Notes on “Educating the Saints”: An Expansive Philosophy of Education

Below is the text of Hugh Nibley’s classic 1970 essay “Educating the Saints” (copied from this online source, with fair use in mind), including my notes on what we can learn from it, as teachers and students, about education.  I submit that, though Nibley was writing for and about Mormons, this is the best work of fundamental values in public education ever written, and should be required reading for anyone who would be a good teacher, in any capacity. 

I’ve put in bold the segments of Nibley’s text that seem particularly pertinent and powerful, followed by my 21 notes in brackets and italics.  My notes are meant to interpret the ideas in the essay into general classroom policies and strategies.  Looking back on these notes about a decade after I made them, when I was still a new teacher, I’m pleased to see that my work has largely been consistent with the ideas here, as I understand them. 

Nibley uses Brigham Young as his model for effective education techniques, and well he should: Young took thouands of poor, illiterate, disparate immigrants and made them the foundation of a society whose descendants are disproportionately well-educated.  Though one would benefit from simply perusing the bold and italicized sections, reading this whole essay would be valuable to anyone; reading it from my source will also allow you to enjoy Nibley’s 200 footnotes!

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A Response to The New Yorker About Writing and Literature at UNLV

The New Yorker just ran an excellent essay looking at some thorny educational issues: why do so many people go to college today?  Are they getting much out of it?  Should college be different?  The author sympathetically looks at different angles to these issues, and addresses recent ideas and research on them.  At one point, though, to illustrate a section where he debates the value of liberal arts training for vocational majors, for writes:

Still, students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal-arts courses. Let’s say that you want a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management, with a Beverage Management major, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. (Hmm. I might have taken a wrong turn in my education somewhere.) To get this degree, U.N.L.V. requires you to take two courses in English (Composition and World Literature), one course in philosophy, one course in either history or political science, courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics, and two electives in the arts and humanities. If your professional goal is, let’s say, running the beverage service at the Bellagio, how much effort are you going to put into that class on World Literature?

Since I’ve actually taught World Literature to business majors at UNLV, please let me offer an answer. 

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Logical Fallacies and “Asians in the Library”

An excellent teaching moment came my way yesterday.  My English 101 class spends the last half of the semester doing a unit on persuasive writing, and the textbook has a whole section on logical fallacies.  In addition to a dry review of them last night, I ended class with something a little more unique and practical. 

I told my classes about the already-infamous “Asians in the Library” video that a girl at UCLA did a couple of weeks ago, and then showed it to them.  As we watched, we stopped it often so we could identify specifically which logical fallacies she was committing.  It was hilarious, controversial, and really drove the point home–the world is full of people who make stupid arguments, and we have the tools to deflate them. 

On a more serious note, for someone like me who truly believes that racism is a thing of the past, a relic that’s been relegated to only the most extreme fringes of society, no matter how loudly some professional grievance-mongers continue to crow about it, it’s really disturbing to hear something every now and then like this that shows us that there really is still some serious racism out there.  I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t think of any way to view this video with a charitable explanation–this young lady just simply comes across as an ignorant bigot. 

My notes on her logical fallacies are after the jump; see how many you can spot!

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In Praise of Teaching a Mile Wide

One of the favorite tropes of professional education is that teaching an inch wide but a mile deep is better than teaching a mile wide and an inch deep, where the former suggests fairly little content covered in extensive detail, and the latter is the opposite: a curriculum that favors quantity of content over depth. 

The idea is that the mile wide teaching confuses kids, goes too fast for them–in short, leaves them behind–without giving enough context for them to understand or care about what they’re learning.  Mile deep teaching, on the other hand, posits that choosing a smaller core of priority material, and teaching it with enough care to produce mastery, will help students become self-sufficient learners, and end up giving them more material in retention, anyway. 

This makes a lot of sense, and I used to subscribe to it.  I no longer do, though.

For one thing, I’ve never seen anything substantial to show me that mile deep teaching does, in fact, produce better comprehension and retention.  Like exercising any other muscle, there’s a limit reached fairly quickly, after which, you’re just burning what’s already there.  Most times, if a student hasn’t grasped something after a few days of class, they’re not likely to get it ever, even after a few months. 

