Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Joy and Purpose of Handwriting

My mother recently sent me an article she had clipped from the newspaper.  It is by Simon Garfield and is, as he titles it, a love letter to the love letter.  It is a celebration of handwriting, of putting pen to paper and all that this delicate, intimate act of communication entails.  I wanted to blog about this topic, but it seemed odd to do so in the usual typed format, so I decided to write it by hand.  Please click on the pictures to enlarge and read.

A picture of my mother's handwriting on the note she included with Garfield's article.

The Delta Scrigno with which I wrote this post.

A few of the pens in my collection.

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Defense of Honors

In Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave in Book VII of his Republic, we see a picture of people chained in a cavern guessing at the order and shapes of shadows that pass on the wall in front of them.  They give each other awards and honors for who is best at this guessing game, but when one fortunate soul is freed from the cave and sees the true light of the sun, he no longer has any regard for the prizes that were given among the prisoners for predicting and identifying the shadows.

In this illustration, Plato is quite right.  There is truth, goodness, and beauty to be enjoyed, and once people have tasted of these, they are unlikely to think much of the "Certificate of Participation" or the spelling bee trophy.  Does this, however, mean that we jettison all honors?  Do we get rid of all ceremony and the physical tokens of glory that we like to bestow on one another?  I think not.  Ceremonies of honor have an important role to play, and nowhere more so than in education.

I recently had the opportunity to visit The College of Wooster, where I was to receive one of their Excellence in Teaching awards.  The freshmen have the opportunity each year to nominate a high school teacher who had a particular influence on them.  These nominees are then reviewed by a committee, and this year ten were chosen from across the country.

Recognition of the Excellence in Teaching recipients actually was a small part of the evening.  After a delightful dinner in the elegant Kittredge Dining Hall, an address by an alumnus, and the presentation of the EIT awards, the evening unfolded into a recognition celebration of a great many students.  They received honors, prizes, and scholarships in a variety of disciplines and for many reasons.  For example, there was the Robert G. Bone History Prize.  This was given to a junior majoring in history who best exemplified enthusiasm for learning, unbridled curiosity about life, and unbounded kindness toward others.

Stop.  Read the last sentence of the preceding paragraph again.

There was also the Larry L. Stewart Endowed Prize in Literature.  This was given to a junior English major with a strong academic record who embodied the ideals and spirit of engaged reading and writing in the study of literature.

Enthusiasm for learning.  Unbridled curiosity about life.  Unbounded kindness toward others.  The spirit of engaged reading and writing.

These are the very means by which we approach the true, the good, and the beautiful.  They are also themselves aspects of the true, the good, and the beautiful to be enjoyed in their own right.  For this reason, we properly honor those who exemplify and embody them.  Awards like these are no mere shadow honors.  They are the public recognition of what human beings do.  They remind their recipients that they are on the right path.  They shine a light on that path for the community who observes these honors, thus inspiring others to take up the journey.  They are not the self-indulgent and meaningless tokens of those trapped in the cave.  They are both the torches that light the way out and the appropriate, necessary, festive celebration of those who have seen the light.

As for the Excellence in Teaching awards, these were given with the same dignity and honor as the student awards.  The teachers were put up in The Wooster Inn, an elegant establishment that prompted me to tweet about my room that made me want to take out a fountain pen and begin inking the first lines of a novel.  On the evening of our arrival, we enjoyed hors d'oeuvres with faculty members and the students who had nominated us before the dinner celebration.  The following day we were treated to a tour of the campus, the opportunity to visit a class with our students, and lunch in the faculty dining area of Lowry Hall.  The entire event was coordinated by Dr. Hayden Schilling, whose hospitality alone was a significant honor.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Immortal Childhood

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
    The earth, and every common sight, 
            To me did seem 
    Apparell'd in celestial light, 
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

The lines above are the opening of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  I thought of them after reading
"Bringing Back Childhood" by Vicki Davis, an article tweeted by Josh Stumpenhorst, 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year.  In that article, Davis observes the darkness of contemporary childhood activities and argues for a return to more wholesome pursuits, those that involve nature and few graphic depictions of horror and death.

Davis is not arguing for a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, something laughably unattainable in the modern age.  I know.  I am a parent who can testify that a rich, meaningful childhood is still possible.  Like Davis, I will also promote its value.

Our son is 13 and our daughter is 8.  She likes Hello Kitty and Frozen.  He likes The Avengers and Legos.  She loves to swim and play tennis, and if it were not for my flagrant cheating, I would not be able to beat him at basketball.  After nearly a quarter century teaching everything from elementary to undergraduate students, I can objectively say they are normal, average children.

