Does It Matter If I Read the Bible on My Smartphone?

We all know that printed, paper Bibles are appearing less and less frequently at church (and in the pulpit). We listen to our favorite Bible teacher and snicker knowingly when he says, “Those of you with Bibles can…. go ahead and switch them on.”

We’ve forgotten our own printed copies of Scripture, on occasion, and pulled out our own greasy devices thinking to ourselves, “I guess this will do. Kinda handy.”

And as we swipe right on our favorite Bible passage, there’s still a niggling feeling at the back of our minds that this is a little bit “off.”

The question we all have is: are smartphone Bibles appropriate for worship services, and does it matter if I make a practice of reading Scripture on my phone?

Yes. Yes, it does matter. And here’s why.

(Spoken from a high school educator of Gen-Z students. Humor me for a moment. I’ve spent the last seven years teaching high school students how to read (that is, interpret) texts in the English classroom. I’ve gained a wealth of experience in understanding the attention span of the Gen-Z mind and its ability to crack the code of some of the more complex areas of Scripture. If I make any arguments here, it is with my beloved Gen-Z students in mind. If you are an adult who was taught to read in a non-screen era, learned how to do distraction-free “deep work,” enjoyed a teenage upbringing that featured lots of paper book-reading and Scripture memorizing, and sat in church without a device attached to your active hips that offered you the entertainment of the entire world (organized into addictive social media cocaine), you were blessed. But I invite you to sit back for a bit, and “think really thoughtful thoughts” as it were, about what we communicate to young people by using these devices in worship services. Perhaps you have learned how to avoid distractions (but really, have you?), but most kids today haven’t learned that skill.)

In my English class, I like to have my students read Cal Newport’s 2016 NYT editorial, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.” Not that my students are all heavy social media users (they’re Gen-Z, after all), but his argument for “deep work” (Newport actually coined the phrase) catches them red-handed.

I digress.

But not yet, actually. The thing that will keep weakening our churches is a lack of Biblical literacy and the absence of “deep work” in Scripture study. (I am talking about reading the Bible on a smartphone for the purpose of Scripture study, not a simple fact-check journey, or a lunch-time Psalm. Actually, no, avoid it too for the lunch-time Psalm.)

It matters if you read your Bible on your smartphone according to several principles of reading comprehension.

Let’s approach the argument from the most basic understandings of literacy and critical thinking.

Research indicates that we “read” differently on screens, compared to printed material. First, there are physical differences. Scientists have found that when people read on a screen, they read in an F-pattern.

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That is, most people, when they read on-screen, are not doing deep reading of the text, but rather skimming headlines and the beginnings of paragraphs. We commonly read this way on screens because much of our screen reading is for the purpose of skimming search results in our browser. When we Google something, we are not so much “reading” as we are “skimming” to find content, content that is “usable” or “useful.” If you came to the Abiding in the Word women’s conference last month, you heard me talking about different “reading speeds” that we use to access different kinds of texts. Screen-reading puts our brains into “skimming” mode, not an entirely helpful mode for digesting large bits of Scripture (particularly the prophetic books, where one has to do a fat lot of background work to build context for the reading).

Therefore, F-pattern screen-reading is problematic in that it makes us consumers of the text, rather than students of the text. These differences are crucial when it comes to the way that we interact with the Word.

I might also mention that our brains are elastic things, and unfortunately, our excessive Googling habits continually teach our brains to read in this “surfacy” way. Simply put, we are being trained daily to be bad at reading. (For more information, read Nicholas Carr’s entire book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a New York Times bestseller that I highly recommend.) We need to wake up to the way that technology is affecting our literacy, specifically the reading habits of the upcoming generation.

Additionally, research suggests that people who are doing deep reading are not doing so on screens. Whether you agree with my next statement or not (or align with it personally), this is what research shows: people are not reading difficult texts like “the classics” on screens; screens are mostly used for “light reading.” In his 2013 New Yorker article “E-Book vs. Paper Book,” James Surowiecki quotes an important study: “The Codex Group finds that people of all ages still prefer print for serious reading; e-book sales are dominated by genre fiction—’light reading.’ ….We do read things differently when they’re on a page rather than on a screen. A study this year found that people reading on a screen tended to skip around more and read less intensively, and plenty of research confirms that people tend to comprehend less of what they read on a screen. The differences are small, but they may explain the persistent appeal of paper.” (Some of you may say, “No, that’s not true! I just read War & Peace as an e-book.” I commend you. You are an exception.)

