Parent News with Chip Denton
For the past 24 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.
Parent News #15 | Wonder | April 6, 2018
As soon as Karen Bohn and Melissa Hartemink, our second grade teachers, bring the aquarium down from storage and place it in the classroom, the questions start. The very presence of this glass container sparks curiosity and interest among our young learners. “What is that for?” “Are we getting fish?” “What else can live in an aquarium?” “Do fish have babies? What do they look like?” Like all good teachers, our second grade teachers don’t feed them answers; they know that the best reward of a good question is another question. “What else lives in an aquarium?” Or a wondering: “I wonder what we might put in this aquarium? I wonder what kind of young animals we might see in this aquarium?”
Before the tadpoles appear, the children are already primed for learning. How? Through the pedagogical dexterity of their teachers and their own cultivated sense of curiosity—and through the medium of learning that we call unit studies. “A unit study integrates disciplines together, rather than dividing them into separate subjects to be pursued at different times during the school day” (Susan Wise Bauer, “Thoughts on Unit Studies”). So our second graders have the chance to connect and differentiate tadpoles, baby chicks, and cocoons. They learn the science of life cycles and the difference between an amphibian, a bird, and an insect. And they learn this in a hands-on way that sticks with them deeply—you can hear the buzz around school whenever the chicks start to hatch. Weave into this some wonderful literature like Frog and Toad or The Wind in the Willows and you have yourself the makings of a great feast of learning that will settle in the child’s soul and maybe never depart. This is rich and unhurried learning at its best.
This is what Charlotte Mason had in mind when she talked about education as a life:
Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his is to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food. What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk.
Philosophy of Education, 109
This is a wonderful passage that describes so well the learning that takes place when the tadpoles arrive in second grade. The teacher is not the Great Dispenser of Knowledge; she is the skillful midwife attending the birth of ideas in the minds of second graders. Her job is to present the students with the raw materials of learning, to ask questions (just as Jesus did), and to tell stories that pique the students’ interest.
Brain research has confirmed Mason’s hunches: students learn when they make connections. Those connections form and strengthen neural pathways in our brains. The students who are staring at the chicks are building their brains. So are the students who write their own fairy tales in first grade or build their own versions of Leonardo’s inventions. So are the third graders who inhabit a country for country day, or the fourth graders who become pharaohs, or the fifth graders who assume the roles of Poseidon or Achilles. And the sixth graders culminate their year-long studies with a wonderful cross-disciplinary Medieval Day that integrates math, the visual arts, history, literature, theology, and much more.
This kind of teaching is not easy. It is much easier just to lecture and write tests. Unit studies invoke the “iceberg principle”—nine-tenths of what the teacher knows stays below the surface but is there when she needs it. But this means that teachers themselves must be continually learning, to enrich their own understanding and to whet their passions—curiosity is contagious, and students learn immediately from their teachers whether the world is an interesting place. Another reason this kind of teaching is hard is that no two classes will travel the same path of learning. This means that teachers cannot simply recycle and rerun last year’s lesson plans. Nobody knows where this is going to lead. That’s exciting, but it can also be exhausting. So please join me in thanking our Trinity teachers for their dedication to this kind of teaching. It is what makes Trinity’s education such a unique offering.
Parent News #14 | Trinity on Stage | March 23, 2018
Trinity’s drama and music programs have a wild and wonderful history. Over two decades now, Trinity students have sung and danced their way across stages in Durham and Orange counties.
I remember our first Grandparents Day at Hope Creek Church on Erwin Road, and another year when Mary McKinney led the young Lions in a performance of The Tale of Three Trees. There were several years when Peter Linnartz and his ilk performed Shakespeare at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Durham. Then there was the year that Matt Bonner (‘10) and company performed a version of Macbeth in the Blue Gym and it rained so hard that no one could hear for all the noise on the roof. Early in the life of the Upper School, a group of students regaled us all in the basement of The Church of the Good Shepherd with the escapades of Don Quixote (my son was Sancho Panza). And there were the plays we put on in the old (no longer extant) library on the Upper School floor. Do you remember the year that Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat went traipsing along the carpool line, before they performed in our own Blue Gym? Arsenic and Old Lace was performed in the sanctuary at Sonrise Church on New Hope Church Road (thank you, Rod Chaney!). Recently, many of us have enjoyed plays like Pride and Prejudice and Radium Girls at the Durham Arts Council. And last fall, we gathered in our own HUB for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Many of us have enjoyed a Grandparents Day extravaganza or a fall concert in our Gold Gym. A few (just a few, unfortunately) of us have gathered to hear our strings players give their excellent concerts in The HUB. And many are the times that parents have crowded into one of the modular music classrooms to hear a rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
Let’s just say that we’ve made the most out of limited space. I remember that one of our founders liked to say, “If you have the right teacher and students, you can hold a great school in a barn.” We haven’t tried putting on a play in a barn yet, but I think we’ve done our dead level best to prove this founder right. Trinity’s performing arts programs are thriving, and I am deeply grateful for the long line of fine teachers and directors that we’ve had at the school over the years.
