Friday, January 18, 2008

Catching Up

I've really not been doing a good job of keeping these things updated. I have like four interviews I need to report on, plus class..!

Things have been very busy here. Among other things, I've been teaching at the community college again. It's a mix of frustration and reward, this semester as previously. I look at my students, and I realize that they are basically no different from the nine-year-olds I teach on Sunday mornings. They don't have much in the way of reading comprehension or analytical skills, they have a short attention span, and they frankly just don't care--but they're also desperate for someone to challenge them, to tell them that they can do something relevant, and to give them a hint what that might be.
Anyway, Sunday school has been going pretty well. We LOVE Bible Study Guides. JoEtta, who used to homeschool her kids (they are now my age) saw that and said, "That's what you guys are using? We used that! It's exactly what you wanted, isn't it? Just simple and straightforward." She's right. I've just been trying to compile my thoughts on curriculum, and to outline what I feel it should be, and Jo summed it up exactly. When curricula start to get a bit fancy, I become suspicious that they are trying to cover up the fact that they have no real content to speak of. I think the kids are getting a lot out of it. We've just finished studying the story of Joseph, and we've been working through it since the first Sunday of December. Don't bother getting out your Bibles and calculators--that's about two chapters per week (one for Sunday and one for Wednesday). In the curriculum the church used before this quarter, this would have been a one-week proposition. A few weeks ago, Josh said, "Are we done with Joseph yet??" He said he was getting bored with Joseph (probably because he already had a passing knowledge of the story). He couldn't have been too bored, though--he attacked his lesson happily once we got going.
I'm constantly surprised at how the kids like anything that seems like a game, even if they can tell it's entirely academic and drill-ish. I invented a game that I call "5Ws (and H)," where I write the interrogatives down the left side of the board, and then I give them a section of text from the Bible (typically, this is an end-of-class five-minute game, so I use the Bible text from that day). The kids have to take turns thinking of a question, and the other kids have to try to answer it. The answerer gets a point, or if no one answers, the asker gets a point. Once someone has asked a particular type of question (a "Why" question, for example), that type of question is no longer available to the other askers. The kids are always stumped by "When" and "Where," which seems odd to me--everything happens in a place and a time, and before, after, near, or far from something else. Ben stared at his Bible and said, "I don't see any questions in here." I tried to help. "Can you find something that happens in the story and then ask where it happened?" He ultimately came up with something, but I don't think that he really understood the game. The others did, though, and he'll catch on. He's a very smart boy, but he doesn't know it.
One thing I'm constantly baffled by is the kids' lack of reading comprehension, across the board. Even Josh, who is often a big reader--well, more about him later. Last Sunday, when we were studying the chapter where Jacob blesses his grandsons, I asked Gracen the question, "Who did Joseph say gave his children to him?" She thought for a minute and then said, "Pharoah?" I pointed her to the verse where Joseph says, "These are my sons, whom God gave to me in the land of Israel." She read it aloud and with perfect fluency. I asked the question again. She still didn't know. It took her reading the passage three times and more pointed questioning before she found the answer. She's a smart kid, and she says she loves books. So...why was that hard? I wish I knew more about what the schools here are teaching kids. Several of the instructors at the community college have told me that they are seeing an effect of the Virginia "Standards of Learning" (which includes, in part, a list of vocabulary words kids should have memorized. Example: Every seventh-grader in the state has to know the word "speakeasy." Seriously??). These instructors feel that the quality of their students has declined since VA implemented its version of education reform. One math professor told me, "My students are always begging me for multiple choice tests. It's because you can just do your problem and then look at the choices, and if the answer you came up with isn't there, you know you messed up. So I gave them a multiple-choice test--but I put "None of the above" as the last option on every question. They bombed it." Is it the SoLs (which, incidentally, stands for something else entirely in the state where I grew up)? Or what?
Even Josh is not making reading progress on the same trajectory he was last year. He also doesn't talk about books as much as he used to, relative to video games or movies. I was surprised and bothered by that, and when I mentioned it to JC, he said, "Josh didn't have a PSP or Nintendo DS last year." For clueless people like me, those are handheld gaming systems, as opposed to the consoles that you plug into the TV. "Think about it," JC said. "You take your handheld everywhere that boredom might otherwise prompt you to take a book. So you play your PSP on the school bus, or while you're waiting for the train or on car trips. At least a console system, you have the TV that other people in the family want access to, so you have some limits. Kids don't read under the covers anymore, they play Nintendo DS." I realized that my husband was totally right--and my (future) children will never have hand-held systems.

