Christians Teaching in Non-Christian Schools

Funny thing, being a Christian teacher. It has so many definitions and so many ways of manifesting itself in each individual teacher. In case my blog readers haven’t already noticed, one of the goals of this blog is to meet the needs of ALL Christian teachers, whether they are teaching in Christian schools, homeschooling or in secular schools.

Recently, I made the decision to leave the Christian school where I have been teaching for six years. It was a painful choice, as it was the place where I originally began my career. The decision came about due to a variety of reasons: financial, ideological, professional and personal.

And now I am finding myself teaching sixth grade at an Orthodox Jewish school with the definite understanding that it will not be an evangelical setting for my particular faith. What a change from teaching in a school that actively encouraged evangelism and supported teachers who led students in salvation prayers especially in the elementary grades.

While I am very excited to be able to finally afford to study for my Master’s degree after having dreamed, searching and strategized for so long, I also know that it will be difficult for me to find personal support in surviving my new environment. Value systems are different in some ways, and I occasionally find myself wondering whether I will inadvertently make a few mistakes along the way and offend my new Jewish co-workers, parents or students.

Regardless of where I teach, it doesn’t change the fact that the Spirit of God resides within me, constantly prompting me to grow inwardly and to manifest the fruits of the Spirit in my daily behavior. Having enjoyed the amazingly good behavior of my Christian school students, I will be facing the challenge of classroom management once again, hoping that I can conquer my own frustrations, my loneliness at having left my fellow Christian co-workers behind, and learn how to work outside the Christian bubble with which I was constantly surrounded.

For those of you who are Christians teaching in a non-Christian or secular school, I would appreciate your advice or commentaries. God bless each and every one of you and sustain you as the new school year begins.

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New Ideas for Using Technology in the Classroom

In the past I have mentioned my intent to use more technology in the classroom. Here are a few ideas that I have been exploring more and more on a daily basis. Of course, this depends on the resources that you have available, but all you need to be able to truly do these things is to have a laptop with wireless or networking available, and also a projector. In order for your program to truly be successful, you also need your students to have computer/internet access at home or in a computer lab at school that they can use during their study hall hours.

#1–Nicenet. Located at www.nicenet.org, this is an amazing teacher tool, especially for challenging your gifted students or your high school students. Students love it for two reasons: They can use it to interact with each other outside of school walls and they can have more exciting assignments that can accomplish more in less time. Let me explain. Nicenet is an online bulletin board that you, as the teacher, control and moderate. It is a private site that is only accessible by you and your students. Therefore, you do not have the potential problem of outside advertisements or spam mail that could contain dangerous content for your students. You can use it to do the following things:

–Post a discussion topic or assignment for your students to independently “turn in” online.

–Allow students to write responses to each others’ entries and start a discussion stream.

–Post links to websites for reading or youtube videos that fit into classroom goals.

#2–Youtube. Located at www.youtube.com, this is a tremendous resource for teachers. You do have to be careful of what content you are using–many sites are student-developed and may not contain accurate information. (Similar to the issue with Wikipedia.) However, they can provide an excellent anticipatory set or introduction to material. ESL students especially can focus with Youtube, especially if content vocabulary is introduced ahead of time. When my students read FDR’s “The Four Freedoms” speech in their books, they were able to hear the audio of Franklin D. Roosevelt giving the speech. Teachertube is another site similar to Youtube that contains academic videos that you can search according to subject area. Just remember that sometimes they videos need to be “buffered” or uploaded ahead of time so that they will play smoothly. You can do this by pausing the video and waiting a few minutes before playing it.

#3–Microsoft Powerpoint presentations. With the appropriate technology, teachers can quite easily use this powerful visual tool for presenting information. I suggest giving a Powerpoint presentation while asking students to fill out graphic organizers. It gives them a format for notetaking to keep them on task while you take care of your Powerpoint direct instruction of content. You can make it also more interactive by using a Powerpoint to create games and quizzes for students as a tool for review. You can also use it to show students primary sources that can be found online.

