Saturday, September 24, 2011


When you live in the Bible Lands (and no, I don’t mean the Bible Belt—I did that 20 years ago!) or rather, the Holy Land, it is not surprising that biblical phrases rattle around in your head a little more than, say, when I live in the mid-west.

So in this last week—where a class of mine misbehaved, and the world watched Mahmoud Abbas address the United Nations—I had a strange commandment from the apostle Paul rattling around in my head. “You owe no one anything … except to love them.” That is pretty good, actually. Let’s repeat it—“You owe no one anything … except to love them.” Can I get an Amen?

It has been a pretty long time since a class of mine misbehaved. Frankly, they kind of know what they are in for when they sign up for AP Art History. But last Thursday, the last class of the school week, it was hot in my classroom (now there is nothing abnormal about how hot it is…) and they just weren’t terribly interested in the art of ancient China. Pity—it really is great and moving art. But several times I asked them calmly to pay better attention—you know you can always level them with, “We have a test coming up and you need to be prepared for this!” But they weren’t having any of that last Thursday. So about 10 minutes before the end of class, I pulled the plug on the laptop, quietly said, “I’m done. You may go.” And I proceeded to unplug the powerpoint projector and clean up. They were all of a sudden totally silent. As I reached the door, I turned and said, “You may go. I’m finished for the day.” And I left the class early. I think I may have done that three times ever in 23 years of teaching!

When I returned to my apartment after visiting Lubna in the gym after the disappointing class, I found a note under my door. I don’t know if it was the work of one student or more (it was signed from “D-Block”) but it was a genuine apology note. It was well-written and very thoughtful. The writer said, “We are all ashamed of ourselves for what we have done. You treat us like adults and today we abused it. We honestly know what we have done is wrong and we will not do it again. You deserve the best and utmost respect. You inspire us with your art and we cannot explain how sorry we are. Again we owe you our sincerest apologies.” Wow. The note blew me away.

Over the next day or so I watched a number of news sources, from Arabic news to BBC to CNN to ABC, all comparing the coverage of the Abbas speech and the impending vote in the UN on the status of Palestine. I am interested for a number of reasons—first of all I live here, and the recognition could not be more important for these Palestinian friends of mine. It reminds me of how important it was to Germany and Austria when I lived there in 1985 when Ronald Reagan visited there and “forgave” them (kind of, but at least diplomatically) for World War II. I also teach offspring of two of the speakers this week, the son of the King of Jordan, and the grand-daughter of Mahmoud Abbas. It is also important to me since this is a subject of which I used to know almost nothing until I moved here.

But back to Paul—I kept having that commandment rattle around in my head. Paul, the man who spouts more rules in his writings than anyone else, the one obsessed with right conduct and right living, here tells the Romans and you and me that all of those rules and guidelines about how we are to live with one another really all boil down to love. Love fulfills all of the law in regards to one another, Paul says. Love is the only thing we owe one another. It is the thing we are called upon to extend to family, friend, neighbor, stranger, teacher, student, ally and enemy alike.

We think we know about love, and yet, I wonder how often we think deeply about or explore it closely. Exactly what love is. In the midst of the brokenness of this world, where pain, suffering, injustice and scandal seem to be the norm, we somehow seem to still trust that we know what love is, what it means and how to give and receive it.

Julian Barnes wrote a stunning book entitled A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. Each of the 10 Chapters covers the reality of life and its consequences—how trouble seems to be intertwined with living. Now the witty, sarcastic, dry and hilarious Barnes may be among the last people I can imagine grabbing a burger with Paul, but what he says about love, though, is something I think Paul would raise a glass to.

It is in that half of a chapter, named “Parenthesis,” stuck between chapters 8 and 9 that Barnes writes about the single most important thing in the history of world. He says that human history is and I quote Barnes “ridiculous without it.” That one thing of course is love. Barnes writes that love is essential precisely because it is unnecessary. He says that love does not guarantee that either you or the object of your love will be happy—love in no way makes everything alright. Barnes reminds us that we can build damns like the beaver without love, we can organize complex societies like the bee without love, we can travel long distances like the albatross without love, we can put our head in the sand like the ostrich without love, and, if we are not careful, we can even die out as a species like the dodo did without love. Love is not necessary, but it is essential. Without love, the world, Barnes claims, becomes brutally self important.

Barnes argues you cannot love someone without imaginative sympathy. You cannot love someone without beginning to see the world from another point of view. It is love, Barnes writes, that “moves us beyond ourselves.” Without love the history of the world is ridiculous. And the future … well it is meaningless … a long slide into self absorption and decay.

Love is essential according to both Barnes and Paul because love is generative. Paul grabs our attention and focuses it directly on right living. But rather than talking about all the thou shalt nots, Paul turns our focus and imagination toward the generative power of love. Because Paul knows love is a power that can never, ever be content with status quo. Love is a force that builds upon itself and one that binds us together. Hmmmm…

It is interesting to live a life of faith here at the contested crossroads of our world and to try and engage in service and justice making. I am privileged to be part of a “taskforce” that has been charged to wrestle with how we may live our way into that kind of life. This taskforce, or rather, this school, has been charged to get this community not just to think about, but to get involved directly with acts of kindness, justice, compassion, service and learning.

His Majesty created this school as a place to be synonymous with mercy and with justice. Yet mercy without love descends into pity. And justice without love? Well, the great Reinhold Neibhur said this, “Any justice which is only justice soon disintegrates into something less than justice.” As I look at the world, I believe we need that passage from Paul to be engraved on our hearts, for we are called not just to serve the world but to engage in love making with our world. We owe the people of the world nothing … except to love them.

