Gathering around Great Things

“Your works are wonderful.” (Psalm 139:14)

There was a time when educationists debated whether we should be subject-centred, teacher-centred or child-centred. When the secondary level teacher would ask, ‘What do you teach?’, the primary level teacher could respond with the put-down, ‘I teach children!’.

Nowadays, we are more likely to phrase the debate in terms of the difference between having learning or teaching at the centre. The question to ask of what is happening in a classroom is not ‘What is being taught?’ but ‘What is being learned?’.

This shift of focus is doubtless a very helpful one and a salutary reminder to those of us who fall in love with the sound of our own voices that what matters is what the children and young people we are with are actually gaining from our being with them.

However, Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, argues that there is, in fact, an important sense in which we should be subject-centred. He writes of what he terms ‘the grace of great things’ and says that the ‘great things’ are the subjects around which we gather, not the disciplines that study them nor the texts that talk about them but the things themselves. He continues:

“Watch a good teacher sitting on the floor with a group of five-year-olds, reading a story about an elephant. Viewed through the eyes of those children, it is almost possible to see that elephant in the middle of the circle! And with that great thing as the vehicle, other great things also come into the room – things like language and the miracle of symbols that carry meaning.”[1]

The disciplines we teach are French windows on God’s world, a world of his wonderful works. Let us open them and walk through them with our students into that wonderful world. May those we seek to teach learn that his works are wonderful as we gather around some great thing today.

Lord, when I consider the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore, restore to me some of that child-like wonder and grant that those I teach and learn with may catch something of it from me. Amen.


[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 118.

Knowing when

“A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
   and how good is a timely word! (
Proverbs 15:23)

“There is a time for everything”, says the writer of Ecclesiastes and, a few lines later, “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccelesiastes 3:1,7).

Much of our work in our schools has been traditionally concerned with knowledge of facts that can be expressed in ‘knowing that’ statements. The children and young people that we teach come to know that King John signed the Magna Carta, that the square root of 49 is 7, and that limestone is a sedimentary rock.

In an age when so much factual knowledge has become available at the click of a mouse, we are now becoming more concerned with ‘knowing how’, with skills rather than facts. Our curriculum objectives are defined in terms of what our pupils are able to do, not least in relation to how they use a computer and access the internet.

In his book, Wisdom and Curriculum, Doug Blomberg writes of the importance of another kind of knowing – ‘knowing when’ – which he regards as a major part of wisdom.[1] As teachers, we so often feel our lack of wisdom. It was a time to be silent but we uttered those words that we heartily wish we had never said. Or there was one of those unexpected moments when we failed to respond to the serendipitous, a time to speak but we didn’t speak. How we need to ‘know when’ to say or do the right, to have that sensitivity to the moment amidst all the words and actions of classroom life.

But if we lack wisdom, if we lack aptness of reply and timeliness of word, James tells us in his epistle, all we have to do is to “ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5) and it will be given to us. Now that is surely gospel good news!

Lord, I lack wisdom. Classroom life is so full and so unpredictable. I don’t have time to think. Help me to show that timeliness of response in word and action to the moment, to the unexpected, to the person who is that child made by you in your image and loved by you. Amen.


[1] Doug Blomberg, Wisdom and Curriculum: Christian Schooling after Postmodernity, (Sioux Center, Iowa: Dordt Press, 2007), p. 5.

Nobody forgets a Good Teacher

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” (2 Timothy 1:5)

We each of us have what David Ford calls in The Shape of Living a ‘community of the heart’, made up of those people who are most important to us.[1] They are the people who, for better and sometimes too for worse, have shaped and are shaping what we are and are becoming.

Parents and grandparents figure largely among them. So also do teachers. We can all remember some who influenced us deeply and for good, for, as an old but true UK government teacher recruitment slogan put it, nobody forgets a good teacher.

