A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On My Family

Am I helping them or confusing them?

Sometimes I think I clutter my students’ experience more than I help it. If I could leave well enough alone and simply show them a few examples of what I want them to do, they could probably achieve the result better by my stepping out of the way.

Take the scene I witnessed the other day as an analogy for it. S– wakes up early so he and I hang out together before the girls get up. On this particular morning he wanted to piece together our Sesame Street puzzle. It’s a 24-piece, two-sided puzzle, so I helped by flipping all the pieces to the same side of the puzzle so he could find what he was really looking for. As he worked S– would constantly repeat, “Where this piece go?” and I would answer, “I don’t know” each time, refusing to help him. In past attempts I had helped him a bit more, but I have seen him put the entire puzzle together by himself, so in this case I let him alone and refused to take the bait. He didn’t mind–his questions were more a matter of form than an actual request, and he assembled half the picture rather quickly.

Somewhere about that time the girls came out of their room, and S–‘s big sister, E–, plopped beside us to help with the puzzle. I asked her to let him do it, but her version of letting him do it is not the same as mine.She kept pointing to pieces and suggesting which one S– should take next. What was interesting, though, was that as soon as E– began helping, S– slowed down significantly. He would be looking at one part of the puzzle, seemingly searching for something like Bert’s head; E–, meanwhile, would be telling him that a different piece was next, the piece that went on the opposite Jan 10 2011 479side of the puzzle. It looked to me like she had broken his line of thinking, forcing him to regroup and latch onto a different detail to construct its place.

The help did not augment his ability to achieve the task; it actually slowed him down and drew him behind another’s line of thought. Though my daughter was driving me batty “helping” her brother with a puzzle we both knew he could assemble on his own, it is often me playing that role in my interactions at school. In particular, I think of essays and the research paper: how often do my explanations and helps transform students from new and learning writers to slightly confused instruction-followers? Have I made paint by number artists out of capable amateur watercolorists?

I have mentioned before that I harbor a bit of suspicion about the idea of learning to learn. I did not always feel this way. In fact, I remember sitting on a panel at the end of high school where I and other students discussed with some community members and school officials what our experience of school was like, and I mentioned then that learning to learn was the most important thing we were doing at school. It was an embedded idea, I guess you could say, and I carried it through until adulthood.

Then I had children, and watching them has caused me to question why we think people have to learn how to learn.

Yet I know much of the idea behind “learning to learn” is good, and what seems more important is precision in our descriptions. Do we need to teach them how to learn, or do we need to teach them tricks for studying diligently? There’s a huge difference between the two, and understanding it might help me realize that sometimes when students are slow to accomplish something, it might not be that they don’t know how to do it; it might be that I am doing so much that I am hindering their ability to figure it out.

Thanks for reading.

Envisioning the people we want our students to be

In discussing education in America recently a friend of mine posited that we have lost the framework where we craft certain kinds of people. The idea for him was that we no longer look at what we are doing and ask, “What kind of people are we trying to shape?” I’d partially defend public education by claiming that we sort of do this–we often say we want to foster intelligent and capable citizens–but I do admit that from my room that vision of the kind of people we want our students to be gets lost amidst standards and benchmarks and learning targets.

Yet when I think it through, it seems like the big picture goal matters most. I’ve worked through this idea before–like that post I wrote about Tony Dungy and Lance Armstrong a few months back, where I lauded Dungy’s separation of goals and purposes. Our purpose is the big picture thing–why we’re here, what we’re ultimately trying to do. Our goals hopefully fall underneath and assist that purpose.

As a teacher, what kind of people am I trying to foster, to shape? When I ask that question, my poem-of-the-day and book-a-quarter assignments make perfect sense, because I’m trying to shape people who are not afraid of something beautiful or something challenging, people who have read a few of the great books and a few of the great poems of our culture. Yet when I look at the goals of my curriculum, the assignments’ sense garbles. I end up creating strange tasks to go along with the assignments to meet those benchmarks. Sometimes, I am convinced, those tasks actually knock me off my big, purpose-path. Thus, I admit, I sometimes have abandoned such assignments because they do not help me to meet the goals which I am obligated to achieve.

