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UD Graduate Brings Great Conversation to the Classroom Through the American Teacher Initiative

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Jonathan Greenberg teaches 7th and 8th grade history at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, Texas. But just a few years ago, he was the deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey. It may seem like a big jump to go from arguing cases to a middle school classroom, but the change has satisfied a long-time desire for Mr. Greenberg.\r\n\r\n“I went to law school because I liked thinking deeply about ideas. It combined my interest in the humanities and law, but it turned out that actually practicing was dry and did not offer me opportunities to explore ideas,” he said.\r\n\r\nHe and his family moved back to Texas in 2013 and with much dissatisfaction, he continued to do legal work until he finally had had enough. With a bachelor’s degree in politics and master’s degree in humanities from the University of Dallas (UD), Mr. Greenberg decided to see if he could find a teaching job.\r\n\r\n“I had to find a way to transition into education that would work for my family. During that time, I worked on an emergency teaching certification and also began to learn more about Founders Classical Academy,” he said.\r\n\r\nAfter doing his research, he contacted the school. He then applied to The American Teacher Initiative (ATI), a teacher recruiting and training project that could help him secure an assignment. ATI is a project of ResponsiveEd, the Texas-based charter operator that runs the Founders academies in Texas and Arkansas.\r\n\r\nATI was established in 2015 for the purpose of finding people like Mr. Greenberg. The idea behind ATI is that teachers in the US must be prepared to help students value the principles of liberty at the heart of nation’s identity. This requires a strong academic knowledge of the ideas that produced this liberty and the virtues required to promote it.\r\n\r\nThat was Mr. Greenberg’s perspective as he began his shift towards teaching, and it was a perspective that was cemented while at UD.\r\n\r\n“When you enter college, you think you know a lot. The UD environment follows the Socratic method of learning, which helped me think deeply and consider other viewpoints. It also showed me how to participate in the great conversations of Western Civilization,” he said.\r\n\r\nLoammi Caros is ATI’s co-founder and program director. She was impressed with Mr. Greenberg from the first interview, and was glad to see him join ATI’s 2016 cohort.\r\n\r\n“He’s a really thoughtful guy. You can tell when you talk to him that he really knows history and politics. While he is still developing as an instructor, he knows how to help his students connect history with our contemporary problems,” she said.\r\n\r\nAnd connect they do. His middle school students are eager to talk about topics such as the 14th Amendment and how it applies to some of the issues they see on the news every night.\r\n\r\n“I want to bring these conversations into the classroom. We need to venerate our Founding Fathers while not being afraid to acknowledge our missteps along the way. Both good and bad, these lessons are important. We need to be talking about them,” he said.\r\n\r\nLike all of the teachers in ATI’s program, Mr. Greenberg represents a different kind of educator, one who embraces the idea that literacy and content are critical to learning. It’s one of the reasons he participated in ATI even after earning a certification through an educational service center. At ATI’s training institute, held at UD in July of 2016, cohort instructors presented the idea that education programs must be based on coherent content so students become deeply literate and should teach students what virtue is so they can be responsible citizens.\r\n\r\n“At all of our schools, we share the Founding Fathers’ view that maintaining a free society depends on knowledge and virtue. These ideas are tied together. ATI was created to find and prepare educators to teach in this environment, and a well-educated, thoughtful person like Mr. Greenberg is just the right candidate for our program,” said Mrs. Caros.\r\n\r\nATI’s cohort members are now teaching at seven schools in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Tyler. ATI has started recruiting for its 2017 cohort. For more information about applying, see its website at www.americanteacher.co.

