5 Strategies for the Middle-of-the-Year Struggles

As schools enter the middle of the third quarter, things can seem to slow down. We are nowhere near the start of the year, but we aren’t near the finish either. Paperwork, grading, meetings, and other time-consuming tasks keep piling up. In times like this, it can be easy to become frustrated, worn down, or disenchanted. However, the middle of the race is just as important as the start or finish. Here are five steps to take to fight well in the long middle:

1) Remember your purpose. You are serving in a Christian school to point students to Christ. The students have just as many needs in now as they did in September. The newness of the year is gone, but the needs are the same. You are here to love them, point them to Jesus, and show them an example. Don’t get tired of doing good (Gal 6:9).

2) Wait on the Lord. You may have had big plans for the year. And many of those plans may have never gotten off the ground. Others may have not worked the way you wanted. But remember, God does not operate according to our schedules. While teachers love to manage our time well—with bells, quarters, periods, etc.—we must remember that, ultimately, time is not ours; it belongs to God. And He is not messing things up. He is not wasting this year. So be patient. Wait on the Lord (Ps 27:14).  

3) Seek his face (Ps 27:8). Prayer and Bible reading are keys to a vibrant relationship with God. Have you let these essentials slip as the year has continued on. Find a colleague to pray with. Lock into a meaningful Bible-reading plan. You can’t give the students something that you don’t have. We all need to be filled so that we can fill others.

4) Reflect on God’s grace. We are not successful because of our ingenuity or systems or effort. We are successful in ministry when God moves. Revival is when God uses ordinary means to bring about extraordinary results. Salvation is when God uses his gospel to bring dead hearts to life. Transformation is God applying his perfect power to our imperfect lives. Do you notice the theme of all these things? They are all the gracious work of God. Remember that.

Remember. Wait. Seek. Reflect. And finally, expect.

5) Expect that God will do a mighty work for his name and for his glory. As Asaph prayed in Psalm 79:9:

Help us, God our Savior
  for the glory of your name.

Advertisements

Pray Inadequate Prayers for Your Class

Prayer is powerful because God is powerful. Prayer accomplishes much because God accomplishes much. As teachers, we might plan, organize, and work hard, but we must still go to God and pray that He would stoop down and use us for his glory. In his grace, He loves to use his people—even broken, confused, struggling people like us—to do his work in the classroom. But we must remember the truth: He is the One who is doing the work… and if He doesn’t work, our effort is in vain. This is why we must pray.

We must pray that God will use our planning, our words, our assignments and assessments, and our example to show our students the truth about Him. We desire that they would see that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7). We want them to see that He is real. We want them to know that He is good. We are desperate that they understand that He cares for them.

We are compelled to pray because we need God to work, but we also need Him to hear, understand, and graciously improve our imperfect prayers. So often, we don’t know how to pray. We are so ignorant of what is happening in the minds and hearts of the young people in our classrooms. And even if we did know, we are not equipped to prescribe solutions. So why pray if our prayers are so inadequate and we are so ignorant? Because God graciously lends his loving wisdom and power to our ignorance and weakness. John Newton wrestled with this saying,

“When Satan points out to me the [incoherence and weakness of my prayer], and asks, ‘Is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God?’ I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace,—that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus.”

Yes, our prayers might be disasters, but God loves to succeed through our failures. Jesus prays perfect prayers, and He prays for us. Therefore, our poor prayer should not keep us from praying. Instead, our inadequacy should drive us to our knees, to his throne, to his grace. Jesus said it like this, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Prayer is like every other area of our lives—apart from Christ our prayers are ineffective.  

The reality of my own inadequacy has been impressed on me lately. I can do nothing good on my own. But thank God: He does all things well (Mark 7:37). Let’s seek his face. Let’s ask Him to work. Let’s plead with Him. And let’s remember that Christ makes our inadequate pleas into powerful, persuasive, perfect prayers that please the Father. Pray inadequate prayers for your class; Christ will take them and make them right.

