Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Do I Have To Like You To Teach You?

If we limit the definition of teaching to nothing more than giving information, then the answer is obviously no.  A person who hates my living guts may shout, "That truck's about to hit you!"  His motivation may be purely selfish.  He does not want the truck to splatter my innards all over his new car.  His tone could have been quite abrasive.  Nevertheless, at the basest level, he has taught me something, namely that a truck was about to hit me, a fact of which I may not have been aware.

Let's move past the absurd.  This is not what most of us mean by teaching.  We have a general understanding that teaching involves someone who knows a thing and someone who does not.  For any of a large number of reasons, they have been brought together, and the one who knows the thing must do something so the other person knows it, too.  In this scenario, it is also not necessary that the teacher like the student.  The teacher can do a perfectly adequate job of imparting information so that the student acquires the intended knowledge or skill.  During the teaching interaction, the teacher may well care nothing about the student, focusing solely on the paycheck.  The teacher may even harbor ill will toward the student.

But let us take it a step further to genuine education.  This is a far different enterprise.  Genuine education is an infinitely complex activity that cannot happen apart from meaningful and intentional relationships.  It is a distinctly human enterprise and therefore must be a humane one as well if it is to have any hope of success.

Enter Anne Marie Osheyack, the 2014 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.  Anne Marie was recently a guest on the podcast I co-host with Gary Abud, the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year, and she talked about something few discuss.  You can hear the whole podcast here, and I encourage you to listen to all she has to say about setting and maintaining high standards for students.  What really struck me, though, was her emphasis on the need to like students and to see them as human beings.

Sadly, this seems to be a novel concept.  I say it is novel, for what I hear most regarding education has to do with curriculum, testing, teacher evaluations, data, school ratings, politics, standards, and taxes.  Oh, we also talk a lot about testing, evaluations, and data.  And we also talk a lot about data.  Did I mention the data?

It is, of course, important to know something about our students, and there is something that can be learned by counting the number of questions students get right and wrong on a test.  There is something to be gained from looking at which questions received more right answers versus wrong.  Yet for all the value gained by looking at numbers generated by students, we know exactly, and forgive the mathematical language here, diddly divided by squat about the people, the human beings, homines sapientes, who are in our classes.

To know something about people, we must enter into relationships with them, and unless a scholar is doing dispassionate research about tyrants, those relationships are based on affection.  We must, dare I say it, love our students.  Do I enjoy every behavior exhibited by each of my students?  Of course not.  Yet I care about them.  I want to know what kinds of music they enjoy, whether they prefer deep dish or hand-tossed pizza, and what they think of the latest blockbuster movie before I spend my money on it.  When they return from an illness, I want to know how they are doing and how much longer they will have to be on the crutches.  I enjoy listening to their stories of things they learned in another class and the connections they made with ours.

How much of this goes into an artifact that can be displayed in our hallways?  Zip.  Which state standard covers such interactions?  Not one.  For which portions of the A.P. or I.B. exam will these parts of my class prepare my students?  None that I know of, and if there are any, I frankly do not care.  What I care about are the young people...young people...with whom I get to share not just life, but some of the most amazing discoveries about life ever made by our fellow human beings across time and space.

And you know what?  Anne Marie is right.  It is from such relationships that genuine education, which is the only kind that truly matters, will grow.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

When Pictures Aren't Worth a Thousand Words


Pictures are not always worth a thousand words, and these pictures prove it.  What do you see?  Maybe this looks like a traditional classroom, and you are thinking there is nothing special here.  Perhaps you look a bit closer and spot paired or group work.

You are not wrong in your observations, but these pictures are far from telling the whole story.  We are now in our second week of school, and these are Latin I students.  Most of them do not know each other, or at least not well.  Yet as you can see, they are figuring out how to work together.

But you are still missing the key piece here, the sound.  I wish you could have been in these two classes.  The room was buzzing, not with off-task chatter, but with meaningful discussion as partners discussed how to render Latin sentences into English.  We had discussed the basic grammar, but there were aspects we had not yet covered.  As I walked around and made myself available for questions, I could not help being impressed by the level of engagement and collaboration among these students.  I was so impressed, I had to take a few pictures.  Unfortunately, those pictures only capture a fraction of the true vitality coursing through our room

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How To Start the School Year

I have never been so eager for the start of a school year.  In particular, I can hardly wait to see my Latin III, IV, and V students, for we will begin those upper level classes with a plunge into one of the greatest experiences of my life.  I did something this summer that I have longed to do for more years than my students have been alive.  I was able to see and touch the one object in the world I have wanted to encounter more than any other.  It relates to their studies, and many of them know about this passion of mine, so it will be appropriate that I share it with them.  Yet there is another reason why I am going to start the year with this experience.  I will say more about that reason and the experience itself shortly, but for now, a bit of literary and historical background.

From 1715 to 1720, Alexander Pope published in six volumes his translation of Homer’s Iliad.  These six volumes were produced at great expense by Bernard Lintot and were sold by subscription to some of the most important names of the early 18th century.  Pope arranged a deal for himself unheard of at that time for a writer and secured his financial future.  A little later he published his translation of the Odyssey, but with the help of two uncredited poets named Fenton and Broome.

