The Hardest Part of Teaching

Image: Creative Commons

Image: Creative Commons

 

By Tina Olesen

Sometimes I’m tempted to think that the hardest part of teaching is having to keep the pressure on your students to do the things they do not want to do.

You don’t get a lot of thanks for continually telling your students to “focus” or “finish your job” or “quiet down”.

When your students seem to be hard of hearing and they are ignoring you…

When you’ve told a child something for the tenth time that morning…

When your students have to do something hard, and they are whining, and you feel like whining, too…

This is the least exciting part of being a teacher, and one I have to discipline myself to do! How much easier it would be to let my students off the hook, to let them fool around, to let them disobey me. Yet, I would not be serving their best interests.

How do you keep at it?

When I was a beginning teacher, my assigned teaching mentor recommended that I set up a “token economy” in my classroom, so my students would get “points” for compliance, which they could trade in for rewards. She argued that we have to motivate them to obey. I found out quickly that it only resulted in the children becoming increasingly selfish. When I would ask them to do something, they would say, “What are you going to give me if I do it?”

If we pay our students to comply, they aren’t going to learn how to make themselves do the things they don’t want to do, even when there’s nothing in it for them.

If we want to see our students grow up into men and women who will do the right thing, not because there’s anything in it for them, but just because it’s the right thing, then we won’t bribe [1] them to do it. But that will mean patiently dealing with resistance on the part of our students.

There is always the temptation to try to gain the hearts of our students by buying their affections. We want to feel good, we want to be liked. These affections are shallow, though. What runs deeper is when a child can look in your eyes and know that you love him enough to hold him accountable and voluntarily (even cheerfully) suffer his apparent hatred.

And so teaching is a vehicle for dying to self. Will I do the right thing by my students, even when it means willingly suffering their complaints, ingratitude, rebellion?

The question is, doesn’t Jesus suffer mine?

The hardest part of teaching is not dealing with the monotony of repeating the same instructions over and over again, or forcing myself to be faithful in the little things of child training.

The hardest part of teaching is looking into the face of your little rebellious student and recognising yourself there. It is continually coming face to face with my own pride, my own impatience, my own sin. It is agreeing with Jesus about it, and facing the fact that I am helpless to do anything to change it. Pride does not want to acknowledge that Jesus shed His own blood so that my sin could be dealt with.

So, I turn my back on my pride, and I come to Him. Perpetually. Humbly. Desperately. I let His love convict me. And He is right there, to cleanse, to forgive, to heal.

This is the glorious truth I can offer my students: the truth that although we are all rebellious sinners (myself included), Jesus came to save us from ourselves.

Last week, the seniors of our church were having a meeting together in the room beneath my classroom. I heard them singing and I paused for a moment and joined my heart in song with theirs:

 

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night,

Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;

Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light,

Jesus, I come to Thee;

Out of my sickness, into Thy health,

Out of my want and into Thy wealth,

Out of my sin and into Thyself,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

 

Out of my shameful failure and loss,

Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;

Into the glorious gain of Thy cross,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of earth’s sorrows into Thy balm,

Out of life’s storms and into Thy calm,

Out of distress to jubilant psalm,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

 

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,

Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;

Into Thy blessèd will to abide,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of myself to dwell in Thy love,

Out of despair into raptures above,

Upward for aye on wings like a dove,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

 

Out of the fear and dread of the tomb,

Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;

Into the joy and light of Thy throne,

Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of the depths of ruin untold,

Into the peace of Thy sheltering fold,

Ever Thy glorious face to behold,

Jesus, I come to Thee.


 

[1] (Yes, of course there are times I give my students treats, to celebrate together. I’m not knocking that! It’s just not tied to performance. It’s a free gift.)

 

The Faith of a Child

By Tina Olesen

Have you listened to seven-year-olds pray? There is no hesitation, no holding back, no posturing, no self-consciousness. Just simple faith, and often a boldness that we adults shy away from.