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Surowiecki’s observations serve our argument that it is better to read the Bible off-screen. If religious devotion motivates our Bible-reading, we cannot offer anything less than intensive reading of Scripture. And we’ll have to do that offline.

It is at this point in the argument that a self-important, barrel-chested man invariably asserts himself: “Argument is so weak!! I read so smart on screens. Bible apps are very, very good. My people designed the biggest Bible app there ever is. I use Bible apps at church and for anyone who says I can’t: I WILL BUILD A WALL!!”

(There’s always one, you know?)

This friend is certainly free to bring his devices to worship services, but I would like to remind him of something: he learned to read in the absence of screens, in the absence of distractiphilia. He is from a generation of deep readers who read marginally well on screens because the physical makeup of a book, its parts, its chapter titles, its table of contents, its pages, its beginning and end are physical objects that have been imprinted on their minds. He therefore can easily access the Bible in an app because he understands the physical makeup of a printed, paper Bible. If he wants to use a Bible app at church, he’s championing for rights that he deserves, but he is doing so at the expense of our youth, our anxious, insecure youth, who deserve the blessed freedom of screenless worship.

To that point, I would add that people like him who are reading their Bible on their phones are at the mercy of push notifications. Must your worship really be interrupted by annoying notifications from the Weather Channel, a Facebook notification announcing your mailman’s birthday, and an email from someone who didn’t bother to come to church this morning? Those things can wait. Our brains are already distracted and spinning a million miles a second. The last thing we need is the phone adding to that chaos. Can we not offer God two simple hours a week, set aside, on Sunday, for worship?

I say these things because of my background in education, and because of the research that I’ve read about how smartphones limit our ability to think deeply. A 2018 study published in the research journal Educational Psychology showed that in classrooms that allowed cell phones and laptop use, students dropped half a letter grade on test performance, compared to students who took the same class in a classroom where no devices were allowed. Further, even if students did not use the device, but were in the same room as a device, their test performance still dropped.

This is excellent evidence to begin questioning the inclusion of electronics in the classroom, but it also allows us to ask the question about cell phones in church.

And yet. We live in a time where administration and school boards are pushing for “more technology” in the classroom. They want one-to-one laptops and electronic textbooks (“because they are cheaper”), and then there’s the businessmen encouraging the shift because they know what product they want to hire: employable 18-year-olds who are tech-savvy. Education is thereby increasingly treated as a “business” (both in high school and the university), but it is always at the expense of student literacy and the education of deep work. Cheap e-textbooks solve no problems when it comes to reading comprehension. For one thing, it’s rare to find an actual e-textbook. Most electronic textbooks are dinosaur PDF’s of last decade’s book, not true interactive textbooks. They are glitchy dinosaurs, in which students struggle to turn the pages, find the table of contexts and the index, and generally maneuver it as fast as a paper copy. Do you know? I’ve never had to plug in a paper textbook to charge. Turning the pages of a paper book also comes very easily. I also never forget the password to log into my paper textbook.

But now I’m just getting carried away. As I did one afternoon, whereupon in a fit of passion, I published a manifesto entitled “Why I Am Against Paperless Classrooms,” and saved it stoically in My Documents. “There. That’ll show ‘em!” I reasoned.

(It didn’t.)

Perhaps we’ve arrived at the existential question: how does one characterize cell phones – sacred? or profane? (I don’t tend to be opinionated, but I personally find them gross and vile.) (Okay, that was sarcasm.) (Yet when I think of cell phones as objects, I don’t think of them as making me feel closer to God.)

Adding to the distractiphilia, reading the Bible on your cell phone means your screen blacks out over time. This is to save battery, but this does not allow the brain to relax into a deep-thinking mode. It has to be in that state of semi-stress, where you continually tap your device so that the backlight comes back on. Whatever happened to meditating on a portion of Scripture? I don’t want some backlight telling me when it’s time to come out of that deep thought I had about Psalm 46.

But even if persons have learned to read with physical books and feel they can expertly navigate Bible apps, I question them. There is research that suggests that people need the physical experience of knowing where they are in a book to comprehend fully. When we read e-books or online articles or use Bible apps, we have less of a sense of “where we are” in the text. This leads to a generally lower level of comprehension. Ferris Jabr at Scientific American offers a sound analogy in his article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age”: “Imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.” Later, Jabr points out the difficulty of navigating page turns for online books (and I would argue here: Bible apps) and the fact that a physical book allows us to skim ahead, and easily flip back to the current place we are in the book/discussion. (Fact: not all Bible apps are created equal. Some are buggy, not allowing you to quickly pull up a passage and follow along. And, not all Bible apps contain appropriate cross-references and important footnotes, which always improve comprehension.)

