Yes. I’m going to talk politics.

Last Friday at 12:30 CST, a group of high school boys and I watched the Kavanaugh vote during study hall. Huddled around my school laptop, we held our breath as the Democrats returned to their seats, as the chairman gave the floor to Senator Flake, as the committee decided together to extend the hearing another week in order to conduct an FBI investigation. And if you came here looking for my opinion on the whole thing—who it is I believe—you’re not going to get it. At the end of the day, we didn’t get to decide whether or not Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court.

However, the conversations that surrounded the Kavanaugh hearing are worth revisiting. Because the case is a partisan one, with a lot at stake for both Republicans and Democrats, either Judge Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford has been villainized by those tuning in. And perhaps one side is right—what if Kavanaugh did this act and is a liar and assaulted Dr. Ford? What if Dr. Ford is just doing it for the sake of the Democratic Party? What800KavanaughFord-AP-SaulLoeb-Pool matters much more than these individual truths (which, by the way, we may never have a clear answer to) is that we are able to see past this to the semantics of the discussion, to the fear on both sides, and to the grief that underlies it all.

You may accuse me of missing the news cycle… Isn’t this over and done with? He is sitting on the Supreme Court, there is no more debate to be had. But the effects of such a hearing will last much longer than Kavanaugh’s name will last in the news. That is why I think it is important to revisit the case—not only did it take several weeks for me to consider it (and write and rewrite this)—but the conversation about sexual assault will be ongoing.

It began in earnest about a year and a half ago with the #MeToo movement, as women demonstrated how common it is to be treated as objects even in the 2000s. Now the #WhyIDidntReport movement is continuing that conversation (whether you like it or not, hashtag movements are a thing), and regardless of Dr. Ford’s statement being true or false, the fact remains that many women do not report sexual assault because of other’s disbelief and the subsequent victim shaming. Additionally, women have been pointing out on social media how fear of sexual assault motivates many of our actions: we don’t go running at night, we park under lights, we check the back of our cars before we get into them, we carry our keys or pepper spray for defense, we get on our phones in empty places for added protection should something happen, we avoid (or are nervous) to take Ubers alone. I do these things. On Twitter, someone asked what women would do if there was an 8pm curfew for all men. An overwhelming response from women was that they would take an evening walk.

Being a high school teacher in such a moment presents several options: I could avoid the conversation entirely by saying “no politics in the classroom,” I could merely answer students’ questions about it when asked, or I could address it head on. On that Friday, I took the last route. Ringing in my ears were Emma Watson’s words from her speech to the UN: “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?” And frankly, avoiding this topic is nearly impossible when we spend our days discussing justice, courage, hospitality, and whatever else may come up in a literature discussion.

Though we could have spent time in class arguing about each side and the difficulties presented by the case, the time seemed much more fitting to discuss the assumptions we make as the audience. I heard several students drop comments such as, “Even if this did happen, why is she coming forward and ruining his whole life?” “How is this important if it was 36 years ago?” “She was probably really drunk and doesn’t remember.” “Girls are so paranoid.” “Who hasn’t done something stupid in high school?”

This is what deeply concerns me about the Kavanaugh hearings—many of the proponents of Kavanaugh’s nomination used language that both dismissed and normalized sexual assault. Dismissively, comments such as “Why is she ruining his life?” and “It has been 36 years, why come forward now?” reflect poorly on both our justice system and our perspective of sexual assault. If reporting a crime is considered ruining someone else’s life, then why report any crimes at all? Why is this only said in reference to sexual assault? Likewise, why is sexual assault not considered as serious a crime? The length of time, which many considered a problematic part of the case, also speaks to another problem in our nation: as we are learning with the #WhyIDidntReport movement, many women never report sexual assault, or only deal with it years after the event. What does this say about our culture? That women don’t expect to be believed in such a case? That they have been laughed at before? What a horrific thing—to suffer sexual assault and not be able to trust your deepest hurt to those closest to you, or even to law enforcement.

What is just as problematic is normalizing sexual assault with comments such as “boys will be boys,” and “Who hasn’t done something stupid in high school?” First of all, supporters of Kavanaugh have no right to say the second statement, because Kavanaugh pled not guilty. If he had said “Yes, I did that. And I’m sorry. It was wrong,” then we could have had a conversation about justice and mercy and repentance and forgiveness. Then we could have discussed at what point people can move on from their past mistakes and sit on the Supreme Court. Then we could have pointed out past mistakes and confessions of other politicians and talked about redemption—but that didn’t happen.

Secondly, in no way should sexual assault be compared with “doing something stupid in high school.” Stupid things in high school are getting drunk and getting a tattoo without your parent’s permission or trying your hand at shoplifting or skate boarding behind Walmart next to the “no skateboarding” sign or dropping candy bars off of a balcony. Now, I don’t support those decisions either, but there is a very big difference between teenage stupidity (I teach high school students, by the way) and assaulting another human being. How in the world have we normalized such behavior?

