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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Reading to Learn and Learning to Read

There are lots of assumptions about high school students you have to get rid of when you become a teacher.

The first is that most high school students know how to read.

This group of kiddos, born around the year 2000 (!), grew up with internet, cellphones and an increasingly frantic cultural emphasis on the soundbite, the status update, and the hashtag. It’s sobering to realize that most of them do not remember dial-up.

Even when I was in elementary school, computer typing classes with boxy, green-screen machines were in vogue. Judging by the widespread pushes in education nowadays about iPads for every child, I can only imagine that for many of my kids technology already was a big part of their elementary school experience – Smartboards, Youtube videos, Powerpoints, even “educational” video games… again, useful vehicles for condensing information into small, digestible bites.

Baby food, but not meat and potatoes.

The point is that unless these high school students had parents who read to them every night, access to lots of books, encouragement from their families, and a special type of intellectual thirst that can’t be quenched by television or wikipedia, they inevitably suffer from an inability to read in order to learn. 

They are still too busy learning how to read for extended periods of time in the first place.

Unfortunately, in high school, most textbooks assume that you already know how to read. Most teachers do, too. For social studies you might be assigned a chapter about the origins of the American revolution and quizzed the next day, under the assumption that you learned something from reading it (or that you read the chapter tat all). Or in science you read a chapter about mitosis and meiosis and later you’re expected to explain the process yourself. Or even in math, the text gives you charts and graphs and directions – and sometimes even word problems – and you must have both sides of your brain working at once to tackle the problem.

But of course all that kind of reading requires a lot of patience, mental stamina and an awareness (learned in fairytales and other classic literature) that people often do not say what they mean, nor do they really mean what they say. But if you haven’t read about deceptive witches and foolish greedy children who eat Turkish delight, then you come into high school totally unprepared for the biases and hidden agendas sprinkled throughout most texts you encounter.

I find myself, when teaching, trying to find ways to make complex directions and concepts as short and simple as possible. I have even adopted catchy phrases to help my kids remember how to write thesis statements (“A is B because of 1, 2, 3!”) and explain quotes (“remember, quotes can’t speak for themselves!”) and even sit up straight (“SLANT!”). That is what the teacher books tell me to do.

I’m trying to meet my kids where they are, so that’s okay I guess. But sometimes with my own use of Youtube videos, graphic organizes, and gimmicks, I feel like I’m exacerbating the problem and catering to their infirmities rather than helping them learn how to really read.

I’m not saying that all my students suffer from this malady. I do have a few very strong readers – far better than I was at their age. But year after year, that number is growing smaller. And I am faced, as an English literature teacher, with introducing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dante’s Inferno to a group of people who need to learn how to read before they can to read in order to understand.

High school teachers are not themselves prepared to teach reading. Our own certification is based largely on our content knowledge – not on our ability to impart basic skills. There are many times when I wish I had been in ACE’s middle school or even elementary English content class so that I would have a better grasp of how children learn how to read in the first place.

It’s very difficult to teach someone how to do something you don’t remember learning how to do yourself. This is true with teaching writing but even more true of teaching reading. All I can remember is being constantly read to and suddenly — seemingly out of nowhere — reading C. S. Lewis for myself. I doubt this was the actual course of events but that is the way I remember it. And I read Lewis in order to learn – because I was curious about miracles and the problem of pain and all the rest of it.

Unfortunately, many of my kids read in order to avoid bad grades. Or to get good ones. Or they simply don’t read.

Cris Tovani, a reading strategies specialist, has been a huge help to me in the last few years in breaking down the complexities of the reading process. If you are at a high school teacher like me, often at a loss as to how to bridge the gap of years of little reading in your kids, check out her books.

You’d be reading to learn yourself – but perhaps eventually you’ll be able to pass that invaluable skill on to your students.

