First Assignment for Sophomores

Our “Sacred Song” exercise is the first homework assignments all sophomores have here in the History of the Abrahamic Traditions course. It’s paired with an excerpt from Karen Armstrong’s first chapter, Homo Religiosus, in her book The Case for God (2010).

After reading the first few pages of  Armstrong’s chapter, where she agues that “The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic” (p. 9), students are given the following assignment:

Please submit the URL of one song that you would characterize as sacred, using whatever definition of “sacred” you see fit. The song needn’t be religious in nature, but fit the understanding you have of the word sacred at the point in the course, the understanding you’ve aquired at this point in your life in light of previous experiences, class discussion, and/or Karen Armstrong’s chapter Homo Religiosus.

We then start the next week’s worth of classes playing a few of the selected songs at the beginning of class. After about 2 minutes of each song, students get an opportunity to share a little about why they chose what they chose, as the respond to some of the following questions:

  • What made this an easy or difficult exercise?
  • While finding your song, what did you think about?
  • In what way does your song have meaning for you?
  • What does this song tell us about you that we might not have known?
  • How does this reveal to the class your understanding of the sacred ?

The aim is to reveal that we’re all coming from different places in terms of how we understand the sacred–for some it’s very much predicated in a transcendent reality, others simply a set or series of values that are rooted in the material world. For some it draws upon the self, for others it moves their gaze to focus on others. For some it’s a notion that offers a hoped for future of what life should/could be like, for others the sacred comes from a particular experience or memory of the past.

It’s one of the student’s favorite exercises because it allows them to share a little about themselves. As they find out, each song is wrapped up in their identity and is a nice way to start the year–especially for the new students. Here’re some songs students have selected this year:

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Making the Game Worth Playing

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

In the second chapter, Perkins argues that teachers ought to make the game worth playing in order to help students learn by wholes and achieve understanding or mastery. Early on, he adds that making the game worth playing can be approached in two directions: the content and the process.

On the content side, the challenge is to choose and frame content so that it is genuinely worthwhile and its worth is transparent. On the process side, there are way of leveraging beginnings, understanding, expectations, and choice. Each of these can contribute to making the game worth playing. (p. 56)

I like this distinction and, with Perkins, place emphasis on the content portion when thinking about how to make the game worth playing in my classrooms. [Though I think Perkins spends more pages on process, twice he reminds his readers, drawing from his Smart Schools (1992), “Our most important choice is what we try to teach” (p. 61, 76) as opposed to how.]

As a college student, I remember becoming disengaged in my philosophy courses the minute I felt the rubber no longer met the road. It was that feeling that drew me to Religion, Religious Studies, and Theology courses, courses of study I felt had measurable and immediate ramifications for society (at least when thinking about the way the specific classes were taught when I was in the classroom). In that sense, I find great appreciation for the enlightenment, empowerment, and responsibility (p. 61) model Perkins offers for making the game worth playing. That said, I think the choice of what to teach can be one of the most difficult aspects of the classroom, whether deciding specific readings or particular themes to address.

In my four years of teaching, I’ve had to learn how to find accessible readings and topics heavy with generative knowledge, as Perkins writes. Material that “relates widely and readily to the many important dimensions of life.” (p. 57) My experience in undergrad has helped fuel this search, but that’s not to say I’ve mastered it just yet–some of the content I’ve chosen or focused on is still too esoteric or theoretical for the students (the hermeneutic circle is ALWAYS a battlefield of difficulty). But, good content, when found, is a wonderful thing. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky to find great stuff both on my own and through collaborating with colleagues.

And I think it’s this good content that makes possible the junior versions of the whole game for which Perkins is calling. I look forward to focusing on this in the coming months before the fall.

Letters towards Understanding?

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

In the past, I’ve had students write letters to their congresspeople and the president as culminating activities in various units ranging from the environment to drone use. The game here then is less about religious studies and more about citizenship and expression of one’s social conscience–the reasons why the game might be worth playing–as influenced by various perspectives encountered in the classroom. I’d always thought this was an easier assignment for the Applied Ethics courses and less so for the Abe Traditions, but Perkins may have convinced me otherwise.

