Jeff Haanen




School Closures, Coronavirus, and How to Take the First Steps Educating Your Kids at Home

Your kids are home. You are home. You both need to get work done. What on earth does working and homeschooling look like? 

Millions of American kids are, for the first time ever, being homeschooled. As it turns out, I happen to be married to a brilliant thought leader in the homeschooling world, Kelly Haanen, the director of the homeschool enrichment program at Ascent Classical Academy in Lone Tree, Colorado. 

In this guest “post,” Kelly sent a note to parents of full-time K-12 students at Ascent classical academy, giving them tips about how to approach homeschooling for the first time. 

If you find yourself trying to reorganize your daily schedule around your work and your kid’s school work – all day long – this article is for you. 

As a homeschool parent and director of Ascent’s Homeschool Enrichment program, I want to offer you all a word of encouragement, and a few ideas, as you approach the next month of facilitating your students’ education at home.

First, I genuinely believe that amidst the chaos, we have been given an opportunity. For a few weeks we will be forced to slow down, to be present with our sons and daughters, and to learn alongside them. We chose to send our kids to a classical school because we care about what they are learning and who they are becoming. Second, balancing your own work responsibilities and their school work may be tough. But let me encourage you: you will be given tools and resources from Ascent teachers, you as parents are capable facilitators of your child’s learning, and the ideas below will help you create a flow and schedule for your day.

There are a million great ideas and resources out there; you may have seen the colorful daily schedules and offers for free online learning. Many of you are experienced teachers or previous homeschool parents. I don’t intend to add to the noise; I simply want to offer a few practical ideas that help us through our homeschool days.

I have four kids learning Pre-k through 6th grade material. I work part-time, and I’ve found that daily rhythms and structure are essential to keeping us sane!

Daily Structured School-Time Tips

1. Space. You don’t need to create an elaborate school room (much of our school day happens at the kitchen table). You do want to make sure you have a space where supplies are easily accessible and students can work without being distracted. Turn off whatever screens you can. If creating this space seems difficult in your home, give them headphones with classical music to help them focus.

2. Schedules. Many of you will be working from home and will need to find creative ways for you and your kids to get work done. Routines and consistency will be your best friends. Decide on the best time of day for you to give your kids 1-2 hours of attention, (note: most kids learn best in the morning hours) then stick to it daily, even if it means waking them up in the morning. Your older students will be able to work independently for much of their school time, but your younger students will need your help. My kids love to use this timer as we move through our school day.

3. Rewards. It’s okay to offer them some motivation! Make it simple – chocolate chips for math problems, stickers for completed work, extra outside time if they finish early, a learning game on the iPad, or more of anything that motivates them.

4. Recess. As you plan for your school time, make sure to include some breaks. Give them snacks and make them move their bodies. Send them to the backyard or download a workout app to use when they need to get moving.

What about the rest of the day??

Finding a few hours a day for structured learning still leaves us with lots of hours with kids stuck at home. While there are plenty of ways to spend unstructured time (creating, cooking, cleaning, reading, playing, pretending, exercising, educational apps, playing instruments, listening to music) most of us will need consistent time each day to work when our kids don’t need our attention. Here are two daily essentials in our home.

1. Outside time. Give your kids significant time outdoors. Bundle them up if it’s cold. Give them an umbrella if it’s raining. Send them to the backyard. Let them ride their bikes around the block. Tell them to collect leaves or pull weeds.  

2. Quiet (alone) time. I can’t stress this one enough. Plan in at least an hour when you send everyone to a separate space. My kids devour audiobooks during this time (download the Libby app to check out free audiobooks from the library). In our home this is a no-screen time, but they can play with Legos, puzzles, draw, knit, read or anything alone and quiet. We keep it simple and consistent.

Lastly, let them get bored – without a screen. It might be painful for a day or two, but you’ll be surprised how quickly they start coming up with ideas on their own.

My prayer is that none of you find yourselves exhausted and overwhelmed. Spend some time this weekend creating a plan with your kids. Developing a daily rhythm that works for your family is key! Reach out to teachers with questions. Ask me or a friend for help. Then go ahead and find some good movies on Netflix (Planet Earth, PBS programs, or movies based on classical literature are a great place to start) and relax! 

This too can be a time to learn the true, do the good, and love the beautiful. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

Your advocate,

Kelly Haanen, Director of Homeschool Enrichment

Ascent Classical Academy

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Faith and Work Bible Study

Friends, a happy Labor Day to you!

To celebrate your work, I wanted to give you a gift: a free Bible study on Faith and Work.

The study is structured around people’s stories. In a series of articles, I highlighted the way people are living out their faith in the workplace.

Each study has a brief story Bible study participants can read at home. After each article, and before the study, we encourage you to Pause and Reflect on what the story might be telling you about God’s call for your own work.

The Bible study is structured around six sections: Introduce, Discuss, Explore, Apply, Closing Thoughts, and Prayer. It also has additional Resources.