My last argument is for toddlers. Toddlers (and teenagers for that matter) are hyper aware of the engrossing nature of smartphones. Have you noticed that way that toddlers make it their mission to bug you (or quietly slip away) while you are smiling into your lap? I simply wonder how the practice of parents reading Bible apps forms a child’s social imaginary. The child is very aware that when you are on a screen, you are absent. I beg parents to think over their Bible app use carefully.

To sum up, I don’t recommend reading your Bible on your phone because:

  • On-screen reading is F-patterned and “consumer” oriented.
  • Our brains are not in the practice of reading deeply on-screen.
  • Our Googling habits train our brains (daily) to read in a “surfacy” way, and we ought to give ourselves as many off-screen reading experiences as possible to build up deep-reading muscle.
  • Reading the Bible on your phone puts you at the mercy of trivial push notifications – you are reading in distracted mode.
  • Your comprehension will be lower. #science
  • A physical Bible gives you a better sense of “where you are” in the text, an especially helpful feature for any reader under the age of 25.
  • Little kids need to grow up with mommies and daddies who read printed, sacred texts (the Holy Bible, specifically) but who are not absent when doing so.

Those are reasons I *don’t* recommend reading the Bible on your phone. Here are things I *do* recommend:

  • Give young people plenty of paper texts
  • Explicitly teach school-age kids the different “parts” of printed books and Bibles, so they may more easily access on-screen reading when the time comes (you would be amazed at how many high school students do not know what a Table of Contents is, or an Index)
  • Read a printed Bible, meditatively
  • Throw your cell phone into the Red Sea

What I’m arguing here is that the medium by which we access a text really does affect our comprehension of it. The real question is: does that matter to you and your congregation?

Years That Ask Questions, and Years That Answer

Remember that AIO episode where Eugene Meltzner packs his bags for California and victoriously declares, “I’m going on a journey… to find myself!”?

Bernard Walton (every evangelical’s favorite sarcastic saint) replies, “Sounds like a pretty short trip.”

I feel like I’m approaching this year in the same way: with both parts inspirational stirring and bemused pragmatism.

Last winter I made the crazy decision to take a year off from the English classroom, and I spent most of this summer furiously job-hunting, most interviews going something like this:

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Saved by the bell (a literal school bell), I got an administrative assistant job just weeks ago in a local high school. While I was initially looking for more distance from a school setting, I’m not going to lie that I look forward to #everyholidayoff and #snowdays.

I thought I would make things easy for myself as I adjust to a new job by packing up my entire apartment and moving across the county. Things I’m gaining: roommates who cook, a dishwasher, a yard with big trees, and a patio. #suburbia

Things I’m leaving behind: cement, my favorite running trail, the clip-clop of buggies, and the infamous Menno Wal-Mart. (Tons more diversity in this part of Lancaster. I went for groceries, and I’m pretty certain I was the only white person there.)

Oh, and did I mention that this summer I also threw out all my beginners’ training plans and ramped up half-marathon training to chase an early fall half-marathon PR. (So laughable because my new neighborhood lies on top of countless, impossibly-mountainous hills.)

A lot of people have been asking me why I quit teaching this year, and I can’t say it better than Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

2018 is that year for me, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the luxury to take time off to ask deep questions of myself, my career, and of God.

Don’t get me wrong, this year I have an incredible to-do list. I have an incredible reading list. I have an incredible amount of research and academic networking to do. (Step 1: Mennonite Studies conference at University of Winnipeg in November.) And as always, I have writing goals, running goals, and music-learning goals.

“But wait,” my friend said. “Are you going to actually take the time to rest and do the re-focusing that you wanted to do in the first place?”

(Thanks, Nancy, I need the reminder.)

Because at the outset, I scheduled this year as one big fat giant reminder to rest… a sort of personal maintenancing. I have a feeling that the silence of rest will at first sound like a roar. (Especially as I force myself to answer some deep questions.)

You know what they say: “Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.” I hope to be asking that question for this entire year.

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One of my new next-door neighbors is from West Africa, and he said this about Americans: “You ask American, ‘How are you?” They say, ‘I’m fine.’ Could be living catastrophe. Could be shot by bullet with blood coming out, they say, ‘I’m fine.’”

Here’s to a year of asking myself, “How are you?” and answering honestly.

