Saturday, 29 December 2018

Developing a right view of work and effort - Principle 4

If you have read my previous posts on this blog you will realize that I am working my way through the 20 key principles within my pedagogical framework that is the foundation of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. There are 20 principles in all shaped that reflect three key aspects of God's relationship to us as his creation. First, "God made us as unique creatures". Second, "God made us as creatures who learn". Third, "God made us for communion". In this post, I want to look at the fourth and final principle that relates to the first aspect of our humanity, that is our uniqueness as God's creatures. This fourth statement stresses that while God made all of his creatures to 'work', only humanity is charged with the responsibility of seeing work as a gift from God for our good.

What is a right view of work and effort?

Genesis 2 reminds us that God made us to contribute to the order and running of our world. When he made us, God put us in the garden to "work and take care of it" (Gen 2:15). Work was part of God's good plan for us, and continues to be part of our humanity. While work will at times be hard as we 'toil' with the tasks for which we are responsible, there is a purpose to all of our work. Yes, it will provide money to buy food and pay for a shelter for our heads, but its role in our lives offers so much more. For a start, work is used by God to help us to understand the satisfaction of effort and of tasks completed. That moment when we can look at the fruits of our labour and say, yes the job is finished. At the moment of work's end, we can also be thankful for the rest that follows. Rest follows work.

But of course, work and effort can be misplaced. We can toil in our work simply to create something that "we've built", seeing it as our achievement; I did this! Of course, satisfaction in completing a task well can easily slip from thankfulness to pride and self-congratulation. Somewhere between the starting and finishing of our work, motivations can be easily misplaced. We can quickly shift from being thankful that God enabled and equipped us for a task to basking in the 'glory' of what "I've just done"!

So, Christians are to embrace work as part of God's good plans for us. We are to avoid idleness and be productive, because God gives us things to do, and this is part of what it means to be his creatures. 

We are God's co-workers. Not as equal partners, but as willing and obedient servants grateful for yet another of his gifts - work! And of course, 'effort' is closely intertwined with the goodness of work.  There is little commendation for idleness and laziness in God's word. He made us to be creatures who work and rest. This is part of who we are.

So, what does this mean for us as teachers?

The book of Colossians commends the slave to be obedient to the master. It offers a perspective on work, whether student, teacher or truck driver, that is different to many of the messages that flood us today. The slave was not commended to obey their earthly masters, just to gain their favour, but "... with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord" (Col 3:22) We are to embrace work and do it "... with all of our heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters" (Col 3: 23). 

The Christian teacher has two great responsibilities in relation to work. They are to demonstrate a right view of work themselves, and also instill this same right view in their students. We are to encourage our students to adopt a right attitude to all tasks. Hard work is not to be shunned (or even apologized for by the teacher), it is to be embraced as part of life and God's plan for us.

As teachers, we will have good days, and sometimes very bad days. Our students might be out of control, and we might be having trouble making it to the end of the school year and a much needed summer break. But we are to strive to show thankfulness for the work God has given us and also for the time of rest he gives us in order to sustain our work through what to the teacher will seem at times very long school terms. As teachers (and students), we are to fellowship with God when it gets tough. As the book of Isaiah reminds us, God will strengthen us in the midst of life, including work. We are to seek fellowship with God when times are tough in our classrooms and schools. Likewise, we are to encourage our students to understand this great truth (Isaiah 41:10). As his word reminds us our God is aware of the challenges, and when work is tough he is there. 

"For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you."
Isaiah 41:13

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Do My Classroom and School Encourage Service to One Another? Principle 3

In my previous two posts, I introduced the first two principles within my pedagogical framework, each framed as questions. My third question encourages us to think about the way classroom life encourages our students to serve one another. 

How do your classroom and school demonstrate and encourage service to one another?

Service is not something that can be simply taught as curriculum content. Rather it is a reflection and outcome of the whole of life. An early influence on my thinking in this area was the work of Douglas Barnes. As a young postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University in Bloomington Indiana, I was introduced to the work of the work of this English scholar. Barnes was not a Christian but he wrote a small book that was quite influential. I read it while I was conducting research in schools in Indianapolis in the 1980s.

