Monday, April 19, 2021

Learning to Serve and Service Learning

 Our school's vision statement reads "Equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ."

Much of what we teach can be assessed and measured with relative ease: we have accurate, helpful rubrics that tell us how students are writing or delivering speeches relative to our standards.  We have well-designed assessments that tell us whether students can solve for 'x', whether they can identify the relationship between populations in an ecosystem, whether they can engage with the tension between dual federalism and cooperative federalism in U.S. civics, and so on.  

Service, though--well, service is a little different.

In my role on our school's Research & Development Team (the RAD team for short), I'm currently serving on a committee that has been taking a close look at how we teach service.  One thing we realized early on is that unlike knowledge, understandings, or skills, genuine service cannot be assessed and graded in any meaningful sense because the way in which we talk about service is inextricably bound to attitude and even more deeply, a heart-level motivation fully visible only to God.  

So, then, where do we start?  How do we hold ourselves accountable for the lofty, but oh, so important vision of "equipping students to serve"?

Our committee, interested as we are in figuring out what we can teach and assess, is focusing on the concept of service learning

Vanderbilt University defines service learning as "a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves."

This definition caught our eyes because it is so strikingly similar to the FLEx (Formational Learning Experience) portion of Teaching for Transformation, the Biblical worldview integration training that our staff is currently undergoing. Here's how Teaching for Transformation explains the purpose of FLEx:

Formational Learning Experiences (FLEx) are opportunities for the learner to engage in “real work that meets a real need for real people”—opportunities to practice living the kingdom story.

If we can provide students with opportunities to participate in real work that meets a real need for real people, helping the students to build skills of reflection and self-assessment as they do so, we will go a long way towards teaching them to serve.  

Of course, neither Vanderbilt nor TFT's FLEx claim to teach or assess attitudes about service; rather, they are both about providing authentic opportunities to apply and build skills, understandings, and habits of mind by doing something that meets a need in the community. 

These opportunities are crucial, however, and hoping that students will seek or create such opportunities for themselves leaves a lot up to chance.  Yes--it's wonderful when our students search out avenues for service without our prompting, and even better, when their passion is so contagious that their classmates buy in and get involved because they care.  Weaving service learning into our classrooms--making service projects an expectation--won't take away from that.  In fact, I firmly believe that by regularly asking students to go through the process; by teaching them the skills and habits that service often requires on-the-job; by encouraging them to reflect on their learning during and after the process, we will empower more students to independently seek and take advantage of opportunities to serve.  After all, how often do we give up on an idea because we don't know where to start, who to talk to, or how to turn an exciting idea into a feasible plan?

Allow me to share my own observations: for more than ten years, there has been an unwritten tradition at our school that the 11th grade class is responsible for organizing some kind of large-scale service project or charity event.  The first class to do a project had been inspired by a guest speaker who presented to the class about the issue of human trafficking, and a core group of kids felt so strongly about doing something that they organized a a festival on campus to raise awareness and funds for a rescue organization.  This happened the year before I started at our school, but I first heard about it shortly after I arrived, such was the impression it had left on my colleagues and underclassmen.

And so a tradition was born, with the 11th grade class voluntarily putting together a service project each year.  The trouble with tradition, though, is that soon enough it can become an expectation and not truly voluntary.  When something is an unofficial or unwritten expectation, there can be a lot of tension and grief over whether or not to meet the expectation in the first place, followed by no shortage of bitter feelings, regardless of what the class decides.  Moreover, the process can get awfully muddy as each new class comes in tempted to start their planning with an event in mind before they have even settled on the cause for which they are serving. Talk about putting the cart before the horse!

So, this year, I adopted the 11th grade service project into my curriculum as my FLEx activity: no more tense debates or waffling about whether or not to even keep the tradition going in the first place and no more event-first planning.  Following our third unit, which was about toxic charity, and our fourth unit, which was about the role of civil society in addressing issues in the world, I asked students to develop and present proposals for a civil society response to an issue in the world today in groups.  If students wanted their classmates to consider their group's proposal, they had to present it publicly.  Four groups threw their hats into the ring, and their classmates voted to adopt two of the causes: raising funds for TELL Japan, an organization “dedicated to providing effective support and counseling services to Japan's international community and its increasing mental health needs", and creating an artistic display for our town's city office, thanking and encouraging medical professionals.  

With some initial trial and error, the students formed an event committee and several sub-committees, filling such vital roles as president, secretary, treasurer, public relations coordinator, art and design coordinator, and fundraising coordinator.  Though these projects are not "voluntary" in the same way that past classes' have been, I have already seen far more buy in, and it has been a joy to coach the students through conflict resolution, committee structure, delegation and division of labor, and logistics.  It has also been a joy to watch as the students apply understandings about solidarity, good charity, and the relationship between government and civil society as they plan, not to mention applying skills of debate and persuasion. These projects may be a requirement for Humanities class, but I hope that students will emerge from them with a greater capacity--and desire--to serve those around them.

Now, if we as teachers were to be more intentional about structuring service learning opportunities in our curricula throughout the years--even on a small-scale--or simply carving out more time for students to reflect on the many service opportunities that we already have, I wonder how much more quickly students would feel comfortable seeking out chances to serve on their own?  I wonder how much more smoothly the planning process would go each year, with each new service opportunity?

We may never be able to truly assess whether or not our students are serving Japan and the world for Christ, but I think we can increase the odds that they will!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Serving a Suffering Savior

Every year while I was growing up, my church held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. As we read and reflected on Jesus’ words on the cross, and sang such plaintive hymns as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”, and “Were You There (When they crucified my LORD?)”, the lights in the church would gradually dim until after “It is finished”, the sanctuary would be dark and everyone would exit and wordlessly make their way to their cars. No post-service fellowship, no refreshments, no conversations with friends--just a silent twilight departure.

From a young age, this struck me as odd. Conditioned as we are as consumers and tellers of stories to wait for the happily-ever-after--to look for the glimmer of hope--a service that so conspicuously ended on a down-beat stood out.

Unlike Advent, the season of joyful expectation leading up to Christmas, Lent and especially Holy Week can feel more somber as we take time to think and sing specifically of Jesus’ suffering and death. Why do we do this? Isn’t the whole point to just get to Easter and the empty tomb? Wouldn’t it be best to press fast-forward and skip to the good part?

To answer these questions, we must first ask another question: what do we gain from dwelling on Jesus hanging on the cross? Or put another way, what kind of Savior is Jesus, if His death is indeed a necessary chapter of the story?

In reading Jesus’ words on the cross, in singing mournful minor-key hymns, in remembering His death, we are reminded that we serve a Savior who knows what it is to suffer.

And why is this important?

We need look no further than this past year. Even if you were fortunate enough not to have lost a loved one to COVID, to avoid serious illness, or to have kept your job, chances are you know somebody who was not so fortunate. And chances are, you experienced disruptions that distressed you: social isolation, struggling to work or study remotely, restrictions on gathering to worship, and many more. Perhaps you were already struggling with anxiety or depression, and the challenges of this past year felt at times like just one damn thing too many to bear. Perhaps you still struggle to see past the daily case and death counts, or disruptions to your daily life to the day when this, too, shall pass. Perhaps you are enduring what poets have called the “dark night of the soul”.

You see, we who live shackled by sin in a hurting, broken world--“groaning, as in the pains of childbirth”--know what it is to suffer. And what could Jesus’ resurrection possibly mean if He knew nothing of our suffering? Would it be the equivalent of a spiritual Hallmark card? Well-intentioned, but impersonal and cheap?

Instead: Jesus endured betrayal not only by the adoring throngs who had welcomed Him with palm branches mere days earlier, but by His closest friends. Jesus endured the humiliation of a sham public trial followed by the agony of a slow public execution. Then, Jesus endured what our sins warrant, but which we have never experienced ourselves: true separation from God.

When the earth shook and the curtain to the temple tore in two, the situation appeared to be hopeless. His disciples scattered and hid--it must have seemed like their world had crumbled around them.

Could they see past the grief of that day to the joy that was soon to come?

Can we see past our present suffering?

We know, of course, that two days later, the disciples' mourning would turn to rejoicing. In that sense, it is impossible to detach Good Friday from Easter.

Yet when we do remember Good Friday and reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, we bring with us our own suffering, which may seem permanent, insurmountable. And as we read, sing, and meditate, we remember that Jesus in that moment took our sin and suffering onto Himself. Whatever you are enduring at the moment, joy will come in the morning. But for now, let us take comfort in the knowledge that we serve a Savior who knows--and bears--our suffering.