Parent News with Chip Denton
For the past 23 years, Dr. Denton has published a bi-monthly Parent News article on various topics ranging from writing Trinity’s mission statement to the decision to add a high school to the role of technology in our student’s and families’s lives among many more topics. In an effort to reach our community in a variety of ways, this year Dr. Denton has added videos and a podcast to his articles.
ReNew Again...and Again. • PN#5
In Praise of Teachers • PN#4
Learning to See • PN#3
Updates from Summer • PN#1
The Tech-Wise School • PN#2
2017–2018 Parent News Articles
Parent News #5 | ReNew Again...and Again | October 20, 2017
Dear Trinity Community,
It is 2017 and it’s time for us to change. That, friends, is the Gospel: an invitation to change. It’s as old as Adam and it’s as new as next year.
It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg and launched what we call the Reformation, which might be dubbed The Big Church Change. Luther thought it was time for a change. I do too.
That change was marked by two things that can school us, and we can tag them with convenient Latin phrases (you gotta love Latin phrases!):
Ad fontes. Luther and Calvin, two of the magisterial reformers, thought that they were not inventing something new but discovering something old when they spoke of salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone, through grace alone. Luther’s epiphany into this truth came not from reading futurists but from reading Paul, and Calvin was a biblical scholar par excellence. They learned that they needed to change by going back “to the sources,” the New Testament. We go forward in change by going back to the source of truth.
Semper reformanda. The church, said the Reformers, is “always reforming,” always changing. The church does not arrive, not before the coming of the kingdom, which is not our doing but God’s. The church is always going back to the same old truth so that it can go forward in new ways. If the church stops changing, it has stopped growing, for the Gospel challenges every new generation, every culture, every age.
So, as I said, it’s 2017, 500 years since Luther told us we needed to change. And we need to change . . . again. And again.
It is time for us to change in our understanding of what the Gospel means for racial reconciliation and what it means for us to be one Trinity in the face of deep differences in the American demographic.
I’ve heard people tell me that we are making too much of this diversity thing. That it is a fad. That we are trying to be politically correct and culturally relevant. That we want to be like all the other schools that are doing this. But I see it differently. I see that the Gospel for the nations, the good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall between people who misunderstand and hurt each other—I see this as the heart of the Gospel for our day. When I go back ad fontes to Ephesians 2 and Acts 10, I hear the old Gospel about Jew and Gentile made new in the face of Charlottesville or Charleston or Ferguson. And that Gospel is as free and as demanding on us as it was on Peter when he found out that God meant what he said when he said that the Gospel was for non-Jews.This is the church of the 21st century, semper reformanda just like it always has.
A month ago, about thirty leaders of the Trinity community (Senior Staff, department chairs, TPO leaders, Board) gathered for two days of training on how to face the challenges of trying to overcome some of these barriers–especially those of race. We were led by two mature, vibrant Christians from Ohio, Chad and Michaela, who helped us go back ad fontes of scripture and who helped us see the change that needs to happen in the church and the Christian school. It was not always pleasant and easy, this conversation, but it was full of grace and truth, and it blessed all who came. I wish all of Trinity could have experienced this.
And maybe you will. We are in the process of thinking about ways to leverage and multiply the things we learned there. It’s one of the top three strategic goals of the school, so we’ll keep working at it.
In the meantime, we’ve interviewed two members of the Trinity community who participated and asked them to share some of what they learned.
Here’s to more Gospel Change at Trinity School.
Head of School
Parent News # 4 | In Praise of Teachers | September 29, 2017
The ship of Trinity School, on which we’ve all embarked for a nine-month journey of learning, has just made it out of the harbour whose boundaries are marked by back-to-school Parent Nights for each division. We are now in full sail, and it seems a good time to pause and give a proper shout out to the crew that keeps this ship afloat and on course: our teachers.
