Monday, January 20, 2014

Guest Blogging on RTI²

I'm exciting to be contributing a series on RTI² over at Bluff City Ed and invite you to check it out.
For those who don't know what RTI² is - and that's most people, really - think of it as a support system for struggling students. It's the extra help, called interventions, that about 15-20% of kids need.
Sixteen scholars entered our school in 6th grade this year as non-readers. Non-readers, meaning they did not even have a grasp on basic letter-sound correspondence. That’s over 15% of our population, which is consistent with what we saw last year. Obviously, there’s a problem when so many kids go through six years of elementary school without learning how to read.
This is a big reason why, about a year ago, Tennessee announced an exciting new education reform initiative, RTI².
To learn more about RTI² and how it can benefit kids like our non-readers, hop over to Bluff City Ed to read more.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Finding A Good School Is Hard

Our son will begin Kindergarten in the Fall. But circumstances have conspired to make the transition much more difficult than it ever should be.

Finding a good school, apparently, is hard.

And that's coming from someone with a graduate degree and who works in education. So imagine what it's like for a parent who struggles to read, a parent who lacks transportation, a parent working multiple jobs.

What's so hard?

Well, to start with, while we aren't poor, we are certainly far from rich. And so we live in a small, two-bedroom house in North Memphis. We live in the 'hood. No joke. Pizza Hut won't deliver to our house, and on occasion we hear gunshots. Fortunately, the few blocks around us are safe, because we can't afford to move to a better neighborhood.

However, if you can't afford to live in a better neighborhood, you generally aren't zoned to attend quality school. And so it is with us. The school we're zoned to is nice and new on the outside, but I don't trust what's going on inside. It's a failing school.

There's hope, though. If you are zoned to a failing school, you have an opportunity to transfer. So that's what we did. And, because of our failing school status, we were bumped up the list. We felt confident that we would be accepted into our school of choice.

Wrong. The letter came a few days ago saying that we didn't get in (not in our first choice or our second) and would need to enroll at our zoned school, the one that's failing.

That news left us scrambling to figure something out. Private school is not an option -- remember, we can't afford to move out of the 'hood, so there's no way we can afford private school.

So, what is one to do?

Charter school, here we come!

Memphis is relatively new to the charter school scene, and there are some bad charter schools around town. But there are a lot of really bad traditional public school as well. That's why we're in this situation to begin with. I just want my son in a good school. As my boss likes to say, I'm "operator-neutral." It doesn't matter to me who is running the school, as long as it's a good school.

Lucky for us, with the district failing us, there happen to be a few quality charter schools nearby. And, lucky for us, I think we're going to have our choice. We applied the other day and visited them today. We know we're in one, and we're number two on the wait list at the other, with the assurance that we'll get in.

It's such a relief to get that behind us.

As a parent, you feel so much more empowered, so much more in control, when you get to choose which school your child attends. Being forced to send your child to a failing school is the worst. No one wants that, but that's how things are. And things have got to change.

Charter schools are not a magic bullet. But they do allow for a greater degree of parent choice. And, as a parent, I appreciate that. Even though we didn't get in our first or second options, we weren't forced into accepting a bad situation. Instead, I am confident that our son will be served well.

But, again, what if we weren't savvy enough to negotiate this complicated process? Many of our neighbors aren't. That's why things have to change. And they can't change fast enough.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Guest Post: On Disability & Education

I was asked to "think aloud for the common good" from my area of expertise, which happens to be special education. This is the first of what will be a semi-regular blog posts over at A Blog of Bears.

Check it out:

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


I don't generally do resolutions, but that doesn't mean that I don't set goals. This year, though, I'm going to put myself out there. So, here are a 25 resolutions for 2013.