The performing arts are vitally important to our mission:
TRUTH. Our actors and musicians work hard to find a voice that is true to their character, an interpretation of a piece that rings true to the original piece. Even their improvisation, for all its freedom, is a way of learning to be true to the moment and to the frame within which they act. And our faculty does such a good job of choosing plays and pieces that support the classical Christian mission of the school.
GOODNESS. These performing arts develop character. Just think of the courage it takes to step into a new role, to take on a solo, to play a piece that is beyond anything you’ve ever done before. The lessons in cooperation and team-building are profound—I always love to watch the cast in the moments after the final curtain, when they come together and celebrate this amazing thing that they somehow, beyond their imaginations, managed to do together.
BEAUTY. There have been moments at Trinity when I have wept to hear our students play, sing, and act. I’ve written before of the moment in the sanctuary at Hope Creek when I heard our kindergarten through fourth graders sing the Tallis Canon. I think that was the moment I decided to say yes to being Trinity’s headmaster. And just this year, our strings players treated us to a version of “Ashokan Farewell” that was so lovely I asked that it be recorded. Here it is—give it a listen. Then there have been drama students who have so owned the roles they have studied that I wanted to stand up in the middle of the play and start clapping. All this, Lord, to your glory.
This year’s performances come to us in the line of this great tradition. Singin’ in the Rain, Jr. is our first attempt at a musical. Come out this weekend and hear the Middle School students sing and dance their way through this delightful play. Shows are Friday night (7 p.m.), Saturday matinee (2 p.m.), and Saturday night (7 p.m.) at Trinity in The HUB. And on April 20 and 21, the Upper School Drama class will put on a version of The Sting at the Durham Arts Council.
The learning that happens in these groups is profound. Students learn poise and confidence in front of large groups. They learn to think on their feet, to tackle big challenges in small chunks, to meet a deadline together, to cooperate with a team. And they experience the joy of seeing something really challenging come to fruition through practice, hard work, and teamwork.
A special thank you to all of our parents and others who support the Trinity Fund. This annual giving campaign funds all of these programs and makes possible this rich part of a Trinity education. I hope we can all get behind this and be part of the Trinity Fund this year.
Parent News #13 | What Is Wisdom Worth | March 9, 2018
In this issue of Parent News, we are pleased to share with you Dr. Denton’s recent “Head Talk” highlighting Trinity’s mission.
What Is Wisdom Worth?
Get wisdom, . . .Proverbs 4:7
Atul Gawande is two things at once, a philosopher surgeon. He can operate on your colon, and he can write about how doctors face human mortality (well, maybe not at the same time). He is equally at home on staff at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and at The New Yorker–a scientist with the heart of a humanitarian.
I would love to see his tribe increase, this tribe of philosopher scientists, or scientific philosophers, if you will. And I think Trinity School is uniquely positioned to help that happen. That’s what I want to talk about tonight.
Gawande is not a Christian–you’ll have to read his book to get a sense of how he lives into his Hindu heritage. But he bridges a divide that is growing in our culture, an unfortunate divide: the chasm that separates math and science from the humanities. In fact, my argument is that in the future the world has a deep need for people who can master both the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and the traditional Liberal Arts like literature, history, and philosophy.
Gawande is a teller of stories, and his book, Being Mortal, an exploration of the limits, failures, and possibilities of the medical profession’s approach to aging and death, is full of stories. Some of them are very personal, like the one he tells about his own father, a physician with a tumor in his spine.
His father “interviewed” more than one neurosurgeon. He ended up choosing Edward Benzel of the Cleveland Clinic. Why? In his book, Gawande tells how Benzel modelled what experts call “shared decision making.” Benzel was as confident as other physicians they had seen, but he was more patient with the elder Dr. Gawande’s questions. Here’s what the younger Gawande wrote in his book:
He recognized that my father’s questions came from fear. So he took the time to answer them, even the annoying ones. Along the way, he probed my father, too. He said that it sounded like he was more worried about what the operation might do to him than what the tumor would.
Benzel had a way of looking at people that let them know he was really looking at them. He was several inches taller than my parents, but he made sure to sit at eye level. He turned his seat away from the computer and planted himself directly in front of them. He did not twitch or fidget or even react when my father talked. He had the midwesterner’s habit of waiting a beat after people have spoken before speaking himself, in order to see if they are really done.
Gawande contrasts this with two other models of medical posture: the paternalistic (“Trust me and do what I say”) and the informative (“I offer no opinions here, I’m just giving you the facts and the data”). Both of these models fall short of serving human patients well. The paternalistic model lacks humility and empathy; the informative model is robotic and uninvolved, as though the doctor were only a walking-talking Google search. As Gawande says, “We want information and control, but we also want guidance.” And guidance requires skills like listening, asking good probing questions, discernment, patience to go beyond the first-order desires of patients, ability to listen for deep fears and cares. These are much more like the skills that are developed in a humanities seminar tackling complex texts than in a highly technical and demanding science class. No one is questioning the physician’s need for a deep understanding of organic chemistry and pharmacology; but our brilliant doctors will need other skills that only the humanities can develop.
