Lincoln’s Legacy

Just over four years ago, I served as one of the Eastern Mennonite High School faculty sponsors on a trip with over forty of our seniors to Washington, D.C. For three days in October 2016, students and teachers toured the capital. A highlight of the trip was visiting the Lincoln Memorial, seen here with my students. I like this photo because the future belongs to them. Lincoln called for and wrote about unity in the country, and he wrote that a country divided against itself cannot long stand. While Lincoln had his faults, he nevertheless continues to inspire me to work toward unity in this country.

Lucy F. Simms

The grave marker for Lucy F. Simms (1856-1934) in the Newtown Cemetery, Harrisonburg, Va. Lucy Simms taught school in Harrisonburg for 58 years without missing a day. Lucy Simms was born into slavery, made her way to Hampton Institute for her training, and then taught three generations of students in Newtown, in the northeast section of Harrisonburg. After reading a new biography about Lucy Simms, I decided to pay my respects to this long-term and highly respected educator.

Working During a Pandemic

I try to light a candle in the darkness whenever I can, even in my work. Perhaps especially in my work. The apostle Peter wrote that we’ve been called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). So what’s my work, and what’s this light?

My day job is teaching high school students world history and the Bible. Today, I’ll meet 19 bright and eager juniors in AP World History Modern. It’s the most academic driven course I teach, with a national College Board curriculum. In that world history curriculum, I tell stories of saints, missionaries, and those who spoke for the downtrodden and oppressed. Today I’ll tell the story of Bartolome de Las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican friar who worked in the Caribbean, challenging the Spanish government to stop the brutal enslavement of indigenous peoples and slaves.

My work is also to collaborate and work with the faculty at my high school. These are my friends, my cohorts, and colleagues. They encourage me, give me insights, and help me to laugh at kids and life. Recently I was invited to share a Christmas devotional with the entire K-12 faculty and staff at EMS.

This fall, I worked to help bring a little light to a food pantry near Washington, D.C. Capital Christian Fellowship needed more food boxes, and so the National Honor Society students and sponsors, of which I am one, engineered a food drive to fill 80 boxes. It was fun to see them loaded on a pickup truck and driven to the church.

Another element of my ongoing work is to produce a quarterly journal, Shenandoah Mennonite Historian. The next issue features the Show Towel of a young Mennonite bride from Rockingham County, Va., who made a beautiful work of art for her groom to be. The date on the Show Towel is 1826.

My work, flowing out of the apostle Peter’s writing, is to declare the praises of God, who called me out of darkness into his marvelous light.

My work includes writing a Trissels Mennonite Church bicentennial history book. I spoke recently at a Virginia State historical marker sign dedication at Trissels Road and Route 42, Rockingham County, Va. Seventh generation descendants of the earliest Mennonite settlers to the Linville Creek attended the event on a blustery Sunday afternoon in November 2020. The sign, describing Trissels’ bicentennial, marks the first in a series of celebratory events over the next two years.

What I learned from teaching online

I Can Do This: On my desk is a generous stack of affirmation cards from my students at the end of a difficult semester of online instruction. Without warning, on-campus classes were suspended, and we went online beginning March 17, 2020. For eleven weeks, I taught five courses, with eighty-five students, in a distance learning environment. I can do this new style of instruction.

I Prefer the Classroom: Education that works mostly requires human interaction and dialogue. While I can teach history and Bible classes online, it’s the classroom setting that drew me to the profession in the first place. I much prefer a live classroom setting where I can encourage, direct, and instruct. History is a series of stories that need to be told through a human voice, not the pixels of an idle screen. I much prefer teaching in-person to online.

The Future Will Not be Like the Past: At the end of this semester, June 7, 2020, it is clear that the future of education will not be like it has been in the past. At our school, we are prepared to teach on campus or online, at a moment’s notice. Education at the high school level has changed fundamentally, such that to say we’ll go back to “normal” won’t work. We don’t know what the future holds, but teachers will still be needed, whether online or in cyberspace.

Teaching history and Bible classes at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, March 25, 2020

Daphna Creek Gospel Bluegrass Band

“Cast Out Your Net,” an original song by Elwood Yoder, from a 2003 Daphna Creek Gospel Band recording

In Luke 5, we read the story of disciples whom Christ asked to put out into the deep. There, Jesus, told them, they should let down their nets for a catch. When they indeed made a very large catch, they were astonished. We are encouraged to move into the deep water in life, put down our nets, and then acknowledge the one who makes us fishers of people.

