Because life is a series of edits

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Listening for God’s “Rock” Voice

In Calling, Education, Family, Veritas, Young Ones on July 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Just sent this out to our Veritas families and staff and wondered if anyone here might like/want/need to read it as well:

This morning I was reading the prophet Zephaniah's book when I came across 3:17, which says,

"The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing."

Israel (now split into northern and southern kingdoms) continues to avoid returning to God and His covenant because of their sin, but God, through Zephaniah, clarifies their reality: they are in trouble, but He is in their midst and is able and willing to save them from themselves.

Does this reality describe your house as much as it does ours? As Megan and I parent, it seems we're often having to point out to our four girls when they are in trouble and remind them that we're here to help before they make things worse for themselves. (Truth be told, Megan and I sometimes have a similar version of this conversation with each other, but that's for another email…).

So we get discouraged. And we wonder if we know what we're doing. And we begin to convince each other that we don't. But since they're ours, well, we've got to figure it out. So what does figuring it out look like?

Figuring it out looks a lot like God's promised response to a repentant Israel: a rejoicing one; a loving and quieting one; an exultant one, complete with loud singing over them (this is not a lullaby; this is God's "rock" voice).

Megan and I are good at recognizing trouble, offering help, and warning our kids about their own sinful natures. But we have miles to go in celebrating their repentance, even more so in truly "rocking out" at their return to what's right.

Summers are a great time to re-evaluate a lot of things; parenting should be on that list. Let me encourage you to give thought to how you correct and train your kids…AND how you love and rejoice over them when they respond, too.

A Primer on Conferencing

In Books, Calling, Church, Education, Places, Thought, Veritas on June 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  Repairing the Ruins

I'm here in Atlanta with 944 other folks for the 17th annual Association of Classical and Christian Schools conference. It's quite a gathering, with some neat folks from all over the country in attendance, and I'm grateful for the chance to join them.

The schedule is pretty straightforward: morning plenary, two morning workshops, afternoon plenary, two afternoon workshops. Evenings are free to process or collapse, depending on your temperament. The stage is sparse and the visuals non-existent (two critiques I have of a conference with a workshop titled "The Imperative of Beauty and the Aesthetic Call"), but the facility is terrific, the content is great, and there's always plenty of people to watch and wonder about (like the guy who is the spitting image of Richard Dreyfuss as a young Glenn Holland in the film, Mr. Holland's Opus – weird).

Because I used to periodically attend conferences when I was with The Navigators (not to mention design and run them at Glen Eyrie), I've developed my own set of conference-going habits for taking part in these kinds of gatherings. Granted, this event is more professional than personal, but some guidelines still apply. For instance:

  • With regard to speaker notes, I don't bother filling in blanks or capturing every point speakers make; instead, I listen for quotables that strike me and capture them on paper or online, as those are what I'm more apt to remember and want to revisit (to follow my quotable tweets from this conference, go to Veritas' Twitter page).
  • Because conference-attending is a huge commitment not only of money but of time, I give myself permission to work on other tasks while listening. This doesn't work for everybody, but I'm primarily an auditory learner, so the plenary pedagogy works well enough for me (plus, I get some things done, and there's a lot of those things to do now that I'm one week into the role).
  • I also give myself permission to skip sessions I'm not interested in, switch workshops from ones that aren't well-prepared to others that are, and take needed naps to stay fresh because, let's face it, most conferences are overprogrammed with little time built in to process and play around with ideas otherwise.
  • I always try to identify 3-4 people – presenters, fellow conferees, people who just look interesting, etc. – with whom I can schedule individual meals and breaks before, during, and after sessions. While there are a couple of moderated group lunch discussions I plan to attend with an eye to content, I don't find those nearly as engaging as sitting down with someone eyeball-to-eyeball to ask questions, to listen, and to try to learn something specific.
  • Rarely do I stop and visit the vendor booths unless 1) there's something very, very specific I'm interested in, and 2) the vendors aren't there (this is the best time to pick up free promotional material without having to endure the spiels). Yes, I know this seems both non-curious and cruel, but they're getting their material into my hands…I'm just controlling the delivery system a bit.
  • Finally, I pray for Megan and the girls and keep in touch so they know that just because I'm away doesn't mean they're forgotten. I know from experience how hard it can be on a spouse holding down the fort while the other is traveling, enjoying some schedule autonomy, and experiencing new intellectual stimulation. This is probably why Megan and I talked tonight about her attending the ACCS conference in Dallas with me next June.

I thought about listing the sessions and workshops I'm planning to attend, but it might be more interesting to give you an idea of how weird (but wonderful) a world this whole classical Christian education is by listing a few of the more intriguing workshop titles:

  • Terque Quarterque Beati: Unpacking Virgil's Tripartite Soul
  • Everybody's Reading Boni Libri
  • Bring It (Don't Dumb It) Down: How to Teach a 12-Year-Old a Classic
  • I See Dead Lines: Cultivating Students' Sixth Sense Through Poetry
  • Progymnasmata in the Classroom

To quote presenter Douglas Wilson: "Books are the original distance-learning packets, but the Bible assumes true education within a godly community of others."

It's good to be here talking about Christian ideas from the classic books, and doing so in the context of others. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a classical Christian education can be summed up in this realization: I have much to learn.

And I do.

Worldviews Summarized

In Education, Westminster on May 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm

One of my fellow Worldviews teachers (whose room I use for my own section of seniors) summarized the flow of the Westminster Christian Academy Bible curriculum with the first two points below.

One of my other colleagues (whose sense of humor is bigger than his professionalism) added a third point for the benefit of my seniors during sixth hour.

Dunham Worldview Pic

Warren Smith, to be mocked by you is indeed to be loved by you. Thanks.

On The Finland Phenomenon

In Education on May 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Today is a teacher in-service day, so I thought I'd spend a few minutes here processing a documentary on education that our staff just watched. The film is called The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World's Most Surprising School System and is produced by the same man who did Two Million Minutes: The 21st-Century Solution (we watched that one at a spring in-service two years ago – my notes are here). The write-up:

The Finland Phenomenon is a documentary that features Dr. Tony Wagner, a researcher at Harvard University and author of The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner narrates and also appears in the film interviewing Finnish students of Education. The documentary's take on Finnish education is that "less is more," citing Finland's view of homework, for example. The active role of a student is also recognized as vital to Finland's success.

Teachers are highly esteemed in Finland, and only the best and brightest are encouraged to pursue and are accepted into the teaching profession. The film greatly credits teacher preparedness, ongoing on-site professional development, and teacher-to-teacher observations. "The norm," as one Finnish educator points out, "is we're going to watch each other teach all the time." Finnish teachers work together in PLCs (professional learning communities) to help students learn and achieve at high levels.

The film is only an hour long and some of my colleagues expressed a wariness of its gushing review of Finland, both as a nation and educational leader (from 2000-2009, Finland was ranked #1 in education). Part of this concern had much to do with the fact that the film presents little critique of Finland either culturally or pedagogically, nor does it seem to recognize the fact that Finland is much more homogenous than the United States and therefore much less complicated culturally, politically, and philosophically on the topic of educating kids (the film does try to compare populations to that of the U.S. state of Minnesota, but the comparison is brief and inconclusive at best). For the most part, I agreed with my colleagues' critiques, though they did not take away my appreciation for what Finland has been able to accomplish.

