You know that nagging voice you get in the back of your head as a teacher? Not the one pointing toward those last few papers to grade, or the textbook chapter you never got to, but the one that looks over the learning design you’ve got planned and says, “It’s not meaningful enough.” That disquieting little voice, rooted not in perfectionism, but in my Deep Hope for my students, was the seed that led me to uproot my 11th grade US History plans last April and try something new.
Any history teacher, Christian or otherwise, desires to equip their students for the duties of citizenship. For as long as I’ve taught the subject, this has been a subtext of my instruction, and it is at the heart of my Deep Hope that I invite my students into: “May we see the patterns of God’s story in the blessings and curses of our American inheritance and respond by joining in God’s restorative work.” This has only been magnified in recent years as I look out the window and I see the nation I love wracked in dysfunctional politics and idolatry. I see local communities giving way amidst the gales of the culture wars. Perhaps most unsettling, I look in the mirror and see many of the same weaknesses and inclinations. Given this heartbreaking reality, that pestering teacher voice was reminding me that historical context alone won't be enough to equip my students to imagine and live their lives as Christian citizens in America. If my Deep Hope had any chance of being realized, I needed to design a unit for my students that would build on their cognitive understanding to engage their hearts and healing hands.
The process of mapping out this new formational learning experience (FLEx, in Teaching for Transformation parlance) involved lots of reading, reflection, and conversations with colleagues. I also grabbed a few bits and pieces from the Civic Hospitality Project resource for Christian schools developed by a team led by David I. Smith for the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics1. In the end, what I called our Politics & Christian Practices Unit was oriented toward a target articulated in this Venn diagram:
Introducing this unit to my students felt bracingly real. I began by asking how they had seen and experienced broken, dysfunctional politics in their lives, families, and communities. Unsurprisingly, the room filled with one voice after another lamenting what they see on social media, what they read in the news, and even what they sometimes hear at home. Having set the problem before us, I asked if they would join me in something new and different - a unit of our course not oriented around historical analysis in and of itself, but one where we will get an opportunity to practice and experience the purpose of the course.
In addition to our class discussions and reflections, this Politics & Christian Practices Unit was oriented around three distinct experiences, all pointing toward the posture found at the center of that Venn diagram:
Students wrote a political position paper on a topic of their choice in which they were asked to state and defend their view while also graciously considering an opposing perspective. In addition, they were asked to research and reflect in order to situate the debate within a broader historical context and the practices and beliefs of the Christian faith. This paper was the most traditional aspect of the unit, but one that students expressed real appreciation for in that it allowed them to build confidence and experience from the inside-out what it meant to root one’s political beliefs and posture in historical understanding and Christianity.
We invited a guest “expert” to visit our class - pastor Andy Gray, founder of Catalyst for Harmony, a Minneapolis non-profit organization dedicated to “Biblically rooted and gospel-fueled discipleship in racial harmony.” It was a lovely, lively visit, as you can see for yourself. Our hope in meeting with Andy was to listen to stories told from the center of the Venn diagram, ask him questions, and prepare ourselves for the third experience in the unit.
Finally, students were asked to engage in a conversation about politics with a real person in the real world. Our primary posture and goal was to listen, understand, and embody the fruits of the spirit in a real relationship. Those expressions of the Holy Spirit are, after all, sometimes the only way we’re able to remain in close relationship through political disagreement. As we see all too often, in the absence of the fruits of the spirit, political conflict will melt down one relationship after another.
In designing these experiences, I was spurred on by Donovan L. Graham’s idea of students living out the gospel from his book Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth Into Your Classroom:
"A curriculum that is designed to help one live the gospel is not necessarily determined simply by what is in the textbooks or what is in the state curriculum guidelines. It should expect more than a mastery of certain bodies of information. It should force students into situations where they must live the gospel and where their knowledge is not measured simply by written activity. Perhaps it will also lead one to an experience of awe and wonder that is deemed as valuable as achievement test scores".2
I won’t lie and claim that I was supremely confident in this unit the whole time we were engaging with it. While I certainly believed in its potential, I didn’t know if its various components would cohere in the hearts and minds of my students in the way I dared hope. In the absence of perfect confidence, however, I chose to step out in faith and just go for it with my students. I fought the urge to combat every single worry and instead focused on what was good and true in this work. In the end, the unit received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students and plenty of encouraging responses:
“I loved being able to develop my political beliefs and also show compassion for those who have different opinions than me.”
“This experience helped me grow in my faith because it allowed me to have a meaningful conversation with someone that I disagree with politically. This unit gave me guidance on how to have that conversation. I found it cool that this unit put an emphasis on listening to others. Our world needs more of that.”
“I loved the political position paper. Being able to think through a topic and formulating our thoughts was more meaningful than a normal paper. It was an opportunity to expand our thinking about how we can bring a Christian perspective in a meaningful manner to politics.”
“Focusing on love and its importance and effect it can have on others and a community was meaningful. I felt convicted to love certain people that I don't necessarily get along with or have trouble having sympathy for.”
Teachers, when we hear that nagging voice in the back of our head suggesting that some aspect of our learning design isn’t reaching its fullest formational potential, we owe it to ourselves and our own convictions to take it seriously. While uprooting an existing plan can have a temporarily disruptive effect on our peace of mind, the meaningful satisfaction that floods in when our students find themselves living out the gospel and our deepest hopes is well worth the effort.
For more information on the Civic Hospitality Project, visit their website civichospitality.com (going live in October, 2022)
Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth Into Your Classroom, by Graham, Donovan L., Purposeful Design Publications, 2003. p. 43