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 #11 | 14 Strong | Inisde 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.