In the first chapter, Perkins offers his readers a few questions to ask themselves when working to identify the whole game of a discipline.

Ask: What would this topic be like if it’s not just about content, but learners are trying to get better at doing something? What would they be getting better at doing? Ask: What would the topic be like if it were not just routine, if it required thinking with that you know and pushing that further? Ask: If there were some problem finding involved, where would it figure? (p. 31)

These questions, when also paired with his discussion of understanding as performance, the moment students can “think and act flexibly with what they know” (p. 48), serve as a nice reminder that learning ought to be about doing. And maybe this can help give a picture of the game of religious studies, again, if even a junior version.

Back to the letter writing…

With some creative thinking, the Abe Tradition essays might very well be turned into letters for government officials, local or national newspaper editors, congregational or inter-denomination and inter-faith organizations, etc. These are very much the bodies RS scholarship seeks to inform, educate, and influence, right? Of course, each essay would likely need to be directed/tailored towards a particular audience, but this could be part of the problem finding that Perkins begins with in the chapter. That is, in any given unit, we can ask ourselves how we might use our newly acquired information for the betterment of society, to be active citizens, to inform an audience, or argue a particular perspective… For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether a local congregation, a home congregation of the students, or the national offices, might have been a nice audience for our sexual ethics essays as they met just last month to discuss and vote on the place of same-sex marriage in their tradition.

I’ll have to keep developing these thoughts.

David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

Perkins provides seven principles to lead his readers towards what he calls learning by wholes (p.8), rather than aspects or parts. He argues he learned baseball by playing junior versions of the game with his neighborhood friends, not merely throwing catch or spending his days in the batting cages. Sure, those can help us master the difficult aspects of the sport (more on that later…), but we best learn the sport when actually playing the whole game.

Using the analogy of baseball (and other sports), Perkins’ first principle is just this: play the whole game.

Much of formal education… feels like learning the pieces of a picture puzzle that never gets put together, or learning about the puzzle without being able to touch the pieces. In contrast, getting some version of a whole game close to the beginning makes sense because it give the enterprise more meaning. You may not do it very well, but at least you know that you’re doing and why you’re doing it. (p. 9)

So throughout the introduction, I found myself asking, “What is the game of Religious Studies?”  It seems Perkins’ whole venture would require one to have a vision for what the game actually is, right?

Religious Studies on the whole is a secular look at various religious traditions. It doesn’t aim to be doctrinal or define right belief as much as to take an anthropological, historical, and cultural look at religious traditions’ claims on doctrine and  orthodoxy. It’s comparative in nature and makes use of a whole host of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences (as noted in an earlier post, quoting from biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine: literary criticism, anthropology, economics, political science, history, art, anthropology, mythology, cross cultural studies, among others).

But I don’t think this is what Perkins is talking about. It just doesn’t sound very game-ish. Mind you, I’m still reading.

But I suppose my answer to defining and playing the whole game, if even a junior version, relates somehow to his second principle: make the game worth playing. In order to answer this, I ask myself “Why do Religious Studies?” To which I can think of a multitude of reasons: to broaden one’s understanding of society and culture, to identify patterns in history, to be engulfed by poetic and creative verse, to develop a deeper sense of empathy and compassion, to work for justice, to get a better sense of the human predicament, among others.

Is this playing the whole game or is this just how it become worth playing? Food for thought; thought for food. Either way, I’m excited to keep reading.

