Monday, November 16, 2015

A Life Well Spent

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 B.C.

One translation of Cicero's essay De Senectute, which literally means "On Old Age," has the title On A Life Well Spent.  I recently had the opportunity to bring Cicero to life through re-enactment and in so doing to explore some of the depths of this statesman, philosopher, and orator.

I first came to appreciate Cicero in my third-year high school Latin class.  I admired his oratorical pyrotechnics, and when I was pursuing my M.A. in Classics, I focused on his execution of the Catilinarian conspirators in 63 B.C.

I am always seeking ways to reduce the gap of two millennia and half a world that separates students from the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.  One way I have done that is through re-enactment.  I present multiple personas from the Classical world, about which you can read more at  One of these personas is Cicero, and I was glad for the recent opportunity to bring this important figure to life for students at the Illinois Junior Classical League convention in Pekin, Illinois.  My own former teacher and now dear friend and colleague Marcene Farley had invited me, and it was great fun.

During this half-hour presentation, Cicero rises from the table where is writing his memoirs in Brundisium in 43 B.C. and begins musing about his life.  He reflects on growing up in Rome after being born on his grandfather's farm in Arpinum and what it was like to begin his career in the dictatorship of Sulla.  He goes on to talk about his consulship, his family, and the dark times that brought about the end of the Republic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cicero, Springsteen, and Common Grace

Expectant mother Amanda Blackburn was murdered at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 10, as she protected her infant son from a violent home invader.  Her husband, Pastor Davey Blackburn, has released a beautiful statement.  The Indianapolis Star has details of the crime.

This is but one more instance of senseless violence.  One.  More.  Instance.

The Roman orator Cicero closed one of his earliest speeches with these words:

Nam cum omnibus horis aliquid atrociter fieri videmus aut audimus, etiam qui natura mitissimi sumus adsiduitate molestiarum sensum omnem humanitiatis ex animis amittimus.  (Pro Roscio, 154)

"For when at every hour we see or hear some atrocity taking place, even those of us who are by nature most gentle, by growing accustomed to the violence, lose all sense of humanity from our souls."

Yet today in this city that wakes up to the news of one more mother killed, one more unborn baby murdered, we will go about our business.  I will teach my classes.  Baristas will serve coffee.  Doctors will heal, officers will help, and lawn care crews will rid homes of unwanted fall leaves.

How is this possible?

Bruce Springsteen once wondered the same thing in song.  After he recounts various mundane tragedies in the verses, he sings in the chorus, "Struck me kinda funny.  Seems kinda funny, sir, to me.  At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe."

How is this possible?

Some of the students at our school, one of the largest public high schools in Indiana, have faced horrors no one, certainly no child, should ever face.  These pictures and words from our English Language Learners currently on display tell part of their story.

How is this possible?  How can these children survive such atrocities and not, as Cicero had it, lose all sense of humanity from their souls?  Sadly, some do lose their humanity, but most do not.  Most, in Springsteen's words, find some reason to believe and to carry on.

I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:45.  "For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."  (ESV)  There is a common grace that allows us to endure.  It gives us a reason to believe and, for those who would "rage against the dying of the light" and would not lose all sense of humanity from their souls, to keep going.

As these thoughts were running through my mind while I walked the halls before the start of school, I was reminded of how important it is that I love my students well.  I must provide an environment for grace to flourish.  I do this in part by treating my students with respect, by enjoying them and the things they do, and by creating a positive atmosphere in my class.  I also do it by striving along with them to achieve the greatest rigor in our subject.  We work hard because our subject matters and they matter.  We correct mistakes.  We do not flinch from academic difficulties.  We conduct class this way because to do other would be to cheapen the experience and to say that they are not worthy of the best in human endeavor.  This would truly be a loss of humanity, and it is something grace will not allow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Shoulders of Education Leadership

A dear friend of mine, Kate Smith, who is an award-winning principal in Australia uses the expression "shoulder-to-shoulder teaching."  (Before you continue reading, follow her on Twitter @edukate_S.)  She describes going into teachers' classrooms and working with them, teaching alongside them, shoulder-to-shoulder.

Another friend of mine, 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year Kathy Nimmer, (again, follow her on Twitter @Kathy_Nimmer) once told me about monthly summits in her district in which she meets with central office leaders to share experiences and what she is learning as she travels our state.  It is a time in which everyone benefits, and she is valued.

And then there was the experience I had recently with my post-evaluation conference.  The person who evaluates me is my department chair, Traci Rodgers (again, you know the drill, follow her @tracirodgers).  We quickly moved from talking about the evaluation to discussing the implications of some data I had requested about changes in the demographics of our school and school district.  We talked about work our department had done a few years ago in this area, how our student profile has changed in the intervening years, and what some of the implications could be.  And as we talked about numbers, we began to talk about people.  We talked about actual students and families.  We speculated.  We mused.  We pondered.

When she left, we acknowledged that we had come up with no solution to any problem, no means of handling any certain challenge.  Yet we had done one of the most important things two human beings can do.  We had thought together.  No, you did misread that last sentence.  I did write that we had taught together, although we are indeed colleagues in the best sense of that word.  We had thought together, and that supreme and supremely human act can only take place when egos and agendas are set aside and two people walk shoulder-to-shoulder looking in the same direction toward what can be.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Self-Indulgent Rock 'n' Roll Post

October just got away from me.  Speaking engagements and teaching and podcasting and parenting and just got away from me, so there were no posts in October.

