So Many Books, So Little Time

Our newest member of the panel, John Walcott, introduced the theme of this issue by sending the following message to the panel contributors:

This issue of CEJ focuses on “Good Books that all Christian Educators Should Read.” I would like you, therefore, to submit recommendations of books in keeping with this theme, but also to consider the question of which books we might suggest that Christian teachers introduce to their students.

Rebecca De Smith initiated the panel discussion with her response:

One of my coffee mugs reads, “So many books . . . so little time.” That certainly reflects how I feel! I love to read, but as a busy teacher, I don’t have enough time to read everything I want to. I do find time to read professionally, though, and here are a couple of books that have given direction and purpose to my teaching this year.

  • Affirmations 2.0: Christian Schooling for a Changing World by Steven Vryhof. This short book is a remake of an earlier edition, and includes foundational, educational, and communal affirmations that pertain to Christian schools. This is an important book to discuss with colleagues in Christian schools.
  • The Art and Science of Teaching by Robert J. Marzano. This is a solid, practical book outlining classroom instructional strategies that shape effective instruction—something every teacher needs to be reminded of and encouraged to implement.

Hmmm. . . . what book should Christian teachers encourage their students to read? There are so many wonderful children’s and young adult books—where do you begin? After considering several possibilities, I’ve got to go with C. S. Lewis’s classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This book has proven to be a rich and moving story that has captured the imagination of readers for decades. I’ve read it to third graders, taught it to fifth graders, watched my three children get absorbed in it as they grew, and observed my husband preparing to teach it to his college students. It encourages all of its readers (and listeners) to wonder about Narnia, Aslan, the deep magic and the deeper magic before the dawn of time. The fantasy and reality of the story blend wonderfully in the hearts and imaginations of its readers to produce a truly outstanding story for children and adults alike.

Happy reading!

Christian Altena took the discussion in a slightly different—but important—direction by adding the following:

This time around, instead of recommending any particular books (I confessed the last time we wrote on this topic, I only read boring histories), I would like instead to talk about the need to read widely. In this hyper-partisan age of narrow-casting we are increasingly permitted to seclude ourselves in the warm, comforting embrace of the thoughts, opinions, and sentiments with which we wholeheartedly agree. We need to do more than simply hear each other shouting across the divide. We need to listen to, be familiar with, and even find merit in the ideas of the other side.

To that end, I have recommitted myself to the practice of reading widely across the spectrum. This is actually much harder than it sounds. Those who join me in this challenge will invariably find themselves yelling at their iPad in outrage. But possibly even more upsetting may be the discovery of truth and beauty resting comfortably within the “enemy’s” camp.

Of course for me, it starts with histories. So I try to find authors telling the various stories from perspectives and interpretations that will not be my own. When I’m online catching up on the news, I will go to the Chicago Tribune, then to The New York Times, and on to the National Review online and The American Conservative.

Recently, this habit of reading has yielded surprising insights with respect to the newest round of gun debates in the wake of the Newtown, Portland, and Aurora shootings. There are those who see gun nuts, and those who see nuts with guns, but until we can understand each other, we can’t begin to work together to solve the problem of violence within our communities.

This habit of reading is important beyond politics. Read Christianity Today, Sojourners, First Things, and World. Read poetry. Find perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin American. Beyond reading, listen. Listen to as many genres and generations of music you can stand. You will surprise yourself with what catches your ear and gets you humming.

The benefits of the habit of wide reading are many: We strengthen our brains, soften our hearts, widen our horizons, and respond to God’s command to love our “enemies.”

Tim Leugs offered these comments and suggestions:

Glad to hear about your reading suggestions again. I hadn’t heard of a new edition of Steven Vryhof’s Affirmations book. I will have to check that out.

In regards to my own reading, I find my interests drifting back to reading older works of Christian fiction and nonfiction; specifically, Henri Nouwen (Reaching Out is one of my favorites) and C. S. Lewis (for a great science fiction trilogy with a lot of theological meat, look to the first two novels of his Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.)