Bill Roper, the Dean of UNC’s Medical School and CEO of UNC’s Healthcare System (and also a Trinity alumni parent), tells me that the kind of medical practice that Gawande is talking about in his book is the kind of education that medical schools across the country are working hard to provide now. Physicians need not only the hard skills of math, organic chemistry, and biology, but also the softer skills of empathy, good listening, and the ability to frame good questions.
A classical education has always been good at both sides of this challenge. Both the liberal arts of learning and the sciences have flourished in institutions of classical education. Like Trinity School. At Trinity, our commitment to and success with the liberal arts has been intentional and most effective. Listen to these two Trinity grads talk about their experience.
What you hear is the fruit of a great education in the arts of learning: the skills of attending well, of reading and writing, of public speaking, of thinking critically. All of our classes and the entire arc of a Trinity education from TK–12 contribute to this success.
Now on the other side, with Trinity’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, I give you our Robotics program, which has flourished now for about eight years, since the founding of Trinity’s Upper School. I don’t know how many of you know about this program, and I want you all to take a close look at it and what it is doing for students. In the first year of Trinity’s Upper School, Trinity parent and scientist Mark Butler proposed to start, on a volunteer basis, a Robotics program that was part of the nation-wide FIRST Tech Challenge. I had never heard of FIRST, but the more I learned about it, the more excited I was to see it grow as a “sport of the mind.” Under Mark’s leadership, the program took off, and other leaders have taken the baton from Mark and passed it on. Trinity alumnus faculty Derek Skeen now runs the program. Here are some things you should know about the Robotics program:
- 19 students are currently involved.
- We have a Middle School Resource class and a MS Engineering Club that teach students the Engineering Design process--great prep for US Robotics
- A number of students have gone from Trinity robotics into Engineering and Design fields in college and beyond.
- The project-based learning that happens in this program is a beautiful and missional thing–talk about engagement!
I wanted to share this program with you also because I think it provides a model for the way we plan to grow other STEM-based programs at Trinity. That model? Start with small bets, prototype some classes, and if the students come and thrive, support and scale the program. Next year we are hoping to do just that with a set of new Engineering Design courses which we hope to pilot for our Upper School. The vision for this class and for others that may sprout from the same root, is to enable students to use computer aided design (CAD) software, 3-D printers, coding languages, and an array of digital, woodworking, and machining tools to envision, design, and build products and solutions to real-world problems. I attended a cross-departmental meeting recently where faculty from the science, math, visual arts, music, drama, humanities, and theology all brainstormed how such a space and such a program might integrate and enhance the good work we are already doing in all those areas.
This is all very exciting, and I’d say that one of the focuses of our leadership here at the school over the next 3-5 years will be in developing and growing this kind of good work in applied math, science and engineering. And also to build Lower School and Middle School programs that feed into this.
So what do you get when you put a strong humanities focus together with a robust education in applied math, science, and technology? Well, for one thing, I think you get good preparation for being the kind of doctor that Atul Gawande is talking about in his book. In other words, you get wisdom.
What is Wisdom?
I had a professor of Old Testament Wisdom Literature–that’s Proverbs and Ecclesiastes–who said that wisdom is the “art of driving well through life.” Do you remember when you first learned to drive? (Or do you remember when you taught a son or daughter how to drive?) How to stay between the lines, how to slow before a curve and accelerate into it, how to hit the brakes gently, how to turn left in traffic--these are things that come only with enormous practice. There’s an art to them.
Driving well through our lives is not easy. There are dangers and challenges, and there is no rule book that we can follow all the time. We all need wisdom, whatever “road” we are driving on:
- The judge who has to decide whether to make an exception to recommended sentencing guidelines needs wisdom.
- The teacher who suspects that some of her students are not making friends needs wisdom.
- The venture capitalist who is trying to decide how much control and information to demand in exchange for investment needs wisdom.
- The clinical trials project manager who is faced with an ambiguous interpretation of informed consent needs wisdom.
- The social scientist whose experiment may cause harm to the participants needs wisdom.
- And any parent who is trying to decide when to give her child a cell phone needs wisdom.
In the classical tradition, wisdom is a moral virtue. It’s one of the four cardinal virtues–the other three are justice, self-control, and courage. At Trinity we talk about these four virtues a lot. Here are two places where we reference them as the points on our moral compass: in our use of technology, and in athletics. In these spheres, as in others, the habits that students form by their repeated actions either promote or detract from their ability to “drive well” through life.
If we dissect wisdom, we find that it consists of two skills:
- First, the ability to deliberate rationally about one’s choices;
- And, second, the ability to discern which choices serve one’s true purpose best.
In order to deliberate, students need to be able to think critically and well–that’s what a classical education does. And in order to discern, they need a clear sense of True North when it comes to their life’s purpose. How can anyone act wisely and discern whether an action serves one’s purpose if they don’t know what that purpose is?
And here’s the thing about purpose: Common culture would tell us that students need to define their own purpose. But purpose is not something we invent; it is something we discover. Our purpose is a gift. We were created by God to glorify him by enjoying him forever. We were made for God, to serve him first and others second. Ourselves, well, we flourish when we are third. This is what Trinity’s motto of Non Nobis means: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.”
