July 04, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #8: The Two R's

Letter From The Teacher #8: The Two R’s

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Hansen
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: The Two R’s

Dear Mrs. Hansen:

Thanks for your phone call earlier today. I’m sorry that I couldn’t devote the time to it that I would have preferred, but as you know, you caught me between classes. Thanks for letting me answer your questions via e-mail.

I’m afraid I have no idea where your son Tom got the idea that one of our students was suspended for reading the Bible. I checked with our principals and they assure me that no such thing happened. In fact, I’m sure that no such thing ever would happen, certainly not at Anytown HS, and probably not at most American schools.

We often hear that the Supreme Court, decades ago, “took prayer out of the schools.” People tend to take that assertion at face value and some even blame it for whatever problem they think is current in the schools and in society at large. The truth is quite different.

It has been said, and quite accurately I think, that as long as there is algebra, there will always be prayer in school. I write that with some degree of humor, because I was born without the math gene. I aced all of my required college math courses, but that was because I am a good student and know how to study and retain information, at least as long as necessary to pass a given test. I’m good at practical, every day math, but that’s where my abilities and interests end. While I enjoy reading (more on this later) books about science and even math, I am not one of those people who can gaze at an equation and immediately see the secrets of the universe before my wondering eyes. I’m glad that such people exist, but I’m certainly not one of them.

The larger point is that no court, no human authority, can remove the deepest longings of the human soul. In a narrow sense, it is inappropriate—as a result of court decisions—for school authorities to require students to pray, or to make them sit quietly while they pray to or over them. Teachers can't be preachers and that's a good thing. But kids can pray as often as they like. Of course, they can’t be disruptive about it. They can’t leap up in the middle of class and call down the wrath of God on their evil English teacher. They can’t roll out their prayer rug, kneel facing Mecca, and begin ritual prayers in the middle of calculus class (though that might be one of the best places to do it if they could! It certainly would be for me.). But if they wish to pray quietly, as scripture teaches, not making a public show of their prayers, not in any way disrupting class, good for them. Anytown HS certainly has no rule against that, and I’m not aware of any school that does, or could, for that matter. How would you enforce something like that? And in any case, such a rule would not survive a court challenge; the law is that clear.

I know that some schools and states try to get around the Constitution by having a “moment of silence.” That’s the law in our state. We both know it’s a well-intentioned subterfuge for trying to encourage kids to pray. I’m a bit uncomfortable with that. During those times, schools can require the kids to be silent, but of course, no one can require anyone to pray. How would you check? Could you read their minds? Actually, having the kids think I can read their minds isn’t a bad idea at all! A forced or rote prayer really isn’t much of a prayer. I’m not happy with the idea of trying to get around the Constitution, in this or anything else. It doesn’t set a good example for the kids. I know that some people would argue that because it’s about something as important as faith, it’s OK, perhaps even a duty, to ignore the Constitution, but if we establish that precedent, who is to say that other people’s reasons for ignoring it, sincerely held, are less compelling or valid? Besides, most people don’t feel the need to pray at a specific, set time every day, nor are their prayers always of the same, brief duration.

I know what you might be thinking: is this guy some kind of atheist or something? I normally don’t talk about my faith with kids or their parents. I don’t want anyone to feel pressured by what I might say, and I want them to judge me on my work, my dedication to teaching, and by my character and the way I treat them. If I say that I’m a Methodist, some percentage of the class will nod approvingly, for they too are Methodists. The others will nod knowingly and think, “Ah! So he’s one of THEM!” I’d rather be judged on my interactions with others than on which building I might spend time in on a given Sunday. But just so you know, I am a Christian, and I’m serious about it. I just believe that it’s your job to see to your kid’s spiritual well being, not mine in my role as their teacher. I’ll teach them to be good citizens, and to behave as Christ teaches, because it’s the right thing to do, and because everyone who behaves that way is going to be a good, civilized person, but I’m no one’s minister. My time with the kids is very limited, so I’ll stick to teaching English and all that accompanies it.

Kids can read the Bible in school. We have no rule about that, and while I know that some schools behave stupidly regarding Bible reading, any rule they might write prohibiting the reading of the Bible—or any holy text for that matter—also would not survive a court challenge. Again, kids can’t pull out their Bible and begin reading it during a lecture, or while they’re supposed to be reading other materials or working on an assignment. However, if they are done with their assignments, or if they are on their own time, bless their hearts, they’re free to read the Bible--or any other appropriate literature--if they choose.

It may surprise you to know that we often make reference to the Bible in English classes. The Bible and all of its stories are so much a part of our society, of our common culture, that it would be foolish—virtually professional malpractice--to ignore it while discussing proper behavior, human nature, literature and history. The Bible’s influence on authors, statesmen, and many others is undeniable, and good literature is full of Biblical allusions, which must be clearly explained to the kids. It is perfectly appropriate to discuss the Bible in a comparative literature class, and some schools—ours included—even have a semester-long class where the Bible is intensively studied. Of course, in talking about such things, I never suggest to kids that a given faith is the one true faith, or anything even remotely like that. Again, that’s not my business. Requiring kids to behave as one would hope that sincere Christians would behave is, and our school rules are written to require precisely that kind of behavior.