I also like what Christian has to say about reading widely. Although I may be repeating my words from previous years, to read Christianly is not only about choosing books from the Christian bookstore. Becoming familiar with mainstream media and helping our students to discern truth within those media reflects the calling we have as God’s workers in the vineyard, participating in God’s claim over all of creation. When our students read, we should consistently teach them to see the work as God sees it, and use that perspective to shape their view of the media in a fallen but redeemed world. As the hymn “This is My Father’s World” says, “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

An example that comes to mind in our school occurred a couple weeks ago in our fifth-grade classroom reading of Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first novel in the Chronicles of Prydain series. Although this book features evil in many forms and imperfect heroes who quibble and argue, the story reflects the journey towards heroism that all of us as Christians are called to follow. Perhaps if we try to see God in the stories we read and help our students to do the same, we will not only have a lot more reading material; we will be able to engage our world in an exciting, truth-filled mission of witness.

Bruce continued the discussion as follows:

For the past twenty years, I have been diligently honing my skills as a professional teacher, but in the past three months, I have come to the conclusion that my pedagogy has usually reflected my own passions and learning styles, rather than those of my students. Ironically, this personal enlightenment was the result of my professional fight against the invasion of technology in our middle school. My principal gave me a TED book to read, Why School by Will Richardson; while I read it with reluctance, this book inspired me to search deeper into this discussion. So I set out to educate myself for a grand debate about the use of technology in the classroom, and I unexpectedly embraced a new paradigm for teaching.

While searching online for other TED books, I discovered a second book, Hybrid Reality by Parag and Ayesh Khanna, which opened my eyes to the global uses of digital technology. This book was entertaining, shocking, and provocative in its diverse presentation of technology in all facets of human flourishing. I was once again reminded of the human potential to create new innovations for both good and evil. After devouring this e-book, I returned to my online search for other related books.

My third discovery was the book A New Culture of Learning by Thomas and Seely Brown. This book was the hammer that gently shattered twenty years of confident teaching practice, and inspired me to shift my pedagogy from content to process. The words of this text convinced me to get “messy” in the classroom so that my students can pursue their passions for learning while I still maintain a curriculum that has direction and substance. Naturally, this new model of learning incorporates the acquisition of knowledge through digital devices and the Internet.

The final book of the quartet was one that presented practical and sensible means for integrating digital technology into the classroom. In Who Owns the Learning? Alan November presents many current examples that highlight teachers who are discovering innovative ways to use technology in their classroom. The message of this e-book is not about replacing good pedagogy with digital media, but expanding pedagogy with new activities and strategies that were not possible before.

This cumulative reading has removed most of my resistance to digital technology in my classroom because the ideas of these authors have demonstrated to me that a change in pedagogy is not driven by technology, but by the need to shift the teacher’s authority in the classroom—from knowledge to understanding, from content to delivery. Digital technology simply becomes one, albeit important, way to achieve this change. This paradigm shift impacts the entire professional pedagogy: student collaboration and interest, student assessment, use of classroom space, sharing student work with the community, use of classroom resources, learning outside of the classroom, and God’s economy.

Closing comments offered by John Walcott:

As the rookie member of our panel, I want to express my gratitude for the opportunity to participate and my appreciation for the wisdom shared by the panel members in this issue. I encourage the CEJ readers to take seriously the recommendations to read widely, explore new books and ideas, and think carefully about the world we are able to open up for our students through reading.

I will also add two recommendations to those offered by the other members of the panel. First, for Christian educators, I recommend The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith. In this rather short book, Smith offers a compelling comparison of what he calls the official view of learning: that learning is work, with the classical view of learning: that we learn from people with whom we identify. His comparison and contrast of these two views provides teachers with valuable insights and perspectives.

Second, I was recently introduced to an excellent book for use with students. Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison, includes historical information, photographs, and a fictional narrative to tell the story of school integration in the United States. The book is intended for upper elementary or middle school students.

The panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tim Leugs, who teaches at Legacy Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • John Walcott, who is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Bruce Wergeland, who teaches at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia.