Thursday, May 22, 2014

Icing on the Cake

What do you love most about teaching?  As much as I love a scintillating conversation with engaged students about Latin grammar, Greek philosophy, Ciceronian oratory, or Vergilian poetry, the over-the-top-blow-my-mind-make-my-heart-swell-to-the-point-it-will-explode thrill for me is telling parents the amazing things I see in their children.

Last night was our annual Latin Club awards dinner.  On the surface, it is a humble, albeit large, affair.  One hundred forty students, parents, and siblings met in our school's cafeteria for pizza and pop.  It was not exactly haute cuisine, but food was not our focus.  We assembled so that once again I could I distribute seemingly endless local, state, and national awards that our students had won for their work in academics, art, and dramatic competitions, all related to the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

Yet for all the pyrotechnic honors of National Latin Exam and the National Junior Classical League Latin Honor Society, the thrill beyond compare for me was in talking directly with parents.  When I tell parents how much I have enjoyed having their son or daughter in class, what extraordinary contributions he or she has made to class discussions, or how I see leadership qualities developing in him or her, I see a sparkle in their eyes.  It is the sparkle of appreciation that someone outside their family sees what they see.  It is the sparkle of surprise that someone outside their family sees what they have never seen.  It is the sparkle that represents what they and I both feel toward these amazing young

What are the highlights of the school year for me?  There is back-to-school night.  Yes, it makes for a long day, but I absolutely love meeting parents and sharing with them all the things their children have already been doing and the prospects for the year ahead.  There are the letters of recommendation.  Now these are truly fun!  I get to put on paper the phenomenal achievements and qualities that I have seen developing in the young people who will lead the world.  There is our awards dinner.  What is the unifying factor in the highlights of the school year for me?  It is the opportunity to share with others the amazing, extraordinary, breathtaking abilities and, even more importantly, character, of the young people with whom I am blessed to spend my working life.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Tale of Two Schools

In the movie Tin Cup, a down-on-his-luck driving range operator (Kevin Costner) instructs a psychiatrist (Rene Russo) to hit a golf ball.  He waxes a bit poetic as he models the swing while describing it.  "I think of the golf swing as a poem," says Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy.  "The opening phrase of this poem will always be the grip.  The hands unite to form a single unit by the simple overlap of the little finger.  Lowly and slowly the club head is led back, pulled into position not by the hands but the body, which turns away from the target, shifting weight to the right side without shifting balance.  Tempo is everything, perfection unattainable, as at the top of the swing there's a hesitation, a little nod to the gods...that he is fallible, that perfection is unattainable.  Weight shifts to the left pulled by the powers in the earth.  It's alive, this swing, a living sculpture, and down through contact, striking the ball crisply, with character."

Anyone who has ever attempted to play golf has probably heard the litany of things that must be done to launch a tiny, white ball away from you just so you can walk to find it and hit it again.  Overlap your fingers.  The V formed by the thumb and forefinger should be pointed over your shoulder.  Keep your left arm straight.  Don't break your wrists.  Keep the club parallel to the ground on the takeaway.  Turn your torso and shift your weight, but do not move laterally.  Keep your head still.  Swing down and through the ball.  And of course, the cardinal rule, keep your eye on the ball.

With these and countless other tips running through your head as you stand on the tee box preparing to expose yourself as never before in front of God and all the world, it is a wonder we don't all fall into a fetal position, tearfully sucking our thumbs.  I have no doubt that some have.

How close is this to a teacher's daily life?  Align your lessons to state standards.  Adhere to the school grading policy.  Follow best practices.  Prepare for the test.  Don't teach to the test.  Incorporate technology.  Know the learning styles of each student.  Incorporate the learning styles of each student.  Be familiar with educational acronyms and abbreviations.  Utilize the concepts the acronyms and abbreviations stand for.   Continue professional development.  Stay on top of content.

As with the received wisdom on how to swing a golf club, the thoughts that crowd a teacher's mind are not all bad.  Some may even be good.  Yet when the mind is thus inundated as teachers stand before their classes preparing to expose themselves in front of God and all the world, it is a wonder they don't run screaming from the profession.  I know for a fact that some have.

Kevin Costner does offer one other approach.  He tells Rene Russo, clearly overwhelmed by the poetic physics of it all, "There's only one other acceptable theory about how to hit the ball.  Grip it and rip it."

