and that will be part this piece. But this is a morning where I have a lot on my mind.
As I write this, sitting in my local Starbucks, about 1/4 of our students and a number of our faculty and staff are wearing their bright red school sweatshirts and are spending the day volunteering at the DC Homeless Shelter as their participation in the day of service. I wanted to join them, but am on the edge of a cold, and was exhausted by the end of the week - I actually slept for 11 hours last night. The students might get a real treat - the adults had to provide their birthdays and social security numbers, which is standard procedure for being cleared by the Secret Service. In other words, they are likely to encounter at least some of the Obama family, perhaps even the President.
What is more important is this: many of students come from families that do not have much. And yet they will learn from this event, as from others to which we take them from time to time, that even if you lack material things there are two points to remember - there is always someone more in need than you, and you can always give of yourself and your time and energy.
I invite you to keep reading as I reflect on many things, all of which are part of what I consider as I continue my own service as a teacher.
The day after Christmas I decided I would not attend an inaugural ball, as I wrote here. I felt the extra money would be better used as donations to certain charities.
And yet it seems that I will be attending the Virginia Ball after all - as a prominent Virginia blogger I was invited to attend as Press. I still have to put on a tuxedo, and I am not eating there,but as a Virginia Democratic activist with three state-wide offices and all of he House of Delegates at stake in November, my spouse persuaded me that I should take advantage of the opportunity to network.
My students have an opportunity for extra credit this weekend. MY cours with them is Ancient World, so American political events are not directly relevant. Still, I am responsible for heir civic education while in m care, so if they watch on Monday including the President's speech and write a paragraph they will get extra credit, which many need as this marking period comes to a close next Friday. To prepare them for that, we read some material from Junior Scholasti on the inaugural and I gave them some background. In helping them understand what an inaugural ball is, I showed them a picture of a couple at the Southern States Ball 20 years ago. It took a few seconds but they got excited when they realized they were looking at my wife and me. My beard was then only slightly gray, my hair was dark, and 20 years ago I was 20 pounds lighter. Still, I was recognizable.
That kind of personal connection is important to students, especially at the middle school level. They are starting to define themselves as individuals separate from their parents and siblings. They want me to see them as individuals, and it helps if they can similarly see me.
The population we serve means that a large number of our students have self-control issues. We run anger management sessions for a number of our students. It is an ongoing issue of preventing verbal and physical confrontations among some students. Some may be damaged by lead. Others the only models of behavior they have are not productive.
It is not that the parents do not care, although we have some who don't, whose children are just this side of being throw-away kids.
No matter what they do or say or fail to do, we cannot give up on the kids. And that makes the average school day exhausting.
The mood of a classroom can change in a heartbeat.
The principal observed me for the first 20 minutes of a period on Tuesday, in my highest performing class. He wrote me a note complimenting me and how the class was going. My department chair came in 15 minutes after he left, and within 5 minutes he was reading the students the riot act and took one of my brightest but worst-behaved out to straighten him out. this is a young man who knows he is brighter than his classmates, and always wants to try to argue about things. His mother and I are in regular email contact, and slowly we are beginning to see some changes. He had he highest score on the most recent test - on my first test he was in the middle of the pack. And between us we finally got him to stop wearing his favorite hat everywhere in violation of the dress code.
I am still exploring a possible high school position for next year, and the woman who recruited me to the school has just written me a strong recommendation to Arlington schools, where I once taught for year and where I live. But sometimes when I can see the difference I am making, I wonder if I should stay, even knowing how exhausting it is - remember, 11 hours sleep last night.
I try to weigh the importance of different uses of my time. I accepted the invitation from Huffington Post Live to participate in a discussion about the teacher in SC who stomped on the American Flag (you can watch that here if so inclined) as I had earlier accepted an invitation to tape a segment for a show on WTJU, the radio station for UVa on the issue of gun control. It is nice to have others wanting to consider my thoughts. Yet I still wrestle with whether I should accept such invitations. They require time beyond merely appearing on the air - one has to prepare for one's appearances, after all. Time may be fungible, but it is not infinitely expandable. What value do I give by making such a choice versus possible alternative uses of that time and energy?