Here are the weekly topics for “His Story, Our Stories: Encountering God Through Our Work”:

(1) “Light for Electricians,” (Creation)

(2) “Investments for the Kingdom” (Calling)

(3) “Showing Hospitality to Strangers and Spring Breakers” (Fall)

(4) “Productivity and Grace: Management and Labor at a Denver Manufacturer,” (Witness at Work)

(5) “A Well-Designed Journal Can Change Your Life,” (Culture)

(6) “A Growing Charter School Planted in Rocky Soil,” (Organizations/Companies)


Looking for more material? Visit


Making All Things New – Britta Apple, High School English Teacher

In the next several posts, I’m going to be highlighting the first-hand experiences of four professionals in Denver. Each of them shared at our annual fundraiser and celebration of vocation, entitle “Making All Things New: Finding Our Place in God’s Mission.” We asked them what they sense is broken in their industries, and how they sense God was using them in his plan to ultimately “make all things new.” Britta was a 5280 Fellow in 2018-19.

One area of brokenness that I encounter as a high school English teacher is within the lives of my students. It ranges anywhere from troubled family situations to poor choices in relationships to students’ whose learning disabilities make it difficult for them to thrive academically. 

What draws me to my work is the opportunity to introduce students to universal themes of struggle, courage, doubt, risk, and triumph that resonate with their personal experiences. Whether the work we study is classical or modern, students see their experiences reflected in the novels, plays, poetry and biographies we read. 

My role is to select literature that reflects God’s truth – whether those themes are clearly or subtly expressed within the text – and equip students with analytical skills to understand their meaning. While I cannot control the brokenness students face, I believe God can bring healing and hope through encounters with great literature. 

Through my work as an English teacher, Christ is making all things new. 

Will you join us? You can become a monthly donor today.


“Waiting for Superman”: Tenure, Unions and a Real Superhero


Anybody with even a cursory interest in the 57 million children in America’s public school system should see the 2011 documentary Waiting for Superman.  Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on failing American public schools succeeds on many levels. First, it’s a helpful overview to how the school system works.  The complexities of federal, state and local power in public schools are made clear, and quirks like the tenure system in K-12 education are brought to light.  Second, it succeeds emotionally.  Following the stories of five families from low income areas, and their struggles to provide a decent education for their aspiring children, had my wife and I at the edge of our seats at the conclusion of the movie. Third, it succeeds as polemic.  The film is obviously biased against teacher’s unions and in favor of charter schools and other public school alternatives.  But it is biased with good reason.  And this is the point of this posting: introducing competition, even mild competition, to the school system will reap great benefits for those on the lower quarter of the social totem pole.

Let’s start with the tenure system.  Tenure was introduced into the university system to protect professors with politically unpopular opinions from being fired.  It started as a free speech issue.  But the practice has been adopted into the K-12 system.  Teachers who can still walk and breathe (walking is optional), after 3 years get tenure.  Although some school districts have quality evaluation processes during this period, for the majority this means that some terrible teachers get secure jobs.  The film showed a scene of the “rubber room” in New York City, where dozens of teachers are paid to sit, read the newspaper, sleep and not teach because they’re protected in their job.  This apparently costs $100 million per year.  And yet they can’t be fired.  The film also claims that if only the bottom 1/5 of teachers in the US were fired and replaced by only average teachers, our national test scores would reach those of Finland, more than a dozen places higher on international exam scores.  Waiting for Superman shows the struggles that administrators like Geoffry Canada and Michelle Rhee faced when trying to fire bad teachers, but were unable to because of the protection unions had given to tenured teachers.  Rhee comments that tenure helps adults, but hurts the kids.

Second, the film takes a healthy crack at teacher’s unions.  As the protectorate of the bad and the good teachers, unions have prevented comprehensive education reform by disallowing poor teachers to be fired without an absurd 24 step process to remove the offending pedagogue.  Through recruiting young unsuspecting teachers, often through heavy handed guilt trips in the first 2 years of a teacher’s career (my wife received several of these), many are enrolled into paying dues to the union.  Surely, some unions have had a good purpose.  And there are obviously good teachers in public schools (my wife, my sister, and my mother are good examples). But with state budgets across the country being squeezed, the unions find themselves under fire.  Just look at the battle in Wisconsin.  Times are changing.

Third, the film is quite blatantly pro-charter school.  The film culminates with a dramatic scene of five kids who are desperately hoping to have their numbers drawn to be enrolled in a high-performing charter school.  Knowing that this kid’s future is in many ways determined by his or her school choice leaves the movie-goer with a palpable desire to see the child get in.  All but two don’t get in, and are forced to go back to their “drop-out factory” schools.  Our hearts sink.

The rise in charter schools in the past decade, especially prominent movements like KIPP, is notable.  They are introducing competition into the public school system.  They must perform, or they lose their charter, and thus their funding.  This pressure often times produces results.  Even though various studies have shown that many charter schools are no better than their public counterparts, the presence of significant freedom from public regulation in exchange for results has had tremendously positive impacts.  The film highlights many charter schools, like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, that are having superb results in the most difficult socio-economic circumstances.  As I drove home last week, I saw an open house banner at Homestead Elementary, a public school by my house, advertising “Now Enrolling.”  Charter schools are clearly having an effect.

So, what’s the solution?  How do we get better schools?  The movies suggests, by way of the high performing schools highlighted, that the answer lies in teacher accountability, longer hours, and higher standards.  Longer school hours mean more opportunities for learning, and high standards mean they won’t accept some kids shooting for just okay.  But the real key, I believe, is great teachers.  School districts and individual schools, whether they be public or private, with systems for rewarding excellent teachers and getting rid of bad teachers are the most important elements in student success.  Administrators would be wise to ignore about half of their current responsibilities and find ways to hold teacher’s accountable to the highest standards of student success.

