Monday, July 20, 2015

Antidote to the So-What’s: Finding Connections and Perspectives

So excited to be unpacking my books...

"So what?"

Ever had a student ask that question in response to something you were asking them to learn or do? I used to dread it, but now I invite it--I tell students there's a reason for everything I ask them to do, and if they don't understand it, they should ask.

How can you find answers? As you read and relax this summer, keep a casual eye out for anything that could help inform the themes and issues your students will study next year. Look for things like...
  1. Background information
  2. Case studies
  3. Current culture: Movies, fiction, news stories
  4. Various perspectives: Scientific, economic, philosophical, political, psychological, sociological, technological, aesthetic, pragmatic, ethical, religious…
  5. Biblical perspective: Yes, this is actually a subpoint of (4), but to me as a Christian and as a teacher at a Christian school, it’s such an important one it warrants its own line. Great Christian thinkers have dealt with every issue. If you teach at a Christian school, introduce your kids to the resources out there, the great Christian thinkers in your field. Don’t just have kids make up their own Biblical perspective from searching random verses on Be at least as scholarly with the Bible as you are with texts and ideas in your field—research some expert opinions to inform your own.
I started collecting these types of connections to my classes about 10 years ago when I began realizing how unfair it was for secondary English teachers like me to always have students reading fiction, but writing nonfiction—and the nonfiction writing, which they never saw modeled, was how I assessed their fiction reading. So I started bringing in nonfiction articles for background and additional information on the themes in the literature we read. Significance blossomed.

For example, when 10th graders read the Holocaust memoir Night, they ponder the significance of disregarding vs. respecting and protecting human dignity. We look at the UN Declaration of Human Rights that was the world’s attempt to ensure such respect and protection. We watch some excerpts from Hotel Rwanda and read the introduction to An Ordinary Man, the memoir of the movie’s protagonist, Paul Russesabagina, which show how badly the Declaration failed. We read a Time magazine article “What Makes Us Moral?”, which explores from a purely secular perspective the conundrum of human tendencies to both depths of evil and heights of good. 

And because I teach at a Christian school, we also get a Christian perspective by reading the article “Justice in an Unjust World” by Gary Haugen who was part of the UN investigative team in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, and subsequently started International Justice Mission. It’s a great article, maintaining that the real question is not where is God when people are suffering—he is right there, full of compassion, suffering with them—it’s where are God’s people, his hands and feet in the world. And what we, his people, can do whenever we are aware of suffering is share God’s compassion and respond by praying, giving, or going. 

I nearly forgot my own mantra—use credible Christian resources—as I was sitting here last week struggling to put together a Christian perspective for a unit on education in my new AP English Language course. The point of the course is reading and analyzing nonfiction, critiquing arguments, synthesizing various points of view, and persuasively articulating one’s own position, so I have plenty of nonfiction—from classic authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson to the modern essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” by Francine Prose. We’re reading one full-length work, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass

Suddenly remembered that I didn’t need to come up with a Biblical perspective all by myself any more than I was expecting students to come up with a claim about education without any resources—certainly there is a concise, well-written piece of prose out there that offers a specifically Christian perspective on education. In fact, I remembered I’d actually filed one away for future use a number of years ago—“Education for Shalom: Our Calling as a Christian College” by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., on the Calvin College web site. Score! 

So as I finish unpacking my books from my move, I’ll be thinking about my remaining new units and where I can find a chapter, an article, or an excerpt on a Christian perspective for them. Next up: What is the relationship of the individual to the community? I’m thinking there might be something in the John Yoder book Body Politics or a John Ortberg book like Everybody’s Normal until You Get to Know Them.

What’s a topic or issue in your field or a course you teach that you’d like to find a Christian perspective on—for yourself or for your students? 

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