I just need time to think!

Mark Eckel bookI am not really a big fan of “devotional” books. I sometimes find them less substantive than I had hoped for or a bit forced and trite. Despite that reservation, today I am delighted to be recommending a book to you that at first glance might fall into that category, but let me explain. Mark Eckel has put together a wonderful book entitled I Just Need Time to Think!: Reflective Study as Christian Practice. It is a collection of fifty thoughtful essays organized into these ten topics: study, retreat, discipline, holiday, reading, reflection, obstacles, walking, path, and place.  They are written in bite size amounts – perfect for use in a daily reflection time, and rich like cheesecake – even though tasty, you shouldn’t try to eat too much at once, but just savor it instead.

Let me tell you a bit about Mark: he is an outstanding Christian educator and a master weaver as a writer. In fact, the name of Mark’s blog (which I highly recommend you read) is Warp and Woof , which he describes as “the vertical-horizontal weaving of threads that create fabric. The intersection and unification of everything is the tapestry of life under the Lordship of Jesus. Wholeness begins with Him.” One of the beauties of this book is that he weaves together extensive reading he has done and study of the Bible and great books with practical insights about living out one’s faith. He expertly synthesizes historical Christian perspectives and has a knack for finding just the right quotation to underscore his points. He is a bridge builder – helping us to reflect on the accumulated wisdom of the ages to move to concrete ideas that we can implement (not to mention dozens of possible books to read!) His passion is to teach others how to think Christianly and to honor Christ through reflection and learning. We need more thoughtful weavers, bridge builders, and translators like Mark. It is evident that he has made the spiritual disciplines of reading, writing, and reflection a priority in his life – and you as reader get to benefit!

With Mark’s permission I want to share a poem that appears in his reflection entitled: Retreat: Cutting Wood on Sunday. His subtitle for the chapter is “Rest is doing something other than what we would normally do.” As someone who has looked for a good way to describe what Sunday is about, his statement that “we need to rest from our giftedness” struck me.  I know that when I do not do this, I do not rest well and I also violate what God intended for me when he gave me a day of rest. Here is Mark’s poem that he wrote to remind himself that rest is crucial:

Lord, when the alarm clock, stove clock, and time clock demand my presence,

When the pace of life is hectic,

When I wish there were six more hours in a day,

When the traffic light is stuck on red

And my family’s schedule demands I be in three places at one time,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when people expect too much of me,

When the boss has forgotten about the eight-hour day,

When I am constantly at others’ beck and call,

When the cell phone, Twitter, fax, and email all go off at once

And I begin to hate the human race,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when work occupies all my waking hours,

When television commercials say I must have more,

When my neighbors flaunt their newest toys,

When alcoholic does not apply but workaholic does

And I decide to go to the office on Sunday to catch up,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, when money means more than people,

When I read The Wall Street Journal more than my Bible,

When overtime becomes my primetime,

When promotions and pay hikes are my ultimate goals

And looking out for number one has become my slogan in life,

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Lord, may I refocus my life on you.

May I restore my thoughts in your Word.

May I refresh my schedule by meditating on all your blessings.

May I relax my activity every week to enjoy the life you gave me.

May I take time to rest, Lord.

Eckel, Mark D. (2013-12-24). I Just Need Time to Think!: Reflective Study as Christian Practice (Kindle Locations 585-599). WestBowPress. Kindle Edition.

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If we saw God in each face

Do we see God in each face we encounter as we walk through our days?

If we saw God in each face, would we take more time to understand the pain we see in the face of another?

If we saw God in each face, would we pass by needs so quickly?

If we saw God in each face, would we do a better job of listening?

If we saw God in each face, would we see past race? Age? Deformity?

If we saw God in each face, would we speak of kids as problems to be managed, as just names and grades?

If we saw God in each face, would we verbally shred any student in the faculty lounge?

If we saw God in each face, would we accept the bullying or destruction of any person?

If we saw God in each face, would we find a way to bless those we meet instead of rushing to our next task?

If we saw God in each face, would we help them understand who their Father is?

If we saw God in each face, would we want each one to understand how this world belongs to God?

If we saw God in each face, would we desire to help all students understand why they are on this earth?

If we saw God in each face, would we desire to help all students identify and use their gifts to worship?

If we truly saw imagebearers, how would it change us?

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Gut check

Gallup reportThe recent research, out from the Gallup organization on levels of teacher engagement as found in the State of America’s Schools: The Path to Winning Again in Education report, was a “Whoa!” moment for me. While 55% of American students scored high on engagement, about 70% of teachers are classified as disengaged! There are various reasons given for this level of disengagement (which apparently is in line with the rest of the workforce!) and to read more you can access the report:  Gallup Report — State Of Americas Schools or a summary here. I really don’t want to believe that my fellow educators and professionals are that disengaged from what they are doing – whatever the reason.

