the formation of the student

this year, for better or worse, my school has turned its collective attention toward managing student behavior. we created a vision for how students are to behave in structured and unstructured environments, with detailed descriptions of what “good” and “bad” behavior looks like in both contexts.

our motivation for doing this is largely pragmatic: it’s just easier to teach when students aren’t going crazy. everyone is happier when the classroom is running in an orderly fashion — including the students who tend to be disorderly.

but there may be unintended consequences to this approach that may be worth reflecting upon.

the other day, one of my students was walking to his car in the parking lot when a security guard confronted him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him backward. i don’t know the particulars of the incident, but i do know the student was found to have done nothing wrong. this isn’t an unusual occurrence — my students are regularly harassed for no discernible reason. as i observed this situation unfolding outside my classroom, i found myself increasingly disturbed by my student’s lack of power to resist what was happening to him precisely because he reacted to this situation exactly the way we taught him to.

in some sense, our school is attempting to train our students to react to these (frequent) unfair situations precisely as john taylor gatto describes in his incriminating essay, “against school.” in this piece (which i had my students read and discuss), gatto claims that schools are “virtual factories of childishness” — that is, schools, by design, socialize students to never grow up. students are trained to do as they’re told, to submit to authority, and to uncritically obey the consumer ethos of american culture. we “reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” in every way, the public school is in service of the interests of the state while functioning under the misleading guise of student empowerment.

to further compound the issue, i’m wondering about how the church figures into this situation. for better or worse, the public school plays an enormous role in the formation of students, and unfortunately, as gatto might suggest, this kind of formation seems better suited to serve the interests of rome rather than the kingdom of god. as a christian teacher, i’m forced to consider what kind of student do i hope to produce, and i wonder if hauerwas’s idea of the resident alien could inform the way i think about shaping students as people who can live within a system, while looking forward to (and bringing forth) another way of being. as i explained to a few of my students, i hope that my students learn how to operate within the world, not so they can become servants of the world’s logic, but so that they can ultimately turn it upside down.

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i done did it

well, it’s official now. by day, i’ll still be teaching full time. but by night, i’ll be a seminary student, working toward a masters in theology.

folks who know me well have basically all had the same response. of course you’re going to seminary, what took you so long? chris (somewhat jokingly) told me that he’d give me one more year of full time teaching before i just quit my day job and ran off to seminary full time.

but a lot of other folks have asked me what it is exactly that i hope to accomplish by going to seminary. why bother?

i’ve had a much more difficult time trying to answer this question. on one hand, i would not be disappointed at all if i finished my program, and that was it for my work in theology. if i never end up doing doctoral work, if i don’t wind up working at a church, or if i never end up “using” my theology degree in any other formal way, well that would be quite all right. it is enough for me to know i won’t wake up someday wondering what might’ve been. and if it just so happens that theology for me is meant to be a thing i read about on the side and occasionally try and live out, well then so be it. to a large extent, i’m less concerned with what i can do with theology than i am with what formal study of theology can do with me.

but on the other hand, i must admit that i’ll be a bit sad if it turns out doctoral work isn’t in the cards for me. a small part of my heart deep down hopes this is what’ll happen, and yet i can’t let that part of me speak out too loudly. what if it doesn’t work out the way i hope it will? academic work has always felt hyper-competitive, and because i’ve been surrounded by people who are much more brilliant than me since high school, i wonder about how realistic it is for me to aspire to professorial work. nevertheless, here i am with those aspirations in hand.

so what exactly do i hope for by going to seminary?

first, it’s to have a deepened faith. i have always found myself most in awe of god when reading a beautiful analysis of scripture, or some brilliantly composed theological treatise. while a rich worship experience at church is good for my soul, the written word is what drives me to my knees. quite honestly, i think i just need to go to seminary for my own spiritual vitality.

but secondly, i’m going to seminary because i think i might want to teach theology some day, and i wanna know if there is some word brewing in me that i must be obedient enough to speak to the church. i don’t know if this will ever actually happen, if this is what god wants for my life, or if i’m even smart enough to do the work well, but i guess i won’t know till i try.