#4–Edmodo. So much controversy has bloomed over whether teachers should be using Facebook or connecting to their students’ Facebook pages. I personally do not “friend” my students or allow them to “friend” me. In my opinion, it is best to keep a professional distance from the personal lives of my students and avoid any issues that may arise as a result. However, I recently ran into a kind of Facebook alternative–one that allows a teacher to message her students, post documents and links, and maintain a calendar independently. This option is located at www.edmodo.com. If Nicenet gets too complicated in format for your younger students (say, Middle school or Upper Elementary), this new tool may be the answer to keeping your class in one private location where the focus is professional, not personal. Some of the tools provided by your school’s technology (such as Renweb or Edline) may overlap with this tool, but you can certainly control some of the design functions and use it in different ways. It’s a brand new tool offered through TeacherTube, which mean it may have a few glitches left to work out. After I’ve had a chance to set up my site, I’ll review it and let you know what I think!

In the meantime, I highly encourage all teachers to think outside of the box and actively push yourself to understand how to use technology. Don’t give excuses that you are too old to learn, but actively seek ways to be innovative with your classes. If you don’t know how to use the technology, ask someone who does to show you. Use whatever resources that you have available. Your students will thank you and you will appreciate it when they appear more engaged and ready to participate in your classroom activities. I personally have been astonished at the depth I have found in my students’ Nicenet responses. In most cases, it is more in-depth than I would ever receive in a classroom discussion since it eliminates fear of public speaking and encourages contribution and interaction. Don’t be afraid to try new things! Old dogs CAN learn new tricks!

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The Challenge of Avoiding Censorship

I’m writing about censorship mainly because it is an issue that all Christian teachers need to face–especially literature, art and music teachers, and especially those who teach in a faith-based school. Although I may differ in opinion from some Christian teachers and schools from time to time, I hope that this article will not offend my loyal readers, but instead challenge you to continue the attempt to meet both academic and spiritual needs of your students.

When I traveled abroad in college, one of the seminars I was required to take was entitled “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” I suppose due to the fact that it was supposed to be a cross-cultural experience and also because we were all growing as Christian intellectuals, they considered it a relevant topic. Athens symbolized the world of intellectualism since Greece was the native land of famous philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Jerusalem, in turn, symbolized the world of faith since it was the birthplace of Judaism and also Christianity. The seminar was entitled as a question because it is the age-old question of our times. How do we reconcile our Christian faith with our ability to reason with the intellect? Must we choose either/or?  Is our intellect truly a completely separate entity that should be divorced from our faith?

For the teacher of literature, art and music (and–let’s face it–history and science as well), sensitivity to the needs and maturity levels of the students is necessary at all times. As parents, we observe our children and try to ascertain when our children are ready to tackle topics that require critical thinking and wisdom. Proverbs says that only fools despise wisdom and understanding. In turn, when we realize that our children are unable to make mature critical judgments in certain areas, we are smart enough not to put them in tempting situations. As teachers, we need to respect the rights of parents and the rights of the children in our classroom.

Of course, the easy solution to any and all book challenges is to do whatever it takes to avoid controversy. If a book is not right for one child, it is not right for them all. Let’s just choose a different book next time and make it clear that the controversial book is not to be used in the future. Certainly that would solve the problem at the time. It certainly would please the person who objected to the book’s content. However, can we really generalize the maturity level of one student to be true for all students, past, present and future? Does one parent have the right to choose for all members of a classroom or all members of a school?

I would like to urge Christian teachers and administrators to consider the messages that book censorship send to students. In order to take the easiest road, we are neglecting the intellectual rights of our students to make some critical decisions for themselves. We are telling them that they are incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong and that books are responsible for making us immoral creatures. We are failing to take responsibility ourselves for giving them the tools to make those critical judgments. In robbing them of these opportunities, we are also giving them a false idea of the world around them. We are carefully molding a world for them that, instead, depicts the Christian life as something free and easy. Ignorance is bliss, right?

