Parent Contact

Parents are key partners in successful teaching. An administrator made this point when he interviewed me for my first teaching job more than twenty years ago, and he was right. Many parents are directly involved in the formal education of their children through home school programs, and countless others spend a lot of time helping their kids keep up on the assignments they get from teachers. Parents are important supporters of PTSA, athletics, and many other extracurricular programs. Drawing on their support is vital to a fulfilling school year.

I remember feeling nervous about contacting parents, especially in my first few years of teaching. I was afraid of being perceived as ineffective or incompetent if I couldn’t “handle things on my own.” I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most parents didn’t respond to me this way at all. They were grateful I kept them informed and pledged to help their student succeed in my class.

This was true for all kinds of parents, from those with honors students struggling to keep up to others who had kids with special needs. As a bilingual teacher, I also worked with many Spanish-speaking parents over the course of my career. All were appreciative of my efforts and expressed their willingness to work with me. To be sure, I had a few who questioned my methods, but even those came to some sort of compromise with me. Many parents over the years shared family memorabilia that related to what we were studying in history class. Others attended class to observe or participate.

When I organized an after school theater program during my five years as a middle school teacher, the parents showed up for rehearsal and performances. Many had never attended any school activity before. I walked the neighborhood to get some of them to come or to discuss their student’s academic progress in my history class. I made phone calls home in both English and Spanish. I encouraged them all to attend Back to School Night and the annual Open House and offered my students incentives to bring their families.

Keeping parents informed early is important in setting the pace for the entire year. Several of the schools where I worked had software programs that would call home with grade progress reports or other messages. All I had to do was enter the code or message and press “send.” I made sure I contacted parents if their student won my Student of the Month award (the student would receive a handwritten certificate and a week of extra credit homework points) or if their grade fell below a C-. If a parent wanted to meet with me, I would schedule a conference during my prep period or after school. I tried to accommodate the parent’s schedule and make sure the student could attend.

Discipline problems were diminished if I included the parent from the beginning (see also my blog entry on “Progressive Discipline”). I would usually call or email the parent right away if their student was having trouble listening to me or refusing to follow directions in class. This was particularly true at the beginning of the year. I remember calling one father at the end of the first day of school to tell him his son had to be moved to the back of the room because of disruptive behavior. His response was “Already?” but then he thanked me for letting him know right away. He told me some of his son’s former teachers had waited too long to let him know what was going on.

Remember that your students choose how to behave in your class. By the time they get to high school, they are already young adults and have been students for many years. They know what is expected of them, and if they are discourteous, they are making a choice. The way they treat you is probably not that different from the way they treat their parents. One mom said in exasperation, “I don’t know what to do with him!” when I called about her son’s behavior. She was at a loss. We ended up coming up with a joint discipline solution that worked for everyone involved. Her son decided to change his behavior, I didn’t have to send him to the office, and he finished the semester with a passing grade.

Don’t wait to call the parent or guardian. They want to hear from you, whether it is good or bad news. Some of my parents were afraid to contact me because they thought I would be angry at them for their child’s behavior. I had to reassure them that I give every student another chance to improve, and that I always distinguish between the person and the act. I designed a Parent Acknowledgment Form to accompany the course syllabus at the outset of every school year for parents and students to sign, which specifically stated that I looked forward to working with all of them to ensure the student’s success.

I worked with some difficult parents, to be sure. With some of them I had to compromise on my discipline choices. I had to say no to a few who wanted their students to be excused from certain course requirements because of family vacations. Others wanted alternative assessments or objected to state content standards. I tried to accommodate every family’s needs as best I could. It is important to do so, but not at the cost of your integrity as an educator. Stick to what you feel is right. If you are conforming to state standards and your school’s administrative procedures, you are doing your job correctly. Believe in yourself.

I always enjoyed the support I received from parents as a teacher. It made the job worthwhile. Being a part of their child’s education was a privilege. For many of your students, you may be the most dependable or educated adult they know. Teachers are important authority figures in the life of a child and can have as great an impact on their development as their own relatives. Develop effective teamwork with parents as you go. Your students will do better knowing that all the adults in their life are working together to help them succeed.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Working With Colleagues

Teaching is most effective when it is a team effort. Over my twenty years in the classroom, I found that it was easy to isolate from my colleagues, but the results were always better when I collaborated with them. The traditional secondary school schedule of six classes with six different instructors is hard on both students and teachers. Learning seems to improve with smaller classes arranged in block schedules with a team of instructors. If school budgets cannot yet make this possible, the best strategy for teachers is to make the deliberate effort to work together when they can.

I was privileged to be part of two outstanding team teaching efforts over the course of my career. The first was at a middle school, where the students were grouped into teams by grade level. Each team grouping of students attended history, English, reading, science, and mathematics classes together. Those five teachers were given a common prep period to plan curriculum together and review discipline concerns. This was great because we all had the same kids and could work together to manage them. We linked up lessons across the disciplines and met with parents as a team. I served for four years on a 7th grade team and learned a great deal.

My second opportunity came at the high school level, where I was the social science teacher with colleagues in English and technology in an interdisciplinary Digital Arts and Humanities program for eight years. As in the middle school team, we met during a common prep and planned projects together. We also discussed discipline strategies and how to best serve our common students. I taught the world and U.S. history portions of the program as well as economics, in conjunction with what they were learning in English and Digital Arts.

The students in this program signed up for a three year commitment beginning with their sophomore year. Many of them went all the way to graduation, which meant we had the same group of 20-40 students for three consecutive years. I was able to see the quality of my students’ work improve dramatically over that time, largely because my two colleagues and I worked together. The projects they created were remarkable. We also collaborated in planning a field trip to downtown museums in conjunction with our common units.

These two experiences were examples of what the education community called “Small Learning Communities” or SLCs. During the period of the federal No Child Left Behind program (2001-2014), there was plenty of support and funding for SLCs and other special programs. These years coincided with most of my time as a teacher in public schools. When that financial support began to dry up in the wake of the Great Recession, those of us interested in team teaching had to get more creative.

Many school districts sought to strengthen PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities, in which teachers in the same subject met more frequently to share lessons and assessments. My school participated actively in this program. I benefited from some of the suggestions from my fellow social science teachers, but I still missed the interdisciplinary cooperation of the SLCs. A new SLC-type program was organized at my school, but it focused on science and technology and did not include history.

