“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” These words, from The Merchant of Venice, still ring in my ears—though I have rarely encountered them since last I studied them in grade 12 English. Likewise, we never seem to forget hymns memorized as a young child: “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe at his gentle breast, there by his arms most precious, sweetly my soul shall rest.” Why is it that such words stay with us? Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Words are meant to be tasted, rolled around on the tongue, savored, and slowly let go. The book of Proverbs tells us, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (25:11, kjv). Just as one can’t imagine a world without trees, rolling hills, and hungry birds nibbling at the feeders, it is difficult to imagine a world devoid of words.
In reflecting on words, my thoughts travel to the world of reading. Research tells us that because the majority of us now read by skimming—a result of the Internet and all the other technological advances in our lives—many of us no longer have the concentration to read an entire article. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr suggests that ”calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better” (10). What effect does writing short sentences (such as we do on Twitter, Facebook, and in texting) have on our reading and writing habits? As Christian educators, what influence do we see this having on our students? What are we doing in our schools to help our students slow down in their reading, to help them to “taste the words”? In light of these “hyperactive habits,” as Carr calls them, it is critical that we evaluate our literature and writing programs, focus on teaching quality literature, and work at promoting all genres of writing in as many different ways possible in order to engage our students at a deep level.
I recently joined a group that gets together once a month for what is called a “slow food dinner.” Together, we savor the many tastes displayed in the variety of foods served. The slow food movement, on which these dinners are based, is gathering momentum around the globe. Author Carl Honore, in his book, In Praise of Slow, challenges us to rethink the frenzied speed of our culture, and refers to various slow movements. In his chapter, “The Unhurried Child,” Honore refers to slow schools as a way of relieving the pressure such frenzy has on the lives our children. Honore’s words ring true in my work as an educational therapist. Recently, one of my students, who has a knack for absorbing interesting facts, reported back a story he heard about kids who studied so hard their brains couldn’t handle it anymore and thus got sick. Though my student likely had his own reasons for announcing this story—something to do with avoiding homework—I told him that I thought that he was on to something.
The “slow education movement,” as it is known, first took hold in Europe, and is now filtering to other countries. Maurice Holt, professor of education at the University of Colorado, is an advocate for slow schools. He writes:
At a stroke, the notion of the slow school destroys the idea that schooling is about cramming, testing, and standardizing experience . . . The slow approach to food allows for discovery, for the development of connoisseurship. Slow food festivals feature new dishes and new ingredients. In the same way, slow schools give scope for invention and response to cultural change, while fast schools just turn out the same old burgers (Honore 255).
But let’s return to my initial question: How do we get our children to slow down and experience true learning? Project-based learning, which is taking hold in our Christian schools, is one way of making learning less about speed and more about experience. John Miedema, author of Slow Reading, claims that slow reading reduces stress levels, helps develop creativity, provides entertainment and laughter, and allows for broader perspectives in our thinking processes. So how do we get the students to “taste” the words they read? Teaching literature and reading involves more than comprehension and question-answering; it is also about caring for and savoring what we read, even laughing and crying with the author as the story is told.