My research was situated in elementary classrooms, and my focus was the nature of community life. I was particularly interested in the influence of language on learning in the classroom, home and communities. Barnes book 'From Communication to Curriculum' offered a refreshing insight into the relationship of the language of classroom to learning. At the heart of Barnes' thinking was the premise that education is "...embodied in the communicative life of an institution, the talk and gestures by which pupils and teachers exchange meanings even when they quarrel". His thesis was that learning language is not simply a cognitive process, it is acquired in an embodied, whole of life way. We learn language (in fact we learn anything), as we are immersed in a rich web of social relationships.  Likewise, we learn about and acquire human qualities such as 'service' in the context of community.

This may not seem profound in 2018, but for a young academic with a brand-new PhD in cognitive psychology, who had only just 2 years before become a Christian, it resonated deeply with my lived experiences as a teacher, father and researcher. What Barnes' work helped me to grasp was that education must be much more than filling young minds with knowledge, ideas, facts, values or even a specific worldview. Rather, it is as much an embodied experience as an intellectual activity of mind. As such, the whole of life of a community is critical when we try to grapple with what school pedagogy might look like. As James K.A. Smith has put it in his book 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation', Christian formation and discipleship are "Educational projects in the most holistic sense: the goal isn't just to equip knowers, but to form doers."

What I have learned in varied educational contexts over the last 30+ years conducting research in classrooms and educational institutions is that while the curriculum we structure, the content we deliver and the activities we plan collectively have an impact on shaping knowledge and learning, there is more! Teaching and learning are not simply dependent on the transfer of content and knowledge into young heads, or the planning of effective teaching and learning activities that transfer knowledge and skills. Rather, teaching, learning and curriculum are embodied activities that impact on our formation as knowers, doers and people. Part of the way learning is embodied is in the rituals and practices of classroom life.

Above: Group work (Wiki Commons)
Hence, as a teacher we can't 'teach' children to serve one another. Being prepared to put the needs of another before one's self runs smack in the face of self-interest. And so, as the teacher and her students live together in the classroom, they commune with one another and 'grow' together as they interact and commune within a particular context or community of practice (a concept I've discussed in previous posts). God made us to learn and 'grow' in knowledge of him as we commune with him.  Likewise, he shapes us within varied communities of practice and life. Gatherings of people influence the way we see the world and how we act. If these gatherings have God at the centre we are formed as we relate to one another under God. These are 'places' where are encouraged to seek the good of the community, not simply self. Within community, we learn to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:37–40). Such qualities are not learned intellectually, but as we learn and commune together.

As teachers and school leaders we are to act in ways that foster community by encouraging all members to serve one another in word and action. The teacher in God’s service is the primary (but not sole) example to their students. Our students also serve as examples to one another. Service and servanthood should be the mark of all teachers, and are of central importance to any classroom within a Christian school. God the Servant King who took on 'the very nature of a servant' made us to be servants to him, but also to one another. Jesus, of course, is the perfect example of service, having given his life for us (Phil 2:7; Matt 20:25–28).

As teachers, our example is a critical part of what it is to be a Christian teacher, as we demonstrate what service looks like, as well as shepherding and watching over our students. But of course, their example to one another is just as powerful. We become servants as we receive the fruit of servant-hood from others.

In my next post we will consider the fourth principle in my framework: 'Developing a right view of work and effort'.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Building on the Foundations of the Family - Pedagogical Principle 2

As I wrote in my last post, the central concern of the Christian school teacher must be the formation of character in their students. While growing minds and bodies is also important, it is the character of every child that is the central concern of God. As James K.A. Smith argued in a conference that I convened in Sydney in 2012, education is much more than teaching skills or helping children to acquire knowledge, it is more fundamentally an exercise in the formation of the child. And of course, the outcome of such formation is what we would typically describe as 'character'. Martin Buber suggested that "education worthy of its name is essentially education of character" (Martin Buber, 'Between Man and Man'). And of course, character is not 'taught'; rather, it is acquired or developed in community.

The importance of community is a critical element in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. In the book I outline a framework that reflects a key foundational proposition in my pedagogy:
“Education is the whole life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific goal”
In the final chapter of my book I offer 20 statements that expand on this central definition and act as a framework for education in a Christian organization. I express them in the form of questions. In the last post I considered the first question, "Do I identify that which is valuable in each child?"

In this post I consider the second question.

Do my class and school build on the foundations of the family? 

