tree roots

This past week marked the final day of my JVC year, which the good people over at the Detroit program office rounded off with a final retreat on the banks of Lake Michigan. Besides the sun and swimming, the staff treated us, once again, to a handful of insightful speakers, each with a message that extended beyond the JVC year.

Our first speaker, Fr. John Staudenmeier, a Jesuit from the University of Detroit Mercy, talked to us about the grief that accompanies goodbyes. He explained that the Jesuits take on a vow to go wherever they are most needed at a moment’s notice, a vow which gives them an expansive sense of the world. Yet, Fr. John noted, many Jesuits also fail to really get to the places where they go.

By this, he doesn’t mean that they get stuck in the airport. Many Jesuits, knowing their stay is likely temporary, fail to really put down roots in their community. I would argue that this is a neurosis that affects us all, especially in this day and age, and especially young adults. We move for jobs and school and relationships, and in order to avoid the grief of goodbyes, we avoid attachment.

But this grief is a deeply beautiful thing, Fr. John explained. It’s a sign that you made real relationships, that you experienced something of value. It’s a sign that you truly got to the place where you were going.

Complimenting this concept is a favorite novelist and poet of mine, Wendell Berry, who wrote that “all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart.” Let it in, and let it break your heart.

At the moment, I’m in a liminal space, done with JVC and about to move on the grad school, and as I sort through my experiences, I find that the grief I feel is sweetened and eclipsed by a profound gratitude. My wish  for the year was to take leave of my students, fellow teachers, and community with a bad case of broken heart, and I’m grateful to the people and the experiences that allowed me to fulfill that wish.

Trinity gates

Two Fridays ago, I attended my first graduation as a teacher rather than a student. Expecting something like my middle school graduation ceremony, for which I wore flip flops and went out to Dairy Queen afterward, I was surprised when this middle school graduation felt almost as celebrated as my college ceremony.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. At this rigorous private school, where students spend ten hours a day and the majority of their summers in school, to make it all four years is impressive.

More significantly, my students are immigrants or children of immigrants, and many of them are the first in their families to receive high-quality educations. These families are celebrating not just a graduation, but the opportunities that are now available to their children.

For these immigrant families, education is the golden ticket, the not-so-free pass into middle class, American society. At the gates stand the keepers, the wealthy and the powerful in the United States, who have turned the education process into a sort of ultimate test. In order to gain access to their world, one must run their gauntlet.

Last fall, a donor called our school, upset that we were taking part in a Christmas pageant with political undertones. The pageant depicted Mary and Joseph as immigrants, seeking shelter in the United States and being denied. I was surprised, because this donor had also been an active volunteer with our school and wonderful with the students.

For this donor, amnesty is a free pass. It would flood our middle-class with the unworthy. So, this donor stands at the gate. They build an “objective” test that decides who is worthy and who is not, based on their successful completion.

But education is not objective, and it is does not fix everything. No matter how hard they work, some of my students will still be undocumented when they graduate. No matter how productive they are, some of their parents will be deported. Most of them will experience racism or discrimination. And no amount of good education will fix that. Only good laws will fix that.

Last week, I attended my school’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Donors are known to drop $10,000. Speaking at the event was Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart and an advocate for gang bangers and drug addicts. He gently reminded the audience that our deepest longing is to be in kinship with others, and that our greatest task is to extend our circle of kinship to include even those deemed unworthy by society.

In the case of undocumented people, society says that “innocent” children are worthy. Their parents who brought them here are not. Educated, English-speaking, assimilated undocumented immigrants are worthy. Their uneducated, less “well-adjusted” compatriots, no matter how hard working, are not.

In our society, it seems that education is not simply about learning. It imbues those who have it with value. It creates the worthy and unworthy. Those that accomplish their education are worthy of the upper and middle classes, and all of the privileges that go with them.

To me, this is a failure to extend the circle of kinship. If, as Christian, humanistic, and democratic societies claim, we all have intrinsic value as human beings, then no one should be standing outside of that circle. No one is unworthy.


Today in the United States, “culture” is said to be divided into two warring religious and secular sects. Even as the concept of “family” becomes the crux of the divide, an increasingly large percentage of parents are raising their children without religion.

And as alien a concept as the Death of God might be to religious families, the labyrinth of religious ritual is becoming equally as foreign and repugnant to the new secular generations.

So, in the interest of bringing greater understanding to both sides, it seems necessary that secular thinkers ask the question: What do we lose when we lose religion?

Having grown up Catholic, though I am often skeptical of the Church, I am still grateful for the exposure to a faith tradition. By providing a certain ritualistic framework, my upbringing developed in me a mode of introspective thinking that is not always comfortable for those raised in a secular environment.