I found another opportunity to work with other teachers in summer school. I taught summer school every year over the course of my career, for six years at a community college and fourteen at the high school level. A colleague and I worked together to design and teach an Honors Economics course over the course of seven summer sessions, an experience I found rewarding. I was often assigned to teach summer classes in other teachers’ classrooms, including colleagues in the English, Science, Mathematics, and Foreign Language departments. I worked closely with these teachers and others across the disciplines.

Get to know the other teachers at your school. Make friends in other departments. Maintain good relations with your department head, administrators, and fellow teachers. I always made a special effort with secretaries and custodians at all the schools where I taught. They are the backbone of daily operations and can make your life on campus a lot easier. Listening to the ideas of others will enrich your own teaching. Be open minded. Incorporate new ideas into your lesson plans. Make them your own.

In the ideal school environment, everyone treats one another with respect and works together as a team. I can truly say this was true over the course of most of my career. But remember, people are people, and not everyone gets along easily. You will have to interact with a wide variety of personalities and styles, not all of which will be naturally compatible with yours. Focus on the people with whom you do get along. Nurture those alliances. Try your best with everyone else.

Maintain your integrity and do your job to the best of your ability. Avoid participation in gossip and intrigue. Schools are political environments just as much as any workplace in the business world. Whether or not you get involved in those politics is up to you, but don’t lose sight of why you are there. You are an educator. Whatever you do at work should be oriented toward providing the best education possible for yourself and your students.

Take advantage of any opportunity to benefit from the experience and ability of your fellow teachers. Working together can be an immensely rewarding experience. Everyone benefits from team effort. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt and listen to them. Continue to believe in your own unique contribution to the team as well. As long as you are in the classroom, you are a valuable asset to that school. Work with others to maximize that asset and provide your students with the best possible education.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars are a great way to involve your students in critical engagement with primary and secondary source material. I held a seminar each quarter for both my U.S. History and Economics classes, in which students would divide into pairs and use online databases to prepare a researched response to an assigned prompt. U.S. History topics included foreign policy, immigration, government social programs, and the Millennial generation. In Economics, my seminars focused on outsourcing and the 2008-2009 banking crisis.

Contrary to my usual practice, I allowed students to choose their own partners for this activity. They seemed to enjoy pairing up with their friends for a classroom assignment. Normally I selected teams myself because of classroom discipline concerns, but in the case of Socratic Seminars, I arranged the desks in two concentric circles rather than rows, with one partner in front and one behind. Students in the front row shared their insights and research on the prompt while students behind took notes. Partners were thus divided during the seminar itself and had to focus on participation rather than each other.

I handed out a packet at the beginning of the assignment that included instructions on how to access the databases (maintained by our school library at the time) and compose the reflection essay due the week after the seminar was given. An evaluation form was also included as well as a place to include all notes taken before and during the seminar. I gave my classes a few class periods to work on this and, prior to the issuing of Chromebooks by our district, took them to the library to conduct research.

The prompts were always open-ended and allowed for a variety of positions. I advised the students that their grade would be based not on their opinion, but on the cogency of their argument and the quality and quantity of the data upon which that argument was based. Each student was given an individual grade for the assignment. Although they were allowed to submit team notes, they had to complete their own essay and evaluation form and were expected to make at least three contributions to the group discussion.

On the day of the seminar, the students filed into the room and seated themselves in the two concentric circles of desks. I stood in the center and went over the seminar rules with them. Comments were to be constructive and based on research. Students could disagree respectfully with one another but were not allowed to interrupt whoever was speaking. Hands had to be raised to be called upon to speak. Questions could be asked of each other as long as the questions were open-ended and encouraged more than single word answers. Only the students in the front row were allowed to speak; the back row had to wait until I rang a bell halfway through the period for them to have their turn.

I stood off to the side by my podium and tried to intervene as little as possible. If the conversation died down or was being dominated by a few voices, I would call on the quieter students and give them a chance to speak. I also prepared a series of additional questions to stimulate discussion if necessary. I kept a tally of how many comments each student made and tried to give each of them an opportunity to make a full contribution. I also had to keep them on topic at times and diffuse heated debate.

I reminded them that they “are all on the same team,” that a Socratic Seminar is a group discussion rather than a formal debate. Their reflective essays were to incorporate their own research and position as well as what they heard in class. I made the packet and paper due a week after the seminar to give them time to compile and organize their source material and write their essays. Most students who turned in their complete materials did well in their overall grade. I allowed others to turn in materials late for partial credit.

Socratic Seminars are an effective teaching method for any subject. Many of my students had participated in seminars in their English class but not in any of their other courses. The advent of Common Core Standards in 2010 encouraged critical thinking and academic writing in all the subjects. Social science teachers (as well as those in math and science and elective topics) are expected to help with the development of these skills as much as the English teachers. The Socratic Seminar includes all of these as well as an opportunity to grow in teamwork skills.

I was surprised to hear some students who were normally quiet in class suddenly articulate well-formulated positions within the context of the seminar. Others who were normally talkative in small groups had to be encouraged to address the entire class. The seminar experience allowed me an opportunity to get to know my students better and give each of them a chance to excel. It was fascinating to hear their take on things, particularly during the seminar on the Millennial generation, to which all of them belonged. Their perspectives influenced my own and helped me grow as an educator.

There are many digital templates and databases you can use in putting together a Socratic Seminar. I also encourage you to work with your colleagues in other subjects. During the eight years I served as the social science teacher in a high school Digital Arts and Humanities program, I worked closely with the English and technology teachers to construct and assess Socratic Seminars in conjunction with our team projects. The interdisciplinary connections were rewarding both for me and my students.

Experiment with different ways of presenting your content. Consult your colleagues on what has worked for them. Allow the students to participate directly in discussion and research. Take advantage of your school’s resources. The more variety of learning styles you include, the more engaged and successful your students will be. Creativity makes class something to look forward to, for you and for them. The Socratic Seminar is a time-tested method that promotes this kind of creativity and engagement.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Pacing Yourself

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Teaching is a very demanding profession. Half of new teachers burn out and quit within the first five years in the classroom. If you truly feel called to the work and do not want to join this number, you will have to learn to pace yourself. Taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health is essential to a long and fruitful career as an educator. The tools and disciplines you need are all within your reach. It is up to you alone to decide to make use of them.

I was older when someone addressed me as “Mr. Finney” for the first time. I had worked in religious education throughout my 20s and early 30s, but I did not assume the mantle of schoolteacher until I was almost 37 years of age. I was still in pretty good physical shape, but I had no idea what I was getting into. My only experience with school had been as a student and as the son of a college professor. During my first few years of teaching, I made every mistake in the book.