If there is anything that sets them apart from some of their peers, it is what Davis lauds, a love for playing outside.  Since before Kindergarten, our son has enjoyed running around our yard, battling friends or me with wooden swords and spears.  We have been knights.  We have been Hector and Achilles.  We have brought out cap guns and Nerf guns and water guns.  Our daughter loves planting and running and climbing trees.  Winter, spring, summer, or fall, they want to be outside.  They have two swings in the tree in our front yard.  They have climbed the trees in our backyard and made secret areas in the small woods behind our home.  They love to ride their bikes through the neighborhood or with my wife and me across town.  We laid out a golf course in our yard with nine different approaches to one hole.  They both like to shoot baskets on the goal in the driveway.  They throw Frisbees, play tag, and shoot their bows at a large target.

We are a hiking family and love the Indiana state parks.  We have hiked in the cool and in the blazing heat, in the snow, when flowers were just springing forth, and across the crunch of autumn leaves.  Yes, they have enjoyed Disney World and other amusement parks, but ask them where they want to go, and they will almost always say to an inn or cabin or tent at a state park.

They love to swim, again at the state parks, but also whenever we are at a hotel.  A large community pool, complete with water park and water slide, is a huge favorite in the summer.

They draw, they build with Legos, and create things.  Oh, my, do they create things!  They both love to work in the garage when I am there indulging in my hobby of woodworking.  Each is learning to use power tools and hand tools.  They build with wood or create with paper and glue.  They color and paint.

From my perspective as both a teacher and a parent, these are good things.  I love to listen to their play.  It is always so imaginative!  Many years ago my homeroom students were taking a standardized test.  The writing portion included a prompt to write about an imagined field trip.  One of the students raised his hand and quietly confessed, "I didn't go on that trip."  By grace I recovered quickly from my stunned reaction and said, "Oh, that's okay.  You just have to pretend."  He nodded and went back to his attempt to write, and then I noticed the ankle bracelet he wore as part of his house arrest.  For the rest of that testing session, I was wrecked inside.  This young man seemed devoid of any imagination.

Those who do not live and die by modern technology feel compelled to offer disclaimers, so here is mine.  I do not hate technology.  We are not Luddites.  You are reading this on my blog, after all.  I am on my iPhone far too much checking Facebook and Twitter.  Still, games and screen time do not rule our family's life or the lives of our family members.  Yes, we watch movies and television, but my wife and I also hit the mute button or change the channel or shout "turn away" when something inappropriate comes on.  There are things that are right for children to see and hear, and things that are not.  There are activities that are beneficial and stimulate their imagination and those that warp and stunt it.  It is entirely possible for children to experience a rich, meaningful childhood, and the responsibility to see that they do rests squarely with the adults in their lives who can make that happen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Workin' For a Livin'

There was Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," famously covered by Ike and Tina Turner.

Left a good job in the city
Workin' for the man every night and day

There was Huey Lewis and the News with "Workin' For a Livin'."

Workin' for a livin', livin' and workin'
I'm taking what they're giving 'cause I'm workin' for a livin'

I'm always workin', savin', every day
Gotta get away from that same old, same old

Johnny Paycheck sang the worker's anthem "Take This Job And Shove It."

I've been working in this factory
For nigh on fifteen years

All this time I watched my woman

Drowning in a pool of tears

And then there is the classic by Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons."

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man's made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt

Do you see a theme?  How many more songs, stories, or movie and television plots could you add to the list?  We have gone from honoring good, hard work to idolizing it, thus making it something to crush the soul.  Perhaps it is because we have jettisoned the idea of a soul altogether and really do believe that people are made out of nothing more than muscle and blood.  If this Pink Floydian vision of people is correct, then the current work environment in many schools...for students, teachers, and administrators...makes perfect sense.

But what if it is not accurate?  What if I was wrong when I felt pride during my first year of teaching as our assistant principal remarked admiringly on young teachers working late?  I can only imagine how proud he would have been had he seen me awake at 3:00 in the morning working on lessons and wracked with an anxiety level that should have sent me to the hospital.  What if my relative was wrong in extolling how she and other members of our family had never missed a day of teaching and always asked, whenever I was absent, if I felt guilty or bad about being out of the classroom?  What if those who mandate where and when teachers meet and do their non-teaching work are just simply wrong?

Josh Stumpenhorst, 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year, recently tweeted this article.  If you are an American teacher, you may not want to read it at work.  Then again, you may want to forward it to all your colleagues.

