Tuesday, November 18, 2014

International Education

Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84-54 B.C.

The Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, where I teach high school Latin, is a K-12 International Baccalaureate district.  Our district website states, "All three programs, PYP, MYP, and DP, focus on the development of the whole child, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional, and social growth through the study of languages, humanities, technologies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts. The approaches to teaching and learning are diverse and flexible allowing teachers to meet the individual needs of all students. Teachers stimulate curiosity and foster lifelong learning in all students."  As the name suggests, we have an international focus, and this can be seen in the seven languages we offer:  Latin, German, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.

Our district recently received a lesson in international education that was not a welcome one.  A 2006 graduate of our school recently became the most recent victim of the savage and inhuman acts of ISIS.

The news came out on a Sunday, and the next day each of my classes spent a few minutes discussing it.  Why?  First of all, we are an International Baccalaureate school, and this is international news.  We rightly focus on the positive aspects of the different cultures and time periods we study, but we need to be reminded that not everything in the world is rosy.  The very cultures that we study are sources of great human achievement and brutal human atrocity.  This is part of the human story.

We also discussed this tragic event because it affected one of our own.  Certainly we have lost other current students and alumni over the years, and every death is a painful loss.  Yet our school's name was being used in international media, and we needed to have our own say.

It also fit within our curriculum, for I shared with each class part of a poem that the Latin III students read.  It is poem 101 by the Roman poet Catullus, and it was written about the death of his brother.  The line I shared was its famous last line, atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.  "And into eternity, brother, hail and farewell."  A key aspect of our Latin studies is exploring how ancient words apply in the world of today, and these poignant words spoke perfectly to the situation we were facing.

Finally, if none of the above had been true, we still should have taken a few moments to honor Peter Kassig.  Education is a most human enterprise, and as Donne reminds us, the loss of one touches us all.

John Donne, 1572-1631

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Poetry In Motion

The 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year banquet was held on Friday evening, November 7.  In attendance were all the semifinalists and finalists, along with their colleagues, families, and friends.  A banquet hall was filled at north Indianapolis hotel, slides played throughout the evening highlighting the achievements of fine Hoosier educators, and the meal was top notch.

What made the evening special, of course, were the teachers, educational leaders like Tina Ahlgren and Matt Ehresman, top-2 finalists in the INTOY competition.

Tina Ahlren and her husband

Matt Ehresman and his wife
Conversations with teacher-leaders abounded, led often by INTOYs from other years.  As teacher after teacher was recognized, a growing wave of admiration for the dedicated men and women who daily lead our children filled the room.

And then it was time to hear from our 2015 INTOY, Kathy Nimmer.  As one who often gives public addresses, I could not help analyzing her style just a bit.  After all, when hundreds of people were riveted on her every word and many were dabbing their eyes, she had to be doing something right, and I am always eager to learn.

Kathy's delivery is one of poetry in motion.  It is not the thunderous poetry of Homer, but the gentle, bucolic poetry of Vergil in his early works.  She does not gesticulate wildly.  She does blast away with a stentorian voice.  She stands in a way that is stately as her hands brush a Braille text she clearly knows by heart.  Her voice is quiet.  It is her message that draws you in, and what a message it is.  Kathy's message, the one she shared Friday night and the one that is the centerpiece of her broader message, is one of overcoming, yet it is not just the overcoming of obstacles by one who is blind.  It is the overcoming of challenges that all teachers face, and in this she inspires and gives hope to us all.

When the tears had been dried and the applause at last had died down, the evening of honors continued.  As with all the semifinalists and finalists, whose pictures can be found here, Kathy was presented a handsome glass apple, and a monogrammed leather portfolio.  She also received a monogrammed briefcase, a gold INTOY pin, a gold INTOY ring, a membership in Kappa Delta Pi, and a check to support her in her many responsibilities across the nation.  American Fidelity, CSO Architects, Kroger, Kappa Delta Pi, and Herff Jones continued their strong support of Hoosier teachers by providing these items.
Rep. Klinker reading the House resolution

Rep. Truitt reading the letter from Gov. Pence
Representative Sheila Klinker and Representative Randy Truitt then presented her with a resolution from the House of Representatives and a letter from Governor Mike Pence.  It was clear that such accolades were moving Kathy deeply, but then came the moment when, in the words of my late father-in-law, she was "plum got."  Representatives Truitt and Klinker presented her with the Sagamore of the Wabash, our state's highest honor.

Those of us fortunate enough to celebrate the extraordinary teacher-leaders at the 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year banquet know that Indiana is not just the crossroads of America, but the intersection of creative ideas, innovative methodology, and the most caring and professional educators.  We are fortunate to have so many worthy of recognition and to send a person like Kathy Nimmer to the 2015 National Teacher of the Year competition.  Only one question remains.  What will her dog, Elias, wear when he joins her at the White House to meet the President?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tools of The Trade

We hear a lot about whether or not to arm teachers, and this evening one school board in Michigan will be the next to take up the debate.  I am all for it.  Arm us to the teeth, I say.  Now, before you start calling for my head, hear me out.  I want to see teachers armed, but not with the weapons you have in mind and for a different fight.

Around the year 445 B.C., Artaxerxes ruled as the Great King of Persia.  His cupbearer, a Jewish man named Nehemiah, asked the Great King to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall that had encircled the city.  When permission had been granted, Nehemiah did just that, but quickly encountered opposition from Israel's enemies.  Nehemiah realized that the builders were going to have to do more than was in their job description.  In the Book of Nehemiah, Chapter 4, verses 17-18, we read, 

Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.  And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.

From Treasures of the Bible, Henry Davenport Northrop, D.D., International Publishing Company, 1894.

American education has become the battlefield on which a war is being fought.  On one side are educators, families, and children who care about our heritage, our future, and the humane goals of true education.  On the other are dehumanizing forces that use weapons of control and misguided testing and evaluative tools to rout the advancement of the true, the good, and the beautiful and to install a hegemony of pragmatism that seeks nothing more than a productive labor force. 

Like those ancient builders, teachers must continue their work of construction.  We are building futures and shaping lives.  This work must go on even during the war.  We cannot tell a generation of students to put their lives on hold while adults, many of whom hold the title thanks solely to biological age, figure out what to do.  We must, instead, as in the days of Nehemiah, arm our teachers both to build and to fight.

The construction tools and the practice in how to use them are found in our university schools of education, and it is here that our pre-service teachers must also receive their training for war.  For example, we must help those about to seek teaching jobs to ask the right kinds of questions in their interviews.  How much freedom and autonomy do you provide your teachers?  What system do you have in place to mentor new teachers?  What is your structure for advancement and leadership?  How do you honor your teachers?  What practices do you have in place to make sure that the best stay and grow in the profession?

When the first round of trite and canned answers drop from the sky, our next generation of teachers must be prepared to push back.  They must be trained to see through deception and obfuscation.  They must be equipped to spot the desperate grasp for answers to questions that may not have been asked before.

And when they find themselves in their first classroom, emailing their parents about their joyful expectation of working with children and teens to discover the wonders of the world, they must feel the sword at their side.  With tablet and marker in one hand, they will continue the work of construction, building into the lives of our children.  With the other, they will continue to fight for more humane working conditions, models of student and teacher evaluation that make sense based on the complex and human nature of education, and school environments where freedom rules instead of fear.

More is needed and expected from the teachers of today.  They must be builders and warriors both.  In keeping with the military theme, but borrowing from another ancient story, I ask them.  "Who will stand on my right hand and keep the bridge with me?"