Friday, December 18, 2020

Atomic Language


In her book Proust and The Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf writes about the power of an alphabet.  In particular she focuses on the ancient Greek alphabet and observes, "Young Greek pupils were given an almost perfect alphabet with almost perfect rules of grapheme-phoneme correspondence.  As a result, these pupils could gain fluency in literacy far sooner than their Sumerian, Akkadian, or Egyptian counterparts." (p. 68)

Put another way, there is incredible power in an alphabet, which allows for unending combinations, as opposed to a pictographic language in which whole ideas are represented by images.  Even today, you can communicate with greater sophistication, greater depth, and greater novelty with a 26-letter alphabet than you can with a hundred emojis.

The Roman poet Lucretius noted this as well in his work De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, the first century B.C. didactic poem that explored the world of atoms.  In Book 2 we find the following.

quin etiam refert nostris in versibus ipsis
cum quibus et quali sint ordine quaeque locata;

namque eadem caelum mare terras flumina solem     1015
significant, eadem fruges arbusta animantis;
si non omnia sunt, at multo maxima pars est
consimilis; verum positura discrepitant res.
  (DRN 2.1013-1018)

Why, it even matters in our very own verses
With what and in what order the elements have been placed;
For the same letters indicate the sky, the sea, the lands, the rivers
The sun, and the same indicate grains, trees, and living things.
If not entirely, they are for the very most part very
Similar, but they distinguish things by their position.

Lucretius was pointing out the atomic nature of an alphabetic language, for just as atoms combine in endless arrangements to create new things, so the letters of a language function in a similar way.  If we combine three English letters we get "tap," if we combine them in a different order we get "apt," and if we rearrange them yet again we get "pat."

When I taught classes called Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge, my students would often discuss an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Darmok."  In that episode, Captain Picard interacts with a being whose people only speak in allegories that reference their own mytho-historical past.  One question that inevitably came up was how such a race could have engineered the space ships that they used.  It seemed that their allegory-based language was ill-suited to the kind of scientific specificity that could only be expressed through an infinitely flexible, alphabetic language.

Yes, we language teachers teach people how to speak and write in other languages and how to understand the written and spoken word.  Yet it is worth the pause every once in a while to marvel at the beauty, the power, and even the limitations of human languages, for with words we speak ideas into existence.

Monday, December 7, 2020

George Strait, Cicero, and Citing Your Sources

A friend of mine shared that an educator in her child's district had sent the following to parents as part of a district-wide communication.  "Reality is created by the mind.  We can change our reality by changing our mind."  This quotation was attributed to Plato.

My immediate reaction was that Plato could not have written that statement.  As I texted my friend, that statement is closer to what the pre-Socratic philosopher Protragoras said in his famous dictum, "Man is the measure of all things," which Plato utterly destroyed in his dialogue Theaetetus.  I added that according to his theory of forms laid out in Book 7 of Republic, Plato suggests that reality is not the physical objects around us, but rather transcendent forms accessible only to the mind.  This in no way suggests reality is subjective and created by the mind, as the quotation sent to the parents does, but rather the exact opposite.

All this reminds me of a scene from The West Wing (S04, E04) in which Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) asks his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Maloney) to attend a self-help seminar hosted by someone who is advising their opponent in the upcoming presidential election.  The scene that follows depicts what happens when she returns to the office.

Not only does proper citation of sources matter so that others can follow the same research and so that we do not misattribute facts and quotations, but it matters because it usually indicates a broader, deeper acquaintance with primary sources and the bases of research.  Few people actually want the cheap, knock-off perfume or jewelry.  They want what is genuine, although many are happy to pass off their work as authentic when in fact it is a pale imitation.

The Roman orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was known to end sections of his speeches with certain rhythms.  One in particular followed the pattern DUM dum dum DUM dum, which was easily achieved by putting the present infinitive of the verb "to be" next to a 3rd person singular present passive subjunctive from a second conjugation verb.  Esse videatur was a common example, so common in fact that people who wanted to imitate Ciceronian style thought it was good enough just to tack that wording onto the ends of sentences.  Needless to say, DUM dum dum DUM dum does not an orator make.

