Monday, October 27, 2014

Why Educators Must Tweet

Twitter chats.

That's really all I need to say.  I could have hit the publish button after that first line.  If you are a serious Twitter user, then read the questions at the end, share your thoughts in the comments, and get back to tweeting.  If you are thinking, "Twitter?  What do bird sounds have to do with education?", then read on.

Twitter has become my primary source of education news and articles, and much other news as well.  On my main account, @intoy2014, I follow only serious news and educational outlets.  I use a separate account for Indiana University basketball and the world of hair metal.  Through my @intoy2014 account, I get links to excellent articles from @DianeRavitch, @YongZhaoUO, @PhiBetaKappa, @jesslahey@TalksWTeachers, @UtahTOY2014, @Mr_Abud, @Mr_McComb, @ Perapiteticus, and many, many more.  Simply put, links from education leaders on Twitter are how I stay on top of my profession.

Yes there is, folks!  A Twitter chat is usually an hour-long conversation on a particular topic.  Those interested in the topic can follow along by looking for a hashtag, which is a #.  If you want to reply to the topic, just include the hashtag in your tweet.

One of my favorites is #aplitchat, which takes place every Sunday night from 9:00-10:00 EST.  Hosted by Brian Sztabnik of Talks With Teachers,  Over the course of the hour, he throws out six questions, and teachers from across North America join the conversation.  Last night I had the privilege of co-hosting with Brian, and our topic was the value of the liberal arts.  Teachers from California, North Carolina, Indiana, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Nevada, Michigan, Ohio, and Canada engaged in passionate, meaningful discussion of the role the humanities play alongside STEM, the trouble for society when the humanities are ignored, and the best ways to help students, parents, and administrators understand the value of the liberal arts for a complete education.  When it was all said and done, the chat was preserved via Storify so anyone can go back and explore more than 300 comments.

Yes, that's right.  More than 300 comments were offered in a one-hour discussion by some of the finest minds across North America, and those comments are available to anyone.  While there is no equal to and no replacement for personal interaction, a Twitter chat provides opportunities like no other for multiple voices to speak on a common topic and for their words to be available for future thought.

What are the great Twitter chats that you know?  Anna Baldwin, 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, recommends #mtedchat, Tuesdays, 8:00 p.m., MST.  That chat has even included the governor, lieutenant governor, state superintendent along with other teacher leaders.  Gary Abud, 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year, recommends #SATchat (Saturdays, 7:30 a.m., EST) and #miched (Wednesdays, 8:00 p.m., EST).  Josh Stumpenhorst, 2012 Illinois Teacher of the Year, is a fan of #sschat (Mondays, 7:00 p.m., EST), #ntchat (Wednesdays, 8:00-9:00, EST), and #iledchat (Mondays, 9:00 p.m., CST).

Share in the comments your favorite Twitter chats!  We would love to know about more opportunities to engage with passionate educators about the important issues and topics in our field.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When a Teacher Cries

Have you ever been moved to tears in a class?  There are the poignant and profound comments a student will make, the quiet revelation of a domestic injustice, or an "ah-ha" moment when a student finally understands something and makes a connection.  Any of these can trigger a teacher's tears, and these are good reasons to cry.  What cracked the dam of my professional persona today and brought the hot tears rushing to my eyes was nothing like that.  With sheer, raw grit I held back the waterfall, and I was angry.

It happened in our Latin II class.  We were reading a fictitious story, in Latin, but authored by the textbook editor.  In other words, this was no great piece of literature, and it was a story I have read countless times, so it was not as if I did not know what was coming, yet there I stood, caught off guard by a trivial tale.  Two young men, Publius and Furianus, had traveled to Athens to study.  After being there for a while, Publius had something to say about their teacher of rhetoric.  What follows is a literal translation of this fairly clunky passage Latin for Americans 2, 2007, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

"The things that he teaches are most useful to Romans, for Romans deliver speeches in the forum and the senate."  The Furianus said, "The things that the philosophers teach are also useful so that we may live a good life.  We are indeed Romans, and it is most useful for Romans to be able to deliver speeches, but we are also human beings, and a good life is more useful than a good speech."  (p. 99)

This elementary story was in perfect alignment with the talk I gave last week at the Association of Teacher Educators-Indiana fall conference and with the Martha Nussbaum book I have just started, Not For Profit:  Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.  Yet what opened the floodgates for me was the contrast of these lines with the brutal, inhuman environment in which so much of education is conducted these days.  We laud scores on tests, all kinds of tests; AP tests and IB tests and state tests and local tests.  We sell a vision of education as nothing more than skills training for a job.

