I saw the first red leaf flashing on the sugar maple last week, triggering the anxieties of a new term even though I haven’t been fulltime in the classroom for years. The feelings awoke the agonizing uncertainty about what project we could do to top the one we did the previous year. Of course, that challenge got more and more difficult to accomplish with each passing year.
As many schools have now begun the fall semester, or will be soon, teachers in Deeper Learning schools are planning projects that they hope will engage students in doing “real work for real people that forms the self and shapes the world.”
Most of my project designing happened while teaching fourth graders in public schools. (For descriptions of authentic learning through projects, see Starting from Scratch). Now, working with Christian teachers, I think a lot about how these might be developed in the context of God’s Story. Would they be different if they were implemented in a Christian classroom? If so, how?
From fleece to fabric
Recently I was sharing one of my former projects with teachers at Living Stones Academy in Grand Rapids, MI. I described how my class had visited a shepherd, watched her shear a sheep, and brought the raw fleece back to our classroom. The challenge I gave students was to figure out how that fleece became an article of cloth.
The fourth graders washed, carded, dyed, and spun the wool, writing and illustrating every step of the process. As we read about colonial life every student learned to weave and knit. They each created a product that they gave to a person of their choice. They published a manual entitled, “From Fleece to Fabric” and created a museum to share the process with our community.
This project was part of our study of colonial life. I thought that in order to have any historical imagination of life in the 1700s, students would need to experience what it is like to have to work for something rather than go to the store and buy it. For students and their teachers, the unit was a real practice of patience and perseverance.
Teachers at Living Stones appreciated the way this project demonstrated how to engage students in work that was engaging, service-oriented, and relevant to the fourth grade curriculum.
A good question
When I finished my presentation, fifth grade teacher Gary Warners asked, “How would you do this project differently if you were in a Christian school?” My first reaction was to think of all the ways shepherds and wool were mentioned in the Bible. There is no lack of opportunities to connect sheep to scripture, from Gideon’s fleece to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and all the references to wool and shepherds in between.
This “matching game” is how many of us think of “Biblical integration.” We look for Bible passages about the topic we are studying. In our botany class we explore plants in the Bible. When studying rocks and minerals, we search for rocks and minerals mentioned in Scripture. We study algebra and . . . well, that’s a topic for another time.
I am not against looking through the Bible to find connections to our topics of study. That can be an engaging way to explore various subjects. But I don’t really learn anything about wool or about God by discovering that there is wool on the sheep and wool in the Bible. So what? Okay, wool is real. My experience and the Bible tell me so.
I left Living Stones and continued to think about Gary’s question. What we need to consider as we plan our lessons is whether or not our Biblical connections enhance our understanding and appreciation of the topic and deepen our awe and love for God. If not, what’s the point?
One idea I had was to begin with Luke 12:7, that God knows us down to the hairs on our head. What if we examined the hairs on our head under a microscope, then compared it to the hair of other animals? If you looked at human hair or sheep wool under a microscope, you would be amazed.
The complex structure reveals the attention to detail that our Lord designed, even in the hairs on our head!
Everything our Creator fashioned was perfectly suited to its purpose. A “big idea” we usually take for granted is that everything–in heaven and earth–is designed. For a unique purpose. I could imagine a deep dive into design–form and function–God’s design, and how we, designed in God’s image, also design things. We learn much about how to design from God’s creation (Biomimicry). Bird nests, spider webs, gypsy moths. Airplanes, boats, and Velcro. Now I am deep into my science curriculum.
We could go much deeper in learning about God through the lens of wool, sheep, shepherds, and clothing. What can we learn about the character of Christ by studying the relationship between a shepherd and his helpless, but well-cared-for, sheep? Is there something in the process of turning raw wool into cloth that is analogous to the transformative process we undergo as disciples of Christ? How might the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap (Malachi 3:2) work in my life to help form the character of Christ?
Or consider the rich subject of clothing in scripture–Adam and Eve first clothed by God after the Fall, the intricate commands for the priestly garments, the promise of being “robed in righteousness” and being given the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Paul tells us to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.
I shared my afterthoughts with Gary and was intrigued by an idea he had–of going deeper into God’s creativity for humankind. He suggested that “most people think hair types are dependent on racial groupings, but that is not actually true. There are patterns, but all types of hair are found on all types of different colored heads. This knowledge could lead a class to explore race as a social construct, not a biological attribute.”
For Gary, this understanding of human hair connects to Living Stones Academy’s foundational intention to be a diverse community. This school is actively anti-racist, which includes thinking about what race is . . . and isn’t. Gary imagined how the wool study could help him and his students better live out the school mission–to be a place where people from every nation, tribe, and tongue can worship together.
As you think about designing projects with a “Biblical worldview,” make sure that your students’ understanding of both the topic and the Lord is deepened, that their imaginations are inspired to see God’s presence in creation and creation as God’s handiwork.
Know your subject well, on earth as it is in heaven. You have to see God in the topic yourself before you can reveal God to your students. Then share your understanding with all humility, as Gary prays before class, “God, I have done what I can to get ready for today. Please show me when you want me to follow your plan. Holy Spirit, come into our learning today and have your way with us.” As a classroom teacher, I stood outside my door every morning and confessed, “Lord, I have no idea what you want to reveal about [ the subject of the day]. I let go of all my plans and pray you can use me to teach these children what you want them to know.” Then to the degree I was steeped in the knowledge, wonder, and beauty of the subject, I could trust in God’s working through me. Sometimes the Biblical connection would manifest in the subject itself, but more often in the culture of learning together–practicing how to love one another as we explored God’s world, worshipping him through appreciation and wonder.
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (email@example.com) is now an educational consultant working with public and Christian schools. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Autodesk Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his public elementary classrooms. He currently writes a blog for CACE.