I am certainly not suggesting that teachers can enter a classroom with no thought or preparation for how to lead students and guide them toward understanding.  I am saying that there is simply too much in education right now.  There are too many mandates, requirements, suggestions, theories, ideas, tips, strategies, rules, procedures.  There is too much riding on what does not matter and too little riding on what does.  Any sane person, out of sheer necessity, has learned to ignore much of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  We must step back from it all, at least every once in a while, and just grip it and rip it.  We must ignore the clamor and do what we know, deep in our souls, to do.  Will we make mistakes?  Of course we will.  Is it possible a student will not learn something he or she should because of a mistake we have made?  Yes, and it is not the end of the world.  If we can work with each other in genuine collegiality and not through a forced meeting or structure imposed upon us from above, we can recover from our mistakes and become even better.

Later in the movie, Kevin Costner's swing falls apart.  He loses his touch.  His friend, Cheech Marin, spends hours on the driving range analyzing his swing, but all the theories and rules fail to restore Costner's ability.  Eventually, Marin changes tactics.

"Take all your change and put in your left hand pocket.  All right, now tie your left shoe in a double knot.  Turn your hat around backwards.  Now take this tee and stick it behind your left ear."

Costner takes a sweet swing and sends the ball far down range.  Stunned, he asks Marin how he had been able to hit such a great shot."

"Because you're not thinking about shanking.  You're not thinking period.  You're just lookin' like a fool and hittin' the ball pure and simple.  Your brain was getting in the way."

My ideas for education reform will not draw big bucks.  They are not data driven.  I am simply suggesting that from time to time we get back to the human aspect of this most human enterprise called education.  Sometimes we need to risk looking like fools.  We need to turn off the sound and fury of the educational world and, pedagogically speaking, grip it and rip it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bloody Vengeance, or Why I Love High School

Education is a shared journey of discovery, and that was most evident on a recent evening at North Central High School.  As I have shared elsewhere, our Latin V students, those who started Latin in 8th grade, have spent most of their senior year exploring topics of particular interest to them.  From philosophy to historical linguistics to bees...yes, bees...these intellectually curious and motivated students have demonstrated the best in what we hope for from lifelong learners.

During the final quarter of the year, they decided to work together to pursue something that few high school students even know exists, the tragedies of Seneca.  Tradition has Lucius Annaeus Seneca born about 4 B.C.  Despite his having once been the tutor of Nero, the emperor ordered him to commit suicide A.D. 65.  He is famous for his philosophical writings in the Stoicism and his tragedies, which are decidedly not Stoic.  To quote one of his modern translators, "Seneca's tragedies are intense.  They show us people who push themselves too far, beyond the limits of ordinary behaviour and emotion.  Passion is set against reason, and passions wins out.  Seneca's characters are obsessed and destroyed by their emotions:  they are dominated by rage, ambition, lust, jealousy, desire, anger, grief, madness, and fear."  (Emily Wilson, Seneca:  Six Tragedies, p. vii.)

Into this dark literary world that has influenced Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy and has sparked almost unbroken interest for two millennia, a small group of Indiana high schools seniors dared to enter.  They read several of Seneca's works and settled on Thyestes, the revenge story that tells the tale of Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus of Trojan War fame, feeding to his brother Thyestes his brother's own children.  They explored the vexed question of whether or not Seneca's plays were ever performed in antiquity and then set about the task of imagining how to perform this one in the 21st century.  I should add that I had little to do with this.  Other than providing some resources and asking questions, I left the students to their own devices.  The result was the fulfillment of a dream for me.

On the night of their performance, a handful of parents and students gathered in a small auditorium at our school.  The set and costuming were minimal by design, and for twenty-two minutes, four students presented their version of Thyestes, which drew heavily from the translation of Paul Murgatroyd.  Immediately following the performance we engaged in a time of question and answers.  We explored their choices in editing the play, their decisions regarding makeup, and whether or not there was any development or progression in the characters.

