Classroom Discussions

You know it’s been an intense few weeks when I haven’t had the time or energy to write a blog post!

In the meantime, here is a great video on creating productive classroom discussions. This teacher is using “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor – and she slips in a nice definition of grace:

 

Since it is the Ides of March, check out this version of Julius Caesar I have been watching with my kids as we make our way through a unit on persuasive techniques:

 

I find this unit to be very timely. We have been using excerpts from the Republican and Democratic debates to identify and explain pathos, logos, ethos — as well as plenty of logical fallacies.

I have been doing my best to restrain myself in not drawing too many analogies between the events of the play and current events in the U. S.

“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Marullus says to the Roman people as they take a day off of work to celebrate Caesar’s conquests.

Three Pseudo-Christian Approaches

Some two and a half years ago, Pope Francis told us about the Christian way to encounter God in the world:

“We need to touch Jesus’ wounds, caress Jesus’ wounds, bind them with tenderness; we must kiss Jesus’ wounds, literally. Just think: what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed. To touch the living God”, Pope Francis concluded, “we do not need to attend a ‘refresher course’ but to enter into the wounds of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, VIS)

Read the rest of it here: Vatican Information Service

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via thoughtsfromacatholic.wordpress.com

In this homily, the Pope contrasts this Christian approach of touching the wounds of Jesus with three other approaches: the “Gnostic” approach (pursing “knowledge of God” rather than a relationship with the God-Man, Jesus Christ), the “Philanthropist” approach (doing good things, creating the Kingdom of God rather than working to receive it as a gift) and the “mortification” approach (earning one’s way to God through self-denial).

These three approaches are what you could call “pseudo-Christian”. Each has an element of Christianity in it, but each neglects something or exaggerates something.

As a teacher, especially a former ACE teacher, I think I am very much tempted to adopt these mistakes:

1) The Gnostic Approach: Let’s face it, I’m what Flannery O’Connor disparagingly calls a “big intellectual”. So are a lot of people who went to liberal arts colleges. We thrive on ideas, and connections, and relationships, and books. We love learning ABOUT God. But of course, that is not the same as learning to know God. The former is fascinating, the latter is frightening–and causes us to change. Gnosticism treats one’s relationship with God as an elite journey into higher levels of spiritual knowledge and tends to either despise the world or ignore it.

2) The Philanthropist Approach: ACE teachers, and members of other service organizations, are especially prone to this error I think. The theology goes something like this: Jesus was always talking about “The Kingdom of God.” This “Kingdom” is “the reign of God on earth,” or a society founded upon peace and justice. As Christians, we are responsible for creating this society by opposing and changing the pre-existing unjust structures.

There IS a lot of truth to this approach–but like all distortions, it’s all the more dangerous because it has only part of the truth. This was the Christianity I learned in high school and many learn at colleges that are comfortable professing only the parts of the faith that no secular person could be offended by.

The philanthropist’s mistake is a misunderstanding of what “The Kingdom of God” really is. Notice Jesus never says, “Go out and build the kingdom of God, and as soon as you manage that, I’ll come back!” He says “The Kingdom of God is at hand” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That is, the Kingdom is the gift of God’s presence that we can choose to participate in or reject–but it is not something we can bring about by our own efforts.

Often I think it’s up to me to change education single-handedly. Really, it’s God’s work in which He invites me to participate.

3) The Mortification Approach: This is the approach that, I believe, the Philanthropist approach (ie. “Spirit of Vatican II) was trying to correct. This more “traditional” mistake falls too far in the other direction– it makes the journey of faith a bunch of requirements. It encourages people to remove themselves from the sinful world and focus on personal acts of self-denial and good works. It is rigid and prideful. It’s the error of the Pharisees.

Interestingly, it makes the same fundamental mistake as the Philanthropist approach: it relies far too heavily upon human effort and not enough upon God’s grace. Unsurprisingly, the Self-Mortifier and the Philanthropist fall into similar sins of pride and lack of charity toward others.