That means I created the assignment because it accomplished my purpose, but I abandoned it because it did not help me to accomplish my goals.

With parenting I have no such restrictions, and I thoroughly appreciate the authority our culture has (thus far) allowed me to retain. Of course I am no bigger an expert at parenting than I am at teaching, and if there is a dominant, recurring feeling I have regarding my professional expertise in the classroom, it is inadequacy; yet with parenting, despite my feeling of inadequacy, I am able to picture what it is I want my children to be and shepherd them in that direction without the interference of others’ goals.

What I want them to be is people of character. Yes, I’d like them to be educated and I hope they enjoy reading and the life of the mind and imagination, but those are not the purpose. The purpose is to guide them so they can become people of selfless and generous character, people who consider others’ interests above their own, people who recognize and appreciate truth and beauty. In short, people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind, and all their strength , and people who love their neighbors as themselves.

Yet even with this idea it helps to have a picture of what it is I hope for, and this is where other people’s kids can play a nice role. I have friends whose kids are the kinds of people I hope my kids can be, character wise. Seeing them helps to encourage me and solidifies me in the nobility of our purpose.

Then today I read an article on Chad Arnold’s blog that brought this to the forefront. Chad’s story is maddeningly sad, and I encourage you to read about it in a pair of AP articles here and here. After his liver transplant he began writing about his struggles on a blog called Come Too Far. Yesterday he relinquished the writing duties to Annie, his 10-year old niece, who shared some of her thoughts since Ryan–her uncle and Chad’s brother–died:

There are some things in the world that we just don’t understand, like how God has, and will, live for eternity, and how we can live forever, too, with God. It’s hard to understand, but we will someday and it may not be today or tomorrow but someday it will happen. Like the Bible says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” (John 10:28) I know that this life is like a grain of sand on the beach, and all the other sand on the beach is like all of eternity. What I’d like to say is, “The perished have not perished, only gone from this world.” I know it sounds kind of weird but it’s true.

The impact of Annie’s words are strong and varied for me after following Chad’s story for a few months, but one tangential thought dominated my response: here is the kind of person I want my children to be. Ten-year old Annie and the compassion and faith and maturity that she expresses in her writing is precisely what I hope for for my children. It’s a glimpse of the purpose under which my wife and I are crafting our goals.

I haven’t sorted out all my thinking on this topic in a way I’d like to; I have been hoarding a pile of related thoughts for at least a month waiting until I had the time to write a draft of my thinking, but reading Annie’s account moved me enough that I wanted to share a few of the strands that have been hanging out of my ears.

The notecard, by the way, is a note our six-year old wrote inside the place card she’d made for one of her uncles over Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanks for reading.

Dining on the stories of the world

Aug 23 2010 072

Months ago I began reading out of Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World books to my kids. We’d read after dinner while waiting for everyone to finish, a process that can take us an alarming stretch of time for those not adjusted to such a habit (we have been known to eat from 5:30 to 7:30, though that is not a regular stretch).

In one of Wise Bauer’s books we read about Beowulf and I decided to bust out the original, which I read selectively and which both girls loved (five and three at the time). I should mention that “selectively” only means I edited out long stretches of detail, not that I cut out gory parts. It’s the gory stuff they seemed to enjoy the most. After that Beowulf experience I got to thinking–these girls are going to love The Odyssey. Hence, our next long dinner reading, Mary Pope Osborne’s Stories from the Odyssey series, a set of six small books covering the entire Odyssey in edited detail. That series was great, capturing the basics without significant alterations and still engaging the readers. By the time we reached the battle with the suitors my four-year old was thirsty for some blood, and as any reader of The Odyssey or The Illiad knows, Homer didn’t let her down.