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In Praise of the English Nazi

When I was in college in the 90’s, Seinfeld was still dominating our catch phrase vocabulary.  As you may recall, one of the most popular lines from the show concerned an extremely anal retentive soup counter owner who demanded brevity, silence, and meekness from his customers.  Infringing upon these rules resulted in the sudden loss of your soup-purchasing opportunity, as he would yank the cardboard cup away from you and shout, “No soup for you!” 

Jerry called him the Soup Nazi.

One of my literature classes in college was run by a man who demanded respect and precision at all times.  His formality was excruciating.  If a student spoke out of turn, she would be singled out for a condescending lecture about decorum.  One young woman in our class said she walked by his desk and saw a hand-written letter that he’d opened that began with, “Dearest Father…”

We called him the English Nazi.

Maybe his greatest offense against our barely post-adolescent sensibilities was when he told us to draw poetry.  Keep in mind that this was a class mostly populated by future English teachers; it wasn’t some 100-level freshman requirement.  We all loved reading.  But, when he told us to read Keats and Shelley and Browning and draw pictures of the scenes they described, and our earnest scribblings were met by curt, withering dismissals of our perception, we were astounded. 

“No.  That’s not what it looked like,” he would say of most of our work.  Continue reading

Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

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.

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

Teachers as Actors

It’s around this time each year that a couple of former students, be they upperclassmen, student aides, or simply returning to visit, will come by a class and find me in the middle of a lesson they recognize.  Inevitably, some will ask, “Don’t you get tired of doing the same stuff every year?” 

Sometimes, yes, but there’s also value to repeating units so we can improve them, and it’s always nice to be on familiar ground–one less thing to plan from scratch.  In this way, teachers are like actors: putting on a rehearsed performance multiple times, each time trying to make it come off as fresh to an audience seeing it for the first time.  Strange that students don’t realize how much of this is staged when they know that we teach multiple sections of the same class every year, too; they all seem to compare notes with their friends about what happens in various periods of classes often enough.

And make no mistake, it is a performance.  One of the things newer teachers all end up learning the hard way–and something we all have to readjust to as a new year starts–is just how physically draining it is to be up there working a crowd.  I’ve learned in my experience that there is one non-negotiable element of good teaching, and it isn’t any of the things you’re likely to hear in a college education class–it’s not positivity, “withitness,” or rapport. 

It’s enthusiasm.  I find that you can create just about any atmosphere or character you want in a classroom (mine tends to be decidedly crusty), as long as you do it with energy.  It’s far better to be a negative teacher with energy than to be an apathetic Pollyanna.  This, of course, is hard.  But it’s another way in which teaching is like acting.

Focus and Philosophy of Teaching

For an award I tried out for a couple of months ago, I had to begin my application binder with a short essay about my “focus and philosophy of teaching.”  I didn’t get the award, but I still like what I put together for it.  Here’s what I wrote for this section:

        I.            The best teacher is a trusted mentor, and I strive to become such for my students.  This means that I establish a comfortable rapport, which I do by the same method used for creating relevance and interest in my curriculum: by utilizing students’ prior knowledge and interests of their cultural milieu and introducing material (and myself) accordingly.  This is consistently brought to my attention as one of the most effective things I do for students; their understanding of, respect for, and recollection of class learning and skills are greatly augmented by it. 

      II.            By no means, however, does this mean that I water down content or lower expectations for student work.  (Indeed, if my personable class atmosphere is the first thing that most students seem to remember about my classes, the strenuous work load comes in a close second.) Rather, I use our amiable relationship as a way to elicit greater effort from students—more diligence and attentiveness to their work, greater care for its quality, and a commitment to read, write, study, and think more.  As a mentor teacher, I begin by modeling these things myself, discussing with students what I’ve been reading, conferencing with them in person and via email regarding their writing for class and giving genuine feedback, and leading my classes with the tenor of one who is comfortable acting casually, but only because he is holding himself to exacting intellectual standards, and who is requiring the same from those whose minds are in his care.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I inspire desire.

