Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lesson 20: Saul Can't Get It Right (but David (our student) can!)

Sunday morning, we had a lesson on the myriad ways Saul screwed up. The funny thing is that, as kings go, Saul was not an especially bad one. In all the ways by which the world judges, Saul did ok. He vanquished his enemies, he took foreign kings prisoner, and he doesn't seem to have been any crueler than anyone else put in a position of such power. The trouble with Saul is that, as Tanner (Joshua's cousin, a visitor last week) put it, "Saul had half a heart for God." Saul was alright in the eyes of men, but by God's standard, he totally messed everything up. He seems almost too eager--he tries to go beyond what God tells him to do. God, speaking through Samuel, says to wait for Samuel's arrival before performing a sacrifice. Saul gets excited and he gets ahead of himself. He can't wait. Later, God tells him to kill all the Amelikites. Saul tries to go beyond that command, by enriching his people with livestock and bringing himself glory by capturing a king.

For our class, we printed pages that had seven-verse sections--the commands that God made to Saul and how Saul disobeyed them. We left half of the page empty and put some space between the verses. Unfortunately, the girls were not present, and Tanner, being only in kindergarten, didn't seem able to do the activity on his own. So, we only did two -- we gave each of the boys one. We asked them to paraphrase, one verse at a time, retelling the story in their own words.

We had tried this before, and were surprised to learn that the kids had completely no idea how to handle this kind of assignment. This time, we each did a paraphrase on our own of another piece of text that we had studied as a class. We highlighted and underlined, to show the kids how we thought as we worked--this word is important, this phrase is confusing--and then we wrote our own paraphrases to one side. We tried to emphasize to them that our paraphrases were *different*--there's not a right answer, it's just what you think the text is saying.

Joshua complained that he didn't understand what to do, but JC worked with him directly and told me later that, although Josh claimed to be lost, he wrote a great paraphrase. David kept saying he didn't understand, so I worked with him. "What don't you understand?" I asked.

He shrugged.

"Can you tell me which words are giving you trouble?" He pointed to "anxious" and "ceased." I defined the words for him. "Now do you understand?" He shook his head again. I asked him to read the verse out loud, and he did. Then I covered it with my hand and asked him what it said. He shrugged again. "You just read it--so tell me what you remember." He finally did--and he wasn't far off. He had missed a few points, but they weren't terribly important ones. "Ok," I said, "So write that." He did. We moved on to the next verse.

And the next. JC caught my attention and signed, "How's he doing?"
"Okay," I signed back. We both worry about David--he's the middle kid of five boys and his dad just joined the military. He's been a lot less friendly since his dad went to basic, and who can blame him? I told my husband the exact truth, though. He was doing okay, and no better--but no worse. Getting him to do it was like yanking a frozen car door--I knew his mind could open to it, but it didn't want to.

After we had done three verses (out of, I reiterate, seven), he said, "I'm done."

"But you have four more verses that you haven't even read yet. What if there's something important in there?"

He shrugged again.

We were almost done with class, so I helped him by pointing out that the last verse in the selection (where Samuel says, "Wait until I get there to do the sacrifice!") was very important. He paraphrased that verse too. I looked at what he had written. It was not a shabby paraphrase. He had worked really hard. He probably worked harder on that than he had on anything else in our class. He had told me earlier that he was going to write a letter to his dad this week. "You should send this with your letter to your dad," I told him. "You worked really hard on this, you didn't give up, and you ended up doing a good job. I think he'd be proud of you--paraphrasing is hard even for grownups, but it's an important thing to learn how to do." He looked at me for a long minute, and then slowly wrote, "Dad, This was really hard. Happy birthday. David," in the top margin. Then the bell rang and they left. Both the older boys looked completely exhausted, as if this was the hardest thing they had done all week. Even Josh, who had an easier time, exclaimed, "Well, that was hard!"

The fact is, David could have tried harder and done better. He would have given up if I had allowed him to. I'm trying to consciously and specifically talk about the potential I see in these kids as if it is realized. This counts as well for when I talk to their parents. I want them to believe that they can do well. They tie their own shoelaces together with their insistence that they are inadequate. David probably gets away with a lot by insisting that he isn't smart enough to do things. I know that Amanda, by insisting that she is "wild," has adults cave and cater to her. Neither of those things can be healthy. They certainly won't help these kids be successful in life, will they? Are there successful people who get through each day by shrugging and insisting that they don't know how, they can't, they won't?

I'm definitely going to insist that we do this activity at least once per month. Next time, I will bring a dictionary. I despise worksheets in a deeply intense way, but I wonder if they might have their uses. What if I broke down the activity by paraphrasing a verse by myself, but putting blanks in the paraphrase for the kids to fill in? Or I could ask questions (Whom did Samuel tell Saul he would meet? What would the people Saul would meet have with them? What should Saul do when he meets these people?), and the kids could write answers. Maybe start with the former, move toward the latter, and slowly take away training wheels until they could manage it on their own.

The trouble with most curricula, I think, is that they do have worksheet-style activities, but these activities don't teach. If they are "fill-in-the-blank" the answer is so blindingly obvious that even a six-year-old could easily find the right answer ("____ is the son of God" "On the first day ______ separated the light from the darkness"). We don't need to teach religious indoctrination so much as we need to teach very basic skills--simple things like reading comprehension. Why? Because good reading comprehension opens the Bible to solo study. It's hard to enjoy what you're reading if you don't understand it. It used to be---back in the early days of public education---that the Bible was the primary document for learning to read. Are kids dumber than they were a few hundred years ago? I really don't think so. We just have surrendered literacy education to the land of Dick and Jane and now only ask children to read tiny chunks of scripture at a time--and then we explain it to them! Sunday school should be as much about teaching literacy, math, and science as it is about teaching religion. When you immure religion within the walls of the church, failing to connect it to the world outside, what conclusion will children draw but that it is entirely irrelevant to their lives?

At work, I've been developing some materials that will be used in schools. For that, I've had to reacquaint myself with the Multiple Intelligences thing. I'm going to find out what subjects in school our students feel like they are good at--I really haven't done as much as I ought to about playing to various intellectual strengths.

Just as we were finishing, Josh's mom came to get him because she wanted him to read something for the service. Josh is, without a doubt, the best reader in the class, and he read well during the service. This was very unusual, because unbaptized children don't usually participate in the service. I was glad to see that someone (I don't know who...) has been thinking harder about involving the kids more directly. I didn't get a chance to talk to Josh afterward and see how he felt about it.

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