The fact is that Finland, particularly in the past 25 years, has really figured some things out on the educational front. And, while few of their discoveries seem little more than common sense, their commitment to functioning within and by what they've discovered (or re-discovered) is to be admired. It may seem naive, but Finland seems to be proving that education is not rocket science when an entire culture adopts a "less is more" mentality concerning it; if anything, "less is more" seems to work. Some notes:

  • Parents in Finland value education much more than their foreign counterparts and the state views its students as its top natural resource.
  • Teachers are taught and trained with a mentality more focused on job performance than job security. As part of this effort, newer teachers develop lesson plans in conjunction with more experienced "master" teachers, evaluating and revising, teaching (with the master teacher observing the lesson), and then briefly meeting together once more for feedback and adjustment. This happens often and with a goal of simplicity rather than complexity.
  • The goal of teachers' lessons is to teach students how to think and to give them opportunity to engage with the material. The hope is that the teacher would only speak around 40% of the time and student questions, analysis, and discussion would make up the other 60% of the time.
  • Finland's curricula provides tracks for academic and vocational education, and there is no perceived attitude or stigma for either but nobility for both. There is also flexibility in students being able to go back and forth throughout their schooling years as the student's interests and abilities change and grow. (For more on the America's need for more vocational training, read this Washington Post article, just published today.)
  • Finland's educational system emphasizes helping all students embrace, develop, and pursue understanding through their own learning style, not sacrificing a student's love for learning on the altar of educational uniformity. There seems less of a concern for general rules and dress codes and instead a focusing of efforts and energies on the responsibilities of citizenship (interestingly, in addition to Finland's number one ranking in education, it is also considered the least corrupt nation in the world; the U.S. is something like 23rd).
  • While the state sets a national core curriculum, trust and responsibility are given to local municipalities and schools to customize and shape the curriculum as each sees fit. Equality and equity in every student's educational opportunity is in the forefront of the administrations' minds; as a result, schools and classes are much smaller in Finland, with 20 often being the most in a classroom.
  • Trust (rather than compliance) is the key motivator and glue that holds together the Finnish educational system. There is a much greater sense of governmental alignment and unity from the top down, teachers seems more open to evaluation and criqitue by peers, and students address teachers by their first names as a way of breaking down barriers rather than building them up.
  • In a nutshell (and as summarzied in the film), the "business" of school in Finland is learning; sports or other extra-curriculars may be part of that process, but they do not supercede the academic/vocational aspects.

Personally, this film was much more inspiring to me as an educator than 2 Million Minutes as it resonated a bit more with my Midwest sensibilities. I suppose preparing students for the global marketplace is important to a degree, but sheer competition can't be the only driving force behind why and how we educate our kids, especially from a Christian perspective. Our kids are people, not products.

No, the need we face in education calls for a virtues-centered, character-shaping, culture-contributing system in which students learn a wide variety of facts, practice sorting and synthesizing those facts with truth, and are encouraged and equipped to express said synthesized factual truth in wise and winsome ways that benefit the world (and not just their personal careers).

To do anything less is to fail another generation of kids. And ask yourself this question, America: how many failed generations can we really afford?

(For another simple but good perspective on a high school education, see Seth Godin's post today entitled "What's High School For?" Again, I love the simplicity here.)

Yeah, I Said It: Thank a Teacher

In Education on May 3, 2011 at 10:16 am

Teacher Appreciation

As today is officially Teacher Appreciation Day, I thought I'd honor some of my own teachers who taught me quite a bit while I was in their charge. I'm grateful for their contribution to shaping my life in so many different ways and am reminded afresh how even the smallest things can make a big difference.

I appreciate:

My mom, Charlotte, for teaching me from the beginning at home (and in class in 8th grade) that proper English grammar always matters.

Kathy Hurd, for being the first teacher (3rd grade) I really cared about impressing because she expected things specifically from me.

Jay Hollingsworth, for being the first male teacher I had (5th grade) and planting the seed that education is an okay field for men.

Sue Glecker, for teaching me lots of helpful grammar rules in sixth grade that I still remember.

Ken Stauffer, for teaching baseball and basketball fundamentals in junior high and emphasizing the importance of team.

Lois Cloyd, for helping me learn to appreciate the trombone in high school, getting me in free to dozens of Mizzou sporting events later in college.

Judy Steers, for teaching me music theory for the majority of my elementary, junior high, and high school years.

Chuck McCormick, for being a lot more interesting personally than physics and chemistry ever were.

Peg Ratliff, for being my best friend in high school (even though I never had her for class).

Jan Dawson, for always encouraging my art attempts by telling me to cut off my ear and send it to her.

Betsy Pulliam, for being more passionate about math than I ever imagined a person could be.

Nanette Bess, for never complaining about having the world's smallest classroom (literally a closet).

Tom Leahy, for being an effective administrator with a heart.

Ken Bradbury and Chuck West, who even though they taught at a different school, were great examples of how Christian faith could inform and impact their occupation.

Dr. Walt Schroeder, for being the only college professor I remember who was still interested in me and my future even though my plans had nothing to do with his discipline (geography).

Dr. Jerram Barrs, for teaching me about the doctrine of common grace and helping me grasp the concept of covenant children.

Dr. Phil Douglass, for telling me six years ago that he thought I'd end up being a Head of School one day and that he believed it would be a good thing.

Dr. Jack Collins, for the phrase "Don't hear what I'm not saying" and for getting worked up in class about all the right things.

Dr. MIchael Williams, for helping me learn that when we arrive at the wrong answer it's often because we're not asking the right question.

Dr. Dan Doriani, for his friendship, counsel, and daughter advice before, during, and after my seminary experience.

Dr. Donald Guthrie, for his encouragement within my education studies as we processed my early teaching experiences.

Care to share your thanks for a teacher or two? Feel free to add them in the comments.

More Than April Showers or May Flowers

In Calling, Church, Education, Family, Friends, Marriage, Places, Places & Spaces, Young Ones on March 8, 2011 at 7:49 pm

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had the idea that it might be a good idea to mark turning 40 (which happened last month) with a 40-day fast from food and media. My goal (as detailed here) was "to spend my extra time reading the Bible, praying, and writing about what God may have should he grant me another 40 years."

The media fast was easy: I didn't touch Facebook, Twitter, or the blog and I didn't miss it. The food fast was much harder, as I attempted a water-only fast (I did have a couple of cups of tea after Day 4 just to taste something other than my mouth). Things were going well enough until my doctor pulled the plug on the fast at the end of Day 10 because I had too many ketones in my blood and could have developed serious kidney problems. While disappointed, I was glad it was her decision to end the fast rather than mine (though she never wrote me that prescription for Five Guys Burger & Fries like I asked).

I lost twenty pounds in those ten days and learned how much food can be an idol for me. I also had a great time reading the Old Testament prophets, listening to God convey his love for his people even in the midst of their sin and rebellion and writing out prayers of confession for myself and supplication for others. Finally, I thanked God for the gift of life and asked him for his favor on another 40 years if he would be so gracious. I had no agenda for this time other than to seek God and to read, listen, and write. In the spirit of the prophets, I even grew a beard that didn't look half bad.

