Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Patriotic Moment

The picture is an unassuming one.  It is of a monitor showing a vote on C-SPAN.  The monitor hangs in the corner of the room.  To be honest, the most interesting part of the picture may be the bit of detailing on the ceiling, which is quite handsome.

If I told you the office belongs to Congresswoman Susan Brooks from Indiana's 5th congressional district, you might find it a bit more interesting, but only a bit.  This is, after all, just a picture of a monitor displaying C-SPAN.  Or is it?

Before I tell you what this photograph actually depicts, let me back up.  Mid-morning today, my family and I met with Senator Dan Coats of Indiana.  One of his staff apologized that the Senator would not have more time to meet with us as he had planned, but a vote called him to the Senate floor.  We took a couple of pictures outside his office in the Russell Senate Office Building and then we were whisked away on the Senate monorail to meet Senator Coats in the Senate reception area.

While the official picture is on the Senator's website, our son snapped two with my phone.

You must understand that I see all of this through the long view of history.  I am not star struck to be in the corridors of power, but I am humbled to shake the hand of someone who stands in a long line of elected officials that goes back to Cicero and Cato.  In 509 B.C., when the Romans had shaken off the yoke of monarchy and sought to govern themselves, they established a senate of elected citizens who could represent all of Rome.  In the 18th century, when Americans shook off a similar monarchical yoke, we looked to ancient Rome for inspiration on how to govern this new nation.  The grand architecture of our Capitol calls to mind our Classical heritage, and while togas have yielded to suits, the legacy of the Roman republic lives on in our own.

Filled with such historic and patriotic thoughts, we next made our way to the Longworth House Office Building to meet with Congresswoman Brooks.  We sat in her office and talked about Indiana, and when she asked me what I would like to see happen in education, I shared with her the importance of maintaining our two thousand-year heritage of well-rounded, liberal arts education, one that addresses the whole student and truly prepares him or her for whatever lies ahead.

In the midst of such conversation, her assistant informed her that her vote had been moved up, and that she would have to end her time with us.  To our complete surprise, she asked us if our children, Austin and Olivia, would like to join her on the House floor.  We said yes, and she led them off.  From her office, we watched the vote take place on her monitor broadcasting C-SPAN.

And so we return to the picture at the top of this post.  Although you cannot make them out, our children are there, on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.  Congresswoman Brooks allowed them to push the buttons, and they each registered the Congresswoman's vote on two separate issues.  Melissa and I burst with pride.

When people ask me what my favorite story is, my response is the book of the lives of our children, for I truly cannot wait to turn the page to see what will happen next.  This is no doubt true of most parents, and teachers have the privilege to help write a few lines.  Today I had the opportunity to read a chapter, one that places our children's story squarely within the drama of freedom that has been unfolding for two thousand years.  I could not be happier.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Living History

The first full day for the 2014 State Teachers of the Year saw us at the Smithsonian Institution. We had chosen which museums we wanted to visit and were put into appropriate groups when we arrived at The Castle. I was in a group with (L to R) Kathy Assini (New Jersey), Joey Lee (New Hampshire), Pat Page (Rhode Island), Jane Schmidt (Iowa), and Jeff Baxter (Kansas) to tour the National Portrait Gallery.

Our guide was Briana Zavadil White, and to be honest, her leadership was every bit as impressive as the items we saw.  We talked endlessly about the varied strategies she used in each of the exhibits where we stopped to draw us into the experience and to help us see and process what we never would have without such an excellent guide.  Along the way we saw portraits of many famous people, including:

(Maya Angelou and L.L. Cool J)

(Landsdowne Washington and Lincoln life masks)

(President Kennedy and President Reagan)

(President Clinton and President Bush)

(George Washington Carver and Thurgood Marshall)

At the conclusion, we met up with one of the other groups touring the gallery for a group picture.  In it are Joey Lee (New Hampshire), Karyn Dickerson (North Carolina), Gary Abud (Michigan), Jane Schmidt (Iowa), Kathy Assini (New Jersey), Anne Marie Osheyack (Massachusetts), Pat Page (Rhode Island), Lee Wainwright (Delaware), Anna Baldwin (Montana), Jeff Baxter (Kansas), Darleen Sutton (South Carolina), and Steve Perkins (Indiana).

