Planning a feast: ideas for teaching Christianly.
Updated: Jan 17
When teaching in a Christian school, we are working with a secular, state mandated curriculum. What we mean by ‘teaching Christianly’ is the activity of framing the curriculum content within a Christian context and biblical worldview or social imaginary.
Why do we do this?
At a very practical level, it’s because education is not neutral. Everyone has a framework within which they process knowledge. If you’re a follower of Jesus, your conviction is that the right framework for knowledge is one that is shaped by the One who knows: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
At a deeper level, we teach Christianly for the honour of God and the salvation of many. After writing about daily practical life as Christ-followers in a very pagan city, Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10 :31-33 (NIV)
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
So, whatever we do, we are compelled to do it for God’s glory and for the salvation of many. This is life-encompassing … in his actions and his words whether he’s at a friend’s house for dinner or walking through the marketplace; whether he’s debating in the synagogue or sitting chained in a prison … what Paul does is for God’s glory and the good of many, so that they may be saved.
So, how can this be done in the classroom?
First, we wrestle with how this is worked out in our classrooms by thinking hard about how biblical understanding shapes our conduct, our lesson content and, where possible, our curriculum choices. By integrating Christian thinking and understanding across curriculum areas we are endeavouring to commend the gospel in an intellectual space. We are engaged in the task of persuasion, for Christian faith is not at logger heads with reality. This conceptual and planning work is a noble task that is not easy and needs regular, prayerful attention. (Thinking biblically in relation to specific knowledge domains is explored in the Curriculum Connections series of posts).
Secondly, however, we need to consider how to practically incorporate Christian understanding into our lesson programs. I think this is an exciting endeavour and it is the focus of this post. On its own the secular curriculum is incomplete. By teaching the content within a biblical framework we not only move our students’ knowledge towards completion but also coherence. Here are 5 examples of possible ways you can bring biblical knowledge into your lessons. I’ve ordered them from ‘main meal’ to ‘after dinner mints’ … but as we all know the mints, though small, have just as big an impact, sometimes even more.
#1 The Big Chunk (the main meal)
This option involves setting aside a significant amount of classroom time to focus on what God has to say about a topic. By opening the Bible together with your students, you aim to help them see for themselves what God says, how he says it and where he says it. Obviously, this takes a bit of time to do well so it might mean devoting a whole lesson to this endeavour.
I encourage you to think creatively so students aren’t only hearing the ‘purple passages’ for each subject. For example, consider what the wisdom literature says on a topic rather than only a ‘creation, fall, redemption, new creation’ equation. Alternatively, you might be able to use a doctrinal approach rather than tracing ideas through salvation history. If you’d like an example of how doctrine links with curriculum content check out the ‘curriculum connections’ post States that Matter.
Not all topics will lend themselves to a big chunk meal, but some will, so don’t be shy of putting aside the time in your program.
#2 Debatable Questions (the side dishes)
This is the place to let students run ahead and see where their thinking leads them. The skill is to make sure you round it up with a biblical perspective. For example, as students wrestle with the concepts of justice and forgiveness in Philosophy do they tend to one perspective over another: does the value of rehabilitation in the justice system mean they focus on the benefits to the perpetrator without considering how justice relates to the victim? Or what truly transforms a person: is it rehabilitation or grace? How might grace shape rehabilitation?
You are the expert on what you are teaching, the challenge is to figure out what your students are thinking and then ask questions that move them towards a biblically shaped understanding of the topic.
#3 Character & Values (the bread roll)
Character education is like the multigrain sourdough roll at a wedding reception. The bread roll is always there but the flavour changes regularly. It is also one of the biggest pitfalls for Christian schooling: it can fill you up too easily, and then you miss out on the good stuff!
The temptation is to ‘teach character’ because it’s tangible and everyone thinks it’s important (which it is) but divorced from the good news that Jesus is King means that it ends up declaring a gospel of works, which is no gospel at all. No one intends for this to happen, but the hidden curriculum is pervasive and persuasive, so we need to be very clear about how and why we are teaching the value of Christian character to our students (and their parents!).
