Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I Couldn't Eat My Raisins

The following is a true story.

A teacher I know, let's call her "Sally," teaches at a public high school where water bottles and food are forbidden among the students.  This policy exists despite research suggesting that food and water are, when considered in the balance of life, pretty good things and that the lack of food and water can be detrimental to learning.  We also know that ready access to food and water can aid learning.

Sally teaches nearly two hundred students each day in six sections of five different courses.  Not surprisingly she needs a little something to make it to lunch, yet rather than eat or drink in front of her students, since they are forbidden to do so, she sneaks into her neighbor's classroom in one of the six-minute passing periods and during that luxurious break, which she technically should not have since it is expected that she will be standing in the hall between each and every class, she wolfs down a small box of raisins and gulps a quick drink from her water bottle.

Recently her neighbor was engaged with a student in a private conference during that six-minute period, and rather than eat or drink in front of her students, Sally quietly returned her box of raisins and water bottle to their hiding place under her desk.

Now, let's be honest.  Sally did not die from being unable to eat a one-ounce box of raisins that day, but her experience did make me think of this recent Forbes article on the marks of a bad place to work.  The author observes with incredulity that some companies still specify the number of hours that salaried employees must work and goes on to say, "Smart companies know that what’s important is that the work gets done – not how many hours people work. If you see this kind of language in an employee handbook, do not take the job — because you will hate it if you do!"

It is no surprise that teachers find their eating and drinking habits regulated at school when their time is dictated as well.  I know that at Sally's school teachers must work certain hours during finals week and must be in the building all day on the last teacher day of each semester.  It does not matter that their work could be done elsewhere.  What matters is that their hours are accounted for in the actual school building.  They could be watching YouTube videos if their work is done, but they cannot leave the building.

We won't even start to discuss evaluation, about which the Forbes article also has something to say.  "Performance Management is the name of a popular HR hoax and scam that turns any job into a series of tasks and goals that you’ll be held accountable for on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. No job worth doing breaks down into tiny, measurable parts.  Good jobs are whole. You know what your mission is and you work toward your mission every day, checking in with your manager as appropriate. Run away from any company that surrounds you with yardsticks and measurements. Working in a place like that would only raise your blood pressure and destroying your mojo."

I wonder what happened to Sally's mojo when she couldn't eat her raisins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Not Untypical Day In High School

I teach at a public high school of just under 4,000 students. Our classes are huge. We are not elite. And yet these things happened today. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

In my Period 2 class of Latin I, one of my students taught the grammar lesson. I have recorded myself teaching key grammar points, posted those videos on our website, and the students must watch them at home while taking notes. The following day students volunteer to teach, or re-present, the lesson. Today Samantha not only put the information on the board, but asked questions of her classmates and and sought volunteers. She did not merely regurgitate information. She taught.

In my A.P. class we discussed an alternative form of a verb in Latin poetry (for you Latin folks out there, it was the -ere suffix for -erunt in 3rd person plural perfect active indicative). In this instance it was the verb fulsere, meaning "they flashed," and one of my students said, "Oh, that's just like in that Catullus poem we read last year where the suns flashed for him." He was referring to Catullus 8, and I simply shook my head in admiring disbelief.

Perhaps my emotional pump had been primed by discussions over the past few days. In my Latin III class we had read about a murder in 53 B.C. on the Appian Way. The wife of the victim demanded that her husband's corpse be displayed in the forum for all to see, and we discussed the parallel with Emmett Till, whose death in 1955 prompted his mother to have an open casket for her son and for Jet magazine to run the pictures. As the story of the ancient murder developed, it described the mob violence that followed and led to the burning of the senate house. My students discussed violence in the modern world and that free speech does not mean shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. They discussed the proper limits to freedom that make freedom livable without devolving into chaos.

Again, it was my A.P. students who just yesterday discussed the dangerous role of rumor as depicted by the Roman epic poet Vergil and as seen today in our social media. In both the Latin III and A.P. discussions, I shared that I was concerned for my students' well being and that they not find themselves caught up in the kinds of messaging or activities that have led to ruined lives.