ATI teachers find a different route into the classroom

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Anna Barrett is a first-year teacher at Founders Classical Academy of Lewisville, Texas. You wouldn’t know it by her poise, but just a year ago, she was still attending class at Baylor University, wondering how to make her teaching dreams a reality.\r\n\r\n“I wanted to teach from the time I entered the Honors College at Baylor, but the program doesn’t offer education classes. The day I went in to change my major, my adviser suggested that a background in great books would actually make me a strong teacher in a classical school,” she said.\r\n\r\nWith the clock ticking on her senior year, she took note of an email from the college about a program called the American Teacher Initiative (ATI). It had been set up a few months earlier for the specific purpose of finding people just like her—liberal arts majors with a passion for education and civic responsibility.\r\n\r\n“I had no idea what ATI was all about, but I thought I’d check into it to see what it had to offer,” Mrs. Barrett said.\r\n\r\nAt an information meeting, she discovered a route into the classroom that would require training, but not certification. Mike Terry, who launched ATI in 2015 with the help of program director Loammi Caros, explained that Mrs. Barrett already had the most important things required to teach: deep content knowledge and an interest in building character in her students. She just needed the basic training needed to run a classroom.\r\n\r\n“The idea is that there are thousands of people out there who would make great teachers, but find this certification barrier in front of them. Anna is a great example. She has an honors degree in English Language Arts from a Tier One university. She knows literature, and she has a heart for students. She’s exactly the right person to teach in a classical school,” Mr. Terry said.\r\n\r\nMrs. Barrett applied for the free program, and just weeks of graduating and getting married, she found herself among the inaugural cohort. After spending two weeks being trained in teaching theory and methodology at ATI’s summer institute at the University of Dallas, she was ready for the classroom.\r\n\r\nATI is a creation of ResponsiveEd, a charter school operator based in Lewisville. The company operates 75 schools across Texas and Arkansas and serves more than 21,000 students. Enrollment at ResponsiveEd’s schools has more than doubled in the last ten years. Much of that growth has occurred in its line of classical schools, including Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville. The K-12 academy was launched in 2012 in partnership with Hillsdale College and serves about 900 students.\r\n\r\n“At all of our schools, we want our students to understand what it means to be human and how to be a responsible citizen. We share the founding fathers’ view that maintaining a free society depends on knowledge and virtue. These ideas are tied together, and ATI was created to find and prepare educators to teach in this environment,” said Mr. Terry, who also leads student recruiting and communications at ResponsiveEd.\r\n\r\nATI’s cohort members are now teaching at seven schools in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Tyler.\r\n\r\n

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Andrew Jimenez teaches his sixth graders at The Woodlands Classical Academy

Houston Baptist University (HBU) alumnus Andrew Jimenez is another member of ATI’s first cohort. He teaches sixth graders at The Woodlands Classical Academy just north of Houston. Mr. Jimenez earned a psychology degree with a minor in writing from HBU’s honor college, but because of the university’s focus on great texts, he is prepared to teach literature at the school.\r\n\r\n“My education at HBU and my training at ATI have been essential to my growth as a teacher.  By reading, writing about and discussing the great works of Western civilization in HBU’s Honors College, I was exposed to the classical model of education and learned how to better consider and discuss the virtues,” Mr. Jimenez said.\r\n\r\nHis school features a new virtue each month, which he incorporates into his lessons.\r\n\r\n“Usually, I will point out a particular character and his actions and will have a conversation with my students about how that character shows or lacks that virtue. Sometimes, students beat me to the questions. I love to see when they initiate the conversation about virtue because it means it’s already on their minds,” he said.\r\n\r\nATI has started recruiting for its second cohort. For more information about applying, see their website at www.americanteacher.co.