As I told my students, education should prepare a person for a job.  My students cannot and should not live on their parents' income forever, and an education should equip them for the world of work, but that is only one of education's tasks.  When we forget that education is a most human enterprise (students and teachers are, after all, human beings exploring the work and discovery of human beings amid the vast wonders of creation), education ceases to be humane.  When we value the "good speech" that Publius praised (read "career skills") as separate from or unconcerned with the good life, then we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

I concluded my talk at the ATE conference with a clip from the movie Braveheart.  William Wallace has just been knighted, but the Scottish nobles fall to fighting over trivial matters, and Wallace challenges them about what he calls their "God-given right to something better."

Those who have seen the broader vision of what education can and should be, those who remember that there was once such a thing even in this country, will do the work of reclaiming that deep heritage.  We are not there yet, however, and the simple words of a high school textbook are a sharp reminder.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Impetus of the Undistinguished Host

"Diomedes Wounding Aphrodite" - Arthur Fitger, 1905
In 1913-1914, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch delivered a series of lectures at Cambridge that were collected into a book titled On the Art of Writing.  It is a book in which I have highlighted more passages than not, and one of those passages seems to speak especially to our present age.  In his second lecture, he advocates the writing of poetry among university students in addition to their reading and studying of it.  "Recollect that in Poesy as in every other human business, the more there are who practice it the greater will be the chance of someone's reaching perfection.  It is the impetus of the undistinguished host that flings forward a Diomed or a Hector."

What does this mean?  It means quite simply that we will never know whether the next Homer or Einstein is sitting in our classes unless we expose the greatest number of students to the widest possible curriculum.  Put another way, students cannot exercise genius in a field they do not even know exists.

It also acknowledges the truth that not everyone will be such a genius.  Thousands of warriors fought in the Trojan War, yet literature and art commemorate only a few, such as Diomedes and Hector.  An Einsteinian level of achievement by every student in the class is an absurd goal, and its failure of attainment is no argument against offering the class in the first place.  Not everyone need achieve the level of the hero or the genius, but if anyone is to have any hope of doing so, then the opportunity must be placed before all.

This is why each school must offer the widest possible curriculum to its students.  Art is on an equal footing with math, Latin with physics, and physical education with the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate class.  To cut one for the sake of another is to decide a priori that no students will achieve great things in a particular subject.

Quiller-Couch also exposed a dishonoring truth in British life that shames America today.  "We may prate of democracy, but actually a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born."  Is this really so different one hundred years and an ocean away?

Citizens of the United States have the money to afford whatever sort of education we want.  We spend annually $12 billion on traffic tickets, $29 billion on candy, $31 billion on lottery tickets, $44 billion on tobacco, $50 billion on alcohol, $69 billion in casinos, and $76 billion on soda.  Homer and Einstein may be sitting in a class near you.  Is it worth  it to us to find out?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

You Hold the Heavens In Your Head

When apparently the last eminent guest had long ago taken his place, again those three bugle-blasts rang out, and once more the swords leaped from their scabbards.  Who might this late comer be?  Nobody was interested to inquire.  Still, indolent eyes were turned toward the distant entrance, and we saw the silken gleam and the lifted sword of a guard of honor plowing through the remote crowds.  Then we saw that end of the house rising to its feet; saw it rise abreast the advancing guard all along like a wave.  This supreme honor had been offered to no one before.  There was an excited whisper at our table -- 'Mommsen!' -- and the whole house rose -- rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer-mugs.  Just simply a storm!  Then the little man with his long hair and Emersonian face edged his way past us and took his seat.  I could have touched him with my hand -- Mommsen! -- think of it!

I would have walked a great many miles to get a sight of him, and here he was, without trouble, or tramp, or cost of any kind.  Here he was, clothed in a titanic deceptive modesty which made him look like other men.  Here he was, carrying the Roman world and all the Caesars in his hospitable skull, and doing it as easily as the other luminous vault, and the skull of the universe, carries the Milky Way and the constellations.