So that explains the "bloody vengeance" in the title of this post, but what about the rest of the title?  For nearly twenty-five years I have wanted to see high school students work with Seneca, but it just never happened.  What these students did was beyond my hopes, for they inspired me to think, and that is the reason for the second part of this post's title.  I simply love exploring the world and journeying with students on the quest for truth, goodness, and beauty.  Does that sound a bit lofty?  Perhaps it does, but then again, education is a lofty endeavor.  High school students are curious without being jaded as, sadly, too many undergraduates seem to be.  What my students did with this play raised questions for me that I am eager to explore with students yet to come.  I like to learn.  I like to explore.  I like to seek the answers to questions, and very often, my students are the ones who have inspired the most provocative ones.

I have been blessed to be able to pursue my own academic work as a high school teacher.  Work with high school students has inspired my articles on translation theory, Latin poetic composition, textual issues with Vergil's Aeneid (and here), and the mind-body problem in philosophy.  Without question, I would never have pursued these and other works were it not for my primary work as a teacher.

In the film Without Limits, which tells the story of long distance runner Steve Prefontaine, Coach Bill Bowerman of the University of Oregon tells his runners, "If you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you can find meaning"  I hope my students have found meaning in our Latin studies, for I know that I have.  What I have found is nothing less than life itself.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Warrior Ethos

At 5:23 p.m. on September 29, 2013, I sent an email to author Steven Pressfield about his book The Virtues of War.  First of all, I love the story of Alexander the Great.  I have read novels by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Judith Tarr, Mary Renault, and David Gemmell.  I am one of the few people who seem to like both Alexander movies (1956 and 2004) and once had it in my head to translate the Alexandreis by Walter of Chatillon.  Oh, and I bought an Alexander action figure for our son when he was younger.

I am also in the habit of emailing authors when there is something I like about their books.  To me this is one of the true advantages of modern communication.  I can find the email address of almost any author, and I have never been disappointed in my correspondence.  Authors usually like to talk about their works.

And so it was on that September evening that I emailed Steven Pressfield.  I had read Pressfield's Gates of Fire about the battle at Thermopylae and loved how he wrote battle scenes.  A few hours after emailing him, I received a very nice response.  I emailed him again on November 17 (hey, I'm a teacher with lots to do, so it takes me a while to read things), and this led to an email discussion of other works of his, particularly The Warrior Ethos.  I had not been aware of this book, but when I checked it out, I knew it had to become part of our Latin classroom

I obtained a class set of the book and devised an activity to accompany it.  When we read  Julius Caesar's account of his war in Gaul during Latin II, we talk about leadership principles that we can apply in other aspects of life.  All of my students will lead something someday, whether it is a company, a Little League team, or a family.  This book by Pressfield fit perfectly into that study.  It explores the code of warriors from across the ages and around the world, citing sources from Herodotus to Patton.  In keeping with the overarching unit on Caesar and our commitment to applying lessons from different contexts in our own lives, the students had to read and reflect on the book.  Their task was to take three principles, one from each of the three major sections of the book, and re-write them in their own words.  They then had to write how one of those principles was evident in the life of Caesar, how one is currently evident in their own lives, and how they would imagine themselves applying the third principle at some point in the future.  Here are some of the highlights.  The students' words are in italics.

Part 1, #3:  At a deeper level, the Warrior Ethos recognizes that each of us, as well, has enemies inside himself.

It is very easy to focus on the wrongs that others commit against you.  I have found this year, however, that the only person who can really mess me up is myself.  In order to do anything to my best ability I must overcome my inner demons.

Part 1, #4:  The Warrior Ethos evolved as a counterpoise to fear.

In [this chapter], Pressfield describes a tenet that everyone must face their fears and have courage in doing so.  As I find myself nearing graduation and finally leaving the comfort that I have come to know in the crowded North Central hallways, I've become increasingly terrified.  I know I must face my fears head on and have courage.

Part 2, #13:  The greatest counterpoise to fear, the ancients believed, is love -- the love of the individual warrior for his brothers in arms.

About two years ago I got a job busing tables at a restaurant.  I didn't do this so I could ave up for that nice car or new video game.  I did it to help out with my family, so that my parents don't have to provide everything for me.  I made that sacrifice because I love my family and I know that they'll always have my back so I will always have theirs.

Part 2, #14:  The group comes before the individual.

I work for Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, which hires youth to take care of trees in the city.  Usually the tasks are physically demanding.  Every member must do what is best for the team, so that the team can be strong enough to finish the task.

Part 2, #15:  The feat that inspires witnesses to honor it is almost invariably one of selflessness.

