Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rising Above, Part 3

This is the third post in a six-part series  on general education issues.  I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film Rise Above the Mark, and these posts will continue that conversation.  This space will not be used for a review or critique of the film, parts of which I agreed with and parts of which I did not.  The film and the discussion it has inspired have, however, brought key education issues into a broader forum, and it is these that I will address in this series.

What is the purpose of public education?  What is the goal of K-12 education?  What defines success?

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.

So reads Article 8, Section 1, of the Indiana Constitution.  As far as a general purpose for education goes, this is not a bad one.  It states a particular reason for educating people and offers broad strokes for what that kind of education should look like.  The State of Indiana is interested in the mechanism for preserving a free government.  It acknowledges that education is essential to this idea and anchors its view of education in a tradition stretching for more than two thousand years, a tradition we broadly describe as a liberal arts education, for it takes in the widest spectrum of subjects in an effort to free people from the dark prison of ignorance.

Education could, of course, be about many other things.  It could be about developing the skills to complete task X at company Y.  It could be about developing the skills to pursue a hobby while in retirement.  It could be about learning how to pick a person's pocket on the subway without getting detected, how to build a deck on the back of your house, or how to win friends and influence people.  However noble or ignoble these educational goals may be, they share one characteristic.  They are narrow.  They belong to that set of activities for which the prisoners in Plato's cave awarded prizes.  The English word "education" has its roots in the Latin ex + ducere, to lead out, and in this it hearkens back to Plato's famous allegory in reminding us that true education leads us from the small and the dark into the broad light of truth.

In answering the question, then, of what constitutes success in education, we must be clear what we mean by the word "education."  If it is a narrow, limited development of a particular skill, then success can be measured by the performance of that skill.  If the pickpocket, for example, makes a clean theft of someone's wallet, then Fagin can be rated a highly effective teacher and his house an A school.  When we take a broader view of education, however, we must understand success in a correspondingly broader way.

So what does it mean "to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement?"  How will we know that our children have made improvements in these areas?  The unsettling answer is that we will not.  Those of us alive at the moment will have but the most limited glimpse into the success of our efforts relative to the lives of our children.  Our children will know better than we how successful we have been, but it will be years into their own lives and perhaps after some of those who have helped shape those lives have passed from their own.  The true measure of success of real education is the life well lived and the society advanced by the collection of such lives.  Successful education of this kind both secures the legacy of its community and ensures that the story of the human race continues on the shared journey of discovery.  Such success is not measurable by narrow instruments.  Then again, as the Mother Superior once realized, you cannot hold a moonbeam in your hand.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rising Above, Part 2

This is the second post in a six-part series  on general education issues.  I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film Rise Above the Mark, and these posts will continue that conversation.  This space will not be used for a review or critique of the film, parts of which I agreed with and parts of which I did not.  The film and the discussion it has inspired have, however, brought key education issues into a broader forum, and it is these that I will address in this series.

What challenge is created by the perception of teachers derived from traditional and social media?

More than twenty years ago a now iconic cartoon first appeared in The New Yorker.  It featured two canines talking to each other, with one sitting poised at a computer.  The dog with his paws on the keyboard looked at his friend sitting on the floor and said, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

The fact is, of course, that no one knows you're a dog in the op-ed section of the newspaper either, or on bathroom stalls where vandals write their messages.  Since at least the graffiti artists of Pompeii, we have enjoyed being able to speak our minds without anyone knowing who it was doing the speaking.  With the rise of social media, screen names, and profile pics, we have created a dense hedge of protection behind which to hide as we lob the grenades of our pique and rage at those we want desperately to know our thoughts without knowing who thought them.

Enter the current educational melee.  As with much else in our isonected society, where we can remain isolated in our anonymity even as we connect with anyone in any place at any time, we have eschewed civil discourse for the rant and the screed.  "If those teachers over at that school had to work a real job like the rest of us, they wouldn't complain so much.  After all, they get three months PAID vacation during the summer on MY dime!  Signed, A Concerned Taxpayer."

Is it likely that the person who tweets or posts on Facebook or emails the editor such a statement would talk like that when conversing with my friend Julie, who teaches French next door to me, when she has run into the grocery store to pick up some extra milk?  I doubt it.  We talk tough when no one knows who is talking, but in person?  That is a different story.  Even when mainstream media outlets bash teachers, as in the case of the notorious cover of Time magazine, you have to ask whether anyone would have designed that cover who was thinking of a relative, friend, or neighbor who was an actual teacher.

