Monday, January 31, 2011

my personal inferno

I am sure that if an Dante had been an English teacher he would have made the final circle of hell a place where you had to teach middle schoolers how to research in the library. I am using hyperbole, of course, but am partially serious. Trying to teach seventh graders how to look something up in the encyclopedia, find a book on a given topic, and write an MLA citation/works cited page never fails at being the most trying day of the year. I remember being astonished my first year of teaching when a student came to me and told me that Emily Dickinson was not in the encyclopedia. At first, I had a moment of panic until I realized that he had the E encyclopedia. Never in a million years would I have thought to explain that when looking up a person in the encyclopedia, one always looks him/her up by his/her last name. Now of course, I explain that to students before entering the library, but it never fails that I get at least three questions about why Abraham Lincoln (under A), Stonewall Jackson (under S), and Winfield Scott (under W) are not in the encyclopedia. Attempting a works cited page comes with a whole other host of issues and obvious questions.

There are simply some things that cannot be explained. I can say it, I can model it, but I cannot explain it. It is simply common sense and following instructions. In an era where every form of communication and searching is lightning fast and totally passive, research in a library becomes a foreign concept. (And I did feel like I was speaking a different language today.) Add hormones to the mix and it is just too much. I am sure Dante would agree.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

nothing is inappropiate with God

"How handsome you are, my lover? Oh how charming! And our bed is verdant."
Song of Solomon 1:16

One of the things I love about our school is that we read the Bible every day. In fact, the whole school reads systematically through the whole Bible one or two chapters at a time. Having been there for a while now, I can truly attest to what an amazing treasure our Bible time is each morning.

Today I got into an interesting discussion with my eighth graders in Bible about some of the passages that are left off of our Bible reading schedule. (We strategically skip Song of Solomon, long and detailed passages on circumcision, and a few other like passages.) Today they brought up why we don't read certain passages, and I got the question, "Is the passage inappropriate?" A good and very thoughtful question leading to a great discussion. "No, it is God's word so it cannot be inappropriate." I explained that no passage of Scripture is or should be off limits to you as a child of the Heavenly Father, but there are some passages that are more delicate than others: passages that should be dealt with by your parents and passages that might be awkward for mixed company. But no part of God's word is inappropriate or off limits. I always encourage my kids to read the skipped passages at home and talk to their parents about what they mean. I personally find it very comforting that God deals with uncomfortable issues. The graphic passages, especially in the Old Testament, remind me that God is capable of dealing with a whole lot of mess, and all of sudden, my mess doesn't look quite as bad. And as the transcendent and eminent Creator of the universe, I love the reminder that nothing is off limits, out of bounds, or inappropriate for God.

Later today I gave the seventh graders an assignment to include an encouraging Scripture verse on a get well card for our custodian, Mr. Jackson. Then came the inevitable question: "Can we pick from anywhere in the Bible?" Hearkening back to my conversation this morning, I responded with a hearty "Of course." Sure enough, one naive student began exploring Song of Solomon.

"Mrs. Freeman, what does verdant mean?"
"Verdant means green or fertile. Why?"
"Because this Bible verse says, 'Our bed is verdant.' What does that mean?"
After my long pause and hesitation to answer, the student asked, "Oh, is it inappropriate?"
"No, it is God's Word so it is not inappropriate, but it is delicate and awkward in mixed company."
"Oh," was her quick reply. "I will just look it up in the dictionary."

At that point, what could I do but laugh?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G bee

the proud participants

Today was our annual school spelling bee. This is always a rather exciting day for me, and the more years we have participated, the cooler it gets.

This year, my class spelling bees were quite entertaining. In seventh grade, we have one clear winner but kept going back and forth for the runner-up position. It came down to two girls: one you would expect and another you totally would not because she acts as though she is too cool for things like spelling bees (but I know better. . . no one is too cool for spelling bees). The girl you would expect to win kept getting her word correct then missing the championship word or spelling without thinking and getting easy words wrong. As a result, the girl you would not expect spelled her words incorrectly THREE times so that the expected one could win. She had to think harder about misspelling "slaughter" and others than spelling them correctly. What a shame.

In eighth grade, four out of six students desperately wanted to win the title of Class 8's best speller and compete for the school title. The competition was fierce. One student among the four was first to get out on "prattle." At first she hoped that everyone else in the round would get out so that she would have another chance, but when her hopes were thwarted and her classmates spelled their words correctly, she rejoiced with those who rejoiced and mourned with those who misspelled. It was really sweet to see this biblical truth so clearly in action in our class spelling bee. It finally got down to two spellers, and things got really intense. One would get it, the other would miss, then the one would miss their championship word and vis-versa. We get going and going until one student remarked, "Man, this is better than a Cowboys game!" As a teacher, when your students compare professional sporting events to any activity in a classroom, it is a major victory. Anyway, we went through 19 rounds and I called--no true winner; we needed 2 representatives anyway.