I also struggle with whether I should continue in a classroom next year. Yes I enjoy teaching, know I am a good teacher, know that m writing about education (and some other issues) has more cogency because I am still classroom based.
But there are other things I would like explore, and teaching is time-consuming and requires much energy, mental and physical. Unlike writing, it requires fixed periods of tim that exclude other opportunities.
As I write this I am doing a strange kind of multi-tasking. In 1958 Sviatolav Richter gave a recital in Sofia Bulgaria, the recording of which is famous, especially for his performance of Musssorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I have known the recording for almost 5 decades and it draws my full attention again and again. When I was at Haverford for the first time, I once trecked down to the Academy of Music to listen a Richter recital, in large part because of having heard this performance. It is so colorful, it spans such a range of emotional feeling.
Which is perhaps appropriate as I reflect upon teaching and upon politics, both of which also span a range of emotional feelings, at least for me.
Yesterday in one of my classes a student asked if I had kids. I explained that we did not. The students immediately wanted to know why not. I was as open as I could appropriately be. I told them that earlier in our relationship we were not sure we were going to stay together. Then 19 years ago when I left my job to train as a teacher, I effectively made a choice that I would not be a father. I illustrated by the hours I used to put in at Eleanor Roosevelt, say during soccer season or during musical theater, where I would leave the house ay 6:30 and not get home until close to 8 and still have work to do for school. I could not have done that and also have been a good parent to my own children.
Another student asked if I missed being a dad. At times I do. I can joke that I have had thousands of children, although I know it is note the same. Today I wished a Facebook birthday greeting to young lady I taught as a freshman and a sophomore who has a real love for the singing of Toby Keith. She is married now. It provides some satisfaction to watch m students after they leave my classroom. But it not is not the same as seeing something physically a part of you continue to grow and develop.
We talked at one point of adopting. We were willing to consider an older child. About a decade ago we began tentative steps in that direction. We are now of different religions, which represents one stumbling block. We were not encouraged in our pursuit also because of our ages - at the time I was in my mid 50s.
Not being a parent is one way closed to me. But having that way closed also opened other paths I might not have have been able to travel.
Teaching - I have been thinking a lot about it recently.
It is not merel imparting facts.
It has to be more than preparing students to do well on assessments with serious consequences beyond providing the student with a score, a single number.
The final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Great Gate of Kiev, is something I dearly love. It is not so technically difficult, although it helps to have very strong hands. As I listen to the final portion my hands begin to move as if I were once again playing it. The piece of music I learned are a part not only of my ears but of my body. Rather than saying I know the music, it would be more as if the music knew me.
This relevant to my reflections on teaching. In its best sense teaching should be a mutual exploration of a common subject. The teachers I have most admired will if you can get them to speak about their craft acknowledge that tye learn more from than they impart to their students. We may begin with greater prior knowledge of a topic, but we learn to see with their eyes, listen with their ears, shape with their hands. We should never forget the wisdom of those not considered experts and thus willing to challenge the conventional thinking - the little boy who says that the emperor is naked immediately comes to mind.
Teaching when properly done is primarily a moral task.
It is not that we should lecture on ethics or morality.
But how we teach shapes those we teach in how they live and act, beyond the content we require them to regurgitate in papers and upon tests.
One of the most foolish trends inmodern education is the insistence by some that we fill ever moment of class time with "instruction." To assure that will occur, they want us to provide strict pacing guides.
Yet the deepest learning often occurs in something totally unplanned, the famous "teachable moment" when something arises, the students' interest is invocated and real passionate learning and exploration occurs.
Those of us whop seriously teach constantly attempt to find a balance between a focus on the contents and skills relevant to the domain assigned to us and the students before us, their passions, their fears, their dreams.
Only I should not say "before us" because that implies a structure that is too one-sided.
