The Beauty of Dirt

“Don’t touch that-!” a mother says to her little toddler son, who is playing with a stick that he found on the ground.

“Now don’t play in the dirt,” a grandfather says to his little granddaughter as they step off the deck of their house and into the backyard.

In both instances, the message being sent is well-meaning, clear, and unmistakable: Dirt is bad.

Upon reflection, I now beg to differ. There are different kinds of dirt, and they can be either good or bad. Too often, however, we too quickly assume the negative.

God made man from the dust of the ground (that’s dirt!), and, as one old farmer put it, “God don’t make no junk!” With the creation of the earth, God stopped making dirt, so we’d better take care of what dirt we have.

Sure, there are some impurities and other dangerous things in dirt, but we can’t condemn all dirt as bad just because of that. In fact, where would we be without it? Even with the advances made in hydroponic agriculture, we still need dirt to grow most of our foods. We need dirt for construction of homes and roads. And think of all the things that are made using different kinds of dirt. For example, bricks and tiles. And think of the things that are extracted from dirt–things such as gold, silver, lead, and iron ore. And diamonds!

We tend to get all worked up over dirt. Dirty hands. Dirty fingernails. Dirty faces. Dirty diapers. It’s not dirt itself, however, that is bad. It’s where it is and when it gets there that present a problem.

It’s not so bad for a child to have dirty hands if he’s playing. That’s a child’s way of learning. He’s feeling the dirt, getting to know it, its texture and qualities and characteristics. He scrapes it into a pile He scatters it about. He throws it into the air and watches how it falls back to the earth again. He throws clods of it. He builds highways in it. He makes hills and mountains of it. It gets into his pores and under his fingernails. He eats it.

Stop! That’s far enough!

There are limits to what one can and should do with dirt, even in an otherwise good pursuit.

I played in the dirt when I was a child. I built those highways for my Tonka and Buddy-L toy trucks. I tossed dirt clods into the air and hit them with sticks or threw them, pretending that they were hand grenades, and watched them “explode” in a cloud of dust. I slid in dirt when we played baseball. I got it under my fingernails and in my pores. Sometimes I even got it in my mouth, such as when my brother and his friends convinced me to play football with them and it evolved into a game of “pick up and smear–Dennis.” But I can’t remember ever eating it–or even wanting to.

No one had to tell me, “Don’t eat dirt, Dennis.” I just knew not to. Just as no one ever taught me not to eat worms. If I had tried to eat either, I’m sure that someone would have stopped me.

To an overprotective parent or a fastidious person, perhaps dirt is ugly. But to an archaeologist dirt is wonderful. To a mineralogist, it’s great stuff. To a farmer, it’s beautiful.

Jesse Stuart wrote of “the beauty of dirt.” He was a man of the dirt of the rocky hills and mountains of Eastern Kentucky. He saw that dirt was the root of man’s sustenance, the place of man’s labors, the home and playground of God’s creatures. He, like other people of the soil, recognized the beauty of dirt. Just as a sculptor looks at a lump of clay and sees a bowl or a pitcher or a vase, Stuart looked at the soil and saw corn and beans and okra and maple syrup and sassafras tea. The soil produced weeds and thorns and thistles as well, but they were the price one paid for the use of the good things that the soil produces for man.

Stay clean, of course, but learn to see the beauty of dirt.

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Nobodies

Reclusive poet Emily Dickinson wrote a short bit of verse titled “Nobody.” It proclaimed the virtue of being a “nobody,” someone who had no special significance or influence and received no public recognition. That’s how she wanted to be perceived because that’s what she thought she was.

I have often felt like that. I’m not famous for anything. I’m not widely known. Even when I go “back home” to the community where I grew up, no one knows me. When I left there to go to college in another state, no one, not even my closest friends or track teammates, kept up with me or what I was doing. Forty years later, when the hometown newspaper published an article about the release of my first book (along with my phone number and e-mail address, courtesy of the editor, who was a family friend), only two former classmates contacted me. Like Dickinson, I’m “nobody.” Are you nobody, too?

But then I’m reminded that God often uses nobodies, sometimes without their even knowing that they are being used.

Robert Fulghum wrote in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, “You may never have proof of your importance, but you are more important than you think. There are always those who couldn’t do without you. The rub is that you don’t always know who.”

First, you are important to your spouse, even if he or she sometimes doesn’t seem to acknowledge your value. Then you are important to your children–or, if you don’t have children, your sibling’s children, or those of a friend or a neighbor. Even little kids whom you don’t know–or maybe haven’t even seen before. But they see you. They watch you.