One of my favorite subjects to teach is Bible. We have our daily time where we gather on the carpet, and begin with prayer.

This week in Bible we have been focusing on the cross of Christ. In one of our conversations about it, a student asked, “Why did the disciples leave Jesus when He was on the cross?” (Sometimes they ask me even tougher questions than this!)

One of the other students wanted to answer, so I let him. “They were scared.”

“But why were they scared?” came the incredulous reply. “They had God on their side!”

Another student interjects seriously, “But there were Roman soldiers. Those are tough guys.”

They all paused to consider this, some nodding in agreement.

But nothing could move this little man of faith. “They still should have done something!” he insisted earnestly.

We paused to consider that for a moment. Then I said, “You know, you’re right. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be brave. Even if it means dying for Jesus’ sake.”

“Yeah, and it doesn’t even matter if we die, ‘cause we’d be with Him anyways!” came the bold reply.

I looked at his face. He was dead serious.

So I told him, “This is what Jesus meant when He said that we should have the faith of a child. He wants everyone to have faith in Him like yours.” He beamed!

And it hit me afresh how it’s our faith that pleases God. Not the fancy words we try to use in prayer. Not the things that we do to try to get into His good books or impress Him. It is faith in His character that makes Him well pleased.

As I pondered this conversation, and how I am going to follow it up next Bible class, I thought about the disciples after the resurrection and after they were indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. What a radical difference there was in their faith! Then they were ready to lay their lives down for His sake, and by the power of His Spirit, they did.

This truth goes deep. It is the faith we display in His character, despite our circumstances, that proves to the watching world that Jesus is real, and that He is worth risking it all for. In doing so, we experience the sweet pleasure of God in our faith.

Sometimes it is overwhelming to me to think about the world that I am preparing my students to live in, but then I remember that it is in the times of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith that followers of Christ most display the faith in Him that proves He is worthy of our very lives.

“Yeah, and it doesn’t even matter if we die, ‘cause we’d be with Him anyways!”

 

 

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Toronto skyline By Tina Olesen

Almost two years ago I visited Toronto for the first time. I remember feeling an odd sort of sadness as I lifted off from Pearson and watched the city slowly disappear from beneath me. It was huge, brown, and kind of ugly looking; yet I felt something tugging at my heart. I didn’t know exactly what it was. A few hours later I looked down over the green expanse of Vancouver with the ocean beyond and the contrast was remarkable. Home again. Or was I?

Fast forward three months. I have all my most important possessions crammed into an aging but trusty Toyota, and I am headed east. This script is replayed over and over again:

“Where are you headed?”

“I’m moving to Toronto.”

“Toronto?! Really? Why?!?”

I don’t know if it’s because people from Toronto who retire out west tell horror stories about the winters, but Toronto seems to have a bad rap in those parts.

My first winter here made their “Why?!?”s echo through my head. I had never before in my life scraped ice off the inside of my car windshield…

I nearly had a breakdown over the traffic. Why are people allowed to park in the right travelling lanes? Enough said.

Adjustment comes in phases. First the excitement of meeting new people and making new friends. Then the longing just to sit and talk with someone who knows you, who has known you for years, and not to have to give your background all over again. Then, surprisingly, your new friends begin to feel like old friends. You feel like you would miss them just as terribly.

Missing my loved ones and the land of my birth comes in waves. Sometimes I long for the sight of the ocean. Some days I want to lift up my eyes to the mountains and all I see are high rises. I stood washing dishes in the kitchen one day and ached for the sound of rain (I never would have believed that I would miss the rain, but I do!)

The beauty may be subtler here, but it’s here. I’ve had endless wonderful surprises from a loving, caring Heavenly Father. The first snowdrops after a long winter. The unexpected lily of the valley and lilacs that I had no idea were buried beneath all that snow in the yard. The robins who came to play in the sprinkler in early summer.

I still feel somewhat like a transplant, but one whose roots are growing and whose leaves are stretching up towards the sun.