Without love even the greatest of actions we might conceive of would be nothing more than clanging gongs or noisy cymbals … they would be ridiculous! But bathed in love the work we are being called to undertake becomes ways of co-loving this world with God. Bathed in love they not only affirm that all human beings are already God’s beloved, they suggest that each of us is a being capable of as yet unimagined possibilities. Each of us is God’s love song waiting to be sung. Service without love is meaningless ... Justice without love is ridiculous.

If we do our work at the crossroads right, we cannot love the world without encountering it and seeing this place and our world and ourselves through a whole new set of eyes. As we look at the differences of the people we encounter through the eyes of love we will end up seeing our own differences through their own eyes. As we love their differences we will have the chance to love our own. And when, through love, we see the unimagined possibilities that God has placed within them, we will have the chance through their eyes to see our own unrealized and unrecognized potential in ways we never could on our own. The truth is we could never be who God has dreamed we might be unless we love others and gain the eyes to see who we might be. So if we are to engage in love making with the world, we will miraculously discover that we will end up saying the exact same thing to those we meet at the crossroads, “You make such a difference in my life that I would not be the same person with you.” Bathed in love, our actions of service and justice will tether us to our brothers and sisters in ways that unleash God’s design for our lives. That is the first miracle of love making.

The second miracle is this—if we truly love the world we will not just give love away—we will create it. As human beings are loved, we have a natural tendency to return love to those who love us. It is a great gift of our creator, it is a tendency hard wired into who we are. Sure, people can and do refuse to return love. Each of us bears the scars to prove it. But that refusal goes against our very created natures as God’s beloved. When we infuse justice with love we cannot help but to foster it in those who we love. Love is a generative thing. We owe the world nothing but to love them.

In the end, Paul says it all comes down to love and Julian Barnes would certainly raise a glass to that notion. Barnes concludes his half of a chapter, that one stuck between chapters 8 and 9, with this observation: “How you cuddle in the dark, governs how you see the history of the world.” How you embrace love in the quiet and stillness of the night affects how you live into the morning.

There will be a vote in the UN as to whether or not there is a new dawn for the Palestinians. But either way the vote goes, I will crawl out of bed tomorrow and face the world in all its beauty and all its pain. Remember: Owe no one anything … except to love one another because love fulfills the law, love brings us closer to God’s dream for us, and without love, the whole world and anything we might do, even in the name of God would be ridiculous. Can I get an Amen?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hip, Hip Bourrage!

Not very often does one person earn an entire blog entry…but not everyone is like my friend Tracy. Today is Tracy’s birthday and it seemed fitting to muse about and celebrate this friend who has been a part of my world since I was but an 18 year old in Granville, Ohio!

Two years ago Tracy’s birthday fell during one of the celebrated Denison Singers’ reunions. At the stroke of midnight on September 19th we sang to her and at 11:59 at the end of the 19th of September, we sang to her one last time for that birthday. She thought it was her best birthday ever. The company was good!

Tracy was a senior when I was a freshman at Denison and ever since my induction in the Denison Singers I have loved knowing her. We enjoyed the legendary Europe trip that January singing in churches and cathedrals throughout Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. It was an exhilarating year. Tracy teaches music to young children in an Ohio public school now, and while there was a stretch of maybe 12 years that we were out of touch, for the last decade her friendship and counsel have been among the loveliest I have known.

What is it about this friend? It is always an interesting challenge to decipher the magic of a relationship and point your finger at the source of the love and admiration. Other friends may have their own list of what they most treasure in Tracy, but for me, it is all about a French word, oooo lala—bourrage.

This summer I had a conversation with a friend of mine named Nancy who lives in New York. Nancy had just come back from one of the most unusual trips I have ever heard of—she and her 18 year old daughter went to the south of France to be part of a team to restore a medieval town wall. I had never heard of such a trip—such a quest, but as she explained the importance of the job of wall-building, the care and thoughtfulness in building a wall in the manner done a thousand years ago became fascinating to me. Nancy explained that it is not as simple as throwing big stones together in a big pile. Nancy, ever the interesting wordsmith, explained that the most care had to be done in the part of the wall called “bourrage” in French. The bourrage is the part of the wall that holds everything together, and if the wall does not have the proper or supportive bourrage, the wall collapses. The big, fancy rocks just don’t do the main job—it all depends on the bourrage.

So that idea of the bourrage is exactly what Tracy represents. She acts, nay, embodies, bourrage in every facet of her life. As I came to know her initially in the Denison Singers in the 1980s I quickly realized how important she was at being the bedrock of her senior class. I have long called her the “Earth Mother” of the Singers, the person who made my freshman class aware of the importance and seriousness of the Singers, but the word bourrage fits even more—the glue that cohered the group as I came to know this meaningful group.
As I have come to know Tracy as an adult, or a post-college adult, in the 21st century, I have come to see that she is the bourrage of her family, of her faculty—as far as I can tell, she embodies the significance and potential of what that term bourrage must do. Tracy holds people together, families together, groups together. She is not a showy “big rock”—that is not her style. But if anyone looks closely at a relationship, at a group, at an institution, she is the lynchpin, the cornerstone, the necessary bourrage that ensures that the structure exists neatly, formally, and with strength and dignity.