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source: smilingldsgirl.com

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How I Start the School Year

 

For the last 2 years in a row, I have begun my school year teaching “Growth Mindset” as an integral part of my introductory writing unit. It was a good way to go since usually the summer reading essays are pretty bad (no matter what they learned freshmen year) and many students tend to feel discouraged when they first get those papers back, covered in red pen.

This year, I’m actually going to just devote my first two weeks to 1) classroom culture and procedures and 2) growth mindset.

We’ll tackle essay writing in Unit 2.

One thing I’m really excited about is the Retake Policy I and another former ACE teacher at my school introduced last year.

I feel like my grading policies now really do reflect what I “preach” about growth mindset.

Basic grading policy:

  1. ONLY assessments are included in the gradebook. That means no homework or completion or “participation” grades. Only quizzes, tests, essays, presentations. In other words, their grades now reflect only standards-aligned learning objectives – what they actually mastered.
  2. Students may choose to retake an assessment (within a given timeframe) to show stronger mastery of the learning objective. The highest grade (almost always the second one) will go into the gradebook.  *I’m still deciding whether or not to provide that opportunity only if they did not show basic proficiency the first time – i.e. earn a 75% or lower.
  3. Students must meet with me twice to discuss the mistakes on the first assessment, learn how they can improve, and create a study plan.
  4. Before they actually retake the assessment, they must submit a typed letter that shows their reflection on their mistakes, goals for improvement, and learning process.

I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful this policy was to so many of my kids last year. Poor initial assessment grades, instead of a death sentence to their GPA, became opportunities for growth and deeper learning.

Of course, I cannot force them to engage in the retake process. They must make that choice for themselves. But the ones who did experienced a wonderful transformation in their approach towards school and their own abilities.

Carol Dweck on mindset:

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Everything That Rises

Summer is a good time to be reading Flannery O’Connor again.

On a flight to Boston a few weeks ago I read one of her more disturbing and controversial stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

You can read the full story online here.

The title comes from the philosophical work of a French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and like all of O’Connor’s titles ought to be closely attended to while reading. You can look up excerpts from Chardin’s “The New Spirit” here and try to decipher his complex mystical theology, but just considering O’Connor’s title “innocently,” with the plot of the story in mind, I would guess it could mean that as things “rise” closer to the truth, they also come closer to — that is, “converge” upon — one another.

There are also several instances of “convergence” in the story itself.

Brief summary: the plot centers around a young man (whom Flannery herself would probably call a “big intellectual”) who is bringing his mother to her exercise classes at the local YMCA. He is embarrassed by her racism and narrowness, and she is proud of his college education.

Some instances of convergence that I noticed: The mother’s ugly purple hat, described in detail at the very beginning of the story and a frequent topic of conversation, is echoed by the narrator’s description of the sky: “The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.”

So – the hat and the sky converge? I say that with a complete lack of authority.

Later, the hat comes up again while they ride the bus. A black woman who sits down across from them is wearing the exact same hat as the mother. Despite racial and societal divide between them, they match. (The son is delighted by the irony of this convergence).

The black woman also has her own son. The mother plays with the little boy and condescendingly offers him a penny — which the black woman angrily rejects.

The mother’s intellectual ignorance is matched by her son’s emotional ignorance.

And the son’s persistent judgment and disgust throughout the story is completely reversed at the end to… well, I won’t spoil the ending. If you’ve ever read O’Connor, you know it will be interesting.

But it’s the title itself that continually arrests me – everything that rises must converge – and the following story acts like a lyric poem – responding to the entitle, enfleshing the title, challenging the title – but never really explaining the title. I don’t pretend to understand it.

Still, this short story gives me hope that no matter how twisted and damaged our attempts at truth are, they nevertheless eventually converge into the truth of God, rising little by little until they finally reach His peace.

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source: everythingthatrises.com

 

 

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The Problem with Catholic Schools

I just went to a Young Catholic Professionals event in Denver, and at these events there are usually sponsors who set up tables to advertise their ministries. One table was for a Montessori school, and – being the education nerd that I am – I went right over to it because I know extremely little about Montessori and wanted to learn more.