Let me finish with this idea: the title “Waiting for Superman” introduces a hidden issue, one not addressed by the film.  Guggenheim mentions that students are waiting for a superman who will come to save them from their plight.  The film concludes, however, that the superman is really “you” who must take action in education reform in America.  As inspiring as this is, it hits a certain chord with secular minded people trying to “change the world.”  Education, it is thought, is the key to bringing about justice, equality, and even a version of “salvation” to the world.  But education can’t do it.  Poor children stuck in bad schools are indeed waiting for a Superman; they are waiting for a Savior (as is the whole human race).  Education has become the quintessential secular moralist’s cause of our generation.  It’s no coincidence that 10% of Ivy League graduates applied for Teach for America last year.  But education alone cannot bring about the superhero results we hope for.  Only a true Savior can do that.

The lessons of Waiting for Superman ought to be considered by all those making decisions about education in America.  The plight of poor children in under-performing schools, the silliness of the K-12 tenure system, and the counter-productive effect of many teacher’s unions ought to cause the people of the Kingdom of God to ask the question, How shall we build a better educational system for tomorrow?  But at the same time, let us not forget that Superman has come, and He gives real, enduring hope to all people, literate and illiterate alike.  May this hope shape an ethic of educational change for the sake of the 57 million children with pencil in hand, ready to take hold of a better life.


Developing Grit…and Character


A 2011 article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted Riverdale Country School in New York City, and their eccentric headmaster Dominic Randolph.

Riverdale is a “TT” (Top-tier) private school, whose tuition begins at $38,000 for prekindergarten, and commonly sends graduates to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Yet when Randolph came to Riverdale, he immediately did away with AP classes, encouraged teachers to limit the amount of homework they assign, and cut many standardized tests for admissions. According to Randolph, the missing piece to the Riverdale curriculum was character.

His curiosity in character development led him to meet with Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, primarily for students in low-income urban areas. Levin had stressed character for years in the KIPP movement: walls are decorated with slogans like “Work hard,” “Be nice,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Seligman, on the other hand, had written an 800-page tome on “Character Strengths and Virtues.” Their conversations led to some interesting conclusions.

As Levin monitored the lives of KIPP alumni, he notices something interesting:

“the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”

These traits, not IQ tests or grades on math exams, determined their success.

As Levin and Randolph continued to talk, they wondered about how to turn ideas about character into a feasible program. They were referred to Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, one of Seligman’s former graduate students. She analyzed characteristics that led to outstanding achievement—and very little had to do with IQ.

“People who accomplished great things,” says the article, “often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit’.”

Randolph, at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, noticed that although many KIPP graduates had “grit” through challenging circumstances, the kids at Riverdale we often sheltered from failure, and thus from the most important learning opportunities.

“Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst [a Riverdale teacher] put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

Randolph further explained, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Developing grit through failure – this is perhaps the most important character trait for many successful people. This is what must be taught if students will truly make a difference. How is this done? KIPP Infinity developed a “character report card”; Randolph worked with teachers on dual-instruction methods – teaching content alongside of character traits in every lesson. Each school developed a method for developing clearly defined character traits such as “grit.”

Here are my three questions. First, do most schools make any real attempt to teach character, despite district-wide values to teach things like honesty and integrity? By “real attempt” I mean, is there a scope, sequence and method of evaluation?

Second, are schools who are teaching character (Christian schools included) complacent with negative traits (don’t hit, don’t fight)? Are they also teaching positively those rare characteristics, like grit, that lead to truly successful lives?

Third, what is the basis of character itself? Is it “what makes me successful?” If so, why not choose other traits that will ultimately hurt other or at least leave others behind (competition, ambition, etc.)?

The question for Christians involved in education should be: on what basis do we teach character? How do we come to a shared understanding of right and wrong, even good and evil, in an age, as Nietzsche said, that is “beyond good and evil?”

(James Davison Hunter’s book The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good and Evil is the book on this topic. One I would assign every public school [and homeschool and Christian school] teacher in the land.)

However we land on that question, we should minimally ask ourselves, what is our lesson plan for teaching students to face and overcome failure? I’m not sure this is the foundation of character – but it is the foundation of grit.

Thinking about what faith says to k-12 education? Join us on November 2 for Weighing the Options: What Educational Choice is Best for Your Kids?


Notes: Learning for Moral Formation


I find that becoming good is difficult, painfully difficult. As I’ve been on my own moral journey, I’ve become more interested in the question, “How are people morally formed, especially in contexts of work, for the sake of leadership?”  In other words, what tend to be the social, spiritual and psychological elements present in a person’s life when they experience significant moral transformation? Might it be possible to even design such learning experiences that lead to moral formation?

Below are some rough notes I’ve written on what I think tends to be the process of moral formation, especially for adults. I’ve posted them on this blog hoping you’ll help me to refine my idea. I’d be grateful if you’d reply on elements I’ve left out, overemphasized, or should not have included. I look forward to getting your feedback.

Notes: Learning for Moral Formation 

1. Learning begins when an individual with a self-identified Problem/Need/Point of Suffering joins a high commitment Community. The Community is first formed by an Emotional/Relational context of genuine vulnerability, bound together by a common Story or Universal History and defined by a set of shared Habits and Practices.

