Archive for November 2020

Smile, Students!

November 24, 2020

Since I’m a fill-in teacher this year, kinda a fake instructor, I do some things that are a little bizarre and lacking in academic seriousness. Like last week when I started adding stuffed animals to flank the Cabbage Patch doll that was neatly arranged at the desk close to my classroom desk. I refer to the troupe as my fill-in students, since in-person students won’t be in the classroom until January.

On my back wall I had the word “Laugh” for a couple of weeks, the letters formed by Far Side cartoons. Last week I rearranged the letters, inserted some new Far Sides, and spelled out “SMILE”. Unfortunately, our school went to remote learning before my students had a chance to see it, but I’ll keep it pinned to the wall until they come back.

It’s difficult for them to smile much these days, being partially in class and partially virtual until now, and now they are totally remote. My teaching teammates and I started doing virtual lunches with them to help keep the connection. As they sit and eat their PB&J, they can log into one of our communication channels and converse with other classmates and teachers. It’s like an online cafeteria.

I want them to know that it’s okay to say they aren’t okay, to say they don’t enjoy this distant educational experience. If, in the midst of that, I can bring a smile or a chuckle I’ll have led them toward a moment of normalcy. If I can make comments about their on-screen backdrop or mention that they’re looking awesome that day, perhaps they will let their defenses and reservations down for a few moments.

This year education is more about instilling a calmness in the midst of the pandemic storm. It’s about getting these adolescents to trust in the belief that it’s going to turn out okay.

It’s getting them to rediscover their ability to smile.

The Popularity of Extremists

November 22, 2020

They make me cringe and want to floss my teeth for no apparent reason. The extremist views of the right and the left are…well, extreme!

And popular! Not popular, because mega-number of people agree with them, but they attract attention because they are so “out there”. They are the political versions of The Real Housewives of Wherever, another cultural favorite that makes me run for the bathroom cabinet.

Being a moderate, I have to shake my head and go for a walk. And yet, as I think about it, extreme views and personalities are apparent in most areas and arenas of our world. Football players, and the whole offensive line, now make it an end zone production after a touchdown is scored. It seems like no one now scores and simply hands the football to the nearest official. Broadway has to make a showing. Speaking of Broadway, that brings back the memory of Joe Namath from the 60s and 70s, the quarterback whose nickname was Broadway Joe.

Even religion goes for the extremes, from Benny Hinn smacking people in the forehead to extreme conservative churches that frown on smiling.

In politics we’ve had the Moral Majority and the Tea Party and, on the other side, there’s the Progressive “Pack” and “The View”.

The thing is…those of us in the middle are very uncomfortable with the extreme views in just about any area. We don’t frequent marijuana dispensaries and we’re likely to have a beer in our refrigerator. Our sense of what is right is more resembling of a Norman Rockwell painting than a protest march. We don’t believe everything should be free and that work is not a four-letter word (although it has four letters).

We don’t attract a lot of attention and don’t garner the kind of Nielsen ratings that make us appealing. We’re more comfortable with farmers and the town square barber than we are with techies and fashion statements. We understand how blessed we are to be Americans, but also are willing to help those in other parts of the world who need food.

We drive Hondas and Chevys at reasonable speeds and reach for the floss as the red BMW speeds by us, weaving in between three lanes of moderates.

And we know that we’ll probably never be popular! We’ll just be average, or better yet, normal!

You Matter!

November 19, 2020

My heart breaks for them! They are people who operate effectively on the basis of relational instruction. That is, they are the teachers who long for their students to be with them…physically!

It’s a strange and detached new way of teaching, this virtual education. Teachers want that closeness with their students, but 18 inches away from their faces on a computer screen is not what they had in mind.

And so they keep going, keep hoping, keep encouraging, even when their own spirits have dropped into a deep mine shaft. Their worry now gravitates to when their students return. Will it be like starting over again? Will they have to get them used to sitting up straight at their desks instead of slouching to the side with a comfort blanket wrapped around them?

And when the students are able to come back into the school buildings will it be for a week, two weeks, a month, and then there will be another transition back to remote learning?

So many questions and so little resolution. Peace seems to be fleeing from the scene.

What can teachers do? First of all, they can write in bold letters on their classroom boards, or a paper sticking to their refrigerator at home the words “YOU MATTER!”

Second, they can encourage their teaching teammates, like an orchestra that demands the sound of each instrument to create the symphony, teachers can keep telling their members that they are needed and they are valued.

And third, teachers keep the perspective of a marathon runner who stays focused on the end goal. Runners will talk about “hitting the wall” about three-fourths through the 26.2 mile race. It’s the mental, physical and emotional fatigue point that causes pessimism and discouragement to affect the pursuit. From what I see, many teachers are at “the wall” and struggling to keep going.