There is an idea abroad that virtues like wisdom can be developed in “values-neutral” spaces like our public schools. I am not a denigrator of public schools–any institution that educates 80-90% of our state’s students deserves our respect and support. But I would not be honest if I said that I was confident that school with absolute commitments to being “values-neutral” will be able to develop wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage in our young students. Why?
Because we learn to live morally by living into a particular story. Stories inspire us and guide us. And in the Christian tradition, we believe that One Story shapes us: the story of the crucified Son of God. Values neutral spaces are embarrassed or offended by the particularity of this story. But we at Trinity believe that it is the story that we are all graciously invited into, and we keep telling ourselves this story. It shapes all we are and all we do. The motto that stands above the door of our gym makes no sense apart from this story: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” But within a community shaped by the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, this makes so much sense.
People get all lathered about teaching good science in our schools. They want to make sure that we are teaching students the way reality is when it comes to something like climate change. It’s dangerous not to tell them the truth about reality. I agree.
And I also think that we must have the same kind of commitment to teaching about other parts of reality, including the reality of the human person, created in God’s image, guilty and enslaved by sin, redeemed only by the grace of God in Christ, through his life, death on a cross, and resurrection to life. These ideas, if true, are as important as gravity and thermodynamics.
I will end with another story, the story of another Trinity graduate. I think these stories of our graduates are so important and helpful to us as we think about the value of a Trinity education.
I’d like you to meet Chris Wu. Chris graduated in 2015 and enrolled at Stanford. I met up with Chris recently when I was out in California (I have some grandchildren out there!) for study leave. I try to meet Trinity grads whenever I travel, and I’ve always come away from these meetings with a deep gratitude for these students and appreciation for what Trinity has meant to them in their education.
But Chris’ story is a great one to show us the value of a Trinity education. After two years majoring in Electrical Engineering, with a plan to apply for medical school, Chris took the fall of 2017—what would have been his junior fall quarter—he took that off to intern for SpaceX. Then, two weeks into his January term, a friend and former roommate asked him to take the spring semester off and work for his small start-up.
Turns out that this friend had taken a high school science project (through Google’s Science Fair) and turned it into a real idea for a biomedical start-up company called Athelas (named for the healing plant that Aragorn applied to Frodo’s wound). After we had lunch, Chris walked me over to the start-up space and I got to see the work in progress. They have built an in-home device about the size of Amazon’s Alexa, and its purpose is to measure blood platelets and other blood cells for patients with rare blood diseases and those whose pharmaceutical treatments affect the blood and need to be constantly regulated. Before this device, such a patient would have to go into a clinic and have blood drawn intravenously. With this device, the patient simply pricks her finger, smears a drop of blood on a glass slide, inserts the slide into the device whose optical microscopy instantly reads the sample and uploads the data to a program on the patient’s computer.
Chris’s role? He is tweaking the electronics in the device. And he is helping the team perfect the way that they read the slides—apparently blood platelets get pretty sticky when the blood is smeared on the slides and this makes them hard to count.
So maybe that’s more than you wanted to know about this project, but I thought it was really cool. And I want to just highlight a few things from this story and from the conversation I had with Chris that afternoon, things that demonstrate what we are talking about when we say that a Trinity education helps shape young people who can live wisely in the world.
I see Chris learning to “drive well” through his young life, designing it wisely. His decision to hit the pause button on his studies and practice a few things in the working world—I know that will be controversial to some, but I see it as eminently wise. If he ends up in medical school, as he hopes, he won’t have the freedom to prototype some things as he’s doing now. I pray that this year will be clarifying for him as he sorts out his calling.
When Chris was a Trinity student, he was a stellar STEM student and pushed Trinity’s curriculum to the limits. But he was also a fine writer and reader of texts, and I remember teaching him a unit in Theology class—his paper was one of the best I’ve read over the years. I asked Chris about the value of a humanities education for someone so invested in the STEM world. He said it was really important. We talked about hard decisions that people in the tech and VC world have to face all the time. At a tech start-up like the one he’s working on now, there is this huge pressure to be first to market. But what methods do you use to get there? What corners can you cut--or not? What sacrifices are you willing to make? And it’s not just the temptations to do something wrong—in a way, those decisions are easier. But it’s the good versus good decisions that are the hard ones. Like the greater good of the product versus the particular good of subjects in a trial. For these kinds of decisions, a Trinity humanities education is invaluable. And a Trinity Christian education may be the best thing of all.
My goal is not to put Chris on a pedastal, but to allow you to see a Trinity education through the lens of his life.
And I’ll say this as I close: I am glad that Chris Wu is in the world. I’m glad that he is bringing his Christian faith and his education in wisdom, the liberal arts, and the sciences to bear on relieving the pain and suffering of a particular group of people. And when it comes time for me make the hardest of life’s health decisions, I’d be glad to have Chris as my doctor. And I’m grateful and glad that Trinity has played some part in his education and in the education of hundreds of students who will lead in the next generation. Non nobis.
