CategoryRants

I get a little riled up occasionally, and then I think about why I am angry. I will continue thinking long after I should have let it go. One great way of getting beyond the issue is to write about it.

Can I Please Have an Extension?

kang_hojun / Pixabay

This is a post for my students and their parents.  I’ve received emails from frustrated parents because I was hesitant to grant a request for an extension on a writing assignment.  Here I explain my refusal, not just to justify myself, but also to provide information so that parents and students can proactively avoid the circumstances that cause the frustration in the first place.

I have explained my two-draft system for teaching students how to write academic papers.  It’s a great system because student writing improves significantly, but it comes at a cost.  There is so much marking to do, and it’s the hardest kind of marking.

When I started this two-draft system, my marking was inefficient.  Today a class set of papers takes me 16 hours, a few years ago is was closer to 24.  I was marking for two weeks solid, as the papers trickled in.

Here's the thing about marking--if you mark 10 papers in one session, it will take just less than 2 hours. If you mark those same papers one at a time, It will take you over 3.Click To Tweet

I didn’t want to abandon the whole system, student writing was improving, but I needed to streamline the process and get the marking under control.  Now, I’ve done it.  Not only is my marking down to 16 hours for a set of papers, but I am seeing even better writing from students as a result of these changes.

The changes place some more responsibility on students.

Managing the Marking

Right now I have nearly 60 English 12 students, and I’m marking most papers twice.

In order to make the marking more manageable, I have established a due date/time for the first draft.  This date is firm.  If the paper comes in by this time, I mark it.  If it does not, I won’t even see it. I stop when I finish the last one.

The papers are always due on Saturday at 8 am.  Remember, there is no requirement to turn in the first draft, but if you want the feedback there is one condition–you have to turn it in for me to mark it.  And I mark them on Saturday.

It takes 10-12 minutes to mark each paper. I usually get around 45-50 first draft papers.

This adds up to about 10 hours of marking.  In order to get the papers back to students as fast as possible, I mark them all that day.  I mark until I have no more papers.  Then I stop.  If a paper comes in after this, I will not see it.

I have a due date/time for the second and final copy of the paper.  This time is also firm.  If a first draft paper has been submitted, this second draft is optional.  If a student wants me to mark their re-write, they need to turn it in, on time of course.  If I don’t get a paper, I assume the student has chosen to take the mark they earned on the first draft.

Sharing the Cost

Student writing has improved so much, that I regularly have students return to thank me for preparing them so well for university writing.  Their success is due in part to this two draft system.  But this success comes at a cost. The cost is shared by the students and myself.  The price I pay is giving up some Saturdays to provide thorough, valuable and immediate feedback on first drafts and then marking them all again.  The student’s cost is they must turn in their best work by the time I get to the last paper.

All this isn’t as harsh as it sounds.  High school papers are a long time in development.  We work on them for 3 to 4 weeks.  We’ve had discussions and done activities that help the student to understand the task.  I do all I can to get students started with a clear sense of direction.  Paper writing can start more than 2 weeks before the due date.  There is time enough to write the paper.

Not all students start early enough.  They are busy with other things, many of them worthwhile.  In the week before the paper is due, those who haven’t started predictably begin to experience stress.  This gets them going.  Some students are involved in a lot of things but haven’t yet developed a system by which they can be busy and get their school work finished.

Some of these will ask for an extension.

Extensions

I will, of course, give an extension for significant illness or an unanticipated family crisis–these are unplanned an unavoidable.  I will also give students more time if they started their paper early and have been diligently working for weeks and still need more time.  I usually have a pretty good idea as to who these students are.

I am very reluctant to give extensions because of a lack of time management.  I totally understand why they want one.  I understand why the parents are frustrated with me for not giving one.  I get it.  In last week before the due date, the student has 3 shifts at Tim Horton’s, the hay needs to be taken off before the rain, grandpa’s 75th birthday party, volleyball practices, piano lessons, and a Taylor Swift concert.  And they have hardly started their paper.  There are tears and frustration–even yelling.  All could be well if only Mr. De Jong would give an extension.

This is when I get the email.

By making the paper a little bit of a priority, and starting early, the busiest student can get a decent draft of a paper completed in two weeks.  Students take between 4 and 12 hours to write a large paper.  They know how long it takes them.  If they are busy and slow, they must start earlier, and take every 30 minutes where they can get it.  They have to say “No” to Starbuck’s and Hockey Night in Canada for two weeks.  This is the price they must pay if they want feedback.

