Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Lucullan Feast

A warm breeze ruffled his hair as he walked through the hotel patio.  A quick glance at palm trees waving in the Arizona sun brought a smile of recognition that he was indeed far from his frozen Midwest home.  As he pushed through the glass doors of the hotel lobby, carrying his monogrammed black briefcase, he stepped into the retro '60s chic of the Hotel Valley Ho and felt not a little like Connery Bond.  Striding across another patio, he was greeted by the smiles and welcomes of newly familiar faces and took his seat at nothing short of a Lucullan feast for the body, the mind, and the soul.

There was, of course, the food, actual food.  Five star offerings at breakfast, lunch, and dinner formed a savory backdrop for even more delicious conversation.  No rubber chicken dinner, this.  Gourmet offerings of meats and vegetables and soups served with china and linen strengthened body and spirit and allowed the mind to begin to imagine once again.

The mind, thus refreshed with physical sustenance, then partook of an intelligent, meaningful, useful buffet of workshops that combined the best instruction with ample opportunity for reflection and practice.  Technology training, policy discussion, communication techniques and avenues were all a part of the magnificent spread.  Talks, activities, and opportunities to process were arranged in seamless orchestration to produce an abundant flow of nourishment to minds remembering what it means to think and dream and live.

Yet it was the banquet for the soul that made the week complete.  A delicate combination of semi-structured and free opportunities for intelligent, educated adults to gather led to a soulful rejuvenation.  Beneath the cloudless blue of the Arizona sky, a truth was recovered.  Anything is indeed possible.

I am, of course, talking about the 2014 National Teacher of the Year Program Conference hosted recently in Scottsdale by the Council of Chief State School Officers, ING, the National Teacher of the Year Program, and People to People.  Some may think my phrase "of course" a bit misplaced.  After all, isn't it rare for teachers to have an experience like this?  Yes, it is rare, but it should not be.  It should be as expected as and more acceptable than the amenities-laden trips and conferences enjoyed by other professionals in our society.

"Ah, there you teachers go, asking for more things.  Why can't you accept your role as martyr-saints, put on your hair shirts, and be content with your locusts and honey?  We always knew you were just in it for the money and material goods."

The apostle Paul and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., both did great work from prisons.  It is possible, but it should not be the norm.  When the Roman emperor Augustus, after bringing peace to the Mediterranean world, turned his attention to domestic affairs in Rome, he wanted to bring about a flowering of the arts.  He did not attempt this by locking poets in a dungeon and ordering them to write with their own blood.  He instructed his friend Maecenas, a wealthy citizen, to provide for their needs.  The result was nothing less than the polymetric masterpieces of Horace and the Aeneid of Vergil, that magnum opus that has delighted and inspired generations for two thousand years.

Make no mistake, teaching is both a science and an art.  The scientific side receives much attention, but less so the artistic.  Not every teaching conference or professional development can feature all the components of the NTOY Program Conference.  Every teaching conference and professional development can, however, come close.  They can be guided by the spirit that acknowledges the humanity of this enterprise called education.  This is not about providing a soft life for teachers.  It is about creating the environments in which their bodies, minds, and souls can flourish, where they can dream, and where they can be inspired yet again as they lead our children on the shared journey of discovery.  As I rediscovered in Arizona, anything is possible.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'"H" Is For "Hoosier"

If I had told the airline what I was really bringing with me on my trip to join the Teachers of the Year from across the country at our conference in Arizona, they would have charged me extra baggage fees.  In addition to iPad, iPhone, and a Walt Longmire mystery, I have with me the wonderful state of Indiana.  Let me explain.

Both my mother and father were born in Indiana and spent their whole lives there.  The same is true for my wife's family.  I was born in Clark Memorial Hospital, grew up in New Albany, and earned my B.A. in Classical Studies at Indiana University.  Although I had a full ride scholarship elsewhere based on S.A.T. scores, IU was the only school I wanted to attend, and I can still remember the thrill of getting my acceptance letter.

After two years teaching in Kansas City, Missouri, and five in Austin, Texas, where I earned my M.A. in Classics, we moved back to Indiana.  It is here that I have taught the longest, published the most, and it is here we are rearing our children.  We are a Hoosier family, born and bred.

Indiana and its history will always be special to me.  My mother was a fourth grade teacher and taught Indiana history.  From stories of Corydon as our first state capital and tales of Native Americans and settlers, including all the variations on the etymology of "Hoosier," I came to a sense of heritage and place.  The shape of Indiana and its dark blue flag with golden torch and stars, the state house and Conner Prairie, farmland and basketball and everything from the dunes in the north to the Colgate clock in the south evoke a feeling, a spirit, a genius Indianensis deep within me.

