Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Call In The Experts

There was a time when teachers led students on field trips during which they could explore the world around them, often with the guidance of experts in a particular area.  Those days are long gone for too many schools saddled with budgetary constraints that make trip transportation next to impossible.  And while we do have the Internet and video access to vastly more information than we could explore in situ, these resources cannot replace the value of the human interaction that comes from having an expert interact with students in person.  Primary and secondary teachers must reach out to university colleagues, and professors must ask their colleagues in the lower grades how they can help.  By fostering relationships across the educational spectrum, we can retain a bit more of the humanity in the distinctly human enterprise that is education.

I recently shared in a Facebook group a post on student engagement during my A.P. Latin class.  A friend of mine, Dr. Betty Rose Nagle, commented on it, and that sparked a conversation between us that led to her speaking to my class today.

First of all, Dr. Nagle is professor emerita of Classical Studies at Indiana University.  With her focus on Latin and Roman studies, she translated Ovid's Fasti and the Silvae of Statius.  She has also given many popular talks connecting the mythology of the ancient world with the mythologies of the modern day in comics and movies.  With such a background, she was the perfect person to discuss with my A.P. Latin students the challenges, intricacies, and art of literary translation.

They asked her questions about translating from another language into Latin and whether her reading of other translations influenced her own work of translating the same author.  She talked with them about her efforts in translating poetry using a more formal approach with iambic pentameter and a freer approach based on beats per line, and she even discussed the system of Roman metrics and how it was borrowed from Greek, a language to which it was much better suited than Latin.

And true to her own pedagogical roots, Dr. Nagle asked questions of the students.  She asked them what they looked for in a translation, and their responses ranged from accuracy of content to literalness of grammar to flow to feeling.  With each response, she spun the discussion deeper, bringing in at various points Frederick Ahl's Aeneid, the compilation of Ovidian translations called After Ovid, and Douglas Hofstadter's tome Le Ton beau de Marot on this topic centered around eighty-eight renditions of one tiny French poem.

For many years I took some of my students to visit the experts.  The A.P. students made a trip each fall to Indiana University where the completed research at the undergraduate library, had lunch with a Latin professor, and then sat in on that professor's class.  One professor who regularly hosted us was Dr. Tim Long, pictured here with one of my students at a state Latin convention.

Last year we were fortunate to have Dr. Bernard Barcio, former Latin teacher at North Central and other Indiana high schools as well as adjunct professor of Latin at Butler University, visit one afternoon.  He talked with the students about the catapult competitions he oversaw that became truly legendary in the 1970s, leading to numerous spots on ABC News. 

Am I comfortable turning over my classroom to other teachers?  Absolutely!  It is important for students to hear from different voices on the same subject.  It is important for them to enter the realm higher academic discussion before they enter college.  And it is important for them to see their teacher join with them as a fellow student on the shared journey of discovery.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Fall and Rise Of Student Engagement

I told my A.P. Latin students today that they were a reason for getting up in the morning.  Their emotion-laden response of, "Awwww!  Mr. Perkins!" was sweet, but this post is for adults, so let us move past sentiment and on to the reason for my perfectly honest comment.

We were reading Vergil's Aeneid and had come to the part in Book I in which Neptune calmed the sea after a storm unleashed by Aeolus, god of the winds, had churned it into a maelstrom.  In line 154 the great Latin poet wrote, "sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor," which literally comes into English as, "thus all the crashing of the sea fell."  The key word in this tale I am about to tell is cecidit, a perfect tense form of cadere, meaning "to fall."  Katie, a junior and one of our Latin club officers, suggested "subsided" for this word, but immediately said that this translation indicated a change over time, whereas the Latin word described something quick.  I was stunned at her appreciation for such nuance and rewarded her with a piece of colored duct tape.

A short aside is needed here.  Several years a student said or asked something brilliant, and I wanted to acknowledge it with a small gift.  Having nothing of value in my room, I ripped off a piece of grey duct tape from a roll I just happened to have with me that day and offered it as the award.  It was something of a joke, but the students thought it was cool, and soon I began receiving rolls of the adhesive.  We have had lime green duct tape, silver duct tape, and glow-in-the-dark duct tape with ghosts and bats.  There has been tie-dyed, paint-splatter, and candy-striped duct tape, and now receiving a piece of the stuff to put on a notebook has become the most desired achievement.

But back to the story.  Katie had raised the issue of finding just the right word to translate something, and although we were a bit behind in our syllabus, it was a moment that could not be passed by.  I distributed various translations of the Aeneid and instructed the students to find the passage we were reading.  We then made a list on the board of the verbs that the translators had used to render cecidit into English. 

And then the lid simply blew off.  We talked about how "subsides" is present tense even though the Latin is perfect, but that such a translation is justifiable as a historic present.  We discussed how three different translations chose "fell silent," which retain the basic sense of the Latin verb, yet add the word "silent," and that this, too, is justifiable, for "to fall silent" is an English idiom.  We observed that "abated" makes a one-verb to one-verb equivalency and maintains the perfect tense, and we talked about how "subsided," "died down," and "grew quiet" all contain a sense of change over time, just as Katie had observed about her initial suggestion.

I pointed out that they were all reasonable translations, and then I asked them which they preferred.  Nicholas liked the single word "abated" and thought the sound and meaning perfectly captured the essence of cecidit.  Others thought some of the other translations worked better, although I do not think anyone preferred "subsides."

