This is my third year teaching at a school in the Kansas City area. Each of the past two years we have begun back-to-school teacher training with a sermon from a local pastor, a message reminding us of our duty to mold the children and young men and women in our charge.
This year my attention was particularly piqued by an idea from the sermon. The pastor asked us, “How do you fight cynicism?”
“Stay curious,” he followed up.
As teachers it is easy to become cynical towards human nature, but this isn’t just a teacher issue; people in general become cynical to human nature, even our own! And these critical attitudes are often amplified in a Christian context.
“His dad is a deacon!”
“She sings on the worship team!”
“I saw her acting so righteous last summer at Christian camp!”
“I’m supposed to be a Christian!”
We find it difficult to see past the moment, and one “bad apple” becomes a bushel until we feel impelled to echo Paul’s words in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one” (ESV).
However, this group of teachers gathered to be encouraged for the upcoming year, and we were challenged to fight cynicism by staying curious. Curious about what?
We must remain curious about the potential for good in each and every human being we encounter.
“For we are [God’s] workmanship,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus (ESV, Ephesians 2:10). Another translation says we are His “masterpiece” (NLT). In fact, the apostle Paul was an ardent advocate of grace. Why was he able to stay curious? Because he saw the great odds God overcame in saving him, a religious extremist with hands stained by the blood of his mission to persecute the early followers of the Way. “I was the worst sinner!” he declares to his protege (1 Timothy 1:15). “If God can save me, I want to stay curious about what He will do in all the lives of other ‘lost causes.'”
One of my favorite bands is Anberlin whom I’ve had the incredible opportunity to see live a few times, and I’m reminded of the song with which they’d finish all their performances: “*Fin.”
We’re not questioning God.
Just those he chose to carry on His cross.
We’re no better, you’ll see.
Just all of us, the lost causes.
Aren’t we all to you just lost causes?
Are we all to you lost?
So all we are to you,
Is all we are, is all we are
All we are is all we are
I’ve always been drawn to the faith and lyrical depth and authenticity (and power of Stephen Christian’s voice) present in Anberlin’s work, and “Fin*” is an anthemic reminder of our own lostness but also a subtle nod to God’s grace. If you listen closely to the tone and context, you too might hear the unhinging of that all-too-familiar phrase “lost causes.” Here “lost causes” is not a moniker of our worthlessness but rather our immense value that is identified by Him amidst our wandering. We are causes who are lost, but we are causes nevertheless. There is One who still sees us and pursues us.
I hope to stay curious this year. I hope by God that I abandon no lost cause because who am I, chief of sinners, to turn my back on anyone?
What you don’t hear on the album version of “Fin*” but what is sung at the end of their live shows is the final refrain of ultimate Christian hope:
“The time has come to revive an idea that once seemed natural: the student’s life as a Christian calling.”
Dr. Leland Ryken, author and professor, writes this in a chapter that he contributed to Liberal Arts for the Christian Life. For Ryken and many Christian educators (like myself), education is not a season of life meant to prepare people only for a career; instead, education–learning–is a calling, a vocation.
This is my third year as a professional school educator. (I use so many descriptors here because many of us are educators in varying capacities in other areas of life. For example, I was also educating as a college pastor for three years) I taught 10th-12th grade literature (and SAT prep) at a bilingual school in El Salvador, I taught 6th grade last year at SCA, and this year I moved back up into the high school realm, teaching 9th and 10th grade English. I am by no means an expert, but I have closely experienced the lives and attitudes of students over the past several years.
Unfortunately, for many students, learning is seen as a chore, a necessary evil in the natural progression of life aimed solely at a future career. I confess; I feed into that mentality too. Just yesterday I was explaining the benefits of taking grades seriously and adding academic extracurriculurs (such as being a tutor) as a means of boosting their future college applications. Truthfully, learning needs no justification. I’m not saying that learning is not justifiable; rather, we should not need to insist that the primary benefit of education is job attainment. Learning is a Christian practice.
“The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”
-John Milton, Of Education
Thankfully, education fits perfectly within a Christian worldview. Whereas learning might in fact be only utilitarian among some other worldviews, Christian education is a biblical model and mandate. As Milton notes in his famous tract on education, we humans are broken in our understanding of truth (vis-à-vis the Fall in Genesis 3), but Christian learning is a means by which we repair our knowledge and intimate relationship with God. The Bible is full of these examples and imperatives.
“Jesus grew in wisdom…” (Luke 2:52)
“Love the Lord your God with… all your mind…” (Luke 10:27)
“…Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)
So where is a good place to start reversing the narrow view of education? At home. Adults especially, those no longer studying in an educational institution, begin modeling lifelong learning as parents, as co-workers, as neighbors. Read books, learn languages, go to museums. If you’re a parent, let your kids “catch you” being a life-long learner. It will rub off and form positive habits in them.
