Put a Poet in Your Pocket

Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota territory,” writes David McCullough, “Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat.” After several days, Roosevelt caught up with and got the draw on his quarry with his trusty Winchester. He then set off to haul the thieves cross country to justice. They walked forty miles, across the snow-covered Badlands, to the Dickinson jail. What makes the adventure especially notable is that during the trek, with criminals at the end of his rifle barrel, Roosevelt also managed to read Anna Karenina.

I am reminded of this story when I hear people say they haven’t the time to read. One report cites that the average American man reads just one book between his graduation from college and his death and that sixty percent of adult Americans have never read a single book in their adult lives. Alvin Kerman, in The Death of Literature, argues that reading books is “ceasing to be the primary way of knowing some- thing in our society.” We are no longer a people of ideas, curious about the world and eager to learn.

We live in a culture today that values image- oriented entertainment over knowledge and goodness, politically correct distortions over truth, filth over righteousness. Those of us in the Christian community often think we are immune, but our values and those of our children have subtly changed over the past couple of generations. For the sake of entertainment and self-esteem, we have become satisfied with mediocrity and self-centeredness, yet we still demand the benefits that hard work, sacrifice, and the search for truth provide.

Students and parents often complain about homework loads, yet students can recall with vivid detail hours of TV shows they’ve watched during the week, and I hear of the hours spent “IMing” and “Facebooking” friends. We seem unable to sacrifice amusement for anything more worthwhile.

Entertainment, wrote A.W. Tozer in 1955, is not evil in and of itself, but our devotion to entertainment as the major activity for which and by which we live is. He asserted that the abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin. For centuries the Church stood solidly against worldly entertainment, “recognizing it as a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.” More recently Christians seem to have given up the struggle. We have capitulated to the god of Entertainment.

Television destroys books. It murders academic skills. It eats away at positive character traits. It even compromises family relationships (How many families have a TV in every room?). TV pushes us away from relationships, including our most important one with our Heavenly Father.

So, let us model for our students the advice from the Psalmist to “turn our eyes away from worthless things.” To carry a book with you wherever you go is old advice and good advice. John Adams urged his son Quincy to carry a volume of poetry. “You will never be alone,” he said, “with a poet in your pocket.”

Summer Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ravi Zacharias once said, “If a storm could be embodied, it would have been embodied in Oscar Wilde.” Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde was a brilliant writer who defied convention. His turbulent and scandalous life turned heads and raised eye- brows throughout the world. Yet he captured the imaginations of thousands of readers with his penetrating analyses of the human heart.

Of all of Wilde’s famous work, the most brilliant is his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story revolves around a young man who, upon seeing a portrait of himself, wishes he could trade his youth and beauty for a life of excess and extravagance. In Faustian style, Dorian trades his soul for his youth.

The life of the character Dorian Gray paralleled that of the author. In addition to various addictions, Wilde was most widely known for his openly homosexual relationships. Yet, he was a man in turmoil about his own soul. He once wrote, “Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.”

Wilde and his most famous character demonstrate their relevance to me in the lucid depiction of the human condition plagued by sin. Wilde reminds me that
our souls will not be concealed forever, that every soul has a face. We may escape the physical damages of sin, but we cannot escape its rendering effects on our souls.

It appears, despite a short, intense life of depravity, God used the penetrating questions Wilde raised in Dorian Gray, and he converted to Christianity on his death bed. He penned these words two years before his death in 1900:

And every human heart/that breaks/In prison-cell or yard,/Is as that broken box/that gave/Its treasure to the Lord,/And filled the unclean/leper’s house/With the scent of/costliest nard./Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break/And peace of pardon win!/How else may man make straight his plan/And cleanse his soul from Sin?/How else but through a broken heart/May Lord Christ enter in?

The Reading Road to Writing

Since ancient times, imitation has been the best teacher of quality communication, whether speech-making, preaching, negotiating, or any kind of writing. We read for many reasons; to learn what we do not know, to improve our character, to transcend time and place, even to escape reality. But no nobler purpose exists for reading masterfully written, high quality literature, than as a model for writing.

