Igniting an OCPS Teaching & Learning Revolution - Fitzpatrick Shares His Thoughts...

Orange County School Board District 7 Candidate Matthew J. Fitzpatrick shares some of his thoughts on igniting a teaching and learning revolution within all Orange County Public Schools.

Great Schools? I once heard someone say that the best way to judge whether or not a school is great is not how new its buildings are, or how affluent the neighborhood is where the school is located, or how great the school's sports programs are, or how technologically advanced the school is...or even, believe it or not, how great the school's test scores are. No, the best way to tell if a school is great, is whether or not the students run into the school in the morning faster than they run out of the school in the afternoon. I agree with his statement. I want to help OCPS build great schools…positive learning environments that students and teachers look forward to being a part of every day of the school year. Positive learning environments will improve attendance, behavior, and achievement. Let's work together to build the kind of schools that will inspire our children and teachers to greatness. Great schools benefit everyone. Every student who receives a high quality education is one less student who may need to be supported on welfare, one less student who may need to be supported in prison, and one less student that could become a desperate member of society that people need to protect themselves against. We all benefit from great schools that provide high quality educations for all students. We can do this together...The power of "We" over "Me".

Many have told me that I need to write a book. The fact of the matter is this, I’ve been writing a book for the past 20 or so years…some day I’ll finish it. I usually just give my ideas away because I want to help teachers help students…immediately. Here are a few ideas out of my book… Remember, these ideas won’t work for everyone…many are age-appropriate ideas that may only work with high school students. Others…well, they’ll work with anyone. Whether I win or lose this election…I wish all teachers and students a great year.

1. Monsters Inc. – The movie Monsters Inc. is a favorite of mine because it captures my overall philosophy of education. (Spoiler Alert - If you have not watched the movie, and you don’t want me to spoil it for you, go watch the movie first, and then come back to this paragraph.) In the movie, the story revolves around a group of monsters that work for a power plant (Monsters, Inc.) that provides the energy for the monster city Monstropolis. The monsters pass through magical doors that connect to the closet doors of children. On any typical night, the monsters scares multiple children, bottle up each of their screams into a canister, and then bring the canisters back to the power plant to be uploaded into the scream-powered reservoir.

Midway through the movie, it is discovered that there is 10X as much power found in the laughter of children than can be captured in the screams of children, and this revelation changes the entire way that the good monsters do business—they start doing comedy acts rather than scaring children. I mention all of this to say that another core belief of mine is the fact that there’s more power in the positive. While teachers can certainly get results through negative disciplinary measures (the screams of children), there’s so much more power and potential in positive measures. It may be easy to yell, easy to punish, and easy to adopt a cold demeanor toward students in order to keep them in line…I will contend that teachers who push passed the easy answers for classroom control, and follow their hearts and minds to a place of inspiration, engagement, kindness and student-centered learning…these teachers will find a place where not only their students like to come to everyday, but also a learning environment that they want to be a part of every day. Developing such an environment won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, and there will be naysayers and doubters that surround and abound, but developing a positive learning environment will be worth it—in terms of both learning and changed lives.

2. The Desert Bloom – Sir Ken Robinson, the gifted British professor, keynote speaker, and education creativity author, first introduced me to the amazing Desert Bloom of 2005. If you were to do an online search of the Desert Bloom of 2005, you’ll find several articles that highlight the amazing display of desert floor flora that took place during the spring of 2005. During the fall and winter of 2004-05, there was a considerable amount of rain that fell on Death Valley due to a strong El Nino weather pattern that year. With the increased rain, the hidden potential of the dormant desert seeds was brought to full fruition.

This doesn’t happen very often—usually, the mountains block Death Valley from receiving much rain at all, and the dry winds of spring cause the plants to wither. But on this particular year, a 100-Year Bloom took place when the perfect conditions all lined up. The three conditions that lined up include rainfall throughout the fall and winter, sufficient warmth from the sun, and a lack of drying winds during the spring. I find it interesting that it takes at least a half of inch of rain just to remove the protective coating on the desert flower seeds so that they can sprout. And the blooming time is very short in order to quickly produce the seeds for future years. Everything about these desert wild flowers seems to be geared towards survival under the worst of conditions. I find it strange that the potential for such amazing beauty is always there, lying dormant, and with the right conditions present, the potential can be transformed into reality.