One of the women at the table, after explaining some of the differences between typical American education and Montessori education, said something that stayed with me.

“We believe,” she said, “That all a child needs is already inside of him. So much of modern education reflects a top-down approach – from standards to curricula to teachers to students. But Montessori is really the opposite. We start with the child and go from there.”

Apart from being a very beautiful and simple summary of the Montessori philosophy, her statement is also a striking reminder that Montessori actually has a philosophy. It has a view of the human person, a view of the purpose of education, and a plan.

I think Catholic education in the United States does not.

Even though the Church itself has a beautiful vision of the human person, Catholic schools have failed to develop (or succeeded in completely losing) a view of the purpose of education and a plan.

Now I’m not about to “jump ship” and become a Montessori teacher – I am not sure exactly how well their methods would play out at the high school level, though I would be very interested to see that. And I don’t have any data about what effect Montessori schools have – or if they really are any better than your typical Catholic schools.

But at least they have a real definition of education.

Another caveat: a very few Catholic schools do have a philosophy of education that is grounded in Church teaching on the human person. But these are usually liberal arts colleges that nobody has ever heard of – and I bet you could count on one hand the number of secondary schools in this country who have such a vision.

MOST Catholic primary and secondary schools, in my experience of them, have no philosophy of education at all. They tend to do what the public schools do, just adding a little here and cutting out a little there. But there is no real sense that Catholic education is, or even ought to be, a qualitatively different thing.

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From the google search “Catholic Education.” Standard Catholic school advertising. via stgeorgeparish.org

Of course, many of us Catholic school people would protest. We like to say things like, “Oh, but a Catholic education involves the whole person [and public education involves what percent, exactly?].” Or, “But we are a school in the Jesuit Tradition and we educate the mind, the body and the soul […so you have typical academics, phys. ed. classes, and the occasional all-school Mass?]” Or “But we’re an authentically Catholic school because we have priests and even nuns!” Or even”The Cardinal Newman Guide loves us!”

But whatever we say, most of us (myself included) cannot articulate what really makes Catholic education different, or better.

So you get to talk about God in religion class. Is that really worth spending $12,000 per year on tuition when I could go to a decent public school, or better yet, a charter school and get the same classes minus religion? (And probably some more competent teachers who actually have teaching degrees?)

Even my education classes at Notre Dame were basically the same sort of fare you would get in any other education program. There were one or two about “teaching in a Catholic school,” but there was no sense at all that what we actually teach or how we actually teach it is fundamentally different. Toss in some talk of “values” and light spirituality and there you are – a Catholic education.

If we want to save Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States, then we really need to step back and articulate a real philosophy of education. Only then can we make clear-headed decisions about curricula, solid teaching practices, and even the Common Core.

Of course, I teach in a Catholic school because I do believe they are fundamentally different – that they have something unique to offer, that they are special somehow. But like the farmer who, when asked about his religious beliefs, replied, “I believe whatever the Church teaches,” I too cannot yet fully explain to you the reasons why.

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Home and the Joyful Mysteries II

In my first post I described something I had never noticed before about the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary – that they all seem to present the idea of home in profound ways.

I was particularly attuned to this idea because I had been looking for a house to rent with a few friends with no success.

The day after praying that rosary, by the way, we got a house!

4. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – God’s House

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem after his circumcision to present Him to the Lord. The Temple was the house of God, the locus of His presence. In the Holy of Holies rested the Ark of the Covenant. So it was God’s earthly home, and the home of His people.

The Jews made yearly pilgrimages to the temple to celebrate the Passover. They remembered their own ancestors’ search for home after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Is that not what the Promised Land was really about? It was to be a place of belonging for the Israelites.