I’m hoping the “boys will be boys” comment is a rare one, but I have heard it. As someone who has two brothers (four if you count my brother-in-laws), a husband, and a father, in no way do I believe that boys should or will act like this. Not only does this normalize criminal behavior, it normalizes a negative view of men. Every ounce of me wants this comment completely abolished when it comes to sexual assault. I am terrified that my high school boys will actually believe this; I am afraid my sons one day will hear this. Sexual assault is not a given when it comes to being a boy. This comment was popular as well when Trump’s Access Hollywood video was released—“men just talk like that!” Really? Do we dismiss such comments when they come from our husbands? Our fathers? Our brothers? Our students? I would hope not.

So last Friday, I challenged four boys’ assumptions about sexual assault as we watched the Kavanaugh hearing. I didn’t dismiss their dismissive comments, nor did I allow the normalizing of such behavior. And what was beautiful about the entire situation is that these sophomore boys showed a massive amount of humility and thoughtfulness as they reasoned through their own assumptions. What could have been a political, partisan argument became instead a discussion of how we treat and talk about other human beings.

This is only the beginning of my work. I am working towards a culture where boys will be boys who respect women, care about how they are portrayed, and refuse to treat them as objects. I am working towards a culture where victims of sexual assault feel comfortable coming forward and receiving the help they need. I am working toward a world where, when this happens again in politics, our discussions will be filled with more grace than hatred, more patience than anger, and more grief than victory.

On Tuesdays, Harvey, and Learning in War-Time

Twenty families from my school were flooded during the storm. Others lost power for several days, and all of us watched helicopter and boat rescues happening just a few miles from our homes. Time seemed suspended for a week; by Tuesday, August 29th, few Houstonians knew what day it was, and the foreseeable future only extended as far as Labor Day, with the entire workforce of Houston wondering when it should report to duty.

For most teachers and students, that day was yesterday, September 11th. Two weeks after Harvey’s devastating rains pummelled Houston, the schools opened their doors again, only to remember another heartbreaking day for Americans with flags at half-mast and videos of planes crashing into towers. And as Florida and the surrounding islands face 15-foot storm surges and the West Coast prays for some sort of salvation from the flames, teachers around Houston welcomed their students back to school.

Last Tuesday, September 5th, was my first day back to school as a teacher, and at first it didn’t seem right. We anxiously asked colleagues how they had weathered the storm; many of us left work that afternoon to volunteer at shelters or clean out homes; some returned to places that weren’t home, without any possessions they could call their own. Yet, there we were, planning curriculum and preparing our classrooms.

What do you do when the most routine part of life—the school day or work day—is interrupted by events outside of your control? When it’s not just your personal day, but an entire city’s? For days, Houstonians watched volunteers drop everything and head our way with boats and supplies, eager to respond to disaster quickly. Many people literally saved lives during the storm for no other reason than seeing the water rising on the news and deciding they had to do something about it. The situation repeated itself with work teams reporting for duty in Houston neighborhoods, tearing out drywall and wood floors and cabinets.

But now, Houstonians must return to work, even while the disaster continues. Many spend their weekends tearing apart flooded homes or volunteering in shelters or cooking meals for those in need. But this question has haunted me for the past couple of weeks: How can we devote ourselves to life as usual while so many are trying to recover and others are being hit by new disasters? Is there such a thing as normalcy in a world with Harveys and Irmas and fires and terrorists?

C.S. Lewis addressed this during World War II. In a speech given to Oxford students in 1939, he reminds us that there is no such thing as normalcy; we’ve merely convinced ourselves that every day we live in security. Students in 1939 were obviously concerned about their own responsibilities, their own families, their own survival. Why go to school? But Lewis reminds students that there is something much larger at stake: “But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell.” After apologizing for the language in his polite British way, he goes on: “…we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.”

For Lewis, war merely aggravates the normal human situation: that all things come to pass. He claims that there will always be a distraction to study—whether it be love or war or politics or jobs.

As a teacher, Harvey has only increased my desire to read great texts with my students. A few weeks ago, I addressed how Charlottesville made me consider my curriculum in light of my students deciding which rally to attend or protest to join. The same goes for Harvey—my students are the future first responders, the future mayors and city officials, the future generation that will be calling the shots and saving lives during the next Harvey. I want to equip them to make those decisions.

Lewis, as always, has a broader, more eternal vision:

 “All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.”

It is Tuesday, September 12th, and our city has gone back to work. The tension within all of us, of doing our jobs or learning or teaching post-Harvey’s destruction, is one that has been there all along: there is no promise of tomorrow or of security, and yet we go about our lives each day. May we humbly offer ourselves to what we are called to do each hour, whether that be engineering, cleaning out homes, serving food, or learning.

Sabbath Tuesday: An Education 

This week, I’m in Colorado with my students from The Covenant Preparatory School. We’ve been whitewater rafting, hiking, eating, fellowshipping, and sometimes sleeping!

Initially, it seemed like an odd time to take a week-long trip; the students have only had classes for three days, then we headed north to Buena Vista. Classes will resume when we return, but teachers have already had to deal with the curriculum struggles that come with a week away from the classroom, right after school has begun. 