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Huston For Superintendent

Last week, the Clark County School District superintendent announced that he’ll be leaving over the summer. As the school board starts searching for a replacement, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring. Below is a list of ideas that I like. I plan to be at their meeting on Thursday, April 8, at 4 PM, to discuss my interest with them. I’d appreciate anybody’s support!

These are only ideas, not laws set in stone. These tentative suggestions are meant to illustrate my priorities and values as an educational leader. Ideas would be discussed with the public and school district legal counsel, and may need to be enacted more or less strictly in practice.

  1. All decisions about finances and policies should be made with this motto in mind: “Academic achievement above all.”

  2. Frequently and regularly conference with every principal in the district about their needs, ideas, and concerns. Be open and available to all faculty, parents, and the community. Have an open door policy, and engage the community in person and through media more often. Public schools are community schools, and everyone’s input will be valued.

  3. Reduce non-teaching personnel throughout the school district: eliminate “regions” and regional superintendents, “teachers on special assignment,” and non-academic departments such as “Equity and Diversity Education.” These and many other examples of bureaucratic pork do nothing to improve students’ education.

  4. Reduce and/or eliminate programs that encourage ongoing student failure, in terms of lowered expectations or unreasonable credit retrieval: social promotion, 50% minimum grades, certificates of attendance, and block scheduling, which will also save the school district millions of dollars.

  5. Reduce number and frequency of physical mailings from school district to homes; vast and expensive waste will be ended here.

  6. Aggressively find and eliminate waste and abuse in the free and reduced lunch program.

  7. Consider ending year round schedules in elementary schools, as another cost-saving measure.

  8. Expand an emphasis on basic literacy and arithmetic in elementary grades. Consider re-instituting tracking of students based on achievement, to better modify instruction for individual student needs.

  9. Under no circumstances will funding for arts and sports programs be cut.

  10. Another cost-saving measure: all school district materials will be printed in English only.

  11. Require every campus to survey their community about dress codes and standard school attire.

  12. Strictly enforce discipline and attendance regulations; end the “revolving door” of discipline and endless truancy allowances.

  13. Empower teachers to conduct more effective disciplinary action against disruptive students, such as immediately placing them in an in-house suspension or placing them on RPC.

  14. Make it easier for campus administrators to discipline or fire grossly incompetent teachers; likewise, advocate for reform of current licensing standards and alternative licensing to attract experienced professionals to teaching.

  15. End all emphasis and pressure on teachers to utilize “learning styles,” multicultural education, cooperative education, and any other educational trend that is not supported by research as being consistently beneficial to learning.

  16. End any doctoring of disciplinary and other statistical numbers to the school district and public; stop pressuring and punishing administrators and teachers for “excessively” high discipline rates. Secrecy is out; transparency is in.

  17. Assertively involve parents in the education of nonproficient students: at all grade levels, after each grading period, nonproficient students will be required to attend conferences with their teachers and parents to determine the causes of student failure and to make definite resolutions to fix them. There will be no “grading of parents,” but as appropriate, these meetings may lead to voluntary parenting classes or seminars, such as many campuses already sponsor.

  18. Require schools to counsel habitually truant and disruptive secondary school students to enroll in alternative placements such as virtual high school, distance learning, adult education, etc. This will reduce discipline problems on campuses and will redirect school resources to those who want to learn.

  19. Actively encourage community organizations and businesses to reward successful students, especially through promotions, discounts, and in offering good students employment; CCSD will officially recognize and endorse such organizations and businesses to encourage the community to patronize them.

  20. Sell unnecessary facilities and materials. Does the superintendent’s office have a big leather chair and a huge oak desk? If so, they’ll both be on Craigslist by the end of my first day.

  21. I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary I make as a teacher, with no added perks or bonuses. This alone will save the school district hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Anyone who thinks I lack sufficient financial background for this position should know that I am raising a family with five children only on my teacher’s salary (my wife is a stay-at-home mom). If I can make that work, I can make the school district’s budget work!

 

Lesson Plan For Teaching Evaluation Writing

I tried this with my English 101 class last week to great success.  After reviewing the criteria for writing a good evaluative essay (including, ironically, establishing criteria), they read a copy of a review of something (one day I had them bring in reviews of things they liked–I saw reviews of movies, music, cameras, and a Snuggie–the next day I gave them positive and negative book reviews of Catcher In the Rye, as Salinger had just passed away). 