I would never have given a medieval wall much thought if Nancy had not exhorted to me how much she enjoyed her trip and her back-breaking work to recreate the work ethic and success of a medieval wall-maker. Nancy’s unusual trip inspired me to realize how much like the elegant, timeless, seemingly effortless medieval wall my friend Tracy is. People rely on her to define boundaries, set a tone, and symbolize strength like the medieval wall.

Many happy birthday greetings to Tracy, that beautiful bourrage!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Guys In Town

This last week I inaugurated our weekly professional development seminar with a poem I found by John Steinbeck. What better way to introduce a year designed to heighten and/or deepen teacher effectiveness than with these lines. Savor this poem from the 1930s:

Captured Fireflies
In her classroom our speculations ranged the world;
she aroused us to book waving discussions.
Every morning we came to her carrying new truths, new facts,
new ideas cupped and sheltered in our hands like captured fireflies.
When she went away a sadness did not go out.
She left her signature upon us.
The literature of the teacher who writes on children's minds.
I've had many teachers who taught us soon forgotten things,
but only a few like her who created in me a new thing, a new attitude, a new hunger.
I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that teacher.
What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.

---by John Steinbeck

I mean—it is profound what a great teacher can do…and look at two lines especially, lines 7 and 8, and right there is the fork in the road for teachers: Steinbeck speaks of the “many” who “taught us soon forgotten things,” but oh, that important, and sadly, too “few” who created that “new hunger.” Oh my—doesn’t that just inspire you to new heights to try and be one of the “few”???

Well, one of the great features of a new school year, of course, is the introduction of new people. There are new students, new faculty, and you wonder every year from that grand parade who will be some of the great ones you will come to know and admire. I want to introduce you to two new guys, and I have a feeling they will be starring in the line-up of great ones.

There is John, a fresh-from-college-brand-new-teacher-from-Yale, who is teaching Chemistry. When I interviewed John last February at the job fair in Boston, I sensed that he had the goods to be a great one. When you interview college seniors, it is a little difficult to tell which ones might emerge as great teachers since they have had little or no experience teaching. But with John I liked him especially for his devotion to technical theater. I realize that hanging lights and enduring theatrical “hell week”[s] may not mean you understand chemistry, or any other discipline for that matter, but as I talked with this guy, I could tell from his theater work that he had dedication and stamina and grit, three things that mean oh so much in the educational world.

I took John out to Chili Ways after the second day of school, and, well, first of all, he liked my fast food of choice in Madaba. But the real pleasure of the evening was the privilege of hearing him talk about those first hours in the classroom. He had had to ask a young man to leave class and speak sternly to him in the hallway. He said that when they both came back in, he could tell it wasn’t going to cast a pall on the classroom. He had dealt with his first issue of classroom management. Then his mood changed, his eyes got misty as he spoke of the first lab, that introduction to chemistry and when he saw the power in a students’ eyes as the student understood a chemical principle. Watching John explain that wonderful moment, and hearing him realize the power and obligation he had as a teacher, was a genuine thrill. John observes other teachers’ classes, asks questions, wonders about grading and even keeps a journal about how a class goes (Why was a good class good? What might improve a class?). He is excited by the teaching and I look forward to what he all he will add to KA.

The other new guy I wanted to make sure you knew was a young man from China named Li. Li was actually the first new student I met this school year—he arrived a day before the others, and I met him at lunch and was struck by his friendliness. We talked about my 2001 trip to China and I learned that he came here with two other Chinese students, but they had not met before the plane ride. I marveled at how far he had come and his enthusiasm for Jordan is infectious. What a brave soul to come all this way for school. He has ended up in my AP Art History class, as well.

Last Sunday I was quite moved and impressed by a speech Li asked to give to the whole school. Julianne told me he asked her to give this speech, yet was nervous since this was the first speech he had ever given in English (!). I asked Li if I could print his speech and offer it to the world in my blog. Here is Li’s speech to the KA throngs:

Yesterday was a very traditional Chinese festival called “Teacher’s Day.”

In China, teachers are held in high esteem. This day is in honor of all those involved in the teaching profession.

September 28th is the birthday of Confucius who was a great philosopher and a world-famous teacher. In the history of Chinese education, Confucius is a paragon of all teachers, symbolizing the philosophy of “Educate all without discrimination, and teach according to the abilities of ones students.” Using the six arts of rites, music, archery, chariot driving, learning, and mathematics, Confucius had more than three thousand students during his lifetime.

In the ancient times, Confucius’s birthday was regarded as a Teachers’ Day.

Now In the People's Republic of China, Teacher's Day is held on September 10th each year. This year is the 27th annual festival.

On this day, there are some activities for the students to show their appreciation to the teachers, such as holding a concert, making a lecture or presenting gifts including cards and flowers. And the Confucius Memorial Service is also solemnly held at the Confucius Temple to show respect and honor for him. “Teachers Day Celebration” will held by the Ministry of Education and the various local governments, teachers are recognized for their contribution to society.

In China, every day when our class begins, we need to stand up and say hello to teachers and when class is over we also need to stand up and say thanks. Why do we do this? That’s because the teacher plays a very important role in our lives. We all know the population of China is very large. The only way for students to achieve their goals or change their destiny is to get the chance to study in university and have a better education. So teachers may help them a lot. They are very kind and do anything they could to help students.

And I think all the teachers here in King’s are really nice and responsible too. They came on campus two weeks earlier than the students to prepare for the new year. They made many activities for the new students to make sure they can adapt to the school life quickly. They gave a warm welcome to all the international students and always asked us whether we needed help which made us feel at home. They try to make every class interesting and enjoyable to ensure that we learn and be happy.

