Destroying DEVOLSON

If I take a month-long break from blogging, you know two things happened:

  1. Life got insanely busy, and
  2. I spent important time fixing life.

I’m done now!

In the last month, I’ve:

  • Had my car in and out of the shop
  • Suffered an Achilles strain after working to improve my average mile time
  • Been teaching Pride & Prejudice, Macbeth, like a gazillion Spanish verbs, Thomas Paine, Creveceour, and a little bit of Poe just for funsies
  • Wrote a syllabus (from scratch) for the AP Rhetoric and Argumentation class that I teach in order to send it to the College Board for approval (oh, hello, American rhetoric, speech, and Transcendentalists)
  • Rehearsed music to record for Blue Sky Music last weekend (check out my composer friend Lyle Stutzman’s new website: https://blueskymusic.net/)
  • Took a much-needed travel break to Virginia with dear friends in which I took in a livestreamed Gospel Identity Conference by Tim Keller and saw a show at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars playhouse, the world’s only recreation of the original indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London circa 1655! (We saw The Fall of King Henry; it was tragic.)
  • Practiced problem-solving. Back story: you know how the world’s funniest blogging teacher, “Love, Teach” has coined the term DEVOLSON to describe the Dark Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November? To be honest, I’ve actually never really understood the term because for me the Vortex (that is, the most deplorable winter blues) doesn’t come until January, February, and March. (You’ll remember last year’s tearful post about the drudgery of winter weight sessions.) Friends, DEVOLSON has arrived! October was brutal! And November’s evil time change? What in the samhill is a 4:30 sunset? #extremelygrouchyrunner.  In the midst of all childish whining, I stumbled upon two fantastic articles about mental and emotional health (which, if you are wondering if you have, means you might have some adjustments to make). I discovered I have room to improve when it comes to managing stress because, in fact, more often than not, I *don’t* manage stress. I just complain about it. (Not exactly the most emotionally healthy thing to do.) I’m learning that it’s necessary to *deal* with stress and work to remove it. This requires grit, determination, and flexibility.
    IMG_1623So in the interest of knocking DEVOLSON in the teeth, I’m developing all kinds of goals for January, February, and March in order to practice the emotionally healthy habits I’ve learned about, including but not limited to:
  1. finding balance between work, rest, and activity by increasing daily prayer and Bible reading, and by exchanging empty activity for more restful, renewing activities like reading (lots of great titles on my Christmas list and current bookshelf)
  2. continued problem solving around large and little daily stresses
  3. minding physical health by developing a winter workout regimen (which I created while eating a giant piece of chocolate cake from my friend). Ugh. Guys. This year’s Thanksgiving morning run was a fantastic, sun-lit jaunt over flat Mid-western plains (oh, how I’ve missed you, Ohio!), and the joy I experienced during that run reminded me why activities of discipline are so important for my life. Anyway, winter running goals for me include (guess what) more problem solving! Particularly around Achilles injuries and what to wear on windy winter runs. I think eccentric single-leg calf exercises and Black Friday deals will do the trick for me!
  4. practicing thankfulness in order to be more positive (which actually brings health benefits!) Today’s thankful list:
    • my car is out of the shop,
    • what Achilles pain?
    • my syllabus is on its way to the College Board,
    • a brand new Tim Keller book for the mornings and Psalms for the evenings,
    • the poem I saw on Sunday, driving home from our concert after recording, during the most storybook of purple dusks in Lancaster County, as two dark, slow cyclists crested a hill, and I wound through quiet farmland, past farm ponds still as glass, lavender mirrors, with carols ringing in my head, and bare scrags and gray trees silhouette against the good, good sky.
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A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

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Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.

How My School Ruled April Fool’s

You know, April Fool’s Day doesn’t fall on a school day for another three years, so my co-teachers and I planned a memorable day for the students.

First, the tired and trodden students ambled sleepily into the hallway only to be met with a Barrage of Large Objects in Their Path, and found themselves ducking under the high jump bars, around a very large caged bunny, moving past a fake tree, hoisting themselves over a massive, ten foot long, two foot high long jump mat, and proceeding down the hallway, filled with a roll-y cart, a commercial vacuum cleaner, and a table supporting a large bowl of…. onions. And a broom was sticking out of the library book return receptacle.