A trip back to the Smithsonian Castle took us to lunch and scintillating conversation as we shared with each other our experiences from the various museums.  Each table picked a representative to share with the entire group the major takeaways, and I was happy to speak for our table, which had produced brilliant ideas for taking our experiences back to the classroom.

From there it was a ride to the home of Vice President Joe Biden.  We knew we were someplace important when Secret Service agents boarded our bus to check our photo ID against a list of guests.  From there it was hors d'oeuvres in a historic setting with a string quartet from the United States Army Band playing music.

(Approved by Secret Service and then stepping into history)

(With John Mastroianni-Connecticut and Paul Miura-Northern Mariana Islands; with Deb Widmer-Ohio)

 Finally it was time to meet Dr. Jill Biden, an English teacher with a true heart for students and educators.

 I will conclude with what was a shot of me clowning around before Dr. Biden came out to speak to us. I tweeted this one with the caption that I was speaking on education policy and included the line "I wish!"  The simple fact is that anyone can make a difference.  Our experiences at the Smithsonian reminded us of the extraordinary accomplishments of ordinary people.  Dr. Biden, a woman of renown and authority, revealed a genuine, caring heart that was utterly down to earth.  The picture of me at the podium may tell the story of a guy cutting up, or it could depict a teacher from a small Indiana town who has been blessed to represent the thousands of fantastic teachers across the Hoosier state.  You be the judge.

A Monumental Day

Lee Greenwood famously sang, "I'm proud to be an American" in his song "God Bless the U.S.A."  I have always known what he meant, but I was reminded on Sunday, April 27, when the State Teachers of the Year gathered in Washington, D.C. for a week of activities and celebration.  Our opening event was a reception hosted by EducationCounsel.  With a stunning view of the Capitol, the patriotic feelings began to flow.

From there it was a bus tour of some of the monuments.  There was the Washington Monument, now free from scaffolding.

There was the World War II Memorial.  I had a great uncle who fought in Germany and many other relatives who have served in the military, including my dad, who was in Korea.  No one can visit this memorial and not feel pride and gratitude.

We saw the Lincoln Memorial, a tribute to one of our greatest Presidents who had strong connections to Indiana.  The picture from the side shows Indiana carved into the top in the listing of states.

Our last stop was to see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which looks across the waters at the Jefferson Memorial.

Today will feature experiences at the Smithsonian Museums and a reception hosted by Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden at the home of the Vice President.

I have often told my Latin students that if they wanted to see Rome in its heyday, they should visit Washington, D.C., for there they will see Classical architecture, Latin inscriptions, and people from all nations going about business in the capital of a world-leading nation.  Indiana plays a proud role in the country whose government rests in this city, and I hope all Hoosiers will enjoy these few pictures of our shared legacy.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


How is it possible to feel as if it is homecoming week when you see people you just met three months ago?  When I saw Monica Washington (TXTOY) at The Fairfax on Embassy Row upon arriving in Washington, D.C., we hugged and immediately introduced each other to our families.  Pam Reilly (ILTOY) was next for a hug and introduction to her husband.  Then it was Darleen Sutton (SCTOY), Gary Abud (MITOY), Jane McMahon (WITOY), and Ryan Devlin (PATOY).  Hugs, smiles, and welcomes abounded as if we had grown up together.  How is that possible?

This is the kind of thing that happens whenever teachers get together.  The shared passion for that most human and humane of enterprises we call education unites people and stokes fires of creativity, leadership, and energy to white-hot intensity.  We may only have met in January, but we are kindred spirits, and that makes us family.

More posts will follow when as events really get underway, but for now, it is back to homecoming!

