Mar 31, 2013

My Girl Moses and the Promised Land

The Promised Land

Imagine old Moses looking down from Glory.  Seeing the dream come true for his people:  The Promised Land.  While he labored for forty years in the wilderness, with that good land a shimmering mirage just out of reach, his successors sweep in with lightning speed amidst the crumbling walls of Jericho.  There were those that said that it couldn't be done, that it would never happen, that perhaps they should just make peace with the life of tent-dwelling nomads.   But after Moses was gone, the impossible happened.

Bittersweet? Maybe a little.  But only a little.  Mostly, I imagine for Moses it was a sweet moment to see what he'd labored for so long come to pass even if he wasn't there to lead the charge.  After all this had always been God's journey anyway and Moses had felt blessed just to be along for the ride.

Back when Babs and I were dating, I wrote a poem for her called "My Girl Moses."  At the time, she had volunteered to plan and organize the opening event of GO'97, a missions conference to begin on December 31, 1996 through the first days of 1997.  The event had mushroomed into a massive undertaking involving a living Global Village featuring the buildings, cultural landmarks, food, and people of key mission fields around the world followed by a New Years Eve prayer service.   The sheer volume of people, material, and details seemed reminiscent of Moses wrangling the nation of Israel as he led them out to the Promised Land.  And so I wrote this poem as a tribute and encouragement to my girl.  I was amazed by her fearless embrace of the impossible, by her ability to get everyone to work together, and most of all by her remarkable faith.

Recently, I've seen a glimpse of my girl Moses again. This time, though it's not as the leader of a multitude with her feat planted on the muddy bed of the Red Sea, staff raised aloft, but as the leader emeritus watching others rejoice as her dream comes true.  Granted, wrangling two kids, trying to keep up the house, and teaching art a day and a half a week isn't quite the heavenly vantage point, but she's where God want's her to be.  And that's enough for her.

A much smaller ribbon cutting. Babs in her heyday, cuts the ribbon on the  then-new playground  at the old  Saipan SDA School campus. 

God gave Babs the vision of a new school campus for the Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School, just as He had the principals before her.  She believed in that Promised Land when few others did.  And she felt certain that God would bring it to pass on her watch.  So she was puzzled but accepting when God whispered to her that "you shall not go there, into the land, which I am giving. . ."  She left Saipan with the dream unfulfilled.  But it was God's dream all along and in His time He brought it to pass.

Just over a week ago under the Joshua leadership of current principal Sharon Nguyen and school board chair Dr. Ken Pierson, the Saipan SDA School moved into it's new campus, a beautiful piece of land centrally located, complete with fully-furnished buildings ready to go.  It is an exceedingly good land and while it may not be flowing with milk and honey, it does have a very nice fully stocked science lab,a basketball court, and lots and lots of space: enough that at last, the Childhood Development Center and the Elementary School will be on one campus.  Ironically, Babs had looked at plots of land on all sides of this property as potential sites for a new school.  She'd never considered this particularly property (not least because another private school was already located there--she could never have guessed that they'd close up shop without warning and put the place on the market for a song).

Science lab (photo courtesy of Crystal Pierson)

The basketball court.  The Saipan SDA School won their last basketball championship on this very court  way back in 2005.  Only God could have known that one day we would own that court. (photo courtesy of Crystal Pierson)

Babs was asked to send a short a video message to be shown at the opening ceremony and she did so.  I know she wished she could have been there, even as a visitor, but like old Moses, it was for her to watch--and rejoice--from afar.  And rejoice she did, because like Moses, she knew that Canaan was really a way station on the way to something even better.  One day, by God's grace, she and Moses and the people God gave to each of them will all be together in a land promised to all who will do as they did: Let Him lead, all the way home.

Unlike Canaan, the previous owners also sought to glorify Christ. May this longed-for land continue to be a place where children are taught to know Jesus and to long for  that final Promised Land that cannot be bought or sold, cannot be passed from one owner to another but will be shared by all who know and love Him. (photo courtesy of Crystal Pierson)

Mar 15, 2013

Lost Things

Unfortunately, my mom hasn't been able to locate any of the lost things I discuss in the following entry, so I guess they really are gone.

I try not to think about it too much.  And as a result it doesn't bother me as much as perhaps it would.

But I've lost a lot of things--things that can't be replaced.

There are things from my childhood.  When I was a kid, my brother and I started the Herculean task of illustrating the entire Bible in full-page, full-color format.  With the ambition that only childhood can afford, we decided to draw pictures of every story in the Bible.  In many cases it wasn't just one picture per story, but multiple pictures.  Noah's Ark for example included a series of marker-and-crayon illustrations of showing the gradual rising of the waters.  I got as far as the story of Hagar and Ishmael before the project petered out.  Now, that my older son is excited about the Bible stories it would have been neat to show him those pictures.  But they disappeared many years ago, perhaps thrown away accidentally during one of my mom's moves.  I wonder if Vince still has his?