As students streamed into school, they asked our secretary who filled the hall.

“You tell me!” she retorted.

Confused, the high school students turned to our “slightly annoyed” high school teacher.

“Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously some of the older ones, either the seniors or the youth group who rented the gym last night!” he sighed, irritated. (Our prank wasn’t just the hall-filling, but also convincing the students that we hadn’t done it.) The surprised students immediately began denying their involvement; THEY certainly didn’t want to be held responsible or have to clean up the mess. (We as teachers VOWED that the responsible parties would put everything away.)

“I wonder who it was,” the ornery students asked, in awe.

Students who attended the “offending” youth group’s gym night immediately began protesting.

“I’m sure it wasn’t us! We didn’t even have keys to the school! They school renter unlocked for us!”

The high school teacher brushed them aside.

“You could have easily gotten a key!”

“But it wasn’t us! You have to believe us!”

One conscientious student, on his way to class, approached the teacher and said penitently, “I just want you to know that it wasn’t me. You can call my parents. I was definitely home last night and there is no way that I did it.”

Meanwhile, the seniors headed to their second class and stopped the principal.

“Who was it? Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously your youth group!” he retorted.

“It wasn’t us! We promise!”

“Well then maybe it was the senior girls!” he hurumphed.

The senior girls were getting visibly upset and started protesting louder,

“IT WASN’T US! Why do we always get blamed for everything?!”

“All right, come here, I need you to help me with something,” our principal said. He disappeared for a few moments, and then pulled up to the school’s front door with his car, of which he had taken off the side mirrors.

For the seniors, it suddenly clicked what was going on. They greedily helped him ease the car into the hallway. Just yet another Large Object in the Path.

Around this time, we teachers released the three BABY GOATS into the gym.

The poor little kindergarten class, whose classroom is right next door to the gym, heard a bleating sound. One small student excitedly announced to his pregnant teacher, “I just heard your baby make a noise!”

Next, our secretary asked a senior girl to “go get me something from the fridge.” A few moments later we hear screams of terror as she returns.

“MISS MILLER, MISS MILLER! THERE’S BABY GOATS IN THE GYM! THEY’RE RUNNING AROUND AND THEY SCARED ME SO BAD!”

Meanwhile, in the junior high classroom, we were having a surprisingly fun class. We had just played a game in celebration of finishing our annual research papers and had settled in to a monotonous grammar review. Midway through the review, I stopped.

“Did you all hear that? I heard a cell phone.”

No response.

“I was sure I heard a cell phone,” I said. “Does anyone have one in your desk?”

I cocked my head at a seventh grade boy and bored into him with my gaze. I marched over to him.

“I’ve talked to you before about having your phone in your desk instead of keeping it turned off and outside in the hall in your backpack.” I put my hands on my hips. “You’re going to have to give me your phone.” I returned to the front of class and threw the purple cell phone on my desk. I put my hands on hips and sighed angrily. Suddenly, I whipped a hammer out of my desk and began smashing the phone to pieces! Up and down and up and down I raised the hammer, hitting the phone to bits! Tiny pieces of glass spread over my desk and onto the floor. The phone nearly slid off my desk, but I reached after it smashing it over and over with my mallet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I grew startled by junior high students’ scared, apprehensive glances. THEY WERE IN LITERAL SHOCK.

I could hardly contain myself. I fought not to laugh, but all of a sudden I grew pained because I realized that my students were actually afraid of me in that moment, terrified at the monster I had become.

I gurgled and giggled nervously. “Uh, April Fool’s, guys.”

Only two students kind of giggled. The rest stared at me strangely, not believing what they had just seen. They sat in solemn terror. I tried to lighten it up by laughing and explaining how I had planned this at the beginning of the day with the seventh grade boy. He, of course, was smiling behind his hand. Once I was sure that they all got that it was a joke, we resumed English class, but they were all still a little shaken! They all sat quietly through the rest of grammar class, even as I kept giggling at the front of the classroom. By the end though, they were smiling shyly and me and each other.

Student 1: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I thought: ‘She is WAY overreacting.’”

Student 2: “I was SOOOOO scared! I was shaking!”

Student 3: “I was pretty sure a guy wouldn’t have a purple phone.”

Student 4: “I knew he didn’t have a phone, so I was pretty sure it was a joke.”

