…and thanks for all the fish

Dear friends,

On Friday, Joey announced via email to the NCS family that Coart & I will be moving into new jobs at the end of this school year.  We are excited about Coart’s opportunity to pursue his UGA PhD in Social Foundations of Education full-time.  For him to be able to be in school full-time, I need to pursue more lucrative employment. And after 10 years in one place, this is a good time for a change. So here we are.

We want to say thank-you to many families down through the years whose support of our ministry at New Covenant School kept us going through the hard times. Education is an incredible ministry, but it’s also an exhausting one, both physically and emotionally. When we could not see our way forward, people stepped forward to love us, support us, feed us, hug us, offer help, or forgive us for our mistakes with their kids. It’s that last one that stuns me. Such a precious gift. Only the forgiven can forgive.

I came to NCS 10 years ago knowing little about formal education. Neither of us did. NCS barely had a high school, but it had a solid headmaster and board who wanted to see a great foundation laid for the upper school. Those early years lacked the cool “culture” that so many NCS upper school students cite as the reason they love this school. All of that work was still ahead of us. It was tough.

I have told some of you this story:  the first 4 weeks I taught …ever…. I woke every morning wishing I could quit. It was THAT hard. I don’t know why every 1st year teacher doesn’t just quit. Teaching is an incredible blend of artistry and science, of people management and content delivery, of academic prowess and interpersonal skills.  I didn’t know how to keep the 8th graders from talking nonstop (they were bored and hungry — now I understand); how to teach Romeo and Juliet to the freshmen (we survived somehow); how to get 6th graders to understand grammar (they won’t get it till their brains develop enough to grasp the abstract nature of the concepts). My curriculum was handed to me from the Logos School’s curriculum guide, and — honestly — most of it was totally inappropriate for the age level.  But that’s why you can’t just hand off a pile of textbooks and expect a teacher to plug herself into the gap. Teaching isn’t about the textbooks. It’s a dance, a long slow waltz of content and skills and relationships.

Those early years, I was rescued and mentored and loved by incredible people like Maurice Lopez, who still ranks just below Jesus in my book. With 40 years of experience in education and a lovely Andersonian accent, Mr Lopez helped me relax and take it one day at a time.  I also leaned on Dennis Bills, our headmaster and friend who had hired us for this high-school-building adventure.  He and his family lived next door to us (a happy thing), and we enjoyed many meals around their table discussing anything from Halo to the difficulties of getting any middle schooler to want to learn Latin. (I think it might be impossible.)

We met some incredible students right out of the gate. Like … Darby Wilcox is simply indescribable.  She still plays guitar and sings in Greenville several times a month; you should go hear her. I first met her as a misplaced 10th grader in a school that only went up to 9th grade. She and Liz Noblitt and Mallie Settle used to have the most epic cream cheese fights during lunch…. none of us interfered. Who wants to get attacked by a crazy cream-cheese-wielding adolescent?!

As Coart said during that first year, “I expected I would like teaching, and that I might even like teaching high school and middle school students. I never expected I would actually LOVE them.”

It was this realization — loving others for the glory of the Kingdom — plus our master’s education at Covenant College that forged our philosophy of education. Education is discipleship. By nature, it is relational. You cannot expect to accomplish anything in the classroom if you do not love your students, or if they are unable to respect you. People absorb the worldview of people they love, not people they tolerate or spar with. And education must be bathed in Grace.  Otherwise, well-intended school structures become a horrible form of legalism that traps students in a performance-centered Gospel.

Further, beginning under Dennis and continuing with Joey, NCS became a place where broken, hurting kids could find some shreds of safety, a harbor where their battered lives could rest and repair. I was never prouder of our student body than I was a few years ago when they were able to open their arms and love one of their peers who had sinned deeply. While adults whispered nasty things about that kid in the hallway, the students chose to love the broken and bind up the wounds.  It took yeas of hard labor by many NCS faculty and students to get our school culture to that point, but it was incredible to watch. (Shout-out to Joey Thames for being an integral part of building that culture of Grace among the students. His influence will be greatly missed next year.)

