Teaching Towards Shalom

dan's bookAs you enjoy reading this summer, I’d like to recommend a relatively recently published book, Teaching to Justice, Citizenship, and Virtue: The Character of a High School Through the Eyes of Faith by veteran Christian educators, Julia and Gloria Stronks, a mother-daughter team.

The authors use a fictional cast of characters at Midland Christian High School to explore what shalom might look like in the everyday life of a school. They do this by first talking about the mission and outcomes of Christian education, explore how students today learn and are engaged, and show through disciplinary experts how faith and learning cohere. I appreciate that they also explore what is needed in a student’s post high school graduation life and how educators need to be encouraging lifelong learning.

In advocating for an educational approach that works toward justice and engaging culture, the authors state: “Few schools were found to be systematically, through curriculum and pedagogy, integrating academic learning with engaging the world outside of school. Instead, schools seem to rely on teachers to ‘spontaneously make connections’ when an opportunity arises.” To this I say “Right on!”  We can’t simply rely on teachable moments to seek the shalom that we need to be about with our students – we must be intentional in our planning and teaching.  One of the helpful questions at the end of this chapter asks: “Are there ways in which your school is already helping students to think about justice, or ways in which your school helps students to delight in God’s creation?” The Stronks advocate for helping each student to examine their own worldview as contrasted with a Christian worldview.

Recognizing the significance of student faith development and student brain development during the teenage years is a chapter every high school teacher should read. Equally important is the next chapter on what is needed before empathy can be developed in teens.  In order to teach students to love their neighbor, teachers must first foster self-compassion in students. Self-compassion is defined as being understanding and patient with ourselves, having feelings of common humanity and mindfulness. Research has shown that if we can give ourselves grace, we are better at giving others grace and showing empathy to them.

In what I view to be too short of a chapter portion, the authors wonder about how we need to change our current school structure and pedagogical practices. While they mention good examples of culminating experiences and senior exhibitions, I think the changes that are needed in schools must be much deeper and start at a much earlier level. (For example, see my recent posts on this site about the Deeper Learning movement.)

One of the most important chapters in the book is around teaching a theology of citizenship. This is a critically important skill for Christian students to develop in our pluralistic society – a society that denies truth claims. How can Christians best respond to neighbors with the love of Christ? The authors advocate Miroslav Volf’s approach of “religious exclusivism but political pluralism.” How can we help all to flourish and experience public justice? The Stronks suggest: “Human flourishing can occur only when there is room in society for people to function in all the different capacities that God has called them to.” A model for engagement of neighbor toward their flourishing certainly would be not only helpful for our students, but needful for their witness to Christ’s kingdom to be effective.

Succeeding chapters raise important questions in the discipline areas of history, politics, technology, the arts, business, athletics and racial/gender differences. The book concludes with how teachers can help students develop a theology of work as they consider college/work life and to also consider what it means to be a lifelong learner.

In summary, I can’t state it better than the endorsement I made for the book cover: ”This book makes a very valuable contribution to the discussion of what comprises a distinctively Christian school. Stronks and Stronks take the reader on a walk through the day-to-day life and academic disciplines of a fictional Christian high school, identifying critical issues, giving concrete examples, and sharing helpful resources along the way. The authors paint a picture of what it means to nurture truly flourishing Christian students–students who personally understand what the lordship of Christ means and are able to apply their learning throughout a lifetime of service to God and neighbor.”

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