When it comes time to write curriculum maps, the faith integration area can be one of significant lament. We stare at our maps wondering “How did I integrate faith concepts into our study of prepositions?” We puzzle over the idea, bewildered. In the end, the column is filled in with a few quasi-related Bible verses and a philosophical statement about an idea we never actually asked the students to think about.

Let’s face it… how many times during our argumentative writing units did we really ask students to think about the ways Satan persuades us into sin?

Is it a great philosophical concept to consider? Absolutely! Is it something we want students to understand before they leave our schools? Without a doubt!

Did we open the Bible once as our students worked to write effective introductions and body paragraphs about the necessity of school uniforms and using cellphones in class? Ok, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong! There is absolutely merit in these types of conversations, and we absolutely should be having them with our students. But when the rubber hits the road and test scores loom over us and the Christmas musical comes and goes before you’ve even gotten through the first month of school, those philosophic concepts are often the first things to go.

At least there is still religion class, right?

When I first started teaching, I was blessed with the freedom to create a curriculum that fit my students, so long as my students were ready for the demands of high school and beyond. I went into teaching with a binder full of standards for my English classes, a plethora of textbooks and trade books to choose from, and a supportive administration. It was wonderful.

But even fresh out of a Christian college with a special diploma to teach at my Lutheran school, I had no idea how to really integrate faith into my teaching. The occasional Biblical conversation would pop-up as it related to a story we were reading, but the students never had to dig deep and understand their faith.

At the end of the day, I had included the Christian faith in my classroom through those fleeting conversations.

It took my first year of teaching to realize—and I’m still learning, to be sure—that there is a significant difference between inclusion and integration. The distinction is subtle.

Allow me the pleasure of being a word nerd for just a moment.

Merriam-Webster defines include as “to take in…as part of a whole or group.” Integrate differs only slightly and means to “coordinate, or blend into a functioning and unified whole.” Both definitions express the idea that different things are joined together with others. But integration is deeper than inclusion because it doesn’t just set two ideas side by side; it blends them together in such a way that they become inseparable.

With concrete examples, this distinction is clear and obvious.

When we ask our students to include others on the playground, we want them to allow others to participate in the group; we certainly don’t expect that they will no longer be able to function without their classroom counterpart.

Or take this example: if the brainstem were just included in the body… well, we would be dead. The brainstem is an integral and necessary component of the brain responsible for controlling many autonomic aspects of circulation, respiration, and consciousness (Joynt, 2020). It might be possible to live with an injured brain stem or one that is incomplete, but without one entirely, life could only be sustained artificially. It absolutely must be (and is thanks to the creative genius of our all-powerful God) integrated into the body.

Did you see the similarity between the word “integral” and “integrate” there? They share a Latin root—a root that means unified and whole.

In that first year of teaching, I was great at including the faith in my classroom. Faith was a part of the discussion in my classroom, often in the objective for the day where I told students that we studied language and grammar because it was part of God’s creation. (Hey… It’s a true statement at least, but if I’m being honest with myself, it wasn’t doing anything to help my students grow as disciples.)

If I had neglected to encourage the faith aspect of the conversation entirely, the content of my class was still solid. The faith component was not even close to being inseparable and integrated in my curricular choices.

In the Christian school, teaching the faith should not just be an optional footnote. A footnote faith is one that diminishes the wonder and power and creativity and provision that we know to be true of our God. Teaching the faith should be the integral core of what we do, completely inseparable from the skills our students are learning.

Teaching this way requires a mindset shift.

Backwards Design is an educational planning strategy that has been around in education far longer than many teachers have been alive, but was championed by Wiggins and McTighe in the 1990s. (My guess is that you’ve heard of them.) In this approach to education, the learning objectives for each unit are designed first. From there, teachers determine the academic activities needed to reach those goals. Largely, the academic standards that our schools adopt guide these learning objectives.

But integrating the faith must also start here. If we leave the faith integration column of our curriculum maps to the end, the faith is just an “inclusion” and it hasn’t been integrated at all; it’s just become a footnote on what might still be a highly engaging and rigorous unit. Our initial learning objectives must also include the faith in ways that will actually be taught.

One of my favorite novel studies that I conduct with my students is Tuck Everlasting. It’s not my love for the story that makes it my favorite unit, but the final project that my students create. This unit has three learning objectives:

  1. Students will understand the purpose and procedures of baptism in the Christian church.
  2. Students will write rhetorical arguments to analyze the symbolism of a text.
  3. Students will cite evidence from multiple texts to support inferential analysis.

Students demonstrate all of this learning by composing a literary analysis essay that responds to the prompt: Is the spring in Tuck Everlasting a symbol of Christian baptism?

To get to this end goal, there are hundreds of steps: taking notes, reading the novel, defining and practicing identifying symbolism, learning about the practices of baptism, assessing the motivations of the characters throughout the story, learning the components of an argumentative essay. This list is just a highly abridged sample of the types of activities that are included in this unit. What matters is reaching the end goal: that students have an understanding of baptism.

Through the process, students have learned the valuable critical thinking, writing, and inferencing skills required of our state standards. But more importantly they’ve learned about one of the core tenets of Christianity, about eternity, and about the perfection of heaven. And they’ve done all of this, not through a footnote venn diagram completed as an end of chapter activity, but by letting it be the focus of the entire novel study. In this unit, faith comes first. It is the faith component of the unit that so greatly increases its rigor.

Getting to this level of integration isn’t a quick walk in the park. It takes careful thought and planning. It requires a set of faith-based goals that everyone in your school is working towards. It requires prayer and perseverance. And it requires time.

I would be lying if I said every one of my units dug this deeply into Biblical principles. I’m still not sure how to make the Gospel message even “sort-of related” to grammatical concepts like prepositions. But I’m working towards that goal, one unit at a time.

For every unit I create, faith comes first. It can’t be the last column that I fill in on my curriculum maps.

If we want to inspire the next generation of passionate and courageous disciples, faith can’t become a footnote in our classrooms.

Works Cited

Joynt, R. (2020, February 5). brainstem. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/brainstem.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Include. In Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/include.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Integrate. In Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/integrate.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

Christina (Sereda) Sasso is the middle school English teacher at Grace Lutheran School in Huntsville, Alabama. After completing her undergraduate programs in English and Education at Concordia University Nebraska, Christina started her career in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where she discovered a passion for curriculum design. Following that love, Christina went on to study Curriculum and Instruction at Concordia University Portland, focusing on Bible Literacy.