Part of my disbelief stems from my experience in both the public and non-public sectors with educators who have been deeply engaged in their student’s lives. I have seen fellow Christians going way above and beyond in trying to connect with students and speak into their lives. These teachers attend student activities, sporting events, and write notes of encouragement. They coach, they mentor, they invite students into community. They bring out the best in each student and show them new worlds beyond the small world the student may currently be living in. Sometimes these teachers are the only island of stability and good modeling in a student’s chaotic, confusing, and discouraging environment. Sadly, I have also seen educators in both worlds who are simply putting in their time until retirement, who feel trapped and don’t have the courage to make a change. Some who are pretty cynical about kids, and some just don’t want to expend the energy anymore. We all know who these colleagues are on our own faculties, so I don’t need to go on.

For the past several years, I have been working with a school that has undergone a very significant transition – that of moving from a Christian school to being a charter school. This has meant that, while still being a school of choice for parents, the shared values base of the school has changed. The parent base has shifted from being largely supportive of teacher efforts to a lower level of parent backing and less commonality of values. The student population has higher academic needs and is more behaviorally challenging. As a result, there has been a significant change/turnover in the teaching staff. Some teachers who were effective in the previous environment found themselves overwhelmed with the new student population, and have consequently taken jobs elsewhere. As an objective observer who has had regular interaction with the staff, I have pondered what the qualities are of those teachers who remain and what accounts for their ongoing effectiveness with the new student and parent population.

What I believe is a key ingredient with the veteran teachers, who have been effective with both the Christian and the charter school experience, is their commitment level and desire to love and impact children’s lives in positive ways. They are deeply engaged – they would be part of the 30% in this survey. They have been tested by fire and have in the process re-examined who they are, what they are called to do, and have committed themselves to the mission before them. They are living out their faith, and in the process providing hope and nurturing faith in the lives of the students and adults that are before them each day.

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Shalom and parent teacher conferences

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

During the fall and spring conference time with parents, teachers typically report on the academic progress of students to parents. It should be a time to share celebrations and concerns. Sometimes the student is present or even “leading” the conference. I believe that this time with parents is a critical one as it is one of the few times that there is an intense focus on their mutually shared responsibility – the student. From the school side of the equation, this is a prime time to also communicate the mission of the school to the parents. From the parent side, this is an opportunity to have a significant time to have a conversation with another adult who has worked with their child about their view of the child’s growth.

I have been emphasizing to Christian schools that this precious conference time should be about more than simply academics. Conferences are the best time to discuss the whole child’s progress and, if we are true to our missions, we will take some time to consider the student’s spiritual growth. After all, one of our key distinctives as a school and one of the main reasons parents send their children is so that they will be nurtured in their faith; if we ignore this aspect or give it short shrift, we are missing a great opportunity!

Recently I have been suggesting that we consider the terms wonder, wisdom and work as we consider how to connect our work toward the ultimate outcomes of helping nurture student faith and to move toward shalom. Wolterstorff describes true shalom as harmony with nature, God, man and self. In connecting these words to the K-12 educational experience, I would suggest that wonder is harmony with nature, wisdom is harmony with God, and work is harmony with self and neighbor. I am wondering if this model might work not only for curriculum design, but also for conducting parent teacher conferences. Using this model as a guide for parent teacher conferences our questions/areas of focus with parents might look like this:

  1. Wonder: Is the student understanding and expressing awe about, and delight in, the created order? Do they understand their place in the world as imagebearers? Are they beginning to develop an understanding of beauty, complexity, design, and what excellence looks like?
  2. Wisdom: Is the student understanding and responding to the gospel? Do they understand how the world, including themselves, experiences sin and brokenness? Do they understand the good news through Biblical story, personal story, and teacher modeling. Are they begin to discern good from evil? Are they understanding what it means to embrace and live out their faith? How to live into the grace of Christ and extend it to others?
  3. Work: Is the student understanding who they are and showing a desire to live out the gospel with their neighbor? How have they responded to opportunities and challenges in the classroom to creatively contribute to the learning and life of others? Have they connected personal gratitude for the gospel with external actions? Are they beginning to understand what it means to restore this world to God’s original intentions?

I truly believe that if we used this model for our parent teacher conferences we would have a clearer focus on the distinctives of our school mission, a much more meaningful conversation with parents that goes beyond grades and test scores, and a greater potential impact on the students and parents we are called to serve.