 

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Biblically-Integrated STEAM

In a basic sense, teachers are trying to do two things: 1) teach truth and 2) teach a right response to truth. In other words, teachers are invested in worldview and worship. We are showing students what is true and what to do with truth. Here is how STEAM teachers might start to think about worldview and worship with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Knowledge and Comprehension (Bloom’s Levels 1 & 2)

In any scientific subject, students will encounter realities and systems within creation. These could include the water-cycle, ecosystems, cell structure, chemical reactions, etc. And each of these elements of creation shows something about God — his brilliance, his size, his creativity, his organizational skills, etc. So when we are on a lower-level of Bloom’s ladder, we are sharing information about the world… and about the God who made that world.

Most basically, this worldview information gives us a chance to teach worship through character. Chapters 1-3 of John A. Bloom’s (not the same Bloom who created the learning taxonomy) The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide are very helpful here. Our response to gaining knowledge and comprehension is to become excited explorers. This occurs because we know that God is a great Designer. We should be humbled as we note his power and brilliance. We should be thankful that He chose to make us, and make us able to see and understand some of his creation. The low levels of the taxonomy are made for biblically integrated teaching on character.

Application and Analysis (Bloom’s Levels 3 & 4)

As students gain knowledge and comprehension, they will start to apply and analyse that information. In other words, they are adding understanding to their information. In science, this is where they can start to practice, predict, experiment, and illustrate truths. Logical thinking plays a major role here as students wrestle with laws, roles, identity, and purposes. They learn that not only does the sun shine light and heat, but that that light has characteristics and elements that work in certain ways. Those characteristics demand understanding and response. For example, the sun provides our planet with necessary heat, but it also emits UV rays that can be dangerous.

In these stages of Bloom’s, students are learning how the world works and how they should operate in the world. They can learn about UV radiation and how they should cover their skin so they are no burned by it. This is where so-what questions arise and are answered. If the sun might burn me, what should I do? If a certain process creates dangerous pollution, what should we do? In essence, these stages are not just about how things work, but how they work together.

Synthesis, Evaluation, Creation (Bloom’s Levels 5 & 6)

The highest levels of Bloom’s are about evaluating the way things are and creating things as they should/could be. In STEAM-thinking, this is where engineering, design-thinking, artistic elements come into play because students are not only looking at God as the Creator; here they practice being created in his image by creating things themselves. We have studied UV radiation and we have studied inorganic chemicals. Next, we can put those pieces together  and learn about how some inorganic chemicals can protect their skin from UV radiation in sunscreen. Scientists in the past synthesized understanding of the sun and of chemicals to create sunblock! Very cool! This is what this level is all about: action.

Here is where we call students to the actions of creating, serving, sacrificing, and designing. They do not have to be geniuses. And they do not have to invent sunblock for these levels to work well. But the students should be thinking about how they can love others, serve those in need, and take care of the world. Questions here could include simple things like: What is the best way to brush my teeth? What toothpaste should I use? But there could be more dynamic questions too: I use clean water to brush my teeth, but many people in world don’t have clean water. What can I design cheaply using my knowledge of evaporation and condensation to make clean water? Or: Many people in world can’t easily buy toothpaste. What can I make using my understanding of chemistry that could work as a safe tooth-cleaning solution?

Obviously, you can go in any direction: technology for sharing the Bible digitally, systems-thinking for producing additional healthy food, artistic work to help others understand important truths, etc.

God has made people in his image. This means at least two things: 1) We should design and create good things to help/serve people like He does, and 2) Every person in the world is valuable, so we should work to love and serve them.

Note: You may have noticed that this post followed the inductive Bible-study method: information (what?) = Levels 1-2, understanding (so what?) = Levels 3-4, and action (now what?) = Levels 5-6. This is because good Bible-study naturally aligns with Bloom’s. God has designed us to learn in these ways.

Seeking and Supporting Truth: The Scientific Method

Biblical integration in every subject is a little different because every subject is different. This is a good thing—all subjects show the greatness of God differently; all subjects better equip us to live for Him in unique ways. This is very clear when it comes to skills and processes. For example, learning a foreign language will better equip a student to understand others and share Christ with them. Learning to cook will better equip a student to love the poor, love family, and serve in a variety of capacities related to hospitality. Likewise, the scientific method (and related science-thinking) provides a skill. It sharpens students’ abilities to propose hypotheses, use logic, accurately measure, and solve problems. All of these skills are used to seek and support truths.

