catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


The Maplewood Story

During the time I was reading The Maplewood Story, Scott McClellan’s book on President Bush’s presidency appeared, and McClellan was in great demand by the media. In one of the interviews I heard he said something to this effect: The problem with the present administration is that it lacked the capacity for reflection. It was incapable of, or refused, to stand back and reflect on where their decisions and policies were taking the country. These decisions were made on an ad hoc basis, and no one called for a high-level conference or retreat in which all parties could participate in a process which would provide perspective on their actions and set forth a set of unified goals.

John Van Dyk understands this mindset as it relates to our Christian schools. The words reflection and reflective appear several times on every page. He summons all teachers, administrators, school boards, and parents to be intentional about what their schools are doing. He calls on all parties – including the students themselves – to initiate and maintain a culture of reflection – a mindset in which reflection becomes habitual, second nature. 

One might ask initially, Is it not enough that the Christian community consists of people who are baptized, who forgive and are forgiven, and about whom we can assume that, with these givens, a Christian pedagogy will emerge? Can’t we assume that the pedagogical dance and dancer are one and the same? What can come from reflection on reflection? Isn’t that a logical formality, like thinking about thinking? Can reflection be more than sensitivity, or a set of reminders? And can’t we assume that those who teach have absorbed the reflections of many educators during their own years of schooling? And how can we measure the intangible dimensions of reflective thought?

Educator Van Dyk insists that far more effort must go into reflection than presently takes place. He sets forth the many obstacles which keep the Christian community from doing the thorough reflection and taking the appropriate action that will truly build the Kingdom of God, to which we are committed. We are confronted by a world of pragmatism, dualism, postmodernism, self-gratification. We are confronted by a Western mentality of materialism, consumerism, competition, idolatries such as sports and worship of celebrities. Teachers and administrators must deal with the “tyranny of the urgent” – with schedules, demands of accrediting agencies, standardized testing, and the format of the textbook. School boards have little time to do more than to keep the school afloat, financially and physically. Teachers expend tremendous energy dealing with students of all sorts – each student with her own method and pace of learning and character traits. Where does a teacher find the time to engage in systematic reflection? Moreover, not all teachers are intellectually equipped to carry out such a demanding regimen of self-evaluation. 

Prof. Van Dyk does not pose reflection as an option. It is not to be a mere add-on. It is to be systematic, and ongoing. The alternative is unreflective attitudes, methods, priorities – and these can grievously hamper the work of equipping students for service in God’s Kingdom. Van Dyk’s program consists of three parts: (1) foundational reflection, (2) reflection applied, reflection in action, and (3) reflective review.

To make his case, Van Dyk becomes a dramatist, a maker of fiction. He imagines a generic Christian school – Maplewood School he will call it – which has invited him to spend a year on the campus launching a program of reflective activities. He will have us undergo “a willing suspension of disbelief” as he guides the Christian school community through a school year. Thus, he relies heavily on narrative to bewitch us into supposing that this is a real school and that he is directly involved in its ongoing life. He controls the whole drama, from start to finish. He devises many strategies. He has his daughter, Lisa, serve as a liaison between him and the teachers. Sometimes she warns him: don’t get too rigid, Dad; be more flexible, keep things a bit fuzzy. He contrives many tea parties and conferences, and he is not averse to taking the last cookie. He gives his impressions about how things are going. Sometimes “the buzz” in the faculty room is all about reflection, then, again, to his chagrin, interest languishes. He questions himself keenly. 

Sometimes he confesses to uncertainty about this or that solution to a problem. Sometimes he says, “This may be a stupid question, but I will ask it anyway.” He asks himself, Can there be a variety of reflective styles? He supposes there can be. And he creates discord between himself and at least one teacher, Alex, who becomes his devil’s advocate, a burr under the saddle. He has Alex confess to him, as mentor, that he finds all this process of reflection too cumbersome, and not particularly relevant – and warns him that he may not sign next year’s contract. Thus, if at times discursive passages strain the fictional illusion, it must be said that Van Dyk has thought long and hard about his proposal and has looked at various problems from every possible angle. (His list of research studies at the end of the book is solid and impressive).

And in his forty chapters Van Dyk engages, in this creative way, the highlights of an academic year. What highlights? They range from teachers’ retreats and orientation to a meeting with the board; from parent teachers’ conferences to dealing with winter doldrums; from extra-curricular activities to proms and graduation; from contract time to “senioritis”; from grading to the curriculum. He creates a teaching moment when he has one of the problem students killed in an accident. How should a school respond to such an event?

In all of these situations he posits the question, Why are you doing this, and what do you hope to achieve? Have you thought about this activity, and viewed it in terms of deep foundational principles as well as in the more immediate context of this event?

He does more than leave the reader with questions. Understandably, he has an agenda. His recommendations are provocative. School boards should become involved in educational philosophy. Evaluation should be carried out – but grades? Probably not. He disapproves of competition, and the gold tassel on the mortar board of stellar students. How about the sports mania? 

Well, let’s set up a panel of students, and ask them whether they really would like to extend their basketball season to the very end – winning the tournament championship. Is it worth the cost? Are our proms secularized versions of what occurs in other schools? Can’t we do better than that? How about, at graduation time, having several students provide a statement of their beliefs and how the school has deepened their faith? And is this what you really want a visitor to see when he enters your school – a case of trophies and a rock star poster? As for “senioritis” and “the doldrums” – channel these phases into more productive attitudes, such as service assignments for the first, and some playful metaphors for the second. And maybe children should accompany the parents to parent-teachers’ conferences. Get to know your students well, and teach them in the matrix of the greatest virtue – the gift of love. 

To reinforce what he has done during his tour at Maplewood School, Van Dyk offers extensive notes by way of reinforcement of his thesis – that a school community which fails to incorporate the discipline of systematic and ongoing reflection is not living up to its high privilege of being an agent commissioned to advance the Kingdom of God in our time. 

Did you ask about Maplewood? Reflection is alive and well, we are told. The school is on a roll.

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