Parent News #12 | Speaking of Sports | February 23, 2018The following column first appeared in a 2003 Parent News. (It’s also included in the book A Village Called Trinity.) It’s a little dated, but its premise is still our fundamental commitment when it comes to sports at Trinity, and I wanted to push it out again to complement our 12th Parent News video Why We Play Part 2.
I’ve recently re-shared the C. S. Lewis essay it mentions with a number of folks, including Trinity’s Advisory Council. I’d love for all our parents to read this and ponder its significance for the place of sport in the lives of young people. Try out this Doodle of Lewis’s essay—it’s a great way to take in his thought-provoking prose.
Speaking of Sports
Let us speak of sports in school.
Our culture asks for no justification of school athletics. Over the course of eight years, in probably three dozen Open Houses for prospective parents asking hundreds of questions, I do not recall ever having to acquit the school with an answer to the question, “Why do you have sports at Trinity?” Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century in America, we hold this truth to be self-evident: Young people should play sports. Boy do we ever! The athletic industry is one of the top ten industries in the nation, generating business in the hundreds of billions each year. Sports psychologist Shane Murphy points out that lingo like competition, teamwork, and winning the game are dominant metaphors in the corporate world. When I recently cancelled cable TV for a season (defined not by weather or months but playoffs), guess which channel the Denton children said they couldn’t live without?
It would be wrong to speak of the necessity of sports. We can, you know, live without them. But there is a human ideal which education cannot ignore, which classical education in particular must not ignore. That ideal might be actualized in the computer lab or in the debate club, as on the basketball court. Still, it has to be said that sports provide a unique opportunity for the practice of such excellence as a classical Christian education espouses. I speak of the excellence of character that combines the virtues of courage and meekness.
Courage to venture out in spite of one’s fears is rare enough; and the meekness which Jesus commended in the Beatitudes is perhaps rarer still. How much more precious, then, to find these two combined in one person. Not a second-choice compromise between two extremes, but one person who is fully courageous and fully meek. I am speaking of the person who is able to go to the mat or to the boards with all the fierceness and abandon of a warrior, but also able to admit defeat with humility or give a hand up to a fallen, obnoxious opponent.
Such a person was the medieval knight. It was said of Lancelot that he was “the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies” and “the sternest knight to thy mortal foe.” In an essay entitled “The Necessity of Chivalry,” C. S. Lewis argues that however unrealistic we may feel this ideal to be, it is, nevertheless, a necessary one. The future of civilization depends on men and women who have the capacity to be both brave and gentle. We want leaders who can fight well; we also want them to know which fights to pick and to know how to avoid a quarrel and win friends through diplomacy. The history of the Ottoman Empire shows the failure of the warrior to learn meekness in court; the history of the British between the two World Wars shows the failure of the meek to be bold when danger lurked.
It may seem a long way from the medieval lists to the ball field, but the challenges are much the same. At the end of practice, the coach says, “Let’s run one more suicide” and the kid thinks, “I’m going to die.” That is the chance to forge courage. The team shows up at school the day after the big win (or the big loss). That is the chance to forge true meekness, which is never proud—neither vain nor falsely humble. Two memorable scenes from Chariots of Fire capture this double demand: the speed coach says to Eric Liddell, just after he recovered from a nasty fall to come from behind and win the grueling race, “Not the prettiest quarter, Mr. Liddell, but certainly the bravest.” Balancing that, is the moment when the American runner slips Liddell a note before his race, “He who honors me I will honor.” This was no meekness from weakness, but the gentleness of one who was strong. Like our Lord, whose feat on the cross was, at once, the bravest and the meekest of deeds.
What does all this mean for our athletic policy?
- Our athletic program must be intentional. A team of Launcelots does not just happen. It takes a trained coach, a strategy, a dedicated team, and much more. Virtue is a work of art and not of nature.
- We want an athletic program for the many and not for the few. Our goal is push as many of our students as we can to develop these virtues. It does not serve our mission to produce athletic superstars and few (if any) people of character.
- We recognize that each student has unique gifts and unique challenges. This one needs to be pushed to compete; that one needs to be pushed to be humble.
- Sports are only as good as they are hard. Lessons are learned through the crucibles of tough situations. Being cut, sitting on the bench, making the wrong play—these can sometimes yield the most important lessons.
- Parents usually get in the way of the best lessons our children can learn when we get between the coach and the player. Leave them be. Let them struggle through it. If there is a problem, send the child to the coach.
- We aim to win. How are we going to teach these students true courage if they do not face a real test and push themselves to the limit?
- We recognize that there are, in God’s redemptive providence, defeats that rival victories. The crucifixion is Exhibit A.
The great irony is that our culture, which is so often too serious about sports, is too lax about that which gives sport its purpose: the cultivation of virtue. Absent that, excellence on the court is just a tiny thing. It is the court of the human heart where the real victory is won or lost.
Parent News #11 | 14 Strong | Inside Trinity’s Board of Trustees | February 9, 2018
The Board of Trinity is one of its greatest strengths. It has been for a long time, and still is.
