Middle School Mentor
By Jazmyne Fuentes
If you were a public school teacher, and one day your biology students began to marvel at the miraculous design of the human body, what would you do?
a) Say "It is amazing,
isn't it?" and continue the lesson, knowing it's not legal to mention
If you're not sure how far you could go, you're not alone. Even Christians who have been teaching for years falter as they hear about new lawsuits and court rulings.
"Most of the colleges in the Christian coalition have students who go into public schools as teachers, and there has been nothing written on how you teach in a way that is legal and yet in keeping with your deepest beliefs," said Dr. Gloria Goris-Stronks of Calvin's education department. Many teachers prefer to play it safe and avoid mentioning their faith at all. Goris-Stronks wanted to write a book to show them other possibilities.
For help with her manuscript, she turned to her favorite attorney-her daughter Julia K. Stronks of Whitworth College, whose specialty is the First Amendment. "I kept asking her so many questions. I finally said, 'Couldn't you do this book with me? I can't do it alone!' She said, 'I wondered when you would ask.'" They embarked on a collaboration that has been a joy for both of them-the writing of Christian Teachers in Public Schools: A Guide for Teachers, Administrators, and Parents.
The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech." The problem arises when one person's free exercise of religion looks to another person like establishment of that religion. For example, prayer in school is a free exercise that can easily be seen as official endorsement of Christianity.
So where is the room for Christian teachers and students to exercise their beliefs? After all, even moral relativists are allowed to promote their belief that everyone can decide what's right for them. Interviewing 200 public school teachers around the country (thanks to a grant from the Calvin Alumni Association), the authors found three main responses. In addition to those who try to blend in, there are those who decide not to worry about breaking laws. They see themselves as "undercover agents" whose duty it is to provide the Christian perspective for students who may not ever hear it otherwise.
Thirdly, there are those who have found a way to make their faith evident while staying within the bounds of the law. "They help the students understand that they are people of belief, so if the students want to come to them after school, they can say, 'I know you're a Christian; will you tell me what you believe?'" said Goris-Stronks. In such situations, teachers are allowed to answer openly.
The authors are confident that there is ample freedom within this third approach. They outline how teachers can plan curricula that are in keeping with their beliefs, how various courts have interpreted the laws, and how teachers can reduce the threat of litigation. They conclude with testimonials from Christian teachers who have found practical ways to follow their calling in public schools.
This book rolls off the presses right behind another Goris-Stronks collaboration. For Reaching and Teaching Young Adolescents: Succeeding in Deeper Waters, the education professor teamed up with a practitioner-Nancy Koning Knol '72, English and religion teacher at Grand Rapids Christian High School.
Now that educators are finally agreeing that the middle school age group has a distinct set of needs and concerns, they are hungry for curricula that reflect this. Teachers have come from as far as Japan to attend workshops given by Goris-Stronks and her colleagues. Instead of asking how to prepare these children for high school, they now want to know how to best nurture these young people at their present stage of development.
Helping middle schoolers find their gifts is a key part of this book's answer. "If you believe that a child has certain gifts, and those gifts carry with them a responsibility in the kingdom of God, then we've got to lead the students into understanding what that responsibility is-how to live not just as good citizens, but as responsive disciples of Jesus Christ. That just doesn't come naturally," said Goris-Stronks. "We used to think that if they had enough doctrine and theology, they would just learn this. It doesn't work that way, because the culture is very strong and influential in their lives." The book is geared toward Christian schools, but Goris-Stronks adapts this idea for public school teachers as well.
She describes how to help students find a vision-what it might look like, how it can meet their developmental needs, and how a curriculum can lead them to it. This includes learning about a variety of occupations and helping the underprivileged. "If by the end of grade eight, students have an idea of their particular constellation of gifts and interests, then they will go through high school and the third level of education-whatever it may be-more successfully, rather than just seeing high school as some social thing, as a lot of students tend to see it," said Goris-Stronks.
Because young adolescents undergo the most rapid and jarring set of changes in their lives, they need chances to find out where they excel. Pressure to be like their peers does just the opposite. The authors posit that perhaps this transition was easier in generations when young people had crucial responsibilities in the home. "Today's middle school students have the emotions that accompany the onset of puberty along with the lack of maturity caused by decreased societal and parental needs and expectations. The situation is extremely confusing for them."
Teachers are challenged to move beyond the "kids will be kids" mentality and to make sure that in the halls, on the playground, and in the teachers' lounge, the school truly looks like God's community. Excerpts from student surveys make it clear that children who are ridiculed or ostracized find it difficult to notice their gifts. Goris-Stronks outlines how the staff might take their own confidential survey, analyze the results and help everyone raise their standards for relating to one another.
The authors take turns writing chapters about an assortment of practical topics: improving girl-boy relations, helping students cope with loss or extreme pain, teaching Bible class, and assessing student work-including preparing students to facilitate their own parent-teacher conferences. Again, the book ends with testimonials about successful strategies used in Christian middle schools around the country.
Not wanting to let her own gifts lie dormant, Goris-Stronks is already on the lookout for another project. Between requests from readers, issues that arise at conferences and her own experiences (she credits three teachers for major directional changes in her own life during high school), it is only a matter of choosing which door to open first. Maybe something about all that can be learned when a family, church or school takes on a community service project together? Maybe an idea from a colleague in the education department? She's not sure what will grab her next, but when it does, she'll be sure to grab someone else and make it happen. After all, she said, why write alone when you can add so much richness by inviting a colleague along for the adventure?
Jazmyne Fuentes is the producer of the Calvin Forum.