To quote Fulghum again, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

But that also goes for the adults around us. They’re watching what we say and do. They notice how we deal with frustrations, disappointments, tragedies, and joys. They see how we treat others, not only our closest relations but also those who work for us or with us or for whom we work.

One day, in response to a statement by someone on Facebook, I replied, “It’s nice to hear from former students.” I wasn’t fishing (or is that phishing?) for posts from my former students but merely stating a fact. But I got several responses from people who had once survived one or more of the junior high history classes that I taught. Many of them responded. Soon, their posts turned from private messages to me to reminiscences among themselves about things that they recalled from my classes.

Many of the things that they mentioned I had long forgotten–but they had not. It was fun to be reminded of the incidents. (And a bit shocking as I read about how those junior high students now had children of their own who were older than the parents had been when they were in my classes!) It was especially humbling to know that a few of them had become teachers–even one a history teacher!–because of my influence.

I had never known, perhaps might never have known but for that Facebook exchange.

If you don’t think that you’ve had or are having an influence on someone else, think again. You might not be aware of the influence you’re having or have had in the past, but it’s there nonetheless. You might be a nobody in the world’s eyes, but even nobodies exert an influence on someone. Silent, unsung, unheralded. But important and influential to someone.

Teacher and author Jesse Stuart was right when he said, “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

I hate to disagree with you, Emily Dickinson, but no one is really a nobody–not even you.

Put the Cookies on the Bottom Shelf!

An effective teacher teaches such that the lowest-achiever, the least capable student in the classroom, can understand. If the lowest student can understand a concept, certainly everyone else will be able to. . . .

The best teachers take complex concepts and present them simply and meaningfully to their students when the time and subject matter are appropriate and the students are ready to learn them. This does not mean “dumbing it down” or being anti-intellectual. It does not mean either resorting to mere entertainment or rejecting the teaching of higher-order thinking skills. It does not mean teaching junior high and high school students using one’s college class notes. And it does not mean assigning professional-level materials as “ancillary” or “supplemental” readings.

It does mean taking students from where they currently are, making them stretch (but not too much at once), and guiding them slowly onward, as they are ready and as far as you can take them.

Let’s start putting those cookies on the bottom shelf!

(Excerpts from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught by Dennis L. Peterson, 2017, pp. 208, 215)

Copyright (c) 2018

Following the Crowd

“Just because ‘everyone else’ is doing it doesn’t mean that you must do it, too!” Mother used to tell me when I was trying to convince her to let me do something that my friends were doing. “If ‘everyone else’ goes and jumps off a cliff, are you going to do that, too?”

Of course, I had no better comeback to that logic than a mere, “But Mother. . . .” And that didn’t carry any weight with her. Mother had spoken, and that was that!

Today, we see a lot of people “jumping on the bandwagon” to do what “everyone else is doing” without really thinking logically about what they are doing or the consequences. We see it in politics, of course. Everyone seems to want to be on whichever side is winning, regardless of what the candidate is or stands for. We see it in clothing fashions. Not only kids but also adults who are “old enough to know better” are wearing today what as a kid I was ashamed to wear to work with Daddy. (I recall being embarrassed if I had to wear to work with him jeans that had holes in the knees. Today, people take pride in wearing jeans that have intentional, machine-made rips and tears all over them!) We also see the “bandwagon” syndrome in churches. No one seems to want to be left behind by the latest trends and fads.

Much of the modern literature flooding the market is pure fluff, filled with the latest jargon, cliches, and buzzwords but of little lasting value. Christian education certainly is not immune to this tendency. From time to time, the fad fashioners change the names of their fads and repackage them (e.g., “School to Work,” “No Child Left Behind,” “Common Core”), but they remain the same old weakening of the educational process. And time-strapped teachers are susceptible to grasp at anything that promises to be easy and less time consuming. In fact, in many cases, even Christian publishers are more than willing to hop on the trendy bandwagon, following novel methods and ideas that, in the long term, do not work. Often, they even do damage and hinder the learning of their students.

In following the crowd to chase such fads and trends, such publishers and teachers are ignoring the  tried and true principles of effective education. Rather than chasing after the ever-changing fads with the rest of the crowd, why not return to the tried and true? The biblical principles of “precept upon precept, line upon line” of ancient Israel are still valid today. These are the principles that John Milton Gregory explained in his classic work The Seven Laws of Teaching.  Rather than constantly changing, these laws or principles remain forever effective. As author and teacher Jesse Stuart wrote, “Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal” because he or she “lives on and on through his students.”