The same holds true for the students of our classrooms. Many of them live a “Death Valley Life” outside of school, returning home to an environment where they are fighting for survival…where they’ve had to set up their own methods of self-preservation for protection from all that would threaten—both physical and psychological. As educators, we do our best to bring all of our students to full bloom, to help them discover their true potential and move ever so closer to their dreams, but we may not always realize that much of the pushback we experience from our “desert wild flowers” is a result of the survival skills they’ve developed that have become 2nd nature out of necessity. And so there exists the necessity to create an environment that causes them to shed their protective coatings and to begin to sprout new hope…hope that many may have never experienced during their short life on planet earth. We can certainly get caught up trying to train them to handle the harsh conditions of reality, and to develop sufficient grit to survive the many road blocks and setbacks that are all a part of life, but at some point, we have to do our best to participate in the hard work of focused reflection, innovation, and experimentation in order create those perfect conditions that encourage and support healthy growth and development in all of our students, wherever we find them. Don’t look at students as “not ready to learn”…look at students as “desperately needing the right conditions to learn”…with each one at a different level, unique unto themselves.

3. The Sweet Spot - I am ever mindful of the fact that I have a tendency of trying to keep things positive…even discipline and corrective actions. I find that, as in all things, there is a balance that must be found. I believe we have to find what I like to call the “sweet spot of classroom management”. The “sweet spot” is a term that is used in both golf and baseball to describe that perfect spot on the golf club head or a baseball bat that, if you hit the ball on that spot, you will hit the ball to its fullest potential of distance. If you hit the ball outside of the sweet spot, the ball will not go as far, and sometimes, you’ll even experience discomfort in your hands from the vibration given off by the object in your hands. Great ball strikers in golf and baseball have mastered the art of hitting a ball on the sweet spot…and so they become “homerun kings” and “legends on the links”. As educators, we need to find that sweet spot of discipline interventions to reach our maximum potential for impacting the lives of our students. We need to find that balance between discipline and encouragement…control and compassion. The great teachers find that balance—that sweet spot—and they hit homeruns every day.

4. My Favorite Teacher - From my earliest days as a teacher, I made a habit of asking my students about their favorite teachers—Who were they? Why were these teachers so favored? I collected hundreds, if not thousands, of papers describing the different aspects of my students’ favorite instructors. I used the information in two ways: 1.) To identify student-friendly techniques for teaching that I could acquire. 2.) To identify effective instructors that I could observe during my planning period in order to glean from their expertise. Most teachers took my request to observe them as a compliment. I let them know that many of my students spoke highly of them and that I am always looking to learn how to improve—grace is given to the humble, and I needed a lot of grace. Even as an administrator, I still found a way to ask students about their favorite teachers…I even built a Teacher of the Week award around the feedback I received from students. Interestingly enough, while I enjoyed hearing the opinions of the best and brightest on campus, I really enjoyed hearing from those who were either sent to my office for disciplinary reasons, or who found themselves serving a detention or an In-School Suspension. I received some of the most insightful commentaries on teaching from this unique cohort. What really stirred my interest was how a particular teacher connected with and captured the heart of a student that others appeared to be struggling to reach—we can all learn something from a teacher with such distinctive “Navy Seal”-styled teacher skills. The other surprising experience that stirred my heart every time it occurred was when I would encounter a student who would reply matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a favorite teacher; I like all of my teachers.” One of my driving missions as a school leader is to work tirelessly in an effort to realize the day when all students answer in such a way.