DONE (almost)

i can hardly believe it’s true, but i am ALMOST done with my second year in the classroom. i still have an enormous stack of finals to grade (why do i insist on making my finals so long??), but when i lock my classroom door on friday afternoon and drive away from the parking lot, my teaching responsibilities for this school year will be done.

when i decided to become a teacher, i could not have dreamt up a better situation for myself. even though i’m double-endorsed in special ed and english, i figured i’d only be able to use my special ed endorsement for years since it is near impossible to land a steady position teaching english. not the case for me. most of my time is spent teaching ap lang & comp, but since we have a compulsory model of ap, my whole special ed case load is mainstreamed into my ap classes (… that whole situation is a long blog post for another day). at times, it can feel impossible to do my job effectively with the enormous range of students i have, but i feel extremely lucky to have this position.

i came into the year knowing i would have every junior at our school (along with a section of seniors), and i also knew the juniors had the (deserved?) reputation of being a “hot mess.” all last summer, i feared starting the school year, and in some ways, the class lived up to its reputation. just a few weeks ago, i had a sub (jury duty… again) who left me a note about my 4th period class. as a retired teacher, he went out of his way to offer his sincere condolences for me having “one of the most dysfunctional classes” he’d ever been a part of. he reminded me to keep my “chin up” though since that 4th period class was “the type of class that you only have to deal with once every ten years.”

10 months after i started with this class, i recognize how blessed i am to have worked with this challenging, but incredibly rewarding group (and certainly in no need of consolation). when i talked to my 4th period a few days later, i just told them we’d let the past stay in the past. they breathed a huge sigh of relief, and for the rest of the period, we all busted our butts getting ready for my monster final.

there are many weaknesses in my teaching. i’m not always technically sound, and sometimes my well-planned lessons flop. but i’m really proud of the relationships i was able to build with kids that have had a rough go at school for a long time.

and now, i’m also feeling really excited to give it another go in september (especially if the plans come together and i start seminary in the fall). i visited my incoming students today and handed them their summer reading assignments: wesley yang’s paper tigers and amy chua’s why chinese mothers are superior

it’s gonna be a lot of fun working with the next group — but before it’s time to start analyzing yang’s rhetoric, summer beckons me.

tfa and the coe

one of my favorite professors while I was at the UW COE happens to be the current dean. even as a student, i swear i had the sense that he was kind of a big deal. he had a charisma and energy about him that told me he would do some bigger things before his time in education’s up. well, guess what. soon after i graduated, he was promoted to dean of the college of education, and he’s been making some big waves at a local and national level because of his involvement in helping tfa expand to seattle.

dr. stritikus is a tfa alumnus, himself, so he occupies a very unique space in the world of education. on one hand, he leads a high-profile, traditional teacher education program. on the other, he is a huge proponent (and product) of an alternative certification program that some (including myself) see as a fast track toward privatizing education.

i am a believer in keeping public education public. but i’m also a believer in dr. stritikus. he’s no snake hell-bent on turning public schools into corporate cash-cows with a captive audience. instead, he’s hell-bent on giving poor, colored kids the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty through education. he’s a sharp guy who knows a thing or two about the practices at the classroom level needed to educate kids who don’t speak english as their first language, and he knows a lot about the policies that need to change at the systems level to make those classroom practices possible (and widespread). it just so happened that all of his expertise has brought him to conclusions that i don’t support.

so i find myself in a familiar place of disagreeing with someone whom i hold with high regard, yet feeling inclined to trust their opinions over my own. i don’t buy the ideas but i’m fully behind the man behind the ideas. even though i don’t get his decision making, i trust that he knows something i don’t know. i hope (and trust) that tom is making the right decisions for the coe, seattle, and the kids here who need a second-to-none education.

seminary

i was at a retreat, taking part in a workshop on career planning. i must’ve been 14 or 15, maybe. when the workshop leader asked me in front of the group what i wanted to be when i grew up, i said i wanted to be a theologian.