The song that captures this best for me is George Strait's "The Real Thing," which is from his 2001 album The Road Less Traveled.  He sings of discovering rock and roll in the '50s and realizing there was more to music than just what he had heard on the radio.  As he sings in the chorus line, "I don't want you under my roof with your 86 proof watered down 'til it tastes like tea.  You're gonna pull my string, make it the real thing for me."

I couldn't agree more.  It is important to use and cite primary sources, to take the extra step to do the research, and to express your ideas, not with imitated eloquence, but with the force and beauty that can come for dealing with the real thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Any Road Out of Town

There's an old saying that if you don't know where you're going, any road out of town will do.  So it is when it comes to pedagogy.  For example, one Latin textbook series begins introducing war vocabulary in the first year to prepare students to read Caesar's De Bello Gallico in the second.  My favorite elementary Greek text introduces the vocabulary of Xenophon so students will be able to read his Anabasis.  

A friend shared with me a recent article, "Classical Schools Aren't Really Classical" by Jonathan Roberts that contrasts grammar-based methods of teaching Latin with comprehensible input.  It begins with a passage from Surprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis describes the thrill of being able to read extended passages of Homer's Iliad in Greek.  Roberts goes on to suggest that the human brain will come to understand a language without being taught explicitly to analyze its architecture as is common in the grammar-translation methods.

From there Roberts discusses the Classical education movement, inspired largely by an essay from Dorothy Sayers and put into practice by a growing number of Christian schools and homeschool communities.  He cites examples of why the grammar-translation method is hailed in such schools and then refutes the arguments for such pedagogy.

The title of his article is partly correct and partly incorrect.  It is true that ancient Roman children did not learn their own language, at least initially, through grammatical analysis.  St. Augustine famously talks about this in Book I of his Confessions.

cur ergo graecam etiam grammaticam oderam talia cantantem? nam et Homerus peritus texere tales fabellas et dulcissime vanus est, mihi tamen amarus erat puero. credo etiam graecis pueris Vergilius ita sit, cum eum sic discere coguntur ut ego illum. videlicet difficultas, difficultas omnino ediscendae linguae peregrinae, quasi felle aspergebat omnes suavitates graecas fabulosarum narrationum. nulla enim verba illa noveram, et saevis terroribus ac poenis ut nossem instabatur mihi vehementer. nam et latina aliquando infans utique nulla noveram, et tamen advertendo didici sine ullo metu atque cruciatu, inter etiam blandimenta nutricum et ioca adridentium et laetitias adludentium. didici vero illa sine poenali onere urgentium....

Why, therefore, did I hate Greek grammar singing also such things?  For Homer is skilled at weaving such tales and is sweetly entertaining, but to me as a boy he was bitter.  I believe Vergil is the same for Greek boys when they are forced to learn him in this way as I was Homer.  Indeed there is a difficulty, entirely the difficulty of learning a foreign language as if someone spread bitterness over all the Greek sweetness of those fabulous tales.  For when I was an infant, I knew no Latin, but nevertheless I learned it by paying attention and without any fear or punishment, among the coaxing of my nurses and the jokes of those who laughed with me and the happiness of those who played with me.  Truly, I learned it without the burdensome penalty of people forcing me....

Yet Augustine also makes it clear that a grammar-based approach was precisely what he had experienced when it came to learning Greek.  One could then argue both ways, that it is and that it is not Classical to teach with this pedagogy.

The question, of course, is not merely what did the ancients do, but what is best for our children.  Roberts cites arguments for the grammar-based approach that are easily refuted, as he indeed does, but there is more to consider here, and that is the question at the beginning of this post.  Where are you going?  Once you know that, you can pick the best road to travel.