Remember, there is an extension built into my system–there is no obligation to turn in the first draft–it’s completely optional.  They don’t even have to inform me.  They can decide to take an automatic 5-day extension.

All Decisions Come at a Price

Who should pay the price for a student’s involvement in the school play or the missions trip?  Or the hockey game or rock concert?  Almost all students accept the fact that they ought to pay the bulk of the costs for their decisions–for the good ones as well as the bad.  All decisions demand a price.  It’s a fact of life.  Deciding to go on a leadership trip to our nation’s capital is good, but it will cost you.  Many students pay this cost by organizing their schedule in such a way so as to submit the first draft before they leave–that’s five days early.

Students ought to pay for their decisions--for the good ones as well as the bad. All decisions demand a price. It's a fact of life.Click To Tweet

I usually deny a student’s request for an extension because they are, in effect, asking me to negate the natural consequences of the decisions they made. They would like to have their cake and eat it too.  Someone must pay the price, but they’d rather it would not be them.

What lessons will they learn by a refusal of an extension?  What lessons will they learn by a granting of same?

“It’s only one paper.”

One exception will quickly turn into 10 and I’d be back where I stared–the additional 8 hours and marking spread out over two weeks.  I’d go back to students turning in one paper and cut down on the comments.  I’d be doing things just like my high school teachers.  And most students wouldn’t become better writers.

“What about grace.”

I worry about the lessons that are learned if I give an extension.  I think the most gracious thing to do, long term, is to deny the extension.  The kids that are busy need to learn how to manage busy-ness–their life won’t get less busy when they get to post-secondary or move into their career.  I’d also hate to think what a child learns when they don’t pay the price for their decisions.

“It’s not fair.”

59 other students are paying the price of their own choices.  Is it fair that one does not?

 

Adding To Hymns? Do So Carefully

 

Tama66 / Pixabay

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

Why this popularity?

The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes.  The poetry is rich.  The song presents the Gospel of Grace.  Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity.  It’s the complete package.

New Choruses to Old Songs

Feelings are becoming more and more important in our culture.  Have you noticed that people no longer say, “I think” anymore?  They always say, “I feel.”  Although emotions are important, they are often given too much authority in our culture.

We can see this swing in contemporary worship music.  Choruses are added to the old favourites to give them the emotional lift they lacked in their original form.  The music goes higher, the vowels go longer, hearts rise up, hands join hearts . . .

There is nothing wrong with the addition of new choruses.  We can critique older styles of worship for not engaging enough of our emotions and these new choruses actually lead to more holistic worship.  The new choruses do go wrong when they are emotion for emotion’s sake–one of the indications that the mind is not invited into this emotional climax is that the words don’t really mean anything, or worse, they fail to connect to the rest of the song, or worse, they are incomprehensible.

Why the need to add to the good ol’ hymns?

I get it.  Times are different.   We like choruses now.  The old hymns don’t have choruses.

Why do we like choruses?  Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very emotional.  Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large.  More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing.   Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings.  The original “Amazing Grace” was not written with an emotional climax, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with a building and rising melody that pulla our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.Click To Tweet

It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings.  Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose.  I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.

Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.

The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form.  Fine.  Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite.  They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.Click To Tweet

Metaphors are Magic

Metaphors are amazing things.  They are comparisons.  Properly executed something magical can happen in the comparison.   “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:

  • Life is a path with hidden snares.
  • Heaven is home.
  • Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
  • Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
  • God is our shield.

These metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations.  And they contribute to holistic worship.  Let’s look at one of these metaphors.

He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield.  All kinds of meaning flow from this comparison.  Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives.  But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection.  It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one.  This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.

Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous

Mixed metaphors are not magical.

On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a comparison that doesn’t work.

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic.  It just leaves us puzzled.

Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.Click To Tweet

Tomlin’s Mixed Metaphor

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns climaxes on a mixed metaphor.

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.

If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.

Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing.  It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.

It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into the worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations.Click To Tweet

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

 

 

Silentpilot / Pixabay

Worship Fail

I was recently in a crowd of more than a thousand worshippers.  The echoing cords of the final note of the chorus we had just sung were still hanging in the air.   The very talented praise band beautifully transitioned to the next song, and its lyrics appeared on the large screens overhead.