We laughed that our discussion of one verb had taken nearly half the class period, but by the time the bell rang, we were close to being back on track with our syllabus.  Yet that was of little importance.  Classical G.P. Goold once wrote, "An elementary teacher, to reach in due season the end of his curriculum, must every hour turn a Nelson eye to serious problems and refrain from pursuing truth beyond the charted boundaries of the textbook."  I took issue with that statement in an article I wrote, and based on today's engagement by teenagers with one of the seminal texts of world literature, I would refute it yet again.  These students could appreciate the nuances and subtleties of translation and were eager to explore them.  In their plumbing of the depths of a verb meaning "to fall," they rose to heights of academic engagement that, well, give this teacher one more reason for getting up in the morning.

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Teacher's Office

A few of the books that overflow the ten bookshelves, tops of filing cabinets, and windowsill in my classroom.

In a Facebook group called Latin Teacher Idea Exchange, a Latin teacher named David Smith posted a picture similar to the one above.  He wrote, "Whatever else you do this year, remember our OFFICIUM: Keep the voices in these books alive in your students--lest they fall into oblivion. We are so blessed to be Latin teachers!"  He went on to say that he had posted his picture and comment because it is easy for teachers to forget why they do what they do.  He concluded, "If we fail in our task, who will read Vergil, Tacitus, Caesar, or Cicero in the next generation?"

The word David used is officium.  It is the root of the English word "office," which far too often people thing of merely as a place to do work.  Yet the Latin words suggests much, much more.  At its root are the words opus and facere, meaning "work" and "to do/make."  The word opifex meant a craftsman or artificer, and opificium described, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, "the performance of constructive work."  Officium was a contraction of opificium and came to have a wide range of meanings including an act of service or respect and one's duty or obligation to another.

Now consider the office of a teacher.  We have a duty, indeed even a sacred trust, to pass on what we have learned, and David's question has haunted me for several years.  In no sequence of high school classes can students plum the depth or explore the breadth of Classical writing.  It is humanly impossible.  We do as much as we can, of course, and if we are not going to read Aristotle or Plautus, I can at least mention their names and hope that someday, maybe, one of my students may see those names scrawled in an old notebook and seek out their works.

A quotation from Benjamin Jowett, taken from the preface to his translation of Thucydides, hangs outside my classroom door.  "[T]he voluminous learning of past ages [has] to be recast in easier and more manageable forms.  And if Greek literature is not to pass away, it seems to be necessary that in every age some one who has drunk deeply from the original fountain should renew the love of it in the world, and once more present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrance of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind."

Teachers are translators.  We literally carry the ideas of humanity from age to the next.  We have been called to a wonderful, delightful opificium, and it is the performance of this most constructive work that is the teacher's true office.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Once A Teacher

There is much that is wrong and bad in education.  It fills articles and podcasts, and quite frankly I don't really need to read any more of it.  That's why I don't take to social media to air my problems.  Actually there are several reasons I don't take to social media to air my problems, chief among them that I am an adult.

Yet we all have days when a thousand different cuts begin to threaten death and we need to reach out to someone, and there is no one better than a colleague to understand what you are going through.  You do need clear perspective, though, and complaining to a colleague in your school can prove counterproductive.  It can lead to a general session of whining that brings you both down, or worse, it can help spread ill will throughout the school.  This is bad and should be avoided at all costs.  If a building-level colleague can be a proper support for you, then lean on that person and offer the same in return, but if your conversation is merely to rehash old grievances, it does little good and more likely brings harm.

Enter colleagues from a distance.  Colleagues at another school, in another district, or in another state know what it is like to be a teacher.  They understand the core issues we all face, but not being involved in the particulars of your situation, they can provide some balance, some perspective.  This invaluable, and it is why networking is so vitally important.  I am deeply grateful for colleagues across the country and around the world.  Whether we talk frequently or infrequently, I know that they can listen and provide the kind of feedback I need to get up off the mat and back into the ring.  Hopefully I can offer the same to them.

And then there is a special circle that few get to enter, the circle of colleagues who were once your own teachers.  A few years ago I had emailed one of my former high school teachers who is still teaching Latin in another state.  Apparently my messages were grim enough to concern her, for as my family arrived at a restaurant on a Friday night, I felt my phone go off in my pocket.  It was from Marcene.  She wanted to talk, for she was worried about me.  She gave me some practical advice (have student helpers alphabetize your tests and quizzes so the grades are easy to input, saving you time), but most important was the love and care she showed.  She was worried about her former student, now a teacher, and wanted to call.

I am writing this post because it just happened again.  I had messaged Marcene yesterday with a few of the thousand cuts that were starting to bleed me dry.  This was even before the day stretched into a fifteen hour monster thanks to back-to-school night and I arrived home utterly exhausted and having sweated through every stitch of my clothing five times over.  This afternoon I was working on a letter of recommendation when my phone lit up.  Marcene was video calling me.  Once again, she was concerned for her former student.  Now, I have been teaching for more than twenty-five years, but that made no difference.  She was there to offer advice and to remind me of the higher calling that has nothing to do with foolish things like tests and evaluations and administrivia.  She did not use these words, but she was reminding me to mount up with wings as an eagle, to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint.  She did this because she is a teacher and my friend.

Who plays that role in your life?  For whom do you play it?  Hamlet may have felt he could be the king of infinite space even when bounded in a nutshell, but the four walls of a classroom can become, well, just a tightly bound nutshell.  We need our colleagues if we are to run our race to completion.  I hope you have someone as special as my former teacher, now colleague, Marcene is for me.  If not, find that person, and be that person for someone else.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Discovering Secrets

Indagatio ipsa rerum cum maximarum tum etiam occultissimarum habet oblectationem.  Si vero aliquid occurrit, quod veri simile videatur, humanissima completur animus voluptate.  (Cicero, Academica II.XLI.127)

"The investigation itself of very important and at the same time quite obscure matters holds pleasure.  If indeed it happens that something like the truth is discovered, one's spirit is filled with a most human pleasure."

