A Prophetic Institute Teacher

I started college in the Fall of 1996, and enrolled in an Institute of Religion class.  I remember one day we got into a discussion that involved the Church’s Proclamation on the Family.  At the time, the proclamation was only a year old, and not yet as well known throughout the Church as it is today. 

During the discussion, our teacher said something that I’ve never forgotten.  He told us that someday, not too long in the future, the Mormons would be the main champions of the family in our society, almost standing alone in defense of that basic social unit. 

At the time, I thought that was crazy.  What could possibly happen that would turn much of society against not only us, but the universal, traditional family unit?  Sure, the nuclear family was already becoming rarer at the time, and what were already being mocked as “family values” were constantly under assault, but to me such things seemed like the sniping of fringe outsiders at an institution they couldn’t ever hope to fundamentally damage. 

A mere fourteen years bears witness to tremendous shifts in attitude in America, and my “crazy” Institute teacher seems more prophetic with each passing day. 

I don’t know just how hostile the rest of society will get towards those of us who cherish and try to maintain a nuclear family as well as we can, but there is definitely anger out there about it, and I’m grateful to all those, in and out of my faith, who stand together to safeguard those relationships that make families and society exist and work the best that they can.


The LDS Church and Illegal Immigration

I have to change a major opinion. 

A couple of weeks ago, an announcement appeared on the Newsroom of the Church web site, saying that the Church “regards the declaration of the Utah Compact as a responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform.”  The declaration refered to affirms, among other things, that families should be kept together and that social services should exist for the benefit of “all” children. 

Like many other conservatives, I have said that the most logical, legal solution to the crime, friction, and costs caused by illegal immigration would be the deportation of all illegal aliens.  That position, in light of the above statements, no longer seems tenable to me.  The call for keeping families together and sponsoring universal social services can only be reasonably interpreted to mean some kind of amnesty, like the kind promoted by President Bush, and things like the DREAM Act, promoted by President Obama and members of Congress. 

Surely there’s still room for some disagreement on the subject, but we must agree that the general issue of whether or not illegal aliens should be deported en masse is now settled, as far as Latter-day Saints are concerned.  Continue reading

What’s Wrong–And What’s Right–With Student Writing

Last week I got a reading-response journal from a high school freshman in my honors class, about an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (which I’ve described and quoted here before); her paper started off like this:

From Cristo was written by Plato. This story talks about this guy named Socrates whom was sentenced to presin for “corrupting the youth.” although he is inasant and trys to prove it, the juriry desides he is still guilty. He agrues for his inasance. But for all it was pointless. He had the chance to run away but he wanted to prove his inasance. If he would have ran away; other “cities” they wouldn’t welcome him with open arms because he disabad the law by running away. He is killed.

It took me a minute to figure out some of the words: “inasant” is “innocent,” and “disabad” is “disobeyed.”  What accounts for such awful spelling?  Easy–people write like this because their only real engagement with the language has been verbal.  Writing like this–with phonetic spelling, slang, fragments, etc.–comes about because the writer only knows what the language sounds like out loud. 

To put it another way, we now write like this because we don’t read anymore.  Exhaustive experience reading a language used formally is the only way to learn to write fluently.  It’s a simple formula, no more complicated or less effective than any Sunday School answer: if you want to write well, you have to read first.  A lot. 

This dumbing down of written language due to almost exclusively oral experience is especially problematic in students for whom English is a second language, or not spoken at home.  For the girl quoted above, notice how the Greek name “Crito” becomes the Spanish word “Cristo.” 

All is not lost here, however.  She does a few things right.  The second sentence ends with the closing punctuation inside the quotation mark, something which most of her peers do not understand, and the next to last sentence includes the words “would have,” which many of her peers would have written as “would of.”  And, although it’s fairly simplistic and has a couple of errors, she does show a decent understanding of a difficult passage. 