Since yesterday we were in weekend. Today I want say “Happy Teachers’ day” to all the king’s teachers and thanks for your excellent job!

Teachers are engineers of souls, are the people who tell us ways to explore the world, to give us wisdom and knowledge to create our own life.

I think no matter whether or not we have a teacher's day, we all need to be highly respectful and grateful to our teachers every day. To remember all the things they have taught us and appreciate the person who brings us to a new life.
Thank you!

That evening Li performed a musical piece on the flute for our first “open-mic” night. As he started he said, “I am playing a Chinese piece and I want you to think about a Chinese sailor as he brings his boat back home from the sea.” Li proceeded to play the flute with exquisite beauty. I once took the flute just for fun and I know the breath support and the care it takes to produce the quality of tone he offered us. What will he do next?!

In many ways this was a perfect week to think about John and Li. Both of them are excited about teachers and teaching. Thinking about these new guys came in a perfect week: this past week witnessed the birthdays of two of my greatest teachers ever. I have a list of my 5 greatest teachers (do you? I think you should make on and savor those teachers!) and this week saw the birthdays of Nina Wilson and Mary Schneider, two of my icons on my list. I could write on and on and on about the profound effects these two have had on me (search other blog entries if you do not know them) but Li really said it very well—these two educators are “engineers of the soul,” and every day in their classes was like the excitement of “captured fireflies.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It really was a beautiful morning

I remember driving to school ten years ago today quite frustrated about the lesson I was to teach later that morning in AP Art History. It was only my fourth day in this brand-new course of this massive survey of world visual arts, but I just wasn’t “feeling” this lesson. According to my very new syllabus, on September 11, 2001 I was going to teach about these votive figures from ancient Sumer. Ordinary citizens in the city-state of Sumer, oh circa 2500 BCE, would pay to have a statue placed in a temple to pray for them continuously. Usually I had a good sense of the art works, but as I drove to school I remember wondering how I would successfully engage the students on these ancient ancient bug-eyed statues.

As I drove up the hill at Hackley, I remember looking at the perfectly beautiful morning, struck by how gorgeous it could be on that early September morning.

As you might imagine given the date and the tumult unleashed 90 minutes later, I didn’t need to worry about the lesson that day. After my first period 20th century history class, the headmaster called the school to the auditorium to explain what had happened in Manhattan, about 20 miles away, in the previous half hour. There was no formal school for the rest of that day.

Of course as we all know today marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on that gorgeous morning. It’s hard to think of that date now without mental images of the destruction, grief, and loss that swept over America and the world following those tragic events. The loss of thousands of lives was compounded by the depth of loss felt by New Yorkers in general, and corporately about the lost sense of security as a country.

There are many, many events and forums today in which to discuss 9/11. You don’t really need one more blabbering blogger discussing or remembering that day. I wouldn’t have anything new to say about the incredulity we all felt about those planes and those smoking buildings…but remembering that art history lesson may offer another perspective about that day and the reactions around me.

All through that day and into the night I spent in one of the common rooms on campus at Hackley, eyes glued to the television set. At various times I looked around the room and the scene was the same all evening—bug eyes at the television and the incomparable disaster it showed in nearby Manhattan. I saw more than one person punch a wall in anger and grief. But mostly I saw people silently watching, straining to take it all on, clasping and folding their hands in a strange disbelief over and over as they stared in fear and wonder and pain and hope. What would happen next? Was this the beginning of more attacks? How do we make sense of it all? What horrific and unexplainable events—how could we make sense of it all?

As I watched students and adults drink in this sorrow, I thought of those Sumerian votive figures that did not get taught that day. Those figures, two of them seen above, are made of ordinary material representing ordinary people. They stare in fear and wonder and pain and hope at the unexplainable forces in their lives. How do we make sense of weather disasters and food shortages and injustices and wars? In that void of sense and logic, artists made these votive figures to stand in for the real people, so they could beseech the gods day and night, seeking solace and answers. As I watched the people around me, they were doing the very same thing—seeking solace and answers. These New Yorkers were bug-eyed too, awestruck at the events unfolding around them. That afternoon those 4,500 year old bug-eyed Sumerian votive sculptures all of a sudden made a great deal of sense to me. That morning I couldn’t imagine a connection to those statues. Hours later I had a connection I would never forget as people around me hoped and prayed for relief from this sorrow.

Today people in the United States will gather together and light candles, read names, lay wreaths, hold hands, cry at the loss of life and innocence, render requiems and pray for mercy. Ten years after that day I live in the Middle East—something I could not have imagined a decade ago—and am only miles away from where David wrote the psalm crying out for mercy: “My eye wastes away with grief, yes, my soul and my body.”

Tomorrow I will teach about ancient Sumer again—this is the 9th year I have taught this course, and I will teach those votive figures again, and I will explain as I do every year, that I was to teach those sculptures on that beautiful sunny morning but the world stopped and I found a poignant and heartbreaking connection to those ancient gypsum sculptures.

It doesn’t provide the balm in Gilead, but it is one of the ways I remember that sunny morning and grief-stricken day.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Big O

This was the week that the three weeks of orientation (yes, I know we must be the most and best oriented school on the planet!) finally melted into the first week of school. That first day that is the joy of joys!