We are also telling them that they have to choose between faith or their intellect. We are telling them that they cannot exist on the same plane. That one’s intellect cannot be satisfied while being a Christian, and that one cannot be a Christian without leaving the intellect behind. That the solution to dealing with the world is simply to hide away, avoid and ignore it. Again, I mean no offense to those who, as I do, espouse the idea that we are “in the world, but not of it.” I am not saying that a Christian should just roll willy nilly into sinful practices, view pornography as an intellectual exercise or insist that romance novels are works of art. Graphic content without purpose is just graphic content, and I agree that there are plenty of contemporary examples of this trend that should be avoided.

So how do I suggest that we tackle the problem of “difficult content”? At all times, avoiding censorship will be a challenge.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the following questions when selecting materials to use:

Do these materials promote a lifestyle that is sinful, or do they show the consequences of immoral behavior?

Do these materials serve as an example of a strong literary/intellectual work, or is a lesser work that is worthless in a literary sense?

Do these materials contain graphic, long mentions and descriptions, or are they delicately written so as to avoid salacious content just for content’s sake?

What is the context of the content to the overall work–does it serve a purpose, or is it meant to simply serve as “shock factor”?

Do these materials serve an educational purpose and meet the reading and maturity needs of the students? (For example, you would never expect a middle school student to understand The Scarlet Letter on a reading level, and you also would not expect them to be mature enough to tackle the content and themes of Crime and Punishment.)

Will you be addressing these content issues with the students? (It is usually worse to pretend that they’re not there and assume that the students already understand a Christian world view on these topics without guidance toward making these critical judgments.)

Again, this is the opinion of one woman, and not necessarily the view of any single institution or any other individual. I do not claim to hold the key to the mysteries of the universe or to claim that my opinion on this issue is the only correct approach. I am also not advocating that we should not take our moral responsibilities seriously as to the materials we use to teach. I am instead attempting to think through censorship as an issue, simply because it affects us all and can potentially cause harm and hurt to many people who work in Christian school ministries. I welcome honest, respectful feedback on this topic, as long as it does not demean others or cause more division within the Church. We are called to work together in unity, so let’s not allow this issue to divide us! Instead, let’s reinforce each other and edify each other within the ministry.

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Substitute Teachers

Our experience with substitute teachers varies widely. Sometimes our last interaction with substitute teachers was back in high school, when one entered our history or math classroom. (Note: these are the types that tend to chuckle over the memories of those experiences.) Some of us have been substitute teachers ourselves, which makes us appreciate the difficulty of settling down a classroom that is not used to accepting a substitute teacher’s authority.

Which brings me to my biggest question for this post: How responsible should a mainstream teacher be for the experience of his/her substitute teacher? In today’s public schools, a teacher need only email in a lesson plan or two (which may include spontaneous “study halls) and then allow the school to do the digging for the substitute teacher. Once I was a long-term substitute for a teacher on maternity leave who left very brief, vague outlines with little to no notes or suggestions other than–“you can use my files if you like.” Granted, there are good substitute teachers and there are bad substitute teachers. I have seen some substitutes spend an entire class period on the computer or putting on makeup while their students wander throughout the classroom. I have seen other substitutes that just yell at students the entire period. But, in my personal opinion, the success of a substitute teacher in the classroom really runs both ways.

Rule #1: The way you prepare your classroom for a substitute teacher really reflects on your commitment to your classes.

Is teaching just a “job” to you? Chances are that the only reason you’ve lasted in this profession is because somewhere down deep inside of you, there is a true and lasting commitment to the learning and social experiences of your students. And if this is the case, you need to keep in mind how much your students miss of that learning time when you fail to adequately prepare your class. My students are aware that my policy is an automatic detention if I hear any information about student disobedience, disrespect or out of control behavior while a substitute is in charge. While for myself I will take aside a student and question them, listening to their version of events, students know that I will not ask them questions, not accept explanations and that they will simply take the punishment as given. Sound harsh? Well, it certainly eliminates the possibility of the student trying to usurp the authority of the substitute by assuming that I will take his/her word over the teacher’s description of events. Students make an extra-special effort to treat the teacher with dignity, knowing that they will be held responsible for their actions with or without my presence in the classroom. Before I went on maternity leave, I communicated with my students about which substitute would be chosen, and even gave them some “transitioning” assignments that allowed them to thoughtfully anticipate the changes that they might experience. These types of activities are essential in making sure that a class does not take advantage of a substitute teacher in the classroom or cause transition conflicts for the substitute.

