Cliff Dickinson Reunion Weekend Chapel Talk

By Cliff Dickinson, Former Middle School Teacher
Good morning, everyone - friends, colleagues, guests - and especially members of the classes of 1995 and 1996 who we are honoring today.  It’s a privilege to be able to speak to you and to share some personal thoughts about my tenure here at St. Christopher’s.

I stumbled into St. Christopher’s School in early June 1985. I had completed my first and only year of teaching at Bollingbrook School in Petersburg when it was announced that the institution would be closing its doors. Bollingbrook gave its faculty members $5000 as a sort of severance package, and I used my windfall to pay off the one credit card I owned and then set aside some money for an engagement ring – just in case. 

At the time, Anne Townshend, George McVey’s secretary, lived across the street from my sister Tish on York Road. Ann told Tish that there was an opening for a history teacher at Saint Christopher’s. Apparently, an alum who had signed a contract to teach eighth grade U.S. government had changed his mind and opted to do something else. So, with Anne’s encouragement, I dropped in the following Monday to see if they still needed someone.  School had been out for perhaps a week, and I sensed that the brain trust was eager to fill the position.

The first person I talked with was Doug Griffith, who looked to me to be an important person, and after some pleasantries, I showed him some lesson plans that I had recopied in my finest printing. Doug read over them for several minutes, then asked me if this was my printing. Casually, I said “yes.” Doug picked up the phone and called Andy Smith, Head of the Middle School at the time, and said, “You have to talk to this guy.” So, I went over to the Middle School and met with Andy for an hour or so.

The next day, Tuesday, I returned for more interviews, first with Athletic Director, Bob Herzog, maybe George McVey and one or two other folks. I don’t ever remember filling out any sort of job application. Two days later, on Thursday, I was offered a position to teach American government in the Middle school and to coach baseball and basketball. I had been the varsity baseball coach and JV basketball coach at Bollingbrook – and St. Christopher’s needed both - and I guess, someone with good printing. Of course, I accepted! The catch - which seemed to me to have been overlooked - was that I had never taught a middle schooler.

Thus began the best years of my life, personally and professionally. I married, helped raise two beautiful children and a pair of dogs, made the strongest and most meaningful friendships of my life, and became a small part of the lives of more than 3000 boys. It is to the latter to whom I would like to turn my attention.
Let me make a few general observations about a boys’ middle school (middle school in lower case letters). Middle school is composed of a faculty and three types of wild animals – sixth graders, seventh graders, and eighth graders. Collectively we refer to them as “boys” although a few do retain the designation “animal” until their decorum becomes acceptable to their handlers. Each of these groups is classified roughly by age. 
Watching sixes on the playground reminds me of young colts loping around a pasture on their long, gangly legs – rarely able to come to a graceful quick stop. Some of the more athletically inclined sixes engage in intense eight-minute football games They could play longer games, but they use the first seven minutes of recess picking teams. Sixth graders will go to the nurse for anything that in anyway can be remotely connected to the word “injury.” In gym class they often receive additional physical conditioning for “unauthorized group conversation.” I believe they run these extra laps to boost their stamina which they draw upon every day when they stampede en masse over the recess monitors on their way to the lunch line. Yet, their “handlers “– I mean” teachers” – always have nice things to say about them – how “bright” and “polite” they are, how “curious” they are, how anxious to please they are, and “This boy loves history, you have to meet him!” 

When a boy returns to middle school for seventh grade, he is a very different animal than he was the previous September. Some are beginning to lose their baby-faces, others are beginning to fill out, and a few are developing tires around their midsections. These are the ones who will be 6’5”. Most seventh graders do not have a lot in the way of muscle yet– but they believe that they do. I have no idea what goes on in their heads – they are different from either sixes or eights. And it requires a special soul to understand them and their needs. This is the “in between year” in middle school and it is a challenging one for a boy. Seventh graders are physical – a lot of playful pushing and shoving - and they have a high incidence rate of “accidental contact” on the playground and in the halls. They like to challenge authority but do not want to get in trouble. They try too hard to be cool – but they don’t know how to be cool. But those who interact with them every day will tell you how nice this boy is when you have him one on one, how “bright” this fellow is, how “curious” this one is, and: “This boy loves history, you have to meet him!” 