In the 90’s when I was at UVic, the education students in my cohort were all crammed into an auditorium one afternoon, listening to the head of the Faculty of Education. She was giving us a pep talk before we went out to do our practice teaching, some of us to some pretty far flung places in BC. I’ll never forget her commanding but warm words urging us to “Bloom where you’re planted!”

Lately I’ve been thinking about her words again. What does it take to bloom where you’re planted?

For me it has taken a lot of tender loving care from God’s people in Toronto. They’ve embraced me. They’ve nurtured me. They’ve loved me.

It also takes a quiet heart. As the Psalmist says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” It takes trust in the character of the God who led me here, and who continues to provide for me.

It takes a sense of adventure in exploring a new place, and accepting and embracing it for what it is, instead of continually comparing it with what you know. The possibilities of discovering new territory here are pretty much endless.

The best new territory by far, though, has been the realm of Christian Education. As I stepped into my new classroom that very first day, I experienced the freedom of being able to speak openly about Jesus Christ and exalt Him as Lord and King. I had the whole Bible at my disposal as the teaching tool that can address all of life. I was able to pray with my students, leading them to the One who can bring hope to any situation.

I have the blessing of watching my students grow as they soak in the water of the Word of God and bask in the warmth of His grace and love. “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered,” promises Proverbs, and it’s true.

Repealing the “Spanking Law”

parent child

Image: Creative Commons

By Tina Olesen

Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party have announced their plans to repeal the so-called “Spanking Law” as part of their commitment to implement all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The TRC investigated the past abuse of aboriginal children in Canadian residential schools and made 94 recommendations to the government to promote reconciliation between the offended and the offenders.

One of their recommendations was that the government repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code. It reads:

“Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Let’s be clear, this law does not allow for teachers to spank students. In January 2004, the Supreme Court stated that “teachers may reasonably apply force to remove a child from a classroom or secure compliance with instructions, but not merely as corporal punishment.”[i]

Today, the vast majority of child abuse happens in the home, not in schools. Repealing Section 43 will do nothing to prevent child abuse, and may well harm children.

There is a role that the authorities have to play in rescuing children from abusive situations. I spent more than eight years working as a Family Support Worker with children who were at risk for neglect or abuse. I sat in their homes, talked with their families, and heard their stories. I saw children being separated from their parents and being placed in foster care.

As bad as some of those homes were, they were the only homes these children knew. Leaving their parents was always difficult for them, even in the most abusive situations. Even the best foster homes weren’t really “home” for these kids. But in some rare situations, it really is in the children’s best interests to be permanently removed from their natural home.

I think we can all agree, however, that this is not ideal. Most of the time, children belong with their parents, which is why the systematic removal of aboriginal children from their natural families was so devastating.

One of the horrors of the Residential Schools tragedy was that children were ripped away from their parents and had to grow up apart from their families, stripped of their identity and security.

So, why would we want to repeal Section 43 and give the government more power to take children away from their families? It doesn’t make any sense.

Do we really want an already overwhelmed social services system and court system dealing with cases that should never be brought before a judge?

Imagine a scenario where loving parents warn their child not to run into traffic, and when he does he gets a swat on the behind. A neighbour reports this to social services and they have to investigate. Perhaps the child has to be removed from the home during the investigation, which means he may go to a foster home. Then they have to appear before a judge, which could drag on indefinitely with our backlogged court system. Not only do the parents have to endure the avoidable awfulness of such a trial, but the child has to endure the unwarranted loss of his home and family, even temporarily.

Section 43 is already worded in such a way as to avoid cases like this coming before a judge in the first place. It not only protects parents and teachers who are disciplining in love, but it protects children from the ordeal of unnecessary removal and separation from their families.

Those who argue in favor of repealing Section 43 argue that “We don’t allow husbands to hit their wives so why do we allow parents to spank their children?” This is akin to arguing that, “We don’t allow husbands to give their wives a time-out, so why do we allow parents to give their children one?” The parent-child relationship is obviously very different from the spousal relationship.