 

 

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Thoughts on the book: God is Alive and Well

51BUEzcU8lL._SL500_AA300_Like Mark Twain’s statement “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” the death of Christianity in North America is greatly exaggerated, according to Frank Newport in his latest book, God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. Newport is someone we should listen to on the topic: he is the Editor-in-Chief of the well respected Gallup organization, an organization that has been regularly polling about 350,000 people a year on many matters, including religion. In addition to that credibility, Newport is not a dispassionate observer, having grown up as the son of a Southern Baptist theologian and graduating from Baylor University.

Sometimes it feels difficult to get a true perspective of what is actually happening in the United States and it may seem like the country is on a rapid course to secularization. To begin the book, Newport makes the point that America is still very much a Christian nation, based on its data. While we like to think of America as a historically Christian nation, a surprising finding was that, based on the research of Starks and Finke, America was quite non-religious in the olden days and actually church membership is far higher today than it was in colonial times and has been consistently rising for the past 200 years! What has changed in recent years is the number of Americans who say they have no religious identity.

 Here are ten surprising findings, as well as some things we might guess intuitively:

  • 80% of all Americans are Christians, 95% of all Americans who have a religion are Christian.
  • Protestants are shrinking due to low immigration rates, low birthrates, low conversion rates, and not living longer than non-Protestants. Newport suggests the word Protestant may fade away as it is not a common descriptor used by young people today.
  • Due to a Hispanic influx, 45% of Catholic Church members aged 18-29 are Hispanic, and about one-third of all Catholic Church members in the age group 30-49 are Hispanic.
  • Americans who are the most religious (across all faiths) also have the highest levels of wellbeing, as defined by overall life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behaviors, work environment, and access to basic wellbeing necessities.
  • Old people are more religious than young people in all but 16 out of 142 countries.
  • Religious belief drops rapidly until it bottoms out at age 23. A steady upswing in belief occurs from age 24 to about 40. One plausible explanation is that having children does seem to affect the desire to be religious.
  • There are definite differences between states in terms of religious expression. (In short, Confederate states highest, Eastern states lowest, with the Midwestern states in the middle)
  • American women of every age group, in fact most women around the world are more religious and worship more often than men. A woman with a child in the home (18-44) is more religious than any other group.
  • More than 4 in 10 adults have left the faith they were raised in and switched religions: i.e. they have switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated to affiliation, or dropped any connection to religion.
  • Religion is personally more important to people with lower levels of education and income, while more socially important to those with higher levels of education and income.

Things Newport believes will happen:

  • Political parties will increasingly view religious people as a sector to be tapped and mobilized.
  • The country will become more religious in the future as Baby Boomers return to religion as they age. This is based on the fact that the return to religion by older people has shown to be a consistent historical phenomenon across the decades.
  • He sees two paths for the future of religion in America – the path of secularization many European countries have taken, or its own unique path with “religion changing, morphing, and transmuting itself into new but still vibrant forms.” Based on the evidence he sees, he believes that “America will become a more religious nation in the years ahead, albeit one that may look a lot different, religiously speaking, than it does today.”

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A plea to Christian colleges

Over the past six and a half years that I have been writing this blog my main focus has been to encourage Christian schools to nurture student faith in three very distinctive ways: curriculum, classroom, and community. It’s been gratifying to hear that some of the posts have been a good encouragement to teachers and administrators who are serious about living out the mission of their school with their students. Schools can and should develop sound professional development experiences for their teachers to help them implement the school’s mission through curriculum, classroom, and community. I have been privileged to work with schools in this process.

 Much like students enter a class with varying degrees of academic readiness, I have found that teachers have an equally wide range of readiness to nurture student faith. What I have found in professional development workshops is that, when asked, many teachers have not been trained in how to teach Christianly – not that they are not Christians, but have not received instruction during undergraduate days about how to connect their faith and the mission of the school. This leaves the total responsibility to the school to try to develop this teacher’s understanding…and it is a daunting task.

 For starters in this conversation, we have candidates coming from a wide range of colleges. By their own choices, they may have attended a public college or university. I did, and was aware that when interviewing at Christian schools, I needed to be able to more clearly articulate my faith and how it impacted my teaching than a candidate coming from a trusted Christian college. My present concern is that I am not hearing rousing endorsements in my workshops from teachers about their training to teach Christianly while they attended a Christian college. This is concerning because it indicates that the Christian colleges the teachers attended did not show its teacher education majors how to effectively integrate faith and learning.

 I would argue that whether preparing teachers for Christian or public education teaching, the fact remains that to be true to its Christian mission, Christian colleges should teach all education students how God’s truth is revealed in the educative process. If Christian colleges are requiring a statement of faith in their entry process from students, it is only natural that all students understand how faith is understood and lived out in their discipline area. Having taught and been an administrator in both public and Christian education, I could argue that it might be even more important for Christians working in public education to have a sound worldview and grasp of how to impact kids for Christ – they have to do it more subtly and may have less collegial and administrative support.