I wonder if Trinity parents know what the board of an independent school does. The board guards and promotes the school’s mission. This is Job #1. Everything else a board does relates to this—hiring and supporting its one employee, the Head of School, to carry out the mission; setting policy that supports the mission; and ensuring the financial sustainability of the school.
Think of it this way: The board does what no one else can do. It makes decisions that keep the future of the school and its mission in the forefront. Parents don’t do this—they are rightly focused on their own children’s education. Administrators and teachers don’t do this—they are focused on delivering the mission today. It’s been said that the constituency of a good school board are the children who have not been born yet, the next generation of students. Will Trinity still be here for them, and will it be a school with the same mission?
Trinity’s Board is fourteen strong. We like that number, because it keeps everyone involved and owning the work, and it’s large enough to head up all the Board committees: Trustees, Finance, Land and Building, Koinonia, Education, Advancement, Investment. About 60% of the Board are current Trinity parents, and we think it’s a strength that we have a good contingent of nonparents as well. We meet nine times a year, plus two more times for extended retreats to do things like strategic planning. Our Board members invest a lot of time in the school.
In one of my favorite traditions at Trinity, departing Board members give words of wisdom or a charge to the Board at their last meeting (trustees can serve up to three three-year terms). I remember one trustee, who had served three terms, say that the more he got to know the inside of Trinity, the more he grew in his respect and love for the school. Trinity Board members work hard, but they learn to love one another through the process, and I think all would say that their service is a blessing.
The relationship between the Board and the Head of School is vitally important, and I am thankful for a Board I can respect and trust: one that is not a rubber stamp, one that cares deeply about Trinity’s mission, one that has (as one Board member put it) “noses in and hands off” regarding the running of the school. We have much to be thankful for. Non nobis.
Parent News #10 | How Do You Know This Works? Feedback from the Front Lines | January 25, 2018
I remember standing in the back of the Great Room almost two years ago, listening to five of our seniors present their Capstone projects to the TPO. I was enjoying very much hearing about the things they had learned and how they learned them, and I was watching the parents enjoying this just as much as I was. And it occurred to me how different this experience was from the early years of our Upper School.
In the beginning, we had nothing to show except our dreams and visions—just the words of the Head of School. Oh, we waxed eloquent, or tried to. But I kept waiting for someone in the back of the room to raise a hand and say, “How do you know this works? Show me the money.” Well, our seniors showed them the money that spring. As I stood in the back of that room and listened proudly, it came to me: Our students are the most important measure of what we are doing as a school, like letters of recommendation that anyone can read. Every spring, we seal these letters up and put a stamp on them (aka a Trinity diploma) and send them out for the world to read.
I’m pleased to tell you that it is a good read. On January 8, 2018, we invited our alums to come back to Trinity, and a good group showed up. They came back to see the faculty (whom they love), and they came back for the food truck. And they came back to see each other. We had the chance to catch up with several of them, and this week’s Parent News is an interview with two of those alums, Olivia Chaney and Rachel Baker, both of the Class of 2014. Olivia is studying management and society at UNC–Chapel Hill, and Rachel is majoring in architecture and history at Carnegie Mellon.
I hope that you will take the time to watch the longer interview of these two alumnae. It’s enlightening and deeply encouraging. You’ll hear them talk about the difference a Trinity education made in their lives: it taught them to think critically, to write exceptionally well, and to love to learn. They also talked about the value of the drama program and the robotics program in giving them opportunities to test their gifts and to participate on teams that had to work together. Both shared about the value of their senior Capstone project in helping them to learn important things, and they begged me never to let Winterim go away. They spoke warmly of the way Trinity’s Christian faculty nurtured thoughtful faith.
This is consistent with what we hear from our alumni through the Alumni Survey we give regularly. And it’s the same thing I heard last fall when I had dinner with six Trinity grads now studying at Wheaton College.
Trinity is not perfect—once we got off camera, I asked Olivia and Rachel to talk to me about things we needed to work on and ways they could have been better prepared. This kind of feedback is the breakfast of champions, and we will continue to work on excelling still more as a school.
But the thing that pleases me the most about these conversations is the congruence between the things our students got from their Trinity experience and the core values and mission of the school. Thanks be to God.
Parent News #8 | Teachers as Lifelong Learners | December 8, 2017
“Teachers are always thinking, designing, and discovering. We’re the kinds of lifelong learners we want our students to be.” Lauren Porosoff, “Closer than You Think,” Independent School Magazine
“You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College
The recent Trinity Auction (theme: “For the Love of Our Teachers”) was a huge success. We raised more than $120,000 for the people who have made Trinity the school that it is: our teachers. Our parents and others showed remarkable support for our faculty, and the outpouring of generosity has encouraged our faculty in wonderful ways.
This week we met with the entire faculty and introduced the grant program that this money will fund. All full-time teachers can apply for special grants during one of the next two years to enhance their normal professional development (PD) and help them deepen both their content and their pedagogy. All of this translates into better teaching and learning. What a win for the school!
This week I interviewed three teachers, one from each division, who shared some of their remarkable past professional development experiences. Aaron Jones (US Humanities, Rhetoric, Theology) talked about his summer at Columbia University’s Klingenstein Institute for Early Career Teachers; Katie Crews (MS Science) described her work at a lab at UNC this past summer; and Anna Spangler (3rd grade) told about the Durham Cares Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope that she had a chance to be part of.
