Category: Christian Education (Page 1 of 3)

Carpe Diem Poetry and YOLO

First, an analysis of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins” and Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and then the difference between carpe diem, YOLO (You Only Lie Once), and Christian carpe diem. We consider C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters–the demons don’t like us to “seize the day.”

 

Writing Creative Non-Fiction

Creative Non-Fiction is a great genre for school writing. Every year I assign a creative non-fiction essay to my students. In this video, I read, and talk through some of the processes involved in composing the essay called “Coffee and Conscience.”

Why Christians Should Read Fairy-Tales

Should we read Fairy Tales to our children? Can Christians read Harry Potter? This video is about the relationship between faith and fantasy.

 

This video concludes the discussion that fairy tales offer us a true picture of reality. They show us the effects of the Fall and an almost universal desire for Redemption and a happy ending:

 

 

 

Advice for Young Teachers

I am currently reading I, Claudius (1934) by Robert Graves.  I watched the miniseries on PBS in 1976–I was fascinated by the story then, and I am loving it again.

This time though, I am a teacher.  And this passage from early in the book encapsulated my evolution as a teacher.  If I have any advice for young teachers it is here:

Athenodorus told me, the very first day of his tutorship, that he proposed to teach me not facts which I could pick up anywhere for myself, but the proper presentation of facts. And this he did.

One day, for example, he asked me, kindly enough, why I was so excited: I seemed unable to concentrate on my task. I told him that I had just seen a huge draft of recruits parading on Mars Field under Augustus’s inspection before being sent off to Germany, where war had recently broken out again.

“Well,” said Athenodorus, still in the same kindly voice, “since this is so much on your mind that you can’t appreciate the beauties of Hesiod, Hesiod can wait until to-morrow. After all, he’s waited seven hundred years or more, so he won’t grudge us another day. And meanwhile, suppose you were to sit down and take your tablets and write me a letter, a short account of all that you saw on Mars Field; as if I had been five years absent from Rome and you were sending me a letter across the sea, say to my home in Tarsus. That would keep your restless hands employed and be good practice too.”

So I gladly scribbled away on the wax, and then we read the letter through for faults of spelling and composition. I was forced to admit that I had told both too little and too much, and had also put my facts in the wrong order.

The passage describing the lamentations of the mothers and sweethearts of the young soldiers, and how the crowd rushed to the bridgehead for a final cheer of the departing column, should have come last, not first. And I need not have mentioned that the cavalry had horses: people took that for granted. And I had twice put in the incident of Augustus’s charger stumbling: once was enough if the horse only stumbled once. And what Postumus had told me, as we were going home, about the religious practices of the Jews, was interesting, but did not belong here because the recruits were Italians, not Jews. Besides, at Tarsus he would probably have more opportunities of studying Jewish customs than Postumus had at Rome.

On the other hand I had not mentioned several things that he would have been interested to hear — how many recruits there were in the parade, how far advanced their military training was, to what garrison town they were being sent, whether they looked glad or sorry to go, what Augustus said to them in his speech.

There it is.

That’s how you teach if you want students to learn anything beyond the next test.

 

Why Are the Best Books the Banned Books?

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

I am doing a “Banned Books” unit in my English 12 class this year.

The idea came to me when I heard that it was Banned Books Week (this year, September 22-28).  This is an annual religious festival in honour of one of our culture’s main deities–Freedom.   More particular, we celebrate the freedom to read.  Because, in some circles, to challenge a book is to challenge a god, the celebration can sometimes take on a “screw you” sort of tone.  But this is a worthy focus week, even for those for those who don’t bend the knee to freedom, for there are worrisome current and dangerous historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.  These are often attempting not just to protect the vulnerable but to limit thought.  Most of the books on the banned books lists were not, in fact, banned but challenged by someone somewhere about the use of these books in a classroom or their presence in a library.  I like to use the word banned because, sure, it’s more sensational, but mostly because it alliterates so nicely.  As in . . .

Banned Books or Bland Books

No, we are not reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, not only because the content is inappropriate for young readers, but because it isn’t very good.

That’s the interesting thing, most of the books on the banned or challenged book list are the same books that have been taught in schools for decades.  In other words, most of the banned books are the best books.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Most of the banned books are the best books. #BannedBooks #BookBurning #Censorship #GreatBooks” quote=”Most of the banned books are the best books.”]