Theodor Mommsen
During the winter of 1891-1892, Mark Twain was in Berlin and attended a celebration for scientists Rudolf Virchow and Hermann von Helmholtz.  The passage above is Twain's description of what happened when Classics scholar Theodor Mommsen entered the room, and I was thinking of this story as I sat on the Tarmac of the Newark airport after a three day conference of Teachers of the Year in Princeton.  I had begun an article in The Classical Outlook on the comparison between Ulysses Grant's Memoirs and Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.  A quotation from Twain prompted memory of the Mommsen story, and with it came the thrill of academic remembrance, of being able to make connections, to say "this is that."

And then the nagging thought came of whether any of this matters.  I had a moment of thrill as I read an academic article on an airplane, a moment unlikely to have been shared with another living soul, that is until I decided to blog about it.  So what?  I know many such moments, and while I am blessed to have family and friends with whom I can share them, I obviously do not share them all.  There are thoughts, connections, realizations that exist only in my head and that will go with me to the grave.

This is not a morbid meditation, for it prompted me to think that the same is true for the baggage handler on the ground, all the other passengers on board, and you.  Whoever you are, you carry infinity within the stone boundaries of your skull.  Memories and connections and ideas and speculations and questions and answers the smallest fraction of which will be known to none other than you form the vast cosmos of your experience.  Infinity is sitting next to me in 6-C reading a newspaper.  The universe is in the car ahead of you at the stoplight.

And we are tiny.  Oh, yes, we are small.  We are five feet tall on average, weigh a hundred odd pounds, and can fit the infinity house of our heads inside a baseball cap.  And there are millions, billions of us all over a planet that is but one point of light in the night sky.

What amazing, extraordinary creatures we are, what vastly interesting beings in a complex and fantastic world that beggars the description of any author!  Savoring this, tasting it, exploring it, plunging head first into it...this is life.  It is also why I am a teacher.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Into the Face of Apollo

"Some days I still don't know what to do." -- John Mellencamp

I am a middle-aged man who has been in his career for a quarter century, and I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.  I get jazzed, pumped, stoked about writing fiction, writing nonfiction, teaching Latin, any kind of public speaking, working with children, working with teens, working with college students, encouraging just about anyone in the discovery and fulfillment of his or her potential, engaging in research, having philosophical discussions, exploring translation theory, actually translating, composing poetry, discussing educational theory, advocating for the classical liberal arts education, getting into the nitty gritty of Classical philology, thinking in theology, exploring leadership issues, equipping leaders, mentoring teachers, and truly the list goes on and on.  Perhaps more appropriate than the Mellencamp lyric would be this from Steppenwolf.  "Take the world in a love embrace.  Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space."

My mind was filled with such thoughts as I flew into the face of Apollo, heading east to a conference with fellow state teachers of the year in Princeton, New Jersey.  2014 has been a year like no other.  From the banquet in January at which I was honored as the 2014 Indian Teacher of the Year and was presented by Governor Pence with our state's highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash, my experiences as an educator have grown ever broader.  I have participated with the finest group of teacher-leaders from across the nation as my fellow STOYs and I have met in Washington, D.C. for work with Department of Education and to meet with the President of the United States.  I have been a part of a national education policy forum, also, in D.C., and had my creative fires stoked white hot with a week at International Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  I have spoken before our state's General Assembly, at universities across Indiana, and have become involved with Indiana University's groundbreaking INSPIRE program in the School of Education.

Yet as I flew from the dark, early-morning skies of Indianapolis for the Next Steps conference with my fellow STOYs in Princeton, I found myself reading an article in Classical Outlook, the journal of the American Classical League.  It was pure academia, and once again, my fires were stoked.  It spoke of leadership lessons in the war writings of Julius Caesar.  Any of my students reading this will immediately see why I was so excited.  Leadership is a primary theme in all of our classes.

So which is it for me?  Am I primarily a Latin scholar, a high school teacher, or an educational leader?  Is my main thing writing or teaching or leading?  The answer is a simple and resounding yes.  I am blessed to live the life I love, a life filled with a kaleidoscope of wonders as I travel on the shared journey of discovery that is education.