Advice For My Children: Flaws

Dearest Children of mine,

You will have a flaw. In fact, you will have many flaws. But you need to know your deepest flaws.

We all have surface flaws. Flaws that seem like a big deal but don’t actually matter all that much. You might forget to hang up your towel after you shower and let it grow mold on the floor. You might not notice the stunningly lengthy nose hairs protruding from each nostril. You might talk incessantly about your passion to folks who don’t care a whip about it. You might care a little bit too much about your clothes or your car or your looks.

We try to cover-up or ignore our deepest flaws. Sometimes our deepest flaws are strengths that turn into negative forces. Sometimes they are just pernicious parts of our personality. The gregarious leader turns bossy. The good listener cowardly refuses to speak out in a situation full of conflict with the excuse that she wants to “hear all sides.”  The passionate believer closes her ears to anyone with a different viewpoint.  The charismatic leader manipulates his followers. The skillful belittles the weak.

If you are not aware of your deep flaws, if you are not constantly working on them either through prayer or deepening self-awareness, your flaws will be working on you. You will wake up one day, and you will not know why people avoid you. You will not know why your marriage is broken. You will not know why your children do not respect you. One thing is certainly true: you may not know your deepest flaw, but those close to you do.

CS Lewis once wrote about the power of a deepest flaw: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine” (Lewis The Great Divorce). 

So my advice to you is this: know your deepest flaw. If it’s a grumbling spirit, a prideful capability, or a willful disobedience or defiant proclivity, or any other deep flaw…. get to know it. Stop pretending your small flaws are the ones that matter. Stop trying to shove your deepest flaw under the bed. Stop trying to hide it in the basement. Stop leaving it in the shadows and pretending like it’s not there. For what is evil gains power from darkness and ignorance. Instead, throw open the shades, pick up the flashlight, turn on the overhead lamp. When you shed light on your deepest flaws, you gain the power. You can pray, you can practice, you can discipline, and you can overcome. But first, you must know.

 

 

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The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil…

In light of the recent tragedies related to race, inequality, and violence, this Edmund Burke quote keeps flashing through my mind: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I feel like one of the good [women] doing nothing.

When protests were going on near our house the other day, I looked at my husband and said, “Why aren’t we there? I feel like the white person who never participated in a Civil Rights march or sit-in during the 60’s. If we’re not actively against inequality, then we’re complicit in it…right?” And yet, we didn’t go. Couldn’t get a sitter for our kids in time. It felt a little scary and out of my comfort zone. We didn’t know anyone attending. Our presence probably wouldn’t even make a difference. All reasons….but good enough ones?

want to ameliorate racial tensions and inequalities, but at the same time, I don’t quite know what to do. I know that I am called by Christ to love all of his children. I have heard that being an ally means that I should say something, or get in the fight, to stand up for anyone who is being put down.

I am outraged that we live in a world where someone can’t reach for a wallet without fear of being mistaken for pulling a gun. But my outrage isn’t doing much.

I am ashamed that so many black and minority Americans face indignity after indignity and do not feel heard nor do they expect that change will come. But my shame isn’t changing much.

I am fed up with the educational and economic divides that run along racial lines, particularly where I live in Atlanta. But my frustration isn’t solving much.

I am fearful for the many policemen who so selflessly put their lives on the line every day and who, because of the horrible actions of a few, are now unfairly viewed with distrust and distain. But my fear won’t save them much.

I hope in the reconciliation my church (Buckhead Church, Pastor Andy Stanley) is trying to foster. This candid conversation –about race, our nation, and what, as Christians, we are called to do during a time of racial division such as this–took the place of the sermon on Sunday, and it was so powerful that I had to go back and listen again. I have posted it here, and I encourage anyone who is feeling discouraged to watch or listen. 

I distinctly remember the few powerful times when, in middle school and high school, I stood up to a bully for someone else. Once, some boys, friends of mine, were making fun of a lower-classmen by pretending to be nice to him. This was not a racially motivated situation; it was a group of boys flexing their social-capital muscles. “Dan, come sit next to us,” they snickered. “Yeah, put your book bag here and join us.” Giggle, giggle.  “I’m the coolest cause Dan is sitting next to me.” “Yeah, the coolest,” snicker. Dan warily joined them, looking at these guys, wondering what was coming next, whether they were actually being nice or just pretending. They were just pretending, of course, and the worst part was that they were using their niceness to be cruel. I remember feeling torn up inside, hating what they were doing, but feeling a little powerless to say anything. But then, my conscience won out over my loyalty to my peers, “quit it, y’all. Let’s go, Dan.”

