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

 

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How to Know Your a Grammar Stickler

Calling all grammar sticklers! How good is your grammar? If you meet at least 13 of the following 16 qualifications, you’re well on your way to being a licensed, registered grammarian!

1. The title of this article makes you want to stick pins in your eyes.

2. You’ve read Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves for fun on vacation and have memorized her hilarious soliloquy on the its versus it’s debacle.*

3. There are three kinds of torture: water boarding, forced nudity, and someone pronouncing the word especially as expecially.

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4. You refuse to succumb to societal pressures to use text as a verb, as in the doltish statement, “I texted him last night.” You prefer instead to say, “I sent him a text message last night.”

5. You notice that people who use text as a verb are more commonly disposed to use objective case pronouns in the subjective case, as in, “Me and him texted last night.” Inwardly, you correct this nitwit: “He and I were sending each other text messages last night.”

6. You know the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism (you weren’t born in a proverbial linguistic Dark Age), but you still prefer to have a little class.

7. This little class meets every day at 10 a.m., and it’s called Language and Composition.

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8. To you, the grandest anomaly of the misused possessive apostrophe has to be the inimitable possessive I’s, as in, “You can come to Jordan and I’s house.” You know that there is no English textbook under heaven in which that word appears.

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9. You rarely tout your grammarian philosophies in public lest you start appearing a sexless prude. Instead, you privately (but voraciously) read articles like this one online, and if you’re feeling especially brave, you click, “Like.” (Though, when you’ve simply had enough, you muster up the courage and click, “Share,” later mentioning to Mom that she can say goodbye to the idea of grandchildren.)

10. You would like to introduce a few of your acquaintances to a new vocabulary word: doesn’t. As in, “He doesn’t know that it is incorrect to say ‘He don’t know.’”

11. At the same time, you would like to remove a certain four-letter word from the mouths of your acquaintances; the word is seen. As in, “I saw that she does not know how to use the word seen correctly.”

12. You need to use both hands to count how many times Calvary has been misspelled cavalry on those church praise and worship PowerPoints.

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13. In fact, there are a couple of words that come to mind regarding the grammar and spelling on church praise and worship PowerPoints: extreme discomfort, embarrassment, anxiety, bodily aches, high blood pressure, nervous twitching, and general foaming at the mouth.

14. Despite the fact that society labels you a disagreeable prig, you do enjoy the occasional social mixer. In fact, you find that the two most attractive traits in the opposite gender are (1) eyes like pools in the ocean, and (2) the ability to use the pronoun each as a singular subject. As in, “Each of us is weak at the knees for blue eyes and verbs that agree in number.”

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15. You’ve given up on foreign words like espresso and en pointe, which people can’t pronounce or spell, respectively, to save their lives. It strikes you that their dignity ceases to be in shreds; it is now burnt ashes.

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16. You know that someone with bad grammar is going to read this article, feel bad about themselves, and then curl up into a ball to whimper ceaselessly. Ironically, you find that this is the exact reaction that you have to most instances mentioned in #1-13…

Destroying DEVOLSON

If I take a month-long break from blogging, you know two things happened:

  1. Life got insanely busy, and
  2. I spent important time fixing life.

I’m done now!

In the last month, I’ve:

