Monday, October 2, 2017

Teachers as Gardeners

Note: This is the text for a talk I gave to Olivet's graduating teacher candidates last April. The audience consisted of seniors who had just finished student teaching, and were poised to enter the field. I used the space to reflect on the changing and unchanging aspects of teaching, and gave some advice to our graduates on how to hold steady amidst what can feel like a tumultuous world of education. At the end, everyone got a trowel.  

                  I’d like to thank the ONU School of Education for the opportunity to address you student teachers as you leave the period of teacher preparation, and enter the field of teaching. And field is an appropriate word here, because the point of my talk tonight is to invite you to consider teaching as farming, or gardening.
                  As you well know, the theme of the Olivet Nazarene University teacher education framework is “Professionals Influencing Lives.” One of your teacher-candidate colleagues recently asked me whether I thought this phrase was one of those nice-sounding sayings that is more form than substance. Whether “professionals influencing lives” really means something. And this student spoke with all the confidence of a Junior, which he is. He said that "influence" can be positive or negative. He said that "professionals" might refer to anyone who gets paid for their work. So really–this student said–“Professionals Influencing Lives” could mean “Paid workers doing work that affects those around them either positively or negatively.” The student’s point called into question our theme, the backbone of who we are. I mean it’s literally the writing on the on the wall outside our offices! In one sense, this student is right. It’s always important to define your terms. And while I know your professors who taught you as freshmen were clear about what we mean by “professionals” and “influence,” I want to take one more stab at the phrase before you leave us.
                  What do we mean by professionals? What do we mean by influence?
                  If we were to poll 100 veteran teachers, I am willing to wager that all 100 would tell you that teaching has changed drastically in the last 20 years. The changes in educational technology are nearly impossible to keep up with, data analysis is a new job demand for teachers and school leaders, increased competition has entered the educational marketplace, reliance on experts and evidence has supplanted teacher instincts, and high stakes evaluations have moved “teacher accountability” from a political talking point to a reality for teachers. So here we are, at a time of change for teachers. And many school reformers are pushing to apply concepts birthed in the business world to fix our schools. You can hear reverberations of business-talk from each of the trends I mentioned: increased technology; increased data analysis; greater competition; reliance on experts and scientific evidence for our teaching practice, and high-stakes accountability.
                  This cross-roads—this time of change—reminds me of the crossroads faced by our nation’s farmers in the years following World War II. My own grandpfather was one of those farmers. He grew up before the war, and before the war, he farmed in the “old way,” with a humble, 80-acre plot in Central Illinois, in close proximity with his dad and his brother, and with his animals. Grandpa Stipp never went to college, but he was known as a bright man and as a prankster. After the war, Grandpa came home and married my grandma, and they began farming in the new way that is quite nearly the only way professional farming is done today. Teams of work horses were replaced by tractors. Days of camaraderie with father and brother were replaced by days of solitude. Small farms were replaced by big ones. And the list of changes goes on.
                  I want you to listen the characteristics of this new way of farming: it had an increased use of technology, it involved greater data analysis, it required trust in agricultural experts. And famers of whatever scale needed large-scale machinery, debt became a way of life, and became a way that high-stakes accountability entered the sphere of agriculture. Do these changes sound familiar? Increased use of technology, increased data analysis, more rigorous competition, increased reliance on experts and research, and high-stakes accountability.
In addition to farming, grandpa Stipp also enjoyed collecting antique tools, guns, and knives. Part of his draw to these old tools was the opportunity to remember. He told stories of how old tools were used, and in so doing provided windows into how life had been. Shortly before Grandpa Stipp died back in 2013, I asked him about the horses he worked with in his fields. As he described them, he began to cry. Even though he embraced new farming methods as much as anyone, It was clear that grandpa also missed something, and felt something about deeply about the old way of farming. The working life of my grandpa’s boyhood was barely recognizable from the farming work he did from 1945 up until 2013.
