from Jesse Stommel, on student-shaming

A powerful piece from Professor Jesse Stommel on the topic of student-shaming, a practice many of us educators have employed when our frustrations run over. The entire piece is good; here’s an excerpt from the end of “Dear Student”:

The work of educating from a place of care might seem abstract, or might be dismissed as touchy-feely, but if our goal is truly to resist the corporatization and standardization of education, we must recognize the ways that the failure to acknowledge students as full agents in their learning is a process that runs immediately parallel to the failure to acknowledge teachers as full agents in the classroom. The process that makes teachers increasingly adjunct is the same process that has made students into customers. And the gear that makes this system go depends on the pitting of students and teachers against one another.

The gear that makes this system go is obedience — mere compliance at the expense of critical engagement and complex human understanding.

For education to work, there can be no divide between teachers and students. There must be what Paulo Freire calls “teacher-students.” Specifically, he writes, “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.” So, “teacher” becomes a role that shifts, and learning depends upon a community of teacher-students. Any authority within the space must be aimed at fostering agency in all the members of the community. And this depends on a recognition of the power dynamics and hierarchies that this kind of learning environment must actively and continuously work against. There is no place for shame in the work of education.

Read the whole post here


Teaching students not to fear

Excellent read:

It may be that some people inside higher education think students aren’t ready for college because they don’t know what they should know. Or students don’t come with the abilities we think they should already have. Or they don’t know how to learn. Or they can’t think critically. Or they don’t know correct grammar. Or they don’t know how to manage their time. All that may be true, but I believe none of it is going to be repaired if we don’t help them learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others.

None of our concerns about student readiness for college are ever going to be resolved if we don’t help students learn how to stop fearing questions, themselves and others, writes Laurence Musgrove.

Source: The importance of teaching students not to fear (essay)

The most helpful concept I’ve discovered in her teachings is “bodhichitta,” the ongoing consciousness of those who have developed the fearlessness necessary to extend compassion to one’s self so that it might be extended to others.

Chodron defines bodhichitta as the ready mind and compassionate heart capable of overcoming the fears we feel toward ourselves and others that often result in aggression, prejudice, despair and even indifference. According to her, those who dedicate themselves to training in bodhichitta are called “bodhisattvas or warriors — not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic energy of bodhichitta.”

(emphasis mine)

Schools and Rules: Channeling the challenge

This is another post in a series.  We’re thinking about how authority and rules (and challenges to those rules) should play out in a Grace-based classroom.  Earlier posts are right before this one if you want to catch up.

2. If you refuse to allow criticism or challenge within your classroom/school, you’re painting a huge target that says, “Faith is too fragile for everyday use.” 

One aspect of classical education pedagogy that I really appreciate is an understanding that kids go through different stages in their interaction with facts (and with the people who inform them of that information).  Your sweet, cuddly elementary school kid will go through a horrific transformation around age 12 and become… DUN DUN DUN … a teenager. (*insert terrifying music here*)  The rolled eyes, the sarcasm, the desire never to be seen within 100 feet of one’s parents, the arguing.

The arguing.

I like middle schoolers because they do like to challenge. And they challenge everything: your sock preferences, the weather, your reason for assigning the rest of a grammar exercise on a Wednesday night because that’s just how it worked out. (“But we never had Wednesday homework LAST YEAR!”)

One of the hallmarks of NCS upper school life has been a consistent practice among the faculty of treating the upper school students with the respect one gives adults, but not expecting them to live up to that standard of maturity. Kids are kids. But they’re becoming adults, and we need to move in that direction rapidly. They have questions, and most of the time at NCS, those questions reflect a legitimate desire to know and understand (rather than to rebel or undermine).

So we explain things a lot.  Nothing is off-limits in my theology, practice, rulebook, subject matter. I don’t assign work without having a specific purpose for the task. While I might not always explain why I assign what I do, I always can (and do when asked). I know what I’m teaching, why I put it in the curriculum, and why it’s beneficial.  The stuff that I couldn’t justify, I changed.

