Monthly Archives: March 2011

What Would Jesus Teach?

My boss is awesome.

It seems that she’s been getting some heat (the intensity of which I am still unaware) from some students and parents who identify as Christian.  The fact that this has been happening completely outside of my perception is part of why my boss is so awesome; she’s been dealing with it without involving me at all.

The little that she told me is that there are a number of people who are expressing concern that CHS may be a hostile environment for people who identify as Christian.  They’re upset about some of the issues that our books bring up, they’re wondering about the class discussions we have, they’re concerned that we’re not offering up a Christian perspective on the topics we engage.

You know what?  They’re right; we’re not.  That doesn’t make our environment hostile to Christians, though, any more than it makes ours a hostile environment for Muslims or Taoists or Jews or Secular Humanists.

I have often been accused of having an agenda in the classroom, and this is an accusation I do not deny.  I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating: my primary purpose in the classroom is to get my kids to think and to question and to argue.  My secondary purpose is to get them to consider that there is more than one way of thinking, and while I don’t advocate that all ways are equally valid, I DO require that my students engage in some critical inquiry of the material I give them.  I am sure that some of the things I ask my students to think about are things that some people who identify as Christians may find objectionable.

Honestly?  I don’t care.  In fact, I’m that’s kind of what I’m going for – not to piss off Christians specifically, but to push everyone a little bit outside of their respective comfort zones.  That’s where the good stuff happens; we don’t grow if we don’t venture outside our boundaries. If your faith imposes boundaries that you are not able to challenge, even a little bit, then perhaps ours isn’t the right environment for you.  There are two Christian religious high schools in our town that I’m sure will accept your application.

I’m not asking anyone to accept what I say as truth.  I’m not putting up any of the issues or concepts we discuss in class as truth – I mean, come on; I use a speech from an admitted Nazi in a few of my classes, for crying out loud – and I’m always completely open to (well-articulated and supported) argument about anything that I use in the classroom.  I make a point that my students understand that it’s perfectly okay to disagree, as long as one isn’t disagreeable; if a student argues with something that I personally believe, and that student argues it well, that student will never get a bad grade.  I was impressed by this when my undergrad Ed. Philosophy professor gave me an A on a paper upon which she’d written “this is an excellent argument.  I think you’re completely wrong, but you made your case extremely well.”

I’m not here to support anyone’s spiritual life.  I will be respectful of everyone’s right to practice their faith, but I will not tiptoe around their sensibilities, either.  My job is to get you to think, and to back up your thinking with evidence: if your belief system can’t withstand a little rigorous thinking, then perhaps you ought to reconsider your belief system.

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Filed under Civics and Citizenship, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, frustrations, I can't make this shit up..., I love my boss, I love my job, I've got this kid...., parental units, really?!, self-analysis, student chutzpah, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

What Motivates Us

I’m betting there are things in this that all us teachers can use…

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Musings on Teenage Dumbness

I saw this on my weekly trip to Postsecret:

It struck a nerve in me (and it did for Kwizgiver, too; I see she posted this as her weekly “this Postsecret spoke to me” feature).  I’ve been thinking about it all day, and here’s what I’ve come up with (really, this isn’t going to be news to anyone who’s known me more than 10 minutes, but bear with me…):

I’ve been teaching for a number of years now, and I have only a few times come across a kid who can’t learn.  For all the diagnoses of learning disabilities floating around nowadays (trust me; I’ve got a file of IEPs and 504 forms in my desk that would stun you, given we’ve got a population of under 70 students), I’ve only encountered one or two kids who were dealing with genuine issues when it came to their cognitive processes.  Despite the general impression of over-diagnoses and kids using the cry of “learning disability” as an excuse to not work, I have had students in class who really can’t make the connections I ask of them (in fact, I have one student in a class now who has an honest-to-goodness cognitive disability).

I don’t think those are the kids that the author of this secret is talking about, though; I would bet just about anything that the point of this postcard is to lament the fact that the kids in question aren’t disabled, they just don’t give a shit.  The kids who can’t learn aren’t dumb, they’re disadvantaged.  The dumb kids are the ones who simply can’t be bothered.