The Christian approach, according to Pope Francis, is quite different. Unlike the Gnostic, who prizes knowledge and esoteric ways of knowing God, the Christian realizes that knowledge of God is available to everyone, and that the only real way to know God is through love. Unlike the Philanthropist, who focuses only on trying to bring about a utopia on earth, the Christian remembers he is a citizen of heaven and that the Kingdom is a gift, not a political agenda. Unlike the Self-Mortifier, who focuses so much on his idea of heaven and his own advancement in the spiritual life that he cuts himself off from the world, the Christian is willing to walk boldly into the mess to find Jesus in everyone he meets.

If there were another Narnia book

There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…

Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.

This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.

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Now then–

The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created just for them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.

They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.

There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:

  1. Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
  2. Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
  3. We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.

Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.

But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.

The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.

And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

I was crushed.

Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.

Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan? 

And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?

If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:

It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.

My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.

Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.

I’ve written about the connection between faith and memory before, and so have Popes Francis and Benedict in Lumen Fidei. How often does our faith in God waver because we forget what he is really like?  How often do we sin because we forget ourselves?

How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”

In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.

But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).

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Concept Art via Narniafans.com

Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:

“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”

via Matthew Alderman, “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things

His words still echo in my mind.

I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?

I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.

And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.

Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.

Neither is ours.

I can see the beginning chapter now.

They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…

The Force needs five more minutes…

#spoileralert. #nerdalert.

You have been warned!

I was reading a review of “The Force Awakens” the other day and the author mentioned a simple but illuminating lens through which to critique movies (and really any type of story). He said that he always looks at setting, plot, and character. For him, the newest Star Wars movie excels in creating setting and character, but does not do so well with plot (especially towards the end). He’s right. I wish I remembered where I read his review. If I find it again I will link to it here.

I found this lens very helpful when trying to sort through my feelings about “The Force Awakens.”

The characters (especially the new ones) are endearing. Lots of people have mentioned how captivating Rey is and how one inevitably wants to root for her. Finn, although he is given some clumsy lines, is also very lovable and the idea of  a stormtrooper going rogue is new and intriguing. Oscar Isaac makes Poe’s relatively short screen time feel important. And Kylo Ren is angsty and dangerous and interesting in the best way– the whole point is that he isn’t as cool as Darth Vader, and Adam Driver shows us his character’s weaknesses so well.

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This is really cool. source: makingstarwars.net

The setting feels like Star Wars. The practical effects Abrams promised us were great. Seeing old star destroyers and x-wings submerged in sand on Jakku was pretty moving. The cantina–er, Maz’s castle–was full of weird and quirky puppets. And the final lightsaber battle found a perfect backdrop in that creepy snowy forest.

But the plot… well, that’s where the movie falters. The plot works pretty well for the first half of the movie — the problem (finding Luke) is set up in the text crawl, new characters are rapidly introduced, we become invested in them as their paths cross and they seem to approach that original problem… but then all of a sudden finding Luke is sidelined. Halfway through the movie, we’re suddenly facing the planet-destroyer threat. It provides a convenient backdrop for Poe’s trench-run and Han’s death, but none of it feels earned.  I understood why Abrams chose to model some of the events after Episode IV, (Rey on a desert planet, a droid with a mission, a reluctant hero, etc.) and I am okay with him repeating the the overall story arc–it’s the Hero’s Journey archetype, after all–but that bigger and more ridiculous death star that came out of nowhere was pretty annoying. It felt cheap. So did the sudden discovery of Anakin’s lightsaber in Maz’s castle. When Han rightly asks her, “How’d you get that?”, she (and Abrams) cop out. “That’s a story for another time.”

No, actually, it’s not. If this movie really was about finding Luke Skywalker, as the text-crawl originally suggested, then the time to tell (better, to witness) the story of that lightsaber is now.

There were choppy places–as if certain scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. Plot threads hinted at but never fully developed.

I love this meme, but on another level I think it explains movie’s weakness quite well:

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source: imgur.com

I think The Force Awakens needed five more minutes (literally and figuratively speaking) to be the great movie it could have been. The second half of the movie felt rushed and haphazard, although there were some good moments. If the writers had spent more time — even five more minutes— on crafting a story that was all about finding Luke Skywalker, and actually explored the question Abrams has said made him want to make the movie in the first placeWho is Luke Skywalker?– we would have had a great movie.

