Teaching Bible Literacy in a public school classroom tops the most rewarding moments in my two-decade career of teaching. Not one of my nineteen years in English classes from seventh to eleventh grade caps the power of bringing the academic components of the most widely read text in the world to the youth of our nation with the sole intention of creating a well-rounded body of knowledge of which the children will be able to take advantage throughout their collegiate experiences.
One standard guides the Bible Literacy course: ensuring students receive a solid foundational knowledge of the people, stories, patterns, themes, and archetypes of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament.
During the first year I taught this class, I was a novice from many angles. A team-teaching approach, pairing a former preacher and myself a simple English teacher (with little religious background, unaffiliated with any church in the community), seemed to be the administration’s brainstorm. The students–ninety sophomores with little-to-no say-so in this mandatory sophomore “elective” course–were audibly disgruntled about this “bible study” class on a public campus.
(First Amendment rights allow for academic study of the Bible, as long as no proselytizing occurs.)
A fine idea it was, except for the former preacher. This honorable man misused the teaching assignment to spout personal views about how girls and boys should behave. He allegedly did exactly what the First Amendment was supposed to guard against: he proselytized.
By October of the first year of offering the Bible Literacy course, I became the sole teacher. Fortuitously, my lack of religious background proved to be just the right approach for these students who’d already received mixed messages from the former preacher. Further confusing the students were their own bullying techniques that had been honed long before I had arrived on campus; students were notorious for causing teachers to question their own methods and to falter in their aim to educate children.
Yours truly–a California-bred, arrogant, middle-aged fool–did not succumb to the would-be degradation of sophomoric tenth graders bent on controlling the perspective of the fledgling Bible Literacy course. Rather, I did what any successful first-year teacher would do ( in my seventeenth year of teaching, mind you!), I survived.
I survived on the idea that I was the teacher, and they were the students; and it was my job to teach them something-even if I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing.
Amid archetypal themes of man vs. society, pitted against all odds, in a David-and-Goliath battle for power over chaos, the class was destined to fail. Ninety students, crammed into an glorified classroom/ “cafeteria” surrounded by drink machines, seated in opposing directions on the cafeteria benches (still home to several crumbs and drops of grape and apple juices not yet scrubbed away), under the incessant groan of an outdated air conditioning unit. It was as if we were the Israelite slaves recently freed from the bondage of the pharaoh’s grasp.
Our plight, in the wilderness of an unstructured classroom, was real; our multitude of ninety students-seventy more than the average class on campus-were destined to fail.
However, like the descendants of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, we were promised a real classroom, and not just any classroom but a lecture hall capable of seating more than one hundred occupants. A classroom flowing with milky white boards and honey-colored chairs: our very own Promised Land!
It was the definitive goal that motivated us to endure the wilderness, wandering through weak lessons, outlined chapter assignments, and shoddy lectures by an inexperienced Bible class teacher whose seventeen years of English barely sufficed to maintain control of students hell-bent on destroying the teachable moments.
Even as the spring promise of a real classroom faded into the weeks of winter, I was encouraged and supported by the handful of obedient lambs who did the assigned work and commiserated with me over the disobedient multitude who just as likely would have girded a golden calf to thwart the school’s effort to provide a well-rounded education as they would do a simple outline assignment.
The funniest thing about the first year of teaching the Bible Literacy course lay in the fact that during that inaugural year, I knew what faiths were in the class. Students were all-too-forthright about what denomination they were. (Since that first year, I have plainly forbidden students to divulge their faith-as that bears no weight on anyone’s grade in the class). The worst students, the ones who failed tests of knowledge that should have been easily recalled from the books of the Bible and from the excellent textbook, were the loudest criers of desire that the class be a bible study! Those who would have had me believe that they were the greatest believers of the Christian faith could not pass a simple recall test because they had not read the Bible at all.
Funnier still was the ace of the class. The student who excelled the furthest, delved the deepest into the knowledge presented, was a self-proclaimed atheist!
An atheist aced the class every quarter, while Bible-thumping “Christians” failed every test. An academic standard was set as a result of this outcome. I knew how to define the standard of the class due to that curious irony from the first year of the Bible Literacy class-from that very same premise set forth by the First Amendment: stick to the academic nature of the people, places, and events of the Bible.
Now, four years later, sophomores enjoy the Bible class. On a daily basis, students enter class with new tales of how they’ve seen the patterns, archetypes, and names of biblical influences stamped on some of the unlikeliest places, like the insides of egg cartons from a local grocer!
Bible Literacy Website