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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Hey...I've Got a Question!

Later this summer, it's quite likely the next volume in the Cameron Ballack Mystery series will be available. The Broken Cross will continue the story of our wheelchair-bound gumshoe as he blends logic and intuition while getting used to having more personnel as part of a larger team. That means the murders get nastier and the interpersonal relationships get more complex. 

The tapestry of greater St. Louis is still in full force, and as we begin at the Cathedral Basilica and move to the Drury Plaza at the Arch, to Fast Eddie's Bon Air in Alton, IL, to St. Vincent's Park for some Gaelic football and all places in between, the pace will not let up. It's a different sort of mystery, but readers should enjoy a consistently great story. 

Nonetheless, in the interest of promoting the book's release, I fully recognize some people still have questions. Some of them may revolve around some basics about writing: "How did you figure out what to write about?", "What's your writing routine?".

Or some question might revolve around my books themselves, like "Why these characters?", "Who do your people represent?", "Why St. Louis?"

Maybe you have some questions about the Christian faith and the art of storytelling. Perhaps you want to know where the whole storyline is headed. Maybe you have a question that doesn't fit in these categories.

To that end, I'm doing what I call "Build An Interview". Figuring my connections on social media might have the best queries because they've tended to read my stuff and get on my blog, this is open season. What you can do now is simply pose any question on writing/reading/faith/my books to me by responding here on my blog, via private message on Facebook, directly on my Facebook wall, or by tweeting me at @LukeHDavis, or to my email if you know it (I'm not slinging my email all over the public domain, though). The questions will be compiled and answered for however long they come in, and if you ask a truly unique one, I'll note your name as a bonus.

Let's build the interview, folks. What questions do you have for me?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Learning and Limits

Before you query any more deeply about the title, this is about technology.

You know, technology and its role in the classroom.

Like the use of iPads.

Yeah, something safe, designed to kick up no dust.

Well, let me preface this: I am sharing all this as an employee of a school where we have a growing iPad initiative in place. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, we began to require--not without discussion--parents of entering seventh-graders to purchase iPads (or at least iPad Minis) for their children to use in the classroom. Also needed were the downloading of educational apps--both free and at cost to the families--which would be utilized as part of their educational experience here.

My purpose here today is not to ride the fine line of support and critique. The class levels using iPads have not risen to the place where I am having them as students, yet. So I can't say much for what the more widespread use of iPads and like digital technology brings to my classroom. I neither can nor will speak for my colleagues and their experience in trying to shuffle the deck and use iPads in their curriculum. I'd refer you directly to them if interested. It's only fair to let them speak for themselves.

However, as our daughter Lindsay began there as a seventh-grader this past year, I think I can speak as a parent-educator. Not to give a blanket endorsement nor scathing critique, but simply to say this: There are things that iPads can do and there are things they cannot do.

First, what they can do...

1. They can streamline materials, presentations, and transmission. And they do this quite well. I liked the idea of Lindsay having her math textbook downloaded on her iPad Mini rather than clunking around an 800-page monster rivaling War and Peace for denseness and my last meal for weight. Her presentations for projects in Bible and Geography classes could be ably entered onto Keynote. And ordinary vocabulary assignments could be completed on the iPad and sent to her teacher without the need of tracking paper. There's no doubt the iPad is more eco-friendly in that regard.
2. The iPad can encourage collaboration, and that helps students to see that education--as Socrates once said--is not the filling of a vessel, but a lighting of a flame. The more multi-sensory opportunities of the iPad can expand possibilities in the classroom, if managed effectively.
3. However, iPads can overwhelm and distract an already distracted and distractible student population. The sheer number of apps available can be more of a tidal wave than a manageable river at times. And a generation that is already addicted--yes, I went there...addicted to technology is having one more layer of white noise put into life's package. You're telling me that students aren't trying to multi focus, that they aren't playing games or doodling on their other apps when they should be paying close attention to class discussion of King of Mulberry Street? Yeah, tell it to the bull out back.
4. The iPad creates...nay, it mandates an additional layer of responsibilities for parents who must be watchful of what their child is putting on the iPad itself, be it pictures, memes, or whatever online sites are in their browsing history. We have to be very careful as schools in the message we are sending to conscientious parents who want their children to make responsible moral decisions in what goes from their eyes to their brains to their hearts and to their souls. Christy and I are watchful and check regularly, but I sense we're in the minority. And to be quite honest, it wears us out. Oh, what's that, you say? Your kid would never wander into questionable cyber-pastures? Because they go to a Christian school? Yeah, the bull is still out back.
5. The iPad can be a great drawing card for people who want a twenty-first century education for their child. (Of course, since we are technically in the 21st century, everyone is getting that kind of education...duh.) However, a school must give careful thought to how digital technology fits into the overall scope of the curriculum and the educational mission of the school. If the issue is competition with other schools--especially in private and independent education--then we must give pause. Eventually, teachers and parents will figure out if the reason you have iPads is to be able to tell prospective families that you have iPads. They're smart like that, you know.