In a former life, I served as Honors Director for a Christian university. The capstone project and final requirement for graduation was the Honors Thesis. This paper was to be the culmination of a year’s research and writing, overseen by a committee of three faculty, one of whom served as primary advisor. I served as an additional reader for all theses, and I read some very interesting papers on topics outside my own discipline. However, I often found myself wondering if the writing was really honors quality.

On one occasion, I read a thesis that was totally incomprehensible. Upon consulting the faculty advisor, I discovered that he too found the paper unsatisfactory, but because of his junior status he was reticent to challenge the quality of the paper, since this student was well thought of by other members of the department.

When I asked the student to show me some examples of other papers he had written over the years, I found them all to be beautifully “processed” on high quality paper, with attractive fonts and formatting. Each paper bore a single red “A” or “A+” with no other marks or comments. I concluded that over his college career, no one had actually read this student’s writing. Now I had the unenviable responsibility of rejecting his thesis as substandard, denying his graduation from the program—an awful experience for both of us.

Why had this student received so little help with his writing in college, not to mention his previous high school and earlier learning experiences? My conclusion, from 25 years in K-12 and college education is simple and stark: writing is the most difficult thing to teach and, as an educational culture, we have forgotten how to do it.

While visiting my parents’ home last Christmas, I found a little book on composition that belonged to my grandfather, copyright 1907. The book was structured to teach students how to write exposition, biography, criticism, argument, description, and narration, through modeling high quality examples of each of these by authors like Stevenson, Huxley, Eliot, Lamb, Chesterton, Copeland, Hawthorne, Dickens, Conrad, Longfellow, Scott, Irving, Poe, Thoreau, Kipling and Austen.

As teachers, we would do well to take our cue from William Faulkner who wrote: “Read, read, read. Read everything…and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

Homeschooling in California

On February 28, 2008, the 2nd District Court of Appleas in Los Angeles issued an opinion that has shaken the home schooling environment. The court ruled that the parents of an elementary aged child did not have a legal or constitutional right to home school their child. In re Rachael L, et. al., 73 Cal. Rptr. 77 (2008).

According to the Court of Appeals, the California Education Code permits just three venues of education: (1) public school instruction; (2) private tutor instruction by a credentialed teacher; or (3) private school instruction where the pupil is in attendance full time at the school. Since the mother did not have a credential, she did not qualify as a tutor. Moreover, while the child was enrolled in Sunland Christian School, she did not actually a end the school and participated in what the school termed “independent study.” Many California private schools operate such independent study programs where home school parents receive resources, instruction and some supervision. The Court noted that the code did permit independent study, but concluded the program of home schooling the parents followed did not comport with the intent contemplated or specifics required.

The Court also analyzed at least two primary US Supreme Court cases: Pierce v Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, involving the right of parents to choose a private education over public education, and Wisconsin v Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, on the right of Amish parents to refuse to educate their children beyond the eighth grade. Pierce permit- ted parental choice, but stated that the state had a right to inspect and insure the quality, including that of the teachers. In Yoder, the parents’ long- standing religious convictions and historic community trumped the state compulsory attendance.

The Supreme Court noted, however, that “allowing every person to make his own standards of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests” is precluded by “the very concept of ordered liberty.” The historicity of the Amish belief in conjunction with agrarian, self-regulated society they followed militated in favor of an exemption from the compulsory education laws. That was not the case here, according to the Court of Appeals. Parents had options, including the choice of private education.

Almost immediately, an outcry arose from various groups, including home schooling associations. Governor Schwartzenegger stated that if the California Supreme Court upheld the decision, the legislature would act to protect the parental rights involving almost 200,000 home schooled students. Some have suggested that Congress should consider passing a constitutional amendment specifically addressing the rights of parents. Even the California Superintendent of Education has weighed in, stating that parents can continue to home school their children. The Department “is not going to sue parents.”