So, how do we do this? My guess is that most schools have their own ‘system’ for character education embedded in the classroom ethos, the behaviour management system, and the awards and celebration moments in school life. Whether I am explicitly teaching character strengths or reminding or commending my students about their character, I try to link it to Jesus. For example, is the character expression I’m looking for something that shows love to others (the 2nd greatest commandment) in the classroom, like kindness or self-control. Is it a character strength that reflects something of the importance of trusting God in a situation like courage or being principled?
I personally think the gospel value of character education comes with failure. Character education means that within the school community there is an understanding of what is good and consequently, what falls short. When many students or families have no knowledge of God’s law and no concept of sin (at least when they first walk through our doors), the school rules and character expectations function as a ‘sort of’ substitute. Character education means that I can easily have a conversation with students about missing the mark or not measuring up: neither they nor I meet the standards that we like, so what then? And if this is how we feel, or the consequences we face, when we fail at school, how much worse is it when we fail with God? Is there any hope for us? How do we move forward when we have failed? What great news we have in the forgiveness and renewal that is found in Jesus Christ!
When you’re talking about character education don’t forget the power of failure to move us towards the grace of God!
#4 Watch and Wonder (Dessert!)
This is dessert because it is sweet when it works!
You need to be alert to what’s happening in your curriculum and your classroom and I find, I need my thinking to be biblically renewed regularly so that my excitement can infuse the lesson. Basically, this never works for me if my own Bible reading has dried up.
The way this works is that it’s a few minutes where you step off the lesson path to briefly ponder something relevant … but you’re wondering at it, not labouring over it. Rather like a walking guide pointing out a rare bird in the trees as you continue on the path to your destination.
The Scriptures make us wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15-17), so they don’t make direct comment on many of the things we teach at school. However, as God’s revelation they are a treasure trove that shape our stance in, and towards, the world he created and redeemed. So, for example, did you know God made the Leviathan to play in the sea (Psalm 104:26)? Think of it, all those marine creatures in the midnight zone that we barely know about … God made them to play, to frolic in the depths! I don’t know what they are doing right now, but God does, and he finds them delightful … even more than the midnight zone expert in the front row of your 2nd grade class!
The world is not just functional, it’s recreational and there are many interesting things to ponder when we watch and wonder.
#5 Providential teachable moments (after dinner chocolates)
You can’t plan them, and you can’t guarantee they’ll be there, but they make your day when you get them. Like watch and wonder you need to be alert to the moment and be ready with a good biblical connection. Again, if you’re not regularly listening to God’s word and being challenged and excited by it … it’s difficult to make the most of providential teachable moments.
Since these moments just ‘pop up’ I can’t really outline how to do them. But I can give you an example from a year 4 lesson. As we were talking about God making the new creation the typical questions came up: ‘how old will we be?’ and ‘what will it be like?’ In God’s providence, sitting on the windowsill were their bean stalks growing before our eyes as part of the current science unit. The conversation went something like this …
Me: Do you know that when Jesus returns and God makes everything new again, he will give new and excellent bodies to all his followers so we can live with him forever? We don’t know exactly what they’ll be like … but you’ll be you and I’ll be me. A bit like this bean stalk here. Do you remember what the seed looked like a few weeks ago?
Class: It’s a broad bean seed … there’s one over there on the windowsill.
Me: Cool! Does the bean stalk now look like the seed back then?
Me: Is it the same plant?
Me: God says in 1 Corinthians 15 that it’ll be a bit like that for us too. Same people but bodies that are way better than they are now. That’s something great to look forward to, isn’t it?!
I couldn’t plan the moment, but it was great that the exact illustration God has given us was sitting right there when we needed it.
I hope and pray that some of these suggestions might help you plan a nourishing feast for your students! As with food for the body, so food for the soul: regular nourishment in digestible portions is far better than a huge feed and then nothing ... so plan your feast well.
If you’ve got other ideas that have worked for you I’d love to hear about them. Please use the contact page to send me an email. May our teaching and learning be for the glory of God and the salvation of many, whatever the topic! God bless.