5. The Ideal Teacher/The Ideal Student – A very important part of classroom management is making sure that your expectations are clearly explained and expressed—students need to know how you want them to act. The way this intervention works is as follows: The teacher asks the students to list 10 traits of what they believe to be the ideal teacher. Students should thin of their favorite teachers form the past and list the qualities that they possessed that they found favorable. The students will list the traits on a piece of paper by themselves first, and then they will be grouped up with other students to discuss and share out. You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with a discipline intervention?” Well, once your students have shared what they believe the “ideal teacher” looks like—which is very valuable information for a teacher to learn for their own development in understanding the perspective of their students—the activity then shifts into a higher gear as it also provides the teacher with a segue into discussing their vision of the ideal student—what they hope all their students will strive to become. I like the saying, “They have to see it to be it.” Students have to know what you, as their teacher, are thinking and expecting in relation to how they act in your classroom. You need to describe what the ideal student looks like, sounds like, works like, and thinks like. By hearing the qualities that you describe about this imagined, honorable scholar, students now have something to shoot for. As the year goes on, look for any of these qualities being displayed by your students as you interact with them on a daily basis. Let your students know when you see the qualities you are looking for.

6. Teacher Recommendation Letters – As students enter high school and they begin thinking about a career or college, they are going to need teacher recommendation letters. While writing recommendation letters can be labor intensive and time consuming, they are also a great way to show your appreciation for your “star students”. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of your students were “star students”? Yes, it would mean writing a lot of recommendation letters, but isn’t that why we are in this business…to play a part—even a small part—in helping students reach their dreams? At the beginning of the year, explain the importance of teacher-recommendation letters—how they help students both get accepted into certain colleges, and also to get jobs with good employers. Explain to your students that when the year comes to a close, you would be more than willing to write a teacher recommendation letter for them if they have demonstrated stellar characteristics while being a member of your class. Let them know that you will not lie for them—your recommendation letters are a part of your reputation, and you will not tarnish your reputation by endorsing someone in a manner that doesn’t reflect reality. Once you have explained the importance of the teacher recommendation letter, you can then explain to them the recommendation letter that you hope to write for them at the end of the year—something along the lines of “being very responsible, always going above and beyond on assignments, having a strong work ethic, caring about others, a passion for the subject matter, strong desire to learn, etc.” Spend some time thinking about the qualities that you want to see your students display in your class, and then cast the vision before your students. “They have to see it to be it!”

7. Know Your Audience – Show interest in your students. Hand out an informational card to collect some background knowledge on your students. You might want to include the following: Where were you born? What are your hobbies or special interests? What do you want to be when you grow up? What is your favorite kind of music? What is your favorite music group? Do you have a favorite quote? What is your favorite snack? What is your favorite restaurant? What is your favorite book? What is your favorite movie? Do you have a favorite teacher, and why do you consider this teacher your favorite? Where do you want to go to college? Is there anything else you would like to add about yourself? After explaining the assignment, use yourself as an example and tell them about yourself. This will give them an idea about what you are looking for, and it will also help them connect with you. After reading all of their responses, you will gain some background knowledge about your student’s interests and you will be able to further connect with them and engage in “small talk” as they enter your classroom. Sometimes, it’s the small talk that will make the big difference.

8. Learn from your students - I count it as one of the greatest joys of my career to have had the opportunity to work with two different ESOL populations in two different schools, in two different states. I taught an ESOL World History class in California, and I taught an ESOL Computer Applications class here in Florida. I have a life mission of becoming a fluent Spanish speaker, so I gladly took on the challenge of teaching students who were still developing their English language skills. I told the students that I wanted them to teach me Spanish as I was teaching them the subject matter of the class. I never got upset if they spoke in their language to each other, which is something I heard other teachers complain about. I will never forget what one student said to me one day: “Mr. Fitzpatrick, because you want to learn Spanish from us, we want to learn the computer from you.” Take interest in your students and watch it transform the environment and achievement of your classroom.

9. Attend Extracurricular Activities - Students love to see their teachers at extracurricular activities that they are a part of…such as games, plays, and concerts—whatever they may be involved in…even horse show, etc. A bond is built when you show interest in their lives outside of the classroom. Suddenly, the student that may have been a bit of a pain begins to behave a little better because they saw you at a game or a performance and you told them, "Great job!" the following day when they entered class. It all starts with showing interest in students as individuals. Sometimes, it’s what you do outside of the classroom that will help you succeed inside the classroom.