If your goal is to read Homer and Vergil with the speed and facility with which you read a contemporary author, then comprehensible input will likely get you there more quickly.  If, however, your goal is something else, one Roberts does not consider, then the grammar-translation approach will serve you better.  This goal is developing an appreciation for beauty, in this case linguistic beauty, that will nourish the spirt and inspire further reading and study, whether in translation or in the original languages.  For more on this, see my article "Difficile est transferre hanc sententiam Latinam in Anglicam: The Depth and Charm of Latin Translation," The Classical Outlook, Volume 84, Number 1, Fall 2006.

Consider now the tale of two students.  One completes a four year high school program in Latin using the grammar-translation method, and the other does the same but with comprehensible input.  They both then pursue an undergraduate degree in Classics.  At the end of eight years of study, they will be indistinguishable.  They will both be able to read fluently and to appreciate the nuances of composition that make the works of Homer and Vergil true works of art.

Yet how many will pursue those additional four years of an undergraduate degree in Classics?  Most high school Latin students will not, and at the end of their high school careers, our two hypothetical students could not look more different.  The one, presumably, would have a deep appreciation for, in Poe's words, "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" as expressed in Classical literature.  The other would have the skill and pleasure of reading that literature with ease and rapidity.

"Knowing how way leads on to way," to quote Frost, I doubt that many of those who can read Classical languages fluently at eighteen will continue to do so.  Notice that I said I doubt many will do so.  Some may, but most, I imagine, will not.  On the other hand, I have had a great number of my former students continue their Classical interest and studies, whether through an undergraduate minor, additional Classics courses, or merely personal reading, and they have all experienced the grammar-based instruction of my classroom.  Notice again that I did not say all of my students have done this.  At the end of the day, however, I still champion and use the grammar-translation approach, not for the rigor of analysis it supposedly instills in students comparable to the study of geometry or physics, and certainly not for linguistic gains in word study and derivatives.  I use it it for the following reasons.

First, it quickly gets students into the language.  Second, it allows them to explore more deeply the beauties and intricacies of truly great authors.  Third, our English discussions allow us to go deeper and more quickly into the heart of the works themselves.  Fourth and finally, thirty years of teaching have shown that students who are exposed to this particular pedagogy have multiple roads to take toward whichever destination they choose, whether it be fluency, enjoyment, further study, or anything else to which they have been inspired.  Since giving my students multiple options is where I want to go, the grammar-translation road is the one I choose.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

My Friend, Yosef Cohen


"God don't make them any better.  And that's a fact."  So said Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of Major General Winfield Hancock in the film Gettysburg.  Of all the words in all the literature I have read, these are the ones that come to mind upon the passing of my friend, Yosef Cohen.  They come to mind quickly in association with him, for I have said them often over the years when speaking of him to others.

In 2012, Yosef, or Yossi as so many knew him, was honored by the Bureau of Jewish Education.  If you consider yourself my friend, take fewer than five minutes to watch this video about him on the occasion of that most deserved recognition.

In that video you get a sense of who he was as an educator, and but as his colleague who for many years taught in the room next to his at North Central High School in Indianapolis, I was blessed by something more, but let us start with educator.

As a teacher of Latin and occasionally Greek, I sometimes had questions about Hebrew, for that ancient language so often was intertwined with those of my discipline, Classics.  The moment I even began to ask him a question, Yosef would suggest that we meet over lunch.  We each brought out our lexicons, and the richest, headiest of conversations would begin, allowing me in a small way to count myself as one of his students.

He was also my interlocutor on matters of politics, the economy, education, world issues, and history.  Our conversations during passing periods made me want to be late for my own classes so the discussions with Yosef could continue.  He thought deeply and broadly, and this allowed him to bring civility to our conversations the like of which many would think was no longer possible.  With his passing, it very well may not be.

He played a paternal role for me as well, often pointing to his grey hair and my lack of it, perhaps being willfully blind to the increasing salt in the pepper of my beard.  He cared for my wife and my children, asking about them after we returned from every school break and especially after summer vacation, and was genuinely concerned about my future.  His advice was always sage, and it always, always aligned exactly with whatever my wife would say.  I sometimes wondered if they talked behind my back so their counsel would agree.

