Monday, July 29, 2013

Radio Silence

If you hadn't already guessed, I've been away from the blog for a few days. I'm in Sedalia, Colorado, for my Arrupe Experience. This is a time for Jesuits who, having completed te first year if theological studies, to come together to reflect on the priesthood and to make our annual retreat. The retreat begins today so I shall not be posting for another week.

Please keep me and my brother Jesuits in your prayers. I will hold the intentions if my readers in my heart and will continue to pray that God will give me the Spirit and grace to be the Jesuit, and the priest, the people of God deserve. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

If only I'd known then...

My friend Bobby will start his first teaching job in about a month. On numerous occasions this summer, we've chatted about what I considered my "best practices" for a teacher and I have, below, tried to assemble a bag of tricks for a first-year teacher. These are my observations only - some things may work for some, others probably were successful only because of my particular educational context and my personality. All the same, I offer them as an aide to anyone who is interested.

Let me add a bit of a Jesuit caveat, the tantum quantum: to the extent that this is helpful, make use of it. To the extent that it is not, ignore it. I'm not a guru, just a guy who had to learn!

One Jesuit's Advice for a First-Year Teacher

  • When you give a quiz or a test, used a variety of colored papers. Cheat sheets are usually written on white paper. 
  • If you put "Test Form A" on green paper and "Test Form B" on blue paper, it could be the exact same test but the students will think you're particularly ambitious and that you've created two different tests. 
  • If you give a Scantron test, take it ahead of time! Make sure the questions are clear. There's nothing worse than having to redress questions in the midst of an exam. 
  • Remember that the smallest unit in the classroom is never the student. It is the sub-group. Watch how students arrange themselves into various cliques. A lot of acting-out behavior isn't directed toward you, or even reflective of the student, so much as it is an attempt for the student to secure a place in the sub-group. If you find a kid who seems to be taking a particular stand against you, remember that it's not like it's "You versus Jaws." You're facing the sub-group and, in the limited honor-shame society of high school, much is at stake. Tread carefully. 
  • Don't ever sit during class. First, by standing you're burning calories. Second, by standing, you assert yourself. Dispel those images of the hip teacher who sits cross-legged on the desk and "raps" with the students. 
  • You can laugh with them. To be truthful, they can be brutally funny. Do not, however, scapegoat a student or fall prey to a mob mentality. Don't abuse your power over them. You are modeling what it means to be an adult. Instead of pandering to them, help elevate them. 
  • Don't yell. It adds negative energy to the environment and it's a sign you've lost control. You're an adult. They don't know how to use deodorant well, most can't vote, most can't take a bullet for their country, and none has a high school diploma. Why let them get the upper hand? 
  • Don't be afraid of depth questions. Develop strategies to talk about sensitive issues, but be willing to engage in them. Beyond content, you're teaching a style of thinking and a way of processing evidence, a way of being human. 
  • Craft assignments to help them discover. Stretching them is a good thing, especially if you encourage them and help build their confidence. This is a generation often afraid of being wrong. Embolden them to ask the right questions, even if they get it wrong sometimes.
  • Their test time is not your computer time. If you turn your back on them, they will cheat. This isn't overly pessimistic, it's simply a recognition of the reality of original sin in the world. As Brother Boynton advised, "See nothing, but observe everything." Be alert and vigilant!
  • If you are a stickler about deadlines, be sure you have deadlines for turning work back to the students. I think I was pretty good most of my testing: if I gave a test on Thursday, they'd have their grades posted online before 10:00 that night and I'd go over the test the next day (provided all students had taken the test). 
  • Know the extended testing policy of your school. I'll be honest: I think "extended time" can be totally abused. Our policy was for students to get "time-and-one-half." Thus I wrote my tests with the idea that it should take them 30 minutes to complete. Since our classes were in 45-minute blocks, I treated all students equally: everyone was given extended time. I'm egalitarian like that. Besides, it prevents students from leaving the class after having seen the test, finding answers, and returning to it. 
  • Kids cheat. Don't take it personally. 
  • The apple seldom falls far from the tree. If I thought a kid to be deranged, more often than not after meeting the parents, I realized it's because the parents are deranged. 
  • Some of my dearest friends, and greatest supporters as a teacher and as a person, were parents. It's natural that you'll like some students and parents more than others. You need, however, to keep a professional boundary between allowing your personal feelings to get in the way of providing a good education for the student. 
  • Transparency is your best friend. If your school uses an online grade book parents can access, update it frequently. If there are any problems with students, let the parents know immediately. Younger students (frosh and sophs) probably need ongoing assessment and, therefore, lots of grades. When someone contests a grade, you want to have  a paper trail to justify the grade earned. 
  • The size of a student's bladder is inversely proportional to the latitude you give in allowing use of the restroom during class. If you are pretty generous, their bladders will shrink to the size of walnuts. Indeed, you'll find a certain group of students will achieve a level of regularity in your class by which you could set your watch. Let me tell you: it's not because of Metamucil. I'd let students out to use the bathroom once per semester and then, after that, marked them late to class. After weighing the option, if they decided they really needed to use the facilities, I took it as a sign that they were sincere and generally didn't mark them late. This practice wholly diminished the interruptive requests for them to go walk-about. 
  • Students lose homework. They don't lose old tests. If you recycle tests, be prepared for them to cheat.
  • Take the time to read, and comment, on any written work. I think it stinks when a kid writes an essay and gets a check-mark on it. Take a few seconds and write a comment, or ask a question. 
