Moving Beyond “Standard” In Our Schools

The only thing standardized testing accomplishes is producing standard students. The world needs exceptional students, not standard.

This thought has been on my mind all day. It came to me while my wife and I were talking about our kids this morning, and getting them ready to go back to school.

See, we’ve been lazy. We’ve spent the summer focusing on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time with our children in general. Now that school is almost upon us, we’re trying to get the kids back into the academic swing of things because we don’t want them to be behind before school even gets started. In fact, NPR ran a story yesterday on closing the summer gap, and all of this has got me thinking:

It really sucks that kids have to be such slaves to the test.

Because that’s what this boils down to, really. Kids are being tested in the fall, the winter, and the spring, all because we’ve decided that measuring their retention levels is the most precise method of determining their learning capacities.

The truly crappy part is, it’s not working so well. According to a report from the BBC, the United States ranks 28th (tied with Italy) in world education rankings. That’s not as bad as two years ago, when the US ranked 36th in the world.

I feel strongly about this issue because, for two years, I taught an adjunct class for Grayson High School students. It was a social sciences class that focused on world religions and philosophy, and what I quickly discovered was how woefully unprepared my students were for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Of course, no one likes to be made to think. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself simply by thinking once or twice a week.”

But that wasn’t true of the kids I taught. I had some of the smartest, most capable kids the school could throw at me, and yet many of them weren’t skilled in thinking their own thoughts. They were exceptional a parroting back to me whatever I said, but when pressed for their own insights, most struggled to come up with anything to say.

Now, you might be saying, “Well, duh – they’re only teenagers.”

And to that I reply, “You must not have teens of your own or ever remember being a teenager.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s true about teenagers, it’s that they have opinions. On everything. Often very strong ones. But you most likely hear those opinions outside of the classroom, because individuality in thought isn’t often on the agenda in class. And why is that?

Because teachers have to teach to the test. They don’t have the time to teach kids to think, critically or otherwise, because we’ve tied their hands. Their job security, their salaries, even their professional reputations are directly connected to how well their students perform on a stupid test. I’m convinced most teachers would like to try and do things differently, but we’ve stacked the deck too much against them. Survival depends on getting kids ready for the test.

Now, about here is where I should go off the rails and call for all standardized testing to be banned. I should bang my angry fists on the table and decry the evil test-taking machine that has consumed public education, all while calling for a return to “the good old days”.

Except we need to test kids. Progress that can’t be measured isn’t progress.

So what do we need to do? For starters, I think we need fewer standardized tests. I can’t remember the entire alphabet soup that kids have to face–CRCT, ITBS, COGAT, CIA, OMG–but we’re cramming more tests in to the exclusion of other things.

If we could back off the number of tests, then there would be time and space in the day for teachers to inspire kids, identify their unique traits and encourage them to develop their gifts.

You know, the stuff teachers are gifted at doing.

And if teachers could do that, then we’d see a dramatic shift in the kids. More creativity. More individual growth. Connections would get made between disciplines, ideas would spark out of seemingly unrelated things; heck, we might even see an improvement in student behavior because the days wouldn’t seem quite so pointless.

But we have the system we have, right? I know that for the foreseeable future, my children will have to prepare themselves to take an endless battery of examinations that will determine their future while not necessarily preparing them for it. That’s why my wife and I work hard to supplement their school education with other types of education.

Like a summer spent on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time being children in general.

What do you think, parents? Where do you stand on the standardized test? What would you like to see change in the school system?

Sound off in the comments below, or on my Facebook page.

30 Minutes to Change a Life

ImageThis afternoon, I’m going to speak to a group of at-risk students in Roswell. How I got the gig is through a friend of mine, Sarah P. Zacharias; Sarah is someone who also loves working with students, and she is involved with a mentoring program called Project LIFT. She recommended me as a guest speaker, and we worked out a date for me to come and address the kids.

Today’s the day.

