At long last! Another Gauntlet! I’m throwing it right at your faces, O students of the Regis School of the Sacred Heart. Dare you pick it up and answer the challenge? If so, read on. The challenge is to expand on this introduction:
I entered the time machine, knowing it would only work once, but I had to go back to fix this one mistake.
Expand this sentence into about 250 words explaining the one mistake and why it has to be fixed. Save your submission as a Word document with the file name Gauntlet 7 [Insert Your Name Here]. For example, my file would be Gauntlet 7 Mr. Chance. Email all submissions to mchance at theregisschool.org.
Submissions are due to me by Thursday, 7 April. After that, I’ll review, format, and start posting them under the Challenge Answered category.
My son Christopher and daughter Adrienne are in their early 20s. Between the two of them, that’s more than four decades parenting experience. I’ve been teaching for about 25 years. Assume 60 students a year. That’s several centuries of time spent with other people’s children. Here are three of the more important insights I’ve gleaned about educating children.
1. Homework Is Second
A fundamental piece of the mission and philosophy of Sacred Heart schools is the idea that the one who leads the best is the one who serves the best. The saints, best exemplified by the Virgin Mary, demonstrate that leadership of others and service to others are linked. Of course, the paragon of the “servant leader model” is Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 22:28). Homework, so the story goes, serves to benefit the student by giving him extra practice with important concepts. The beneficiary of homework is the student, not someone other than the student. After a long day at school, a student who returns home with homework should not give top priority to that homework. To be sure, it’s more than reasonable for him to rest a bit, put on some more comfortable clothes, have a snack, et cetera.
But then the things that must be done must get done, and first things have priority. Service to others takes priority over service to oneself.
So, before homework gets done, a student should train his leadership skills by doing something around the house that benefits someone other than himself. He could, for example, do the dishes. He could walk the dog. He could take out the trash, or mow the lawn, or help a younger sibling with his or her homework. This training in leadership works best when the student identifies what acts of service need doing, and then he chooses which one to do. The initiative ought to be his. When the student’s initiative falters, his parents — those primarily responsible for his education — ought to step in and at least offer a few choices.
As my 8th graders learned reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the difference between work and play is not the activity. Rather, the difference is found in the choosing. As Mark Twain explained, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” When I choose to do the dishes, I enjoy doing the dishes. When I end up doing the dishes, the exact same activity irritates me. Young men — who are all leaders in training — deserve the opportunity to discover the distinction between Work and Play.
2. Devices Are Second, Too
Technology can overwhelm. Tools that are meant to make work easier end up making it easier for others to pile more work on us. Those same tools present numerous distractions that make work harder to get done. Add in technology specifically designed to facilitate play, and work diminishes further. Add to this a strange trick of the mind. Everyone has experienced being so immersed in an activity that one loses track of time. What seems to have occupied only minutes of my time ends up consuming hours. Soon, the time that I had to complete X, Y, and Z is gone, and I haven’t gotten beyond W.
Just as homework takes second place to service within the home, so to do devices that distract from work take second place to homework. The research about the destructive habits and negative psychological effects of too much exposure to the Internet and other forms of electronic entertainment, especially many social media sites, is enormous and pretty well established. Many of these entertainments thrive by presenting us with Pavlovian stimulus-response loops. After I’m done writing and posting this little essay to my site, I’ll post the link on social media. Then, since I’ve been trained to salivate when the bells rings, I’ll be drawn to check over and over again to see who has liked my social media post. Did I get an up thumb? If so, from whom? How many interactions have there been? If someone leaves a comment, I must respond to that comment. And so my electronically reinforced distractibility keeps me focused on something other than what I’m supposed to be focused on.
Time spent using devices, especially devices that grant access to the Internet, must be prioritized and limited. My children ten years ago did not have to deal with the level of distraction that today’s children face. If my son Christopher were in middle school now, I’d impose clear limits. It might look something like this:
* First, relax for a bit after a hard day of school.
* Second, pick which form of service you’ll perform and then perform it.
* Third, do your homework.
* Fourth, after all of the above is done, you can watch TV or play a video game or whatever.
And step four would include time limits. No more than an hour, for example, and it certainly would be the case that the various weapons of mass distraction would not be kept in Christopher’s room. They’d be in the shared spaces of the home, and, at night, even his phone would end up somewhere other than in his room. Bed time is bed time, and lights out means no electricity. The only activity that might delay lights out would be reading a book.
3. Personal Grooming Is Not Optional
Here I must speak directly to young men. Read and consider carefully these words of wisdom.
Like it or not, people judge you by your appearance. People judge not only you by your appearance, they also judge your parents — especially your mother — by your appearance. This isn’t fair. It’s not right. But it is the truth, and you can shut doors that ought to have been kept open by the way you present yourself in public. So, you must do these five things:
* Bathe daily with soap. That includes washing and combing (or brushing) your hair.
* If you wash your hair at night, you need to wash and comb (or brush) it again in the morning, unless your hair is as about as short as mine usually is.
* Wear deodorant everyday. If you sweat a lot during the day, bring deodorant with you to school. (I keep deodorant in my desk at school, but it’s mine; get your own.)
* Put on clean clothes everyday. This includes your shoes and the clothes that people can’t see because they’re worn under other clothes.
* Get a haircut at least every three weeks. The longer your hair, the more often it needs cutting.
There is one important rule for haircuts: If your bangs hide your forehead and eyebrows, your hair is wrong. It either needs to be combed away from your face or cut shorter. Fortunately, there are numerous options available for you no matter what kind of hair you have. Here are a few excellent links:
Best Haircuts for Black Men
How to Grow Your Hair Out Long (for Dudes)
A Man’s Guide to Brushes and Combs
Men’s Hairstyles: What’s the Difference Between a Taper and a Fade?