Education is about what makes us human

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In a previous post, I talked briefly about our view at The American Teacher Initiative on the purpose of education. John Dewey believed it should be the primary agent for societal improvement. The focus, as is the case with all progressive things, is on what the individual will offer the community. Each person is viewed as an asset to the group, to be cultivated to make the group better. I actually have little argument with this point of view. I think if we do nothing else, we should raise and teach our children to invest in the well-being of others and to desire to promote an atmosphere of peace and prosperity throughout society.\r\n\r\nBut I think that picture is incomplete. Jason Caros is the headmaster at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, Texas. He recently wrote a blog post to the parents of his K-12 school of 850 students about how education is concerned with the fixed nature of man. This view leads to a dual enterprise. On the one hand, you do aim to produce people who desire the best for the society in which they live, but you also work on producing a good person, who does noble and virtuous things. The idea is that without an understanding of truth, beauty and goodness, people will pursue a host of selfish ends, irrespective of the impact on others.\r\n\r\nWhen Mr. Caros refers to the fixed nature of man, he likely means a couple of things: first that humans do not improve from one generation to the next. Their passions remain the same no matter what age in which they live. Secondly, without boundaries, people will pursue their own ambitions without regard to what is right. In that previous post, I mentioned that C.S. Lewis (British scholar, theologian, and anthropologist) found shared norms in every successful society that he called the Tao. When these essential norms are not taught, people will generally fail to live up to their full potential and will generate the least amount of good in their societies.\r\n\r\nAs we train our teachers, we are therefore focused on two things: how to build knowledge while producing a rational and good person and how to promote the well-being of those with whom they come in contact.\r\n\r\nIn the last 100 years, Dewey’s view is the dominant perspective in education. It’s not entirely wrong, but in a society built on the idea that individual liberty must complement the needs of the group, his view is incomplete. It only produces “goodness” relatively—that is to promote the current values of society rather than the timeless norms for conduct and values that make up Lewis’ Tao. When that is the focus, our students will produce great good for society out of a sense of love and duty rather than obligation or compulsion.

What is a Quality Teacher?

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I could write all afternoon about what I think a quality teacher is, and at some point, I’m sure I will. At the moment, though, I’d like to share what a group of students at Founders Classical Academy thinks about who they want teaching them.\r\n\r\nThe students are thoughtful, expressive, and interested in learning from adults who care about them. Watch the video below to see if you agree.\r\n\r\nhttps://vimeo.com/161932474

We all love liberty, including rock stars and Ben Franklin

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In 1972, rock star Alice Cooper produced his anthem “School’s Out.”  It appealed to us who grew up in the 70s and 80s laboring under the heavy weight of a rapidly centralizing school system. We enjoyed the song because as Cooper himself related, there are few greater moments to a student than the moment when school ends, whether it is for a day or for good. We all agreed wholeheartedly. It was the closest thing to oppression most of us would know, and we couldn’t wait for it to end.\r\n\r\nThe rock star was focused on the experience of school, but in doing so, he shed a light on a built-in desire: to have say over the daily events of our lives. We had so little of it as students, we eagerly echoed Pink Floyd’s terrible grammar: “We don’t need no education.” Our experience made us all liberty-lovers.\r\n\r\nIf you were to ask the typical student in an average classroom (assuming the students in that classroom aren’t just watching the clock), you will find that they almost universally accept the idea of personal liberty. This doesn’t mean they have no sense of community or responsibility to others, but virtually every one finds it wholly obvious. As they sit there, they want control of their lives. What they don’t realize is how fragile the idea of liberty actually is.\r\n\r\nBen Franklin was asked following the Constitutional Convention of 1787 whether they had produced a republic or a monarchy. He is said to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He knew what most students don’t yet understand (mostly because they live daily under the rule of their parents and of their teachers). Liberty can easily be lost to those who think they know how to run people’s lives better than the individuals themselves. Eric Metaxas has a new book on the topic that is worth a read.\r\n\r\nIn many respects, we’ve lost a generation to the idea that all students should realize the same outcome, that the only way to improve is to go to college and earn a four-year degree. It’s a collectivist tendency that values equality above all else. It is virtue to value equality, but it is also a basic truth that all people have their own interests, talents, and levels of motivation. When we believe too strongly that everyone should move together on a centrally planned educational track to identical goals, we start to lose ourselves a little bit in the march.\r\n\r\nWhat we need is for teachers to become partners with students as they work to understand the value of liberty. We need them to teach students how to use it to promote the well-being of everyone in a community while they find their own unique ways of adding value and thinking their own thoughts. It’s too bad Alice Cooper couldn’t imagine something better than school buildings blown to bits. With a focus on thoughtfulness, character, liberty, and innovation, Cooper’s tune could have changed from “School’s out forever” to “School’s now much better.”\r\n\r\nFortunately, there’s still time to make this happen.