My first was to try to become “friends” with my students. This never works. You are there to be an authority figure, like it or not, and the students need you to play that role. This does not mean you must be a tyrant, but neither should you turn to them for any kind of approval. Your word is law in your room. I eventually learned to describe myself to the kids as a “benevolent dictator.” But dictator I was all the same. The only way to get through the year successfully is to set your own expectations for you and for your students and to stick to them. Whether or not they like you is immaterial. Respect is more important.

The second mistake I made was changing my diet and exercise habits. I had been a big hiker, walker, bicyclist, swimmer, and weight lifter all of my life until that point and maintained a low-fat, low-meat diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low cholesterol foods. I never drank soda. By the end of my first year of teaching all this had changed. I was making regular runs to fast food restaurants and settling into a sedentary lifestyle. Going to the gym or walking seemed to take too much time and effort.

This combined with chronic lack of sleep to wreak havoc on my health. Over the course of my first year of teaching I was constantly sick. I seem to recall using up nearly all my paid sick days and spending most of my school breaks trying to catch up on rest. I started resenting my job, the kids, and the school. None of this was their fault, of course, but that didn’t matter. Taking responsibility for my own health and happiness would have involved looking critically at my lifestyle. I finally did so and severely reduced my intake of fat, salt, and sugar. I lost 20 pounds and my energy level improved dramatically.

Managing your emotional health is equally important. The physical exhaustion and mental stress of teaching sometimes made it difficult to keep my cool, and the kids picked up on that. The more mischievous ones learned quickly how to press my buttons and set me off. Every time I was reactive rather than proactive, my authority as the teacher eroded. This is a common problem with new teachers. The trick is to start the year looking like you know what you are doing and maintain the respected role and persona of “Mr.” or “Ms.” even if you feel your performance has fallen short of that exalted title.

It is a trick indeed. One of my principals early in my career said I needed “to grow eyes in the back of my head.” When my first semester at that school went poorly, he assigned me a mentor. This guy was great. He taught me many elements of effective discipline, beginning with the way I first present myself in the classroom. Be serious, but not inaccessible. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Follow through with enforcing your posted rules. Be willing to discipline disruptive students early in the term so the others will stay in line. Keep parents in the loop from the get go. Don’t take on too much at one time.

This is a challenge for novice teachers, since you are still getting used to the new role and environment and the seemingly endless grading, meetings, evaluations, and extra-curricular activities take their toll. But remember that you are in control of your own ideas, words, and behavior. You can choose to be proactive rather than reactive, and you can do so each and every day. Treating the kids with respect by explaining what is expected of them and helping them meet those expectations sounds simple, but it’s what teaching is all about. Be clear, be fair, and be consistent. Believe in your own authority and others will follow.

Get a good night’s sleep every night if you can. Go to bed early on school nights and stay in bed. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine. Drink plenty of water during the school day and eat a healthy lunch. Coffee can help, but watch your daily intake of sugar and caffeine. Surround yourself with friends and family who support and respect you. Say no when you can. Have fun, but not in a way that adds to your exhaustion and stress. Avoid long and expensive vacations on your school breaks. You will need that time to rest and recover from the push to get there. Encourage your students to follow this advice as well. They need support as much as you do.

Try not to bring work home. It’s important that you try to solve work-related problems at school before you leave. If a kid acts up that day in class, call the parent before you go home. If someone says or does something rude or discourteous, try not to take it personally. If a drill or special schedule or emergency derails your lesson plan, finish or redo the lesson the following week. If something comes up on Friday after a particularly demanding week, put it off until Monday if you can.

Past stereotypical images of the childless Victorian schoolmarm or widower schoolmaster aside, most educators today are in some kind of relationship. If you are one of these teachers, you need to be honest with your partner about the parameters of the job. By the same token, if you want a supportive partner, you will need to accommodate his or her needs as much as possible. The same is true if you are a full-time parent or stepparent of kids under 18. Time with them must take priority over time with your students, but juggling all these responsibilities can be challenging. Listen to your partner. Take things one day at a time and do your best.

The traditional school year moves in a predictable cycle, so pacing yourself through it will ensure a more successful outcome. Try to get plenty of rest over the summer, especially in the few weeks leading up to the first week of school. During the first few days of meetings before students arrive, get to know your colleagues and administrators and lean on them for support. Make plans on how to best deliver your curriculum and assess student progress. If you have questions, do not hesitate to ask for help, both at the beginning and throughout the year.

Spend the first few weeks with your students going over the rules and assignments and how to successfully complete them. Get your assigned seating set and have all your copying done ahead of time. Labor Day Weekend is your first real break. Get some rest on that holiday Monday. The next holiday is usually Veterans Day a couple months later. This is a big push to get the kids going in the curriculum and keep them on top of their assignments through the end of the First Quarter and into the Second. I usually assigned the bulk of the homework and essays during this period, to give them time to catch up later.

By the week of Thanksgiving Break, you will be feeling tired, but not burned out if you have paced yourself effectively. The few weeks between the end of Thanksgiving and the two weeks of Winter Break are the time to wrap up the First Semester and prepare your classes for their final exams. If your school waits until January to give finals, get plenty of rest over the break and urge your kids to do the same. Traveling and spending time with family over the holidays is fine if it helps you recharge. Otherwise, avoid both.

The Second Semester is usually easier as far as discipline is concerned, particularly if you have been firm and consistent to this point. The Martin Luther King and Presidents Day Weekends are welcome respites, and Spring Break usually arrives by the end of March. Take advantage of all this time to recover and refresh. The final push is from the beginning of April to the Memorial Day Weekend at the end of May. This is usually when CAASPP and AP/IB testing all takes place. If you are involved in any of these, cut back on some of your regular assignments until testing is over and then help the kids resume their work and finish the school year effectively.

If you plan to teach summer school, then all these ideas become doubly important, because that means you will have less time to recover from the previous school year before you have to start the next. One of the greatest misnomers about the teaching profession is that it is easier than other careers because of “all the time off.” I place this phrase in quotes for good reason. School breaks are not time off. They are times to be deliberate about nurturing your health. We need those extra breaks because we give extra effort. When I worked in insurance and telecommunications before I became a teacher, I had fewer vacation days, but I did not feel as exhausted when I reached them. Everything is a balance.