At the height of his wisdom, Solomon was studying normal, supposedly non-spiritual things (we actually know that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular and that God is as much God over butterflies and algebra as He is over theology). All of this brings glory to God and grows us in our understanding of Him and His kingdom.
Now, I will add, don’t be blind to the pitfalls of knowledge: There is obvious evil apparent when knowledge becomes divorced from living (i.e. ivory tower approach). Redeemed learning, though, growing in wisdom and understanding in the context of Christian maturity, is fruitful and necessary.
someone please save us,
us college kids!
what my parents told me
is what i did
they said go to school and
be a college kid
but in the end
i questioned why i did
-Relient K, “College Kids”
It’s the time of year when seniors are sending off some last minute applications and juniors are starting to realize, “Oh hey! I actually need to start working on this.” This is the same for international students. In our eleventh grade SAT/College Prep class here in El Salvador we are discussing/workshopping successful college applications. Sometimes the strength of the college application can be the difference between being accepted or being rejected or wait-listed (the university equivalent to purgatory). Now, college admissions seem to be trending towards Common App type essays–short essays on a wide range of creative topics–rather than one, general essay outlining the applicants’ desires and merits for applying. But the latter form of admissions essay still exists. Regardless, I decided to post on here the contents of a document I put together for my students compiled from various resources and successful applications. The document can also be downloaded here.
Maybe this could help someone you know. Maybe this is you right now. Happy applying!
Things to Remember When Preparing Your College Application Essay
Creative. Attention-getting. If you are writing a competitive essay (of course there are universities with a high acceptance rate and the strength of the application essay is not that necessary for acceptance—but hey, why not “knock it out of the park” anyway?) JUST SAY NO to generic writing. What is generic? Well, of course application-readers are subjective, but no one wants to read some second-rate, copied-and-pasted Google search result. “I really want to study at your university. I’m really smart. You should pick me.” If that’s all you’re really saying, don’t waste everyone’s time by somehow turning that into 500 words. Finally, though statistics and quotes have been go-to attention-getters for years and years, I would recommend a better, post-modern approach: TELL STORIES! For example, instead of simply mentioning what you’re interested in studying, tell a story about how that passion was created in you. “When I was four years old my mom set me down in front of the television while she was cleaning the kitchen. It’s one of my first memories in life, but I remember staring entranced as ballet dancers glided across the stage, moving their bodies in a way I didn’t think possible. Ever since then, I knew I was supposed to be a dancer.” “If you’re not careful, your childhood toys might just dictate your future. I was sitting in my room with a brand new Lego set. Unbeknownst to me then, that Lego pirate-ship would initiate an unquenchable appetite for architectural design.” “I was dead. And then I was not. I had flat-lined, but the work of incredible doctors brought me back to life. That pivotal experience has created in me a desire to help others just as I was helped. I want to be a doctor.” This leads into the next point.
Application readers don’t care too much about how some random stranger has the sufficient grades to pass their classes. They want to know some special, unique individual will add to the rich cultural life of their university. Like the previous point, this is about telling stories. You don’t have to spend three quarters of your essay telling one long story, but you can weave in anecdotes as you go along. If you have unique life-experiences (maybe you’ve traveled lot) or you’ve overcome adversity or you come from a foreign country, the application reader should know that by the end of your essay.
Don’t just say you’re a hard-worker, a leader, independent, self-motivated, smart. These all sound great, but their just words until you can specifically state what makes you these. If you’re a leader, share that experience in which you led a group of peers for a shoe drive. Or mention that you typically take the lead in group assignments and get positive feedback for your contribution.
Answer the question/prompt
This may sound like a no-brainer, but make sure to address the question or prompt. If you are supposed to write why you would be a good candidate for the university and you only discuss your passion for engineering and how great of an engineering program the university has, you have not answered the prompt. Now, one might deduce that your passion for engineering is a reason why you are a good candidate, but it is the applicant’s job to be direct. Don’t make the reader play guessing games.
Share what YOU add to the program
This is related to the second point, be personal, but as you discuss strengths and such, make sure to share what you bring to the university that will enhance the environment. Do you bring a certain artistic creativity that is often lacking in engineering programs? How (be specific, remember)? Are you from another country? How does this increase the diversity and global atmosphere of the university? Let’s just be real; universities crave diversity. If that’s you, YOU BETTER MENTION THAT. But even if you’re not from another country, you have a unique, cultural heritage. For example, I went to a small university in a rural setting, but I graduated from high school in a metropolitan area. I brought to my university a more urban/suburban experience that was different than many of my peers.
State your career goals
Don’t just stop at your desired degree; share your career goals. As vulgar as it sounds, universities are businesses. They want their “brand” to be connected to the success of their students. So how will your career goals innovate that job or academic field? How will it positively impact that region of the world? I have a student who wants to revolutionize the fashion industry so that products are always sourced ethically, solving a major industry problem. Competitive universities that have the ability to be picky want to choose the type of students that will help their image. Conversely, state specifically how the university helps you achieve those goals/dreams.
Give your essay structure. Again, this isn’t a research paper, but you should still organize your thoughts. Below is a sample structure, and each new Roman numeral would make a simple paragraph break. Besides the introduction and conclusion, the structure doesn’t necessarily need to be in this order, but it needs to be organized and flow logically.
Sample College Application Essay Structure
(II) (optional) Why the university is great
This one isn’t always necessary, but for some applicants there may be non-academic reasons to study at the university. Perhaps it is one of the most diverse student bodies. Perhaps it is located in a great city where there are a lot of cultural opportunities. Perhaps the architecture on campus was mesmerizing. Perhaps it is indirectly related to academics like a stellar library.
(III) Area of study
Why it interests you (great place for a personal story)
How the school helps you
How you help the school
Extra-curricular school activities
Positive characteristics (be specific)
Here is a great place to tie everything back together and succinctly finish your essay.
Sample Application Essay (578 words)
You never know what might grab your heart unexpectedly. I’ve grown up reading and have always enjoyed it, but for most of my life reading has merely been a pastime, nothing more. That is, until the end of college—not the best timing. I remember staring transfixed at my friend’s computer screen as I finished watching—feeling!—an emotionally-charged spoken-word poem. I was fascinated at the power of language and art. Strangely enough, it was that moment that initiated an unquenchable pursuit of art and literature, and it is this reason that I am pursuing a second degree in literature at SNHU.
One of the greatest appeals of SNHU is its accessibility and support for non-traditional students like me. I have already finished undergraduate and graduate degrees in other fields, and I am working full time, so I need a program that will support this reality. SNHU does that. Not only that, however, but SNHU is one of the top online universities, so it was an immediate attraction for me. I know it will support my passion and my new career direction.
There are multiple reasons that I would like to study literature at SNHU. On one level, I am simply curious; I am a learner, and I want to gain knowledge in this area. I want to rediscover beloved stories that I’ve already read, and I want to open my mind to new stories, new manners of looking at the world. I simply desire to learn. However, on a more practical level, I hope to use literature in my future career. I have spent most of my life in various mentoring roles as a pastor and a store manager, and so the field of high school education has become very appealing to me. It allows me to combine both teaching and literature in a way that will better satisfy my vocational desires. I have already done the research, and there are various alternative tracks to obtain a teaching certificate after graduating from SNHU.
Though my journey to arrive at applying to SNHU has not exactly been normal, I believe that it is this very journey that makes me such a strong candidate for your university. My previous degrees are in religion, and though they are not technically literary degrees, they are still in the field of the humanities and compliment literature. In fact, I have already demonstrated my literary potential by obtaining a 4.0 in two graduate level literature classes. Furthermore, I was an academic honors student in my previous university, I was the student speaker at my graduation ceremony, and I was an award-winning speaker on our debate team. I have also traveled extensively, an attribute that will allow me to bring a unique cultural perspective to SNHU’s online community. I have always scored well academically, and I believe that I have demonstrated both my ability to thrive in a literature program as well as to bring a unique voice to the learning environment.
The arts are a dying breed. Science seems to rule the day. But there is a distinct community of passionate writers, artists, and thinkers that know that beauty, that art, will save the world, that it will add life and color and meaning. I am one of those people. Thus, I am excited for the tools that SNHU will provide which will equip me to grow in the field of literature and to pass on that same passion to the next generation.
I love how literature stirs the imagination, takes us to Fairy Land, Camelot, Narnia, Middle Earth, and beyond. And based on my own worldview, I don’t see these motifs as escapism but actually congruous with my own beliefs in a way (another discussion). Nevertheless, literature is also supposed to keep us right where we are open our eyes to the harsh realities around us that we miss. For a long time I have been moved by WWII literature though I have yet to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.
A NY Times op-ed piece published yesterday by Nicholas Kristof entitled “Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl” is a poignant reminder that “History rhymes.” There is a world crisis happening right now, but too often I’m stuck in the past reading about how horrific life once was. Kristof cites some of the fears for aiding or sheltering refugees, national security being chief among them. He attempts to abet those fears, but I think some of us need to rise above even that and understand that risk should not prevent aid.
Some day there will be new literature with the Syrian Refugee Crisis as its setting. Will I be able to say that I was part of the solution or part of the apathy? Right now, regrettably, I’d have to say the latter.
HERE is a link with a list of organizations you can support. Let’s do something. Myself included. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out this powerful video at the bottom.
[Teacher’s note: I thought this post might be especially helpful as a tie-in to current events when teaching material such as the Holocaust or Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, etc.]