  • Had my car in and out of the shop
  • Suffered an Achilles strain after working to improve my average mile time
  • Been teaching Pride & Prejudice, Macbeth, like a gazillion Spanish verbs, Thomas Paine, Creveceour, and a little bit of Poe just for funsies
  • Wrote a syllabus (from scratch) for the AP Rhetoric and Argumentation class that I teach in order to send it to the College Board for approval (oh, hello, American rhetoric, speech, and Transcendentalists)
  • Rehearsed music to record for Blue Sky Music last weekend (check out my composer friend Lyle Stutzman’s new website: https://blueskymusic.net/)
  • Took a much-needed travel break to Virginia with dear friends in which I took in a livestreamed Gospel Identity Conference by Tim Keller and saw a show at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars playhouse, the world’s only recreation of the original indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London circa 1655! (We saw The Fall of King Henry; it was tragic.)
  • Practiced problem-solving. Back story: you know how the world’s funniest blogging teacher, “Love, Teach” has coined the term DEVOLSON to describe the Dark Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November? To be honest, I’ve actually never really understood the term because for me the Vortex (that is, the most deplorable winter blues) doesn’t come until January, February, and March. (You’ll remember last year’s tearful post about the drudgery of winter weight sessions.) Friends, DEVOLSON has arrived! October was brutal! And November’s evil time change? What in the samhill is a 4:30 sunset? #extremelygrouchyrunner.  In the midst of all childish whining, I stumbled upon two fantastic articles about mental and emotional health (which, if you are wondering if you have, means you might have some adjustments to make). I discovered I have room to improve when it comes to managing stress because, in fact, more often than not, I *don’t* manage stress. I just complain about it. (Not exactly the most emotionally healthy thing to do.) I’m learning that it’s necessary to *deal* with stress and work to remove it. This requires grit, determination, and flexibility.
    IMG_1623So in the interest of knocking DEVOLSON in the teeth, I’m developing all kinds of goals for January, February, and March in order to practice the emotionally healthy habits I’ve learned about, including but not limited to:
  1. finding balance between work, rest, and activity by increasing daily prayer and Bible reading, and by exchanging empty activity for more restful, renewing activities like reading (lots of great titles on my Christmas list and current bookshelf)
  2. continued problem solving around large and little daily stresses
  3. minding physical health by developing a winter workout regimen (which I created while eating a giant piece of chocolate cake from my friend). Ugh. Guys. This year’s Thanksgiving morning run was a fantastic, sun-lit jaunt over flat Mid-western plains (oh, how I’ve missed you, Ohio!), and the joy I experienced during that run reminded me why activities of discipline are so important for my life. Anyway, winter running goals for me include (guess what) more problem solving! Particularly around Achilles injuries and what to wear on windy winter runs. I think eccentric single-leg calf exercises and Black Friday deals will do the trick for me!
  4. practicing thankfulness in order to be more positive (which actually brings health benefits!) Today’s thankful list:
    • my car is out of the shop,
    • what Achilles pain?
    • my syllabus is on its way to the College Board,
    • a brand new Tim Keller book for the mornings and Psalms for the evenings,
    • the poem I saw on Sunday, driving home from our concert after recording, during the most storybook of purple dusks in Lancaster County, as two dark, slow cyclists crested a hill, and I wound through quiet farmland, past farm ponds still as glass, lavender mirrors, with carols ringing in my head, and bare scrags and gray trees silhouette against the good, good sky.

A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

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Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.

How My School Ruled April Fool’s

You know, April Fool’s Day doesn’t fall on a school day for another three years, so my co-teachers and I planned a memorable day for the students.

First, the tired and trodden students ambled sleepily into the hallway only to be met with a Barrage of Large Objects in Their Path, and found themselves ducking under the high jump bars, around a very large caged bunny, moving past a fake tree, hoisting themselves over a massive, ten foot long, two foot high long jump mat, and proceeding down the hallway, filled with a roll-y cart, a commercial vacuum cleaner, and a table supporting a large bowl of…. onions. And a broom was sticking out of the library book return receptacle.

As students streamed into school, they asked our secretary who filled the hall.

“You tell me!” she retorted.

Confused, the high school students turned to our “slightly annoyed” high school teacher.

“Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously some of the older ones, either the seniors or the youth group who rented the gym last night!” he sighed, irritated. (Our prank wasn’t just the hall-filling, but also convincing the students that we hadn’t done it.) The surprised students immediately began denying their involvement; THEY certainly didn’t want to be held responsible or have to clean up the mess. (We as teachers VOWED that the responsible parties would put everything away.)

“I wonder who it was,” the ornery students asked, in awe.

Students who attended the “offending” youth group’s gym night immediately began protesting.

“I’m sure it wasn’t us! We didn’t even have keys to the school! They school renter unlocked for us!”

The high school teacher brushed them aside.

“You could have easily gotten a key!”

“But it wasn’t us! You have to believe us!”