At the completion of The Odyssey, our dinner time readings had taken on a new dynamic. These readings weren’t about just history, they were about adventures. We appreciated the story of the world, it is true, but we’d formed an appetite for the stories of the world. That’s why I was so excited to stumble across Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book in our used book store. His Tanglewood Tales have been on my must-have list for a while but they’ve been tricky to find (well, tricky to find in our used bookstore, where we have trade-in credit) and here I had a nice hard-bound edition. We jumped right in with “The Gorgon’s Head,” a retelling of Perseus’ killing of Medusa. As one might expect, my kids loved it. The night we had to stop in the middle of reading about the three “Gray Women” we spent the rest of the evening pretending to share an eye and fighting over who got it next. On my first attempt at being an eyeless gray woman  I closed my eyes and A led me directly into a wall, where I cracked my nose surprisingly square. After that I pretended to have no eyes with my eyes open.

Hawthorne’s tale is not technically accurate, as a reading of even the Wikipedia article on Perseus will reveal, but it is far more fun, and, ironically enough, far more memorable (That is, ironic to a school teacher who might be tempted to have students memorize the “accurate” versions of the myths). Hawthorne himself makes this point in the Tanglewood porch introduction to the Gorgon’s Head:

I will tell you one of the nursery tales that were made for the amusement of our great old grandmother, the Earth, when she was a child in frock and pinafore. There are a hundred such; and it is a wonder to me that they have not long ago been put into picture books for little girls and boys. But, instead of that, old gray-bearded grandsires pore over them in musty volumes of Greek, and puzzle themselves with trying to find out when, and how, and for what they were made.

Hawthorne gets it, doesn’t he? Wouldn’t we have wanted him as our teacher instead of a stuffy professor?

We’ll continue to read these adventures each night at our dinner table, and perhaps along the way I’ll figure out how to create in my students the same blood thirsty anticipation I’ve created in my six- and four- and two-year olds.

Thanks for reading.

Expressions of the heart

Red Pillar Box

I found sometime–I am not sure when, exactly–that when writing a letter I could express myself with sincerity and openness and in unique ways. Something about the epistle clarified my thinking and directed my words to their target. Perhaps this happens because a letter is directed to only one person, or perhaps it happens because the occasion of a letter dissolves in the greater purpose of the message any anxiety I carry about writing perfectly. Whatever the case, it is no coincidence that letters played a key role in the story of my wife and I getting together, and that I continue to discover my best writing when crafting a letter. It is in the letter that I most accurately express what is in my heart.

the heart in my feet

I thought of that mode of my expression today during a student’s speech. In introducing herself to the class, this young lady attempted to explain to use why she loves dance so much. She told us, “When I dance, I can express myself in ways I can’t with just words.”


I don’t know if she has heard that somewhere or if it just came out perfectly, but I wrote it down, not only for its beauty but because it describes my children. In particular, it describes my son, who talks a little but not so much that he can explain the intricacies of his heart (Well, at two maybe this is as intricate as his heart can be: “Garbage. Truck. Dump!”). This little boy wakes up before his sisters and about the same time as me and my wife, which means he gets to hang out in our room while we get ready for the day. One of his favorite ways to occupy himself is by tinkering with my clock radio: turning it off and on, adjusting the volume, changing the station (the last of these tasks are done with knobs, dramatically increasing the pleasure for a two year old. On one occasion he cranked the volume up so high it frightened him, and he ran out of the room crying). When he comes across a song that strikes him he leaves off playing with the radio and begins to spin and dance around the room. Two mornings this week an old country tune has struck his sensibilities, and he has allowed the music to take him where it will. On Wednesday it took his face to the floor and I ended up carrying him around, consoling him, with my shirt half-buttoned, hoping he could be mitigated before I became late for work.

Alas, this is the risk of dance in the Sheehy house. I have noticed that when he runs around the house he catches himself when he falls and ends up laughing about his collapse; when he dances, he rarely catches himself and his routines dissolve into tears. Poetically, I’d like to say the difference arises from the manner of engagement. When dancing, he sometimes enters the expression so fully that he isn’t prepared or braced for a fall, whereas with running he knows he could trip at any moment. The concentrated look on his face while he dances suggests such a possibility.