After they studied their piece, I asked them to write a paragraph or two on the back, evaluating the review.  How effective was it?  Was it crafted suitably for the intended audience?  Did it give sufficient background information (or too much) on the item being reviewed?  Etc.

Then I had them exchange papers with another student, who then read their review of the original item’s review.  I then had them write a paragraph reviewing the review that had just been written by their peer, using the same criteria. 

Then I had them trade papers with someone else, who then read everything written so far, and who then wrote a review of the most recent review (which itself, remember, was reviewing a review).  By this time, they were adequately cognizant of writing with the requirements for good evaluation in mind.  I thought about extending this exercise to further rounds, but decided that this was silly enough.  But it worked!

Semester Exam Follies

This week is semester exam week in my school district, which marks the halfway point of the year.  As students work on their big tests, I’ve found a few nuggets of positivity or, failing that, laughter:

  • While one class worked on their exams, I finished grading the book reports they turned in last week.  The most common feature was most students’ response to a directive to write a paragraph about their favorite and least favorite things about their books, and what they would change.  Nearly everybody said that they liked the parts that were happy, and that they would change the parts that were sad.  Everybody said they’d make it so that Simon and Piggy don’t die in Lord of the Flies.  Those who read The Lovely Bones said that they’d save Susie.  And students who picked The Grapes of Wrath…well, they’d keep Route 66 and pretty much turn the rest into a college road trip, if they had their druthers.  Luckily none of them read the Bible for their book report, or humanity might have been denied the Atonement altogether!
  • In fact, one girl was quite emphatic in her assertion of editorial license: “I would most defiantly change the ending.”  *ahem*  Yes, I’m sure you would.  I see several students every year who spell definitely that way. 
  • On a positive note, though, Continue reading

Robert Langdon Is Not A Good Teacher

Robert Langdon is not a good teacher.

Other reviewers of Dan Brown’s books have noted that his protagonist, symbolism professor Robert Langdon, is no Indiana Jones. Where Jones is an egalitarian everyman, a likeable average guy who “makes it up as he goes along” and seems comfortable everywhere, Langdon is a prissy, arrogant know-it-all who rarely does anything right other than figure out obscure puzzles at the last minute. (I read one essay that suggested that that’s why Ron Howard cast Tom Hanks in the role for the movies–you need someone as personable as Hanks to make the character even remotely tolerable…and Langdon still comes across as a stuffy jerk.)

Langdon fails to measure up to the bar of Indiana Jones in a respect other than that of heroism and likeability, though–where Indiana Jones is a good teacher, Langdon is not.

We see Professor Jones at work in the classroom in three out of his four movies. Continue reading

New (School) Year’s Resolutions

On this eve of yet another glorious year of teaching, I want to set three goals for myself to improve my work.  After reflecting on what my strengths and weaknesses are, and what I want to achieve, I’ve settled on these basics:

1.  More time for independent readings in class.  Each quarter will start with a good book chosen by each student from my lists, and I’ll set aside a couple of class days to read and take notes and/or fill out a log.  After that, they might bring in their own stuff for a few more days of reading here and there.  We read plenty in my classes, but it’s usually from the textbook, with most of their other reading being done on their own.  That doesn’t cut it.  This will pack in more quantity of reading, which kids desperately need.

2.  Speaking of desperate needs, we’ll do more short, spontaneous compositions with instant editing and feedback.  I always want to do more of this, but never get around to it, and it’s so essential.  Quick writing workshops with paragraph-or-two compositions that they’ll peer edit / I’ll edit and they revise in another quick draft, all in one day.  This will benefit their mechanics better than enything else I can think of.  This must be done every other week, at least. 

3.  Finally, I’ll be nicer.  Not in class, I mean, where if anything I should be more strict and where my ability to act enthusiastic when “on stage” serves me well, but outside of class, when kids come in for help or make up work, or when I see kids outside of school.  As it is, my painfully shy, introverted side takes over there and I tend to mumble dismissive one liners and look the other way.  As much as I hate to admit it, a more engaging personality from me does improve classroom performance for them, so here’s one to work on…