You could feel the energy and delight run through the 1300 worshippers as they enthusiastically sang the opening line.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

The energy and volume of the singing were double that of the previous song.   We were well into

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

when we realized that the song leaders were no longer singing.  At that moment I, too, was overwhelmed with the full-throated worship as we sang praises to our Provider.  It was totally appropriate for the band to pull back and let the praises of the thronging worshippers bless the Lord unlead and unadorned.

But the band had not spontaneously stopped singing to allow this amazing worship naturally flow towards its heavenly audience.

They had stopped singing because, unbeknownst to the people of God, they were singing a different song.

Attn. Worship leader: Don't change up the traditional hymns; after 200 years, we still aren't tired of them.Click To Tweet

We were singing King’s Kaleidoscope’s 2012 version of Come Thou Fount.  This is a great version of the classic hymn, but in this context, it didn’t go over very well.

The singing collapsed.  The worship ceased.  Attention was wrenched from The Fount of Every Blessing and diverted to the song leaders so we could figure out what we were supposed to do.

The audience was going with the traditional song, but the band was doing something else– four beats after each line and a syncopated rhythm.  In one place, the words were even different.

On the surface, it seems as if we realized our mistakes quickly, adapted to the new style and continued in this new manner.  But the energy of the singing was half of what it was when we started.  I felt disappointed and a little betrayed.  It was fine; I too carried on.  I tried to turn my focus back to worshipping our God, but something beautiful was lost.  I don’t think it was just the old folks that sensed this.  The crowd was filled with 20-somethings, and they, too, had lost some of their verve.

We Like to Sing Hymns

I want to implore all Worship leaders, while you add new instrumentation and alternate styles to these hymns that you, at least, stick to the same melodies.  I’d be happy if you keep the same rhythms and chords, as well; I love to sing the bass part.

To all worship leaders: It may be preferable to sing no hymns at all than to sing altered versions of them.Click To Tweet

I have no problem with King’s Kaleidoscope altering this or any other traditional song.   These new versions can add new life to an old hymn, but altered versions are appropriate for a performance, or for Christian Radio.  Not for purposes of corporate worship. I suppose we could add a caveat: because the old melodies are so familiar, you need to give us some warning if we are going to be singing something considerably different.

My suggestion would be to just stick to the familiar version.  At least for another 30 years, when no one remembers the incredible experience of one’s small voice joined to a throng of others, in four-part harmony, singing poetry, with heart and mind and imagination, essentially unplugged, to the one who gives us breath.

“You Guys”

My wife and I attended a Sunday service in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.  This is an incredible setting.  It is the Queen’s home church and where she will be buried.  This was where Harry and Megan were recently married.  This is the Mother Church of the Order of the Garter.

The Canon was preaching on the subject of anger from Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry, and yet do not sin.”

He started his sermon with some levity, giving a list of some the little things that make him angry.  Typical of an urban Englishman, two irritants had to do with the underground:  failing to give up a seat to an older or disabled person and people putting their feet on the seats.

The one where I actually laughed out loud–my chortle echoing from the neo-gothic rafters, was “Being addressed with the collective ‘You Guys’ from a speaker half my age.”

I can't stand being 'You Guys'ed by a speaker half my age.Click To Tweet

I can totally relate.  That bugs me too.

I was once “you guysed” three times in a minute.

I think the issue is propriety.  “You guys” is idiomatic and colloquial.  It’s meant to be used in contexts of familiarity–among friends when both the speaker and the friends are between 14 and 24.  “You guys” is not an appropriate appellation for your grandparents.

Whatever can we say instead?

Let me offer my revision to the following announcement made by a 20-something to a multi-gendered, multi-generational gathering who naturally says:

Hey you guys.  I just wanted to let you guys know that we are having a potluck next week Thursday.  So you guys get to chose what you wanna bring: a salad or a dessert.  Hope to see you guys there.

Consider saying it this way:

Hello.  I wanted you to know that we are having a potluck next week Thursday.  You may chose what you would like to bring: a salad or a dessert.  Hope to see you there.