As of this writing, the parents involved were considering an appeal. If they appeal, it is likely that a number of parental and religious rights groups will file amicus briefs in support of the parental right to home school their children.

Apprenticing Adults Through Middle School Lit

Teaching difficult literature to middle schoolers should be seen in the larger context of treating students as apprentice adults. As David Hicks explains in Norms and Nobility, classical teachers are not in the business of developing happy, well-adjusted children, but rather of forming adults. He points out that the idealized ancient schoolmaster’s method for forming adults was “to teach the knowledge of a mature mind, not to offer relevant Learning Experiences at the level of the student’s stage of psychological development.

Middle schoolers’ minds are ready for the intellectual challenge of literature that deals with serious themes and central questions. They love to discuss ideas; they love to have their ideas taken seriously. They won’t usually admit it, but most prefer challenging work to an “easy read.” When they are presented with a work such as The Odyssey or a Shakespeare play and told, “This will be hard, but you can do it,” they sit taller and work harder than when given a “young adult” book.

Even when this is not the case, giving middle schoolers difficult tasks is the right way to prepare them to be thinking adults. The value of sticking at and mastering a difficult task that the student sees as worth his time is better preparation for adult life than easy successes to boost self-esteem, which may only serve to convince students that they are smarter than adults. “What a student can do should not become the sole judge of what the student is asked to do,” says Hicks (italics mine).

The challenge for the teacher is to find this place beyond the student’s current reach without going too far beyond it. The skilled teacher translates complex themes into language students can under- stand, explaining difficult ideas through images and analogies that enable them to see what they have never seen before.

C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet often becomes my 7th grade students’ favorite book because it forces them to use their minds in new ways. They have the experience, maybe for the first time, of thinking a new thought and inserting it into the discussion.

This happens when they make a connection between the meaning of Lewis’s images and the truth of their own experiences. Wonderful discussions erupt around such things as Ransom’s choice of the word “bent” when trying to describe a sinful act to the un- fallen Malacandrians.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example, Eustace is made to see that there’s a difference be- tween what a star is made of and what a star is. Ransom’s experience in outer space, or Deep Heaven as he comes to call it, fleshes out this distinction and expands on it. Students see this, and I get the chance to introduce them to the sophisticated idea that there are other kinds of truth outside of scientific truth.

I know that something significant has happened when the classroom discussion spills out into the hallway, even continues in the lunchroom. Excitement about ideas stimulates concurrent movement toward mental maturity. It all happens when students have been given something worth thinking about and have risen to the challenge.

Five Steps to a Poetic Classroom

Read Aloud

Poetry was meant to be read using the body as an instrument. For centuries, even before written language, this is how people were taught poetry. This essential pleasure of poetry is also a skill which aids all kinds of learning objectives, including the ability to speak in front of others, a growth in the appreciation of language, and a lack of self-consciousness surrounding expressive reading. I recommend having students read poems aloud at the start of each day.


Our relationship to language changes when we commit words, phrases and sentences to memory. We suddenly become aware of how the words in a sentence fit together or why a line break was chosen at a certain place or how the images relate to each other. We also feel the language and rhythms differently in our mouths when we aren’t working to read them. It requires many readings and real understanding to memorize a poem, and the poems students memorize will become dear to them simply for having memorized them. Start by having a class memorize a poem together then branch out to individual memoriza- tion and recitation. Take it a step further and have a recitation contest with judges and prizes.

Integrate Poetry with Other Subjects

Acquire a collection of good poetry texts for your library or classroom and lend them out to students. Start reading them yourself and excit- edly share a recent find with your students. Use the poems to clarify or reference a particular truth, idea or emotion that crops up in the course of your study of Scripture or history. Don’t simply choose poems for their ideas or treat them as a means to an end, however. Read them for beauty’s sake and for pure pleasure. Choose all kinds of poems— high serious poems (Keats, Milton, Homer) and less important, funny poems (Ogden Nash, for instance). Include the Psalms and discuss the biblical poetic tradition. Read poems from all time periods, giving students a taste of different eras, including our own.

