February 12, 2015

From Shards to Artwork

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Teaching for Transformation in Zambia
(Article written by Bert Witvoet for the Christian Courier)

Karen Gerritsma does not believe in making quick decisions without knowing the consequences of her actions. She’s too smart and cautious for that. But when her friend Dora Stroobosscher invited her to come along to Zambia for two weeks last August to instruct student teachers in understanding a Christian worldview, she immediately said yes. That was very uncharacteristic of her, especially when you think of the challenges she faced. She had traveled only once outside North America before. What faced her and Dora was the following: two women climbing into an airplane with five heavy suitcases, two filled with study Bibles, flying for an hour and a half to Washington, D.C. then for 15 and a half hours to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then into another smaller plane for four hours to Lilongwe, Malawi, where they would rest for the night. Then onto Lundazi, Zambia, in a small car with four passengers and, you guessed it, five suitcases, which blocked their view from each other for eight hours. Did I mention that Karen is afraid of bugs? In addition, she felt unqualified for the task.

Yet Karen said yes. “YES!” Something stirred in her. Was it the idea of telling others about a Christian worldview, one of her passions? Was it the idea that the Holy Spirit would gently open up for her a new experience in her retirement? That the opening up would be gentle was to be expected. After all, Dora had years of experience teaching in Africa, and she would lead the way. Karen was in for a big surprise.

Three EduDeo ministries
Of course, her friend Dora was on familiar ground, or was it air? She and her husband Marc Stroobosscher had spent four months in Zambia earlier in 2014, joining the Walking Together program that EduDeo had arranged with representatives of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). Walking Together is one of three ministries that EduDeo carries out in a number of different countries.

The first of these ministries is the HANDS (Help Another Nation Develop Schools) program that allows volunteers from Canada to go to developing countries to build the physical facilities needed to carry out educational programs. EduDeo describes HANDS assignments as “short-term mission trips, designed to make an enormous long-term impact, both in the country you travel to and in your own life and community!”

But at the urging of various educators EduDeo ventured into the even more important ministry of mentoring and guiding teachers. Hence the Walking Together program that invites well-trained Christian teachers from Canada to walk alongside teachers in third-world countries, where quality education from a biblical perspective is lacking. (At the moment of this writing, Marc and Dora Stroobosscher have embarked on a second visit to Zambia to continue their Walking Together assignment begun in early 2014.)

But in August last year, Karen and Dora traveled to Zambia to tackle the third aspect of EduDeo’s Walking Together program in Zambia: Teaching for Transformation - Mbeu Deo (Seed for God). This is a two-week program continued over the course of three consecutive years that leads to a certificate of achievement that will help teachers understand the underlying principles of Christian education and will also hopefully give them greater standing with the government, which, in Zambia, is the agency that places student teachers in various CCAP schools.

God intervened
Everything went well. The journey behind them, they arrived in Lundazi, Zambia, on a Thursday, expecting to start teaching on the following Monday. By Friday they had met various people in the compound where they were stationed. Student teachers also began to arrive. But then something unexpected happened. On Saturday, Dora got a call from Canada that her 97-year-old mother had suddenly passed away. What to do? Dora knew immediately that she had to return to Canada. She could not endure the thought of not being there for the funeral of her dear mother.

She phoned her husband and asked him to started looking for a return flight. But since this was the time when the Ebola scare hit various parts of Africa, all the flights from Africa were full. It took a long time before they found a flight that would in a very roundabout way take her back to Canada. Before she left, Dora was able to teach the first day of the seminar on Monday and could introduce her friend Karen to the students.

And there was Karen Gerritsma on Tuesday – faced with the task of teaching students she did not know, whose English she did not always understand, and she asked herself, “Why am I here?” Fortunately Karen was supported by Boniface, a Zambian principal, who could help her over the rough spots and assist her in the teaching of the two-week course. The first day for Karen went okay. She was after all, a veteran of Christian education, having taught Grades Four to Six, having been the principal of Beacon Christian School in St. Catharines for 15 years, and having taught student teachers at Redeemer University College. Also, she and Dora had put in hundreds of hours the months before they left to spell out in great detail the lesson plans for the 10-day course. She was flying solo but with a lot of support.

The sun came out
Her second day of teaching, Wednesday, turned out to be a breakthrough day. She was explaining how the creation had undergone the fall into sin along with humanity. To demonstrate the lesson she asked students to break a number of beautiful pots she had brought. Some students thought that breaking these pots was a terrible shame. These pots must be used and admired. But they carried out the assignment. And then Karen told them that now they know how God felt when we spoiled his beautiful creation through sinning. But since God through Jesus came down to restore this creation, Karen asked the students to work in groups and make something beautiful from the shards that lay in front of them. Once that was done, the students understood how God moves through history with his plan of salvation, which includes the whole of creation, something the students at first had a hard time grasping. They knew only about God saving souls, not the whole world.

