Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Winter Term

One of the harbingers of spring around the MSL High School is the beginning of enrollment for Winter Term. Winter Term is one of the signature programs of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy which distinguishes us from other schools in the area. Since January 2001 we have been creating a two week interim period between semesters for intensive experiential learning. In order to accommodate the program, we moved first semester exams from January to December, immediately before the Christmas Break. It takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and effort, not to mention resources to make the experience successful. And while teachers are energized by the experience in the long run, the effort needed to plan and then execute a great Winter Term is taxing. So why do we do it?

Our misson at CHCA charges us "to unleash a passion in students to learn, lead, and serve." We also endeavor to make "life long learners." But sometimes sitting in seven different desks for seven different 50 minute periods in the same building week after week starts to feel a bit artificial. Students often have difficulty seeing how day in day out school connects to the world they live in and why they'd want to do this "life long." But then comes Winter Term.

By breaking the normal schedule and rhythms of the school year, students pick a subject to study in depth for a two week period. When freed from the fifty minute bell, students and teachers begin to plumb depths and discuss nuances, following where interest and curiosity leads. The type of processing and deep thinking about a topic that can come over a two week in depth study cannot be mirrored in the regular school bell schedule. In a society like ours that loves sound bytes, 30-minute newscasts, internet surfing, and text messaging, we are not conditioned to slow down and study a thing thoroughly from every angle and perspective. We expect quick answers. But what might happen if we let a problem remain in our mind's eye for an extended period? What if we let ourselves ruminate on difficulties, allowing our subconscious minds to work a problem through? I believe people who develop such patterns will one day solve the big problems and find ways to change the world. Winter Term teaches our students new ways of thinking and learning.

Winter Term allows students to get out of the building and explore the world. That might mean exploring the history of the Queen City, serving in Chesterwood Village, viewing murals around town, or seeing the Taj Mahal, a Costa Rican jungle, or the Church of the Holy Seplechure. When our students travel down the street or around the world, they begin to develop a sense of adventure and often a feeling of awe. The world is filled with beauty, power, mystery, and wonder. The books we read and the lectures we give are actually about real things out there! To talk about World War II or Ancient Rome is one thing, but standing on location, so to speak, makes the classroom come alive. I love when a student finds a hidden treasure in her own city. I will always cherish the look on a student's face when we stand together at a place that was pictured in a textbook. I will never forget this January taking communion with my students at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. When a person appreciates the fact that learning is about encountering and understanding a world that ever surprises and contains mystery upon mystery, how could one ever intend to stop?

Winter Term also fosters community on many different levels. First, one of the biggest barrier breakers in our school is Winter Term. Each course creates a learning community that transcends grade, gender, and social grouping. New social connections are always created in January! Like summer camp or a sports team, the shared time and camaraderie form bonds that last in our school. On another level, teachers and students connect in new ways as well. Interacting with each other outside of the normal classroom setting changes the nature of the relationship. Our teachers become mentors and friends to their students and Winter Term plays no small part in his phenomenon. Another level of community forms over Winter Term as well. Relationships form, even if temporarily, across every kind of boundary outside of our school. Through travel, cultural immersion, and service, our students encounter all kinds of people and relationships form. Our students get to know the elderly, young children, the homeless, the physically challenged, orphans, people of different ethnicities and religions, people of other cultures both nationally and internationally. We have a core value which talks about the value of each person. In Winter Term our students encounter those who are other, and we come to see how much they are like us.

Finally, we are a school that teaches our students to view the world in a Christ-centered way. We are called, each of us, to engage God's world. In Winter Term we do this first hand. All the world is God's! Everyone we meet, everywhere we go, everything we do--it is all part of God's world. We are called to live in this world and to bring the mind of Christ to every situation, every problem, and every question. This is not a theoretical situation. We want to live out this practice with our students. We do not want to tell them what it is like and then wait until they graduate and go out on their own. Every year we go out with them, for two weeks at a time. We walk along side them and help them think and question and engage. This is God's world!

So when someone asks me, why do we take off school for four weeks at Christmas? Why do we waste two weeks of class time? Why do we just give our kids extended vacation? I am saddened. We either failed at our task or we didn't do a good enough job talking about what we're doing. If it is the latter, hopefully this is a start toward correcting it. In the meantime, please go to the front of the website and explore all of the amazing opportunities to engage God's world next January!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of Easter: A View From the High School

(The following appeared in the Campus Connection last year. But being Good Friday, it seemed appropriate to post on the blog today. May this be a blessed Easter weekend for each of you!)

After thirteen years of working with high school students, I have come to realize that my life revolves around Easter. In the school calendar, Easter often signifies warmer weather, Spring Break, and in many students’ minds, the “beginning of the end” of the academic year. But my focus is different. As we move from the darkness and gloom of winter, into the newness of spring, Easter reminds us that the weight of despair, the heaviness of failure, the brokenness of sin are all overwhelmed by the power and light of the Resurrection. It is the great paradox of our faith that the redemptive death of Christ produces the triumph of New Life and the possibility of a New Creation.

As I spend time across our CHCA community, the view is unique in each locale. If I were to continue my comparison with the Church calendar, when I am in our elementary schools, I often think of Christmas. Life and faith are fresh and new. One is reminded of the beauty and innocence of the Babe in a manger. Children bring gifts to the King, if not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, maybe art projects and narratives from a Writer’s Workshop. Christ admonishes us to have faith like a child and we can sense what that might look like when we walk down these halls. One cannot imagine from here the horror of the cross.

