Monday, September 07, 2015

Church in Hot Water Over Football Field Baptism

Asking a Baptist preacher to baptize is like asking Colonel Sanders if he wants a bucket of chicken. Somebody’s going to get dunked.

So when a football coach in Villa Rica, Georgia asked to be baptized on the high school football field, the local First Baptist Church obliged.

At the end of the school day somebody hauled out an old feeding trough, plopped it in the end zone near the field house and filled it with water.

A crowd of about 75 folks, black and white, young and old, gathered in the sweltering August heat to watch the coach take the Baptist plunge.

Perhaps inspired by their coach’s public display of his faith, some of the players also asked to be baptized. One by one the teenage boys stepped into the trough as onlookers prayed and rejoiced and applauded.

Oh, it was quite a moment in Villa Rica — all captured on video by a staff member of the First Baptist Church. Little did anyone know a rite of Christian passage would soon spark national outrage.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group of perpetually offended atheists and free-thinkers from Wisconsin, saw the video and fired off a nasty letter to the Carroll County School superintendent.

“It is illegal for coaches to participate in religious activities with students, including prayer and baptisms,” attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote. “Nor can coaches allow religious leaders to gain unique access to students during school-sponsored activities.”

They called the full emersion baptisms an “egregious constitutional violation.”

In hindsight, perhaps an Episcopal priest should’ve handled the baptisms. He could’ve just turned on the sprinklers and had the players run down the field. The Freedom From Religion folks would never have known the difference.

The godless bullies demanded the school district launch an immediate investigation “and take full action to ensure there will be no further illegal religious events, including team baptisms and prayer, during school-sponsored activities.”

Kevin Williams, the pastor of First Baptist Church, told me the football field baptisms were held after school and were completely voluntary.

“We never meant to cause any problems for the school and we never thought we would get this much media attention for baptizing kids,” the pastor said.

First Baptist Church has a long history of ministering to the community — including the football team. Just this past summer they provided financial assistance so the team could attend a football camp.

And the church recently held a football themed worship service called “Gridiron Day.” It was at that event one of the coaches asked if he could be baptized on the football field. Several players, who had recently converted to Christianity, also asked to be baptized.

“It was their choice to do that,” Pastor Williams told me. “We live in a free nation. People choose what they want. These people that got baptized — freely chose at a church service to accept Christ and this was a follow up to that.”

Times have been tough in Villa Rica — especially for young people. Over the past few years several teenagers have committed suicide.

“We’re trying our best as a community to reach out to these kids and love on them and show them there’s a better way — there’s hope,” Pastor Williams said. “That’s what we are providing through Jesus Christ to these kids.”

The question is whether the atheist carpetbaggers will bully the school district into silencing people of faith.

“I believe we live in a free country,” the pastor said. “These people that are trying to say you can’t do that, well, they’re taking away freedom. When did it become illegal to bow your head and pray? When did it become illegal to say I’m a Christian?”

You need to watch the video to truly understand and to truly appreciate what happened on the football field that warm Southern afternoon — the day a group of young black men and young white men decided to take a public stand for our Lord.

They emerged from the waters no longer just teammates, but rather, brothers.


In an info age, we need knowledge more than ever

Pupils must be taught before they are asked what they think

Knowledge is vital in an information age. We are surrounded by information – some of it true, but all of it presented as if it were of equal value. Those who think that the internet has changed education forever misunderstand the significance of knowledge. They argue for a collapsed curriculum that is no longer reliant on subjects, with teachers who simply guide pupils through project-based work in which they can pick up the transferable, soft skills that will guarantee them future jobs. But this is a complete misreading of the situation in which we find ourselves. Rather than no longer needing subjects and teachers, we need them more than ever.

In a morass of information and infotainment, knowledge is often lost. Where pornography is given equal billing to the work of the great masters, the great masturbators are lost in the World Wide Wank. What is great art? What is truth? What is love? At the touch of a button, all these questions are immediately lost in millions of answers. So people resort to Wikipedia, which is not a bad place to start. But it is a bad place to start and finish, if your desire is to know.

This is where teachers and subject knowledge come in. A good teacher has expertise, understands the evolving tradition of their subject, and can tell stories that make connections and open up the essential knowledge for their pupils. They can communicate and react to the pupils in their classroom, ensuring that they, too, can become able to know – can become knowledgeable.

When I talk to teachers, I often say to them: ‘I don’t want to hear a child’s opinions until they know what they’re talking about.’ This shocks some teachers who are used to asking pupils what they think about something very early on – despite the fact that this rarely produces an enlightened discussion. For example, they would read out a sonnet, ask what the children thought and they would grunt back, saying ‘it’s crap’. Until children know something about the form, the rules and conventions and the tradition of critique, it is too early to ask them what they think.

This is important. A teacher should teach not only a text or a topic, but also the learned opinions others have had about it. Teachers should initiate pupils into a conversation about the subject, highlighting the discussions and disagreements that surround it, and help them find out what their own opinions might be. As they do this, teachers can challenge pupils’ thinking. Debate and dialogue are a vital part of this approach, but giving pupils a voice is not about asking them what they think - it is about teaching them and developing their ability to debate and to think.