  • If you provide a handout, have the machine three-hole punch it. It helps keep them organized. 
  • Speaking of organization, have the homework written in the same place each day. Students like structure. 
  • If you are in a Catholic school with a dress code, start class with prayer. Make them stand at their desks. As you pray together, do a quick scan up and down the rows to see that they are in dress code. It'll save you time later. 
  • Be yourself. Students have a 6th sense for detecting silliness. You don't need to be relevant to be liked. You need to be yourself, your adult self, and give them an example of the type of adult they can aspire to be. If you're joyful and excited about your material, it'll rub off eventually. 
  • If you chaperone, don't be a moron and drink before the event. As adults, we don't think it's cool for students to show up drunk at events. It's even less cool, and downright pathetic, for adults to show up to high school dances having had a few drinks. Wait until after the dance to have a cocktail. I loved going out for drinks after dances - we usually debriefed the event and made fun of the ways students danced or dressed. 
  • Go to sporting events, cultural events, and clubs. If you take an interest in them, they're more apt to be interested in what you're teaching. 
  • Respect your students. They are human, after all, even if they don't always act/smell like it. 
  • We all know what it is like to have to work when we're not feeling well. Remember, too, that kids can feel tired and run-down. Give them the benefit of the doubt -- if a kid is looking drowsy or unwell, lay off. Many students sleep because their teachers are horrendously boring. Some students doze off because they simply don't feel well. Do some digging. 
  • That said, keep their context in mind. Many of them go to bed late, get up early, eat less-than-idea diets, take multiple classes, and try to do sports/clubs/family/social life. Their bodies are growing and changing. 
  • These kids live a great deal of their lives behind computer screens. Do whatever you can to get them to engage with you, or one another, in a healthy way. Remember, you don't need to be relevant to be respected. If they respect you because you show them respect, you'll be relevant. 
  • Contrary to popular stereotypes, teenagers are not shallow. They just don't know they are deep. It's your responsibility to uncover latent gifts and hidden depths. They're there. 
  • I know it breaks some cardinal rule of education, but my greatest ally in teaching was sarcasm. Mind you, I taught all boys. Further, my personality oozes sarcasm and a healthy cynicism which they found amusing. 
  • Technology does not a teacher make. Fads and gadgets cannot supplant a good teacher. Technology is a tool, not a replacement. 
  • For God's sake, don't ever let students see you texting in school.
  • For that matter, if you won't let your students do it, don't do it yourself. They hate hypocrisy. 
  • My great-great Aunt Mary, Sister Margaret Ann, OSU, told me many years ago that boys were easy to teach because they had short memories. Girls, she found, were more difficult because they held grudges. That might be a gender stereotype and I'm sure there are exceptions. If Aunt Mary said it, though, I reckon Sister knows best. I have never taught girls, really, so I can't speak to them but for various anecdotes. I can attest, though, that I've eaten the face off of male students on a Tuesday only to have them come back on Wednesday as though nothing had ever happened. 
  • As you look upon your classroom and how the students subgroup, keep an eye on the margins and frontiers. It's easy to want to be the popular teacher and get in with the popular kids. Do not forget the kids on the margins. I messed up a lot of things as a teacher (don't throw books out of windows, whatever you do). Yet I am proud that, as student senate moderator, I would have in my office at any one time: football and basketball players, the atheists and the devout, the gay kids and techies, the hunters and and the performers, the super smart and and the struggling.
  • I see teaching as an act of hospitality. Your work these years in preparing yourself have furnished you with a deep cupboard of resources. Each day, as you prepare, you are setting the table for your students. As you vary the table-scape and change the menu, you're always serving yourself. Many students are picky eaters to start, so resign yourself to serving chicken nuggets and fries at first. With grace and patience, you'll have them eating sushi, filet, and drinking the fine wines of your discipline by the end of the semester. A semester, or a year, is a long banquet. Take your time and savor it. 
  • Observe the school's social media policy.
  • It's always better to over-prepare than to under-prepare. IF you should find yourself with 3-5 minutes at the end of class, the notion "silent study" or "talk quietly to your neighbor" will soon be savaged. Instead, keep a quarter in your desk drawer. Make the students stand up and play "Heads or Tails." Rules: You flip the coin. Students their hands on their head if they think it'll be a 'head' and on their backsides if they think it will be a 'tail.' Those who guess incorrectly have to sit down. I don't know why they find this entertaining, but they do and you can get through 2-3 games at the end of a class should you need to do it. 
  • In a similar vein, you can ask each of them to take out a hardback book (like the algebra text they schlep around). Have them open it to the mid-point and then, like dominos going up and down the rows, to slam the book shut. It takes teamwork, concentration, and practice to get it down to a neat rhythm. When you have guests in your classroom, they like to demonstrate their prowess at this (Brother Boynton's idea)
  • Do not make them the center of your life because you are not the center of their lives. They are vitally important to you (it is your job, after all) but you have remember who is at the heart of your life. I prayed before bed each night so that I always fell asleep with the One who was the center of my life. I'd suggest such a practice to anyone: who is at the heart of your heart? 
  • Love them. Long after they have left your classroom, years after they have forgotten the content of your course, they will remember you. You are, whether you like it or not, assuming a role in their life's story. Will you contribute a chapter or a footnote? Will you allow yourself to be a major character or will you play but a supporting role? Be who you are, be your authentic self, and allow them to take of you what they need. 
I might add more later, but this is a good start. It may seem like a daunting list but these are all things I picked up after three years. Lord knows, I'm no expert but these are all things I'd have found helpful early on as a teacher. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Yes, I Hear You Now!