We might call this the Year of the Teacher at Trinity, which would be a little silly, since any year without the teachers would be a year lost in our educational efforts. But this is a year when we are focused on our faculty in two special ways. Our Auction on November 10 is dedicated to our teachers—all the money raised will go to support faculty enrichment and professional development. And our new and emerging strategic plan for 2018–2021 will have as a major goal the support of our faculty and staff in new and tangible ways.
One of you stopped me in the middle of the hall on Parent Night, grabbed me by the shoulders, and said something like this: “We thought about moving for a new job, but we looked at lots of schools in this new city and we found no place like Trinity. This faculty is amazing!” And this was no isolated paean to the amazingness of the Trinity teachers. Thanks be to God.
I’d like to call out a few things that I appreciate about our faculty. First, our teachers are not here primarily for a job, but for a calling. Of course, this work is a job, and our strategic planning is especially attentive to the ways that we as a community support these teachers in their livelihood. But Trinity teachers are those who are called to teach. Frederick Buechner has said that “the place that God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking). As I listen to my own heart as a teacher and to the hearts of countless teachers I have known, I think that this intersection has something to do with connecting. Teachers recognize that the world is full of what Parker Palmer calls “the pain of disconnection,” and they are moved to bridge that chasm for themselves and for their students. Says Palmer (To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education),
Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation.…
. . . [T]hespiritual traditions offer hope that is hard to find elsewhere, for all of them are ultimately concerned with getting us reconnected. These traditions build on the great truth that beneath the broken surface of our lives there remains—in the words of Thomas Merton—“a hidden wholeness.” The hope of every wisdom tradition is to recall us to that wholeness in the midst of our torn world, to reweave us into the community that is so threadbare today.
For us at Trinity, this hope of wholeness is centered in our faith in Jesus Christ, who has laid claim to us as the image of the invisible God and the Word of God in whom all things hold together.
A second gift of our Trinity faculty is that they find ways to reach as many students as they possibly can. (I do not say “every student,” as much as I would like, because I must acknowledge the huge task that this aspiration takes on, and the challenges that it presents. May God help us to reach every one.) When I was in my first year of teaching, a veteran teacher told me that the students he most loved teaching were the C students. These were the ones, he said, who needed him the most, the ones he was least sure of reaching, and the ones he had the potential to impact most. I’ve carried that vision in my heart now for almost forty years, and though we might word it a little differently today, I still think it’s a noble posture. Anne Lamott talks about this in her book, Stitches:
To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.
You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch—teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.
When I read this, I think of Trinity teachers who have sought the advice of peers to help reach students who are struggling, of faculty who have met with students before and after school to give extra help, of teachers who have undertaken professional development to add to their pedagogical toolkit so that they can help all their students learn. Our own Robin Lemke and her student services team (our school counselor, learning specialist, and school nurse) are dedicated to helping teachers with this goal.
Finally, our teachers know that the best of teaching happens by a process that we call imitation. We learn by watching and mimicking others. This is obviously true for young children, but even adolescents and adults follow this pattern, though perhaps in more sophisticated and self-conscious ways. The apostle Paul made this pattern of learning explicit to the Corinthians: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). One of the most widely influential books of Christian devotion across the centuries is titled The Imitation of Christ. The Austro-Hungarian biochemist Erwin Chargaff, whose work paved the way for the discovery of the double helix, says this in his memoirs (Heraclitean Nature) about the transmission of scientific mastery:
If there is such a thing as a great scientist…that greatness can certainly not be transferred by what is commonly called teaching. What the disciples learn are the mannerisms, tricks of the trade, ways to make a career, or perhaps, in the rarest cases, a critical view of the meaning of scientific evidence and its interpretation. A real teacher can teach through his example—this is what the ducklings get from their mothers—or, most infrequently, through the intensity and the originality of his view or vision of nature.