Student 5: “I thought you had literally GONE CRAZY.”

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Down at typing class, our secretary had created her own fun by changing the autocorrect on all the computers so that whenever the students typed the word “candy” (a word from their typing exercise for the day), it would automatically change to rude name-calling names. How would you like it if the words you keep trying to type change to “Stinky Face” or “Liver-witted Hiney Squeegee”? (Tears are rolling down my cheeks right now.)

One high school teacher gave a test, with regular questions interspersed with IMPOSSIBLE questions that the students could never be expected to know.

A particularly conscientious student, quite confused, reasoned, “Mr. Yoder, I’m SURE we never went over these in class! And I KNOW they weren’t on the review sheet!”

“Are you sure?” he answered, calm and surprised. “Keep working; maybe you’ll find a question later that can help you with this one.”

That question being the last question on the test: “DO YOU REMEMBER THAT TODAY IS APRIL FOOL’S DAY?!”

Not wanting to leave out the little ones, we even got the youngest students in on the fun. Our kindergarten teacher passed out little packets of Cheerios labeled “Donut Seeds.”

“Take these home and plant them, and you can have your very own donut tree!” she said.

Most of the young ones knew it was a joke because she had carefully explained to them about the prank in the hallway and had even read a story about April Fool’s Day. But one young man somehow missed it all because later he was still talking about taking home his donut seeds so that he could grow his own donuts.

Back in the high school classroom, our math teacher was explaining the kindergarten prank to some students in one of his math classes. Which prompted the math students to ask:

“So what’s YOUR April Fool’s day joke? What’s YOUR teacher prank?”

Mr. Dave squinted his eyes and said, “Well, actually, I was the one who put the stuff in the hall.”

“No you didn’t!” they crowed. “That’s your prank, is you getting us to THINK that you put the stuff in the hallway! But you actually didn’t!”

By this time, we as teachers are just howling because of how many levels of prank-ness there is by now.

“No, this time I really did it!” he laughed.

By this time, the students decided to get in on the fun. They successfully sequestered the high school teacher’s fancy, cushy, office chair, awkwardly lugging the large rolling chair, from end-to-end of the school, in panicked rush, to avoid being seen by the high school teacher on the warpath to find his chair.

Ninth and tenth did a great one on me. I breezed into class ready to give them their vocabulary quiz, going off about the absent students and chirping about who should and shouldn’t take the quiz today… I began passing out the quizzes when I realized that all of them were smiling strangely at me. Then I realized: they’re ALL in different seats! (I have assigned seating in that class.) I hadn’t noticed at all!

One last April Fool’s Day prank came from the junior high students. Our student council planned a beautiful Easter meal today. We set up in the back of our classroom. We had fancy decorations of tulips and pearls, and ate off those really nice fake silver plasticware sets, and had grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, jello, and the most especially divine white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. (Mother who made the cheesecake: it was superb, as always!) Before we prayed our Easter prayer and ate our meal, the student council made an announcement.

“Since it’s Easter, we have a gift for each of you! BUT: you have to wait til everyone gets a present to open one!” One seventh grader ceremoniously handed each student a nicely-packaged gift bag.

“Okay! You can open them!”

We dove into our bags, clawing, and giggling with glee. And we each unwrapped…. a rock.

A dumb ‘ole rock.

Boring gray lumps of stone.

“What.” we intoned.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” the Council yelled.

We all laughed together and then our class president led us in a special prayer of thanks.

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Probably one of the best April Fool’s days I’ve ever had. 🙂

Later in study hall, the junior high girls and I dissected the rest of the cell phone. So, obviously, we had fun.

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Finding Peace for Paris

I spent most of Friday night watching my phone light up with news updates about the Paris attacks. I scrolled through BBC feeds, New York Times articles, and a piece in The Globe and Mail.

And I’m not okay.

I’m really shaken up. I’m torn up. I can’t even go to bed right now because of how disturbed I am.

Which is strange because I’m a small-town Midwesterner, and I don’t know any French people, nor any Parisians.

But I can’t let it go, and I’m sitting up late bugging my roommates with questions like “Why Paris?” “Why now?”

