Leading Students into the Desert

With the Lenten season officially underway, the Lord set the scene for a powerful conversation this morning with my 3rd graders about waiting, setting aside distractions, and allowing God to meet us in the wilderness. The Lord wove together our Literacy focus for the day (comparing and contrasting through text structure on desert nations) with Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. The conversation landed on ways that we as individuals of all ages can set aside distractions to meet with God during a time of coronavirus and Lent.

Setting the Scene

Earlier this week, students’ and I discussed the significance of the number 40 as a period of testing, read the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and began to discuss his motivations for going into the wilderness to seek God (before public ministry). Since the majority of this group of 16 students at 8-9 years old fall within Piaget’s concrete operation’s stage, I often need to start theoretical conversations by connecting to students’ personal experiences and 5 senses.

I began by telling students that today, we’d be focusing on people groups who live in the desert. Then, I asked students, “If you were going to live in the desert, what would you need to stay safe?”

Students were quick to respond by saying:

  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • a hat
  • Shelter (a home, a tent, some place to be safe)
  • native plants (including cactus, which you could eat if you needed water)

Students were very interested in the harsh conditions of the desert, and how plants and animals could survive in these areas. One student asked me, “Can people grow tomatoes in the desert?” Luckily for her, I was born for such a question. Focusing mainly on the Southwestern area of the United States, I explained that plants have distinct areas based on temperature in which they are able to survive.

Link: https://www.arborday.org/media/zones.cfm

Students and I also discussed the nutritional benefits of cactus fruit (called “tuna” in Spanish, my personal favorite) and recipes for nopales. One student with Mexican heritage a chance to share more about her father, loves nopales (often too slimy for kids). I was also excited that this conversation built on an in depth study we’d done last Thursday on rattlesnakes, among other desert animals.

Link: https://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Juicy-Fruit/

Since key vocabulary and background knowledge are two of the most important factors that indirectly support students’ reading comprehension, I was more than happy to help students imagine and discuss desert flora and fauna before turning to Jesus.

Our Lord in the Desert

To rekindle students’ memories of our Tuesday conversation about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (or desert), we examined different paintings that depict this 40 day period. Students were able to relate to Jesus’ thirst, hunger, and general bone-weariness through the drama in these scenes. Since the teachers at my school frequently weave their Catholic history and heritage with a healthy appreciation for the arts, I as a Protestant am more than happy to use paintings to support students’ comprehension and faith.

I then asked students, “What do you think Jesus’ must have done to survive his 40 days in the wilderness, and to overcome temptation?”

Students remembered that Jesus was hungry, thirsty, and exposed to the elements. I reminded them that in spite of Jesus’ limitations, he relied on the intimacy and love he had for God to withstand his time in the wilderness. In the story of Jesus, we see that during the wilderness we can:

  1. Redirect our attention towards intimacy with God
  2. Resist temptation because our love for God is greater

While we acknowledged that complete food-and-water fasting is something that should only be attempted with great wisdom, we celebrated Jesus’ willingness to put aside the distractions of his city and other humans to seek God first.

The Wilderness of COVID-19

To land the ideological plane before prayer, I mentioned to students that in many ways, we all are in a kind of COVID-19 wilderness. “In what ways is living in a time of coronavirus SIMILAR to living in the desert?”

Students decided:

  • In both deserts and COVID-19, you need protection. While people need to have shelter from the elements in the desert, in COVID-19, our protection is masks and staying in our homes for safety. **I personally found this connection to be brilliant**
  • Both are dangerous (because people can die) **said a student who has lost family in the pandemic**
  • We can feel alone, far away from others, isolated
  • My contribution: Just like Jesus, we can allow God to meet us (in our emotions) and help us to move forward and out of the desert, both spiritually and physically.

Prayer

In prayer, we asked God to draw near to us, and remind us of his enormous love for us that is far greater than the love of even family members. We asked him to fill our individual rooms with his presence and to allow us to sense his closeness, his love and his peace. We asked God to help us respond to his invitation to meet him in the wilderness, and to put off any distractions that keep us from enjoying the love he has for us. Lastly, we asked that as we seek him, he will continue to remind us that we are loved.

From Prayer into Literacy

After centering ourselves in the love of God, students were now ready to dive deeper into reading. We used a passage from the Reading A-Z comprehension skill packs, focusing on an article that compared the lifestyles of Bedouins and Tohono O’Odham native people in their respective deserts.

Link: https://www.raz-plus.com/literacy-skills/comprehension-skill-packs/pack/?id=408&langId=1&grade=4

I adapted the Reading A-Z materials into a Seesaw activity for my students to complete independently. Students had to read the passage and sort the information for each group.

It was also fun to show students that the subject’s of the paragraph followed an alternating pattern, with paragraph 1 talking about both groups, paragraphs 2-3 talking about the Tohono O’odham people, and paragraphs 4-5 discussing the Bedouins. Some of my students who are still approaching grade level expectations used these patterns to locate key information, and ignoring less important information.

Finally, students reviewed their map skills (last month’s Social studies focus). Based on geographic maps of these group’s territory, students had to estimate whether there would be a greater number Bedouins or Tohono O’odham people. Since the maps aren’t to scale, they had to rely on their critical thinking.

Once students finished this close reading activity, I had them read and listen to this book on Reading A-Z (at 2 different difficulty levels, depending on student ability). I realized rather spontaneously that this book discusses the two people groups of our passage in depth, and shares other facts about other desert-dwelling people.

Reflection

Overall, I’m very satisfied with how this lesson turned out! I always love the chance to explore different groups’ customs and cultures with students, and I was thrilled that several students were able to connect with desert cultures personally. This group of third graders LOVES animals and is gradually developing more interest in complex texts that fall into the intersection of topics we’ve studied. As a class, not many of them started the year enjoying nonfiction, and not many of them were very interested in my relatively abstract prompts about life and faith. They were able to track with me throughout our entire conversation on literacy AND religion, as well as sincerely remind me to pray. Who wouldn’t love that??? As a bonus, by making this lesson gradually more challenging and starting in a very accessible place, I had students read several levels beyond their independent reading level with confidence. Wow.

So far this year, I’ve discovered a lot of success with this group in using Jamboard to collectively illustrate bible passages as we read them, and in using very relatable examples. While their 4th grade counterparts are firmly into the concrete operational stage (regardless of reading ability), pivoting back and forth between the wildly different maturity levels in these grades has been challenging. However, I’m excited to see these third graders grow in faith and reading skill, and I’m excited to see how they will continue to grow this year and next (since I will continue to teach them).

FINALLY, for the sake of fun, we spent the first few minutes of our afternoon Zoom call using the inflatible globes I bought them with a grant to locate these people groups. Yay!

Interested replicating this activity with your students or children? Check it out here:

Published by Haley Nus

I am a bilingual Christian Educator in the heart of D.C. who longs to see revival transform K-12 education both domestically and internationally. I believe that inquiry-based and experiential teaching methods pair seamlessly with godly awe and point us through the gospel towards a Creator who invites us to taste and see his goodness (Psalm 34:8). While I love sharing the gospel with people, I take Jesus's invitation to welcome children in his name (Luke 9:48) and Jesus's exhortation to become like children (Mathew 18:3) literally! In order to shape the world well for adults, we must serve the youngest among us so that we will truly understand who we are as sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18).

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