Love, in the Ruins

Note: Love In the Ruins is an apocalyptic novel by Walker Percy. I love the subtitle too: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Here’s a quote I somehow find highly relevant to this post – in an oblique, literary way:

“Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Mrs. Prouty, for a drink, for both: for a party, for youth, for the good times, for dear good drinking and fighting comrades, for football-game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and with the winter sun striking down into a brick-yard and on clapboard walls rounded off with old hard blistered paint and across a doorsill onto linoleum. Desire has a smell: of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle. A good-humored thirty-five-year-old lady takes the air in a back lot in a small town.”
― Walker PercyLove in the Ruins


In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage, I was thinking about my students and my job.

This post isn’t a summary of my views on the court’s decision (nor even an explication about Percy’s novel); it’s a meandering reflection on how this decision, and other major cultural-political events, affect life in a Catholic high school classroom.

Being a Catholic school teacher has always been challenging, but it is increasingly becoming more so. During my teacher training at Notre Dame, we had spent some time addressing controversial Church teachings and how to handle their inevitable appearances in the high school classroom. Since a significant number of my peers do not personally support key Catholic teachings on human sexuality, this is always a pretty tough conversation. We were encouraged to support Catholic moral teachings – but in my conversations with other young teachers, this usually looks like simply trying not to contradict them.

Hopefully all good teachers realize it is highly unprofessional to impose your own personal political views on your students – that’s not what real teaching is – but in a Catholic school you do have the responsibility as a teacher to promote and explain Catholic doctrine.

For many of my peers, verbally supporting doctrines you find intolerant, antiquated, and bigoted to your students is clearly problematic.

However, I’m coming from the perspective of a young teacher who does believe what the Church teaches, so I guess the situation is a lot easier for me there. At the same time, I’m looking at classrooms full of high school kids who are living and breathing a very different cultural message. Some of them are gay; almost all of them have gay friends or family members or at least acquaintances.

In the past, when a student has come out to me as gay, I have found Pope Benedict’s approach to be the most helpful:

If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.
― Pope Benedict XVI, God Is Love–Deus Caritas Est: Encyclical Letter

It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist . . . If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. – Principles of Catholic Theology

(As quoted by The Anchoress, here)

Students come to me all the time with all sorts of struggles besides this one. Some situations have direct bearing on Catholic moral theology – some do not. (Although I suppose one could argue ALL situations have SOME connection to Catholic moral theology….) The point is, the person must come first. The person must always come first, no matter what the “issue” is that he presents.


Students come to their teachers with such questions and concerns often because they feel like they cannot go to their own parents. And although parents are the “primary educators of their children,” as we Catholic education people are so fond of saying, the fact of the matter is some parents do not know how to educate their children or even at times abdicate that responsibility.

Therefore, some of my kids do not find at home the full “acceptance” with “that act of the entire being that we call love” Pope Benedict describes. And so they must look for it elsewhere.

Often the hardest conversations about Catholic moral doctrines are not the private ones but the public ones, in front of the entire classroom where everything you say can be misinterpreted by Bill who isn’t really paying attention or by Susan and Jamie who are giving each other knowing looks across the aisle.

All the different classes of students I have ever taught – sophomores mostly, but juniors and seniors as well – have largely operated as a group under the banner of cliches. And they will often interpret whatever you say according to cliches, even if what you said has nothing to do with  If you love the other person, that’s all that matters  or Hate the sin, love the sinner or Gay is okay because of science or Agree to disagree etc.

And then one is always tempted to flee to the refuge of the “real lesson plan” – let’s get back on track here, people – which has its place but is often just a cowardly tactic on my part.

After the Supreme Court decision this week, I have a feeling the same-sex marriage discussion will become an even more frequent topic in the classroom. And it is very important that we Catholic teachers 1) educate ourselves on what the Church really says and 2) accept the responsibility of guiding such discussions with our students as best we can, even if we make mistakes, even if we do not always have all the answers to their questions.

For me, the important thing with my kids during discussions like these is to emphasize that the truth matters. And even if you don’t agree with the Church on what that truth is, you still need to go searching for it. You can’t just sit back and accept whatever your peers tell you or what the culture tells you… or even what Fr. Mike tells you. You have to be relentless in your pursuit for the truth. And none of this “well this is my truth” crap. That’s a cop out too.

All this talk of “truth,” however, is very difficult in our culture. High schoolers are particularly sensitive to this fact.