I’m quickly realizing, however, that this week is as much a part of my students’ education as sitting in the classroom discussing The Iliad. If I’m truly concerned with the whole person that I’m teaching, a week in Colorado should be considered an indispensable page of my lesson plans.

As I was hiking with my seniors today, I noticed their reverence for God’s creation around them. I saw them encourage each other, become better listeners, and grow in their friendships. Most people consider trips such as these “bonding times.” And though that is a great benefit, the best thing about this particular trip is watching my students learn how to contemplate the beauty around them. They aren’t allowed to have any sort of device with them, so in these few unplugged days, they are learning how to see. 


I’m off to dinner! Happy Tuesday. 

On Curriculum, Charlottesville, and the People We Teach

School starts tomorrow. It is daunting, to say the least, but other teachers understand my mix of excitement and dread.

This past weekend, however, made the looming school year look even more threatening on the horizon. The Charlottesville incident inspired posts and tweets about posterity, along the lines of “This will be in our history books…” and “How will I explain this to my child?” “What is my responsibility? What will I tell my children when they ask how I reacted?” All valuable questions… but my thoughts turned, of course, to students.

In a Curriculum and Development class I took a couple of years ago, we discussed explicit and implicit curriculum. Though explicit curriculum choices often make it into the syllabus (for example, my freshmen are starting with The Iliad this week), the implicit curriculum are the values, learning environment, cultural assumptions, and practices that inform our explicit studies. And just as important is the null curriculum—that which we choose not to address.

As I saw pictures of the protesters, watched the video of the car driving through the crowd, and read about the horrifying chants of the white nationalists, my gut reaction was probably similar to yours: “Is this America? In 2017?” But then I remembered human nature and history and realized that this is just a dot on a timeline, and humanity is tempted yet again by power and pride. Tower of Babel, anyone? We’ve always wanted to be our own gods, to claim our place among the nations.

White-Nationalist-Rally-Charlottesville.jpg
from The New Yorker

And then I looked more closely at the pictures. Many who marched look about my age. Many who marched look only a few years older than the seniors I’ll welcome to my class tomorrow. All of them had some sort of education. Some of them went to private school. Most of them probably read The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Hamlet. All of them studied American history. In a few short years, my students will have to make the decision: Which march do I join? Which protest? What do I say? What do I post?

Posterity is a concern of mine as well. Yes, one day I’ll tell the story to my children of the age of terrorism that we’re currently living in—my vivid memory of 9/11, the unending attacks in Europe, ISIS and the refugees trying to make their way to safety. But right now, my students are watching what I say in the classroom, my former students are watching what I post on Twitter, and we’re all living in a week of history. My fear is that issues like Charlottesville will become so commonplace that they become part of our null curriculum in the classroom—that which is not addressed. Not only does that take away from valuable discussion of what it means to live as a Christian in this country, and how Homer and Hawthorne and Augustine would react to such an event, but it communicates to my students that Charlottesville and similar issues are not worth being thought about deeply or discussed.

Like the beginning of every school year, teachers everywhere are thinking about goals for their students. Which equations should they have memorized by the end of the year? Which literary devices should they know? How many research papers should they write? Should public speaking be a requirement?

I’m there too, thinking about the number of pages a week, the books in a semester, the questions driving the entire year. But Charlottesville brought me back to the ultimate telos of education—the type of people my students are becoming. How are they being formed by my curriculum (the explicit, implicit, and null)? How will they react to the Charlottesville of their time?

Perhaps I have a certain advantage, being a literature teacher. If I wanted to, I could discuss Achilles’ rage, whether or not it is justified, and even compare it to protesting in general. But whatever we teach, the implicit values and null curriculum often speak louder than the syllabus. This year, I’m beginning to realize the weight of my responsibility as a teacher. May my curriculum choices invite compassion, charity, and wisdom into the lives of my students.

Hospitality in the Classroom: On Xenia, Open House, and Parents as Guests

I am thrilled to welcome the first guest post on Dappled Studies. Margaret is a fellow student with me in the Houston Baptist University MLA program, and we’ve shared countless discussions about Arthurian legend, poetry, and teaching. I am grateful that she has chosen to write about on oft-overlooked group when it comes to hospitality in the classroom: parents! 

How fitting that Allison should invite me to write a guest post as she features “Hospitality in the Classroom” on her beautiful blog. She has graciously welcomed me in to her space to share some thoughts, and in doing so has allowed me to ponder and pull together a few truths that have helped shaped my approach to providing a classroom that seeks to be a source of light to students and parents alike.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher from as early as fifth grade when much to the chagrin of my four siblings, I created my own schoolroom in the basement of our home. As soon as summer vacation began, I wanted to “play school” and set up my mini blackboard with stacks of colored chalk ready for clean strokes of cursive. I loved writing on the blackboard! My siblings thought I was out of my mind: “Who does school in summer?” they proclaimed, as they ran for their lives before I could assign them a seat in my classroom.

