I overheard a colleague mention that they weren’t “integrating enough of a biblical perspective” into their lessons, and they “might as well work at a public school.” How could my colleague, an admirable Christian, and wonderful teacher, feel like their teaching had lost its Christianity?
Both this colleague and I firmly reject the idea that Christian education is meant to be buzzword pedagogy with prayer in the morning — it is deeper, and that depth comes from the underlying idea that Christian teaching should be distinct.
I think most teachers in Christian schools agree with this idea, but I want to push back on the idea that distinct teaching comes primarily from the integration of biblical perspectives. I think when biblical integration becomes the primary influence of Christian pedagogy I run into issues.
I have a few ideas (many of which are borrowed from David I Smith) that have helped me shift my thinking in these Faith and Learning conversations. Enjoy part one of this blog series on biblical integration:
Intentionality > Integration
I would rather attempt to be intentionally Christian with my teaching, instead of employing biblical worldview integration, in addition to my already planned teaching practice. The main reason I feel this way has to be that biblical integration has always appeared like a tag-on or something I have to shoehorn into my lesson.
Let me paint a picture of what this shoe horn-ing may look like. In an attempt to help students recognize the glory of God’s creation I could tailor my sixth-grade science project on outer space to include students researching the scriptures for Psalms proclaiming God’s glory in creation, or more specifically the stars and skies.
While this might appear to have more Christian content, is it truly improved as Christian teaching? Well, no. It’s awkward, clunky.
Further, is it even good pedagogy? Or does the tacked-on Psalm activity stray from the already established Science learning target?
Wouldn’t it be better to be intentional with how I execute the Science activities, instead of adding to them?
Currently, my sixth-grade students are researching a topic of their choice related to Space (no Psalm research necessary, although we do pray the Psalms regularly in class).
In an attempt to be intentional with my unit, we’ve used clear language to establish that outer space is also God’s creation, and it is some of the most amazing creations we have access to, even if it is only accessible through telescopic imagery.
In doing so, I haven’t tagged-on any Christian activities or explicated a ‘Christian Big Idea,’ I’ve just switched my language by explicitly mentioning and recognizing creation.
My colleague and co-host David McFarland mentions the following:
We attempt to “make Christian” what is inherently “creation proclamation” so much of that time. Language shift guides us there. Doxology — praise to God — at planned and spontaneous intervals is also good!
I understand that some people may read my previous paragraph and think that what I’ve described is actually integration and that I’m just getting caught up in language. I would push back on that idea, as Dave said, “language guides us there.” In the end, I’m not convinced I needed to “integrate” anything.
In this case, the language choice is done in a way that student learning is framed so that it helps my sixth-grade class become more faithful students, even in their Science projects (which I find hilarious because, at the moment, everyone and their dog is trying to sell you a framework in education).
As Karen Breedveld said in episode 39 of Not Many of You Should Become Teachers, she talks about how for second-grade students (or anyone),
“Saying, ‘wow’ about the natural world is worshipping God.”
The practices embodied here are much more about intentionality and recognition than they are about integration.
However, I want to note that language choice is NOT the pinnacle of Christian teaching (this is important).
I have no intention of becoming a language-thumper in the eyes of my students or colleagues. We already have enough of that in education. In fact, Christians probably need to be aware that they do not become so preoccupied with language-use so that it smothers any Christian practices you may be aware of, which brings me to my next point.
In my units and lessons, what are my students practicing? Am I creating a conducive space for students to practice worship within their learning?
David I Smith, the author of On Christian Teaching and the director of the Kuyers Institute, finds this quotation from Lee Palmer Wandel helpful in this situation:
“For Zwingli, as for Augustine,…Worship was the counteraction of self-love. The worship of God was the movement of the soul, from self-love, self-orientation, to God and outward to others: honouring them, according to humanity equal value to oneself, and according to God greater value than oneself”
Do my lessons reorient students from self-love to honouring others and loving God?
In his book and in a number of interviews, David I Smith chats about an epiphany he had as a modern language teacher. He realized that so much of what he was teaching in German class had to do with how to complain or how to get what you want. In his story, this seems to be an inflection point in which he dives into a “more intentional focus on encountering [students] as made in God’s image.”
So, in my students’ Space project, how are they encountering classmates as made in God’s image?
To begin, I didn’t revamp the entire sixth-grade unit in favour of ‘more biblical’ activities. If that were the case, all of my teaching would be done quite differently, as Smith says “groups of 12 males with sandals.”
Instead, I still lean on my instincts for how students will accomplish their Science learning targets best. I like how Adam Woelders chimes in on this topic,
“Good teaching practices are congruent with who God created us to be.”
I won’t abandon my students’ inquiry and voice & choice in favour of monastic solitude.
However, I will be intentionally (there’s that word again) Christian in how my students conduct themselves in their activities and how I facilitate said activities.
So, for example, my students are tasked with researching a topic of their choice individually. Once they’ve completed their research they’re put into groups to do two things 1) teach their group about their topic and 2) create a Space trivia game together to show their learning.
In this exercise, I emphasize humility. Students need to share their learning in a way that doesn’t make them look like an arrogant expert, but one who puts others first by teaching humbly. Blessed are the meek eh?
I connect this emphasis to David Smith et al’s Christian Practices from the Practicing Faith Survey. A students’ ability to share with their peers in a way that puts others first demonstrates relational Christian practice. Also, a students’ ability to engage their learning in humility connects well with both intellectual and introspective Christian practice.
I think that the reflective practice of Christian teachers needs to include how often they see their students invested and engaged in Christian practice. David Smith says the following,
“What if we took a fresh look at our teaching practices and wondered whether they really resonate with the kingdom of God?”
Do students leave my lessons putting others first?
Do students leave my lessons with a sense of intellectual arrogance or self-importance?
What are my students’ motivations for engaging with learning? Is it for self-gain, or have my students had the opportunity to see learning framed as worship?
Is it awkward to frame learning as worship and love of neighbour?
How can I intentionally allow Christian convictions to influence my practice without tacking on awkward religious-speak?
Does the shoe fit without a shoehorn?
Stay tuned for part two.