Here is my problem. In that situation, it was clear who the bullies were. There was a face. There was a moment. I either don’t have the opportunities or I am blind to the moments to “stand-up” to racism. Does my white-privilege just blind me? Am I a bystander, or worse, the bully, without even knowing it? How can I stand-up to a system? How can I face down history? How can I put my arm around entire races of people and tell them to come sit with me? Is writing this post even a start?

Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” I very much doubt the ripples of this writing will have any tsunami-like effect. I could scarcely imagine giving speeches in front of multitudes or inspiring others to action by my heroic deeds. But there are moments, everyday moments when I might do a small thing with great love.

When a neighbor of mine, a little rough around the edges, makes a racist or sexist joke, my usual response, rolling my eyes and frowning, is no longer enough. Perhaps I can, with great love, ask him not to make jokes like that.

When over the Holiday dinner table, a relative of mine starts to speak in stereotypes about “black people” or “Muslims” or “women” or “gays,” my usual tactic of changing the topic will no longer be enough. Perhaps I might have the courage to gently but firmly challenge those assumptions.

When I overhear a student in the hallway say, “that’s so ghetto,” my typical correction of a raised eye-brow will no longer be going far enough. Perhaps I might kindly start a conversation with that student about the power of words.

Jesus told us to love our neighbor. Being loving doesn’t mean being a polite pushover, but I have often confused it as such. Too often, I remember only the first part of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” If these were the only characteristics of love, I would never be able to challenge my neighbor or family member about race, religion, ethnicity. 

But that is not the end of love: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (emphasis added). Can I protect one neighbor by persevering with and hoping in the goodness of another? Can I trust my neighbors and family to understand where I’m coming from in those moments I challenge them?

I think I am learning that I must.

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PLCs To Do List: Question #4 and Pre-assessment

The infamous question number four. We all shudder. “What if our students already know the material we are planning to teach?” Already know it!?!?!? How could they! How dare they! They’re only 12! But the sad truth is that once in a blue moon, or, let’s face it, perhaps even more often than that, we do encounter students who already know much of the material we’ve planned on teaching them.

Unfortunately, teachers (myself included!) tend to do one of two things to these students. We either A) turn them into TA’s for our class, acting as helpers to the rest of the students (some people just call that free labor), or B) we ignore that they are bored, doodling in the back of class or getting into trouble because who wants to read Run, Spot, Run when you’re reading Gone with the Wind level stuff…. and we give them high marks on the tests that they ace without trying, and we pray that they don’t loose interest in school before they get to a subject that will actually challenge them.

Ok. Enough ranting. So what do we do about these poor, brilliant cherubs?

We pre-assess them.

Question number 4: What do we do if they already know it?

Take time in your PLC this week to build a pre-assessment together.  Pretty simple, but here are a few tips to get you going.

1. Decide if you want to do a whole-year pre-assessment that you would all give in August, or if you would rather build a pre-assessment for each unit. 

Benefits of a whole-year pre-assessment:

  • You can compare results from the beginning to the end of the year if you have your students take the pre-assessment again.
  • You can (obviously) identify those skills or objectives that students are already generally familiar with and break those up into learning groups. The kids that already know those items can work on something else during that time. Or, you may notice you will need to spend some time catching students up on pre-recs you thought they came in with.
  • You can pull similar questions from your final exam or your midterms. No need to reinvent the wheel. The kids won’t remember the questions when they get to the exam anyway.
  • This also might force you to make your exam before November/April. It is best practice to know where you’re going, eh?

Benefits of a unit-by-unit pre-assessment:

  • The pretest can be shorter and done as a “Do Now” the first class period of the unit.
  • You can more directly target your instruction and personalize it for certain students.
  • You can show the kids their progress really frequently. How cool to see where I was at the beginning of the unit compared to where I ended. (It merits some discussion in your PLC about whether or not you will show your students their scores on the pre-test. Some people argue this can be motivating, while others believe it can be depressing for students. I think it is all in how you use that information in conjunction with the kids. If you’re going to show them the scores, it’s better to involve them in tracking their progress).

2. Make a pre-test that every teacher in your subject and grade level could use.  Ideally, you’d make the pre-assessment together, drawing on the strengths of each teacher in the group.

Possible types of pre-assessment

  • Multiple choice or other objective test – This is good for data collection and comparison. It’s also a snap to grade.
  • Try the activity or skill  (ex. in PE have them actually try to throw a lacrosse ball. Where does the child go wrong? go right? Mark their work on the same rubric you’d use to grade them at the end of the lacrosse unit).
  • Written Essay. English teachers, you know this one is a great tool. History, science, math, have you tried this? What if you had students write an essay explaining some steps to a lab, or how to do a certain problem?
  • Self-Assessment 10-1 scale – I had students do this with our English skills at the beginning of one year. “How confident do you feel in your ability to write an analytical essay?” on a scale of 1-10. These are great for quick-and-dirty assessments, but they’re not so great in terms of validity. Kids can overrate or underrate their actual ability.
  • Any more ideas? list ’em in the comment box!

