Teaching as Wisdom-Seeking

I love teaching.  I love teaching biblical texts.  Teaching biblical texts affords me the opportunity to help my learners understand scripture in a way that they’ve never had the opportunity to learn it before.  I get to help them explore the texts in their historical and cultural contexts, but we also get to explore together how those texts influence our culture and lives today.

In my Old Testament classes, we’ve been exploring the narrative of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.  We do a pretty close reading of texts because I find that students’ assumptions of biblical events and the meaning of those events is often colored by what they may have previously heard in church, and crucial details are often missed, which sometimes leads us to a not-so-complete interpretation of the stories.  I think we do ourselves a disservice by not attending to these sacred texts intently, because we can possibly miss what the original intent of the writing was.

Not that there aren’t other ways to interpret the Bible other than historically.  I’m by no means saying that.  I’m just saying that I’ve discovered that examining scripture in its original context can provide some pretty rich interpretations, and can really help to enrich one’s faith.  At least it has enriched my own.

Okay, I’m a little off on a tangent…

My learners and I were exploring the following text:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“  (Genesis 3:1-3)

Now, that’s not the command God originally gave regarding that tree.  God originally told the man (Adam):

“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

So you can see, what God told the man and what the woman said God commanded are a little different.

So I asked my 9th graders, “Why do you think she got the commandment wrong?”

Some students said, “Maybe she just didn’t hear the command clearly.”  Others said, “Well, God didn’t give it to her, and so the man (Adam) may have not communicated the command clearly to her.”

To which one of students said,

“Maybe he just didn’t like her.”

Silence.

I was speechless.

Because it made sense.

For what other reason would he blame her for being tempted to eat the fruit?  For what other reason would he not fess up to getting the command wrong?

So I stood there in the front of the class, pondering what she said.  For about a minute.  I couldn’t seem to move on from my learner’s statement.  It intrigued me.

And my other learners watched me in my state of intrigued-ness.  I think they took some delight in it, knowing that, as I said to them, I had heard something about that text that I’d never heard before, and it came from a 14-year old.

Which is why I teach.

I learn so much from my learners.  If I ever think that I’m teaching only to impart a bunch of knowledge, to open my students’ brains and pour into them everything I know, then I need not be in a classroom.  For my classroom is a community, and we are all there to learn.

In that moment, I was reminded of how each of us has a voice, a very important voice, because God has imparted to each of us a measure of wisdom.  It’s up to us to hear that wisdom and use it for the betterment of us all.

And it doesn’t matter who imparts it.  Whether I get it from my 8-year old daughter, my 14-year old freshmen, my 17-year old seniors, my ??-year old husband (who is incredibly wise), or someone on the street, it doesn’t matter.  God uses His children to share His wisdom with us all.

And I’m thankful I’m in a position in which I can encourage my students to explore their own inner wisdom by asking questions which causes them to dig into texts differently than they’ve done in the past.  Because in doing so, I think I’m empowering them to use those voices for good.

I hope.

The challenge – look for wisdom to come in unexpected ways.

(Cross-posted at my other blog – Wisdom Walking In Wisdom’s Footsteps)

9/11 Remembrance

As we approached 9/11 this past week, I struggled a bit with what to do with my students in my classes this week. I wondered if my students would weary of the remembrance of the day, not because of any disrespect, but just in hearing about it every day for the past couple of weeks. Yet, I finally decided to show a documentary by Brooks Peters, who was in his second day of kindergarten when 9/11 happened. The documentary is entitled “The Second Day” (named so because it was Brooks’ second day of kindergarten in Manhattan on 9/11). He completed this documentary just recently at the age of 14, and recounts the voices of students and teachers who were at school in Manhattan that tragic morning. It’s a great documentary; you can view the trailer here, and get information on how to view it here.

Earlier in the day on Friday, Sept. 9th, our school conducted a memorial during our assembly period, in which members of the community recalled what they were doing the day the United States was attacked and thousands of people died. At the end of the assembly, I assumed that the 12th graders to whom I planned to show “The Second Day” wouldn’t want to hear about it anymore. I talked about it with a couple of colleagues, who shared with me that there may have been students who hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their stories, and it may be a good opportunity to do so.

When the time for class came the last period of the day on Friday, I asked them about the memorial, at which time most of them stated that they hadn’t had an opportunity to reflect on the event. I was surprised, but felt privileged because I had the opportunity to show the documentary to my students and to have them reflect on where they were and how they felt. It was interesting because my seniors were in 2nd grade at the time, and their memories were, for the most part, pretty clear. For that brief period of time, they had the opportunity to discuss the impact of that day on their lives and the lives of their families. And when the bell rang, they didn’t rush out the door as they normally would have. I even had the opportunity to continue the conversation a bit after class ended – on Friday afternoon at 2:40pm.