Their argument also falsely equates assault with the use of physical correction. Do some parents cross the line and abuse their children in anger? Yes, but we already have a law preventing the excessive use of force against a child. Proper parental use of physical correction, done calmly with self-control and with love, is not child abuse.

If the government redefines child abuse to include physical correction, not only will they be setting themselves up for an even more overloaded social services system, but they will ironically be perpetrating the same crime that was committed against children and parents in Residential Schools so many years ago: they will be usurping parental authority and needlessly splitting up families all over again.


[i] http://www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/banning-strap-end-corporal-punishment-canadian-schools

“While corporal punishment itself is not reasonable in the school context, a majority of the Supreme Court concluded that teachers may use force to remove children from classrooms or secure compliance with instructions.” See http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/researchpublications/prb0510-e.htm

An Open Letter to Teachers, Re: Mindfulness, Yoga and Meditation (Part 2)

Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_Durer

Wikimedia Commons

By Tina Olesen

In my last post, I proposed that rather than fleeing from reality into meditation, mindfulness or yoga, we ought to help our students learn to deal with life as it is. How do we do that?

Children hear about the things that are going on in the world, no doubt. For many of them, it does cause anxiety.

I was on yard duty in the back field of a North Delta school the morning of the 9-11 attacks. Overhead the massive outlines of planes filled the sky, eerily flying in low as they headed for an untimely landing at YVR.

I instinctively sent up a prayer and turned my attention to the children, who didn’t even seem to notice what was taking place. Over the next few days, I answered their questions as honestly as I could. We carried on with routines, lessons, activities… and though at first it seemed as if life as we knew it would never be the same, things pretty much returned to normal.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Vancouver would soon be the birthplace of a mindfulness program for kids: MindUP, the brainchild of actress Goldie Hawn, who says she wanted to help children cope with the stress of life post 9-11. She worked with psychologists at UBC and piloted her program in Vancouver schools.

Had we been allowed to pray with our students in the aftermath of 9-11, would there even have been a market for such a program?

Here’s where the double standard lies. Christian prayer is banned from public schools, while Buddhist meditative practice and Hindu yoga is welcomed in.

People often instinctively gather to pray in the face of overwhelming grief or anxiety. It is a knee jerk response for many of us. Deep inside, we know that there’s nowhere else to turn but to God.

In the Buddhist worldview, however, there is no God to turn to. Reality is merely an illusion.

In the Christian worldview, reality is created by God. God is sovereign over it and in control of it. Even when everything seems to be out of control, the truth is that God is still in charge. Not only is He in charge, but He is a loving, personal Being who answers our prayers. That’s why prayer makes sense.

People tend to give up on prayer when God doesn’t seem to hear us, or He doesn’t answer the way we want Him to. If God doesn’t behave the way we think He should behave, we despair or rebel.

This shows a lack of humility – we think we know better than God.

True prayer requires an attitude of humility before God. At this time of year especially, I am reminded of the humble attitude of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who responded to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of her pregnancy with, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

How can our thinking about reality line up with the truth? The Bible tells us in Romans:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

As we humble ourselves and, like Mary, give ourselves wholly to God for His purposes, we are given an understanding of who God is and what He is doing: we begin to see reality as created by God.

We have to be continually adjusted to this reality, because as sinful creatures, we have a tendency to think we can be like God, knowing good from evil.

This is the cause of our anxiety. When we forget who God is and think it is all up to us, we worry. That’s why Jesus continually warned His followers not to be anxious. Philippians 4:4-8 says:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

There are a couple of bad habits of thought that cause anxiety:

  • Speculating about the future. We are limited creatures. Jesus said, “…Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
  • Worrying about what other people think about us. The Bible exhorts us not to fear man, but rather to fear (awe and reverence) God.

If we find ourselves speculating or worrying, we can turn in repentance to God and ask His forgiveness, and ask Him to help us think rightly.