I am confident that any new teacher who takes the issue of pacing seriously will be successful. Take it one school year at a time, one semester at a time, one quarter at a time, one month at a time, one week at a time, one day at a time. Help your students do this too. They need it. Many of them are actually busier than you are, with part-time jobs, athletics, extra-curricular clubs and other activities, and family responsibilities piled on top of their full-time class schedule. Be the dependable authority figure they need.

And be your own best friend. Your school believed in you enough to offer you the job, and your students’ parents trust you enough to hand over their kids to you for six hours every day. Believe in yourself, because you are worth believing in. You are part of a select few who are charged with shaping the future. Teaching is an awesome responsibility as well as a rare opportunity to make a tremendous difference. Take care of yourself as you would your own loved ones and your students. The more care you put into it, the more satisfaction you will realize. Education is more of a calling than a job. Listen to yourself as you answer that call.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Curriculum and Assessment

My classroom board when I taught 7th grade 2001-2005.

Standard school curriculum still starts with a district-approved textbook, but Common Core Standards for writing in the social sciences require an array of academic skills that are built on a multiplicity of sources and assignments. The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) replaced the CST-based STAR exams in 2014 and does not include a specific state test in social science content, but history teachers are expected to develop the writing and critical thinking skills students will need to do well on CAASPP mathematics and language arts tests. Students currently take the CAASPP at the end of their junior year of high school, which is the same year they are completing U.S. History.

Whether you are teaching 8th grade American history or 12th grade Economics, you will be using the same textbook for that subject as the other social science teachers in your district. Get to know the book and decide how much of it you want the students to read each week. I assigned “Section Assessment” questions as homework on the first day of the week (usually Monday) and asked them to turn them in on the last school day of the week (usually Friday). I never assigned homework over the weekend or on school holidays and breaks, unless I was teaching an honors level class. Homework typically consisted of some vocabulary definitions and short answer questions. I accepted late homework at half credit through the last regular day of the semester.

Writing in the social sciences is essential in developing the skills outlined in the Common Core Standards (see my blog entry on “The Perfect Essay” in the front Menu) and can be spread across a wide variety of assignments in each unit. My unit tests always included a three-paragraph reflective essay on an assigned prompt related to unit themes. Document Based Question (DBQ) essays were likewise written in response to a prompt outlined in the document packet. Essays are best graded using a rubric of your own in conjunction with those used by your department.

Mine awarded up to 10 points for each of five categories: Introductory Thesis, Development of 5 paragraphs, Documentation, Comprehension, and Style/Use of Vocabulary, for a total possible 50 points for the DBQ essay. Unit test essays were graded holistically out of 25 points and were added to the 100 possible points from 50 multiple choice questions. The CAASPP still includes multiple choice but the greater emphasis is the interpretation and analysis of primary and secondary source material. I also assigned period letter writing using slang terms from each decade we were studying. Short polemic essays or news stories are other ways to develop writing skills in history and economics.

Always include an objective and an assessment for every classwork activity and take home assignment you give. Whenever I showed a documentary film, the students had to complete a study guide or Cornell style notes. Lecture notes were completed on a template targeting key topics and wrapping things up with an analysis question. During project presentations, students were expected to take notes on each other’s projects and turn those notes in for points. The note template I assigned had them listening for important people (Who), historical context (When & Where), cause and effect (Why), important events (What), and Historical Consequences.

As a new teacher, you will need to ask for help in gathering curriculum materials and making them your own. This includes PowerPoint presentations, video resources, handouts, art activities, test materials, and ideas for quarter or semester projects. Take advantage of your department’s resources as well as those of the school library and district office. Find out who the software resource person is on your campus and ask for their help in learning the latest programs. Use digital classrooms. Encourage your students to use the public library and internet as well as cable and radio news networks (see my blog entry on “Resources” in the front menu).

I always used weighted categories in calculating student grades. Most digital grading programs allow for this, which permits students to excel in different areas depending on their interest and skill set. Unit tests and semester exams were each worth 25% of their overall grade, with classwork comprising another 30% and homework and projects worth another 10% each. Class participation points were included in classwork. I rounded up percentages from .5% to allow an 89.5% to finish the semester with an A- and a 59.5% to pass the course. Consult your administration and district policy on grading scales before including them in your syllabus.

Many school libraries now have excellent research databases to use in individual and group assignments. Collect primary source material for each of your classes and make it available to the students. I had a large classroom library of books and magazines as well as plenty of handouts and bibliographies students could use. I collected period music to use for some writing assignments and set the mood for each historical unit. In Economics I assigned a major industry to each student and a Stock Market Portfolio project in which they were given an imaginary $100,000 to invest in at least four companies over the course of the semester. At least one of the companies had to be in their assigned industry and those who completed the term with more than their original investment were awarded extra points.

Extra credit should be given sparingly and only used to provide additional motivation to those students who are struggling to reach the next letter grade. If a student has a B+ and works hard, for example, I sometimes offered extra credit for them to reach that A- by the end of the semester. Hard work and positive attitude were always rewarded in some way. Conversely, apathy and procrastination did not bring high marks, even in students who initially showed tremendous academic promise. Remind your students that they are expected to complete every assignment you give them in a thorough and timely manner. Extra credit, especially in the 11th hour, is no substitute for a semester of hard work.

I stopped showing feature films in my social science classes because they are not legitimate primary or secondary sources for studying a nonfiction subject. All the video resources I used in history and economics were documentary films (see my blog entry on “History vs. Hollywood” in the front menu). Spread the films out with writing assignments or show only clips of them to augment your lectures or their classroom activities. Try to mix things up. You will reach more students that way and make the class more interesting. The goal is to engage as many of your students as possible and motivate them to excel in what they do best.

Keep masters of all your handouts in separate files and update them as necessary. Get all your photocopying done in advance, preferably at the end of the previous term if you can determine with enough advance time what subjects you will be teaching next and for how many sections. Keep extra note forms and office supplies available for students to use. Encourage them to turn in all their work, even if it is late or incomplete. Something is better than nothing.

If you are teaching honors or AP students, keep them busy with rigorous assignments that prepare them for higher level work in college. Watch out for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Sometimes the higher level students are tempted with this more than their college prep classmates because of all the pressures involved in maintaining a high GPA and gaining admission to the school of their choice. Support those higher level college prep students who want to move up into the AP classes if you think they have what it takes to keep up. Write letters of recommendation for any student who approaches you if you feel that student has worked hard and wants to succeed.