But before we get into blogisodes about the new school year, I want to dwell for a moment on this year’s orientation. We went from orientation for senior staff, department heads, new faculty, returning faculty, student proctors in the dorms, new students and finally, returning students. Whew! But the other day came one of the most fun things I have done in our time here at KA. Julianne, the intrepid and fearless Dean of Students wanted to foment a little inter-dorm competition as we got set for school. She came up with the idea of “Madaba Games,” an Olympics-style competition that would accrue points for the top 3-placing dorms in a variety of competitions. Not just physical competition, although there would be that, she came up with a science competition in the form of a Project Egg Drop, and a crazy hair-styling competition, and an art competition and skit competition and music competition and a bake-off competition.

She asked me if I would spearhead the Chocolate Chip Cookie Bake-Off Competition for my Nihal dorm and I enthusiastically agreed. However, on the day of the Madaba Games I started to wonder, what in the world were we doing with a bake-off? What boys would want that choice of competition and how would it work? I guess I didn’t think about it too much, but then Monday afternoon came and all of a sudden I had two hours to fill and two hours to bake award-winning chocolate chip cookies. Julianne got the idea for this partly from a great year at Hackley, maybe around 2003 or so, when the faculty there indulged in several heated food competitions and bake-offs. They were immensely fun as entrants brought their selections and a team of judges picked the best. Our friend Mike always wrote a hilarious commentary afterward about the proceedings, the corruption among the judges, and the rancor amidst the entrants. It was great.

So as the Nihal dorm boys split up into what competitions they wanted to do, I found myself with 12 boys who wanted to help make the best chocolate chip cookies in Jordan. We met at my apartment, the baker’s dozen of us, and I still wondered, “Are they going to just watch me bake these cookies? How should we run this???” As I walked in, cranked up the air conditioning, I thought, “Let’s have this be a cooking class and somehow we all have to be a part of this baking experience.”

First I read them the criteria by which we would be judged—four points,
(1) Taste (2) Texture (3) Presentation and (4) a WOW factor. So we started by talking about criteria factors 2-4. What did they know about texture in a cookie? How should we present our cookies? Then I went on-line and looked at recipes from and suggested we use one that was called “award-winning chocolate chip cookies.” That sounded hopeful. I mentioned that I had purloined a silver tray from the Dining Hall and we could serve the judges the cookies on that. But we needed to think about the presentation later.

As we got going, Mohammed Attar ran into my apartment a little late to join us. He had brought a present for me, an orange tie box from Hermes. A real tie from Hermes! I opened it, and thanked him for the exquisite black silk tie, and then said, “Guys, this orange box—hey, that’s our dorm color. Let’s wrap the cookies up in this box and present it to the judge. Wait—Mohammed, I’ll bet you have a tux, right?” This student is one of the most suave and debonair students I know—I figured he had a tux. He did, and I suggested that Mohammed get in his tux for the judging portion and present the fancy box of cookies in our dorm color’s box.

Okay, okay, we need to get going. I divide everyone up into teams for the baking portion. David I put in charge of the recipe itself—he is to check it over and over and make sure our measurements are correct, the order correct, the temperature correct. As we start I tell them some things about chemistry and how baking works on the principles of chemistry. Unlike what I thought would happen, these 12 guys are excited and ready to go. So I have a team to be in charge of keeping the ingredients ready, a team to measure the ingredients, a team to cream the butter and sugar, a team to chop the chocolate, a team to get the oven and pans ready. Everybody is on board and ready to go. In the recipe it calls for a box of instant pudding—I tell them that might help the texture since that is one of our criteria. I don’t have any brown sugar, but I have about 100 packets of raw sugar for coffee and tea, and so now there is a team to open the packets and measure that sugar. This does produce the first mess! But they actually seem interested to know how the different kind of sugars can affect the texture of a cookie.

In the next hour we measure, we double-check, we cream—someone asks if I have any fancy chocolates to add and I remember some great mousse-like chocolates. A new team is created to microwave that chocolate and add it to the mix. They like how this might be a good wow factor with the fancy chocolate in taste and texture and a new amber-colored glow to the batter.

Then after the cracker-jack team of Asher and Khalook have creamed the butter and eggs and sugar expertly, we start to mix in the dry ingredients. You would have thought we were working on nuclear fission or something from the level of interest and precise measurement and careful stirring and uber-double-checking. I bring out two kinds of vanilla—the imitation kind and the real stuff. I explain to them the difference, and we all pass around and smell the imitation and the real, and my 12 bakers all agree the real stuff is infinitely better and yes it is worth the money., Only the real stuff would go in our competitive dough! Finally, the large glass bowl is full of this glorious chocolate chip cookie dough. Someone wonders if we should taste it—you know, taste is one of the judge’s criteria. Yes, I agree, we need to make sure it is as great as we think. It is…you wouldn’t believe their expert-palate discussion of how the instant pudding and the real vanilla and the fancy chocolates have elevated our chocolate chip cookie dough.

It is time to get the dough onto the baking sheets. We have a little discussion over whether 1 big cookie or regular size cookies were better. If we wanted to use the Hermes box, then we needed to go with the regular size. As I demonstrate how to roll the dough to a consistent size (and why…) they realize it is just like eating their comfort-food mansaf as they take the balls of meat and pop them in their mouth.

The first baking sheet goes into the oven. There is a little nervousness if they will be perfect enough. While that one bakes we discuss the presentation again. Someone suggests that we put a label over the Hermes label on the box and write our dorm name. Walid is elected to practice his penmanship, and after about a dozen shots, we take the perfect label of “Nihal” and affix it over Hermes. Someone also suggests that when tux-clad Mohammed serves the judges the cookies from the fancy box that he first offer to shave fresh chocolate over the cookie for them. So we get Mohammed to practice grating chocolate from a fancy bar.