2. Over time, there is a deeper engagement of Ideas and intellectual concepts, discussed in community that affirm the story; a Broader Network which exposes students to new emotions, stories, ideas, habits, and practices; Significant Work which the student is called to perform, challenging the use of new skills and knowledge; and Public Recognition for accomplishment, affirming inclusion in the community and signaling value to the broader public.

3. Through relationship the community facilitates a Deeper Self-Awareness and cultivates new Spiritual Disciplines which open the soul to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

Change is facilitated through a combination of:

  • Genuine relationship/friendship
  • Emotional vulnerability and deeper self-awareness
  • A set of new habits and spiritual practices, learned principally through imitation
  • Elevated “loves” founded in a deep, all-encompassing story or theory of history
  • Ideas and concepts which challenge the status quo
  • The interplay between new practices and projects, and learning from those practices (both successes and failures) in community
  • A broader social network, particularly across vocational, ethnic, and gender barriers, and opportunities for professional advancement through loose mentoring networks
  • Learning in context (workplace, clinic, business) rather than a static environment (classroom)
  • The acquisition of new work-related skills, perspectives, and opportunities usually learned not abstractly but through modeling and imitation within the community
  • Developing the habit of leadership, solving problems and taking initiative
  • A deeper sense of both personal humility yet an increased sense human agency
  • “Sending.” A comparison of where the student started, and where she/he is at today

To further study:

  1. Spiritual Formation (Disciplines)
  2. Adult Learning (Conscious direction of learning, isolating need)
  3. Psychology (Habits, emotions, relationships, past)
  4. Narrative and Film (Story)
  5. History (Story)
  6. Psychology (Emotions)
  7. Sociology (Golden web & networks; cultural formation, networks & institutions)
  8. Theology (Virtue, discipleship, biblical studies)
  9. Leadership Studies (Significant work, influence)
  10. Higher Education (Core ideas; New Skills, etc.)
  11. Neuroscience (Brain studies)
  12. Physiology (Habit, Workplace Rhythms as Formative)
  13. Economics (Work, commerce)

How Do We Change? Formation in the 5280 Fellowship

How do we change?

I’m 34 years old, have four kids, and have been in the workforce for 9 years. And for me, there is no more pressing question in my life today than How do I change?

In the past three years, the stress of leading a growing organization, trying to be a good father, and accomplishing my professional goals has exposed, well, cracks in the foundation of my character.  My precious wife has been so patient with me as I stumble, fall, and get up again – only to find myself back where I started.

As I’ve spoken with peers about their lives, careers, and relationships – especially young professionals in Denver and Boulder – I’ve seen common traits among many of us:

  • We’re around people and “social networks” all the time, but we feel lonely, and not deeply known by others. It’s the great irony of a social media age. More noise, but less deep relationships.
  • In our careers we’ve gotten good at a technical skill for which we were trained in school, like drawing construction plans, scheduling conferences or planning lessons. But we wonder: what about the broader city we live in? Who else is out there like me? How can I go from a microscope (knowing lots about a little) to a telescope (seeing a bigger picture)? Might my career or work be a part of something bigger than just my success?
  • In the drive to get things done and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time, I feel like my relationships, my knowledge of myself, and my relationship with God isn’t what I want it to be. I long to live a deep spiritual life, but most days I find this baffling. I need help. Lots of it.
  • Only 33% of Americans are engaged with their work. Most show up, do a job, get a paycheck – and would rather be somewhere else. And even for those third that are “highly engaged,” there’s an uncomfortableness, especially in Colorado, with those who make their careers everything, and forget about family, friends, neighbors, recreation, or the needs of others. Is there a way to be engaged, but not make work an idol?

In the last three years, I’ve felt each of these feeling acutely. Changing any of these seems daunting for me. Yet what’s interesting to me is that in the first year of the Fellows program at Denver Institute, I’ve seen what looks to me like genuine change in the lives of 27 men and women.

  • Grant Stone, a banker, shares about a broadening perspective on the financial industry, and what it means for his future career decisions
  • Candice Whiteley, a vice principal, shares about the value of a community deeply committed to God, a deeper knowledge of ourselves, and our world
  • Banks Benitez, an entrepreneur, shares about a renewed perspective of God that even sees Him at work at a car wash employing autistic men and women
  • Rachel Moran, a law professor, shares about no longer feeling alone as she endeavors to live out her Christian life at a secular university
  • My friend Hunter Beaumont, lead pastor at Fellowship Denver church, has said, “This program is having a transformative impact on the culture of my church.”
  • Paul Frank, who works at a healthcare supply chain management company, said to me recently, “When I started the Fellowship, I hated by job. I had been in a tech company for over a decade – was something wrong with me? But one night, after doing a “vocational power assessment,” somebody in my cohort said: ‘Look, you have incredible vocational power as one of the most senior employees in your company. Maybe God put you there for a reason.’ I now see my work as an incredible opportunity to mentor and serve.”

Why is this? Where is this change coming from?

When I designed the program, to be honest, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about my previous educational experiences. I loved reading and ideas, but I couldn’t stand reading 500 pages of a boring book, writing a paper about an esoteric topic, or listening to professors lecture for hours without ever asking what I thought. I also developed an affinity for older books (and shorter ones!) that had stood the test of time. Better to build my life on the great ideas and traditions of the past than the latest fad that had become popular in the academy.