I spent almost 20 years conducting research on family literacy and learning. This work offered valuable insights into the relationship between the home, school and community, and demonstrated that when schools understand and respect families, that education at school is more effective. One national project that I led for the Australian government, considered the role that parent support and understanding of school pedagogy played in helping children to succeed in literacy learning in the elementary school years. The outcome of the work is described in my book 'Beyond Tokenism: Parents as Partners in Literacy'. While my concern in 'Pedagogy and Education and Life' is the education of the whole child, the findings from my family literacy and learning research, showed that even in relation to school success, a strong open relationship between home and school is vital. This of course is even more clearly needed when we are concerned for the whole child as Christian parents and teachers. This in turn will reflect our faith, and a view of the world shaped by the Scriptures and the gospel-centred narrative that binds the Bible together from beginning to end.      

So why is it important to build on the foundations of the family?

First, it is important to understand families because our students are first and foremost the responsibility of parents under God. While we have the privilege of teaching the children of families, we must understand that our students arrive as people shaped initially by parents. As well, we need to respect the wishes of families for their children. Having said this, it is also important to remember that families are all different and so their parenting strategies will also be different. Also, our parents might not be people of Christian faith. Nevertheless, the school and its teachers need to take responsibility to ensure that parents understand what the school offers and the school's statement of faith that is meant to shape pedagogy and school life.

Second, and more fundamentally, the Bible has much to say about the importance of the family as a critical unit in any society. The Bible teaches that God made us to live in relationship first to him, and second to other people. And the family was the foundation of humanity (Gen 2:15-25), and continues to be the foundation for learning in the early years of life (Deut 6:1-9). Families also have a vital role throughout schooling, and hence the Christian school is to know the families of its students, to support them as they nurture their children, and as God works in their lives. Families are not problems to be managed, but rather partners in education and recipients of God’s grace, sometimes delivered through the school.

Any teacher reading this post will of course realize just how hard it can be at times to deal with parental attitudes and expectations, that do not mirror those of the teacher or the school. In the final chapter of my book I follow the pedagogical framework with a series of case studies that highlight some of the challenges that teachers face in their partnership with parents, who may not share their beliefs. In fact, many of our students do not accept the Christian faith themselves. I stress in the second case study in chapter 9 of my book, that the key challenge for the Christian teacher when teaching the children of non-Christian parents is "... to communicate honestly to parents whether  Christian, or non-Christian." And as well, as the teacher does so, they need to trust God will use her words according to his purposes."

Friday, 28 September 2018

'Indentify that which is Valuable in all Children' - Pedagogical Principle 1

Have you ever considered what drives us as teachers; and by extension, what drives the schools in which we serve? Is our major concern to see our students growth in character? Or are we fixated on growing their minds, or perhaps, just helping them to achieve success at school? Is our major priority (and perhaps that of parents) simply helping students' to succeed at school and hence, in life? What a shallow and inadequate aspiration this is for education!

Every parent of course wants their children to succeed in life, to gain employment, have families and so on. But what of their character? Where does their formation as people fit in? Is it even a concern of the teacher? And what role if any, does the teacher play in partnership with parents in the formation of children?  

In my last post I emphasized that my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation’ represents a distillation of my many years as a teacher and researcher addressing questions of this type. My experience as a teacher and researcher, as well as my faith, led me over almost three decades, to develop a pedagogy that did not consist simply of knowledge of good practice and appropriate curriculum content. Rather, it has a central assumption that children learn in relationship to others, and that these relationships and the practices they engage in day by day, are always embedded within shared communities, consisting of people who hold many understandings, beliefs and practices. The definition that shaped the pedagogy within my book reflects the culmination (at that time) of my personal life journey as a teacher when I realized that.
“Education is the whole life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific goal”
At the end of my last post I shared a pedagogical framework reflecting this definition and promised that I'd begin to discuss each of the 20 components organized around three key main strands of a biblical theology of personhood:
  • God made us as unique creatures
  • God made us as creatures who learn
  • God made us for communion
Each of the above understandings of personhood lead to a number of questions that should shape pedagogy. In this post, I want to comment on the first question that relates to our uniqueness.

Do I identify that which is valuable in each child?

Above: Picasso's Girl with a mandolin
All children are made in the image of God (Gen 2:15-25) and yet, all are different. While we might recognize common behaviour, attitudes, knowledge, habits (good and bad), abilities, emotional strengths or weaknesses and so on, in our children, each child in his or her own way is unique. This is of course is true, even for identical twins (monozygotic twins) who from the same fertilized egg. They too are genetically different (see this article) and different in character.