The Psalms speak of the temple with such longing:

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;

I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God

than dwell in the tents of the wicked. (Psalm 84:10)

Even our  word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek nostos, which means homecoming. That’s what Odysseus’ complex, wandering journey was all about. Interestingly, the other part of the word, algos, means “pain” in Greek. So although we have diluted the use of the word in English to a mere sentimentalism, it’s original meaning expresses the fourth mystery of the Rosary quite well.

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via ncregister.org

Interestingly, when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, they encounter Simeon, a mysterious old man who “takes the child in his arms” and prophesies about Jesus’ ultimate destiny as Savior. Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce your heart also” (Lk 2:35). So, although this journey to the Temple is a homecoming in some sense — most profoundly for Jesus, because this is His “Father’s House,” as He will say later — it is an encounter overshadowed by future suffering.

5. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple – God’s house

The fifth Joyful Mystery is very much a sequel to the second. We see Simeon’s prophesy about the sword piercing Mary’s heart coming true already.

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via catholicbookwriter.com

The twelve year old Jesus has been missing for three days, and his parents have been searching for him everywhere. Of course they cannot go “home” to Nazareth without him, and in a deeper sense there really is no such thing as home without him. They finally go to the Temple and find him there, astonishing all of the elders and teachers with his understanding.

Mary, although I imagine very relieved, is understandably still very upset: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is (at first glance) irritating and (at second glance) rather mysterious: “And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

So already Jesus is defining his home, his identity, with God the Father. He seems to take for granted that Mary and Joseph must realize this. His Father’s house is not Joseph’s house in Nazareth, but here in Jerusalem. But later He will no longer identify the temple as his home, but rather will express his homelessness: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).

This, of course, is not literally true. The Gospels identify Peter’s house in Capernaum as a “resting place” for Jesus. And I am sure Mary, if she was not always following among her son’s disciples, would always have welcomed him home to the house in Nazareth. But Jesus is expressing a much more profound homelessness here, the homelessness not only of the “Son of Man,” but of all men.

Finally Jesus will predict the destruction of “my Father’s house” and identify this temple with His own body: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Ultimately Jesus Himself is the locus of God’s presence, not a building or tent of any kind. He gives to all of us our true homecoming.

 

 

 

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Home and the Joyful Mysteries

My prayers, as Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, are more dogged than devout and this is especially the case with the rosary. I do not pray it every day, probably because I find it so difficult, but nevertheless I take comfort in the rosary like I take comfort in the Mass: if you show up, you’re there. Similarly, if you say the prayers, you’ve prayed. You can say with some confidence that you have actually prayed the rosary whether or not your effort felt very successful. This approach might arise from strange mixture of laziness and scrupulosity on my part, but I can tell you in the drier areas of the prayer desert the bare-bones structure of the rosary and of the Mass have helped me a great deal.

Well, today was little different except for the fact that I found something in the Joyful Mysteries I had never noticed before.

Recently I have been very stressed out about finding a new place to live. A couple of friends and I have been on the house hunt since the end of May. Unfortunately, the three of us never seem to be in Denver at the same time this summer. I’m in Boston as I write this. Moreover, the housing market in Denver has become extremely competitive in the last few years, and trying to find an affordable place on three teachers’ salaries is no easy task.

I’ve written before as well how the idea of home has been problematic for me in the past few years, and is also problematic, I imagine, for a lot of transient young adults and likely for many of my own students.

So I suppose homes and houses have been on my mind. But I had never noticed before how much the concept of Home, in all of its spiritual complexity, is present in the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary. And that was the gift I received in prayer today.

1 – The Annunciation – Home in Mary

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Henry Ossawa Turner, “The Annunciation” via ncregister.com

Christian tradition has since ancient times associated Mary with the Church, but also with the Tabernacle of the Lord – that is, the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant, you probably know, was the dwelling place of the Lord of Hosts before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And even after the Temple’s construction, completion, and various re-buildings, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies there. And so Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.