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Doug Sanders in the Globe and Mail article “Attack on Paris an assult on the city itself” makes a statement concerning the locations of the attacks: a legendary concert hall hosting a U.S. independent rock band, a Cambodian restaurant in a bohemian district, and a France-Germany soccer match.

“These do not appear to be symbolic targets. They are not places related to the French state, to the military, to religion or commerce or international affairs. Rather, they are targets chosen, it seems, for maximum carnage: Popular, unprotected, soft targets all on busy thoroughfares with large crowds engaged in popular Parisian evening activities. It was, then, an attack on Paris itself. It is hard to avoid seeing it as an attack on the very spirit of modern, pluralist Paris, on the youthful libertine air that still permeates the French capital.”

Was it, simply, an attack on a modern, pluralist city? If so, what is the reaction to, exactly? Is it related to the Charlie Hebdo incident? Do we know who claims responsibility for the attacks? Are other European nations in danger? We will continue to watch this story unfold in the coming days.

These questions and more swirled around in my mind as I sat on my bedroom floor and prayed.

Yet even though I am asking so many “whys”, I am reminded of the “becauses.” Why do these things happen? Why does evil continue?

Evil exists because people all over the world have evil inside of them. I have evil inside of me.

While I sat on my bedroom floor, sipping tea, staring at empty space, I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose good. That time when I was irritated and snapped at an annoying student. That time when I was tempted to be selfish with a family member. And I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose God, the only truly good Being. And I chose my own selfish way instead. (“I don’t really need to read the inspired Word tonight. I can read something else.”) (“Whatever. This thing doesn’t really matter to Him. He wouldn’t really care. So I’m going to do what I want.”) I didn’t choose good this week because I never asked myself, “What can I do to get closer to God this week and grow His goodness in my life?”

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I think that evil grows just a little bit when we live like this. And when it’s compounded to a thousand decisions a day, and multiplied by a thousand people, in my town, and then multiplied by the millions of people in my country, and my country multiplied many times over… … I think this is how tiny seeds of selfishness grow and become the fields we now have of dishonesty, of greed, and of corruption, which always lead to injustice. And where there is injustice, there is violence and death.

I’m reading the book Loving Jesus by Mother Theresa. She writes about a young Sister, just graduated from university, from a well-to-do Indian family who had just joined the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was required to spend time at the Home for Dying Destitutes. Mother Theresa cautioned her: “You saw the priest during the Mass, with what love, with what delicate care he touched the body of Christ. Make sure you do the same thing when you get to the home, because Jesus is there in a distressing disguise.” The young woman returned after three hours, and Mother Theresa was amazed to find her beaming. She said, “They brought a man from the street who had fallen into a drain and had been there for some time. He was covered with maggots and dirt and wounds. And though I found it very difficult, I cleaned him, and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!”

Reading this book moved me. Because, you see, this week, the evil inside of me (my selfish humanness) really wanted to give a difficult (yet needy) student an earful for her irresponsibility. But my conscience spoke beautifully and loudly to me. “That child is Jesus to you. You must treat her like Jesus.” And I swallowed the lecture, which would have surely wounded, and instead began helping.

These are the moments that breathe life. This is how good grows in the world.

It is very easy for us to read newspaper headlines and point out all the evil in the world. But that’s the point. Anyone can do that. My 12 year old students can do that. But I will tell you what a 12 year old cannot do. They cannot (or at least they find it very hard to) call out and fix the evil within themselves.

We find it so easy to point fingers at terrorist groups, at governments, at nations, and at religions other than our own. But we do not recognize the evil that we carry with us every day. An evil that we refuse to regard. A sinful habit that we ignore. (Which may not necessarily be an overt “sin” other than the sin of ignoring or abandoning God, the bringer of good, which is no less serious.)

I challenge you who want to find peace for Paris.

First, you must find the evil within yourself. And you must recognize it and deal with it. You must make peace in your own home. You must first find peace in your own heart.

Like Mother Theresa says: “It is always so much easier for us to be very kind to the people outside our own circle than to be full of smiles and full of love to those in our own homes… We only have today. If we help our children to be what they should be today, then, when tomorrow becomes today, they will have the necessary courage to face it with greater love.”

This greater love, beginning with each of us, in our own hearts… in your heart and in mine… this greater love is the path to finding peace for Paris.