 

There’s a reason for this: the best books are often provocative.

Books that aren’t banned ask little of readers.  They affirm our values and fulfill in the end what they promise in the beginning.  Books that aren’t banned, are often bland books.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”What should we read in school, bland books or banned books? #BannedBooks #GreatBooks” quote=”What should we read in school, bland books or banned books?”]

 

Books that make demands of its readers are challenged.  Books that challenge readers to look at the world differently are burned.   Books that startle and shock us out of our comfort zone are banned.  These are the books we should be reading.

The books that do this, are the best books, and they are the banned books.

A List of Banned Books

Here’s a list of some books that have been challenged; it’s also my recommended reading list.  Its a list of books that everyone should read before they die, or better yet, long before they die so that having read them may do some good.

  • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Catch 22 Joseph Heller
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

These next three I actually haven’t read, but I’ve read what my students have written about them.  These stories had an impact.  Students understood, in a meaningful way, something more about our indigenous neigbours, systemic racism, and the girl with no hope.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

 

Why no honour cords?

McElspeth / Pixabay

Not too long ago at my school, the graduates who had a GPA higher than a 3.6 wore gold chords around their necks at the graduation ceremony.

Ridiculous idea, I know, but we’ve remedied that now.

Some students continue to ask why we discontinued the practice.  They, and sometimes their parents, feel they have worked very hard to earn a good GPA and ought to be recognized as a reward for their effort and persistence.  They think it’s stupid that to abandoned honour cords just to spare the feelings of those who did not earn them.

Here’s what I tell them:

We got rid of the honour cords because they go against the philosophy of our Christian school.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Some people worked very hard to get above a 3.6 GPA, others hardly worked for it at all.   And we did not get rid of honour cords to spare anybody’s feelings. #honorchords #graduation” quote=”Some people worked very hard to get above a 3.6 GPA, others hardly worked for it at all.   And we did not get rid of honour cords to spare anybody’s feelings.”]

Essential Skills and Unique Gifts

One of the purposes of every school is to develop important skills and abilities.  We want students to have acquired the essential skills by the time they graduate, whether they are naturally gifted with them or not.

But just as important, perhaps more, is we want to help students discover and develop the unique gifts that God has given them.

Some receive a few gifts, others, many.  The number of gifts or their quality has nothing to do with merit.  It’s all grace.  All gifts are free and all gifts are valuable.

Our Father in Heaven gives his children many gifts. Some receive gifts that make them good with people, others make them creative or athletic.  The list is very long.  Some of God’s gifts help students to be very successful academically.

If all gifts come from God why would we honour just the few that help a student to get high marks?

Honour cords do exactly this.

All of the Student

The school is also interested in the growth and development of the whole student.   not just their minds.  Human beings are multifaceted–one whole, many parts.  Jesus names the parts in Mark 12:30-31 (NKJV): heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

The whole student matters to God.  The whole student matters to the parents who send these kids to our school.  The whole student, then, is what the school seeks to nurture and challenge.

If the school’s focus is the whole student, why would we celebrate just one aspect of a students at the graduation ceremony?

Honour cords do exactly this.

All of the Students

We seek to nurture every student.

This is why we offer such a wide variety of programs and extra-curricular activities: Textiles and Mechanics, Art and Music, Sports teams and Drama productions, and this is just the beginning. Yes, and we offer a wide variety of traditionally academic classes, every student is challenged in a lot of different directions.  Students work very hard in all of these areas.

Does it make sense to celebrate just the hard work of some?

We celebrate the hard work of all students, regularly and in many ways.

But we don’t do it at the graduation ceremony.

The graduation ceremony is not about individual recognition.  It is, rather, the celebration of the class as a whole.  The graduation ceremony is a community celebration.  The community gathers, not just to see “their grad” cross the stage, but to celebrate “Our Grads” as we mark this important moment in their lives.

The uniform of caps and gowns appropriately balances the attention on the individuals and the Class of 20– as a whole.

