At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 2

Last week, I began a new series on one of the strategic initiatives we are undertaking at my employer, Westminster Christian Academy, namely that of "raising the academic profile." I started things by mentioning that "truth matters", that a school--in seeking to be truly great in the intellectual arena--must believe that knowledge has a fixed reference point, a standard that can be believed and trusted.

And that brings us to item number 2, which simply stated is...

(2) Subject mastery matters

     The faculty of a school that is seeking to be better than they once were--especially in academics--must have a deserved reputation for being deeply trained and masterful scholars in the subject matter which they teach. Teachers are not viewed as a stop-gap, they are not utility infielders for a team trying to get by, and they are not on staff to grab a mere paycheck. True quality education means you have drunk deeply at the well in the area you teach. You have been called to this for a purpose.

     This does not necessarily mean that a teacher automatically has to have an undergraduate major in the exact discipline of their classes. I, for example, teach Biblical ethics at Westminster but I was a history major at Covenant College. Still, I went on to a Master of Divinity degree at Covenant Theological Seminary, which I think qualifies me in certain matters theological. My history professor in college, the legendary Dr. Louis Voskuil, was actually an English major during his days as a student at Calvin College, but his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Loyola University-Chicago underscored his expert status.

     This is one reason why I think we're well-equipped at Westminster to rise to this occasion. Full-time teachers here are well-versed in their subject matter and know their stuff inside and out in a way that brings depth to what we do. In the Bible department where I teach, our full-time faculty all have master's degrees at the seminary level. All of them! That's some serious academic professionalism. Full-time fine arts, math, name it. They've studied what they're expected to impart in the classroom.

     One of the key truisms of life is that what is in the result must be in the cause. We cannot expect increasing excellence in the classroom without teachers who enter it with high ability, knowledge, and hunger to improve their craft. I'm thankful to be at a place where we have this droves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Better Than We Once Were: Part 1

Over the course of the past year, my employer--Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis--has steered things in a direction that (in my opinion) honors our past while seeking greater things in the future. Last year, our headmaster, Dr. Tom Stoner (now in his second year in Wildcat-land) laid out several key initiatives for the years ahead. It's obvious to anyone in the educational field that not every initiative resonates equally to each teacher, but one that I found quite strategically delicious was about "raising the academic profile".

That should be obvious, you say, for a school to believe that strongly about academics. Else, why engage in the process? Why not try to go several rungs up the ladder, especially in a place like Westminster where we are competing with other solid public schools as well as elite private schools like Mary Institute/Country Day School and John Burroughs School? 

My case is somewhat different. I assume that if we are going to be excellent--defined by Westminster as "being better than we once were"--that is a passion we must have. But you cannot raise the academic profile of a school unless you have certain ingredients in the visionary stew. So what is coming over the next few weeks is my evolving take on the pillars that Westminster holds to--and that are good for any school--that gives substance and foundation to its pursuit of "raising the academic profile."

(Note: This is my take, and while I am strongly assuming these are in place at Westminster, please don't blithely reason that I am speaking as an official representative of Westminster's administrative leadership. I am neither official, representative, or administrative. Sometimes I can lead.)

That being said, today's necessary ingredient of our pursuit is...

(1) Truth matters
      I know that's a very nebulous item to start with, and I promise I'll get more concrete later on, so that we're not always dog-paddling in the depths of the epistemological ocean. But it is absolutely critical we get this nailed down. 

No school--whether a pre-school, a college prep academy, public comprehensive institution, or a college or university--will ever become truly great and remain great academically if it believes everything to be known is up for grabs.

To be great--and increasingly better--academically, you must believe that all knowledge has a standard, a firm reference point that makes complete sense out of everything. Obviously, Westminster being a Christian school, we believe that truth exists because God is truth, is himself the standard of truth and goodness, and Jesus Christ is the perfect embodiment of that. Of course, other schools and people might disagree on those particulars. But the point is that what matters is that (1) things can be known to be true, (2) we can have reasonable certainty about what is true and beneficial and wise, and (3) once embracing it, we can put truth into practice for the good of people and the world around us.

If a school believes that anyone can believe whatever they want (which people can), and that all these mental droppings that glisten like bacon fat in our world have equal validity (which they can't), then the school's mission will stall worse than a 1989 Chrysler LeBaron on a sub-zero morning in Idaho. I don't have time to go into all the details here, but Greg Koukl does a great job of laying out what happens if you believe everything is subjectively up for grabs. You might as well play a football game without boundaries, end zones, yard lines, a rule book, or penalties for accountability, while still demanding to keep score. Hardly makes sense.

