Jeff Haanen

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Christians and public education


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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