My first discovery of what seemed like secret knowledge occurred in high school.  Although it was a public high school, we were reading in Latin the text of the Christmas story from the Bible during a Latin club activity.  When we came to Luke 2:14, I had to hide my emotion, for it simply would not have been cool to express the giddiness overtaking me.  The rendering I knew from both the carol "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" and the King James Version was, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men," yet the Vulgate had, "gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis."  I knew enough Latin to realize this was not at all what the versions I knew said.  The Latin translates, "glory in the highest to God and on earth peace in men of good will."  The English of the carol and the KJV make it seem as if the phrase "good will" is parallel to "peace," but if so, it would have been in the nominative case in Latin, yet the Vulgate has it in the genitive.  Furthermore, those English renderings suggest universality, whereas the Latin indicates that the peace on earth is limited to those of good will rather than good will being for everyone.  Theological thoughts aside, I was beside myself.  While I was not reading the Latin from any special edition, and it might even have been from a Xeroxed copy, I felt as if I had stumbled into something wonderful, the truth.  Here in my high school hands was the Latin text of the Bible, and it was different from the English that I had known.  I now knew something I supposed others did not.  I was reading the original, or as close to it as I had come, and in so doing I had discovered a secret.

There is great pleasure for anyone in discovering a thing, and for young people especially, it can seem like a gateway into something almost magical.  I have made many more linguistic discoveries in Latin and Greek over the years, and they have all thrilled me, but these days I get as much joy out of seeing the light of discovery and revelation flare in the eyes of my own students when they suddenly make a connection between a Latin root and its English derivative or in the meaning imparted to a line of poetry by Vergil's masterful word choice or word order.

Those "a ha" moments are indeed the perks of being an educator, but they are much more.  They are what education is all about, for the eureka moment is shared human experience.  Everyone knows that feeling, and, truth be told, everyone wants it.  There is a natural curiosity in people and a natural thrill in discovery.  Oh, it may be something you have long known, but for the person just finding it, it is a moment of pure revelation.

Celebrate those times of discovery in your classrooms.  Let your eyes widen and a smile stretch across your face as you join in the thrill of a student who has discovered something.  For as Cicero also said,

Qui esset tantus fructus in prosperis rebus, nisi haberes, qui illis aeque ac tu ipse gauderet?  (Cicero, De Amicitia 22)

"How great would be the benefit in favorable circumstances if you did not have someone who would rejoice in them as much as you do?"

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Bell Is Tolling

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

I am a human being:  I think nothing pertaining to that which is human is alien to me.  Terence, Heauton Timoroumenos, 77

There is no end to the issues that can prompt people of good will and vocabulary to start screaming obscenities.  It is easy to find such provocation anywhere and even easier to yield to it.  The afternoon of September 11, 2001, just as we were learning that the United States had been attacked, my students begged me to turn on the television, but I told them I would not do so.  It was not that what we were doing in class was more important, but at that moment I was not about to allow terrorists to steal from us what was rightfully ours, the opportunity to learn.  They had already stolen too much, and I was not about to concede one inch to them, and I explained that to my students.  For a similar reason I will not yield to the temptation to rant and rave about racism or any other sin in our country.  There is too much ranting and raving these days and, quite frankly, I have better things to do.

One such better thing is to teach my students tomorrow.  Monday morning I will enter my classroom and encounter what sometimes feels like an unrelenting schedule:  six, 50-minute periods of six separate classes (Latin I, Latin II, Latin III, Latin IV AP, and Latin V IB) filled with over 180 students.  Lest you think I teach at a private school, know that mine is a large, urban, public high school in Indianapolis with more than 3,800 students, wide ethnic diversity, and a free/reduced lunch rate at nearly fifty percent.  Oh, and according to one recent report, we are the eighth best public high school in the state.

I teach Latin, and because the Roman playwright Terence was correct, I am called to teach my students as widely and deeply as I can.  We discuss it all in my classes, from quantum physics to music, with history, grammar, art, government, poetry, warfare, love, and literature along the way.  I often joke that my students can drop all their other classes, for we cover the whole spectrum of humane studies in Latin.

The anchoring quotation for all our classes is this one by Cicero, the first century B.C. statesman:

Ceteros pudeat si qui ita se litteris abdiderunt ut nihil possint ex eis neque ad communem adferre fructum, neque in aspectum lucemque proferre.

Let others be ashamed if they have so hidden themselves in literature that they can bring forth nothing from it for the common benefit or into the light to be seen.  Cicero, Pro Archia, 12

This line has become the foundation for our flagship community service project (we do others as well) in which our students read aloud the entirety of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid one Saturday each April to raise money to fight poverty in Indianapolis.  We call it Reading The War On Poverty, and this year will be the tenth anniversary of this project that has raised over $1,000.00 each year.  In honor of this, we will be inviting alumni to participate as well as current students, and we have set the goal of raising $10,000 for our tenth anniversary in April of 2018.  You can find out more about the project here and can get involved here.