For this reason I could not have been more humble and honored than when at the 2014 Teacher of the Year banquet Governor Mike Pence presented me with a proclamation naming me a Sagamore of the Wabash.  2013 INTOY Suzanne Whitton got her wish that night.  She hoped I would be moved to tears, and I was.  It was a moment made all the more special since my mother, that former fourth grade teacher, was there, too.

A few days later our family were guests of Gov. Pence at his State of the State address.  Sitting in the First Lady's box seat with other guests, being acknowledged by our governor, and receiving a standing ovation from our legislators would have been an honor for anyone.  For me, it was yet again a humbling experience, for I remember visiting the House and Senate chambers on a government trip when I was a senior high school.  Memories and feelings flooded my heart, and that genius Indianensis welled up.

And then two days later we were special guests once more, this time of the Indianapolis Pacers.  I was escorted to photo ops by none other than Darnell "Dr. Dunk" Hillman, we had seats behind the Knicks, and after the first quarter I walked to center court to receive an Indiana Hero award from the Pacers and Citizens Energy.  It doesn't get more Hoosier than basketball, and that whole evening was one our family will never forget.

As the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year, I have the opportunity to represent all the wonderful teachers and students of our state.  Of course, our teachers and students are themselves the product of their communities, so in a sense, I have all Hoosiers with me this week in Arizona and wherever my travels take me from here.  I don't have to worry about finding seats for everyone in the plane, though.  You travel with me as the genius Indianensis, and I am proud to tell everyone that "H" is for "Hoosier."    

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Proper Gratitude

At the Indiana teacher of the Year banquet last Friday night, I had the opportunity to give some remarks*, and I began by observing that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius devoted the first chapter of his Meditations to thanksgiving through remembrance as he called to mind the family members, teachers, and friends who had shaped his life.  Even in the extended space of a blog post, I doubt I could cover all those to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.  There will be another post about family and close friends, but in this piece, I want to thank those who had a direct hand in planning and making that evening the wonderful event it was.

The evening could not have happened without the support of Amie Michael of the Lumina Foundation and Megan Garton of American Fidelity.  These sponsors allowed us to honor all Indiana teachers in a great way.

I was fortunate to receive a number of gifts, including a handsome leather briefcase and leather folio, both stamped with my name and initials.  These were purchased by the IDOE from Brenner Luggage.

Tim Jeffers and CSO Architects graciously purchased handcrafted glass apples for each of the teacher of the year candidates.  As you can see, this is a handsome piece of art.  It is a product of the Zimmerman Glass Factory, a longstanding Hoosier landmark in historic Corydon, our first state capital.

Tim and CSO Architects were also responsible for the handsome Teacher of the Year pin from Hofmeister Jewelers.  This beautiful gold pin features the words "Teacher of the Year" in the shape of an apple.

As if that were not enough, I have John Elliott and Kroger to thank for an incredibly generous I received a check for $1000.00.

At the end of the evening I was surprised, honored, and deeply humbled when Governor Mike Pence proclaimed me a Sagamore of the Wabash.  I will say more about this in another post, but this brought tears to my eyes.  The framing for this and the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year Proclamation was donated by Ryan Burosh and Prizm, The Artist's Supply Store.

*Those who were at the banquet will understand this, but I wanted all the husbands to have the Hamlet reference, which is in the document linked above.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Homer For Inmates

"Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"  (Matthew 25:34-40, NIV)

Some think that Classics, the academic field that studies the language, history, and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome is the province of DWEMs.  They think it is nothing more than dead, white, European males studying dead, white, European males.  This, of course, is a blinkered view of things, born of a short-sighted understanding of history and a parochial worldview. It ignores Classicists like William Sanders Scarborough, Phillis Wheatley, George Morton Lightfoot, and Shelley Haley, to name only a few who were not all males and none of whom were white.

Yet there is also an illogical thread behind such a perspective.  There is a reason the works of Homer and Plato, Caesar and Cicero and Vergil have held the interest of the world for thousands of years and fall under the category of what is classic.  They have something to say to human beings.  These writers, by eloquently expressing truths and truth, have transcended the Mediterranean boundary of their mortal existence.  They belong now to the world.

Enter Bill Smoot, a teacher from an all-girls school in California who decided to take Homer into San Quentin.  His recent article tells the story of his daring decision to teach the Odyssey and other classic works of literature to inmates.  It turns out, they could relate to Odysseus, a man Homer describes as polytropos, or much turned, much buffeted by life.

