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Carla Zastrow on Seventh Graders and the Psalms During COVID-19

In this episode, Carla Zastrow, teacher at Zeeland Christian School, talks about how 80 seventh graders and their teachers engaged the Biblical psalms during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Episode transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

In this episode, John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, interviews Carla Zastrow, middle school teacher from an inclusive-education Christian school offering immersive instruction in Mandarin, Spanish, or English language. Together they explore how eighty seventh-graders and their teachers engaged the biblical psalms through the use of a bilingual picture book, En la escuela de los Salmos / At Psalm School, during the COVID-19 crisis and the pivot to online learning.

John Witvliet: 

I'm so pleased today to be in conversation with Carla Zastrow, Zeeland Christian School. Carla, thanks for engaging in this conversation about the psalms.

Carla Zastrow: 

Happy to do it.

John Witvliet: 

We at the Worship Institute are grateful to be listening and learning with you because as all your students went home to quarantine for COVID, the psalms became very important. Could you tell us the story of how you engaged your students with the psalms and how that went?

Carla Zastrow: 

We were part of a regular curriculum where we were rotating between three teachers, and we realized immediately that that was going to be too complicated with distance learning. So we had to find a new format, and I was reminded of the beautiful book I had received at the CEA [Christian Educators Association] convention and Psalms was part of our curriculum. And so I looked at that book again and just felt God saying, "Kids need this." And getting in contact with you and getting it into their hands was a great tool for us because the way the book is presented, it shows the kids the psalms, but it shows too that some of them are meant to show forgiveness, some of them are meant to show listening to God, some of them are meant to sing praises, et cetera.

So for us, it was not only a learning tool, but it was a tool that we could use all at the same time, and they all had access. And it was based in Psalms, which was a core part of our curriculum. But mainly because we knew they would connect so powerfully to the artwork based on their learning styles, just starting to become abstract thinkers, some of them more so than others, being very visual, this generation is, we knew it was the right tool for the right time. When I first received the book, I had showed it to my co-teacher at the time and we loved it. And we had handed it off to our teacher who works with kids with special needs and she had been using it. When I reminded him of that book, he said, "Absolutely; this would be a great connection." We'd all be doing the same thing instead of three different things. And we knew too that the families in our situation would all be very connected with the psalms and familiar with them so that we wouldn't have to be reteaching a lot of material in order to get them connected right away.

John Witvliet: 

Then to help picture this, I'm thinking there are about . . . how many seventh-graders would have been engaged with it?

Carla Zastrow: 

80.

John Witvliet: 

So you have 80 seventh-graders, and three, four instructors involved in some way?

Carla Zastrow: 

Three instructors, but we also had our special needs director involved because he was helping us adapt everything for certain students. We had our resource room teacher involved adapting as well. And at our school what is unique is that we have three languages--we have Mandarin, Spanish, and English---but having the Spanish as part of it, too, sent the message to the kids, which they immediately caught on to, of  "this book has access for everyone." But then we help them think a step further: but what if this book was in a Spanish-speaking country realized they're worshiping the same God we're worshiping. And that was a kind of, Oh! They look to themselves always in middle school, thinking, oh, this is cool. It fits with our school. But we were helping them to see people across the world are worshiping in all these different languages. And this book happens to have two of them.

John Witvliet: 

Beautiful. There are students in the [seminary] class that will be engaging this. We have students who might be able to contribute the Mandarin actually, and maybe Cantonese, Korean, and Arabic while we're at it.

Carla Zastrow: 

That would be fantastic. And I think it would push the message too that we're all worshiping the same powerful, wonderful God.

John Witvliet: 

I'm picturing these 80 students plus teachers, you're in all your different homes. There's the sudden change, the anxiety, the disappointment. Can you say a bit about the points of spiritual connection and I think it's important to--I'm sure many students, like all of us on certain days, engage online, we kind of dial it in. So I'm sure there were some days where it was like that. But I have a sense from seeing some of the materials that you sent and testimonies from the students, that there were points of profound connection with those vulnerable emotions.

Carla Zastrow: 

There were. And on Fridays we would have the kids do a week reflection and they would post it to their blog so that their families, their grandparents could connect in and read their blog and see what they had been thinking. And in those reflections--and as teachers, we rotated through reading different classes and we would comment on each one and email the students back--one of the big things that came out, which I loved, was hope. With reading the psalms, a lot of them said there is hope. This gave me a bright light. Reading this one today made me think we can get through this. There were also ones where they would say that made me think deeper. I had always read that on a surface level. And again, we're dealing with seventh graders. So some of them were so profound and some of them were very face-value responses, but the hope stuck out most to me.

The one, too, that stuck out is they said, I'm realizing that these have maybe more than one meaning, 'cause right now this means this to me, but when we talked about it in Sunday school, I didn't catch it then. So there are times, too, where they said, Oh, God's people back in when this was written, struggled and we're struggling now. So I loved the connection they were having to the timeframe when it was written.

Some of them, on the "Sing Praise" one, they were like, it was so interesting that the animals were singing praise. And I didn't ever think about animals singing praise. And then we talked about how being you, created by God, brings him glory and praise. So what do you have--something different than the animals, clearly--that you can use to bring praise. I know too, that during that time, the news was starting to spike up about a jogger [Ahmaud Arbery] who had been killed. And some kids were connecting with the forgiveness piece, and Jeff Minkus, my co-teacher, walked them through "forgive me, but also forgive us as a community, as a group, for things that we are struggling with. And so forgiveness was another theme that came out, I'd say hope and forgiveness and praise were the three biggies.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

John Witvliet: 

Many students in a seminary class would likely to be thinking, "Now how can I better connect with seventh graders?" So as a seventh-grade teacher, what advice would you offer to seminary students about connecting with seventh-graders?