This is a small thing, and I wasn’t going to mention it until I realized that it’s not just me.  That the Dean of St. George’s Chapel is similarly irked, emboldened me to speak out on this irritant.

I know, I know, this post officially marks me as a grumpy old man.

Concert versus Worship

 

Free-Photos / Pixabay

If the amount of time given to the singing of praise and worship songs, and the central position of the praise band on “the stage” is any indication, many North American churches are implicitly asserting that singing of praise songs as the main way we interact with God in our Sunday services.

This means we’d better get it right.

Worship Leader?

We have all heard people, including some worship leaders, speak as if the term “worship” was synonymous with “singing.”  Even the title “worship leader” suggests the reduction of worship to singing.  The appellation “Worship Leader” is appropriate if this person also leads the congregants in the many other aspects of worship.  For instance:

  • prayer
  • scripture reading
  • the offering
  • the reading of the law
  • confession and assurance of forgiveness
  • the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed
  • funeral announcements
  • pleas for volunteers for the Sunday School
  • and anything else besides singing that also constitutes worship

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.Click To Tweet

But isn’t this just semantics?  Although it may seem like I am being petty, this is some serious stuff.

Little things will turn and shape our thinking.  Things like:

  • using the terms singing and worship interchangeably,
  • and calling song leaders, worship leaders,
  • and removing all sign of the sacraments from the stage,
  • and calling that area “the stage”
  • and calling that area “the auditorium,”

These are hugely important because we do them habitually.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

James K. A. Smith Changed How I Think About Everything

According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are liturgical animals.  He argues that our lives are not given direction by what we think, or even what we believe, but by what we love.  According to Smith,

what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love, or what our love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding and orientation

(26–27 Desiring the Kingdom).

Smith then argues that our loves are shaped and directed by “liturgies”–habitual practices.

Traditionally the church used to orient our identities toward God and the community of faith through all sorts of liturgies: the physical spaces of worship, the sacraments, the church calendar, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, offering  “Peace.”  Fish on Friday, the rosary, daily prayers, and many other regular and repeated practices linked the spiritual realm with daily life.

Secular Liturgies

In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies.  Being liturgical animals, we’ve simply adopted new ones.  We’ve replaced the old ones with new ones.  And the new ones are largely modern and secular: Starbucks and McDonalds, Saturday hockey and Sunday football, Homecoming and Holloween, Twitter and Snapchat, YouTube and Netflix, craft beer and green-coloured smoothies, inclusion and saying “I feel,” when we mean “I think.”   These are not just things we do, they shape who we are because they are regular, habitual–they are liturgies.

We have replaced sacred liturgies with secular liturgies.  This ain’t good if you believe that a spiritual reality is meaningfully interacting with the material one.

Why do people have such a hard time with faith in our culture? Because our rituals direct our passions and desires to other things--other ultimate loves. Click To Tweet

Are we training people to leave the church?

There is some (a lot of?) anxiety in the North American Church about people, especially young people, vacating the pews.   To retain their members, and attract new ones, many churches have attempted to become more culturally “relevant,” but this has exacerbated the problem.  Being culturally relevant usually means importing secular liturgies into the church.  The Starbucks’ Coffee culture, showing movies on Youth Nights, dress-up parties on Reformation Day and the singing to the instrumentation and stylings of popular music are examples. The problem is that secular culture does these liturgies better than the church does, so the church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.

The church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.Click To Tweet

The Function of Difference

According to the Westminster Confession, one of the functions of the sacraments is as a “visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.” The authors of the Confession understood the importance of having a different experience at church than in the world.

Our rituals used to be different than those of the world, but in some churches, even our sacraments are being secularized.  For the health, and perhaps survival, of the North American church, we need to be different, not the same.

Here are some questions that might be a part of a discussion around how to make the singing part of worship, unlike the secular liturgy of the popular music concert:

  • How can we increase the involvement of the congregation in the singing part of worship?
  • Is there a way to teach the worshipers how to harmonize?
  • Should we sing more hymns?
  • Should we sing different hymns (than just the 5 we do now)?
  • Should we sing hymns in their original forms, same harmonies, and no modern (and inferior) additions?
  • Are volumes and mixes supporting congregational singing, or drowning it out?
  • Can we use different instrumentation than a typical rock and roll band?
  • Can we develop different song structures besides the verse-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus pattern?
  • Could we create a new genre of Christian music for corporate worship?
  • Is it necessary for the worship band to be front and centre?
  • How can we utilize lighting to take the focus off of the musicians?
  • Can we resurrect some traditional liturgical forms or elements of worship?
  • Can we invent new liturgical forms that are different than secular liturgies?
  • How can we emphasize God’s action in worship and the sacraments?
  • Can we move toward thinking about the sacraments as more than ceremonies of remembrance?
  • Can we mention, or even link our sermons to, the church calendar?