The kids generally, despite lack of reading comprehension, have been better than last year. When we have only boys in the class, it does get a little out of hand (one of us teaches while the other repeats a litany of, "Stop poking him. Quit making that noise. Put all the feet of your chair on the floor."). The boys feed off of each other's chaotic energy, which makes it escalate. Still, we don't have anyone who is deliberately malicious, just mischevious. We've had some really great moments when the kids will be reading their Bibles and they will start giggling--not in a distracting, hyperactive way, but because they understand a joke that is being played in the Bible story. For example, Ben about fell out of his chair when he read about Joseph framing his brother Benjamin. I LOVE when the kids get to the point where they can interact with the text like that. It's why I teach. Last week, when we taught about Jacob's blessings, we stood up and acted it out. That passage about Joseph putting Manasseh on his left side, which was Jacob's right, etc., is awfully confusing even for an adult to read. JC (being by far the oldest male in the room) played Jacob, and I played Joseph, with Josh as Manasseh and Gracen as Ephraim. Because we talked about which hand was the "good" hand (right), and which kid should get the "good" blessing (the oldest), Josh really thought he was going to come out on top. He was rooting for his character very seriously. I read the whole set up, and he was just wiggling with excitement and saying to Gracen, "See, I get the good blessing and you don't!" when I read, "...but--"
Josh said, "Oh, no! Not 'but'! I don't want to hear 'but'!"
I love that he reads textual cues like that. It's awesome.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Well, we're back in the groove of teaching Sunday school.
This quarter, we've begun using Bible Study Guide LINK, which is really excellent. A number of teachers have come to me saying that they didn't understand what I disliked so much about the old curriculum, but now they get what I was talking about. This is what Bible class should look like. Sherry mentioned that her class is having a hard time getting through all the material because there's just so much good stuff. She suggested that we consider going back to teaching the same lesson on Sunday and Wednesday, with Wednesday being the "application" portion. There's a lot of merit to that idea. I've found that I hardly have time to cover half of what I'd like to in the Sunday class and also I end up having to recap the Wednesday portion of the story for the kids who don't come on Wednesdays. I'll remind her to bring that up at our next teachers' meeting (I don't want to be the only squeaky wheel!). The amazing thing about this curriculum is that it takes six weeks (if we implemented Sherry's suggestion, twelve) to get through one story. Currently we're working on the story of Joseph, one chapter at a time. When you go that slowly, you really have time to read the whole thing and talk with the kids about the hard words and make sure they understand every little thing that is happening--and they don't get bored. The curriculum is set up so that each lesson ends on a cliffhanger (this morning, we left off where Joseph finds the cup in Benjamin's sack, and Judah offers to take Benjamin's place as a slave. Our student groaned when we told him that we'd have to leave it there until next time). The kids follow only one set of characters for a long time. They get to know them, and I think they retain the information better too.
We've actually been doing it since early December, but I've been so swamped with holiday cheer that I've hardly had a minute to write about it. Due to the grade turn over, the only one of our original students left to us is Josh. He's pretty cocky, being the oldest kid there. In addition to him, we have Gracen, who is very smart and definitely well-educated, and Ben, who is a quiet boy, but definitely is aware of what goes on. Josh and Gracen are pretty solidly "good kids," and Ben is easily led to good behavior or bad, depending on his classmates' prevailing attitudes. Last week, while JC and I were home for Christmas, Amy taught our class. Unfortunately, Gracen wasn't there, and in her place were Corey and Justin. JC and I haven't taught either of them before--they don't seem to come very regularly. From what Amy told us, those two managed to swing Ben to the dark side. She had a really rough time with them, unfortunately. I felt bad about that because she was doing me a favor, in taking the class for us.

