Tag Archives: education

Advice to Students, Part VII: The Tyranny of Technology

Be careful about the Tyranny of Technology. Technology can be very tantalizing. It has given us many benefits, but it has come also with its downside. Do not let technology be an end in itself, and do not let it control you. Use it to achieve your goals and to live a good life; do not let being connected digitally be your definition of a good life. It has been a bit sad. Ten years ago you and I interacted and greeted each other much more on our school’s pathways and hallways. Not so these days. We are too busy staying connected, not missing a thing in our social circles. Do not let digital interaction substitute for genuine, face-to-face interaction. If you do not guard against this, we are headed for a world in which we lose the ability to interact personally in real time, a world without personal phone calls, a world without written thank-you notes. Say no to drugs, and say no to the Tyranny of Technology.

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Advice to Students, Part VI: Take Time to Smell the Roses

6. Take time to smell the roses. Remember on summer Mondays to go to Newport Creamery. It is “Buy one Awful, Awful, and get one free”! Colonel Bill Taylor, one of my mentors in the Army, taught me: If you are not having fun, you ain’t doing it right. I have found this to be true. A sense of humor is very important in life. When I was a teenager, I interpreted this to mean that a person knew some good jokes and told them well. No, it is a much richer concept than that. It is able to see the sun behind the rain clouds, to be able to dance in the rain. Even in bad times, to be able to keep your chin up and to laugh. My hero Abe Lincoln said of laughter that it is the “universal evergreen of life.” He also said that a good story “can whistle off sadness.” His sense of humor was one of the things that sustained him throughout the ordeal of the Civil War.

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Advice for New Teachers: Power Points

Power Point software was a tremendous boon for teachers who grew up in the age of overhead projectors and acetate Vu-graphs. Praise God! For many years I tried to pack as much content into my Power Points as possible. Eventually I realized that the “more is not better” principle applied.

          I enjoyed the creative challenge of summarizing the important points of a lesson and adding visual and audio media to the presentation. It was also comforting to know that I could fire up the Power Point and everything was there for the entire period. I would talk, embellish, ask them questions, tell my jokes, and my students would write.

          In hindsight, I can see that I was too teacher-centered in my approach. With my longer presentations, my students wrote feverishly and developed writer’s cramp by the end of the 50-minute class. The more self-confident students would respectfully comment on the quantity of info they had to transcribe and ask for mercy!

          For a 50-minute class, I now do my best to hold the number of slides to 8-12, including a Cover slide, a Review slide, an Overview slide, and a Conclusion slide. In addition, I have found that it helps my students if the content on my slides is incomplete, just the key concepts and the initial words of a sentence. At the Smart Board, I fill in the blanks manually. This allows them a more reasonable amount of time to transcribe the truly important content.

          A word about the Overview slide: I have come to place much emphasis on this. I prepare this slide at the very end of my preparation of the entire lesson. Only then can I make a good judgment on what it should contain. I sit back and ask myself: If I have only five minutes to teach this class and one slide, what should I put on the slide?

          Another step I take to be fully prepared for class is to synchronize my lesson plan with my Power Point. My lesson plan can be a summary of the entire reading. I cannot possibly cover all the material in the lesson. With a highlighter I highlight the words that I place into the Power Point. With a second different highlighter, I designate that material I shall manually write onto the slide during class.

          I have found that making my Power Points more reasonable in length—trying not to cram extraordinary amounts of content into them—has helped my students to transcribe the truly important content. It forces me to distill the lesson into the most important points, themes, concepts, and essential questions. With this approach, I am getting fewer complaints about writer’s cramp. Overall, I feel my teaching format is much more student-centered.

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Advice for New Teachers: Striving for Balance

When Jacob and I sat down to talk yesterday, I could see that he had on his desk a stack of papers to grade. With the first two weeks of classes behind us, we have both given quizzes–quizzes that must be graded. I realized that we needed to talk about balance–specifically, balance between his professional and personal life.