Yet the cold analyst in me is aware of a more likely explanation: he probably doesn’t understand the effects of dizziness, and while dancing he tends to collapse sideways, making it difficult to sneak his hands out in front of himself. Now that may technically explain the falls, but the face I see is unmistakable: he’s learning from his big sisters, the dancers, and from somewhere deeper inside, him that he can express his heart through dance.

Thanks for reading.


Photos: “Red Pillar Box“; “the heart in my feet“; “spinning

What does it mean to be a real man?

Riding High

I have this radio program I really like that I heard in Chicago and occasionally listen to on-line: the Nick Digilio Show. The host is really funny without being too dirty or overly cutting, and I got addicted to him while driving to Chicago from New Hampshire and listening to his overnight program. I was able to hear it beginning in Cleveland, which, if I recall correctly, was a good five hours of my trip.

I say all that to mention that a year or so ago I picked up a podcast of his show and he was sharing an article that listed things men should be able to do. He was reading through the list and seeing which things he and listeners could do, and he was taking suggestions about what should be added to the list. I found the list interesting and thought at the time that dads could keep such a list around as a kind of curriculum check. It included things like tying a tie, changing a tire, fixing a toilet, hooking up a stereo (and nowadays I’d add running all the components that are connected to your TV to that), and grilling a dinner. One favorite of mine from the list, but one that is becoming increasingly difficult to teach due to scarcity, is how to drive a stick shift.

I admit I carry the perception that something feels particularly manly about driving a stick shift. Part of it might be the control element—you’re controlling part of the operation of the vehicle and have the ultimate say in how hard the engine is going to run—but mostly I like it because it is how the big rigs operate. I learned to drive a stick in a little Ford Escort station wagon, a definitively unmanly car, (but one that proved tough enough when I strapped a canoe to the top of it—I ran the straps through the open doors and ratcheted it so tight the roof rack almost collapsed under the pressure). The next stick I drove also existed in an unmanly place—a purple Subaru Impreza that I bought while in college. Yet when I worked at a furniture store and was asked to drive the big trucks, I jumped right in there and made them go. Suddenly my manly skill had a fitting setting. Suddenly, too, I had fulfilled one of the measures of manliness I’d developed when I was my son’s age: I could drive a big truck.

I know such things sound ridiculous, but I had my wife take a picture of me while driving one of those trucks, and I still cherish it. I didn’t like that job, but I sure liked driving a truck.

Yet despite the resonance I obviously experienced with this list of necessary man-skills, I knew I was not talking about the most important elements of being a man. I was not taking notes and thinking that I’d finally discovered the key things I needed to teach my son. Each of these things were skills, not manhood. They were things that will take a few hours for my boy to learn, and then he’ll know them, and that will be that.


Once a year, in July, I become completely obsessed with bicycle racing. I started this when I was little, when I was somehow aware of men named Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain, and though I haven’t always had time to follow the Tour closely (it takes up most of the month), I have splurged the last couple years and watched it carefully. So carefully, in fact, that my children know the names of many racers and last year on one occasion at Gramma and Grampa’s house E was driving her tricycle around the driveway “leading the peloton.” (The peloton is the big cluster of riders that takes up most of the road.)

When the tour was over, my passion was not satiated, and I found an audio version of Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike at the library. Lance’s story is fundamentally interesting. Though a world-class athlete, he developed cancer at the age of 25. He was late in identifying it, which meant that it had spread so badly he should have died; yet he somehow survived. After his survival he got back on the bike and his new body type (he was a good 15 pounds lighter than he’d been before all the chemotherapy) set him up perfectly for a run at the overall win in the Tour de France. He won it for the first time after surviving cancer, and then for good measure he won it six more times.