of course, i didn’t really know what a theologian was. in my mind, i thought it was someone who sat around thinking deep thoughts. i had no concept of the financial burden that had to be taken on or the enormous risk that came with committing years toward an education that may or may not result in a job in a place i actually would enjoy living in. i just knew i had a peculiar interest in reading about what people had to say about faith and god, and i knew flipping that interest into a career seemed appealing.

carrie and i have been thinking about the prospect of me going to seminary over the past year. right now, i’m in a really good place. i teach at a well-run school that i believe in. many (most?) teachers can’t say that. i enjoy my colleagues and more importantly, i enjoy working with my students (usually). when i’m on my game in the classroom, i think my students have fun learning, and they learn a lot. but i go to bed every night reading some sort of theological text. i have wondered for a long time whether this is a hobby, just something i should keep up with on the side, or if this could be something more.

i guess we’re going to find out.

33

today, i took the day off from work to honor my brother’s birthday. he would have turned 33.

i haven’t spent time with just my parents in awhile. we spent the morning at the cemetery and had some dim sum for brunch.

it is always so incredibly difficult to talk about dennis for any sustained amount of time. even when we visit the gravesite, we can’t stand their too long. it just hurts too much. when his name is mentioned, my body tightens. but on this day, i felt a stirring in my heart, and i felt compelled to ask about dennis’s last day alive.

the last time i saw dennis conscious was on a sunday afternoon. the seahawks lost to the arizona cardinals despite a pretty solid game from matt hasselbeck. my parents were both napping upstairs. dennis was really tired. he wasn’t eating much besides his haagen-dazs strawberry sorbet, and he struggled to keep his head upright and his eyes open. stone called and asked if he could come over, but dennis wasn’t sure if this was such a good idea. he was in bad shape and he knew it, and he didn’t want people seeing him in such a terrible state. but my mom knocked some sense into him, reminding him this is stone, and he doesn’t really care what you look like, he wants to see you.

when he came over, they all gathered in the kitchen/ family room area, and i was on my way out. i would come back tomorrow with more sorbet. i turned the corner and walked out the door. and that was it. that was the last time i saw him conscious.

so much of what occured that night had been shrouded in mystery. i needed to know what happened, so i finally asked.

in the middle of a crowded dim-sum restaurant, my parents recounted their story in detail, and they shed tears. i fought back my own. i couldn’t hold eye-contact with them for too long. hearing about everything that happened from 2:00 am on the day of my brother’s death to about 10:00 am reminded me that my own journey toward understanding what the heck happened to my brother during those 15 months won’t end in this lifetime. it just won’t.

the most difficult part about dennis’s death isn’t the fact that he’s gone (though that is bad). it’s how he died. the amount of suffering he endured is just beyond my imagination. it’s not right.

at one point, my parents started wondering aloud about what caused the cancer. was it a darn mole? too much sun exposure? a cell phone? or was it random? does stuff like this just arbitrarily happen? was dennis just unlucky? i had already answered those kinds of questions for myself and they no longer bothered me.  but in that moment, i forgot the answers i had come up with. i wondered anew, why did this have to happen to dennis?

at times, i feel like we are living in a messed up alternate-reality. none of this was really supposed to happen, and in the real world, it didn’t. there, dennis is a pharmacist and living his life. he’s picking on me for dumb stuff. he’s listening to sappy slow jams.

as we drove back home, we passed by mutual fish on rainier ave. dennis and i used to go with my mom to mutual fish all the time growing up. it was part of our saturday morning grocery shopping routine. she smiled and even laughed a lil remembering how the nice workers there used to always give us candy. two dum-dums for her two dumb-dumbs, to go with the cod.

we just took a deep breath, exhaled, looked away, and carried on missing dennis.

Rooms

Rooms I (I will not say

worked in) once heard in. Words

my mouth heard

then—be

with me. Rooms,

you open onto one

another: still house

this life, be in me

when I leave

[Franz Wright, Entry In An Unknown Hand]