Bearded Craig

On day 39 of this 40-day period, I received an email out of the blue from Julie Serven, wife of Doug (of three-year Mizzou roommate/TwentySomeone co-author fame). After wishing me an early birthday, she wrote:

"I wanted to ask if you would have any interest in pursuing a new career direction? Our Head of School has recently taken a position with a school in Alabama. He has done a great job the last couple of years and has helped in taking the school to a more developed level.

We need someone who is both visionary but also very administratively gifted. Someone with teaching experience, preferably in high school, and experience with managing and working with people. Someone who appreciates the value of a home component in education and is willing to encourage and partner with parents interested in doing so. Someone who could help train the teachers, pastor the parents, and love the kids. Sound like anyone you know? It does to me."

Somewhat dumbfounded by Julie's email and the opportunity she was asking me to consider, I finished my 40 days asking God if this would be something he would have me pursue. While I have absolutely loved teaching these past five years (four at Westminster Christian Academy, one at Heritage Classical School), I had wondered more than once whether I was using my administrative and leadership gifts to the fullest extent that I could. This question was not one of ambition but of stewardship: Was there more God was calling me to do for the Kingdom in the realm of Christian education? Was this role with Veritas an opportunity I was to trust him for in doing so?

After talking with Megan and seeking counsel from several here and elsewhere who know and love us, we decided it was worth pursuing. I composed a letter and resume, notified references, and sent along my testimony and philosophy of education. A week later, the Veritas board flew Megan and me to Oklahoma City for an exhaustingly thorough weekend-long interview; ten days later (after doing due diligence of considering other applicants), they sent us a very gracious official offer; last weekend, I made one more trip to meet with the board to discern face-to-face if indeed this was God's will for all involved. By the end of the meeting, it seemed good to all of us; thus, I accepted the role.

Veritas_logo The school, Veritas Classical Academy, now has 260 students Pre-K through 11th (they are adding 12th grade next year) and currently meets at a church in south OKC. Because of interest in the Edmond/North OKC area, they will be starting a north grammar campus (Pre-K to 5th) with 50 students this coming fall. Plans are to open a south grammar campus in Norman the year after that (starting with 50 students), and then move to purchase land/building for a central upper school campus the year or two after that, the idea being that there would be several feeder grammar schools and one central upper school (6th to 12th, 7th to 12th, or 9th to 12th). They follow a blended (university) model (half in-class instruction and half home instruction), seek to be reasonably (as opposed to maniacally) classical, and are trans-denominational as a school (though the board seeks to be winsomely Reformed in setting and implementing policies).

My role as Head of School will focus primarily on areas of creating and modeling the school's climate and values, recruiting, hiring, and training faculty, leading and counseling staff and parents as they educate their students, resolving conflict and handling disciplinary matters, and working with the board on strategic planning. Secondarily, I will also be responsible (with the help of others) for the alignment and development of curriculum, public relations, fundraising, finance, and other matters of policy and administration pertaining to the school. Oh, and I'll still get to teach a class or two each semester. It's a big job, but one I believe my education and experience (not to mention the wealth of mentoring relationships and supportive friendships I've benefitted from over the years) have prepared me for.

Servens One other pleasant convergence: Doug and Julie have been asked to plant a new PCA church – City Presbyterian – in downtown OKC, starting with an initial gathering of core group members this summer. As if building and leading not just a school but an eventual school system weren't enough, helping to plant an urban church with dear friends we've known for 20 years (Doug and Julie were Megan's NavStaff at Oklahoma State after the three of us graduated from Mizzou together) just seems to be icing on the cake. Who knows? Doug and I might even get ThirtySomewhere finished now that we'll be in the same town.

Spring has brought more than April showers or May flowers for the Dunham family, and we're grateful to God for his leading. While we're looking down the barrel of what promises to be a very intense 3-4 months, we are trusting God to provide above and beyond what we need emotionally, physically, and spiritually as he continues to guide us in this new step of faith. Here's a look at what's ahead (thanks in advance for any prayers on our behalf):


10-11: Westminster Christian Academy Parent/Teacher Conferences
11-12: Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship Women's Retreat
19-24: Spring Break (house-hunting in Oklahoma City)
28: Opening Day (JV Baseball)


8-9: Biblical Imagination Conference (Dallas)
15: Classical Conversations Banquet
22-24: Easter Break


7: Studio Forte Ballet Recital
12: Last Day (JV Baseball)
14: St. Louis Children's Choirs Spring Concert
23: WCA Graduation
27: WCA Last Day of School


6: First Week at Veritas (Oklahoma City)
16-18: Association of Classical & Christian Schools Conference (Atlanta)
24-25: Biblical Imagination Conference (Apple Creek, OH)

For Megan's perspective on the move, click over to Half-Pint House.

The Biggest Curriculum Film Stretch Contest

In Education, Pop Culture, Television, Westminster on December 15, 2010 at 10:48 am

Film small

It's finals week, and let's be honest: teachers can only grade so much for so long before they start to get a little loopy. That said, here are the entries for a little contest my fellow colleagues and I created via email in between proctoring/grading exams (you'll notice the entries got shorter as the contest went one, presumably as tests were turned in).


In the spirit of having very little to do while kids are taking a test, I’d like to announce the first ever Biggest Curriculum Film Stretch Contest. The idea is to incorporate into your curriculum a movie that, let’s face it, has SOOOOO little to do with the topic at hand that it’s almost laughable, but there’s enough in common so that you could almost, almost make a rational argument to show it.

In other words, if you taught at a public school and had tenure and wanted to read a magazine for a week, what would you show?

I’ll start. When I was student teaching, I was asked to teach a sociology unit on aging. I had never had a sociology class. I knew nothing. I needed something to teach for the whole week. I showed Cocoon.

Beat that.


History: In order to understand the tensions inherent in two competing superpowers leading us to the cold war, I give you…Top Gun.

English: In order to understand how to appropriately structure paragraphs and give students a reason for learning how to write, I believe it would be appropriate to show the entire first and second seasons of Murder She Wrote.

Chemistry: In order to understand the science of life, we shall embark upon an entire quarter viewing of Sex and the City.

Counseling: In order to understand multiple personality disorder in psychology, we would watch Me, Myself and Irene.

Math: For a unit on Consumer Math and Personal Finance, I would show Gossip Girl.

Physics: As an application of the mathematics behind physics, I would show the entire Battlestar Galactica series.

History: I would pick the following movies for my unit on Westward Expansion (because why make it a week when you can make it a whole semester?). In order to explain the development of railroads out west with immigrants I would show Shanghai Noon starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Have to deal with the mistreatment of Native Americans, so I would knock out Avatar and would also for sure show Pocahontas. Sticking with the Westward expansion theme, we finish it off with Wild Wild West.

Elective: All we’d do is watch Sesame Street – it has nothing to do with what I’m teaching, but it’s age appropriate and uses lot and LOTS of pictures. In the afternoon it would be Barney…if my kids aren't taking their afternoon naps already.

Western Civ: Regarding the insurrection in Iraq and Afghanistan and how to end it using teenagers with bows, arrows and .22 caliber rifles, we would watch Red Dawn.