One conscientious student, on his way to class, approached the teacher and said penitently, “I just want you to know that it wasn’t me. You can call my parents. I was definitely home last night and there is no way that I did it.”

Meanwhile, the seniors headed to their second class and stopped the principal.

“Who was it? Who filled the hall?”

“Well it was obviously your youth group!” he retorted.

“It wasn’t us! We promise!”

“Well then maybe it was the senior girls!” he hurumphed.

The senior girls were getting visibly upset and started protesting louder,

“IT WASN’T US! Why do we always get blamed for everything?!”

“All right, come here, I need you to help me with something,” our principal said. He disappeared for a few moments, and then pulled up to the school’s front door with his car, of which he had taken off the side mirrors.

For the seniors, it suddenly clicked what was going on. They greedily helped him ease the car into the hallway. Just yet another Large Object in the Path.

Around this time, we teachers released the three BABY GOATS into the gym.

The poor little kindergarten class, whose classroom is right next door to the gym, heard a bleating sound. One small student excitedly announced to his pregnant teacher, “I just heard your baby make a noise!”

Next, our secretary asked a senior girl to “go get me something from the fridge.” A few moments later we hear screams of terror as she returns.

“MISS MILLER, MISS MILLER! THERE’S BABY GOATS IN THE GYM! THEY’RE RUNNING AROUND AND THEY SCARED ME SO BAD!”

Meanwhile, in the junior high classroom, we were having a surprisingly fun class. We had just played a game in celebration of finishing our annual research papers and had settled in to a monotonous grammar review. Midway through the review, I stopped.

“Did you all hear that? I heard a cell phone.”

No response.

“I was sure I heard a cell phone,” I said. “Does anyone have one in your desk?”

I cocked my head at a seventh grade boy and bored into him with my gaze. I marched over to him.

“I’ve talked to you before about having your phone in your desk instead of keeping it turned off and outside in the hall in your backpack.” I put my hands on my hips. “You’re going to have to give me your phone.” I returned to the front of class and threw the purple cell phone on my desk. I put my hands on hips and sighed angrily. Suddenly, I whipped a hammer out of my desk and began smashing the phone to pieces! Up and down and up and down I raised the hammer, hitting the phone to bits! Tiny pieces of glass spread over my desk and onto the floor. The phone nearly slid off my desk, but I reached after it smashing it over and over with my mallet.

Out of the corner of my eye, I grew startled by junior high students’ scared, apprehensive glances. THEY WERE IN LITERAL SHOCK.

I could hardly contain myself. I fought not to laugh, but all of a sudden I grew pained because I realized that my students were actually afraid of me in that moment, terrified at the monster I had become.

I gurgled and giggled nervously. “Uh, April Fool’s, guys.”

Only two students kind of giggled. The rest stared at me strangely, not believing what they had just seen. They sat in solemn terror. I tried to lighten it up by laughing and explaining how I had planned this at the beginning of the day with the seventh grade boy. He, of course, was smiling behind his hand. Once I was sure that they all got that it was a joke, we resumed English class, but they were all still a little shaken! They all sat quietly through the rest of grammar class, even as I kept giggling at the front of the classroom. By the end though, they were smiling shyly and me and each other.

Student 1: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I thought: ‘She is WAY overreacting.’”

Student 2: “I was SOOOOO scared! I was shaking!”

Student 3: “I was pretty sure a guy wouldn’t have a purple phone.”

Student 4: “I knew he didn’t have a phone, so I was pretty sure it was a joke.”

Student 5: “I thought you had literally GONE CRAZY.”

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Down at typing class, our secretary had created her own fun by changing the autocorrect on all the computers so that whenever the students typed the word “candy” (a word from their typing exercise for the day), it would automatically change to rude name-calling names. How would you like it if the words you keep trying to type change to “Stinky Face” or “Liver-witted Hiney Squeegee”? (Tears are rolling down my cheeks right now.)

One high school teacher gave a test, with regular questions interspersed with IMPOSSIBLE questions that the students could never be expected to know.

A particularly conscientious student, quite confused, reasoned, “Mr. Yoder, I’m SURE we never went over these in class! And I KNOW they weren’t on the review sheet!”