Young men and young women of different backgrounds and identities have been inspired by their studies of the language and culture of people two thousand years removed and half a world away to do something of true value in their own community.  They could just as well have found inspiration in the words of another of my favorite authors, John Donne, who famously wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  (from Meditation 17)

The classroom bell will soon toll for me, and I will not have time to rant and rave about the sins of our age.  I have better things to do, as I hope you do, and if one of those should be helping young people in their better work of Reading The War On Poverty, then I hope indeed you will join them here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Self-Indulgent Rock and Roll Post #3

R.E.M. once had an album titled Life's Rich Pageant.  I think of that phrase whenever I reflect on the wildly different threads, so intricately woven, that form the tapestry of life, and yes, I know I am mixing metaphors here.  Can there be only one metaphor to capture the complex beauty of human life?  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand indeed.

Part of my life's rich pageant involves classic rock, hard rock, and heavy metal.  I love these kinds of music.  Nothing else even comes close.  Okay, blues comes close.  And some country.  And the classic hymns.  Gotta love the '80s pop, too.  Throw in some Motown and ballads while you're at it and don't forget the crooners.  But on a regular basis, it is the sounds of rock and metal that blast through my speakers as I drive to and from school each day.

A few nights ago, a dream came true when I interviewed Michael Sweet, founder and lead singer/guitarist of Stryper and Sweet & Lynch and also a former member of Boston.  Yeah, that's right, a high school Latin teacher got to interview one of his rock heroes, a guy who has enjoyed multi-platinum success and tours to millions around the world.

Back up the story to around 1985.  My youth minister, John Cutshall, introduced me to a cassette tape of Soldiers Under Command by a Christian metal band called Stryper, and I went to Beethoven's, the music store in Greentree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, and purchased it.  It went straight into my Sony Walkman and hardly left.  Okay, I did put it in my boom box so I could play it for my grandma one Sunday.  I told her it was church music.  The point is, I was hooked and immediately went back to Beethoven's to get their debut album, The Yellow And Black Attack.

When I bought their album To Hell With The Devil in 1986, I had no idea I was getting such a rare treasure by purchasing the cassette with the controversial "angel" cover that was quickly replaced for later issues.  This album led to one of the iconic rock poster's of the '80s gracing my bedroom door and my first rock concert ever when I saw the band perform in Louisville, Kentucky.

When Stryper released their fourth and fifth albums, In God We Trust and Against The Law, I snapped them up as fast as I could get to College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana.  Studying to become a Latin teacher at Indiana University for many reasons, including my introduction to cable television and MTV, which played videos by Stryper, Whitesnake, and Bon Jovi and even had a show dedicated to the greatest musical form on the planet called Headbangers Ball.  The Stryper albums I purchased in those years were on the still relatively new format of the compact disc, which meant hair metal in all its digital glory cranked to 11.

And then came the long cold winter.  The band pursued other projects, and it was not until 2003 that I, as a now married man and father, found a new Stryper CD.  It was staring at me from the music rack at Wal-Mart in Westfield, Indiana, and was a compilation with a couple of new tracks.  Was Stryper back on the scene?  A year later saw the release of 7 Weeks:  Live In America, a live album from a tour the previous year that ranks with Deep Purple's famous album Made In Japan as my favorite live recording.  Something was up.  It seemed that Stryper indeed was making a comeback, and that was proved accurate from 2005 to the present.

Since that live album, the band has put out Reborn, The Roxx Regime Demos, Murder By Pride, The Covering, Second Coming, No More Hell To Pay, Live At The Whisky, and Fallen.  During that time Michael Sweet has continued his solo projects, done a stint with Boston, and formed Sweet & Lynch with George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob), James LoMenzo (White Lion), and Brian Tichy (Whitesnake).

After nearly twenty years, I saw Stryper again playing an acoustic show in Pekin, Illinois, in 2014.  I met up with my own former Latin teacher and now colleague, Marcene Farley, and took my son to his first rock concert.  As we waited to enter the venue, Michael came out to meet the crowd, and Marcene got his attention.  I was like a kid myself as my son and I got our pictures with him.  Later that night as the band members tossed Bibles to crowd, I yelled to drummer Robert Sweet, and he tossed one directly to me.  Since then I have seen Stryper twice in fully electric shows and have seen Michael perform solo twice as well.

The first time I saw Michael Sweet play a solo show, I was with my friend Dr. Brad Oliver, an education leader in our state and a huge Stryper fan.  We met Michael afterward, and I gave him a copy of the lyrics to their 1985 hit "Soldiers Under Command" that I had a translated into Latin.  Shortly afterward, he tweeted out a picture of it, and earlier this year he autographed a copy for me.

And that brings us to the present.  When I knew I was going to attend Michael's solo show in Richmond, Indiana, I reached out to him and asked if I could interview him.  Amazingly, he messaged right back and said yes!  I was so excited!

Michael Sweet is a humble and honest man.  His faith in Christ makes him who he is, which is pretty amazing given his incredible talent.  The world is filled with people who elevate themselves, but Michael is a down-to-earth guy and the real deal.  So check out the time a Latin teacher got to interview a rock star!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Of Fountain Pens, School, and Shawshank

It could not matter less that I use fountain pens as I teach in a public high school with over 3,800 students, nearly fifty percent of whom receive free and reduced lunch assistance.  Some may even see it as a shameful extravagance, although I will note that many of the pens in my collection were given to me or passed down through our family.

Yet recall the scene in The Shawshank Redemption in which prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) plays the duettino from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro over the loud speakers.  Watch that scene again and note Ellis 'Red' Redding's (Morgan Freeman) narration of what it meant to the men who were incarcerated.