Math: Concerning angles and vectors, we would watch Bend It Like Beckham.

Biology: Concerning stupidity and genetic disorders, we would also watch Bend It Like Beckham.

Western Civ: For a unit on what it would be like to drive across Kansas seven consecutive times, we would watch Ghandi.

Industrial Arts/Driver's Ed: BJ and the Bear.

Outdoor Education: Cliffhanger.

History: Concerning Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), Rambo I & II.

Life Skills: For education in tolerance and understanding how to be more culturally sensitive, we would watch The Smurf Movie.

Ethics: In order to understand the nuances of ethical casuistry in 1980’s rural Idaho, we will immerse ourselves in the world of Napoleon Dynamite, watching the film on Monday and Tuesday, using block day to study the film’s climactic “dance of redemption,” and then choreographing our own versions for an assembly performance on Friday. (Optional weekend event: awkward junior high-esque dance in overly-streamered gymnasium).

Staff Development: For professional development for summer seminar teachers, we would watch Meatballs.

Counseling: For a look at what happens when you fail all your classes, we would watch Summer School (starring Mark Harmon).

History: For greater understanding of the long-term effects of the Treaty of Versailles, we would watch Die Hard (ticked off Germans).

Physics: For greater understanding of velocity, gravity, and combustion, we would also watch Die Hard (ticked off criminals).

Life Skills: I’d do a unit on how broken father and son relationships can be healed by aliens invading earth, a la War of the Worlds.

What say you? Any you would add? Any you've sat through as a student? Feel free to add your own curriculum suggestions as part of the online version of our contest.

Coming to St. Louis in 2011

In Calling, Church, Education, Internet, Musicians, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians on November 13, 2010 at 8:10 am

Mike Teaching (with logo)

In case you missed it, the website I've been working on for musician/author Michael Card's Biblical Imagination Series just went live this weekend. I used Clover Sites to create it and am impressed (still) with how easy and well-thought-out their content management system is (I've worked with plenty of lousy ones in the past and this was a dream).

For those in St. Louis, we're bringing the conference to Chesterfield Presbyterian Church all day on Saturday, January 15th, with Mike doing a concert on Sunday the 16th. The cost is only $58 for the conference AND concert ($78 if you want Mike's new book and album coming out next year as well – see site for details), and I can personally vouch for the quality of the experience (though the emcee/education guy's a little suspect).

Whether you've read the Bible for years or are just starting out in the Scriptures, this one-day conference would be well worth your investment in cultivating greater biblical literacy and love for God and His Word. Hope to see you there (and please help spread the word about the new Biblical Imagination website and Facebook community – thanks).

A Pre-Election Thought

In Calling, Education, Politics, Thought, Westminster, Young Ones on October 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm


A fellow colleague sent the following email to our faculty last week:

"I heard this story on NPR this evening regarding skills the next generation needs in an increasingly competitive job market. Such skills include: 'Analytic and quantitative skills; social awareness (social IQ as I call it); creative problem-solving; the ability to be adaptable; language skills, foreign languages; and then of course, communications skills.'"

I wrote back:

"Whew. Looks I’m off the hook. No one’s calling for ethics (obviously)."

Folks, regardless of your preferred political party, say a prayer when you vote on Tuesday that, in the midst of all the politics and power grabs this fall, God would mercifully cause our elected leaders to grow and follow a conscience informed by a biblical ethic. I can't think of a more needed skill for Congressional-types and kids alike.

Music Week 2010

In Education, Musicians, Westminster on September 24, 2010 at 9:12 am


Here are the songs from this year's Discerning Ear Project in Ethics class. The gist of the project is that the kids bring in music (MP3s with lyric sheets) and explain it as fitting in one of three moral categories (good, bad, or neutral); thus, we spend the week listening, discussing, and debating meaning and morality.

After they spend a week wrestling through the difficulties of trying to categorize their music (dualism example: If there's some good and some bad in the song, does that then make it neutral?), we then talk about a more Reformed way of approaching things, asking what we can affirm in each song, what we should challenge, and (and this is where it gets dicey), what our listening responses should be in light of passages like 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Thessalonians 5:22-23, and others.

There was plenty of new music this year that I wasn't familiar with, but I confess nothing really stuck out enough to make me want to instantly (or even eventually) download it. Take a look through the songs and bands and let me know what I ought to take a chance on the next time I have some iTunes money.

  • 100 Years by Five for Fighting
  • Accidents Can Happen by Sixx A.M.
  • American Honey by Lady Antebellum
  • Apologize by One Republic
  • Away from the Sun by 3 Doors Down
  • Beauty from Pain by Superchick
  • Bicycle Race by Queen
  • Billionaire by Travie McCoy (featuring Bruno Mars)
  • Black Rock by O.A.R.
  • Buddy by Musiq Soulchild
  • California Stars by Billy Bragg and Wilco
  • Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin
  • Chicken Fried by Zach Brown Band
  • Chop Suey by System of a Down
  • Cleaning this Gun by Rodney Atkins
  • Dance Anthem of the 80’s by Regina Spektor
  • Dead and Gone by T.I. (featuring Justin Timberlake)
  • Dear Life by Anthony Hamilton
  • Dynamite by Taio Cruz
  • Eclipse (All Yours) by Metric
  • Everything by Michael Buble
  • First Date by Blink 182
  • Ghetto Gospel by Tupac (featuring Elton John)
  • Grassman by Dodgy
  • Handlebars by The Flobots
  • I Am the Walrus by The Beatles
  • I Run to You by Lady Antebellum
  • I Was Made for Lovin’ You by KISS
  • If It’s Love by Train
  • If You’re Reading This by Tim McGraw
  • Imagine by John Lennon
  • Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars
  • King of Anything by Sara Bareilles
  • Lasso by Phoenix
  • Laughing With by Regina Spektor
  • Live and Let Die by Guns ‘N Roses
  • Love the Way You Lie by Eminem (with Rihanna)
  • Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by The Beatles
  • Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson
  • Mr. Brightside by The Killers
  • My Generation by Nas and Damien Marley
  • My Heart by Paramore
  • Narwhals by Weebl’s Stuff
  • Needle and Haystack Life by Switchfoot
  • Not Afraid by Eminem
  • Play the Song by Joey & Rory
  • Pray for You by Jason and the Long Road to Love
  • Put Your Records by Corinne Bailey Rae
  • Roxanne by The Police
  • Scapegoat by Epik High
  • Second Chance by Shinedown
  • Show Me What I’m Looking For by Carolina Liar
  • Sing for the Moment by Eminem
  • Snuggle Song by Schnuffel Bunny
  • Sorrow by Flyleaf
  • That’s What Youth Is by No Brain
  • The Cave by Mumford and Sons
  • The Man Who Can’t Be Moved by The Script
  • The Show by Lenka
    Tricky by RUN D.M.C.
  • Queen Jane by Bob Dylan
  • Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles
  • What I’ve Done by Linkin Park
  • Where is the Love? by the Black-Eyed Peas
  • Unthinkable by Alicia Keys
  • Vengeance by Yngwie Malmsteen
  • Yellow Submarine by The Beatles

We Interrupt Our Normally Non-Scheduled Weekend…

In Arts, Books, Calling, Church, Education, Family, Friends, Musicians, Nature, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, Young Ones on September 17, 2010 at 12:13 am

Here are some groovy events – several of which I'd love to see a familiar face at if you're in the area – that I'll be part of in the next six weeks. (If you or anyone you know has questions about the conferences, click the links or let me know and I'll fill in details.)


Applefestival 17-18: Griggsville Apple Festival (Uptown Square, Griggsville, IL)
I've written about this cultural tour de force before, but words and pictures just cannot do justice to my hometown's annual fall celebration; you just have to be there. That said, I'm once again looking forward to more time on the farm (now in harvest mode) since our Labor Day visit two weekends ago, as well as to seeing some former high school classmates from back in the day (when you graduated in a class of 30, it doesn't take much to have a yearly class reunion each September).

Camping 24-26: Annual Fall Family Camping Trip (Babler State Park, Wildwood, MO)
We always schedule this trip the weekend following Parent/Teacher conferences (after talking with parents for six hours straight and the struggles many of them are having in connecting with their students, I'm usually newly motivated to spend time with my own kids). New activity this year: the family bike ride, as all six of us are bike-mobile (now we just have to figure out how to get all six bikes there).


Tour2010logo 1-2: Tour de Cape (Downtown Pavilion, Cape Girardeau, MO)
Speaking of bikes, I've been pseudo-training (about 30 miles/week) to take my first "century ride" this weekend with a couple of co-workers (both of whom are much better bikers than I am). I've never before ridden 100 miles in a day, so we'll see how much Advil it takes to do it when it's all said and done.

Biblical Imagination 8-10: Biblical Imagination Conference with Michael Card (Fredericksburg, VA)
I wrote about this not too long ago, and it seems a little strange that we're less than a month out already. I'm pretty stoked to hang out on the east coast with Mike and company. This is the first conference of what I hope are many to come, so if you're too far from D.C. this time around, hang in there: odds are we'll be coming to you soon.

TwentySomeone 15-17: TwentySomeone/ThirtySomewhere Conference (Memphis, TN)
My good buddy, Mitchell Moore, is a pastor at Second Presbyterian in Memphis, and he's asked me to come down to speak at a retreat for peeps in their 20s and 30s. Revisiting the material (as well as working on some new for the next book) has been really fun, and I'm still "smokin' what I'm sellin'" (figuratively speaking, of course) in terms of making the most of these decades. Megan and the girls are coming with me, and we'll sight-see around Memphis on Saturday afternoon.

Relevant 22-24: Megan at The Relevant Conference (Harrisburg, PA)
The good news: I'll be home (and probably won't leave the house if I can help it); the other news: Megan won't be. As she did in Colorado in July, my wife will be taking in another blogging conference – this one of a more devotional than technical nature – in Pennsylvania. I'm interested to see what comes out of her time there, as well as to what degree the two conferences overlap and supplement each other.

That's all for now. We now return you to our normally non-scheduled weekend…

Dear Christian School Administrator,

In Books, Calling, Education on September 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

When I was hired to teach at Westminster Christian Academy three years ago, my administration took a risk, as I had very little formal education experience and background. But, it was a calculated risk – one they thought might work because of WCA’s commitment to develop teachers before and in the midst of teaching students.

After a three-day orientation the first week of the summer in which I learned the basics about our school, vision, and curriculum, I was paired with two mentor teachers – one for each of the two subjects I was to teach – with whom I met over the next year. This was helpful not only for curricular reasons, but for being able to listen to teachers talk teaching.

In addition, Westminster sent me along with other new staff to the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) conference in Chicago a few weeks before school started in August. This was helpful not so much for learning strategy or technique (though that happened to a degree), but for again being around teachers – old and new – who were talking teaching.

LearningEducation I’m sure you have your own version of teacher orientation, training, and development, but I’m also guessing that you’re always looking to improve it. To that end, I’d like to make you aware of a tool I hope will provide another “teacher talking” resource: Learning Education: Essays and Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching.

In the book, I recount my first three years teaching full-time at Westminster, processing them through the lenses of my coursework at Covenant Theological Seminary, from which I recently graduated with M.A. degrees in Theological Studies and Educational Ministries. The result is a good balance of theory and practice for the reader.

Would this be a helpful “teacher talking teaching” companion for your new teachers this fall? The books are $12.75 each, but I’m glad to take 10% off orders of 10 or more if that would be helpful (you can email me directly for bulk orders).

Thanks for your consideration, as well as for your commitment to Christian education. Enjoy the rest of your fall, and God bless you and your educational efforts this year.

Biblical Imagination: New Opp w/ Michael Card

In Books, Calling, Church, Education, Musicians, Theologians, Writers on August 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

When I was 14, a friend of mine gave me my first Michael Card cassette, Scandalon. The year was 1985. Though quite different from the music my friends were listening to at the time, I was desperate for anything that spoke of my new friend, Jesus, who had just introduced Himself to me a few months earlier.

Thirty days later, I had worn out the tape.

While I enjoyed the richness of Michael’s distinct voice and memorable melodies, I was more intrigued by the words and phrases that made up his profound lyrics. Sadly, growing up in my small-town Methodist church, I had not heard much about (let alone begun to understand the meaning of) “the stone that makes men stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Scandalon), or that “the Lamb is a Lion who’s roaring with rage” (The Lamb is a Lion), or that when we follow Christ, we are following “God’s own fool” (God’s Own Fool). I was fascinated.

Though little of the language made sense to me at the time, I kept listening (though I had to get another tape—where were CDs when I needed them?). I also began reading (barely) the Scriptures, which I didn’t understand much at first, either. But whether listening to Michael (and others), or “semi-reading” the Bible, the imagery of it all stuck with me, dancing in my high school-aged head at night, sparking a hunger and thirst within me not only for this imagery’s meaning, but for being able to respond to its meaning. That’s what the power of creativity can do…and that’s what it has done in my life.

In 2002, as the program director for The Navigators Glen Eyrie Group, I booked Mike for a series of conferences/concerts at the Glen and insisted he be part of planning them. This was surreal for me and new for Mike (he had never had the opportunity to actually speak into the planning of a retreat for which he had been booked), and together we created the Scribbling in the Sand Conference on Creativity.

Twenty-five years since that initial listen to Scandalon and five years since our last conference days, I'm flying to Nashville this weekend to hang with Mike, as he has asked me to join his team as a creative adviser/collaborator/teacher for the next stage of his ministry. Mike has just signed a four-book deal on the topic of biblical imagination with InterVarsity Press, has a new album coming out in February, and wants to converge all these together in a weekend retreat/conference experience beginning next year.

Because of our friendship and past ministry together, he's asked me to help, both as a facilitator and as a co-teacher like we used to do back in the day. I'm thrilled, especially since a majority of the teaching he's doing these days is in the summer, which works well with my own teaching schedule during the school year at Westminster Christian Academy.

As a friend of mine mentioned as we were having breakfast this morning, God does not waste a thing in our lives. Indeed, to trace the hand of God through all of this has been yet another significant lesson in the reality of God's sovereignty and the importance of our faithfulness in the littlest of things. I don't know all that lies ahead (whether with Mike or otherwise), but I do know that God does, and he has proven himself trustworthy far too many times throughout history (the world's and my own) to doubt him.

