Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

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I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

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The Round Pen

Yesterday morning I exchanged replies with a parent who was concerned that my assignment translated into a form of punishment.  The assignment required the students to correct a wrong answer by rewriting it 10 times.  In the next week or so I will ask the questions again to repeat the assessment.  Is this appropriate, and is it classical – which is really the same question?

Some may ask,

  1. did the students fully understand what they were asked to do on the original assessment?
  2. why use repetition, and why 10 times?

How many times will a good writer review and edit a document before submission?  How many times will a good speaker work over and re-read a speech before delivering it?  How many times will a musician play a song before a performance?  How many times will a ball player work through batting practice?

An intimate knowledge of something and a mastered skill never come in single servings.  Repetition labors towards the potential moments of discovery.  It draws the eyes and ears to detail, and allows the mind to rest upon the securities of form, constancy, and being.  Repetition does not constrict the possible; it forms the ground out of which the possible may break.  Chesterton referred once to God saying to the sun, “Do it again!” at the dawn of each new day.

The danger in any classroom and with any subject amounts to “priming the pump.”  Dumping the information in that you expect the students to pour back out.

I try to teach and work from the round pen.  The round pen is the initial and primary training ground for every fundamental skill a horse will ever use.  If the horse demonstrates he is not yet ready, it is back to the round pen.

In a similar way, if students demonstrate they are not yet ready to exercise fundamental concepts we have previously worked on, then we stop and go back to the round pen, and review.  It is senseless to attempt moving forward.

I am increasingly dissatisfied with the common, practically routine classroom practice of delivering a lesson, test, score, and move on regardless of how well the student grasped the material.  I think the main reason for this type of teaching boils down to time and number.  What can a teacher do with this many students in this amount of time?  Breaking this debilitating cycle will cause frustration for the students and work for the teacher.

For the teacher, it will simply require more work because not every student will move at the same pace.  For students, it will force them to paddle upstream.  It will demand them to slow down, to focus on one thing long enough to discover its beauty and not dispense of it because it does not immediately gratify the senses.  This will be difficult in a culture dictated by sound bites.

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

Teaching the Transcendent

If you go to the comments from my post What is Writing you’ll see a reply from Chris in which she asks:

“Can we teach the transcendent part, the soul part, or only model it.”

Chris, I think you know you were throwing sardines to a seal, don’t you? This is like when you are teaching a class and one of the student’s raises her hand and says, “Teacher, would you please teach me how to be a perfect student?”

Writing, I suggested, is the overflow of the soul into a verbal pattern encoded in visual sybols. Chris is asking about the first part.

And what she’s asking about is the very essence of teaching. Can you cause a soul to overflow? Can you fill it?

The answer, I would argue, is “Yes, you have to, but no, you can’t.”

“So what are we to do with that?” you want to know. First, demand the explanation that I owe you. Second, read on while I try to get myself out of this fix.

I believe that you can and must “teach the trascendent part.” However, you can’t do it the same way you teach the technical side and you can’t do anything to guarantee either that you will succeed or that the effects of it will be what you intended.

Your goal is to fill their soul to overflowing. If they don’t accept what you are pouring in, they can never overflow. However, God designed the human spirit to be receptive to beautiful and good and true things. It’s just that things become complicated when our appetites confuse us.

That’s why I mentioned the great and good books as preparation for writing. Those do “teach” the “transcendent” part. We can’t measure the fruit, but the only way you can fill a soul is by pouring things into it.

When you are teaching the technical side of any art, you coach. But when you are teaching the transcendent side, you simply plant and water.

Needless to say, the transcendent side is immeasurable and is therefore neglected by conventional education. That’s why even what they can measure constantly deteriorates. They cut out the roots to measure the leaves.

Measure the lesser things, and things measurable are lesser than things infinite, and you will neglect the greater things. The measurables depend on the immeasurables, so when you neglect the immeasurable, the measurable declines. But those who don’t believe in immeasurable things will never correctly diagnose the problem.

So you can teach the transcendent, you can fill the souls with truth, goodness, and beauty. But the world around won’t understand or approve of what you are doing and they’ll pressure you to pull up the roots. If you aren’t firm in your faith and your knowledge of what is right, you’ll give in. You’ll become yet another Darwinian Christian, adapting to the environment rather than transcending it.

The symphony of learning

We are not here studying the philosophy, we see it, as part of the ordered world. The aim of the poet is to state a vision, and no vision of life can be complete which does not include the articulate formulation of life which human minds make.

So TS Eliot on Dante

This is why I believe teachers must all be poetic and literary, even in kindergarten and even in science class. Nobody was more versed in the sciences of his day than Dante.

And this is why I believe the basic study of a head of school should be, not administration, but literature.

The teacher is an artist, giving form to an “ordered world.” They can’t pick and choose what to include and how to include it based on personal preference. That’s tyranny. They need to come to prefer what is most fitting.

The head of school is the conductor who must show each teacher where her role fits into the ordered world while overseeing her performance. His goal is to enable her to master her instruments so together the school can make something beautiful.

Why History Class Must Die!

Currently, the Peanuts comic strip by the late Charles Shulz stands out as a source of great wisdom and insight in our culture. I say this with partial sarcasm, only partial.

One particular strip showed Sally in Sunday School class, her teacher before her. He began, “Today we are going to discuss Church history. What do you know about Church history, Sally?”

She thought. Finally, she spoke up, “Well, I know our pastor is about 50…” Tragic insight. Tragic, accurate insight from Shulz.

American culture, Christians included, suffers from an odd sort of historical amnesia. Ours is a forgetful people. Of course, we do not realize we are forgetful because we have forgotten all we should have remembered. To make the memory lapse more bearable and seem less significant, we redefine history to make it a bit more cut and dry, stodgy, sanitized. Cue the modern history class.

Students around the country open textbooks written by men and women determined to let us know all that has happened in the history of the universe…in 1000 pages or less. Along the way, they happily interpret events to clue us into their “real meaning” and leave out details and events deemed forgettable. At the end of the process, we are handed a text free of the nagging baggage of primary sources, eyewitness accounts, original documentation, and literature of the period. Oh, what a burden lifted! Now we have a history we can live with, a history that can be taught in a semester! But, now we have a history that is faceless, revisionist, and inhuman.

Events of the past happened to real people – men, women, and children who endured or enjoyed it all in real time and real places. The modern “textbook” approach to teaching history removes those real people from the process. When primary sources, documents, and stories are removed, we are left treating history as fantasy. History courses must be taught using the literature of the period. We must do them the honor of hearing them out, considering their words, and evaluating the events of the past through those who lived it.

A Call for Learning Teachers

 

In the world of higher academia, the old adage “publish or perish” is a guiding principle (even if somewhat stereotypical and exaggerated).  Why the emphasis on publishing? 

One could argue, quite easily, that it is the inevitable result of a pragmatic view of education – if the faculty of the university is not “producing,” then they are dead weight.  Additionally, if professors are not producing works which are “publicized” then they are not helping to draw in students interested in those respective fields. 

But, is there a less sinister, more significant reason for the stress placed upon faculty production?  Perhaps.  There is at least an important lesson which could and must be drawn, in altered form, from the old adage and applied in classical schools.  “Publish or perish” is an attempt at keeping teachers honest.  It seeks to keep faculty members from atrophy; intellectual stagnation. 

Does it go too far?  Most likely.  Intellectual growth is not always measurable in the form of CEU certificates, published writings, or graduate credits.  The cultivation of wisdom does not always leave a paper trail. 

The point, however, should be clear – that in order to teach, one must learn.  As another old adage claims, “To cease to learn is to cease to teach.”