In my years after graduate school, I also came to value the primacy of learning from people: people who are further along in their careers, people who have had different training than I have, people who are influencing key conversations across different sectors in our city. Jesus wrote nothing, but he instead gave us his church, a group or people. I could now see why. People were just as important “texts” as were books. And through the Holy Spirit, God actually lives in people.  Moreover, as I grew in my career, I saw myself imitating leaders I knew, and putting into practice what they were feeling and doing, far before I understood the concepts behind their actions.

I also began the incredibly hard process of self-knowledge. Only in the past several years have I really started to plunge deeply into how I react in stressful situations, how I come off in front of others, why I feel energized or exhausted, and the impact my own emotions have on everyone around me.

The Fellows program has been designed for those of us in our careers who long for a deeper change that technical training can’t provide. We built in elements into the program that take into consideration the breadth of what human being is. We are relational, social, physical, emotional, intellectual, habitual creatures who are environmentally-shaped, embedded in culture, and designed for work, for others, and for God.

So what does that mean? In the 5280 Fellowship, in means:

  • The relational and emotional context formed by the cohort of Fellows is the core of the program. God is relationship – and we grow only by first opting into a community and commits itself to a set of habits, like spiritual reading, work, discussion, prayer, vulnerability, and learning from others.
  • The community is designed around values of theological thinking, redemptive relationships, creating good work, deep spiritual health and sacrificial service. The unspoken values the community holds at the outset of the program shape the environment even before we’ve begun the formal program.
  • We strive to cultivate a deeper knowledge of God on two levels: (1) his revelation through Scripture and his church through reading great authors on topics like biblical worldview & mission, calling, theology work, Christ and culture. (2) We cultivate a direct knowledge of God, the living Person, through practicing the classical spiritual disciplines.
  • We set the context for a deeper knowledge of ourselves through a coaching process that includes an EQi assessment, 360 interviews, sharing our stories with the cohort, and evaluating our vocational gifting and power.
  • We set the table for a deeper knowledge of our culture by understanding issues through eyes of leaders actually shaping and forming those issues through their work.
  • We intentionally build diverse cohorts and expose our Fellows to a broad network of leaders in the city because we believe learning directly from other’s experiences is deeply transformative on a cognitive, relational, spiritual, professional and civic level. Experiences like the 5280 Fellowship are often catalyst experiences that open new opportunities, new perspectives, and new relationships across churches and sectors.
  • The program also requires a professional project and a personal development project. Leadership development programs that are all about papers and lectures – but don’t have the teeth of real world projects that will influence real people – are not effective. Conversely, applying your theology to real work contexts and serving real needs, from psychiatry to urban planning to corporate management, is both professionally impactful and is good for the workplaces, communities, industries and cultures we live in.

Tough thing about the program: it’s a big commitment over nine months. And it’s only for those who are serious about change. But here’s the truth: technology is fast, but character formation is slow. And we can’t do it alone. We need each other.

As I was interviewing two of our senior leaders last month during a Saturday teaching session, I closed the session, and looked up to our Fellows and said, “I just want to say one thing. Seven months ago you were strangers – but I now call you my friends. I genuinely love being a part of this community. Thank you. I needed it.”

Change seems impossible to me most days. But as we near Easter week and I take a look at the empty cross and the light-filled tomb – and the growing community of faith in the metro area – I’m filled with hope.

If you’re interested in learning more about the 5280 Fellowship, fill out the form at the bottom of the 5280 Fellowship page or reach out to me personally. We accept applications for the Class of 2017-18 through April 30, 2017.

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Announcement: Launch of the 5280 Fellowship

Today is a big day.

Today my colleagues and I at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, in partnership with Gordon College, announce the launch of the 5280 Fellowship, a 9 month experience for emerging leaders beginning in the fall of 2016.

After years of planning, design and forging partnerships, each element of the program has fallen into place. And now what we are now offering is, I believe, one of the best faith-based fellowship programs in the US, and perhaps Denver’s premiere leadership experience for young professionals.

I know those are big claims. But I believe the 5280 Fellowship has the potential to deeply impact Denver for generations to come. And I’m not alone.

Some of Denver’s finest pastors – like Robert Gelinas (Colorado Community Church), Brad Strait (Cherry Creek Presbyterian), Rob Brendle (Denver United), Brian Brown (Park Church) and Hunter Beaumont (Fellowship Denver) – believe the Fellowship can be a life-changing experience for young professionals who want to deeply engage themes of calling, work, and culture.

Young professionals like Steven Strott (Cool Planet Energy Systems) and Amy Wofford (The Commons at Champa) see the value of connecting to a community of faithful leaders in Denver and articulate how important work is to the flourishing of a city.

And Dr. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College who has deeply studied the world’s most effective leadership program, the White House Fellowship, believes this program, which has been modeled largely on his research, will give young professionals:

  • “deep relationships that span the city,”
  • a vision for how “the gospel provides a kind of connective tissue, helping us to see how does science and technology relate to the arts and entertainment,”
  • and a “catalyst in your career for the prospering not only of the wider culture, but also your life.”