It doesn’t make much sense to add an accessory to the graduation uniform that draws attention to the hard work of just some of the students, honouring just one narrow set of gifts, relating to only one part of the student.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”It doesn’t make much sense to add an accessory (#honorcords) to the graduation uniform that draws attention to the hard work of just some of the students, honouring just one gift, relating to only one aspect of the student. #graduation ” quote=”It doesn’t make much sense to add an accessory to the graduation uniform that draws attention to the hard work of just some of the students, honouring just one gift, relating to only one aspect of the student.    “]

This is why we’ve done away with honour cords.

Dystopian Literature and Film: A Christian Perspective

Trixieliko / Pixabay

There has been an increase in the popularity of dystopian fiction, especially in the number of books targeting young adults. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Divergent by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are but a few examples.

Because so many of my students have read these books, I often teach a unit on dystopian literature and film.  In this unit, we read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Some students also read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Still others read FEED by M. T. Anderson.  We analyze portions of films like Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, Brazil, The Island, and I, Robot.  Students are often inspired to head to our library and check out other books in this genre, including Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Dystopian Literature in a Christian School

I am sure there are many schools in North America that teach a unit like this, but in a Christian school, a particular kind of Christian school, it is taught a little differently.  I organize the unit around the questions, “What aspect of our culture is being critiqued in the novel or film?” and “Are these critiques legitimate?” Through our investigation, students discover that each author/film-maker places a high value on the human being and being human.  The central purpose of each novel/film is to critique the subversion of human value to some other value–some other aspect of creation.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre–it uncovers and condemns idolatry. #dystopia #idolatry # literature #ChristianEducation” quote=”Dystopian fiction and film is essentially a prophetic genre–it uncovers and condemns idolatry.”]

This inversion is the essence of the Biblical notion of idolatry.  Human beings have value because they are created in the image of God.  Humanity has been placed at the top of creation and given the responsibility to take care of it.  When God is replaced by some good thing he created, humanity too is replaced from its position above all that was created.  Idol worship always degrades humanity.  Thus, this unit is actually an exploration of the Biblical teachings on human identity and value, and idolatry.

The creators of dystopian literature and film are proclaiming the evil of sacrificing humanity to our cultural idols:

  • the idols of power (1984)
  • pleasure (Logan’s Run and Brave New World)
  • technology (Bladerunner and Feed),
  • genetic perfection (Gattaca),
  • a longer life (The Island), etc.

The presence and popularity of these narratives are encouraging.  They indicate that there still is a large segment of our society that accepts the premise of human value.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular–it will mean that we’ve stepped off the edge. #dystopia #FaithAndFilm #FaithAndLiterature ” quote=”I will rue the day when dystopian literature and film are no longer popular–it will mean that we’ve stepped off the edge.”]

Truth and Poetry

Photo by Patrick Brinksma on Unsplash

The first discussion we have in the English 12 Poetry Unit is about truth.

Too many people consider poetry to be something that exists on a continuum between fluff and falsehood. This drives us Humanities types batty. Many hold to the mistaken idea that a thing is true if it is factual.  And thus, since poetry isn’t usually factual, it isn’t usually  true.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Just because poetry isn’t factual does not mean poetry isn’t true.” quote=”Just because poetry isn’t factual does not mean poetry isn’t true.”]

Whoa-ness of Eagles

Perrine’s Literature, a textbook we used to use, talks about the difference between encyclopedic facts of eagles with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle” to make the point that poetry offers a different experience than do facts.

A lot more can be made of this comparison.

I have my students collect a bunch of facts about bald eagles and we fill a whiteboard with them. Here’s a sample of what they find:

  • The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 48 to 55 km per hour.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs at a time.

These items gleaned from online encyclopedias are factual and they are true.

Then we look at Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

In this simple, six-line poem, Tennyson attempts to communicate that eagles are, in a word, awesome. But awesome doesn’t really capture it, nor does formidable or magnificent.

When I was 8 or so, I went with my class to a bird sanctuary. After viewing crows, seagulls and owls recovering from various injuries, I came face-to-face with a bald eagle—close up! It looked at me, and then looked away. I was awed by his size, his talons, his beak, his eyes—I remember my reaction; I whispered, “Whoa!”

Tennyson attempts to communicate the “whoa-ness” of eagles.