The Catholic ritual of reconciliation, or confession, in particular, encourages this mode. This ritual consists of a parishioner goes into a room where a priest sits and confesses to sins as mundane as nagging or teasing one’s sister (my childhood go-to) or as horrific as murder.

Most people are familiar with this practice through its depiction in movies, but movies universally leave out a step: The examination of conscious, which takes place before the confession and is more or less a moral checklist that the parishioner reflects upon.

Where I feel friction is with the content of the moral checklist; I find it difficult to swallow the dichotomous and arbitrary labeling of certain actions and thoughts as sin. But whether or not one agrees with the theology, it cannot be said that there is no value in learning to take concentrated, intentional time to examine one’s being in the world.

To this point, while on a JVC retreat this past January, I became familiar with the Jesuit prayer practice of Daily Examens. Though somewhat similar to the examination of conscious, the Jesuit concept differs slightly in that it is more an examination of consciousness.

It is not purely moralistic, and it does not prescribe proper actions. It merely invites one to go over the day and the habits, thoughts, feelings and interactions that surfaced and were. In its final step, it also prompts one to dwell on the next day, to prepare for the possibilities there.

Similar to this idea, the Bardo Thodal, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, calls prayer smon-lam, which literally translates to ‘wish-path,’ and says this:

“It is not a request to an external deity, but a method of purifying and directing the mind. It acts as inspiration by arousing the mind’s inherent desire for good, which attracts the fulfillment of its aim.”

Though this and the Examens may be dismissed by some because of their religious language, how does one achieve goals other than by intentionally identifying one’s own desires? What could be more useful and practical than questioning oneself on a daily basis about one’s own progress towards those desires?

Of course, in a religious context, one’s own desires should be aligned with the desires of the Church. But this habit of reflection, sometimes known as prayer, might possibly be equally useful to the millions of secular people who desire to live in a right relationship with the environment, with the underprivileged, and with their own friends and families.

The learning curve of a teacher is steep and treacherous. Students are hyper-aware of every mistake, every inconsistency, and every sign of weakness.

They know a good teacher when they see one, and they know a green one. They have, after all, been observing teachers for years by the time they enter your classroom.

Students will give immediate and legitimate feedback —whether it be complaints or poor test-scores— and if a teacher cannot adjust, is either incapable of perceiving that feedback or adverse to then responding to it, they should not be in the classroom.

And honestly, after enough negative feedback, they won’t want to be.

Therefore, a new teacher’s job is to adjust every day, because inevitably, they are making many, many mistakes.

I happen to be a non-native Spanish speaker teaching native Spanish speakers how to produce and comprehend their own language, so my students are often able to call me out on pronunciation or vocab errors. They love this, and because I still have something to teach them about culture and history and literature and grammar, I don’t mind it either.

But the following mistakes impede learning of any kind. They fall into two categories: those that a new teacher can be taught to avoid ahead of time, and those that they will learn to respond to through experience.


Backwards design
Make the test first, know exactly what you want them to know, establish the learning objective, and then teach it. My first unit was less than successful because neither I nor my students knew what I wanted them to know.

Procedural structure
It is ridiculous how much class time one can waste on small things like turning in assignments, starting class, and writing down homework. To my surprise, I was told that teachers actually plan these seemingly insignificant activities to minimize wasted time.

For example, for the first month, my class wasted 5 minutes asking questions about the homework, and I often answered the same question three times.

Now, I have their homework assignment on the projector when they walk in the door and give them 3 minutes to write it down in their planner. If they don’t finish in three minutes, they can ask me or a friend after class. This way, we start class immediately, they know what we’ll be learning about that day, and they ask fewer questions.

Not so teachable 

There is no way to know how long an activity will take before actually bringing it before a class. Even then, each group of students will react to an activity in a different manner. Seemingly, mastery of pacing only comes with experience, and until then, have back-pocket activities, just in case.

I came into this year having no understanding of what middle school boys are capable of. There’s a balance between expecting too much and expecting the best from students. Having just come off of college, I am still adjusting to this, but I’d rather expect too much than underestimate or bore my students. Besides, recent research is saying to scrap the textbook and go for more scholarly texts, anyway.

So, there are certainly qualities of good teaching that can and should be taught thoroughly, but also some that only come with time and real experience. The trick is to have both at the same time.

About a week ago, while paging through a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel  —partially destroyed, thanks to the handling of a certain, spirited 6th grade journalism class— I realized that I know more about the local politics and needs of Milwaukee than I have ever known about my home town.