Pope Benedict says,

Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, “This is the truth”, or even “I have the truth”. We never have it, at best is has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.

And this, of course, is what all too many teachers do. We say, or we imply, that truth is unattainable – it’s just not on the lesson plan. We are afraid of proclaiming that truth is knowable and pursuable, and so we neglect our primary job – which actually is to help our students to seek the truth for themselves. We cannot impose truth upon them; instead, we need to give them the tools to seek it out.

Benedict continues, as if speaking directly to Catholic school teachers:

(…) We must have the courage to dare to say: Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. It goes without saying that truth requires criteria for verification and falsification. It must always be accompanied by tolerance, also. But then truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.

The truth comes to rule, not through violence, but rather through its own power; this is the central theme of John’s Gospel: When brought before Pilate, Jesus professes that he himself is The Truth and the witness to the truth. He does not defend the truth with legions but rather makes it visible through his Passion and thereby also implements it.”
― Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times – A Conversation with Peter Seewald   


Jesus “does not defend the truth with legions” but rather witnesses to it “through his Passion.”

I really do not have all the answers. I do not always know what to say to my students – especially when it comes to things like the gay lifestyle or simply sexual issues in general, since so many of them take sex for granted as being necessary for a full and happy life – but I do know my twofold responsibility is to love and to the truth.

And the truth is they are loved. God’s love is the real #lovewins, and if in the way I approach ALL of my students I can show them that, then I will have done my job.


New Teacher Temptation #2

Teacher counseling student
The “private mode approach” – see below. Pic via

A few weeks ago I wrote about a temptation I found myself giving into all the time as a new teacher. Let me say at once that, according to most rubrics, I am still a new teacher. Not brand new, of course. Not a newborn. But perhaps a toddler who has learned a thing or two. I still give into these new teacher temptations all of the time, but I am becoming experienced enough to at least recognize them when I do. And for any baby teachers out there, I’d like to share these temptations with you so you can be on the lookout.

Now I’d like to add another one, now officially entitled new teacher temptation #2:

The idea that the best way to get a student to go back to doing what you want during class is to reason with that student.

When teaching high school, this temptation can be very strong indeed. Most of your students seem to demonstrate (occasionally) the ability to reason and employ logical argumentation. Many of them seem to relish this rather newfound ability. In a sincere effort to meet them where they are, you believe that when conflict arises, the most rational thing to do is to reason with them.

However, it is not.

Imagine this scenario (which may or may not be strongly based upon multiple interactions I have had with students over the last few years):

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

“Mira, there is no talking during bell work. That’s your verbal warning,” I say as I continue taking attendance.

*First rookie mistake. I had a perfect opportunity to go over to Mira’s desk and remind her of the expectations privately. Instead, I responded to her in front of the whole class, perhaps because I wanted all the students to know that I strictly enforce my expectations. Now she will feel the need to save face in front of her peers.

“But I broke my pencil,” Mira (reasonably) objects. “I was just asking for a new one.”

“I understand that,” I reply. “However, we all know that during bell work, there is no talking unless you raise your hand and I call on you. We’ve discussed before how beginning class silently helps all of you get focused more quickly and how it frees me to take attendance and prepare for class.”

*Second rookie mistake. I not only am prolonging the conversation, I am attempting to reason with Mira – to show her that my expectations are logical and necessary. Now she will feel the need to show me that her behavior is logical and necessary.

“But if I didn’t have a pencil, I wouldn’t be able to do my bell work at all,” she responds.

Heads begin to turn. There are murmurs of agreement.

“True,” I reply calmly. “But if that situation happens, you can just raise your hand and let me know you need a new pencil. Please get back to work.”

*Third rookie mistake. It’s too late now to offer alternative solutions. I’m just prolonging this conversation now because I want to show her that I’m right.

Mira, encouraged by the glances and murmurs around her, continues. “But I didn’t want to disturb you. It’s not like it’s a big deal. I just needed a pencil.”

Realizing the situation is getting out of hand, I realize too late that I need to stop it. I say, “Okay, Mira. We can talk about this after class.”

*Fourth rookie mistake. In an effort to diffuse the situation and to try to be reasonable, I have inadvertently given a consequence – staying after class. Now Mira feels as though I have been unjust. This whole interaction has taken place publicly, in front of her peers. Being the sixteen-year-old who is dedicated to the core adolescent principles fairness, justice, and looking good, she cannot simply let it go.