What a privilege to be able to share moments like this with my students. I am grateful to my colleagues who encouraged me to show it even with my reservations, because I had the opportunity to hear the voices of my students regarding an event that impacted so many lives.

The Value of All Voices

I think we often discount what our students can bring to the table. I try to espouse at the beginning of the school year that my students’ voices are just as important as scholars who exegete biblical texts for a living. And I try to embody that by having them analyze texts in class and commenting on those texts.

Last Friday, my 12th graders and I were examining Luke 24 in light of the religious dimension of biblical texts using a thinking routine called “Sentence, Phrase, Word.” After all my students completed the routine in their groups, I had them share with the larger group those sentences, phrases, and words that made an impact on them as individuals before they shared what themes they determined they saw within the narrative.

One student identified Luke 24:51 as a sentence/phrase that impacted her: “…[Jesus]…was carried up into heaven.” The reason it impacted her so was that it reminded her of what a minister said at a funeral service she had recently attended. He talked about a father carrying his child in his arms and laying the child in his bed, comparing that with God carrying the loved one who had just passed away into heaven, just as Jesus was carried into heaven. When she talked about it, I became a bit emotional because my father passed away last year, and I immediately thought of him. What she shared wasn’t necessarily “scholarly” or “academic,” but it had real life application – to me.

We as teachers often talk about how we want students to be apply what we teach to their lives. And while my student was able to make a real-life connection, I was able to enter that space, unintentionally, and make a very emotional connection as well. And it was one which was special and tender. I’ll never forget that. I shared what I was feeling with my class, so that they would know that what they share is important and valuable, that I wasn’t paying them lip service by saying, “every person’s voice means something.”

What if I had not assigned the “Sentence, Phrase, Word”? I think my students would’ve missed out on some great analysis. I would’ve missed out too.

Learners Reflecting on Value of Ancient Texts

On Friday I asked learners from one of my New Testament classes (high school seniors), “How can an ancient text written many years ago help people to deal with their lives today?” After giving them a few minutes to reflect and write, I got some insightful responses:

  • The texts describe human nature, which is constant, no matter the time period
  • The texts contain stories which can help readers enter into the experience because they can identify with those same experiences
  • The texts provide moral instruction, which is constant
  • The texts describe problems people encounter; and problems are constant
  • How people respond to the text – positively and negatively – indicates the text’s relevancy, and therefore, there is much to be gleaned from such texts
  • Characters’ interactions with a higher being provide guidance for readers seeking guidance
  • The texts provide structure and principles by which adherents can live

This was a great activity, I think, because each learner heard the thinking of their peers, and therefore, could comment on what they had to say during the whole class discussion. And even as important, my learners could see that the texts, no matter if the class is required for graduation, and no matter that they themselves may or may not be Christian, are important and have value to their own lives. It’s so much better for them to come to that conclusion than me telling them that the texts have value and giving them reasons why.

Great way to start out the course.

Starting the New Year

So today was the first day of our faculty forum, and oh my, what a day! George Couros, a K-12 principal from Alberta, Canada and our keynote speaker, challenged us in many ways regarding educators as learners, technology, change, and what’s best for our students. But what was great was that it wasn’t a one-way challenge, as in him speaking from the stage and his audience just taking it all in. In the age of Web 2.0, much Twitter backchannelling was happening, where we were able to dialogue with one another, challenging him, challenging ourselves. One of my colleagues tweeted (which I retweeted):

Of course, this goes directly to the idea of educators as lifelong learners, because if ever we think we’ve arrived, that we’ve got it all down pat, and that we can walk into a classroom any time and wow our students into submission because we’re all that and a bag of chips (I think that’s an outdated expression now), then in reality, we really shouldn’t be in the classroom teaching any one.

So in that light, I had the wonderful privilege of co-facilitating a professional development session with one of my colleagues on Schoology, a social networking type learning management system.  I used it last semester, and found it way more useful and easier to use than Moodle.  Approximately 17 of my fellow educator colleagues attended our session in my small classroom.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; my colleagues are some of the most intelligent, most thoughtful people I have ever met in my 11 years of teaching at The Westminster Schools.

And as nervous as I was, I had such a great time, because my colleagues didn’t come to hear me wax eloquent about Schoology; they came to learn about it and practice it.  So all I had to do was show them a little something here and there (well, not quite like that; Mary and I did have an agenda), let them practice, and be okay with all the questions, especially the questions to which I didn’t know the answers.  And there were lots of those!!!  But the fabulous thing was that we all discovered what we needed to know together.  So it was okay for me to say, “I don’t really know,” because there was someone else there who had begun to use it who could lend her expertise (thank you Dana!).  And the Moodle expert (thank you Mary!) provided valuable assistance to say that Moodle had some useful features Schoology didn’t have that some people really want to have available to them.  Needless to say, I lost the anxiety and became quite comfortable learning and growing with my colleagues during this two-hour session.  I was encouraged when I saw this tweet from Dana:

This experience was great for me, because I modeled what George talked about this morning during our session this morning and what Becky (@madamemcknight) tweeted above.  Students need to know that we have lots to learn too, that we aren’t the end-all-be-all experts, that we are all in this learning journey together.  Sure, we are experts in our content areas, but I think it’s fair to say that there isn’t any academic discipline that is constant and never-changing.  And our students want to be part of the process of creating content to illustrate how what we learn together affects their lives.