This is what we have at Trinity School: teachers who pass on their passion and their habits of mind by example. By the time a Trinity Upper School student has graduated, she will know most of the Trinity faculty well. She will have taken their classes, prayed with them in advisory, conversed with them at breaks or dances, watched them manage life on a class trip. All of these will be important in the development of her soul. When we interview candidates for teaching at Trinity, we look for teachers who are masters of their craft, but also for sincere Christ-followers who will be able to model, in myriad ways, what it means to pattern one’s life after Jesus. My prayer is that every Trinity student will find at least one faculty or staff about whom they can say, “I think I could follow Christ the way that teacher follows Christ.” For we all have to find our own way with Jesus, and it can be a lonely path. Thanks be to God for fellow travelers who can show us a little of the way.
Parent News #3 | Learning to See | September 15, 2017
This past summer we asked all of our Trinity community to engage in nature studies. It was, I think, an imperfect assignment, and I know that not everyone found a way into this experience, and not all who tried it found it satisfying. But many have told me that they did, and I am glad.
It is a common and understandable misconception that the point of such an assignment is to make better artists of us all. I’m sure that some of us did improve our watercoloring skills, and maybe a few found a passion and a gift. But for most of us, the value lies elsewhere.
There are two principal reasons for this assignment and for the time we claim for such studies in the Trinity school curriculum.
A Change is As Good as a Rest (Sometimes)
The challenge of painting or drawing calls on a different part of our brains and provides a welcome relief to the strenuous work that students and adults must do most of their days. Good teachers know that when they design a lesson, it is wise to shift the kinds of activity that the students are called on throughout the period and the day.
Winston Churchill discovered this principle when in 1915 he was forced to leave the British Admiralty and had much time on his hands. By accident, he took up painting, and in a fascinating essay called “Painting as a Pastime,” he tells how this habit served him well in his later years when the press and strain of great responsibilities was on him. “A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat,” wrote Churchill. But painting—I’m sure other arts serve the same purpose—repairs the worn-out mind:
I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen. They pass out into shadow and darkness. All one's mental light, such as it is, becomes concentrated on the task. Time stands respectfully aside, and it is only after many hesitations that luncheon knocks gruffly at the door.
My own experience matches this. This summer I took my watercolors and nature notebook along when I went to the mountains for several days of study leave. I was by myself, and I had a long list of books to read, plans to make, and studies to begin. At the end of three days I had been going hard and had accomplished much, but I was exhausted and unmotivated to continue. That morning I made myself take a wildflower from the bank outside the cabin where I was staying and sit down for a nature study. After an hour and a half of painting, I was ready to return to my reading with new energy.
There are other sorts of work and art that remedy stress and mental fatigue for our students as well. Part of our work as educators is to help them discover these for themselves so that they can take them along for the rest of their lives.
A Pencil Is One of the Best Eyes
Education involves the training of the will, not just the opening of the mind. And for this training, the development of habit is essential. By habits our wills learn to run along the rails that are wise and effective for learning. So, for instance, the habit of paying close attention to something beyond our short-lived natural inclination is a skill that will pay great dividends in the education of the child. An Upper School student who encounters an intractable physics problem or a dense and opaque passage in humanities will be glad that a Lower School teacher instilled in her the practice of not giving up. Nature studies are not simply enjoyable romps in the woods; they are chances to pay really close attention for a sustained amount of time. And like any practice, the more we do it, the better we do it.
The value of such practice is illustrated in the famous story of Professor Aggasiz and the fish. If you have not read this story, you are in for a treat. I first discovered it in college, in an InterVarsity training session on how to do Bible study. Apparently the story has been passed down through various channels from one Samuel Scudder, a student of the great Harvard zoologist Louis Aggasiz. Scudder tells a self-deprecating tale of how Aggasiz left him alone with a single fish for hours and taught him to “Look again!” Many of us are bored with God’s world because we have not learned to look well and pay attention. Wonders await us. The expert, the master, the aficionado can hold forth for hours on something that the rest of us think unremarkable because they have learned to see it better.
And for such training, “a pencil is one of the best eyes,” as Aggasiz said to Scudder. Students who paint a flower will learn to notice and see that flower in new ways. This new sight looks upwards too, not just to the tiny leaf they are painting but also to the One who made such marvels. May our Trinity students learn to paint and also to sing with the psalmist:
How many are your works, LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
The earth is full of your creatures.