Well since I’ve been a professor here at Olivet, I’ve gotten to take a step back from classroom teaching, and do some watching. When I go to our schools, either to observe teacher candidates, or even to attend my own kids’ parent-teacher conferences, I observe two categories of teachers. First, there is the type that acquiesces to the changes in the field without a vision. These teachers adopt any new technology or teaching tool, with the wrong assumption that the “new” will provide shortcuts that make the teaching profession easy. These teachers are frustrated with the uncontrollable nature of students and building administrators, and find that the "new" ways provides more pressure than relief. Threats of losing their job are felt daily, and cause them to question their pedagogies. Often, it is these teachers who encourage young people, “don’t go into education.” And if teaching were merely the frustrating dead-end that these women and men experience, they would be offering good advice.
But there is another category of teacher I observe, too. These are the teachers who take the long view. These are the teachers who find the joy in instructing, in their students’ humor and wonder, in the “light bulb moments,” and even in the challenges of teaching. These are the teachers who recognize the ancient nature of teaching. Who would share a fraternity with previous generations of teachers from one room schoolhouses, Mann's common schools or Dewey's progressive schools. I think of these teachers as gardeners. They are not relinquishing the joys of teaching because the educational trends provide new challenges. This is the type of professional influencing lives we want for you to become. If these teachers are gardeners, then their classroom is their garden plot, and the students are their plants. 
Good gardeners are concerned with the long-term health of their plants. Your job is to remove weeds and to water your plants, but to do so with care. Not for short term yields (like standardized test scores) but for long-term health markers like curiosity, neighborliness, mutual enjoyment, and delight. You are concerned with the health of your plants. So don’t teach your students strategies for comprehending isolated paragraphs. Teach them to loves stories; teach them to get lost in novels. Don’t teach your students techniques for cramming their short-term memory for test success. Teach them to care deeply about your content.  
                 Good gardeners use all their senses to adapt to their garden’s needs. Good teachers do the same. Good gardeners are collaborators. Good gardeners are hungry for ideas that can improve their garden, and love to share their ideas with others.
Good gardeners are primarily interested in their own plot; but always recognize that the context of this plot is important. A garden of diverse vegetation is easier to grow in Illinois’ rich topsoil than in rocky Wyoming. In the same way, a classroom “plot” is dependent largely upon its context, too. The broader context of a classroom—the history, sociology, economics, and culture that exist in a school or in a neighborhood—are critical for full understanding of the garden plot.Gardener-teachers are students of their context. Over the course of their careers, gardener-teachers arrive at conclusions, subsequently challenge their conclusions, and are careful to listen to natives of a given context. I hope that you are finishing your liberal arts degrees with a humble understanding of how little you understand. Too much confidence can hurt your ability to understand. In the words of Frederick Buechner, "it is no so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves."
Good gardeners have a vision for their plot that is not dependent upon anyone else’s approval or opinion. Remember the teaching philosophies that you wrote as freshmen, and revised and reworked over the years? These philosophies were just the start of your philosophy that will evolve over the years. Like good gardeners, good teachers are independent thinkers who know their ideal, their philosophy,  regardless of what their administrators tell them.
                  Good gardeners use a combination of science, experience, and intuition as they plan, tend, weed, and harvest. Good teachers use a similar combination of research-backed practices, experience, and intuition as you plan, teach, and assess. Good gardeners are grateful for the gift of the good earth and for its bounty. In the same way, good teachers recognize that they building upon prevenient graces. Think of all the things teachers must together to make a classroom work:
  •        Students’ intellect and curiosity.
  •        The books they use, all of which are authored by those who have gone before them
  •        The symmetry and internal logic mathematics
  •        The natural world
  •        History, fascinating, terrifying, and compelling
All of these are gifts for which a teacher should give praise, and none of them are created by the teacher. It is the teachers job to weave these gifts together, to make the content understandable, to make it pop, and to make it stick. Teaching is difficult to do well, but a work of true beauty when all the moving pieces align.
                  So what kind of professional do we want you to be as you go out into the field of education? What kind of influence do we want you to have in the face of the changing nature of education? We want you to teach as one who recognizes the dignity within each of your students. We want you to water your garden plots with careful attention, and with prayer. We want you to nurture your students into health and growth. We want you to survive the changing conditions that threaten the vitality of education as a profession. We want you to enter into your plots each day ready to endure what there is to be endured, and enjoy what’s there to enjoy, day in and day out. Like a gardener.















