweet spot, and as Macaulay said in his famous poem “Horatius,” it is “right glorious to behold.”
My most recent opportunity to see this in students was just last week.  The high school where I teach has the largest chapter of the Junior Classical League in the state of Indiana.  Our students work through this organization to learn more about the Classical world, participate in academic and artistic competitions, and serve our community.  When we returned to school this fall, I was excited to put into practice what I had read in Liz Wiseman’s and Elise Foster’s book The Multiplier Effect, which you heard about yesterday.  Rather than direct much of their efforts, I turned our officers loose to see where their genius would take us.  The result has been, as the Romans would have said, mirabile visu, wonderful to see.  Two of our seniors, Samantha and Paige, inspired by our commitment to annual community service projects, decided to seek a grant from the United Way of Central Indiana.  Their plan is to establish a literacy garden at one of our elementary schools, complete with landscaping inspired by descriptions in Classical literature, a mural depicting Classical myths, and weather-proof bookcases that will allow the school community to take a book, leave a book as they share in the adventures of reading.  Watching these two young women present their plan with professionalism, passion, and persuasion before the grant committee was a highlight of my career, although they are but the most recent in a long history of working with capable teens.
I have also watched colleagues living out the full capacity of their giftedness.  I think of Ed in Virginia.  To see him teaching Dante or a Japanese Noh play is to see a true master teacher at work.  I think of Bill, who not only teaches history but lives it as a published historian and restorer of homes in the Irvington area of Indianapolis.  There is Jeannie, who after retirement from teaching English and Theory of Knowledge for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, returns once a week in the afternoons because she was asked by a student to sponsor the philosophy club.  There is Jill, another retired English teacher whose gifts continue to serve students as a literacy specialist with the Indiana Department of Education.
Those of us in education have the best perspective from which to watch amazing people operating from their areas of genius.  If you see it even once, you will want to see it again and again.  You will find that you cannot stand to see an ounce of potential, a hint of creativity, a flicker of genius go undeveloped.  Fortunately for us, developing gifts is what educators do best.  It is written into our name.  From its Latin roots, we see that educators are literally those who lead forth.  We are the ones who see what others may not see in themselves.  We are the ones who lead latent gifts out of the darkness so they can light the world.
I am humbled and honored to have been chosen as the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year.  I was not selected because I am the best teacher in Indiana, but rather to represent the best, to help shine the light of public attention on educational leaders who are discovering and developing genius all around them.  Thank you again to CELL for doing just this kind of work, and thank you again for the opportunity to join you today.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Support of Friends

Qui esset tantus fructus in prosperis rebus, nisi haberes, qui illis aeque ac tu ipse gauderet?

How great would be the enjoyment in good good times if you did not have people who would rejoice in them as much as you do?  Cicero, De Amicitia 22

On November 11, 2013, the Indianapolis City Council held its regular meeting.  It began with honoring various community members, including fallen Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers Rod Bradway and Timothy Day.  It was Veterans' Day, and that I was to be honored following these brave men was already a humbling thought.  I had been asked to join the meeting as the council presented a resolution recognizing me as the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year.  I was glad to see the council also honoring Lauren Kniola, one of the top ten finalists for INTOY.

I was prepared for the resolution of the council, but I was taken off guard by the proclamation of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard that November 13, 2013, should be known as Steven Perkins day across the city.  The proclamation was eloquently written and handsomely presented.  To say I was honored, and humbled still further, would be an understatement.

This moment was enhanced for me by the presence of family and friends.  My wife and our two children were there, as was Suzanne Whitton, the 2013 INTOY.  My superintendent, Dr. Nikki Woodson, and Mr. Don Kite, a member of our school board were there, along with Mrs. Tymika Payne, one of our assistant principals.  I knew my family would attend, but I had no idea the others would be there.

Since I was named my school's and my district's teacher of the year in May and on through the adventure of being named INTOY, I have received the most wonderful support from my colleagues, administrators, and school board.  Their enthusiasm and excitement has meant everything.  All teachers should know this kind of support.  It has affirmed me in my work and made me even proud than before to be a teacher in Indiana.  I am proud of my school, my district, and my state.  I want to do my best to represent them well.  This has always been true, but the feeling of it has become more focused in the light of the genuine support I have received.  Cicero is once again proved right.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Something Better

Heu, regni rerumque oblite tuarum!
Alas, you who are forgetful of your kingdom and your affairs!  (Aeneid 6.267)

As we read this line yesterday in our AP Latin class, I was struck by how appropriate it is for many of our students.  Teachers will be quick to think, "Ah, yes.  This is indeed a great line about students who fail to study and do their homework."  Yet I would say there is more here than just that.

Let's start with some context.  In the Roman poet Vergil's epic Aeneid, he tells the tale of a Trojan hero who sails from the burning remains of Troy with his family and friends.  This band of refugees flees across the Mediterranean en route to new homeland in Italy.  Blown off course by storm of divine origin, they land in Carthage where the hero, Aeneas, meets Queen Dido.  An affair begins, also prompted by divine machinations, and Jupiter finally sends Mercury to tell Aeneas he must leave and get on with the business of establishing the Trojans in a new home.

All of us, like Aeneas, become distracted from our true mission.  This is true for the ancient hero, the modern adult, and the child in the classroom.  Many of us may rail against the temptations of technology, but let's face it.  There is a lot of fun stuff out there!  I was on the moon when the lead singer/lead guitarist of my favorite '80s hair metal band retweeted my tweet about their new album recently.  Imagine, then, the challenges our students face when it comes to a choice of:  a) study for the quiz or b) text a friend while listening to music and updating Facebook.

Yet if we are simply offended that they have failed to do the work that we have assigned and if our response is solely from the perspective of "you should do this work because it's good for you," then we have missed something greater, something better.  I am reminded of the scene in Braveheart in which, just after the battle of Stirling, William Wallace has been knighted by the Scottish nobles.  They want him to declare his allegiance for one of the clans in their bid for kingship against the cruel English monarch Edward the Longshanks, and the room erupts into arguments and accusations.  Wallace shouts in reply, "You're so concerned with squabbling for the scraps from Lonshanks's table that you've missed your God-given right to something better."

Education, including the hard work of study, is about helping students discover the glories of creation.  Think about it.  Snow, quasars, atoms, the Fibonacci sequence, dactylic hexameter poetry, democracy, verb formation, hypertext markup language...are you kidding me?  The world is an amazing place, filled with natural and human-invented wonders that stagger the imagination, and education introduces children to such a place.  But wait!  There's more!  Education is also about helping students discover and develop their gifts for making their own contributions to this miraculous world, this marvelous play called life.

Coming back, then, to missed homework assignments and the failure to study for quizzes and tests, we see that not doing such work is not just a dereliction of duty, but rather a missed opportunity.  Mercury reminds Aeneas that in his distraction with Queen Dido he has not just forgotten his duties, he is missing out on the kingdom destined to be his.  A missed assignment, while seemingly nothing more than a workbook exercise not completed, is actually much more.  Because homework and paying attention in classs and group work and class participation are all part of education, students who fail to be fully engaged are ultimately cheating themselves of their right to something better.  For Aeneas, the destined kingdom lay across uncertain waters.  The kingdom for our students lies all around them.  It is theirs for the taking, if only they will.