Both curriculum and assessment have changed dramatically in the decades since I graduated from high school at the end of the 1970s, mostly due to the tremendous changes in technology that have transformed every aspect of our society. Keep up with those changes as best you can and maintain an open mind to new forms of teaching and learning. Be an early adopter. Stay on top of your paperwork. Only use those materials that still keep your interest, and only give those assignments that you feel are meaningful. Being an educator is a privilege. Take advantage of your opportunity to make a difference.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Seating Charts

A successful school year starts with assigned seating. Those teachers who let students sit where they like will inevitably have more discipline problems than those who tell the students where to sit. I learned this lesson over my first few years of teaching and never forgot it. Maintaining an effective seating chart is the first step toward establishing your authority in the classroom. On the first day of school, wear black, go over the classroom rules, and assign each student a seat which they cannot change without your permission. This will send the message right away that you take your class seriously and expect your students to do the same.

An important element of a good seating chart is the arrangement of the seats. Whether you have stationary or moveable desks or group tables, be deliberate about how your classroom looks before any students arrive in it. I always set up my desks in groups of four with ample space for me to move about between the groups. Immediate access to your students is important in allowing you to both manage and monitor them as well as assist them as needed. This particular numeric grouping of four desks also allowed for team assignments and review throughout the year. Leave plenty of space for moving in and out of the classroom and among the quartets of desks.

My students were greeted on the first day of school by the following instructions written in large letters on my front board:

Welcome Students! Please have a seat quietly and put away your phones and other electronics. You will be assigned a seat shortly. – Thank you, Mr. Finney

Many would seat themselves in the back of the room, and others took seats next to their friends, particularly those who arrived late. Some would follow the instructions to be quiet and others would not. Before they got too comfortable, however, I began calling out their names (making sure I pronounced their names correctly and wrote down any nicknames they went by) and assigning them seats, usually right after the final bell rang. I arranged them alphabetically by last name, beginning with the front row desk at far left and working my way to the right and backwards through the other rows. Within five minutes, they were all sitting quietly in their assigned seats and had their eyes on me.

I then reminded them right away that these were their assigned seats for the entire school year unless I decided otherwise. I advised those with special medical or vision needs that required them to sit in front to explain those needs to me after class and that I would accommodate them. Everyone else remained where I put them. I then explained that I assign seats for two good reasons: to learn their names quickly and to keep them focused on the material they are learning in class. I concluded by telling them that “You will be moved only if you appear to find the person seated next to you more interesting than me.” I could tell that some found this comment amusing and others did not, but all of them got the message.

Once this initial seating chart was filled, I reserved the right to alter it as I saw fit, which was a fairly regular occurrence during the first few weeks of school. It took that long for course schedules to be worked out, and I shuffled seating assignments as some students were transferred out and others moved in. I also observed which students continued to socialize with one another from their assigned seats and moved them accordingly.

I had several desks arranged in the back of the room reserved for particularly disruptive or distracted students. My teacher aides had their own table in the back corner where I could also place overflow students in the overcrowded first week or so of the semester. Once I received the information from the school counselors and administrators about my students with special needs such as learning disabilities, attention disorders, or limited English language proficiency, I would make seating adjustments for those students as needed.

Over the course of the semester, I would make further seating adjustments based on student behavior. I found that the most effective way to manage discipline problems was to do so proactively. Changing a student’s seat to move them away from their friends more often than not nipped behavior problems in the bud and reduced the number of times I had to call parents or refer students to the office. During my last several years as a full-time classroom teacher, I issued very few formal discipline referrals. This was due in large part to assigned seating.

Make sure your seating charts are clearly visible in front of you and keep an extra copy for reference. I had mine on top of my podium at the front of the room next to my desk. This allowed me to manage my classes easier and helped my substitutes see clearly where everyone was supposed to be when I was absent. Digital classrooms and other software usually include seating chart templates. Make use of them.

There were, of course, many occasions in which I would allow them to move seats and choose their own partners for group activities. I usually waited until later in the semester to do this, however, depending on their behavior and the extent to which they followed my classroom rules. Socratic Seminars involved arranging the desks in two concentric circles rather than rows, with Partner 1 seated in the front row and Partner 2 seated in the back row behind 1. For test reviews and DBQ group discussions, I kept everyone in their assigned seats in the rows but allowed them to interact with the three others in their group of four.

These are some of the strategies that worked for me over twenty years of trial and error, strategies that brought me increasing levels of successful classroom management. Experiment with what works for you. I found that assigned seating was essential in helping my students pay attention and complete their classroom activities in a timely and effective manner. Organization is a large part of classroom success for both you and your students. Anything you can do in the beginning to help your students maximize their performance in class will serve you and them well throughout the entire school year.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


Planning Your Year

Teaching history generally follows a chronological series of units in accordance with state social science content standards. This gives you a head start on planning your semester and school year. I always designed my units around the standards and wrote the current standard we were covering on the dry erase board where everyone could see it. My U.S. and World History classes consisted of nine units each spread out over two semesters. Government and Economics were semester classes and covered six units each.

Because history is taught over the course of three school years at the secondary level in California, my introductory units in the high school classes were reviews of what the students learned in middle school. Grades 6 and 7 focus on World History from prehistoric times to the Age of Exploration, so my first unit in Grade 10 was always a synthesis of western democratic thought from ancient Palestine, Greece and Rome to medieval and renaissance England. This first unit lasted about a month.

Unit 2 picked up the story with the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions and culminated with the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna. Unit 3 continued with the Industrial Revolution in Britain and its spread to continental Europe and the United States. Also included in this unit was Romanticism in art and the industrialization of war. Unit 4 was on the New Age of Imperialism and rivalries between the industrialized powers. Unit 5 completed the first semester with a survey of the First World War and the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.

The second semester began with Unit 6 on the rise of totalitarianism and continued with Unit 7 on the Second World War. Unit 8 on the Cold War continued after spring break into Unit 9, the final unit on modern independence movements, post-Cold War conflicts, and the rise of the internet and globalization. The Government class was divided into units on the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as Constitutional law, famous Supreme Court cases, and comparative government. Economics units included introductory principles, micro- and macroeconomics, global economics, and everyday economics.

In 11th grade U.S. History, the first unit was a review of the material learned in 8th grade on the events leading up to, including, and resulting from the Civil War. Unit 2 picked up the story in postwar industrialization and urbanization and the large waves of immigration between 1870 and 1920. Unit 3 was more a topical unit on Religion in America which was spread out over Units 1 and 2 and later units (I called it the “Parmesan cheese” unit).