I am all for doing your best and giving it your all.  I am not for an absurd, crack-the-whip, bricks-without-straw mentality that drains the life from people or from this most human of enterprises we call education.  There is a reason the vast majority of subjects taught pre-K through 12 fall under the heading of humanities.  It is a human work we are about, and one that should be conducted in a humane way.  So here is a sobering thought, one born of common sense, the awareness that we live in a free country, and supported by the Tim Walker article above.  Before I state it, be warned.  It may keep you up at night.  It is likely to unsettle you.  It may force you to do something.


The dehumanizing atmosphere of American education really doesn't have to be this way.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Well-Rounded Education, A Hoosier Heritage

On Monday, February 10, I was honored when Representative Eric Turner, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Indiana House of Representatives, brought forward a resolution recognizing me as the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year.  Representative Turner was supported in this by Representative Christina Hale, Representative Steve Braun, and Representative Edward Clere.  After taking my wife, Melissa, and me to lunch at the Weber Grill, we headed back to the capitol for what turned into an amazing afternoon.

Representative Turner took a picture with my Melissa and me at the speaker's podium beneath the great seal of Indiana.  We then sat to the side for a few moments as the chamber began to fill for the day's session.

After the session was brought to order by Speaker Brian Bosma, Representative Turner read the resolution, the essence of which was captured in this press release.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                   Monday, February 10, 2014

Rep. Turner honors 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year

STATEHOUSE –The House on Monday unanimously approved a resolution authored by State Representative P. Eric Turner (R-Cicero) honoring Steven Perkins for being named the 2014 Teacher of the Year by the Indiana Department of Education (DOE).

Perkins, a Latin teacher at North Central High School in Indianapolis since 1998, was announced as the 2014 Teacher of the Year in October for his passion for teaching and commitment to student success.

“In hearing from students, faculty and other administrative staff, Mr. Perkins’ love and dedication to educating and empowering his students is remarkable,” said Rep. Turner. “He is someone that inspires students to think and dream bigger and provides them with the tools to realize such ideas. It is with great pleasure that I recognize Steven’s devotion to Indiana’s education system and the positive impact he has made on countless lives throughout his tenure.”

Perkins has accumulated a number of awards and honors over the course of his career.  In January, Gov. Mike Pence awarded him with the Sagamore of the Wabash Award, an award established in the 1950s that allows the Indiana governor to recognize outstanding Hoosiers for their efforts and accomplishments. Other awards Perkins has received include the Dr. Elizabeth Watkins Latin Teacher Award from the American Classical League and the Blazing Torch Award from Butler University.

“Steven serves as a model for not just all teachers to follow, but for all of us to follow in making a difference in our community, state and country,” Rep. Turner said. “His enthusiasm and energy spreads to everyone around him, and I know that he will represent Indiana well at the national level.”

The Indiana Teacher of the Year program began in 1957 and is the oldest state honors program for excellence in teaching.  The Indiana Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the Indiana District Teachers of the Year who submit a portfolio to the DOE’s Teacher of the Year Coordinator. Perkins will represent Indiana in the National Teacher of the Year contest and will spend the year collaborating with the DOE to develop educational initiatives for state schools.

More information about the Indiana Teacher of the Year program can be found on the Indiana Department of Education’s website at

After the reading of the resolution, I had the opportunity to offer a few words to the House of Representatives.  The text of my remarks follows.

