Beyond the Classroom Walls

by Deborah Flagg

"Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness," wrote author and educator Parker Palmer. "They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves." Few teachers take this cohesion to the next level and move their students out of the classroom boundaries. Few join the theoretical and practical in ways the help students integrate the knowledge they are gaining with the kind of individuals they want to be. Even fewer invest in the spiritual formation of their students. To stumble upon a professor who manages to do all three is pure gold.

Connie Brehm

During the winter months, Connie Brehm, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing, accompanies her graduate students to area homeless shelters. There, they not only gain firsthand experience, but also have an opportunity to help people who often do not have access to basic health care. “This is not a population for whom health care is a priority,” Brehm said. “We need to go to them.”

Two nights a week, Brehm and three or four of her Family Nurse Practitioner students load a van with medications, equipment, and supplies and set out to an East San Gabriel Valley Coalition for the Homeless member church that is hosting the homeless for that evening. They treat 15-20 people per visit, do basic assessments and care, and make referrals for more serious problems. Brehm, who also leads a discipleship group for graduate nursing students, considers these occasions a valuable adjunct to the formal classroom setting.

"Students gain experience and knowledge from their classes, but they need the personal element of an inspiring teacher to walk away with a true understanding of how those skills can change their world."

“It's so important for nursing students to see the spiritual and service side of their chosen vocation,” she said. “Fundamental to nursing is treatment of the whole person, following the integrated model that Jesus set when He took care of people both physically and spiritually. This gives us the capacity to be more effective in all that we do as nurses.”

“Connie is absolutely amazing - she involves us in a lot of extra activities just for our benefit,” said graduate nursing student Christine Erdmann, RN, who works in cosmetic nursing in Beverly Hills. “She plans special projects outside of her normal responsibilities.” For Erdmann, these evening field trips have been a journey out of her comfort zone. “I've never had contact with the homeless before,” she said. “It's been a very good experience because it has taught me that I need to treat everyone, regardless of income or status, to the best of my ability.”

Jack Carter

“I believe that undergraduate students come to us at a critical time in their development,” said Jack Carter, associate professor of mathematics. “Often their image of self is determined by their perception of what others think of them.” In an effort to address his students' emotional, as well as academic needs, Carter intersperses classroom instruction on equations, logarithms, and fractals with readings from Max Lucado's book You Are Special. He wants his students to know that they have value beyond grades, looks, and achievement.

Trained as a design engineer, Carter also seeks to help his students succeed. He carefully arranges his classroom with four to six chairs at each table, situated so that no student has their back to him or their peers. With rollers on the chairs, students are free to move from the computers around the perimeter of the room to groupings of other students to work on projects together. This fluid, mobile modular set-up encourages movement and open participation.

Before teaching, Carter owned and managed several businesses which convinced him of the benefits of integrating theoretical knowledge with real-life experience. He favors a holistic approach to math and science, giving his students opportunities not only to solve problems, but also to participate in dialogue, make presentations, and collaborate with one another on assigned projects.

To this end, Carter contributed to the development of a project that gives engineering students an opportunity to apply their skills beyond textbook theory and integrate physics, math, and computer science. Joe Denny '03 and former pre-engineering student Derek Simpson spent the summer designing, constructing, and programming two small robots. The result of their work is a "bobot," a diminutive, three-wheeled contraption with feelers and a light sensor, and a slightly larger "quadripod," a challenging four-legged machine.

The students program the two robots to move along a path, walk through a maze, coordinate their appendages, and even "fight" one another in the style of Battlebots, a television show where contestants' homemade robots battle for a prize. “By programming the robots, I could understand and apply what I had learned in the classroom,” said engineering student Denny Beyond this practical experience, Denny also praises his teacher for a relationship that makes learning easier. “I have had Mr. Carter for six classes and found that I can always go to him for advice on school, career, and even personal matters,” he said. “He helps me see what I can do - what is possible. I don't think he realizes the influence he has on us. He's been like a mentor to me.”

Denny and Simpson have been inspired by Carter to use their project to encourage other budding scientists. The two are creating a program featuring their robots to present at local high schools. “We want to give kids an idea of how science makes sense and can be integrated into real life,” said Denny.

Diana Glyer

When Diana Glyer, Ph.D., associate professor of English, bought her home a few years ago, it had a large garden space that was in dire need of care and renovation. Dried weeds had taken over the side yard and broken concrete filled the back yard. Struck with the need to create a refuge of natural beauty, Glyer decided to blend her passion for gardening with her love for discipling students. She believed the process of working together would give her and the young women she led a better understanding of God's heart for them.

“Gardening reminds me of how God works in our hearts - you have to dig down deep and wait with patience as you plant, care, and cultivate seeds,” she said. “We decided to get together once a week for two hours. We spent the first hour planting, weeding, digging, and pruning. After the work was done, we'd get some tea and sit inside and share prayer requests. We found that as we transformed the garden, we were changed as well.”

Kayla Winiarz '01 was in Glyer's garden group last year. “It was the highlight of my week,” she said. “Diana has the unique ability to nurture on an individual basis. She taught each of us some basic steps to take care of plants and then let us choose what we wanted to do on any given day.” For Winiarz, these times were not only a learning experience, but comforting as well. “I discovered that when I was the most busy and stressed out by school, there was a great deal of solace in the time that I spent cultivating a little bit of earth.”

“Working in the garden with Diana and the girls always enriched me,” said Julie Dan '00, who was in the original group when it began in the summer of 1999. “We had such special times together. Diana's words of wisdom eased many of my problems, though many answers came just as we worked together in the garden. When I come down to visit, we go back to the garden, pull on our gloves, pull out the weeds, and share our lives.”

Just as the women blossomed from Glyer's personal interaction with them, the garden now boasts three flower beds, a garden shed, and a winding path bordered by flowers and herbs - a beautiful testament to the Garden Girls' patience and care.

In his book, Teaching for Spiritual Growth, Perry Downs, professor of Christian education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, argues that “the personal contact of informal instruction is ultimately more powerful than the more restrictive formal modes of teaching.”

Students gain experience and knowledge from their classes, but they need the personal element of an inspiring teacher to walk away with a true understanding of how those skills can change their world. Educators who realize that for learning to impact living, it must make and cultivate strong connections between education, community, and spirituality are the ones who turn students into scholars, believers into disciples, and individuals into community leaders.

“I would like to thank you for all the many wonderful things you have done for me in the past three years,” wrote Derek Simpson in a farewell letter to Jack Carter. “You always had an open door if I had questions. Above being my teacher, you were also my friend.”

Deborah Flagg is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and a freelance writer living in Azusa. [email protected]