The bottom line is that if your finish line is a vapor, you'll never succeed. Believing truth is totally subjective vs. truth matters as an objective reality is like the difference between throwing and arrow and shooting one from a well-strung recurve bow. The first way is horribly ineffective; the second can have both true accuracy and power.

To be certain, Westminster won't get it right in every microscopic detail every time. But we move forward in raising the academic profile because, as a teaching and administrative community, we believe that truth exists and truth matters, and truth can be discovered, embraced, and be transformational because that is part of a Greater Design. And if we believe that day in and day out, then we can be confident we have begun our pursuit of a more excellent standard in the right way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Open Letter to Westminster Christian Academy Students

Dear WCA-St. Louis students,

Well, at least I think I'm speaking to all of you. Some seniors might continue to slog along on the ACT. But we have you juniors eventually getting hit with the PSAT, sophomores encountering the ASPIRE test (a.k.a., the pre-ACT now) this Friday, freshman take the ERB Wednesday and Thursday this week, and middle school students doing the ERB dip next week.

Standardized testing. Like death and taxes, it's a part of life. If things haven't changed since my student days, you students look forward to taking these tests about as much as the Luxembourgish army would relish attacking ISIS with nothing but Twinkies. I remember almost every test--whether it be the Stanford Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills (which I rather liked because Iowa is near Kansas), or others--had the unmistakable effect of making me prefer getting a back massage with pliers dunked in SuperGlue. Maybe it was the fact that I was never a good standardized test-taker. Maybe I found a lot of other things a lot more interesting.

But in looking back on it, I think I knew instinctively that--as important as these tests are for National Merit qualifying, colleges to get a look at rising possibilities, and so forth--none of it would ever give the world a glimpse at the real me. And so as you Wildcats take these tests over the next few weeks, take them seriously. Don't just breeze through them. But that seriousness needs to be kept in proper perspective. A standardized test has limits, and even though it can give a snapshot of your learning or aptitude, it does NOT define you.

Don't believe me? Here's a list of things a standardized test cannot measure (with thanks to Craig Dunham for dealing with much of this before):

(1) Your creativity, your love of the art gallery that God has made this world to be, and your ability to add to that--to quote Gerald Manley Hopkins--"universe...charged with the grandeur of God."
(2) Your integrity and willingness to tell the truth, to be honest and clear and responsible no matter what the consequences.
(3) Your desire and ability to rise above the greatest pain and most abject trials, to suffer redemptively and endure well, and to encourage those who bear life's pain.
(4) Your aptitude of taking needed risks, to be an entrepreneur, to be an original and innovative thinker and doer.
(5) Your ability to receive constructive criticism and learn from it, or your ability to humbly receive praise and grow rooted in God's grace and delight.
(6) Your ability to empathize with others and forgive them if they wrong you, or your ability to ask forgiveness and reconcile with those you wrong.
(7) Your ability and desire to ask deeper questions, demonstrating the type of critical thinking that leads to more questions.
(8) Your willingness to work and partner with others to learn from them and with them.
(9) Your love of reading...because no matter what a test does in testing reading ability, it cannot measure the passion and delectable desire to curl up with a great book and lose yourself in another world.
(10) Your smile, the twinkle in your eye, and any other noticeable feature that gives joy to the heartbeats of others just to be in your presence.
(11) And a standardized test will never...NEVER pursue you, live the life you are incapable of living, die the death you deserved, and rip up its own grave so that every day it can live to delight in you and empower you to follow it. 

You are worth infinitely more than any score on a standardized test. So go out and do your best, Westminster students. Just keep this whole thing in proper perspective.

Rabbi Davis

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Behind the Microphone

I've sort of volunteered for a new endeavor this year. No, it's not something I can see becoming a new career (that would be a major jolt!). I am spending time as a PA announcer for Westminster's home football games this fall. I made my debut three weeks back when our Wildcats felled the Festus Tigers, 27-0, and I had such a blast that I signed on to do more.

It's an interesting blend of preparation, doing announcing in this manner. You don't have the pressure of always talking, like a TV or radio play-by-play announcer, or even the level of a color commentator. No one sees me (that's a relief) but they can hear me, so to be heard and not seen is the perfect outlet for my introverted self.

