Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Portrait of a Graduate

Over the years Veritas has developed three major documents, called ‘purpose and outcome statements’, that provide direction for the Board, administration and staff. The most central of these is our mission statement, which emphasizes our understanding of the educational program of our school—to cultivate wisdom, virtue and godliness. The other of the trio of guiding statements are our Portrait of a Graduate and our Characteristics of Teaching Excellence. The Portrait is a detailed set of descriptors that guide our work both in and out of the classroom. I would like to take the opportunity in the next few issues of Verbatim to explain the elements of the Portrait and why it is so important to what we, in partnership with parents, are trying to do at Veritas.

It should be said up front that our Portrait constitutes our ultimate aim, our ideal. We don’t believe that we will achieve a complete version of this Portrait in every, or even in any single, graduate. We are very aware that though we will have great responsibility and opportunities with students, we are not the only influences in their lives. Family, church, and even peers all play roles in shaping young people. But having a clear goal is vital to success, and, if we don’t absolutely achieve our goal with every student, we will, by the grace of God, be able to get as close as we can. We are also very conscious that, as one teacher put it, these ideal characteristics are not 100% contagious. They must be modeled by the adults in our school, and even explicitly taught.

It should also be understood that having this portrait is not unique to Veritas. All schools have some kind of graduate in mind as they plan their activities, shape what is taught and how, encourage or discourage certain thoughts and attitudes. Their picture might be implicit, and has likely never been drawn up with any consistency or consciousness. The staff may never have thought of its school program in this light, but it is there nevertheless. Since this is the case, wisdom requires that we at Veritas consciously work toward a common goal. We begin our description of an ideal graduate with a general statement:We aim to graduate young men and women who reason precisely and articulate persuasively, who are capable of evaluating their range of experience in the light of Scripture, and who doso with eagerness and in joyful submission to God.

This statement is loaded with implications. In our weekly discussions as teachers we didn’t get past the first few words for a couple of weeks. What does it mean to “reason precisely"? How do we, as classroom teachers, make sure this is happening on a daily basis, in an age-appropriate way? How do we train students toward persuasiveness in their communication while encouraging them to avoid manipulating their audience? These questions, and many others like them, have occupied our discussions. The picture that emerges when looking closely at our Portrait is one in which we aim to help students to think carefully and biblically, and to speak and write forcefully and truthfully. We are very concerned with not only their academic and intellectual growth but with who they are.  

How do we know, then, when the Portrait has begun to take hold? For each major category we have sub-points that provide specific descriptors that illustrate or provide examples of what more concrete behaviors ought to flow from the general principles. For the first statement they are as follows:
·         demonstrate godly discernment in all their dealings with the world
·         speak and write persuasively and wisely in any situation
·         submit joyfully and eagerly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things

The common elements of these—godly discernment, wisdom, joyful submission to Christ, the recognition of his Lordship over all creation—drive us back to our mission to “cultivate wisdom, virtue and godliness.”

We are acutely aware that the successful implementation of our Portrait of a Graduate is completely dependent on the grace of God. We know that these characteristics can’t be manufactured in our students. We can’t turn a handle and crank out identical Portrait products without flaw or defect. Just because we have a document that explicitly states our aims, and just because we talk about them continually, does not mean that it will happen. Like everything else in education, the Portrait has to be modeled and we, as teachers and staff, know that we are very imperfect models of what we’re trying to help those in our classes grow to be. Teachers, in particular, need to incarnate the virtues they want to see in their students. These things have to be lived out in front of them consistently, joyfully and patiently. Success may take many years to reveal itself, and so we can only do what we know to be good and pray that God will bring the fruit.

As I mentioned above, every school, whether it acknowledges it or not, has some kind of image in mind of the sort of person it is seeking to develop. This is inevitable, since it is what education is. Veritas' Portrait of a Graduate is our attempt to provide clear guidance for all of us as to how the mission of classical, Christ-centered education should be revealed in the lives of our graduates. It sets a very high bar for all of us—parents, teachers, and students alike. But we believe that, through the outworking of Christ in us and not because of our own efforts, we can all grow toward being people that are becoming more wise, godly and virtuous, all to the glory of God.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Wise Engagement