3. Other tips you need to know about pre-assessments

  • Pre-assessments are awesome formative assessments. As in, you need to use the data to inform what you do in class. Please don’t take time creating and giving a pre-assessment if you’re not going to look at and use the data.
  • Use PLC time to go over the data together or to “assess” the essays or other evidence together. Look for trends in the students areas of strength and weakness. Are all sixth graders coming into science without any idea about what the circulatory system does when you expected that they have that mastered by 5th grade? That can lead to a great vertical alignment meeting. Has every student who entered 8th grade really mastered the organization of a 5 paragraph essay, but you’ve planned to start with that concept? Why waste your time? Skip over that and move on to the next skill. Are your students spread out in understanding, with a smattering of smarties and a dash of novices and a few moderates all mixed in? Plan out some learning stations that might be leveled in one concept based on skill.
  • Give some sort of post-assessment. That can be an end of unit test, the exam, or another assessment, but cover the same skills and objectives as the pre-assessment. Then you’ll really have evidence of student learning. Did they learn what they were supposed to? This is the most satisfying part for teachers….its the, “YES! It worked!” part of your job that is so sweet. Enjoy it!
  •  Keep your pre-assessment short. You don’t have to test every skill multiple times. Just pick the ESSENTIALS. Like maybe the top 5. Otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed with data, and you won’t actually use the information well. Plus, you’ll be giving up a lot of time for something that has a diminishing rate of return in direct correlation to the longer it grows.
  • Last tip. Do not put your pre-assessment in the grade book. It is not a summative grade and should not impact their final score in your class. (Unless, however, Juanita has passed every single item on your whole-year pretest, and you think it would be best for her to move into a higher level of Math. In that case, Juanita gets an A in the class and skips ahead to the stuff that will actually make her furrow her brow.)

Any other tips about pre-assessments or building them? I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Also, if you have any great examples of pre-assessments, I’d love for you to share. I’ll try to collect a few samples that I’ve made and attach them when I get a second. Happy PLC’ing.

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PLC’s: A To Do List (Intro)

One of my jobs at my school includes helping to facilitate our PLCs. For those of you not fluent in this acronym of the educational alphabet soup, PLC stands for Professional Learning Community. In lieu of going into the history of PLCs at our school (7 years strong now) or attempting the explanation of what a PLC is (The DuFours do that much better than I can), I’m going to get down to brass tacks. No more theory. Just the to do list. What would you do in a thriving PLC? I mean really do. On a daily basis. And I don’t just mean sit around and talk educational theory or share the ever dreaded “Well, what I do” stories –although both of those happen in PLC time far more than I think healthy. No. I’m going to give you some action.

Good PLC’s have four main goals. Really, PLC members should spend their time answering (through action and concrete results, in my opinion) the following four questions:

1) What do we want students to know?

2) How will we know they know it?

3) What do we do if they don’t know it?

4) What will we do if they already know it?

So in the next series of blog posts, I’m going to give activities, concrete results, or action steps that members of thriving PLCs should be taking to help answer these questions.

My audience for these posts chiefly consists of anyone who is in a PLC that isn’t working and wants to change something, anyone who is attempting to facilitate a PLC and doesn’t know what to do, or anyone who wants to start a PLC and needs some back-up juice for your proposal to the administration. Fair warning, these next posts might be a little irrelevant to anyone following who isn’t an educator or for those of you who are not interested in PLC work.

So if you’re intrigued, keep reading onto the next post. (I’ll link it here once I write it).

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Advice for My Son: Purpose

Son,

You won’t see purpose when you are young.

Much of life will be boring for you.

Much of life will be annoying.

Much of life will seem like it has no point.

I expect that before you are eighteen (and perhaps after) you will want to be playing Playstation 2 or Capture the Flag or doing anything else besides:

  • going to church
  • listening to your teachers lecture in school
  • talking with adults
  • sitting next to the kid you don’t know
  • attending family reunions
  • going to the opera, ballet, a play, a musical, or any other theatrical event
  • making a habit of visiting the doctor, the dermatologist, and the dentist once a year
  • eating your vegetables
  • reading
  • listening to the news

There are many activities that you must do as a child that you will find that you do not want to do. Some of these activities you will still not want to do when you are an adult. However, when you are an adult, you will at least be able to see the purpose and the value in them. Truly, some wisdom can only come from experience, exposure, and age.  I do not think you can be wise as a child except in how much you accept that fact.