(Our son, Austin; our daughter, Olivia; and the true Indiana Teacher of the Year, my wife, Melissa.  As I said in my remarks at the INTOY award dinner, "she's so conjunctive to my life and soul that as the star moves not but in his sphere, I could not but by her."  Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Not Big Enough

I did not get a big enough van for the trip to join the 2014 State Teachers of the Year in Washington, D.C. It can hold all the luggage and my family just fine, but there are others going on this trip, and I don't think they will all fit.

There are Ann Roberson, Zelda Everbach, Maxine Dersch, Debbie Kimeck, Marcia Austin, Don Dewey, Neal Lang, and Irv Goldstein along with Art Von Worder, Bill Chilton, and Gene Miller.  Those are Kindergarten through 6th grade teachers and principals.

Somehow I am going to have to find room for Lois Jones, Carl Miles, Dale Richmer, Lester Blank, Chaz Wolf, Sonny Wright, Bob Holman, Bob Jones, Barbara Cannon, Fred Barnes, Kathy Smith, Steve McKinley, Vern Ratliff, Connie Fleshman, Ron Silver, Doug Bierman, Keith Hofmeister, Harry Shields, and Skip Ellmers from Hazelwood Junior High.

It is probably going to get a bit cramped when Sam Christie, Jack Smith, Jack Ford, Jim Dickman, Craig Flora, John Richardson, David Runge, Linda DeRungs, Gary Austin, Evelyn Cooper, Dick Wardell, Alice Ranck, Marcene Holverson, Dave Grosheider, Bob Duesch, Dennis Renshaw, and Dick Flatt try to squeeze in from New Albany High School.

I may may have to use the luggage rack on top for all my undergraduate professors from Indiana University and my graduate professors from The University of Texas, and I have no idea where to put my colleagues from King Middle School in Kansas City, Missouri; the ones from L.B.J. High School in Austin, Texas; or my current teaching friends from North Central High School and the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Perhaps I will have to add a sidecar for the countless teaching friends I have met at conferences, the ones I have come to know via social media, and people who have supported me on this incredible journey, for you see, every single educator I have ever known has had a hand in my being able to represent my state as the 2014 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

Yeah, I should have gotten a bigger van.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Filler People

I wasn't planning to get into a discussion about poverty and homelessness, drug trafficking and prostitution, but it happened.  I am fond of saying that education is a shared journey of discovery, and my Period 9 A.P. Latin class proved that today.

We were reading the part in Book 6 of Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico in which he began to talk about the Druids.  He noted that there were two basic divisions of Gallic society of any size or importance, and that the rest was made up of filler people.  That's what the word "plebeians" meant to the Romans, and it is the word Caesar used in this passage.

He observed that these people never ventured to do anything on their own, nor were they ever consulted about anything.  We imagined the day in, day out grind of existence with no hopes or aspirations.  We recalled the passage we had read in Latin III from Cicero's essay on old age in which he says one of the rewards of reaching advanced years is appeti, to be sought for one's opinion, and we put all of that against this scene from the classic film Twelve Angry Men.

(Begin clip at 41:35)

Going back to Caesar, we read that these people, when oppressed by debt, taxes, or the injustice of those in power, often gave themselves over to slavery.  We considered the choices that some make to engage in dangerous and criminal behavior like selling drugs and prostitution, choices that we rightly condemn but the background to which we may not fully know.

Caesar went on to describe the authority of the Druids in all matters, public and private.  He wrote that anyone who did not abide by their decisions would be excommunicated from all the holy rites.  Such people would be shunned as wicked and accursed.  One of my students pointed out that this still goes on in the way we avoid homeless people, refusing to make eye contact with them and pretending not to hear their pleas for assistance as we pick up our pace.

We compared this excommunication by the Druids, which Caesar said the Gauls considered the harshest of punishments, with the scene from the Morgan Freeman film Lean On Me in which a freshman begs Principal Joe Clark to be readmitted to the school.  Class ended as I asked the students if there was anything that meant that much to them, anything from which they could not be to be separated or exiled.