In listening to the book I detected something in Lance’s personality that I have heard described in other top athlete’s lives. He took any slight, any obstacle, and transmuted it into a type of bitter drive. Disgust over his birth father, his first step-father, his former teams, and any doubters in the media: though feelings about such things were left as undercurrents, they were clearly a kind of motivation. He took anger from such incidents and converted it to energy.

I can’t argue against the effectiveness of such an approach. Last year someone asked Kobe Bryant what winning another NBA title would mean and he said it would mean he had one more than Shaq. It seems to me to be the same mentality as Lance, and with five NBA title rings on his fingers, it obviously works for Kobe too.

Yet I admit that as I read It’s Not About the Bike, I was repulsed by this part of Lance Armstrong. He had to be the best, and if anyone dared deny him that status of being the best, he was going to show them how wrong they were. I admit that part of my conclusion is a built on other articles I’ve read about him, articles where he was clearly revealed as driven mostly by his single-minded desire to win the Tour de France; yet it all is consistent. He wants to be the best, and so he became the best, and he’ll do whatever he can to stay the best.

I left that book feeling a bit empty and disappointed. I saw bitterness in his heart, and I understood the bitterness, having felt such things myself; yet as a disciple of Christ I couldn’t see how this jived with turning the other cheek or giving a man your cloak as well as your tunic. Instead of trying not to be bitter, Lance essentially embraced the bitterness. In response, I set off on a search for a better approach to athletic competition. I needed to know whether someone had to be like Lance and Kobe to be the best.

I turned to Tony Dungy and his book Quiet Strength.  Tony, you may know, is an out-and-out Christian who made his faith in Jesus clear throughout his coaching career. After he left Tampa Bay, for example, his former team continued to pray before games, because for the previous six seasons it had become what they did, and the players insisted on continuing it even though their new coach was not a Christian.

Just like any coach at that level, Tony Dungy wanted to win, yet in this book Tony made a clear distinction which I have latched onto and which begins to reveal why there is a difference between Tony and Lance. He said that he never wanted to let his goals interfere with his purpose. His goal, he observed, was to win the Super Bowl; his purpose, however, was to glorify God.

Lance Armstrong achieved a goal, but as far as I could tell in listening to his book, he had no discernable purpose beyond that goal. I therefore left his book feeling empty.

Tony Dungy also achieved a goal, but more dominant in his life was the fulfillment of his purpose. Admittedly this purpose was so primary that the achievement of his goal appeared almost incidental—I think his book would have been just as interesting had he not won a Super Bowl—but such is the case when humility is present. Tony’s goals were subject to God’s purpose, because Tony had made God’s purpose his own.

Not surprisingly, the undercurrent of bitterness I detected in Lance’s book is inversed in Tony’s book. Tony consistently refused to harbor ill-will against those who had done him harm, including the owners who fired him one year before the team he built in Tampa won the Super Bowl. He talked a lot about God’s purpose in each of those events and how trusting God helped him not to focus on the ways he may have been wronged. Again, here, it seemed that Tony’s humility was the thing that allowed him to see God’s purpose as more important than his goals. Thus this humility seems to be the fundamental difference between Lance Armstrong and Tony Dungy.


Humility and reasons for it run amok in the Bible. Paul explains most simply that we should adopt it as a trustworthy saying that “I’m the worst of sinners.” In the Sermon on the Mount, while teaching about prayer, Jesus slips in a clear measure of our state when he says, “you, then, who are evil” (Matt. 7:11). If we remember we are evil and thus the worst of sinners, it’s hard to move too far from humility.

Yet I constantly forget these points. I have always found it amusing—in hindsight, of course—how thoroughly God uses circumstances in my life to bring me back to my place. One day I am able to see myself as an amateur scholar, reading and writing about great books all while balancing a career properly to protect my time at home. I’m exercising. I’m reading to my children every night. I’m basically batting above the .400 mark.

