Faith & Learning Blog
Connecting Faith and Learning Blog
This year I have English, Psychology,and Photography classes. These are technically different subjects, but you would be shocked at the overlap. You may not like reading. You may not like writing. You can even hate English class if you want. But without a doubt, you use what I teach every single day. What I teach is not a list of authors, dates, or literary elements. What I teach is analysis.
Day one in English, we don't jump right into the texts, but instead start with something each student interacts with every day, even if they don't read novels for fun: music. By comparing music videos and determining the meaning of these works based on the lyrics as well as the tone and visual elements selected by the producers, students recognize the importance of being mindful of every message that comes their way whether from the radio, a commercial, Netflix, or our next novel. Only then do we go on to ask the big questions of the classic texts we grapple with and see how they align with the ultimate truths of scripture: What is the nature of God? Of man? What has gone wrong with the world? How can we be saved? What is the purpose of our life?
Some novels demonstrate accurately the nature of man, but fail to determine how we can be saved. Some show success in a particular lifestyle, but how this dead ends into unforeseen side effects. Every text has some truth in it, but their answers to life's big questions leads to a wide variety of implications which can lead to unfulfilling and hopeless ends without being able to ground this truth on scripture and what God our creator defines about us. Students must be able to analyze this for themselves. They will not be in my classroom forever.
In psychology, analysis is even less subtle. Every personality theory or clinical therapist asks the same questions we ask in literature - What is the nature of man? What has gone wrong? How do we be saved? What even are our goals in treatment? Behavioral psychologists seek to change behavior, cognitive therapists diagnose and control issues in patterns of thought, psychoanalysts look for hidden motives from past trauma and assume healing is through relationship only, humanists think the answer lies inside each one of us if we can just be heard and reach our potential, many therapists seek medicines to cure all ills as mental imbalances. Everyone asks the same questions, and many have elements of truth. After all, God created the body, and the mind and in a fallen world, there are a million ways things can go wrong. But ultimately, who knows man like the Creator of man Himself? If we can start from a foundation of knowing man's sin, value, and hope, the entire trajectory leads us to a new, Biblical analysis with eternal implications as we look at even the most severe mental illnesses and appreciate anew the characteristics God created us with.
Every photographer is an analyzer of the world as well. I love how differently the students look at the campus after touring it through the lens of a camera, considering different angles and elements of photography and composition as they capture it. Many photos can hit the mark of employing line, repetition, or the rule of thirds. But the greatest photographs tell stories. It is the emotion in the eyes, it is the grandeur of the scene, it is the scope of experiences shown that result in photography being the art form it is. Every image tells a story in a powerful way that the saying would have us believe is "worth a thousand words."
As representatives of God in this world, should we not be versed in how to use this power of photography? Should we not be able to analyze the messages that come to us in every work of literature or film and present our own knowledge and hope to the world using these same mediums? Can we ignore the hurting and confused who seek help from psychotherapy professionals and cry out for meaning and hope? We cannot. And so my classes will continue to use the same priceless skills in every discipline; analysis is everywhere.
When I was in high school youth group, we got to play a game called “Bigger and Better.” It is a team building exercise that asks each team to start with an insignificant item like a paper clip, go out into the community, and trade up the item to something bigger and better. The goal is to keep upgrading the object until the time runs out. Each group then returns, and the winner is the group that traded up to the biggest and best item. It is a fun game; however, it teaches people to believe in a logical fallacy.
Assuming something is better simply because it is bigger is erroneous thinking. It was incorrect thinking when David fought Goliath, and it is incorrect thinking today. There are all kinds of things that are absolutely not made better by increasing their size. For example, nobody thinks that having big bills is an improvement. Swallowing big pills? Sorry, I prefer my medicine in tiny pill format. I’ve never had kidney stones before, but people assure me that bigger is not better. I’m also quite thankful that medical tools have been scaled down to microscopic sizes. Surgeries have gotten far less invasive as a result. If the entire world bought into the lie that bigger is better, then things like the Tiny House Revolution wouldn’t exist either. There are other examples of how smaller is better, and school size is a key example. Small schools have distinct advantages over large schools.
Recently, I think it has become fashionable to believe that going to a big high school gives students more opportunities. To be fair, there is some truth to that statement. Big schools do offer things that small schools don’t offer; however, small schools offer just as many student opportunities. The key is that a small school like Calvin is offering things that big schools are unable to offer. For example, small schools have much more freedom to innovate and implement new programs. Calvin Christian’s spring interim sessions are a good example of this kind of innovation. Students are able to study photography while canoeing down the Colorado River, study animals while learning from zookeepers at the San Diego Zoo, and study sound and light production from industry professionals. Being small also allows Calvin to take the entire student body on a multi-day retreat.
A smaller school size has day-to-day strengths that enhance the on campus experience that extends beyond the big, annual events. A small school gives students access to each other on a daily basis. This builds in a sense of camaraderie and community that is absent from a 3,000 student campus. A powerful sense of belonging occurs when everybody knows your name. That deep intimacy was even mainstreamed in the popular culture industry in the title sequence song of the show Cheers. Go ahead, sing it. You know you want to.