I teach Latin and with it the literature and history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  I deal in the true, the good, and the beautiful for a living, and because true teaching involves an incarnation, an embodiment of the content in the lives of both teacher and student, my life should display the true, the good, and the beautiful on a regular basis.

No, there is nothing false about using a ballpoint, and using a fountain pen does not make a person good.  There is, however, something beautiful and elegant about a fountain pen, both in its external features and the way in which it transfers thought to paper.  If nothing else, it is eye catching, and I have had numerous students comment on my pens over the years.  They ask where I got them, how much they cost, and whether I will let them try one.  The answer to the last is yes, of course.  And there is the direct historical link to reed pens used by the ancients and the quills of the Medieval scribes, all of which we study in a unit on paleography, epigraphy, and calligraphy in Latin III.

Yet the true value they bring to my day is through elegance.  They offer a bit of elegance in an often inelegant world, and they show my students that the beauty of human thought expressed through elegant means can achieve a certain sublimity, which, after all, is as necessary for the human soul as food is for the body.  Perhaps, then, precisely because I teach in the school I do, where much of life is hard for many, it actually matters that the Latin teacher uses fountain pens.

The Pelikan, with Regal Purple for grading, and Waterman, with Empyrean Blue for general writing, with which I am beginning this school year.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Confessions Of A Madman

From her LinkedIn profile you would find that Rachel Crovello is a linguist and editor currently engrossed in advertisement and search engine optimization.  This makes sense since she currently works for Yahoo.  You would also discover that her background in English, French, American Sign Language, Spanish, and Modern Standard Arabic makes her suited as a translator for Dalkey Archive Press.  What you would not know is that she was my Latin student and recently reached out to me in a way I shall treasure forever.

A short while ago, Rachel asked me for my home address.  She said she had something she wanted to send me by way of a thank you.  Since it had been a number of years since she had graduated from high school, I was curious and eagerly awaited whatever would show up in the mail.  A few weeks later, I received a small package with a delightful card enclosed.  The card expressed many kind thoughts, including the fact that she still remembers a passage she memorized for the Indiana Junior Classical League when she was my student (ubi nympha Echo Narcissum in silva vidit statim iuvenem amavit, "When the nymph Echo saw Narcissus, she loved the young man.").

After smiling at the contents of the card, I turned to the other item in the package and felt the thrill of excitement run up my neck.  It was Rachel's first, published, book-length translation.

I ran my fingers across the smooth surface of the book, turning it over in my hands.  My former student had published a translation of a novel.  I could hardly believe it.  I looked at the back cover to find the blurb about her listing but a few of her achievements.

In somewhat of a stammering awe, I called to my wife to show the book to her.  My former student, whom I could picture so well in our classroom, had published a translation of a novel.  I could hardly wait to read it.

Confessions of a Madman (also available on Amazon), a novel by Algerian-French author Leila Sebbar, is a bizarre tale of a nameless man who reflects on his family's devastation after the murder of his father even as he seeks revenge on the killers.  It is in no way an action-adventure story, but is more of a prose poem that caused me to think many times of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."  I have not seen the French original, but Rachel's translation is breathless and immediate.  Run-on sentences held together by nothing more than commas, blunt sentences of little more than subject-object-verb, and the occasional question for which there is no answer take you into and hold you in first person madness.  The chaos is ever moving, but not always forward.  In lyric fashion it swirls around upon itself.

I am sure the original is quite artistic, but in the true in loco parentis manner of a teacher, I will praise the translation of my student, for Rachel's slender volume is indeed a work of art.  I can hardly wait to show it to my students.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

If This Is A Great Teacher...

This post makes some bold claims, among them

Great teachers don't always have the best lessons.  But they always have the best relationships with kids.

Then stop demanding that they upload or submit those lessons, an act that serves no purpose for a great teacher.

Great teachers are not defined by their lesson plans... they are defined by their passion.

Then make passion, not lesson plan formatting, part of their evaluation.

Great teachers are in it for the kids.  It's not about the lesson plan, the rules, or the massive paycheck. It's always about the kids.

Then stop evaluating them based on lesson plans and rules.

Kids leave their class feeling better about themselves... because great teachers understand there is more to teaching than delivering instruction.

Then include truly human factors in the evaluation of this human enterprise called teaching and rely less on dehumanizing data.

Great teachers are not driven by courses of study... they are driven by the faces in front of them.

Then stop making assessment numbers related to courses of study the be all, end all of determining a teacher's worth.

Although I agree with most of the points in this piece, I do take issue with one.  Mr. Steel writes, "Great teachers are in it for the kids.  It's not about the lesson plan, the rules, or the massive paycheck. It's always about the kids."  This is absolutely true, and I would hope the same is true of my doctor, yet I have never once heard it said that doctors are not in it for the money.  Emphasizing repeatedly that teachers do what they do for students and not financial remuneration establishes the idea that financial remuneration is not important for teachers.  Of course it is, just as it is in any other profession, and I will call out the false ideal of teacher as willfully suffering servant wherever it appears.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Classics Saved My Life

"I am a college-educated American.  In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil.  I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages.  Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare.

"The fifteen hundred years of Christianity from the end of the New Testament to the Reformation were a blank page, and I knew only the barest facts about Luther's revolution.  I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton.  My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment.  Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting."  The Benedict Option, p. 154, Rod Dreher

As I read these words, I was struck by the realization that there, but for the my chosen field of Classics, would have gone I.  Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil...why, of course, I thought, but then I paused.  Had I actually encountered them in any class not of my choosing?  I thought long and hard about it, and the answer was no.