10. Remember What It Was Like To Be A Student – The best teachers remember what it was like to be a student. The best school-based administrators remember what it was like to be a teacher. The best district-based administrators remember what it was like to be a school-based administrator. Don’t lose touch with reality when it comes to teaching and relating to your students. Reflect on what they are thinking, what they are feeling—their fears, their hopes, their struggles, and their dreams. Think about your favorite classes, your favorite teachers, your most enriching assignments. Think about your not so favorite classes/teachers…what was it that you didn’t like?

Reflection is a powerful instructor! Remember what it was like to sit in a boring class, to be overwhelmed by homework, to have three tests in one day, to not have enough money for lunch, or to have a boyfriend break up with you. Just as you would like those above you to understand where you are coming from, and all that you are doing, seek to understand those who are below you, who have been entrusted to your care. Many students are juggling multiple college level courses, extracurricular activities, chorus concerts, church, and many other things as they prepare for college. College students generally take up to five classes per semester, while high schools are now expecting students to juggle seven courses. Many students also have to work after school in order to help their families pay their bills. Some students become the primary caretaker of their younger siblings when they get home after school. A handful of students may not have a home, or the home they live in may be highly dysfunctional and not conducive to learning. You will find some students that are facing far greater problems at home than they will ever encounter on a worksheet. Pay close attention to these students and let them know that you care…as the saying goes, “They won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Why is it so important to remember what it was like to be the person sitting on the other side of the desk? For the simple reason that you can keep things real, and you can relate to those who look up to you. When students know that you truly understand, and that you can relate to what they are going through, they feel a connection to you and your class, and connection is the first step toward influencing a student to succeed. Remembering and relating doesn’t mean that you lower the standard and expect less—not at all. If anything, it means you will address challenges with insight, and you can expect more as time goes on. Let your memories drive you to not only respond with empathy, but to also vigorously address challenges and less than favorable conditions.

11. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone…Get into the Splash Zone…Sweat was beading on my forehead—partly due to nerves, and partly due to the costume I was wearing. Why am I doing this? This isn’t a requirement. Today could have been a lot easier. I could have just put some notes on the board and taught this lesson like everyone else…the easy way. But I guess this is the type of teacher I want to be. If I want results that others don’t get, I have to do things that others won’t do—I have to do things differently, and I have to embrace being uncomfortable until I get good at what it is I want to be able to do. If you want the fruit, you have to go out on a limb—you have to go there…you have to go out on a limb and take some risks. All right, here we go…

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

And so began my dramatization of Winston Churchill—English accent and all. The classroom was never so quiet; they were hanging on my every word. Afterwards, it didn’t matter what I asked them, they remembered everything that was spoken during that ten-minute visit from our guest speaker from WWII. Out of the 180 days of the school year, those students will never forget that class—this lesson will stick with them forever. All because a senior-interning teacher was willing to take a risk, to do something extra, to add some sugar and spice to what he was serving up that day. For me, that’s what teaching is all about—stretching yourself to provide a world class learning experience for your students…something that brings the learning to life. I wish I were being evaluated that day…I know I would have gotten that job I interviewed for at the end of the year.

12. Rigor & Gradual Release - The term rigor has a few meanings…some not so good in an academic sense. Rigor can mean rigid, inflexible, or unyielding. We’ve all probably had individuals we’ve dealt with who were inflexible and unyielding…not the kind of person you want to hang around when it’s quitting time. But, the word rigor is also defined as “challenging”…calling for students to think critically, creatively, and more flexibly. The goal is to train students to think—to think for themselves, to think deeply, and to think outside of the box…thinking to the point that the students begin thinking of things not even learned yet…never before written about in textbooks…and so, the students and the teacher begin to learn from each other out of inspiration and curiosity—when this happens, the sky becomes the limit. As educators, we hold the keys that unlock the world of opportunity and potential for our students. We have the power to train students to think, believe, and become. We have the unique joy of teaching students the joy of thinking…and it goes so much further than simply teaching students to memorize facts and regurgitate information. It is certainly important for students to acquire a base of knowledge in order to be able to intelligently, efficiently, and effectively function as an employee, but teaching them to creatively approach the world, and to believe that they have the ability to make a difference…that’s the stuff of changing lives…that’s what I want to be a part of.