So what is a teacher to do with perception of teachers created through the media?  Ignore it.  Be aware of it, but disregard it.  Seriously, do you really care what people say who lack the spine to sign their names?  Does it even matter people say when they clearly do not know what they are talking about?  Teachers already have an audience for their work whose opinions are true worth, but more on that in a moment.

Ignoring the nonsense does not mean sticking one's head in a hole.  Traditional and social media are wonderful outlets for sharing with the world the great things happening in actual classrooms.  Post pictures of an amazing student project.  Tweet the profound insight a child expressed.  Tell your side of the story, which is, quite simply the only side with up-to-the-minute experience of what is actually taking place in American education.

And just who is your proper audience, the only one that capable of offering the kind of thoughts on your job that are worth considering?  The answer runs from 2:04-2:19, fifteen seconds that will lay to rest all the noisy nonsense about teachers.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rising Above, Part 1

This is the first post in a six-part series on general education issues.  I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film Rise Above the Mark, and these posts will continue that conversation.  This space will not be used for a review or critique of the film, parts of which I agreed with and parts of which I did not.  The film and the discussion it has inspired have, however, brought key education issues into a broader forum, and it is these that I will address in this series.

How do we build mutual respect between teachers and parents, teachers and legislators, and teachers and the community?

When my Latin students read the war writings of Julius Caesar, we spend a bit of time discussing ethnic slurs and why they are so important.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Slurs play an incredibly important role in war, for killing another person is one of the most difficult things to do.  Not only did the Roman army require a centurion to lead units into battle, but it also needed an officer called the optio, who pushed them from behind, for in addition to the blood, bodily waste, and screams surrounding you, you also had to contend with having to kill someone who was a father, a son, or a brother, just like you.  Enter slurs.  It is easier to kill someone who is not the same as you, someone who may not even be human.  Take the word "gook," for example, which has a longer etymological history than you may know.  What does that word mean?  Practically speaking, it is a nonsense word.  To kill someone whose title makes no sense is surely easier than to kill a recognized father or son.

Why is that?  The reason is that slurs represent abstractions, not the real thing.  Yes, it can be argued that the naming of anything involves abstraction (think Postman and Korzybski), but stay with me here.  It is easy to hate hippies, but less easy to hate Bob when he walks up and shakes hands with you.  It is easy to scorn "those rich fat cats," but less easy to scorn CEO Smith when she sits across the table from you to talk about the issues.  And it is so very easy indeed for teachers to blame parents and legislators and for parents to blame teachers and legislators and for legislators to blame teachers and parents when "teacher" and "parent" and "legislator" remain words on a page, abstractions that perform a semantic and emotional role like that of slurs.

So how do we build respect among the primary parties that shape our children's education?  We get involved.  We talk.  We visit schools and homes and legislative offices.  We do not limit ourselves to brash lobbying of verbal grenades from behind the security of social media.  We do not advocate for plans in the abstract that look good on paper but that have little hope of working in the real world, for at the end of the day.  We are talking about flesh and blood people, and as we all know, working directly with people is messy.  It is confusing.  It is not always straightforward.  Logic and emotions and life experiences compete for the right to dictate the terms of discussion.  It is time consuming and expensive.  It is slow going.  Yet for all the momentary satisfaction of pointing a finger at the abstracted source of our ills, this does no good.  In the end, it is the tried and true practice of interacting meaningfully with each other that has the only chance for building respect among these parties.  What will you check on your agenda for tomorrow?

Visit one of my local schools
□ Ask to meet with a state legislator
□ Hold a meeting of parents and educators at a school
□ Volunteer at an after-school program
□ Ask my children's teachers/principal what they need
□ Ask my congressperson or senator for information about upcoming bills
□ Attend a local school board meeting
□ Attend a state school board meeting
□ Attend a congressional session on education
□ Engage in a personal email or phone conversation with someone involved in education

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Drink Deep or Taste Not

Alexander Pope, 1688-1744

A little learning is a dang'rous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
"Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope

While some would take Pasteur's famous dictum that "chance favors the prepared mind" to be a defense of the well-structured lesson plan, I argue that we must be careful not to get lost in the details.  Am I prepared to teach my classes?  I am in that I know my subject matter extremely well and understand how teenage students learn best.  Do I walk into a class with everything scripted?  God forbid.

Take a recent A.P. Latin class.  We were reading the scene in Aeneid, Book VI, in which the hero, Aeneas, enters the underworld.  Vergil describes the Styx, a river on which the gods trembled to take an oath.  He talks of the souls that had to wander its banks for a hundred years because their bodies had not been buried.  All of this prompted questions from the students.  What would happen if the gods swore by the Styx, yet broke their promise?  If someone died by being eaten by a lion, would that count as burial, or would the person have to wait until the lion died and was buried?