As I took the first batch out of the oven—I have never seen more nervous and excited and interested bakers in my life—I realized three incredibly great things: (1) I had only instructed and guided them in this effort; all I physically did was put the baking sheet in and take it out of the oven (2) this was more fun than I ever thought it might be and (3) one of the young men in this cohort was someone with whom I had never gotten along previously. This guy had been in another teacher’s class in my room and I caught him numerous times punching my art posters with the thumb tacks. I chastised him and we developed a nasty cold war. But look—here he was, my right hand man, carefully checking on the microwaved chocolate, checking with me on the oven, checking on the bottoms of the cookies so that only the most perfect cookies would be submitted. I realized that this was one of the best teaching experiences I had ever had.

We decided that we would bake all 36 cookies, and then judge them ourselves and pick the 5 best for the judges. Why should we submit all the cookies to them? We would submit 5 cookies in our Hermes/Nihal fancy orange box, with our concierge Mohammed shaving fresh chocolate on them, and then we should eat the rest. I mean, we needed to see if they were as good as we believed. We believed these were great cookies.

So we narrowed down the choices. We prepared the box. Mohammed changed into his tux. We gingerly placed the perect 5 into the box. We left for the competition. On our way out, the boys thanked me profusely for the afternoon—and I thanked them. We just had to win. I mean seriously—we thought about texture, we had expensive chocolate, perfect cookies, a young man in a tuxedo with a designer box…and a spirit of reconciliation with that formerly errant boy.

We get to the competition and I can feel the rush of adrenaline. Every other entry had put cookies on a plate. Sniff. Well, that is a choice. Not a wow choice, but a choice. That evil and wonderful Maria (I love her!) had dyed her dorm’s chocolate chip cookies the color of the dorm. Good move Maria, but was there a tux or gown around??? The others look fine, but we are ready to trounce them in the competition!

The judges are lined up, the students ready for the presentation. Obviously, ours look great. Okay, the judging. Julianne sees me biting my nails. She is having a ball with this.

How does it come out?

Oh dear reader, it is not quite the climax of the movie that I envisioned.

We placed second. Now, this is not sour grapes, BUT the winning dorm, I learn something interesting—no boys in the winning dorm made their cookies. Faculty children—7th grade girls, no less—made their cookies. I silently seethe.

John, the usually-wonderful-headmaster-but-today-the-nefarious-one, says, “Well, there really are layers of corruption here. I am attached to that dorm and my daughter helped make the cookies.” Corruption indeed! It reminds one of the infamous 1820s “Corrupt Bargain” that put the wrong man in the White House. Oh, boy.

So in the end, we did not come in first place. I am getting over the anger. I started an Anger Journal by which to channel my rage and wounded pride.

But the Madaba Games—a success…such fun. In the days since our bake-off, many of those boys have stopped me and thanked me again for a fun afternoon. Two of them now speak to me every time I pass them. And that one guy, well, I took him aside and told him how proud I was of his diligence and commitment and patience. It might have only been chocolate chip cookie baking, but I saw a new kid that afternoon in my kitchen.

Good heavens—I love education! And I guess competition too.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the shadow of the past

This fall at KA we are debuting two, yes, two big new courses in the History Department! (Actually, we have more than two, but two big ones, and two small ones.) If that gets you excited—please, dear reader, press on. If that elicits a groan (excuse me, if so, who are you, and why are you at my blog????????!) then maybe this isn’t the blogisode for you.

No, really, it is exciting, re-thinking and re-crafting the first two history courses our students will take in their KA experience. I am sure I will be telling you more of the juicy excitement of the new and improved (don’t you dare even breathe the 1985 phrase “New Coke” here!) 9th and 10th grade courses but one of the elements of the 10th grade course has been on my mind in the last week.

The 10th grade course is a survey of the History of the Middle East nestled in the context of World History. Okay, now the verb nestled is not in the official wording of the course. I always get hung up on titles and what I want them to be. In 2001 when I debuted a new course at Hackley, I wanted the course entitled, “Releasing the Historical Imagination.” The bureaucrat-in-charge, sucked in a little air, and said, “How about we call it ‘History 9’." So, the other day I was musing on what I wanted this called and I suggested, “The Middle East in the context of World History,” and my colleague said, “I think it should be ‘The Middle East and the World.’" Everyone is always trying to simplify me. Do you see why I don’t do Twitter???

Anyway, this is not just a pull-a-date-out-of-a-hat-chronological survey course. We are starting this course in big, bad, happenin’ 2011. Right now! Why not??! The Middle East has had a tempestuous, volatile, interesting year, and why not dive into acting as historians and make sense of this year, the very year in which we live and breathe. I tried this in 1993 when I re-imagined a western civilization course at Charlotte Latin as well, jumping into that current year, and it was wonderful.

So, back to my excitement. We will mine the media websites and see what has transpired ever since this “Arab Spring” began back in January in Tunisia. What do the Middle Eastern media outlets say about this? The American websites? The BBC? What really has happened this year? What might it mean…where it might go? Ahhh…now here is the fun part. The students don’t really know what has happened this year (and don’t act all smug because you are smarter than a 15 year old—who does know what has happened this year?) but they will need more context, they will need more history to have this current year make more sense. Get the verb in there? They will need more history! Once you establish the need, the thirst, they will do anything! Then we will go back in time to the lifetime of their grandparents, trying to make sense of the last 70 or so years…

But here’s the thing about 2011 and the “Arab Spring”—as I have read about the Middle East, mostly from western sources, they kept trying to make it out as a rebirth of the spirit of 1989, a redux-1989, if you will, of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Remember how Jordan was treated in the press? Reporters were looking at Jordan and wanting it to fall, to fit some paradigm of dominos falling across the Middle East. That makes for an easier story, and a fun, let’s-relive-the-80s kick.