Most importantly, though, when I gave this back to her and said that it needed to be revised and fixed, she cheerfully did so, taking all my advice into account, and quickly resubmitted a much improved paper.  Such a mature work ethic is practically a guarantee of success, and will eventually get her to where she needs to be.  Writing well may not foster character, but character will help her work towards writing well.

Two Bad Ads

This ad campaign that Target rolls out for their holiday specials (apparently an annual tradition, now) is baffling.  It stars a woman so perky, so artificially coiffed to perfection, and sporting a perpetual smile so falsely plastered across a face strained tight with the effort of being an obsessive yuppie, that nobody could possibly identify with her. 

People who are not like this will resent her, and people who are like this will refuse to see themselves in the character.  Someone who’s materialistic to the point of openly hyperventilating about it (as in the example below) is not someone anyone wants to follow.  Remember those “open, open, open” ads that Mervyn’s did about twenty years ago?  Those appeals to commercialism worked because the women in them were normal people who viewers could relate to.  This Target spokeszombie, however, is a shallow stereotype that can only repel potential customers. 

Flo the Progressive Girl she is not.  Who the heck is giving Target positive feedback about this travesty?  Wal Mart? 

Speaking of misdirected ad campaigns, these new ads for the Toyota Highlander are likewise blatantly pointless.  The ads feature a precocious tot who laconically rants to the camera about how awfully lame his parents (and their vehicles) are, and who then sings the praises of the new Toyota Highlander, which he deems cool, indulging in the SUV’s technological doodads (TV screens and, apparently, hip hop music). 

What’s the message here?  Buy this vehicle so your spoiled, snot-nosed brats will like you?  Who is this supposed to appeal to?  Spineless parents desperate to impress small children with whom they have no real relationship?  Not exactly a promoter of family values, this ad campaign. 

And in the spot below, another mistake is made.  “Angel of the Morning” is a really good song. 

Washington and Lincoln Dedicated Thanksgiving As a Religious Holiday

As we gorge ourselves on turkey, overdose on football, and pass out on our couches this year, let’s also remember that the origin of this holiday is no less religious in nature than Christmas or Easter. 

There were Thanksgiving holidays before George Washington proclaimed one (think of pilgrims, of course), but it’s significant that in the first formal day of Thanksgiving set aside by our first president, the source of our blessings and our obligation to worshipfully express gratitude are so clearly expressed:

WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favour; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a DAY OF PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed;– for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish Constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted;– for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge;– and, in general, for all the great and various favours which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;– to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

G. Washington, Wednesday, October 14, 1789

Similarly, during the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln made his official proclamation of a Thanksgiving holiday, his language also acknowledged the divine source of those things for which we should be giving thanks, and the reverent manner in which those thanks should be given:

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

How Many Papers Do I Grade Each Week?

I have ten classes this semester, ranging between 23 students in some to 45 in others.  The total is currently 306 students. 

I assign an average of four papers of some kind (be they reports, journals, answers to questions, creative writings, drilling skills, quizzes, warm ups, etc.) each week.  Some items are only a couple of paragraphs or about half a page long; others are two-three pages.  A conservative average, then, would be that I assign approximately four pages of written work per student, which equals about 1224 pages total, per week.

Now, it’s not quite as bad as it looks.  First of all, even with classes that exclusively consist of honors and college students this year, I still only receive about 95% of assigned work.  (One of the cynical “benefits” of teaching remedial classes is that so few students will actually do the work, that grading is easy!)  That brings my total down to 1163. 

Also, I’m blessed to have two amazing student aides each year, and I do keep them busy.  Looking over my grade book, I’d estimate that, using answer keys and other guidelines I give them, these students grade nearly a third of my work.  Yes, of course, it tends to be the simpler papers, but that’s still a huge amount of time I’m saved. 

Now my weekly average of pages to grade is down to 780. 