          I want to thank the Honorable Eric Turner, Speaker Pro Tempore and House Member for the 32nd district, along with all the members of the Indiana House of Representatives for the opportunity to be with you today.  When I was a senior in high school twenty-seven years ago, I could not have imagined returning to this chamber to speak to this body.  In 1987 during my last year at New Albany High School in Floyd County, Indiana, we had the opportunity to take a regular government class or one called “TV-Government.”  I chose the latter and was able to travel to Indianapolis to film a program that involved my interviewing members of the Senate and House of Representatives and State Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans.  My friend, Rick Wilson, was the cameraman and took footage of our handsome statehouse, and I remember returning home to New Albany inspired to run for office.  Now, nearly thirty years later, I teach at North Central High School in Indianapolis.  Our administration building is named for H. Dean Evans, who was our district’s superintendent before leading the state, and I am once again in a chamber that inspires me.
            It is often said that obtaining a good education has never been more important than it is right now.  This is only true because obtaining a good education is just as important now as it has ever been.  Around 380 B.C. Plato wrote his famous Republic, a philosophical dialogue that tries to explore the ideal state.  For Plato it was only natural to devote two chapters to the topic of education, for as he observed, matters of education are linked to matters of justice and injustice.[1]  He goes on to lay out a program of study that addresses the three parts of a human being, the body, the mind, and the soul.  Plato knew that any curriculum that fails to address the complete person must fall short not only in preparing that person for all he or she could become, but in laying the foundation for a just state.
            Hoosiers have known this as well.  Our first constitution of 1816 listed as our primary purpose the establishment of justice.[2]  Article 9, Section 1 of that original constitution followed more than two thousand years of shared human understanding linking education and justice by proclaiming, “Knowledge and learning generally diffused, through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free Government, and spreading the opportunities, and advantages of education through the various parts of the Country, being highly conductive to this end, it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide, by law, for the improvement of such lands...for the use of schools, and to apply any funds which may be the accomplishment of the grand object for which they are or may be intended.”[3]  In Article 8, Section 1 of the current Indiana Constitution, we read, “[I]t shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement....[4]
            Times change, but truth does not.  From 4th century B.C. Athens to 21st century Indiana, human beings have known that a just state is rooted in and supported by education, which, as Plato described, must be nothing less than the development of the whole person.
            At North Central High School I teach Latin, which is a microcosm of a complete liberal arts education, for in it we teach the whole child by including math, art, geography, history, English, and performing arts.  Whether we are marching drills as the Roman soldiers did or creating wax tablets and scrolls as we explore ancient handwriting, the study of Latin opens the door to a world of endless fascination and discovery, and we connect the exciting world of education with issues of justice from the beginning.  We take as our foundation a statement by the great Roman orator Cicero.  “Let others be ashamed," he said, "if they have so hidden themselves in literature that they can offer nothing from their reading for the public benefit nor can bring forth anything into the light to be seen.”[5]  This has led us to two annual projects, one to fight poverty in Indianapolis and another to help children at Riley Hospital.  It has also inspired a new effort this year to build a literacy garden at a local elementary school.
            My 7th grade English teacher, Dale Richmer, had a poster in his room that said, “The road to success is marked with many tempting parking places.”  We must resist the temptation to reduce education to nothing more than skills training.  We must resist the temptation to see education as merely a ticket to a high-paying job.  Education, of course, includes preparation for a career, but those who founded the state of Indiana knew and codified the idea that education is much more, a grand object, as they called it.  I encourage each member of this House of Representatives and indeed all Hoosiers to remember the high ideal of what a well-rounded education can be, one that addresses the bodies, minds, and souls of our citizens.  It is the type of education that led me to this chamber nearly thirty years ago when I was a student, and it is the kind of education that continues to flourish in many schools across our state, as indeed it must if we are to remain true to our original charter of establishing justice.  All Hoosiers must work to promote this deep and broad understanding of education, which is nothing less than the most humane and human of enterprises.  Thank you.

[1] Then we have found the desired natures; and now that we have found them, how are they to be reared and educated? Is not this an enquiry which may be expected to throw light on the greater enquiry which is our final endHow do justice and injustice grow up in States?  (II.376)
[3] "Knowledge and learning generally diffused, through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free Government, and spreading the opportunities, and advantages of education through the various parts of the Country, being highly conductive to this end, it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to provide, by law, for the improvement of such lands as are, or hereafter may be granted, by the united States to this state, for the use of schools, and to apply any funds which may be raised from such lands, or from any other quarters to the accomplishment of the grand object for which they are or may be intended.
[4] "Knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement; and to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all."
[5] Pro Archia 12, translation mine

We were then taken to the Senate chamber where the resolution was read and passed again.

I was supported in all this by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, 2013 Indiana Teacher of the Year Suzanne Whitton, and our school district's incomparable PR person, Ellen Rogers.  As I told Suzanne and Ellen when it was over, it felt like having ridden on a favorite roller coaster at Kings Island amusement park.  I wanted to get right back in line and go again!

UPDATE:  The video of my remarks is now available from the Indiana Department of Education.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year Jeff Baxter recently introduced me to a breathtaking poetry performance by Marshall Jones. This young man performed his original work titled "Touchscreen." Watch it, and then come back here for a few thoughts.

Technology is great. It is also the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. What on earth are we to make of it all? I collect physical books, Classics mostly, especially translations of Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, yet the first time I read Lucan's Pharsalia, de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and The Federalist Papers, it was on my iPhone. I could not tell you the last time I read a physical newspaper, preferring to get my news online and by following links from Facebook and Twitter. I have howled with laughter, thus keeping my wife awake at night, while reading P.G. Wodehouse on my Nook Simple Touch, although he is one author whose works I would prefer to own in the flesh, as it were. Among my most prized possessions are vintage fountain pens and fountain pens from around the world, yet I have composed almost all of my books and academic articles on a keyboard, the last several with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard that makes letters magically appear on my iPad screen some distance away. I use my fountain pens on a daily basis to write hall passes, grade papers, and for correspondence that means a great deal to me.