The first time teaching a course in your first teaching position, you clearly are eager to prepare thoroughly for every possible contingency for every lesson. This shows that you are conscientious and hard-working and are striving to be a professional–very laudable. However, if you have a family–like Jacob–you cannot simply be a full-time teacher. You have responsibilities to your spouse and children, and these take time and your physical and emotional presence. Strive to strike a healthy balance between the two. You may have many different teaching positions in your life; however, you have only one family, and it needs daily tending. There will be times when most of your energy must be devoted to your professional life; however, there are also times when your family will need all of you–physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In practical terms, this means you must use judgment in assigning homework and conducting assessments, all of which take time to grade. Space these out over the semester so that you have several days between them to grade them properly. For major assessments (e.g., tests) you may not be able to grade them completely until the weekend. Better to assign less and grade them rigorously than to assign more and give only superficial feedback to your students.

I finished our talk by telling him that I never get a course right the very first time through. During that first run, I am trying to read all the material carefully, summarize the readings, and fashion good–perhaps not perfect–lesson plans. It generally takes me three times through a course before I have the syllabus and lesson schedule the way I like it. Individual lesson plans are always a “work in progress.” A teacher should always be ready to try new ideas and formats to achieve the objectives of the lesson.


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Advice for New Teachers: Lesson Plan Format

In my last post I described the most important issue a teacher must face when organizing a course. In contrast to that strategic advice, Jacob and I met today to discuss the format of a good lesson plan. This year we are both teaching courses within the general field of Humanities and Religion.

I began  by repeating what I had already told him. A new teacher is often so concerned about preparing for every possible question in class that midnight may come , and yet he or she still has not formulated a lesson plan. Eventually the background reading must come to an end, and the teacher must decide on the specific activities for class the next day: how the teacher will use the class time.

This is the lesson plan format I have developed over many years which I gave to Jacob.  The main components:

Aids (What things do you need to bring to class, such as, a Power Point, visual aids, maps, music selections, and books)

Admin (Such as quiz and test reminders, general info announcements, classroom procedure)

Next time (Briefly remind the students of the next lesson; highlight any important info)

Review (Review the key points from the last lesson. Ask some pointed questions. Clear up any fuzzy areas on key points.)

Overview: (Preview the important points, concepts, and themes of the lesson. This component of the lesson plan should be prepared after the entire lesson plan is prepared, not at the beginning. Look at the entire lesson plan and ask: If I had only five minutes to teach this class, what would I say and do?)

MAIN BODY: If a Power Point is to be used, place prompts in the appropriate places in the lesson plan to synchronize your plan with your power point.



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Focusing on Big Ideas

When teaching history, it is very easy to get caught and lost in all the details of a particular lesson. Especially drawn to political, diplomatic, and military history, I have found myself spending far too much time in my Western Civilization courses on the fine points of the diplomatic maneuverings of the Congress of Vienna or of the tactical skill of Hannibal during the Second Punic War. To ensure that my students have the big picture: (1) at the outset of the course, I ensure that they understand the critical over-arching themes and questions of the course, (2) at the start of each lesson, I indicate which of these are present in the day’s lesson, and finally, (3) I require each student to have a “BIG IDEAS BOX.”

            At the beginning of all my history courses, I present my over-arching themes including the types of history that we shall be studying such as political, economic, social, cultural, military, technological, religious, and intellectual history. In addition to these themes, I also indicate that we shall be using our author’s (Jackson Spielvogel) expanded definition of “civilization” in which he specifies the six themes that all civilizations tend to share: urban focus, a distinct religious structure, new political and military structures, a new social structure, the development of writing, and new forms of significant artistic and intellectual activity. 

            Second, I introduce the two over-arching questions which a  critical mind should have at the ready, no matter what type of history, no matter what level of history: (1) The “WHY” Question, and (2) the “SO WHAT?” question. The first helps us to plunge deeper in the historical matter beyond the who, what, where, and when to deeper levels of causal analysis, an important skill for all students of history to develop. I have found the more the students understand causality, the more interesting they find history. The second question forces us to demand and discover the significance or consequences of some historical person, event, battle, war, movement, legislation, revolution, etc.