“But that’s not fair! I just needed a pencil! You can’t keep me after class for that!”

… the situation disintegrates from there. You get the idea.

There are multiple things going on here, but one of the most important ones was my desire to reason with Mira in front of her peers. I wanted her to understand why she should not ask Angela for a pencil during bell work. I thought that if she understood my reasoning, she and the rest of the class would cooperate and approve of my wisdom.

As you can see, that is not the case.

Do not – I repeat – do not attempt to reason with your students in the middle of class. You can attempt such a thing later, in private. You can reason with them as a group while discussing a hypothetical situation, as I do when discussing consequences for cheating or giving a brief rationale for certain procedures at the beginning of the year.

But providing a rationale for your real-time actions during class only gives students the opportunity to argue with you.

And if you give them that opportunity, they’ll take it with gusto.

Here’s how I should have handled the situation:

According to rehearsed and well-established procedures, my kids walk through the door of my classroom, take their seats, and begin their bell work silently.

Then one student breaks her pencil. She whispers to the student next to her, “Hey, Angela, can I borrow one of your pencils?”

Angela does not respond verbally but hands her a new pencil.

Immediately, in full view of other students but with the clear intention of being discreet, I walk over to Mira and kneel down by her desk as she is working. I whisper,

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

In 90% of these kinds of situations, that intervention is enough. Because I have kept my interaction with Mira as private as possible AND shown her that I understand why she behaved as she did, she will not feel the need to argue with me. And because I have not attempted to reason with her – I have only reminded her of the expectations – she will not feel the need to defend her actions.

Some kids, however, may respond anyway. Luckily, since I have already framed the conversation as a private one, this is the likely alternative scenario:

“But I needed a new pencil, Ms. Shea,” Mira responds quietly.

“I understand that. In the future, just raise your hand for me or go over to the supply table in the back of the room where you can borrow one.”

In this case, I can offer Mira an alternative solution since we are having a private conversation. Most of the time, this approach will work and there will be no public confrontation at all.

In other situations, you might get a student who wants to argue with you from the get-go. In that case, you still should not attempt to reason with the student. The best thing to do is to simply repeat the directions like a broken record.

“Hey, Mira. I know you were just asking for a pencil. But we all need to be silent during bell work. That’s your verbal warning for today.”

“But I just needed a pencil. Can’t I ask a friend for a pencil?”

Remaining by her desk, still in private conversation mode with a whisper or very quiet tone: “Get back to work, please.”

Student responds as I walk away: “But unless I got the pencil from Angela, I wouldn’t be able to do it!”

Return to her desk in order to maintain private mode. Still use a calm, quiet tone. “Get back to work, please.”

“But I wasn’t trying to distract anybody.”

“Get back to work, please.”

Frustrated sigh. Student gets back to work.

There will be rare occasions when the 1) private intervention and 2) broken record approach do not work. But they MUST be tried. And you MUST not reason with your student in front of the class. Save the reasoning for a private conversation outside of class, when the student feels no need to appear triumphant and victorious in front of her peers.

In Defense of Memorization


It is not fashionable these days – nor has it been for some twenty-five years – to advocate for memorization in teaching.

You hear people saying of their favorite teachers, “He wasn’t just about rote memorization” or “She didn’t just make us memorize facts” or “They wanted us to actually appreciate X” — as if memorization somehow necessarily precludes appreciation.

Even in ACE, which inevitably adopts some of the latest teaching theories (often for good but sometimes not), I remember getting the impression that having my students internalize “enduring understandings” was far more important than having them internalize “facts.”

The National Education Association’s article last year has a title that sums up the popular view quite well: “Deeper Learning: Moving Students Beyond Memorization.”

Reread that title again, and think about the either-or logical fallacy it is using.

An excerpt:

The focus on memorization, fueled by standardized testing, has obstructed learning, according to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, who argues that students have been losing or squandering most of the information they acquire in school.

But if that information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. Enter “deeper learning” – the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations. Students “transfer” knowledge rather than just memorize it. The benefits of deeper learning, says Darling-Hammond, can’t be overstated. (Luke Towler)

It’s interesting that Towler says memorization is “fueled by standardized testing.” At least in terms of the ACT or SAT, memorization will not get you very far at all. These are skills-based tests that care very little whether or not you know what synecdoche is or what year the first Constitutional Congress met or even if you can articulate the definition of an independent clause.

