There is a renewed interest in the Religious Education world on teaching children around texts, rather than around ideas, and helping children see that their engagement with text generates ideas as close as possible to the source material. This is why the introduction of Understanding Christianity has had such an impact in church schools and community schools. It works closely with the biblical text and it is close to the narrative of Christianity. And as I have argued in an earlier post, narrative is really important to our lives.
At Christ the Sower, at least between 2013 and 2018, we were extremely aware of the wealth of good children’s literature that there is available to teachers and to parents and so we insisted that in each unit of work in that curriculum, there was high-quality children’s literature, as a thematic binding or as an exposition of the work to be done. These texts were central to all teaching and because some terms had 2 or even 3 separate units of work, then there was a commensurate wealth of children’s literature offered to children. There is nothing new to this. It is at the heart of the 1988 (?) Literature Centred Approaches to the Curriculum produced by the Welsh Curriculum Authority and which was the first “cross curricular” booklet I ever owned as a teacher. But given that reading is so often reduced to a set of skills, not a set of joys, then it is no wonder that such an approach is constantly under threat by those who want the skills so they can get the numbers. Even in the English and Welsh national curricula from the early nineties, there was a fight between skills and content: I recall the then Powys English adviser, Andi Hawkins, pumping the air as the revised Welsh curriculum continued to put content ahead of skills.
Recently I have been reading texts in German – both fiction and non-fiction, as well as magazines and other material, in the grasping hunt for new vocabulary and a working understanding of German syntax. It has made me question a number of things about my reading – the speed I usually go (fast!), the value of skim reading, and my self-understanding as a reader (if I can’t get through a book quickly, what is wrong with me?). But another aspect of my reading – the insistence to myself that all important books get read at least twice and maybe three times, before I respond with my view – also comes into play, as I have scant hope of reading these German texts once, never mind twice or more!
This was all circling around my head as I launched into reading Teaching and Christian Practices, which I referenced in last Friday’s post. The book is a series of teaching experiments made in the mid-2000s by teachers and students at Calvin College in Grand Rapids MI, as well as from some other institutions. The long train journey from Schwäbisch Hall to London on Saturday, via Heilbronn, Mannheim and Paris, gave me the opportunity to read nearly the whole book once. In such a venture, the earlier chapters tend to stick and make more impact (the chapter I read on Eurostar at 8 in the evening is something of a blur).
The book is a wonder of fascinating practice, of serious-minded Christian lecturers trying to find a way in their degree course lectures, of bringing Christian practices so that their teaching is more formational, more bildung-like, if you will, and more specifically, formational into a greater likeness of Jesus Christ. The unspoken argument in the book is that genuine education must be formational towards the likeness of Christ if it is to be counted as true education. However, unspoken or not, it is unmissable, and this book has the richest vein of practice and thinking that we might use in trying to establish a richer Christian pedagogy and curriculum in English and Welsh church schools. All of it needs careful re-thinking and application, because what you can do 2 or 3 times a week in a lecture series to young people between 17 and 21 is a different thing from what you can do with four-year-olds who depend on you for everything, 25 hours a week.
The first chapter, for instance, utilises the idea of the classical vices to help young people adjust their lives to one another, to community and to God, through a course on the thinking of Thomas Aquinas. It is fascinating, empowering and deeply challenging to adults (one of the hallmarks of this book is the extent to which all the authors felt personally challenged by the practices they were trying to introduce over a semester’s course), but it would require severe modification if to be used in a primary or secondary school.
However, the second chapter, by David Smith, is all about reading. The chapter is entitled Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts. It presupposes that there is such thing as a theology of reading, that there is a Christian way of reading and engaging with texts, and that it is, to use Alan Jacobs’ term, a “hermeneutic of love.” It is about, Smith argues, taking an approach from what is commonly regarded as “religious reading” (repeated, ongoing, revisiting the texts multiple times, being slow, attentive, and approaching the text reverentially, expecting moral demands, etc.) into other texts, no less worthy of our care and charity. It is the opposite of what Paul Griffiths calls “consumerist reading” – trying (like me!) to read as much as possible for entertainment, information, speed and efficiency. The difference is that of the text being received, respectfully, on the one hand, and the text being used (as a means to distraction, information or entertainment). Reading encompasses both, of course, but knowing the difference between what you hope to get from a text, especially when choosing it for children, is vital. I am no expert on children’s literature, though I have great friends who are, and they could give good examples of how to plan different experiences for children from different sorts of literature.