I'm sure I'll have more after the trip, but in the meantime, thanks for any prayers you may offer on my behalf. Pray I'll be faithful to what God (and Mike) may be asking me to do as part of this new opportunity, as well as to what I'm doing now here in St. Louis.

Summer Seminar Washington: A Summary

In Education, Nature, Places, Science, Travel, Westminster on July 26, 2010 at 7:51 am

As you know if you've been following along, I just recently returned from my third Summer Seminar, this time to the Pacific Northwest. One of the students' assignments was to journal their thoughts regarding the intricacies in nature that we saw on the trip. Not wanting to miss the opportunity myself, I pulled out my own journal and wrote a bit. Here (with a few pictures the students took) is what I wrote:

Summer Seminar is blowing me away right now as we process the intricacy of all that we're seeing. I confess I'm at a point where, as I consider our experience at the Hoh Rain Forest with what we saw earlier today at Ruby Beach's low tidal pools, I'm struggling a bit with my faith that God really created it all, is sovereign over it all, is aware and at work in it all. The complexity of the way the different systems complement and interact with each other is just so mind-boggling; likewise, the beauty is amazing as there is form and function, aesthetic and efficiency, and I marvel at the creation – process and product – wondering how God can be the Lord of it all?


sum sem 065

Strangely, the experience causes one of two responses in me: the first is the realization that, once again, I have made God too small and in my own image; the second is the recognition that I can become numb to creation and wonder if, maybe, it really is the rarest function of random chance and evolution, for it all seems so big (too big) for anyone (even God) to have created and set in motion and rule over. This is just the Pacific Northwest! What about the rest of the U.S.? The world? The universe?



The Christian worldview, both theologically as well as ecologically, does not work with a small, ethnocentric god created in my own image. I forget (again) how much work it is to keep from limiting my understanding of the person of God, but am reminded (again) by His creation of plenty of reasons that help me doubt my doubts.



I do not believe the world's existence to be luck or chance. God has taken credit for His work of creation, and I am wrong to limit His person in the face of the reality of the intricacies I see in the world. My limited understanding of all He has made does not negate the truth that these ecosystems and their connections (which are difficult to fully comprehend) were and are under God's sovereign reign.



My mind, as well as my heart, can only grasp so much. The main question
I've been asking myself on the trip is what does it all mean?
What do I and these kids (as well as the world and its inhabitants)
take away from all of this creation that might change and bring
contribution to God's world? How do we translate our awe at God's
intricacies into actions on behalf of them?

Re-reading my entry and seeing the pics brings to mind the beginning of Psalm 14:

"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'"

Lord, forgive me for my doubts…and keep me from being so foolish before You.

Twilight It Isn’t

In Books, Education, Nature, Places, Science, Travel, Westminster on July 9, 2010 at 5:36 am


I'm flying to Portland today in preparation for Westminster's Summer Seminar in Washington, which starts tomorrow and runs for the next ten days. We've got 22 soon-to-be-seniors and 7 staff (none of whom are pictured above) going on the trip. Here's a tentative (read: weather-permitting) itinerary:

July 10, Saturday
Rendezvous with students/staff in Portland, OR
Transport to Forks, WA (yes, I know this is where the Twilight "saga" is set, but no, that's not why we're going there)

July 11 or 12, Sunday or Monday
Forks logging and mill tours
Hoh Rain Forest hike
Hurricane Ridge
and Crescent Lake

July 13, Tuesday
Tidal pool study at Ruby Beach
Transport to Mossyrock

July 14 and 15, Wednesday and Thursday
Mt. Rainier
Mt. St. Helens

Transport to Deschutes River state park

July 16, Friday
Hike Mt. Hood (Copper spur: 7.8 miles)

July 17 and 18, Saturday and Sunday
Raft Deschutes River

July 19, Monday
Holiday Inn Express, Portland, OR

July 20, Tuesday

Core classes include:

  • Is This the Way It’s Supposed to Be?
    This core will introduce the tension of needing a vital raw material, yet wrestling with the consequences of acquiring that resource.
  • The Biology of the Old Growth vs. the Modern Lumber Industry
    This core will explore the idea of an old growth forest juxtaposed with a replanted forest: Can we simply replant and expect to sustain the old growth ecosystem?
  • The Way It Should Be: Systems That Function
    This core will explore ecosystems functioning as they were intended to and seek to understand that species work towards the benefits of the entire system due to a “biological Invisible Hand”.
  • The Cedar as Central: The “Buffalo” of the Pacific Northwest
    This core will explore the Native American view of the old growth cedar as central to their survival and how the same cedars are central to the survival of Forks, WA. Students will understand the centrality of the cedar to an old growth ecosystem and its species. A comparison will be drawn to the buffalo on the Great Plains. What are the differences between the White and Native American views of these natural resources?
  • Sustainability
    This core will explore author Lynn White’s claim that a Christian worldview with its notion of dominion is ultimately responsible for the ecological crisis. Students will also interact with Francis Schaeffer’s "Pollution and the Death of Man" as a counterpoint to White’s ideas and will seek to explore a proper Christian view of dominion with an emphasis on sustainability.
  • Mt. St. Helens: A Theological View of Restoration
    This core will explore the gradual, natural restoration of Mt. St. Helens and the parallel idea of God’s restoration of Creation from a Reformed eschatological position.
  • The Economics and Politics of Logging: What Will It Cost You?
    This core will explore the costs of proper dominion. Considering that the whole Old Growth debate is driven by the economics and politics of rationing a scarce resource, students will be introduced to the notion that proper dominion will be costly to their generation.

Students are to have read The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest by William Dietrich and written an introductory three-page response essay before the trip. They'll then submit five revised journal entries, culminating in a five-page essay due at the end of the month. I'm responsible for the reflecting/writing/grading aspect of the trip, as well as for publishing a book compilation of the students' best writing and pictures.

All in all, it should be fun. If I see Edward or Bella, I'll say hello for you…

Review: The Shallows (Part 3 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 2, 2010 at 5:51 pm

(The following is the third of a three-part review of one of the
more important books I've read in the past ten years:
Shallows by Nicholas Carr
. Parts one and two are below.)

The Shallows In chapter 7, titled "The Juggler's Brain," Carr clarifies what he (with the help of brain researchers) think the Internet is doing to our brains. He writes:

"One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain's plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It's not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It's that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use." (p. 116)

He continues:

"The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – 'positive reinforcements,' in psychological terms – which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an email, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers. The Net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment." (p. 117)

One could argue (or at least I will here) that a better solution to kids' ever-increasing struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder could be technology reduction rather than Ritalin prescription. Think about it: When a kid has trouble paying attention in class, rarely is there ever a discussion about doing away with smart phones or Facebook; medicines are started, adjusted, or switched, but God forbid we address ubiquitous, long-term technology exposure as part of the problem (this would, after all, seemingly punish the kid whose friends are all constantly connected, not to mention become inconvenient to parents who think of their kids' cell phone as a digital leash). Consider this from Carr:

"The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his emails on his BlackBerry – or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google's search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium." (p. 118)

Other effects our brains may suffer due to frequent Net exposure: we fear "our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk" (p. 118); we suffer from constant distractedness that the Net encourages ("distracted from distraction by distraction") (p. 119); this online distraction "short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively" (p. 119); as a result, we suffer "cognitive overload," for "if working memory is the mind's scratch pad, then long-term memory is its filing system," and "the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas." (p. 124)

True, concedes Carr, "Research shows that certain cognitive skills are strengthened, sometimes substantially, by our use of computers and the Net. These tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues." (p. 139) Is this good news or bad news? Carr answers the question this way: "The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net's own standards." (p. 141)

I could go on (and Carr certainly does) with more research and examples to make his case, but for me, the point is this:

"The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden…The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual locomotion." (p. 168)

One of the biggest takeaways for me from the book is my need to educate students (and parents) about what really is happening to our brains as a result of the medium – not just the message – of our technology. This has to go beyond quoting studies of teen cell phone use and time spent on Facebook; I have to figure out how to practically help them understand the science of the reality, backing up the latest research with Scripture's timeless call to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). (See my posts "Why Johnny Can't Write, parts 1 and 2" for more on the challenges of this.)