Children can learn to pray to the Father through Jesus Christ from a very young age. This will save them a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

 

 

An Open Letter to Teachers, Re: Mindfulness, Yoga and Meditation (Part 1)

yoga

Image: Christina Bhattacharya, Creative Commons

By Tina Olesen

I understand what it’s like to want a calm, quiet classroom. It seems that more teachers than ever are struggling to bring peace to their classroom environment. There seem to be more and more unfocussed, hyper, stressed, reactive, anxious, emotionally disturbed children in our schools.

Counsellors and psychologists tell us that it’s the state of the world we’re in that is making kids stressed. Bombings, shootings, climate change… any number of daily news headlines are pointed to as a cause for anxiety.

A recent article proposed that meditation is a solution for “how to feel safe in a scary world.” Increasingly people are turning to eastern religious practices such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for anxiety relief. These practices are being brought into our schools, supposedly being stripped of their religious trappings, but in actuality it’s only re-branding that is happening.

“So what?” you may ask. “As long as the kids are calmer and happier, that’s all that matters.” Really?

The long term repercussions of practicing yoga, mindfulness and meditation are rarely discussed, because the immediate benefits seem so attractive. Besides, these practices are endorsed by celebrities who also fundraise for grants to have universities study their effectiveness and get them into schools. Some educators try these techniques out themselves and they feel great, so they jump on the bandwagon.

Here’s what’s being overlooked in all the hoopla:

  • Introducing children to yoga, mindfulness, and meditation can change their worldview and value system over time, to a Hindu or Buddhist worldview. The practices in and of themselves, whether the religious language is used or not, can subtly over time change a person’s way of looking at the world and responding to life.[i]
  • While these practices might be introduced in schools on a superficial level, they are initiating children into a lifestyle.[ii] Many adults have experienced negative consequences with these practices, such as long term mental and emotional problems.[iii]
  • When transcendental meditation was experimented with in the sixties and seventies, children were mentally and emotionally harmed, and the alarm was sounded.[iv] We seem to have forgotten all about that.
  • These practices injure the children’s consciences, training them not to judge their thoughts as right or wrong (“non-judgmental awareness”) interfering with moral development.

Swiss philosopher Amiel said, “The test of every religious, political, or educational system is the man which it forms. If a system injures the intelligence it is bad. If it injures the character it is vicious. If it injures the conscience it is criminal.”

We as teachers are up against a lot of limitations. We do not have control over our students’ home environments – what they watch on TV, what video games they play, what (or if) they eat, what time they go to bed, how they are disciplined (or not), what they look at on the internet, etc. and yet these things impact the classroom everyday.

We do not dictate the school budget, the curriculum, our class size, whether or not we have an aide, school discipline policies, etc. We may have input, but we do not have the final say; yet we have to live with the consequences of others’ decisions. All that can lead in some situations to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.

I think that’s why yoga and meditation can be so attractive to teachers, because it promises to give them control over the classroom environment; the illusion that they can make it the peaceful place that they want it to be.

It’s a lot easier to implement mindfulness than to try to address the brokenness of our society. Broken homes, broken families, broken school system… insurmountable difficulties that many think are better meditated away. But the thing is, they really don’t go away. It’s just an illusion.

A psychologist and the author of “The Buddha Pill” stated about his own experience with meditation:

“…it had been taking up quite a chunk of my time, often between two and three hours a day. More than releasing or peaceful, it was deeply pleasurable… Coming out of the meditation, I often felt I was hovering above reality and everyday concerns. Despite being able to control or even feel unattached from negative feelings – anger, sadness or frustration – I was shocked to find that, sometimes, this lack of attachment made me less sensitive and empathetic to other people’s feelings. It was only when a friend joked that I was becoming a ‘meditation junkie’ that the penny dropped. He was right; meditation was turning into a way of bypassing real life, or of at least avoiding the parts of it that were difficult or bitter. I had decided then to drastically reduce my practice.” (emphasis mine)

“The Buddha pill” is merely an escape from reality.