May you find that peace in the love of Jesus Christ, which is the balm that heals the wounds inflicted by evil in our world. May this balm heal our hearts, so that we may in turn heal our families, our children, and our lands.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night,
Come to us with Thy tender love, my soul’s delight.
Unto Thee, O Lord, in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night.

O why should I wander, an alien from Thee,
Or cry in the desert Thy face to see?
My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight,
O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.

On Teaching Leadership: How Twelve Kids Raised $6000 for Syrian Refugees

We do not expect much from our youth today. When our students exhibit the all-too-common irresponsibility of a self-gratifying entertainment-driven society, we nod our heads knowingly. “Kids these days.” As a third-year English teacher, I’ve been around enough teachers to know that, all too often, sarcasm is a way of coping with young people’s lack of earnestness. We complain about their apathy, their lethargy, and their lack of leadership. We roll our eyes at their dispassionate, caffeine-sodden dreary faces. We watch them play their popularity games and wonder if they’ll ever grow up. We sigh, fatalistically, and point to their culture or their parents and roll our eyes. “They’re a bunch of idiots,” I hear us say. We complain about their lack of leadership. We complain. But we do not teach. We expect. But we do not model.

The thing about teaching leadership is that it takes time. I realized this the day that I ran damage control for a junior high student council event, and I found myself dashing about, flinging open windows, desperately shooing out smoke from an overheating cotton candy machine, while the entire school gathered in the parking lot at the behest of squalling alarms blaring their warnings. It was at that moment that I realized that I had two choices. I could blame. Or I could teach.

I could teach leadership.

Over the past two years, I’ve adopted a much more explicit approach to teaching leadership, especially in forming my class’s student council. Before nominations, I remind them what a student council is, and I hint at the possibilities of what I believe a junior high class can accomplish. I remind that they should not vote for their best friends or for whom they think is the coolest. It is not a popularity contest. Rather they ought to think about who is the most creative, who has the best ideas, and who is hard-working enough to carry out their own ideas. I challenge them by saying that no class before has taken me seriously on this point. This makes students perk up.

Last year it was a miracle if I could get my student council to actually fill out my “meeting minutes” templates. (Yes, organization is a part of leadership.) This year I was surprised to find curious, newly-elected student council members asking when their first meeting was. And one young man came to his first meeting with a little box of special notecards labeled “Student Council.” However, I still expected a very normal junior high student council, and I expected them to plan the normal frivolous events, full of indulgent ideas. (We eat a looooot of birthday pizza, that’s all I’m saying.) So I was curious when two student council girls asked to meet during study hall. They came to me a half-hour later asking if they could host a fundraiser for Christians in Iraq being persecuted by ISIS. (!) What a surprise! A glimmer of hope shined above their questioning faces. None of my students had ever done anything like this before. It was outside-of-the-box. And it demonstrated to me a higher-order development in them, because the students would be getting absolutely nothing out of it. Their motivation was purely selfless.

It was certainly a learning experience for all of us. Their youthful zeal wanted their fundraiser and Rome to be built in a day, and we had to talk about the importance of finding a charity first (which takes time), of creating fliers, and of contacting donors. (Okay, I cheated. I created the fliers, loosely based on the hand-written instructions they had given me, but give me a break. This was the first event like this that we’ve ever done. There’s plenty more time to teach 13 year olds layout skills.) Besides, the students used their creativity in other ways, so that besides contacting parents, grandparents, and their local congregations, they also hosted a classroom bake sale, some students baking brownies, others providing Rise & Roll donuts, which high school students hoarded in handfuls while dropping large bills in a glass jar. (I encouraged the students to make our bake sale free, instead seeking “Donations Accepted.”) One eighth grader coordinated with the science teacher to see if she would be willing to sell extra recess and donate the money to our fundraiser. Quite a few junior high students bought ten minutes of extra recess. We received an outpouring of generosity, and in a few weeks, my class of twelve students raised over $6000, which we donated to Christian Aid Ministries’ “Conflict in Syria” and “Terror in Iraq” projects, which provide immediate assistance in the form of food parcels and hygiene items to fleeing Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

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I’m delighted with what my students have accomplished with a relatively simple idea, baked up by two junior high girls one September afternoon. I asked in a class discussion where the idea to help refugees came from, and the council never really said, but one student offered, “Well, they really need our help.” We went on to discuss what it must mean to live in a country that is in a state of war. In a state of anarchy. No government. No infrastructure. Bombed-out buildings. You have to leave your home. You travel with only the things you can carry. Your father and sister are killed. Your mom is taking care of your baby siblings. And there are no clean diapers for days.