What does this simple plank in my pedagogy imply for pedagogy? Let me suggest five things.

a) First, that to teach to teach the whole class as a single group is foolishness. Sure, if we wish to teach specific skills and knowledge that we see as vital (e.g. learning to count), it will mean that all will be taught the same content. But if we are to engage students as learners, we will need to find content that varies and relates to diverse interests and adopts varied methods.
b) Second, we should expect our students to present with different strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to build on strength and support students to cope with their weaknesses and perhaps overcome them or cope with them. Conversely, we need to have a diverse curriculum that allows students to demonstrate their varied capabilities. As a young difficult child in primary school I was grateful to several teachers who encouraged some of my key interests and tolerated areas of weakness.
c) Third, we should strive to develop curriculum content that opens up many and varied forms of learning. This of course might reflect and relate to curriculum content (science, art, writing, maths, drama, natural history, music etc), or perhaps modes for learning (creative activities, oral and written expression, divergent as well as convergent thinking etc). 
d) Fourth, we should offer choice in content and curriculum activities, not simply prescription.  Enthusiasm can be more easily engendered by ensuring some freedom and choice for students in relation to the activities that are experienced.
e) Fifth, we need to understand that we all have different abilities and capabilities, and ensure that we allow space for this in our curriculum and pedagogical practices.

To be an effective teacher is to recognize that which is unique and valuable in each child.

In my next post, I will consider the second of my 20 principles. This examines the place of the family in God's plan, and the question "Does my class and school build on the foundations of the family"?

Monday, 27 August 2018

What Matters When We Teach? What is our purpose?

In Australia, we have a number of system wide tests. These are designed to assess in objective ways what children know and don't know, as well as what they can do and not do. Standardized tests that are designed to assess, monitor system wide student achievement, areas of strength and weakness, and in some cases, guidance in relation to curriculum content. But ..., and the teachers reading this knew there would be a 'but', these tests are rarely used in accordance with their purpose, and they have unintended consequences. We have just finished administering what is known as NAPLAN that is administered to students in grades 3, 5, 7 & 9. NAPLAN tests "... the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy." The assessments are undertaken nationwide, every year, in the second full week in May, and by August we are castigating our schools and teachers for failing to teach well enough to the test (see HERE). Since their inception, the tests have gone from a means to provide advice to teachers and systems about the areas of curriculum where students need additional help. However, it is clear now that teachers have (not surprisingly) increasingly taught to the test. That is, shaped their curriculum and methods based on their expectations of what might be in the test. My question? Is this the best we can do? Is this the highest purpose that we can have for education?
I entered teaching in the 1970s as an unlikely member of the profession. I was an escapee from engineering, after having a lifelong desire to become a mechanical engineer. Hence, I was a somewhat ‘accidental’ teacher.  And yet, within months of entering a classroom I was captured by the desire to know why some of my students were able to read and write, while others were struggling. I began doing my own ‘action research’, devising new methods and testing ideas to try to unlock the capacity of some of my students to do things which seemed to be basic and foundational. For me there was a direct link between what I observed in my classroom each day and my students' performance. This made an incredible difference and children who couldn't read, began to read, while those who didn't read well in this working class and culturally diverse community, began to read. I chose methods that were appropriate for them, and the only tests that mattered were those that helped me to monitor their progress and help them to grow as learners.

But while my purposes were more directly connected to the success of the current epidemic of system-wide testing and schools 'teaching to the test', my purposes were still quite utilitarian. I had been thinking a great deal about ‘what’ and ‘how’ I would teach, but I had thought little about the question ‘why’? Clearly, the answer to 'why' was obviously so that they could learn and grown in ability. So my ultimate purpose for teaching my students for them to do well at school. Is this the full extent to our purposes in education? Well, probably not. I was wanting them to do well so that they might do well at school and one day gain jobs etc. But was this it? Or, was I also concerned for the growth of their character, rather than just their minds? I'm sure that I did have concerns for my students to be happy, to succeed in life, to grow up gain jobs, have families and (in this community) stay out of trouble. But how much did I think about my role in this? Did I see that I had a role in their growth in character? Was their well-being simply seen as an associated outcome, or did I understand that I had a key role to play?