And then, after school, a young man who observes me twice a week from Indiana University in preparation for student teaching, engaged with me in the most heady and delightful of discussions. We talked about his passion for Medieval works. We looked at the prayers of St. Ambrose and talked about St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, the Dies Irae, and the Stabat Mater. We talked of Boethius, and he introduced me to Alan of Lille.

To be sure, not all days are as rich and satisfying, but those described here are not untypical, and because of that they stand as a testament to both the depth and the breadth it is possible to explore in high school.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Music fans from the '80s will remember that the title of this post is also the title of a Janet Jackson song.  Friends of mine will also find it odd that I made a pop music reference since my preferred entertainment is hair metal, but that is beside the point.  Janet Jackson's song perfectly captures the disposition of too many students with regard to their own education, and I would suggest that there is something more.

A colleague recently pointed out that when students realize that it is mathematically not possible for them to pass, or very unlikely that they will, they often turn to general misbehavior.  It is not necessarily anything violent, but with nothing to gain from the class, they create a disruption through talking off topic, playing on their phones, etc.

Many will begin pointing fingers at the teachers in whose classes this takes place.  They should have been more engaging.  They should continue finding ways to reach each student to the very last minute of the semester.  A student who has gained so little from the class is one more sad example of a system that is failing its students.

As I have written before and spoken on many occasions, while it is true that a teacher's poor efforts may be the cause of a student's failure to learn, failure to learn itself is no proof of a teacher's poor efforts.  Yet what I want to focus on here is the purely consumer mentality at work in students who think that if they gain nothing from the class, then there is no reason for them to be in it, a belief that in their minds justifies their misbehavior.

Each fifty minutes my students and I form a small community.  We explore together the language, thought, art, literature, and history of the ancient Roman world.  I would, however, be loathe to think of my students as parasites, only taking in knowledge and never contributing to the shared journey of discovery that is education.  Yes, they are taking something from my class, but they should be contributing something as well, and that contribution is not what they give me in the form of completed assignments and assessments, but the thoughts they speak within the interactions of any given class period.  Students have something to contribute by asking questions, both those of simple clarification of a confusing point and those of the genuine curiosity that is the root of the branching nature of learning.  They contribute by sharing the connections they make between observations in my class and the reading, learning, and experiences from other parts of their lives.  Their contributions take the form of iron sharpening iron as each member of the class makes the others better.

Those entrusted with the development of young minds, teachers, parents, coaches, administrators, teaching assistants, librarians, media specialists, and guidance counselors, along with those less directly yet significantly involved such as policy makers and pundits, must understand that a classroom is not where students place their orders and leave with a product.  The true classroom, whether or not it is bounded by walls, is a dynamic community of learning, and because it is both dynamic and a community, it requires something of all its members, not merely the teacher.  Students who are actively engaged in their learning, even though they may fail to reach a level of achievement that has been desired by someone somewhere, will nevertheless have contributed to the shared journey of discovery and may enjoy the proper confidence that their fellow travelers in class are the better for it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Playing With Ideas

The officers of our school's chapter of the Indiana Junior Classical League had arranged a meeting for yesterday afternoon, and that should be your first clue that something special was taking place.  I did not call the meeting.  They did.  This extraordinary group of young leaders picked up from their last meeting and began filling my board with dates, ideas, and who would be responsible for accomplishing various tasks.  They asked me for help only when needed, for example in emailing a secretary to schedule room use.

And I sat back and watched.  I listened.  And I was astounded as I so frequently am.

After working for a while on recommendations for college-bound seniors, I needed to take a break, so I went next door to the meeting of Philosophy Club.  I sat down next to a retired colleague who continues to sponsor the club she had sponsored for many years when she taught English and Theory of Knowledge.  And I sat back and watched.  I listened.  And I was astounded once again.  

A small, diverse group of young people discussed what they could know with regard to science.  My colleague did not lead the group.  The students led themselves.  In fact, one of them had prepared the materials you see here to guide the conversation.