This list includes just some of the ways that we could bring more sacred liturgies into the Sunday service.  Do you have any ideas you could add to this list?

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

What We Can Learn from the Dress Code

Photo by Rhii Photography on Unsplash

As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons.  Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms?  I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.

Advantages of School Uniforms

I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:

  1. Uniforms instill a sense of professionalism, imitating the business-dress of their possible futures.
  2. They eliminate the hassle of trying to find outfits that meet the dress code and are also in style.
  3. They are cheaper in the long run.
  4. They act as a socioeconomic equalizer.
  5. They eliminate dress codes, that can, given the sexualization of women in our culture, unfairly target girls.

The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.

Let Freedom Reign

Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.

  • We celebrate it at our sporting events.
  • Our television shows explore themes surrounding freedom, often presenting negative caricatures of traditional authorities, limiters of freedom.
  • Most television talk shows take every possible freedom as an absolute good.
  • The TV news is full of stories about conflicts about freedom, and it is obvious that if you are not on the side of freedom, you are going to lose the argument.
  • In popular movies, one of the defining qualities of the bad guy is often that he/she is a suppressor of freedom.
  • Politicians can win majorities to their positions if they can ground them in Freedom.
  • Remembrance Day used to commemorate the Armistice that brought WWI to a close, but now it seems it is all about the Freedom that was won in that war.
  • Originally established to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, the language of Freedom dominates Memorial Day celebrations.
  • The internet, in its very form, perpetuates the values of unrestricted freedom.

It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire.  They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate.  Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil.  Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents.  This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school.  Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.

I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom.  They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.

Students need the freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom is only good when limited. Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity. Click To Tweet

What’s Wrong With Wearing A Hat?

Some students want to wear a hat to school.  We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code.  When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?”  There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat.  The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety.  Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.  It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.

Standards of propriety are relative.  They change according to place or time.  In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors.  Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building.  Students naturally counter this argument by saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.

I respond by saying that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.

Removing hats indoors is no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole. Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.Click To Tweet

Why we need a dress code

or Why you can’t wear a hat in school

There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats.  It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard.  The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist.  They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).

The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.  This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture.  Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large.  If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.

Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself.  This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude.  Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.

The 'no-hat rule' is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.Click To Tweet

Students who desperately want to wear their hats in class point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors.  Yes, there are some adults who, working outside all day, neglect to take their hat off when they come indoors.  This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day which will be spent entirely indoors.  Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate.  These are not a justification for students wearing hats; they are, rather, representative of the very idea we are trying to counter.

In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students.  We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.

Rituals of Submission

You can tell students things, and they might learn a little.  You can show them something, and they will learn a little better.  Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something.  But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity.  In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom.  They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.

We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing.  Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God.  The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well.  A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.

Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement is usually the typical adolescent desire for personal freedom.  By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms.  Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.

Was Paul a Jihadist?

 

I heard it a second time, “The apostle Paul was a jihadist.”  He wasn’t really though, was he?

Before his conversion, Paul, then called Saul, persecuted Christians.  In his own words, he says that he

persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. Galatians 1:13–14

Does this make him a jihadist?  Does the term mean anyone who persecutes Christians?  Or maybe those who do so for religious reasons?

In Arabic, the term means struggle.  It might mean a struggle for a better Muslim society or a war defending the faith against unbelievers.

If we used the term correctly, I suppose we could say that Paul was as much a jihadist after his conversion, as he struggled to spread the Christian faith, as before it, in the defense of the Jewish one.

One of two conditions must be met in order to apply the term jihadist to anyone.  First, the person must be a jihadist.  Paul, a first century Jew can no more be a jihadist that Nero could be a Nazi.  In researching for this post, I discovered that most Muslims don’t use the term jihadist to describe the radical, violent Islamist.  Instead, they use a term similar to the word “deviant.”  If this is the case, it would be inappropriate for Christians to use the term for a first century Jew who was persecuting the Christian faith.  The second condition, you need to be an Arab speaking to Arabs–this way everyone knows what you mean.