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name.”
Calvin students know each other, and Calvin’s teachers know their students. Being small means that each teacher gets years of contact time with a student. That builds in a real sense of investment for that teacher. A Calvin student isn’t just a number passing through a classroom for only a single semester. That student is a child of God that the teacher gets to help build and mold over several classes and years.
Finally, a smaller school gives each and every student on campus the chance to try the various programs that the school offers. If a student wants to be a part of the choir, soccer team, debate club, musical, etc., that student can absolutely find a place in those programs regardless of previous experience and talent. This variety of opportunity creates students that are well rounded, diverse, and knowledgeable about a variety of their potential future talents.
Calvin Christian School is a small school, and that is a good thing. I’m a graduate of Calvin Christian, and I have never once regretted being in a place where everybody knew my name. If a family is going to base a school choice on size alone, then they believe that size matters. That’s okay as long as there is a realization that the small can be mightier than the large. I think King David would agree.
I wish my high school education included a photography trip to the southwest, a behind-the-scenes tour of a medical facility, and an opportunity for picture book circle time in high school. Fortunately, though it is too late for me, I have the opportunity to give this gift to my students this year!
For three days on the week before spring break, the classroom will be extending far beyond the school into the local community and beyond with Calvin’s first ever Interim.
Learning never stops. Even if students are no longer in school, they are participating in sports or hobbies (and learning how to improve in them), hanging out with friends (and learning how to build relationships and respond to conflicts), or doing something else to entertain themselves (which is molding their minds in some way, whether or not they are aware of it!).
As a teacher, I want my students to be hyper aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it, and Interim is going to be a fantastic way to increase this. Analysis is not just for the English classroom, or discipline just for math homework. Student gifts aren’t limited to the academics of the science classroom, or the art classroom, or any classroom for that matter.
I want students to know that knitting can be a way to serve God and others, that international travel can help them gain a different perspective of God’s creation, and that the music of the 60’s contains a worldview, just like the novels they have read in class.
When students are cooking a healthy dinner, they are serving God by treating their bodies with respect and using their abilities, possibly even to host others someday as an act of kindness or hospitality. When students are playing music on a Ukelele, they are serving God with their gifts and praising him with a new song. When students are touring a Yearbook Printing facility, they are exploring how their gifts may match different career options and are improving they way they will tell the story of what God is doing at Calvin this year.
I may not have time to help them experience these things and more in my classroom, but with interim, they will have these unique opportunities. I have loved seeing the excitement in the student body as they make their choices, and I have loved uncovering it in myself as I prepare a course on how we can glorify God as subcreators with Interior Design.
Now I am not only looking forward to Spring Break as the opportunity for a break, but as a time I will get to share additional passions with my students - all for the glory of God!
This post was originally published in February 2017.
My 6th and 7th grade history classes recently completed a project that involved identifying and interpreting Pacific Northwest Coastal Native art forms and symbolism.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and in doing so was blessed with being exposed to a rich Native American culture, especially in terms of their powerful art images. Because I have always been intrigued by this unique type of art, I thought I would have my junior high students learn about the Pacific Northwest Native style, the specific symbolism that is a part of their imagery, and how that is a part of their larger worldview as a culture.
We first discussed and contrasted the pantheistic worldviews of the PNW tribes to that of a Christian biblical worldview, and looked to scripture to see where their beliefs were in contrast to biblical truth. Students then researched original PNW designs - identifying and using the appropriate colors used by the tribes. The final product becomes one that has redemptive value. In that, we are not only staying true to the beautiful style of the PNW tribes, but illustrating aspects of the one true God and his creation.
In a sense, there are two ways to approach artwork from a culture and peoples of a very different religious view than our own. We can look at artwork with a seasoning of “common grace”. Theologian Louis Berkhof describes common grace as, “...common because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God.” Or, the artwork could be looked at through a biblical view; one that serves as a filter - showing what is praiseworthy and what might go against God and His creative order.
On its own, there is meaning and message that can be learned from looking at artwork; whether from within our own culture, or from different cultures like that of the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. But it is my task as an educator to facilitate questions and discussion with my students when looking at art, and encourage them to respond according to a Christian perspective. No matter if I am looking at or talking about any type of art, I try to ask myself or pose to my students the following questions in some manner:
Does it relate to or bring out some aspect of our faith?
Does it give us an opportunity to discern?
Does it help us see the world and God’s people in unique or new ways?
Does it convey feelings of anger, doubt, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, or God’s grace?
Does it encourage and positively affect our hearts and minds?
Does it give opportunity to share the joy of knowing Christ?
As an educator and artist, I am excited to bring my students into a forum where we can view, discuss, create, and appreciate art - looking at its redemptive value as well as how it speaks to us as Christians. At Calvin Christian, we are helping our students look at the world through the “lenses” of scripture. It is truly an exciting venture.
By the way, the student artwork created was great! They were very thoughtful in their research, approach, and overall design. Soli Deo Gloria!
This blog was originally posted in December 2017.
Ron Van Der Pol is Calvin Christian School's Art Instructor for grades 7-12 and teaches History for grades 6-7.