Needless to say, if you’re asking big questions about the role of Christians in culture; if you’re interested in the relevance of the gospel to all of life; if you’re wondering about your own calling; and if you’re up for a challenge that could catalyze your career — then I encourage you to learn more at an upcoming info session.

Some of you may also be interested why we built the program as we did. On this blog, over the next several weeks, I’d like to peel back the veil on the principles underlying the Fellowship and why we built the program as we did. Blog posts will cover topics like:

  • Why Some Doctors Read the History of Opera: Leadership and Liberal Arts Thinking
  • EQ: Why Being a Good Conversationalist Might Be More Important Than an MBA
  • Why Nothing Before Age 20 Matters (And Why Your 20s-40s are the Most Critical to Career Success)
  • Calling: Learning to Listen to the Caller
  • Spelunking, Cave Formations and Culture Change
  • Our Common Longing: Meaningful Work
  • The Church in the World: Reformation, not Revolution
  • The Future of Higher Education: Friendships and the Information Deluge
  • The Golden Web: Mentors, Networks, and the Hidden Leadership Curriculum
  • Mission: Larger Than A Two Week Trip Overseas
  • Scattered: Being the Church Monday-Saturday
  • Significant Work: Developing a Taste for Tackling Big Problems

The launch of any new educational experience is really just the beginning of a conversation. This is a conversation on what it means to be fully human in this time and this place. I’d like to take the chance to invite you into this community.

I’d love to hear any and all feedback as the conversation grows. I hope you’ll consider joining me on this adventure into our own souls, the life of our city, and the heart of God.


What Mary Poplin Taught Us About Being a Christian Teacher in Public Education (2 of 2)

The Soul of Education Q&A – Dr. Mary Poplin from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

[In a previous post, I summarized an interview I did with Dr. Mary Poplin, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. In the previous post, Poplin challenged constructivism, shared her findings on highly effective teachers, and encouraged teachers to teach about religion in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful to each set of beliefs. In this post, she discusses how to redeem history, teach virtue, influence the moral climate of a school through prayer, and be both courageous and compassionate as a Christian teacher in public education.]

4. Don’t romanticize history – either Christian or secular. Encourage students to seek out sources.

“We have to redeem history. History has been rewritten…I was astounded the other day. I was in LA and I saw an Asian woman with a t-shirt that exalted Ho Chi Minh. The people who I thought were villains—who really are if you read history—are now being exalted as heroes…Yet we also have to be careful not to romanticize American history…There was slavery in the south. We have to be honest about it. Sometimes you pick up a Christian history book and it’s sort of romanticized, too.” 

“Did you know Isaac Newton wrote more about theology than he actually wrote about science? We need to get his [original] work. Have people read the real stuff. Paul Vitz actually did a book on how our book curriculum takes certain things out of the actual documents, always about God or religion. Find the original document.”

It was news to me during our interview that, for example, Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, worried that his method would be used demonically. Demonically? Yes – he lived in a world where angels and demons were as real as matter and molecules. Dr. Poplin said, “[Bacon] believed that the purpose of the scientific method was to understand the natural world. And if you could understand the natural world, you could understand the mind of God. Now that’s just a historical, biographical fact.”

Revising history —either to romanticize the founding of America OR to omit pieces of actual thought and belief from people like Newton or Bacon because of a secular bias — is just bad teaching. The only way to “redeem history,” in Dr. Poplin’s words – is to find the originals. Seek out sources. Read biographies, old and new – and assign them to your students.

5. Teach virtue. Encourage moral conversations among students. 

“What’s our new narrative [for public education]? ‘Truth, goodness, and beauty’ comes to mind….Paul says ‘Concentrate your mind on what’s true, what’s beautiful, what’s of good report…’ In C.S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, which is a great book for educators to read, he has in the very back an appendix of all the virtues that every religion believes. Start there.”

“You can start with things [students] see in the movies. A new superhero movie comes out every month. Every culture has superhero stories. You can start a conversation about good and evil, and get their little stories out too. You know, we’re in trouble here on this planet, and we really need some help. Some guy comes and saves us.” 

Dr. Poplin is pretty honest with her students: she wants them to become people of virtue. To do that, she regularly encourages them with exhortations like: I want you to develop perseverance.  Paul encourages us to also focus on whatever is good, true or beautiful – whether ‘religious or secular’ (foreign categories for Paul). During the course of our interview, she said that she recommends teachers using lists of virtues and develops language in her classroom that is clearly moral in nature – without avoiding language like evil or even sin.

And the connection here can be made to religion. C.S. Lewis’ treatment of The Tao – moral standards across cultures – can be a good place to start developing rich conversations about right and wrong, good and evil, in your classroom. Each culture has hero stories, including our own. We can start here with the moral world our students live in today.

6. The best way to influence the moral climate of your school and classroom is through prayer.

Jeff: “Let’s talk about shaping moral culture in a school. Is there more we can do than just the positive behavior support committee? How can we create a more robust moral culture in a school? From your experience, what would that look like?”

Dr. Poplin: “Well, the first thing it looks like might not be what you’d expect me to say. But it looks like prayer. There should be a lot of prayer in every school. Prayer is a spiritual reality. Every day when you and I walk into our classrooms or our offices, we need Jesus. We need Him, we need the Holy Spirit to tell us, ‘Say this, and don’t say that.’ I have [doctoral] students who are Christian who tell me that they’d go in early and pray over every chair of the classroom.

