How Mennonite education yields high grades in life formation
Playing basketball at Iowa Mennonite School (IMS) in Kalona, Iowa, did not yield many wins for Aliese Gingerich and her teammates.“ If I were playing basketball to win games, I would not have been playing at IMS,” Gingerich says. “But over the four years of playing together, we learned how to use our losses to bring us together rather than
tear us down; we learned how to support each other, maintain a positive attitude and
keep God central in our ambitions.”
She goes on: “Because our entire school reinforced compassion and respect for others, it was easier to do that on the team. … When you are part of a smaller school that needs everyone to be part of some activity, you learn to branch out and be more comfortable with yourself and others.”
It wasn’t only the academics in the classroom—as important and excellent as they were—that were formative for Gingerich. Countless interactions outside the classroom with friends, coaches, teachers and mentors set her in good direction for her future, she says.
“Invisible curriculum” hidden but powerful: Gingerich is one of hundreds of students in elementary and secondary schools across Mennonite Church USA who is encouraged to develop emotionally, socially and spiritually as well as academically. Faculty and staff in schools belonging to Mennonite Schools Council (MSC) strive to value students as gifted people, created and loved by God.
In turn, students are encouraged to develop attitudes of peaceful living, serving and growing in communities of grace, joy and peace that transcend their formative years as they move beyond their home communities into young adulthood.
That shaping starts as early as birth, says June Hershberger, director of Diamond Street Early Education Center in Akron, Pa., a ministry of Akron Mennonite Church. The center is a member of MSC and the Mennonite Early Childhood Network, an organization that provides information and support for parents and early educators of children, birth through kindergarten.
Hershberger helps her staff identify and embody those aspects of their school that give them the added and often invisible value of an Anabaptist perspective.
“John D. Roth, in his new book, Teaching That Transforms, describes the ‘invisible curriculum’ that includes teachers who are full of joy and curiosity that becomes contagious with the children,” she says. “He also describes how the soil in which Anabaptist classroom pedagogy takes root needs to be carefully cultivated and tended throughout the entire school.
“Everyone on site—the janitors and people in the kitchen as well as teachers and administrators—must care about the children’s development. … This pedagogy is also developed in a culture of worship and attentiveness to tradition as well as a focus on conflict reconciliation.”
The conflict resolution endeavors at Diamond Street make the “invisible curriculum” visible for Rosa Pérez Perdomo and Hommy Perdomo, who have enrolled their children—Isabelle, 2, and Sebastian, 4—at the center. The couple is especially grateful for how the center has helped their son become more peaceful and cooperative at school and at home.
“Our son, who has a more difficult time with transitions than other children his age, was enrolled in a large, very high-tech preschool,” Rosa Pérez Perdomo says. “But he was not able to adjust, and we were getting calls to pick him up in the middle of day.
“But we haven’t gotten one call since we moved him to Diamond Street. I attribute that to loving teachers who care about him and nurture him in all his social and emotional development. … The other school didn’t seem to have what Diamond Street has—teachers who see their teaching as a calling rather than just a job.”
Peacemaking shaped by model of Christ, Scriptures and social-service trips: Mennonite schools seek faculty and staff who see their jobs as a calling to provide excellence in academics as well as life skills such as peace- and community-making. This is especially crucial in an urban setting where violence can tend to be more concentrated and communities can tend to be less cohesive, says Barbara Moses, principal of Philadelphia Mennonite High School.
“From birth on up, the entire culture around them models that when you have a conflict, you fight,” Moses says. “From home to television to the city streets to the world, all they often see is people at war. … Since all conflicts can’t be totally resolved, we train our students to better manage conflicts through using new skills, behaviors and attitudes.”
The school provides a conflict management class for all ninth graders. Some students in 10th grade teach their new skills to fifth and sixth graders at Carnell Public Elementary School on Friday afternoons, she says. The program is in cooperation with Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
But a focus on peace- and community-making is just as important for suburban schools that travel beyond their communities. For example, Lake Center Christian School in Hartville, Ohio, has instituted an annual mission trip to the Dominican Republic, a program called “Meeting God in Missions.” Homerooms have students pray for one junior or senior going on the trip before, during and after the experience.
Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, Va., sponsored Discovery 2011. A group of 40 students last summer learned about environmental issues as they explored many environments across the United States.
Sophomores at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pa., take a field trip into Philadelphia to connect with historical sites and experience the urban setting. Juniors take a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., to focus on rich-poor, powerful-powerless dichotomies as part of a Social Issues class. Both trips are part of the school’s four-year “building community” curriculum, which culminates with the senior “kingdom living” experience that includes job shadowing and service experiences—locally and globally.
Jeff Hackman, a U.S. history and economics teacher at Dock who has led many of the three-day trips, says: “The homeless people they meet frequently don’t fit the stereotype because some of them are college graduates from middle-class backgrounds who had good incomes but lost jobs due to changing family or economic circumstances. They learn that homelessness can happen to anyone.”
Ron Hertzler, a religion and social studies teacher at Dock, has also led many such trips. He says: “These trips are excellent opportunities for getting kids out of the classroom and into the settings where history actually happened, such as standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
The arts as well as social, historical and service opportunities help form Mennonite students, says Allan Dueck, principal for Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Ind. He cites how the annual MSC music festival also provides broadening experiences for students. This year, the festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary at Central Christian School in Kidron, Ohio.
“This event is a cross-pollination of schools,” he says. “Students see that they are not a tiny microcosm unto themselves in their home communities, where they feel strange because they are being taught to see the world differently from peers who go to public schools..
“Rubbing shoulders with Mennonite kids from across the United States as well as students from Puerto Rico help them identify and own a commonality of Christian values among diversity in culture and background.”
One-on-one mentoring most powerful influence of all: As powerful as the large-group experiences are, one-on-one mentoring can be the most powerful, says Dueck. For example, Bethany sponsors a mentoring program that matches a teacher and a student for the middle school years and another mentor for the high school years.
Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite School (LMS) faculty, staff and students agree with how powerful one-on-one relationships can be that happen in unstructured and serendipitous moments between classes, during extracurricular activities, service trips and informal Bible studies on and off campus.
“One of the greatest blessings of my years at LMS was the encouragement and support from my teachers,” says Isaiah Rivera, a 2011 LMS grad. “Teachers such as Marcella Hostetler, Dean Sauder and Kris Horst really encouraged me to live my life for Christ, to follow my dreams and to excel in whatever it is I love and want to do in the future.”
Many LMS senior presentations identified Kris Horst, a high school English teacher, as someone who helped with his caring presence.
“I think mentoring is part of living out the Anabaptist value of informal discipling that happens as we befriend each other,” Horst says. “The Anabaptist model of community, while it considers what we believe and what we know to be important, puts a higher value on how we practice those beliefs in our relationships.
“A lot of students have great relationships with their parents and their congregations, but they want that extra sounding board. … Mentoring from teachers helps make the home, school and church experience more seamless as they make decisions today that will impact tomorrow.”
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan., and the author of Forever Family.