Saturday, October 31, 2009

Multiple Approaches to Teaching

There is more than one way to skin a cat. I will accept that truism, even though I have only seen one cat skinned by my teenager neighbor Dickie when I was about seven. It was a gruesome sight, the way he opened up and examined that road-kill kitty, but the experience was educational for all the neighborhood kids. I never saw another cat skinned, but that experience sufficed.
When I was working at the college in Hope in the late 1990s, the biology department ordered preserved cats for dissection in the lab. One older student refused to skin a cat because of some kind of odd belief she had about cats. I kind of admired that woman. I didn’t want to see another cat skinned anyway. That one back in the 1940s was sufficient. I still remember the odor, the sounds of the process.
Oh, I had cleaned a lot of fish by the time I saw Dickie skin that cat, but I had never paid much attention to the process. I just knew that our family cats, Buttercup and Sweetpea, liked to clean up after we cleaned fish. They would fight over the heads and intestines with rare aggression. I couldn’t help noticing that the two house cats were nowhere to be found during Dickie’s cat skinning process. I think they knew to respect the remains of their own kind.
Maybe that woman in Hope thought of cats that way. Come to think of it, she was somewhat catlike--the way she moved, the way she talked with a kind of meow at the end of almost every sentence. Was it a laugh, a throat clearing, a sigh or an audible punctuation mark? I don’t know, but she would say things like, “Good morning (mew). How are you this morning (purr). I’ll bet she thought of cats as family members, and that’s why the biology faculty had to find alternate ways to teach this unusual individual about anatomy. I think it was a frog.
Anyway, as I started out, before my tendency to digress broke in: there is more than one way to skin a cat. Teachers know that better than anyone. Because of the diversity of modern day classrooms in terms of ethnicity, economic status, academic preparedness and home environment, teachers have to be multi-taskers in the classroom to get the lesson across. Any teacher will tell you that their “methods” courses in college seemed out of touch with the reality they face when they land their first teaching job.
On-the-job training leads those destined to be great teachers to multiple approaches to instruction. They often teach the same lesson over and over in varying formats, trying to reach as many students as possible. Teachers who do their job as a vocation instead of an avocation tend to skin the cat in only one way. Some of their students get it. Unfortunately, many don’t.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Boy Bit my Cousin

“Boy” was the dog’s name. He lived across the street from my childhood home. He was not a friendly animal, but he was smart as a whip. His owner Mr. Barr, was sour and reclusive, but he loved that dog. They were inseparable. Mr. Barr trained Boy to ride on the fender of his 1946 Dodge with Dynaflow. (Dynaflow meant you didn’t have to keep the clutch in at a stop light. You could let it out and then ease down on the accelerator when the light changed.)
Boy had an arrogant look on his fuzzy face as they drove by. He seemed to say, “I know I am a special dog, privileged to have Mr. Barr as my master, a man who understands how special I am, how easily trainable I am. Just look how well-trained I am to ride up here on the fender. How many other dogs do you see riding on a fender?”
It seemed to me that Mr. Barr could easily teach Boy to do stuff like that, but he didn’t bother to teach him not to do stuff that he should not do. For example, he chased every bicycle or motor scooter that came by, trying earnestly to bite the leg of any he considered intruding on his road space, which stretched about a half a block. I learned to get off my bicycle as I approached the bellicose animal and keep it between him and me. I would roll the bike back and forth as I walked, blocking his pursuit of my legs until I was out of his territory and he relented.
Once, my first cousin from across town came to my birthday party. After all the festivities, he wanted to ride bikes. He got on my brother’s Schwinn and I got on my hybrid ditch-jumper. I forgot to warn him about Boy. We left my house in a direction not monitored by the dog, but we came home right in front of Boy’s domain. He flew towards us in a fury of soprano barking. Immediately, I got off my bicycle, thinking, I guess, that my cousin would follow my lead. Instead of doing so, he sped up, much to the delight of the dexterous dog.
Boy bit my cousin and drew blood. He left two rows of perfect teeth marks on his calf. My cousin screamed. He was a year or two older than I was and I couldn’t recall ever seeing him cry, but he was definitely crying that day. Instead of coming on into the house and letting Mother have a look at his wound as I recommended, he rode straight home without a word.
Soon, his father my uncle showed up at Mr. Barr’s door. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Mr. Barr looked cowed as he held Boy in his arms. As it turned out, he had no evidence of a rabies vaccination for Boy and he had to keep him pinned up for awhile. My cousin was required to get shots in his stomach and after the confinement Mr. Barr had to put the dog down. As far as I know he never got another dog.
There was something sad and incomplete about the 1946 Dodge with Dynaflow after that. Mr. Barr sat on his front steps smoking his pipe as we rode our bicycles by his house sadly, but without fear.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Clocks, Calendars and Eternity

