Putting the Bible First
- Monday, February 27, 2006
"How old are your kids?" asked Cordelle, a woman I had met at church and now bumped into at our local homeschool support group. She had three well-behaved, respectful, academically-advanced children a few years older than my two oldest.
"Six and seven," I replied. Her face lit up.
"Oh! You’re just starting! Just remember, for the first few years, you do Bible. Don’t worry about anything else, just Bible, Bible, Bible!" she exclaimed, punctuating her words by slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other.
I smiled, thanked her and moved on, wondering what on earth she meant. My children were highly intelligent; I was going to take advantage of that and get them ahead of their grade level. They would be poster-children for homeschooling, reading Shakespeare by third grade and dabbling in Algebra by fourth.
A week later, as I watched my poster-children squabbling over a pencil, her words came back to me. Maybe there was something to it, I thought. What I was doing certainly wasn’t working. Most days, when my students weren’t fighting with each other, they were disappearing every time I turned my back or arguing with me about whether or not we were actually going to do school that day. What was my goal anyway? Was it worth this uphill battle just so I could boast that my children were ahead a grade in their schoolwork?
I thought back to my own school career: I had skipped a grade in early elementary school. Rather than making me a more successful adult by getting me out of school a year early, it had contributed to my feelings of not fitting in, of not understanding social rules that my peers, who were developmentally ahead of me by a year, seemed to "get" without thinking about.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the honors classes I took in high school did less for my success as a young adult than the Christian clubs I attended. What I learned about real life and how to cope with it, I learned directly from studying the Bible, from discussions with the leaders of the groups, or I picked up from the other kids in the group. When I was in my early twenties, my middle-aged co-workers sometimes asked me for advice, but it wasn’t advice on writing the perfect five-paragraph essay that they were seeking. It was Biblical wisdom; I had an edge on understanding how people ticked and how life worked that didn’t stem from the A I earned in Psychology 101.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to equip my children with an understanding of why it mattered before I pushed them into studying great literature? Wouldn’t history make more sense with a point of reference to tie it all together, seeing God’s hand in history rather than just learning a list of facts? On a practical level, it occurred to me that if I gave Bible memorization and character-training the highest priority in our homeschooling, it would make teaching the academics easier. I had the Holy Spirit on my side; maybe it was time to invite Him into what I was doing instead of thinking I had to do it on my own. I decided to give Cordelle’s idea a try.
The first thing I did was to change our school day. Instead of pulling out the math books first, we sat on the couch and I read aloud from the Bible. My children complained at first that they were sick of Bible stories, having attended Sunday School their whole lives, which was why I chose the Bible itself over a book of Bible stories.
Every day we read a section of the Gospel of John (usually less than one chapter), and then we talked about it. Some days we would get into deep theological discussions, and some days my children would come up with surprising applications from their own lives. My visually-oriented child insisted on sitting next to me, following along, while my kinesthetic jumping bean of a child needed to lie on the floor and draw as I read. Some days it took less than half an hour to read the passage and talk about it, and then we were on to academics; other days inspiration would hit and we would jump up and act out a scene or a parable, or draw pictures about what we’d read, or speak at length about what-if situations or real-life situations, hammering out what our responses should be.
When we finished the book of John, my children begged for more of the story of the gospel, so we moved on to Acts. After that we went through Genesis and Exodus, and they were amazed to discover that the Bible stories with which they were so familiar really were there in the Bible. Hearing the stories come out of our readings of the actual text gave them greater understanding than they had had before and they started to see how it fit together.
Next I added a Bible verse memorization program designed specifically for elementary-aged kids. Each week we focused on one verse and read passages from the Bible that applied to the concept in it. As they started memorizing verses about not complaining, not arguing, working hard, telling the truth, respecting authority and many other concepts important to their day-to-day lives, I noticed a change in their behavior. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t immediately dramatic, but a change did indeed occur. They even surprised me sometimes by quoting a verse when they were explaining why they had made a particular decision to behave well or be obedient.
One year I typed 1 Peter 2:5-7 into a word processing program and blew the type up so big that one landscape page had only a word or two on it. We read the verses and talked about them first, and then I printed out two pages per week, amounting to only three or four words. Each child decorated their page to their taste (which resulted in some rather interesting artwork that unfortunately often had nothing to do with the words). I also showed them how to pick apart the meaning of the words using an exhaustive concordance. To this day they remember that the word "goodness" in that verse is also translated as "virtue" and means doing a hard job well because it’s the right thing to do, in the sense of soldiers going off to war to protect their country. We taped the pages in order around the top of our dining room walls, and every guest for dinner that year would spend the meal reading about goodness, brotherly kindness, perseverance and other virtues (and undoubtedly wondering what spaceships had to do with self-control).
Now that my two oldest are approaching middle school, they already have a habit in place of studying the Bible. My son is a typical preteen who doesn’t want to do anything that might look uncool, but he has no qualms about reading his Bible and studying it. My daughter confided in me the other day that her heart’s desire in life is to be a "Godly girl." Neither of them is perfectly well-behaved; they both have their moments and I wonder how I will ever get the Bible verses they have memorized out of their heads and into their hearts.
Before I despair completely, however, I am usually reminded how many years I have been studying the Bible and how many areas in which I still struggle, and I realize that it’s not my job to convict them. All I have done is help them get the words into their heads; the Holy Spirit is the one who pulls the words out at the appropriate times and convicts them of their sin. While I can’t be God to them, I have at least capitalized on the period of their development where they were most equipped to memorize by packing their brains full of Scripture. As they now enter the phase of development where they begin to ask questions and reason, their brains are full of ammunition for the Holy Spirit to pull out and apply to their hearts.
As my third child is now beginning her elementary years, I began pulling out old curriculum and revisiting books I hadn’t touched in a few years. I was excited to visit familiar ground again, determined to fill in the gaps and cover the areas I felt I could have done better with my first two. Our first day of official "School," after a 15-minute crying jag where she insisted that she really didn’t need to be a big girl and should be allowed to just play all day, I remembered again Cordelle’s words of wisdom. Putting aside the phonics flashcards, I pulled out a Bible and read the story of Samuel being called by God. My daughter was captivated with the idea that God spoke to a young child. We had to read the story three times and later in the day she wanted to draw pictures of it. It was the first spark of a love for God’s Word that I hope to fan into flame over the next few years, because while I have yet to discover in which area of academia she will excel, I know that no matter what she ends up doing, a foundation set firmly in Scripture will not crumble.
Julia Schmidt has been homeschooling for six years and is the editor of her local homeschooling academy’s newsletter. She and her husband Alan live with their four children in Southern California.
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