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What Do I Do with a Classroom Full of Immortals?

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote in “The Weight of Glory.” How can I help my 6th and 7th graders—as well as myself!—wrap our brains around that truth, carry it in our hearts and hands, our eyes and mouths, as we live with each other throughout the year?

I have a short, memorable object lesson I like to teach once a year. To see how I've done it with 10th graders, see these posts from 2013 and 2018. I did it Thursday with 6th and 7th graders.

It was the first day of the fall term. I brought a new family picture we’d had taken over the summer, a combined Mother’s Day/birthday present. I talked to my students for a couple of minutes about my kids and grandkids. Then I tore my husband out of the picture. The atmosphere in the room turned electric. Eyes popped. Jaws dropped. Horrified gasps and embarrassed giggles escaped. Everyone’s attention was focused. “What’s wrong?” I asked, feigning innocence. “That’s your husband!” a student blurted.

“No, it’s not,” I answered, holding up the scrap of paper. “My husband is much bigger. Thicker. Three dimensional. He walks and talks. This is a piece of paper with some ink on it.”

“But it’s a symbol,” another student offered. (Ah! That one’s been paying attention in English class!)

“You’re right,” I said. “This piece of paper is not my husband, but because it bears his image, it has significance, and how I treat it is important. Similarly, the Bible says that God created people in his image. That means you. You aren’t God, but because you bear his image, you have significance, and how I treat you, how you treat each other, and how we treat every person we meet, are important. How you perform in class this term has no effect on the respect and love I have for you. And I want to help you develop all the language skills God has given you. So let’s go!”

What does this lesson mean for the rest of the year?

First, by the grace of God, I now have to hold myself to that commitment—that class performance has no effect on the respect and love I have for a student. It is what God tells me —as his redeemed child, nothing Ido can make him love me anymore or any less. Now, I can show my students a shadow of what I have received. If not me, then who? Who will show them God’s love?

Next, I want to take the opportunity of returning evaluations or giving feedback to remind students of my respect and love for them apart from their performance. I want to follow the lead of Dave Stuart Jr., who says at this point, “I externalize something that’s true. I say, ‘I never like you more when you do well on a paper; I never like you less when you do poorly on one. I never like you more when I’m giving good feedback, and I never like you less when I’m giving you difficult feedback. You can’t earn my love through doing good; you can’t lose my love through doing bad.” Check out Dave in the video below, “It's Not Personal; It's Only Business,” especially 0:35-2:13.

Actually, the principle of being God’s image bearers is foundational to the rest of the year. It’s why I believe that every student has a voice and ideas that need to be heard in the class and in the world, so we will learn how to find those ideas, talk about them, write about them, to listen to each other. It’s why we treat each other with respect in the classroom. It’s why we’ll read, for example, A Long Walk to Water to learn empathy for other image bearers, care for the creation entrusted to us, and a passion for justice.

So here’s looking forward to the new term with a classroom full of immortal image bearers of God! May we truly learn to see each other, and see ourselves, as such.

How about you? How do you help your students understand what it means that people bear God’s image? What practical implications does this have in your class?

Editor's Note: Originally on Kim Essenburg's blog "Learn, Unlearn, & Relearn" on September 2, 2022.


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