Here’s the thing; the lament of “kids these days” has been going on for as long as humans have been living in family and community groups.  I’m sure that every generation as far back as the oldest great-grandparents would remember having at least one of their elders tell them that they were lazy good-for-nothings and that the future was doomed for having them come to maturity and inherit the proverbial earth.  I recall my great-grandmother tell me stories about what a hoodlum my grandfather was, and how she worried that he’d never amount to anything.

Of course, none of her dire, mother-of-a-teenager worries came to pass, but isn’t that the point of the story?  I was a dumb teenager, you were a dumb teenager, we were all dumb teenagers.  The important thing to remember is that ALL teenagers, in their own charming, crazy, infuriating way, are dumb; deeply, profoundly, infuriatingly dumb.  They don’t have the mileage behind them to understand that the things we have to teach them are important.  They don’t have the perspective that adults have, so they genuinely don’t see that they’re going to need the skills and the knowledge we’re trying to drill into their heads in the too-short time we have them with us before they’re expected to go out into the world and fend for themselves.  That terrifies those of us who care about our kids.*

I’m expecting that’s what got this secret writer in a twist, and I can’t say that I blame him (or her, as the case may be).  It can be disheartening to put your love and energy into giving kids something they just don’t want, and it can make for many sleepless nights worrying about how those poor, dumb teenagers are ever going to survive in the world on their own.  I do know that at least SOME of what I give them sticks, despite their best efforts at cool detachment, and I take comfort in the fact that I managed to survive pretty well – and so did you.

(*and please don’t listen to the Fox News assholes who tell you that teachers are lazy, good-for-nothing leeches on society, either; but that’s a post for another time.  Suffice to say that I know a lot of talented, dedicated, desperately caring teachers who I’m crazy-proud to call colleagues).

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Living History

I’m getting ready to start The Book Thief with my freshmen.  Today, a very dear friend of mine came to talk to my babies about his childhood in Nazi Germany.

Martin was born in 1935 to a family of well-to-do Germans.  His father was a chemical engineer and was well placed in the German industrial culture.  Dad’s job during the war was to see to the acquisition and absorption of foreign companies into the Nazi complex, and he was, by Martin’s assessment, very good at it.  He was also involved in the I. G. Farben operation at Auschwitz, though at the time, Martin was unaware of his father’s work there.

Martin grew up perfectly at ease with the kind of rabid antisemitism that the Nazis propagated.  He believed all of the lies that were told about “undesirable” people because everyone he knew, loved, and respected – his parents, his teachers, his clergy – never challenged those lies; in fact, they worked diligently to cement them in Martin’s mind.  It wasn’t until he moved to Canada in 1952 that Martin began to question the assumptions with which he’d grown up.  Once he started questioning, though, he never stopped.

The kindhearted, soft-spoken gentleman has made it his mission to go out into the world to talk about his experience of wrestling with the legacy that his father, his family, and his people have given him.  He speaks with a sometimes shocking mixture of quiet eloquence and bitter ferocity about the atrocities, the hatred, and the lingering effects of that period in our history continues to wreak.  Martin believes that talking about these things, especially to a generation who has never known the kind of pernicious malignancy that characterized his own childhood, is his duty; he could no sooner remain quiet than he could stop breathing.

I have a profound and complex affection and admiration for this man.  He represents for me an example of what a fully engaged, compassionate, and thinking human being should be.  Martin’s willingness to look the ugliness of his own past full in the face is something that takes a staggering amount of courage in private; that he does it in public – and often behind microphones and in front of audiences packed with survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors – defies my ability to name it.

My usually boisterous and difficult to focus freshman class was held in absolute thrall for an hour and 15 minutes first thing this morning (those of you unfamiliar with freshman during first period should know that this is no small thing).  Martin has kindly agreed to come back on Wednesday so the kids have a chance to process some of the things that he said enough to formulate some questions; my goal is for them to have some idea of what it was like to be a young person in Nazi Germany before we begin reading Zuzak’s gorgeous novel about a family’s efforts to survive during that time.

I am quite certain that my students are only marginally aware of the incredible gift that Martin offers them, and that they are even less cognizant of the enormous fortitude and commitment that he demonstrates every time he stands up to tell his story.  I am aware, however, and I am moved beyond my ability to express every time he agrees to share his time, his compassion, and his friendship with me.

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Filed under admiration, compassion and cooperation, history, Holocaust, I love my boss, I love my job, Mrs. Chili as Student, out in the real world, politics, success!, the good ones