Because the truth is, readers, if you’re running a rat race, you’re allowed to DNF.

Essential Summer Reading for Christian-College-Bound Kids

Got this in my inbox:

“I’m looking at doing hopefully a bunch of reading this summer in preparation for college this fall. As an English teacher, do you have any good book suggestions to read? This could be any genre or style.”

Answered with pleasure! Today’s list happens to be for kids heading off to Christian colleges who have already taken high school lit classes that feature fewer authors of the white male variety than are listed here. (Note: were the student heading to a public uni or nonreligious private university, I’d majorly modify this list as well.) Nevertheless, below I’ve featured some canonical works that we just didn’t get to in my lit classes that I recommend as great summer reading.

Theology Nearly All Thinking Christians Have Read

N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope – You need to be reading N.T. Wright because he’s the C.S. Lewis of this century, not to mention a leading New Testament scholar. Most thinking Christians today are intimately familiar with his work. He gives a lot of insight into how the early church thought about the resurrection. Warning: worldview shift ahead.

Wright not so much as presents new topics but instead reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible but we sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important, and how that changes how we live here on earth. Wright writes his book because he has picked up on an oddity of Christians that even Harper Lee notices. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Miss Maudie says, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening,” and seeking only to “endure” this life, until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.”

Not a light read, but you may be fooled in the friendly, conversational introduction, which introduces the interesting landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which N. T. Wright is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top Bible scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England. (I’ve blogged about Wright’s other writings here.)

C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity – A solid defense and introduction to the Christian faith, this book is an excellent example of Lewis’s direct and accessible style. Read this book if you want a taste for one of the most remarkable apologists of the 20th century.

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy – Chesterton, the Catholic predecessor to C.S Lewis (who indeed inspired many of Lewis’s writings) offers a defense of Christianity as an Anglican, before he converted to Catholicism 14 years later. Interesting reading, considering the amount of influence he ended up having on C.S. Lewis.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essays – You should probably know about this Russian critic of the Soviet Union and of anti-God communism. A lot of Christian high school students I know have studied his famous Harvard commencement address from 1978 called “A World Split Apart.” Another writer in the same vein, and of equal importance, is Malcolm Muggeridge, who Ravi Zacharias quotes extensively.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship – Read the theological writings of a German pastor caught in the middle of Nazi Germany. What is the responsibility of a Christian in a secular society? (You should know that Bonhoeffer was ultimately accused of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and was executed in a concentration camp.) There is no room for hypothetical Hitler questions here; this man lived to tell about it. (Or did he?)

St. Augustine’s Confessions – an important autobiography (theological in nature), the first of its kind, from A.D. 400.

Classics That You Should Have Read in High School

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – The most classic of British classics, a must-read for every Christian.

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George Orwell’s 1984 – An English dystopian novel, published in 1949, that’s all about government surveillance and public manipulation. Nearly everyone in college has read it.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Read the books or watch the movies. Without question, you should have familiarity with Tolkien’s work.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas* – a memoir from 1845 that was an exceedingly influential piece of abolitionist literature. Features uncomfortable truths about slave life and the “Christian” South.

Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery* – one of the most popular African American autobiographies

The Federalist Papers and/or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense – You should probably have some familiarity with these great American political classics. Both will probably be very slow reading, heh heh.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – A very long Russian novel about belief, doubt, mercy, and patricide.

Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace – An even longer Russian novel about war and humans… broken, beautiful humans. (Be sure to read only the newest translations. I break them down here.)

William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech – The context in which Faulkner gave this speech illuminates its importance.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Read this Shakespeare play about a conflicted teenager, caught between doing the right thing and committing suicide. Or, if you can, find any Shakespeare play being performed in a local park this summer, read the Sparknotes ahead of time, invite a girl, and pack some popcorn.

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – a good classic to have under your belt, very Dickensian in style, and a little heart-warming. (Though it should be called Denied Expectations. Poor Pip.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin* – the anti-slavery novel that Abraham Lincoln claimed basically started the Civil War

Books for the Lake – Reading That Your Professors Will Not Assign, but Are Nevertheless Helpful

Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy – The perfect novel for the lake (or should I say, the cabin). Large glass of sweet tea optional. A true story about a pagan who finds his soul mate, rides an academic high, and becomes friends with C.S. Lewis. A cancer diagnosis means he ultimately must choose between his beloved wife and the Christian faith.