In summary, I am pleading that Christian colleges be true to their mission, equipping students to understand and demonstrate, as possible, to those they will be teaching how Christ is Lord over all.  In order to impact others, teachers must begin with a solid understanding of their own of how our world belongs to God, and how in turn we can encourage students to respond back to God and others with love and service.

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Whose responsibility is it?

Education for FlourishingIn their book, Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective, Spears and Loomis express concerns about the current educational emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge/technical prowess versus the pursuit of truth/virtue in the classroom setting. Are we educating for excellence and flourishing, or primarily to have students possess certain skills and pass high-stakes tests?

As Christian educators we might well agree that our work should transcend state/national standards. We are educating with an eye toward the student’s work/vocation and an understanding that our work is our acceptable sacrifice to God, not simply directed toward success and employment. Historically then, how have we ended up with our current state of education today? The authors believe that the concerns can be summed up in two words – a lack of wisdom and theology:

“Wisdom pursues how knowledge, within a discipline, is coherent, and recognizes how the seemingly discrete pieces of knowledge within a discipline fit together as a unified whole…the study of theology is a unique pursuit of wisdom because it is a study of God – the one who created and makes coherent all the universe.” Quoting Aquinas: “…we should pursue theology because we love God and want to better understand what he has revealed about himself.”

Spears and Loomis point out that the loss of theology as pre-eminent in the Enlightenment Era led to the loss of the connectedness in the disciplines.  This factor in turn led to empirical science being seen as superior to Christian revelation. (Earlier in the book the authors point out that both rationality and revelation are needed in Christian education.) They are concerned that in American education we are increasingly being drawn into a homogenous, technical, information narrowing educational process as contrasted with Jesus’ emphasis on the personal and connected model of teaching people. Given the current information economy, they believe that “schools no longer have the capacity to act as a trustworthy guide in the development of moral dispositions and actions.” If we seek to maximize human flourishing in a holistic manner, there must be space in the educational process for “creativity, complexity, diversity, richness, and multicultural understandings” that lead to human growth and flourishing. Spears and Loomis suggest that much of this responsibility for a high quality information economy falls to the leader of the school.

The authors are particularly critical of their own (departments of education at Christian colleges) in terms of effective leadership, good theoretical work and effective problem solving: “In fact, there have been no significant ideas originating from Christian schools of education for at least several decades…Christian schools of education appear resolved to operate within existing theoretical structures developed by the technical model of the secular academy.” In an earlier chapter, Spears and Loomis suggest that few Christian scholars are cognizant of the present direction of education and may have even lost the capacity to comment on it. At the current time, the authors point to Nicholas Wolterstorff as the only exception to a complete absence of Christians working in the theoretical field of Christian education.

The authors point out that the responsibility doesn’t simply rest there though – it must be shared by practicing educators. These educators need to approach their work “intelligently, integratively, and transforming present informational constraints,” and be “unified in Christ’s passion for human beings and their full and complex development.”

The book provides a helpful section relative to three options for Christian teachers teaching in public schools as articulated by J.E. Schwartz:

  1. Agent for enculturation – teacher views reality as split into sacred/secular, church and state with a high wall of separation, being passively obedient to school authorities, and valuing social stability,
  2. Christian advocate/evangelist – sacred is higher than secular, no split of knowledge and reality, teacher answers to a higher authority, and using school to further knowledge of God and spread a Christian pubic morality,
  3. Golden Rule Truth Seeker – life is integrated with no split of sacred/secular, no direct proselytizing, go where truth leads, honors truth, justice, intellectual honesty, and the quest for truth is ultimately a quest to know God.

The authors believe that the Golden Rule Truth Seeker is the best option for Christians working in public schools – it provides a position to maximize information and overcome the technical framework limitations of public education.

This book is a very helpful critique of the inadequacies of public education today and how Christian education is able to answer the deepest human needs with a holistic education. It rightly challenges those in Christian leadership positions, whether colleges or K-12, administrators or teachers, to understand more clearly the history and implications of the present course of American education. I wish the authors had gone further to present more concrete ways that Christian educators in both K-12 and college could partner together to reach the lofty goal of education for human flourishing. This partnering could include helping Christian educators to better understand how to construct and teach integrated units that get to wisdom and theology with students. The partnership could also articulate how Christians could become “golden rule truth seekers” in their settings. This is where the hard work remains and we desperately need our Christian colleges to begin this process with teachers in training.

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