Sometimes that means my classroom rules are inconsistent with the policies of another teacher. That’s a great opportunity to teach “Not all people want the same thing, and you need to find out what’s expected of you by the person in charge” — a wonderful life skill. So I don’t particularly care for “answer in complete sentences” on my tests because I find it annoying to read a bunch of extra words that have nothing to do with the actual answer. I wrote the question; I don’t need you to remind me what I asked. Other teachers want short answers written into complete sentences. Great. Knock yourselves out.  I don’t need to change for their sake, and I certainly don’t expect them to adopt my policy. And every student I’ve ever taught has rapidly picked up on the differences among classes.

So what does this have to do with Faith?

When you aren’t willing to rise to the challenge, many people will assume you are afraid to engage their criticisms or that you do not have a valid reason for your position.  

Think about it.  You stop by the local magistrate to pay your speeding ticket and the lady behind the desk says, “I’m sorry, we don’t accept credit or debit cards. Did you bring cash or a check?” And we adults trudge back to our cars and drive down the road to find an ATM, cursing the local government using colorful adjectives. We assume the government policy makers are idiots. Who doesn’t take a credit/debit card in 2012? The traffic court. Why? I don’t know. South Carolina lawmakers have never impressed me with any sense of intelligence. There’s no reason they CAN’T change their policy…but they don’t.

Why do we expect kids to obey or believe without giving them justifiable cause?

Now, if you’ve put in the hours necessary to build a relationship with that kid; if you know them — really, truly know them — and have acted graciously toward them; if you love them in actions rather than in words alone, then a lot of teens will take your words to heart. You don’t have to offer a geometric or theological or philosophical proof for why you won’t let the kids go walking down to the gas station by themselves.  If he knows you usually have good reasons for what you ask, the boy won’t backtalk you when you yell “GET DOWN!” just before a football slams into his head on the playground.

But you have to build that trust.

The Christian Faith is a reasonable, justifiable, warranted belief. (Thank you, Al Plantinga.) God doesn’t strip us of our inquisitiveness and rational thought (part of the imago Dei IMHO).
Look at the Psalms. David (and the other psalmists) hit God with some rough questions. Why are the bad guys winning? Why am I suffering if I didn’t do anything wrong? Have You forgotten Your promises? Why do bad men abuse weak people? Don’t you feel ashamed for letting me look bad, God, in front of my — I mean, YOUR — enemies? 

Instead of being afraid of challenges, questions, and hard topics, embrace them.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Research it. Find an expert. Search the Scriptures. Get answers.

If you can’t justify your rule biblically, if it’s a rule that makes life convenient for adults, or if it’s not serving a clear, obvious purpose in your setting (one that extends from loving God or loving neighbor)– maybe the rule should go?

Up next — so, what about true rebellion?

Cross-posted to my personal blog

Schools and Rules: Authority

Yesterday I mentioned the case of the kid in Vermont who was suspended for the remainder of the year by  his Christian school because of his essay challenging the school’s rules for behavior and dress code. I used that as a jumping off point to think about how we should handle challenges to authority within a Grace-based school.

I certainly don’t have it figured out.  Kids challenge authority all the time.  Adults challenge authority all the time. We sinners hate boundaries.

But I can leverage a little experience and theology to offer a couple thoughts…. here’s the first.

1. Obedience to a human authority should not be equated with obedience to God’s Law.

I’ve heard this syllogism a lot:  God must be obeyed as our ultimate authority; His Law is absolute and without question. God delegates authority to parents and pastors and governors and teachers (etc). Therefore, human authorities can demand the same level of obedience for their rules as God expects for His.

First off, that’s a terrible syllogism (from the standpoint of logical structure).

Secondly, it’s not a biblical statement of obedience or authority. We can’t add corollaries to God’s Law and call them holy. Human rules are just….rules.