The Irish poet, Micheal O’Siadhail, to whose wonderful works David Ford’s book introduced me, writes in ‘Foster-Figure’ of the ongoing energy that the memory of an old teacher gives him:

“I probe the essence of this energy;

No blandishments or blind approval,

His unblinking trust enticed me,

Fingered some awareness of worth;

In his praise all is possible.”[2]

National and international annual Teaching Awards remind us of this but, although we readily acknowledge it to be true of others, especially of those teachers who have helped to shape us, we are slower to believe that we can be the same kind of influencers in the hearts of those we teach.

Of course, we also remember those teachers whose searing sarcasm or thoughtless dismissal of our efforts have left us deeply scarred. The community of the heart is, sadly, not made up only of those who have helped us.

Some who have long since departed the rooms of our lives have left the lingering presence of a fragrant perfume but others have left an odour that lacks that fragrance. Paul talks in 2 Corinthians 2:15 of our being ‘the aroma of Christ’ and that was surely what Timothy’s mother and grandmother were to him. May it be so of you and me among those we teach today.

Lord, it is not that we want them to remember us but that, in remembering us, they may remember you.  May the faith that lives in us live in them also. Amen.

[1] David F. Ford, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004) p. 33.

[2] Micheal O’Siadhail, Poems 1975 – 1995, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1999) p. 91.

Playtime

“When he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind. (
Proverbs 8:29-31)

This passage from Proverbs depicts Wisdom as being at God’s side when he created the world. Twice Wisdom is said to be ‘rejoicing’ but translations seem to use this word because it sounds more pious. In fact, as Charles Melchert points out in his book, Wise Teaching, “everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, this term is translated ‘play’ … children playing with toys and games … people playing musical instruments and dancing … even the love-play between Isaac and Rebekah.”[1] Others have translated it as ‘frolicking’ and ‘jesting’.

Both in our churches and in our schools, we can sometimes become so serious, so soberly logical and rational, that laughter, play and imagination have difficulty in finding their place in our lives and in our teaching and learning.

Play opens up possibilities and imagination leaps over the boundaries of the ordinary and everyday into fields of exploration and laughter. As Kieran Egan says in his great little book, Teaching as Story Telling, “children’s imaginations are the most powerful and energetic learning tools”.[2] But we can too often deaden them with the predictable.

Where, in the lessons that we have planned for today or the coming week, can we make more provision for a free flow of imagination, a playful moment in which we can explore possibilities that we would have missed because we were so focussed on our curricular aims and objectives? Let’s jump over the walls and go for a run in the meadows with those whom we teach. You never know, we may learn something new ourselves in the process!

Lord Jesus Christ, you were Wisdom at play in the creation of the world. Help me to be playful in my teaching that those I teach may catch something of that playfulness which is part of your image within them. Amen.

[1] Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching: Biblical Wisdom and Educational Ministry, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1998) p. 189.

[2] Kieran Egan, Teaching as Story Telling, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986) p. 2.

Called to Teach?

“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:7

“Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or outer Mongolia).”[1] Thus wrote Os Guinness in his book, The Call. He goes on to distinguish this ‘calling’ from ‘callings’ to careers or places. The ‘calling’ doesn’t change but ‘callings’ may change.

In the verse quoted above, Paul says that we are called to be saints. Saints are human beings like you and me, set apart by God, to God and for God. This is a calling to be rather than a calling to do. And it is within the context of that calling that we should set our callings to do, whether it be church pastoral ministry, overseas missionary work, teaching, nursing, accountancy, farming, engineering or mending shoes.

Among these, are there higher and lower callings? Some seem to think so but surely the highest calling for any particular person is that to which the Lord is calling him or her. And yet, in our churches, we tend to pray for a person who teaches Sunday School rather than the one who teaches every weekday in a school.

A story is told of a cobbler who, as a recent convert to Christ and full of a desire to serve him, came to Martin Luther and asked him what he should do “instead of being just a cobbler”. Luther asked him whether he was “a good cobbler” and the man acknowledged that he was said to be one of the best. Luther reportedly said, “Then be a cobbler to the Glory of God!”

We are called to be saints and, within that unchanging calling, we may be called to teach for a time and even perhaps for the whole of our lives in paid employment. If so, let’s be good teachers to the glory of him who calls us.