So my cell-phone contract expires in nine days, permitting me what should be a no-brainer option: get another iPhone 4S or upgrade to the iPhone 5. I mean, I can justify having a fancy smart phone, right? I'm on the road a lot and frequently respond to correspondence via my phone. I make use of its GPS so I don't need a separate unit in the car. It holds my calendar and appointment book. It carries my Starbucks card. It even lets me play "Whirly Word" for hours on end and, even more tantalizingly, promises something called "Candy Crush."

Yet, I hesitate.

I remember reading Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity and I recently read a review of Peter Brown's Through the Eye of a Needle about the emergence and establishment of the early Christian Church. One point on which they converge is their observation about a major cultural shift enacted by the early Christians. Whereas Romans would contribute money in order to show their power and affluence, the Christians funneled their resources through the churches to tend to the needs of the poor. Rather than filtering it through unwieldy bureaucracies, the churches could deliver relief and resources to people with greater expediency. Giving money to the poor went from being a sign of superiority to a symbol of support.

What has this to do with a cell-phone?

I think my bill runs $79.00 a month. It's the only phone I use and I've had the number since 2006, so it's the only way my family and friends have to contact me (other than email). Indeed, I unplugged my landline because it took up too much space on my desk! I travel enough, both for the Jesuits and for music, that a phone is indispensable. Yet do I need the latest make? The snazziest model?

If I went with a phone that ran, say, $50.00 a month, and gave the remainder to the poor, that would be almost $360.00 a year. That might not seem like a great deal but, if you think about it, imagine if a few hundred, or a few thousand, people got together and made a sacrifice of trendiness so that others might eat?