Eventually, when I did indeed become a teacher, it was very important to me to create a classroom environment that was both welcoming and safe, much like the one my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Schick created. Everyone was loved in her room, even Kevin W. who to no avail she patiently trained all year to organize his messy desk. My desire as a teacher was to also extend hospitality to parents. Early on in the school year, I would get the opportunity to meet them in an evening we all know well, called Open House. Don’t you just love that name?

Open House is often a time of first impressions, and I wanted the parents to know that I would always be open and available for questions or concerns about their child’s time in my class. What I’d like to share are some thoughts about hospitality and in particular about parents as guests in the classroom.

When thinking about hospitality, my mind travels to ancient Greek mythology and the practice of xenia. It can be traced to the god Zeus who was called Zeus Xenios when he assumed the role of protecting travelers. Knowing that Zeus was acting as guardian induced the Greeks to show hospitality to strangers. It was also wise to honor a stranger in the event he was a god in disguise, for great reward might be gifted if he or she were treated properly.

The practice of the guest-host relationship became a ritual for the Greeks and required the host to offer something to eat or drink, and perhaps a bath if needed. The host would make the guest as comfortable as possible and not ask any questions until these needs were met. A departing gift by the host was also in order as a sign that the visit was successful and that the guest was honored. The guest was required to be grateful and respectful and not be a burden to the host.

 

935038_orig.jpg
The Phaeacians welcome Odysseus 

The Odyssey is full of examples of xenia. The extraordinary patience of Telemachus as he serves the suitors who are seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage is proof that he did not wish to displease Zeus and suffer the consequences. The suitors, on the other hand were ungracious guests, eating and drinking in excess and threatening to kill Telemachus. Their irreverent behavior would eventually lead to their demise. My favorite example of xenia in the Odyssey is the kindness of the swineherd, Eumaeus towards Odysseus whom he doesn’t recognize as his former master, but as a travel worn stranger. In a touching display of hospitality, Eumaeus offers his own cloak to keep Odysseus warm at night. The shared courtesy required of xenia speaks to me in regards to how I treat parents as guests in and beyond the classroom.

Firstly, I see the relationship of guest and host as a type of partnership. I am partnering with parents to cultivate virtue and engage the minds of their children. This requires me to have the right perspective in regards to my role. I should not elevate myself above the level of a servant, for in serving properly I am able to provide a gift to the parents: at the end of the year, their child should show signs of growth and maturity

Secondly, the relationship of guest and host requires sacrifice on the part of the host. As a

fullsizeoutput_748
Eumaeus and Odysseus

teacher, I need to be willing to anticipate the needs of parents in regards to their child. Some parents need more reassurance about their child’s performance than others. I need to not see their frequent emails or phone calls as an imposition, but as an opportunity to build trust and even instill peace. Eumaeus gave Odysseus his own bed and cloak to ensure a restful sleep.

 

 

Finally, like Telemachus and Penelope sometimes you get some not so thoughtful guests. While in my experience this is rare, there are those times when as a teacher you may experience a disgruntled parent. Oftentimes these people like to invite folks to their misery party, and eventually other parents in the classroom get an invitation. As a host, I realize that I may not always please everyone all of the time, and in these cases I will need to exercise extreme patience and also let those in authority in on the situation. While the analogy gets a bit precarious here–eventually Odysseus took care of the suitors!

 

Margaret White currently mentors in the fullsizeoutput_744rhetoric class at The Covenant Preparatory School in Kingwood, Texas. She is a few short weeks away from completing her Master of Liberal Arts at Houston Baptist University, and looks forward to teaching full time again in the fall. She lives in Houston with her husband Robert, and they have four adult children, including a lovely daughter-in-law. 

Hospitality in the Classroom: Student as Guest

Tucked away in a short chapter of a very small book are a few wise words on receiving guests. Perhaps the author was unaware that his small book would shape centuries of Christian living, but his unflinching and pastoral look at the Christian life has captivated disciples of all ages. The author is St. Benedict of Nursia, and the book is his rule for a small monastery in the Italian Alps.

saint-benedict-rule-e1342023149490.jpg

If you have read the Rule of St. Benedict before, you are familiar with its themes and the gentle admonishings offered by the author. Those who aren’t actively following his rule in monasteries glean patterns of life from his schedules of prayer and service. But there is one small chapter—not often mentioned—that catches my attention during every reading. And, surprisingly, it charmed my students as well.

Two years ago, I taught a small class entitled Ecclesiastical Literature. Simply put, we learned the history of the church through its greatest works. We began our journey with Paul in the New Testament, then explored the Early Church Fathers; we argued with Justin Martyr, we confessed with Augustine,  and, of course, we discovered monasticism through St. Benedict. The rule was a much-welcomed relief for my students—especially after laboring through excerpts of City of God. But all of us soon realized that, though small, Benedict’s Rule pushed the boundaries of everything we assumed “living for Christ” meant.

Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” is no exception. Benedict begins simply: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Simple enough. Just think of everyone as Christ. Everyone?