Eighth grade is a magical year. An eighth-grader changes more mentally, emotionally, and physically than at any other time of his life, save the age of two. Again, an eighth-grader changes more mentally, emotionally, and physically than at any other time of his life, save the age of two. His body and his mind undergo a miraculous transformation. He begins to use analytical, divergent, critical, and creative thinking skills to help him understand the world around him in a way he never could before.  He starts to think more critically, to solve problems, to make logical choices, and to develop his own values and beliefs. Intellectually, most of his lights are turned on. High school, college, and graduate school make them burn brighter, but they are all there at the end of eighth grade. 

Eighth grade is the last year where academic classes focus on course content material and skill development – at least they should. Eighth grade should be a capstone to everything a boy has learned in the Middle School and how he learned it. He should leave eighth grade understanding how he learns best. He should know his strengths and his weaknesses. Remember, most of us selected careers that emphasize our strengths.

I am a believer in fundamentals. Do a few things right and do them well. It’s like baseball - keep it simple and execute.  When I went to college, I learned all too fast how lacking in basic skill development I was in key areas. It took me two years to close those holes before I became a strong student. From day one of my teaching career until this past June I targeted those skills with every group of eighth graders that walked through the doors. I taught the things no one taught me. What are these academic fundamentals?
  1. Be a better listener. This is the most important skill that never gets talked about enough. Did you know that there are as many as eight different ways that we listen? Did you know that listening involves complex affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes? We need to teach our boys to hear more. 
  2. Take accurate and thorough notes and then have the discipline to review and edit them. Use a real notebook. Good record keeping is an important skill.
  3. Read with a purpose and for meaning. Learn how to interact with the text. Avoid the Filter Bubble Effect. Don’t look for ways to protect your beliefs. Read sources that conflict with your views. Give due weight to information from other perspectives. Cultivate an open mind.
  4. Develop a broad vocabulary. Precision thinking and precision writing. All highly intelligent men and women have one thing in common – broad vocabularies.
  5. Communicate thoughts in a thorough, well-organized, clear, efficient, logical manner in a five-paragraph essay. Not a five-paragraph essay but the one we learned in eighth grade history class. 

I never expected my students to be able to these things well, although many did. But I did expect each boy to give it his best shot. Upper School would refine what I started. I wanted them to take pride in their progress and recognize the importance of what they were doing. “To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learned,” wrote Dorothy Sayers, “does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learned and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door.” I hang my hat on this.

As the years passed, skill development became more important in the class than the content. The material became more thematic, and issue oriented as times changed. We focused on the interpretation of history, its uses and abuses, and words like “presentism” and “retrocognition.” Lessons tended to focus on the three types of history that harry us today: (1) What happened?  (2) What we have been told happened? and (3) What have we come to believe happened? Today, too many teachers are telling kids what to think instead of teaching them how to think. I guess it’s the times. Join the side you’re on.

Finally, why did so many boys work so hard for me? For the first twenty-eight years I taught American history to every boy in the eighth grade and at the end of each year wondered long and hard how I did it.  I think it’s because I valued the potential of every boy and wanted him to know that I saw him for that. I think there was mutual respect, mutual admiration, and mutual trust. I put a lot of red ink on essays and was honest in my assessments. Every time that papers went out, I noted that there is a difference between critique and criticism. I allowed boys to express their frustrations. I think they appreciated my effort - I know that I appreciated theirs. When there were tears, I tried to be compassionate. Those tears hurt me too. Teaching eighth graders is the most rewarding and fulfilling thing that I could have ever done with my professional life. You made be a better person and I’m fulfilled. Thank you for what you shared with me. Now for a final history lesson.

Imagine this. We finish watching a fabulous video on the Battle of Gettysburg. In summarizing pivotal events of the July 2, 1863. I note that federal forces are hanging onto Little Round Top as night “rises.” Pause. The heads of “careful listeners” pop up and one or two confident boys correct me. I look at them in puzzlement, pause for a moment, and explain. “Are you certain? Wouldn’t the shadows emerge first in the valley and low-lying areas around Devil’s Den first, then creep up the hill. Look at the horizon - are the sun’s rays rapidly fading?  Is the color of the bloody landscape around us diminishing? Is the horizon fading away? There, that speck, the light is last to go.” Then I scribble a list of words on the board: twilight, sunset, dusk, eventide, sundown, evening, nightfall. Homework tonight: put these words in the proper order and be prepared to talk about your findings tomorrow. Lesson plan: first ten minutes of class, small group discussions. Now do the same thing for morning. 
Thank you. Now I’m going fishing.


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  • Anne Poarch
    So grateful to read this. Mr. Dickinson I can hear you and picture our parent meetings. Thank you for being exactly this person and for the numerous skills you passed on to our boys. Fondly, Anne Poarch