And I’m scared. I’ve struggled with what to say. How do I start? Should I be funny? Is what I’m thinking of actually funny, or just a lame middle-aged man’s idea of what he thinks students find funny? What can I say that would be meaningful? What can I say that isn’t saturated with religious overtones (this is an after-school, non-religious program)? What do I wear? Do my sneakers smell? And why does Wile E. Coyote keep chasing after the Road Runner? Can’t he just go vegetarian and save himself some hassle?

Like I said – it’s been a struggle.

But another friend of mine gave me some advice recently. He referenced the TED Talks and said that the average TED presenter is told they have 18 minutes with which to change the world. So, my friend suggested, if you had just a few minutes to say something to change the world, what would you say?

I extrapolated that to my afternoon session: I’ve got 30 minutes to maybe change a life. What do I say?

Well, off the top of my head, I can tell you what I don’t want to say. I don’t want to talk about negative things. I mean seriously: if you only have 30 minutes to change the world, do you really want to burn 10-12 of them enumerating things that suck? Not that I’d cold open with a laundry list of things that are horrible about the world, but sometimes, when trying to motivate people, we drift into the negative because that’s kind of our default. We tend to see the hardships in life much more clearly (or at least it dominates more of our view) than the blessings.

People know the world sucks. What they need to know is how to fix it. So, in 30 minutes or less, how do you teach someone to fix the world?

I can’t even get my kids to sit still and eat dinner for thirty minutes.

But, if we eliminate the negative and stick with the positive – that is, if we focus on things that move us towards a better world – what are the essential things? Well, naturally, I’d say a relationship with Jesus Christ. I think the only hope we really have of ever changing the world begins and ends with Christ changing us. Until we have His heart, His Spirit, and His power, our best efforts will be dust in the wind. But, if we speak and write and act according to His will we can see the world tilt on its axis. The past 2000 years have shown us at least that much.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can be that overt. But if I can’t proselytize, I can certainly use Christ as an example. So what about the life of Jesus can I point to that suggests how we can change the world?

Well, there’s sacrifice. That’s always a good one. There’s leadership – He certainly knew how to train the absolutely worst candidates for the job to become the best in their field. There’s compassion. Honesty. Integrity. Courage. Solitude. Wisdom. Guts. Gentleness. Appropriate anger*. Friendship. Vision. Mission. Hope. Determination. Obedience. Intelligence. Critical thinking. Storytelling. Understanding. Creativity. The list could go on.

*My favorite thing I’ve seen recently was a t-shirt that read, “When asked, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, always remember: flipping over tables and taking a whip to people is a viable option.

But what was the key thing? Something that can be reproduced in every human being, regardless of religious affiliation?

My friend John Njoroge, of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, shared it with me a while back when telling me about a message he had to deliver. It’s found in John 13:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.

Put simply, Jesus knew who he was and what he was meant to do.

Maybe this resonates with me because it’s my reality right now. I’m discovering at 37 that knowing who you are (your talents, passions, likes, dislikes) and what you’re meant to do (the things that you feel you must do in order to truly live) is the core of being able to effect change. Too many of us waste away, not knowing ourselves, not knowing what we are supposed to be doing with our lives, not even daring to ask ourselves the questions. We succumb to the idea that a life of domesticity – that is, a life where we simply work, pay bills, do a few fun things, then die – is the life we’re meant to live.

But even a life like that begs to be lived fully. Sure, you may never quit your job and move to Nepal to serve as a sherpa, but that doesn’t mean your life should be devoid of growth and change. That doesn’t mean you should see yourself as a person who doesn’t matter.

And this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, we-are-all-precious-little-snowflakes garbage either; I’m not encouraging the pursuit of some stupid fantasy life. I’m encouraging the living of life to the fullest. To do that, though, you have to know yourself. You have to know what you can do, want to do, and where to find the meaning in between. You also have to know if you’re willing to live with the risks that come from embracing that future.