In my high school senior English class we read a bit of Chaucer, and I will always be grateful for the introduction I received to Pope, Donne, and Keats from that teacher, Mr. John Richardson.  I also got from him Shakespeare's sonnets to go along with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar, the only Shakespearean plays I would ever be required to read throughout my educational career.  Somewhere there were bits of Homer's Odyssey.  There was no significant world history class for my high school diploma.

As an undergraduate at Indiana University, I took only two English classes.  Through one, a survey, I was introduced to Dante, though only parts in the Norton Anthology that included glimpses of the Old Testament as literature.  I took only one history class, and that was in ancient history for my major in Classical Studies.

Only in classes that I chose to take as a high school Latin student or undergraduate and graduate student in Classics did I encounter any of the following:  Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Vergil, Plato, and Herodotus.  I was introduced to Montaigne and Hume in an elective freshman honors seminar.  Although we read part of Augustine's Confessions in that class, I had never heard of the church fathers until I casually encountered them through friends in graduate school, and then it was not in any class.  All that I know of Aquinas has been acquired on my own.  The same goes for Anselm, Descartes, and Milton.  Alexis de Tocqueville, The Federalist Papers, and The Constitution of the United States of America...if I had not read them of my own accord, they would hold no place in my knowledge.  In fact, as I survey the significant authors on my bookshelves, I find that at best I know of a few from any required class in my schooling.  Most I learned about on my own, and almost all I have read solely outside the classroom.

My encounter with Latin in high school sparked an interest in me that led me to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in Classics, and it was through that interest and study that I have come to know most of what I know of any importance.  Friends, such things ought not to be.  The human heritage bequeathed to the world through the history, literature, and theology of the West should not be a curiosity available only for a kid who studies Latin to discover.  Should everyone become a Homeric scholar or an expert in Dante?  Of course not.  But everyone should be introduced to the true gems of human discovery and achievement.  Whether or not a person picks up one of those gems and makes it his or her own is up to that student.  This much, however, is true.  Any school or system of education apart from a program of specific skills training that does not, as Benjamin Jowett wrote in the preface to his translation of Thucydides, "present that old life, with its great ideas and great actions, its creations in politics and in art, like the distant remembrance of youth, before the delighted eyes of mankind," stands convicted of dereliction of duty and betrayal of its true mandate.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Teach What You Know

A teacher must be both a magister and a paidagogos, both a master of subject content and a leader of students.  The latter sense of a teacher's craft is explored through pedagogy, and while this is important, it seems to be the focus of many professional educators at the expense of subject expertise.  Many blogs and podcasts, workshops and professional development activities, focus entirely on how to teach, and even the sessions at content-specific conferences often present tips and strategies and ideas on the presentation of that content.

So let's talk about the importance of content mastery for a moment.  This means more than reading the chapter the day before the students do, and while we can certainly acquire good material from our colleagues, I am talking about more than asking your neighbor to send you the PowerPoint slides on a lesson you both teach.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

In 1711 Alexander Pope published his poem An Essay On Criticism about the relationship of the literary critic to the poet, yet many of his lines speak to education and the importance of content mastery.  Early in the work he writes,

Let such teach others who themselves excell.  (line 15)

We talk a lot in education about student-led approaches to learning, and this is fine, but at the end of the day, the teacher should be the content master, the magister.  Yes, students can access raw data from the Internet.  Yes, students can teach their teachers, and I have certainly learned much from mine.  Yet I must be a recognized master of my content for one very important reason.  My students need to have confidence in me.  Not only must they be confident that I what I teach them is accurate, but they must also be confident in approaching me with questions.

So how does one become a content master?  Is a college degree in that area sufficient?  At best it is a starting place.  There is simply no substitute for deep, ongoing reading.  

Be Homer's Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar'd, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.  (lines 124-129)

Commentaries are good, but read the text.  Read the laws and the primary sources if you are a history or social studies teacher.  Read the poems and the novels if you teach English or a world language.  Listen to and perform the music of great composers, contemplate the great artists and create your own masterpieces.  Come to understanding through other great works within your discipline, not merely through the study guides and commentaries and lesson plans of your contemporaries.  When Pope counsels comparing the text of the Mantuan muse, by which he means the Roman poet Vergil, with itself, he is suggesting exactly this.  As a teacher, a magister, you want the richest possible understanding, and this comes from drinking deeply of the original springs.

By doing this, a teacher moves beyond mere instruction and discovers the art and craft of the calling.

Musick resembles Poetry, in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.
From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part,
And snatch Grace beyond the Reach of Art.  (lines 143-145, 154-155)

When Pope speaks of art, he is using the word in the sense of its Latin origin, meaning a skill.  Skills can be taught, and every craftsman must first learn them.  Yet true artists in any endeavor move beyond the "vulgar bounds" of mere methodology.  Teachers do this when they have become what they teach, when they embody the content and students can no longer tell where the content ends and the teacher begins.

You may be asking whether an 18th century British poet truly has anything to offer the connected, modern educators preparing students for jobs yet unknown as visions of technology dance in their heads.  This question betrays one of the most regrettable aspects of contemporary education.  We value nothing that was said more than five minutes ago.  With staggering arrogance we assume that we know more than those who have gone before us, yet with regard to what Edgar Allan Poe would later call "the glory that was Greece and that grandeur that was Rome," Pope cried,

Oh may some Spark of your Coelestial Fire
The last, the meanest of your Sons inspire
To teach vain Wits a Science little known,
T'admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!  (lines 195-196, 199-200)

Humility is a key disposition for learning, and if teachers are to become the content masters they are called to be, they, like their students, must be willing to learn from those who know more and whose knowledge has been tested and proven by the passing of time.  No matter how robust the data supporting the latest published strategies, nothing is as valuable as time-tested, time-approved wisdom and understanding.