I think we underestimate prayer. And I think if there’s just two of you in the building that pray, then pray more specifically over where the kids who have trouble are going to be sitting. We have to do that more. I have to do that more.”

I really was astounded by this response. Of course! I’m seeking the silver bullet to make schools more moral places, and Dr. Poplin is asking the Holy Spirit to do this for her! Christian teachers have incredible influence when they pray for their students. And prayer is not just a psychological trick, but a spiritual reality – one through which God actually moves and changes reality, and one through which demons are repelled. It changes the actual lives of students and co-workers alike.

Pray. Wow. After hearing this, I thought to myself, “I need to do this more, too.”

7. The best Christian teachers are both courageous when sharing their faith and compassionate for others. 

“I had an experience at the University of Arizona. I was in a huge auditorium for a Veritas Forum. I saw a group of atheists come in –  they all wear black t-shirts and have messages on them. Mostly young men. They took up the second and third row because that’s going to be in your eyesight, right? I’d seen atheists before but never in this number. And they’re going to snicker at you; they’re going to laugh at you while you talk. And I felt myself getting fearful.

And I felt in my spirit three times the Lord said to me—like He could have been really nice and just have said, ‘Don’t fear them. I’m with you.’ But that’s not what he said to me. Because he knows I’m a little harder to reach. So He said, ‘Do not fear them. Fear me.’ And I thought he said it three times. And after that, I walked up there. The second I hit the steps to the stage, I had no fear. 

Why does He say, ‘Fear me?’ It’s not like, ‘Oh, you’re going to knock me down if I don’t do it.’ That’s not His fear. The fear of God to me is a fear of disappointing Him. The fear of not doing what we’ve been called to.”

Fear rises in our hearts whenever we face strong resistance. I think at one point or another, every Christian teacher has felt fear when the opportunity to share faith in a public school context arises. What will my boss say? Parents? The student?

This is what Dr. Poplin felt God saying: “Fear not? NO. Fear me!” Christians are ultimately called to live to please God alone. Who of us really want to see Christ one day and realize that we were ashamed of the gospel of grace – and then hear that Christ is ashamed of us before his Father on Judgement day? Mary Poplin was and is clearly bold. It’s a boldness I aspire to. But let’s not be confused: she’s not harsh, mean or arrogant. So many “evangelists” today use the gospel to wound others or win a culture battle. This isn’t her. She has a reason for the hope she professes, but she does so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

And Dr. Poplin is compassionate. She shared another story: “Sometimes just the strangest things happen. You know, somebody comes in and all of the sudden this person who you think is not interested in religion comes in, and starts weeping about something in their life. And I just say, ‘Can I pray for you?’ And no one has ever turned me down.”

Summary: Being a Christian Teacher in Public Education

1. Kids need direct instruction. Constructivism is poor pedagogy, especially for low-income students.

2. The best teachers are strict, have high personal interaction with students, and believe in their student’s ability to achieve. 

3. Religion can and should be taught in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful. 

4. Don’t romanticize history – either Christian or secular. Encourage students to seek out sources.

5. Teach virtue. Encourage moral conversations among students.

6. The best way to influence the moral climate of your school and classroom is through prayer.

7. The best Christian teachers are both courageous when sharing their faith and compassionate for others. 


What Mary Poplin Taught Us About Being a Christian Teacher in Public Education (1 of 2)

The Soul of Education Q&A – Dr. Mary Poplin from Denver Institute on Vimeo.

Being a public school teacher is tough – especially as a committed Christian. My mother was a 2nd and 3rd grade teacher for 35 years, my sister a middle school math teacher, and my wife has taught Spanish (and now young children) for nearly a decade. Over the years, the challenges for them have been many-sided:

– What should I think about the teaching philosophies we hear from the administration? 
– What curriculum will best serve my students? What about the district standards we have to teach to?
– How can I serve every student well – especially those coming from difficult home situations or low-income backgrounds? 
– Can I share what I believe about Christ in a public school – or is this strictly off limits? 
– What does it mean to serve God and my students well as a public school teacher?

When we invited Dr. Mary Poplin, author and Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University, to speak at the DIFW education forum this past June, little did I know that I (and 80 teachers) would have the chance to essentially see and hear what it means to follow Christ as a public school teacher in America today.

I was literally speechless after our conversation. She fluidly moved between her research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools to speaking about praying for every student. Our conversation spanned constructivism to Che Guevara, Francis Bacon’s theology to Piaget’s learning theory.

In two blog posts, here’s a summary of what we learned.

1. Kids need direct instruction. Constructivism is poor pedagogy, especially for low-income students.

“[Constructivism] is very popular in teacher training and teacher education. We believe it helps students be more creative. But the reality is children are not experts….The most effective teachers are strict, very serious, explicit instructors who are good at lecture and involving kids in a discussion while they are lecturing. They are not doing a bunch of constructivist activities; they don’t put children on projects they don’t know how to do.”

“[Effective teachers] explain things over and over until you get it in your head, and they don’t get mad if you don’t understand. Now that is not constructivism…This is a terrible problem, especially in poor schools. As E.D Hirsch says, ‘They have no background knowledge.’” 