But in the last week as I have helped prepare the 10th grade course, it has hit me that it is another year entirely that 2011 has mirrored. Nope, not 1989—although I really did like that year too. It’s 1848.


Now, who’s interested??! Huh?!

Thinking about 1848 took me back to my days of teaching AP Modern European History (a course dear to my heart—it is the course that tipped me over to become a teacher as a senior in high school. It was taught by the iconic Jean Michaels and was marvelous. When I became a teacher I taught this course seven times before I moved on to other courses, but my heart is still in this great course) and what an interesting and confounding year 1848 proved across Europe.

In 1848 a wave of unemployment and economic woes engulfed Europe and led to spiked food prices. Across continental Europe there were monarchies ruling impoverished masses suffering from this acute economic distress. There were feeble parliaments and brutal police and limited suffrage and limited freedom of expression.

Yes, that was 1848. Take the above paragraph and substitute, “the Middle East” for “continental Europe,” and 2011 for 1848 and nothing else has to be changed. Look at those parallels! Let’s continue…at the root of the turmoil was a new, growing, politically and economically and culturally frustrated middle class. Yes, both 1848 and 2011.

In both times, 1848 and 2011, there were unexpected successes. In February, 1848, in Paris, after the government suppresses peaceful protests, three days of massive street protests and riots follow. The King abdicates, a republic is declared, and a hopeful democratic chaos ensues. Cut to 2011—in January and February, in Tunisia and Egypt, after the government suppresses peaceful protests, 29 and 18 days (respectively) of massive street protests follow. King-like presidents resign, and a hopeful democratic chaos ensues.

And there’s more!

In both years ambivalent armies fraternize with street protesters. Some of both troops even join the rebels. And let’s not think we of the 21st century are the only ones to trumpet technology—new technology helps spread the word of the protests. In 1848 revolutionary news is transmitted as never before by telegraph, steam-powered newspaper printing presses and railroads. In 2011 revolutionary news is transmitted as never before by cell phones, the Internet and cable television.

In both years democratic America is pleased. In 1848 President James Polk congratulated the French on their new liberties; in 2011 President Barack Obama praised the hopes for genuine democracy. In both years rich, reactionary powers in the east meddled: in 1848 Tsar Nicholas I sent troops to help his fellow monarchs; in 2011 the Saudi king lashed out against the “infiltrators” in Egypt. The Revolutionary contagion spread quickly in both years, fanning across many countries. In both eras there was a flood of refugees fleeing the chaos trying to emigrate to the Protestant US in 1848, and the Christian EU in 2011.

So the parallels are dizzying. Now as we begin the 10th grade course this week, I doubt whether we will emphasize this parallel at all…but here is what is exciting about beginning a course in the present. We don’t know what will come of it all…knowing more history will enrich our understanding of how these events got set in motion…but we still don’t know where it is all going.

We do know what happened next in 1848. In France, the crucible of the revolutionary fervor, the radicals pushed too far too fast, provoking a backlash by the end of 1848. By that winter, most of the revolutions had been reversed, and/or crushed.

And what of “The Arab Spring” of 2011? We don’t know yet. And that is part of the excitement of studying this current year, indeed, reveling in that lack of certainty. If we infuse a study of history with that same unawareness of inevitability we will stand a better chance at understanding what it felt like to stand in another era, to imagine what they were thinking. We can predict all we want, but we will have to wait for this next installment of this year to see where this will lead. Will we repeat 1848? How will it be different? What does a knowledge of that year do for us as we muddle through our contemporary times? How might history help?

So many questions…our mission statement of our department reads that we teach to a narrative of inquiry rather than a narrative of conclusions.

Invigorating and exciting, wouldn’t you say?

Friday, September 2, 2011

[new job title]

A few years ago in New York I went to see a show several times called, oddly enough, [title of show]. This was a musical that developed downtown for a “fringe” musical festival and it is about these two composers, Jeff and Hunter, who create an original musical with two friends, Heidi and Susan. It is a “meta” show in which they constantly reflect on writing a musical for a fringe festival…so everything they say, it seems, makes it into their musical. It is about the joy and thrill and fear of creating a piece of theater. The odd title comes from the fact that when they submit their manuscript to the festival they are filling in the form and when it comes to their [title of show] they just decide to leave it blank the way the form had it as simply [title of show]. Okay. Maybe I didn’t sell the show enough to you.

Anyhoo, I don’t know if I have mentioned in any blogisode that I have a new title and new responsibilities at KA. It came about last spring when our dynamite new headmaster, John, asked me if I would like some new responsibilities dealing with, specifically, coaching and mentoring faculty. He wasn’t quite sure for awhile what the new job title would be, nor exactly what territory I would cover. I was excited since he trusted me to work with the faculty.

So for the longest time, I wasn’t sure what to tell people what the job really was, and so it reminded me of [title of show]. But now I should announce exactly what my email signature will say my new title is: Drum roll please…Dean of Curriculum and Instruction.

I am charged with many things, but most importantly directing and facilitating a professional development program that encompasses much more than I have ever seen in one of my four schools. I am also to evaluate and monitor curriculum, and I am to lead the evaluation of the 80-member faculty. Plus go to more meetings. We love meetings.