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Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus* – This riveting personal narrative on Qureshi’s journey out of Ahmadiyya Islam to Christianity includes a glimpse into the importance of inerrancy within Islam. (Christians think THEY’RE Biblicists?) Qureshi’s narrative is gripping, risky, and thought-provoking as he offers a beautiful picture of Islam yet reveals how his allegiance to scholarship and academia ultimately forced him to reject Islam and embrace Christianity and the solidness of its Scriptures. A truly moving testimony.

Charles C. Mann’s 1491 – While the jury’s still out on the academic credibility of Mann’s research, this nonfiction book is nevertheless fun reading. What happened in 1492? Columbus sailed the ocean blue! But what was America like in 1491 before Europeans arrived? Many of our American history books begin with the story of Spanish explorers, and very little space is devoted to the history of indigenous people. This book gives a fuller history of pre-Columbian America along with ground-breaking research that brings into question many of our assumptions about our land before colonization, including assumptions like:

“The New World was relatively unpopulated.”

“Native Americans lived in the wilderness and never touched it.”

“Native Americans were unsophisticated and lived in simple societies compared to Europeans at the time.”

“Cities didn’t exist.”

However, did you know that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than any European city at the time and also had running water?! High school students of mine have done book reports on this book, giving it rave reviews.

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz – Irreverent essays about the Christian bubble. Includes Don’s experiences at the secular-of-all-secular colleges, Reed College.

Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey* – A non-kosher exposé on the plight of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Journalist Nazario records the experiences of a Honduran boy who crosses the Mexican border to find his mother in North Carolina. Not recommended for Republicans.

Kelly Monroe Kullburg’s Finding God Beyond Harvard* – It may be because of the academic landscape described in this book that Sattler College was founded. I review the book here.

Finding God at Harvard* – Again, I briefly describe the book here.

Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service* – The story of American educator Mary Poplin’s experiences volunteering with Mother Teresa in the 90s.

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen – This novel about a conservative Hasidic Jewish community in NYC during the 1930s is as comfortable and enjoyable as your favorite cousin.

Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ or A Case for Faith – Vanilla and evangelical, but both very readable in style. Strobel comes to faith while working as an investigative journalist for theChicago Tribune.

Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert* – Because you ought to know how some in the homosexual community feel about Christians.

Selected Poetry, Because You’re Not a Caveman

John Milton’s Paradise Lost – You don’t have to read the whole thing (it’s over 10,000 lines long), but you should know that this epic poem exists. Just read a section or two.

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T. S. Eliot poetry, maybe “The Waste Land”– Famous modernist poet despairs after WWI. Finish up with Faulkner’s Nobel prize speech after.

Any poem or poet featured here: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/20-best-poems/

 

Online Resources (Including News Sites) for Thinking Young People

Veritas Forums on Youtube – The Veritas Forum was founded at Harvard in 1992, and it is an organization which now serves over 50 American and international universities. Veritas hosts forums and speakers on college campuses in order “to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.” On Youtube, you can find Veritas Forums featuring (1) TED-talk like content, (2) full debates, or even (3) congenial conversations related to most fields of study in the university. A great resource for skeptics and thinking Christians. In fact, it may have been a Veritas forum that pointed me to Poplin’s book on Mother Teresa.

Random speeches on Youtube (or podcasts) by N.T. Wright, John Lennox, and/or Tim Keller, all important authors and apologists with whom you should be familiar.

The New Yorker – a magazine of current events reporting. Snobby academic writing at its finest. Read one online article a week.

First Things – This publication calls itself “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life.” Noticeably Catholic, the online version offers thoughtful (and conservative) social critique. Read one article a week.

BBC app – Skim the headlines of the Top Stories every day. Compare them to the headlines of the Popular Stories.

New York Times app – Once a week, skim the headlines of the Most Popular stories. Read anything interesting. You get access to 10 free articles a month.

NPR, especially the program “the 1A” – A co-worker recently told me that it’s dangerous to listen to NPR because they find that then you have a knowledge base that not everyone else has. In other words, it’s informative.

*books that aren’t written by white males

 

On Teaching Leadership: How Twelve Kids Raised $6000 for Syrian Refugees

We do not expect much from our youth today. When our students exhibit the all-too-common irresponsibility of a self-gratifying entertainment-driven society, we nod our heads knowingly. “Kids these days.” As a third-year English teacher, I’ve been around enough teachers to know that, all too often, sarcasm is a way of coping with young people’s lack of earnestness. We complain about their apathy, their lethargy, and their lack of leadership. We roll our eyes at their dispassionate, caffeine-sodden dreary faces. We watch them play their popularity games and wonder if they’ll ever grow up. We sigh, fatalistically, and point to their culture or their parents and roll our eyes. “They’re a bunch of idiots,” I hear us say. We complain about their lack of leadership. We complain. But we do not teach. We expect. But we do not model.