In response to this deplorable behavior, JC and I decided to give them a quiz today. Amy had told me that the boys told her they'd done that week's lesson the previous week (which was not true--two of them hadn't even been there!). Unfortunately, Ben was our only student that day. He did very badly on the quiz. It consisted of six questions, plus one bonus, and he didn't get any of them entirely right--although several should have been very easy if he had been paying attention in class. That said, he really tried. He thought about each question before deciding that he didn't know the answer. When he was done, he knew he hadn't been successful. He hadn't even guessed on several of the questions. He looked really defeated.
"Are you done?" I asked. He nodded. "Okay. Let's talk about this. First, I want you to know that I'm very pround of you for trying so hard. You didn't give up or tell us that you didn't want to do it--you tried, and that's important. At school, you get quizzes so that your teacher can give you a grade, and you can take it home to your dad, and he can say, 'Ben, why don't you work harder?' or 'Good job!'" At this, Ben smiled briefly. He has a really great smile, but it's rare. His dimples are a great reward, the more so for their rarity. "In Sunday school, we have quizzes so that you know what you don't know. We won't talk to your dad about this. This is just for you, so you know what you still need to work on. What we're going to do now is talk through this quiz, and talk about what the answers are, and why it's important to know these things. I bet you'll do much better next time."
We then talked through each question on the quiz. We explained what the right answer was (and yes, most of these did, in fact, have "right" answers, like "Where was Joseph taken when he was sold into slavery?"), and why it was important, in the context of the big Bible story, to know these things (if you don't know where Joseph was taken, it doesn't make any sense that Moses and his people were in Egypt to begin with!). By the end of it, Ben was smiling more. I think he felt better about the whole thing. I felt bad for putting him on the spot; class is much easier when there are several children.

We then read our text for the day--Genesis 44. We stopped frequently to make sure that Ben understood what was going on in the story--he had forgotten that Joseph hadn't revealed himself to his brothers yet, but when he understood the joke being played, he laughed out loud. By the end, he was so interested in the story that he didn't want to stop. That's the kind of interaction I think children should have with the Bible. I consider today a successful class, because Ben had that immediacy.

One thing I would like to explore is how to help the children read a little better. Even in children's translations, there are some tough words in the Bible, and apparently modern schools don't teach children to sound out words. I understand that phonics can produce some bizarre spelling and pronunciation habits, but they can open the door to children who would otherwise be limited by their "sight words," right? Ben got to words that I knew he knew, but he couldn't interpret them, and he lacked tools for breaking them down. I don't have enough time with the children to teach them to sound out words--particularly if that's the opposite of what they are being taught in school--and I feel awkward jumping in to help them when they are just on the cusp of figuring it out. Josh almost always interrupts, providing the word, which I am sure makes the other children self-conscious. I try to reprimand him for that, but, having been a fluent and early reader myself, I understand his frustration.

I guess the other question I have is how to instill classroom discipline in children who don't have any at home. I don't know about Corey, but I have it on pretty solid authority (as well as personal observation) that Justin has very little discipline in his home. I never know what to do with kids who just won't behave, for the sake of not behaving, often with a fairly malicious bent. Any ideas?

I've been interviewing people quite a bit--I'll post about those soon.
I read this great article from Scientific American called The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. The premise here is that praising children for being smart actually cripples them, while praising them for working hard at something sets them up for further success. I totally believe it (and some of the results of the study this article is based on are pretty astounding). It makes me think alot about how to apply this in my teaching--both in Sunday school and at the community college where I work as an adjunct. One problem, though--how do you praise effort in people who won't put out any?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Teen Girl Squad....Sigh.

Amy and I had the girls' class on Wednesday. It went surprisingly well. We again had them basically plan the class. The best part was probably the activity that Miranda had planned--they all got to decorate prayer journals (now will they use them...?). The girls who led the discussion had actually read the chapter this time--also helpful. Reagan led singing, and picked songs that the girls all knew (though one of them, "The Steadfast Love of the Lord," is really hard to do without men). The only really rough part was at the end where it was time to assign tasks for next time--there were way more girls than jobs, and, unlike last time, EVERYONE wanted to do something. They were all shouting out what they wanted to do, and I lost track of what was going on and ended up stiffing Miranda in favor of Katy. This was unintentional, though I wanted to make sure Katey did something, since she hadn't yet (and this was our second class that they ran). Miranda's mom emailed me the next day to tell me that Miranda was kind of upset. I emailed Amy--we need to figure out a better way to do this so that everyone gets a turn to do everything, and also so that I don't end up upsetting people. Really, the smart thing to do would have been to schedule for the next two times at once, so that all eight or so girls could have seen each of their names up there. I'm sure they are aware that they will have a chance next month, but being able to see that might have helped. Oh well, better luck next time, I hope.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Power and The Glory