Today, we celebrated our annual Father-Son Mass. The celebrant was Father Jim Murphy, CSB, President of St. Thomas High School. During his homily, he gave the us fathers and father figures a homework assignment. He instructed us to share a lesson our fathers had taught us. Here’s my homework.
When I was in the fourth grade, Mom, my sister Sarah, and I traveled to Harrison, Arkansas, with Jimmie Chance, the man my mother had recently married. He is my adoptive father. His parents, my new grandparents, lived in Harrison. I don’t remember much about the trip, but I do remember canoeing on the Buffalo River. I’d never done that sort of thing before, and it was an adventure in a strange place with many people who were strangers at that time.
About mid-day, we stopped on a pebbly riverbank for lunch. I asked Mom if I could play in the water. She said I could but told me not to go too far. I wore a life vest, but I could not at the time swim, so Mom’s caution was sensible. I told her I’d be careful.
I was not careful.
I went too far, and I discovered that a life vest, when water is sufficiently deep, has enough buoyancy to lift a fourth grader off his feet. The water’s current took over, pulling me toward the center of the river and carrying me farther and farther from the pebbly bank. I called loudly for Mom. She yelled Jimmie’s name.
Today, right now as I write this sentence, I’m more than forty years older than I was that day. I vividly remember the sequence of events after Mom yelled Jimmie’s name. He looked in my direction, tracking me floating away. He dropped his sandwich as he ran, taking several steps. He dove into the river, head up, eyes locked on me, arms outstretched so that as soon he plunged into the muddy water he could start swimming. He caught the life vest near my shoulder and backstroked toward the pebbly bank. When he could stand, he picked me up, cradling me in his arms, and walked me to Mom, who took me from him.
I don’t remember anything else from that day.
A bit more than a week ago, I began an educational experiment with my 8th grade ELA classes. Back in 2011-2012, I bought a copy of Microscope, “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories”, written by Ben Robbins and published via Lame Mage Productions. I’ve read of other teachers using the game as a learning tool, and for years I've wanted to do the same.
The set up for Microscope is simple enough. I randomly divided the 8th graders into groups of three or four students per group. Each group’s work is recorded in a shared document. I then randomly assigned each group one of five Big Pictures. Within an 8th grade class, every group has a different Big Picture. One of those Big Pictures is this:
Refugees carve out a new life in a distant land.
After establishing the groups and assigning each group a Big Picture, the students got to be creative, but within a few guidelines. The process moves between collaborative and non-collaborative. For the latter parts, each student gets his chance to establish more or less by fiat an aspect of the epic history the group creates. Continuing the history being written by one group for the above Big Picture, we see these facets, beginning with the Bookends, which are the start and the end of a group’s fictional history:
Beginning Period: Nuclear war has broken out, and nobody is safe. The only way to escape is up, defectors must enter the space capsule and leave behind earth to reach Mars.
Ending Period: The colonists' peaceful time on Mars has ended abruptly. The indigenous aliens oppose the colonization and fight for their land. Warships emerge from the emptiness of space seeking to reclaim their land. After a long war, the colonists lose, but they manage to board a space capsule and flee to their former planet Earth.
After the Bookends, the group decided on the Palette. This gives each student a chance to include or exclude an element from the shared story. The Palette is not collaborative, but one student cannot outright contradict what another student has already stated.
Included Elements: planets, Mars, NASA/space organization, plague/disease, and a human tyrant
Excluded Elements: children, Asteroids
After the Palette, each student gets to participate in the First Pass, during which he gets to add either another Period or an Event within a Period. This starts the process of fleshing out the fictional timeline by adding elements that occur between the Bookends. For example:
Period 1 - Time on Earth: Nuclear War leads to nuclear fall leaving Earth uninhabitable. A group of humans flees Earth in hopes of establishing a new life elsewhere.
Period 2 - Time in Space: After humans stole the spacecraft, they flew into space looking for a new planet to live on. Their engine broke down and they had to crash it into a planet that was discovered as Mars.
Period 3 - Time on Mars: After the humans land on Mars they find ways to survive on this unknown planet and must work together to survive.
Event 3.1 - The War between Humans and Aliens: After a brief time of uneasy peace between aliens and humans war breaks and life is in jeopardy for the Humans.
As our experiment with Microscope continues into the fourth quarter, the students will increase the detail of their fictional histories. They shall add characters. They shall act out short scenes to explore the outcomes of conflicts that they invent. The students’ points of view shall jump back and forth from the macro to the micro. While their work ends up in chronological order, the creative process itself is not constrained by fictional time. What the students choose to explore need not be sequential.
Along the way, the students learn and reinforce some valuable skills. Collaboration is not easy. Strong personalities have to tone it down to ensure everyone has a voice. Quieter personalities find themselves thrust into the spotlight, having to at least briefly take on a leadership role within the group. Attention must be paid to cause-effect in order to construct narratives that make sense. Elements of characterization come up, especially regarding motivation and consequences of choices.
The 8th grade gentlemen are done with the initial steps of the Microscope system. The ten groups have good starts made for their respective fictional histories. When we return from Spring Break and the last quarter of the school year begins, this experiment in team storytelling shall continue.
I am eager to see what their fictional histories reveal.
Correction: In the original post, I stated that Ben Robbins, author of Microscope, was a teacher. Mr. Robbins has since corrected me. Mea culpa maxima.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.