Rule #2: When you leave your substitute teacher in the dark, you should expect that they will not necessarily always make the best decisions about classroom management, lesson planning, student discipline or class organization. Not all substitutes are experienced classroom teachers. Also, even an experienced classroom teacher will benefit from knowing your procedures and teaching methods ahead of time. Not that they have to use every single method you use, but they should at least know what the students are used to and which procedures will help them feel comfortable in the transition. When you leave scanty lesson plans (a.k.a. “study hall”), you can expect that your substitute will have difficulty at some point controlling the noise level over a 40-minute class period. Before I went on maternity leave, I left detailed semester outlines not only of the content that needed to be taught, but also suggestions about which specific textbook items to use, ideas for activities/projects and files organized by month for each class. I also copied my USB items onto a USB for the long-term substitute, realizing the amount of work it takes to reinvent the wheel. Save your substitute time, and he/she will be more effective and likeable to your students. Allow your long-term sub to contact you via email or telephone for the first week, then let them go. By then you have done your job.

To summarize, in case I haven’t been clear enough, it really is the responsibility of the mainstream teacher to complete his/her professional duties with responsibility and recognition of the consequences of decisions made in regards to substitute teachers. If you have not shown enough professional respect for the substitute, the students will not show respect for the substitute either. It is not your job to teach the class for the substitute and remain in contact every second during a maternity leave. However, you should at the very least do your best to make the transition as easy as possible for both students and substitutes. This allows students to learn appropriate behavior toward authority and also earns you the respect of substitutes who will always want to sign up for your classes in the future.

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Schools, Kids and Nutrition

I find it very disturbing that, despite all of our concerns about American obesity and all of the physical health issues that go with it, we still have schools and parents that do not take responsibility for the nutrition of children, which is where our first education about nutrition begins!

Let me break it down for you, parents. You are your child’s first model of how to eat correctly and how to eat well. If you are inconvenienced by cooking, it does not excuse reliance on fast foods or artificial, processed products for the primary meals of your child. If you treat your body poorly, your child will do the same. Think of it this way. You work hard for your money, but consciously eating well is not just helping you; it is also helping your child. There are some easy changes you can make in your diet that would not take nearly as long as you think.

Tips:

–Start buying and using whole wheat or multigrain pasta instead of the regular kind. There is not much cost difference, and it doesn’t really taste much different. Just be sure to make sure it is thoroughly cooked and that there is sufficient olive oil in your pot to avoid sticking.

–Make the switch from processed white bread to whole wheat or multigrain bread. (It’s SO much different!)

–Slowly take your whole milk down to 2% milk, then to 1% milk and finally to skim milk so that your child adapts to the new taste.

–Buy natural peanut butter that contains Omega 3’s and flax/linseed oil. The No-sugar or reduced sugar Smuckers jellies can also help you make those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches healthy!

–Try pureed carrots to add to your spaghetti sauces or even spinach, if your kid doesn’t object to the color green.

–Limit the meat intake on a given plate, but allow for seconds on the vegetables and whole-wheat bread.

–Offer fruit as dessert. Canned fruits in heavy syrup do little for your child. If you must buy canned, look for the ones canned in plain water.

–Find fat-free salad dressings to use in all kinds of yummy flavors. Experiment with different salad ingredients such as putting grapes, oranges, grapefruit or spinach leaves in the salad. Make it look pretty and inviting.

–Kids tend to like finger foods, so take the time to pull the grapes off of the stems for your kids or put together a little baggie of baby carrots or cucumber slices with some dressing.

–Some yogurts contain less sugar than others. Look for “natural” or “organic” yogurts that can aid your child in digestion and immunity. Gelatin is also good for the skin and is cheap to buy in little cups.

