Throughout January and the end of December, I’ve treasured my Friday mornings with Fourth grade. Over the last month, students have studied 12 different nations in groups in Zoom breakout rooms, composing their own prayers and then praying as a group together. This year, yearning for the Nations has been one of our foundational classroom values (along with environmental stewardship and the importance of prayer and scripture). In many ways, this is something my students understand instinctively. As a whole, the majority of my students come from diverse backgrounds as immigrants or children of immigrants, and many students have strong ties to other nations already. At the same time, my monocultural students have inevitably experienced the effects of other nations by the nature of living in Washington, D.C.. Our city is one of many nations!
In late December, I introduced the reality of international religious persecution to students as we discussed the value of religious freedom. By knowing Jesus as our Prince of Peace through the Advent season, students were able to explore Jesus as represented in Diverse Madonna and Child portraits from many nations. Immediately, we set to work studying Afganistan and Afgani culture, celebrating Afgans use of aqueducts for farming, and the values of hospitality and scholarship related to Islam. In order to correct for some of the hostility and cultural insensitivity Christians have shown at times throughout the centuries, as well as recent intolerant behavior of some Christians towards Muslims, we began by celebrating a predominantly Muslim nation. As a class we also explicitly discussed the complicated role of the U.S. in the Middle East, acknowledged that many people have different and strong opinions about the topic. We prayed that Jesus would forgive the United States for the ways we’ve grieved people’s hearts in Afganistan and Iraq through the wars we’ve had with those nations, and asked God to restore the hurting individuals and societies in Jesus’ name.
For the four weeks, students continued to honor, study, and intercede for various nations in prayer. While students prayed for religious freedom in these countries, you might be surprised by the many inventive ways they ultimately prayed! It is my hope that by sharing this experience, others will see that international intercession in prayer, scholarship in nation study, and honoring the diversity of human beings are essentially intertwined.
Each Friday morning, students gathered on Zoom at 10am for an hour devoted primarily to prayer. After giving announcements and updates, students have the choice of 3 nations to study. After selecting the nation they would like to study, I label Zoom breakout rooms with the names of each nation, and assign students accordingly. With a class of 20 students, we usually have 4 breakout rooms of about 5 each. Each week, there is a country that students find most fascinating, so we have two groups of that nation and just one group for the other nations. Students have done a tremendous amount of group work in past years and this year in Zoom Breakout rooms. Since they receive grades for collaboration already and I alternate pretty fluently (and sneakily) between groups monitoring their work, students are able to stay on task, remain reverent in prayer, and document their prayers thoroughly on Seesaw.
After students are put in breakout rooms, they have 4 main steps to complete:
Researching Religious Persecution
First, students have to read about their country’s level of religious persecution. Students navigate to the page labeled with their countries name, and expand the summary for religious freedom in that nation. I chose to highlight the issue of Religious Persecution for this assignment, so for each of the nations students’ studied, there is some level of Religious persecution. Students discovered that religious persecution can look differently across the world. While many individuals are legally imprisoned, beaten, plundered, physically attacked, discriminated against, and more, others face social ostracism for their faith, and faith in Jesus. For this assignment, students used the Kids’ of Courage (Voice of the Martyr’s) Country Summary pages. to study more about the level of religious persecution in these nations.
Second, students had to read about each nation’s culture. The vibrant graphics on the National Geographic Kids Country Profile pages provided ample room for discussion and exploration approximately at students’ instructional levels.
Next, students discuss the things they noticed and appreciated about each nation, as well as any questions they might have. Students alternate between composing their prayers independently, and composing a prayer as a group (which can be especially supportive for students’ reading or writing below grade level expectations). Students must name at least 3 things they found most interesting about their nation, and make a list to include in their prayer. Students must then consider how they would like to ask God to intervene in that nation based on the facts that they have read related to culture and local religious persecution.
Praying as a Group
Once all students in the group have finished composing their prayers, they click the “Ask for Help” button on the Zoom toolbar to call me back to their group. We decide the order of who will pray, to decrease confusion. Normally as we pray, I will hold up my fingers to remind them of the order so that they don’t get lost in the moment (which is reasonable, given the importance of the topic). I sometimes prompt students with their names, but at this point kids are comfortable enough with the structure that I don’t often need to. To reduce the confusion of praying in a group and provide a sense of rhythm, we use call and response. After each individual finishes praying, they say and we repeat the phrase, “Lord, hear our prayer” to signal that we are moving to the next person. I often summarize students prayers and relate them to the main topic as we close, with resounding amens. I then thank students, affirm that their prayers are making a difference, and dismiss each group individually.
I was impressed that students were able to integrate their own traditions into our prayers. There were several instances where students added “Our Father” prayers either to their prayers. I made it very clear to students that they are more than welcome to incorporate the prayers they already know into our activity, to make it their own. One of my student who has a specific learning disability in literacy was able to participate through having others in his group read the text and substituting an “Our Father” prayer for his written component. This students’ comprehension was so high after our discussion that I knew anything he didn’t get a chance to say, the Lord was already hearing.
Like most Protestants, I am more experienced in praying extemporaneously. However, through seeing the composed prayers of my principal at this school and my professors in seminary, I’ve come to the conclusion that all prayer is good prayer. I’ve come to learn that my Catholic students who value the importance of structure and tend to feel more confident in prayer when it is present. I’ve seen students become much more comfortable with extemporaneous prayer and relating verses to their studies in greater depth than they were in the beginning of the year, so I don’t mind giving them a framework. While I think I would have assumed before this year that more structured prayer means less intimacy with God, I’ve seen so many individuals pray passionately in this style that I have changed my mind. Legalism and avoiding intimacy can happen in any style of prayer, and what God looks at is the heart.