As I began our Q & A session, Dr. Poplin delved right into the the pedagogical issues that most affect teachers today. She explained that in the beginning of schools, the idea was that there was a certain body of knowledge that needed to be transmitted to the next generation. Each generation would add to it and we would gain knowledge.  Teachers gave explicit instruction about what kids needed to know.

Yet several things changed. First, secular humanism changed our view of truth. For example, Dewey gave a set of lectures at Yale called “A Common Faith” – which was basically secular humanism, a ‘faith’ that led to a faith without reference to the specific God of Christian confession. Secular humanism led people to stop talking about received truth from previous generations and emphasized that students should “construct their own meanings.” Poplin said that when this filtered down to teacher training, the language being used was helping students become more “creative.”

So when this view of constructing meaning was combined with Piaget and Vygotsky’s research on structuralism, it led to the belief that kids will discover their own truth in small group settings.  Structuralism “presumed that all human beings all around the world had particular cognitive structures that needed to be developed, and they were best developed through experiences,” said Dr. Poplin. On this, Piaget and Vygotsky’s research was good: it was done on real children, and depended on how much instruction a child had, their interest level, and their developmental level. But the key was this: they still used explicit instruction.

But later learning research was done on adults. Adults are good at learning through questions in small groupsbecause they have background knowledge. But kids don’t have that, which is why constructivism is failing, especially for our poorest students. Constructivism is a good learning theory for those with background knowledge, but it’s poor teacher pedagogy for children, especially those who don’t grow up with parents who are highly educated.

Poplin said, “The children in Claremont, a university town, already read before they get to school. They’ve already watched the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. They talk with their parents who are university professors. That is not happening in South Central. They have a completely different kind of knowledge, but it’s not academic and it’s not going to help them get to college.”

Those who lose out the most in constructivist settings are not wealthy kids that come from educationally rich homes. It’s poor kids who need foundational knowledge to succeed.

2. The best teachers are strict, have high personal interaction with students, and believe in their student’s ability to achieve. 

“So kids would say two major things about their teachers. We said, ‘Why do you think this teacher’s so good?’ The number one thing was because they’re strict. And then they gave a reason: ‘They’re strict because they want us to go to college. They’re strict for a good reason. They’re strict because they believe in us.’”

“[One teacher] would say ‘I want you to remember that I’m here to teach you. And I don’t want you to struggle. If you find yourself at your desk struggling, you need to hold up your hand and I will come to help you…’ And he’d be working with one child at a desk and see a hand go up, and he’d say, “Mr Manzel [his student], I see your hand. I’m on my way — I’ve got you covered.”

Dr. Poplin’s research on highly effective teachers in low-income schools reveals that the best teachers are strict and are excellent at direct instruction. When giving instruction, they are masters at walking around the class and involving the students in discussion. “If I became a principal of a school that was in trouble tomorrow, the one thing I would have every teacher do is walk around the room when they give an assignment,” said Dr. Poplin.

Several of  the highly effective teachers shared their teaching strategy: “I go to a medium kid, or even a medium-low kid first, and I see if he got it. If he didn’t get it, I know I haven’t taught it. So I stop the whole activity and I start again, maybe even the next day.” Because these teachers are in constant contact with students, these teachers know who is and who is not learning.  Kids also don’t silently struggle; their teachers are there to help them understand a concept until they don’t struggle anymore.

Also, Dr. Poplin learned that highly effective teachers were uniquely determined people who believed in their student’s ability to achieve. “If you could put everything we learned about them [highly effective teachers] into four sentences, it would be this: ‘Every child in my room is underperforming based on what I see their potential to be. They’ve been allowed to do that because they’re in this school. It’s my job to turn this around, even if it’s only for a year. I want to do it, and I’m going to do it.’” 

These teachers were determined people, who valued discipline, direct instruction, and who saw their students had unrealized potential. Poplin recounts, “These teachers would say, ‘I know this is hard work, but I know you can do it. And I’m going to help you until you can do it.’” That belief in students allowed them to bloom.

3. Religion can and should be taught in public schools in a way that is fair and truthful. 

“I think if you also teach other religions honestly, that’s how you can [teach Christianity]. [Teachers can say] I’m gonna teach you what each of these believes, and what evidence they show for it…You’re trying to honestly present these things, including what orthodox Christians believe and why they believe it.”

Can you really teach students about Christian faith without either losing your job or getting a boatload of parent phone calls? This was my honest question. Yes, says Dr. Poplin. But it matters how you present the information. It also matters that you give fair say-so to other religions without mish-mashing all religions together in a secular assumption that says all religions are the same (the way Oprah does it).

In California, it’s required to teach students about religion, and in many public school districts, teaching religious literacy is central to being an informed, American citizen.

Teaching that Hinduism believes in a pantheon of gods and the wheel of karma; that Muslims believe submission to the will of Allah through his Prophet Mohammed is only path to God; and that Christians believe Jesus is resurrected from the dead and offers salvation as a free gift of grace to all who believe – these can and should be taught in classrooms as important subjects in world history, sociology and philosophy.

However you approach teaching about religion, don’t avoid it. Asking questions of ultimate meaning are important to helping students develop, learn and grow.

Will kids be tempted to follow other religions? Maybe. But in Dr. Poplin’s words, “I personally believe truth wins.”

[This post will continue tomorrow…]

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