His humor was legendary, and I rarely took my leave of him without hearing a new joke from his seemingly endless treasury.  He lightened our department meetings with that humor and reminded us all that as important as teaching was, the business of schooling...well, not so much.

Children often have their heroes, real or imagined, that they delight in imitating, but it is rare for an adult to have, or at least to admit to having, such a model.  My wife can testify that I have said many times over the years that I would like to be more like Yosef Cohen when I grow up, and in this I know I am far from alone.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Making a Teacher Cry

Any number of things can make me cry while teaching, although I try to hide it the best I can.  More often than not, it is the depth of insight from one of my students that so unsettles me.  It is rather like snapping one's head to look at brilliant work of art or to hear a bit of sublime music while walking through the humdrum of the day, lost in a sea of less important details.  This time it happened during the last period of the day.

It was my A.P. Latin class, and before you make assumptions about my students or our school, you should know that ours is a large, midwestern, public high school with an enrollment between three and four thousand students.  This particular class is evenly split between boys and girls and is ethnically diverse.  As you read the rest of this story, I don't want you to assume it is set in an ivory tower.

Class started with us talking about accents, what connotations are associated with them and whether those same connotations exist for all people.  Do the flowing vowel sounds of Italian or the sharp consonants of German produce the same effects in you as they do in me?  Do they conjure the same feelings in other non-Italian- or non-German-speaking people as they do in many English speakers?

We are still in all-virtual instruction, and one of the benefits of Zoom is the private chat function.  Not a day passes when at least one student in nearly every class messages me privately a question or comment that I can then address with the whole class without revealing that student's name.  It is a help like no other for quiet students and those who like to process more deeply before they speak.

In this particular A.P. Latin class during the last period of the day, one of my students texted the following in response to our discussion about accents.  "The best way to tell the beauty of an accent is if it enthralls you, even if you don't understand a word."  This time I did a horrible job of hiding my tears.  When I shared the comment aloud, others in class commented that we had a true wordsmith or even a Shakespeare among us.  

Just as I had no time to ponder the depth of that comment or the beauty of its expression in the moment, I will leave you no time to do so, but will move on to what happened next.  As you read, let these powerful moments build up and wash over you.  Quick warning, however.  This next part gets a bit deep, but hang in there.

From there, we dove into our text, starting at Aeneid I.561.  As we read the line "Tum breviter Dido vultum demissa profatur," I had to stop to share with them something that had occurred earlier in the day during Latin III.  That class had been reading Sallust's Bellum Catilinae and were at the part where Catiline, the infamous conspirator of the late first century B.C., prepared to address the senate demisso voltu.  Even people without Latin can pick out the two similar phrases, vultum demissa in Vergil and demisso voltu in Sallust.  I pointed that both expressions contain the same words and mean the same thing, "with a downcast expression," but that they used different grammatical structures.  Vergil opted for a purely adjectival function of the participle demissa and an accusative form of vultum expressing respect.  She was literally downcast with respect to her face.  Sallust, on the other hand, had put both words in the ablative case, using an incredibly common construction known as the ablative absolute.

One of my students asked what, if anything, was being conveyed by Vergil's grammatical choice, and I pointed out that it was in clear imitation of Greek, for Greek likes to use the accusative of respect.  My student pressed on to ask why he would do that, and this led us to a brief discussion of the King James translation of the Bible.  One of the notable features of that translation, itself drawing heavily on previous English versions, was its casting into English certain Hebraisms.  For example, where English might more readily say, "God's son," the King James translators used "son of God," for the pattern "X of Y" is common in Hebrew.  In a similar way, I explained, Vergil clearly imitated Homer without slavishly aping him, and this connected his new epic with the Homeric works from a millennium prior.