It is human nature for each person to think he or she knows it all.  It is, and there is no point in denying it.  Pope certainly did not.

We think our Fathers Fools, so wise we grow;
Our wiser Sons, no doubt, will think us so.  (lines 438-439)

Yet he leaves us with a wistful, hopeful plea that continues to call out to educators today.  Perhaps you can be one of those magistri who will answer it.

But where's the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?  (lines 631-632)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't Show Me Your Plans

There is an old joke that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.  If you want to give teachers one more reason to quit, ask to see theirs.

I have heard many stories from my mom about her elementary teaching career in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.  Often they involved her beloved principal, Mr. Montgomery.  Among her favorites is the one in which he told her, a young teacher early on the shared journey of discovery that is education, why he did not need to see her lesson plans each week as other principals did.  He considered her a professional and trusted her to do her job.

Patricia Perkins, my mom

She has reflected many times how good that made her feel.  She was new to the profession, but this seasoned educational leader trusted her, and he proved it by not looking over her shoulder or micromanaging what she did in her classroom.

As I have written, bad administrators are killing education, and this type of "quality control" is one more weapon in their arsenal.  As one Forbes article puts it, "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."  Evaluations based on whether or not objectives are displayed on the board or on the proper filling out of suffocating lesson and unit planners reveal absolutely nothing about whether teachers are teaching well.  They reveal merely a person's ability to snap to attention when the jackboots come marching, their ability to jump through hoops that any sane person would recognize are insulting and ridiculous.

Is there a place for planning in a teacher's life?  There most certainly is.  When I dream some fantastic new project for my students, I have to come down out of the clouds and begin to plan.  I have to consider what I want them to achieve in the project, what their role and my role should be, what resources we will need, where we will get them if we do not have them, how long we can spend on the project, what must be shifted or removed to make room for it, and a host of other pedagogically responsible factors.

Will anyone see these plans?  Possibly.  One of my colleagues who teaches French frequently collaborates with me on a project her students and my Latin students engage in together.  We share these ideas and plans with our department chair, sometimes to get her input, other times to ask for her assistance, and often just to bring her into the sheer fun and excitement of it.

There are also sound reasons for a leader or administrator to see the written plans of a teacher.  Pre-service teachers in field experiences or student-teaching programs benefit from the slow, careful process of writing out plans and can gain much from discussing those plans with a trusted leader or mentor.  And of course there are times when even experienced teachers may need guidance, whether because they are teaching something new or for whatever reason are not at their best.  Working with a valued leader on planning can help teachers reach their potential.

But consider what is gained by not requiring veteran teachers who are experts both in their fields and in pedagogy to submit lesson and unit plans for evaluation.  It sends the clear message that they are trusted professionals and valued colleagues.  Any administrator who has to check whether an objective is written on a board or whether plans have been uploaded in a certain format in order to determine whether a teacher is teaching well should be fired, for that administrator lacks true discernment.  Good education leaders are in classrooms.  They work with, not above teachers.  They watch and listen to students.  Do your neighbors really have to knock on your door to tell you they are pulling the lawn mower out of the garage for you to know whether they are maintaining their yards?

My wife and I recently cleaned the blades on our ceiling fans, and our daughter, age 12, wanted to help.  I set up the ladder and showed her how to detach the blades and the glass covering of the light.  I helped her a bit on the first fan, but when we took the ladder into another room, I only stood nearby and did not help.  At one point she was uncertain if she could hold the glass covering with one hand and unscrew the nut with her other.  I told her that although she may have felt uncertain of her abilities, I was quite confident in them and then proved my confidence by not interfering.  Can you imagine what it would do for teachers if their administrators demonstrated such confidence in them?  My mom can not only imagine it.  She remembers it fondly more than fifty years later.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bad Administrators Are Killing Education

Perhaps more than any other single factor, bad administrators are killing education.

That is a bold statement when the ability to educate our young people is under assault from poverty, poor home situations, a runaway obsession with testing, the misuse of data to malign teachers and hurt students, blind worship of technology that in some cases brings more harm than good, and insulting attempts to make educators feel like professionals instead of allowing them actually to be professionals with appropriate salaries and control over how they practice their craft.  Yet the ham-fisted, utterly misguided, and at times cruel leadership at district and building levels has produced "the most unkindest cut of all," leaving too many teachers with the choice of either crying, "Et tu, Brute?" to the those who should have had their backs instead of stabbing them, or leaving the profession.

I recently shared an article* on Facebook, one more in a seemingly endless series of its kind, about a good teacher leaving the profession.  This was not a new teacher who got in over his head or an older teacher who left because she was burned out.  I sarcastically suggested in my preface to the post that there was no problem in teachers leaving for, as some administrators say, there are plenty to take their place.  I had no idea the hornet's nest I had poked.

In the days that followed, Twitter messages, emails, and Facebook messages bombarded me with stories from around the country of teachers bearing witness to hearing what is quite possibly the stupidest line of thinking that should get any leader fired for speaking it.  Please note that the stories you are about to hear must remain anonymous.  I will give no indication of any teacher's name, subject matter, or state, and that alone is a matter worthy of concern, because the prevailing emotion in so many of our toxic school environments is fear.  Teachers are afraid, and it is not because they are emotional snowflakes who need to grow up.  It is because too many administrators, far from doing their job of fostering an environment in which teachers can do theirs, have created, whether through ignorant neglect or genuinely malevolent intent, a sweatshop mentality complete with dread of the overseer's whip.  Fear is completely incompatible with education, but that will be a topic for another time.