He continues. In order to treat everyone like Christ, welcome these interruptions from strangers. Stop what you are doing and “meet him with all the courtesy of love.” Welcome interruptions?

Then, with no other background information on this said guest, address him or her with humility. Humility?

Of course, hospitality to Benedict is not a simple exchange of kind words at the door. Guests are to be taken in, prayed for, fed, and cared for. And not just anyone is suitable for this task: “The house of God should be in the care of wise men who will manage it wisely.” Wisdom?

Benedict describes hospitality in a way that goes a bit against my Southern roots. Hospitality in the south is sometimes considered a status symbol—are you the best host? Do you have sweet tea readily available for anyone who waltzes in? How is your dessert game? Did you think to buy some fresh flowers? Do your guests always feel oh-so-comfortable in your perfectly arranged living room?

And just like that, hospitality becomes connected with pride. There is nothing wrong with developing the skills of a good host, but the Southern host is often merely an entertainer. Benedict’s idea of a good host is encompassed in the virtue of humility. In fact, the abbot is commanded to wash the feet and hands of the guests, echoing that definitive act of Christ before the Last Supper.

But Monday morning rolls around, and teenagers stumble into our classrooms with excuses for late assignments and complaints about tomorrow’s project and gossip of today’s drama. Welcoming our students as if we were receiving Christ seems like a distant dream in moments such as these, and I no longer wonder about the vow of silence that monasteries often prescribe. But Lewis’s words come back to mind—and I remember that I am teaching no ordinary people, but immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

Assuming that St. Benedict’s words are edifying for teachers also assumes that students are, to a certain extent, pilgrims and strangers. And though teachers do spend large amounts of time with students, remembering that they are pilgrims is helpful. Students come into our lives for a short time, like pilgrims stopping at a monastery during a journey. And like travelers, they are seeking care and wisdom.

A similar scene is described in Les Miserables. Jean Valjean is finally free after nineteen years in prison, but he is rejected repeatedly because of his past crime. When he stumbles upon a bishop’s house, he is welcomed without question, fed, and clothed. What seems to affect him most is the lack of suspicion that the bishop has of him; instead, the bishop respects him and treats him as any other guest. The bishop’s attitude of humility, rather than suspicion, disrupts Jean Valjean’s assumptions and becomes a catalyst for change.

However, Jean Valjean ends up stealing silverware and leaving in the middle of the
night, desperate to provide for his future needs. When caught valjean-with-candlesticks.jpegby police and taken back to the bishop’s house, the bishop claims he has given Jean Valjean the silverware, and tells him that he has forgotten the candlesticks as well. Valjean is amazed and confused at the bishop’s mercy, and vows to use this new wealth to live an honest life.

What is most pressing about this scene is not Valjean’s spiritual awakening or commitment to a new life—it is the fact that the bishop has something to offer Valjean that will benefit him for years to come. The bishop’s mercy cannot guarantee change in Valjean, but he offers what he has anyway. I think about this often in terms of the classroom; if our students are not remaining in the house of academia, do our lessons benefit them for life outside of collegiate endeavors? Are we modeling joy and confession and repentance? Do they see themselves in the texts we are reading? Do they see each other as made in God’s image? Are there things of worth in our classrooms that go beyond grades and transcripts?

The feast offered to my guests matters. I think through every possibility when hosting in my own home—why should it be any different in my classroom? If I can contemplate the pros and cons of tortilla soup or enchiladas with tomatillo sauce for an hour (you can tell I’m from San Antonio), considering what nutrition will be served in my classroom is well worth the effort. Am I providing something that nourishes my guests deeply for years to come, and not just for a number at the end of the semester? Do I have a vision that extends beyond the last day of school?

It seems that when we begin to view our students as guests, when we remember that they are on their own pilgrimages, when we let them join in the feast without suspicion, they return the favor. Just as a good guest returns the dinner invitation, some students begin adding to the hospitable classroom of their own accord: they serve the others, welcome others, are less suspicious of others.

May we humbly welcome pilgrims into our classrooms without suspicion, and may their interruptions give opportunity to provide feasts that nourish their souls.

Part 1- Hospitality in the Classroom: Teacher as Host 

Part 2- Hospitality in the Classroom: The Importance of Place 

 

Hospitality in the Classroom: The Importance of Place

 

IMG_3525

Students seemed mezmerized by one small change I had made to the classroom: a black cotton sheet that stretched over the waist-high bookshelf at the back of the room. It was the first week of class, and I was a second-year teacher who had just moved to Cincinnati and spent two weeks cleaning out and setting up my classroom. I had made other changes, too—my antique books were arranged on another bookshelf, book cover posters were displayed on the wall, and the brightly-colored posters with trite sayings about completing homework on time were thrown away. But what captivated students most was the idea of the black curtain, and a few days into that first week, they asked to look inside.

Of course, the only thing they found underneath it, as I warned them, were piles and piles of textbooks that we weren’t using that year, and a few empty shelves for the books I had already handed out. But they still seemed puzzled, so one student ventured out, “But why? What’s the black curtain for?”