One could start a whole new movement, calling it "Yes, I Hear You Now!"  funded wholly by people deciding not to go with the latest, speediest, model of phone and opting for something a little less flashy in order that others might eat a little more each day.

For Jesuits and students of Jesuit schools, instead of being "Men and Women for 4S" we could really become "Men and Women for Others."

Ah, perhaps it's just pre-retreat jitters. I go on my annual retreat next week and in the week leading up to each year's retreat, I tend to do a lot of soul-searching. Nevertheless, I'm glad I'll not be able to renew my contract until after retreat.

I need some time to make sure I can hear who is on the other line, to make sure I'm listening carefully, and that I am free enough to respond.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Thoughts on Desire

I had a wonderful weekend at the annual COV&R conference held at the University of Northern Iowa. The Colloquium On Violence & Religion meets annually to reflect upon, discuss, and develop the insights of René Girard and his mimetic theory.

Now, using the phrase "mimetic theory" is sure to raise eyebrows. Rather than trying to give an abstract explanation of it, let me use a really popular commercial from 2011. Remember this one:

What is it that is being sold? If you said a Chrysler 200, you're right...but only in a sense. If they wanted to tell you how great a car it was, they could simply have put up the statistics and done some cross-comparisons between the Chrysler 200 and other models. Yet this is not the strategy employed, for Chrysler is not interested only in selling a product. They are trying to sell you a way of life. In fancy language, they are selling an ontology but, since I still drink beer out of a bottle rather than a glass, let's stick with "way of life."

Theorist RenĂ© Girard has dedicated himself to exploring the contours of human desire. His insight is that desire is mimetic or imitative. The handy catch-phrase might be articulated as "I desire according to the desire of another." How is it that a person comes to desire anything at all? By observing what others want.

Quick thought experiment: you know how sometimes you bring home leftovers without any thought of actually eating them? You push the container into the refrigerator and resign yourself to throwing them out in a week...until your spouse or roommate comes by and eats them. "Hey! I wanted that!!" Did you, though? Why is it that you want it now, all of a sudden?

If you have kids, you know that there are certain treats that often go uneaten. Like purple popsicles. Especially that last remaining purple popsicle, slightly melted, buried in the back of the freezer. God forbid one of your children dare to eat it in the presence of another child. Won't it elicit the "HEY!! That's mine!! I was saving that!"

Or imagine a three-year old with 20 toys set out before him. He can have any toy he wants but which one will he want? He will want the very toy that some other baby will choose. From infancy, perhaps, it is true that "I desire according to the desire of another."

Watch the commercial. Look at what Chrysler is really selling. You have Gospel music (music originating in the experiences of slavery, of oppression, and that gives rise to hope) and Eminem juxtaposed: the old and the new. You have gritty images of abandoned buildings, rough edges, yet these are played off against images of real people doing everyday things. You are confronted with a sense that this is a city that has stared into the abyss of nothingness and has, somehow, managed to pull itself back from the brink.

Thus, when you buy the Chrysler, you aren't buying just a car. You are buying a lifestyle, a way of "being in the world." In buying the 200, you buy not just an automobile, but a statement of your life's values. The commercial shows you a way of life in accordance with a come-from-behind type of city. Who, after all, doesn't love the underdog?

If you don't believe me, start watching commercials. It's funny that marketing agencies know how to influence our way of seeing reality, but too often we neglect this fundamental dimension of being human. We think ourselves immune to suggestion, we see ourselves as autonomous in our decision making but, it might be worthwhile to consider, why do you wear the brand of clothing you do? Drive the car you do? Live in the type of house you do? 

Monday, July 08, 2013

So this is a weekend?

One of the enduring memories of last year is my introduction to Downton Abbey. I'd never heard of it before arriving here in Boston but a number of my community members raved about it and, one evening after supper, we repaired to the tv room and watched the first installment from Season 1, Episode 1.

I was hooked immediately.

The great take-away line, captured in this short clip, comes from the Dowager - played by Maggie Smith - who betrays the style of life to which she has grown accustomed when she inquires, "What, what is a weekend?" You can catch this below:

To be honest, I sort of resonate with this question: for the past three months, I have spent just about every weekend doing something involved with Irish dancing. For those unfamiliar with my particular avocation, I play the accordion for Irish dancing competitions (feiseanna) throughout New England and, time permitting, across the country. It's a labor of love and probably has influenced my notion of what it means to be a priest more than anything else I have ever done.