But a few days later I’m an overtired, grumpy cloud in my family’s life, snapping commands and wishing everyone was in bed at 5:30 in the evening. It doesn’t help that the faucet for the tub that I repaired not long ago has leaked all over the bathroom floor again, and that I’ve managed to overdraft my checking account, costing the family obscene amounts of money and leaving me helpless as I watch transactions from the week’s grocery trips roll through the bank’s records.

I use slightly light moments to tease the story but the contrast is real and serious. I had read the same storyline in Tony Dungy’s book. One moment he’s guiding the Colts towards an undefeated season, keeping a journal because the team is so good, and the next month his 18-year old son has committed suicide.

The Bible is full of similar versions of this story. Consider Moses and what he went through. Time and again the Israelites questioned his leadership and finally God completely put his foot down in Moses’ favor. He had leaders from the 12 tribes each lay a staff in the tent of testimony to see which one was chosen. Then the next morning when they checked the staffs, Aaron’s had grown buds. In fact, not only had it grown buds, it sprouted flowers and grew a few almonds. God then told Moses to put the staff back in front of the testimony “to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings” (Num 17:10). If I were Moses I would have been tempted to hang out on a bench outside the tabernacle lying back munching on almonds, just to make sure everybody remembered how clear the signs were. Or maybe whenever there was a meeting for leaders of the 12 tribes I would have supplied a little snack of almonds, just for munchies and for keeping the peace.

Yet the next thing you know Moses ends up at Meribah getting ticked and going too far. God commands him to grab the staff from before him and take it with him to the rock at Meribah, which means that God basically told him to serve almonds at the meeting. It meant that when Moses showed up to command the water to come forth from the rock, he’d be holding the very symbol of his authority as a reminder to the people. That’s powerful imagery, but it’s not enough for Moses and he loses his cool, calling the people rebels and striking the rock twice. That’s not what God said to do, and you may know the rest—no more promised land for Moses and Aaron (Num 20:2-13).

Peter is another great example of God’s bringing us to humility when we are so bold as to forget it. He’s declaring, “Jesus, I will lay down my life for you!” and less than 24 hours later, he’s denied knowing him for the third time (John 13:37; 18:15-18; 18:25-27).

Then there’s David the great hero over the Philistines falling into murder and adultery, and Solomon, the wisest man in the world becoming husband to an army of idol-worshiping foreigners. The list goes on with men like Sampson, but I’ll cease to rattle them off since the plot line I’m emphasizing is clear.

Thinking of these men and the recurring patterns in my own life, I realize that if I lack humility God has a knack for removing any reasons I might have for entertaining its opposite. But if I’m honest in the first place, and if Moses, Peter, and the others were honest with themselves at those moments of pride, I might remember that I am one “who is evil” and “the worst of sinners” and I might even avoid the fall, as such knowledge would keep me from positioning myself on such precarious heights.


Manhood involves lots of things, including tying ties and setting up television systems. Yet one thing Tony Dungy made clear to me is that on the way to manhood one has goals and one has a purpose. My goal might be to drive a large truck, but that’s not my purpose. Our purpose, or our chief end as the catechism says, is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Said another way, our purpose is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. To move towards this purpose requires humility, as only an attitude of humility will put God’s glory first, above our own. No wonder it follows that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves—another concrete and obvious challenge fundamentally built on humility.

Whichever way we say it—glorifying God or loving God—fulfilling my purpose as a man is not possible without humility. Whatever happens, I am not The Man, I am a man, which means I should be saying that I am the worst of sinners, desperately in need of God’s spirit and grace.

Going forward from here, I won’t be a humble man because I think humility is an important characteristic to have. I’ll be a humble man if I realize who I am and who God is, and that without God I am nothing.

Of course if I rise too high in my estimation of myself, climbing to the proud heights, God will throw me back down in a hurry.

To that end I pray that God will keep me humble without having to take from me something as wonderful as the promised land.

Grace and peace to you. Thanks for reading.