–Fat-free puddings are a good way for your child to get a chocolate fix without ice cream or candy bars.

–Don’t send your kid to school with money every day unless you are guaranteed that they will not be spending it on chips, chocolate and sodas from the vending machine. Look at the school’s lunch menu, and do not assume that the school is looking out for your child’s best nutritional interest. (You want to know how much salt and fat is in the “turkey chunks and gravy potatoes” dish? What about the mac and cheese or the chicken fingers?)

I hope that some of these tips help you out as parents. I also hope that some of you will also make some of these dietary changes. Parents, we need to stop abusing our bodies so that we can give more and be more for our kids. Waiting for an illness or a dysfunction in immunity to take place before making lifestyle changes is not good enough! Love your child by loving yourself!

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New Textbooks?

Although small schools often work from small budgets, they should always be looking for new ways to improve the resources that they use, and make sure that their textbooks are designed to be used within the framework of their school setup. For example, some textbooks (such as A Beka or Accelerated Christian Education) are typically designed to be used for homeschooling environments. Others, such as ACSI’s Purposeful Design, are more geared toward private Christian schools.

Sometimes as teachers and parents we tend to panic when faced with change. We’ve taught out of such-and-such textbook for so long, and saved all of the materials we needed, and learned how to “make it work,” that the idea of a textbook change is scary and requires too much time and effort. Not only that, it is a huge investment of money as well. A school needs to be committed to a textbook change since money invested cannot be easily returned. But it doesn’t mean that we have to be afraid of change or that we have to feel guilty if we can’t figure out the new curriculum resource right away. Keep in mind the following hints for success in working with new resources:

1. Learning to use a new textbook really well sometimes takes a few years. So here you are, in your second or third year of teaching, and your school just changed textbooks. What about all that stuff you already developed? Do you have to throw it all away? No, not really. Most textbooks are very similar in terms of the content they cover. A literature textbook, for example, may be organized slightly differently, but may include many of the same authors. Don’t be so quick to throw out all of the materials you have developed over time. Take a look at some of the “quick” tools your new textbook offers such as printable worksheets, quizzes, tests, etc., and make use of them during the first year until you can get your bearings. When you see a way to develop materials to supplement the primary resource in a way that improves the quality of instruction, the rule is “JUST DO IT!” If it works out well, SAVE IT! If it doesn’t, THROW IT AWAY!

2. Communicate with others about the snags you run into with the new resource. Most private schools have a department head of some sort. If you are having difficulties, try writing down the problems that you are experiencing and examples of how you experienced them. Do not make generalizations such as “It just doesn’t work” or “It doesn’t give enough guidance.” Instead, tell your supervisor exactly which areas of the textbook caused snags and debunk the problem. In some cases, you can sort out the issues with your supervisor, fellow teachers or even with the textbook publishers, who may be willing to send your school a representative that can answer questions. Our school recently switched to Scott Foresman language arts books for elementary. When the representative came down to speak with us, she not only gave us access to a website for additional help, but gave us her personal email if we should have further questions. For homeschooling parents, there are plenty of connective websites out there to help you educate your child in the best way possible. Make use of the knowledge and experience of others!

3. Have an open mind, and be willing to change your teaching methods. Are you used to a textbook that encouraged a lot of direct instruction? Perhaps you are happy when your classroom is quietly working in their rows or completing worksheets and homework. What are you supposed to do with a new textbook that encourages use of technology, group work, interactive instructional techniques and perhaps even a little bit of noise in the classroom? Believe it or not, it is possible to have an interactive, yet orderly classroom. For some, it may appear noisy, but when you look at the students and their independent and group work, you can clearly see that learning is taking place. Find new and creative ways of approaching your textbook. Don’t panic when you are out of your comfort zone of direct instruction. Instead, find methods of setting up your classroom and instruction that gives you the best of both worlds–a highly dynamic yet well-managed environment.

