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Valparaiso grant brings Christian practice to the classroom
November 5, 2007

The Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College has launched a project focusing on the integration of spiritual practices into the Christian classroom.

The three-year project, titled “From Christian Practices to Christian Pedagogy,” is funded by $56,000 from the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith.

The aim of the project is to go beyond pedagogy that merely conveys information. “Christian teaching and learning has sometimes meant having Christian theories and telling students about them,” said Kuyers Institute director David Smith, a Calvin professor of German and Asian languages. “You can be doing Christian content, but not attending enough to how the way you are teaching influences learners.”

“We’re trying to get Christian educators to think about education as formation,” said Calvin professor of philosophy Jamie Smith, who co-leads the project with David Smith. “And we have an intuition that specifically Christian practices such as prayer, fasting, lectio divina (prayerful reading), hospitality, forgiveness, sabbath-keeping and healing are an important, powerful means of formation.  In a way, we’re suggesting that there is a kind of pedagogical ‘genius’ and wisdom embedded in the historical practices of the church.” 

The grant will allow the professors Smith to convene a team of 10 colleagues—four from other institutions— representing the disciplines of political science; economics; German; philosophy; psychology; biology; physics; history; service learning; and health, physical education, recreation dance and sport (HPERDS). The group will engage in a first year of shared study, culminating in a summer seminar.

In the second year of the project, each of the group members will work toward incorporating a specific Christian practice into his or her course. For example, a professor might require students to fast during the semester while studying a Christian approach to poverty. “What happens when you start learning and thinking about teaching in these ways is that the goal is a certain kind of person, not just a certain set of knowledge,” said David. 

The two Smiths hope that the project will also foster a greater sense of community in the  classroom. “Too much of our Christian teaching and learning hasn’t gotten down to the idea of how to ‘be’ together in a classroom,” said David. “I found at the end of my first semester at Calvin that students could sit in my class all semester and not know the name of the student next to them—because the important thing is the grade. Some students displayed little sense of responsibility for whether or not another student fails.”

The two leaders of the project—which will culminate in a national conference and a book—hope to have a significant impact on Christian higher education. “We think there is a lot at stake in a Christian college,” said Jamie. “We often emphasize that we’re not Michigan State. We’re different. But what makes us different isn’t just a different set of ‘ideas.’ At stake is also why we teach and how we teach.” 

Ultimately they believe this means thinking intentionally about the relationship between a Christian college and the church.  “Our goal as a Christian college is to form ‘citizens of the kingdom.’  But that can’t happen apart from the Christian practices of worship.  So we’re trying to imagine new ways of connecting the classroom, the chapel, and the church.”

“From Christian Practices to Christian Pedagogy” has already had a profound impact on the professional relationship of the two professors. Both Smiths, unbeknownst to one another, had been thinking along similar lines about Christian pedagogy when David  heard the same concepts at a professional conference in Boston and approached the speaker to compliment him. “He said, ‘Actually I stole it from Jamie Smith,’” David remembered with a laugh. “I got back and called Jamie and said, ‘Let’s go have coffee. I want to talk about this idea this guy stole from you.’”

“It tells you about how big Calvin is and how busy we are that David has to travel to the East Coast to hear about what I’m doing just down the hall,” Jamie said.

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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