We’ve seen the student body become a resilient, caring group of sinners.  Yep, sinners.  I shake my head still when I see a class ripping into one another — these things ought not to be so among the family of God. But we move forward.  NCS has been able to minister to kids who were hurting, depressed, cocky, shattered, abused, confused, doubting, cutting, starving, uncaring, and broken. God is mighty. The Gospel is true.

Like Jesus, we’ve never had much success with the self-righteous. So it goes.

A culture of Kingdom-service and loving concern will not survive unless the caretakers watch over the plants carefully. It’s the nature of education that we work with new students and families every year. You can’t ever stop teaching or stop talking about what the Gospel means in the context of learning.  Always repenting, always renewing, always reforming. The gardening metaphor fits.

For all of these lessons and thousands more that I haven’t written — we thank the families and students and alumni of New Covenant School. It’s been a great ride.

Now we’re headed into a new, undiscovered country. We covet your prayers for us that God would provide the jobs we both need and wisdom to sort out the logistics of a two-income family perhaps spread across two states.

Our desire is to end well. We want to work hard right until the school year ends, then joyfully pass the baton to the next runners. Pray that God provides the educators to fill our shoes.

And no matter how far we go, you’ll always be able to find me right here. I’ve got too many cooped-up words not to blog once in a while. 

Teaching The Hunger Games series

There are some bandwagons worth jumping on, and Suzanne Collins’s YA series The Hunger Games proved worthy of the hype.

Currently Reading
The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxed Set
By Suzanne Collins
see related

To catch up on the story (if you’ve missed it)

Together the 3 books tell the life of Katness Everdeen, a 16 year old girl alive in a post-apocalyptic North America of the future. The society remembers little of the “America” that lies in rubble beneath them. Currently, a dictatorship centered in The Capitol (in what used to be Colorado) rules 12 districts ruthlessly. Want, starvation, and scarcity form the atmosphere of the novel, as each district specializes in making a certain product for the Empire.  Katness lives in District 12 which sounds like West Virginia — it’s nestled in the coal-rich Appalachian mountains.  It’s a small district that’s less bothered by all of the tyrannical practices, yet the people live with far less than they need.

Having lost her father in a mining accident years before, Katness takes to the woods to hunt for food (illegally). She cares for her mother and sister until the Reaping for the Hunger Games — an annual atrocity of the Capitol to remind the 12 districts what happened to them 75 years ago when they attempted to rebel. The government destroyed district 13 completely, imposed draconian shortages on the other 12, and force each district to send 2 tributes to a gladiatorial contest called The Hunger Games for the amusement of the rich, indulgent Capitol district population. Bread and circuses, indeed.

The teen tributes must kill in order to win, and the winning tribute returns to his/her district with a bounty of food for the coming year. Losers die gruesome deaths in the large outdoor arena via other tributes or through snares and traps left by the gamemaker. This isn’t a book series for the faint of heart.

I won’t describe more of the story; you ought to just read them for yourself.  They’re very fast-moving, well-written, and rich with good characters.  I’m not an overly-fast reader and I could take one down in a solid day of reading. You will find complex characters in this world, portraits painted with moral nuance and authenticity. I highly recommend the series.

Why it’s valuable lit for the classroom

The series muses on the cost of war in the lives of those who fight it.  As I worked through the 3rd (and final) book in the series, I considered how Collins was introducing a generation of young readers to the issues facing our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The books are in no way gratuitous with their violence, but the author does not shy away from the graphic violence that comes with war. And the nightmares. PTSD in a horrifyingly-real and comprehendible form.