Smoot's article is more than a report on an educational project.  It is more than a poetic expression of why I do what I do and of what I hope occurs in my high school classroom.  It is a clear and resounding call for what education can and should be for the least among us.  We have all read countless stories of art and music programs being cut in inner-city schools, and too often a false competition between STEM and liberal arts curricula leads some to opt for the former at the expense of the latter.

For more than two thousand years, human beings from around the world have, in the words of Alexander Pope, drunk deeply from the Pierian spring.  Bill Smoot reminds us that the living conditions and the socioeconomic circumstance of a person do not rule off the table the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Quite possibly, the least among us are those that benefit most from our best.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Incarnation of Education

When I was in graduate school at The University of Texas, my office mate was Sophia Papaioannou, now a Classics professor at the University of Athens.  One of our many wonderful conversations turned one day to the topic of war, and she pointed out something I had never considered.  She said that while for many Americans a debate on war could be held in abstract terms, for her, it was a very real thing.  She said that her fellow Greeks lived with the constant threat of war and knew just how long it would take enemy ships and planes to attack from various locations.  Another way to put it is that war, for Sophia, was an incarnate issue.  It was a flesh-and-blood reality.

So it is with education.  A recent article in The Washington Post explores just how hard teaching really is.  The piece is a collection of thoughts from a wide spectrum of teachers, including an aerospace engineer and numerous professors.  What struck me most, however, was this from elementary teacher Beth Lewis.

“In the primary grades, we deal with gross bathroom-related issues. – Even a high school teacher could never understand some of the crises related to bodily functions that a typical K-3 teacher has to deal with on a regular basis. Potty accidents (and more instances too disgusting to reiterate here) are something that we can’t shy away from. I’ve had third grade students who still wear diapers and let me tell you – it’s stinky. Is there any amount of money or vacation time worth cleaning up vomit from the classroom floor with your own two hands?”

There is much to be said about education, and a good portion of the discussion is and needs to be abstract.  Education is art.  It is philosophy, and these are give rise to abstract thought.  Yet we can never escape the fact, nor should we want to, that education is about people, including teachers, students, administrators, parents, bus drivers, custodians, and school board members.  Beth Lewis reminds us what this means, but let's explore that a bit further.

When a car has difficulty performing, it is a matter of time before the mechanics figure out why and do something about it.  In simplistic terms, if tab A has become bent and no longer fits into slot B, we can see this, bend tab A back into shape, and we are off and running.  Of course, it may take hours of work under the hood and sophisticated diagnostic equipment to discover the problem, but it really is just a matter of time.  On top of that, once the problem is discovered, the solution is known.  It may be an expensive solution and one that will require a lot of labor to implement, but it does follow logically upon analysis of the problem.

Consider now a child who has difficulty performing.  As in the garage, there are sophisticated diagnostic tools to help us discover the problem, but there are many more factors at work, and we may not always have the right equipment.  Does the child do poorly because she is hungry, abused, or lonely?  Does she have a learning disability, or is she distracted by somebody or something?  Does she have a cold?  Did she get enough sleep last night?  Maybe she and the teacher simply do not get along.  It happens.  Perhaps she does well in one class because her friends are there, but is intimidated in another.  Then, of course, it may just be that it is Tuesday, which in the life of a physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually developing human being is as different from Monday as Mars is from a taco.  The teacher cannot always pop the hood, dismantle the engine, and diagnose the issue.

And if he did, what could he do about it?  Certainly there are pedagogical strategies and techniques that can be changed to meet her needs.  There are appropriate resources and aides that can help, but they do not cover everything.  It is not possible for every individual teacher to meet the hunger needs of each one of his students.  Even the resources of the school or district may not be up to that challenge.

Oh, and let's not forget the teachers themselves.  We see as much as we can, listen to as much as we can, discern and read between the lines as much as we can, but we will miss things.  Yet we, too, get distracted, find our capacities diminished when we are teaching while ill, and get tired.

None of this is to say diagnosing and solving the problems of education are impossible.  As a matter of fact, given the the number of factors that can never be known when human beings interact, we do quite a good job.  Yet all discussions and debates, especially those that lead to policy design and implementation, must always remember that this is a flesh-and-blood, incarnate reality.  As a result, we must remember that there are significant factors we may not know, and implementation of the most wonderful idea in the abstract may take on a different appearance when those words become flesh and live among us.