Trying to remember what’s worth remembering

How quickly I forget things of the past. Every year our district constructs the opening week of school the same. Teachers begin Wednesday and work two full days. Friday is then a short day where teachers can go home at 1:30, and students begin the next week. Personally I love the schedule because it leaves me time on Friday to get ready for Day 1. No one will schedule a meeting for Friday afternoon and most of my colleagues won’t be here for a leisurely (re:distracting) chat.

It also enables me to enjoy the last moments of my summer break, which is what I did yesterday morning. Mommy wasn’t feeling well and was attempting to sleep a bit, so the three kids and I grabbed a bag of muffins that thankfully existed (Mommy makes gooooood muffins), the sunscreen, hats, the kid-pack, and the bicycles and took off for the park. I walked, carrying S, who is two, and E and A rode their bikes (E, who is now six, is on training wheels and is ready to move off them when she has the courage; A, four, is on a Strider, which is a slick little product if you can afford it). We went for 15 minutes, stopped in the gazeebo long enough to eat nine muffins between us, walked back (crashing only once) and hung out on the playground for a half hour before sneaking back home.

Ultimately these are the kinds of things I want to remember about this first week of school–those last moments of summer, the time with my family, and the general idea that at some point I got ready for the school year. That’s what I recall about these weeks in the past, though I admit I am foggy on the details.

Now that I am here, however, a few other details have rushed back. For example, the open house that takes place on Thursday night from 5-7: I forgot about that again. That’s why we get out early on Friday, of course, but I never remember and am always disappointed. I also lose a good day during the first week as colleagues come to me for help with technology. I steer lots of people into other directions, but I get so many pleas from so many wonderful people, I inevitably get sucked in.

Alas. Here I am at the end of the day ready to go home, and I have done little more today than fill out more of my crossword puzzle, which I sneaked into the long morning meeting (I finally discovered that “men on the lam” was “escapees” and that “forgo” was “waive”).

Some things you’re supposed to forget, though, and this stuff about losing time and getting little finished is okay to lose. Relearning it every year is not unpleasant.

Losing that morning at the park, however, will break my heart some day, and I need to sit at my journal tonight and jot details. I can do it for my kids, for my wife, and for me. I can do it as a mark of how much I am enjoying the blessings bestowed upon me.

I could do it here at A Teacher’s Writes, I realize, but it is a tad more personal than I am willing to share. Alas, good reader, you are not in that part of my inner circle.

One final thought on the day: I know this use of writing as a way to minimize loss is no new thing, and it is what has motivated my mother to begin blogging. I have attempted to connive her into this in the past but she’s never wanted to do it. Now, however, she is facing her final year of teaching, and she doesn’t want to lose it when it’s gone. If you’d like to follow her journey to the finish line, head over to “Harley Woman Writes.”

Here’s what she had to say about these pre-student days:

Usually I think about the new beginning and what I will say to the kids — what profound eloquence will change their lives. And of course it never happens the way I imagine it, and that’s OK, too. I haven’t given any time to the consideration of life-changing opening lines.  It’s part of what already is making this year so different; it’s all in the perspective — and it’s precious. I’ll know what to say to the kids tomorrow, and this year I think I’ll listen more, too.

Do not forget the amazing ear, for it remembers

One thing I’m finding is that it is easy to underestimate the human ear. Our mind has a knack for retaining things it catches, even things we didn’t realize it caught. Granted it can mix things up—my brother owned a book called ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, a book full of misunderstood song lyrics, using a Jimi Hendrix song as the title. As a side note, I can’t resist showing you a great interpretation of a Pearl Jam song whose words many people have memorized . . . sort of.

Despite such difficulties, we retain quite a bit through the ear, and one of the obvious helps to retention is repetition. Repetition is a bit of a dirty word, I suppose, but it does in fact work, if the ear is listening when the item is repeated. While reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I decided it was important for students to memorize a bit of Shakespeare, and I had them work on Puck’s monologue at the end of the play:

If we shadows have offended,
think but this and all is mended,
that you have but slumbered here
while these visions did appear . . . (and so on)

We memorized it mostly by repetition and saying it together, out loud. I’d say a line, and then the class would say a line. Then half the room would say one line and the other would call out the next line, moving back and forth until we’d finished. Eventually, using a memorization website I like, I’d reveal only so many words of each line, and students would call out what they remembered after I’d said the words that were on the screen. Ultimately they were getting it, repeating the lines even when I’d hidden all but the first words. It helps that the speech is written in couplets and the regular meter lets you know when something is wrong, of course—but that is why we chose Shakespeare to memorize instead of a passage from Night.