Yes, Scripture commands obedience to church elders and to parents and to our government officials, even when we don’t like them. But derived authority does not also endow us with the power to bind people’s consciences to non-biblical rules. People with authority need to be careful of the limits they choose to set for behavior when dealing with the tender consciences of kids.

I realize that the kid who wrote the essay at Trinity probably just wanted to grind his ax about the rulebook. That can grate on the nerves of adults who see a bigger picture than “I don’t like wearing khakis and a polo every day.”   Cynical skeptics are a drudge — they don’t offer any constructive solutions to a problem, they just sit back and tear apart whatever’s been built.

But if we can’t defend a rule from a biblical mandate (“modesty” doesn’t demand a “school uniform”), then authorities need to take steps to unlink “following the dress code” from “keeping the Law of God.” They’re not the same thing.  Call it a policy, give students a voice in setting their communal rules, and work toward consensus.

(Personally, I’m glad the “I-hate-the-dress-code” theme has toned down a lot at NCS during my 10 years there. The people who determined the dress code have made a lot of really good adjustments over the past several years, and I think that we’ve got a good balance of a functioning school uniform combined with dress-down Fridays — and those dress-down days exist on purpose to reinforce the idea that our dress code rules are not God’s rules for clothing. Students aren’t thrilled about it, but they mostly just don’t care. School clothes are just that — school clothes.)

My classroom rules are mine. God’s Law is far more difficult: Love God with everything you have as hard as you can all the time, and love your neighbor like yourself.  If I’m doing my job, I can tie my class “rules” back to the Great Commandments as illustrations of loving God or neighbor in a community of humans … but I also need to be honest with kids that some of my rules are just idiosyncratic, and they deserve to be changed if kids point out legitimate problems with their implementation or function.

Note that a lot of student frustration arises out of adults shutting kids out of the process. By the time a student reaches adolescence (and definitely by the time they’re in high school), he/she should be given a voice in the school structure for which s/he will be held responsible. It diffuses a lot of griping, and it’s a much more respectful way to deal with students as human beings who are about to be “adults” and legally responsible for their decisions/actions.

This approach demands patience and work by adults to involve students, downplay immature suggestions, encourage half-baked good ones, and guide the whole mess toward a coherent and useful outcome. Welcome to education.

more to come….

Cross-posted to my personal blog

Schools and Rules: An Introduction

A few weeks ago, a junior at a independent Baptist Christian high school in Vermont was suspended for the remainder of the school year because of an essay. His paper (which avoided topics on the teacher’s “banned topics” list) challenged the school’s dress code rules as ineffective and inconsistent. Citing a yearlong attitude of “rebellion,” the school board chose to suspend him because this was a ‘last straw’ moment of bad attitude.

The incident rapidly hit the blogosphere, especially among ex-Fundamentalists, and later caught the attention of the local FOX News affiliate in the school’s town. Outraged supporters of the student founded a Facebook page calling for the school to “do right” and apologize. A few days ago, the church leadership surprised the school community by announcing that the school would close its high school at the end of the school year, naming low enrollment as the cause.

Having taught for a decade, I can sympathize with beleaguered educators like the people at Trinity. I’ve encountered plenty of folks who don’t comprehend the mission of NCS, leading them to badly misunderstand what we do or misrepresent us to others (sometimes with the best of intentions). To teach is to invite criticism and often condemnation.

On the other hand, the student raises a major question for school life. What about the rules? Should schools arbitrarily set policies without input from students? Is is disrespectful to question or reject those rules? Can questioning become “rebellion”?

I started thinking about how I’d handle a challenging student in my classroom at NCS. This is a good test case for Grace-based education. Our theology reveals itself most clearly when someone has the nerve to challenge it.

I’ve become a lot less defensive as I’ve grown in personal maturity Definseiveness i amark of insecurity, which ought to be a trait of immaturity. Scripture doesn’t present Yahweh as a defensive authority figure. God doesn’t “earn” credibility or respect from us; He deserves it by default. His dealings with humans are incomprehensibly gracious (the overwhelming theme of the Old Testament stories).  I’d like to suggest that godly authority is patient enough to allow for critique and challenge, even when the challenger cops a nasty attitude.