“Because stacks of textbooks are ugly,” I said, “and I figured none of us would want to look at that all day.”

Some of them stared at me as if I wasn’t speaking English, and one student simply said, “Thank you.”

It struck me that day that students, and possibly many of their teachers, hadn’t considered the aesthetics of the classroom as one would consider carefully the aesthetics of the home. But once I began thinking of my students as guests, I had no choice but to consider the setting in which our learning took place.

A frequent comparison with the modern school is the jail. As a teacher, I’ve always been offended by this, but the more I know about and visit schools, the more I have to concede this diagnosis. This, of course, is excluding schools that are attempting to do something different, like many of the classical schools and charter schools that are taking a distinct approach to the school day. However, students in more traditional school settings often feel imprisoned in their white-washed classrooms, with few breaks, being forced to sit in uncomfortable chairs, having to ask if they can stand or go to the restroom, and reduced to cattle being herded—or minds simply needing to be filled. And even if this isn’t true of your particular school, this is the common conception that students have in mind when they think of school, as it is the overarching cultural metaphor.

To defeat such an image, there is work to be done. My students would complain of this captured feeling, as if they were being tortured and held for ransom, and graduation was the opening of the gates of freedom when “real life” would finally begin. And no matter how many times I tried to tell them that it wasn’t true, I came to discover that the best way to demolish their imagined walls was to convince them that their humanity was valued in the classroom. This happened slowly and painstakingly, but that black curtain was the beginning. A large part of this process was the time I took on the classroom itself, creating glimpses of beauty that would refresh my students’ spirits when they walked in.

In my last post, I considered responsibilities of a host towards a guest. But before a guest ever enters your house, there are ways that you prepare the space for their arrival. It might be adding some chairs to your table, returning the clutter to its given place, vacuuming up yesterday’s crumbs, or arranging fresh flowers. And though a classroom has its limitations, it is possible to make the space more conducive to the sort of class culture that humanizes students, encouraging them to participate in their studies as guests participate in a meal.

Of course, not all classrooms will or should look the same. A teacher of literature must consider different aesthetics than a teacher of science. But the underlying idea is the same: in what way can my space welcome my guests?

Since I’m a literature teacher, I wanted my classroom to feel as though we were sitting in a library or living room for discussion, and I let that guide my classroom planning. I still had the normal classroom cinderblock walls, a whiteboard, and storage, but there were some things that I could control: eliminating clutter, dimming the bright white lights,  adding beautiful fabric to bulletin boards, and choosing works of art instead of popular posters to decorate with.
Another opportunity I had to IMG_3203welcome my students in my classroom was a tea table, complete with an electric kettle, sugar cubes, a tea box, and white ceramic mugs. The students were welcome to have tea during book discussions, and it even became a way for students to show a sense of ownership in the classroom as they often contributed boxes of tea or sugar to the collection. This is only one example, and one that won’t work in every classroom.

Hopefully, an outcome of fostering a hospitable environment for students is that they begin contributing to it. The most beautiful item in my classroom during my year of teaching was a piece of art painted by one of my students. I had told her that my favorite Lewis work is his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” so she crafted some of his best words onto a canvas: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit, immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Not only did these words remind me who I was teaching each day, but they welcomed my students as well. And not only were they words that reminded each of us that we’re human, but they were words encapsulated in a beautiful form, recognizing our human need for beauty and order.fullsizeoutput_739

The most basic question to ask of any classroom, like you would of your own home, is does this room feel stressful to me? Cluttered? Uncomfortable? If you feel that way in your own classroom, your students probably do, too. It could be as simple as covering the ugly textbooks with black cloth, changing the lighting, or providing Kleenex during allergy season. It could be creating a beautiful space that encourages lingering in long conversations about age-old stories.

When I arrived in Ukraine five summers ago with only four fellow travelers, we had been flying and in airports for thirty-six hours, and we entered Kiev disoriented and exhausted. Yet we still had to spend a night in Kiev with a Ukrainian family before heading out to the small village where we’d be spending the summer. But I’ll never forget arriving at the house in Kiev. The family had adopted several children, and lived in a fairly small house. But they had beds ready for us, towels folded for us, and breakfast set out. They took time to pick us up, and greet us, and make us feel at home. Even in those humble surroundings, the care that they took in preparing for our arrival was noticeable and appreciated—I slept better that night than I would the rest of the summer.

And though each classroom comes with its own limitations, may we strive to prepare for and welcome each guest that walks into our classroom, for none of them are ordinary people.

Hospitality in the Classroom: Teacher as Host

fullsizeoutput_727

I was in a new city, a new country, a new house—and that first day of class, Dr. Bennett welcomed his students with a pot of tea in the front room as the morning sun made its way through the bay window. We barely knew one another, except for a few short days of touring Oxford together upon arrival. After those first romantic moments of excitement, we were left to settle into our rooms and start classes and live in a foreign place for the next five months.