Carla Zastrow: 

I'm a firm believer in first understanding their brain, and it's at a very different place than the adult brain. And we are very aware of that. But in general, to connect with seventh-graders, you have to be blunt honest. They are misreading your facial cues half of the time, so you have to say it directly: "I am feeling this. This is what this says." They're just beginning to be able to interpret correctly. So sometimes you have to point that out to them, but I always give them the chance to do that first. You have to have a full-blown sense of humor. Some, like I said, when I was trying to make the country music connection, you know, sometimes you have to laugh, but you have to have a full-blown sense of humor, but you also have to take them very seriously. They are very me-centric at this time. And so our goal is always to get them to, you know, take a step out, look at the bigger picture, think beyond yourself type of thing, because they are very inward-focused. They're very social at this point. So almost everything we do is, you know, "Show this to your little brother"--you know, when we were in distance learning--"and see if he can get the picture from it. Read this as part of your family devotions," because they need the people connection. And because it was harder to do--it worked on Zoom, but it's not the same. We were constantly trying to push people connection. And then relevance. If there isn't relevance, they're going to tune you out in a heartbeat. So we were constantly making connections to their lives, to their music, to their art. And so they're an interesting group. They are an amazing group. I love being with them, but you have to have a sense of humor. You have to be very direct. You have to make it relevant. And sometimes you have to flat-out show them what you're thinking after they've struggled with it.

John Witvliet: 

Could you say a bit about any adaptations? I'm thinking about the kind of universal design vision at Zeeland Christian School, inclusive education vision, but then adaptations that were made to make that work. How did that work out?

Carla Zastrow: 

Right. So first our students knew they had a direct contact to us and they had a direct contact to their special needs teacher, their teacher, the resource room teacher, et cetera. So they knew there was a person there, but because of distance learning a lot depended on the parents. But the way we worked it at at our school is, by Wednesday we knew our plan for next week; on Thursday, all those resource outside teachers looked at the plan and then we would have a document where we would type in, you know, for so-and-so, I think that this song, they aren't going to be able to go on the internet and Google songs or think of them. Here are three choices that they could listen to and choose from. Or this person for art--we know that they have difficulty with motor control, so you could show them four different pictures and say, what do you think about this?

So it was really individualized because we had very different needs like we do every year, but we're used to doing that. It's just second nature for us. So on Thursday, between the different resource teachers and ourselves, we had made the adaptations because on Friday, things were posted. So the parents knew what was coming the next week. And this year, to be honest, we had a involved parent who absolutely loved this. It was up her daughter's alley. The whole family became involved in the book, and she felt she could relate to it because it was a picture book and it was something she could connect to. We had one family not very involved at all, and we're still not sure what happened, but when we had drop-off/pickup day, we said, did you get your book? Did you enjoy it? And right away, they knew what we were speaking of and could talk about the pictures. And we had another situation where the child did everything that the typical student did because it was enjoyable.

John Witvliet: 

Wonderful. One of the things that I notice in church discussion about children's ministry in the last decade or so is there's more attention being given to coaching parents. A decade or two ago, people (would) identify our children's ministry coordinator, and that person would be thinking about the kids. And now more positions, if you look at job descriptions, will be focused on the kids and half of it on equipping parents. It sounds to me like that was a key piece here, too. Any advice or reflections on coaching parents to be a part of the team?

Carla Zastrow: 

That was a whole COVID experience in and of itself: which parents felt comfortable and natural in doing that, and which ones were just shaking their heads like, what do you mean? How do you do this? So yes, coaching the parents is huge. A lot of parents were in the mode of, we need to get this assignment done and turned in. And one of my favorite quotes was one that I sent you early on was from a mother who had to basically sit with her son on each assignment because of some reading issues, and after doing the first one with him said, "That book brought out conversations that never would have happened otherwise. And I am excited to do his Bible with him each day because of the connections I'm making with my son, with the scripture, and having conversations that would not normally have happened. And that was heartwarming to hear. But again, it was a willingness on a parent's part; it was a lot of emailing with me back and forth to adapt it for his learning.

The coaching piece is huge. Parents are not all confident, but to us it was a conversation starter. It was a devotional plug-in. It was a, "Hey look, little sibling, this picture, you guys just did that Bible story for your class" kind of thing. So it was a connecting piece and it made it easier for the parents, honestly, because of the artwork and the kids' engagement with the artwork. But again, the tie-in with the languages, our heads are reeling, we're jotting stuff down, we're thinking, how could we do this? We didn't get through the whole book. So we're like, do we narrow down the lessons? Do we expand them? You know, all those teacher things that are going through our head.

It's a terrific tool. It sparked so much, and that spark's not dying. It's continuing because of the power we saw it had giving the kids hope, getting them to think deeper. And again, I think they were surprised because they get this picture book in the mail and they think, "Picture book?" And in so many of the reflections were, "I hadn't thought of it this way; I used to think ___ but now I think ___; my mom said back in her day this," you know, and so it was a powerful tool that we'll continue to use. And for authors out there: tap into the middle-level teachers. A lot of people are afraid of the middle grades. Don't be, these kids are terrific. And when the spark goes off for them, it is a highlight of our days. And the spark went off a lot with the reflections that we got to read.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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