(Learn more about the practical application of Gregory’s seven laws of teaching and these educational principles in my book Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, available at www.amazon.com.)

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Good Teaching

“[E]ducation doesn’t depend on the latest technological gadgets or machinery or publications. Good teaching is not restricted by the availability or unavailability of ready-made materials. It depends on having students who want to learn and are ready to work hard to do so. It depends on having teachers who are dedicated to serving the Lord by teaching their subjects. . . .”

(Available at http://www.amazon.com.)

True Education

Good teaching is not restricted by the availability or unavailability of ready-made materials. It depends on having students who want to learn and are ready to work hard to do so. It depends on having teachers who are dedicated to serving the Lord by teaching their subjects, which often include subjects that are out of their field because they are the only available warm body to meet the current need.

–From the Preface of Teacher

 

(available at http://www.amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions)

New Book Just Released: Teacher

Teaching is a noble calling.

It is not easy. It is often underappreciated. Despite the wisecracks about teachers having a lot of paid vacation days and summers off, most teachers are nonetheless working (or thinking about job-related matters) almost all the time.

Teaching doesn’t pay nearly as much as it should, considering the potential benefits it offers both individuals and society. We show by our dollars what we truly think of it and its value. We readily pay far more for our health (doctors, nurses, drugs, etc.), our comfort (e.g., HVAC repairmen), and entertainment (actors and athletes) but balk at paying teachers more. This values disparity is magnified dramatically when the teachers involved are in Christian education.

Yet, you don’t hear complaints from the dedicated Christian teachers about the low wages. They are called to it, and they take that call seriously. To them, it’s more than just a job with a paycheck. Teaching offers intangible, even eternal, rewards. But teaching also carries with it a biblical caveat, and that warning is what causes those teachers to take their ministry seriously: “Be not many masters [teachers], knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation” [bear a greater responsibility] (James 4:1).

I have spent the better part of my adult life in various aspects of Christian education: classroom teacher; interim principal; editor of educational materials; and author of education articles, history textbooks, and ancillary materials. I don’t have a large financial portfolio or retirement account to show for it, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have been fulfilling my calling. I have numerous former students and untold numbers of unknown (to me) students who used materials that I’ve written or edited, and I was able to have an influence on some of them.

As teacher and author Jesse Stuart wrote, “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

In January 1988, Dr. Charles Walker, editor of Journal for Christian Educators and since 1982 executive director of the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools, published my first article for that magazine. Over the next 23 years, he encouraged me to keep on writing and continued to publish my work regularly. He came to know my writing better than any other editor for whom I’ve worked. That is why I asked him to write the foreword of my just-released book Teacher, a compilation of some of my articles on Christian education.

Most of the articles in the book were published in Journal for Christian Educators between January 1988 and December 2011. Some of them were published in other educational publications, and a few were written especially for this book.

Dr. Walker wrote in his foreword that Teacher is “a must-read for every Christian school educator” and “needs to be on every teacher’s desk.”

Conditions and circumstances in which education occurs change over time, as does the technology to make learning possible or easier, but the principles of good teaching are eternal and unchanging. Take away all the modern technology and return us to the one-room schoolhouse, and good teachers would still find a way to teach effectively because the principles remain the same.

Good teachers are also forever learners. They know that there are no “know-it-alls” in this life, and they therefore are always striving to improve their knowledge and their skills.

The goal of Teacher–my prayer as its author–is that it will inspire, motivate, and encourage teachers in their quest to learn and share their knowledge, especially the truths and values of God’s Word, with their students.

Maybe my book (available at http://www.amazon.com) could help you. Or someone you know.

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

Thoughts on Starting School Again

After having my wife at home all summer vacation, I’ve been going through withdrawal this week as she’s been attending teacher in-service training in preparation for starting another school year. While she’s been away, I’ve tried to busy myself with a writing project that deals with education. Those two facts have set my mind to thinking about school. I have mixed feelings. Having spent 19 years in the classroom myself and another 11 years as a textbook author, I sort of miss the classroom. But then I see all the preparations my wife has to do and all the meetings she has to attend, some lasting past my bedtime, and I reconsider!

That said, in this blog post, I just want to offer some quotations, food for thought about education. Enjoy!

_______________________________

“Learning is life’s greatest game–it is not work.

Learning is a dessert–it is not a vegetable.

Learning is a reward–it is not a punishment.