Portland’s Chinatown is home to one of most authentic Chinese gardens outside of China. According to garden’s operators, it is a replica of the kind of traditional, urban retreat that Chinese officials and scholars sought from busy city life.  Taking up a city block, the garden attempts to recreate a natural, secluded feel in the city by mixing buildings, covered walks, courtyards and private spaces, a small lake, stone, trees and plants. In places like this the residents, although compelled to live in the city, would have been able to have glimpses of the ideal of isolation from the world of everyday affairs, where they would be free to write poetry, practice calligraphy, read, and generally practice the pursuits of scholars without interference from the outside world. This ideal, though perhaps appealing on its surface, is ultimately contrary to what the Christian is called to.  Classical, Christian education seeks to supply young men and women with the ability and the resources to live in the world, though not of it, using the considerable talents and tastes that God and their education has given them to work for the kingdom of God amidst the turmoil of a fallen world, not as an unfortunate necessity, but in faithful service to Christ.
The guidebook from the Chinese garden describes the ideal of the isolated scholar: “Scholars aspired to be hermits in the mountains, surrounded by nature. Since affairs of state and family required living in the city, nature was brought to them—on a small scale.” This ideal has been an enticing one historically in the West, as well, from the medieval hermit  to the Romantic poet seeking  inspiration in lonely, blasted landscapes and twisted trees. And, of course, there is no denying the God-given appeal of nature. Man was originally made to live in a garden, and the end of Revelation describes the New Jerusalem as a kind of garden-city full of trees and rivers. (For more on this I would refer the reader to David  Hegeman’s Plowing in Hope.) Many of us have backyard retreats, more or less wild, intentionally or not depending on our skill or diligence, and I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to live in isolated areas or to seek solitude in nature. But as Christians our ideal is not to try to escape from the world. The hermit in the mountains is not our model, whether as scholars or not. We are meant to live as people among people, exercising our gifts in faith.
In Veritas’s Portrait of a Graduate, our description of the ideal elements of a graduate, we assume an active, faithful engagement with the world.  Part of this picture includes our desire that they will “demonstrate godly discernment in all their dealings with the world”, and “honor Christ by leading in their communities through their individual callings”. We also aim that they will “submit joyfully and eagerly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.” We want our graduates to be equipped for action in the world, while always maintaining an independence from it.
Classical, Christian education is not a retreat from society. This education desires to equip students with the personal, intellectual and spiritual tools to engage  in whatever capacity God calls them. If we, assisting  families, truly cultivate wisdom, virtue and godliness in our students (as our mission calls for), then they will go out from us ready to serve. Far from being a denial of the reality of the fallen world around us, classical, Christ-centered education is an embracing of the full purpose for which we were created, to fill the world with the knowledge of, and obedience to, the Creator in every corner, in every human endeavor.
The Protestant educator Johann Sturm put it very well in his Correct Opening of Elementary Schools of Letters in 1538.  Although written a long time ago, in a very different place, the goal of education that he describes is much the same as it has always been for God’s people:
For although the goal of our studies is a knowledge of the physical world…if life is separated from teaching and letters, what usefulness does elegant and liberal education have? Accordingly, let piety and religion be set forth in schools and let the youthful spirit be trained for this through the cultivation of letters.
The purpose of education is not just to learn in order to serve our own interests or even for our own personal enjoyment.  Rather, it is to prepare young people for life, that is, to be ready to live in the world God has made. The best means of doing this is through a classical education with the Scriptures always at the center. Through it we fix our minds and hearts on the goodness of God, on the true, good and beautiful, so that we become attached to, and desire, his kingdom above all else.  The “cultivation of letters” that Sturm speaks of is not a pragmatic acquiring of immediately marketable skills, but an intentional, deep meditation on the things that God has done and made, and that his image-bearers have done in reflection of that image.
Service to God through our various callings, far from being a necessary evil, is really what we are made for. While we need rest, and nature, and retreats from the busyness of life, the classical, Christian ideal is not that of the isolated scholar enjoying the wonders of the best things that God and man have made. We learn to love God and his good creation, and, ultimately, to serve him faithfully and wholeheartedly, wherever he has placed us.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

From the Commonplace Book: Philip Melancthon on Homer

"Homer does not swell the purse with gold or silver, nor the stomach with fat, nor does he encircle the fingers with rings adorned with jewels; but he certainly fills the mind with treasure, which is the more excellent and immortal part of ourselves, and adorns and enriches it...Those who consider everything in relation to its usefulness for them, and who measure happiness by the possession of the goods of fortune, should remember that they are grasping fragile and most unstable goods that are often destructive for those who own them, and that by the movement of one moment their entire happiness and they themselves can be completely overturned."
From 'Preface to Homer'

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Propositum a nobis est, sapientem atque eloquentem pietatem finem esse studiorum.