Katie, Anna, and Aaron are remarkable teachers all, but they stand for their colleagues in this regard. They represent our faculty well. Trinity is full of faculty who are pursuing their own professional development in powerful ways.+
Three things stood out for me when I talked to these three teachers.
First, no one had to coerce or incentivize their professional development. They were hungry for it. Teachers love to learn–is that surprising to anyone? Teachers have a built-in growth mindset that is always wanting to grow, to learn, to be challenged. We look hard for this in our application and interview process, and we get a group of people who are lifelong learners. I expect to receive quite a lot of applications for the new PD grants.
Second, what they learned in their very different PD experiences translated into the classroom. Aaron thought a lot more about the way the adolescent mind learns, and he revised his teaching and the way he gives quizzes. Anna is rethinking her third grade country and state units based on what she learned about the intersection of different stories in her pilgrimage. And Katie has re-visioned what it means for middle school students to be real scientists. This is all very exciting, and it benefits our students directly. I can say with confidence that no teacher at Trinity would go through a meaningful professional development experience without thinking about how it translates into the classes she is teaching.
Finally, teachers know instinctively that their modeling of learning is one of the most powerful things they can do for their students. The really lasting lessons are caught as much as they are taught, and the lesson that the world is an interesting place and the life inside one’s head is eminently important to one’s thriving is something that our teachers bring into every class they teach. Teachers who are alive to learning, who have just spent the summer or the last week immersed in a new learning experience, bring that into the classroom, and the students notice. Wherever we go, there we are. And who we are is a faculty of lifelong learners. This is a big part of the value of a Trinity education.So here’s to our faculty, our amazing faculty! And here’s to our parents and community who support them! Non nobis.
Parent News Episode #7 | Why We Play | November 17, 2017
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we play sports at Trinity School?
Many of us probably have not, because it’s sort of a “Duh!” kind of question in America in the 21st century. According to a recent study by creditcards.com, Americans spent $56 billion on sporting events in 2017, and over $100 billion on all athletic expenses. This compared to $27 billion on books and $47 billion on child care. People who show up at Trinity School expect us to have sports, and we do: eleven sports and sixteen teams in the Middle School, twelve sports and seventeen teams in the Upper School.
But much of the world doesn’t do school this way. Amanda Ripley (in The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got that Way and an Atlantic piece entitled “The Case Against High School Sports”) has been arguing for several years now that we should learn from schools in Japan, Korea, and Finland, whose PISA scores (Programme for International Student Assessment) leave the US in the dust and who have limited or no formal athletic programs. I heard Ripley speak at one of Governor Jim Hunt’s Education Symposiums a few years ago, and she really pushed me to think about why we at Trinity put so many resources (time, money, and passion) into athletics.
Trinity offers sports teams for the same reason we do all that we do: To help us deliver on the mission of the school. And that mission is to offer a classical Christian education. Such an education will train the intellect and develop the imagination to be sure, but it will also form students morally and spiritually. And for this, athletics is a wonderful experience.
We play sports at Trinity because we believe that the chance to be on a team and the challenge of athletic competition offers students some of the best opportunities they may have to grow in virtue. Virtue is the moral character and habits that allow human beings to become what they are, to live well, to flourish. Virtue develops by practice, and by hard work, and this is where sports can play such an important role in the life of a student.
In the classical Christian tradition, there are four cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage) and three theological ones (faith, hope, and love). The cardinal (“hinge”) virtues are the primary colors, if you will, of the moral world: If you have these four, you can mix and match and build any virtue you will need for living well.
I don’t know that there is anything that a school does which practices these virtues so consistently and with such a high bar as team competition. This includes sports of the mind, like robotics, as well as traditional sports. Anyone who has played on a team or tested herself against the rigors of a sport will know what I mean. I sometimes think the habits that serve me best in my adult life were developed most powerfully on the football fields of Webb School in the 1970s.
Athletics is a training ground for virtue.
Wisdom is practical good thinking, what we call common sense, the habit of thinking clearly about what you are doing and its consequences. We may not think of this habit of mind as a virtue, but student-athletes know it as one.
A basketball player who has to learn not to reach in, a swimmer who learns how to master a flip-turn, a shortstop who knows automatically what to do with a hard grounder with two on and one out—athletes have to be smart to be good. I’ll never forget two twin runners on my daughter’s high school track team. They kept a spreadsheet on themselves and on every other runner in the conference. They studied whether to go out fast or slower, how to pace themselves. And if you’ve never seen a robotics tournament, you’ve missed one of the great showcases of prudence (and its lack). The thing about sports is that they are unforgiving in this regard. If you go out too fast, you’ve got nothing in the end, and nothing changes that. Prudence is learned on the field of hard knocks.
Justice means fairness and honesty, doing the right thing. Giving to each person that which is her due.