Still without time to pause, I had to end that session with my Latin IV students and switch over to a breakout room in Zoom where my Latin V students deciding what they wanted to study next.  Latin V at our school provides a rare opportunity for students to explore topics of interest, and as we were starting a new quarter, it was time to see where they wanted to go.  One student began by saying she had been reading recently about rhetorical and logical fallacies.  I nearly stumbled going to the board to write her ideas and asked if she were reading such things for a class.  She said she was not, but had been inspired by other classes to look into the topics.  She thought she might want to pursue something with logic, rhetoric, or philosophy in her next Latin V project.  Another said she wanted to revisit some medieval studies we had pursued in Latin III, and another talked of pursuing medical topics, including mental health issues and quality of life for women in ancient Rome.

Now you can pause to consider what you have just read.  These are utterly extraordinary, ordinary students.  They are perfectly ordinary in that they, like the rest of their peers, follow fashion trends and enjoy popular entertainment.  They care about their friends and about what people think of them.  They are simultaneously excited and apprehensive about college, and they love to goof around.  Yet they are extraordinary in the depth of their curiosity and willingness to pursue it.  Because they are ordinary, however, I would argue that what makes them extraordinary could well be experienced by many more their age.  Depth, breadth, curiosity, eloquence...these are not the things of the rare few, but are the gems common to the human treasury, and when my students hold them up to the light, the sparkle quite often brings a tear to my eyes.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Words That Take You Back


On a short break between classes, I wandered over to one of the book cases in my classroom and pulled off the Loeb edition of Plato's Republic.  As I scanned the opening words,  

I went down yesterday to Piraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston...

I was transported to another time and place.  No, it was not to ancient Athens or the port of Piraeus, but to high school during my senior year.  Before getting to that, however, I should note that it was the word "Piraeus" itself that did the trick, or rather, my sudden remembrance that the word "Piraeus" was coming up.

In the last quarter of the school year in Latin II, I have for a long time taught a unit on ancient Greek language and culture that includes readings from Plato's Republic and another of his dialogues, Theaetetus.  It had been longer than I realized and nearly longer than I could remember since I had last read Republic from the beginning, and so it was that as the first words started to form in brain as my eyes picked them from the page that I realized one of the upcoming words would be "Piraeus," which is the port city for Athens.  Suddenly there rushed upon my memory the image of Socrates, the main character in the dialogue, and his friend Glaucon walking toward the city, but it was the image that the English translation by Jowett had first formed in my mind when I was in high school.

My senior English teacher, John Richardson, had brought Plato up in class, and I must have been intrigued enough to want to read the philosopher for myself.  I remember the thrill of finding the Modern Library edition with the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett at Hawley-Cooke Booksellers across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky.  That copy resides in my classroom even now.

This slender volume was my introduction to philosophy and reading the great works on my own.  We had not been assigned to read it, but I was interested and gave it a whirl.  There I was, sitting in the living room of my home in southern Indiana, reading Plato, and it was a heady experience indeed.  It was also above me in many places, and I cannot say I made it all the way through to the end.  Yet it pierced me with an arrow of passion for philosophy that has continued to burn.

Jowett himself had this to say about the importance of translation in his own English rendering of Thucydides.  It is a necessary thing, he argued, in order "once more [to] 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."

It was that distant remembrance of youth that came flooding back to my mind today as I recalled Jowett's Republic, let loose by recalling one word, Piraeus.  What words take you back to another time and place?  What whole works serve you that way?  When they evoke distant memories, they can usher a very bright spot into your day indeed.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Thirty and Ninety

July 30, 2020.  Today my dad would have turned ninety, and I am starting my thirtieth year in education.  Neither of those facts seems possible, which is a common experience as people age.  We ask where the time went and how it could have gone so quickly.  Where and how, indeed.

I wrote several years ago about the teaching heritage in my family, most of which lies on my mother's side.  My dad, too, was an educator, and you can read about his career in that earlier post and in this one in which I described five key "ways of an educator" that I took from him.  What strikes me today is how similar things are in my experience compared with that of my dad.