[When] I'm making a salary I'd like to donate at 10% to local charities and to help out at least once a year because I believe that care for one's self.

Part 3, #24:  When an action is unjust, a warrior must not take it.

The Internet is a flood of information whose validity is easily questioned. I have adapted to my times to be flexible about controversy, but I still have strong beliefs.  I hope that in the future I will follow this tenet and stick to what is moral.

Part 3, #29:  The virtues we acquire in the warrior archetype we can use when we mature....  We get to keep them -- and profit from them -- our whole lives.

This relates to me because I choose not to waste what I have been taught throughout my 15 years of life.  I have been through more than any child my age should go through.  I use my knowledge and expand on it for the better and not for the worst.

So what did we gain from all this?

Modeling for students how to engage with authors:  check
Discovering a great new resource:  check
Expanding our knowledge of ancient cultures:  check
Applying the wisdom of other ages and places to our own lives:  check
More educational fun than this teacher could shake a stick at:  check, check, check, check, check!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

School As Family

On April 25 I  had the opportunity to speak to students from the TOTAL program ( in the Bayh College of Education  at Indiana State University (  That date is significant because it is my mom's birthday, and she joined me at her alma mater from which she graduated in 1959.  She taught 4th grade in southern Indiana before meeting my dad, then a 6th grade teacher.  They married, he became an elementary principal, and she became a full-time homemaker.

(My mom in green with Dr. Bauserman, Dr. Leinenbach, and Dean Hill-Clarke)

As we drove through a sunny Hoosier morning toward Terre Haute, we talked about school, and I listened to her wonderful stories, stories I already knew by heart, for they had long ago become part of my story.

One that struck me was that of her 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Hardy, in the small Indiana town of Scottsburg.  Mrs. Hardy, who captivated my mom's attention in the mid-1940s with the first pair of red shoes she had ever seen, encouraged her when she was a senior to attend her alma mater, what was then Indiana State Teachers College.  She even drove my mom and her mother, a widow, to campus for a visit.  As I watched the blue sky brighten with the April sun, I savored the thought of this caring woman who did not stop caring for her student in 2nd grade, but reached out to her in high school.  Would I be doing what I am doing were it not for Mrs. Hardy and her red shoes?

When we arrived at ISU, we were enveloped in pure welcoming hospitality.  Dean Kandi Hill-Clark ( and Dr. Marylin Leinenbach, Associate Professor of Elementary, Early, and Special Education ( greeted us as if we were family.  As I quickly saw, this was not a show for the guests.  I watched the interactions of these education leaders with students in the TOTAL program.  Collegiality and a familial spirit wove through the room.  The shared sense of purpose was clear, and the loving care among the faculty for these future educators evident.

After my talk, my mom was honored with a birthday cake and a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" by all the students.  A tour of the Bayh College of Education, housed in the beautifully repurposed lab school, by Dr. Denise Collins, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs concluded our time at ISU.

For my mom, I am sure it was one of her more memorable birthdays.  For me, it was a warm reminder that school is family.

Friday, May 2, 2014

An Executive Branch Day

A typical Thursday would see me bellowing "Salvete!  The 'Do Now' is on the board!" every fifty minutes at the start of each Latin class.  Today was a bit different.  It began at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the State Teachers of the Year met with key education leaders for a policy discussion.

In response to my comment about the need to maintain more than two hundred years of American heritage of well-rounded, liberal arts education, Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President, said there was room for all subjects and that they would be using the bully pulpit to promote that well-rounded education along with STEM. I was gratified to hear such support from the federal level. At the same time, Laurie Calvert of the Department of Education pointed out that 91 cents of every dollar spent on education is local and state money. We must make sure in Indiana that we remain true to the educational heritage that has brought us this far and that will ensure our legacy of a meaningful, productive life for our citizens in the future.

From there it was a trip to the White House.  Just the walk toward this historic building was amazing, a feeling I know was shared by my friend Jeff Hinton, 2014 Nevada Teacher of the Year.

We were taken to the dining room in which state dinners are held, and after a few pictures with one of the most famous residents of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we began to line up.

It takes no small amount of coordination and planning for an even that involves the President of the United States.  We had to practice taking our places in the East Room, and even though I was awed to be in the place where Presidents have made many important addresses to our nation, I could not help having a bit of fun trying to imitate our first chief executive.


