Don’t Forget the “Average” Kid!

Some classrooms will probably have one or two students who could become stars, but our teaching must not be toward them; rather, if should be toward reaching the average child. That does not mean that we ignore the need to enrich the education of the stars; they are an additional responsibility, not the primary target.

It is much easier and more enjoyable for the teacher to address needs and interests of the more advanced student whose level of understanding is nearer his or her own than to work patiently with the common, average, or slower students who make up the vast majority of the students in our classes. (Unlike Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, not all of our students are or can be “above average.”) The teacher is called to ensure that all students learn, not just the “stars.”

The ever-present tendency is to ignore or bypass the average and low students with callous disregard, to write them off as of no consequence. Remember, however, that history shows that it is not generally the “stars” whom God ends up using most in life but rather the average student, the plodder, the one who struggles and yet perseveres over time because a teacher cared enough to work with him or her.

[Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, p. 210. Available at http://www.amazon.com.]

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

 

Advertisements

On Moral Development

Merely teaching our students to “be good” is not enough; even a “good” student may in reality be very immoral. Rather, we must teach them to be godly. According to our standard, Scripture, godliness is nothing less than perfection [“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16)]. That is God’s standard, not man’s. Lest we excuse ourselves that it is an impossible standard, we have as our living role model Jesus Christ, who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The degree of our students’ morality, then, is limited only by their perception of God’s holiness. Therefore, if we want moral students, we must continually emphasize God’s holiness.

In short, this view holds that what one does is an indication of one’s relationship to the Lord and an understanding of who God is. But it also operates fully aware of the true condition of one’s heart. A true Christian is not one who is one outwardly but who is one of the heart. (See Romans 2:28-29.) Godliness, then, is knowing what God knows, viewing things as He views them, thinking as He thinks, and then acting according to His understanding.

In Christian education, the issue is how teachers can educate students such that they accept God’s Word as their own personal standard and act consistently with its principles. The educator must teach, as John Stott wrote, both “micro-ethics” (personal morality) and “macro-ethics” (social responsibility), and both must be based on the principle of godliness.

[Excerpt from Teacher: Teaching and Being Taught, Dennis L. Peterson, 2017, p. 81. Available at http://www.amazon.com.]

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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.)

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

The Candle Manufactory

As thousands of students and teachers begin the classes of a new school year today (at least here in the South, at least many of the private, Christian schools), a passing comment that my pastor made in his Sunday sermon set me to thinking. He referred to the Christian school as “a candle factory.” And my mind, attuned as it is to historical topics, immediately returned to the “good old days” of colonial times when the only source of light was homemade candles. At first, I thought it ironic that he should use colonial candle making and the word factory together, but I later took some time to do a little research on the candle-making process and realized that the term is, indeed, appropriate.

Colonial-era families did not generally have ready access to commercially made candles. Oh, they could order some from Europe–if they were wealthy enough–but most colonists weren’t wealthy, so they had to “make do,” making their own candles on-site. They usually did that in the fall, simultaneously with the annual slaughter of animals because candles were most often made from rendered animal fat. (Some people made candles from bayberries or beeswax, but they were much more expensive because the raw materials were not as readily available.) Making candles from fat was a rigorous, time-consuming task. And since the average home needed an estimated 400 or so candles for the year, it was quite a large operation; the colonial homestead, in fact, became a factory for a time.

First, chunks of animal fat were cut into small pieces and placed into a large pot over a roaring fire to be melted. Small pieces of fat melted faster than large pieces. (A mixture of half sheep fat and half beef fat usually was used, but hog fat was sometimes used, although it produced candles that smoked badly and stank to high heaven.) The liquefied fat, called tallow, was first skimmed and then poured through a fine sieve to remove any impurities.

 

Next, the wicks, which were made of two or three strands of twisted cotton, were strung from straight sticks called broches and dipped into the hot tallow two or three times and then set aside on a rack to drain until the tallow had hardened. They were dipped again, and again set aside to harden. Each time, the candle-to-be became larger and larger. This process was repeated several times–as often as it took to get candles of the desired size. The bigger the candle desired, the more dippings were necessary. The last time they were dipped and drained, the candles were “necked,” immersed deeper into the tallow, beyond the depth of all previous dippings, until all the previously hardened tallow was covered.

Before the candles could be used, however, their bottoms were passed over a hot metal plate to melt them flat so they would sit upright on a candlestick. The wick was then cut to the desired length, and the finished candles were stored in a cool place to await use.

Some people, called chandlers, made their living making candles. Many of them were like itinerant factories, traveling from place to place and making and selling their wares. A few set up permanent factories. Many families, however, continued to make their own candles, but they often built molds to make the whole process go faster and to ensure uniformity of size and shape for their candles.

Now if you’re still with me, you might be wondering what this process has to do with the beginning of school. Remember, my pastor had commented that the Christian school was a candle factory. Following that analogy, we readily see that in each grade, the children (our candles-in-process) are “dipped” into the “tallow” of their studies, be it reading, math, science, history, Bible, foreign languages, or whatever. Each year, they grow a bit larger in their knowledge and ability. Finally, upon completion of their senior year, they are ready to “commence” the thing for which they have been so painstakingly made: to be lights in the darkness.

In Matthew 5:14, Christ said, “Ye are the light of the world.” He went on to say that people don’t light a candle or lamp to hide it under an obstruction or shade (He used the word bushel). Rather, He commanded, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (v. 16).

Christian education is in the business of making candles that will shine God’s light into this dark world. Our prayer should be that our schools are able to do that task thoroughly and well, approaching each grade level with the understanding that it is only one step in the process toward achieving that ultimate goal, so that we graduate students who are ready, willing, and able to let their light shine. This process is a difficult, time-consuming, and often thankless job, so be sure to pray for not only the students but also the teachers as they perform their great service. And, as the saying goes, “If you can read this, thank a teacher!”

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.