So, how do we really help children feel safe in a scary world? How do we help them to cope with reality, rather than escape from it?

Stay tuned for my next post…

 

 

 

[i] See Dr. Candy Gunther Brown’s article: “…sociological research suggests that people who begin practicing yoga for its physical benefits gradually come to adopt yoga philosophy, causing them to change their religious worldviews.”

[ii] See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/mindfulness-stealth-buddh_b_6243036.html

[iii] Meditation: Adverse Effects. Brown University Medical School, Dr. Willoughby Britton. Video presentation with power point at http://vimeo.com/18819660   and also at http://vimeo.com/28170617

[iv]  “In 76% of cases psychological disorders and illnesses occurred…” from The Various Implications Arising from the Practice of Transcendental Meditation: An empirical analysis of pathogenic structures as an aid in counseling. Bensheim, Germany: Institute for Youth and Society. Retrieved from http://www.minet.org/Documents/German-Study

News and Views

news

 

Articles I’ve been reading on the topic of smartphones:

Smartphones and children: unstoppable trend leaves parents with questions, fears – The age at which children are getting their own cellphone is getting younger by the year,” by Aaron Saltzman, CBC News

Toronto teacher blames smartphones for her badly-behaved students,” from CBC’s The Current

“Sherry Turkle: How to Keep Your iPhone from Destroying Your Relationships – The MIT expert weighs in on our worst technology sins,” by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today

7 Things to Do When You’ve Had a Tough Day Teaching

bible-896222_640

Public Domain

by Tina Olesen

OK, so maybe you’re the teacher who’s never had a tough day teaching. But if you’re like the rest of us, some days may leave you feeling just plain weary and exhausted.

Here are some things we can do (and of course I’m preaching to myself here):

1) Pray

Whether you feel like it or not, pray. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for your students. Pray for your colleagues. Pray for your school community. Pray. Give thanks for everything the Lord has provided and for how He will help you in the future. Receive His love for you, and return His love.

2) Ponder scripture

Here are a couple of scriptures that are particularly helpful to set my mind thinking in the right direction:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)

It’s also helpful to sing scripture. Open up your hymnbook and sing the truth to yourself.

3) Eliminate any self-pity

As Oswald Chambers says:

“Remember, Satan is an awful being, he is able to deceive us on the right hand and on the left, and the first beginnings of his deceptions are along the lines of self-pity. Self-pity, self-conceit, and self-sympathy will make us accept slanders against God.”

“What is my cross? The manifestation of the fact that I have given up my right to myself to Him for ever. Self-interest, self-sympathy, self-pity—anything and everything that does not arise from a determination to accept my life entirely from Him will lead to a dissipation of my life.” *

4) Remember to have patience

Things take time. Have patience with your students, and have patience with yourself, too.

5) Plan something wonderful for your class

Plan a fun or engaging activity that you can look forward to doing together. Look at some new books you want to read to them, or look into a field trip you’d like to take.

6) Take a walk in the park

HighPark_July_2006

High Park (public domain)

 

 

 

 

 

 

There, isn’t that better?

 

7) Phone your Mom

She’ll probably pray for you and tell you to go to bed. At least, that’s what my Mom does (thanks, Mom!)


 

*Oswald Chambers quoted from “Biblical Psychology” and “The Psychology of Redemption”.

Let’s Start A Phonics Revival

campfire

Image: wikimedia

By Tina Olesen

Although I now teach grade one and two, the bulk of my teaching experience is in a public middle school. This is where I actually began to understand the importance of teaching phonics.

When I was teaching grade six and our principal asked if there was anyone willing to coach the grade six girls basketball team, I shuddered at the thought. I am about as far from athletic as a person can get. No one volunteered. As the time for the start of the season drew nearer and they were still without a coach, thankfully the dad of one of my students came forward as a volunteer. He was a basketball maniac but couldn’t see himself managing a bunch of 11 year old girls by himself. I could manage the girls but knew nothing about basketball. We teamed up and took on the challenge.