So, I decided to register to vote in the state of Wisconsin.

This late in the process, Wisconsin’s only avenue for same-day registration and voting is in person at the Municipal Clerk’s office. Of course, in order to find that out, I first went to the public library, where I was directed to City Hall, where I was then directed to the clerk’s office, where I then stood in the wrong line for ten minutes until I finally found myself in the right line with the right paperwork and the right identification.

In Oregon, I’ve always just mailed my ballot in. No lines, no waiting. Easy and convenient.

But as I stood in line, watching volunteers and voters pour in and out, being a part of this concerted effort to vote, I didn’t feel inconvenienced. Instead, there was electricity in the air and a sense of urgency and pride; a sense that what was being done there was important, that our vote —and even more than that, our effort— counted for something.

There is, I realized, a great deal of difference between filling out a ballot at your kitchen table, removed from any sort of community, and standing in line with fellow citizens, making a decision as a community, regardless of individual affiliations and beliefs.

During the American Revolution, in The American Crisis, Thomas Paine wrote that, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”

It may seem trite to compare voting to war, but in a way, the analogy fits. Mail-in voting is easy and probably does encourage busy citizens to fill out a ballot, but a part of me also believes that something as important as voting should take some effort, if for no other reason than to remind us of that very importance.

Growing up, I never wanted to be a teacher. I thought it was out of the question for me, an impatient  introvert with questionable planning and time-management skills. Teachers are born, are they not? Some people are just naturals.

My senior year of college, I realized that, natural or not, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted that environment of constant, intentional learning, and I wanted to share the ideas I loved with others.

Yet, I was also certain that were I to find that I was not a natural, I would look for another career. I’ve had enough teachers who shouldn’t have been in a classroom, and I have too much respect for education to be one of them.

My personal fears have been reinforced by the rhetoric surrounding education and the recent slew of teacher’s strikes, especially in Chicago. In an interesting ideological switch, liberal politicians and media have mostly villainized teacher’s unions, calling them reactionary and resistant to any critique that blames them for our educational woes.

Teachers, it seems, are the problem. For the sake of simplification, let’s say that this is so, that the blame lies only a little with overpopulated classrooms, lack of resources, and unstable family structures.* If that’s so, then teachers must also be the solution.

How, then, do you teach teachers how to teach? The message, from both liberals and conservatives, teachers and administrators, is decidedly mixed.

Recent research shows that teachers with MAs deliver no better results than those with a BA. This dovetails with what I’ve heard about education programs. Courses that teach teachers how to teach are, by and large, a complete waste of time. It’s about classroom experience more than anything else.

Yet, I’ve had teachers who had been in classrooms for 20 years, teaching next to nothing for all 20 of them. And unions are criticized precisely for protecting tenured teachers.

And then there are programs like Teach for America, frequently hand-picking smart, motivated college graduates with absolutely no experience, providing very little instruction, and throwing them into a classroom to sink or swim. There, the swimmers tend to produce higher than average results.

So, experience means nothing, but neither can good teaching be taught, supporting the idea that teachers are born, not made. That’s the rhetoric. And it’s a rhetoric that, after only a month of teaching at Nativity, I no longer believe.

But more on that later.

*If anything, simplification is the problem. Even the best, most natural teacher cannot fill the place a parent fills, cannot give individual attention to 40 students, cannot teach students how to succeed in a technology-driven world without computers. It’s easier to place the blame on the “other” than imagine a total cultural and systemic restructuring that would affect us all.

In history, literature, and myth, to know the true name of one’s opponent is to have some power over them.

In the German fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine can only free herself from her promise to the magical being by discovering his name. In Mark 1:21-28, a possessed man calls Jesus “the holy one of God” not to acknowledge Jesus’ position, but to gain power over him. Even Frodo Baggins gains some power and influence over Gollum by happening upon his real name, Smeagol.

In the classroom, the same theory applies.

In Tattoos on the Heart (an excellent read, by the way, on the dynamics of gang culture), Greg Boyle remembers that on his first day in a low-income school, a veteran teacher told him that his first and most important job was to learn names.

This does two things. First, it gives you the power of the demerit. A kid who discovers that you don’t know his name also realizes that you won’t know who’s name to put on a detention slip. No name, no consequence.

But it does something much more important as well. We all like to hear our names spoken by people we love or trust because our name is the one thing that symbolizes our entire being and identity. Using a student’s name signals to that student that they are worth being known. That’s true power.

There are 80 students in my school, and the teachers here know every one of their names, and I’m getting there.

Of course, when there are three sets of twins in the 6th grade, this all gets a bit more complicated.


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