If one of these two conditions are not met, then we end up using the term like Western politicians and media: generally and sensationally, to evoke fear and anger, to create unity through demonization.

I get it, we want to make the point that Paul was a really, really bad dude.  But what’s wrong with simply saying he “persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it”?

If we are to be a light to the nations, it is really important for Christians to use language responsibly and to communicate with integrity.

12 Keys to Writing a Great Exam Composition

The view of an exam composition marker

Of course you want the highest mark possible on your exam composition.

I’ve been marking the BC English 12 provincial exam for many years—more than 20, I think.  I just finished marking the composition for this year’s exam and I decided to write about it while my thoughts are still fresh.

The best way to get a 6 out of 6 on your composition on the English 12 exam is to be an excellent writer.  Not everyone is an excellent writer. But there is much an average writer can do to give them a chance to earn the highest score of which they are capable.

Here are what I consider the 12 most important things to keep in mind when writing Part D: The Composition.

1. It’s all about conflict.

If you write a narrative, and I recommend that you seriously consider writing a narrative, focus on the conflict.

Don’t start your narrative with the alarm clock ringing. This is a very short composition, you don’t have time to lollygag–don’t write about life, write about conflict!

2. Don’t be like everyone else!

Markers read a lot of compositions—well over 700 per day. All have been written by English 12 students and are based on the same prompt. This can lead to a lot of “sameness”—same diction, same topics, same perspective, same approach, same structure.   It feels like you are reading the same five essays, hour after hour, day after day.

It stands to reason, then, if you can write an exam composition that is not like all others, yours will stand out. Most of my 12 keys are about how to make your composition stand out, in a good way.

3. Go with your fifth idea.

If the composition prompt is, “Beauty can be found in simple things,” do not write about smiles, snowflakes, kittens, rainbows or babies.  Everyone is writing about these things because they are the first things that pop into their minds. The solution is, don’t write about the first thing that pops into your mind—or the second. Get down your list.  When you get to oatmeal, socks or the word “and”–you have arrived.  I’m excited just thinking about an essay about the word “and.”

When the prompt was, “Surprises can make life more interesting” – over 90% were about surprise birthday parties.  Because of the lack of surprises when they opened the exam book, markers were ready to jump off the buildings by the middle of the first afternoon.

Oh, and don’t think that you are original if you argue that surprises don’t make life more interesting—negation of the prompt is not clever, it’s cliché.  Speaking of clichés . . . 

4. Don’t use clichés.

No matter what the prompt is, markers can always count on frequent encounters with all of the following:

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”
“Life can throw you a curveball . . .”
“Life is a rollercoaster full of ups and downs.”
“Life can hit you like a tonne of bricks.”
“Life is like a box of chocolates . . . .” This one always includes the appropriate textual or parenthetical citation.

By using clichés, you are screaming to your reader that you are an average writer, at best.  And you may be an average writer, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is no sense advertising it.  And who knows, if you are deliberate about not using clichés, you just might infuse a bit of freshness that gives your exam composition a boost.

5. Don’t write about death.

It feels like at least a third of the compositions are about death. As markers, we are forced to vicariously experience the death of every family member in every possible combination from every possible disease. Then there are the accidents, usually car accidents. These often involve drunk driving and the loss of a best friend or lover.  Markers don’t like death essays, not because it makes the process too difficult emotionally.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

I am pretty sure that many English 12 teachers encourage their students to write a composition that is “emotionally engaging.”  This is not bad advice, but when students hear the words “emotionally engaging” they instantly settle on the death of a loved one, because they can think of nothing else that produces stronger emotions than the death of a loved one.

This is probably true, but most high school students lack the skill to sensitively deal with topics like death.  Consequently, these “death essays” become cliché, which is the opposite effect you are trying to achieve.  Save writing about death for when you are a more experienced writer, and you have longer than an hour and a 600-word limit.

6. Don’t preach.

Nobody wants to be preached at.  This is a “stance” issue.  Readers don’t like to be talked down to.  As a marker, I’ve been preached to about recycling and about how I should be Christian, and about why all religions are dumb.  I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be tolerant.  I’m sick of lectures instructing me how to face the hardships of life and how I should respect the elderly.  I now know what I should think about every issue imaginable.