At minimum, this is easily an entire period or maybe a multi-day mini-unit at the beginning of the school year; at maximum, it's an on-going conversation in and out of the classroom the whole year round. Whichever, I don't plan to have the conversation via email.

Important topic, great book. Ten of ten and highly recommended.

Review: The Shallows (Part 2 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on July 1, 2010 at 8:05 am

(The following is the second of a three-part review of one of the
more important books I've read in the past ten years:
Shallows by Nicholas Carr
. Thanks for reading.)

The Shallows I remember hearing a story about a man who died after being hit crossing a busy big-city street while talking on his cell phone. When paramedics arrived on the scene, they discovered that his cell phone was not a cell phone at all, but a child's imitation plastic toy phone. Unfortunately, it wasn't only the phone that was dead.

The story is one I tell my high school students (nearly all of whom shudder to think about going a day without their cell phones) in order to start a conversation about how our culture idolizes digital technology for social reasons – status and identity, ease and convenience, inclusion and interaction. Few teenagers will argue my claim of idolatry; fewer still will do anything about it. It is, after all, they say, how we live.

Or at least how we think we live. But is our obsessive (pathological?) devotion to technology really living? In creating something we can't seem to do without, are we the better for it in the long run? What's behind all that has come about as a result of the digital revolution of the past 20 years? Writes Carr:

"Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances – over nature, over time and distance, over one another…Intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work." (p. 44-45)

The discussion of an intellectual ethic is, in my opinion, what's been missing from so many of the conversations, books, articles, and emails I've read over the past 3-5 years about technology in society. This doesn't mean there isn't one – or even multiple ones – out there, but it seems to me that, as our use of technological tools becomes more and more constant, the attention given to considering an ethic – intellectual, spiritual, whatever – regarding them becomes less and less. Carr says this is not surprising:

"The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don't see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool. Our ancestors didn't develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking or to bring the world's hidden structures to light. Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies. But what by-products! Ultimately, it's an invention's intellectual ethic that has the most profound effect on us. The intellectual ethic is the message that a medium or other tool transmits into the minds and culture of its users." (p. 45-46)

According to Carr, there are really two schools of thought on the matter: Technological determinists argue that “technological progress, which they see as an autonomous force outside man’s control, has been the primary factor influencing the course of human history.” On the opposite end of the spectrum (and where I had here-to-fore placed myself) are the instrumentalists, "the people who downplay the power of technology, believing tools to be neutral artifacts, entirely subservient to the conscious wishes of their users. Instrumentalism is the most widely held view of technology, not least because it’s the view we would prefer to be true.” (p. 46)

But is it true? Is all the technology we're creating and then subjecting ourselves to really ours to control, or (from the point of view of the determinist) is it really controlling us? Shouldn't these questions be asked concerning a technology's medium and as well as its message? This seeming absence of consideration calls to mind actor Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcom, and his explanation of all prehistoric hell breaking loose in the movie Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they
didn't stop to think if they should."

Granted, we're not dealing with dino DNA, but to what degree are we messing with ours? Carr gives numerous examples of how technological advances have often marked turning points in history, reminding us that, "In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use." But then Carr comes full circle back to his study of brain research, reminding us that, "What's been harder to discern is the influence of technologies, particularly intellectual technologies, on the functioning of people's brains." (p. 48) In the meantime, multiple generations of people – especially our youngest – are hardly waiting around for a verdict.

Carr lists Socrates as the first real critic of "new media," as the philosopher was suspect of the written word replacing oral tradition's memorized and spoken one:

“Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing – 'as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age' – but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness." (p. 55)

Socrates' student, Plato, however, was an advocate for the written word and thus differed from his mentor with regard to the transition from an oral to a literary culture (ironic that, without Plato, we wouldn't know much of what Socrates thought). Nevertheless, writes Carr, "It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds." (p. 56)

From Carr's perspective, every early media transition was bumpy but beneficial to our brains in some way. Papyri reading required deep concentration combined with deciphering text and interpretation of meaning; book writing pushed the bounds of knowledge and culture as arguments became longer, clearer, more complex, and more challenging. Gutenberg introduced the printing press and literacy became increasingly common among the commoners. But the change was on more than just on a cultural level:

"One of the most important lessons we've learned from the study of neuroplasticity is that the mental capacities, the very neural circuits, we develop for one purpose can be put to other uses as well. As our ancestors imbued their minds with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective, and imaginative. 'New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read,' says Maryanne Wolf [in her book, Proust and the Squid]; 'the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire." (p. 75-76)

This would be the case in increasing fashion for the next 550 years, but then something very different emerges on the scene: electronic media. Writes Carr:

"The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture's mainstream still ran through the printing press." (p. 77)

It did, that is, until now:

"Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer – desktop, laptop, handheld – becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet…But the world of the screen, as we're already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted." (p. 77)

I'll try to finish up on Friday with Carr's observations of the Internet's impact on our brains and some possible implications for the world of education. Hang with me.

Review: The Shallows (Part 1 of 3)

In Books, Education, Technology on June 30, 2010 at 1:07 pm

(The following is the first of a three-part review of one of the more important books I've read in the past ten years: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I hope I can do it justice.)

The Shallows One of the major themes running through discussions at every level of education these days has to do with technology – specifically, that having to do with the opportunity, expectation, and (for lack of a better word) mandate to use it in the classroom. As teachers, we're told that a true 21st-century education demands technology, and since we're ten years in by now, well, we're already behind. (Note: For a primer on this perspective, read Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World edited by Heidi-Hayes Jacobs.)

The question here is behind what? What is the supposed eight ball we find ourselves peering around? Is it educational or technological effectiveness? A combination of both? What would being ahead and on the front side of said eight ball look like?