And what iPads cannot do...
1. They cannot improve your attention span. The amount of information in the world doubles at a fairly rapid rate (every eighteen months, if I recall correctly...and IBM estimates we could hit a rate of every thirteen hours one day!), so I understand life doesn't slow down unless we are intentional about it. But don't expect tools like the iPad to help in that intentionality. Just saying.
2. They cannot give you a greater thirst for learning for learning's sake. No technological tool can do this. Occasionally, one might unlock some improvement and desire that was latent. But a student will learn more, apply truth more, and broaden their applicator wisdom better if that fire burns within them anyway. What an iPad can do here is so minimal here it is staggering.
3. By and large, they cannot make you a better reader or writer. More and more research is coming out about the differences between digital reading and the use of hard copy books. While people might read a higher volume of stuff with digital readers (Kindle, Nook, iPads with e-reading app, etc.), the ability to connect with previous locations in the book, prior quotes or events in a story, and in general the critical thinking skills that flower with deep reading skills truly grow and ferment well via the reading of traditional paper material. In a culture in which people read less and less (and in which some of my students can't remember the last time they read a book), we don't need to hamstring ourselves if that's what it might come to. And writing skills flourish best when students are expected to take notes and write responses by hand rather than typing
4. Technology cannot automatically make you a better critical thinker. You become a better thinker by reading, writing, and learning how to think. Yes, thinking is a skill that can be strengthened and improved. It can be taught. It can be learned. And there are ways to do this in schools (cough...teach Latin and logic in schools...cough). An iPad can take these strengths and help put them to use, but it is not substitute for a living flesh-and-blood human guiding someone through how to think well (for materials to help, go here).
5. And, an iPad will not make you a more moral soul, a more loving person, or an increasingly compassionate individual who has a concern for human flourishing. To do that, you need to be more attuned to looking others in the eyes and being drawn to their needs and soul thirsts.And to look other in the eyes, you need to get your eyes off digital devices. Just saying...

So, keep in mind this is not a diatribe. It's a call to sober judgment and careful discernment. Tools like the iPad can be very helpful in many areas. But they come with challenges, unanswered questions, and unintended consequences that we are obligated to navigate. No, I don't propose to remain a dinosaur myself, but I do have one final question.

Do we ever stop to think that we might desire to give our students what we didn't have that we forget to pass on to them what we did have?

Just one final question from me, a person who graduated from high school...before Google. I'd think that gives my thoughts some legitimacy.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trying To Draw a Breath

To the mom of one of my students who emailed me this weekend, I know that there might be some disappointment in my failure to respond.

Actually, it was no failure. It was selective non-response. It is not intended to offend. It is intended to do the right thing.

For one thing, I had enough on my mind this weekend. Finishing a sermon for today was part of it. And even before I got to the weekend, my mom called with news that her brother and my uncle Bob was in a severe biking accident, suffering a traumatic head injury. Bob is still unconscious in a hospital in Greensboro with family hoping for more definitive progress beyond the slow signs of hope shown so far. So yes, I've been distracted.