It is true that the SAT and ACT are the kinds of tests one must learn how to attack — students who spend lots of money on tutoring institutions which study how theses tests work usually do far better than those who go in blind. But this sort of thing has very little to do with memorization.

Note the definition of “deeper learning” in Towler’s article: “the process of fusing content knowledge with real-world situations” (emphasis added). I can’t tell you how many times, as a teacher, I have been told to make content more relevant for my kids by making it “real-world” applicable.

The implication, of course, is that memorization of facts, no matter how true or important those facts are, will not prepare you for the “real world.” By which term, I suspect, these people mean the “world” of business and money and career. This, for them, is the “real world.”

My first couple of years of teaching, I remember myself saying to students who were anxiously peppering me before their tests, “Don’t worry, you do not have to have all of the names of the characters in The Scarlet Letter memorized — what is far more important to me is that you can discuss their internal motivations, etc.”

They would always sigh with relief. “Internal motivations” can be faked. Names and dates cannot.

I, too, often assumed a dichotomy between memorization and deeper understanding. As if memorization is easy and understanding is hard, or as if memorization is shallow and understanding sophisticated.

And yet when I went to the University of Dallas, I was required during my junior year summative project on poetry to — you guessed it — memorize a poem.

Of course, you had to do more than that.

After having dedicated your entire intellectual – (and, I would argue, emotional) – life to a great poet for a semester, you had to choose an “exemplary” poem and memorize it. This poem of your choosing had to be one that “exemplified” the key characteristics of your poet. After memorizing it, you had to prepare an explication of the poem that you presented two a panel of three professors, who afterwards would bombard you with any questions about your poet’s body of work that they wished.

In his well-written Atlantic article, “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning”, Ben Orlin argues “Raw rehearsal is the worst way to learn something. It eats up time and requires no real thinking.”

Well, yes. It does eat up time. I spent many hours practicing “An Event” by Richard Wilbur with my college friends that I could have spent instead thinking deeply about how meter affects meaning or how Frost and Stevens had influenced Wilbur’s style.

To make matters worse, most junior poet veterans advised us to memorize more than one poem. So I also memorized “The Beautiful Changes,” “A Baroque Wall Fountain in the Villa Sciarra,” “October Maples: Portland” and a few Emily Dickinson poems for good measure.

Yet I found, at least with poetry, that “raw rehearsal” requires a good deal of “real thinking.” In fact, you cannot really know a poem well unless you memorize it – unless you make it a part of you – unless you allow its sound, its structure, its diction to become so ingrained in your subconscious mind that when you see the wind jostling the leaves on the oak tree, you think to yourself,

I crave Him grace of Summer Boughs,

If such an Outcast be –

Who never heard that fleshless Chant –

Rise – solemn – on the Tree […]

(Emily Dickinson, “321”)

Or, when you see autumn in its New England glory, you say to yourself:

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.

(Richard Wilbur, “October Maples: Portland”)

As I said in my previous post, having poems committed to memory in your emotional arsenal equips you very well for the complexities of life. Even if I cannot fully articulate my experience of losing my students year after year, Elizabeth Bishop can.

And if you don’t like poetry very much, you probably do like songs. And we learn songs by heart for much the same reason. Music can express for us what otherwise cannot be expressed. Even my high school students understand that.

I would agree with the post-modern educational elite that memorization, by itself, is not a very high level of thinking. But I would also insist that it is a prerequisite for deeper thinking in many fields, especially literature. And I suspect the same is true for math, science and social studies as well.

If Calvin (see above cartoon) knows the pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620, and knows a few more meaningless dates besides, he has the groundwork for constructing a timeline for American history in his head.

For Catholics, Christians, and Jews, memorization is a key part of the spiritual life. Jesus evidently had many of the Psalms engraved upon his heart, such that even in his last agony on the Cross, he found expression for his suffering in the words of Psalm 22.

Mary, too, composed her Magnificat with the songs of Miriam in Ex 15:21, Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10, Deborah in Judges 5 clearly in mind (see Biblegateway).

Their “rote memorization” of biblical texts, probably in childhood, clearly paved the way for a deeper understanding of God’s mysterious working in their later lives.

Memorized texts, poems and facts cannot, by themselves, make an educated mind. But they can lay the groundwork. They can give the human heart things to hold onto when faced with true mystery.