by Luciano Cid, EdD
If you have been an elementary teacher for a substantial period of time, chances are you have heard the name Patricia Polacco. After all, Ms. Polacco has authored numerous books that have gained the admiration of literature critics, educators, and students alike. With titles such as Thank You, Mr. Falker (1998), My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother (1994), Pink and Say (1994), and Chicken Sunday (1992), Ms. Polacco has been able to not only demonstrate her incredible ability to write and illustrate wonderful works of art, but also to generate conscientious perspectives in the hearts and minds of her readers.
This article’s purpose, however, is not to highlight such professional achievements, but to illustrate the theological truths that exist within one of Ms. Polacco’s books: Mr. Lincoln’s Way (2001). In it, with or without her conscious attempt, Ms. Polacco successfully presents a picture of God’s love, grace, and redemption to her readers. She does so through the love of a kind and wise principal (Mr. Lincoln) toward a troubled and misguided child (Eugene Esterhause, or, as the school community has labeled him, “Mean Gene”).
As a researcher who has investigated how to successfully integrate the gospel message via classroom management techniques, as well as how to create classroom environments that center around the concept of shalom, I have read this book to my students (who are teacher candidates) as a clear illustration of what redemptive discipline can look like (Taylor 1). In addition, I have also chosen to share the book as a demonstration of how to indirectly integrate aspects of theology into one’s classrooms. Using this book along with guided discussion, a Christian teacher could, through inductive or deductive reasoning—depending on the type of environment in which one teaches—introduce a number of theological truths to their class. However, since we do not have space for a deep investigation of every theological connection found within this book, we will limit our discussion to three theological truths: God’s love, God’s benevolence, and God’s redemptive work.
A central theological truth of the Christian faith is that God is love (1 John 4:16). As a result, a second truth arises, which is that God demonstrates his abounding love for all of creation (John 3:16), especially for humans (1 John 4:19, Rom. 8:37–39, and Eph. 2:4–5), who are made in his image (Gen. 1:26) and endowed with inestimable value.
In her book, Ms. Polacco displays a picture of such love through her main character, Mr. Lincoln. In fact, in the first page of the story, readers are exposed to the continuous love this character maintains for the community in which he serves. We read that he chooses to have tea-parties with the kindergarteners every spring, that he goes on nature walks with the sixth graders, and that he invites students and their families to spend their nights looking at the stars through his telescope. We also become aware that he purposefully connects with all community members by honoring, respecting, and participating in their diverse religious traditions.
The second page continues with such demonstrations of love, but in this case, instead of being at a macro level, we are introduced to his love for one particular student, Gene. Gene is a boy who is struggling with social-emotional issues. This makes the other characters see Gene as someone with serious anger problems—but not Mr. Lincoln. His love for all of his students, much like God’s love for his creation, is constant and unchanging. So, when others decide to write Gene off, Mr. Lincoln states, “He’s not a bad boy . . . only troubled.” Such a perspective parallels Paul’s explanation of God’s love when he claims that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Hence, through this act of loving those whom others have no reason to love, Mr. Lincoln displays an important characteristic of who God is, that is, agape love.
Both the Old and New Testaments include multiple passages about God’s benevolence (see Exod. 20:2; Lam. 3:22–23; Matt. 5:45; and Eph. 2:8); however, there is no clearer passage displaying God’s kindness to us than John 3:16. In this book, Mr. Lincoln does not sacrifice his son for Gene, but what he does do is provide him with a project that can elevate his awareness of the worth of his soul. To do so, he asks Gene to help him solve a serious problem.
Polacco, Patricia. Chicken Sunday. Penguin, 1992.
—. Mr. Lincoln’s Way. Penguin, 2017.
—. My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother. Simon & Schuster, 1994.
—. Pink and Say. Penguin, 1994.
—. Thank You, Mr. Falker. Philomel Books, 1998.
Taylor, Chris P. “The Need for Redemptive Discipline in the Christian School.” Christian Perspectives in Education, vol. 6, no. 1 (2013), pp. 1–6.
After completing a double major in philosophy and religious studies at the California State University of Fullerton, Dr. Cid entered a teaching credential program at Chapman University. Dr. Cid went on to receive an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the interdisciplinary field of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE), which has led him to become the Chair of the Brain, Neuroscience, and Education special interest group for AERA (American Educational Research Association). After Harvard, he attended a doctoral program at the University of Southern California in the fields of educational leadership and educational psychology. Today, he serves as the Interim Director for the Elementary Education Program at Biola University. His research interests include neuroeducation, classroom management, increasing gender and ethnic diversity of teaching staff in elementary schools, investigating the connections that exist between a teacher’s pedagogical choices and lesson plan objectives, and investigating the connection and integration of the Christian worldview into the teaching profession.