My favorite moments surfaced the day before we took the quiz, when a number of students had fully internalized it. With just the one word from each line showing on the projector, I’d start them off, saying the first line with them; after that, they’d continue on, not needing my assistance to stay together or to prompt the words. I’ve read many responsive and congregational readings in church, and they never go so well, being as scripture is not written in iambic pentameter. A passerby would have heard 26 students reciting the last lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and if that passerby were someone like me, she would have stopped to listen. It was beautiful to hear.

Interestingly, many students who have not done well with memorizing things in my class did quite well on this assignment. A few students who bombed vocabulary quiz after vocabulary quiz nailed this monologue. I am absolutely sure that the difference was the use of the ear, an assurance arising from the spelling errors that riddle their written versions of the quiz. Some quizzes were the Shakespeare-version of that Pearl Jam video–words that they obviously heard but had no idea what they were. This means these students had not memorized the monologue by looking at the screen while we read it time and again, but had listened to the class and retained it like they retain the multitude of song lyrics they have absorbed.

Do not underestimate the power of the ear.

A couple nights ago at the dinner table our middle child, who is now in the later half of her third year, told an exciting tale involving Israelites battling captives and David fighting Grendel. In a further, more detailed version that I caught on video Hrothgar and David defeated Grendel, beheaded him, chopped him up, roasted him on the fire, and then ate him. After dinner they told everyone about God, providing an entirely original approach to the great commission.

She pulled Hrothgar’s name out on her own, which is not a total shock considering how many times it is used in Beowulf, which I’d been reading to them recently. Still, it was amusing to me nonetheless. After the video she strayed further into reenactments of David’s life and I was struck by the accuracy with which she told the account. David and Goliath, though told numerous times to both girls, has never been a particular favorite of theirs. They tend to opt for Esther, Jezebel, or baby Jesus when given total choice for reading, but our middle child here was including David’s comments about having slayed a bear and a lion and having the Lord on his side. What struck me in hearing such detail is a point Susan Shaeffer Macaulay makes often in For the Children’s Sake (and she is clear that she pulls her original thought from Charlotte Mason), that when reading the Bible to children, the far and away best approach is to read the actual text to them. Let the word as best as we know it begin to interact with them, and they’ll pick up what they are able and no retelling will match it for beauty and distinction. Listening to our daughter, I realized too that they’ll quite likely remember exactly what it says.

This seems worth remembering when introducing children to the Bible. Too often in reading children’s Bibles–even good ones like The Jesus Storybook Bible–I find the material reworded so thoroughly that it echoes translations only in content. Even that echo can become confusing when extra-biblical material is added, which it is. The same situations arise in verbal retellings of scripture. At AWANA we give the kids story time and it is always a Bible story, but it is never straight from the Bible. I do not quite understand this (and obviously don’t agree with the approach), especially considering how exciting so many scriptural accounts are. It is fine, in my mind, to add explanation and clarification to unfamiliar language, but why not read from the actual text rather than babble through an inferior retelling of the event? If for no other reason, the reading of the actual text is a superior idea because it would repeat the same words that children will hear other times they hear the story, helping make familiar the words young ears are perfectly capable of recalling verbatim.

This is one of my favorite tendencies of The Picture Bible: it often speaks exact phrases of scripture, so that reading the actual text immediately following can feel like an echo (though even this book adds a few details). And in reality, it is here, in The Picture Bible, that our middle child would have repeatedly heard these details about David and Goliath.

The details that stuck in those amazing ears.

Thanks for reading.