Further, Collins forces you to consider the price of rebellion. Americans sit on warm couches in safe homes and judge the world’s political movements. We did not have to fight the Arab Spring. We do not live in an Afghanistan where a woman trapped and tortured in a basement for months has to wait for the government to declare an investigation into the crime. Terrorists don’t firebomb our busy shopping malls like they do in Israel or shoot protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement like the Syrian government is dealing with its uprising.  For all our problems, we live a charmed life.

Go live with Katness and her uprising for these 3 novels. You’ll be glad you did.

Curricular Connections

  •  Current Events – veterans’ affairs in the US; veterans & mental illness; veterans & homelessness; reintegration of veterans into society after duty; economic justice
  • Social Studies, Economics, & History – how economic resources, natural resources, and human geography are linked; the realities of economic injustice in an industrialized or developing economy; colonialization and its after-effects (compare with Africa, India); the cost of war in human terms
  • Political Science – anatomy of a revolution (compare/contrast Hunger Games world with historical or current revolutions); role of media & journalism in shaping public opinion
  • Ethics – entertainment that harms others (whether Roman gladiators or the predatory world of current reality TV); killing in the name of political revolution (if you’re on the rebels’ side)
  • Literature – Katniss as an anti-hero (much of what she does really isn’t admirable); alt-history genre; science fiction genre (Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic future); dystopian fiction

Some Useful Reading on Veterans’ Issues in our current wars

Coalition for Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans

Invisible Wounds

The Private Scars of War

From Battlefield to Ivy League, on the G.I. Bill

War Memorials with Neatly Made Beds

A great resource book for adults to read: The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. A journalist spends a year embedded in the young Army platoon who had to secure one of the worst slums in Baghdad a few years ago. The stories are raw, honest, humbling. Great for adults or mature teens.

Talking Points for Parents of Middle Schoolers

If your middle school kids are reading The Hunger Games, they should be asking questions about war and survivor syndrome. If they aren’t, prod them into some good conversation. Kids learn recent history primarily through their home lives, so get familiar with the Iraq and Afghan wars and some of the issues facing veterans as they come home.

  • Let younger kids (middle schoolers) talk through what’s happened to Katness and her friends during the Hunger Games. They need an outlet and you can help them connect the fictional storyworld to the reality our veterans face as they try to reintegrate into “normal” society.
  • Talk about the difficult choices Katness faced and the moral dilemmas. Kids profit from considering “what would I do if faced with this situation? what moral principles should guide me here?” and talking through those questions in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
    (Translation: Don’t freak out, even if your kid considers destroying the entire planet with a nuke or bludgeoning your neighbor to death. She’s thinking out loud, not determining her life’s moral code. If you hear shoddy reasoning, question her assumptions or mention consequences that she might not have realized.  99% of kids will think themselves back out of bad reasoning if the discussion remains civil, nonjudgmental, and unemotional.)
  • Refresh your own knowledge of the ethics of war. It’s a complex, difficult subject.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking your kids will fail to ask the tough questions if you simply ignore them.
    (Christian parents: Here’s a great PDF that overviews the scriptural data [link will open a PDF]: Some Introductory Notes on the Biblical Ethics of War)
  • Though you may be struck by the violence in the story, remember that children and teens are the bloody victims of violence like this in our world — the child soldiers of Somalia, the brutal stoning of women accused of adultery in Islamic countries, the civilian casualties of car bombs and IUDs in Iraq. The Hunger Games are supposed to be disturbing.
  • Do some reading on the aftermath of our own wars and the personal effect on our troops.  I’ve offered some links above to get you started, but Google will dredge up plenty.
  • If you know someone who came home from Iraq or Afghanistan, find out if they’d be willing to share with your family their own experiences. Talk with your kids beforehand about being sensitive when asking questions and not prying into personal affairs. Your local VFW can probably point you to veterans who are willing to speak about their experiences. Vietnam vets too. It’s important for kids to understand war in real, personal terms from people who’ve been there, not the caricature they pick up from TV and movies or even realistic video games.