Unit 4 dealt with U.S. expansion into Latin America and the Pacific, Unit 5 with the Roaring Twenties, and Unit 6 with the Great Depression, which brought us to the end of the first semester. Second semester units included Units 7 and 8 on America in World War II and the Cold War, Unit 9 on civil rights movements between 1948 and 1991, and Unit 10 on the eight Presidencies from Ford to Trump. This last unit included changes in popular culture and the rise of the digital and globalized economy.

Each of my units included lecture and discussion, video assignments, DBQ essays, and a unit test combining multiple choice with a three-paragraph reflective essay. I also assigned an individual class project and a group Socratic Seminar each quarter (two per semester, four per year). My calendar incorporated school holidays and state testing and left some room for unexpected interruptions like fire and lockdown drills, college days, shortened periods because of special events, and classroom visits from administrators or school counselors. I always posted the state standard and learning objective for the day on the dry erase board for students to see.

Your colleagues in the social science department will, of course, be teaching the same standards, so coordinating the pacing of your year with them is important. Creating department-wide assessments such as tests and unit essays helps to provide cohesion for the students, especially those transferred from one teacher to another because of schedule changes. Flexibility, patience, and resourcefulness are essential for you to feel successful. Be open minded and try different things. The more resources you have, the better.

Make sure you give each unit enough time, and plan your assignments accordingly. Try to avoid tangents that take you and the students off course. When I was in high school, my APUSH class ended with the Vietnam War. Almost a half century of additional history has passed since then, yet the semester is still around 18 weeks long. You have much more to cover in the same period than my history teacher did in the late 1970s. Pace yourself and keep the students on track.

Have plenty of extra resources on hand in case you are absent and need to call in a substitute. Leave detailed lesson plans for the sub and put away anything on your desk that you don’t want to “walk away” while you’re gone. Make sure all your classroom audio-visual and computer equipment is in working order. Keep all valuables, including personal video collections and testing materials, locked safely away. Follow up with the students when you get back so that the rhythm of your current unit is not disrupted.

I maintained a general template for the entire year for each of the courses I taught. I also edited and adjusted it every year as needed. Plans can be altered or discarded, but it is always better to have a plan than not. Organization is a large part of classroom success. Remember that you are the authority in your classroom. You are part of a team, but in your room you and your curriculum materials represent your subject. Believe in your own education and abilities. You are there because you belong there. You have been given a valuable opportunity to educate yourself and your students. Make the most of it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Getting Started: Observation

Whether you are still in your credential program or new in your own classroom, observing other teachers in action is vital in developing your own style. Teaching is both a science and an art. The science of it is mastered like any other scientific endeavor: study, research, analysis, observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and reevaluation. The artistic part of teaching can only come to life by jumping in and creating a learning environment for you and your students that is unique to your teaching personality. An important part of discovering yours is watching others who have discovered theirs.

Observe as many teachers as you can, in as many subjects and grades as you can. This diversity of experience is helpful in understanding cross-curricular connections as well as the different learning styles of the students. Some kids are tactile learners, others are more visually oriented, and still others learn by hearing and processing. Pay attention to how the students are interacting with the content being delivered. What strategies of the teacher appear to most effective? Which are least effective?

One of your tasks as teacher is to discover where your passion lies and how to share that passion with your students. As you watch other teachers practice their craft, look for their passion. Those are the lessons that will really stick out. Then think about what aspects of your subject(s) most excite you. What kinds of lessons do you see yourself embracing most fully as an educator? Your students can tell if you are really into your subject and your work. The more you are in touch with your strongest skill set, the greater the difference it will make in the classroom.

A few things to look for in particular:

  1. Are classroom rules posted? If so, what are they, and are they enforced effectively? Which of those rules would you include in your classroom?
  2. How does the teacher deal with questions from the students? Is help offered where help is needed? If not, what suggestions would you make to improve the situation?
  3. How are the seats or tables arranged? Does that arrangement enhance or inhibit learning?
  4. How does the teacher deal with disruptive behavior from the students or interruptions from the front office? Does this approach appear to be effective?
  5. Are assignments displayed and explained clearly? Do the students appear to know what is expected of them?
  6. Are state content standards and learning objectives easily visible? If so, does the lesson appear to conform to the posted standard and objective?
  7. Was the length of the class period enough to complete the lesson? If not, what did the teacher say about its completion?

Take copious notes as you observe, and discuss them with the teacher if possible. Make note of the explanations the teacher gives for your own reference. Focus on the teachers whose style and effectiveness you admire. Like any other art form, teaching thrives on inspiration from the environment and the work of others who have gone before. There is nothing wrong with using someone else’s material within the confines of copyright law. The originality of teaching, much as in musical performance, lies more in the arrangement and delivery of content than in the content itself.

Compare notes with other student teachers or with other new teachers if you are already in your own classroom. There is always strength in numbers. Teaching can be an isolating profession, and reaching out to colleagues is an important way to build confidence and competence. Remember you are not the first nor the last person to teach this subject, at this school, in this room. Build on the work of others. Develop your own take on things. While your subject is universal, your voice is unique. Celebrate that voice.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

World Religions Topic 15 Summary: Agnosticism and Atheism

The critical study of religious text and doctrine during the period of the Protestant Reformation in Europe would in time lead some to further question the very idea of God itself. Dutch theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) challenged the precepts of medieval scholasticism by arguing for free will, religious toleration, and critical thinking within the context of Catholic faith. This “humanistic” school of thought influenced the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who postulated that salvation by grace through faith could occur outside the jurisdiction of the Roman Church. Faith and salvation were not guaranteed by participation in the Sacraments. The individual must make a choice to believe in a personal Lord and Savior.

For some later Enlightenment thinkers, the choice was not to believe at all. These writers and philosophers concluded that the very concepts of church and salvation were themselves flawed and unnecessary. The French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) embraced deism, which accepted belief in a creator of the universe apart from participation in institutional religion. This approach was shared by prominent American thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). For others, however, deism did not go far enough. More radical rejection of religious doctrine took the forms of agnosticism (from the Greek “without knowledge”) and atheism (“without God”).

These ideas were explored by French Enlightenment philosophers such as the aristocrat Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789), physician Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), and the art critic and writer Denis Diderot (1713-1784), compiler of the world’s first encyclopedia in 1751. These and others argued that the human capabilities of reason and feeling were enough to produce both happiness and prosperity, and that the notion of God and the ecclesiastical and theological infrastructure needed to sustain it were therefore superfluous. Diderot was briefly imprisoned by the French government for expressing these views in his 1749 essay Letter on the Blind.