So that’s where I’m going to go this afternoon. I would rather teach a group of kids that pursuing their dreams of being whatever they think they can be matters, rather than stand up there and encourage them to be good little boys and girls. It’s like C.S. Lewis said: “Aim for heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in; aim for earth and you’ll get neither.” By knowing who we are and what we’re meant to do, we can avoid getting caught up in the expectations and demands others would place on us. We can choose wisely where to invest our lives in order to make the most impact.

Thirty minutes. Not a lot of time. But knowing who I am and what I’m supposed to do, it’s time enough.

Do You Enjoy God?

ImageI’m teaching through the New City Catechism on Wednesday nights with my youth, and last night we landed on Question Six: How Can We Glorify God? If you’re not familiar with catechesis, the process is simple: new initiates into the Christian faith are taken through a series of questions and answers designed to instill the essential doctrines of the faith. While historic catechisms (such as the Heidelberg and Westminster) have traditionally been substantive at over 100 questions, the New City Catechism is a mere 52.

(And for a youth pastor wanting to teach basic doctrine, a completely free curriculum that includes materials like commentary and video, plus runs for an entire year? That’s gravy, baby.)

So, back to the question from last night: How can we glorify God?

We glorify God by enjoying him, loving him, trusting him, and by obeying his will, commands, and law. (See Deuteronomy 11:1)

As I shared with the kids last night, I’m completely familiar with the second, third and fourth answer to the question. I’ve been taught all my life that the Christian without question loves God, trusts God and obeys God in all areas of his or her life. Toss in church attendance and making a joyful noise unto the Lord, and you pretty much have the whole of Christian experience as far as I knew growing up. Not saying there was anything wrong with it; I’m just saying that the Christian life was composed mainly of actions that avoided God’s disapproval.

Enjoyment doesn’t fit into that mold.

I suppose God is disappointed when we don’t enjoy Him, but enjoyment carries such positive connotations; people don’t worry about things like disappointment or fear or rejection when they do something they truly enjoy. All they’re really concerned about is getting maximum enjoyment from said thing. Be it painting or sailing or flying or eating or singing or dancing or reading or writing or whatever, when we’re on a quest to enjoy something, we push until we’re satisfied.

Which brings me back to the idea of enjoying God. How intense, how deep, how satisfying must the joy be that comes from enjoying the One who knows no limit, has no fault, forgives all sin, covers all shame and heals all wounds? What better source of joy than the Only True God?

Yet so many Christians don’t actually enjoy Him. I think it’s because we’re so steeped in the idea of doing things that don’t disappoint Him. I can’t recall ever really being encouraged to delight God; I’ve been told He delights in me anyway, but that delight is usually connected to whether or not I obeyed or read or didn’t disappoint Him. It took all of the positive perspective out of the action.

To know that I can enjoy God, simply for who He is, because He enjoys me, is a strange and wonderful truth. As one of my students pointed out, often we’re too aware of our sin and self-consciously deny ourselves the opportunity to enjoy communion with the Father. We won’t allow ourselves to enjoy His presence, to enjoy His love.

Take a moment and dwell on the truth that God, because of His perfect character, because of His sovereign goodness, chooses to love us. Not for any other reason than that He’s God. To know that our striving is in vain. To know that we can sit in the sunshine and eat a popsicle or drink a Coke, and just be with Him without trying to please Him. To see a sunrise, or a dream come true, or laugh at a joke and God not only be okay with it, but join us in the endeavor – how wonderful is that thought?

I don’t want to sound all happy-clappy, but there’s room enough for both the idea of living for God and living with God. I know the tricks of the trade when it comes to living for; where I’m deficient is living with. I want to be someone who can say, with all my heart, that I enjoy my Father in heaven, and that He receives glory from that.

How about you? Have you ever thought about just enjoying God? Or have you always been more concerned about not disappointing Him?

Wednesdays Are a Battleground

The Cure sang a catchy little ditty about “Friday, I’m In Love”, about the mindset of the singer towards his unseen amorous partner. The lyrics can seem a bit brutal, but the idea of certain days of the week mattering/feeling more or less than others is one with which I readily identify.