Monday, September 11, 2017

When you can't see the trees for the forest

Note: This post is a continuation of “The conservatism that gets you elected.” The first paragraph is repeated from that post, but the rest is new.

A student e-mailed me recently and asked how I thought Wendell Berry would respond to the use of human embryos for testing. The dilemma he was considering was whether someone with serious moral objections to others' actions ought to stand in the way of those who don't share their convictions. And he wondered whether the political arena was the way to go about standing in someone else's way. That is, even though he disagrees with Republicans on many issues, should the sanctity of human embryos compel him to vote for the so-called "conservatives" nonetheless. To respond to this question, I wanted to brush up on Berry's thoughts regarding our political parties, so I re-read a 1993 essay entitled, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," where Berry talks about the "conservative" and "liberal" political parties. Berry's thinking provides context for ways that the destruction of our communities has led to the self-contradictory stances held by both parties.

In this excerpt, as elsewhere, Berry argues from the premise that we have lost something vital with our moves away from agrarian society. We do not care for the land or for one another as we did when we lived and worked on farms. Small interdependent communities or "memberships" have gone away, and our people have become dis-membered. In the passage above, Berry is exploring the sexual and political implications of this dismemberment. Sexually, dis-membered people are not inclined to make decisions regarding sexuality and fertility that consider the needs of their would-be memberships; dis-membered people are inclined to only consider themselves. And isn't it only logical that a dis-membered people is represented by dis-membered politicians?

At this point, you might be wondering about the relevance of this discussion. The two political parties are all wet. So what? The public sphere is not providing useful answers for communities. Now what do we do? How does an explanation of the way these parties have gone wrong help anyone pursue societal justice? How does one person imagine living sanely in a thoroughly corrupted public context? In short, how does one imagine picking up the pieces?

It is the lifelong work of a dis-membered person to re-connect with memberships, or re-member, as we are able. It may be helpful to consider the nature of memberships by imagining concentric circles. The largest and innermost circle consists of the home place. This is our household and property: the specific people and places to which and for which we are most consistently and ardently faithful. The next circle consists of people and places just around the home, upon whom one relies daily: local families and a surrounding area. The people and places in these first two circles are never abstract; they are physically and materially proximal, the objects for which, and for whom we aim to live faithfully “for the long haul.” Re-membering means living a life in harmony with these actual people and physical places: considering how our day-to-day decisions help or harm our neighbors. The third and thinnest circle of membershp involves big issues of national and international weight: macro-culture, economics, federal politics, environmental crises, threats of war. Of course, the matters concerning this third ring are of critical importance. But our attention is out of balance when it places national and international concerns ahead of the local and familial. 


With the groundwork of concentric Circles of Membership laid, let us again consider my student's question: Should someone who is opposed to human embryo research (a Big Issue) attempt to stop those who are engaged such research?

The answer is a very tentative "yes." The recommendation to address a Big Issue in a meaningful way makes a big assumption that the first two concentric circles—familial and local matters—are receiving proper consideration. I believe this is rarely the case. For most of us, these innermost circles receive far too little attention. We prefer, indeed we are led, to focus on big problems. After all, changing the world is more exciting than weeding your garden, raising your kids to be honest and kind, or considering the source of your chocolate bar.

But here we are. A byproduct of dismemberment is that our concerns are mostly misaligned. We can't see the trees for the forest. The lack of wholeness and sound thinking in our individual home places ultimately contributes to our collective crises: from disintegrating family life to the environmental degradation; from political incivility to corrupt global markets. But if one is working in her place, to align her fidelity first with her family, then with her community, she may then begin to imagine addressing a big issue (like human embryo research) even if the work is done alongside incoherent political actors. 