Many of these objections to theological constructs arose within the context of French Catholicism, where ecclesiastical wealth, corruption, and political influence in the Bourbon court at Versailles bred popular protest. The virulent hostility of the French Revolution against the Catholic Church bears witness to centuries of resentment and outrage. Later atheistic thinkers such as Karl Marx (1818-1883) carried this thinking further in describing organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” invented and utilized by the rich and powerful to control the working classes.

Marx was influenced by the German anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who argued in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity that the idea of God is merely a projection of the best of human nature and not a separate Supreme Being that requires devotion and service through participation in organized religion. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and others built upon Feuerbach’s ideas in the development of modern empiricism, existentialism, and nihilism. These schools of thought dismiss religious doctrines as distracting fictions that pull focus from human responsibility in the only world that truly exists, the material world available to the senses.

But not all atheism is an historical reaction to European institutional Christianity. The idea of a deity or deities that exist separately from human beings is foreign to many eastern religious traditions, particularly Taoism and Buddhism. Millions of people today consider themselves atheists or agnostics even while they visit ancestral shrines and participate in cultural religious holidays and festivals. Millions more, especially in the western world, claim no connection whatsoever to any religious tradition, cultural or otherwise. Those who consider themselves actively religious today have become demographic minorities in many societies where religious membership was once required on pain of exile, imprisonment, or death.

The Communist revolutions of the 20th century were based in part on a political and philosophical materialism that rejected established religion as a tool of capitalist injustice. Participation in religious life was considered threatening to these regimes and often severely punished. Jews and Orthodox Christians were persecuted in the Soviet Union and Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists in Communist China. Only in this century have people of faith been permitted to practice their religion in Cuba, North Korea, and other traditionally Communist societies. Human rights groups still call attention to the repression of Buddhist Tibetan and Muslim Uyghur minorities in China today.

In the United States, the First Amendment allowed for freedom of religious expression and the disestablishment of a state church. This left room for the development of independent religious denominations as well as the growth of secular humanism. American atheists found a champion in activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who led a successful campaign to ban Bible readings in public schools that culminated in the landmark Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp (1963). O’Hair founded American Atheists that same year and devoted herself to defending the separation of church and state. She appeared on national television and fought to remove the word “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and the U.S. dollar.

Atheists generally fall into the two categories of positive or hard atheism, which asserts definitively that there is no God, and negative atheism, which rejects a personal theism but does not deny the possibility of God altogether. Many negative atheists can be more accurately described as agnostics, as their approach to the question of divinity is either ambivalent or apathetic. Recent polls have suggested that up to 90% of Americans still believe in a God of their understanding, while less than 10% are willing to commit to positive atheism. The larger figure includes millions of agnostics who are reluctant to take sides on the issue of faith.

Following the initial anti-clericalism of the Enlightenment period, agnosticism grew in popularity with the dissolution of traditional religious communities during the period of rapid urbanization and industrialization in 19th century Europe. Marxist materialism and the association of the church with discrimination based on race, sex, and class added to the alienation of many with institutional Christianity. Marginalized groups that did not have their own supportive religious infrastructure often chose to reject the relevance of religion altogether.

The advent of film, radio, television, and the internet increased the volume and diversity of public discourse on matters of faith and church membership. Many young people and leftist intellectuals in the 1960s antiwar movement and counterculture objected to some of the language of the political right that defended the unpopular Vietnam War as a “righteous crusade” against “Godless Communism.” Scientific inquiry clashed with religious fundamentalism throughout the 20th century. Civil rights struggles, financial crashes, and environmental crises eroded the effectiveness of religious answers in addressing the complicated problems of the new century.

Recent sociological studies have shown that more than half of the adult populations in the developed world today can be characterized as “unchurched,” particularly among the “Millennial” generation born in the closing decades of the 20th century. This number includes many who have left institutional religion as well as those who dismiss notions of faith and God as antiquated or irrelevant. All across the world, church membership among those under 40 years of age is falling dramatically. Some have left one religious tradition for another, but more have never attended church at all or have dropped religious affiliation altogether.

Some object to the very words “God” and religion” and prefer language like “Higher Power” and “spirituality.” Many have been scandalized by criminal, avaricious, or hypocritical behavior among church leaders and religious politicians. Some argue that unearned suffering and senseless tragedy point to the absence of a benevolent deity. Others are horrified by terrorism and murder committed by fanatics in the name of religious faith. For still others, church attendance and prayer at home cannot compete with the appeal of a secularized popular culture endlessly streamed through cable television and social media.

Whether their beliefs are the result of outrage, disillusionment, disappointment, materialism, apathy, ignorance, or critical reflection, today’s atheists and agnostics constitute a significant portion of the world’s population today, especially among the young. Many believe in the same altruistic values of human rights, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that have characterized the best public efforts of organized religions. The contributions of “nonbelievers” to solving the most critical challenges facing the global community will be as necessary to the quality of life on earth as those who adhere to an historic religious faith.

CRITICAL THINKING:

  1. Can a person of faith also be an agnostic? What about an atheist? Explain your answer.
  2. What effects do you think the internet and smartphone technology have had on religion’s role in human society?
  3. What do atheists and theists have in common? How can they find common ground to transcend their differences and work together to create a better world?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


World Religions Topic 14 Summary: Neo-Paganism

The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to renewed interest in western matriarchal religious traditions that had long been suppressed by mainstream monotheism in northern Europe and the Mediterranean. During the medieval period and beyond, the ancient goddess-based religious traditions of Scandinavia, the Baltic region, the British Isles, central Europe, Egypt, and the Balkans were replaced by patriarchal Christian and Muslim authorities bent on the violent repression of cultural and religious minorities. Women who practiced the healing and earth-based rituals and arts of the “old religion” were persecuted as “witches.” Hundreds of thousands were ostracized, imprisoned, or murdered over several centuries in what became known as “the Burning Times.”

When Christianity was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century C.E., any Roman citizen who refused to convert was labeled paganus, a pejorative Latin term for an ignorant “rustic” rural outsider. Many of these people refused to abandon the ancient goddesses of their native Etruscan, Norse, Germanic, Iberian, Slavic, Celtic, or north African religious traditions and were therefore termed “pagans.” When interest in these indigenous faiths returned in the second half of the 20th century, their adherents were dubbed “neo-pagans” by mainstream critics. Much like the 16th century term “Lutheran,” what was once a term of scorn became one of pride.

