Slow Food

“Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders.”
Psalm 119:27

In an age of ‘fast food’, we prepare food quickly and we eat it quickly. The Slow Food movement started in the 1980s when an Italian journalist asked why, if there was fast food, there was not also slow food.

A European teachers’ conference in which I am involved takes place annually in different countries across Europe. When we meet in France, we have to provide significantly more time in the programme for each meal because they take much longer than in most other countries to which we go. However, the feed-back (pardon the pun!) on such occasions always includes comments about how good it is to sit and take time as we eat together.

In our age of instant communication and sound-bites, we also have speeded-up education and bite-size curriculum materials. Can we provide an antidote to this with a little space somewhere to meditate on the wonders of God’s wonderful world?

Consistent with his Quaker Christian faith, Parker J Palmer challenges us to provide for and welcome moments of silence in the classroom. He says that a typical group can abide about fifteen seconds of silence before someone needs to break the tension by speaking. He continues, “The silences that interest me most are the ones that occur midstream in a discussion … Like most people, I am conditioned to interpret silence as a symptom of something gone wrong … But suppose that my students are neither dumb-founded nor dismissive but digging deep, … wise enough to know that this moment calls for thought … not wasting time but doing a more reflective form of learning”.[1]

In the words of poet William Henry Davies, popularised in an advertisement for Center Parcs, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”.

We teach our children to read as quickly as possible, even to skim-read, and that has its place. But if that becomes everything, they will always read for gist rather than substance and detail. The psalmist’s approach to reading is different for he says he wants to understand and meditate on God’s wonders.

Lord of time and space, help me to give my students time to read slowly and space to be silent and dig deep. Amen.

[1] Parker J Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 82.

Thinkers and Doers

“Prepare your minds for action”  (1 Peter 1:13)

We often divide the world into thinkers and doers. There are those who reflect and there are those who get things done. We tend to assume there is little or no overlap between the two groups.

According to a saying of uncertain origin, [1]Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk”.

The big fisherman, Peter, would seem to be in agreement with this. He was certainly a person of action and sometimes, it has to be said, this was without careful reflection. Think, for example, of the occasion in the Garden of Gethsemane when he drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant (John 18:10). But here in this call to preparation of our minds for action, the older and wiser (and forgiven) Peter seems to be an advocate of reflective practice. Although elsewhere in his letters he seems to give himself a lower attainment score than Paul for thinking and that apparently without envy as he acknowledges that his ‘dear brother’ writes some things that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), he nevertheless calls us in this verse to be thoughtful and to relate our thinking to our doing.

In the classroom, I can so easily switch into auto-pilot mode because I’ve taught a topic so often through the years. But do I reflect on my practice before, during and/or after teaching the topic? Do I ask often enough not what is being taught in my classroom today but what is being learned? Do I think as well as do? Do I aim at developing young people who both think and do, who have both understanding and skills? Do I model thoughtful action in the classroom?

Great Teacher and Gracious Lord, help me to be a doer who thinks and a thinker who does, for the sake of those I seek to teach. Amen.

[1] Probably a variant of a quotation attributed to the 17th century French writer, François de La Rochefoucald: “Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary by sense.”

Two Hallelujahs

A few months ago at a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, I sat with about a hundred other Christian educators from across Europe and beyond. The speaker was Ken Badley, a good friend of mine from Canada, and, as he brought his presentation to a close, he talked briefly about two hallelujahs, juxtaposing two video extracts in a way that moved me deeply.

The first video featured a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah by an Ontario choral society. The video was recorded in a shopping centre food court by hidden cameras and planned by a small company called Alphabet Photography as a thank you to their customers. Unsuspecting shoppers were startled as, one after another, singers rose to their feet and joined the hallelujahs. Surprise turned to delight on the faces of many as the performance moved through “And he shall reign forever and ever” to “King of kings and Lord of lords” and ended with the climax of the closing hallelujah. I wish I could have been there! If you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

Ken then played an extract from a second video, a very different hallelujah. This featured the late Canadian singer and poet, Leonard Cohen, and the Hallelujah song that had taken him five years to write when he was going through dark times.