In those early years, I thought little about the ultimate purpose of my teaching and the education of my classes. As a young Atheist, I had no real framework for the choices that I made other than what might work, and what led to success. I sensed that there needed to be a higher purpose for what I was doing each day, but this wasn't the main game. The goals I set for my teaching did not go much beyond the need for the personal success of my students, and perhaps a driving sense of the seeming injustice that some were so ill-prepared for their futures.   

But over time, as I grew in character and maturity myself, I began to grasp that education is more than the sum total of the curriculum, methods, teaching strategies and the measurement of educational success. I also began to realize that my purpose wasn't simply to train or teach children to reproduce skills, knowledge and tasks. I began to understand that a narrow kit bag of methods, and a commitment to testing and revision, was not a fool-proof way to ensure universal success and well-being. My book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation’ represents a distillation of my many years as a teacher and researcher, and how after coming to faith in my early 30s, many questions arose in relation to teaching and pedagogy. I slowly grasped that education is much more than content, methods and curriculum. 

Authentic education must always have an articulated purpose or end goal in mind. I realized that I needed to develop a pedagogy that did not consist simply of knowledge of good practice and appropriate curriculum content. As this was going on my life, as a young teacher and (by then) a researcher in my 30s I came to faith as a Christian. This significant life event not only changed me as a person, it changed me as a teacher. Under the influence of varied secular and Christian educators, I slowly realized that children learn in relationship to others, and that these relationships and the practices they engaged in day by day, are always embedded within shared communities, consisting of people who hold many understandings, beliefs and practices. The definition that has shaped the pedagogy within my book reflects the end point of my personal life journey as a teacher.
“Education is the whole life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific goal”
A key facilitator of my growing understanding of pedagogy, was the realization that the teacher is but one member of a classroom. True, they have authority and knowledge that their students might not possess, but as we teach young people, we must realize that they are not our learning captives. We cannot lock them in a room and program their minds for life. Rather, they need to navigate a world of endless meanings, and knowledge beyond our mind’s capacity for consumption. And I realized that this takes place embedded within numerous and varied physical and virtual daily practices and events. My children arrived each day as travellers and citizens of many communities, and I was largely at the centre of just one of them. Hence, my influence was at best minor in relation to their character and formation as people. For they were interacting in and outside school with numerous friendship groups, indeed communities of practice. Wenger & Lave describe communities of practice as “...groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” A fundamental question for me as a teacher is what impact do I have on my students' participation in such communities, and how effective might that make me in shaping their character? For formation occurs in relationship to others.
As Arthur Holmes reminds us, from ancient times we have been aware that we learn with others. The Greek rhetorical tradition of Socrates, which influenced Holmes’ work, recognized that we learn best with others. In ancient Greece, this was very much a case of young boys sitting at the feet of a learned teacher. Nonetheless, foundational to this approach was an understanding that the young are formed as they tussle with ideas and knowledge in dialogue with others. Not surprisingly, Augustine’s Confessions were founded on the understanding that such learning ultimately has a greater foundation in God. As Holmes reminds us:
“… every good (one) experiences, and all truth (one) learns come ultimately from God and are occasions for praise. God is the being by whom all things are true that are true, and all things are good that are good.” (Arthur Holmes, ‘Building the Christian Academy’).
A central claim in my book is that while there are varied almost limitless methods that we can use as teachers, pedagogy must be central. And people of faith need to understand pedagogy must always must be driven by a central purpose or goal, as the Greeks expressed it telos. As a Christian, I turn to the Bible for this central purpose. Christian education is to be kingdom focused, and in turn, must communicate the intended end goal of education. This will be a telos that is centered on the kingdom of God, not simply earthly success and achievement. And of course, there is a relationship between our priorities shaped by the gospel, our faith in Christ, how we live out and speak of this faith, and our actions (Phil 1:27; Jas 2:14-26). Hence, the things we teach and the way we do it cannot be separated from the life of the school community, nor for that matter, communities outside the school. Our pedagogical practices will lead to the creation of a classroom life, that has the potential to ‘speak’ to our students about what is important in the world of the classroom, and consequently, what matters most.