Speaking of Elijah, he loves his stuffed animals, just as I did when I was a little kid.  I would love to have been able to dig out those treasured friends--Charlie the clown, Riff Raff the Lion, Gerry the dog, Leonard the leopard and about half dozen more--and share them with my boy.  But they're all gone now.  They may be buried somewhere in my in-laws basement, but I kind of doubt it.

I did a lot of writing and drawing when I was a child and everything is gone.  My picture books on the Civil War and the Plains Indians, the unfinished draft of a novel about a family of beavers, stacks of vivid,densely  detailed pictures of the adventures of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox of the American Revolution (yes, I was a major history nerd).  It's especially painful that so much of what I've lost is what I've created, rather than toys or other objects.

More recently I've lost the scripts for all the  plays that I've written.  The lost plays include Before Supper, written in 2000 and staged multiple times between 2000 and 2004 both in Saipan and in Collegedale, TN and the pair of one-act plays I contributed to the Point of Impact collaboration in 2002 with Galvin Deleon Guerrero.

I don't know how it is that I have a closet full of junk and my in-laws full of stuff that I haven't even thought of since 1998, and yet somehow managed to lose the things of real value; things that matter and can't be replaced.

 I'm not sure why losing these things doesn't bother me more than it does.  I'd like to think that it's because in the end, they really are just things.  I'd like to think it's because I'm more grateful for what I still have.  After all these losses are minor compared to losing my health, my loved ones, or my life.  I'm fortunate to have been blessed in this regard, and while I know that if I live long enough I will almost certainly lose all three, I'm grateful to have them thus far.

As for those lost things?  If they are found I will likely "call together my friends and neighbors, saying to them rejoice with me, for I have found that which was lost."

Mar 14, 2013


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly
Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow
               --Langston Hughes

A dreamless landscape

So I was scanning Facebook this morning and came across this short post on my news feed by a friend of a friend.  It was just a few paragraphs, but contained a direct challenge to what the author, Sarah Matthews Asaftei, views as a creeping complacency in our culture.  It was mini-manifesto of sorts, and sparked a energetic debate that was as thought-provoking as the original post.  You can read the entire post and ensuing discussion on her public Facebook profile.

(For more information about Sarah Matthews Asaftei and the work she does check out her website at skaMEDIA Productions).

Asaftei's musings struck a chord with me.  I'd been contemplating a blog on the topic of dreams and their pursuit recently, and her post moved me to tackle this topic without further delay.

At one point she asked the following series of questions:

Where is the wanderlust? The yearning? The desire to be constantly transforming into a stronger, wiser version of ourselves? Where is the insatiable zest for a life of deeper meaning, of fuller wholeness? When did youthful appetite for the unknown evaporate into mundane routine? At what point do people stop dreaming of what they want to become? When do we get jaded enough to reject opportunities that would (albeit perhaps painfully) spark healthy growth?

The answer to these questions  that came immediately to mind was one word:


You see, in my view, these questions are the questions of the privileged.  Only the wealthy have the luxury of dreaming big, or alternatively abandoning those dreams in favor of a comfortable life and a full TV viewing schedule.  For the vast majority of the world, the goal is simply to stay alive.  To feed your children.  Dreams might be small but impossibly out of reach-- simply to send your kid to school, to have a safe and secure source of water, to preserve a vanishing way of life.

Indeed, even those burdened by bills are among the wealthy elite compared to most of the world. For these people the practical realities of life still leave very little opportunity for exploring growth, even if survival is not at stake:  Single parents, those working multiple jobs just to pay the bills, the poor in America:  As with the desperately poor, dreams here are also deferred to the next generation.  Your dreams are wrapped in your children, in the hope that they can have a better life than you have had.

This disconnect sparked much of  the objection to Sarah's original post, but I think Sarah and her detractors were actually on the same page, if not on the same paragraph (well, except for that anti-Europe guy; I'm not sure where he was coming from).  While Asaftei's post might seem frivolous to much of the world, it has very real and serious implications for some of us.   Her observations, intentionally or not, were aimed at a very specific subset of humanity, and for that subset it's message and it's challenge is absolutely appropriate. As it happens,  I'm one of the lucky few who get to ponder these kinds of rich folk conundrums.

I'm bothered my own lack of passion.  We are told to go after our dreams. But what happens if you're not sure what your dream is?  We are told to pursue what you are passionate about.  But what if, pushing forty years of age, you're still not sure where your passion lies?  We are told to do what we love--oh, the privilege!  But what if you like a lot of things, but consistently find love too strong a word?