The thing about teaching leadership is that it takes time. I realized this the day that I ran damage control for a junior high student council event, and I found myself dashing about, flinging open windows, desperately shooing out smoke from an overheating cotton candy machine, while the entire school gathered in the parking lot at the behest of squalling alarms blaring their warnings. It was at that moment that I realized that I had two choices. I could blame. Or I could teach.

I could teach leadership.

Over the past two years, I’ve adopted a much more explicit approach to teaching leadership, especially in forming my class’s student council. Before nominations, I remind them what a student council is, and I hint at the possibilities of what I believe a junior high class can accomplish. I remind that they should not vote for their best friends or for whom they think is the coolest. It is not a popularity contest. Rather they ought to think about who is the most creative, who has the best ideas, and who is hard-working enough to carry out their own ideas. I challenge them by saying that no class before has taken me seriously on this point. This makes students perk up.

Last year it was a miracle if I could get my student council to actually fill out my “meeting minutes” templates. (Yes, organization is a part of leadership.) This year I was surprised to find curious, newly-elected student council members asking when their first meeting was. And one young man came to his first meeting with a little box of special notecards labeled “Student Council.” However, I still expected a very normal junior high student council, and I expected them to plan the normal frivolous events, full of indulgent ideas. (We eat a looooot of birthday pizza, that’s all I’m saying.) So I was curious when two student council girls asked to meet during study hall. They came to me a half-hour later asking if they could host a fundraiser for Christians in Iraq being persecuted by ISIS. (!) What a surprise! A glimmer of hope shined above their questioning faces. None of my students had ever done anything like this before. It was outside-of-the-box. And it demonstrated to me a higher-order development in them, because the students would be getting absolutely nothing out of it. Their motivation was purely selfless.

It was certainly a learning experience for all of us. Their youthful zeal wanted their fundraiser and Rome to be built in a day, and we had to talk about the importance of finding a charity first (which takes time), of creating fliers, and of contacting donors. (Okay, I cheated. I created the fliers, loosely based on the hand-written instructions they had given me, but give me a break. This was the first event like this that we’ve ever done. There’s plenty more time to teach 13 year olds layout skills.) Besides, the students used their creativity in other ways, so that besides contacting parents, grandparents, and their local congregations, they also hosted a classroom bake sale, some students baking brownies, others providing Rise & Roll donuts, which high school students hoarded in handfuls while dropping large bills in a glass jar. (I encouraged the students to make our bake sale free, instead seeking “Donations Accepted.”) One eighth grader coordinated with the science teacher to see if she would be willing to sell extra recess and donate the money to our fundraiser. Quite a few junior high students bought ten minutes of extra recess. We received an outpouring of generosity, and in a few weeks, my class of twelve students raised over $6000, which we donated to Christian Aid Ministries’ “Conflict in Syria” and “Terror in Iraq” projects, which provide immediate assistance in the form of food parcels and hygiene items to fleeing Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

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I’m delighted with what my students have accomplished with a relatively simple idea, baked up by two junior high girls one September afternoon. I asked in a class discussion where the idea to help refugees came from, and the council never really said, but one student offered, “Well, they really need our help.” We went on to discuss what it must mean to live in a country that is in a state of war. In a state of anarchy. No government. No infrastructure. Bombed-out buildings. You have to leave your home. You travel with only the things you can carry. Your father and sister are killed. Your mom is taking care of your baby siblings. And there are no clean diapers for days.

And I liked how this fundraiser related to some other conversations we’ve been having in high school English. Conversations about immigration and the migrant crisis in Europe, which are removed from our own American immigration issues, but not very. So when we talked in 9th and 10th about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the decisions that she and other European nations have to be making due to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, we talked about this, and how 11,000 Icelanders have offered to house Syrian refugees to help the European crisis, even though their government is technically only required to accept 50 immigrants. And we talked about which international actions better relate to Christ-like attitudes toward those in need. These are passing topics in my classes. Things I insert into boring grammar lectures about colons and semicolons. But you see, there’s a big difference between “I like the following types of ice cream: chocolate, mint, and raspberry” and “Refugees migrating to Germany come from the following countries: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” Yes, in my classes, grammar is often a cover for discussing current events. And these discussions are not always comfortable as my students often have their own strong opinions about immigration, but I hope to at least broaden the discussion by looking at immigration issues on an international level. Because I would hate for my students to graduate and think that life is made up of the four walls of Nappanee, Indiana, America.

