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.