Continue reading

Teaching Like the Temple Teaches

 In a classic address, LDS apostle John A. Widstoe summarized the educational value of temple work:

Another fact has always appealed to me as a strong internal evidence for the truth of temple work. The endowment and the temple work as revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see also Doctor Talmage’s The House of the Lord) fall clearly into four distinct parts: the preparatory ordinances, the giving of instructions by lectures and representations; covenants; and, finally, tests of knowledge. I doubt that the Prophet Joseph, unlearned and untrained in logic, could of himself have made the thing so logically complete. The candidate for the temple service is prepared, as in any earthly affair, for work to be done. Once prepared he is instructed in the things that he should know. When instructed, he covenants to use the imparted knowledge, and at once the new knowledge, which of itself is dead, leaps into living life. At last, tests are given him, whereby those who are entitled to know may determine whether the man has properly learned the lesson. The brethren and sisters who go through the temple should observe all these things and recognize the wonderful coherence and logical nature of the carefully worked out system, with a beginning and an end, fitting every known law of God and nature, which constitutes temple worship.

The wonderful pedagogy of the temple service, especially appealing to me as a professional teacher, carries with it evidence of the truth of temple work. We go to the temple to be informed and directed, to be built up and to be blessed. How is all this accomplished? First by the spoken word, through lectures and conversations, just as we do in the class room, except with more elaborate care, then by the appeal to the eye by representations by living, moving beings; and by pictorial representations in the wonderfully decorated rooms (as any one may see in Dr. Talmage’s book.) Meanwhile the recipients themselves, the candidates for blessings, engage actively in the temple service as they move from room to room, with the progress of the course of instruction. Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every school throughout the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do.

Indeed.  As an educator myself, I’ve always been impressed with how effectively the “lesson plan” of the endowment is put together.  I’ve often outlined it in my head as I’ve gone there, wondering if I could reproduce such a complex yet organically coherent structure in my own lessons.  I’ve largely given up on that, though: I realize that the best means for teaching the gospel may not necessarily be the best means for teaching grammar. 

Still, I think examining the pedagogy (teaching strategies and methods) of the temple, in the manner of apostles like Elder Widstoe and Elder Talmage, can assist us in our worship and discipleship.  Continue reading

A Polygamous Reader Am I

Today I apologized to a colleague for not having feedback yet about a book she’d enthused about to me a month ago and which I’d started reading.  I explained that I was only halfway done as my scant reading time gets split between several other books also, as I’m usually in the middle of multiple books at once.  I added that I’ve even started and finished a couple of other books entirely since starting hers. 

She replied that she couldn’t do that, needing to stick with one book beginning to end until it’s done.  I silently applauded her for her mental monogamy.

Not me, though.  I’ve always lacked the discipline to remain faithful to any one book, no matter how much time I’ve already invested in it.  If another book comes my way and attracts my interest, I have to have that one, too.  I think I do pretty well at juggling all of these serial interactions, keeping various plots in the air at any given time. 

It’s probably best not to read too much into this…

“I Don’t Understand…”

This is a phrase that gets beaten to death in arguments, as in, “I don’t understand why you think…”  People use this phrase as if they’re introducing an accusation, when they’re only stating their ignorance!

Perhaps this is meant to be employed as a rhetorical device, trying to get someone else to draw out a defense of a position that you don’t think they really can defend, thus exposing their weakness.  (“I don’t understand why you believe that the moon is made of green cheese.”  “Well, it’s obvious, actually.  You see…”)

However, that’s not how it seems to be used most of the time.  Whenever I hear someone say this, it’s always delivered in a tone that suggests that the speaker’s confusion is inherent proof that there is no rational explanation behind whatever proposition they haven’t bought into.  But since when is a failure to comprehend on one person’s part somehow evidence against the claims made by someone else? 

Such a reaction as “I don’t understand…,” intended to convey skepticism more than curiosity, strikes me as a singularly solipsistic excuse for an argument: “I have no real rebuttal to your proposition, but I just don’t like it, therefore it’s wrong.”