A dear friend of mine recently moved to Virginia where he teaches English. His students are from less than affluent homes, yet they all have laptops thanks to their school. They were trying to have a discussion one day, and he looked up to see every face blocked by a screen. Students with impoverished communicative lives at home were being made that much poorer by their school's good intentions. My own high school has lifted the ban on electronic devices, and I was glad the other day, for I was able to ask the students to call up images of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. At the same time, Beats headphones embrace the skulls of many students during passing period, making the casual greeting between peers or between teachers and students a bit of a challenge.

There is no point in being Luddites. Amazing tech is here, and we are not going back. I love being able to confirm airline boarding passes on my tablet the day before a flight and having access to Greek and Latin original texts in my pocket. At the same time, I do not want to forget what my smart phone and tablet truly are. They are tools, nothing more and nothing less. In that regard they are like my fountain pens or the table saw, scroll saw, and router in my garage. They enable me to shape my world and to bring into existence the dreams in my mind.

I predict that we are ten years out from achieving an equilibrium with our technology, and I say this bearing in mind the rapid pace at which our lives are changing. We are about ten years away from technological balance. Marshall Jones spoke poetic words. "iPod iMac iPhone iChat I can do all of these things without making eye contact." There is the rub. Technology that gives easier contact with each other and the greatest contributions to human knowledge and achievement from around the world and across the ages can also isolate us more surely than those walls that something deep within the human soul does not love.

We are not there yet. Schools and the cash-mad industry around them are still silicon drunk, despite that students themselves will tell you that too much tech makes their grades go down. After all, o wise adult patting yourself on the back for the tech you have brought into the classrooms to help kids, could you really have stayed off THOSE sites (you know the ones) when you were 15? Of course I am glad to share images of the world, ancient and modern, with students who do not yet and may never have the chance to travel. Balance, however, is what we must be after. I have to find it in my own life, and as I do, I hope to help my students find their way. Marshall Jones well reminds us, "From the garden of Eden to the branches of Macintosh apple picking has always come at a great cost.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Stem of the Matter

"There is absolutely nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper; and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey."  Cited in a November, 1914 issue of Washington Post, this line, often though perhaps erroneously attributed to Ruskin, states a fairly obvious business principle.  While we would acknowledge its truth with regard to something like furniture (just ask our family about our experience with a nice-looking, year-old sofa that broke when a certain Latin teacher casually sat down), we seem willing to disregard this principle when it comes to education.  For so many, the only thing that matters is a direct link between the classroom and a high-paying job.  We have come to expect a job contract with fringe benefits to be curled up inside the diploma.  From this perspective there has developed a focus on only those areas of study thought to bring about the biggest paychecks, the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes.

A recent Huffington Post piece exposes the falsehood of the notion that a non-STEM degree dooms its holder to a life of grim poverty.  Perhaps even more significant is this Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss that puts the whole STEM-only line of reasoning to the lie.  "Not everyone is the same. One virtue of a developed economy is that it provides niches for people with many different personalities and talents, making it more likely that any given individual can find a job that offers satisfaction."  In the first century B.C, had the Roman emperor Augustus followed the logic of our day, he, too, would have promoted a STEM-only agenda, one that focused on swords, torture, empire, and marching.  After all, it was the Roman legions that had brought about the Pax Augusta.  Yet the emperor chose to emphasize the arts, recognizing that no fully developed society was complete without them.  The legions still trained and marched across the Mediterranean world, but it was not an either/or proposition.  The Romans properly understood that life is almost always both/and.

"The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology.  The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future."

Complexity.  Diversity.  These are among our most cherished values.  A well-rounded education in the humanities provides that.  As Strauss observes, "The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante."  From our Latin I through Latin V classes, it is just this sort of reasoning and thinking that we engage and develop while exploring some of the most profound wisdom in some of the most eloquent and beautiful writing that humans have produced.

And as for STEM?  Of course these classes have a place in our curriculum.  Humans measure things.  We count them.  We make predictions based on hypotheses and we invent technological marvels.  STEM classes should be part of the curriculum precisely for the same reason that history and art, language and literature and music have filled the best schools around the world.  They are all part of our human story, and a humane education must embrace as much of that story as it can.