That said, it was refreshing to have a whole weekend to myself. I went out to dinner with Boston friends on Friday and then spent time catching up with a good friend at a local bar. On Saturday, I had the leisure time to read my book and cook dinner for friends. It was nothing fancy - BBQ shredded chicken, roasted brussel sprouts, garden salad with a homemade tangy vinaigrette, and a blueberry-peach cobbler with a really delicious streusel topping. We complemented this with a few bottles of wine  outside, sharing laughter and stories, as the sun made its way past the horizon.

Were I to make an assessment, I'd have to say that this has been the best of my Jesuit summers. I've been able to do three things I love: play music, read, and study. I've had more than sufficient time for prayer and reflection and I've managed to get a few writing projects underway, one of which will be appearing in a book to be published next Spring.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about my own struggles with anxiety. Looking back on it, I suspect it was an almost inevitable occurrence: I went from running at a breakneck pace as a high school teacher to the gentle jog of graduate studies. Last semester, in particular, I took a heavy course load and intentionally kept my playing schedule relatively light. My learning: I'm better when busy! I think having too many free weekends proved counter-productive. In short, the busier I am, the more productive I am, and the calmer I am.

That said, I feel great. I'm really excited for my annual retreat at the end of the month and I'm excited to go home to Cleveland and Detroit in August. Of course, I'll be posting along the way but I wanted to give a bit of an update on things for those who track the progress of this Jesuit's Journey!

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Freedom From...

The "Freedom From Religion" organization has taken out a full-page ad in today's printed version of the New York Times. Should one desire to do so, for a relatively nominal fee one may become a member of the organization and receive a monthly copy of "Freethought Today."

I'll stick to my weekly church bulletin (reading material should the homily drag on too long, a handy fan if the air conditioning isn't up to snuff).

As a historical point, I cannot quibble with the Constitution being "godless," as the Freedom From Religion organization points out. That is to say, God is not mentioned in the Constitution. One question that does occur to me, however, involves the relationship between the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) and the Constitution (written in 1787, ratified in 1788, taking effect in 1789). For, if you read the text of the Declaration of Independence, it can hardly be called "godless." Indeed:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these..."
I'm neither a professional historian nor an expert on the Constitution but, as a reader of texts, I'd be curious to know how the Freedom From Religion foundation understands the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Is it that the Constitution repudiates the existence of God or does it take the existence of God for granted? When we read the establishment clause, is it the effort of the Founding Fathers to excise from the fabric of our society any notion of God or is it, rather, their recognition that the State should not and must not compel a person into a religious tradition?

On Sunday evening, I watched a remarkable interview with David McCullough on 60 Minutes. If you have 15-minutes, I strongly encourage watching the video.  At 8:40, he warns his audience that history and its lessons are being lost: we are raising children who are historically illiterate. History is hardly the memorization of facts, little gobbets of information. Instead, history involves learning the story, the narrative, of our past and considering how it might lead us into the future. I think it myopic, or at least a bit disingenuous, to extract the Constitution from its historical narrative. One can hardly point to the Constitution and say, "See! We need to be free from any mention of God" when Declaration of Independence grounds "self-evident truths" as having been endowed by a Creator.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Month Ahead

After the fun evening shared on Saturday, it has been decided that we'll be hosting another gathering in the very near future. Keeping with our social-justice theme, we seem to have settled on sampling wines, available for under $20.00, under the heading "Preferential Option for the Pour." At some point we'll do a beer-tasting, too, but we'll commend that patronage to Edith "Beer" Stein, known to many as Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross. Beer tasting will trade under the name "My Cup Overflows."

These next few weeks are busy, although in a way different from the hectic music schedule that has governed my life for the last two months. I'm moving toward the end of the summer German course and plan on taking the final exam in about fifteen days. I will also be presenting a paper - "The Lord Has Made All Things: Creatio Ex Nihilo and the Ecological Imagination" at the University of Northern Iowa. You can find the paper abstract by following this link.

All things considered, this is a pretty relaxing month. At the end of the month I'll head to Colorado for my annual retreat and then, in August, I'll go back to Cleveland to see my family.

Blog updated, I need to go and translate some German!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame