For me, August had each foot in very different continents: the left foot stood in visiting family, while the right foot firmly stepped into the new school year.
Visiting Family in the Pacific Northwest
In visiting my family, I saw mountains in every city I stopped through. I saw my mom and sister, Dad and stepmom, aunt and uncle, brothers and their families. From Seattle to Southern Oregon, Northern California, and ultimately Denver, I was travelling for two weeks!
Back to School
Just one week into the school year, the amount of classroom resources and favor for student curiosity, relational cohesion, and directional clarity we have is unreal.
With the beginning of the school year and in light of the abundance of favor that is on my classroom, I’ve been asking God for a new prayer strategy. While last school year often felt like a perpetual battle in prayer, my approach to this school year has more to do with me being available for intercession, but spending more time watching and listening for God to highlight what is important in a passive sense. At the same time, I sense he’s calling me to focus on deepening relationships with staff and students as a way to establish the work he is doing, especially as I receive more dreams related to how to intercede for them individually.
As we come back to school, the theme of Identity continues to emerge. As I get ready to teach on Christian community to help us form our sense of classroom family, I have decided to set some time aside to first cover identity in Christ. Since people of all ages cannot know how to engage well with those in their community (or community of faith) until they have a clear sense identity, theology of the individual has to come before theology of community.
As someone who started this position during distance learning, I have so greatly enjoyed seeing students again and for the first time as entire classes. They are so hungry to be known and to know others that we’ve already been able to form relatively strong connections. I have the benefit of teaching last years Third Graders as this years’ Fourth Graders, and meeting our incoming Third Graders for the first time in person. Regardless of what happens with the shape of our school year, I am so grateful to get to spend this early formative time together.
As we press into the theme of identity, here are some verses that will guide my lesson planning, and things I’m declaring over myself, my students, and my colleagues:
Prior to the start of the school year, one dream I had highlighted some strategies for how to support students well this year, as well as two “get to know you” questions I needed to use with them on Day 1. While simple, the wording of these questions continues to relate to identity: “What is at least one question you have for Ms. Nus?” and “What is at least one thing you want Ms. Nus to know about you?”
In gathering students’ responses to these questions, you can see how eager they are to be known.
In response to students questions, I created this virtual bulletin board. As I watched them eagerly listening, one student asked, “Can we keep asking you questions after this?” My answer was “by all means, yes.”
In particular, the Holy Spirit keeps highlighting to me students who need social connection due to the difficulty of their home experiences. I’ve felt the eyes of these students on me, trying to decide if I am trustworthy. As they have physically sought more closeness, taken risks to ask for help, and been more bold to confide in me this week, the Holy Spirit keeps showing me specific ways to show them that they are loved and deeply known by God. Please pray that God would continue to give myself and my colleagues all the wisdom we need to support these kiddos.
Finally, I’ve been thrilled to re-start my tutoring group with a couple students from my neighborhood. We have been practicing fluency and expression using Reader’s Theater scripts, weaving goofy voices, research, and descriptive writing into our first tutoring session of the fall. It was fun!
As some may remember, this summer, I felt God calling me to apply to the University of Edinburgh’s World Christianity program. Strategically, this program would position me to be studying the history of the Non-western church for a year before I design and prepare my Doctoral thesis. The dates perfectly align, and it would help me make the most out of my current degree program. I also have several friends in Scotland who I’d love to spend time with, and dreams of using this information to support Foundation work within International Christian Education in the future. As of now, I have all the materials ready for my application, and will be submitting it in October.
Other themes with God
August was a month for me of increased dreaming, with significant dreams coming nearly every night. I also experienced a slowing and then an acceleration in my perception of time as I met with Jesus and allowed him to shape my impressions of the coming school year. July seemed to drag on ad infinitim until I let Jesus meet my wrestlessness with a sense of his timelessness. Living from a place of rest in August meant that time seemed to flee behind me, and the days passed fast.
Please pray that God would:
Continue to increase the favor on my classroom
Give me a spirit of wisdom to know how to meet the needs of my students and weave my many responsibilities into a cohesive whole, both inside and outside of work
Continue his work of formation and Identity in me, so that I will be more equipped to lead others
Last year, my students did an abundance of research on topics of their own choosing, through Inquiry Projects. My initial goal in developing the Inquiry Projects was to give students’ something other than COVID to define and brighten their experience of distance learning. Throughout the year, the Inquiry Projects became so popular that by May and June, my grade level colleagues joined me to give all Third and Fourth grade students the opportunity to do their own Inquiry Project. Their support was important because throughout the months as the popularity of the projects grew, approximately three students joined our Inquiry Project group each month. I needed support if all students were going to have a chance to keep exploring their interests, and thankfully, my colleagues allowed student’s passions to take over our curriculum.
As a teacher, I also learned a great deal through the Inquiry Projects. In December, I practiced using Seesaw and other digital tools to help students plan their projects. We met over Zoom on Friday mornings, and students frequently got feedback from their peers. Seeing how greatly students valued peer feedback, I placed students in teams that would meet consistently throughout the month to support each other throught discussion (both questions and feedback). Students were required to use their peer feedback in their projects, and we also discussed Internet safety at length, not just focusing on the content of websites, but the emotional and spiritual effect it had on it’s audience. In December, I also expanded the project team to include students with high academic performance but whose standardardized test scores were likely lower than their abilities, due to Spanish as their primary language (and some tests being inevitably based in English, despite how much we try to test bilingually in our bilingual school context). In January, I focused on helping students connect their faith to their research by giving them increased tools to link biblical texts and themes, Catholic saints, and Catholic Social Teaching to their projects. In February and March, I supported students to test out alternative project ideas, including Kahoot, Youtube videos, and Prezi. As our Third and Fourth Grade teaching team decided to expand the Inquiry Project to all students, I supported my team to spend much of May and June making sure that students had both the structure and graphic organizers to develop clear research questions and do a little research day by day. In this post, I will describe the experience of Third graders who had never before completed an Inquiry Project, but who through the tools my team shared were able to draft clear questions and dig deep into their topics.
Interested in learning more about the Inquiry Project content as it developed? Check out these posts.
May/June: All third and fourth grade students (36 total)
Greater Focus on Asking Specific Questions
One of the highlights of May and June’s Inquiry Project was seeing how students were able to use this inverted Triangle organizer to ask measurable questions. Through narrowing questions by historical time period, region, type, individuals involved, and other boundaries, students were able to understand not just their topic not just as a genre, but within a set context. In turn, narrowing their research focus allowed them to find more specific information that gave them a deeper understanding of their topic.
One great example of how students applied this skill was by setting the specific breed of animals some researched. By and large, Third grade’s great love of animals became the topic of the majority of their Inquiry Projects. One student who was interested in researching rabbits ultimately chose to research the “American Fuzzy Lops” rabbit, in order to find more specific information. Another example was a student who instead of researching “tigers” chose to research “Sumatran Tigers”. While these changes may seem small, they gave students a sense of greater expertise and confidence come presentation day. Check out this post to find out how Students’ great love of animals has shaped more of our lessons.
Sample Weekly Progression
Another excellent change that my colleague pioneered was to break apart the Inquiry project topics not just by week, but by specific activities within the week. While I had previously assigned Fourth Graders one activity for the whole week (a new aspect of the project each week), we agreed as a team that Third grade would have greater difficulty managing their time and breaking the week’s activities into pieces independently. By labeling the activity with specific days of the week, we were able to better support Third AND Fourth graders who struggle with time management. Check out this activity from the “Connecting Faith to Research” week to see how one students’ love of ducks was reflected in Catholic Social Teaching (Monday), the Bible (Tuesday), Catholic Traditions and Saints (Wednesday), and Prayer (Thursday).
Overall, the Third graders did a tremendous amount of work! In the future, we hope to share tools like Youtube, Prezi, or Kahoot with them to give them alternative final presentation formats. For this round of Inquiry Projects, many of them chose to focus on learning how to format a basic Powerpoint.
While just one student chose to create a poster, he was able to use many of the same concepts of Powerpoint creation to his project, from including a blend of photos (at least one per category) to limiting text for simplicity. Overall, I’m extremely proud of the level of detail students’ were able to produce on their first Inquiry Project!
Presenting her Ideas through Video
Several students also chose to record themselves on Seesaw explaining their project instead of presenting their projects live. I have found that students who have difficulty with public speaking prefer this option, as well as students who are verbal processors and just want more talk time. Lastly, I’m starting to find that as students become more passionate about their topic, their excitement makes them more likely to record their voice explaining it. Check out this video I dubbed of a student explaining the function of Electric motors! The passion in her voice comes through!
I value reflection so much! I decided to give students this opportunity to reflect, not just to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their project, but also to give students who struggled to meet the rubric requirements a chance to plan ahead for next time.
Again, through these reflections, students’ passions really shone through. I was shocked to see this student admit that she had woken up at 4am one morning to finish her project. I would have never asked that of her, but her level of committment blew me away. She also described her sense of accomplishment when she finished her project.
How will the Inquiry Projects Change this Academic Year (2021-2022)?
Over last year, I so greatly enjoyed seeing the random topics students chose for their projects. From shark attacks to robotics to Dragonball Z to Art murals and Mayan Cuisine, the direction of students’ projects were as diverse as their authors.
I have noticed that the former Third Graders (now Fourth Grade) and our incoming Third Graders (formerly Second Grade) really crave predictability, and need additional support in time management. These developmental delays are no significant challenge, but should be expected after last school year’s experience of distance learning. In order to create a balance of student choice and structure, I have decided to link our Inquiry Projects to the Science and Social Studies block. While students will still connect their projects to their faith and other disciplines, students will be able to have greater support in designing their project topics and pick from a list of genres.
This year, I am hoping to do Inquiry Projects on a monthly cycle that introduces a theme through small group Guided Reading, in the Science or Social Studies Block. By meeting with one group each day for a week to help dive deep into a category of books, I will be able to help compensate for the reading loss students’ experienced last year as well as help them think about related topics (using our Apple TV to research their ideas after finishing a text at their levels). In each topic, there are a variety of books that are at students text levels, so that all Reading Groups will be able to participate (check out the example below). For students whose reading level falls below this range, I can also select a book on Kids A-Z or the Libby App to read as a group, to build students’ background knowledge.
As you can see, there are a variety of topics (sorted by genre and topic) that connect to our Social Studies and Science units (organized by month).
Here are the topics in order:
Folktales about People
Folktales about Animals
Specific First American Legends
Doctors and Nurses
Power and Energy
Citizenship and American Symbols
Inventions and Products
Personal Story (?)
In addition to the Book Interest survey I give students each year, I have assigned students an activity where they can vote on their favorite topics, of the list above.
Through analyzing their responses, I will be able to highlight the categories students are most interested in, both as a class and as groups. I will use this information to plan what Social Studies or Science topics we use in Inquiry Projects this year.
Hopefully, the progression of this project throughout the Month will include:
1 week of Reading books
1 week of Researching Facts
1 week of Researching Faith
1 week of creating Projects (with Presentations during the Morning Meeting the following week, or digitally)
Starting in September
In order to give students’ a chance to respond to their reading interest surveys, I have decided that our first Inquiry Project will connect to our Topic for Social Studies this month: Things in DC. As we focus on what it means to be a school community, biblical teachings on community relationships, and our local context, students will have the opportunity to explore any organization, building, or people group in DC
I am grateful for the support of colleagues and for the hard work of students during 2020-2021 to make these projects possible! I can’t wait to share how students’ interests have continued to propel these projects, the gains they will make in Reading, and the connections they will be able to develop to their faith in and through these projects. Please pray that the Inquiry Project of 2021-2022 would be evenmore fruitful than the projects of 2020-2021, and that students would become more curious, passionate, and faithful through these projects.
As a Protestant teaching in a Catholic education setting, I led students last May into a topic that should be valuable to Christians of all denominations: a historical understanding of Mary. While Mary is widely known as the mother of Jesus and as a symbol of someone who radically trusted God, most people have little awareness of the cultural conditions in which Mary lived. By encountering more of Mary’s history, we can recognize Mary’s decision to trust God’s radical plan came in the midst of military occupation, poverty, and marginalization. Without any guarantee of comfort and in spite of oppression, Mary’s experience of trusting God teaches us that our surrender can’t depend on external circumstances.
Through examining and memorizing Mary’s prayer of praise in Luke 1, reflecting on religious art, and imagining how Mary’s story connects to the present day, students were able to imagine how they might worship God in all conditions.
Exploring Mary’s Historical Context
In order to understand Mary more fully, students began by listening to me read an article called The Historical Mary Article in America (Jesuit) Magazine. As we parsed the details of the article together, students were surprised by Mary’s age, the probable harshness of her chores as a Hebrew woman in first century Nazareth, the linguistic diversity of the region in which she lived, and even the likely poverty her family faced through excessive taxation.
Over the month of May, students memorized Mary’s Luke 1 prayer, “The Magnificat” in English and in Spanish. Each day, students would read and attempt to recite as much of the prayer as possible. By breaking the prayer into three sections related to praise (verses 1:46-49), God’s merciful justice (1:50-53) and God’s faithfulness (verses 1:54-55), students memorized several lines each week. Then on week four, students were challenged to record themselves reciting as much of the prayer as possible by memory.
Check out this video I made for students about memorization strategies! To my surprise, the majority of students loved the challenge of memorization, although not all were ambitious enough to memorize the prayer in its entirety. One of my favorite times of day was when students recorded themselves reading the Magnificat all at once. I loved the sound of their overlapping voices, with differences in tone and pitch more closely resembling yeshiva students than a chicken coop.
By examining the meaning of words like “magnifies”, “fear”, “proud”, “humble”, and “servant”, students were able to learn more about God’s goodness and his justice. Through other activities, students also learned about the concept of fear of the Lord and how obedience differs from rebellion.
Through a 5 by 2 thinking routine, students examined the colors and symbolism in this piece by Jenn Norton. By considering what the painting could mean before and after receiving background information, students were able to draw connections between how Mary’s emotions are displayed and themes like peace or courage. While this painting frame’s Mary’s act of surrender as a more tranquil, passive kind of acquiescence, it was interesting to consider how God’s peace might have transformed Mary’s experience of pregnancy during uncertainty.
Later in June, students were able to reflect on their most valuable learning experiences from the year, through the lens of Catholic Social teaching (check that out here). In reflecting about Christians’ call towards family and Community, a student reflected on how the Magnificat taught her to view Mary like “all mothers”: as someone who lives a life of sacrifice. As families ended a school year unlike any other, it was lovely to see how this student was able to honor her mother and other mothers by acknowledging the difficult task of motherhood.
Overall, my students’ interest in memorization, curiosity for history, and sense of solidarity with Mary through their own experiences of sacrifice, poverty, or marginalization gave this project a special resonance. I look forward to extending this project in the Spring so that students will be able to find other examples of Christians or Catholics trusting God through unknown and uncomfortable times. In order to develop a faith that overcomes our circumstances and allows God’s light to shine in absolute darkness, we can look to Mary as an older sister who knows what it’s like to trust God.
Last month, I was inundated by God’s kindness, generosity, and nurture. Today I am flying out to visit family in the Pacific Northwest for several weeks, but not without first celebrating the goodness of God.
Spending time in the pool
Spending time near the creek
Weaving flower crowns out of Texas hill country wildflowers
Done for the Semester for Seminary
I am beyond thrilled to have submitted my final summer assignments for seminary! In order to stay on track for graduation during COVID, my program had me take 3 2-credit courses and 3 1-credit courses. In total, this spring and summer I blazed through 9 doctorate credits. I’m tired, but satisfied in the way I incorporated my interests into the tidal wave of assignments. Because I did my contextual study early, I will be able to rest easy in just doing case studies and book summaries until next April.
Some themes I explored this summer:
Remembering and Receiving Dignity through the Bible: Solidarity in Lament
Analyzing American History: Modeling Four Styles of Relationship between the Church and Educational Sector in the United States
Towards a Theology of Sustainable and Transformational Leadership
Reflecting on Last School year
As we look ahead to the shape of August, I’ve been reflecting on the reopening process at my school from last school year. Being able to depict the many changes of the last school year was very useful in trying to articulate my 2020-2021 experience.
Spirit-led Question Trails
When we think about theologians and world leaders who have died, we often remember them for their personality quirks and failings on earth. But given that many are with Jesus now, we should really be thinking of them in their fully redeemed states. I wonder what a fully redeemed Kierkegaard would be like? I hope he has the kind of joy and freedom he never got on earth.
What would it look like for humans to use their understanding of agriculture, animal husbandry, and domestication to shape popular opinion about endangered animals? Could temporary domestication help change popular opinion so that endangered species can grow and then be reintroduced to their native habitats?
Importing invasive species is it’s own kind of colonialism
Like the wild horses of the plains and American Southwest, what other animals and plants did God use to help create the ecosystems that would eventually support humans? How can we honor the contributions these animals have made by reintroducing some to their ancient environments and adding value to the lives of the ones who nearly invisibly serve us?
Celebrating an Agrarian reading of the Bible
Ellen Davis’ book on the Song of Songs has resonated with me on such a deep level. I can’t honestly say that any book on theology or philosophy has so adequately represented my community and family’s agricultural perspective. Reading this book has been a healing experience for me, since as someone from a semi-rural community, I have seldom felt like my identity has been represented by the academy.
Earlier this year, I happened to read a book called, “The Bible and the Believer”, ecumenically written by Peter Enns (Protestant), Daniel J Harrington (Catholic), and Mark Zvi Brettler (Jewish). In this book, the authors discuss key differences and similarities in ways each of their respective groups relate to the text of the bible.
As a Protestant working in a Catholic school, I’ve found every possible reason to agree with Harrington in his claim that “Catholic socio-ethical teaching is one of the world’s best kept secrets” (80). Not only is Catholic socio-ethical teaching easily available for both children and adults, but it summarizes various themes throughout the Old and New Testaments in how Christians should love themselves and their neighbors. This year, I have enjoyed weaving main ideas from Catholic Social Teaching (CST) throughout lessons with students, in addition to anchoring sections of scripture. During our final week of school, students analyzed how these themes intersected the many topics we learned this year.
#1 Care of the Human Person
#2 Call to Family and Community
#3 Rights and Responsibilities
#4 Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
#5 Dignity of Work
#7 Care for God’s Creation (Stewardship)
In examining students’ reflections, several patterns emerge. One is that students were very emotionally invested in analyzing antiracism as it relates to various aspects of Catholic Social Teaching. Another is that students were collectively able to capture both the theoretical and applied nature of many of these ideas (for example, praying for people in various countries AND having family in New York and Mexico).
Given the murder of George Floyd and handfuls of events that brought racism forefront of American public consciousness during COVID, I am very grateful that my students are so passionate about antiracism on an individual and social level. May the Holy spirit continue to guide their responses and strengthen them as spiritually emancipated people of faith. May we gently but prophetically navigate the many challenges that productive changes will require.