I had not intended any of this, mind you.  I had not prepared the Cicero text for reference nor had I set up the film clips ahead of time.  That Period 9 class simply read Caesar in the original Latin and did what people do.  We thought together, and the results were powerful.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mr. Perkins Goes to Washington, Part 1

I am unlikely to engage in a filibuster as Jimmy Stewart did, but I am getting ready to go to Washington, D.C. next week with the other State Teachers of the Year from across the country.  Fifty-four of us, including the STOYs from the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the District of Columbia, will participate in a week of activities that include meetings with the Department of Education, a reception hosted at the home of the Vice President by Dr. Jill Biden, and an event with President Barack Obama.  Each of us will have the chance to take a picture with the President in the Oval Office, after which we will join him in the Rose Garden for an event that will be streamed live at www.whitehouse.gov.

I am honored to represent Indiana students, teachers, and families as I join with some of the most dynamic educators I have had the pleasure to know, and I would love to have you along for the ride.  Please follow me through posts on this blog and through the following.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/227525567415628/

Twitter:  @intoy2014

Blog:  www.intoy2014.blogspot.com

Instagram:  @intoy2014

I look forward to sharing this exciting event with everyone who cares about that most human and humane of enterprises, the shared journey of discovery that we call education.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Plato and Back-to-School Night

Our Latin II students are studying Greek right now, both the language and the culture.  Most educated Romans knew Greek, so it is fitting that our students get at least a passing familiarity with some of the highlights.  After having studied the language a bit, they are now reading bits of Plato in translation, and we recently had a fascinating discussion of Republic V.  They were not surprisingly quite excited to learn that Plato advocated the same kind of education for women as for men.  They were struck that someone from the 4th century B.C. could be so, as one student put it, "ahead of his time."

And then we read this.

And this lawful use of them seems likely to be often needed in the regulations of marriages and births. 

How so? 
Why, I said, the principle has been already laid down that the best of either sex should be united with the best as often, and the inferior with the inferior, as seldom as possible; and that they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion. 

Very true. 
Had we not better appoint certain festivals at which we will bring together the brides and bridegrooms, and sacrifices will be offered and suitable hymeneal songs composed by our poets: the number of weddings is a matter which must be left to the discretion of the rulers, whose aim will be to preserve the average of population? There are many other things which they will have to consider, such as the effects of wars and diseases and any similar agencies, in order as far as this is possible to prevent the State from becoming either too large or too small. 

Certainly, he replied. 
We shall have to invent some ingenious kind of lots which the less worthy may draw on each occasion of our bringing them together, and then they will accuse their own ill-luck and not the rulers. 

To be sure, he said. 
And I think that our braver and better youth, besides their other honours and rewards, might have greater facilities of intercourse with women giventhem; their bravery will be a reason, and such fathers ought to have as many sons as possible. 

And the proper officers, whether male or female or both, for offices are to be held by women as well as by men -- 

Yes -- 
The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be. 

Yes, he said, that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure. 

They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognizes her own child; and other wet-nurses may be engaged if more are required. Care will also be taken that the process of suckling shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand over all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.

I am glad to say this section did not go over so well.  One student pointed out that this was eugenics, and we talked about that.  They observed that this was what the Nazis were after, and we talked about that.  The students were bothered that the weaker offspring would be done away with, and we talked about that.

And then I pointed out that the treatment of the good offspring, i.e. being taken to a separate place in the city away from their parents and being reared by agents of the state, described their own situation.  For indeed, what are public schools but places in the city, separate from students' homes, where children are taught by teachers who are paid via taxes?