Hear it again. You matter! You are essential! You can do this! Your students will respect you even more when you lead them across the finish line!

VIRTUAL MOTIVATION

November 15, 2020

It’s an intriguing, even perplexing, problem. In some ways it’s a puzzle that I often faced in my 36+ years as a church pastor. How do you motivate virtual students? How do you shepherd the flock to move along toward the green pastures of more knowledge, understanding, and problem-solving?

I’ve wrestled with the dilemma for some time now. Not being a teacher, but kinda being a teacher, I do not have any neat-and-tidy educational formulas that fit the situation. On the other hand, it might be to my benefit that I don’t have any neat-and-tidy educational formulas to make me believe that this pandemic era eLearning setup is something that can be answered with a step-by-step lesson plan.

My concern is more for the students who are lower performers, students who struggle enough as it is in a normal school classroom setting. To be sure, their are some students who could care less and are using this time of virtual learning to improve on their gaming skills. One student this past week didn’t realize that his microphone was unmuted and the teacher could hear the “ping, ping, ping” of a video game gun being fired. As I’m discovering, there’s even a few parents who are uninterested in their child’s disinterest. But there are those students who need an in-person human voice to help them navigate a problem or assignment. They are the students who don’t see what needs to be done as a math calculation, but rather an unclimbable wall that inhibits them from moving forward.

How do you motivate young minds to gain ground when there is chaos happening all around them?

For me, the relationship with students is the pavement for the instruction. Knowing the students– their dreams and fears, the things that bring smiles to their faces and the topics that make them cringe– helps them believe that I’m there to assist them, not inject more dreariness into their lives. I want them to know that I understand that they will not always be on their A-game, that some days will be immersed with a feeling of meaninglessness.

That element of caring demands more from the teachers than from them. I must be willing to go the extra mile, because their engines have stalled. A gentle push with a few words of encouragement may be the only fuel needed to get them moving again.

However, there are those students who are resistant to being motivated toward academic advancement. For those students, their loss in education must not be multiplied with a loss of relationships. Like the prodigal son that Jesus talked about, they need to know that their teachers will be there for them when they decide it’s time to return to learn. They need to believe that those who lead them in this weird way of doing school have not given up on them.

Tomorrow I’ll see four different screens full of faces, some who have simply rolled over in bed and logged on to class and some who will be expecting to learn. Like a shepherd, I’ll try my best to move the flock on down the road. I’ll punctuate the journey with moments of laughter and words of affirmation, and hopefully we’ll all survive being taken by the predators we encounter along the way.

It’s funny, in a way, that this teaching shepherd is a “Wolf”, but with an ‘e’!

The Loneliness of a Student-less School Building

November 12, 2020

The hallways of my middle school contain only the echoes of a teacher’s shoes clicking on the tile and the custodian cart being wheeled to the next room in need of a deep clean. It is the third day of an absent student body as nine hundred 6th, 7th, and 8th graders stay at home.

COVID-19 cases have spiked in our area, after several weeks of decreasing. Many thought we were past the crisis and looked forward to the return of normalcy but the virus has played a cruel form of resurrection and has put more distance between the memory of the way we used to live our lives and the new anxious normal.

In regards to the academic arena, colleges and high schools have seen the bulk of COVID cases. However, like a fog bank it has crept toward our school population through contact with the outside world and family members who have tested positive. It’s not as if our middle school, or other middle schools, have had riotous parties or heavily-attended school events. In our hybrid model class structure, the most heavily-attended school activity this year has been the lineup of cars with waiting parents ready to pick up their son or daughter after the 2:45 dismissal bell.

The empty hallway is simply a ripple effect of what has happened. The silence is eerie. It’s loud in its exclamation of its reason. So many students whose faces I’m staring at on a screen are visibly disappointed. If nothing else positive comes out of this, perhaps it will bear credence to the importance of students and their teachers being together in a physical classroom. Maybe it will tell us how vital it is for teachers to be standing in the hallways and welcoming students as they arrive in the morning. Maybe it will trumpet the importance of presence.

Silent school hallways that are absent of the sound of lockers being opened and slammed shut, bursts of laughter, and the chatter of the young are signs of the dark tunnel we are walking through, hoping that there is the glimpse of light indicating a return to the normal.

Redefining 7th Grade Deadlines

November 8, 2020

Since we’re living in a time when some seem comfortable in the rewriting of history, it makes sense that other parts of our culture are also being redefined.

Like at Starbucks this morning where my tall Pike Place coffee is really the small, or the email I’ve received for fifteen days that says “this is absolutely the last day for this mega-sale.”