The Iliad had, of course, been published in English prior to pope, most notably by George Chapman in rhyming fourteeners and by John Ogilby in heroic couplets.  Pope himself was taught to read by a loving aunt from the large, illustrated version by Ogilby.

With the Aeneid having been translated into English heroic couplets just a few years before by JohnDryden, and with Pope’s literary star on the rise, he was encouraged to take on Homer, and so he did.  The great 18th century biographer Samuel Johnson, in his Life of Pope, said this of it.  "It is certainly the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen; and its publication must therefore be considered as one of the great events in the annals of learning."  Consider the majesty of the opening lines of Book I.

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurled to Pluto’s gloom reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain,
Whose limbs, unburied on that naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
While great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove.

Or consider these from Book V in which the acts of my favorite of the Greek warriors, Diomedes, son of Tydeus, are depicted with such raging force.

Thus toiled the chiefs, in different parts engaged;
In every quarter fierce Tydides raged.
Amid the Greek, amid the Trojan train
Rapt through the ranks, he thunders o’er the plain;
Now here, now there, he darts from place to place,
Pours on their rear or lightens in their face.
Thus from high hills the torrents, swift and strong,
Deluge the plains and sweep the trees along
Through ruined moles the rushing wave resounds,
O’erwhelms the bridge, and bursts the lofty bounds!
The yellow harvests of the ripened year
And flatted vineyards, one sad waste appear
While Jove descends in sluicy sheets of rain,
And all the labours of mankind are vain.
So raged Tydides, boundless in his ire,
Drove armies back, and made all Troy retire.

I have collected a fair number of translations of Homer and Vergil, but Pope’s version of the Iliad is still the one to get my blood pumping!

For years I have wanted to see a first edition of Pope’s Iliad translation.  I have found them in rare bookstores on the Internet, but have never seen or held one in person…until our family vacation.  We had stopped in Midtown Scholar, a delightful bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  It was enormous, with three floors of used, rare, and new books.  I had ventured to the basement and, after perusing aisle after aisle, turned a corner into another store housed within the larger store.  It was called Robinson’ Rare Books and Fine Prints.  Most of the works were in locked, wood and glass cabinets arranged by century.  I asked the man working there if they had any Pope, and he checked his computer to find that they had a nine-volume set of his collected works, so I asked him to show it to me.  As he was unlocking its cabinet, I spotted the volumes of Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey nearby and asked if I could see one.  I withdrew the first volume of the Iliad, nearly shaking and with my heart beginning to beat fast.  I took it to a table where I could look at it and quickly opened to its frontispiece.  My eyes raced down the page whose reproduction I had seen so often, and there I found the date.  1715.  I was holding and looking at a first edition of my most sought-after book in the world.

I quickly called for my wife and children to join me, and our son took several pictures of me with the book.  It was in astoundingly good shape for being exactly 300 years old, and I thrilled to see the original opening lines that Pope changed for later versions.

The wrath of Peleus’ son, the direful spring
Of all the Grecian woes, o goddess, sing!

I had had only one other experience like that with a book and, unsurprisingly, it was with another edition of Pope’s Iliad.  When we were living in Texas, Melissa and I had visited a perfectly ordinary bookstore.  I was perusing the Classics section, and suddenly my eyes lit upon a Penguin edition of Pope.  It was October 26, 1996, and I recorded the moment on a note I now use as a bookmark in that volume.

Ineffable was the feeling when by the grace of God I chanced upon this volume of Pope’s Iliad.  The edition is indeed nothing remarkable, and yet when I happened upon it quite by accident in the most commercial of bookstores, I was rendered truly senseless.  My sense of balance lost, I was forced to support myself upon a nearby bookcase.  Quite truly the sight of that volume, there, unobtrusively standing amidst other great works, whose bookshelf was itself surrounded by a sea of vain publications, “eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te, Papa, aspexi, nihil est super mi, lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus flamma demanat, sonitu suopte tintinnant aures, gemina teguntur lumina nocte.”*

This is what it means to say education is a shared journey of discovery.  I want to kindle in my students the spark of learning's passion by drawing them close to my own burning flame.  These upper level students know of Greco-Roman epics, and the Latin V students have read Vergil.  They know of Pope and they know of the challenges and the artistry of literary translation.  They know the excitement of discovery through archaeological finds and through their own experiences with Classical literature.  It is important that they know their teacher is no less passionate and is in fact wildly excited about the field of their study.  This is how to start the school year.

*These lines are from Catullus 51, which he wrote upon falling in love at first sight, albeit from across the room, with Clodia Metella.  The only word I changed was the name of the addressee.  "It snatches my senses from me, for as soon as I have laid eyes on you, Pope, there is nothing left for me, but my tongue grows numb, a slight flame runs down my limbs, my ears ring with their own pounding, and my eyes are covered with darkness."