I've had dreams, but it seems their luster has faded some what.  To do anything well requires hard work. Nothing, no matter how rewarding, is always fun.  For awhile I thought my passion was to write a novel.  Well, I did that, but found that once it was done I no longer felt the burning need to write the Great American Novel. The unpublished draft has languished for the past four and half years for a variety of reasons, but largely because I haven't felt motivated to do anything further with it.

Another once-upon-a-dream was the idea of making my own movies--being able to create a story and see it come to life.  I had that amazing opportunity when, Journeys, the television series I co-wrote in Saipan became a reality.  We filmed a pilot that actually aired on TV and filmed 13 episodes of a first season. But the project ran out of money and died a quiet death.  Though, I continued to be involved in the island's nascent film and television for several years working as production manager on a documentary of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Saipan, and acting in my friend Dan Shor's project, State of Liberty, I found my passion to pursue this line of work cooled as well.

When have I felt the most alive?  I loved working on the set of Journeys.  It was work I could see myself waking up every morning excited to do.  I loved being on tour with my drama troupe. My accomplishments as a founding director of REAL Christian Theater, a team that toured for close to decade was source of tremendous pride for me.  On those days--during the golden age of REAL--when a student theater project came to life on stage for hundreds, even a thousand elementary school kids; when I watched God work miracles as we did our little part to share His love with others I felt there could be no better life.  But my work in drama has been hiatus for almost a year now and I'm not sure when or how I'll get back into it.  It turns out that working full-time as a teacher and having two young kids isn't compatible with the time and commitment needed for top-notch theater troupe.

  Living in Saipan was amazing.  I've spoken many times in this blog about  how blessed I felt to have the life we had on Saipan.  I rarely took for granted how lucky I was to live in a tropical island paradise.  Yet even there, it was easy to get caught up in the humdrum of daily life. No matter where you live the bills still have to be paid, the paperwork has to be filled out, the bathroom needs to be cleaned.  And now the island life is an increasingly distant memory.  Yet, now that we live in Ohio, I don't feel a sense of hollowness or emptiness at all.  My life is as rich as it's ever been (if not richer with the wealth that my two boys bring), if not as glamorous as it once was.

I take great satisfaction in the company of good friends. A stimulating conversation can be thing of great joy. I am easily moved by the beauty found in the changing of the seasons--stark trees and moonlight on a snowy night, a warm spring morning, the thick greenery of summer, the brilliant autumn foliage.  "There's so much beauty around us and just two eyes to see, but I'm looking."  It is deeply rewarding to watch my students grow and develop.  I'm inspired almost on a daily basis by the strides they make, and not just those that are long gone from my classroom and making their own mark on the world, but the ones I've got right now, progressing in fits and starts, doing more, being more, and becoming more than I ever did at their age.

Moments in life don't come much more beautiful than this:  A group of our students gather for impromptu prayer, without any adult prodding, after one of their friends got hurt while playing.

Despite my lack of one defining passion, I have a lot optimism for the future.  I guess it's because the one thing I've always tried to do in my life is let God lead.  One advantage to not having found that single driving motivator is that I'm less inclined to fight where God leads.  The most rewarding things I've experienced in my life thus far were things I would never had the sense to dream of in advance.  So, based on how God has led in the past, I have no doubt that the future that will continue to bring a life less ordinary, a dream come true.

They said boy you just follow your heart
But my heart just led me into my chest
They said follow your nose
But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head
And they said boy you just follow your dreams
But my dreams were just misty notions
But the Father hearts and the Maker of noses
And the Giver of Dreams, He's the one I've chosen
And I will follow Him.
--Rich Mullins, "The Maker of Noses"

Mar 13, 2013

The Secret to Slaying the Paper Monster

This weekend's stack: Two tests, a Bible assignment, and science project proposals plus a few miscellaneous late assignments.  This is actually a little thicker stack than usual, but fear not, by Monday morning it will dispatched.

At eight weeks and going strong, I think I'm finally ready to declare victory.  I believe I have finally done what for almost two decades seemed impossible.  I have slain the Paper Monster.

Way back in 1996, a year after my first teaching gig as a student missionary in Chuuk, I wrote a column for my college newspaper recounting my earliest battles with the seemingly unconquerable  Paper Monster--the never ending stack of student papers that haunt every teacher's days.  Little did I know that the battle was just beginning, and that for years to come I would engage in a Sisyphean struggle  to eliminate the pile that never seemed to diminish.