Many of my seventh-grade language arts students have decided that the term “deadline” now has a new definition. In the middle school urban dictionary it is rendered like this:

Deadline: An estimate; a suggestion; in academia, the stated time when a student should begin thinking about working on the assignment; an approximation.

Last week- the third week of the new school quarter- I received five different assignments that were part of the first quarter. That is, they were part of the grade that had already been punched in…four weeks ago! Sorry, Charlie!

I’ll receive the glazed over looks again this coming week. “Answer the discussion question and submit it. I’ll give you the next five minutes to complete it.”

What some of the students hear: “Would you consider giving a response to this discussion question and, if it’s not too much of a bother, submit it in the next couple of weeks so that I might have the privilege of granting you a score?”

I must say this! There are plenty of students who are responsible, on-task, committed to the old definition of deadline, and in pursuit of excellence. They give me hope that my hair will not fall out in the midst of instructional agitation.

It’s interesting that the “deadline-redefines” become irritated if the school food service didn’t plan accurately and run out of chicken nuggets, or their video game doesn’t load quickly enough. So, they do show some reaction to slowness.

I’m wondering if in a few years when they become taxpayers if the IRS will understand that they might not get their tax returns completed by April 15? I’m envisioning their 2030 tax return being submitted in 2032…but only halfway done!

Agreeing to Love in the Midst of Purple

November 7, 2020

I remember the worship wars of the 1980’s. It was a time when church congregations did internal battles over praise music versus traditional hymns. Quite honestly, the “hymn camp” was nastier than the praise music lovers. One man in my congregation would leave the sanctuary until the praise music was done, and he made his protest known.

The worship wars, however, had been preceded by the “Holy Spirit fights.” A number of churches actually split over the third person of the Trinity. More precisely, the friction was focused on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and, to narrow it down even more, the differences were over the baptism of the Holy Spirit manifested in the “speaking in tongues.” For those unfamiliar with those terms it might sound foolish, and in many ways it was. Congregations would divide over their views on a spiritual issue. Go figure!

And now, in recent years churches have taken political sides and fractured over voting preferences. A recent article in Christianity Today magazine focused on the division in churches that are “purple”, a mix of red and blue, Republicans and Democrats. More times than not, pastors have felt the pressure to lean one direction or another, instead of creating a oneness that is rooted in Christ. The dislike for one another is the current issue that seeks to take the church’s mission and purpose away from Jesus. It’s the worship wars and Holy Spirit fights transferred to political preferences. In a nation that is polarized, the church has allowed itself to float down the stream along with the rest of the venomous vessels. It’s anchor to “The Rock” (Jesus Christ) has begun to be torn away. Instead of being a community of transformation and renewal, for the most part, it is simply a reflection of a divided nation.

Jesus prayed a prayer as He faced his impending death. In it he prayed this:

” I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –  I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)

Oneness…unity, words that were right in rhythm with other descriptions of the church…community, Body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers. It seems that most churches these days resemble the dysfunctional New Testament church in Corinth rather than the One that Jesus prayed for.

The pandemic has caused enough chaos in the ministry of faith communities. Now, our distaste for those who vote differently than we do has fractured the church even more. We have gone from a bandage for the cut to needing a hard cast to heal the fracture.

I think I’m going to go back and re-read The Politics of Jesus by Yoder published in 1972. I need to hear from a voice that doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

The Blessing of Moments

November 1, 2020

“So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light.” (James 1:16-17, The Message) 

A student in the special needs class at school sees me in the hallway and calls my name. I call back to him and we come together and touch elbows. I give him a “You look awesome, baby!” compliment and he grins so wide I can see all his of teeth.

I play peek-a-boo with our 1-year-old grandson, each peek punctuated with his smile and a dancing, wobbling, walking combo away from me.

I catch the last few moments of the Michigan State victory over Michigan and chuckle. One Green-and-White man’s blessing is another maize-and-blue’s curse!

I walk by Ralph’s house, our 84-year-old neighbor up the street on the corner. We talk about what is and what was, and bring laughter to each other.

They are the moments of life that too often never get considered as the blessings, special seconds that fill in the gaps as we move from one obligation to another. We have this habit of equating blessings with significance in size…promotions, prizes, and prestige. The blessing of a greeting or a peek-a-boo moment gets skipped over as we focus on the headline events of our lives.

The uncertainty of our times makes our sightings of the blessed moments even more important. They are the scattered glitter in a fabric of shadows. See them as you travel through each day…the missing front tooth in the grandkid’s smile, the Far Side cartoon that you’ve chuckled at a dozen times already, the young child who stops in front of your house and salutes the flag that flies from your front porch. Look for the moments that bring melody to your life. 

Here’s the thing! When I realize how numerous my blessings in the moments are I’m overwhelmed by…by…I guess I could simply say, my blessedness!