This morning was the fateful morning of the spelling bee. It was really great to see 10 bright eyed students with an allegiance to language that clearly glorifies the Creator of the written word. This week I felt a special burden for my kids to understand the importance of language and feel a loyalty to it. First, we talked in class about last week's story on 60 Minutes about Jared Loughner, the shooter in the recent Tucson tragedy. While certainly insane, his friends explained that Loughner was a Nihilist and did not believe that language had no meaning. I was reminded that those ideas that life and language are meaningless have very real consequences. Then in preparation for the bee, I thought about how Christians should have a special affinity (a word one student lost on today) for language because of the nature of Heavenly Father. First, God created the world with words: "Let there be light." His power is showcased and channeled through his language. Also, Jesus Christ is called the "Word": "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." Jesus Christ is God's power in action at Creation and is called God's Word. Then, God communicates to us through written language in the Scripture (which is powerful and sharper that a two-edged sword). Of all of the ways he could communicate, he chose the written word. We have a special obligation to know and understand language just so that we can know and understand our God. Lastly, God cares about our language. Ephesians 4 says, "Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth" but instead to build one another up with encouraging and truthful words.

the winner (right) and alternate (left)

The bee went really well this morning. It went for quite a while; the winning word was "boutique." There was one student who I know wanted to win so badly; he was so careful and thoughtful with every letter he said. Unfortunately, he got out on protagonist; he spelled it "protaganist." But I know he will never forget how to spell it; he was writing it in big letter across his papers today. Believe it or not, the spelling bee has inspired many more thoughts, but for now, I am simply overwhelmed with the power of language in our daily lives and am glad to have the privilege of being an English teacher because I have the pleasure of exploring that linguistic power and nuance with pre-adolescents every day.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


"The government which governs best governs least" -- Thomas Paine

Self-government is a theme in my classroom every year. It recurs throughout American history in the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the debate over states' rights and the Civil War, and even in the Texas War for Independence. Self government is the classic debate between Jefferson and Hamilton: can the people be trusted to run their own lives or does the government need to step in? But self-government is also the resounding theme of classroom management: can you control yourselves or do I need to step in with rules and control your behavior for you? In other words, self-government is my mantra and my soapbox.

On the first day of school when I am going over the rules, I talk to my class about why little children have to raise their hands in class--because they do not have the self control to refrain from interrupting the speaker and one another. Hopefully in seventh and eighth grade, we can have a discussion without interrupting or rude behavior, and in that case, hand raising is not necessary. However, if the students cannot govern themselves and chatting, interruptions, and immaturity abound, I will be forced to govern them and only call on students with raised hands. Same goes for behavior outside the classroom: the little ones have to walk in a line because they lack the self control necessary to walk in an orderly fashion. Seventh and eighth graders, on the other hand, have hopefully reached the level of maturity where they can walk from class to class like adults without supervision because they can be counted on to supervise themselves. If I am ever called out of the room for a minute, I will simply tell my class to continue what they are doing and "Self-govern." Sometimes this works out better than others.

The other day, I stepped out to speak with another class about a discipline issue and was gone longer than expected. As a result, I was a full 7 or 8 minutes late to class. When I finally got to class, my heart leaped for joy at the sight of eighth graders governing themselves. Sure enough, they were sitting in a circle in the center of the room (as we often do for literature), and they were taking turns reading aloud from The Count of Monte Cristo and telling back what they read. One student had even taken his place on my teacher's stool (while that seat is normally off limits, under the circumstances I allowed it).

My goal is to train my students well enough that I can sit back in what Charlotte Mason calls "masterly inactivity": allowing the children to get their hands dirty in the text placed before them, walking alongside and guiding them. Outside of the classroom, they should understand what is expected of them and do what is right no matter who is or is not watching. Because that is self-government and it is the right thing to do.

I think TJ would have be proud of those young minds self-governing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

charlotte mason on new years' resolutions

"Habit is ten natures."--Charlotte Mason in Home Education

In this season of resolutions and new starts, I have a tendency to get frustrated with the assumption that a New Years' resolution will only last for a few short months. It is as if they are promises meant to only be kept temporarily. Just today I was at the gym and overheard a woman who worked there commenting on the crowds in January that will inevitably die down by March. Charlotte Mason would not approve of this transitory approach to self improvement, because Charlotte Mason of all people understood the power of a habit; thus, she says, "A habit is ten natures," meaning that a habit has ten times the strength of your natural personality or tendency.

In one of her volumes, she talks about the frustration of being a teacher and trying truly help her students improve: "But it was plain that they behaved very much as 'twas their nature to. The faults they had, they kept; and the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was still incurably idle. In lessons it was the same; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing" (Home Education pg. 98). She acknowledges the strength and self discipline it takes to make oneself do what one ought to do. And the "lever" or tool to lift oneself out of one's nature is the formation of good habits. Habit, then, is essentially reforming your nature making it one of the primary tools of education and the primary tool of self betterment.

Charlotte Mason recognizes that forming a habit takes a lot of hard work and constant watchfulness and attention. You can think of it as removing the effort of decision from the equation. For example, a few years ago I made a conscious decision to get into the habit of working out. Rather than driving home every evening, going back and forth over whether or not to work out, what work out I should do, and what should I wear to work out, I removed all the effort of those decisions. I packed a bag with my gym clothes in the morning and did not give myself the option of going home and went straight to the gym after work. By not allowing myself to waver as easily and changing my schedule so that I was not deciding what to do after work, forming a new habit became much easier.

I talk a lot about good habits and bad habits in the classroom every day. When I started teaching, I remember feeling very convicted that I was requiring my children to do things, like be on time and stay organized, that I was not doing myself. But over the years, I have made the decision to form some new habits, and it has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life. The knowledge that you can change something about yourself with discipline, watchfulness, and some help from the Holy Spirit is invaluable. I hope that by the time they leave my classroom, my students can understand the "ten nature" strength of habits.

A suggestion: Along with working out, I also made the decision a few years ago to get in the habit of reading so I decided to read one book a month. I cannot tell you how wonderful this has been. I highly recommend reading for pleasure as a habit to add to your arsenal this year. (You could start with some Barnes and Noble Classics because that is a very good place to start.)