But quite suddenly this past quarter I stumbled upon victory.  For all of this quarter I've remained completely caught up with my grades.  Each day I clear the Shelf where the students submit their work, and by the next morning all the papers are graded and are ready to return to the students.  Oh, sure there are a few exceptions:  a big test or project that takes a few days or a weekend. But on the whole, the turnaround is 24 hours or less.  I've even stayed on top of the music and P.E. grades, which is completely unheard of.  Throughout my career, those types of classes stayed blank all quarter long, and the grades were entered en mass at the end of the marking period.

My students have had mixed reactions to this new promptness.  Some of the ones that tend to struggle more, seem to welcome the change.  Knowing they have to get their assignments in and getting the immediate feedback seems to motivate them.  Others--including some of my stronger students--have been frustrated by the lack of leeway to sneak an assignment in late.  They miss the days when they saw papers languishing on the Shelf days and even weeks at a time and knew they could drop a paper in late with me none the wiser.  On the whole, though I believe the change has been good for all of us, but especially for the students.  My staying on top of my work helps them stay on top of theirs.  Just as I now know exactly where my students stand--who is doing well, who is in trouble--my students also know how they are doing.  Timely feedback is crucial for student success, and I'm so glad I'm finally providing that feedback on a consistent basis.

So how did I slay the Monster?  What was the secret?  For awhile, I didn't really know.  An incident that I won't relate here was the initial motivator.  I was angry at the time, and determined not to be found wanting in this area again.  But that passed, and yet I stayed caught up.  Eventually I was able to pinpoint a few key things that made the difference:

To begin with, I already had a couple of elements in place that made staying caught up easier to accomplish. For one, I'd already eliminated a lot of the actual grading years ago.  Most daily homework I correct in-class with my students.  I read the answers, and the students correct their own work.  I spot check for cheating, both during the correcting (looking for the kid writing frantically while I'm reading the answers) and when I collect the papers.  I only grade tests, quizzes, and projects where student correction isn't practica l.  So already, most of my "grading" is actually about entering the grades in the gradebook rather than actual correcting of assignments.

Another element I had long in place, was an emphasis on actual learning rather than busywork to keep the kids occupied.  This was the take-away of that college newspaper column--that the Paper Monster could be defeated by focusing on actual teaching rather than a lot of worksheet heavy make-work.  In truth, that approach subdued the Monster but did not destroy it.  No amount of creative, student-centered teaching could free me from the necessity of grading, and the inevitable paper pile that came with it.  Still, fewer worksheets really do help.

Finally, I had in the past year or so began to really make use of on the spot assessments, in essence grading the students while they were working.  With the iPad it's been easier than ever to lean over a student, see how they are doing, or mark a page in their practice book, and enter the grade directly into the grading program.

With these elements all in place, all I needed was one final piece of the puzzle to make it all come together.  The stake in the heart of the Paper Monster was simply this:  Vigilance.  I had to make grading a top priority.    I had to grade when there didn't seem to be a need to grade.  It was that crucial moment when the stack was still thin--three assignments and a quiz--and time was short--10 or 15 minutes that I had act.  These were the very times when in the past I would have said, "Well, it's only a few assignments.  I'll get to them later."  Now it's "It's only a few assignments.  Let me just get them in now."  At first I figured that sooner or later I'd get busy and fall behind, and I just wanted to stay ahead as long as I could.  But I found that my success bred further success, and I've now become obsessed with staying caught up.  As a result, it appears that I may finally end the quarter with nothing to do but write my comments and print the report cards!

Sure, in the scheme of what really matters in education, maybe destroying the Paper Monster is only a minor achievement.  I only wish some of my other challenges were so easily solved:  How to reach every student and help them see their God-given worth and amazing potential.  How to make sure that I do right by my students ten out of ten times rather than on occasion giving in to irritation and sarcasm. How to effectively teach my subject matter in a way that is meaningful and relevant to each student.  Teaching is hard work, and staying caught up with grading is often the least of what sometimes to be intractable challenges.  But if slaying the Paper Monster has taught me anything, its that what often seems impossible in education,
 whether as simple as a pile of papers or as complicated as a recalcitrant student, is possible after all.

Edit: It would seem the Paper Monster did not take kindly to reports of his demise.  I ended up unable to finish this blog until now because I was working on the pile pictured at the start of this entry.  A couple of things came up that prevented me from finishing the stack in a timely manner, and I ended up staying up until 1:30 A.M. Sunday morning and still not finishing the grading.  Monday morning I had to tell students inquiring about recently submitted assignments that I hadn't graded them yet. But I got caught up today, and as of tonight, the Monster is definitely dead this time.

Mar 2, 2013

Still My Favorite Thing in the Whole World

With the elder son, Fall 2008. . . 

With the younger son, Winter 2013