Yeah, it got a bit uncomfortable.  They did not like seeing their own situation described in the midst of a passage with which most people profoundly disagree.  I was quick to point out that there can be things in a person's writings that we agree with and things that we do not.  You take the good and toss the bad.  Yet I also pointed out something else.  I know some of my students' parents from back-to-school night and a few more from other interactions, but for the most part, parents entrust their children for the most productive hours of the day, five days a week, during the most formative years of their lives, to people they do not know.

Teachers call home.  We make ourselves available at back-to-school night.  We reach out to our families.  It is, however, vitally important that parents be involved in the lives of their children by knowing what is going on at their schools.  They should know the names of their children's teachers, coaches, and principals.  They should be as engaged as they can be in the life of the school community.  Admittedly, this takes on as many different appearances as there are families in a school.  Some simply cannot be involved for any number of valid factors.  And some take the easy way out.  As they left my room, some were making verbal recognition of the responsibility they would one day need to take in the lives of their own children.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading the War on Poverty

Six years ago our Latin students began a project called Reading the War on Poverty.  One Saturday each April they go to Kids Ink Children's Bookstore in Indianapolis where they read aloud the entirety of Homer's Iliad or Odyssey or Vergil's Aeneid.  The students take turns reading in fifteen minute shifts from one of Stanley Lombardo's translations of the great Greco-Romany epics, rotating through all the epics every three years.

Those reading get donations, which are then combined with donations from customers at the bookstore that day and 10% of the sales from the Kids Ink store itself.  The entire amount is then given to Shepherd Community Center, whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty in Indianapolis.  Our students have raised more than $5,000.00 so far.

This coming Saturday, April 19, will see us reading the Aeneid.  Yes, it is prom that evening.  Yes, it is the day before Easter and many families will have plans.  And yes, our students will make the sacrifice of their time to serve others.  They have taken to heart the words of Cicero, ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt ut nihil possint ex eis neque ad communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre.  (Pro Archia, 12)  "Let others be ashamed if they have so hidden themselves in literature that they can bring forth nothing from it for the common benefit or into the light to be seen."

This project has gone on to inspire our students to think of new ways to help others, such as our Fabrica Ursam, or Build-a-Bear project, now in its third year, and this year's literacy garden, for which our students obtained a $1600.00 grant from United Way of Central Indiana to build a garden and stock it with books at a local elementary school.

But let's go back to Reading the War on Poverty for a moment.  Depending on which epic they are reading, this event run for twelve hours.  Imagine it...twelve hours on a Saturday during which high school students read aloud an entire ancient epic, promoting their love of Classics and using that enjoyment to raise money to fight poverty.  As I spend that day with them, I never cease to be humbled and amazed.  If this project touches you, then consider a donation.  You may make out checks to North Central Latin Club and send them to the address below.

Mr. Steven R. Perkins
North Central High School
1801 E. 86th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46240

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Silicon Soul

I recently had the privilege of hosting our school's philosophy club.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Yeah, we have a philosophy club, and I am geeked up enough to think that is cool.  Our large, public high school, some years the largest in Indiana, offers classes called Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge, a required class for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.  Having taught both of them, I have come to think of them as classes in applied epistemology, a serious look at how we know what we know in particular subjects.  For my money, that in itself is fantastic.  I have seen students who were not academically inclined shine in these courses, and students who were already at the top of the academic heap explore things they never would have considered in courses where they knew what it took to get an A before enrolling.

For years my good friend and colleague, Jeannie McNew, who taught English as well as CT and TOK, sponsored the philosophy club.  When she retired, we thought that was the end of the club, but true to her nature, the nature of a genuine teacher, she volunteered to come back once a week to supervise the club.  When she had to miss a week, Jeannie asked me to cover it for her.

To be fair, the fault was mine.  I should have known better.  I thought, "Oh, I'll get some grading done while the philosophy students talk among themselves."  What, was I stupid?  I mean, seriously, I know my own tendencies.  I can no more stay out of rich, philosophical conversation, especially with bright teenage interlocutors, than a magnet can hold back from metal.  So when one of the members, who is also one of my Latin V students, told me the topic of the day would be artificial intelligence, I knew resistance would be futile.  I locked my classroom door, grading materials stacked on my table, and headed to the philosophy club room where the real action would take place.