Week by Week
Here are examples of my students prayers this month! I’m very proud of them.
What’s on Students’ Hearts?
You learn a lot about what people believe about God by how they pray. With children, you learn a lot about what kids find captivating, what they personally long for, the styles in which their parents pray, and even the underlying questions they have about God.
I was pleasantly surprised by the topics students thought to pray about! I was moved by the fact that one of my students consistently prayed that God would protect things nations from the pressing dangers of COVID-19. Another student prayed each week that individuals these nations would feel the tangible presence of God by their side (the Peace of Christ).
Apart from people’s right to religious freedom, many themes emerged:
- Against drug addiction
- Towards governments recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples
- Healing of racial trauma and history of enslavement
- Healing of people’s hearts from the effects of war
- Remembering the poor, freedom and provision
- Economic security and stability
- Celebrating the many animals God has created (ex: giant squirrels)
- Zoological conservation of amazing animals internationally
- A sense of awe in the world’s landforms
- Ease and freedom for Christians to find life partners and marry
- Freedom for all people to travel independently and direct their own lives
- Protection from COVID-19
- That the nations would treat one another as brothers and sisters
- For people to know and put their faith in Jesus
A Globally Focused Year
It’s been my great joy to look back and realize just how much of this year’s discussion and design has focused on the Nations. In a year shaped by the pandemic and necessity, COVID-19 has only intensified students’ hunger for prayer. Before meeting my students either virtually or in person, students knew I was passionate about prayer and I’m happy to say that I’ve seen them develop this passion as well. This month I was surprised to see students who seldom contribute willingly to Zoom conversations nor submit most assignments pouring our their hearts to God in sincerity. It’s been my prayer since before creating this project that God would use it to impart a burden for particular countries to children. Whether they will become missionaries, work in international relations with governments, or indirectly support the wellbeing of others across the globe, I pray that God would honor their love for our international brothers and sisters.
I pray that God would continue to testify to students of his desire to shape the nations, and that the walls of their hearts would look more and more like our classroom.
Over Christmas, I realized that I wanted to give students another tool to learn about and pray for the nations. Through creating a fundraiser through my class’s
Adopt-a-Classroom page, I was able to purchase plastic inflatable globes for student use, enough for our third graders also! We will be using these globes from home as we continue to learn and pray. As I wrote each child’s name on their own globe, I prayed that God would use the students’ to empower each nation where the sharpie touch the plastic.
One student has impressed me by her understanding of these themes! In a recent assignment that challenged students to consider the strengths of their family and friends to design an ideal Presidential Cabinet, she nominated God as her Secretary of State, because he knows so much about geography and other countries. For her January Inquiry Project, this same student chose to study word religions, comparing the apparel, values, and core beliefs of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. As she studies, I am confident that her faith will grow deeper and that she will develop a greater awareness of individual’s diversity.
After one month, this project isn’t yet over! In February, students will spend one more Friday studying the Phillipines, Turkey, and Vietnam in groups. Then, I’m hoping to assign each student a country of the many we haven’t studied as an independent research project.
- Chiapas Mexico
- Gaza and the West Bank
- Sri Lanka
- United Arab Emirates
We will end with a deep dive into North Korea and do a reflection on what students’ have learned from this experience.
As someone who was raised in a semi-diverse Midwestern setting, I have been blessed to encounter a great deal of diversity. As an elementary school student, my school hosted students from over 100 nations, and many of their parents attended the University of Kansas as students. Through genuine friendships with a classmate from Mexico and another classmate from North Korea in late elementary school, I developed an interest in foreign languages that eventually led me to Valparaiso, Chile on study abroad, and where I gave my life to Jesus. If not for the genuine love of these friends that planted a seed I later recognized in Christ, I would not be fluent in Spanish, Christian, or in Washington D.C., let alone teaching at a bilingual Catholic school. Within my own family I have a sibling in law and an uncle who are immigrants, and we are all the better for it. Before and after getting saved, I returned to work both at my original elementary school and as a student hourly in the Office of International Student Services at KU, where many of my peers parents once attended. I have also seen the difficulties students and their families face in immigrating to the U.S. in my own family (when my toddler nephew waited nearly nine months for his mother to be able to join him), in the fear of ICE officers (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) I saw in the faces of even lawfully immigrated International Students, and in my former students. I once had a second grader hand me a ball of paper and tell me, “Ms. Nus, if ICE comes to the school, here are the names of my lawyers.” I wonder what Jesus would say about this fear and the paranoia that it adds to our nation.
Some of the words of violent protestors at recent events at the U.S. Capitol still ring in my ears. While I am grateful for my country and the blessings its given me, based on Revelation 7:9, I don’t believe Jesus endorses “United States first” brand of nationalism. I believe in fairness, but question whether our present laws acknowledge how hard so many immigrants are working to belong to the United States, and how hard they’ve worked to improve it. Instead of scaring people, I wonder what it would look like to create opportunities for them and honor their sacrifice. At the same time, I know that my perspective is just one person’s. In the coming years, we as a nation will have many opportunities to celebrate one another’s diversity and honor the nations already represented among us. I pray that we will be willing to listen to one another and create policies that are fair and benefit prospective immigrants, native citizens, and even individuals who immigrated illegally, offering them a path out of fear and towards redemption and belonging. In this great and spacious country, we need the redemption Christ offers to change our hearts so that we will make room for one another.