As well as acquiring knowledge about the subject they are learning, pupils need to learn to express what they have learned in their own words, expand on their own understanding, explain what they think, create arguments defending their views, and develop an understanding of other people’s views. They also should be given opportunities to create work, whether it is an essay, a piece of art or some athletic pursuit, where they are responsible for the quality of the work, ensuring that it conforms to or knowingly challenges the rules of the subject that they are learning. This process is essential not only to developing knowledge, but also to developing wisdom. Though it might take years after they have left school to develop, teachers can set them on their way.

Developing pupils’ knowledge, helping them cultivate and challenge their opinions, and making them put what they have learned into practice, are the three essential parts of great teaching. For this, no great bureaucracy is needed and no box-ticking need take place. Whether one calls it ‘transmission teaching’ or ‘dynamic whole-class teaching’, the effect is the same. This harks back to the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Or, in other words: knowing, questioning and debating.

The job of the teacher is not just to teach the greatest that has been thought, said and done; it is also to get children to add to the greatest that has been thought, said and done. It is this that is at the core of the great tradition of the liberal arts, as expressed by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

‘As civilised human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.’

For many children, this conversation can only begin when they are taught properly by a great teacher.


Educationalists: teaching bad ideas

Teachers are starting to fight back against the biases of educationalists

Back in 2012, I attended a conference in Sydney about school improvement. Although the speakers were there to talk about a diverse range of topics, many took the chance to disparage ‘transmission teaching’, where the teacher stands at the front and talks to the class. They knew that their audience would welcome this view.

Such a scene encapsulates much of what is wrong in the strange bubble of education conferences. Educators often talk to themselves. They give a nod and a wink to each other to signal their alignment with values that are not necessarily shared by members of the general public or even other teachers. While real policy decisions are made by government ministers outside of the education establishment, this does nothing to puncture the groupthink; educationalists merely characterise such decisions as coming from know-nothing, philistine politicians who impose their views on experienced professionals.

It might make sense for educationalists to be so dismissive of policymakers if the processes of education were grounded in strong evidence, as they are in medical practice. However, a lot of what is pursued by educationalists actually flies in the face of the evidence. For instance, on the issue of using phonics to teach children to read, there are three national reports from the UK, US and Australia which all support the largely common-sense view that learning to read by sounding-out words works. Yet influential educationalists still express scepticism, and it seems that teachers are still not trained effectively in phonics.

Transmission teaching, to which the education establishment is so opposed, is basically what most people think of as ‘teaching’. A teacher will stand at the front of a class, explain some concept or new bit of terminology, and then ask the students some questions about the new concept or term to see if they have understood it. This offends the sensibilities of those who don’t like the idea of teachers being sources of authority and would prefer pupils to ‘construct’ their own knowledge.

Countless studies comparing transmission teaching with constructivist approaches find in favour of transmission teaching. Again, this is simply common sense. Instead of letting children flounder and make the same mistakes generations of children have made before them, a skilled teacher can pre-empt these problems, focus students on more fruitful avenues and explain why in the process.

But this is not what teachers are encouraged to do. In an influential book for the National Academies Press in the US, the constructivist position is explained in terms of the children’s book Fish is Fish. In the story, a frog visits the land, and then returns to the water to explain to his fish friend what the land is like. You can see the thought bubbles emanating from the fish as the frog talks. When the frog describes birds, the fish imagines fish with wings, and so on. The implication is that we cannot understand anything that we have not seen for ourselves; each individual has to discover the world anew.

If this were true then there would be no point in books, because it would not be possible to communicate ideas through words. There would be no point in magazines or the internet, and no point in education conferences. A large part of what many educationalists believe to be best practice can be easily falsified by everyday experience.

Educationalists’ fondness for therapeutic approaches to education is also undermining good teaching methods. Yes, teaching pupils directly – giving them strong and clear instructions and guidance – might be a more effective way of getting them to pass exams, so the argument goes, but what of developing students’ character? If we allow students to work out how to solve problems on their own, they say, then we will help them build their resilience. In short, we are asked to accept the logic that we should teach children badly in order to prepare them for life’s frustrations. Sadly, it seems that UK education secretary Nicky Morgan has bought into the idea that schools should help build children’s characters.

However, the education world is changing. Teachers are starting to ask questions using social media, blogs and even through their own conferences. One notable success has already been chalked-up by the blogger Andrew Old, who forced a change of tack from the Ofsted, the English schools inspectorate. Ofsted had been effectively enforcing constructivist methods on teachers by criticising them for talking to their students or for not organising enough group work. Old assiduously collected the evidence of this on his blog, forcing Ofsted to issue new guidance to inspectors.

Frustrated politicians of all stripes are unleashing unprecedented disruption on education systems by creating new kinds of schools and new ways for teachers to qualify. It is sad that it has come to this, but educationalists who have ignored evidence in favour of ideology for such a long time will finally have to reckon with the unleashing of teacher-led critique.


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