Last week I gave a presentation to the faculty during our orientation introducing them to my vast array of offerings in professional development. I likened my program to the Food Court at the Mall, where, hopefully, there is something for everyone! But before I explained the menu, I offered a brief bio as to how/why I stood before them that morning in Jordan.

I proudly announced that it was 25 years ago that week that I first stepped into a classroom to teach high school. Yep, it was 1986, and as a newly-minted college graduate I had been hired to be the entire History Department at Gaston Day School. I had no training, per se, to be a teacher, and I was thrilled to death, and also scared to death. I noted that every August since, as I prepare for the return of school, I am still thrilled to death, and just a little less scared to death. I relayed that in the next ten years I would go to graduate school full-time twice: the first I went to Brown so that I could go and teach college (however, if you know my bio well, you know that all Brown did was confirm for me that I was supposed to be a teacher of secondary school); for the second time I earned the Klingenstein Fellowship and went to finally study the ins and outs of education, learning the vocabulary and honing strategies and structure of effective classes.

In 1996 I started a new job at Hackley School, and I relayed to the faculty about an evening a couple weeks into the school year, when a new friend, a friend my own age who was a novice to teaching, announced with pleasure, “Finally, today I had a good day in the classroom.” Phil’s face then fell as he realized he couldn’t rest on those laurels, but needed to do it all over again the next day. Phil then pestered me, asking, “When do you really know everything about teaching? At what point do you get it all about education?” I said that after my 8 years, I didn’t know and wondered what a good answer was. I went and found another new colleague, the veteran teacher Joan Fox, a woman of such humor and warmth that new standards of humor and warmth need to be created. Joannie smiled and said, “Oh, dahlin’ you don’t really ever get it completely—you work at it but you never quite master it. You come closer every year but that is the beauty of teaching.”

That was my introduction to the plan I have for professional development. Now if you ever say the complete two words, “professional development,” or even the code, “PD” to most educators they roll their eyes, or sigh—at best. Some stare daggers at you. What is the problem??? Well, it is such a low priority in most schools, done poorly in a one-size-fits-all mentality, and no follow-up. Big money is spent on these experts to come in and spend 6 hours telling you what to do.

But our headmaster wants this professional development to be a constant thing, and as he urged us, to seek “continued, sustained improvement” in our teaching. So I have a plan.

Here is the menu of the plan—a week will not go by without an opportunity for professional development—there will be a weekly seminar/discussion group and I have all the topics for the year and the times all set up. The calendar is done September to June! Can’t make it at 11:30 on Sundays? I will repeat the seminar on Mondays at lunch and again at breakfast on Tuesday! The seminar will be conducted in Arabic for those who would be more comfortable with the dialogue in Arabic! No, that one will not be lead by me! There will be a book club each term. There will be two articles provided every week on topics of interest in education. There will be five workshops during the year offering many topics and forum for discussion and learning. My colleague Lilli and I will begin visiting classes—remember I am charged with evaluating about 80 teachers. I decided that I want to visit the “beginnings” of every class first—get into the classrooms and see how class begins. Then after I have seen each teacher’s opening engagement, I will visit a five-minute “middle” of every teacher, and finally go see how each teacher wraps up a lesson. Observation! Feedback! Hopefully real and meaningful professional development.

I have come to see that the [new job title] also means part-time therapist for people too. I have had several people ask to come and speak to me about the nature of teaching, and when do you know you should stay in teaching.

Oh, it is more than the food court. But, these are good and healthy conversations. Life would be strangely hollow if we didn’t ask ourselves, at least on occasion: What exactly should I do with the rest of my life? What is my purpose on this planet? Am I doing the right thing with my days and my energies? Does who I am matter to anyone else?

One guy the other day wanted to sit down and talk because, as he said, “You really think of teaching as a vocation, as a calling. I need some guidance.” He’s right—I do look at this career path as a vocation/calling. Those questions about vocation supersede the quest we sometimes engage in to busy ourselves.

A famous ethicist, William F. May, once pointed out that the words “car” and “career” both come from the Latin word for racetrack—carrera. Hmmm….who wants to go through life racing around in a circle????? A calling is much more considered than that. We hunt for hints and clues as to what the calling might be, should be. On our worst days, we wonder when a voice will whisper in our hearts, and we sometimes mistake the verbal echo of our own desires. We can get confused about selfishness and enjoyment.

But on those best days, we find that sweet spot of what we love to do, do reasonably well (or are determined to do well) and are pretty certain that we have found our niche of challenge and comfort. On those days we notice how God has stitched capacities and passions and potential into our quite ordinary lives. We aim to center our commitments on a greater good than just ourselves.

Vocation is kind of hard to figure out. Discerning one’s calling in life is a complicated business. I remember when I needed to make the decision to come to Jordan back in January, 2007, and I asked my good friend Doris for guidance. “When do you know Doris?” I asked pretty much the same thing Phil had asked me back in 1996. Doris replied, “When those doors all open, your job is simply to walk through the doors.”

So here I am—[new job title]—and 25 years into the teaching profession. We have had two weeks of teacher orientation. Energy is high. I lose all sense of time. The students will now begin returning for their orientation. Admittedly, it is like Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years’ all wrapped together into this time of year at the beginning of school. That great sense of satisfaction is prevalent.

Twenty-five years ago I was not quite sure where destiny would take me. I did not think I would be a secondary school teacher. And not just be one—I need to be one. It is where I belong. I am hoping the same for the [new job title]—the sweet spot where identity and desire and challenge and need converge.