God comes to Mary in this mystery of the rosary to make His home inside of her. Mary’s womb becomes the first home of Jesus, and it is a proper home for Him because of her purity and openness to God. She welcomes Him into her house, so to speak, even though she is afraid. She is the perfect Temple of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul will preach about later (1 Cor 6:19).

And yet John says in his Gospel, of this moment, that “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1:14). The Greek word is usually translated “dwelt” – as in “dwelt among us” – but it literally means “to pitch a tent” – which is so much more evocative and moving. A tent is a temporary home. God leaves heaven to become a wanderer with us. As Jesus says later, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt 8:20). He knows what it means, also, to be homeless.

2 – The Visitation – Home in Elizabeth

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via stjosephcathedraltriplev.weebly.com

This is about as homey a mystery as there is, and has always been my favorite mystery of the rosary. Mary leaves her home in Nazareth to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in a beautiful gesture of love. The journey was actually about 100 miles! Yet I have also always thought that, upon hearing of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, Mary could not help but want to be with the only other woman in the world who would understand what she herself was going through. Their meeting has always been to me the model of true Christian friendship.

And notice, again, the welcoming in this scene. Elizabeth greets Mary with joy and with understanding – she recognizes her at once as “the Mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43). Elizabeth knows who Mary is, and Who it is that is hidden within her. She welcomes Mary and she welcomes Jesus unreservedly because she truly understands who they are. (Is that not what real friendship is?) So this intimate scene is very much about finding that sense of belonging and trust and family that is so essential to being truly at home with someone.

3 – The Nativity – Searching for a Home

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via lds.org

Joseph and Mary have to leave their home in Nazareth at a very difficult time. Mary is almost ready to give birth. To make matters worse, when they arrive in Bethlehem -which is supposed to be a sort of home, as is the city of David and the city of Joseph’s ancestry – they find that there is “no room for them at the inn.”

How often do we all feel like there is “no room” for us at our own homes?

And how often do we not make room for others? We are jealous of our space and of our time.

I think the immigrants to our own country, past and present, can find solace in the immigrant family of Nazareth – who, even after finding temporary shelter, had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a political ruler.

I kept thinking how stressed out Joseph must have been. Most husbands are when their wives are about to give birth. And he must have been afraid that they would not be able to find a safe place to stay. God provides, of course, but according to tradition He provides them a stable or cave of some sort, which is hardly an ideal location for giving birth, even in ancient times.

I could really relate to this mystery. Searching and searching for a place to live and encountering so many “no’s” – too expensive, too far away, too suspicious of multiple women living in the same house… you name it.

I wonder if perhaps it was hard for Joseph to accept the makeshift home God provided them in Bethlehem. Maybe not – he was a saint and probably trusted God far more than I do – but still I wonder if he was frustrated by having only a manger for Jesus and the company of animals for Mary. And yet the image of the stable, popularized later by St. Francis, has become so important for us later Christians. Joseph and Mary may not have known, at the time, how providential it was for them to suffer this uncertainty and this homelessness, yet for generations afterward the image of them in the stable has been a way for so many people to approach Christ.

Pope Benedict says:

Christmas is an epiphany – the appearing of God and of his great light in a child that is born for us. Born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in the palaces of kings. In 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in Greccio with an ox and an ass and a manger full of hay, a new dimension of the mystery of Christmas came to light. Saint Francis of Assisi called Christmas “the feast of feasts” – above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with “unutterable devotion” (2 Celano 199; Fonti Francescane, 787). […] [T]hrough [Francis] and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’ humanity in an entirely new depth. This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. (Pope Benedict, Christmas Eve 2011 Homily)

Christ’s homelessness makes God accessible to us, because deep down we know that we all are homeless. We are all wanderers in a strange land. None of us want to stay forever in our stables, our caves. We want, like the Prodigal Son, to go Home.

I think this post has gone on long enough, so I will finish writing about the fourth and fifth mysteries later.

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