Charity in reading involves avoiding quick dismissal and cheap disdain, resisting the ego satisfaction of allowing a text only to confirm one’s prejudices, and seeking the good in a text, choosing its truths over its defects. Humility implies a working assumption that the text may offer wisdom that I lack, and that if the road to grasping it is stony, then the fault may lie at least as much with me as with the text itself…..the act of reading itself (whatever the specific text) becomes an act in which, as in all other acts, Christian virtues ought to be exercised (p 45)
If we are to regard reading as a “practice” then it needs to fall into the definition of practices that the authors choose for the book – “sustained, complex, cooperative human activities in which goods are pursued and virtues are formed and supported.”
The reading content that David Smith was teaching in the course he chose to apply richer practice to was a 14 week survey of German literature from 1945 to the present. This was a particular challenge because being able to use “charitable” or “spiritual” reading meant “applying disciplined attentiveness, reading slowly, repeatedly, continually and with humble care.” He noticed that students usually approached the work like fast food – working out how many “years per week” they had to master, gaining, as Smith notes, “enough acquaintance with the text to avoid embarrassment in class” (p.48). This was accompanied by a teaching style that summarised rather than explored in depth, that offered opinion on the basis of inadequate reading.
The answer for Smith was not to invest in any grand strategies and then test them out, but rather to characterise (and then create) a community of practice. He began, because of the difficulty of getting students to imagine what writing in 1945 Germany was like (lack of paper and ink, years of propaganda, social and material devastation, lack of publishers, etc). Throwing out a previous successful strategy, he immersed the students in a sound and picture version of 1945 Germany, sitting on the floor with them in a blacked out room, experiencing as much as they could the context, so they could approach the texts he chose with charity, reading one short story over and again looking for more and more layers. Assessment had to change, being more geared to text-reflection, writing up discussions of text with other students after a time of silence, writing to a friend about how the texts studied could change their life (!), etc. He found a way of assessing the actual skills and aptitudes that were inherent in a charitable, respectful and humble approach to authors who had themselves endured horrors and were struggling to find a way to give literary expression to their experiences. Some of the student reflections are reproduced in the chapter, and they demonstrate a significant awareness of the way that charitable study of texts has begun to impact their daily lives.
So what? Smith suggests that the deliberate engagement of a group of learners with text led to some powerful outcomes. One student talked about learning to “read people Christianly” – not just books: “In this way, I believe, allowing time to get to know a work (or person), realising from what sort of framework we’re looking at it, and doing so lovingly, this is how we should read Christianly.”
More critical is the observation that some of the outcomes spoken or written about by the students could not have come from their engagement with the text on their own. I am conscious that this blog is often unmediated reflection – there is no talk-partner involved with the same text as I am as I write. This is a serious flaw of which I am aware, so try and mitigate it as I go along. But Smith’s suggestion is that “Christian learning ought to be approached not as the insertion of Christian ideas into the default social dynamics of the college classroom, but rather as the intentional fostering of communities of counter-practice rooted in the history of Christian practices” (p.60). He draws this from Etienne Wenger’s assertion that “in the process of sustaining a practice, we become invested in what we do as well as in each other and our shared history.” This happens whether deliberate of not – as the wrench of leaving a two-week course in basic German with a bunch of people from 9 countries can testify. Wenger again: “our identities become anchored in each other and what we do together.”
The opportunities for using text, along with the intentional creation of communities of practice in primary classrooms, are legion. Whether or not English and Welsh teachers are trained with Wenger or with bildung-centred didaktik in their program (one rather suspects not), most teachers approach their classes as communities of necessity and establish the rules and practices needed to create an intentional harmony for the purpose of getting the children to learn together better. Could more be done? Yes, and restorative practice as an approach has been widely written about as a community-creating practice. But text is important too, as a focus for humility and charity that can be exercised by young children as well as by college students.
During 2016-2018 there was an extraordinary piece of work done at Christ the Sower by half a dozen teachers with one particular group of children now in Year 5. As a witness to the power of an intentional community-of-practice approach it is the finest example I know. It served as a modern example of the sort of work that Comenius had in mind, and at some stage, with the appropriate colleagues and with the necessary permissions, I hope to write it up.
There is much more in this book, on approaches to study, to spiritual practices, to the use of food, to inculcating a sense of pilgrimage among college students, and on adopting a monastic approach to liturgy and time keeping. I am using it as a question-raising exercise, but respectfully and with charity, knowing it has masses to teach me.