And so, I write to you now, when you are one and a half and your strongest objection forms as a tantrum when you do not want to get into the carseat. Please remember–when you are a little bit older, and I am dragging you to church, to Uncle Palmer’s house, to visit your grandmother, to see a play, when I am forcing you to sit at the table the whole time during a family dinner– that these things are valuable. You just might not be able to see it yet.

And you will be glad you’ve done them. But only when you’re a little bit older.

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So What?

This morning I led a mindfulness class with a group of juniors. I love leading these classes because I gain just as much as participants do from the centering, stretching, breathing, and re-prioritizing exercises. We all need reminders about how to live mindfully.

One exercise I do to help align priorities is the “So What?” Game. Here is how it goes:

Leader: “So, Faith, tell me why you’re working so hard in school right now.”

Faith: “So I can get into a good college.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can get a good job.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: “So that I can make a lot of money.”

Leader: “So what?”

Faith: Blank stare. Thinking time. Awkward pause. Then, “So that my family can be happy and healthy.”

Leader: “Faith, you can be happy and healthy right now.”

The progression that Faith just took is typical of what many, if not almost all, of my students would say. Faith’s final answer is pretty good. Being happy and healthy.  After the money answer, I’ve heard a range of other replies  running the gamut from, “so that I can do whatever I want” to “so I can please my parents” to “so that I can live the same lifestyle I live now” to “I don’t know.”

But here is what I’ve been thinking lately: wherever our students end up at the end of this “so what” game will be the driving force for their lives. No one I’ve asked so far has ever come up with “so that I can glorify God” or “so I can better help my neighbor” or “so I can change the world for the better.” Yet, as a parent, these three reasons along with living a “happy and healthy life” represent what I hope for my life and what I hope for my son’s life.  I’m curious about what kind of world we will be building if the driving force for our children revolves around making money.

Now, before you start calling me a “hippy” or assume that I’m bashing our educational system or believe that I’m heralding the 99%, let me reassure you.  Yes, it is important for students to get into a good college. But, I’d argue it is more important for them to get into the right college than the best college.

Yes, it is important to make a living off which you and your family can thrive. But I’d argue that when it comes to money, no matter how much you have, you’ll always want more.

Yes, people who have resources above the average leverage power in ways that can change the world. BUT, they only do change the world if their goal or purpose in life is more than getting rich.

So, parents and teachers, what is your “So What?” What do you hope drives your children? Your students?

What are some of the other reasons you want your child or your students to be in school? A few I can name:

School is a place to build life-long friendships and connections. Where you learn to interact with others.  School is a place where you discover a subject about which you are passionate. Where you learn the power of engaging deeply and the joy of knowledge. School is a place where you can learn to face challenges, overcome them with hard work and help, and feel the success of a difficult job well done.  School is a place to grow as a person, discover your identity, and build your character. School is a place where you can make mistakes and learn that mistakes aren’t the end of the world–they’re the beginning of an opportunity for growing.

Parents, teachers, please emphasize some of these other reasons with your children. Emphasize the so what? Because it seems like the message, the only message, our kids are hearing right now is that the reason they’re working in school is to make a lot of money once they graduate from a good college.

That is what I heard from my 6th graders when I asked them the open ended question, “why is school important?” It is what I heard from my 8th graders when I asked them about the purpose of what they’re doing in my Journalism class. It is what I’ve heard from 11th graders when I lead the mindfulness class this morning. I bet, if you go home and ask your child, “why do you go to school? Why should you work hard in school?” I know what their answer will be. Is that the answer, or the only answer, you’d wish for your child? For yourself?

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What Do Kids WANT to Study?

Facing a homeroom of fourteen boys the other day, I posed the question:

What would you want to study if you could make up your own class?

Here is a list of some of what they came up with:

Programming

Marine Biology

Saturday Night Live and Improv

Survival Class

Baseball hitting

Interestingly, all of these classes have real-life connection, immediately putting learning into context. Learning becomes relevant and practicable.

One problem with the “silos” in education is that subject-style learning tends to take learning out of real life context.

What we know about people is that they will learn anything if it helps them do something they want to do. Perhaps we need to re-think the way we categorize our learning, moving away from subjects and towards themes.

Think about the math you can learn in a programming class… or the science in a scuba diving marine biology course. Imagine the high level communication, literary, and public speaking skills a student would learn in an improv class that put on a “Saturday Night Live” type show for the school each week. The Survival Course could touch on every single subject matter– the math behind building a fort, the joy of reading alone, the biology of plants that are safe to eat, the chemistry of cleaning water. I could go on! Even the baseball hitting class provides awesome opportunities for Physical Education, Math skills with respect to angles and arcs, Physics in velocity, History of the sport of baseball and it’s cultural impacts globally and nationally, English in debating the steroid controversy… gosh! I wish I taught these classes!

 

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