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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Walking among the giants

burned treeA recent speaking engagement near Yosemite National Park afforded me the opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful parks in the world.  One of the most striking features of the park is the Mariposa Grove containing ancient, giant sequoias. The enormity and majesty of these trees left me speechless, in awe of their beauty, size, and age, and lifted my heart to worship. My mind began to continue down this worship track as I walked down the trail on a perfect, sunny day for hiking. My first thoughts were of comparing these physically imposing giants to the spiritual giants/mentors in my life and how grateful I was for both such beauty and strength before my eyes and the beautiful, strong saints God had placed in my life.

One of the first signs along the trail talked about the humble beginnings of the sequoia trees. Both Douglas squirrels and boring beetles play a role in the egg size cones getting their start in life. Fire also plays a key role in opening space for seeds to start and in their spreading. I thought about the humble and sometimes trying beginnings of many giants in my life.

Grizzly giantAt the center of a sequoia, the wood is called heartwood – the structural support of the tree. Next is the sapwood, where the “veins and arteries” of the tree move the precious water and nutrients throughout the tree. The next layer, the cambrium, is the growing part of the tree. Finally the outer bark is quite thick and while protecting the tree, is renewed from within. The idea of “from the inside out” is a great metaphor for protecting our hearts so that we may continue to grow and also have the protection for our “outer bark” that encounters the outside world.

On my hike I saw many enduring giants, but none more impressive than the Grizzly Giant. The sign told me that this 1,800 year-old tree stands about the height of a 19 story building, a 747 jetliner, or the Statue of Liberty! What impressed me is that this tree has survived fires every 5-20 years. I wondered about the testing that great saints of the faith have endured and if the frequency of fire/testing in their life was similar. What an impressive tree – one of its limbs was estimated to be 7 feet in diameter and its trunk showed the centuries of fire scars.

One of the most interesting trees was one that I could walk through – the surviving Tunnel Tree. It was one of two trees that a tunnel was cut through for cars, to be used in promotional pictures of the park. While the more famous Auto treeWawona Tunnel Tree fell in 1969, this tree somehow has survived the tunnel carved through it in 1895. I wondered if the park would be here if these two trees had not suffered this fate. The sign at the tree indicated these trees were very helpful in building understanding of the uniqueness of this area and to eventually have this area preserved as a park. In this sense, these trees gave their life and suffered a near fatal wound so that many other giant trees could be preserved.

Visiting the Mariposa Grove was a deeply spiritual experience for me. In addition to assisting me in worshipping God for his truly awesome creation, it led me to consider with gratitude the giants of faith in my life. Many came from humble beginnings, developed strong cores nurtured by faith in God and spiritual disciplines, were tested by many life difficulties, and served as Christ types for those around them – giving their lives so others may flourish. Praise God for such giants in our lives!

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Why should you consider REVEAL?

In the last two month’s posts I have explored the results of the REVEAL pilot that was completed in twenty CSI schools last year. What has been shown is that we can reliably obtain metrics that help us understand how students progress in their faith formation through the high school years, as well as what other forces impact their faith development. The results from the pilot schools have been very positive as reported by them back to the REVEAL leadership. I believe it is now time for Christian schools to get serious about using this type of assessment tool to help them understand to what degree they are meeting their missions.

The mission of the Christian school is sometimes understood as having two aspects – academic achievement and spiritual formation. Although I used to view it this way, I now advocate that our task with students in Christian schools is to help them worship and serve God. Students can do this better if they understand the Wonder of God’s creation, the Wisdom of his Word applied to our world in counter-cultural and prophetic thinking, and the Work that God has equipped them and called them to do. The process of education should help students discover and hone their gifts, with  teachers who show them how to apply the law of love to their fellow man through their studies. Education in Christian schools then is happening in the larger context of learning about God’s Word and world, learning to love God and one’s fellow man, and then offering one’s life to God in service.

What we will miss if we focus primarily on assessment of students’ academic progress is hugely significant. We will miss the heart of our mission – are kids understanding how wonder, wisdom, and work come together in them so that they can become flourishing human beings? I sincerely hope the time is past where we just say we are doing faith formation of students, but have little or no evidence of the effects of our efforts in this regard. REVEAL gives us a tool to have serious conversations in the mission critical area of faith development – with our students, with our teachers, with our parents, and with each other. I urge schools to embrace the use of this tool! Use it as a focusing tool for conversations around the most important outcomes of your school. Use it for accreditation purposes as part of a set of tools to examine your mission accomplishment.