  • What is intelligence?
  • What is artificial intelligence?
  • What is the role of creativity, self-reflection, autonomy, and desire in intelligence?  Are these necessary, in the logical sense of the word, components of intelligence?  Are these what must be achieved by a computer for us to acknowledge true A.I.?
  • What is the difference between strong and weak A.I.?
  • Why do we want to pursue strong A.I. in the first place?
  • Why, at least since Ovid's tale of Pygmalion, have humans been captivated by the idea of recreating their own kind in a different, yet fully functioning, form?
  • Why do we retell ad infinitum stories about technology taking control of us, usually with disastrous results?
  • What is the role of ethics in the A.I. discussion?  Just because we may be able to achieve strong A.I., should we?
  • Is there, as John Searle contends, a distinction between syntax and semantics, with the former being the limit of the computer program and the latter the essence of the mind?
These and other questions inspired the most scintillating conversation among these young thinkers for more than an hour.  I asked question after question and kept the fires burning, but their minds were the true source of the blaze.  As we drew to a close, I asked one more.  Did they think it possible that a group of computers could one day do as they had just done, engaging their imagination and speculating about things before undreamed?

Most, if not all, seemed to think no.  They acknowledged a certain quality and value to the kind of human-to-human interaction that they had experienced.  I did not say it with them, but I could not help observing that there was not a flicker of tech in the entire hour.  There was no Internet, no cell phones, no PowerPoint presentations.  They were not needed.  This was pure human thought and engagement, something we have been enjoying for thousands of years.  As I compose this post on my laptop for publication on my blog, I humbly suggest a simple reason.  Silicon is no substitute for soul.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ancient Technology

After reading the words of authors like Caesar, Cicero, Horace, and Catullus for three years, our Latin III students spend a bit of time exploring the words themselves, as in the physical aspects of writing.

They begin with a day of looking at familiar Latin poems printed in a variety of fonts.  Think about that for a moment.  How do you relate differently to these different printings of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18?

From the top, those are shown in Times New Roman, Bauhaus 93, and Boopee.  I am guessing you will find one or more of those fonts to be ill-suited to the text.  Our Latin students discuss why they like or don't like certain fonts for certain poems, which ones seem "more Roman" or utterly ridiculous.  Sometimes the same font is liked by one student, but rejected by another.

After setting the stage, we move into an exploration and discussion of Roman writing materials.  The University of Michigan has a wonderful site on this.  From there we look at the Vindolanda tablets, an excellent collection of Roman writing materials from an army camp in England.  We conclude with a couple of days of learning to read and write Old Roman Cursive.  Students must decipher familiar texts and then unfamiliar texts that have been printed in ORC and re-write in their usual handwriting.  They must then bring in Latin texts of their own choosing and work at copying those in ORC.

Then comes the fun part!  Student choose one of two groups.  They may work with imitation papyrus and reed pens or wax tablets and styli.  Those choosing the former glue strips of textured paper into a "papyrus" sheet.  With X-Acto knives they carve dowel rods that I have hollowed out with a drill into usable pens.  those in the second group assist me as we melt crayons in a pot and pour wax into small wooden tablets that I have prepared.  They also use X-Acto knives to carve dowel rods into an imitation Roman stylus, with one pointed and one flat end for erasing.  After making their instruments, they must then copy a familiar text in ORC using those instruments.

When they turn in their completed projects, they must also submit a short paper explaining why they chose the text they did.  The paper must discuss the challenges they faced in four areas:  learning to read ORC, learning to write ORC, making their writing materials, and using their writing materials.  Finally, they must include a reflection on what insights they have gained into Roman writing.

Below are some pictures of the students working with their own, hand-made materials and some of the final products.  I especially like the ones that show ancient and modern technology working side by side!