Seeking

Christians are sometimes characterized as people who care more about faith than truth. However, this is inaccurate. There is no conflict between the two. We have faith because of truth. Jesus Himself came in grace and truth (John 1:14) and identified Himself as the truth (John 14:6). Science is a powerful tool in seeking the truth about God’s world, ourselves, and, inferentially, about God Himself.

The scientific method is a specific form of inquiry. We use it to seek truth. An example would be seeking to understand a disease like Polio. Researchers and doctors investigated the nature, characteristics, and causes of Polio. They had to systematically discover what it was.

This is one element of STEAM-thinking that, by nature, supports biblical integration: the scientific method is a search for truth. However, the use of the scientific method does not stop with understanding.

Supporting

The scientific method helps us understand how we can move forward as God’s people. We not only use the scientific method to understand the world, but also to impact it in ways that represent and please God. We can present hypotheses about solving problems — caring for creation, subduing the earth, taking care of orphans and widows, etc. Think back to our discussion Polio; once we understand the disease, we can apply the scientific method to curing and preventing it. And that is exactly what happened. Researchers and doctors were able to effectively love their neighbors by understanding and acting on the disease.

Conclusion

All STEAM-students should be seeking the truth and looking to support others when by acting in light of the truth. The scientific method is a tool that is powerful far beyond the science class. It teaches students to seek truth and to solve problems. STEAM-subjects provide a framework for living the Christian life successfully.

From and Toward: STEAM-Style

Biblical integration means teaching all things from and toward the glory of God. These two directions—from and toward—are both important. In STEAM subjects like science, and all other subjects, we need build on strong foundations (from) and aim for healthy goals (toward). Sadly, some of the work done in scientific fields has recently been marred by an uncritical acceptance of two beliefs: naturalism and cultural relativism.

From: Foundations of Science

Naturalism is “the philosophical belief that reality is composed solely of matter and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes (e.g., law of gravity).” In other words, there is no supernatural.

John A. Bloom helpfully noted, in The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, that “contemporary science has chosen to restrict itself to giving naturalistic explanations no matter what,” (21) and this leads to perceived conflict between between science and Christianity. Bloom helps us understand that there is no real conflict between science and the Christian faith. No, he helpfully illustrates that the real conflict is between naturalistic and Christian commitments. Therefore, the science vs. faith narrative that is often conveyed in popular culture is not accurate to real life. Instead, the faith commitments of naturalism and Christianity provide differing perspectives on the foundations of scientific study.  

Naturalism and Christianity are both faith commitments. The question is: which is more scientific? And which provides a better foundation? Naturalism assumes materialism (the belief that all things are composed of matter, energy, or ideas). Christianity, on the other hand, holds that there is a God who works in and above the material world. God is able to do this because He is not a part of creation; He is the Creator.

Christianity offers a stronger foundation to build upon because it can engage all the laws of nature, and it gives reasonable support by demonstrating that the laws of the natural world were decreed by a Law-maker. Naturalism assumes laws of nature, but can give no account for the origin or enforcement of these laws. Instead of limiting the study and understanding of the world to the natural, Christians can study the natural universe and investigate natural causes most accurately and confidently because we understand that God is the Originator, Designer, and Sustainer. We have a foundation to build on. Those committed to a secular worldview are looking for a “God-particle,” a theory of everything, and other unifying ideas, but they are searching for what Christians have already found—God.

Toward: Right Aims of STEAM-Subjects

While science is invested in investigating the what of various phenomena, engineering and technology is working with the how and why. Tech companies want to design, enhance, and engineer items to make the world better. And, in many ways, they have succeeded. We have devices that can clean water, perform accurate surgeries, preserve food, and much more. However, the big question that needs to be asked is: What is the definition of better?

Is cheaper, more accessible food better? Are GMOs good or bad? Are fossil-fuels good because of all the advances that they provide? Or are they a problem because of the pollutants they emit?