Beyond the facts

We fill another whiteboard with notes about of Tennyson’s poem, unpacking the figurative language, sound devices, imagery, and allusions. In the words and between the lines of this poem, readers experience the power and strength of this majestic bird as it is metaphorically compared to a wise and solitary king whose power is absolute.

I ask my students which is truer—the list of facts on the first whiteboard or the poem that we’ve annotated on the second. Many, perhaps most, confidently say the list of facts is “truer.” Some are uncertain. Eventually, someone calls out, “both are true but in different ways.

There we go!

“The Eagle” communicates a truth about eagles that go beyond the encyclopedic facts. A truth that is best communicated with poetry. Our culture has been resistant to this broader understanding of truth for a long time, to its detriment.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”How much of the Bible becomes inaccessible when we reduce truth to fact? #Bible #truth #biblicaltruth #biblicalinterpretation #hermeneutics” quote=”How much of the Bible becomes inaccessible when we reduce truth to fact?”]

Things get even more interesting when I suggest, in line with C. S. Lewis in Abolition of Man, that “whoa-ness” is a quality inherent to the eagle, and not just a description of my subjective reaction to it. I’ll spare you the details, but this is often an enlightening discussion.

The next poem we look at is A. E. Houseman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,” a conversation between a dead man and his still-living friend. I ask my class, is this a true poem? This time, less than half say, “No.” Some are still uncertain.

But many, reflecting on the central idea of the poem, declare it to be true.

What We Can Learn from the Dress Code

Photo by Rhii Photography on Unsplash

As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons.  Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms?  I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.

Advantages of School Uniforms

I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:

  1. Uniforms instill a sense of professionalism, imitating the business-dress of their possible futures.
  2. They eliminate the hassle of trying to find outfits that meet the dress code and are also in style.
  3. They are cheaper in the long run.
  4. They act as a socioeconomic equalizer.
  5. They eliminate dress codes, that can, given the sexualization of women in our culture, unfairly target girls.

The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.

Let Freedom Reign

Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.

  • We celebrate it at our sporting events.
  • Our television shows explore themes surrounding freedom, often presenting negative caricatures of traditional authorities, limiters of freedom.
  • Most television talk shows take every possible freedom as an absolute good.
  • The TV news is full of stories about conflicts about freedom, and it is obvious that if you are not on the side of freedom, you are going to lose the argument.
  • In popular movies, one of the defining qualities of the bad guy is often that he/she is a suppressor of freedom.
  • Politicians can win majorities to their positions if they can ground them in Freedom.
  • Remembrance Day used to commemorate the Armistice that brought WWI to a close, but now it seems it is all about the Freedom that was won in that war.
  • Originally established to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, the language of Freedom dominates Memorial Day celebrations.
  • The internet, in its very form, perpetuates the values of unrestricted freedom.

It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire.  They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate.  Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil.  Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents.  This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school.  Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.

I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom.  They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Students need the freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom is only good when limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity. #schooluniforms #hatsinschool” quote=”Students need the freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom is only good when limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity. “]

What’s Wrong With Wearing A Hat?

Some students want to wear a hat to school.  We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code.  When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?”  There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat.  The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety.  Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.  It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.

Standards of propriety are relative.  They change according to place or time.  In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors.  Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building.  Students naturally counter this argument by saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.

I respond by saying that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Removing hats indoors is no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone. #dresscode #hatsinschool” quote=”Removing hats indoors is no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.”]

Why we need a dress code

or Why you can’t wear a hat in school

There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats.  It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard.  The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist.  They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).

The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.  This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture.  Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large.  If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.

Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself.  This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude.  Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”The ‘no-hat rule’ is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards. #dresscode #nohatsinschool” quote=”The ‘no-hat rule’ is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.”]

Students who desperately want to wear their hats in class point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors.  Yes, there are some adults who, working outside all day, neglect to take their hat off when they come indoors.  This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day which will be spent entirely indoors.  Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate.  These are not a justification for students wearing hats; they are, rather, representative of the very idea we are trying to counter.

In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students.  We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.

Rituals of Submission

You can tell students things, and they might learn a little.  You can show them something, and they will learn a little better.  Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something.  But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity.  In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom.  They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.

We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing.  Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God.  The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well.  A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.

Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement is usually the typical adolescent desire for personal freedom.  By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms.  Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.

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