Bethany lent me The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I'm really enjoying it, most especially the introduction, which contains the following intriguing note: "The Power and the Glory was born of a journey to Mexico in the winter of 1937-38 undertaken for quite other motives than a novel. It was not a very happy journey, clouded politically because England was about to break off diplomatic relations with Mexico and personally because a rather odd libel action had been brought against me by Miss Shirley Temple, the child film star." WHAT, I wonder, made Shirley Temple sue Graham Greene for libel? It might have something to do with one of his other books--this is the first one of his that I've read. The book is an interesting study of a piece of history I was completely unaware of. Apparently, during the late thirties, Catholicism was banned in Mexico (or in parts of it?). Priests were killed, and churches were converted to community centers. The book describes one church where the government painted over murals of saints, replacing them with images of priests feeling up little girls at a first communion party and getting drunk on the communion wine. I had no idea that Catholicism was ever illegal in Mexico; it runs contrary to everything I had ever thought or assumed about that country. Greene shows a country where the people are entirely desperate for God, but also very afraid--you could get thrown into prison for little things, like possessing a cross or a book about saints. In one touching scene, a rogue priest is talking to a man who very clearly plans to turn him in. The man tries to get the priest to hears his confession.

"He [the man who is confessing] had an immense self-importance: he was unable to picture a world of which he was only a typical part--a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession--Man was so limited: he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard around you, the greater glory lay around the death: it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization. It needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt."

That section just really struck me. How true that last sentence is. I've been having a rough week, spiritually. I just can't seem to muster patience or compassion; I've hurt people I care about, and I've just generally been an idiot. I've felt completely unworthy of grace--and then this book comes along and reminds me that even at my best, I'm unworthy. "We're fallen people in a fallen world," JoEtta said the other night. "Even the best of us." And even us at our best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Madeline L'Engle

I know I'm behind the curve in writing about the death of Madeline L'Engle, but things have been kind of crazy here lately (typical).

I just wanted to draw attention to the beautiful interview with her that originally appeared in Christianity Today in 1979, and which they reprinted earlier this month. I heard about L'Engle's death in the most perfect way possible. I was helping Bethany pour drinks for a big family dinner, and she said, "Did you know, Madeline L'Engle died today?" The way she said it, loving the way the name fit in her mouth, not doing any of that awkward "luh-Angle" stuff that I heard later on the news, made me know she was a fan, though we had never discussed it before. This was the only way I could have handled it. If I had to hear it from some TV announcer who probably didn't even know who she was, I probably would have lost it.

I, of course, was a fan of the highest order as a child, though I didn't realize that L'Engle was writing an essentially Christian fiction until I was in middle school and picked up the (unfairly ignored) third book in the Wrinkle series, Many Waters. If you haven't read Many Waters, go find yourself a copy. It brings the antediluvian world into sharp focus, and it's just such an interesting look at God and love and miracles and angels.
I remember learning the parts of a cell in 9th grade biology, and I was fascinated to learn that mitochondria weren't something that L'Engle just made up for A Wind in the Door. I always thought it was just a fantasy word. It made me wonder, though I've yet to find an answer, whether she invented farandolae or not, as well.

The next day, on my lunch break, I surfed up the interwebs to find articles about her. This interview was the very best one.

There's something she says about a third of the way into it that has been rattling around in my head. L'Engle is talking about the best Christian influences in her life, and she mentions a woman who had a terrible life, an alcoholic husband, painful arthritis,