Rooted in his Jewish faith, Cohen moves from the failures of David and Samson to sing of the necessity of a song of praise in the face of pain or joy. “There’s a blaze of light in every word; / it doesn’t matter which you heard, / the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!” Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah! “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

I wish I could have been there to hear him sing the song. The scene is dark, the singer wears black but hallelujah swells up out of agony. Again, if you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve also watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.

I remember as a teenager learning a chorus that had the lines, “I’m living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry”. There are indeed times when the skies are blue and joy fills the heart, when “God’s glory is on tour in the skies, / God-craft on exhibit across the horizon” (Psalm 19:1, The Message), when everything within us swells with hallelujahs to the Lord of Song. “King of kings and Lord of lords. … Hallelujah!”

There are also times, many times, in the valleys of life when all around seems dark, when the wicked prosper in the world and the poor suffer, when family concerns weigh heavily, when personal failures seem ever present. These are times when we are “on a diet of tears—tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (Psalm 42:3, The Message) and we ask over and over again, “Why, O Lord?”. We are not alone in this for the agonised cry of the young Prince of Glory from the tree of Calvary also shouted “Why?” into the darkness. We read, “From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46, The Message)

The many psalms of lament and the example of Jesus himself permit us to question the Father, to cry out to him with frankness and tell him that we do not understand why things are as they are. This is not the same as grumbling about God for these things are said to him and not behind his back (as if anything could be behind his back!).

However, the psalms of lament characteristically go on to utter what Leonard Cohen calls a “broken hallelujah”. Hear that hallelujah as the psalmist continues to lament :

 “Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
‘Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears, …’

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.” (Psalm 42:9,11, The Message)

Thank you to Canada for the Ontario choral society and for Leonard Cohen and their two hallelujahs and thank you to Ken Badley for putting them side by side, the holy and the broken hallelujah.

 

Welcome!

“Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:5

The Master Teacher doesn’t just talk in abstract terms about children, he calls a little child and has him stand among them as he teaches them. Welcome a little child like this ‘in my name’, he says, and you welcome me, yes me!

Many teachers stand by the door and greet each child as they enter the classroom. At secondary level, it may be more a matter of catching the eye of each student if possible so that they know they are more than names in a class list. One primary level teacher I once knew would get to school early in the morning to go round the classroom, pausing by each desk to pray for the child who would sit there through the day.

drmakhado

The African Christian educationalist, Samson Makhado, urges us to see ourselves as hosts and our students as honoured guests. He writes, “Students will seldom believe that they have anything to bring unless there is someone who will show their willingness to ‘receive’ them. Indeed, we discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver.” [1] This reminds us that we need to detach ourselves from our need to control and impress and to allow ourselves to become recipients.

Hospitality is something taken for granted in the Bible and in this passage Jesus makes it very concrete in his injunction to welcome the child. The old-style pictures on the walls of Sunday schools and in children’s books generally used to portray the children who came to Jesus as being washed, brushed up and in their Sunday best. This child may well have been anything but that! He may have been smelly and have had a running nose, the child about whom we feel perhaps a tinge of inward relief when they are absent from school. Nevertheless Jesus says that, as his followers who call ourselves by his name, we are to welcome the child and all that he brings … and in doing so we welcome Somebody Else too!

Welcoming Teacher and Lord, help me to receive with a truly warm welcome my students and all that they bring to my classroom so that they may discover their gifts in my eyes. Amen.

[1] Samson B K Makhado & Dean Spalding: ‘Community and Hospitality in Multicultural Classrooms’ in Journal of Education & Christian Belief, Vol 5 No 2 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 135-144 (136).

Welcome to my new website for those who teach!

I am about to transfer everything from johnshortt.org to this new WordPress site.

I hope to blog fairly regularly and plan to begin with some writings adapted from a series I wrote for ‘Another Day’ on the website of the Stapleford Centre.

I hope you will find this new resource helpful.

John