As I reflect, now and on other occasions, I wonder if much of what is wrong in America is that we are too concerned about actions and no enough about thoughts and feelings.
I said that awkwardly.
We have a severe prejudice in favor of those who act, and in opposition to those who think, sometimes deeply.
To take time to step back let go, and explore openly is not, as some criticized the Hesychasts of the Eastern Church, merely "navel-gazing." At its best is should be an attempt to integrate body and mind and soul, one's personal self with the wider universe.
From time to time I would get really "edgy" with my high school students. I would, like the teacher in SC who stomped on the flag in an honors English class, be very far from my assigned curriculum. But my students would be very involved with real learning,.
When the Military Commissions Act passed the Senate, i was ver blunt with my AP Government students - under the terms of that act, were Osama Bin Laden or one of his lieutenants to have favorably quoted something I had written in criticism of the Bush administration, could I be considered to have given material aid to terrorists/terrorism and thus denied the the protections of the Constitution and Bill of Rights? My answer was that I did not know. I know that provoked a number of strong discussions at dinner tables that night.
When several students had seen video of me volunteering at free medical/dental clinic in Grundy Virginia, I obtained the video and showed it to all my students and discussed why I did it, why it was necessary. that led to students asking how they could volunteer.
When I showed clips of Vicki Abeles' strong film "Race to Nowhere" about how we are overburdening many of our brightest students and discussed the context in which I had seen it the previous night. it provided strong reactions among several students, and led to several others organizing a showing at our school, an event which drew a large an diverse audience and led to continued discussions among faculty, administration, parents, students and community members.
I was fortunate to teach in a school - and a system - which allowed me the flexibility to d the kinds of things that challenged and provoked my students.
Sometimes what I tried did not work.
More often that not it lead to meaningful learning experiences, the kinds of things that would be discussed outside the classroom - among students, with families.
I am passionate about learning.
Sometimes my students ask how I know certain things. I tell them it is because I never stop learning. I read incessantly. I converse with others. I write - one can really learn by writing, which is why policies in education that limit how much writing our students do, or which are too insistent upon strict formulas and formats are so destructive of real learning.
Yes, there are conventions appropriate for SOME writing tasks, but much of the real learning occurs when the student can chose her own format. then as teachers it becomes our responsibility to help her with making sure her words and ideas are perceived as she intends - we also help her learn about audience.
When I was exploring leaving the classroom about a year ago, there were others kind enough to offer their time and thouts, to serve as sounding boards, to ask me questions. In Quaker terminology they were serving collectively as my Care and Clearness Committee.
Most of them acknowledge that at my core I am still a teacher.
I remember clearly a phone conversation with Parker Palmer where he told me that I would always be a teacher, but perhaps my classroom might be better not defined within the conventional structure of a K-12 school.
That led me to realize that even when I am within the nominal structure of a K-12 classroom I am most effective when I define my classroom as the interaction among the wider world, the individual collective personae of my students, my my real self.
Like the richest living, that will not always be neat or follow a predefined path. Rather, it will be messy, and richer for that messiness.
I will be 67 in May. Most of my life is now behind me.
In the time that is left I do not wish to waste it being other than authentic.
Nor do I wish to impose upon my students that which makes them be less than authentic.
We start with where we are, who we are.
A large portion of our journey is to come back to that point with a deeper understanding.
Or as T. S. Eliot wrote in words I have often quoted here:
We shall not cease from explorationNote the first of those four lines. As a teacher, as a human being, I know the journey of exploration is ongoing. When it ceases I will die, at least spiritually even if m heart continues to beat.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
When I listen to, or play, a piece of music I know well, I still need to be open to new insights, new possibilities of how it can surprise me, challenge me, inspire me.
If with a piece of music, how much more so with the individual human being in whose presence I am, whether in a formal role of teacher or at the other end of that relationship, or merely as fellow parts of the greater humanity.
It is a Saturday morning.
I slept late.
The cats wakened me.
I came to Starbucks, and began reflecting and writing.
Thanks for being willing to read.