It takes a good bit of work ahead of time. I completed a four-page large-print script for the key moments of the game that I know will occur: pre-game comments, sportsmanship announcement, coin flip, halftime concessions plug, thank-yous for all involved at the end of the third quarter, etc. But there are things you can't prepare for and have to do by the seat of your pants. And that is the bread and butter of each play: telling the crowd the result, who had the ball for what amount of yardage, and the new down and yardage. And not just giving the information, but in a way that keeps fans engaged in the game.

This Saturday is only my second time in the press box, but even early on in this opportunity, I've come up with a few ideas about "PA announcing essentials". To wit:

(1) The focus is on the game, not on your talent: The announcer is a conduit for the fans to enjoy the game. The enduring memory of the day should be the teams' performance, not on whatever wisecracks you come up with. If your words are invasive more than helpful, you're doing it all wrong.

(2) Make the game come alive: Our former headmaster, Jim Marsh, approached me the other day and thanked me for doing the announcing. His words to me were, "You made that game come alive!" I just saw it as doing my job, but it was good to hear that some considered the game as a vivid portrayal and not a mere listing of deeds. I do recall a moment in the third period when we were on our own one-yard line; you could have put a half-smoked cigarette lengthwise between the ball and our goal line. And the first thing that came to mind were the words, "And the Wildcats begin their drive in the formidable shadow of the north end zone." That was--in my mind--a simple comment that threw an appropriate splash of color on the canvas of the game.

(3) Be objective: Your job is not to be a fan, but to shepherd people through their enjoyment of the game. I'm not in the press box to openly root for Westminster, although I do want them to win. The PA announcer--as part of shifting into the background--cannot take sides. Sportsmanship extends to the press box, as well.

(4) Assume the intelligence of the fans: Of course, you'll have some people come to a game as a social event and have little knowledge of the X's and O's of the game, but I think fans will appreciate it if you don't talk down to them. You are not there to explain the game but to enhance the fans' enjoyment of the event.

(5) Have fun: You are in all likelihood no Dick Vitale, or Keith Jackson, or Brent Musburger, or Joe or Jack Buck (for you Cardinal fans!). But if you demonstrate you enjoy what you do, it'll come out through the mike. And the fans will smell that hunt as well and enjoy the game along with you.

So if you're in the area, the next game is 2 pm CT at Westminster, as our undefeated Wildcats take on rival MICDS. Come watch as we try to push our record to 4-0!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 3

I just realized how long ago it had been since I blogged on this three-part Noah series, and so with much apology I'm back at the keyboard. The tidal wave of teaching activity since Labor Day has certainly carried me far away from all this, and it's good to be back.

I've already spilled ink on how I viewed Noah as through the eyes of a biblical traditionalist and a cinematic realist. Very briefly, there is also the third lens through which I saw the movie, that of...

(3) A practical idealist: Someone recently asked me my views on the Left Behind series of books, as they had seen the movie starring Kirk Cameron. As I generally avoid movies with Mr. Cameron--no offense--I couldn't speak to the movie itself, nor had I read the book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In fact, the little I know of what the books say tends to clash with my own view of "the end times" because I see the creation being renewed, not destroyed and rebuilt (among other trifles), but that takes us beyond this point. I did mention that I tend not to stand in the way of media that truly generates an interest in people checking out the Biblical story for themselves. The film or novel or whatever might be inaccurate on some (or many) levels, and I've already detailed some of my concerns about how the Biblical story was presented in the Noah film. But does that have to be the last word.

Even in the previews for the film itself, director Darren Aronofsky was careful to mention something along the lines that "the Biblical narrative of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis." I thought that was a remarkable display of transparency, as was his admission that historical, literary, and artistic license had been taken in the film's presentation of the epic. And perhaps that's what gives me a sliver of optimism. Perhaps people will check the original source, whatever their view of the Bible is, whether they believe it's trustworthy or not, if they believe it is God's Word or not. If this generates an interest in reading Scripture, then that in itself could be a victory.

It can't get any worse, in my opinion. Americans are deplorable in their biblical literacy [more on that in a future post dealing some more recent findings] and anything that raises the tide in that area gets a thumbs-up from me.

So Noah wasn't exactly lined up with the Biblical story. Your challenge--if you count yourself as a Christian--is to know the Biblical drama well enough so you can speak intelligently and winsomely about how to bridge the gaps in those differences. Not to mention, the true hope for me is that people not only enjoy the Great Story, but that they also place their trust and confidence in the Storyteller, thus finding themselves caught up and thrilled to be in the Greater Drama itself.