Where does it all start? It starts with a teacher that meets students where they are, but doesn’t allow them to stay there. It starts with a teacher that is willing to dream big dreams, and then finds a way to pass that same passion on to his or her students. It starts with a teacher that believes that all students can learn…and finds a way to help all students believe this as well. It starts with a teacher that can break down the essentials…coaxing the fearful student to dare to simply sit on the seat of the bike, even while the teacher holds the bike by the handle bars and the seat…and then the student places their feet on the pedals. And then the teacher convinces the student to go through the motion of pedaling while the teacher runs alongside, still holding the back of the seat…and then it happens…the teacher lets go…and the student is on their own…pedaling…riding off into the distance…yelling out at the top of their lungs….”How do I stoooooooppppp?” (Sort of reminds me of when I taught my younger sister how to snow ski…J). And sometimes they crash…and we pick them back up again. That’s what it is all about…helping them until they believe and become. We push them until they succeed, and then we push them with something else. And once they succeed again…we continue to push until they begin to believe things they didn’t believe about themselves…that they can be a success in life…that they can conquer anything they put their minds to. Oh, to believe…what a wonderful thing to teach. That’s what we do!

I’m reminded of the time when I taught both of my boys how to ride a bike. My first son had to be helped several times. My second son…I grabbed the back of the seat for a second and he was pedaling away before I could say anything. I don’t know if you can really call it “teaching” him how to ride the bike…all I did was get him up on the seat and he took off. Some students are like that…we put the material in front of them and they are off to the races. These students would probably succeed no matter who they had for a teacher. Other students, we have to talk them through it…pick them up…run with them a little longer until they feel sure of themselves. Real teaching begins when we stretch our students…we get students to attempt and accomplish things that they didn’t know they could do…and then they believe in themselves and their ability to overcome. Real teaching begins when we have to figure out how we are going to help someone learn. Some students will only succeed if they meet that special teacher who serves as a game changer—someone who is skilled at taking a student that won’t even get up on the bike…but somehow, this special teacher figures out a way to get them up there. When these students succeed, they never forget the one who gave them the key…they point to them and say, “You changed my life…if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be near what I am today…I may not even be here.” Strive to be that special teacher that finds a way to help those students that no one else can help…be the game changer.

And so, I love rigor…I love seeing students that are inspired by their teachers to scale the highest mountains…to push past the doldrums of memorization and multiple-choice tests…to dream…to go places where no one has yet gone. It all starts with someone helping them get up on the seat…someone who will help them believe when they don’t believe. That’s “the rest of the story” when it comes to talking about rigor…helping students believe…stretching them to accomplish things they didn’t think they could do.

13. Design and Decorate - Teachers have a unique opportunity to create their own kingdom…a place where they are comfortable, at home, inspired, at the top of their game—their own happy place. The key is to also create a place that students are drawn to; a place students look forward to being a part of every day. As an administrator, I loved walking into different classrooms and observing the many different expressions of this common passion among teachers. Every teacher is different, and the way they design their fiefdoms is equally unique. The design and décor of your classroom will be one of the first things that a student observes in your classroom…and first impressions last. The design and décor of your classroom sends a message about what is important to you as a person and a teacher. It’s imperative that teachers spend some time reflecting on the message they are sending to their students through the designs and decorations of their classroom. The time and money that a teacher invests in creating an inspiring, creative, informative, and dynamic learning environment will pay valuable dividends for the rest of the teacher’s career.

14. Make Learning Fun – “How will you make learning fun?” It wasn’t my question. As we were preparing for a teacher interview, the department chairperson who we asked to help us with the interview suggested this question about learning and fun. I thought it was a great question. Students love to have fun, and if a teacher could come up with some legitimate, practical ways to make learning fun, they deserved to get the job. Every teacher should reflect on how they can make the learning experience more enjoyable for their students—if students are having fun, and they are talking about academic subject matter that relates to the lesson, you can be sure they are learning at a high level. Whether you are playing games or competitions, doing experiments or projects, watching videos or going on field trips, or listening to an interesting guest speaker—having fun and engaging your students with enjoyable activities will increase learning and increase attendance at the same time. You’ll even have students come up to you and say, “I came to school today just because I didn’t want to miss your class.”

