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Teaching Christianly?

Practicing Faith in the Classroom

How does faith inform teaching? This is a relevant question to professors at Calvin University who hope to equip their students to think deeply, act justly, and live wholeheartedly (the Calvin mission statement), and one that David Smith explores in his book On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. Professor Smith serves as director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning and coordinator for the de Vries Institute for Global Faculty Development at Calvin. The de Vries Institute asked Professor Jennifer Holberg, chair of the English department, to lead a faculty reading group this past spring that explored the book and its overarching questions together.  

Holberg described the book’s approach to teaching as “incarnational”: encouraging teaching the whole person and teaching well. In his book, Smith calls teachers to understand their theology and deepest principles, and then challenges them to examine whether their classroom practices do (or do not) reflect those principles. Professor Chad Engbers of the English department, a regular attendee of the reading group, called it “an invitation to sit down at a little critical distance from our important work and really think that work through in light of our greater mission.”  

Chris Hartemink, professor of Engineering, said “I was very compelled by the notions that every minute in the class matters, and that, dare I say it, every square inch of the classroom can be used wisely. And when I look at my own tendency to lecture at a whiteboard for nearly the entire hour, that is convicting. I have made adjustments to several simple things like student seating, or how groups are assigned, or surveying my students about their hopes and fears, to try to foster that sense of community.”  

By re-examining how to foster community in the classroom, these professors found community in the reading group. Faculty members, across many disciplines and experiences, joined a Teams meeting for an hour and a half every Thursday night during the month of March to discuss the chapters that they’d read. They shared what methods of teaching they might be trying, or what had worked for them in the past. “It is inspiring to hear how other faculty at Calvin innovate in the classroom,” said Hartemink.  

The reading group fostered growth, fellowship, and moments of mentoring during the pandemic—a time of isolation, uncertainty, and redefining the classroom experience. Engbers summed it up: “Every night when I joined the Teams meeting of that discussion group, I would look at the array of faces on my screen and be grateful to teach at Calvin University among such dedicated teachers. Here was a group of people, young and old, across multiple disciplines, who all found it worth their time to spend an hour after dinner to think and talk a little bit more about their work.”  

Just as the professors equip students, so Professor Holberg credits the DeVries Institute with equipping faculty to think deeply about Reformed theology and creating intentional spaces of fellowship—especially at a time when fellowship was hard to find. The experience reminded her “how much we value the community of scholars that we’re a part of.” Matt Lundberg, director of the de Vries Institute said, “Smith’s book is a gift to Christian faculty, one that stimulates our imaginations regarding the possibilities of faith-shaped pedagogy. It wonderful to have colleagues like Prof. Holberg and the other members of this group who are so eager to invest in one another in the shared quest of Faithful teaching.” 

Congratulations to David for winning the prestigious Lilly Fellows Program 2021 Book Award! Read Calvin's press release about the award.


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