When my children were young, they played with joy and abandon with their toys, and it struck me that what was going on in Philosophy Club and what was taking place with the officers of the IJCL was the same thing.  These young people had outgrown childish objects, but they were playing with the toys appropriate to their age, ideas.  The philosophy students were trying out their thoughts about the nature of things in public discourse, and they did so as boldly as any child playing with in a sandbox.  The Latin students gave exercise to their notions of leadership by jumping in and leading.

At play in the field of ideas, these students experienced a uniquely human joy, and it was a pleasure to behold.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Human Desire To Know

Elisha Ballantine was a professor of mathematics, modern languages, and ancient Greek at Indiana University and was its acting president in 1884.

I have countless times passed the plaque that honors him in the building that bears his name, but was struck when I saw it again on a recent visit.  He was a professor of mathematics and Greek.  In today's age of specialization, this would be an oddity to say the least.  A professor of Greek and Latin, of course.  A professor of mathematics and computer science, quite possibly.  But mathematics and Greek?

This put me in mind of a former teacher at New Albany High School, my alma mater.  You have no doubt heard of Edwin Hubble and the telescope that bears his name, but did you know that he taught high school physics, mathematics, and Spanish...yes, 1913?  He also coached the boys' basketball team.

And speaking of sports, these men reminded me of famed golfer Bobby Jones.  In 1922 he earned his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, in 1924 his A.B. in English literature, and after only three semesters of law school begun in 1926 passed the Georgia bar exam and practiced law in Atlanta.

Mathematics and Greek.  Spanish and physics.  Engineering and literature.  There was a time when people pursued a variety of studies.  This not to say that everyone of a bygone era was a polymath, but I do find a certain kinship with those academic souls of yesteryear.  The world is vast, history is long, creation is complex, and humans have both discovered and contributed much to the unfolding wonder of it all.

When we make education nothing more than training for gainful employment, we miss a great deal.  In fact, we miss almost everything.  Yes, a stick in a forest can help make the fire that keeps me warm through the night, but the forest itself, with its symphony of sounds and the towering columns of its arboreal cathedral that seem to support its stellar dome, is worth beholding in its own right.  And while it is true that the quiet contemplation of the evening nature scene now in your head could inspire you toward an act of creativity, the composition of a poem, perhaps, or a work of painting or photography, there is something more to be gained from the experience.  Simply put, it nourishes the soul.

So it is with true education.  It may equip students for a task or an occupation.  It may provide them with the skills necessary to produce any manner of art, both for service and for art's sake itself.  At its core, however, it need serve no other purpose than fulfilling the human desire to know. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

I Don't Want An Education

In the classic 1960 film Spartacus, the famous gladiator-turned-freedom-fighter (Kirk Douglas) enjoys a rare evening of peace with his beloved Varinia (Jean Simmons). As they recline in a meadowland indulge in the soft conversation of lovers, their talk turns to knowledge of the wide world.

Spartacus: I know nothing. Nothing! And I want to know. I want to... I want to know.

Varinia: Know what?

Spartacus: Everything. Why a star falls and a bird doesn't. Where the sun goes at night. Why the moon changes shape. I want to know know where the wind comes from.

I was at an overnight planning session for the Indiana Junior Classical League recently at Indiana University, and as I often do when visiting my alma mater, I took a walk around campus during the early morning before our meeting resumed. I followed a path different from my usual course and ended up by Rawles Hall, home of the mathematics department, went in, and found a poster for an upcoming lecture. Apart from definite articles and conjunctions, there was almost no word on that poster that I had either seen before or understood.

As I drifted back past more familiar buildings, I recalled the words of Spartacus and thought as I have so many times about all that I do not know. And like him, I want to know. I want to have a deeper understanding of mathematics so that I can truly grasp the famous words of Galileo that "mathematics is the alphabet with which God wrote the universe." I want to understand the language of numbers and mathematics and how they describe the universe. And speaking of the universe, I want know how forces work and interact with other and with matter, forces like the electromagnetic force and gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I want to explore the human sciences and understand the workings of the mind and consciousness and how to know which fonts and colors and arrangements of graphic information are best for reaching certain audiences to communicate certain things and I want to know how we know such things.