Then there's grades. Grading final exams, finalizing semester grades by Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. Got them in the computer today.

Oh yeah, that's what brings me back to that email. It was about grades. Wondering if there were some issues with this mom's son (my silent answer: no), he's been such a hard worker (my silent agreement: yes), and he needs to make at least an A-minus for his GPA.

Whoa. Excuse me? Needs to?

Hence my non-response. But I'll share it with everyone here: You do not need to make a certain grade. Ever.

You should do your best. You should be diligent, careful, and conscientious in your approach and preparation. You should consider your gifts and try to put yourself in areas where you might flourish and enjoy your educational years. You should never quit. And above all, you should love learning for learning's sake.

But you do NOT need to make a certain grade.

You do NOT need to be in a specific academic track to be judged as a success.

And above all, you should NEVER bow in the temple of the twin idols of Achievement and Accolade, because eventually those gods will fail you, and the river that you want to satisfy you will run dry and you WILL die of thirst.

Why the anger, you ask?

Because kids are despairing. Students are walking around as hyper-driven academic shells while losing their souls. And some are killing themselves over it. A National Review article bears this out by showing what has been going on in Palo Alto (CA) high schools, a crucible in which, as the article says "achievement-obsessed students need to know that life is worth living regardless of your grades."

I am fully aware this obsession-turned-despair can come from various sources. Yes, it can come from a school environment that pours on the steam and doesn't consider--hey, these are just kids. (See one Palo Alto student's excursus on this matter here) Of course, there can be the case of students who are self-critical, highly-perfectionstic, and neurotically driven to success at any cost. And then, there are parents who feed this beast.

The more I'm involved in teaching, the more thankful I am for the perspective my own parents gave me. They prodded me to know I was entirely capable and had all the tools to succeed. However, the end product (grades) was secondary to the eternal value of the diligence and integrity I put into my effort and the love and passion I had for learning. In short, the intangibles far outweighed the tangibles.

And yes, that's what we tell our children, every day. Especially our daughter Lindsay, who attends the school where I teach and knows a thing or two about the highly pressurized academic fishbowl it can be. And I will NOT be a parent who demands a grade as the validating measuring stick of her value.

Parents, I'm talking to you. Your children were made for more than this, as I've shared previously. Your kids are designed to be honorable and faithful no matter what is on their transcript. And if you ever give them the impression their transcript is their identity, you have become Palo Alto.

And yes, I will be saying that whenever needed. Count on it.

And now, I'm going on to more important things. Like getting an update on Uncle Bob's progress.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Commencement Address to the Class of 2015

[To be fair, I haven't been asked to speak at any commencement ceremony this year. But if I had, what you will find below would be the musings of my heart.]

Esteemed graduates, ensconced cozily in the seats here in front; parents, siblings, and other family members; administrators and faculty and all souls connected in any way to this tear-stained, joy-enraptured, heart-in-your-throat-and-in-your-shoes-at-the-same-time night, I hope to be brief in my remarks this evening while being heartfelt at the same time. Now as a Presbyterian, I know the first half of the preceding hope is well nigh impossible. Because I have Welsh blood, I also know the second part is true above all else.

This blink of chronological time, this pulse of celebration, this crowning eucharistic splendor celebrating your time spent here at this we are...and before you can scarcely breathe in the jubilant oxygen of this evening, it will pass as a memory. Even as you implore yourself, as James Joyce did so eloquently in Ulysees (probably the only time he was eloquent in that rambling tome), to "hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past", you sense the fleeting march of history claiming you step by step. And you wonder what this snowy goateed Ethics teacher possibly has to share with you to thrust into life's backpack. You wonder, blending both your hopes and your insecurities, "What will I do the rest of my life?"