When the third day of Karen’s teaching unfolded, she realized that she was enjoying herself, and she knew why she was in Zambia. From thereon she was soaring. The worried face one can see in earlier pictures while she was traveling had “transformed,” in keeping with the theme of the seminar, to a glowing face in subsequent pictures. What really excited her was the concept of Teaching for Transformation and “Throughlines” that had been woven into the 10-day course. This underlying view developed by Christian educators in Alberta seemed to her the answer to connecting students with the curriculum in a way that made them realize what the outcome of Christian education should be. Underlying every part of the curriculum was the question how can we best be the image bearers that God wants us to be as we study mathematics, history, science, literature? Biblical Throughlines offered the kind of focus that helped to answer that question (see “Teaching for Transformation” by Doug Monsma).

Karen describes this approach as defining what our tasks are as teachers and students reflect on who they are as God’s image bearers. “We ask not how can we go to heaven, but how can we bring a little bit of heaven down to earth?” Karen believes that Teaching for Transformation, which includes Biblical Throughlines, should be the underlying framework of all teaching in Christian schools. She asked the students, “Why did Jesus come down to earth?” The invariable answer was, “To save our souls.”
“But didn’t he die to redeem everything that God has created?” It was a totally unknown concept to students in Africa. Karen stressed that teachers and students and everyone is encouraged to be a co-worker with God while we are on earth.

The last day
One wrap-up question she reserved for the last day of the 10-day seminar: “What important change would you like to see take place in Zambia?” The answers varied. Some suggested a change in sex education. They felt it was given too early. As a result young girls would experiment with the things they had learned in class. Another problem was the sexual intimacies that often take place between students and teachers in Zambia. Karen explained that any teacher in Canada caught in a sexual relationship with a student would be fired on the spot. The student teachers had not thought in terms of the power inequality and the idea of sexual abuse. One young man wanted the bride price (lobola) removed from the marriage proposals.

But to round off the idea that Christ came to redeem all of life, Karen moved to a political question. “Do you realize that China is taking over a lot of industries and land in Africa, also in Zambia?” The copper mines, for example have been bought up with Chinese money, and Zambia reaps very little benefit from the extraction of copper.
“Be aware of what is happening politically in your country,” she suggested. “We are co-workers with God in all areas of culture.”

Looking back now, Karen reflects on her Zambian experience as a baptism by fire: “The baptism was restorative and the fire was comforting. It forced me to engage the culture and the students in a far more intense way than if I had been leaning on Dora for most of it.”

Karen is looking forward to August 2015 when, the Lord willing, Dora will return for the second round of the Mbeo Deo program in Zambia, when Karen would like to join her. August is the time of year when Zambia will have been transformed from a lush, rain-soaked countryside to a dry and dusty countryside. A perfect metaphor for a message of hope for student teachers and their learners living in Act V of the drama of life.

Helping the perspective stick
Karen sees Teaching for Transformation as a kind of latter-day insight for herself. She hopes it will catch on in most other Christian schools. It answers not so much to the how of teaching, as Project Based Learning and Differentiated Instruction do so well, but it answers more to the who we are teaching and the what and the why.

“I see Teaching for Transformation with its use of Throughlines as the most effective way I have ever encountered of helping the perspective stick,” she says. “I think this helps the Christian world-and-life-view – Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration – stick. We are all these things: we are justice seekers, we are order discerners, we are earth keepers, creation enjoyers . . . that is our task. The list of 10 can be enlarged, of course. I, for example, have added culture making as an 11th one. I don’t think we have ever had something in the past that helps the Christian perspective live for the students and engage them as well in their learning as do the Throughlines.

“A danger is, we can’t just extrapolate the Throughlines, these 10 things, and say let’s incorporate them into the curriculum. Then it’s just a bandwagon that’s going to fizzle out. It has to be and remain in this whole context of the big picture. You avoid that by keeping it in the context of the true story of the whole world as taught, for example, in the Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. We live in Act V of that drama. What Throughlines could we apply as we study a unit on science or literature that will help the student understand what their task is as image-bearers in Act V?” she asks. “And always stab the student with the unexpected ‘So what?’ Challenge them to make it their own and give an authentic response.”

This article originally appeared in the February 9 issue of Christian Courier.

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