Why virtue is important to us at the American Teacher Initiative

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July is the month we at The American Teacher Initiative host our inaugural Summer Institute at the University of Dallas. One of the things I appreciate about the school is that they literally hang virtues from their lamp posts around campus. They do this so that good habits will be front of mind.\r\n\r\nGreek philosopher Aristotle defined virtue in Ethics as what a good man does. He was trying to advise the people of Athens how to order a free and prosperous society. He concluded that there were certain habits a person could live by that would most promote quality of life for those in his or her community. It was a civic and social ethic that related directly to the well-being of other people.\r\n\r\nMy friends at the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) have thought a lot about what a good man does. In their Heroes and Villains program for middle and high school students, they create a framework for understanding it and teaching it.\r\n\r\nThey define virtue as universal principles of moral and ethical excellence that lead to a worthwhile life and effective self-government (quality of life and free society), and they use historical narratives to illustrate them.\r\n\r\nBRI has conveniently identified nine virtues (conveniently because there are nine months in the school year, and dividing it out becomes really easy). Here is their list:\r\n

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  • Courage
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  • Humility
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  • Responsibility
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  • Justice
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  • Perseverance
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  • Contribution
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  • Respect
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  • Integrity
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  • Self-governance
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\r\nDifferent people have produced varying lists of virtues. We like BRI’s. Ben Franklin had thirteen. He kept a notebook to track how he was doing on each virtue. He included silence on his list. We want our students to engage in ideas, so we left that one off. The intent though, is similar. We need to contemplate, articulate, examine, and practice virtue daily so that students can become good people who instinctively work for the well-being of those around them.\r\n\r\nAt ATI and ResponsiveEd, we believe virtue is an essential part of education. We believe it takes more than a sense of grit to be successful, and it is up to well-equipped teachers to introduce it to today’s students.

The American Teacher Initiative: Why are we here?

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Like a number of organizations around the country, we are in the business of finding great teachers. Student populations are growing rapidly; fewer people are entering the teaching profession; and schools are diversifying and changing at a dizzying rate. All of this means we have to be more active in identifying that next great teaching candidate. But as I start to tell people about the American Teacher Initiative, I almost immediately am asked the same questions: Aren’t several organizations already doing this? What’s different about you? Why do you call it the American Teacher Initiative?\r\n\r\nThose are great questions. And here’s my answer: First, as the student-aged population in our country grows, we need a LOT of teachers. Even the largest recruiters aren’t finding enough. The more people we have out there making the case for the teaching profession, the more people we’ll convince it’s a good thing to do.\r\n\r\nSecondly, I believe that free people thrive. I know, at first glance it doesn’t seem like the pragmatic need is in any way related to an aspirational proposition. But until the start of the industrial age, where so much changed in just a few years, these ideas were integrally connected. It gets to the very reason for education.\r\n\r\nAs we’ve recruited teaching candidates, we’ve asked each one this question: What is the purpose of education? Our answer is that education is about learning what it means to be human and building the knowledge necessary to contribute to a free society.\r\n\r\nThis isn’t a new idea. It’s rooted in the founding of our country. To be human, among other things, means to act on behalf of the well-being of ourselves and others, guided by principles that are shared by all people—what C.S. Lewis referred to as the Tao. But the idea of self-governance is fragile. If it is not protected, it will disappear.\r\n\r\nSamuel Adams (yes, the man now more known for beer than for his contributions as a statesman), believed that “if virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved.” It was a refutation of tyranny. He was saying we don’t need to be subjects. He believed, along with the rest of our Founding Fathers, we could govern ourselves. He also believed education could counterbalance centralized power and oppression. The American people did not need a king because armed with an education and virtue (or as Aristotle describes it in Ethics, ‘what a good man does’), they could order a free society that that was characterized by equality and liberty.\r\n\r\nIf that is true, and I believe it is, then our schools must follow this formula: build knowledge, teach character, and demonstrate the value of freedom. This requires teachers who are trained to promote these ideals. And that is the answer to the third question: Why is it called the American Teacher Initiative? This is about promoting the founding ideals of our country.\r\n\r\nIn the Spring of 2016, we recruited our first cohort of 20-30 teachers. We will train them at our Summer Institute held at the University of Dallas in July 2016. When the training is over, they will be placed at charter operator ResponsiveEd’s schools in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Tyler. We are excited about the impact they will have on students academically and for the cause of liberty.\r\n\r\n \r\n\r\n