My dad was born in 1930.  To say that things are different now is so obvious as to be absurd.  He did lead the way in bringing computers to his elementary school in the late '70s and early '80s, but he could not have imagined setting up courses in a learning management system so students can access learning materials at any time and at any place in the world.  He certainly could not have dreamed of technology that allows me to look at my computer and see my students in their homes while they are seeing me through their own devices as we engage in discussions together from different locations.  Oh, he might have been able to dream of it.  He was a fan of the original Star Trek series, after all, but he would never have considered such things to be more than fantasy.

Yet, I would argue that things are much the same for me as they were for my dad.  As I have prepared to enter my thirtieth year of teaching Latin, despite feeling as if I were a beginning teacher as I have had to grapple with new technology and more questions than answers, I have done so with my eyes fixed on something beyond the immediate.  My students, all born in the 21st century, are still people, and they will come to me as they always have, as they came to my dad and mom when they taught, as indeed they have come to teachers stretching back to Socrates, with their own thoughts and ideas and questions.  They will come with curiosity, and I am so eager to share with them treasures of knowledge I long ago discovered and to find new gems along with them.

You see, my dad and I both shared an inclination toward huge smiles and laughter that could be heard several rooms away, and I am sure that the source of such constant joy and joviality was for him as it is for me, life itself, and education is about life.  It is about sharing and exploring all that has gone before us in the many fields of knowledge.  It is about thinking and creating based on that shared exploration to add to the body of human experience.  Human beings have an innate drive toward life, and to be part of that, to sail its strong and mighty currents, cannot help but bring a smile to the face of anyone who does so in the vast, wonderful sea of learning.  It brought endless smiles to my dad, and it still brings a smile to me.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Students, Philosophy, and Quarantine

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 B.C.-A.D. 65

My Latin V students read some of the philosophy of Seneca during the fall semester.  It wasn't my idea, but that was what they wanted to do, and when they had finished, they insisted that I include his writings in my curriculum.  According to them, Seneca wrote advice that was especially well suited to high school students, and so I got to work.  I read through all 124 letters, grounded in the thought of Stoic philosophy, that he had written his friend Lucilius.  From those I chose selections from twenty-two epistles for the students in my Latin III classes to read.  The goal was to discuss them together as we headed toward a special project at the end.

And then we moved to e-learning during the time of quarantine.  There was nothing we could do that would possibly replace the richness and depth of discussing this ancient philosopher in person, yet I was unwilling to scrap the idea since the Latin V students had been so passionate about our reading these letters.  I recorded videos that offered some background and discussion of each letter, and the students then translated the works and sent them to me along with their thoughts.  The special project, however, was something we kept.  After having read these letters that Seneca had written his friend, letters filled with sound advice and wisdom, the students were tasked with writing an epistle to one of their own friends in which they shared the wisdom from one of Seneca's letters and explained why it had particular value for them.

The letters they wrote proved that even during e-learning, they had grasped the essence of what Seneca had written even as the depth of their letters made me wish ever more that we had been able to discuss these works in person.  One, however, stood out.  The young man who wrote it based his letter on Epistle XXVIII by Seneca in which the philosopher wrote, "You ought to change your spirit, not your climate.  To a certain person complaining about this same thing, Socrates said, 'Why do you wonder that your travels do you no good since you carry yourself around with you?  The same concern presses down on you that drove you forth.'  Do you seek to know why escape does not help you?  You escape with yourself.  It matters more who you are than where you are going."  As you will see, this student reached back nearly two thousand years to find wisdom that he could apply in the 21st century and during a time of pandemic-induced quarantine.  This, my friends, is what learning looks like.