Discuss Form and Meaning

Students see things that you can’t see, and the meaning of poems emerges in conversation. Reading a poem aloud and discussing it for a few minutes is a valuable exercise, even if there is more to learn from a poem. Identify formal aspects you can find (rhythm, rhyme, sound devices, structure, stanzas, line breaks, inherited forms), discuss what the meaning might be, and look for the inter-relatedness of form and meaning. Show how metaphor is central to poetry as it is to all human thought. In science, for instance, metaphor has guided our understanding of many concepts which we cannot understand without analogy— the atom, for example. In our understanding of God we use the analogies of the creeds—God as Father, Maker, King—to give us some sense of who I AM is.

Teaching Grammar Well

Grammar ain’t easy. It is abstract and complex. So, how should we teach it? Philippians 4:8,9 indicate that we learn by meditating and by imitating. Practically, that means grammar must be taught both indirectly (imitation) and directly (meditation).

First, grammar must be taught indirectly through imitation. An atmosphere indifferent to language cripples a child’s vocabulary and syntax, disabling his ability to think effectively and confidently. Everyone in the school must be committed to correct grammar. Otherwise, students will see grammar as merely a school subject, not a serious priority. Our goal should be that the school will be full of powerful vocabulary, sound expression, and complicated syntax. This takes effort, but, if we honor the God who gave us language, we have to give it the time it takes.

Grammar should also be taught indirectly through writing, Latin or Greek, and every text the students read. They learn by imitation.

Second, grammar must be taught directly, through meditation. While the environment provides models to imitate, the classroom provides practical instruction.

We train students to meditate on grammar by applying the three stages of the trivium to any particular lesson. Here’s how it works:

We come to understand ideas when we see them embodied in particular expressions:

Grammar: you see particular examples of something (say, a dog), then another, then another.
Logic: you compare the specifics with each other. Pretty soon, you come to understand what is true of every particular instance – what makes something the kind of thing it is. Rhetoric: You understand and express the idea. Now you can describe a dog and distinguish it from a cat.

It is easy to see this with concrete things, like dogs, cats, and books. It works the same way when we want to know an abstract thing, like justice, freedom, or a verb. We come to know justice or freedom when we see them in particular situations or people. We come to understand what a verb is when we see specific acts in a sentence.

First, be very clear about what you want your students to understand. Get this right and the rest falls nicely into place.

Suppose you want your students to understand that a sentence is a complete thought. That’s the idea.

Now provide examples. “John sits.” “Lauren laughs.” “Noah built an ark.” Tell them that these are sentences. After each, ask: “Does this make sense?”

Next, write some incomplete thoughts: “John…” “Lauren….” “Noah built…” “Mickey hit a home run and then…” Re- mind your students that these are not sentences.

After your students have seen enough examples, ask: “How are the sentences the same as the non-sentences? How are they different?” Get plenty of ideas and be patient while they answer. At this point the students are meditating on grammar. If their first thoughts are inaccurate, that’s just part of thinking.

After they’ve made enough comparisons, ask: “What is a sentence?” If they can tell you that a sentence is a complete thought, you’ve succeeded. If not, back up.

When they tell you what a sentence is, they are ready to apply the idea. Provide practice exercises: “Write five correct sentences.” “Complete these sentences.” “Which of these sentences are complete and which are not?” etc.

You can teach any idea following this model of the trivium: examples (grammar), comparisons (logic), expression and application (rhetoric). For example, every sentence has a subject and a predicate, the predicate is what you are saying about the subject, etc.

Here’s the additional good news: if you can teach this way, you can adapt any curriculum. You may find that the easiest curricula are old ones— prior to the 1950’s. I like Harvey’s Grammar, though it needs to be supplemented. Rod and Staff, Mother Tongue, and First Lessons in Language are used in quite a few classical, Christian schools and seem easy to adapt, especially Mother Tongue.

The bottom line: you can use any program, but your students can only come to understand one way: by meditating on examples of the idea taught.