I remember what Sue Eckstein, our former athletic director, former golf pro, and golf coach, told me about golf when she started our golf program: “One of my main goals is to teach these students to keep a scorecard accurately and honestly, even when no one is watching.” Fairness means calling the serve in or out, as you really see it and not as you want it to be. It means sometimes sitting on the bench because someone else is shooting better or hustling more. It means taking a turn on the bench when the coach says it’s time to give someone else a chance to play. Justice also means keeping your promises, and being part of a team is showing up even when you don’t feel like it—and showing up with a positive attitude even when you feel frustrated or discouraged.
Self-control is about mastering oneself and about balance. By it we learn to wait, to hold our tongues, to master our anger and impatience, to delay gratification, to submit lesser goals to greater ones, to let our rational soul rule over our passions. Self-control means knowing how far to go and then to stop.
No real education happens without this virtue, for there is no royal road to learning: we have to attend, to focus, to persevere in order to gain ground in our studies. This is surely true on the court and on the field as well.
Student athletes know all about delaying gratification—they have to think carefully about what they eat, how much they sleep, what substances they put in their bodies. Soccer players who show up on a hot August morning for the first week of practice would have loved to have slept in, but there is only one way to get in shape. That same discipline carries over into the game, when the official makes what they are sure is a bad call; the best players know how to bite their tongues and cool their anger, channeling it into fiercer but fair play for the rest of the game. This is, by the way, a virtue that coaches also have to practice. And fans too—but that is a discussion for another day.
By the way, student-athletes are often some of our best students because the virtue of self-control is contagious. Discipline in one area of life tends to spill over into other areas (often, but not always—life is complicated). Athletes know better than most students that they need to redeem their time and not waste it.
Courage is the virtue that faces danger squarely and that keeps at it against opposition.
It’s popular, especially in this entrepreneurial age, to speak of the value of learning through failure. But honestly, we’re not very good at this in the classroom. A student makes a D and everyone freaks out. It’s somebody’s fault, and the chance to push through is often lost. On the athletic field, on the track, in the pool, or on the court, however, failures are bound to come. Kids strike out, miss do-or-die free throws, bonk at the end of the race, serve into the net on match point. And it’s not the net’s fault, or a teammate’s: it’s my bad, and I have to pick myself up, press on, suck it up, learn from my mistake. No one else can do this for me.
Students know all about this risk, and so it takes courage just to show up at the first practice. Especially if there might be cuts after tryouts. What if I ride the bench for most of the season? What if I strike out or double fault? I am so proud of every Trinity student who goes out for a team and gives it his best.
Faith, Hope, and Love
I don’t have time here to say much about these theological virtues. They are more important to us than the cardinal virtues, for it is through them that we enter into the kingdom of God through Jesus. No Trinity student-athlete (or teacher or parent or head of school) will ever be wise enough or just enough or self-controlled or courageous enough to be worthy of eternal life with God. This comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That faith waits expectantly on God (hope) and works itself out in love, the love that manifests itself in the cardinal virtues. A Christian is not more wise or just or self-controlled or courageous than someone else; a Christian, by the power of the Spirit of Jesus in him, is more wise, just, self-controlled, and courageous than he would have been without that divine influence in his life.
Our coaches at Trinity are followers of Jesus who understand this. They know that the best thing that they can do for their student-athletes is to point them to Christ, and this they do in a hundred ways every season. Trinity teams have two big goals: to learn to love God and to learn to love one another. It’s a beautiful thing when this happens, and I’ve seen that many times.
ReNew Again...and Again. • PN#5
In Praise of Teachers • PN#4
Learning to See • PN#3
Parent News #6 | Auction: For the Love of Our Own Trinity Faculty | November 3, 2017
I hope that many of our Trinity families will come out to the auction on November 10 at the Rickhouse in Durham. It will be a festive evening, rich in community and fellowship, and dedicated to a great cause. Please join us.
The people of Trinity School are our greatest asset. We are rich in human resources. Our parents, our Board, our students—all of these bring us God’s lavish gifts, but most of all, our teachers. Trinity faculty are smart, caring, and really good at what they do. And what they do is to know, love, and teach our students well. All this they do as followers of Jesus Christ. How do you put a price on that?
This year's auction is dedicated to these amazing people who give of themselves so generously. For the Love of Our Own Faculty, this year's auction theme, captures our goal: to raise funds that will encourage, build up, and support the women and men who are forming our children as lifelong learners and followers of Christ.
Our goal this year is $150,000. That’s a high bar, but I want to challenge our community to stretch and reach it. We can do it, and when we do, we will provide rich resources for the people who make Trinity's mission happen day in and day out.
We hope to spend about $50,000 over the next few years on exciting professional development opportunities that our faculty could not consider apart from this kind of support. Our aim is then to put the rest into an endowment that will fund ongoing professional development for faculty in perpetuity. So our gifts this year will make both an immediate and a permanent impact on the quality of the teaching and learning that goes on at Trinity School.
Thank you for being part of this effort. I want to thank especially Lisa Yarborough and Serena Hutcheson, our auction co-chairs, for their vision, creativity, and tireless hard work For the Love of Our Own Faculty.
The Tech-Wise School • PN#2
Updates from Summer • PN#1
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.