Taking Papers For A Walk

Many teachers reading this title already know exactly what I’m talking about.  You take that big stack of papers that you need to grade home with you, reluctantly, because it just has to get done and you’re way behind.  But no matter how seriously you try to get to it, no matter how incessantly those papers stay on your mind, nagging at your dwindling sanity like some kind of stationery tell-tale heart, you end up carrying the exact same stack back with you to work, with not a single one done. 

I’ve gotten to the point, though, that when I do this, I can at least assuage my tortured conscience with the delusion that I’m purposely doing it for the health of the stack of papers, as if I’m a skilled caregiver.  The Proper Care and Feeding of Papers:

Papers are fairly low maintenance, needing no food and even less water, asking only that they be marked with a bit of red ink eventually.  However, papers like a bit of fresh air and sunshine, and should periodically be taken for a walk.  A nice car ride, a round trip to the teacher’s house, is always a welcome treat for a stack of student papers which have been neglected so far and are not likely to get any other kind of loving attention any time soon. 

Student Irony

Remind students at the beginning and end of class every day for two weeks that there will be a test, give them a flier as a reminder, write it on the board, and post it on the school website, and when the day comes, they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.  “What?  There’s a test?  Why didn’t you tell us?” 

But ask them when their days off school are this year, and they’ll know, off the top of their heads, every single one, months in advance, with no reminders at all.

Cheesy Intros From 80s TV Shows

Last night, for some reason, I got to thinking about some of the shows I watched as a kid in the 80s.  I looked up several on YouTube.  For those of you interested in a stroll down amnesia lane, or any of you youngins who want to learn just how awful everything was before you were born, here are some of the very worst.  I can’t believe how much I liked all these when I was nine. 

My Secret Identity.  Jerry O’Connell, currently of the CBS legal drama The Defenders, stars as a kid with low budget super powers.

Voyagers!  A creepy man and a small boy fly through time and space meeting actors dressed as historical figures.  Each episode even ended with a plea for viewers to learn more at their local library.  “It’s in a book!”

Continue reading

Computer Irony

Every silly little thing you do on a computer will be preserved permanently and come back to embarrass you dozens of years from now, but anything truly important that you’re working on is liable to fall victim to some accident that deletes it from the universe forever!  How does this electronic machine know to save your grungy college pictures somewhere, but to crash just as you’re finishing that big report for your boss?

Relative Savings

Ever thrifty, but especially so during these recent recession years, my wife and I have paid attention to a variety of TV shows, classes, and web sites offering advice for reducing utility and grocery bills.  You’ve seen them–they promise to give you secret tips to cut yours bills in half, or some such thing.

However, we quickly became fairly jaded on any such concept after finding, time and again, that the amazing savings, the rock bottom level of spending that these clever tips and skills could offer, this budget boon due to paring away frivolity to a bare bones lifestyle and/or one devoted to cutting corners…still resulted in expenses that exceeded what we were already spending. 

Honestly, some of the items we ran across made claims such as, “With our revolutionary approach to budgeting and bills, we can cut your grocery costs all the way down to a mere, skeletal $1000 a month!”  I don’t think I’m revealing anything terribly personal by confessing that the Huston family spends significantly less than that on our monthly groceries as it is.  The big, scary question here, of course, is, if there’s a market for telling people how to get their grocery bills down to $1000 a month, how much are they spending now

But what this implies about our society’s idea of thrift, and what constitutes cutting back in our eyes, is far scarier still.  I’m reminded of the old Simpsons episode where Homer abuses his company’s medical insurance so he can get some hair restoring tonic.  When his boss, Mr. Burns, finds out about how Homer had bilked him, Burns cries out in frustration, “Blast his hide to Hades!  And I was going to buy that ivory back scratcher!” 

Alas, the recession: fewer ivory back scratchers for America.