Not all followers of this “new paganism” today choose to identify themselves by this term. In fact, the cultural and cosmological diversity of the movement defies uniform description and categorization. Renewed scholarly interest in the indigenous religious traditions of Africa, Australia, Asia, North and South America, and the South Pacific led to demands for the same respect afforded to the indigenous faiths of Europe. The seminal work of authors such as archaeologist Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), publisher Raymond Buckland (1934-2017), and journalist Margot Adler (1946-2014) drew popular attention to revived pagan traditions.

The American environmental activist Starhawk (born Miriam Simos in 1951) has become one of the most recognized leaders of neo-paganism today. Her 1979 book The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess was later revised and reprinted in 1989 and 1999 and has become a classic resource for practicing pagans. Her commitment to human rights, protecting the environment, sustainable agriculture, and nonviolence have set the pace for the modern pagan movement and garnered some level of recognition from other religious leaders and the mainstream media.

Starhawk and others identify the goddess-based faith of ancient Europe as Wicca, from an old Germanic verb meaning “bend” and from which the words “witch” and “witchcraft” were derived. The negative connotations and stereotypes associated with this terminology have been replaced by modern Wiccans with a celebration of their earth-based and holistic faith. Wicca emphasizes the divine power of fertility and regeneration that emanates from the Goddess and renews life on earth in the annual cycle of the seasons. Wiccan ritual provides the tools to access this regenerative force for the common good.

Wicca and other neo-pagan traditions share many theological and liturgical practices. Worship is held in a circle and often outdoors, rather than in the indoor, linear configurations of modern churches, synagogues, and mosques. While some pagan priests and priestesses have formal religious training and their credentials and congregations (or “covens”) are legally recognized, paganism does not require formal clergy or group membership. Home altars are common as they are in Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Shinto households. As in Shinto and Taoism, sacred locales in nature serve as places of worship. Celtic astrology, for example, is based on trees, and Norse divination drawn from runes.

In the British Isles, ancient circles of standing stones such as Stonehenge in England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland and neolithic tombs like Newgrange in Ireland have become focal points for pagan lore and liturgy. Neo-pagans mark the four seasons in their rituals and invoke the power of the four directions with the use of an athame, or sacred consecrated blade. In Celtic paganism, the four seasonal festivals of Imbolc (February 1), Beltaine (May 1), Lughnasa (August 1), and Samhain (November 1) are observed along with the Spring and Fall Equinoxes and the Summer and Winter Solstices. Full and new moons are also occasions for prayer and celebration.

Holistic medicine is also an integral part of many modern pagan movements. The use of essential oils, healing stones, meditation, and organic foods is encouraged, as well as noninvasive pain management techniques such as acupuncture, massage, stretching, and chiropractic. Oft-neglected elements of both eastern and western religions can be found in neo-pagan practice as well, particularly ancient Buddhist and Taoist mediation techniques and the mystical styles of prayer found in the Jewish Kabbalah and Muslim sufi traditions. Music, song, costume, and dance are lively aspects of pagan prayer.

Pagan symbols include the Pentacle (five-pointed star), the Tree of Life, the ankh symbol from ancient Egypt, and small figurines of the pregnant Goddess such as Ishtar from ancient Mesopotamia. The circle is considered the most sacred of shapes and forms the basis for all pagan worship. Many pagans choose to wear clothing made from organic materials in earth tone colors to honor the Goddess in their daily life. The four elements of fire, water, earth, and air are integrated into pagan homes and worship. Incense, boughs, flowers, candles, goblets, and jewelry representing sacred animals or mythological creatures are also used to reinforce pagan beliefs.

Much of the historic hostility toward pagan traditions is associated with the casting of “spells” or rituals that invoke the power of the Goddess to bring healing or good fortune to the coven or individual. Western missionaries considered these practices a direct threat to their own liturgies and doctrines and engaged in concerted efforts to stamp them out. Paganism became equated with the occult, destructive “black magic,” and blood sacrifice, all distortions designed to thwart the traditions of Goddess worship. The Wiccan Rede of “Do as you will, and harm none” was ignored in favor of a negative view of their traditions as “the instrument of Satan,” an aspersion rejected by Wiccans and their supporters today.

Modern pagans follow many of the same traditions as other indigenous religious traditions around the world, including the use of amulets, totems, astrology, divination, shamanic rituals, spirit animals, vision quests, and ancestral worship. The lack of continuity of these traditions in Europe and the Middle East because of historic persecution has made some of them difficult to reconstruct. Neo-pagans utilize extant manuscripts as well as oral traditions and archaeological artifacts to pull together a contemporary version of these ancient faiths. Pagan artists and sculptors have sought to recreate some of the sacred symbols that have been largely lost to history.

Neo-paganism has often been mistakenly identified with “New Age” spiritual practices such as channeling, astral projection, and other esoteric occult beliefs. While there is some overlap in the use of sacred gems, ritual, and prayer, pagans are quick to identify themselves with an authentic historical religious tradition. Modern pagans see their faith as benevolent and devoted to personal renewal and public service, not something that sets them apart through science fiction, commercial popularity, or self-destructive behavior. They do not take their beliefs lightly and are diligent in correcting mainstream presumptions to do so.

In 1972, the Icelandic farmer and poet Sveinbjorn Beinteinsson (1924-1993) formed the Germanic heathen organization Asatruarfelagio (the Asatru Fellowship), which was recognized as a formal religious body by the government of Iceland the following year and now boasts more than 4,000 members. In Britain, the Odinic Rite gained legal status in 1988 as a “registered religious charity.” Other animist and druidic organizations have grown in membership and are now recognized by many governments as legitimate religious groups. Up to two million people worldwide consider themselves practitioners of European neo-pagan traditions today, and popular interest in their movement is growing.

Several countries today still consider “witchcraft” a capital crime, and prejudice and discrimination against pagans remains widespread around the world. The terms “heathen” and “pagan” are still associated by many with savagery and barbarism. Modern pagans are committed to braving these obstacles and forging forward with their belief in the all-powerful Goddess who created and nurtures the natural world. They are among the forefront of contemporary people of faith who see their tradition as a relevant remedy to the social, economic, and environmental injustices that threaten the world today.

CRITICAL THINKING:

  1. Why are witches portrayed as evil or negative in popular media such as television, film, theater, and costuming?
  2. How did the Celtic new year celebration of Samhain’s Eve (October 31) morph into today’s commercial Halloween holiday?
  3. How can modern pagan movements gain the same social and legal status as the other major world religions?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.