And because leadership must be taught. Leadership is something that is lacking in today’s world. Where are leaders of integrity? Where are leaders who are servants? Where is the lack of bias? Where is the knowledgeable leader? Where is the hopeful leader? Where is the leader who rises above the constant slinging of critiques and instead guides in quiet humility, always pointing to truth, beauty, and goodness?

I’m quite proud of my young students. I’m proud that a few of them selflessly responded to an injustice. And I truly hope that this is just the beginning. To my fellow teachers I say, “Do not give up.” Continue teaching leadership. Expect it. You will reap rewards in due time if you do not give up.

Some Mediocre Bulletin Boards That Took Way Too Long to Make

You know it’s that Back-To-School time of year when your favorite teacher stores offer extended hours (presumably so you can hunt down perfect bulletin board cut-outs at any odd hour of the day). Yep. We teachers are back in the classrooms, planning, strategizing, and decorating.

One of the funner (and yes, “funner” IS a word) things I get to do is design decorative bulletin boards for my classroom for the year. Let me just say that this is something that I take SERIOUSLY. (It’s okay, you can laugh.) I’ve been raiding Pinterest and Google for weeks, checking out teacher stores, and then revising my ideas.

If you’re not a teacher, it might be hard to understand how important bulletin boards are. While these decorations may seem peripheral, they can actually boost classroom morale. This can be done by using inspiring quotes, celebrating the changing seasons, or creating interactive bulletin boards that highlight student work. To a teacher, bulletin boards can also be prime real estate for supplementary learning. We teachers call these “educational” bulletin boards which reinforce concepts from a unit your class is studying.

The trick for great bulletin boards is creating designs (1) that don’t take hours to make or install, (2) that are inspirational or educational, (3) and that are visually pleasing.

Number three, there, is kind of tricky because the art of the bulletin board is its own genre, artistically, with its own conventions. For example, you have very specific spaces and proportions to work with (most bulletin boards are pre-cut squares or rectangles, 4’ x 4’ or 4’ x 8’, respectively). Also, while myriads of pre-designed background paper and pre-decorated borders exist, these supplies sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Frankly, “pre-designed” cramps my style; I like to think outside the box. For another thing, my classroom serves middle school and high school students, so I like to go with a more age-appropriate look; therefore, a lot of my bulletin boards don’t utilize the traditional scallop-y edged borders or elementary-looking animated die-cuts.

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These cheerful bugs are not exactly the look I am going for.

ANYWAY! Enough with bulletin board philosophy!

Here are some bulletin boards I made last year! I change my two class bulletin boards every* quarter.

1. Maps to Good Writing: an educational bulletin board that reinforces research writing concepts.
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2. I Lift My Eyes to the Mountains: an inspirational bulletin board using text from Psalm 121. I designed this board for use on dreary Indiana winter days.

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I borrowed the mountain design from Apartmenttherapy’s mountain mural design on Pinterest.

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3. Do Something Beautiful for God: a fun inspirational spring bulletin board using a Mother Theresa quote. (Can you tell I hate cutting out letters? #lazyprinting) I washed out the photographs using Microsoft Word. I pasted the pictures in Word then used the Washout color mode in Format Picture. The photographs suggest areas of Christian service.

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In context.

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4. Bulwer Lytton Contest: a silly bulletin board announcing my annual fall writing contest, seeking the worst possible first lines for novels. (Inspired by the exceptionally dramatic first line of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830s novel Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night,” which is forever ensconced in the memories of Peanuts’ lovers.) Students submit horrendous puns and wretched metaphors, submissions which we later tack up on the bulletin board. Last year’s winning first line from a resident 8th grader: “The rainbow was breathtaking. Like trying to breathe when somebody with really bad breath is standing an inch away from you and talking nonstop.”

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Happy Decorating, fellow teachers! May all the creative energies be yours!

*Except when I don’t.

First Year Teaching

What is a teacher?

I find myself grappling with this question here at the close of my first semester of teaching English. It’s been a whirlwind; I’ve found few moments to sit back, take a deep breath, and contemplate. So here I go, the week of Christmas, pecking out a few observations of first-year teaching.

I’m working hard to conquer and understand the ins and outs of our curriculum. I’ve decided that I really like the stability of a curriculum but that a curriculum can be very confining.