Something happens when those pure children make their way to the high school. Somehow, things do not seem so simple anymore. The happy child who liked to smile and sing “Jesus Loves Me” has somehow turned cynical and listens to disturbing music. Boundaries were made to be broken; everything is questioned. What has happened to our children? They are figuring out how to become adults. And to be honest, they begin to look a lot more like us than we would like to admit.

If you are going to live in the world of high school, Easter must become your paradigm. One of my favorite biblical characters is Peter. As the Passion narrative unfolds, Peter denies three times even knowing Jesus. He is distraught by his failure. But after the news of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter runs to the tomb! And when he first encounters the Lord again in the Galilee, He gives him a chance at redemption. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. Three times Peter answers in the affirmative. Easter brings a second chance! And when we read the Book of Acts, a transformed Peter preaches to thousands and then gives a defense of his message before the authorities (Acts 3, 4). Because of Easter, Peter is a New Creation.

Every day I walk through our halls, I see grown up elementary school kids. And sadly for some, Christmas has turned into Good Friday. The darkness is not just a passing storm but rather the shadow of Death. Lives are broken. Mistakes are made. But of all the valuable things our school can provide, I believe the greatest is a loving guide from the cross to an empty tomb. When the world tells us there is no hope, the failure is too severe, the mistake is too great, the power of the resurrection tells us there is new life! I like to think at the high school we celebrate Easter every day.

May the power of His Resurrection strengthen you and give you hope this Easter season!

Friday, April 3, 2009

High School Chapel

In light of our life changing Spiritual Life Emphasis week, a number of people have been talking about High School chapels in general. And a couple comments have surfaced that surprised me. So I will share our view of chapel and then address some misconceptions.

The typical chapel at the high school is on Wednesdays from 10 am to 11 am in the Lindner Theater. When we have block schedule, the time shifts to 9:30 to 10:30. Occasionally the day will shift to accommodate a guest speaker or some other anomoly in our schedule. Parents are welcome to visit and we ask that guests use the top two rows of the theater.

Chapel is community time. It is the one time each week we are all together. Usually we open with a few announcements. Occasionally we have short videos (typically student created) to highlight an upcoming event, show the topic of the day, or provide a lighter moment. We then have a time of corporate worship through song, and then a message to challenge our students to grow in Christ. Mr. Salkil, our chaplain, does a large portion of the speaking but other faculty also share. Outside guests make up the rest of the speakers.

It is our desire that chapel is a time when all of our students, no matter their background, can be challenged to think about Scripture and what following Christ in today's world could look like. We deal with the issues of the day. Students appreciate authenticity and the last thing we want to do is present them with a Gospel message that seems canned or cliche. At the high school, we often talk about how we want to present the Christian life to our students in a way that engages the head, heart, and hands. Chapel is the center of the "heart" piece of that equation. Chapel is a time to encounter God in meaningful ways, through worship in song and the Word.

Something that I hear occasionally is that high school chapel is optional. I want to be clear--that is not and has never been the case! Last year we tried something new. For some time we have struggled with the musical worship portion of our chapel. A number of reasons exist for this. 1) While some denominations use music extensively for worship, in some traditions the singing of praise music is very foreign. Other traditions might sing for 30 minutes to an hour to prepare the worshipper for the preaching of the Word. Our community has students from both ends of this spectrum. 2) Some churches use music more for performance than participation. People listen to those singing but do not join in. We are no longer a culture that regularly sings. If you do not attend a singing church,when was the last time you sang? A birthday party? Christmas carols?

So we had a community where many got little out of the musical part of worship but for others it was a significant way to connect with God. Those who were disinterested, would use it as community time, talk with neighbors, and distract those who were wanting to worship. To find a way to meet the needs of all our students, we divided the chapel time. We divided it into two parts. During the normal chapel period, we had one song and the message. Then at the end of the day, we had options: musical worship, prayer, chapel discussion, or studyhall for those who were not at a place where worship was something they were interested in or able to engage. We used that schedule for most of the fourth quarter last year. We created a schedule to use that option occasionally this year, but due to a new level of engagement, we have not had the need. I could speculate reasons for this. But I won't.

Another comment I hear occasionally that troubles me is when a parent or student mentions that they do not go to church because chapel is "their church." Chapel is a great opportunity to find spiritual nourishment during the week and a way to hear from God. A Christian school like ours--with its Bible classes, Spirit-filled teachers looking to integrate a Christian worldview into every discipline, and a "vibrant senes of community"--can be a powerful environment for a Christian. But we must never confuse ourselves into thinking we are a church. Our work as a Chrisian academy supplements the work of the Church. We can educate and develop young people which will make them more dynamic church members. But the Church has a function and a role in the Divine economy that CHCA will never have. Therefore, our students need to know the life of participating and serving in church. When students graduate and leave for college, if this school is their only faith community, it is much less likely that they will find a church while in college. And if they do not find time to connect with a body of believers in college to share life with, life post-college will only get busier and more hectic, making such a commitment even less likely. God calls us to live a life of faith in community. Our school gives us glimpses of what that life looks like. But that does not replace the important role of the local church.

As our year comes to a close, I relish the few chapel times we still have together before we send our seniors out into the world! See you Wednesday!