And how do I usher in the month of November?  A sizzling piece on edu policy or theory?  Nope.  This rock 'n' roller at heart needs a bit of a fun break.  I promise, though, that education posts will return.

In October the metal band Stryper released their eleventh studio album since blasting onto the scene in 1984.  I have been a fan the whole time and am writing this review just so I can be part of the historical moment that is the re-birth of classic metal.  Stryper’s album Fallen proves what talented musicians can do who stay true to their roots, care about their fans, and have enough creativity not to live on the glory days but to create new ones in keeping with the times.

The opening track, “Yahweh,” begins like no other Stryper song.  It starts with an acapella choir sound that turns into a thundering, sonic guitar attack as Michael Sweet begins the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  It is an epic story, and the music stands up to it.  The entire album has a ten-foot deep, concrete foundation made out of Robert Sweet’s pounding drums and Tim Gaines’s aggressive bass.  On this track they combine to lend the perfect tone to this tale.  And let’s be serious.  If you are going to open your album with this story and a sound this big, the audience knows it is going to be a killer album in whole.

From there we get the title track, and one cannot help thinking of the epic poem Paradise Lost as we get the story of Satan’s fall from glory told in traditional Stryper guitar attack style.  Michael’s high scream opens the tale and resurfaces in the chorus, which always has me reaching for the volume to turn it up.

“Pride,” for which the band released their first official video, picks up the dark, heavy sound from “Yahweh” for the third track, and again we have the pounding rhythm section to open.  We are treated to a beautiful melody that morphs into a gritty scream during the chorus, and those who have never heard Michael Sweet simply accept his powerful vocals, but those of us who have heard him for three decades stand in awe at how he has continued to grow.

“Big Screen Lies” is a fun tune with another aggressive, rhythmic opening.  It talks of how Christianity is portrayed in popular media, something the boys in Stryper know a little about.  It has that in-your-face, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” it feel of “Loud ‘n’ Clear” off their debut album.  The chorus features thundering guitars, and the song ends with a gritty, greasy, snarling vocal.

The next track, “Heaven,” would have been at home on the Sweet & Lynch album Only To Rise.   This is another song of rebellion against what others think is the way to go.  Michael has strong, soaring vocals without going into the stratosphere.  It is again an in-your-face lyric.

“Love You Like I Do” almost has a Whitesnake feel in the very opening.  It is a call-and-response song that could be seen as a lyric between a man and a woman, but is more likely, and more reasonably, a lyric between God and His creation.  I could not help thinking of Oz Fox’s wife, Annie Lobert, in this one, as she leads the fight against sexual exploitation of women.  No one will ever see us as God sees us, certainly not those who see us only as means to an end.  And speaking of Oz, his guitar work has been killer on ever track, and the guitar solo on this song begs to be seen live in concert.

“All Over Again,” for which the band and their wives have released the album's second official video, is a country-rock ballad and may be the best of their career.  Let’s face it.  A fair portion of their fan base is of a maturing age.  This lyric hits home.  It is not a rose-colored glass view of the past, but one that can honestly say that with the good and the bad, we would not change a thing, but would do it all over again.  It is a big sound, worthy of the cowboy rocker of the ‘80s and perfectly suited for today.

“After Forever” was the track a lot of people were eager to hear.  It is a cover of Black Sabbath and, despite that this may get me negative comments, I will go on record as saying the cover is better.  It is sharp, clean, and aggressive.  It is a perfect fit for Stryper, and the boys carry it off perfectly.

The next song, “Till I Get What I Need,” is a fast, blistering number that seems directly born from Michael’s autobiography Honestly.  It has the classic Stryper guitar sound that would have been at home in the ‘80s, yet sounds in no way dated.

I’m not sure what it is, but I often like the last two or three tracks of an album the best.  Time and again for a variety of artists, these seem the heaviest.  "Let There Be Light" would have gone well on their last album, No More Hell To Pay, and is musically in that vein.  Again we have a strong, epic sound to the epic story of Genesis.

"The Calling" may be my favorite.  It is a chest-beating, bold, head-thrown-back anthem, with a fast and aggressive rhythm.  It has almost a classic rock sound at points.  Matthew Arnold, the famous scholar of Homer, said the Greek poet had a fast-moving, forward-driving feel to his poetry.  The same is true in this song.  It grabs you and drags you along at Mach I.

The final track, “King of Kings,” is another that would have gone well on the last album.  Stryper has always given us anthems, and this is one that calls to mind the expansive chorus of “Passion” from the Reborn album.  We have a sonic race at the beginning that slows and hits a slower, powerful stride in the chorus, forcing us to listen and, if so inclined, to belt out the lyrics, too.

And speaking of lyrics, I have to say these are some of Stryper’s best.  The stories are epic, yet the lyrics have a way of speaking directly to us.

If you did a word count, you would see I used “epic” and “aggressive” more than any other.  This is how I like my music.  In one of his songs, country singer George Strait sang, “I don’t want you under my roof with your 86 proof watered down ‘til it tastes like tea.  You’re gonna pull my string, make it the real thing for me.”  I couldn’t agree more, and Stryper delivers better than ever.

Some pictures from Michael Sweet's acoustic concert in Bluffton, Indiana, in October.  In the third picture you will see my friend Dr. Brad Oliver...teacher, principal, superintendent, professor of education, former state school board member, current Director of Education at The Summit, and most importantly fellow Stryper fan!