At the Christian university where I teach, our students come poised to address large, outer-ring problems. Many of them spend their spring and summer vacations running kids camps or painting churches in other cities and countries. Many view their time in college as preparation for a life of service. By their senior year, our students are tired of talking about doing good. They are bucking in the stalls, ready to "be the change;" making big plans for big impact in the world. While this posture is beautifully self-sacrificial, it is also flawed. By and large, our students do not nurture a vision for home or locality that extends beyond the desire for a nice, Christian family. But eventually, the desire to attack Big Issues competes with the day-to-day work required to live faithfully in one’s place. One’s inability to fix the world’s problems can be frustrating (why don’t others care as much as I do?), embarrassing (why aren’t I awesome enough for Jesus?), and boring (who cares about American poverty in the face of clean water crises?). And those who strive to solve Big Issues without the foothold of localized faithfulness are bound for rootlessness.

It doesn’t have to be this way. All of us—the dis-membered lot of us—have it within our grasp to re-member. A dis-membered people desiring to re-member must not allow the extent of our dis-memberment to overwhelm our efforts to localized fidelity. We could pour our life’s work into curbing human embryo research or mountain-top removal or clean water problems, and come up empty. Yet the shifts toward membership are always within our reach. We can make a positive impact at home and in our community, and start by simply paying attention.

But beware. A focus on the innermost circles of membership requires and propagates humility. One hollow lure of dwelling on big problems is it allows us ignore our own. But you can’t work for long in solving familial and local problems without realizing how much you are causing them. And have faith. Faithfulness means, first, looking downward: living a life of steadfastness, constancy, and self-sacrificial fidelity. Second, faithfulness means being full of faith: looking forward to that which we cannot see, embracing new possibilities, new realities, and restoration.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Permits? We talkin' about permits?

I have two concerns related to Charlottesville.

First, I fear that boundaries of acceptability are shifting. I am concerned that in the wake of this incident it will become even easier for white people to feel like they are innocent of prejudice – and thus unaffected by racial history – simply because they are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazi groups. We are all affected by racial history. White people, particularly middle and upper class white people, are beneficiaries of generations of white privilege. White Americans who do not see this reality should read and interact more broadly. 

Second – and this point undergirds the first – I am concerned with Trump’s single statement: “You had a lot of people in that [white nationalist] group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know — they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.” This statement is classic white man’s logic in two ways. a.) We craft unjust laws and rules to suit us, we follow those rules to the T, and pat ourselves on the back for our law abidingness. As if lawfulness were better than justice! b.) His argument takes the incident completely out of its historical and present context. The quickest way to put our shameful past behind us is to treat each incident as if slavery and systematic oppression don’t matter. But messes made over centuries are not quickly cleaned. If this incident simply consisted of two groups of rabble rousers - that is, if slavery, Jim Crow society, redlining, mass incarceration, the holocaust, etc. never happened - then Trump would have a point. Instead, our president has just clearly demonstrated that white folks are too eager for a post-racial society, and this eagerness ultimately blinds them (us) from analyzing current events in light of broader systems.

Our racial history is alive and ill. We may never come to harmony as a country. Where we will come to harmony, in our local schools, libraries, and workplaces, it will involve white people taking ownership for how we’ve benefitted from oppression. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Conservatism that Gets you Elected

For decades, the strength of the Republican Party has flowed from conservatism. In one sense, conservatism attempts to maintain the status quo, resisting trends that threaten to upend the social order that has worked well for some (often conservative) people. In another sense, conservatism aims to protect those things that are worth conserving: independence of families, unborn babies, the sanctity of marriage. Those who wish to conserve these precious things rarely value the conservation of the Earth herself. Maybe that sort of conservation is seen as a threat to the aforementioned social order. I don't know.

One lesson that has emerged from President Trump's ascension to power is that the political candidates who the Republicans are electing--those who excite the base--fit much more squarely with the "status quo" protectors, than the "precious things" protectors. Make America Great Again isn't hearkening back to the moral uprightness of the Puritans, the grounded sensibility of Thoreau, to a time when small communities worked together to care for their needs, or to values of thrift and industry. As Candidate Trump was exposed for sin after heinous sin, his popularity actually grew! The "old days" for Trump, were when dissenters were beaten to death or near death and carried away on stretchers. He says he was joking. Of course. But such "jokes" are seen as "real talk" from his excited base, who won him the presidency. In very real ways, Trump is the voice of the people.