Latin gives us the word gravitas, which is the root of the English word "gravity."  Gravitas is the only word that can describe the atmosphere surrounding the meeting of a President.  Oh, there were some lighthearted moments, to be sure.  I was standing next to Joey Lee, 2014 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, and we exchanged lines from Caddyshack right up to the final moment.  (For die hard fans, we did the scenes of Carl Spackler explaining his work as a caddy for the Dalai Lama and Judge Smails asking Ty Webb how he measured himself with other golfers.  I also whispered "Noonan!" to Joey once we were on the risers.)  Yet when I looked into the Blue Room and saw President Obama waiting to greet us, the gravitas settled around us.  Here was the man who holds the top position in the government of the greatest nation in the world, and I was about to shake his hand.

Peter Markes from Oklahoma, Jeff Baxter from Kansas, Matt Lawrence from Hawaii, and Bill Day from Washington, D.C. preceded me.  I handed my name card to a young officer who handed it to an aide, and then I was announced to the President.  I stepped forward to shake his hand, and he asked me what I taught.  I told him I taught Latin, and as we turned toward the camera, I said that my students wanted him to know that his name, when spelled backward, is the Latin verb amabo, which means "I will love."  He looked at one of his staff and said, "Did you hear that?"  I thanked him for his time, and then I was led to the East Room.

This time it was not a rehearsal.  My name was announced to the room that was now filled with people.  I took my place on the risers, back row, fifth from the left.  I gazed out across rows of chairs filled with family and friends of the 2014 State Teachers of the Year, elected officials, and a wall of reporters and cameras.  At last the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb of Maryland, was introduced, and he entered the room along with President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. 

The President offered eloquent remarks on the noble work of teachers, and Sean accepted his award with words of grace and challenge for all in education.  The entire event can be seen here.

What you have just read is a chronicle of the events of this remarkable day, but no words can fully describe the feeling of it all, not even a word like gravitas.  What I can say is that the joy of such a magnificent celebration of teaching will live long in my memory, but the true and lasting blessing are the friendships I have made with the other 2014 Teachers of the Year.  These teachers are educators of the highest caliber, colleagues I cannot wait to work with in the weeks, months, and years ahead.  Yet for all of this, the one whose face I eagerly sought in the crowd was that of the teacher I respect most in all the world, the one I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with for more than twenty five years, my wife, Melissa.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

And the Winner Is...

It was a black-tie gala event in Washington, D.C. held at the United States Institute of Peace.  Champagne flowed, musicians moved among the guests playing strings, and dinner featured house-made pasta presented with dollops of corn puree, roasted red pepper sauce, jumbo lump crab meat and arugula pesto for the first course.  Statler chicken breast marinated in herbs and white wine on a bed of portobello mushrooms, finished with lemon gremolata and paired with Bonterra Chardonnay 2011 was the main.

What was the occasion for such an event?  It was the 2014 National Teacher of the Year Recognition Dinner.  That's right.  It was an evening to celebrate teachers.  Since every teacher in the nation would not fit even in the cavernous USIP, each state sent one representative.  Indiana teachers, you were at table 21 along with the teachers from Wyoming and Oregon.

I was joined by my wife, Melissa, and it was, simply put, a fairy tale evening.  Yet it was also an inspiring evening.  We watched videos of the three finalists for National Teacher of the Year, and each one was motivating.  There was Melissa Porfirio of Virginia, Ryan Devlin of Pennsylvania, and Dorina Sackman of Florida.  Check them out and share them with your colleagues.  These are great teachers and remind me of the teachers leading our children throughout Indiana.

We heard from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other speakers who again challenged, inspired, and motivated all of us who are dedicated to the mission of guiding children on the shared journey of discovery.

And then Sean was introduced.  Sean McComb is the 2014 Maryland Teacher of the Year and the 2014 National Teacher of the Year.  As you will see from Sean's video, he is a dynamic young teacher who represents the best in U.S. education and will make an exciting ambassador across the country and around the world.

The evening was filled with inspiration and celebration, and that is how it should be.  Teachers inspire and must be celebrated for the work they do to ensure each community's legacy is secure and that the grand object of education continues.  I hope the amazing educators of Indiana can get a taste of how they were being honored.