7 Quick Takes Friday (2/7/14)

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Last Friday I mentioned the Pope’s powerful words to the University of Notre Dame, and how I hoped the university would really take them to heart.

In particular, I said:

I mean, I don’t want to foist my own personal biased political agenda (albeit backed up by Church teaching) on Pope Francis’ words, but that sounds a lot to me like: Don’t back down on the HHS mandate. Don’t give in. Don’t be like everybody else. (See last Friday’s post)

However, my dad brought an article to my attention by Richard W. Garnett, a current law professor at ND, entitled “Solidarity, Not a Scolding.” He argues that interpretations (like mine) that discern a critical tone in the Pope’s message are off the mark:

Surfing around the more “conservative” sectors of the Catholic blogosphere, though, one might get the impression that Pope Francis had called the university on the carpet for a Petrine scolding, or for a finger-wagging session dedicated to chastising Notre Dame for its various failings, or for marching orders regarding the handling of the university’s lawsuit challenging the HHS contraception-coverage mandate. (Garnett via National Review)

And, quite honestly, Garnett does a good job of explaining his view. Perhaps I was too hasty in detecting a critical tone in Pope Francis’ words. I thought about this for a while and reread the message, as well as Garnett’s article.

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But then I remembered that I am a teacher. And though it sounds absurd to compare myself to Pope Francis, I feel like I recognize what he is up to as the primary teacher of Catholics and Catholic institutions.

He is teaching, and he is using the method my karate instructor used to call “praise, correct, praise.”

Yes, Pope Francis is very laudatory about Notre Dame’s “outstanding contribution to the Church” over the years and its “commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason and in the pursuit of truth and virtue.” He praises the university for what she has done well.

But I think the critique remains. He then uses the subjunctive mood–“shoulds” and “oughts”–and speaks of what the ideal Catholic university ought to do in more general terms.

Finally, he ends his message with an uplifting, encouraging tone.

Praise. Correct. Praise.

I do the same thing when some of my kids are misbehaving or, at least, thinking about it:

“Good job staying focused, Andrew and Emily. All of you should be writing silently and answering the question on the board to the best of your ability. The best answers will not only be in complete sentences, they should also carefully explain the evidence they provide, Peter. Nicely done – keep up the hard work, everyone.”

You see?

I am correcting and critiquing certain behaviors without drawing undue attention to them. I am focusing instead on what the kids ought to be doing in order to remind them.

I think Pope Francis was doing something very similar.

But Garnett argues:

To the extent [Pope Francis] was being critical, the object of his criticism is not the university for its alleged half-stepping but those “quarter[s]” — such as the United States Department of Health and Human Services — that are trying to undermine and dilute Catholic universities’ and institutions’ “uncompromising witness” and commitment to “missionary discipleship.” (Garnett, Ibid)

But Pope Francis was not speaking to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. He was speaking to the administrators of Notre Dame–the ones who are actually in control of the university’s “uncompromising witness” and “missionary discipleship.” While I agree his critique of entities that are seeking to undermine the Catholic identities of American schools is evident, I also think it’s clear that he is addressing these remarks to the people who have the responsibility to resist such forces.

What do you think?

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Speaking of Pope Francis’ praise-correct-praise style of teaching–

My friend Molly recommended the Pope’s Message for World Youth Day: “Resist ‘low cost’ offers of happiness and embrace the revolutionary Beatitudes.”

You should really read this address. It is beautiful and motivating.

It also demonstrates the pope’s awareness of one of the primary weaknesses of young people: the tendency to embrace easy happiness rather than lasting happiness.

To be blessed means to be happy. Tell me: Do you really want to be happy? In an age when we are constantly being enticed by vain and empty illusions of happiness, we risk settling for less and “thinking small” when it come to the meaning of life. Think big instead! Open your hearts! As Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati once said, “To live without faith, to have no heritage to uphold, to fail to struggle constantly to defend the truth: this is not living. It is scraping by. We should never just scrape by, but really live” (Letter to I. Bonini, 27 February 1925).

Text from page http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/02/06/pope%E2%80%99s_message_for_wyd:_resist_%E2%80%9Clow_cost%E2%80%9D_offers_of_happiness_and/en1-770756
of the Vatican Radio website

Notice that the Pope is pointing out an error — the error of “scraping by,” the error of “settling”– that so many of us (young and old alike) struggle with. But he sandwiches this critique (for lack of a better verb) between encouraging images.