But shifting gears halfway through to the stupid Starkiller Base introduced a competing, and inferior, problem for the heroes to solve. By the time Poe had his trench run, there wasn’t any time left to finish the real story arc introduced in the text crawl. So R2D2 miraculously “awakens” and somehow has the rest of BB8’s map in his system. Rey sails away on the Millenium Falcon in the last two minutes and finds Luke far too easily–because there was no time for anything else.

The movie ceased to be about Luke and the nature of the force or anything really compelling and instead became an inferior rehash of “A New Hope”. Oh no, there’s another planet-destroying weapon. We need to disable the shields and blow it up. Except that our main hero–Rey– does not blow it up or save the day, as Luke did in the original, because her character belongs to the original plot arc of the movie.

We are left with carefully crafted cliffhangers–what’s Luke been up to all this time? how will Leia deal with the loss of Han? what will Ren’s “further training” involve? who are Rey’s parents, anyway? — to ensure we will be eager to see the sequel. But even those made me feel a bit cheated–as if those questions were carefully placed to entice me to see the next movie, instead of being answered (or not answered) for the sake of this movie’s story. One worries if some of those questions will even be answered at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “The Force Awakens.” The setting and characters charmed and appeased me. Abrams hit a lot of the right notes.

But the faltering plot was disappointing, only because if Abrams had gotten that right–if he hadn’t taken the “quick and easy path”–we really would have had a compelling movie on par with the original trilogy.

 

 

The First Day of School

It’s 8:01, and I am sitting in my classroom on the first day of school. My new students will enter my room in about forty-five minutes.

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There are sticky notes with numbers on every desk. There are Do Nows with seating charts on the back. The Do Now is posted on the Smartboard. The objective is posted. The schedule is posted. The homework is posted. I’ve prayed for my students and for myself and for all teachers – especially ACE teachers on their very first day.

Everything is as ready as it will ever be.

But strangely, when I think about how I want my students to react to their first day of English class with me, and although I’m a little ashamed to admit it, all I can think of is Michael Scott:

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One of the “Pedants”

I’m probably one of the “pedants” Stephen Fry so articulately criticizes.

I’ll admit, my favorite error in high school and college, and one I still commit frequently, is the “split infinitive.” And part of me agrees that language ought to be played with and enjoyed. Or to playfully be enjoyed.

See what I did there?

But I also think there’s sort of a deconstructionist, nothing-really-has-meaning, there-are-no-rules flavor underlying his comments that is both seductive and untrue.

Yes, language does change according to convention. And perhaps there is no such thing as “correctness” as the grammar nazis conceive of it.

But what’s truly amazing is that all languages DO have a certain order, a certain logic and sense to them. You know, kind of like buildings do. Yes, we made them up, so we imposed order on blocks and stones and “worse than senseless things” — but the reason the Pyramids of Giza and Hadrian’s Wall are still standing is because these structures we made up also adhere to the mysterious logic of physics. I would argue the reason language holds up is very similar – because it adheres to a certain logic of the world, of reality.

And it’s the mark of a humble and educated person to try to learn and adhere to that logic. If you break the rules for the sake of creativity and newness, fine – but you should be aware that you are breaking them – as Picasso was aware, and Shakespeare, other great artists.

Otherwise, you’re just a little kid throwing paint or words at a wall, hoping it sticks.

Some people call that art, but I certainly don’t.

Binder Control

I thought I’d share with you some practical things I’m working on this year.

Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion recommends a technique called “Binder Control,” whereby you show your kids how you want them to organize their stuff.

My first year of teaching, I thought this was silly and too elementary for high school kids. Wouldn’t they think I was being a control freak? After this many years of school, didn’t they have their own organization methods?

By the end of my first month, I was cured of that delusion.

Yes, some students will have their own methods. But a majority of them will not. And if everyone keeps your class’ information, handouts, etc. the same way, you will save a lot of time and prevent a lot of “but I can’t find it” or “I left it in my folder back home,” etc.

1. First, I ALWAYS have my kids use binders with loose leaf paper because then you never have to worry about torn pages and scruffy edges.

2. They have 5 labeled dividers, called: Bell Work, Notes/Handouts, Vocabulary, Grammar, Passed Back.

3. This eliminates the question “Where should I put this?” because you always pre-empt it by saying: “Please open your binders to the ______ section.”