The High Calling of Parents

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. –Ephesians 6:4

      At a recent prospective student weekend at New Saint Andrew’s College (Moscow, Idaho), Dr. Roy Atwood, the college’s president, discussed with visiting parents and students some important principles for ‘thinking strategically’, as he puts it, about choosing a college.  Dr. Atwood began with some general questions for us to consider: How will your education help you to fulfill your various callings (not just find a job)? Will you understand how all things cohere in Christ, and be able to teach that to the next generation? Who do you want to be 20, 30 or 40 years from now? As we discussed these things it occurred to me that if the decision about how to educate college-aged students requires this kind of thinking (and I think it does) how much more is it needed for children too young for college and thus much more in need of careful guidance and nurture? It is critical that parents have a very clear understanding of what the purpose of education is and how education shapes children’s minds and hearts, and that they are prepared to choose wisely for the education of their children. Classical and Christ-centered education seeks deliberately to work in harmony with the culture of the home to develop young adults who go into the world prepared to honor and glorify Christ in all they are and do.

      The apostle Paul in the Ephesians passage above stresses the responsibility of parents to bring up their children in the paideia of the Lord. Paideia (translated ‘discipline’ in the ESV) is a term that refers to the entire training and education of children. This involves the cultivation of the mind, as well as the virtues, and even the body. It encompasses the formal education, as well as on-going discipline, and general enculturation. This is not limited to discipline in the sense of correction; although it includes this, the concept is far broader. Paideia expresses a classical educational ideal to which Christians gave a new and deeper meaning. It involves all that the child is and is becoming. What Paul is enjoining is the raising and educating of children through and into an all-pervasive culture of thought and action that is pleasing and honoring to the Lord.

      Modern education, at least since the late 19th century, has stressed job training or mere work skills over the classical and Christian ideal of paideia. There were many reasons for this radical change, but generally speaking there has been a strange alliance of modernist anti-traditionalism and pragmatism, socialist leveling tendencies, and corporate and statist proponents of a productive labor force. This view of education permeated colleges and universities, and has from there filtered down to lower education. While realizing one’s calling in a career can be a God-honoring result of the process of education, a job isn’t the purpose of education any more than one learns to read in order to read the fine print on a job offer. Classical and Christian education seeks to make one useful, as well, but by equipping the whole person—mind, soul, body—for service to Christ and community.

Martin Luther’s advice to parents on the subject of school selection is perhaps even more relevant today than when he gave it during the time of the Reformation:

I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them on the hearts of youth. I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution in which men and women are not unceasingly occupied with the Word of God must be corrupt.

      Luther reminds us that all education enculturates, that is, every school forms those being taught into a way of living. Students spend six-plus hours a day, five days a week, in a place that is training them to desire certain things, to think and live in certain ways, and to make assumptions about the way people and world are, or ought to be. This is unavoidable and incredibly powerful. It is a shaping that stays with a student for a lifetime, and it goes on whether the school—or the parents—like to admit it or not. Like tea in boiling water, or dye to a cloth, the life and culture of a school seeps into the student, flavoring and coloring in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

      If this enculturation, this education, is formed by a desire on the part of the school to seek the wisdom of God and to honor him in its practices and its curriculum, then it is a blessing both to parents and their children. However, if the school is not deliberately and intentionally striving to cultivate godly young people, then that school is not merely a neutral information factory, it is working actively to form the student to some other use than to serve Christ.

      There is no escape from this process—there is not meant to be. Parents have a high calling, the glorious and weighty privilege of bringing children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Children will grow, they will learn, they will imbibe and embrace a view of the world and who they are in it. Christian parents ought to choose the education of their children wisely so that they will grow and learn in a way that will be a blessing to them, to those around them and to generations to come, and, ultimately, honoring to God.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Audio interview with author James K. A. Smith on classical, Christian education

On Christopher Perrin's (Classical Academic Press) blog there are audios of a series of outstanding interviews with author James K. A. Smith on classical, Christian education. Smith is the author of 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation'.