“Are you sure?” he answered, calm and surprised. “Keep working; maybe you’ll find a question later that can help you with this one.”

That question being the last question on the test: “DO YOU REMEMBER THAT TODAY IS APRIL FOOL’S DAY?!”

Not wanting to leave out the little ones, we even got the youngest students in on the fun. Our kindergarten teacher passed out little packets of Cheerios labeled “Donut Seeds.”

“Take these home and plant them, and you can have your very own donut tree!” she said.

Most of the young ones knew it was a joke because she had carefully explained to them about the prank in the hallway and had even read a story about April Fool’s Day. But one young man somehow missed it all because later he was still talking about taking home his donut seeds so that he could grow his own donuts.

Back in the high school classroom, our math teacher was explaining the kindergarten prank to some students in one of his math classes. Which prompted the math students to ask:

“So what’s YOUR April Fool’s day joke? What’s YOUR teacher prank?”

Mr. Dave squinted his eyes and said, “Well, actually, I was the one who put the stuff in the hall.”

“No you didn’t!” they crowed. “That’s your prank, is you getting us to THINK that you put the stuff in the hallway! But you actually didn’t!”

By this time, we as teachers are just howling because of how many levels of prank-ness there is by now.

“No, this time I really did it!” he laughed.

By this time, the students decided to get in on the fun. They successfully sequestered the high school teacher’s fancy, cushy, office chair, awkwardly lugging the large rolling chair, from end-to-end of the school, in panicked rush, to avoid being seen by the high school teacher on the warpath to find his chair.

Ninth and tenth did a great one on me. I breezed into class ready to give them their vocabulary quiz, going off about the absent students and chirping about who should and shouldn’t take the quiz today… I began passing out the quizzes when I realized that all of them were smiling strangely at me. Then I realized: they’re ALL in different seats! (I have assigned seating in that class.) I hadn’t noticed at all!

One last April Fool’s Day prank came from the junior high students. Our student council planned a beautiful Easter meal today. We set up in the back of our classroom. We had fancy decorations of tulips and pearls, and ate off those really nice fake silver plasticware sets, and had grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, jello, and the most especially divine white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. (Mother who made the cheesecake: it was superb, as always!) Before we prayed our Easter prayer and ate our meal, the student council made an announcement.

“Since it’s Easter, we have a gift for each of you! BUT: you have to wait til everyone gets a present to open one!” One seventh grader ceremoniously handed each student a nicely-packaged gift bag.

“Okay! You can open them!”

We dove into our bags, clawing, and giggling with glee. And we each unwrapped…. a rock.

A dumb ‘ole rock.

Boring gray lumps of stone.

“What.” we intoned.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” the Council yelled.

We all laughed together and then our class president led us in a special prayer of thanks.

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Probably one of the best April Fool’s days I’ve ever had. 🙂

Later in study hall, the junior high girls and I dissected the rest of the cell phone. So, obviously, we had fun.

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Finding Peace for Paris

I spent most of Friday night watching my phone light up with news updates about the Paris attacks. I scrolled through BBC feeds, New York Times articles, and a piece in The Globe and Mail.

And I’m not okay.

I’m really shaken up. I’m torn up. I can’t even go to bed right now because of how disturbed I am.

Which is strange because I’m a small-town Midwesterner, and I don’t know any French people, nor any Parisians.

But I can’t let it go, and I’m sitting up late bugging my roommates with questions like “Why Paris?” “Why now?”

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Doug Sanders in the Globe and Mail article “Attack on Paris an assult on the city itself” makes a statement concerning the locations of the attacks: a legendary concert hall hosting a U.S. independent rock band, a Cambodian restaurant in a bohemian district, and a France-Germany soccer match.

“These do not appear to be symbolic targets. They are not places related to the French state, to the military, to religion or commerce or international affairs. Rather, they are targets chosen, it seems, for maximum carnage: Popular, unprotected, soft targets all on busy thoroughfares with large crowds engaged in popular Parisian evening activities. It was, then, an attack on Paris itself. It is hard to avoid seeing it as an attack on the very spirit of modern, pluralist Paris, on the youthful libertine air that still permeates the French capital.”