Mainly because Wednesdays are a battleground for me.

It goes without fail: Wednesdays are the biggest days for many youth pastors (especially those of us in traditional churches) because Wednesdays are the days that we meet with the majority of our students and have a good chunk of time set aside to teach, interact and goof off. For those who take the teaching aspect of the job seriously, it’s the culmination of our studies and thinking; it’s the time around which much of our prayers have been focused; it’s our time to shine.

My Wednesdays start out normal: I wake up, I pray, I shower, I get dressed, I teach my CLC class, I head to the office, I check email, I finish up prep…and that’s when it starts. Anxiety. Fear. Irrational whispers and stirrings in my soul that make me feel like at any moment someone’s going to walk through the door and tell me that I suck as a youth pastor. Honestly, these moments prompted me to go back into counseling in order to get a handle on them.

Part of it is my own absurdly-high expectations. Part of it is my awareness that I don’t want to be burdened by my own absurdly-high expectations. Part of it is the struggle that comes from church work, the reality that we do battle everyday with an unseen enemy that wants us to fail and fail spectacularly. There are a lot of moving pieces at work.

But the vast majority of the anxiety comes from the fact that, instead of just rolling along with what’s tried and true, instead of just doing what’s comfortable and historically efficient, I’ve opted to do youth ministry based on a larger premise: do what matters. And what matters is making sure that the students under my care not only hear the message of the Gospel, but they learn to live it out in real time.

This means that I am constantly doing things that are uncomfortable because they are not (recently, anyway) traditional. They’re not particularly efficient. They are, in fact, intensely personal, brutally honest, and exceptionally challenging. It may not seem that way on Wednesday nights, but we’ve all heard the old adage about the duck’s appearance on top of the water and the duck’s appearance beneath.

I don’t crave significance in the sense that millions of people know my name and want to pay to hear me babble. I don’t crave acknowledgment or fame or a reputation for being a guru of any kind. (Not that I’d say no to those things; they’re just not primary motivations for me. Might as well be honest.) I’m driven more by the desire for the kids in my care to know how to think critically about the great questions of life; to know that the faith being transmitted to them isn’t a nifty collection of “carefully crafted fables”, but a robust worldview that considers all of the evidence, all of the facts, and still walks away saying, “Yes, belief in an unseen, eternal, all-powerful God not only makes sense, but makes the most sense compared to the alternatives.”

I’m driven by Truth. Yeah – I capitalized it. Because I think it exists.

I know there are people out there who think that my ministry is liberal, or even worse, anti-biblical. They base their positions on the fact that I don’t just blithely teach the kids to accept what I say without investigation. They are bothered by the fact that I encourage students to question and examine the evidence that life offers alongside the teaching and the history and beauty and mystery of the church and it’s revealed Truth. If that makes me a hippie, so be it.

Especially if it produces students who own their faith, instead of merely borrowing it from a previous generation.

I’ve been down that road. It’s not pleasant.

This could go off into a thousand different diatribes, but I guess what I’ve learned by simply typing it out is that my Wednesdays are challenging because I care. Because i want them to matter to me and to my students. Because I think things of eternal significance happen when we sit down to discuss in-depth not just the doctrines of the faith but how those doctrines are meant to challenge and change the way we live.

I care about teaching my students the Truth. Just like a whole lot of other youth pastors for whom Wednesdays are a private struggle. We care, therefore the enemy attacks. In fact, in keeping with what I’m teaching my CLC class this week, a simple logic structure will close out this post:

P —> Q: If you care about teaching God’s Truth, the enemy will attack you.

P: I care about teaching God’s Truth.

Q: The enemy will attack me.

Such is the life of the committed youth pastor. Welcome to the battleground. Welcome to Wednesday.

The good news is, we win. Always.