The audios are 5 minutes in length, and the whole interview runs about 45 minutes.

Titles include Pastors and Classical Christian Education, Pedagogy Assumes an Anthropology,  How Humans are Shaped, What Secular Education Lacks, and more.

The link below will take you to Perrin's blog Inside Classical Education where the interview can be found.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sapiens et Eloquens Pietas

The following will appear in the upcoming issue of Verbatim, Veritas School's newsletter. Readers of this blog get an exclusive preview.

For Veritas’s recent Benefit Dinner I was asked to speak briefly about the ‘heart’ of Veritas, or what is at the core of our school’s mission. What follows is a somewhat expanded version of those comments, as I took the opportunity to introduce the unique calling of classical, Christian education.

The mission of Veritas is to cultivate wisdom, virtue and godliness in our students, families, staff and communities through an excellent classical, Christian education. An essential part of fulfilling this is to instill, by God’s grace, what the German Reformation educator Johann Sturm called sapiens et eloquens pietas—wise and eloquent piety—a joyful, humble, firmly-held faith in Christ that uses the best education to raise up wise, virtuous, God-fearing and God-loving people. To accomplish this, classical, Christian educators draw on the deep and lasting, that which has stood the test of time in literature, the arts, the sciences, and mathematics. We use these to cultivate students who think clearly and biblically, speak and write eloquently and truthfully, and do all of this to the glory of God.

The result of this emphasis contrasts sharply with what is seen in other kinds of schools. For example, in a recent Washington Post article, a member of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee lamented “a specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago. As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.” The committee, she writes, is looking for students who “wonder, students who are reading widely” and yet what they are seeing are students who “have given very little thought to matters beyond their…area of study.” A classical, Christian education, instead, enables students to think in an integrated way, and to evaluate their learning and their world by a higher, all-encompassing standard.

All of our students take all subjects, and so they are able to participate in the wide range of experiences that come with being made in the image of God. All students K-12 take music each year. All take art; all are in four years of foreign language in high school, four years of math, history, English, etc. They are not forced to specialize at this age, or declare what sort of career path they want to take. Rather, they are free to learn and develop a broad range of abilities and talents.

Classical education, then, is not merely about earning a living, but is about learning how to live. Proverbs 3:14 tells us that wisdom is “better than gold” and more precious than jewels, that “nothing you desire can compare with her.” In Proverbs 8:10-11 wisdom herself calls out, reminding us to “take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her”. We desire, through our curriculum and through our school culture, to encourage our students to value wisdom above the things the world has to offer. This is a critical part of our ‘portrait of a graduate’, our blueprint so to speak, of what we want our graduates to be like.

And while our graduates are extraordinarily well-prepared for college—our SATs are third-highest in the Portland area (well over 300 points above the state average) and 100% of our graduates typically go on to four-year colleges and universities—it is not college admissions or test scores that we chiefly value. These things are tremendous blessings, of course, but they are a consequence of classical, Christian education, not the purpose of it. Our over-arching mission is to see our students grow in loving and serving Christ because of, their education at Veritas.

The scriptures clearly teach that a man will harvest what he sows. We will all have to eat at some point in the future what we have planted today. The desire of the staff and board of Veritas School is to help parents plant firmly and deeply, in excellent soil, beside living water, so that there will be a good and abundant harvest—that is, a godly, wise and eloquent generation—that grows up to glorify and love God and to plant well in their turn.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Top Ten Books on Teaching

Here's a list of my top ten books on teaching I shared at our annual teaching conference last summer. I'll be adding a list of books on education later. (Click here for information on 2011 Teaching Conference:

The Seven Laws of Teaching—John Milton Gregory.  Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the practice of teaching.

 The Art of TeachingGilbert Highet. In this 1950 classic, Highet explores the methods of teaching as an art, not a science, drawing on his experience as a student and tutor in Oxford and Columbia.

The Great Didactic— Johann Amos Comenius.  The 17th-century Protestant leader makes the case for a reform of the schools based on nature and the understanding of the nature of children.

Vittorino da Feltre and Other Humanist Educators—Woodward, trans. Contains essays by four leading Renaissance humanists defending the new learning.

On Christian Doctrine, Book IV— Augustine. Augustine addresses the importance of teachers being able to ‘teach, delight, and persuade.’