15. Plan for Success - If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Planning is essential if you want to be a successful teacher. I will never forget an experience I had during my last year of college while studying to be a Social Studies teacher. The Professor randomly chose two students, I happen to be one of them, for an activity. He told us both we were going to teach the class about the three branches of government. The other student would teach immediately, and I was to leave the room and go down the hall. The teacher would call for me when the other teacher was finished. While out in the hall, I thought about everything I knew about the topic and planned out how I would organize my lesson—questions I would ask to raise student interest, points I would make in order to cover the essential facts, and any story I could tell to bring the topic to life. I was called into the classroom after five minutes, and I started right in on my lesson. When I finished, the teacher made his point—the first student did not have any time to prepare her lesson, and she was reaching for every sentence she spoke on the topic. Her presentation was disorganized and hard to follow—there was no plan about how best to cover the topic, and the students sensed a lack of authority for the subject matter. In comparison, with just five minutes to plan, I was able to have an introduction with a hook, clear points, and I appeared knowledgeable. That’s with just five minutes of planning—imagine what I could have done with 30 minutes to an hour of focused planning.

16. Share the Stage – Students, just like adults, learn most when they are teaching others. Make it a part of your teaching approach to include time for your students to teach the class on special topics that relate to your lessons. Not only will student-teachers learn more, but the teacher will also get a chance to listen, learn, and break up the monotony of being the lone lecturer every day. William Glassner, M.D., author of The Quality School—Managing Students Without Coercion, is credited with the following quote about learning:

We Learn…

a.) 10% of what we read.

b.) 20 % of what we hear.

c.) 30% of what we see.

d.) 50% of what we both see and hear.

e.) 70% of what is discussed with others.

f.) 80% of what we experience daily.

g.) 95% of what we teach to someone else.

17. Extra Food - Some students just need something to eat to quit the growl of their stomach. With hard economic times hitting many families these days, some simply can't afford to provide much more than the minimum that the government offers. Have some small snack foods in your room to give to students that may ask if you have anything to eat. This is another opportunity to show kids you care about them. If a child needs money for lunch, and you happen to have a little extra change, don’t hesitate to seize the opportunity to meet a child at the point of their need…it will truly go a long way.

18. Extra Supplies - Some students come from families that don't have a whole lot at home. Be sensitive to students that may need supplies. Don't make a big deal out of it...the last thing they want is to be put on display. Don't worry about kids not being responsible—this is a golden opportunity for you to show generosity both to the needy in your class, and also to those who are able to give to the needy. This is part of the unwritten curriculum that we have an opportunity to teach our kids every day.

19. Extra Credit - Extra Credit is a great opportunity for students to learn high-interest, related information that may not normally be covered. Allow students to do research on pertinent topics and report to the class what they have learned. Not only will the reporting student learn something extra, but so will the class and the teacher, if you are lucky. Extra Credit also gives students an opportunity to make up for an unexpected low score on a test.

20. Mastery over Memorization - Many don't know this...and probably for good reason...but there was a time when I played the guitar...although "played" sounds a bit ambitious for what I actually did. For reasons unknown to me at this time, early on in my pursuit of a college degree, I signed up for a Classical Guitar class with my brother Mike. I think I exhausted my opportunities in Water Ski 1 and 2, and Classical Guitar seemed like a good fit. It's no wonder it took me 6 years to get a 4-year degree. Well, anyways...if you watch the video...I could play the first 1:15 of the video, but what happens after that point is what makes musicians great. I memorized the various plucks and picks of the strings just enough so that the teacher could recognized what I was playing and give me a different kind of "A". I think I got a lot of those in while in college. My brother Mile took off with the guitar...he practiced scales and strum patterns and became a pretty good Blues guitarist...at least in my mind. While I focused on memory, Mike focused on the steps toward mastery. Mike still plays to this day. Me? I still own a guitar...it sits in my closet...it gets used every once in a while when Mike comes back from Germany and he doesn't have his guitar...and he always needs to tune it.