Thoughts on Developing a Classroom Wiki

A week ago I was invited by a friend and colleague to a meeting with University of Delaware English Professor Christopher Penna. Will, this friend and colleague of mine, set the meeting up after coming across Professor Penna’s Brit Lit Wiki and thought I’d enjoy coming along, as I too am working to find ways to best draw students to create original content that moves beyond the private transaction that is the traditional paper. For more time than I had in quarters at the parking meter, we sat in Professor Penna’s office looking over one another’s shoulders, discussing the origin of the wiki, the timeline for class, best practices for student engagement, how he assesses student contributions, how it integrates into the next year, as well as the things he wants to improve, change, and do differently in coming semesters. It was a wonderful exchange of ideas (mostly in our direction!) and Will and I left both intellectually exhausted and stimulated. Thankfully, there was no ticket upon our return to the curb! (Unless that kind of thing is mailed in Newark…)

After resting our minds a little at the start of our drive home, we began to brainstorm together and think of ways in which we could incorporate a wiki in our classrooms. I think Professor Penna’s work with his class and the subsequent conversation with Will have inspired me to use a wiki to help my students more fully explore the various lenses or “reading glasses” (PDF) one can use to better comprehend the traditions’ texts.

In thinking back on the year that’s just closed, I’ve thought I’d love to get students thinking earlier about various approaches to traditions’ sacred texts, specifically the various methods of biblical and literary criticism that can be applied. This thought arose out of our final exam of the year in which students were asked to respond to a supplied scenario from three different perspectives, one of which had to be their own. Students demonstrated they weren’t as familiar or comfortable with the historical critical methods as I’d hoped by the end of the year.

So here’s how I envision using a class wiki to remedy that discrepancy. They’re merely initial thoughts and I’d love any feedback, additional thinking, or resources that could help in this endeavor.

Once students have a basic understanding of the various critical approaches (I’m taking any suggestions for accessible resources if you’d like to make a recommendation in the comments!), I could assign groups to take ownership of a particular lens and build a wiki page for that method. In that sense, students would be responsible for building upon that page with each reading they’d have from a particular canon. Actually, we could break the wiki up by method or by the text itself. TBD.

So for example, we read the Abraham narrative quite early in the year as it offers the basis for,  you guessed it, the Abrahamic traditions. One group could focus on the narrative of the reading (what’s actually taking place in terms of plot, character, movement, etc. in both the Qur’an and Genesis texts), another group could center in on the form or sources of the texts (from where did the Qur’an draw in developing it’s narrative? what sources did the Genesis account draw from? how does the genre of the text help readers better understand the text?). Still another could approach it from a feminist perspective (in what way are Sarah and Hagar presented? does the text promote patriarchy? can the text be rescued or ought it be rejected?). This could continue for as many methods and narratives as we’d like to focus on.

In class discussion then, students, in conjunction with other authors and sources, would get to be the specialists on the particular method they were assigned (or opted for in groups?), responsible for presenting the concerns and content contained within the text as deemed important by their method. At the end of each unit, the groups would be responsible for making a contribution to the wiki page of that topic (again, the actual text or critical approach) in order to add to the broader class’s understanding.

By the end of a given unit (or probably some other division of time–month, quarter, or semester), we could switch each group’s focus so that students would have an opportunity to master a handful of methods by the time the exam came around. (This could also offer fodder for the counterarguments they’ve been lacking in their essays, of which I’ve recently written about and don’t want to get away from completely.) By the end of the year, with this wiki project, students would have a higher degree of focus on and familiarity with the various methods, and would thus be better prepared to present a host of perspectives in response to the presented scenario, that which is the final exam.

Building a Loose-Leaf Sacred Canon

I attended a UU service back in the spring that gave me an idea I think I’d like to integrate into coursework for my sophomores. The service’s sermon drew from Rev. Richard Gilbert’s “While Standing On One Foot: A Unitarian Universalist Catechism.” Gilbert provides a fascinating approach to the role of sacred scriptures in the UU tradition…

The Bible with its Jewish and Christian scriptures, is a vast and valuable compendium of human wisdom and folly collected over a period of centuries. The lovely legends of creation, the poetry of the psalmist, the insight of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the zeal of the prophets, the moral imagination of Jesus, and the eloquence of Paul are a rich resource. It is a human book, however, shot through with the best and the worst of human nature. It is not the word of God to humanity, but the word of humanity about its understanding of humanity and divinity and where they meet in human life. There are other religious scriptures to which we would also turn. The ethical demands of the Koran, the beauty of the Tao Te Ching, the simple ethic of the Analects of Confucius, the mystical insights of the Bhagavad Ghita, the existential wisdom of the Sutras of Buddhism – and the rich abundance of the whole human literary tradition – all these contribute to our human store of goodness and beauty and wisdom.