One of the biggest surprises of first year teaching has been sickness. I was sick five times between August and November. Apparently, stress and sixty-five dear little germ-holders do not mix well. So now I’m trying to get my rest, and I’m gorging on vitamins. But the worry of future sickness makes me feel even more stressed out.

Another surprise is the amount of busy work that teaching entails. It’s my job to sit down and read through vocabulary assignments and poorly written comp assignments by students who (about English) don’t give a flying fart in France. Yes, that’s how I spend my time.

Or filing. I hate filing! What a waste of time. I get really sick of these (what seem like) meaningless tasks. However, these “meaningless” assignments are, in some ways, foundational roots. And someone read through my daily work in eighth grade so that I would not turn out to be an ignoramus.

Another thing I’ve realized is that I do not hate teaching. I do not dread going to school. I think: that is a good thing.

How teaching complements my career goals: teaching 11th and 12th grade composition has been a really great experience for me because I am learning better writing techniques. It’s surprising how lazy I can be with little things like parallelism and subordination. But great writers have mastered these basics. I’m enjoying teaching these tools, editing for these tools, and applying these basics to my own writing.

Also, I’m spending a LOT of time reading literature in order to teach it. One of my biggest complaints of both my high school and college education is poor treatment of the classics. So I am excited to spend time studying some of the great works of literature that I have never encountered before.

I should probably mention here something about lesson planning, but I would be careful to broach this subject outside the brotherhood of teachers. Those in the brotherhood understand the necessity of lesson planning, and explaining it to people who are not teachers always brings extremely depressing responses like, “You spend THAT much time working outside of 9-5? And you get paid THAT much? I would NEVER be a teacher.” Says the ungrateful person (OR STUDENT!) who is going to make so much more money than you and never once thank the elementary teachers that got them there in the first place. Non-teachers do not realize that we teachers have made a choice to sacrifice our lives and a lot of personal comforts (and luxuries) for students because we feel called to teaching and because we want to make a difference. Wise people will realize, then, that it is in their best interest to forego these demeaning, unsupportive comments. People: SUPPORT YOUR TEACHERS. Teachers who spend a lot of time with children and young people are extremely aware of (and sadly, used to) ungratefulness, and ungratefulness is even MORE disgusting coming from adults.

This is actually something that I’ve dealt a lot with this semester. I get so aggravated that all my waking moments are spent either in the school building or in lesson planning. I had this moment where I shook my little finger at God and griped, “You know, I get really tired of spending my time sacrificing my LIFE for people who don’t care at all!”

And God’s like, “ … …”

And then I grew up.

So when I ask myself the question: “what is a teacher?” here are a few responses that come to mind.

A teacher celebrates choice. When a student makes a personal reading choice, a teacher celebrates that choice even if it is not the best choice. While the teacher may not have chosen that book, the student is demonstrating ownership of his/her education. This is important in English education. Students must have successful reading experiences before they will attempt more difficult material. So, for example, a “teacher” will overlook the fact that a student exchanged a Holocaust narrative for Si Robertson’s Si-Cology for his book report book. (Ahem.)

A teacher does not take it lightly when vulnerable eighth grade boys ask, “How do you study for an English test?” This question once again demonstrates ownership. Eighth grade boys do not ask how to study for tests. This question shows that something is awakening in the student. He realizes he does not have study skills, and he is actively seeking knowledge in this area.

A (junior high) teacher rejoices with the magic 6: “I’m sorry. That was my responsibility.”

A teacher forgives cultural mishaps in Catholic basilicas. Because. Junior highers are not adults. Yet.

And then in closing: I can’t end this post without sharing some of my best blunders from this semester.

One of my favorites: catching myself doodling on a student’s homework. I have a student who is obsessed with all-things-England. Many assignments this student turns in feature some reference to England or London. One day I was grading this student’s work, and before I knew it, I had drawn a whole British flag on the paper. Suddenly I remembered that I WAS THE TEACHER! I was quite embarrassed, and I tried to smooth it over with some academic comment, but there it was: the doodled flag.

Another good one was in 5th grade English class, when I was reminding students that a certain assignment was due and accidentally let my teenage self rear its ugly head: “Do you know when that is due, bee-tee-double-you?!”
*Cringe.
The 5th graders didn’t notice the text speak at all, but a sixth grader smirked in the corner. Oops.

And finally, one of the worst content mistakes was teaching (and TESTING) that Emily Dickinson was a British poet. Um. Oops.

It happens?