We discussed that questions like these are often asked by those who are used to consulting a sacred text on such matters.  Look it up in the Bible or the Koran, we say.  Such textual authority for what amount to rather legalistic questions, however, just does not exist with regard to the Greco-Roman mythology.  Yet I began to wonder.  To what extent was logical or philosophical or theological thought brought to bear on the Greco-Roman divinities and their interaction with the world?  Was there any sort of systematic theology relative to Greco-Roman myth?

So I asked.  I asked friends of mine, including Joe Day (Professor Emeritus, Classics, Wabash College), Stephanie Larson (Professor, Classics, Bucknell University), and Betty Rose Nagle (Professor, Classical Studies, Indiana University).  I immediately got back responses.  I received a discussion on "efforts to organize what was, in religious reality, a vast polytheistic, localist non-system into a more or less coherent system or pantheon" by the likes of Homer and Hesiod and a link to the writings of Xenophon against the traditional Homeric and Hesiodic portrayal.  I even got an answer to what would happen if the gods did not keep their Styx-bound word.  They would suffer ten years of death-like suspended animation.

And then I took that back to the classroom where my students and I spent a bit of time talking about ancient theology before progressing with the Vergil text.

This is education at its finest.  It is as I have so often described it a shared journey of discovery.  I have read the Aeneid countless times, yet every time I read it with students it is new.  We explore together the mysteries and glories of the world.  Classical scholar G.P. Goold once wrote, "An elementary teacher, to reach in due season the end of his curriculum, must every hour turn a [blind] eye to serious problems and refrain from pursuing truth beyond the charted boundaries of the textbook."  ( “Servius and the Helen Episode.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74 (1970): 115)  I could not disagree more.  The true teacher, the magister can never be so bound, but must, along with the students, pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful, no matter how anfractuous the path.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

National Teacher of the Year Finalist

Dr. Scott Hanback, TSC Superintendent
Al Remaly, Harrison HS Principal

Today, January 14, 2015, Kathy Nimmer was announced as a finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year.  Kathy is only the fourth teacher in Indiana's history to attain such an honor, following Dan Durbin (1996), Francis Mustapha (1994), and Sue Talbot (1978).  She will now join Ann Marie Corgill (Alabama), Catherine Caine (Hawaii), and Shanna Peeples (Texas) in the competition for National Teacher of the Year, with the winner being announced at the White House later this spring.  Read about all the finalists here.

Kathy's former student
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz

So what does this mean for Kathy?  Take a look at 2014 National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb's blog for pictures, stories, and video of the amazing journey that, for him, has only just started.

What does this mean for Indiana?  Kathy's selection as an NTOY finalist shines a light on her state.  More than ever, those interested in education will look at Indiana to see what sort of state has created a teaching environment in which a master practitioner like Kathy could flourish.  Are there areas for all those involved in the grand mosaic of education to improve?  Of course.  Are there areas that are hidden treasures, practices and opportunities that others would benefit from seeing and knowing?  Without a doubt, and it is here that Kathy's light will shine to the greatest effect, for as people outside the Hoosier state begin to look more closely at what we are doing from the shores of Lake Michigan to the banks of the Ohio River, they will see extraordinary teachers leading this generation on the shared journey of discovery toward the fulfillment of their place in the grand human story.

INTOY Coordinator Sarah Pies, State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, 2014 INTOY Steve Perkins, 2015 INTOY Kathy Nimmer, 2013 INTOY Suzanne Whitton, 2005 INTOY Molly Seward

What does this mean for me?  It means that I may need someone to calm me down, because I am over-the-moon excited!  I am thrilled for my friend to receive this incredible honor, and I cannot wait for the rest of the country to see just what kind of amazing teacher-leaders are serving the children and communities of Indiana.

Scott Hanback, Glenda Ritz, Kathy Nimmer, Al Remaly, Elias (2015 Dog of the Year)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ancient Efficiency Expert Speaks to Modern Students

Oath of the Horatii, David, 1784, oil-on-canvas

It was a two-hour snow delay, so we did not have much time in each class.  Yet as our Latin II classes began their reading of the Roman historian Livy, I could not help taking some time to explore a life lesson.

Livy wrote of an event during the reign of Tullus Hostilius, who ruled as Rome's third king between 673 and 642 B.C.  Rome was at war with Alba Longa, and as there was a set of triplet brothers in each army, the kings decided to allow the two sets of triplets to fight, with the winning side declaring victory in the war.

