Friday, February 26, 2016

Why teach with a Biblical perspective?

This past week was Spiritual Life Emphasis Week (SLEW for short) at the Christian Academy in Japan, a week in which time is set aside for chapel each day of the week.  This year, we had two guests from the Ravi Zacharias Foundation.  On our final day of chapel yesterday, students were able to submit anonymous questions using their phones or computers (moderated, of course, by our chapel coordinator), and up-vote questions they wanted to see the speakers answer in a Q&A panel.  The questions were projected onto the screens at the front of the auditorium for all to see.

Near the end, one of the most popular trending questions, with well over 100 votes was the following:
Why does CAJ force Christianity onto non-Christian students?

Our chapel coordinator fielded this emotionally charged question.  He handled it with patience and dignity, gently asking the students to look at their teachers, sitting around them in the auditorium, and to try and think of one time that their teachers ever tried to force Christianity on them.  He said that he could, with near certainty, say that no teacher would ever force Christianity onto their students and apologized on behalf of the teachers if any students had that perception.

My own observation has been that students sometimes interpret the requirement of Bible classes and the usage of a Biblical perspective in the rest of their classes to be forced Christianity, and this is what I want to address in this post.

First, to repeat some of what my colleague said in chapel, we are, after all, a Christian school and it should come as no surprise that Bible courses are a key part of the curriculum, and that the teachers will teach from a Christian point of view.  It's in our name, it's all over our website and promotional materials.  It's no secret.  It's not as though we, as teachers, are trying to pull a fast one on non-Christian students--every family knows what they are signing up for when they enroll.

I cannot claim to speak for my colleagues, but I know that for me, personally, to teach from a Biblical perspective is an integral part of best practice.  I've written before about the incredible inconsistency of U.S. public education, which claims absolute neutrality, but as a whole is rooted in the worldview of its founder John Dewey, who was unabashedly humanistic and vehemently anti-religion.

We all start from some cornerstone or another--some platform upon which we build our understanding of the world.  Just as a building cannot stand without a foundation, we cannot teach or learn apart from our underpinning worldview.

Moreover, that worldview cannot be neutral--inevitably, something is assigned absolute importance in order to make sense of the world.  A worldview claiming to be perfectly objective often assigns absolute importance to the powers of observation and reason, and always to the expense of something else.  No, neutrality is a myth.

That in mind, it would be irresponsible and dishonest for me to try and teach from any perspective other than a Biblical one.  I can no more neutralize my worldview for my students who do not share my beliefs than can a skyscraper neutralize the foundations upon which it was built.

Why, then, a Biblical perspective?  A fair question.
I'll grant that there are matters that the Bible does not set out to explain.  The beginnings of the universe and the end of the world, for instance, are both treated with no shortage of figurative language--enough so that there is ongoing debate as to whether Scripture is to be taken literally on these issues, or metaphorically.

Yet for the truly pressing questions of human existence dealt with all throughout the history and literature I teach--humanity's quest for meaning, the existence of suffering and oppression, the need to become people of justice--only Scripture can provide an absolute foundation.

If one were to chase any of those threads through any other belief system asking "why" after "why", one would eventually reach a dead-end of "I don't know."

I teach from a Biblical perspective not simply because it's my job at a Christian school but because in my estimation, it's the only perspective that makes sense of the subject I teach and the overarching themes I ask my students to consider.

I do not ask my students to agree or disagree--I simply ask them to examine the world through this lens.

I want my students to leave CAJ with a deeper perspective on oppression than "bad things happen" and a deeper perspective on justice than "it just seems right".  I want my students to be able to think through and articulate the rich network of roots that lies beneath their beliefs.  If they are non-Christian and find that they cannot do so with their own beliefs, I hope and pray that their hearts will be opened to the Christian perspective they learned in my class and my colleagues' classes.

This is why I teach from a Biblical perspective.  And while I would never force my students to pretend that this is their perspective, too, I can and will continue to pray for those students.  God has a way of softening even the hardest of hearts.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Change of Scenery

This week, we looked at Transcendentalism in Humanities class.  This comes as part of our broader examination of how worldview shifts over time, and impacts the decisions people make (and the art people produce, and the poems people write, and...).

The students watched a short lecture video that I made containing background information on the Transcendental movement in preparation for a discussion of an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature" during class on Wednesday.

Then, on Thursday, we read a couple of poems by Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.  The weather forecast for that day was sunny, and if not warm, then at least not terribly cold.

So, I told the students to get their coats from their lockers and we headed down to the plaza, where the students read and discussed the poems in small groups.  The discussions were thoughtful and fun to listen to, and there was something so refreshing about enjoying poetry about the outdoors, outdoors.

Sometimes, it's nice to have a change of scenery!

Photo credit, Ushio Sawada

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Taking a Step Back

One lesson I've learned well as a teacher is the importance of knowing what my goals are.

One lesson I'm continuing to learn is the importance of articulating those goals clearly to the class.

I sometimes forget that as the architect of my curriculum, I know it as intimately as an author knows his own novel, an artist, her own painting, or a composer, his own sonata.

My students do not have this relationship to my curriculum.  They can only see what I allow them to see (although some bright students are able to connect the dots with little difficulty).

The bottom-line is this: the fact that I know how everything fits together in my class is no guarantee that my students know how everything fits together.  I need to remember to pause every so often and take a step back, along with the students, to help them see how what we are doing connects to where we are going.

I had occasion to do this last week in my English class and drew a flow-chart on the board that students seemed to find helpful.  Unfortunately, I erased it without taking a picture of it, so I re-drew an example from my Humanities class for the purposes of this blog-post:
I took this example from my 3rd unit in Humanities, showing how an in-class essay
fit into the scheme of the entire unit, and on an ever bigger scale, the entire course.

Everything should be purposeful.  No major assessment should be originating--everything ought to be traceable back to manageable formative building blocks.

We know this, of course... but do our students?