4. Make it clear that this binder, appropriately labeled and stocked with college-ruled paper, is a homework assignment due the first week of school. Assure them that if they think they may have any financial or logistical difficulties getting these supplies, that you will provide them. (So have some extra binders, divider labels, and paper on hand). I have offered this for several years and students have NEVER taken advantage of the offer without good reason. It shows them that you care and you are willing to go above and beyond to help them succeed.

5. Make it clear that you will conduct “binder checks” once in a while, and then give them notice ahead of time. “On Friday, while you are working on your quiz, I will be checking your binders for these elements… You can earn up to 5 points.”

People, don’t try to surprise the kids by saying “And now, put your binders on your desks. I am going to check them to make sure you’re all doing what I say.” Any kind of “gotcha” technique creates resentment, not respect.

Master teacher Tyler Hester of TFA even includes pictures in his syllabus:

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source: Tyler Hester HW Binder assignment
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source: Ibid

You’d be surprised at how many of my kids brought binders with no dividers, or binders with no paper, or binders with dividers that weren’t labelled, etc.

 

But I learned something new to add to my “Binder Control” technique this year!

My friend and fellow teacher told me about how she has her kids organize their Notes section by using a table of contents. On the first day you take notes, you explain with them how this process works and why it is helpful.

Here’s a slide of hers that I modified to show them how to correctly format their table of contents. I did this with my students today since we are learning about growth and fixed mindsets:

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The “1.1” stands for Unit 1, Lesson 1. That way, when they are preparing for a quiz or test, you can tell them: “For this assessment you will need Notes 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3”

Make sure they do not write anything else on this table of contents page, front or back.

Then you have them open to a new, fresh page and label it before beginning to take notes:

Slide14

 

Explain to them that this method will also help them if they are ever absent from school. They can ask a friend to for notes and look them up by date.

Fellow teachers: what ideas do you have to help keep your kids organized?

 

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Three

In honor of her feast day, here are some thoughts on one of my very favorite people.

Mysteries and Manners

This is the third and final post in a series on how John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem illuminates Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality. Her devotion to the Cross and her unique perception of the privileged role of women in Christ’s passion is so beautiful.

You can read the earlier posts here:

Part One

Part Two

saint-teresa-benedicta-01Saint Edith Stein’s exploration of the feminine vocation in her writings is inseparable from her exploration of the human being as such, as both male and female. That is, she emphasizes the differences between the souls of men and women, as suggested above, and at the same time she offers an important insight into a common aspect of all human beings that is grounded in scripture. For her, the key to developing the human soul is to discover one’s unique gifts: “The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s…

View original post 1,753 more words

The School Year Cometh

So apparently tomorrow is the first day of school at my old school.

It’s really strange because now there are a couple of ACE teachers there whom I have never met. And they are having their first day tomorrow.

I remember how scared I was on my first day… week… month… of teaching.

Year of teaching.

So, for any current or past ACE teachers – any teachers at all – who are reading this: I am thinking of you, and praying for you! You got this. Love on those kids and make some mistakes.

Here’s some inspiration from one of my favorite teachers of all time, Tyler Hester:

 

[UPDATE]

The school year cometh for me, too.

I spent four or five hours in my new classroom today, rearranging desks, making signs, revising my syllabus, sitting in different student desks so I could see what they will be seeing on August 25th…

…putting up Calvin and Hobbes cartoons in appropriate places…

I am so. excited. and. so. nervous.

I feel like it’s hard to explain to  a lot of people. “Didn’t last year go well? Why do you have to reinvent everything? Use the stuff that worked before.”

Because I know I can do it better.

I’m designing a new late work policy, a new homework policy, a tighter consequences system… Yes, everything worked okay last year, but I didn’t like it that some kids just didn’t do their homework ever but managed to pass my class anyway. I didn’t like using “participation points” for behavior management, even though it worked well. There must be something else, something better. I didn’t like it that the Honors class did not read twice as much as the regular class, that I did not push them like I could have.

There were things I did like: proposing Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” at the beginning of the year, picking grammar concepts to focus on based on the Summer Reading essays and their following revisions, the quote board in the back of my room, the passing-in papers competition between the classes.

How could one ever get bored with teaching?

If I ever do, I hope I quit. Because if I’m bored or I think it’s easy, that means I’ve lost the love of it and I’m not serving my kids anymore.

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