But I’ll never forget that tea pot that Dr. Bennett brought out on the first day of class. About eight of us sat around a table with our C.S. Lewis texts, not quite sure how to discuss with one another in such a new and strange place, but Dr. Bennett understood a simple truth: before we could offer hospitality and understanding to Lewis and his work, we first had to commune with one another.

Maybe it was because we were in an old Victorian house, in the front sitting room, or maybe it was because our professor knew the power of hospitality in a strange place, but that experience forever changed my view of teachers. Teachers, rather than being mere imparters of knowledge or guides in the land of learning, are hosts.

The teacher has the ownership of the classroom. Even if you’d like to think of your class as “student-centered,” it only becomes so at the word of the teacher. The teacher has the sole right to change the layout of the classroom, to make the rules about what can and cannot be consumed during class, and to decide what is to be offered to the “guests.”

Why go to the trouble of comparing the role of a teacher with the role of a host? Why not just discuss what a teacher is? It turns out that teachers function within an assumed role, a pre-conceived metaphor. The most common may be a coach, then a babysitter, and then a drill sergeant. And it also turns out that these underlying notions of our role deeply affects pedagogy.

There are several reasons for my affinity for this particular metaphor. The first is simply because I love food, and hosting is often joined with feasting. Secondly, the terms “host” and “guest” tend to humanize and bring personality to the student/teacher relationship. Lastly, “be hospitable” is a common command in Scripture, and we are called to this task for friends, strangers, and enemies (I think that covers all possible students?). There is also the sad reality that for most of us, students are travellers that will move on from our classrooms after a short period of time, and we have the privilege of hosting them for a few brief months.

So with this metaphor in mind, I’d like to suggest four responsibilities of a host.

1) A host welcomes

My parents are masters of hospitality. I loved when people came to our home when I was a child—I fondly remember the smell of lemon-scented Pine Sol, freshly melted queso, and brewed sweet tea as the prelude to these events. The door was not to be knocked: my parents would rush to open the door as soon as they saw a car pull into the driveway, waving and greeting before our guests had time to get out of the car. Y’all might call this overdone southern hospitality, but for them, it was the only way.

In the classroom, how does this responsibility affect the role of the teacher? I’m sure you’ve seen the viral videos of teachers who have individual handshakes with each student, and that’s not a bad thing—but welcoming goes much deeper than shaking hands with somebody. Is the host prepared for the arrival? Or dreading it when the bell rings? Is the host assessing the needs of the guests? Or focused on his or her own agenda? Does the host actively greet the guests as people, or shrug them off as mere students?

2) A host introduces

Perhaps when you think of hosts, you remember that the narrator of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a host. It is he who suggests the friendly competition of telling the best tale, and it is he who makes a group of friends out of strangers. If you consider the responsibility of a host during an event or dinner party, you’ll realize that a large part of his or her job is to facilitate new relationships among the guests.

Who might be the stranger in the classroom? Is it a new student? Perhaps we are introducing our guests to a new idea, a new author, or a new concept. What will we say about the item we are introducing? How can we best facilitate relationships within the classroom in order to teach them how to welcome others? Who would we like for them to meet?

3) A host provides

I’ve been reading through David Copperfield, and there’s a delightful scene when David obtains his first private dwelling and hosts his first dinner party. It is completely overdone, with food enough for a dozen when he’s only hosting four, and enough rounds of toasts that he ends up regretting the night drunk. Soon after, he hosts another party, but has learned his lesson: hosting is not about extravagance, it is about providing for the needs of the guests. In this second dinner party, he even goes as far as providing lavender water for his female guest, and near the end of the evening, the guests participate in finishing the dinner preparation.

What might students–in this metaphor, guests–physically need? What might our guests intellectually need? Spiritually need? Are we as teachers anticipating these needs? Do we provide only out of a desire to impress?

4) A host serves

Of course, one of the central images we know of a host is the Lord washing his disciples’ feet. Though he performed this task as a servant, as there was none there, this act connected the job of the host at the Passover meal (breaking the bread, pouring the wine, leading prayer) with the job of the lowest servant. Christ showed us that the leader is to be one who serves, not glorifies himself.jesus-washing-feet-of-disciples.jpg

Are our classrooms places of service, or of self-glorification? Do we stoop to do the dirty work at times, or do we always demand that those below us do it? Do we approach our task with humility and patience (think of being patient with a student like Peter!), or do we teach from a position of pride and mastery?

 

I have failed to act as a gracious host many times to my students (and discovered these moments mostly through examen), but being explicit and considerate of how I think of my role as a teacher has shaped my classroom, my curriculum, and the interactions with my guests. And it all started with a simple pot of tea.

How to Practice Examen

One of the most fruitful times in my teaching career was practicing daily examen during Lent in 2015. The day would end (and that could be anywhere from 3:40 to 6:00), and to my habit—or obsession—of cleaning off my desk before going home, I added the habit of reflecting on my day at school.

Examen is a practice found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. If you Google it, or talk to those who practice it, you’ll find countless variations—but it all comes down to this one simple act: reviewing your day in prayerful reflection. Some practice it weekly or monthly, others practice it daily, and others pray through Examen during particular seasons, like Lent.