My guitar playing days have a lot in common with what passes off as education these days. I'll never forget one day while teaching many years ago. I gave my students a little bit of time to review their notes before I handed out the tests. In the middle of their self review, one student blurted out, "Mr. Fitz...Hurry up and give me the test before I forget this stuff." With one simple line, my teaching house of cards came tumbling down. I remember thinking, "Is this the extent of the purpose of my class and my teaching--for students to remember information just long enough to spit it back out on a test? Is memorization really that important of a skill? How do I teach for mastery rather than memorization?

I believe the challenge of mastery over memorization has been with us for a long time. As a history teacher, I am impressed with the education system of the ancient Babylonians. When the Babylonians took defeated the Land of Judah in the year 597 BC, the king ordered his chief court official, Ashpenaz, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and nobility...these individuals would be trained in the Babylonians ways in hopes of one day serving the king. The bar was set very high to get admitted into this ancient advanced placement school of sorts. Here are the requirements to get in...I think number 2 knocks me out...

"...young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service." (Daniel 1:4-5)

The Babylonian kings understood the importance of having wise counselors advising the king--your country depended on wisdom, knowledge, and strategy to make good decisions and to survive the attacks of other nations. Whenever they conquered another nation, they would take representatives from the conquered countries--typically the rich and the rulers--and they would train them for service. They would not only teach them the wisdom of the Babylonians, but they would also benefit from the other countries collective wisdom, which was most likely, so they believed, mastered by the rich and powerful-those with access to education. While it may seem like a great honor to be welcomed into such an elite club, and it certainly beat the other options that could be extended to a defeated foe, it should also be understood that those who entered this specialized training were most likely made into Eunuchs...emasculated...fixed ...broke...whatever you want to call it. I'm sure this was done to help them focus on their studies, curb their ambition for revolt, and add an extra security measure to protect the king's many wives...or, more than likely, to render "the new guys" useless as an option for the king's many wives who may have felt "kicked to the curb" as a result of sharing the affection of the king with many others. Regardless, these guys were lucky to be alive.

The Prophet Daniel was among this group of individuals that were selected for this special training. See what good looks will get you! One of the problems that Daniel had with the training plan was what they were to eat the special food of the Babylonians...it was probably some tasty barbecue, with some tasty beverages...and that presented a problem for the Jewish representatives...while they could technically handle the beef brisket, the pulled pork was going to pass muster.

"Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days. At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.”

(Daniel 1:11-16)

I don't think I would have survived very long under the vegetable regiment. But the secret of their intellectual success was really just God gifting them...which gives me hope...a person who dropped Comp 1 the first time because I was getting an "F". I really wondered if I could get a college degree because of my severe disdain and fear of writing. The 2nd time I took Comp 1, I received a "C"...I think it was a different kind of "C". I think I got a lot of those...I guess that might be why I still believe in them to a certain extent.

Here's how this special gifting reads:

"To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds." (Daniel 1:17)

Now, here's the point of this long discourse on mastery and memorization. This is what I love most about the Babylonian system...they didn't give a test to check for memorized facts. They didn't even ask their subjects to write a paper. What they did was much more deep and demanding... showing the wisdom of an ancient culture. Here's how it reads:

"At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom."(Daniel 1:18-20)

The king talked with them. Think about that...after three years of intense study, the final assessment became whether or not you could carry on a conversation with the king. The king didn't want to know what facts you had memorized; he wanted to know if you could think on your feet. Just as a great musician can improvise and make beautiful sounding music, so too can a well-learned individual, a master, flawlessly flow in conversation about a topic of study. Somehow, we have to get students to that point of "making beautiful music". One of the important pieces to the puzzle is how we assess them. A standardized test, with multiple-choice questions, will never lead to, or indicate, true mastery. I find it interesting that this final evaluation by the Babylonian king seems to be a sort of precursor to our own doctoral dissertation process…and this was over 2600 years ago. And we think we are so very smart these days...

As a side not... for me, it is little wonder that the 3 wise men came from the east...the land of the Babylonians.

Here's the video on the Ode to Joy...enjoy...


(You may have to copy/paste it into your address bar...it's worth it...these guys are masters and they can jam.)

Thank you for reading...more to come...one day I'll finish that book I've been writing for 20 some years...

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Political advertisement paid for and approved by Matthew J. Fitzpatrick, Non-Partisan, for Orange County School Board Chair


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