REA conference, part two

During the Friday afternoon breakout sessions of the annual Religious Education Association conference, I went to a colloquium that included three different presentations, on quite different subjects.

The first presentation was titled “Deepening Pedagogy to Adolescents,” and was presented by Carmichael Crutchfield of Memphis Theological Seminary, whose research area is African American adolescents.

Crutchfield began by quoting A Winter’s Tale where Shakespeare has a shepherd say that the most troublesome time in a person’s life is between the ages of 10 and 23:

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting… [Act III, scene iii]

This is just the time that neuroscientists now tell us that our brains are going through some major developments. He then read a passage which described how young people no longer treat their elders with respect — and then revealed that this very contemporary-sounding passage was actually written 2,500 years ago by Plato. So adolescence has long been a challenging time of life. “We are called, as practical theologians,” said Crutchfield, to “better understand adolescents.”

Crutchfield looked at various ways in which advances in neuroscience are deepening our understanding of adolescents. In one example, he pointed out that Piaget said that formal operations thinking, a developmental stage which happens in early to mid-adolescence, was the final stage of cognitive development; yet through the findings of neuroscience, we now know that’s not true. “The adolescent brain is a work in progress,” Crutchfield said.

Turning to pedagogy, Crutchfield cited Barbara Bruce, author of Our Spiritual Brain and other books, who says that a safe environment is critical for adolescent learning. Neuroscience shows how the hormone cortisol is released in stressful, unsafe situations. When adolescents feel threatened by a learning situation, cortisol is released, and it stays in the bloodstream for an extended period of time, and that in turn can interfere with memory and learning. Therefore, we should ensure the respect of all persons in the classroom, and set rules that eliminate put-downs and ridicule.

Citing Sheryl G. Feinstein, author of Secrets of the Teenaged Brain, Crutchfield reminded us that as educators, we’re not just innocent bystanders who stand by while merely observing the development of teenaged brains. Our job as educators is to create learning environments that will foster learning.

In response to a question, Crutchfield suggested that we should be sharing information about neuroscience not just with youth workers (youth ministers, youth advisors, etc.), but the adolescents themselves.

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The second presentation was given by Harold Horell, Mercedes Iannone, and Carl Procario-Foley, who spoke on the topic of “Abuse and Education and Formation (or Malformation) in Faith.” They were responding to domestic violence and sexual abuse from a religious education perspective.

Horell said that these topics have been explored extensively by pastoral counselors, but religious educators have a unique perspective that is important. While pastoral counselors are more involved in moving persons from healing to wholeness, religious educators are more involved with helping persons deepen their faith. It is important for religious educators and pastoral counselors work together.

Iannone pointed out that religious educators are practical theologians. Practical theologians ask: What’s the kind of world you want to live in, what is the good? Practical theology is theology for action, as opposed to traditional theology which aims to determine what is “true.” This being the case, confronting the scourges of sexual abuse and domestic violence should be within the scope of what we do as religious educators.

Procario-Foley then asked: How do we seek to foster healing and wholeness as religious educators and practitioners? For addressing sexual abuse and domestic violence, he suggested the method of ethnographic listening, or what we might also call deep listening. He said that deep listening may be difficult to use in regular religious education programs, and that deep listening is more easily used in retreat settings. “Great care must be taken by the educator or facilitator,” he said, to give utmost respect to the person telling the story.

In closing, Horell noted that because the issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence have an impact on society, addressing them in a religious education setting becomes teaching for social justice.

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Finally, Eileen Dailey presented an app she is developing, which will be available for the iPhone, iPad, and Android pohones. Called “art/y/fact.xtn” the app provides a wider context for engaging with Christian art. She’s aiming this at people who are going to museums and looking at Christian art. Because much of Western art uses Christian themes and subjects, she expects it could be used widely. The app does not assume any specific Christian stance, and in fact is designed for non-Christians as much as for Christians.

The app contains a great deal of text that explains and describes the major themes and characters of Christian art, using six basic categories like Jesus, Bible stories, saints and sinners, etc. She demonstrated the app for us, and it has a wealth of information arranged in easily digestible chunks. In addition to all the text, she has also included six audio guided meditations which can help users direct their attention to their inner thoughts and feelings as they look at the art.

Dailey has placed supplemental material for this colloquy on the REA Web site.

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