That—religion--is the first “R.” The second is reading. As a teacher of English, I am delighted to see kids reading anything! You’re reading the Bible, Bobby? Hallelujah! The Bible isn’t easy reading. It’s complex and subtle, and I’ve had many great conversations with kids explaining allegories and parables and the history of ancient Judea, and human nature and politics, you name it. Even so, one of the biggest problems, the biggest disabilities the current generation has, is that they are generally not readers.

People who don’t read tend not to be good spellers. They tend to have difficulty understanding symbolism, identifying themes, making inferences, understanding human nature and what motivates people to feel and act as they do. They tend not to be good and fluent writers, because they have so little exposure to a variety of styles and methods of writing. Non-readers tend to have limited vocabularies. Non-readers also tend to be limited speakers. And of course, reading is a vital human skill, a skill that requires practice, repeated practice over time. Many think that once basic literacy is obtained, nothing more is required, but even neglected intellectual muscles atrophy.

We must remember that the underlying point of education is building bigger, better brains, literally making the billions of new neural connections over a lifetime that make one more intelligent, capable and flexible in everything they do. Few intellectual pursuits do this better than reading, for reading is the beginning of understanding. It is used in every discipline, even the arts, and it is the foundation that makes possible the building of those bigger, better brains.

I work hard every year to sneakily infuse some of my love of reading in the kids. I do have some success with books like “Of Mice and Men,” “Tuesdays With Morrie,” and “Fahrenheit 451.” I even get them to enjoy “Julius Caesar.” After most of these works, we see the related movie, and lo and behold, many kids will tell me that the book was better than the movie. Heh-heh! They had no idea that was what I was tricking them into thinking all along. I—like Dr. Evil—am an evil English teacher! I simply smile and nod and say: “imagine that!”

My favorite trick is to start reading “Tuesdays With Morrie” to them at the beginning of each year. It’s written in short chapters, so I read one or two at the beginning of each class. At first, they squirm and fidget, but soon, they begin to really pay attention. As I read it—very dramatically—they are dead silent and very focused. When I stop to do other things, they moan miserably, and at the beginning of the next class, it’s just delightful to see the biggest male jocks ask earnestly “are we gonna do Morrie today?” When I get about 2/3 of the way through the book, they’re hooked, and I hand out copies for everyone and require them to finish it. The best part is, most of them are anxious to do just that! Many come back the very next day and confess to finishing it and to crying at the end (I certainly do every time). It’s a bit easier to get them to read after that, but even so, I know that I haven’t transformed most of them into voracious readers, but perhaps, I have slipped reading onto their internal “hey, I could do that!” lists. I wish more parents would do the same. Perhaps if they left interesting books around the house, or gave kids gift cards to book stores, that might help.

Do you see why I am delighted to see kids reading the Bible? Yes, it’s good for them on many levels, but it’s high level, challenging literature too. It builds an advanced vocabulary, it helps them to understand abstractions, it’s a brilliant manual for understanding human nature, and every literary term we’re going to discuss in class can be easily applied. There aren’t many books that do all of that, and much more.

I know that you’ll hear about teachers and principals and schools here and there around the nation who demonstrate what appears to be irrational hostility to the Bible and to faith in general. It’s important when you do to realize that media accounts are often biased or lacking the context necessary to really understand what happened. Still, some educators really don’t know or understand the implications of the law relating to religion and the schools, and that sometimes leads to misunderstandings. I hope I’ve cleared up any misunderstanding as it relates to your questions.

You’re always welcome in our classroom. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. And by the way: have you read a good book today? Has Tom?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at July 4, 2011 09:35 PM

Now that was well said, and said well.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at July 5, 2011 12:19 PM

Right on there. An English teacher myself, I know that understanding in depth a goodly amount of American and British literature depends on an awareness of the Bible. Yet it surprises me how little American students, even in the bible belt community where I teach, where churches are community mainstays, know about the bible. The students in my classes usually would not recognize a biblical allusion that smites them in the face. I don't know how they learn their religion in the big and bigger churches they all seem to attend, but it's not through a study of key stories in the Bible. Hence, if a large and key part of our cultural inheritance is to be preserved as part of our education, then students need to study the bible as literature in schools.

That is not to say study the Bible as God's word in a public school, though many would like to see this done. I usually teach each year a work that simply requires by its very nature an understanding of Christian doctrinal issues and biblical events. A visitor to one such class, a person who just happened to be involved with a community religious group, remarked that it was a clever way to teach the Bible in school. Well, no, that was not the intent, but I guess I gained a little with some parts of the community, perhaps lost some with others.

I just hope nothing happens in American public education that prevents teaching Milton or Flannery O'Connor as they should be taught to be understood--although I know that is under attack or impossible in some schools.

Posted by: Dennis at July 5, 2011 06:55 PM