Learning is a pleasure–it is not a chore.

Learning is a privilege–it is not a denial.”

(Ladies Home Journal, May 1963)

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

(Fred Rogers)

“A parent gives life, but a parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

(Henry Adams)

“There are three great questions which in life we have over and over again to answer. Is it right or wrong? Is it true or false? Is it beautiful or ugly? Our education ought to help us to answer these questions.”

John Lubbock

And my favorite:

“I am firm in my believe that a teacher lives on and on through his students. I will live if my teaching is inspirational, good, and stands firm for good values and character training. Tell me how can good teaching ever die? Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

(Jesse Stuart)

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.

The Power of a Good Book Series

Never underestimate the power of a good book series, even if it’s not great literature, to spark an interest in reading. It might just develop into a reading habit that leads to great literature or even evolves into a career.

When I was in fifth grade at Halls Elementary School, Mrs. George conducted a contest in our class to see who could read the most books. She gave each student a small envelope inside of which were several ruled 3 x 5 cards. We each wrote our name on the flap of the envelope and thumb-tacked it, cards inside, onto a bulletin board. Mrs. George then took us to the library, where we selected whatever book(s) we wanted to read for the contest. When we finished each book, we recorded its title on the index card and chose another book.

I don’t know who won the contest (it wasn’t me), but in a sense I did win because that contest began for me a life-long habit of reading. The books I chose back then not only set me on the road to reading but also helped guide my career choice. I found through that contest that I enjoyed reading books in two particular series, one of which developed in me an interest in and love of history.

hardy-boys-mysteriesThe first series, the one that hooked me on reading, was the Hardy Boys mystery series. Of the 50 or so titles that made up the original segment of the series, I ended up reading about 44 or 45 of them. The titles are still vivid in my mind, as are the cover illustrations.

These books were not great literature by any measure; they were formula books. The basic plot line was always the same: the Hardy brothers are confronted with a mystery that baffles not only the local police but also their detective father, they set about solving the case with the occasional help of their “chums,” and they solve it after having some exciting and nail-biting adventures. When the publisher began revising the books and adding new, “modern” titles, and when the TV series came out, I was disappointed because neither the new books nor the TV version lived up to the standard that the original books had set. But the books in the original series kept me turning the pages under the bed covers using a flashlight long after I should have been asleep. And they made me realize that an entire world awaited me between the covers of books.

landmark-booksThe second book series that influenced me, the one that helped steer me into a career in teaching and writing about historical topics, was the Random House Landmark series of histories and biographies. I still remember the individual titles and cover illustrations on the books from that series. It was from those books, not my history textbook, that I really learned about the Pony Express, West Point, the military heroes of our nation, the battles they fought to win and maintain our freedoms, and many other topics.

landmark-alamoI remember that the title on the spine of a book was what first caught my attention. I lifted the book from the shelf and looked at the cover illustration–for a long time. Then I paged through the book, gaining an overview of what it was about and looking at any illustrations or photos that it included. If you study the accompanying photos of some of those books, is it any wonder that I became interested in American history? In those books was excitement, adventure–and I lived vicariously the events recounted in them.

During my early years of teaching junior high students, I bought several of the old Landmark books that I found in used book stores or at yard sales to stock my classroom library. Whenever students finished a test or some other seatwork, they knew that I expected them to be busy with some other constructive work until the rest of the class finished, andlandmark-pony-express one option was reading those books. Many of the students did read them and, most gratifying to me, they voluntarily discussed them with me. When I shifted careers and left the classroom, I donated the books to a school. I sort of wish I had kept them. Looking at the covers, reading the titles, and remembering the joy they gave me when I first read them, I sort of want to read them again.

landmark-flying-tigerslandmark-d-dayUnlike the Hardy Boys series, which used many mediocre ghostwriters under the pseudonym “Franklin W. Dixon,” Random House had some world-class authors and experts in history writing the Landmark books. They included such people as William L. Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, John Gunther, Pearl S. Buck, F. Van Wyck Mason, Richard Tregaskis, Bob Considine, Robert Penn Warren,C. S. Forester, John Toland, and Ted W. Lawson. Lawson’s writing (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) really snagged my interest because he wrote from first-hand experience as one of the pilots on the famous Doolittle raid on Tokyo in the early months of World War II.

Yes, these two series of books hold a special place in my curriculum vitae. They helped lay a foundation for reading that has served me well over the years. Do you have a similarly influential series that you would like to share? If so, I’d be interested in hearing from you about it.