I watched him endlessly drill them on dribbling, bounce passes, chest passes, lay ups and pivoting. He broke down the game into its incremental basic skills and taught them one by one. Even I began to understand basketball! Then I saw the girls put these skills into action in the practice games, and eventually soar during the real games. Having these basics down freed them to be able to play the game without having to think about every move. It looked natural and seamless, but I knew better.

Can you imagine if the coach had just sat the girls down and shown them hours of NBA footage, and then expected them to get on the floor and do what they watched? Failure, right? That’s kind of what happens when we just read books to kids and expect them to learn how to read by watching us read.

They need explicit, direct instruction in the basic skills of reading before they can get in the game. Sure, just like in sports, some children seem to be naturals and they just pick it up without anyone teaching them much of anything. But for the majority of kids, that approach just isn’t going to work.

In that same middle school, I also worked as a learning assistance teacher. Here I met 12 year olds who had been struggling with reading and spelling for at least six years before coming to us. To them, reading was a puzzle they just couldn’t solve; a secret that they were not let in on.

Phonics went out of vogue in educational circles and so although I’d read about it, I hadn’t even been trained in university in using the phonics approach. Gladly I encountered phonics through an experienced teacher who was trained in that way. Once she introduced these struggling readers to the phonics approach, most of them were soon able to break that “secret” code and begin reading.

Why isn’t phonics being used from the very start? It’s viewed by many teachers as outdated and boring. There’s also the objection that there are just too many rule breaker words. In actual fact, about 84% of English words are phonetically regular. But phonics doesn’t fit neatly into the modern constructivist theory of education, where students are to construct their own subjective representation of reality.

In the constructivist model, students are to invent their own spellings of words as they learn to write, and the teacher is to accept their writing as is and not correct it, as it is assumed they will gradually pick up the conventional spelling somewhere down the road.

The constructivist theory is unbiblical in assuming that students can construct their own reality. The Bible affirms that there is a reality created by God, and that it is up to mankind to adjust to that reality, not to invent our own.

You may object that the English language is a human invention. Still, in training our students that there is a right and wrong way to spell English words, we are in a sense affirming the truth that they are not God; that they do not self-determine reality. Rather, they adjust themselves to what is. If a child wants to communicate with other English language users, he needs to learn the conventions of the English language, and not invent his own language.

To teach the conventions of English, explicit phonics instruction works from part to whole. It starts with training in the phonograms (sounds associated with letters). These parts are blended into syllables and words.

Once a student learns about 70 phonograms and some spelling rules, he will have the tools necessary to read and write most English words. There is a predictable relationship between the spoken sounds of our language and the letters that represent them.

This sounds really simple, doesn’t it? For some reason, explicit phonics instruction was largely abandoned and now it seems that the teaching of reading is more complicated and less successful than ever.

When the Puritans established schools in America, their main purpose was to teach their children how to read the Bible so they wouldn’t be deluded by Satan (see The Old Deluder Act,1647) .

Reading is no small thing in the life of a disciple of Jesus. If God thought it important enough to have His word written down for us, then obviously teaching our children how to read it well is important to Him.

Victor Hugo said, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” If you were ever a Boy Scout or Girl Guide, like I was, then you were taught that in the laying of a fire, you must choose the correct logs, find good tinder and kindling, have proper air flow between the logs, etc. Everyone has probably experienced an improperly laid fire that soon fizzled out. But a fire that is rightly laid and fed will burn on and on. Together let’s lay the foundation to set our children’s hearts on fire for the love of reading God’s Word.

News and Views

newsCollected articles from the internet: (click on titles to read)

 

Computers in classroom have ‘mixed’ impact on learning: OECD report,” Affan Chowdhry, The Globe and Mail

Ontario father pushes for change after his 9-year-old was exposed to porn on a school computer,” Lianne Laurence, LifeSite News

Trinity Western says B.C. law society is violating graduates’ religious rights,” Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press (The Globe and Mail)