  1. Save up enough to finally take our long-delayed honeymoon. We just celebrated 10 years of marriage. It's time. (*Note: See below for the long story.)
  2. Pay off our car note. Early. It's scheduled for 2014 and we're on pace to pay it off a few months early already, but I want to make it happen sooner.
  3. Take the kids camping.
  4. Take my son to his first Grizzlies game. And to his first Tiger basketball game. And to his first Tiger football game. He's old enough now.
  5. And take both kids to Redbirds games. At least once per month during the season. It's just $5.
  6. Ride the trolley. Once per month. The kids love it.
  7. Take family strolls. VECA Greenline, Mississippi River, Patriot Lake at Shelby Farms, etc. Once per week, weather pending.
  8. Have regular date nights. Could we afford once per month?
  9. Shave. Keep my neck and cheeks shaved, and my beard trimmed.
  10. Eat breakfast. More than once or twice per week.
  11. Bring lunch to work from home.
  12. Cook more, entertain more, eat out less.
  13. Exercise. I'm so out of shape. And my belly is getting too big.
  14. Laugh.
  15. Listen.
  16. Have a good attitude. And complain less.
  17. Email less. Have conversations instead.
  18. Read a book to the kids each day.
  19. Read a book for myself each month.
  20. Write regularly. Once per week. And submit proposals for conferences.
  21. Do the dishes more often. Three times per week.
  22. Watch more movies with my wife. (We sit next to each other in bed, with his and hers laptops, watching separate shows and films on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon.) Is once per week doable? Can we agree on what to watch?
  23. Give away some money. Give365, maybe?
  24. Give away some time and energy. It's hard to do with a busy schedule and kids, but it's possible.
  25. Apply for the New Memphis Institute (formerly Leadership Academy) Fellows program.
*Note from #1: I worked at FedEx when we were married, which meant two things. One, I didn't have much money, and I paid a large portion of the rehearsal dinner myself, so how to afford a big honeymoon was a problem. Two, we got married during peak holiday time, which at FedEx means you don't get days off; we were doing well for me to get Friday night off for the rehearsal dinner, so I definitely had to be back on Monday night. But we did stay downtown at the Talbot Heirs Guesthouse and have a great couple days. We've been broke ever since, then had kids, and are only now starting to get in a position to save up for a long-delayed trip.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity: God as Community

Trinity Sunday: God as Community

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has this apt description of Trinity Sunday: “God is three persons and one being. God is one and yet three. The father is not the son or the Spirit, the son is not the father or the Spirit, the spirit is not the Father or the Son. But the Father Son and Spirit all are God and God is one. … So to review. 1+1+1=1.

And then she goes on to ask, “Where’s the good news in that? God as bad at Math?”

I’m afraid that’s how a lot of us feel.

Frankly, I was not a trinitarian for a long time, but the work of the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann made me rethink my position. I’m not quite sure where I stand, but Moltmann certainly makes me want to believe. He makes a compelling case for the Trinity.

(1) Can We Experience the Trinity?

Moltmann asks: “Must not trust be something we can experience?...Is it possible to talk about the triune God out of personal experience?” This is generally a way to argue against the Trinity, but not for Moltmann. The normal argument here is from the relationship with God from the human side -- We are dependent on God for our existence, and the one-ness of God is what is central to that, with the three persons as secondary. In other words, the common understanding is that God is primarily One -- and only then can we talk about the Three.

But Moltmann takes the interesting position that there are two sides to every relationship, so we can’t just consider our experience of God; we have to also consider God’s experience with us. And this is where he finds the Trinity as primary for the nature of God. God cannot -- or should not -- says Moltmann, be forced into the narrow confines of finite human existence; rather than discovering God in the self, we must find our self and our existence within God. Look to Scripture, he says: “The Bible is the testimony of God’s history with men and women, and also the the testimony of God’s experiences with men and women.”

So, what does Scripture say about God’s experience of us? Moltmann argues that the narrative of Scripture is that “the history of the world is the history of God’s suffering.” He points back to the oppression in Egypt, to the cry of Jesus on the cross, to the groaning of all creation waiting. And he says that this is the key to understanding the Trinity: “God suffers with us -- God suffers from us -- God suffers for us. And so he says that conversations on the doctrine of the Trinity must take place in the context of the question about God’s capacity or incapacity for suffering.