For the above reasons, I see formation as central to the model of pedagogy advocated in my book. This is a pedagogy that reflects and is interwoven into the daily life of any community; a pedagogy that will see classes, schools and students transformed. The Bible’s central message is centred on our transformation in and through Christ. We are what we live, not just what content is learned, the worldview the teacher holds, success on the exams sat, assignments completed, and so on. It is within the life of the community that character is shaped. In effect, pedagogy as I am defining it, is a term that attempts to encompass the essence of how teachers orchestrate and sustain classroom learning and life, and this of course it is driven by an intent and telos.

It must be pedagogy that determines our focus, and enables us to place our mark on children in ways that truly differentiate faith-based schools from secular schools. In a sense, pedagogy is the ‘what’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of teaching, all rolled together. But it is worth noting, that while we have freedom to change the ‘what’ and ‘how’, the ultimate ‘why’ should not change, for it is shaped by our higher purpose. If ‘Christian Education’ is to be authentic, then all that we do, say, sanction and plan, should be centered on the end goal of seeing young people growing as people who one day will be a part of the family of God.

In my book, I outline a 20-point framework that I believe is the distillation of the type of pedagogy that I believe is essential in faith-based institutions. I provide examples and a series of case studies to illustrate how elements of the framework will shape pedagogy. This framework is the basis of the pedagogy that I have used to challenge teachers to reflect on their practices and the telos that is central to their teaching. 

The Framework

The framework below is structured under three major headings, which reflect the theology that has informed the whole book, as well as the biblical theology of person hood. Three broad biblical truths give shape to the framework: ‘God is Creator’; ‘God’s creatures are meant to be learners’; and, ‘God made us for communion’. Under each key truth I list a number of key components of my pedagogy. 

In my next post, I will begin to provide some examples of how I believe that the framework can be used for staff professional development.

Each point of course is explained in detail in the book with examples and case studies.

a) God made us as unique creatures

Identify that which is valuable in each child.
Build on the foundations of the family.
Demonstrate and encourage service.
Develop a right view of work and effort.

b) God made us as creatures who learn

Develop meaning-makers who interpret language and knowledge to know ‘truth’.
Develop humble learners.
Understand the diverse nature of learners, and identify and respond to individual
Create opportunities for students to take responsibility for learning.
Foster the development of imagination and creativity.
Encourage creative risk-taking and problem solving.
Utilize varied methods to facilitate learning in diverse learners.
Act as “kidwatchers” observing and monitoring student learning and well-being.
Evaluate the ends towards which our pedagogy is directed.
Make our classrooms places where just punishment and discipline are evident.

c) God made us for communion

Demonstrate forgiveness and seek repentance in students as hearts are trained.
Model and promote self-sacrifice and generosity.
Seek and model justice within class and school community life.
Ensure learning in the classroom is related to the world beyond.
Promote the importance of ‘story’ in your classroom and school.
Implement pedagogical practices that demonstrate a relationship between education
and discipleship.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Literature, the Bible & Redemption

1. The importance of children's literature

Some readers of this blog might know that I also write a blog called "Literacy, families and learning". I've been doing it for 10 years and it aims to reach a broad audience "to provide practical, timely and sound support and advice for parents, teachers and teachers in training". It isn't written with a specifically Christian audience in mind, but if do you read it, I hope that you will see the influence of my Christian faith and worldview. This might be most evident in some of the posts I have written on Key themes in children's literature.
These posts intersect with my writing for a Christian blog that I also wrote (while the Director of CASE). The posts concerned Christian Writing for Children (here and here).

Above: J.R.R. Tolkien
In one of the posts I drew on the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and referred to Tolkien's view that the central Bible narrative account of God’s redemptive plan and work, is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. I agree with him that in every story, there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfills the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Tolkien also suggested to Lewis one night that "... just as a word is an invention about an object or idea, so a story can be an invention about truth."