Lord of sea and sky, I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me and I will hold my pupils in my heart. Amen.

[1] Os Guinness, The Call, (Nashville: Word Publications, 1998) p. 4.

Seeking the Welfare of our Babylon

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:7

The exiles sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept as they remembered Zion. How could they sing the Lord’s song, they asked, while in a foreign land and far from home (Psalm 137). If John Denver had been with them, perhaps he would have composed for them a variant on his ‘Country Roads’ song – “Desert roads, take me home, to the place I belong”.

Daniel was one of the exiles but I somehow doubt that he would have spent much time joining others in their nostalgic longing for Jerusalem. For him, Babylon was a place in which to serve God. Had he read the letter sent from Jerusalem by the prophet Jeremiah from which the above verse comes? We do not know but it is apparent from the story of his life that he was truly a seeker of the peace and wellbeing of the city where God had placed him.

The word for ‘peace’ is that lovely Hebrew word ‘shalom’, of which Nicholas Wolterstorff writes this: “to dwell in shalom is to find delight in living rightly before God, to find delight in living rightly in one’s physical surroundings, to find delight in living rightly with one’s fellow human beings, to find delight even in living rightly with oneself”.[1] This cannot be reduced to the mere material wealth of a prosperity doctrine which is not worthy of the followers of the Man who had no home and who died on a Roman cross!

Sometimes, sitting in a classroom at the end of the day, we may weep and long to be somewhere else. Babylon can be a hard place but we can promote shalom there and in the wider community in which God has placed us. This is education for godly citizenship. Let’s dare to be Daniels today!

Lord, you have called us to be resident aliens in our Babylons. Help us to seek shalom in our classrooms, schools and communities. May those we teach discover something of what it is to dwell in shalom in right relationships with their physical surroundings, with one another, with themselves and, yes, with you, the God of peace. Amen.

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2004), p. 23.

What’s in a Name?

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32

In this short statement, Jesus is recorded as using Simon’s name no fewer than three times and what a difference that must have made to the impact of his words and to the relationship between them!

We have probably all had the experience in a crowded room with a hubbub of conversation all around us of someone somewhere mentioning our name and we hear it above everything else that is being said. Or we glance at a page of writing that happens to have our name somewhere in it and it leaps out at us. We seem to be tuned to the sound of our name or the sight of it in print.

Our names are special to us or, as a teacher once said to me, our names are like music to our ears. They are a kind of shorthand for all that we are as people. What we are is poured into our name. In Bible times and indeed up to fairly recently in the western world, parents gave attention to the meaning of the name that they chose for their children. They poured into the name all that they wanted the child to become. When God gave a new name and Abram became Abraham or Jacob became Israel, the new name showed what he saw them becoming.

The names of those we teach are like music to their ears. Learning their names, remembering them and using them is vital to the development of classroom relationships. Just observe their reactions when we get their names wrong or, worse still, when we call them by the name of that older brother or sister that we taught a few years ago! Knowing their names is not simply or even mainly important for the control that it gives us in the classroom – it is vital to the development of a community of learning, to the establishment of those bonds within which we learn and teach together.

Lord, called Jesus because you save people from their sins, forgive us our failures to remember and use the names of those we teach and help us to develop those classroom relationships that mould us together into a community of learning. Amen.

Getting it all together

“In him (Christ) all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17

If we look in our list of Facebook friends or email address books, we find names curiously juxtaposed by alphabetical order, people sitting side-by-side in our lists who know nothing of each other and who would have perhaps very little in common with one another if they were ever to meet in person. What holds together all these different people? It is the relatedness of each of them to us who have compiled the list in which their names appear that gives coherence to the whole.

Our children and young people move from lesson to lesson through the school day, from mathematics to art to history to language to physical education. It is very important that they learn to see the differentiated aspects of reality, that they learn to analyse. But where do they learn to see the whole as well as the parts, to synthesise the different curriculum subjects together into a larger whole? We have become fairly expert at thinking the world apart but when do we think it together again?