Thanks to Willowcreek and to Terry Schweitzer for their interest and commitment to Christian education and for making this tool available. I encourage you to contact Terry at terry@engagechurches.com or call him at 224-512-1072. He is very willing to discuss why schools found REVEAL helpful and how it might be a helpful tool in your situation.

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What does REVEAL reveal? Part two

Last month we introduced you to the work done by Willowcreek Community Church with Christian high school leaders regarding measuring the spiritual formation progress of high school students. The intent of the survey was to help school leaders better understand whether students were exhibiting spiritual growth and what actions the leaders could take to better help students grow. Their attempt was to reveal the students’ hearts for God and for others. The results of this survey have not only personal implications, but broader implications for schools; this survey might be useful as a benchmarking tool to see if there was student growth in faith formation from year to year.

In May 2013, a 25-30 minute online survey was given at 19 different Christian high schools, with the highest percentage of participants at schools in Michigan, then Wisconsin, Illinois and Washington. Over 4,600 student responses were collected. The summary of the findings and observations are presented below from a REVEAL summary document and my phone conversation with the project leader, Terry Schweitzer.

Finding #1- Students:

  • “Many school leaders assume that the best predictor of spiritual growth is year in school. They presume that juniors and seniors who have attended the school longer would be further along on their spiritual journey than freshmen and sophomores. The survey results debunk this idea, showing that the relationship between year and school and stronger core Christian beliefs, spiritual practices, and virtues is flat.”

  • “Commitment to core Christian beliefs, engagement in spiritual practices, and behaviors that reflect Christian virtues rise at each stage of this continuum (below), showing a strong positive relationship between level of intimacy with Christ and spiritual growth. Additionally, students’ level of ownership of their faith and their spiritual journey increases as they progress into the more mature stages of growth. Drawing on this information, there are ways in which leaders of Christian schools can encourage students in each stage to keep moving forward in their spiritual growth. Different beliefs, practices, and virtues have been shown to catalyze spiritual growth for those in each stage. By encouraging the development of each, leaders of Christian high schools can make a stronger impact on the faith development of their students.”

STAGES - REVEALObservations: We know intuitively that students are at different stages on their faith journey. What are the intentional ways we can deal with the development of beliefs, practices and virtues shown in each movement in the diagram above? Are these faith enhancing practices embedded within our curriculum, classroom, and community in the Christian high school?

Finding #2 – School: “Results indicate that schools can best encourage students’ spiritual growth by helping them to own their faith and engage in spiritual practices. Schools and parents can maximize their effectiveness by working together to this end. Additionally, the results indicate that students’ spiritual growth can be measured using an overall Student Spiritual Vitality Gauge (StVG) score that represents students’ growth in Beliefs, Spiritual Practices, and Faith in Action. The StVG demonstrated both reliability and validity as a measure of growth.”

Equation:SVG

Observations: The Christian high school plays a very large role in student spiritual growth, as demonstrated by an effect size of .26 for parents and .30 for schools. The Spiritual Vitality Gauge (as shown above) could be calculated for individuals, classes, and for schools as a whole.

Finding #3 – Parents: The pattern of the data indicated “the close relationship between parental involvement in family spiritual practices and spiritual growth of high school students. . . these findings challenge Christian ministries to involve parents to a greater extent in programs aimed at children and to invest more in the spiritual growth of parents in order to create a spiritual tailwind that will lead to spiritual growth in children.”

bar graph 1

bar graph 2

Observations: The REVEAL survey results reflect the findings of the 2005 National Study of Youth and Religion Survey as reported in the book Soul Searching – “we get what we are” – meaning that the spiritual beliefs and practices of teens often closely parallels that of their parents. It appears that to foster the growth of teens, we must also involve parents. What is a bit surprising is that among the select group of parents who have made a choice for Christian education there are 35-72% of them who never or almost never engage in prayer, Bible study, and service. This demonstrates what those of us who have sat at parent interview tables have known – parents desire a Christian education for various reasons – some for safety, some for success, and some for shalom.  It appears that with these parents their profession of faith level is higher than their practice level. What are the implications for the Christian high school?

I believe the REVEAL folks have been a tremendous help to Christian schools with this work. They have demonstrated that it is possible to get a measure of spiritual formation of high school students. From this measure schools should be able to be more intentional and focused in their efforts to nurture faith with students.  My recommendation is that schools get involved with gathering this data from students and using the REVEAL tool annually. Schools need to commit to doing it for a period of years so that the results can be used in a benchmarking type of process to answer the question: “Are we impacting student spiritual growth?” and then “Given the results of REVEAL for our school, how might we work with students on their spiritual growth from year to year in order to better meet our mission?” For more information on REVEAL please feel free to contact Terry Schweitzer at Willowcreek Community Church.

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