We celebrate a loose-leaf bible which affirms that revelation is not sealed. Truth has not been embalmed in any one age or tradition; it is an unfolding process. The truths of yesterday are often the superstitions of today. We need the freedom to remove from our loose-leaf bible ancient ideas that no longer stand the test of time, keep those that do, and add our own insights to its pages.

The sermon that worked from this excerpt went on to explain the way in which the speaker had borrowed from this idea and created her own testament, full of her own original writings, images, thoughts, poems, and artifacts from other authors and sources as well that she found to be sacred and meaningful. As Gilbert writes, the speaker acknowledged the dynamic nature of her testament, the way in which the meaning of an object is sometimes transient. But, rather than remove an object that had lost meaning, she put them in a section dubbed as her “old testament.” Of course, I’d argue such language is problematic, playing off the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures, traditionally referred to as the Old Testament in the Christian tradition, have lost meaning, therefore promoting supersessionism, while in fact such texts are quite full of meaning both within and outside Jewish and Christian communities. Still, I find the general concept fascinating.

What if we had students build their own set of “sacred scriptures” or collections of texts throughout the entire year that speak to their understanding of humanity and divinity and where they meet in human life? One of my colleagues has students keep notebooks throughout the year with the various handouts and notes they keep; this would be different but wouldn’t have to replace the other in that it would simply include what the individual students determined to hold special meaning in their own lives within or outside the class.

We already do a small scale version of this at the start of the year in what we call our “Sacred Song Exercise.” Students are asked to bring in a song that they’d define as sacred; after some self-reflection, we play excerpts of it and offer the students a brief moment to share a little about why they chose that particular song. Pedagogically, it’s meant to help students discover the various ways we define, understand, and locate the sacred in our lives.

But, if we had a collection of student writing, various texts, links, videos, songs, anything really, that were compiled throughout the year, I sense there’d be the added benefit of also shedding light on the way in which sacred scriptures have been created, edited, redacted, added to and subtracted from, etc. In fact, if they included their own original work, it also plays into the whole idea of building a portfolio, something of which I’ve written briefly about before and one of the projects I’m focussing on this summer. In that sense, it’s value is also in offering a space for students to collect their own work to reflect upon throughout the year.

Still, I could also imagine it taking shape by collecting an entire section’s set of texts to highlight that any sacred canon is created in community and not simply by an individual. After particular decisions were made, we could work to highlight the power dynamics and context that played a role in determining what artifacts were in or out.  Does the diversity of the texts included reflect the diversity of the class? Are there more Christocentric texts included in the final canon because there are more Christians in the class? In what way does the class’s sex, gender, and race help us understand what was or what wasn’t included in the final version of the canon?

Certainly something to think more about over the summer for the fall.

Brief Thoughts on the Year: 2 (Seemingly) Successful Practices

In my first year of teaching, a friend shared Brookfield and Preskill’s “Discussion as a Way of Teaching” in which the authors argue that classroom discussion is part and parcel to the democratic experiment—“an important way for people to affiliate with one another, to develop the sympathies and skills that make participatory democracy possible.” Throughout, they offer a number of applicable exercises to help cultivate, sustain, and track discussion, one of which I’ve used consistently throughout my four years of teaching. Here’s one ripped from their text (pg. 69) and the context of how I’ve integrated it into my course as outlined in my course description…

Students are expected to do all nightly readings and come prepared to discuss the material each meeting. In an effort to best prepare for discussion, students are expected to complete a short homework assignment with each reading. These assignments are intended to help students access the readings and begin to wrestle with the concepts and ideas presented before class discussion. For example, students may be asked to finish two of the following four statements:

  1. I find the author’s primary concern to be…
  2. What struck me most about the text we read was…
  3. The idea I most take issue with in the text is…
  4. The question I would most like to ask the author of the text is…

Somewhere along the line, the four statements above transitioned into an exercise we called “The Idea I found most…” Exercise in which students were asked to identify the ideas they found most interesting, challenging, absurd, and applicable in any given reading. We ended our last several classes discussing these ideas we identified within our final text, Rehmann and Baptist’s Pedagogy of the Poor, and the course as a whole (syllabus in hand to remind ourselves all that we’d covered). It was a nice way to wrap up the year and left me excited about the different ways the course had affected students—many were still confused by the hermeneutic circle; many felt Rehmann and Baptist offered much that was applicable to their future selves. In the end, it gave me a handful of lasting impressions the students had, certainly things that will guide my planning for next year.