Truth is a Person — Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6).  I’m not responsible to save people or convince them on an intellectual level of biblical truth. The Holy Spirit illuminates minds and the Father draws people to the salvation won by the Son through his vicarious sacrifice. That’s a freeing set of principles, believe me.

In Milton’s great treatise against ineffectual censorship, the Areopagitica, he famously writes that Truth, on an open field, will always win the battle. I tell my students, “Never be afraid to ask hard questions. If what you believe is actually the Truth, it can handle any challenge you throw at it.”

(And a corollary for parents: Calm down. Smart kids question a lot of beliefs. Trust the Covenant promises and believe that God is at work in your kids, especially when they are skeptical.)

Why do so many adults react badly to being challenged?

Is it because we have blindly bought into a system of thought without doing the intellectual or spiritual heavy-lifting to make it our own?

Are we secretly afraid that our own faith, authority, or level of integrity is too weak to be challenged?
Are we too proud to appear ignorant in front of people younger than we are?

Have we found ourselves stuck in a system of rules that we can’t agree with either, so we try to keep the subject from arising?

Grace-based education seeks to apply Gospel norms to the structure and methods of education. (IOW: you can talk about the Gospel all you want, but if your structure and rulebook and attitude toward your students undercuts the Gospel message at every turn, you’re going to impress hypocrisy onto their minds more than anything else.) How can a committed Christian community of learners approach skepticism, questioning, and intellectual freedom with both strength and grace?

…. I’ll take up that question tomorrow.

Cross-posted to my personal blog

from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if we began by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut — what the New Testament refers to as kardia, “the heart”? What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions — our visions of “the good life” — and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? And what if this had as much to do with our bodies as with our minds?

What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?

~from “Introduction,” Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith, pp 18-19

On all things directorial

...Musings on theater, life, and directing…. seasoned with a bit of “after midnight.” And written in the crucible of preparing the Advanced Drama students for their production of And Then There Were None.

I don’t “do theater” for a living. (See, the proof is in the fact that I generally spell “theater” the American way instead of the fancy-schmancy artistic old British spelling with the -re ending.)

I do find myself “doing theater” — as I have for the past 6 years — as an interesting side path to my work teaching English to middle and high schoolers. What started in 2005 as a 7th grade unit on dramatic literature (culminating in some in-house performances that simultaneously brought a measure of healing and comradeship to an otherwise brutally-fractured class) has grown into a foundational stone for the upper school at NCS. Who would have foreseen it? This spring finds us doing two major shows (unwisely, probably, but that’s how it turned out). So my soul has belonged to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, knowing that January 27th is breathing down my neck. (Opening night.)

That’s me working to letter the big “Ten Little Indians” poem that ties the play together.
Tonight I finally made it to my couch weary of body and exhausted in mind sometime around 9pm. It’s been a long week, coming on the heels of horrific schedule headaches from the big snowstorm and before that, several illnesses in my cast members. Coart likes to say “Anything worth doing is hard.”  I’m not sure that the converse of the statement is necessarily true (isn’t that a logical fallacy anyway? lol) but it’s certainly one of the pithy aphorisms that’s pulling me through the long days. “Anything hard must be worth doing” … right?

Working with students always teaches me far more than I teach them. I was struck today by the wonderful good-naturedness of this group of 7 students who have survived auditions, reading rehearsals, blocking, hours of work memorizing lines, illness, losing a cast member at the last minute, and now long “full runs” … all stacked on top of their normal school day and wedged into “free hours” they have before tackling homework.

I’m not sure I would be so charitable were I in their shoes, but these older, more experienced students chose this play as their semester project and they are still very excited about putting on a good show.  They’re so excited that most of them volunteered themselves to go paint the set tomorrow because they want it to look better. This is righteousness outworked (not just thinking, not just critiquing… but doing.)