Dear _____,
I have been thinking over our present situation, being stuck at home, and I have realized something that I thought I should share with you. When we are at school, we were always worried about upcoming tests and homework we were assigned. We tried to juggle our athletic, social, and academic lives. Now that we are learning from home, one would think that those worries would be gone. But I have realized that for many, these same worries persist. We have grown so used to having these concerns in school that we cannot let them go at home. I think of a letter by Roman philosopher Seneca, his epistle XXVIII. In it, he claims that we cannot change our spirit by simply moving location. This really resonated with me because I have thought similar things about learning from home. Even though our location has changed, many of our same worries and problems persist because we cannot let them go. We thought that at home learning would be easy because it let us do our own work on our own schedule. But in reality, the change in location is not enough. We must examine ourselves in this time of isolation, and many do not have the desire to self-reflect. Instead, we claim that the superficial change in surroundings has changed us, and that in quarantine we are less stressed. But for many, this is not true. We procrastinate and we put less effort into our work. We end up with a similar level of stress as we had in school. We rely on our surroundings to change us, Khaya, instead of ourselves. When we were first told that we would be spending all our time at home, many people claimed that this would give them time to finish all the things they were doing and let them accomplish things that they had always wanted to do. But for almost everyone, this turned out to be false. By relying on our environment to change us, we squandered the opportunity to do these things. We need to change our mindset. We must realize that we are the same person we have always been and that if we want to become more productive or less stressed or change anything about our lives, we must first change our mindsets and our attitudes. Only then will we be able to accomplish our goals.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Teacher's Teacher

Psalm 90 says that our lifespan is threescore years and ten, and if that should be true for me, then I am well beyond the midpoint at which Dante began his famous journey.  Yet even at my age and with my decades of experience in education, I still need a teacher.  I have been blessed since Kindergarten with outstanding teachers, but over the past twenty years there has been one who has gently and carefully guided and shaped my thinking in ways that even he may not know.  Do not bother skipping to the end of this piece in search of his name, for you will not find it.  I doubt he would want the publicity, but I do want to share his latest lesson.

Mine is a logical mind that takes great pleasure in wit and good turns of a phrase, and this combination can lead to the sharp skewering and harsh condemnation of things that are wrong.  To be sure, there are wrongs that need to be skewered and condemned, but there is such a thing as grace, and my friend reminded me of that when we talked today about the expectations we all have of each other during this unprecedented time.  No one has experienced what we are living through in these days of COVID-19.  No teacher has ever taught in circumstances like these.  No custodian, principal, or superintendent has worked in such conditions.  In fact, there is not a banker, barber, mechanic, librarian, elected official, lawyer, doctor, firefighter, police officer, pastor, rabbi, plumber, architect, IT specialist, mother, father, or child who has ever experienced a pandemic and its consequences such as we all are experiencing right now.  What does that mean?

It means that the best leader before this moment and the worst leader before this moment are now trying to lead in a unique moment.  Yes, some will be better prepared for it, and when we say that we are all doing our best, the best by some will serve better than the best by others, but it is perhaps unfair to judge too harshly those whose best is not all we would want it to be.  I have certainly dropped a few balls and thought of some wonderful ideas after the time had passed when they would have been useful. 

We should have high standards, both for ourselves and for those we lead.  Parents rightly maintain high expectations for their children, just as bosses do for their employees and employees do for their bosses, but it is not helpful for the backseat driver to scream at the one behind the wheel who is driving the car across unfamiliar terrain.  If the vehicle is about to go over a cliff, then by all means, yell with the full capacity of your lungs, but if it is merely a bumpy ride, it may be better to sit back and hold on tightly.

Monday, May 4, 2020

What Is Quarantined Education Teaching Us, Part 2

Some students find themselves more productive during e-learning, and some find themselves less so according to this decidedly unscientific study that I discussed in an earlier post.  I have questions about the usefulness of data-driven studies in a field like education, but that is a topic for a different article.  My uncertainty regarding such methods does not, however, prevent me from offering an equation and a discussion of it.  A lower student-teacher ratio plus less time spent in class plus more independent learning can equal true education.