You can still write about these things but take a different stance—write about when you discovered the importance of recycling.  Or how faith adds meaning to your life.  Write about a difficulty that you experienced and what you learned from it.  See the difference? Rather than tell me what I should do and learn, talk about what you did and what you learned.

7.  Have a strong first paragraph.

Many first paragraphs read like the students are warming up for the real task of writing the essay. They throw down their first thoughts on the subject searching for the point from which they can push off into the first paragraph of their composition. The warm-up or the search for a point of departure should happen someplace else. Write for a few minutes on a piece of scrap paper till you find your direction, then carefully craft the first paragraph to set up what is to come. The reader makes all sorts of judgments from the first lines of your composition; first impressions are powerful—make a good first impression.

I have found that many student compositions benefit from simply drawing a line through the first paragraph.

I’ve read compositions that use “the word” five times in the introduction.  If the prompt tells you to write about beauty or surprises, challenges, maturity, change, dreams or relationships, consider not using that word in the essay at all. Or if you do use “the word,” use it in the last line of the composition.   As with all creative writing, it is better to show than to tell.

8. Be Specific.

Generalities are boring.

This is true for everything you write be it an email, an essay or a narrative. Don’t say, “We went out for my favourite meal,” say, “We went out for chicken wings and Shirley Temples.” Don’t write, “My boyfriend pulled his car into the driveway”; have him pull up “in the family mini-van” or “his red convertible,” or his “1978 windowless van with the words ‘Refer Madness’ airbrushed on the side.”  Specifics make a difference.  If you don’t believe me, ask your father.

9. Don’t write a “5 paragraph essay.”

First of all, by the time you are in grade 12 you should never write a 5 paragraph essay (although there is nothing wrong with an essay of five paragraphs). The body of a 5 paragraph essay consists of 3 examples from your life that show the prompt to be true.

So if the topic is something like “Certain situations lead to maturity,” don’t write an essay in which you briefly and superficially discuss three of the following:

  • entry into kindergarten,
  • the magic of puberty,
  • your parents’ divorce,
  • a torn ACL,
  • getting a driver’s license,
  • your first job,
  • or first kiss,
  • the death of a loved one,
  • or moving to, or within, Canada.

Pick one of these (except the death of a loved one) and meaningfully explore the factors and forces that contributed to your maturation.

You understand, of course, that by adding or dropping a paragraph to the essay I’ve just described does not fix the problem.

10. Punctuation, spelling and capitalization, etc.

There’s no avoiding the fact that the mechanics of writing are important. The good news is that all of the writing on the exam is marked as a first draft, so if you misspell the odd word, or miss a comma or two, your mark will not go down.

So it doesn’t matter if I don’t know the difference between “then” and “than”?  Or “there,” “their” and “they’re”?

Technically no, but no upper-level writer will ever confuse these words.  So by confusing them, you are proclaiming, loudly, that you are not an upper-level writer.

Work hard to understand basic usage and punctuation rules.

As for spelling, two words that, for some reason, come up again and again in the composition essays are obstacle and opportunity. For years I’ve been telling my students to make sure they can spell these two words correctly—because “obsticle” and “oppertunity” scream out that you may not be a competent writer.

11. Be yourself.

You are not a 47-year-old drug addict living in Detroit.

You are not a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy.

You are not a mother deer concerned about your fawn.

Like death, this sort of writing requires a maturity of thought and style that most young writers don’t have.

The thing is, you are the preeminent expert on one subject–YOU.  You know things about this topic that no one else does.  Play to your strengths.  Human beings, even markers, respond to stories–good stories, well told.  I recommend that you walk into your exam with three stories, true stories.  If it’s a true story, you can draw from an actual setting with actual characters doing actual things (and you can embellish a little).  And don’t just tell me what happened, tell me what you thought and felt as well.  But go even further–What did this event mean?  How did it change you?  You may never have thought about it, but think about it now.  This type of essay is generally called a personal narrative.  It involves a true story and some reflection about what the story means.  Consider practicing these three stories beforehand.  Then, when you see the prompt, adapt one of them to fit.  Or write a brand new one if you are so inspired.