Was it, simply, an attack on a modern, pluralist city? If so, what is the reaction to, exactly? Is it related to the Charlie Hebdo incident? Do we know who claims responsibility for the attacks? Are other European nations in danger? We will continue to watch this story unfold in the coming days.

These questions and more swirled around in my mind as I sat on my bedroom floor and prayed.

Yet even though I am asking so many “whys”, I am reminded of the “becauses.” Why do these things happen? Why does evil continue?

Evil exists because people all over the world have evil inside of them. I have evil inside of me.

While I sat on my bedroom floor, sipping tea, staring at empty space, I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose good. That time when I was irritated and snapped at an annoying student. That time when I was tempted to be selfish with a family member. And I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose God, the only truly good Being. And I chose my own selfish way instead. (“I don’t really need to read the inspired Word tonight. I can read something else.”) (“Whatever. This thing doesn’t really matter to Him. He wouldn’t really care. So I’m going to do what I want.”) I didn’t choose good this week because I never asked myself, “What can I do to get closer to God this week and grow His goodness in my life?”

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I think that evil grows just a little bit when we live like this. And when it’s compounded to a thousand decisions a day, and multiplied by a thousand people, in my town, and then multiplied by the millions of people in my country, and my country multiplied many times over… … I think this is how tiny seeds of selfishness grow and become the fields we now have of dishonesty, of greed, and of corruption, which always lead to injustice. And where there is injustice, there is violence and death.

I’m reading the book Loving Jesus by Mother Theresa. She writes about a young Sister, just graduated from university, from a well-to-do Indian family who had just joined the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was required to spend time at the Home for Dying Destitutes. Mother Theresa cautioned her: “You saw the priest during the Mass, with what love, with what delicate care he touched the body of Christ. Make sure you do the same thing when you get to the home, because Jesus is there in a distressing disguise.” The young woman returned after three hours, and Mother Theresa was amazed to find her beaming. She said, “They brought a man from the street who had fallen into a drain and had been there for some time. He was covered with maggots and dirt and wounds. And though I found it very difficult, I cleaned him, and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!”

Reading this book moved me. Because, you see, this week, the evil inside of me (my selfish humanness) really wanted to give a difficult (yet needy) student an earful for her irresponsibility. But my conscience spoke beautifully and loudly to me. “That child is Jesus to you. You must treat her like Jesus.” And I swallowed the lecture, which would have surely wounded, and instead began helping.

These are the moments that breathe life. This is how good grows in the world.

It is very easy for us to read newspaper headlines and point out all the evil in the world. But that’s the point. Anyone can do that. My 12 year old students can do that. But I will tell you what a 12 year old cannot do. They cannot (or at least they find it very hard to) call out and fix the evil within themselves.

We find it so easy to point fingers at terrorist groups, at governments, at nations, and at religions other than our own. But we do not recognize the evil that we carry with us every day. An evil that we refuse to regard. A sinful habit that we ignore. (Which may not necessarily be an overt “sin” other than the sin of ignoring or abandoning God, the bringer of good, which is no less serious.)

I challenge you who want to find peace for Paris.

First, you must find the evil within yourself. And you must recognize it and deal with it. You must make peace in your own home. You must first find peace in your own heart.

Like Mother Theresa says: “It is always so much easier for us to be very kind to the people outside our own circle than to be full of smiles and full of love to those in our own homes… We only have today. If we help our children to be what they should be today, then, when tomorrow becomes today, they will have the necessary courage to face it with greater love.”

This greater love, beginning with each of us, in our own hearts… in your heart and in mine… this greater love is the path to finding peace for Paris.

May you find that peace in the love of Jesus Christ, which is the balm that heals the wounds inflicted by evil in our world. May this balm heal our hearts, so that we may in turn heal our families, our children, and our lands.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night,
Come to us with Thy tender love, my soul’s delight.
Unto Thee, O Lord, in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night.

O why should I wander, an alien from Thee,
Or cry in the desert Thy face to see?
My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight,
O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.

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.