Like most people, I raced through my education. Spelling for fifteen minutes, math for half an hour, followed by reading and lunch and then social studies, P.E., and science. That was a day in elementary school. In junior high and high school, the pace quickened. Math...bell ring ... move down conveyor belt ... English ... bell ... conveyor belt ... Latinbellconveyorlunchconveyorchoirbellconveyorchemistrybellconveyorhistorybell. And why? It was mostly to memorize this or that, prove yourself through tests and projects, and then get some more. With such training how could I have approached undergraduate studies any differently? I remember once during my freshman year sitting in a class thinking I should be back in the dorm room completing some assignment. The absurdity hit me like a thunderclap. Listening to a professor who was an expert in the subject was the reason I was in college, not mindlessly completing homework.

We speak of getting an education, as if it were any other commodity capable of being acquired. I already have too much stuff in my life. I do not need something more.  I do not need an education.  What I need is to do something. I need and want to learn. Learning is an inquisitive activity. It is an enterprise of curiosity, mystery, and adventure. It is non-linear and for heaven's sake it is not fast. It is not frantic and harried and driven. Learning is deep and therefore slow. As Andrew Marvell mused, had we but world enough and time I would go back to the university, seek out instructors in matters I wished to learn, and not allow myself to run in a terrified attempt to outpace the inexorable charge of the educational machine bearing down upon me.

So what can teachers do, chained as they are inside the belly of the beast and forced to turn the cranks to make it go? We can tantalize our students with tastes of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We can make them thirsty with grains of the curious and mysterious. We can take them to the edge of awe and wonder and inspire them with the possibility of one day being freed from education so that they can truly learn.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Teacher Ethics

I asked a colleague of mine why he thought I had never told him to stop punching a student in the face.  He correctly observed that this would have been unnecessary, since he was not in the habit of punching students in the face.  By similar logic, my wife has never told me to sit down and consume vast quantities of pizza as if I were still seventeen.  I do that just fine on my own.  She does, however, have to tell me that I need to rest or get more exercise because I am not naturally inclined to take care of myself in those ways.

We tell people what they do not likely know and we refrain from speaking what we assume is common knowledge.

What does it say, then, when newly hired teachers must be told not to sleep with their boss, have sex with students, or show up to work hammered or high? 

The pictures throughout this post were taken of a PowerPoint presentation at the ethics training for newly hired teachers.  I will not name the state or district, but they were shared by a good friend and highly respected colleague who teaches there.

Should a teacher really need to be told that "the 'night before' must end early enough for you to sober up before reporting to work?"  Should a teacher really need to be told "no flirting with students?"  Should a teacher really need to be told not to cuss out a student or colleague?

Make no mistake, all these violations of professionalism, law, and common decency have occurred in schools.  Nevertheless, one of two situations must be true in the district that offered this training to newly hired teachers.  Either it was necessary to do so or it was not.
If it was not necessary, then it was exceedingly insulting to professional adults.  Sadly, it would not have been the first time in the history of education that well-educated, professional adults were treated as if they were children.

Yet, even more sadly, this probably was necessary.  It was probably necessary to tell adults charged with helping develop the intellectual gifts of children not to have sex with them.  It was probably necessary to tell adults who should be modeling the best of what the human race has achieved, which should be the core of their curriculum, not to come to work inebriated.  It was probably necessary to tell adults who are the custodians of the words that have been spoken to bring light into darkness and to conjure forth the ideas and devices that have saved countless lives and allowed the human race to explore the eternity set within its heart not to use two-cent vulgarities best suited for the bathroom wall.

Yet such things ought not to be.  For the vast majority of those who would claim the name "teacher," the highest intellectual and moral standards should prevail.  There will always be the exceptions, of course, but these can and should be dealt with individually.  If we have arrived at a point where the best we have coming into the profession truly need such training, then we must ask ourselves some hard questions.