However, the most rewarding testament to this exercise came today. Over two weeks after graduation, a former senior wrote an email sharing, “Just this morning I finished Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” which [the Religious Studies Department] generously gifted me. I thought, for old times’ sake, I would share a few reflections on this existential smorgasbord of a book (Which was difficult to say the least).” He went on to write two pages worth of analysis using the exercise noted above (identifying the interesting, challenging, absurd, and applicable ideas).

Though I’d always seen value in the exercise, I’d been unsure about how often I would employ this technique next year. However, this student’s email speaks powerfully to the value in repetitively asking ourselves these questions as we engage a text. As evidenced in the recent email, it builds a habit that can be long-lasting; not only causing us to identify specific concepts or ideas that stand out, but it moves us enter into conversation with them as well, in conversation with the text, with one another around the discussion table, and with one another outside of class.

Another practice I adopted from Brookfield and Preskill’s work, and arguably the most helpful as I look back on the year and begin to plan for the next, was their Critical Incident Questionnaires, or CIQs (pgs 48-9). These are weekly evaluations that asks students to reflect on the following…

  1. At what moment in class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
  3. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  4. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  5. What surprised you most about the class this week?

It’s aimed at feedback for the whole group, not simply the instructor. Each week students had an opportunity to praise one another or offer critique, receive feedback and thoughts on their contributions. Truth be told, sometimes I wanted to leave the criticism out—”Spoon feeding ideas and making things obvious vs. having us come to our own interpretations; may have talked too much” will forever be etched in my memory!—but I promised from the start that I’d keep all their criticisms in no matter what was written. (For the greater good, democracy, right?) So any given week we’d begin classes with a brief glance at the prior week’s reflections, asking ourselves, “What do we want to be conscious of and avoid or embody? Who can we celebrate and model our contributions after?” Some meetings took more than half our time to discuss and debrief, others only minutes. On the next week’s CIQ, students would write that our discussion on the previous CIQ was helpful because it made them feel their voice was being heard; others complained discussion of the CIQ was detrimental to their learning because it took away from the day’s prepared content.

Some students struggled to be specific, merely offering a word or name in response, but many wrote in detail that offered insight both for the week ahead as well as, I trust, for my planning for next year. After 30-some-odd weeks of class, I have pages of feedback on what readings paired well, what concepts were consistently confusing, what teaching opportunities I missed (“We didn’t talk about Romero or the newspaper. Learning opportunities missed. Those were the 2 most interesting discussion topics we’ve had and we didn’t take advantage of them!”), as well as what readings were, as one student wrote of Peter Singer, “too long—could have gotten to his point in about 2 pages.” Here’s an example (PDF) from the middle of the year after I compiled their responses into one document.

I only used CIQs for my seniors but felt I had such success with them that I look forward to integrating the practice into my work with sophomores next year. (Its successes aside, I don’t expect an email anytime soon with a student’s weekly summation of their summer break: “I was most distanced as a learner this week when my mother woke me up early and forgot that summer means I can sleep until noon!” etc.)

All that’s to say, I encourage you check out Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s “Discussion as a Way of Teaching.” There’s great stuff in it that is immediately applicable, helpful, and rewarding as a teacher aiming to help facilitate positive discussions. For those hesitant to buy, I also came across an easily accessed (read: free) online document Brookfield has put together with various (not all)  discussion techniques (PDF) he explores in the book. The CIQ information is on pg 22, though the “Sentence Completion Exercise” is not in the online document.