What follows, then, are comments shared with me from teachers across the country.  After a few responses to the article linked above, I asked whether educators had heard administrators say that there were plenty of teachers to take the places of those who leave, or a variant of that.  The results were as follows, and there is no pattern of their coming from certain geographic regions or from one type of school or district over another.

Not comfortable responding to your fb post, however, our HR Director told us in negotiations "...that there is a line of teachers waiting to take [our] place."

Teachers talk about administrators feeling that way; colleagues have throughout my career.

I've had it said to me two minutes before I was supposed to start teaching for the day.

At a new teacher hire, I heard, "With all due respect, as Beyonce says, 'Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.'"

I've heard it as well, multiple times and once through my own experience.

It makes me sad to say, but yes I have heard that at least once a year during my 15 years as a teacher.

Regrettably, I've heard it.  I heard it said of some of the best educators with whom I have worked or co-taught.

On more than one occasion, I've heard a district administrator...state, "If they [teachers] don't like it, there are plenty of openings at McDonald's."  Also, a district administrator...sent an email to a colleague with a link to a job opening in a neighboring district after she pointed out the potential impact of budget cuts on her department.  It has been an interesting few years to say the least.  It is one thing to deal with external perceptions of education and teachers; it's another when it is from within, especially from those in "leadership" positions.

"Everyone's replaceable" has been spoken many times in my school.

Quote at a school board meeting when a good young teacher decided to switch schools, "There is no one who can't be replaced."

Spoken by the principal to a colleague and me in his office when we told him about ill-will among the faculty, "When they leave, we will cry for three minutes and get back to work.  I have a long list of people wanting jobs."

I've heard it in [name of state].

Yep, in [name of state] I've heard it.

A former superintendent used to say that -- she used to say that teachers should be grateful for the jobs they have because there are lots of people lined up waiting to take them.

I've heard it several times in my own district and others in [name of state].  It's so disheartening.  We have so many vacancies.

One of many reasons I moved into administration.  I have heard it across the state in several districts. 

I've heard it -- especially at negotiation time.

I've sadly heard it when I taught in [name of state] and a few years ago back in [name of state].

My superintendent said a couple years ago that English teachers are a dime a dozen.

It's said regularly.

If you are a parent, talk to your children's teachers and administrators and find out for yourself the true culture of their school, making sure to encourage those leaders who are serving well.  If you are in a university school of education, visit some schools in your state and discover for yourself their culture and then set yourself to the task of crafting leadership training programs capable of producing the leaders our children and teachers need.  If you are a teacher, work well with your administrators.  Lead up by sharing good leadership materials with your department chairs, principals, and superintendents.  Encourage them when they do well.  And if the environment of your school or district is such that you cannot be the teacher you were made to be, do not leave the profession, but find another place where you can thrive.  The power of Pharaoh was broken by the exodus.

Whoever you are, as you go about the shared work of ensuring our children are well grounded in the past and present for their callings in the future, allow this extended email from a colleague of mine to motivate you.

It was via email, and regarding an extracurricular position I held. I have done this position for years, and the district has been very pleased with how I managed it, having brought it back from kind of a mess, thanks to my insane organization. However, it's a ton of work and for several years I've been feeling tired of being taken advantage of and tried to give it up. 

This year there were some particular concerns I was raising, ethical concerns about some other staff members' conduct. When I approached admin about the fact that I wanted to give up my position, I told him I was concerned about handing it over to someone not as conscientious of the potential issues, as they've had difficulty getting the position adequately filled in the past, and I wanted to make sure to leave it in good hands because the integrity of the program meant a great deal to me.

Rather than addressing my concern he said, "Do the position or don't do the position. If you don't, someone else will"  (paraphrase... i'm uncomfortable using his exact quote, but he did use the word *replaceable*).  My immediate response was that he'd just made my decision really easy, and I emailed him back and said I wouldn't be doing it anymore.

This was said via email, at 7:28AM, as my 11th graders were walking in the door. I stood up to start class and as I was going over the agenda I just broke down. I had to excuse myself and took a couple of minutes to calm down. I told them "I'm sorry, something just happened that really upset me, and it has nothing to do with you."

There are a few things to this:

1) The fact that it was said in response to me raising concerns... it felt like he was saying "we'll find someone who's not going to raise a fuss" and it discounted all the heart and soul I'd put into the program for six years and trying to do the right thing.

2) While on the surface it's a logical and true statement, it's certainly not a great way to get your people to want to pour their heart into something that has few extrinsic rewards.

3) Our school has a major "positive school culture" initiative. Our principal is a driving force behind it, and goes out of his way to do special things and make it a positive environment. In many ways, he's wonderful at that task. But when he gets stressed out in the spring, he lashes out at people... and often times he lashes out at his best people, the ones who are going above and beyond, the ones who are truly giving their all. But those day-to-day interactions mean just as much, if not more, than all of the positive murals and pep talks and recognitions and assemblies. I suspect he said it out of frustration with something that probably had nothing to do with me, but that's not an excuse, and I will never forget how worthless and unappreciated it made me feel that morning. I don't think I will ever have an interaction with him not colored by that experience.

*Here is an important and related article, whose comments are equally worth reading.