What say you? Can God suffer? We’ll come back to this and discuss why this is so crucial to Moltmann’s understanding of the Trinity.

(2) How do we apply the Trinity?

Moltmann asks a second question: “Is the doctrine of the Trinity a practical truth?” This too is a common critique of trinitarian thinking. The argument is that action is primary, ethics is what is important, with reflection and theory secondary. And the Trinity clearly falls within the latter category. Thus, the important thing is relieving suffering, loving our neighbor, etc. And what does the Trinity have to do with this?

But Moltmann argues that action and meditation can’t be so easily separated, that the merely pragmatic is activism and not the gospel. He says that the modern way of thinking is to say that “Knowledge is power.” What this does is make knowledge a tool for domination. On the other hand, the ancient church Fathers (and, yes, they were men) understood knowledge as wonder. Knowing the other did not mean conquest, but rather fellowship.

So, how do you understand knowledge? Is knowledge about possession of something or someone? Is knowledge about power? Or is knowledge about wonder, about community, about fellowship?

(3) Which comes first, the One or the Three?

Moltmann says that it is a fundamental mistake to start with the One-ness of God, the unity of God, and then proceed to talk about the Trinity. He says that you have to start with the Trinity and only then talk about the unity of the Three. It’s not unity exactly, but tri-unity -- and that assumes there is something to be united. He calls his approach the social doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the fellowship, the community, the relationships within the Godhead are primary.

In community, we do not have a single fixed role. Let’s think of some of the different roles we play. For example, I am father, but I am also son; I am teacher, but I am also student; etc.

So we see that our roles change. Moltmann argues that the same thing happens within the Godhead. At different times, a different Person takes the lead, but the basic structure is always present. So, he speaks of the “creation of the Father,” the “incarnation of the Son,” and the “transfiguration of the Spirit.” And yet, because creation is not solely an act of the Father, he argues for a “trinitarian creation;” likewise, he argues for a “trinitarian incarnation” and a “trinitarian glorification.”

To explain this, he goes back to the ancient Greek church, the Orthodox tradition, and the concept of “perichoresis.” The meaning is interpenetration. It means a flow, a continuous cycle, a mutual indwelling, an intimacy -- not merely an embrace, but a penetration into the other so that the different Persons are actually interconnected.

A big part of this is that the Three Persons become truly equal. The way we usually think of the Trinity is that God the Father is the head and Jesus is of course important, but it’s questionable whether he is really God. And then the the Holy Spirit is just a third wheel. But, if different Persons take the lead at different times, if the Godhead is a community of equals, then you avoid subordination in the doctrine of the Trinity.

If God exists as community, if God exists as fellowship, then the outcome of that is that the structure of the universe is one of community and fellowship. And this is where we come back to why God has to have the capacity to suffer. To be a community means to suffer when another suffers, to suffer with and for one another, to be moved by and affected by each other. But also the community that is God is not a closed union; rather, it is a community that is open and inviting to creation. In other words, the Godhead isn’t just a community unto itself, but rather the community that is God seeks to form community with us. In that case, just as God delights in and for and with us, God also suffers.

And then here’s the payoff. Hollow, feel-good, bleeding-heart activism is given a depth of meaning. The reason we look to end all forms of oppression and form a community is because that’s what God is like, that’s how the fabric of the universe has been woven from the very beginning.

It is generally true that your understanding of God will determine your preferred political structures. The traditional understanding of a Lord God gets you a human lord subjugating the rest of us. Monotheism leads to monarchy. But a trinitarian God, a relationship of equal importance and equal value, leads to a democratic structure, to a participatory and communal way of life.

The same can be said of the church: Instead of a hierarchical church polity, you get a congregational church polity and the priesthood of believers and the autonomy of the local church. (This is why I wrote a paper once on why Moltmann should be a Baptist!)

And so the Trinity actually is very practical. The Trinity is why we fight against injustice and oppression, the Trinity is what drives us to build community, the Trinity is at the root of the call to love our neighbor. It is the Trinity that gives meaning to such pursuits.

The social doctrine of the Trinity in a nutshell. Thanks be to God.