“Look for the Flame,” an original song by Elwood Yoder, from a 2003 Daphna Creek Gospel Bluegrass band recording
“Angels in Disguise,” an original song by Elwood Yoder, from a 2006 Daphna Creek Gospel Bluegrass band recording, Gospel Tracks
“Daphna’s Big Day,” an original song by Elwood Yoder, from a 2006 Daphna Creek Gospel Bluegrass band recording, Gospel Tracks

Everything has changed in Education

Today the small private school in Virginia where I work turned itself upside down and we teachers began instructing students online. This happened in less than the space of a week, as the United States and the world met the invisible coronavirus. One day last week I taught my students in a regular classroom, with tables, chairs, and a Smartboard. Today is the first in my career of thirty-eight years that I’m teaching all my eighty-seven students online. I have five preparations, though our school only expects me to “meet” them twice a week, which will help we teachers build into this new era.

I’ve taught an online class for almost ten years, and I’ve learned that to teach online, and to do it well, actually takes more time than teaching in a conventional manner. I’m prepared, however. A few years ago, I earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. The program was entirely online. With that experience and the tools I’ve collected to teach a high school class online, I feel prepared.

This morning I uploaded my first three teaching videos to our school YouTube Channel. I’ve had many views of those videos, as I think parents, tutors, and administrators are looking at my work, as they should. I’ve answered many emails from students today, getting them up and running. Everything has changed for my students. I think some will thrive in the new learning environment, while others will not. I’m organized and like working in my home study, while others work best being around people, and may get frustrated working in cyberspace.

Everything has changed in education in my community and the United States. It’s time to see where this goes, how it changes education, and whether I can effectively teach in this new modality. I am optimistic that it can happen, and I eagerly look forward to the new challenges that lie ahead. My classroom has long been my center for instruction, meeting students, music, and prayer. Now, my study, with computers, software, and a learning management system, is my new classroom. When I graduated from college I did not have a personal computer, cell phone, or email address. In the space of four decades, the changes have been mostly for the good, though we shall see where this new era takes us in education.

My students got the lesson in restorative justice

Once in a while, my students get it. I had a moment of joy when my 9th grade Bible class made a justice connection between two events–it’s part of what keeps me teaching.

On a Friday afternoon (October 25, 2019), I took my 14-year-old students downtown Harrisonburg to visit a newly established coffee shop, which is raising money to help people reenter society successfully after being released from prison. The pastors in charge of the coffee shop stood on the sidewalk, with the Court House and jail visible, and explained their vision of restorative justice. They were raising money to help people who come out of incarceration to get a second chance, to help them more successfully integrate back into society. It was one of those moments that made all the logistics work of setting up a field trip worth the time and effort. My students learned about restorative justice on the street, with United Methodist pastors putting shoe leather to their theological beliefs.

In the very next class period, on Monday, Caleb Schrock-Hurst, twenty-three, and recently returned from MCC service in Vietnam, challenged my students to consider serving others. Caleb came onto our campus for two days, under a lecture series we have at the school. He returns to serve with MCC in Vietnam in early November. Caleb is doing academic editing work in Hanoi, helping MCC recognize 65 years of working in the Southeast Asian country.

One bright ninth-grade student asked Caleb if he had heard the voice of God, directing him to serve in Vietnam. No, Caleb replied, he had received counsel to sign up with MCC, he had grown up serving with his family in a Philippines MCC assignment, and his sister and her family served the poor in Indonesia. For Caleb, he explained, service was a way of life. There had been no audible voice of God that he heard.

At our school, we have a culture of restorative justice. It’s woven into the educational methods of how we work with students on both the micro and macro levels. Last year, I helped with a large circle process to work through difficulties in one of the classes.

So at the end of the class period, after Caleb answered a host of questions about Vietnam, I showed the class a photo of us standing on the street corner the previous Friday, talking about restorative justice. “What’s the connection,” I asked, “between selling coffee and tea to help folks getting out of jail, and what Caleb is doing in Vietnam?” Immediately they piped up and made the analysis. “Caleb is working at restorative justice issues in Vietnam, like the pastors in Harrisonburg are with their coffee shop,” one student articulated.

It’s those moments that make all the prep work, all the planning, all the everyday work of teaching worth it. My students made the connection between a justice ministry in Harrisonburg to Hanoi, Vietnam, where an MCCer is going for another year of service. I hope my students never forget this lesson, and I pray that one or more of those students will one day join MCC and serve in an international setting.

Harrisonburg Square, October 25, 2019