            Finally, I require all students to designate on a piece of notebook paper or on a digital document, a “BIG IDEAS BOX.” As we come across the ideas and concepts of Western Civilization which have had great and long-lasting significance, they are required to “place these in the box.” In Ancient Western Civilization, the first one we designate is the essence of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution when humans moved from hunter-gathering to systematic farming and the domestication of animals. Whenever possible, I try to encapsulate the idea in a word or phrase. With this first one, I summarize it by the word “STAY.” To help to reinforce the concept I play the eponymous rock ‘n roll song. This shifting of teaching mediums to aural seems to bring good results while allowing us to have a bit of fun. (On a really good day, several students will rise from their desks and dance!) At the outset of the next lesson, I review the BIG IDEAS from the previous lesson or chapter.

            In truth, the BOX is not simply for BIG IDEAS but also for ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS-questions which have great significance and no correct answers. Our first such question comes with the Ancient Greeks on the lesson covering the three great philosophers. When we discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we end with the ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What is really real? When I teach U.S. history the first of these comes with the American Revolution: When is a person justified in crossing the threshold from peaceful to violent means? In my Modern Western Civilization course an example is: How much of a role should government play in a country’s economy? In a country’s society?

            One aspect of these BOXES I explain is that these BIG IDEAS do not always operate in harmony. As a course progresses, we discover conflicts between big ideas. In several of my history courses, the most persistent conflict appears between the idea of the inequality of human beings and the idea of their equality, enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but with its roots in the BIG IDEA of One God. This can be unsettling for students, not only exactly what I wish to accomplish, but also a great vehicle for helping them to see the excitement and challenge of studying history.

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Teaching Lessons for Life

Seeing Charlie again, my former history student, who has made it big in the entertainment business, raised interesting pedagogical questions: Should a teacher have goals beyond the conventional content and skills offered by a course, reaching to “lessons for life”? Further, perhaps these are appropriate for a private school, but are they also appropriate in a public school?

It had been 19 years since I taught him U.S. history. So when he was invited back to school to give a lecture to the entire school community, my first question was whether he would he even remember me.

Charlie clearly devoted much time to his talk—funny stories from his days at Portsmouth Abbey, things he has learned thus far in his career, lots of jokes—both planned and improvised. His talk gave way to a hearty and lively Q & A period, and the student body posed many good questions for him. His answers were crisp, honest, and often laced with humor.

I was proud of him for offering a few bits of what I would call wisdom, even though he is still a young man. His central message to the students was: Do not worry about the grades and SAT scores too much. Discover what you love and are good at, work very hard at it, and do not take no for an answer.

Happily Charlie visited the dining hall for lunch. He saw me, immediately approached me, and we had a nice discussion. After some small talk, he made my day. Stunningly he actually remembered a point I made in one of my history lectures. My message which struck a chord in him was that it was OK to question and challenge your traditional religious beliefs. Here was a teacher at a Catholic prep school telling the students to feel free in challenging 2,000 years of church doctrine. This had stuck with him.

As a history teacher I teach lots of content, especially in my AP courses. I teach skills such as evaluating and using historical evidence and crafting good expository essays. But I feel very strongly that I must also teach attitudes and virtues. In all of my syllabi, I identify the main ones, such as:

            . A critical mind: reasoning clearly and recognizing weak logic and poorly developed ideas.

            . An open mind: willing to receive new concepts, ideas, and methods.

            . A motivated mind: desiring understanding and intellectual growth.

            . A confident mind: recognizing the value of his/her own abilities and opinions.

For a student not interested in history, or academics for that matter, a teacher should certainly try to spark interest and motivation to learn the content and develop the skill set the course offers; however, a teacher—in a private or public school—is also wise in not passing up opportunities to offer students lessons for life—wisdom.  This in fact may be the single thing an unnamed, anonymous student may truly glean from a course.



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