When I think of daylight savings time ending on Sunday, November 1, I hear St. Augustine whispering in the background about the unfathomable nature of time. The famous Christian philosopher indicated that there was no past—what we call past is just a present memory. He went on to say that there is no such thing as future—it is merely a present expectation. In his view, all we have is the NOW and it becomes the past as soon as we say the word now. St. Augustine said he knew what time was until someone asked him to explain it, but then he didn’t know. Time is ineffable and unfathomable.
William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize winning Mississippi novelist, expressed the concept of time this way: “There is no such thing as was. If was existed, there would be no sadness or sorrow.” No matter how you cut it, then, time is a difficult concept to get our minds around. God did not create clocks and calendars, but an apparently limitless universe in which self consciousness is as rare as hen’s teeth. If earth is the only inhabited planet, our lucidity is rare indeed in the vast expanse of interstellar space. Man created clocks and calendars to measure the motions of our tiny part of the universe.
God exists in eternity, which is an unquantified state. I remember a preacher in my youth explaining how long eternity was by saying if a sparrow pecked up a grain of sand and flew it to the moon and took another one up there every year, when he had the earth removed to the moon, that would be about one second in eternity.
That analogy blew my adolescent mind because I knew sparrows could not fly in space suits. But the real problem was the attempt to quantify a concept that is not sequential but durational. Eternity simply IS; it is not BECOMING. The only way earthlings understand time is in this sense of becoming. Even when we say “constant state” we don’t know what we are talking about.
Do you remember the song “The Love of God”? One of the verses proclaims that if the ocean were ink and the sky were a scroll, we could still never write out the love of God. God’s love is similar to the concept of eternity. We just can’t quantify it. Perhaps that is why so many people have trouble accepting the grace of God. Since our capacity to love is so limited, we have difficulty imagining God’s freely given favor. He loves us not because of anything but in spite of everything.
Possibly the best way to understand eternity and God’s love is to ponder Jesus on the cross. He stretched out his arms as if to say, “I love you this much.” And because of that expansive, incomprehensible love, eternity opened up for all of us time- and calendar-bound people who would put our trust in God’s only son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth!
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making a Living, Making a Life

Mother was obsessed with work. I guess it was what we call the Puritan work ethic that drove her to work so hard herself and to find work for her children. As soon as I turned 16, she had a job for me at Western Union. I was a bicycle messenger and Mother was so proud of me, especially when I showed her my check.
Curtis, my brother just older than I, went to work at a grocery store when he was 16. She was equally proud of him, especially when he brought home produce that was on the verge of going bad, or bread that had gone beyond its date to be sold.
Later, when I got out of the service, I found a job immediately, but it didn’t last. The company went belly-up. The next one was short-lived as well; it was billed as a temporary job in the first place. Then I painted houses and built chicken houses for a non-union carpenter, much to displeasure of my union carpenter stepfather.
While I was working on chicken houses, putting four-by-fours in concrete and roofing the place, Pop called me aside one night and said, “What are you doing, boy?”
“I’m just sitting here in the living room.”
“No, I mean what are you doing with your life?”
“Well, I’m making a living.”
“No you ain’t. You are 22 years old and living at home.”
“You want me to move out?”
“Naw, but I don’t want you working for that rat carpenter.”
“You want me to quit?”
“Yes. If you want me to get you on down at the local as an apprentice carpenter, I can do that.”
“No, I don’t want to be a carpenter.”
Pop surely understood that one. But it brought him back to his original question: what was I doing? I pondered that question substantially that night. The next day I quit my job at the chicken house site and applied for college. I really appreciated Pop’s directness. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me to become a carpenter’s apprentice, because, when I worked for him on our house, he was highly critical of my lack of skills. He’d say things at supper like, “That boy can’t hit a nail.”
Anyway, college worked out for me. I got a job at a lumber company in that little college town and was fairly good at it, since I knew about different sizes and grades of lumber and all the sizes of nails. I also got good at framing pictures, which was an ancillary enterprise of the lumber company.
But, the best thing that happened was that I got married and the dean of men asked my wife and me to be dormitory hosts at a men’s dorm, apartment furnished, tuition paid. It was much better than carpentry and Pop approved of my new vocation. Years later, during my fourth year of graduate school, Pop asked me, “When you gonna get through with school, boy?” I said, “I’m right on the verge of finishing.” He replied, “Well, at least you are making a living at it.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

God in the Human Heart

Ralph Waldo Emerson said all things take on pleasing form in the eyes of memory. I don’t buy that 100 percent, because most of us have some very unpleasant and unshakable memories. Ray Price used to sing about the healing hands of time. I don’t think that’s altogether correct either. Time’s hands may be somewhat healing but some memories sting perpetually.
Marcel Proust believed that everything we experience lingers intact in our subconscious. His fellow Frenchman Henri Bergson also believed that our experiences are never lost. Philosophers and shrinks put it out that we have an accurate hard drive recorder up there in our gray matter that is unrelenting in its accuracy. All of us have experienced those moments when we smell an odor, hear a tune or see a beautiful scene and whole areas of our past are opened up to our conscious mind, areas we thought we had forgotten, but there they are in all the detail of reality.
For example, every time I hear organ music I get sleepy, because Aunt Sarah used to listen to radio soaps during my nap time. The organist for those programs always had tremolo turned way up. Also, when I smell freshly cut watermelon, there I am as a kid, sitting under the back yard picnic table, waiting for my slice. These involuntary remembrances are evidence enough for me that we never lose any experience, but all of them are fresh as a Sunday biscuit, just waiting for some sensation to give them leave. I’ve heard people who have had near death experiences say that their whole lives flashed before their eyes in an instant. In the light of involuntary remembrance, I don’t doubt it. A review of our existence on the planet is certainly in order at the moment of death.
But I am sure we can have some false memories, too. That’s where Proust’s concept gets very complicated. Jacque and I used to go out to the nursing home on a regular basis to minister to the residents. We heard some wild stories, fantasies reported as reality, imitating true memory, fairly consistently. Some of the residents could not remember things that actually happened but thought things that never happened did. Thus, our minds can make liars of us all. Or are these fantasies really lies? We tend to believe our own thoughts, don’t we? If we define truth as what each individual holds to be true, then a lie is indefinable.
But there is an absolute unchanging truth. Do I dare capitalize Truth? Yes, I dare. When the father in Faulkner’s “The Bear” is trying to explain Truth to his son, he explains that what the heart holds to becomes Truth, as far as we can know it, things like love, honor, pride, sacrifice and pity. The heart holds to these and they become Truth. That is a humanistic view of Truth. The Christian goes a step beyond: why does the heart hold to these things? The answer is that they are attributes of God, exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth, eternal Son of the Most High God.
Daniel G. Ford