"But she always brought laughter with her.
A close friend of mine says that a Christian is someone who's met one. I met one, early."
That really challenged me, because I sometimes wonder whether I am the kind of Christian who converts people just by knowing them. I'm roughly 99% sure that I'm not. Things at work have been seriously frustrating lately (by lately, I mean for the past year), and I'm not handling it all as graciously as I would like to. I get ANGRY, I get SNARKY, I get plain MEAN. And I HATE that. I pray and pray and PRAY that this will be easier for me, that I will walk through the leper colony of my office with a beatific smile and not be fazed by any of it. Thus far, my God has not chosen to answer my prayer, at least not with a yes. I know this is not something I can do by my own will alone, though. It would be so much easier if I could! And so I get impatient with God and even more difficult to be around. L'Engle also writes about how her work is an act of worship, that good, honest, joyful work is an act of devotion. She notes that
"for many people their work is drudgery—neither a gift, nor a vocation."
I miss when my job was a gift. It's been mostly drudgery for a while now. It really was a blessing, too, for so long, which is what makes considering leaving so hard. It's also the most interesting game in town, even at its worst, so maybe I'm sticking around a little longer. I just wonder if it's the most socially relevant thing I could be doing, if it's helping people (well, it's helping people who wouldn't blink at spending $500 to learn French...). One of my frustrations is that we have such a great opportunity to help people and we don't do it. There are always money reasons and market reasons, but I get tired of those after a while, and angry at them after just a little longer.

Going to Ghost Ranch in just over a week. Here's to retreats in the wilderness. I hope I can come back renewed and prepared to be a better representation of Christ in the world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Falling Away

I read this article (which everyone and their brother has already blogged on, I'm sure). It's about a recent study by LifeWay Research (affiliated with Billy Graham, I think?) that shows that people in their 20s are turning away from the church. Well, yes. Yes, they are. My husband and I have this argument every now and then--because most of his friends are church-going Christians, he thinks that Christianity is actually on the rise amongst our peer group. That's like saying that, because most of our friends our age are married, people in general are marrying younger. It feels true, but it just isn't. Whenever I reply that the statistics are definitely on my side, he disputes the sampling. Admittedly, 1,023 is not a large group, but big enough, I think, to see some trends.

As I said, a lot of people have blogged about this study and how distressing it is that kids these days don't go to church of their own accord. I agree--this is *seriously* distressing. Why are young people feeling so disconnected from the church? Allow me to include my favorite quotation from the whole article: "'Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza. There's no life transformation taking place,' [Ed] Stetzer [of LifeWay Research] says. 'People are looking for a faith that can change them and to be a part of changing the world.'" I worry that youth pastors are too afraid of turning kids off to really challenge them about their lives. I feel that way, certainly, when the teen girls come to me all giggly and excited because they've just gotten the official "dating" signifier with the crush du jour. I don't want to snub them--I remember being their age and feeling that way--but what do I say? "Congratulations--but make sure he behaves like a gentleman," I tell them. I do my best, and I'm sure youth ministers all over the country are stuck with the same quandaries. How do you challenge the kids to examine their lives through the lens of the Bible, without scolding too harshly and driving them off?

That, however, was not the part of the survey that I found the most distressing. That honor goes to the following sentence: "Dropouts were more than twice as likely than those who continued attending church to describe church members as judgmental (51% for dropouts, 24% for those who stayed), hypocritical (44% vs. 20%) or insincere (41% vs. 19%)."

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it should be no surprise that roughly half of the church drop-outs feel that people at church are judgmental, hypocritical, or insincere. The part that blew my mind is that 19-25% of those who *stayed* at church felt the same way! That's roughly one out of every five twenty-something-year olds. As they say about the made-up stat that one in every five people is insane, "examine four friends. If they're all normal and happy, then it must be you." What I want to know is, why are these people staying? WHY? Would you spend every Sunday morning (and evening, and Wednesday evening as well, if you're Church of Christ) with people you thought were faking it? I'm sure each church has its handful of judgmental hypocrites, but are there enough to color one's perception of the whole group? Fascinating...

As to what we can do, I don't know that youth groups are really the answer. Konni told me that most people who are going to devote their lives to living as Christians have made a pretty solid decision on that by age 10 (Konni, do you have a source for that one?). So, again, what I've been saying about the Sunday school thing. Early intervention--by the time they are teens, it's probably too late.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


"I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek ... at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen should be about." --Ian Thomas

I found this quote on FaithVine, and just loved it. I don't think it needs much commentary.

Incidentally, I sent an editorial to Dave at FaithVine, but maybe it was a bit too edgy...or maybe Dave has been busy with the website redesign and hasn't had time for that yet. I should probably write to him, but I'm a bit shy...because what I sent was probably too edgy.

Also, a new favorite blog: BibliOdessy--not religious, but very literary and beautiful.