STEAM subjects must wrestle with ethics because engineering and technology are ethically guided. Many technologies have made things easier for the developed world, but easier doesn’t always mean better. The prevailing moral construct of secularism is cultural relativism—“the belief that truth and morals are relative to (or defined by) one’s culture.” This is a shaky concept. It would mean that the will of the people (the culture) is what determines what is good. In other words, what we want is what we should get. On its face, this is a dangerous way to live. Every one of us wants things that are not good. There are numerous historical examples of cultures gone wrong—think about slavery, greed, discrimination, and other evils that have marked era after era. Why would a rational person (like a scientist) want to live according to a hypothesis that has already been tested and been found disastrous?

Christians have a vision of the good life. We have a reason to believe in innate human rights. We have an understanding of the brokenness of mankind. We have a commitment to follow Christ in helping those in need.

Christian engineers and technologists have concrete aims and standards. This is a major advantage when it comes to inventing, designing, or improving. We can wrestle with whether or not our work is honoring to God. We can choose projects that do more than make things easy—we can work on projects that meet needs, advance the gospel, support equity, and explore God’s creation.

In my next post, we will examine the aim of the scientific method and how that relates to biblical integration.

STEM, STEAM, and an Integrated World

Integrating material is a natural inclination for many educators. We intuitively understand that the world is not neatly divided into separate areas of study—all of life is interdisciplinary. Think about any area of life to see this play out  in your own life. Taking care of family includes budgeting, planning, teamwork, entertainment, problem-solving… Playing baseball includes score-keeping, situational thinking, leadership, order, identification… Cultivating a healthy lifestyle includes shopping, exercising, cooking, sleeping, enjoying, accomplishing… While life is made up of many elements, those elements are all part of a larger whole. This understanding is clearly seen in STEM-education.

“STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications.”

Of course, this makes sense. Science has the goal of systematically moving from ignorance to knowledge. Technology is the practical application of knowledge. Engineering uses science and technology with the aim of creating things/spaces/systems which are useful for people. Math is the science of numbers which is used as a language for measurement and communication. Each element of STEM serves the others. They exist with one another and for one another. However, the world of education is now noting that the symbiosis does not and should not stop with science, tech, engineering, and math. STEM does not exist as something walled off from the rest of the world.

Think about the area of “design.” Is design more related to engineering (designing bridges/planes/golf-clubs) or art (designing sculptures/beautiful buildings/music)? Uh oh. You might have noticed the cross-over. Bridges and buildings do need to be engineered, but they also need to be artfully developed. Consider the old cathedrals of Europe—are they great feats of engineering or great works of art? Both! Architects are artists… and engineers. It turns out that the world is, as previously noted, naturally integrated.

This is one of the reasons that STEAM education (STEM plus Art) is on the rise. There is a need for scientists to think creatively as they produce hypotheses, consider how to test them, and convey their findings. Musicians are innately mathematical. In fact, music is, in a very real sense, math (twelve tones combined systematically in horizontal and vertical patterns). City planners have to do the math in order to pragmatically engineer working systems, but they must also engage in the art of developing appealing and attractive spaces.

Is it any wonder that some of the great thinkers were artists and scientists? Consider Leonardo da Vinci: painter and inventor. Consider Benjamin Franklin: author and scientist. And think about some of the great developments of every age. Is the Parthenon art or engineering? Both. Is the iPhone practical or stylish? Both. This shows the natural integration of the ultimate Designer—God. And it shows that those in his image are made to be integrators too.

In my next post, I plan to help you explore how STEAM teachers can think about how a Christian worldview differs from secularism when it comes to teaching from and toward the glory of God.

 

Christmas Confidence for the Struggling Teacher

Teaching in a Christian school can be hard. There are all the usual challenges of teaching (discipline, time-management, grading, communication, etc.), but there is something else too: the heavy weight of hard-hearted students. One of my most persistent struggles as a classroom teacher has been with lost students who see the gospel as old, boring, played-out, and dry. They think that, because they have heard the story often, it is normal for them to be innoculated to its worship-inducing effects. It crushes me that those who are quickest to yawn at the gospel are those who have never grasped the goodness of the gracious God who has offered Himself to a lost and needy world. It is hard to watch a starving soul push away the nourishing meal that is so desperately needed.

However, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” (Rev 7:10). His ways are perfect and He is in control. 