Norms and Nobility—David Hicks. Extraordinarily thought-provoking.  Hicks defends the classical view of the school as a ‘normative, not a utilitarian’ institution’.

Checking for Understanding—Fisher, Frey. The  authors give very practical suggestions for implementing formative assessment in the classroom.

The Art and Science of Teaching—Robert J. Marzano.  Subtitled ‘A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction’, this book addresses such questions as ‘What will I do to help students effectively interact with new knowledge?’

Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by DesignTomlinson and McTighe.
“Backward planning” for units and differentiating classroom instruction are addressed.

Teaching with the Brain in Mind—Eric Jensen. Jensen explains the workings of the brain and how teachers can use this knowledge to help students learn.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Veritas Choir on YouTube

Veritas School's choir singing Baba Yetu is now at over 95,600 views on YouTube.

Keep in mind that this was our entire high school at the time (2008), not just our Concert Choir. In my humble opinion our choirs have only become better since this video was recorded.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Forming a Classical, Christ-centered Community

In his video series for parents, ‘The Case for Kids’ Paul David Tripp describes the family as a theological community, a sociological community, and a redemptive community. And while I agree with him that “there’s no better place to teach God’s way of love than the family”, it is also true that a Christ-centered school, in support of these families, ought to attend to these things, as well.

As a ‘theological community , the school helps students to interpret their world rightly. It presents them with a view of reality that corresponds with the way things really are: God is the creator and sustainer of all things, and we were created to worship him. This is one of chief goals of any true education, and any schooling that gives another view—or says that such views are unimportant—is slowly indoctrinating its students into a lie. A Christ-centered school will present students with the reality that they are created as worshipping beings, that they cannot help but worship something, and that their duty is to learn to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. An educational philosophy that integrates theological truth in all subjects, from mathematics to literature, will strengthen this conviction in students that their view of God applies to all of life, not just to ‘religion’.

While the fundamental theological truth of God’s existence and character undergirds the classical, Christian school, it is also true that a school is a community where all of us need to learn to love our neighbor. Love must be worked out in the day-to-day, including the inevitable struggles we have with one another. In this, a school is no different from other communities, whether the family or the world at large. In any place where nearly three hundred human beings interact all day long in a relatively small area there will be conflict. Even if we all share the same goal of helping our students grow in wisdom, virtue and godliness, disagreements will arise. We must remember that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Sometimes this means being willing to speak the truth in love, even when difficult. Sometimes it may mean choosing to cover a transgression—even a multitude of them!—with the love and mercy we as forgiven sinners have been shown. But in all cases we must keep in mind that as we love and serve Christ we must also love those around us, as well. An example of this in practice is our protocol program. Secondary students learn not just which fork to use at formal dinners, but, more importantly, to consider others first. The whole purpose of manners, they are taught, is to put others at ease, not to show off.

All of this sounds wonderful, and it has been a great blessing to have witnessed our theological and sociological community act in Christ-honoring ways over the years. Veritas is a place characterized by a desire to understand and worship God rightly, and to treat others with love. But, of course, none of us do these things perfectly, and some of us (speaking for myself) struggle to do them at all. We all fall far short of loving God with all our hearts and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves. Our community, as well intentioned as it is, often seems to be a collection of selfish and fallen creatures.

God be praised, he has not left us in this condition. Tripp reminds us that a family, and by extension a school, should also be a redemptive community. There is hope for us. But this hope is not found in the political or philosophical systems of the world, but in the redemption found in the person of Christ alone. One of the things we hope classical education teaches our students is the futility of the world’s wisdom. We read great books and discuss great ideas, but we do it in a way that “takes every thought captive”. Whatever they promise, the false gods of the ancients, just like the false gods of our contemporaries, ultimately fail. They cannot do otherwise. Only in the grace of God is found a redemption that is true and lasting.

Classical, Christian schools are uniquely formed to support parents in encouraging their children to love God, look at the world in ways that agree with God’s ways, to learn to love others, and to depend on the grace of God to do all of this. Veritas is committed in its mission to the cultivation of wisdom, virtue, and godliness. The goals of classical education—emphasizing grammar, logic, and rhetoric in all subjects, encouraging every student to develop a love for learning and to live up to his or her academic potential, and providing an orderly atmosphere conducive to these goals—are meant to assist parents in this most important of tasks, the raising of their children to the praise and honor of God.