The young people don’t end up feeling criticized or judged, even though they have been given the opportunity to examine their own consciences.

As a teacher of young people myself, I know how important this is. Yes, sometimes I need to be harsh with them and be more explicit in my criticism–but these occasions are rare. Most of the time my students respond best to encouragement and challenge.

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Speaking of encouragement and challenge–

I finally shuffled my way through a mountain of essays. I was a little disappointed in a lot of the essays, and thus my comments on the papers were copious and critical. My kids repeatedly forget their audience. They assume their readers can read their minds, and they don’t see the need to thoroughly explain evidence.

Most distressing of all was that errors we had discussed and learned how to fix many times before– unclear pronoun references, pronoun / antecedent disagreement, lack of parallelism, etc. — kept occurring.

Even worse, it was obvious that some of the kids had not really put any effort into proofreading.

source: scifi.stackexchange.com
source:
scifi.stackexchange.com

So, really, I was frustrated.

But telling them I was disappointed wouldn’t do anyone good, except perhaps to relieve my own feelings.

So I did my best to find the things they DID do well – like the thesis sentences (granted I gave them a formula for this) and the much-improved conclusion paragraphs. I made sure to tell my classes what they had done well first, and then I explained to them that I was going to give them a more structured way to explain evidence and be sensitive to the audience:

Quote Sandwiches.

They look like this at their most basic level:

source: ereadingworksheets.blogspot.com
source:
ereadingworksheets.blogspot.com

But you wouldn’t believe how challenging they can actually be for many of these kids.

The top piece of bread is Context – and I broke this down further and told the kids they had to tell me two things: 1) Where in the poem the quote is from and 2) what they plan to do with it / their topic sentence.

The nutella in the middle (I always call it nutella) is the quote itself, incorporated using one of the four methods I taught them last semester.

The bottom piece of bread is the analysis. Again, I explained this more simply: 1) Paraphrase what the quote means in your own words and 2) Explain how this quote proves your topic sentence.

I hope this helps them.

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My friend Mary, who teaches 3rd graders, suggested that I watch this video.

If you are a teacher, you will love this.

Even though this video is about addition, the struggle it reveals is something I encounter on a daily basis with high school kids. How do you help students do their own thinking when sometimes it seems like… they can’t… think…?

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Caveat:

I guess I’m sounding pretty darn critical about my students. But actually I am also impressed with them many times!

For instance, I replayed my evidence-experiment-scenario I first explored my first year of teaching with my honors students this week, and then had them discuss the meaning of seeking the truth in a poem, and how using evidence factors into that.

I did it more gently, of course, and with a lot more thought and preparation than I had when I tore about poor Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson.

My honors kids did really well, and even gave me a lot of suggestions about how I could do a better job of encouraging truth-seeking in my classroom.

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I mean, this is my dream job.

So I look like this most of the time:

happy-teacher
source: hecticparents.com
Hectic parents? How about hectic teachers?

7 Quick Takes Friday (1/24/14)

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Obituaries usually make me feel sad. This one made me feel really happy. It’s an obituary all of us can aspire to having someday.

You should read it:

“If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop.”

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I am a recent alum of the University of Notre Dame. Although I have not developed the same love for the school that I probably would have if I had attended as an undergraduate, I do love her a lot. Notre Dame is a wonderful place. It’s one of the few Catholic universities that still cares about being Catholic.

Moreover, I remember being surprised and pleased when Notre Dame lead the charge on the HHS Mandate back in 2012…

…but it looks like the university is giving in after all, for the time being:

“Today, the university advised employees — myself included — that its third-party administrator (Meritain Health) would be in touch about the ‘free’ services — which include abortifacient drugs and devices,” noted Gerard Bradley, a professor at the Notre Dame School of Law, in a post on National Review’s Bench Memos.

“[T]he university could refuse to ‘certify’ its conscientious objection to the TPA, thus holding back on the trigger necessary for Meritain to initiate coverage,” said Bradley, who expressed regret with the university’s apparent decision to sign the self-certification form authorizing a third-party administrator (TPA) to provide the mandated services.