Right away two of the Roman triplets were killed, and all three of the Albans sustained wounds.  The one surviving Roman, who was unhurt, now faced a choice.  These are Livy's words.

Ut universis solus nequaqum par, sic adversus singulos ferox.  (Livy, I.25)  "Just as alone he was in no way equal to all of them, so against them individually he was fierce."

On a day when we really did not have time for a digression, we digressed.  We discussed the insanely busy lives of American students, who take a heavy load of classes that are followed by extra-curricular activities, sports, jobs, and home responsibilities, to say nothing of emotional and relational challenges common to their age and often the physical challenges of poverty that should be common to none.  I pointed out that, similar to the Roman hero of the story, they were not equal to all the tasks of their lives at once, but that against them individually, they could be fierce.  We talked about the overwhelming sensation of facing a mountain of homework, but that setting a time limit for each assignment and working only on that, taking a short break, and moving on to the next was a better way to approach the whole.

We continued our reading to see that the Roman, Horatius, turned from his three wounded enemies and began to run.  The Romans thought he was fleeing, but as Horatius looked over his shoulder, he saw that the three wounded Albans were pursuing him at great intervals, with the most severely wounded bringing up the rear.  Suddenly, he turned and attacked the one who was closest to him.

We digressed again.

What was the condition of the Alban in closest pursuit to the Roman?  The students easily observed that he would have been the least wounded.  As Horatius fought each of the three Albans, which fight would have been the most difficult?  Again, they quickly noted that the first would have been most challenging, as that opponent was the least wounded and therefore the strongest of his brothers.

We then talked about the value of approaching the most difficult assignments first.  It is natural to want to put those off to the end, but far better to approach those first when minds are fresh, leaving shorter or easier assignments to the end.


How do you help students connect what they study directly with their lives?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Into That Good Night

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Some may find it odd that my first post of 2015 is about a movie released nearly two months ago and perhaps nearing the end of its run in major theatres.  Those who make it through to the end of this post, and who know me, will perhaps not think it so strange.

This post is an attempt for me to grasp the physics-poem that is Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.  For 169 minutes, I sat with my eyes wide open, riveted to the unfolding of the mysteries of reality in cinematic metaphor.  Click the link above and head over to IMDB for the synopsis, but know that multiple dimensions, quantum physics, and the beautiful strangeness of space-time are breathtakingly imagined on screen.

In 1994 I was a graduate student in Classics at The University of Texas.  My wife and I had gone to Barton Creek Square Mall, and as was my habit, I headed to the bookstore.  I ended up with CUNY physics professor Michio Kaku's book Hyperspace in my hands, and my life very nearly took a significant turn.  I read a good portion of the book while standing in the bookstore, and when my wife insisted we must leave, I purchased the book and began babbling all the way home about quantum physics and a possible change of graduate work.  Kaku's book led me to everything from Dali's Corpus Hypercubus to Edwin Abbott's Flatland to a Caltech physicist named Kip Thorne, who had published an article about the possibility of time travel.  This sent me running to the physics, math, and astronomy library at U.T. to find the article (I think it was "Wormholes in Spacetime and Their Use for Interstellar Travel:  A Tool for Teaching General Relativity," American Journal of Physics, 56, 395-416, 1988), and suddenly I could think of nothing else but superstrings and multiple dimensions.

Corpus Hypercubus, Dali, 1954, oil-on-canvas
How does a person describe what it is like to catch a glimpse into the possible physical structure of reality?  As I lacked a sufficient physics and mathematics background to do so, one of my few true and deep life regrets, I ended up staying with Classics, a choice I have never regretted.  Still, as Pope famously cautioned, one must be careful of drinking from the Pierian spring.  Once I had sipped this particular elixir of the Muses, I returned numerous times for longer draughts, always savoring certain aspects of physics through metaphor if not through mathematics.

Then came Interstellar.  It was everything I experienced in a Texas bookstore twenty years ago, but brought to life, or as close to life as a three-dimensional representation of the fourth dimension of time can be on a two-dimensional screen.  And as the credits rolled, whose name should appear?  Executive producer Kip Thorne.

So why am I really blogging about this?  The film makes repeated use of Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and for a variety of reasons that would take too long to explore here.  Yet one reason must surely be to push against the dark boundaries of ignorance.  There is so much that we have yet to learn...about everything.  That is what drives me, the unbridled desire and passion to learn.  The darkness in which lies hidden all that we do not know is not a bad darkness.  It is a good night, for it undoubtedly contains much truth, goodness, and beauty, and it is into that good night I am eager to lead my students on our shared journey of discovery.