30 August 2008

Religion in Public Schools

All week I've been explaining the "Obama is a Muslim" myth to people at school. It's surprising how many people believe this, considering that it was debunked last winter pretty forcibly by the campaign. I try not to press my politics on the students, but in cases of outright lunacy--like the Obama-Muslim connection, or the Saddam Hussein-9/11 connection (which are believed by legions of Americans to this day), I feel that I have to step in with the truth. To be honest, I would also step in if a student tried to tell me that John McCain has a wooden leg.

Another popular myth is "There's no religion allowed in public schools." I have heard this more times than the Obama-Muslim myth, and frankly it rankles me a little more because I am such an outspoken Christian and I have invested my career in demonstrating my own personal Christian values in a public school setting.

For me, religion in public schools is the same as politics in the pulpit. It shouldn't be preached. There is no such thing as a homogeneous group in America where I can proclaim "Obama will be a great president" or "I believe every dumb thing you can tell me about Bill Clinton" except, perhaps a political party convention. In any other setting, the words a person wants to say about God or education, will be coopted if they insist on presenting a biased political slant on things.

That's how it is in my classroom. In any group of 20 or 25, I expect to have four or five who are members of the Baptist mega-church in Hendersonville, about four of other fundamentalist denominations (Church of Christ, Mormon, Adventist or Jehovah's Witness), three mainline or Catholic students and 30 to 40% of the room that is unchurched.

To me, this is a real opportunity to learn as well as teach. We bring up religion a lot, but I do so in a way that students feel safe expressing their own beliefs while respecting those of others. For example, in a recent discussion of the Puritans, I asked students to choose from one of the following three options: (1) Man is basically evil and therefore needs control [a la Puritans]; (2) man is fundamentally good and therefore needs freedom [a la deists like Thomas Jefferson]; (3) man is neither good nor evil and therefore must muddle through [a la postmodernists]. Religiously speaking the classes were 98% postmodern.

Students come to my school with Jesus T-shirts. Many of them carry Bibles in their backpack--I remember a hand full of students who placed them on the top of their desk tops after they sat down. I remember smiling as I passed a boy who had a cross on his T-shirt. It had the caption "I could be punished for wearing this in a public school." I left him unmolested, as did every other teacher that day.

With our boys at the public elementary school next door, we saw a classic example of how prevalent religion is in the public schools. Owen's teacher, Ms. Sloan, called us recently quite concerned. She had asked the kids about a place they would like to visit. Owen wrote, "Heaven."

Now I think most of the readers of this blog understand fully what Owen intended. Students in Adventist schools are encouraged to imagine Heaven, describe it, draw it, look forward to it.

In Ms. Sloan's faith background, it was quite different.

Think about it.

For her, going to heaven was probably a euphamism for death. And when she saw a bright, 7-year-old boy say that he wanted to go there, she could only understand that he wished to die.

It made us both glad that she cared enough to call us about this; and even more glad that Owen's religious education is up to us, not to a given teacher. As long as Owen is at Station Camp Elementary, religion will be alive and well, and that's the way it should be.

Speaking of heaven, it makes me want to include one of the verses I sang at Oasis last night:
When I come to die,
Oh when I come to die,
When I come to die, give me Jesus.

23 August 2008

In Praise of a Teacher

Last year I missed the first game of the high school football season. I resolved not to miss another.

In ten years of teaching at public high schools, I have never been to a Friday-night game. I keep busy with religious groups, and my Adventist background makes me quite defensive of my Friday nights. Last year, however, when I realized how late sundown was that first Friday night, I resolved not to miss another one.

That's how Ellie and I came to be outside the ticket booth last night at Hendersonville High School (a cross-town rival). Ellie had invited one of her middle-schools friends. As we bought our tickets and looked for a seat in the visitors' stands, a remarkable community emerged before my eyes.

I saw co-workers and students (some in school spirit colors, some shirtless with big letters painted on their chests, and some attractively dressed in outfits not approved by our dress code), I even saw alumni who had passed through my classes and moved on. "You won't believe this, Mr. Dittes," said Jacob, 2008 graduate now attending a local college on a football scholarship, "My first class is Comp 101."

"Just remember the five-paragraph essay," I replied. "It won't let you down."

"I know," he said.

Ellie and Andrea spotted friends from middle school. Their was a burst of excitement when the spotted Ms. Stark, their 5th-grade teacher last year at Jack Anderson Elementary.

I'm returning a favor for the job she did last year by teaching her son, Roger, in my English 11 class. "I feel like I owe a lot to you," I told him the first day of class. "Your mom did a great job teaching my daughter, Ellie, last year."

"Go ahead and give me an A," he said.

I laughed. "I'll just do the best job of teaching that I can."

When I think about the teaching his mom did, even now, three months after Ellie left her classroom, never to return, I am so grateful. Tears well in my eyes, just thinking about the remarkable turnaround she engineered in my daughter.

As of last March, Ellie hated school. "I'm dumb," she would say. "I'm not one of the smart kids." It was the nadir of a school-related slide that had gone on for two years, through two different teachers at her old school. You can read more about that difficult time on a prior blot post, here.

Fifth grade shouldn't be the point where kids begin hating school. It is the greatest grade of the eight in elementary school--the point at which I began to see excellence in school as a pathway to excellence in life, when I began to love learning. I withdrew her from her old school and enrolled her in Ms. Stark's class.

I well remember the first time I met Ms. Stark. I had take the morning off to get Ellie to her new school. The attendance officer walked us down a long hall to the 5th-grade wing. She opened a door, and Ms. Stark appeared. After a short introduction, Ms. Stark opened her arms and wrapped Ellie in a big hug.

That was the first of many steps that would restore Ellie's love for school. As I reviewed Ellie's progress during our long rides home from school, I saw a consummate professional at work. Accountability in homework had Ellie hopping to get assignments done on time and logged in her assignment book. School spirit and room-level enthusiasm bonded Ellie to new friends in the class. A challenging curriculum revealed to Ellie that the world was a place worth learning about.

A close friend, Andrea, came along and helped Ellie to integrate with a key group of classmates.

When we met Ms. Stark again last night, Ellie had just finished her 2nd week of middle school. She has her own locker--and she's proud to know how to open the combination. She has seven different classes, including an advanced English class and a math enrichment class. She is in band and cross-country, and now she wants to add chorus to that busy schedule (mainly because the chorus teacher is someone she really, really likes). She seems to know the name of every 6th-grader at her school of 840.

I wish I could tell you everything Ellie has told me about her new school in the past two weeks. I'll mention her new friend, Courtney, a fellow Portlander whose mother teaches next door at Owen and Jo-Jo's school. I know all about her lunch table, and the hilarious things that go on there. She has blossomed. She loves learning. She has the air of confidence that daddies like me dream of seeing in their daughters.

A friend at work was asking me about Ellie's transition recently. Although this woman is a Catholic, her kids had attended Greater Nashville Junior Academy for a time, so she knew about our educational backgroud. "It's a much bigger pond than the one Ellie was swimming in before," I said, then I smiled. "And Ellie has become a much bigger fish."

Perhaps this helps you to understand how I get so choked up at the sight of Ms. Stark.