– Psalm 104
Parent News #2 | The Tech-Wise School | September 1, 2017
“Man performs different kinds of acts: he is, he knows, he does, he makes.” Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful
“We make still by the law in which we’re made.” J. R. R. Tolkien
I hope that many of you have read Andy Crouch’s Tech-Wise Family this summer. When I heard that Andy Crouch was writing a book on technology, I wanted to get a look at it. Andy is an articulate spokesperson for the kind of thoughtful Christian faith that we have wanted to embody here at Trinity School. And the issue of technology has been prominent in our life together of late, especially in the last decade (happy 11th birthday, iPhone!), and intensely in the last two years with the launch of our digital learning initiative in August 2015. So Crouch’s book seemed like a good choice for our summer Trinity Reads.
We knew that the book would raise all sorts of questions, some of them inconvenient, all of them difficult:
- Are digital technologies working directly against some of the essential goals of a classical Christian education? Goals like wisdom and courage, to name two that Crouch pursues.
- Are the habits of mind that are important for deep understanding and engagement (including focused, sustained attentiveness to challenging problems and texts) undermined by the intellectual technologies we are using?
- What do we do if the demands of learning with digital technologies require families to compromise their own “tech-wise” plans and rules of their home?
- Can the technologies that aim for “easy everywhere” work for a school that believes in “hard somewhere”? Classical Christian education, after all, is a “steep good” (Aquinas) that demands much of us, and it is necessarily embodied in particular people in concrete places.
There is a school of thought that says we should have avoided raising these and other hard questions, but I think it’s worth the trouble and the mess. I can think of three reasons:
- Because technology is essential both to our goal and to the means of our learning. We aim to teach students to fulfill their human capacity, and that capacity includes the distinctive calling to be makers. I have quoted above the Thomist philosopher Gilson and the Inkling Tolkien, both of whom talk about making as part of the essence of what it means to be made in the image of God. God is a maker, and he calls us to “subcreate” in imitation of him. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a richly textured subcreation, and I think that the truly creative coder building a virtual world is aiming for the same wonderful thing. This is one of the ends of a classical education: to make a thing of beauty and wonder. And as for the means of education—technology affords us many possible learning experiences that were not available to us Boomers when we were in school. Schools have always taught students how to make good and beautiful things, and schools have always used tools to do so.
- Because we want to support families who want to be intentional about their use of technology. The unexamined life is not worth living; and the unexamined use of technology is not worth practicing. We need to think about what we are doing. Crouch’s book is a gadfly of sorts to sting us into action. What can we be doing as a family to see that technology serves us rather than enslaves us? The school’s formation of young people will never go beyond the family’s goals and habits; we have a vested interest in seeing our families adopt wise strategies for the use of technology.
- Because Trinity is a big family of sorts, and we want to be the “tech-wisest” school family we can be. Many of the guidelines and suggestions Crouch proposes can be translated into the school family. How do we shape space and structure time to teach wisdom and courage? Are the school’s rules about cell phones the wisest ones we can craft for student learning? For the development of young minds and hearts, the Trinity community is a powerful force. The culture of a school teaches a lot, sometimes more than the overt lesson. (“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”) So are we being intentional about the culture that we are building at Trinity around these technologies?
Westmont College sociologist Felicia Wu Song visited Duke’s Center for Christianity and Scholarship last year and spoke about some of these issues. One of her most important points was to emphasize that the work of doing technology well has to be “the work of the people” (a sort of “liturgy”). We need each other to do this hard work well. Let’s just say for the sake of discussion that we wanted to adopt Andy Crouch’s recommendation that there are no cell phones before double digits. As parents who have been late adopters know, a countercultural decision like that is almost impossible apart from a community of people who will support one another.
So my hope is that Crouch’s book will spark good conversations and new ideas among the Trinity community; that parents will feel empowered to work together to create family cultures where technology has its right place; and that Trinity can adopt wise policies and practices around the use of technology.