First, have we so destroyed the profession of teaching through crippling legislation, tyrannical or ridiculous local leadership, and media vitriol that few decent people will enter it?  Schools of education and licensing departments suggest so (here, here, and here).

Yet even if we were no longer able to attract the most accomplished, creative, and intellectual among us into the realm of teaching our children, would we be truly unable to draw people with a basic moral sense?  This would be a far greater problem.  The schoolhouse is not the monastery, to be sure, and there should be no requirement for sainthood to accompany the teaching license.  Yet we must all ask ourselves what sort of culture we are developing if people who enter the field of education need a PowerPoint presentation to tell them the information in these slides.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celebrity Teachers

I am not the celebrity hound that my dear friend and colleague Marcene is.  She has pictures with everyone from Red West to Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame.  Nevertheless, I was as geeked up as the next guy when my son and I got to meet Michael Sweet, lead singer and guitarist for the hair-band Stryper.

Yet I realized that I am still a huge, stars-in-the-eyes fan of a certain group of people.  It is not sports stars or actors, not politicians or authors.  It is teachers.

I recently attended the National Junior Classical League Convention, which was hosted this year by my own state, Indiana, at my alma mater, Indiana University.  While there with over fifteen hundred Latin students, teachers, and professors from around the country for a week of competitions, learning, and fun related to the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, my wife, also a Latin teacher, and I had the opportunity to visit with professors from our undergrad days.

On the first day of the convention, Matt Christ, department chair of Classical Studies at IU, spoke to us before one of the assemblies.  As we talked about Classics at the university, I could not help thinking, "I'm talking to the department chair!"  A few days later he dined with us at a banquet for all the teachers, and as our talk meandered through Classics at the university and secondary levels, I was again struck by the opportunity I was enjoying.

My wife, Melissa, and I with Matt

Mid-week of the convention, I met my good friend Tim Long for breakfast.  Tim is a professor emeritus of Classics at IU, and far more than just being my Greek professor, he gave me sage advice on many matters when I was an undergrad and has remained a good friend whom I often consult whenever Classical questions arise.  When I left the breakfast table after two hours of conversation, it was as if I had just sat down.

Tim and I with the first winner of the scholarship our high school Latin Club has in his name

That afternoon my wife, Melissa, and I had the chance to relive a memory.  We sat in Ballantine Hall, where we had so many classes as undergrads, and listened as Ellie Leach presented her work on the mythological paintings in Roman houses.  We had been her students in multiple classes, and to have the chance to sit under her instruction again, in the classroom building where it all began for us, was a tremendous thrill.

Then that evening I received an email from Derek Vint.  Derek has been the office manager and fiscal officer of the Classical Studies department for many years.  We made it a point to visit him the following day, and when I asked how long he had been there, he said that this September would mark 40 years.  Derek was always the one who assisted us with our class scheduling, and as he gestured to open chairs so we could sit and chat and turned on his window air conditioner for our comfort, we knew we had come home.  (We did not get a picture with Derek because I was partly in costume for a presentation as a Roman centurion and did not have my camera with me.)

Finally, on the last day of the convention, Betty Rose Nagle had us over for pie.  Betty Rose taught the first and last classes I took as an undergraduate, the first being on Cicero and the last on Ovid.  We remain Facebook friends, and she is often a person I reach out to with my many questions.  We spent the morning on her porch, eating wickedly good key lime pie that she had made, and discussing her work with 18th century German-authored Latin texts on human skulls and various other Classics related topics that made me never want to leave.  When we did, however, she imparted a box full of books that are already in my classroom.

The relationship between teachers and students never ends, and like the biggest rock and roll fan, I was giddy with excitement in each of these encounters with these friends in education who have had such an effect on my life and what I do.  And why shouldn't we be excited to interact with our teachers?  They worked with us in our formative years in loco parentis, and the places where we learned with them bear the name alma mater, nourishing mother.  Our teachers and professors are more significant parts of our lives than most celebrities ever will be.  The next time you have a chance, pay one of them a visit.  It will mean the world to both you.