The Colossians passage from which the above quotation comes says that everything was made by Christ and for him and that, in him, everything holds together. It is the relatedness of everything to him as its Creator, Maintainer and Goal that gives coherence to the whole. This is not some mere god-of-the-gaps in our present scientific knowledge but the Lord of the Universe who is above and behind everything that is.

How can we help to show this in the classroom? Parker Palmer writes, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”[1] We can look for opportunities to make links across the curriculum, to look at a topic from a range of subject perspectives, to relate to those we teach as whole people but, perhaps most importantly of all, we can show it by living lives that have a wholeness that comes from Christ.

Living Lord in whom all things hold together, help us to show this connectedness in our relationships, our teaching and our whole lives. Amen.

[1] Parker J Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 11.

 

“This is my Father’s world”

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Psalm 24:1

“This is my Father’s world,

He shines in all that’s fair;

In the rustling grass I hear him pass;

He speaks to me everywhere.”

These lines are from a hymn penned by Maltbie Babcock in upstate New York over a century ago. It is said that when going out for a walk to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Niagara Escarpment area where he worked as a church minister, he would say to his wife, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world”.

We tend to associate such thoughts with the awesome beauty of the natural world but does not our Father’s world also include the world of human beings and their creations? City streets as much as rural pathways, factories and offices as much as hamlets and farms, suburban housing estates as much as mountain moorlands? Our Father ‘shines in all that’s fair’ wherever we find ourselves in his world.

Another hymn-writer, Fred Kaan, captures something of this in his ‘Sing We of the Modern City’:

“In the city full of people, world of speed and hectic days,
In the ever-changing setting of the latest trend and craze,
Christ is present, and among us; In the crowd we see Him stand.
In the bustle of the city, Jesus Christ is every man.”

Yes, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. This verse from Psalm 24 does not say that the earth was the Lord’s or that, some golden daybreak, the earth will be the Lord’s! It says that the earth is His.

And what of you and me in the classroom? We are not simply teaching curriculum subjects to our children and young people. We are opening windows on God’s wonderful world and looking through them with those whom we teach, drawing attention to this feature and that. Let us think to ourselves and help them to think to themselves, as Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong put it in those gravelly tones of his, “what a wonderful world!”. It is truly my Father’s world and he truly shines in all that’s fair!

Help us, Lord, to see both on mountain-top and in city-street that you are present and among us and help us to help those with whom we teach and learn to do so with us. Amen.

Minds and Hearts

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Romans 12:2

It is one of the dilemmas of moral education that right thinking does not seem to lead automatically to right living. We may know what is the good and right thing to do but we may nevertheless do what is bad and wrong. Graphic films about the effects of smoking do not lead teenagers (or some of their teachers!) to kick the habit.

In Romans 7, Paul writes (and we all know the feeling, do we not?), “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” However in chapter 12, verse 2, he seems to be saying that all we need is a change of mind as he urges us to be transformed by having our minds renewed!

So, if we think rightly, we will do rightly – right? No, wrong! The problem here is that we read back into this verse a contemporary understanding of ‘mind’ as the reasoning part of our being, the rational rather than the emotional or wilful. This probably owes more to Greek philosophy than to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.

The Old Testament speaks of the heart as being the core of the being and this usage is followed in the New Testament. (See Timothy Keller’s great blog on ‘The Revolutionary Christian Heart’.) The heart is therefore not just the centre or source of the emotions as in modern usage – it is the ‘I’ that feels and thinks and wills. And when the New Testament uses ‘mind’ as here in Romans 12, it is not marking it off as a separate compartment of the person, a rational part that doesn’t feel or will. The renewal that leads to transformation is therefore not simply a change of mind but a making anew of the whole person from the core of their being.

Our thoughts and our feelings, our longings and our willing, are all in it together. We are to love God with everything that we are – heart, soul, mind, strength – and not all of these appear in every version of the Great Commandment in Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22 and Mark 12, thereby showing that our precise psychological distinctions cannot be read back into scripture.

Holy Lord, please go on changing me as a whole person so that those I teach may see that there is a way to be made new in our hearts and minds and all that we are. Amen.