At the core of the Bible is Salvation History; with a central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity, and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him, and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death, and one day, to usher in a new Heaven and a new Earth. This is God's plan that provides a way for his creation to be redeemed and restored.
In my first CASE post on Christian writing for children, I suggested that while there are many legitimate forms of writing for children (I suggested at least five types), I urged Christians to consider writing good fiction for the secular marketplace. One participant in a workshop I ran in 2008 as part of a CASE writers conference, took me at my word. Some years later 
Danielle Terceiro, wrote an interesting first novel for readers aged 12-14 years, 'Project Hot Potato' that tried to do this. While the echoes of the gospel are not strong in the book, it was an interesting attempt. In my presentation at the workshop I was arguing for the redemption of children's literature for the sake of the gospel, and suggested 5 possible responses and she attempted Type 5 where biblical links or parallels are at the thematic level. My aim at the workshop was to encourage Christians to write good publishable narratives for children that had biblical themes at their very foundation, and an absence of bad language, moral failures and sexually promiscuity and so on.
2. The place of God's redemptive plan for creation in literature

But in this post I want to remind readers that much literature is already suitable for parents to use as an extension of the biblical education of their children. While I'm not suggesting that literature can be a replacement for the Bible as the key text for life, what I am suggesting is that the gospel inhabits literature in stories that echo the central redemption narrative of the Bible. 

I suggest in chapter 7 of my new book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', that to be human is to seek to understand our purpose in life. To live, is "to be immersed within an intertextual cacophony of stories that shape and influence the things we desire. From these stories, we read various representations of the future, and alternative visions of what Aristotle first called 'human flourishing'." In a sense, we are 'persuaded', 'convinced' or, as James Smith suggests, perhaps even 'lured', by these pictures and visions of the future.

Stories are always more than just disconnected and isolated accounts; they typically have a relationship to other larger metanarratives. Christian Smith in 'Moral, Believing Animals' suggested that narratives “seek to convey the significance and meaning of events by situating their interaction with or influence on other events and actions in a single, interrelated account.” 

We are shaped, at least in part, by the stories we absorb, give expression to, and help create. James K. A. Smith suggests this is no simple cognitive process (James Smith, 'Desiring the Kingdom', p.41). Rather, we are embodied creatures who absorb the stories of life and engage in rituals and cultural practices that shape our desires and our vision of the good life. This argument draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary” in 'Modern Social Imaginaries'. This is discussed briefly in chapter 6 of my book. Taylor argues that societies are given direction by an imagined and hoped-for view of the world. This is not expressed simply in “theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories and legends.” Humans are not given their major focus and direction simply by reasoning, but also through the imagination.

The stories that are part of our experience thus shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction to our lives. In exploring the relationship between love and community, Oliver O’Donovan reminds us of Augustine’s statement that a community is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.” ('Common Objects of Love', 20–24).  Stanley Hauerwas, in 'The Hauerwas Reader' suggested that in essence, a group of people come to see a common “view of the good,” and are hence capable of common action, cultural practices, and identity.

Classroom life is full of stories in varied forms, hence their importance.

3. So how do we make better use of literature?

In another book of mine 
('Pathways to Literacy', Cairney 1995, p.77-78) which I wrote some time ago for university students and teachers, I suggested that literature can act as:
  • a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • a source of knowledge
  • a source of ideological challenge
  • a means to peer into the past, and the future
  • a vehicle to other places
  • a means to reflect on inner struggles
  • an introduction to the realities of life and death
  • a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
I'm pushing the above claims one step further in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. My point is simple. For many books, there are links or parallels at the thematic level, to the biblical redemption narrative. These stories demonstrate or echo biblical teaching. For example, salvation narratives, stories of redemption and restoration, parallels to biblical narratives or even biblical parables. Other less helpful books distort these biblical themes and require comment and critique. Such stories can be read at one level simply as nice tales, but at another level the key themes that parallel biblical themes can be discussed with children. We see this often in the way some authors treat the Christmas story and manage to write out the major salvation narrative. In many cases, the authors are not Christians, but Christian teaching may have indirectly influenced their writing. Many children's stories offer knowledge of events and life situations, that for the Christian would be seen as:

  • affirming that God is in control of his world and is unfolding his purposes for it;
  • acting as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future in the light of biblical teaching;
  • leading us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc) that once again relate to biblical wisdom and teaching;
  • pointing to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Alternatively, literature can offer perspectives that Christians would see are at odds with biblical teaching and require comment. This type of critical reading of literature 'against the grain', is a vital skill for children to learn, so that as independent readers they will be better able to read books, view movies, listen to songs and read texts of all kinds with a biblical lens. Biblical engagement with literature of this type can begin very early (albeit in modest ways!).