And the strategists have taken note. The blueprint is set. To win future elections, the Republican party will ride the concerns of the status-quo-protecting conservative. Precious things be damned. Trump and FoxNews continue to harp on Clinton's e-mails and anything they can scrape up that will deflect attention from Trump's moral and leadership failings. This deflection is dishonest, but it's dishonesty clothed in "political strategy." And honesty is yet another value of true conservatism that political conservatism has discarded like toxic waste.

---------------

A student e-mailed this week with a "randomly intense discussion," asking how I thought Wendell Berry would respond to the use of human embryos for testing. The dilemma he was considering was whether someone with serious moral objections to others' actions ought to stand in the way of others who don't share their convictions. And he wondered whether the political arena was the way to go about standing in someone else's way. That is, even though he disagrees with Republicans on many issues, should the sanctity of human embryos compel him to vote for the "conservatives" nonetheless. To respond to this question, I wanted to brush up on Berry's thoughts regarding our political parties, so I re-read a 1993 essay entitled, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," where Berry talks about the  about the "conservative" and "liberal" political parties. Berry's thinking provides context for ways that the dismemberment of our communities has led to the self-contradictory stances held by both parties.

I've posted a few paragraphs from the essay below, and it really is a lot to consider. Read these paragraphs, and then come back in a week or so and read my reaction, in which I will attempt to bridge a connection between my thoughts on the two types of conservatism, human embryo research, and the absence of true community.

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 As our communities have disintegrated from external predation and internal disaffection, we have changed form a society whose ideal of justice was trust and fairness among people who knew each other into a society whose ideal of justice is public litigation, breeding distrust even among people who know each other.

Once it has shrugged off the interest and claims of the community, the public language of sexuality comes directly under the influence of private lust, ambition, and greed and becomes inadequate to deal with the real issues and problems of sexuality. The public dialogue degenerates into a stupefying and useless contest between so-called liberation and so-called morality. The real issues and problems, as they are experienced and suffered in people's lives, cannot be talked about. The public language can deal, however awkwardly and perhaps uselessly, with pornography, sexual hygiene, contraception, sexual harassment, rape, and so on. But it cannot talk about respect, responsibilty, sexual discipline, fidelity, or the practice of love. "Sexual education," carried on in this public language, is and can only be a dispirited description of the working of a sort of anatomical machinery - and this i sa  sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded, abstract procedure that is finally not even imaginable.

The conventional public opposition of "liberal" and "conservative" is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The "conservatives" promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of "conservative" presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away form home--a development that was bad enough--now required the mother to work away form home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of "liberals," who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as "liberated"-- though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as "liberated." Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women yet advocating for their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

The "conservatives" more or less attach homosexuality, abortion, and pornography, and the "liberals" more or less defend them. Neither party will oppose sexual promiscuity. The "liberals" will not oppose promiscuity because they do not wish to appear intolerant of "individual liberty." The "conservatives' will not oppose promiscuity because sexual discipline would reduce the profits of corporations, which in their advertisements and entertainments encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise.

The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies. Nowhere in public life (that is, in the public life that counts: the discussions of political and corporate leaders) is there an attempt to respond to community needs in the language of community interest.  




Sunday, June 25, 2017

The 100% Neighbor

That a child will never know the extent of his parents’ influence is obvious. And who’s to say whether the unspoken lessons aren’t more lasting than the spoken?

Monday at dinner, the kids asked for Darryl Wilson stories. They had heard of this cognitively impaired semi-hermitic neighbor of my adolescence from grandma, grandpa, and tía Carolyn, and were hungry for more.  How did you first meet him? (Trick or treating, though Darryl didn’t realize it was Halloween until dad and 10-year-old Carolyn enlightened him). Did Darryl have candy for Carolyn (yes; but it had expired in 1987). When did you see Darryl outdoors? (only during the spring when he was re-painting his white fence). What did Darryl eat at home? (only oatmeal and potatoes). What did he eat when you took him to a buffet? (everything in sight). Where did he use the bathroom? (an outhouse, even in the mid-1990s).