David’s words in Psalm 18:28-30 are some of the most encouraging in the Bible:

You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
   my God turns my darkness into light.
With your help I can advance against a troop;
   with my God I can scale a wall.
As for God, his way is perfect:
   The Lord’s word is flawless.

Our hope is in God. His ways are perfect. They may not always seem perfect to me, but that simply means that I am not rightly or fully understanding what He is doing or how He is doing it. Isaiah 55:9 reminds me that his thoughts are infinitely higher than mine. So, when we see a student not grasping the goodness of the gospel, we must remember that God is working out his perfect plans. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and the Lord knows how to wield his power. He is not limited by our inadequacies. 

The Lord’s ways are not only good and right — they are unstoppable. Listen to the words of God:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
   I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
   from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand,
   and I will do all that I please,” (Is 46-9-10).

He cannot be stopped! He never tries to save a student, but then fails to do so. God never fails. His word is power. For God to attempt something is to accomplish that thing. John Piper helpfully elaborates, saying,

The risen, reigning, King of kings and Lord of lords reigns over this world and over his mission with absolute sovereignty. Nothing is outside his sovereign will. If he meets with resistance, he either allows it for his purposes, or he overcomes it for his purposes. His sovereign purposes are never thwarted.

We see this in the Christmas story when the angel speaks to Joseph with these words: “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). Do you see the promise here? “He will save his people from their sins.” There is no maybe or might. He will save his people.

But who are his people? The angel again answers — this time speaking to the shepherds — “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” (Luke 2:14). He brings peace to those He graciously favors. There is no stopping God from keeping his promise to save his people. There is no way for his favored ones to get away from his kindness. Remember David’s words?

Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
  for darkness is as light to you, (Ps 139:7-12).

Of course, knowing that God is a gracious and powerful Savior does not make hard-heartedness easy to handle. But it does bring confidence to the situation. I can’t save my kids. But God can. And He can use any elements He wants to bring about that salvation. If He can use a census, a stable, and some shepherds, He can use the situations in my students’ lives too. 

It is a horrible injustice for his gospel to go unappreciated in the classroom (or anywhere else). However, I take joy in knowing that He is a God who has planned to use even the worst evils to accomplish his good plan. Think back on the crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28 shows us that even the conspiracy of evil leaders to kill the Christ was God’s perfect plan: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

It was his plan from the beginning that his unjust death would justly save his people from their sins. This is what the angel meant when he spoke to Joseph. Even the most heinous crime against the Holy One was to be a part of God’s saving mission. He is so good! He is so strong! And just as the Lord planned to die for the world before He breathed it into existence, He chose to save his sons and daughters. Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4-6,

He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

God saves his people. The Christmas story is clear: his name is Jesus and He will save his people from their sins. Those who belong to Him will believe in Him. We can be confident of that. And we can rejoice in the role He has given us in his saving mission. But why don’t all believe? If God’s missions never fail, why do some people fail to follow Him? In John 10, some skeptics came to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. They didn’t believe in Him, and the Lord explains why some people believe and some people don’t:

Jesus answered, “I did tell you [that I am the Messiah], but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:25-30).

I am so encouraged by the Messiah’s words here. His sheep listen to his voice. His sheep will have eternal life. His sheep can never be taken out of his hand. And the Shepherd made no mistakes in assembling his flock. Further, He makes no mistakes in using us to declare his truth.

God has placed us in the lives of students to be his voice. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15) We have have been sent to preach to them in and through the classroom.

So, if you are discouraged at the hard-hearts (as I am at times), keep telling your students the Good News. People are included in Christ when they hear the message of truth (Eph 1:13). Preach, preach, preach. God can replace the stone heart and bring life (Ez 36:26). And He can use you to do it.

And keep praying. John tells us, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him,” (1 John 5:14-15). Pray, pray, pray. Pray that God would save your students because only He can do it. We can’t save our students. Our students cannot save themselves. Only Jesus saves. Ask Him to exercise his sovereign power and bring dead hearts to life.

Christmas lifts up my heart when I am discouraged because my lost students sit un-enamoured by the gospel. God’s ways are perfect. God cannot be stopped. God will save his people from their sins. Glory to God, He brings peace to those He favors. And He uses his people to share his Good News. Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), but who knows but that you have come to your [teaching] position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14).