Raising A Better Tomorrow

Yesterday I received a question via my Stump the Chump page, and it was so intriguing that I’ve decided to write two posts about it. The first post is written from a general parenting perspective, and it can be found on my Patch blog. This is the other post, and I want to approach the question from a pastoral perspective if I may.

Here’s what came in:

Question: this is not so much a question for You as it is meant for ALL parents…………. How do you plan to raise better children? (i.e. children with morals, dignity, respect, ability to think rather than repeat, etc.)

I want to start off by addressing the shaky premise of the question: that parenting alone is responsible for how an individual turns out. People are people. You can be a great parent and still have your child do things that break your heart. Likewise, you can be a horrific parent and have a kid who turns out to be a gem. That’s the thing about people: they are more than the sum of their parts.

But it would be foolish to dismiss the question outright. After all, there is something to be said about the power and influence of parenting. My parents helped shape me significantly; there is no better example of this than my inability to call an older adult by name without including a proper title – Mr. or Ms. Drives some folks nuts, but it’s just something that my dad ingrained in me and I can’t escape it.

Naturally their influence comes out in other areas as well, because a parent is the formative voice of a child’s early years. How a child understands the world is determined by the world their parents present them and how their parents guide them through that world.

King Solomon understood that idea very well. In Proverbs 22:6 he wrote, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

The question is, and I believe it pertains to the question above, though phrased differently, is “What is the way s/he should go?”

For the last couple of decades, the way was fairly obvious; so obvious, in fact, that it garnered the title “the Traditional Family.” A husband, wife, two kids, a dog, two cars, little house with a nice lawn and a white picket fence. Chances are they were Protestant, though not necessarily aggressively so, and they lived a good moral life being nice to neighbors and striving towards the American Dream. They were polite, well mannered, and well groomed.

Nowadays, that’s a stereotype. One that gets made fun of. A lot.

In a world where family means almost anything we want it to mean, where morality is no longer fixed upon a certain set of ideas or a certain social code or based in the character of an unchanging God, what is the way our children should go?

Do we even have a clue?

We can run to the Bible and start pulling out verses helter-skelter to try and support our old way. We can thunder from the pulpit that this generation needs to quit rebelling and just learn to do as they’re told. We can impose laws and restrictions and limits to try and curb what we see as disturbing patterns of behavior, but the reality is that none of that is going to do a bit of good. A generation that is used to blowing up standards and rules and regulations isn’t going to be phased by newer, harder, more better penalties.

They’re just going to push back that much harder.

To answer the question as simply as possible, in order to raise a better tomorrow, we must go back to the example of Jesus. We must get into the lives of our children and teach them who God is, how God loves, and why it all matters to our lives.

We must start at the beginning, on their level, and disciple them. Teach them. Show them what it means to live a life in right relationship with God. That means we must show them our relationship with God. We must show them humility, submission, forgiveness, grace, mercy, justice, self-control. We must lead them into moments of prayer and contemplation of the Word of God. We must train them that what we believe is not “cleverly devised fables” but reality, Truth with a capital T.

A better child will not come from brow-beating. It will not come from intractable thinking and uniform standards that cannot be changed. We must follow the example that God set before us in Christ: that, while we were still sinners, He died for us and forgave us of our sins (Rom. 5:8). True, God’s standards are universal, but His relationship with each person is individual. He comes to us where we are and shows us who we can be, then helps us become that person by His great strength.

Should we not imitate our Father?

Jesus said it this way, when speaking of the faith a child has, and how it is imperative for the Kingdom of Heaven: “If you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of a lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse — and it’s doomsday to you if you do.” (Matt. 18:6, The Message)

Granted, Jesus is talking about how we treat children in matters of faith, but don’t those words apply equally well to other matters of parenting?

Disciple. Love. Teach. Train. Give them the best of ourselves, because God gave us the best of Himself. If we want a better generation of children, we must start by being a better generation of parents. And that begins by leaning hard into the wisdom and will of our Father, and learning from Him.