From B (age 5) to I (age 13) the kids were full of Monday dinner wonder. They delighted as I recited the  greeting cards Darryl sent for every holiday on the calendar:

            “To 100% neighbors the Stipps
            From your 100% neighbor Darryl Wilson”

            Happy Valentine’s Day to my 100% neighbors, the Stipps
            Rev. Michael Stipp, 100% neighbor
            100% Karen
            100% Brian
            100% Amy
            100% Carolyn

            Love,
            Darryl Wilson 100% neighbor

“Can we go see his house?” asked R (age 6). And though I assumed it was demolished, I said yes. We’ll go tomorrow. Anyone who wants can leave after morning chores.

So off went to Danville, in search of adventure. On a Tuesday.

We approached the East side of town on this just-right June day, and I was both host and guest of the tour. I managed the remembrances that come unbidden whenever one returns to an old home, while answering questions from the back of the van. We drove slowly down South Kansas Avenue, past the VA cemetery, and took the curve West. While the kids peered out the passenger side windows for any traces of Darryl’s house, I was awestruck by our old street.

The road is beautiful. In a state where flatness begat large-scale farming, which begat hurried people, who begat almost everyone I know, South Kansas Avenue is a holy portal. You follow the road’s contour, and you leave post-industrial Danville, with small houses where factory workers once dwelled, and enter rolling farm country.  A canopy made by the trees slows you. The large thick vines that hang alongside many of the trees, together with the slope of the hill (first shallow, then steep) are positively un-Illinoisan. While the kids looked for Darryl’s place, I remembered the first time I drove on my own, up the hill and to Danville High. I remembered driving home on fall days with the weight of teenage stress, and slowing the car to a halt, to take in the multi-colored beauty of the leaves above. I remembered the pleasure of realizing that the snow plows might not get down the hill for awhile, keeping everyone home a little longer.  

“Darryl’s house was juuuuust up here on the right,” I told the kids. But there was no house to be seen. There was a clearing where only saplings grew within the forest of trees 10 times their age, but no house. May the memory of Darryl Wilson and his place be 100% eternal. 

Here’s a quick vignette, the specifics of which I’m skimming over intentionally, but which is important for this story’s point. Last winter, shortly after MG was born, we went as a family to an unknown place: a gathering we had read about online and decided to attend despite not knowing anyone there. As we approached the entrance of this gathering, I noticed tentativeness and apprehension across the brood. I huddled the kids up, and told them that we would go in with “adventure in our hearts.” They heeded my advice, and we made a fun and memorable day of it. I assumed then that the phrase “adventure in our hearts” was my stroke of think-on-your-feet fatherly genius, and nothing more. “Where does he come up with these things?” I imagined my wife saying to herself.

Back to Tuesday. After looking out into Darryl’s Vacancy, we descended the rest of the hill to look at our house, still standing in front of a creek on six acres, quaint as America can be.

And I remembered the sacrifice it took for my parents to make this home ours.  A year or so before, my dad had to renegotiate his contract to free up money for housing. Mom and dad made an embarrassingly low-ball offer, and waited out the owners until they accepted. We bought the place just 2 weeks before its well stopped working, and we had well problems the whole time we live there. (As dad would say here, it’s a deep subject. Har har). When my parents moved away from Danville, they could not sell the house, and maintained two mortgages for years.

The place we all loved came at a steep price. I’ve always been thankful for that house: for South Kansas Avenue on the outskirts of Danville, Illinois, and its out-of-nowhere beauty. But today, at age 38, with a handful of kids of my own, I’m cognizant of what it cost.


I’m aware of other things I learned from that place, too. My parents never needed to tell me that you make sacrifices for your kids, even if those sacrifices set you back for years. They never needed to say that beauty matters. They lived these realities. They never needed to tell me that when you meet the Darryl Wilsons of the world, you slow down.  And when my dad and Carolyn came home on October 31, 1995 with Darryl’s “treat” of decade-old candy in Carolyn’s plastic pumpkin, they probably didn’t realize that the adventure they both had in their hearts would someday be my kids’.