I’ve found examen particularly helpful in terms of vocation. In addition to the general reflection of God’s presence in your day, I like to ask questions that address my own roles: Was the Holy Spirit welcome in my classroom today? Did I take opportunities that were placed in front of me to participate in God’s work? Did I treat my students as children of God?

Setting aside this much time at the end of long day can be daunting, but even doing this once a week is helpful. However, practicing examen daily  can be a great way to re-focus your spiritual life during a particular liturgical season—like Lent, which begins in week!

Click the links below for three ways to practice examen: a general examen, an examen specifically for teachers, and another specifically for students. Examen should be done at the end of the day, and for teachers, I think it is most helpful to practice it at the end of the work day while still in your classroom.

examen for everyone                  examen for students                examen for teachers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Out, damned spot: Lady Macbeth’s Diagnosis as Cure

When I was leading my seniors in a close reading and production of Macbeth, their reaction to a particular character was first disgust and, later, enchantment. This character was none other than Lady Macbeth. As we read the first half of the play, students repeatedly characterized her as the “devil on Macbeth’s shoulder” in their writing responses, giving her the hefty load of single-handedly carrying the plot.

It is somewhat true—Lady Macbeth, within several lines of meeting her for the first time, is praying to “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…”, so that she can rid herself of feminine tenderness, replacing it “from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty.” It is Lady Macbeth who convinces Macbeth to murder their king by questioning Macbeth’s very manhood. It is Lady Macbeth who calls Macbeth foolish for saying that his blood-covered hands are a sorry sight. And it is Lady Macbeth who seems to have no hesitations about their evil designs, as Macbeth himself continues to search for reassurances of his plan by summoning the witches, and reports that his mind is “full of scorpions.” Even as Macbeth appears to be going crazy as he sees Banquo’s ghost, Lady Macbeth moves forward with the banquet as if they have done no wrong.

But I have never seen my students so captivated by a Shakespearean scene than the moment that Lady Macbeth appears sleep-walking in sight of her servant and a doctor near the end of the play. The one character that they had quickly dismissed and blamed for the entire play suddenly captured their attention, and they watched as closely as the doctor who is attempting to diagnose Lady Macbeth’s disease.

Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene echoes the night of Duncan’s death, when she was resolved to commit the murder of the king, praying that she be relieved from the “passage of remorse.” And it does seem that throughout the play she is free from guilt, unlike Macbeth himself. But Macbeth’s concern of his bloody hands (“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”) transfers to Lady Macbeth in the last act as she sleep-walks, attempting to scrub her hands clean. Likewise, Macbeth’s fear that he has “murdered sleep” foretells Lady Macbeth’s inability to rest as she wanders the castle nightly, trying to clean her hands that will “ne’er be clean.” Her sleepless guilt is even more striking when taken in light of Macbeth’s description of sleep the night of Duncan’s murder:

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher of life’s feast.screenshot-2017-01-15-18-16-48

Flannery O’Connor once said that every good villain is one that we can relate to. I have no doubt that Shakespeare would have agreed. This “devil on the shoulder” of Macbeth becomes the very picture of remorse. In one of the shortest scenes of the play, Lady Macbeth suddenly captures our feelings of guilt: “Yet here’s a spot… Out, damned spot, out, I say!” And though the audience knows what crimes haunt her, she lives in that damned night of the past every time she sleep walks, as she goes to bed at the cue of a knock—the same end of that dark night of Duncan’s death.

I imagine that the scene captivates audiences for several reasons: the oddness of sleep-walking, a character that we thought less than human suddenly tormented by her former sins, but most importantly, her expression of the inner guilt that each of us have felt at one time or another.

The most recent remake of Macbeth cuts this scene short, and leaves out two of its major characters—the ever-watchful servant and doctor. Without the servant and doctor, the audience is left to themselves to make what they will out of Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking monologue. But Shakespeare does something beautiful here with the presence of the doctor, who quickly realizes that Lady Macbeth’s guilt is “beyond his practice.” His diagnosis may be the wisest words in all the play: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”

M.H. Abrams, in his book Natural Supernaturalism, calls attention to our use of physiological terms to describe our moral well-being. He points out that the “reigning diagnosis of our own age of anxiety [is] the claim that man, who was once well, is now ill.” Since these terms are so common in our own age, perhaps it can be difficult to see Lady Macbeth as anything but a victim of madness—but Lady Macbeth and her prophetic doctor show us otherwise: her malaise is due to the guilt that engulfed her the night of Duncan’s murder.

Lady Macbeth’s character works on us in mysterious ways; first we see her as a devil that sits on the shoulder of her tragic husband, and then suddenly she appears to us as a mirror of our own guilt, of which only the Divine will heal. Perhaps we would all benefit from the doctor’s diagnosis of Lady Macbeth’s ills:

“More needs she the divine than the physician.

God, God forgive us all.”

See Part 1 of the Macbeth series.

See Part 2 of the Macbeth series.