“The reasons for doing so would be, as Notre Dame asserted in its formal complaint in the local federal court, that so ‘triggering’ the coverage would be tantamount to facilitating abortions in violation of the university’s Catholic beliefs,” added Bradley, who noted that the Jan. 2 announcement “implies that the university has indeed pulled that trigger.”  (Joan Desmond, National Catholic Register)

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The South Bend Tribune has even more sad news, that several ND students have sought to fight the University’s lawsuit because they are “very much in need of contraception” and “hopeful that they would finally be able access it,” according to Ayesha Khan of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Shearer points out, with an incisive response:

They [the students] are privileged to attend a university with a distinctive Catholic identity, and one would assume that, given their admission and the effort expended seeking legal counsel from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, they have both the intellect and resources to locate one of the two local Planned Parenthood clinics, either of which would be happy to help them with their contraceptive needs. Should they not wish to avail themselves of that organization’s services, a visit to any public health clinic or a general practitioner will likely result in a prescription for “the pill” which may then be procured at a quite reasonable cost at any given Walmart or Walgreens. Any notion that they “would finally be able to obtain access to it” (contraception) only in the event of university provision of it is absurd.

Birth control of all sorts is readily available in this area, from multiple venues at a cost, in general, which imposes little to no burden upon the user, thus not requiring denigration of the values of the institution to which they are supposedly committed in intellectual, if not spiritual, harmony. (Shearer, “Student’s Role in Notre Dame Lawsuit Utter Nonsense”)

You should read the entirety of Shearer’s excellent response here.

For better or worse, Notre Dame is in many ways the flagship of Catholic universities. She is wealthy and influential. When Notre Dame speaks, people listen. She carries a huge responsibility to be faithful to her mission, “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake,” and to the “basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and [to] the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion.” (ND Mission Statement)

I hope that the leaders of Notre Dame will be faithful to that mission, and to encouraging all members of the university to be faithful as well.

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Over at Cosmos in the Lost, Mr. Rosman says, “Writing really is a process of discovery, a form of thinking. You don’t know what you’ll end up writing until you actually sit down and write it.”

I love this – and I repeat this idea all the time to my students. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “I write to discover what I know.”

I was especially intrigued by the title of Mr. Rosman’s post: “Everything Under the S(u/o)n: Von Balthasar’s and Milosz’s God Metaphors.”

If you know me, then you know that Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of my favorite theologians. I wrote my theology thesis about his work in Theo-Logic.

Go read Rosman’s post to find out what those God metaphors are.

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Richard Wilbur notes that metaphor is the grounding of human language and thought–which is partially why metaphor is so essential to poetry. If you think about it, many of the everyday phrases we use to describe reality are, in fact, metaphors. We don’t notice this anymore because some metaphors have become so common they don’t even seem figurative or poetic:

“I need a minute to digest what you’ve said.”   Thinking:Eating

“Keep your eyes peeled!”  Eyes: Fruit? Potato?

“That’s music to my ears!”  Some statement: music

“That assignment was a breeze!”  Assignment: breeze

“She broke his heart.” Heart: Something delicate and breakable, like china.

“They didn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” Elephant: awkward truth

See here and here for more examples.

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Father James Martin, SJ, is always showing up on my Facebook newsfeed and making insightful statuses about prayer or suggesting interesting articles like this one over at America magazine:

“Truth and Truthiness: What Catholic Catechists Can Learn from Stephen Colbert”

A taste:

Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. […] Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result. (Patrick Manning)

Really great article that even brings in Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine.

As a very imperfect teacher, what Manning says really resonates (uncomfortably) with me. I’m not Stephen Colbert–but it is the Stephen Colberts of the world who reach their audiences and effect change. They entertain, instruct and persuade.

All good teachers do this. You can’t really get around the entertaining part, either.

Especially in a high school classroom.

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Speaking of high school classrooms, my classroom is going to be transformed into a coffee shop next week! Complete with coffee. And donuts. And tea. And yes, you may bring in muffins. Yes, breakfast burritos are okay, too. No, you may not come in dressed as a beat poet with a black beret. You have to stay in uniform. Yes, as I said before, coffee is okay. Yes, Starbucks too.

My students will be reciting their poems on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. So if you could spare a prayer for them, it would mean a lot to me.