It's anyone's guess, but the odds give us some idea. Statistically speaking, within the next twenty years, the overwhelming majority of you will experience the abruption of a marriage, the death of a child, a major invasive surgery, or the loss of a job. On some level, you will profoundly suffer. Even as you have tried to mark much of your high school years with the twin pursuits of excellence and comfort, you will spend much of your adult lives realizing again and again that digital amenities, the accumulation of possessions and wealth, and the compelling exhilaration of relationships will bring you to a point of happiness that, like tonight, will be there and then mysteriously vanish. This is my roundabout way of saying that if you had in mind this would be the type of speech that celebrates the tender years of life, infuses hope that your generation is our society's greatest hope, and that you can do anything you put your mind to...well, you came to the wrong graduation tonight. And yet the question from earlier hangs in the air with the subtlety of Andre the Giant at a steak buffet. You ask, "What will I do with the rest of my life?"

And I am here, pleading with you to consider that that is the wrong question. That the better path, the higher journey, is to ask "Who will I be for the rest of my life?"

The word shift is a small one, but the differences are seismic. There is a profound difference between what you do and who you are. And if we're bringing God into the equation, I would offer that he most certainly gifts you for the former, but he is much more supremely interested in the latter. Who you are is critically more important than what you will do. Your character defines your action. Being God's child matters much more than the particulars of what you do in God's world.

And in a liberating sense, that means the pressure is off, if you think about it.  No more hyper-prioritizing of getting the best car, or securing that bonus at work, or sending your kids to the best schools. No more worrying--not that you've found it easy--about a tenth of a percentage point to raise your GPA. It means accomplishments take a back seat to obedience and faithfulness to God. It's why Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Matthew to "not worry about these things, but seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness and then...then all these things shall be added to you. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow has enough trouble of its own." In other words, don't worry about juggling the balls of performance, appearance, relationships, and intelligence. Instead, just keep the ball of faithfulness in the air, and the other juggling, God will deal with in his way. Stop infringing on his territory.

That can be scary, granted. Being faithful is not an easy task. One's life journey can be a high-chance contest. But it helps to remember the words of the wizard Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring when the hobbit Frodo bewails having received the  Ring from his uncle Bilbo, having to bear this Ring of evil and take it back to the dangerous terrain of Mordor to be destroyed in Mount Doom. Frodo says, "I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened." And Gandalf instructively says, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in the world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought."

And that is the liberating adventure of faithfulness: A vision for life in all its glory, where you can reach for excellence but be assured of God's unfailing love and presence and provision no matter where you land. It means that--to paraphrase my college professor and mentor, Dr. Louis Voskuil--if you climb the corporate ladder into six- and seven-figure salaries, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you have a family that is large and your home is the essence of comfort and warmth, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you discover a groundbreaking cure to debilitating diseases, that's fine. But you don't have to. And if you write the greatest novel or ascend to political might, that's fine. But you don't have to. All God requires of you is that you be faithful, and the rest will take care of itself. 

The struggle is real. The temptation to define yourself by your accomplishments and actions and the trimmings of life is always close by. But these are shadows of what is real, and if you return more often to what you do rather than to who you are--or dare we say it, Whose you are--then that is the difference between merely getting through your brief existence on one hand and having lived an exhilarating life of true significance on the other.

I've mentioned that my family background is Welsh, and that's appropriate because possibly my favorite poem has to do with faithfulness in spite of what the results might be, and it's by the Welsh poet Ethylyn Wetherald. Four lines, powerfully yet simply written by this magnificent lady, they have been an oasis of peace and liberation for me, as I hope they will be for you.

My orders are to fight. Then, if I bleed or fail,
Or strongly win, what matters it? God only doth prevail.
The servant craveth naught except to stand with might.
I was not told to win or lose: My orders are to fight.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, I want to thank you for your lives lived well within these walls, and for the chance to be a part of that journey, and I want to bless you for the adventure forward. For your sake and the sake of God's world, may you live--whether in ordinary or extraordinary fashion--as men and women marked by faithfulness above all.

Thank you.