I've lost you already, haven't I?  If I didn't lose you at "lower student-teacher ratio," then I surely did at "less time in class."  We all know that the best learning environment is one with the lowest possible student-teacher ratio, right?  Countless articles like this say so.  Then again, countless articles like this one say the opposite.  Of course, we can all agree that students need more time in class.  There are, after all, countless articles such as this, that support the notion.  Yet there are countless articles like this one suggesting the opposite is true.  The seemingly infinite number of articles on both sides of these two points is one of the reasons I question the usefulness of certain kinds of research in education, but as I said, that is for another time.  For now, I want to discuss the components of my equation and one all-important word.

Students want to ask questions, but they don't want to feel foolish doing so, and we will never create a classroom environment in which all students can achieve this.  No matter what or how many procedures we establish, students are people, and people care what others think about them, and if knowing something is valuable, as it must be since we award those who know things on tests and assessments, then not knowing something must be of less value, and what demonstrates not knowing something quite like asking a question?  We can pontificate all day long about the value of asking questions and the importance of failure as a part of growth, but deep down, at a gut level, none of that matters for most students under age eighteen, and perhaps for a large number above that.

I am the first to write glowing paeans of praise about students who ask penetrating questions in class, but I also know that there are students who will ask their questions only when in a small, after school environment, or one-on-one with the teacher between classes, or from a certain distance through email, or via the combination of comfort and distance afforded by something like Zoom.  And I also know that it is too easy for students to indicate understanding in a larger class when that simply isn't the case.  Perhaps they do so because they do not want to seem foolish or do not wish to be the one who drags class out by asking something, and because of this, it is too easy for teachers to assume understanding and to move on.  In short, then, a smaller student-teacher ratio is better for some, perhaps even many, students.

The same is true for spending less time in class.  We can certainly line up the studies and provide our own experiential evidence to support the claim that more time in class is required for success, and indeed this may be the case for some.  For others, however, it can be not only a waste of time, but an experience that dims and dulls their creativity.  Before the days of increasingly locked-step conformity demanded by standardized tests and their curricula, teachers could allow students to work at their own pace.  If some finished early, they could work on other matters, whether for that class or another, as the teacher spent more direct time with those who needed it.  Undoubtedly this is still the case in some, hopefully many, classrooms, but this sort of half-guided, half-independent learning is increasingly vanishing from our landscape, in part because of the aforementioned standardization of so much of education, but also because of teacher evaluation tools that require everyone in the room to be actively engaged in one particular activity all of the time.  Students quietly reading for another class are seen as being off task, and this results in a tick in the wrong box for the teacher.

In any given class, there are students who simply need less direct instruction and less practice with the material to achieve mastery.  If there is one thing that quarantined education is teaching us, it is that students are quite capable of achieving what is required and then doing something else. For them the result is a much healthier study-life balance, one in which learning and living are not so artificially separated.

This leads to the third element on the left side of my equation, independent learning.  There will always be students who go through the motions of learning, just as there will always be adults who merely go through the motions of life.  Yet when given the freedom that less time in class brings, many will discover or rediscover their natural curiosity and love of learning.  And while that may not hold true in every class, it will hold true in some.  I have talked with fellow educators and can bear witness myself that there are students who, during this time of quarantined education, are asking the truly curious questions and exploring ideas of their own inspiration that they simply would not have if they had progressed like a can of soup down the assembly line of their traditional day.

All of this, I contend, can lead to true education, one in which students and teachers embark on a shared journey of discovery that is sustainable, every widening, and of more value than one that produces fact-recalling automata that are less efficient than a basic search engine.  Yet the most important word in my equation is "can," which is related to words like "may," "perhaps," and "many" that I have used throughout this piece.  These are words that suggest vagueness, and we don't like that very much, for ours is a data-driven society that worships at the altar of the hard sciences.  Human beings, of course, are known for their refusal and even inability to fit into narrow categories.  Will all of the things I have suggested work for everyone?  They will not, just as no other curriculum or program or educational theory will do.  They are simply ideas to work into the mix, to make available as we seek to provide the widest variety of opportunities for human beings in their education.  That there is a wider variety than we have imagined may just be the greatest lesson that quarantined education has taught us.