So, for these reasons, I strongly recommend you write a personal narrative for your exam composition.

12. “In Conclusion”

Don’t end the last paragraph of your exam composition with the words, “in conclusion.”

In conclusion, I must tell you that I’ve read papers that have ignored half of my 12 keys to writing a great composition and they still earned a 6 out of 6.  They did so because the authors are great writers, but these 12 keys will give you your best chance at earning the highest mark of which you are capable.

I hope you read this post long before you take your exam–years preferably–because all of these things take practice.  Good luck, and I look forward to reading your Composition.

Is there any other advice you give your students?

What else has your teacher suggested for writing the composition?

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements, we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.Click To Tweet

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.Click To Tweet

Are students prepared for university?

 

Wokandapix / Pixabay

Education has changed.  I’m teaching differently.  Student’s are learning differently.

How well do the new approaches to learning and teaching prepare students for university?

Back in the Day

When I first started teaching Literature 12 there were provincial exams.  These were content focussed.  One of the purposes of the exam was to ensure students were prepared for the rigors of university.  There was a prescribed reading list of over 40 literary works from the literary canon extending from Beowulf to a poem by Margaret Atwood.  Students were also required to understand over 100 literary terms and devices.  Back in those days, I did a lot of talking and students took copious notes.

Given that the exam scores would be used to rank students against other students, schools against other schools, teachers against other teachers, exam performance mattered a great deal on many levels.

So we worked very hard on exam preparation.  Students created very detailed study sheets on each of the literary works on the prescribed reading list.  These were collated into large packets and students spent hours reviewing this material.  At the end of the process, they knew a lot, and my students generally did very well on the Provincial English Literature exam.

“Nowadays”

I still teach Lit 12, but I do so very differently.  My class looks much more like a graduate seminar than a lecture hall.  Students discuss and unpack the literary works, rather than listen to me tell them what they would notice if they were as smart as I was.

Through this dialogue, students analyze, synthesize, evaluate, propose, inquire, challenge, concede, admire and they connect the ideas they encounter to life and society.  After we talk, we write.  They use their laptops for this task.  Sometimes they journal, other times they write an academic essay or a personal narrative; we mix it up.

My assessment has changed as well.  We no longer end the year with an exam.  We end the year with presentations–students explore a topic of their choice making connections literature, often beyond the material we worked over the course of the semester.

Are students today as knowledgeable as in the days of yore?

Last year, I dusted off an old provincial exam, one of the same exams for which I used to work so hard to prepare my students.  We didn’t review the material in class–students didn’t create review sheets for each other, and they didn’t study for it.  I passed it out one day and they wrote it.

I used to mark the Literature 12 exam, so the marks students got on this test were valid.  I was surprised that their scores were significantly higher than those of students of similar ability from 2 decades ago.  I realize this observation is anecdotal and does not meet the standards of a proper study, but I am convinced of the results.

My students know the literature better now than they did when learning was primarily focussed on content rather than projects and discussions.  With the new approach to learning, students are performing better on exams designed to measure university preparedness.

The beauty is, they don’t just know the content–they have a much broader and deeper understanding of the literature than they used to.   They can talk about it and bring it into dialogue with other artistic expressions and with life and society.  They are better readers and thinkers and moviegoers.  Almost all are reporting great success in university classes.

But not all reports are positive.  One of my students excitedly entered her Literature course at the local university this fall and dropped it after only a few classes.  It was clear to her that, in this particular university class, the study of her favourite high school subject would primarily involve transferring what she heard in a lecture onto an exam paper at the end of the term.  There is no doubt in my mind that she could have passed this course with an A.  Many of my less gifted students frequently do.

Do modern instructional techniques prepare students for university?

My little experiments show that if students are expected to know the material well, then they are well prepared for university.  If their university courses will expect them to be able to analyze and synthesize information and concepts, they are ready.  If they are expected to evaluate ideas; to challenge assumptions and be able to recognize a strong argument and concede, they are ready.  If they are expected to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in various written forms, they are ready and very well prepared for university.

If, on the other hand, they are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information and transfer this information onto an examination paper at the end of the term, then perhaps my students are ill-prepared for university.

Does anyone really want me to change my approach to teaching literature?

If students are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information that will be transferred onto an examination paper, then students are ill-prepared for university.Click To Tweet

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