And I liked how this fundraiser related to some other conversations we’ve been having in high school English. Conversations about immigration and the migrant crisis in Europe, which are removed from our own American immigration issues, but not very. So when we talked in 9th and 10th about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the decisions that she and other European nations have to be making due to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, we talked about this, and how 11,000 Icelanders have offered to house Syrian refugees to help the European crisis, even though their government is technically only required to accept 50 immigrants. And we talked about which international actions better relate to Christ-like attitudes toward those in need. These are passing topics in my classes. Things I insert into boring grammar lectures about colons and semicolons. But you see, there’s a big difference between “I like the following types of ice cream: chocolate, mint, and raspberry” and “Refugees migrating to Germany come from the following countries: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” Yes, in my classes, grammar is often a cover for discussing current events. And these discussions are not always comfortable as my students often have their own strong opinions about immigration, but I hope to at least broaden the discussion by looking at immigration issues on an international level. Because I would hate for my students to graduate and think that life is made up of the four walls of Nappanee, Indiana, America.

And because leadership must be taught. Leadership is something that is lacking in today’s world. Where are leaders of integrity? Where are leaders who are servants? Where is the lack of bias? Where is the knowledgeable leader? Where is the hopeful leader? Where is the leader who rises above the constant slinging of critiques and instead guides in quiet humility, always pointing to truth, beauty, and goodness?

I’m quite proud of my young students. I’m proud that a few of them selflessly responded to an injustice. And I truly hope that this is just the beginning. To my fellow teachers I say, “Do not give up.” Continue teaching leadership. Expect it. You will reap rewards in due time if you do not give up.

Some Mediocre Bulletin Boards That Took Way Too Long to Make

You know it’s that Back-To-School time of year when your favorite teacher stores offer extended hours (presumably so you can hunt down perfect bulletin board cut-outs at any odd hour of the day). Yep. We teachers are back in the classrooms, planning, strategizing, and decorating.

One of the funner (and yes, “funner” IS a word) things I get to do is design decorative bulletin boards for my classroom for the year. Let me just say that this is something that I take SERIOUSLY. (It’s okay, you can laugh.) I’ve been raiding Pinterest and Google for weeks, checking out teacher stores, and then revising my ideas.

If you’re not a teacher, it might be hard to understand how important bulletin boards are. While these decorations may seem peripheral, they can actually boost classroom morale. This can be done by using inspiring quotes, celebrating the changing seasons, or creating interactive bulletin boards that highlight student work. To a teacher, bulletin boards can also be prime real estate for supplementary learning. We teachers call these “educational” bulletin boards which reinforce concepts from a unit your class is studying.

The trick for great bulletin boards is creating designs (1) that don’t take hours to make or install, (2) that are inspirational or educational, (3) and that are visually pleasing.

Number three, there, is kind of tricky because the art of the bulletin board is its own genre, artistically, with its own conventions. For example, you have very specific spaces and proportions to work with (most bulletin boards are pre-cut squares or rectangles, 4’ x 4’ or 4’ x 8’, respectively). Also, while myriads of pre-designed background paper and pre-decorated borders exist, these supplies sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Frankly, “pre-designed” cramps my style; I like to think outside the box. For another thing, my classroom serves middle school and high school students, so I like to go with a more age-appropriate look; therefore, a lot of my bulletin boards don’t utilize the traditional scallop-y edged borders or elementary-looking animated die-cuts.

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These cheerful bugs are not exactly the look I am going for.

ANYWAY! Enough with bulletin board philosophy!

Here are some bulletin boards I made last year! I change my two class bulletin boards every* quarter.

1. Maps to Good Writing: an educational bulletin board that reinforces research writing concepts.
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2. I Lift My Eyes to the Mountains: an inspirational bulletin board using text from Psalm 121. I designed this board for use on dreary Indiana winter days.

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I borrowed the mountain design from Apartmenttherapy’s mountain mural design on Pinterest.