4. Realize that you will need to spend time to make your textbook work.  Don’t expect the textbook to do the work for you. Don’t just spend the entire year relying only on the textbook and its accompanying supplements. Develop, create, invent, research, investigate, add, and enhance your curriculum. These skills are the responsibility of every teacher regardless of the textbook he or she is using. There is no such thing as a perfect textbook that already contains absolutely everything that you might need. If you are annoyed with the textbook for not providing better anticipatory sets, then create your own! If you are not given tips on how to approach vocabulary, complete some research on vocabulary instructional strategies and learn how to make the vocabulary in the book work for you. You may not be able to do all of your development in one year, but you can at least get a good start and build off of it next year. Don’t just allow yourself to be paralyzed in panic so that you convince yourself you don’t have time or enough creativity to pull it off. Experiment, and don’t be afraid to start or stop a teaching technique that isn’t functioning.

5. Be secure and confident in yourself as a teacher. Teachers, for some reason, tend to be very insecure about their classrooms. So many of us load up on the guilt and end up rejecting constructive criticism out of hurt feelings. Don’t be resentful when someone tries to show you a better way. Don’t automatically assume that they are wrong as a form of self-protection. At the same time, be confident in your skills as a teacher and assess yourself regularly. Ask yourself some key questions at the end of a lesson–what did I do right? What could I have done better? How can I make the lesson less boring? How can I increase the level of academic skills in the lesson? What confused the students and how can I teach it better next time?  At the end of each quarter, assess yourself and your teaching methods. Ask yourself: Am I getting through to the students? How is my classroom management? What improvements can I make next quarter? What improvements will have to wait until next year? If you are constantly growing and improving, you are doing your job as a teacher. We all make mistakes and we can all improve our skills, regardless of the years of experience we may be carrying with us.

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Good Books for Christian Teachers–The Chosen by Chaim Potok

As an English teacher, I am often called upon to select appropriate books to teach in my classes. Since I am the lead teacher in my department, selecting high school novels falls upon me, and this task I take very seriously. As a Christian teacher, I understand that my job requires sensitivity, detailed consideration and a logical rationale for each selection. Each book must be carefully read and selected with a Christian worldview in mind. However, each book must also strive to fulfill the academic requirements of my school as well, which has high expectations in mind. Students should be prepared to survive in an AP Literature and Composition course, which requires strong critical thinking skills and an ability to read discerningly.

One of my favorite picks is the novel The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. What can I say about this book? I love it! Not only does it relate to my students in Panama, it is perfect for discussing a different religion and religious tolerance. It is also excellent for use in a World Literature classroom since it provides so much opportunity for discussion of European history, especially history concerning the Jewish populations. In summary, The Chosen is a book narrated by a young Jewish boy named Reuven Malter, whose father is a professor who write articles about Jewish commentary and interpretation. At the beginning of the story, Reuven meets Danny Saunders, who is the son of an Hasidic Tzaddik rabbi. Although they meet under circumstances that should divide them concerning religion and identity, they somehow make a very unique friendship that helps them survive the coming-of-age process and coming to terms with their own roles within the Jewish faith. This book allows for critical discussion of the following topics:

–What should be the relationship between religion and the secular world?

–What are some Jewish beliefs and traditions? How are they similar/different from Christianity?

–What are the percentages of Jewish people residing in the U.S.? In Panama? In your particularly country? How did they get there and what type of Jewish religion do they practice? Are they Orthodox? Reformed?

–Why can we say that the Jewish faith is the “root” of Christianity? Knowing that, students will be able to develop a respect for Judaism.

–How can we maintain faith even when there seem to be “bad things” happening in the world? (For example, Reuven is living in NY city during the period of WWII.) What is our relationship to God, and how do we see Him?

This book is very multidisciplinary, as it allows students to look up statistics of Jewish populations and create graphs, research historical backgrounds to Zionism and WWII, learn a little bit about psychology and Freud, delve into the intricacies of a major world religion, write thoughtful journal entries and critical papers, and reflect upon a coming-of-age process that they themselves may be going through personally. If you haven’t yet read novels by Chaim Potok, check it out!

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