The kids came in to paint the set.
The kids came in to paint the set.
I love projects that blend faculty (or adults in general) with students. We sharpen each other — the young’uns bring enthusiasm and energy and a strong impetus against the stodgy inertia that seems to overtake adults, while the adults anchor the cast with seasoned calm and a rich flow of life experience with which to flesh out characters.
In fact, I’d say the student-faculty partnership that pervades NCS culture is more important than anything else we do. Should we not perceive Paul’s inspired wisdom when he directed the Cretan church under Titus to value mentoring relationships as the backbone of Christian discipleship?

People generally don’t understand exactly why Coart & I bother “doing plays” at NCS.  ….It’s not because we love doing theater. (It’s not that we dislike it either; but neither of us were trained in this and sometimes the learning curve slaps us around pretty hard.)   I don’t try to correct the crowds who assume I “love” acting, directing, or performance in general. Actually, I have to fight against every fiber of emotional control built into my personality just to begin thinking about playing a role.

It’s also not because doing theater is easy, or a cop-out for teaching — anyone who chooses a 60+ hour workweek without better cause is probably insane.

And I have no desire to shut out music or art or dance or any of the other creative arts from the lives of students (though life quickly teaches all of us that we have only so many hours to spend). Lucky or unlucky, our students “benefit” from the package of gifts endowed to Coart and me, which lie more with speaking than art or music. So. Theater it is.

Rather, I pull myself out of bed and through an over-full day of teaching (this week: Norse mythology, Latin noun plurals, American Realist literature, Hamlet Act 2, poetry, and basic script analysis) and into a long afternoon of rehearsal by remembering that my greatest joy as a teacher is to see a young person grow from shy un-confidence (is that a word?) into a fearless, friendly soul: a person who has learned the art of observing human nature and recreating it; of one who soaks up the Story in the hopes that some bit of Heaven-Redemption finds its way to earth whenever Story Truth strikes the heart of the performer (first) and the audience.

I really don’t have a clue what a director is supposed to do.  Well, some details are obvious project management — find a performance space, select a script, make the casting decisions after auditions, develop a plan for studying and interpreting the text and then bringing that text to life by creating a “safe” space where actors can take themselves through a journey of discovery within the story and setting and characters. It’s all quite nebulous, really…  “The best in this kind are but shadows,” Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I find play directing immensely energizing (the creative output required delights my right-brain) yet intensely discouraging.

A play doesn’t succeed at NCS because the director did a “good job.”  We tell stories well when I succeed in getting the students to understand first and then internalize and finally transmit the soul of a tale.  Unfortunately my cast members lack buttons, knobs, or efficient input devices.  Most rehearsal days simply serve as a reminder of everything I haven’t accomplished.  I think I’ve bandaged my ego 12 times this week. 

For us, the “product” isn’t so much the point as the “process.” This is education, not theater business (though I still have a budget and it needles me). I want our shows to be qualitatively good: an engaging experience for the audience and worthy of their time. But that has to take second seat to my deeper goal of raising up men and women who understand Kingdom living.

These goals have to work together. The kids must learn to invest great labor in a project whose outcome is out of their control (and mine, to a large extent).  We are only as strong as our weakest cast member, yet seeing students rally around a kid who’s failed them is incredible. The missteps and inexperience of students slowly mature into something beautiful. The Story begins to shine, a sum greater than the actor’s parts. And it’s magic.

These past 3 hard, frustrating, difficult, sleep-depriving weeks brought me a deep gift as compensation:  the opportunity to see the mettle of our seniors and juniors tested.  Their kindness, enthusiasm, willing hearts, hard work, joyful wit — all have lifted my spirits.

To see them grow, individually, in a skill that isn’t “natural” for most of them reminds me that we often “need” what we don’t particularly “want.”   I love my job in all of its exhausting, stressful avenues.  And I love my students.

We offer to you the work of our hands because God created Story-lovers.
Nothing would thrill us more than for you to share in our joy.
Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis
Cast Photo. New Covenant School production of
And Then There Were None, January 2011. Not pictured: John Ellis