So I’m excited about this year.  I’m excited about the possibilities.  Excited about creating an environment in my space where students are empowered to explore.  Because really, as George Couros stated this morning,

“Kids need to create…we need to jump in.”

(I know this statement to be true; my seven-year old loves to make videos of herself and her animal friends, and she makes my husband and I watch them all the time!)

Great first day of faculty forum!  By the way, you can view the slides from his presentation here.  Take a look!

Lausanne Laptop Institute – Last One!

Okay, the Laptop Institute ended last month, but I’m still writing posts about it. This is actually the last one.  I’m finding this to be a reflective activity for me so I don’t forget what I’ve learned, and so I’m sort of forced to follow through with what I said I was going to do.  There was so much valuable information shared that I want to get to the last couple of points I learned while at the conference.

The last session I attended at the institute was led by Jeff Utecht, who was also the keynote speaker for the conference. In the session entitled “Using Blogs as e-Portfolios,” he talked about blogs as mediums by which students reflect on their own growth over time. Moreover, if students’ blogs are made public (which, according to Jeff, makes it blogging; otherwise it’s not), students will get an “authentic” audience, as opposed to the audience just being the teacher.

Basically what blogging does is help students connect to the world. And if the teacher (or the tech person in your school) has access to a network outside the school (such as with Facebook or Twitter), that network can quickly be notified of student posts (where appropriate), thereby giving the student an instant audience outside of the classroom.

Nonetheless, there are some obstacles to overcome. Am I inclined to read 65-70 blog postings on a regular basis, in addition to everything else necessary to my teaching practice? The honest answer – no! But Jeff provided a solution to that problem…

Having a group blog!

Jeff gave an example of a teacher who set up a blog that all students posted to each day. Every day, a student was assigned to write a blog post. Other students were assigned to comment on that post. Using this structure, the teacher isn’t reading everyone’s posts everyday, getting lost, and then losing momentum by having blogs in the first place. It’s only one per day (for the number of classes taught). If you integrate reverse instruction into the mix, each class can start with the student defending his or her post, and the post evaluated by the class. So in this instance, students provide the content for the class discussion, while the teacher facilitates that discussion.

So that was exciting for me. I’ve wanted to integrate blogging into my classroom not just for the sake of saying I’m blogging in the classroom, but to foster critical and creative thinking leading to authentic learning in which all students will participate, not just those who are vocal.

To that end, I want to make it easy for my students to participate with this medium. Because I’m familiar with WordPress, I searched the platform for a WordPress theme that would be suitable for group blogs. And I found a theme that I think will work. It’s Twitter-like (without the 140-character limitation), a little customizable (not much, though, at least not with the free WordPress platform), and students can post right on the homepage real time, so reloading the page is unnecessary. So I created four blogs, one for each of my classes, using the P2 theme.

Click here to see what one of my class blogs looks like so far, and click here to see it in action.

With this theme, I can set it up where only students who are registered for the blog can author posts once I set up the students as authors or contributors.

So the problem with having to read 65-70 (or more) blog posts regularly has been eliminated.  Moreover, I can keep track of my students’ posts through categories and tagging.  And finally, I can empower my students to blog related not only to assigned readings, but to current events and personal interests.

So many possibilities…one blog – per class.  I think this will be manageable.  We’ll see when school starts.

The Good Samaritan – 21st Century Style

A few years ago, I assigned a project for my New Testament students entitled “The Parables Project.” The students were required to choose a parable from one of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, or Luke) from a list I provided. Once they chose the parable, they were required to reflect on why they chose the passage, then research commentaries about their parable to determine the meaning of the parable. Lastly, the student was required to present an interpretation of the passage in a creative form, given the research they completed. They could present in the form of video, audio, painting, photography, or any other form they felt comfortable with.

My rationale for this project was getting the students into higher-order thinking. I wanted my students to make the parables their own; in other words, I wanted them to find some relevance to these ancient texts (particularly for students who were not Christian).

One student chose the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) because, as she stated in her reflection, “The parable’s message of merciful kindness is one of my strongest personal beliefs.” She created a video demonstrating compassion, with the main characters being the mascots of our school (Wildcats) and our rival school (Lions). It’s a great rendition, which I continue to play for my students to this day. A fine way to show how compassion is shown in the 21st century.

Enjoy…