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3. Do Something Beautiful for God: a fun inspirational spring bulletin board using a Mother Theresa quote. (Can you tell I hate cutting out letters? #lazyprinting) I washed out the photographs using Microsoft Word. I pasted the pictures in Word then used the Washout color mode in Format Picture. The photographs suggest areas of Christian service.

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In context.

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4. Bulwer Lytton Contest: a silly bulletin board announcing my annual fall writing contest, seeking the worst possible first lines for novels. (Inspired by the exceptionally dramatic first line of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830s novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night,” which is forever ensconced in the memories of Peanuts’ lovers.) Students submit horrendous puns and wretched metaphors, submissions which we later tack up on the bulletin board. Last year’s winning first line from a resident 8th grader: “The rainbow was breathtaking. Like trying to breathe when somebody with really bad breath is standing an inch away from you and talking nonstop.”

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Happy Decorating, fellow teachers! May all the creative energies be yours!

*Except when I don’t.

Diversity in the Classroom: the Mennonite Surprise for Liberal Educators

One of the things that has constantly amazed me about teaching at my tiny little Mennonite school is that there is so much diversity. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Not, at least, in a church school serving a conservative denomination that, for better or for worse, has historically stressed conformity.

DIVERSITY IS THE WORD
The word “diversity” is certainly a current catchphrase in today’s world, especially in the liberal public university. You hear about it everywhere from biology (natural diversity), to sociology (social diversity), to literature (various and diverse literary theories). In education courses, we study diversity as it relates to the kinds of students in the classroom. We study different kinds of learners, but we also talk about the various cultural differences that might pop up in the classroom which we might have to deal with. We are instructed to be understanding of that diversity.

MENNONITES: CULTURALLY DIVERSE?
When I moved to Indiana, I felt that in some ways, my days of figuring out diversity were over. After all, I was moving to a tiny town in a rural religious community. How diverse could it be? I figured pretty much everyone would be wearing John Deere t-shirts and camo, and totin’ rifles and warm apple pies. I assumed that I had this community all figured out. I mean, hey, I grew up Mennonite, how “culturally” different could it be?

I assumed I would have my classroom figured out because I reasoned that my students would have a similar background to me. And to a certain extent they do. For many of the students, we have a lot in common. Things like whoopie pies and homemade bread. A capella singing and church food committees. Funerals meals and wedding volleyball. We all know what these things are. But there are ways in which diversity pops up in unexpected ways. For example, our school serves over ten different area churches. Those churches differ in practice and expression of their Christianity. That means the children’s homes differ. Different families have different attitudes toward education. Different families have different practices relating to the use of social media, movies, and Netflix.

A visitor to our school would look out at all my students and see one mass of Mennonite kids. But to the keen eye, the diversity is invigorating. Contrary to what would have been my assumption, not all of my students have white European ancestry. We have students whose racial backgrounds span four different continents. So in history class, I can’t so easily gloss “our ancestors” as being the early Anabaptists in Europe. Also, we have diversity in family background. I think there’s an assumption that Mennonite families are these perfect little units with a Mom and a Dad, six kids, and grandparents next door. But I have found that not all of my students have picture-perfect-package, tied-with-a-bow, families. I see a child desperate for attention, attention she doesn’t get from her large family at home. I see students whose families have been touched with death or separation. I see students fiercely missing their older siblings who are growing up and moving away. I see students with parents from different cultural backgrounds. Backgrounds other than the cookie-cutter Mennonite background of Northern Indiana Amish ancestry. I see students whose families have been touched with pain due to church problems.

And while our private school employs a strict dress code (thankfully), you can even pick out diversity in the students’ personal style through their footwear. Vans or Toms? Converse or Air Jordans? Uggs or wedge booties? There is certainly diversity and difference of opinion.

STEREOTYPES: WHAT’S THE POINT?
So I ask myself, where did this cookie cutter come from? And since it doesn’t fit so many of my students, why don’t we just get rid of it?

Because life is easier if we don’t take diversity into account. It’s much simpler to talk about things “on the whole.” It’s easier to talk about “the majority.” It’s easier to make something “one-size-fits-all.”

But maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

DIVERSITY IN UNIFORMITY
It’s interesting to me that my school is more diverse than I (and maybe other outsiders) originally assumed, but that my school, as a whole, also adds to diversity in literary experiences. Let me explain. While my students’ home lives may be diverse (they have different backgrounds or family dynamics), they still represent, “on the whole” (to borrow that horrid phrase) a generally similar ethnic, or people group, background. The religious background is pretty unifying at our school. So while there is diversity, we do experience a unifying identity. (Students are taught to filter life’s questions through an Anabaptist, Biblical worldview. And many students experience the same in their home churches.)

Yet taking this further, I see this unifying Mennonite identity as adding to diversity in contemporary culture. It is intriguing to see my Mennonite students defy secular teenage stereotypes in the English classroom. I would like to explain how my Mennonite students add diversity where my secular university said there would be no diversity of opinion.

I once took an education course on juvenile literature. The class should have been renamed: Liberal Agenda for Teaching Trashy Young Adult Novels. My professor put together a reading list of “diverse” contemporary literature written for young adults. We read these books in order to get ideas for what to teach at the secondary level. (Later, I found out that nearly all twelve novels were on the banned books list. I should have figured that out. I THOUGHT they were trashy! But coming from my Mennonite background, I wasn’t exactly sure what you “English” people read when you are teenagers.) The point my professor was trying to make by having us read these books and discussing them in class was that there is some literary merit to banned books, and reading edgy novels like this in class can get students excited about literature. It gets them reading, and it gets them thinking. Sometimes contemporary novels can be paired with classics to make that interaction with a classic text more meaningful. (For example, pairing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with The Scarlet Letter to update discussions about  subculture versus dominant culture.)

The point of the class was not always that classics are bad, but sometimes we need to work really hard to make connections for students. However, there was much classics bashing in that class, especially about some of the heavier religious classics. For example, I was told up and down: “Do not teach The Scarlet Letter. Students hate it. They do not relate to it. Are you teaching is simply because it’s on the curriculum? Get creative.” When I got to my school, I noticed The Scarlet Letter on the curriculum, and I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go.”

Guess what?
My students loved it. One student gushed: “I loved that book! I would have read it on my own, but I got soooo much more out of it because we discussed it in class!” Every day the kids would come to class: “WHAT?! Dimmesdale is THE FATHER?!”
And the themes of legalism, communities’ response to sin (and sinners), the theme of guilt… All of these things my students highly identified with, and they could relate to these themes. We played conscience alley with the different characters. We played “What Would I Do?” games. We talked about the spiritual themes of the book. (We get to do this at our religious school.) So, thank you, Hawthorne. You wrote a classic, and it still speaks to people today, even teenagers.

I bring this up because I was told that teenagers HATE The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, an institution that preaches diversity got it wrong. They left a Christian perspective out. Interestingly, my teenagers’ one point of uniformity is their one point of diversity in the world. They deeply understand the idea of community versus the individual. They understand the idea of sin and guilt. They’ve seen legalism and hypocrisy played out in their own communities, especially in religious contexts. In some ways, the themes of the novel are very real to them. So I say that I love that my classroom is diverse. And even in its uniformity it is diverse, because they relate to literature they’re “not supposed” to relate to.

This year we read The Pilgrim’s Progress. I had a bit of the same reaction. Oh, dear. Here we go again. Another deep religious classic. But again, my students were so into it. It was the first day, and we had an invigorating discussion about justification by faith alone versus the viewpoint of salvation being faith and works. WOULD YOU EVEN GET THAT READING TWILIGHT. What excited me most about the conversation is that the conversation wasn’t entirely between me and the students. The students were talking amongst themselves, exchanging ideas. So I went home that day smiling. Once again. My students are proving the majority wrong. There are teenagers who want to talk about spiritual things. They don’t see Bunyan and Hawthorne as boring dead guys. (Well, I mean, let’s be honest. Of course they do. But they are willing to discuss the themes of their work. And sometimes volatile discussions ensue. I feel like those are the days that I WIN as an English teacher. Or at least literature wins.)

My take-away lesson is: never assume there is a cookie-cutter shape. Always be on the lookout for subtle differences. If there is a majority, find how that majority is different from other majorities. Diversity is a thing.

My teens get The Scarlet Letter. Not a ton of English teachers can say that.

Maybe we’re missing something by ignoring diversity. Maybe we’re missing something by not taking other viewpoints into account. Maybe we’re missing something by not using our creative minds to imagine what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.