Enter Nicholas Carr's recently published book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Released earlier this month amid a flurry of accompanying high-level PR from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, Carr's book picks up where his provocative July 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" left off, raising the question no one in our 21st-century world really wants to answer: Is technology really good for us? Carr writes in the prologue:

"Whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information – the 'content' – it carries. They care about the news in the newspaper, the music on the radio, the shows on the TV, the words spoken by the person on the far end of the phone line. The technology of the medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium's effects are good or bad, it's the content they wrestle over. Enthusiasts celebrate it; skeptics decry it." (p. 2)

He continues (and this is the main thesis of his book):

"What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is…that in the long run a medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act. As our windows onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society." (p. 3)

Is technology good for us? Always? Sometimes? Never? Before Carr gets around to dealing with the question, he rightly sets the context for the discussion by providing several fascinating chapters on the brain – what we know about it, what we don't know about it, and why it matters that we may attention to both. What jumps out from his research (which is excellently written in both detail and summary form) is the concept and importance of brain plasticity:

“Although the belief in the adult brain’s immutability was deeply and widely held, there were a few heretics. A handful of biologists and psychologists saw in the rapidly growing body of brain research indications that even the adult brain was malleable, or ‘plastic’…As brain science continues to advance, the evidence for plasticity strengthens.” (p. 21, 26)

Plasticity, Carr argues, is what makes our brains more human than hardwired. He writes:

"The brain is not the machine we once thought it to be. Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They're flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need. Some of the most extensive and remarkable changes take place in response to damage to the nervous system. Experiments show, for instance, that if a person is struck blind, the part of the brain that had been dedicated to processing visual stimuli – the visual cortex – doesn't just go dark. It is quickly taken over by circuits used for audio processing. And if the person learns to read Braille, the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch. 'Neurons seem to 'want to receive input,' explains Nancy Kanwisher of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research: 'When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing.'" (p. 29)

In other words, the brain not only adapts to stimuli, it alters itself because of it; that is, our brains are not only changed by the message but by the medium carrying the message. Carr's take on this, of course, is purely evolutionary, but it's interesting to think about his findings from a Christian worldview, taking into consideration Paul's emphases on transforming and renewing our minds (consider Romans 8; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; and Colossians 3); scientifically speaking, it would seem we were designed to actually be able to do this:

“The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring but that it doesn’t. Natural selection, writes the philosopher David Buller in Adapting Minds, his critique of evolutionary psychology, 'has not designed a brain that consists of numerous prefabricated adaptations' but rather one that is able 'to adapt to local environmental demands throughout the lifetime of an individual, and sometimes within a period of days, by forming specialized structures to deal with those demands.' Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind – over and over again. Our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting, we now know, are not entirely determined by our genes. Nor are they entirely determined by our childhood experiences. We change them through the way we live – and through the tools we use.” (p. 31)

To keep us out of "the shallows," I'll stop for now and write about "the tools we use" on Thursday. Feel free to leave comments or questions, as the writing is still in progress.

Last Day

In Education, Pop Culture, Westminster on May 28, 2010 at 8:40 am

Here's what I posted on my classroom door this morning, the last day of final exams:

“Mr. Dunham, do you have our tests graded?”

“No (insert name), but thanks for stopping by to say thanks for a great year.”

“You’re welcome. When will my test be done?”

“Today is Friday; grades are due Tuesday. Sometime between now and then, I’m sure.”

“Okay. Can I see what you’ve graded so far?”


“Can you just grade mine real quick so I know what I got?”


“Is this another one of those rare-but-important lessons in delayed gratification that challenges my moral therapeutic deism?”


“Thought so. Hey, I guess I learned something after all. Thanks for a great year, Mr. Dunham.”

"You're welcome."

School's (almost) out for summer. Paging Alice Cooper…

Summer 2010 Preview, Etc.

In Books, Calling, Education, Family, Humanity, Internet, Musicians, Places, Places & Spaces, Theologians, Thought, Travel, TV, Vacation, Web/Tech, Westminster, Writers on May 23, 2010 at 11:00 pm

Sitting here on a Sunday night listening to some Lucinda Williams and doing a little writing. It's been a while since I've done a summary post of sorts, so since Megan and the girls are out of town and we're collectively an entire season behind to really make the LOST finale worth watching, here are a few things I've been thinking about and/or looking forward to:

School: This week is finals week, so I'll be spending most of my time grading. The good news is, unlike the past three years when I was evaluating projects and papers, I'm going into finals week with nothing other than finals to grade, so that should make for a little less consuming week in general.

In other school news, I've signed on for another year at Westminster, but my role is changing a bit as I'll be leaving the world of freshmen New Testament behind for fourth section of sophomore Ethics and one section of senior Worldviews next year. I'm glad for the transition all around.

One last note on the school front (this time the homeschool front), we're going to be entering a new stage of education here at home. This fall, our two oldest girls will be full-time students at Central Christian School in Clayton, while Megan continues leading the Classical Conversations group and homeschools our younger two (here are details from Megan's perspective).

Summer: In addition to writing (more on that below), my primary goal in June is to hang out with the little ladies, read some books, and get a few projects done around here. In addition, I'll help coach our Westminster summer baseball team for a week in June, as well as get trained on some new school information software, as I've been asked to be a mentor teacher to the rest of the staff this fall.

July ups the ante considerably in terms of travel, as we're planning a family trip to Colorado Springs, as the girls are now old enough (somehow) to attend The Navigators' camping programs (Eagle Lake and Eagle's Nest) we helped lead back in the day. I'll try to see as many folks as I can in a few days' time before I jump on a plane from Denver to Portland for my third year as part of Westminster's Summer Seminar. This time, I'll be investing ten days with 25 soon-to-be seniors in Washington state instead of South Dakota, after which I'll fly back to Colorado and then we'll all drive back to Missouri.

August sees staff reporting as earlier as the week of August 9th, but I'll have a few publishing projects to edit and design from the Washington trip, as well as a fair amount of prep work to finalize for my new
Worldviews class. Orientation starts the 12th and the first day of class is the 16th.

Studying: Despite baseball high-jacking my time and energy, I've been reading in a couple areas of interest this spring, not the least of which has been the study of the end times, or eschatology. N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, has been helpful, as has revisiting my notes from seminary (particularly Dr. Dan Doriani's notes from his Epistles and Revelation class). Of the three years I've taught Revelation to my freshmen New Testament classes, I feel like I've done the best job this year.

I'm also finishing up a couple books on education, namely John Dewey and the Decline of American Education by Henry T. Edmondson III, Curriculum 21 edited by Heidi Hayes-Jacobs, and The Secret of TSL by William Ouchi. It seems I've been reading these for a while (and I have), but there's been some good content that's come as a result.

Looking ahead, I have some Worldviews reading to do this summer, including (Re)Thinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand; The Compact Guide to World Religions edited by Dean C. Halverson (ed.); The Journey by Peter Kreeft; Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey; and The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire. Should be fun.

Writing: Now that my second book, Learning Education: Essays & Ideas from My First Three Years of Teaching, is finished, I'm turning back to finishing the ThirtySomewhere manuscript this summer. I'm still looking for a formal publisher to get behind it, but now that I've experimented with the self-publishing gig a bit (and am still experimenting), I may go with what I've got at some point this fall and see what happens. We'll see.

I plan to continue blogging here, though I really wonder how much people are interested in anything longer than 140 Twitter characters these days. Speaking of which, I've enjoyed Twitter enough to keep using it, but there again I just have no way of really knowing how far the medium's actual reach is so as to invest more time in it. Oh well.

Guess that's it for now. There's more, but this is long enough. I'll try to post a few more thoughts later on this week (nothing brings out literary creativity like the desire to avoid grading). Have a good one.