4. An example - Teaching our children about death, human frailty and judgement

The topic of death is not a very popular one for parents. Many parents make the mistake of trying to hide the reality of death from their children, with the result that when their children do encounter it they may have difficulty coping. At this point I should confess to telling my eldest daughter (when she was about 3 years old), that our pet yellow budgerigar ("Mr Hooper") had got out of the cage and flown away. In fact, he had died. As non-Christian parents at the time, my wife and I weren't ready to deal with the topic so we simply lied about the bird's death (sorry Nicole!).

While there is little point in deliberately raising death prematurely for the child before they have the emotional maturity to deal with it, it's hard to artificially put a time frame on when it's a good time to speak of death.
While thankfully few children will have to deal with death and dying at too young an age, some will, and of course we have no way of knowing when,   and if this might be the case. Furthermore, from an early age they will be on the 'edges' of conversations and discussions that will give them their first hints that this life is not permanent for any living creature. An awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet like Mr Hooper). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day die, might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older, the chance of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances.

That's where literature (and film of course) can help parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. Once again, I stress that this isn't a replacement for the Bible's discussion of death, and the fact that Jesus rescues us from any fear of death. But literature is a complement to our discussion of the Bible's teaching about death. At this point, I also want to stress that I am not deliberately ignoring classic works of Christian fiction that are more allegorical in their approach such as Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress", The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis, or R.C. Sproule's, The Prince's Poison Cup. This genre has a different place in our literary traditions that I won't address in this already long post.

Let me offer a few examples of how some books raise the theme of death and dying.

5. Some books that deal with death

a) Traditional fantasy and fairy tales

Fantasy has always been a common first introduction to human frailty and death. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all deal with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

b) Some books for younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you
, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and the impact of the death on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years. There is so much to talk about in this story of devotion and loss. Be warned, children ask the most challenging questions about stories, e.g. "Do dogs go to heaven?"

Granpa by John Burningham - This moving book provides provides an insight into death through simple words and pictures of the relationship between a girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the at times disconnected nature of child/adult interaction), but this is a wonderful book! The story shows how their relationship changes over time from the child being dependent on the adult, to Granpa beginning to show the signs of the slow creep from life to death. From dependence to 'independence' but one day when he dies, life goes on.  

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual, but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a well known children's author.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face up to their inevitable death.

c) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web
, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child. For the Christian parent there is also the opportunity to talk about pain, suffering and judgement.

d) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II. For the older reader there is a lot to get your teeth into here, particularly the contrast of the stories treatment of death and the Bible's

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of her son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. This touching story ends in tragedy.

6. Some final comments

What I've tried to show in this post is to try to demonstrate in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life', particularly in chapter 7, 'Storytelling and life'. If 'education is the whole of life of a community and the experience of its members learning to live this life from a specific standpoint or end goal', then we need to understand that every story, every book, offers insight into the greatest story ever told. 

The purpose of the post is not to encourage Christian parents or teachers to put the Bible to one side and present the gospel according to literature. Rather, the purpose is to highlight how literature has much to offer in terms of the discussion of biblical themes as part of narrative encounters in books and even film. Nor am I suggesting that parents and teachers ruin the reading of literature by dissecting books to such an extent that children are not given the opportunity to simply enjoy the narrative themselves. And I'm definitely not saying that we should all become bibliotherapists, although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. 

But I do want to stress that literature offers many possibilities for rich discussions with our children that have significance for their developing faith in Christ.

AN UPDATE - Availability of 'Pedagogy, Education and Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation'

My book is now be widely available throughout the English Speaking world now. Major sites like Amazon have it in all three forms, paperback, hard cover and Kindle version. Let me know if you have availability issues. There shouldn't be problems. The Wipf & Stock model allows for copies to be printed on demand and delivered in very short timeframes (days not weeks).

Visit the Wipf & Stock site HERE if you'd like review copies. Let me know if you have problems.

Friday, 11 May 2018

'Pedagogy and Education for Life' - Publication UPDATE

I just wanted to update followers that my book Pedagogy & Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, and Formation' is in production in paperback, hardback and Kindle editions. It is available through Amazon and all major international online bookshops. There will also be copies available from major bookshops in Australia, USA and the UK. If you would like review copies for journals and other education publications please visit the publishers' site and provide your details HERE. ISBN numbers for each format can be found on the Amazon website.
The paperback ISBN is 1498283616
The book is now available for sale. It is available in paperback ($US25 and $AUD34.27), hardcover ($US45) and Kindle edition ($US9.04 & $AUD11.99).

All three formats are now available.