“I never realized….” “I will start…” “I saw something new about myself.” “I am going to change….” Phrases like these began showing up with much greater frequency in my students’ papers starting in the spring of 2011. Why the sudden increase in 2011? I can trace the answer to that question to a conversation at Bob Brenneman’s kitchen table in Vermont. Bob, a sociology professor, shared excitedly of the impact of a new assignment. He had his students fast from their phones for a day and during that time compose a hand-written letter. I borrowed the assignment from Bob—literally; I lifted the words from his syllabus. The depth of reflection and the commitment to life-change increased dramatically in comparison to the class response assignment I had previously used. Impressed, I began to think of other action-reflection assignments I could add to the Discipleship and Ethics course.
I will share a few lines from students’ reflections—to give you a feel for what excited Bob and I, but the main purpose of this blog is not to pass along information that others have learned. Rather, I write this blog to encourage you to use these same activities in your church, with your family, your small group, with clients you counsel, in youth group, in courses you teach, etc. I will begin by listing the five action-reflection assignments I use. Borrow them as I borrowed from Bob!
The action assignments I now use are: a one-day cell-phone fast, composing and sending a handwritten letter, visiting a mall and thinking about it as a place of worship, a five day fast from television, watching TV commercials with a critical eye, and making a change in food purchasing or preparing for one week. Copied below are the actual assignments. Although they will need some adaptation for non-academic settings. It would be easy to do so.
One-day cell-phone fast
Choose a day in the week ahead for a fast from electronic communication (cell phone/mobile devices, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and any other internet based forms of communication). You may choose the length of the fast, all day would be ideal, but less than that is acceptable. Sometime during your fast write a handwritten letter to someone you normally communicate with electronically and mail it/deliver it to them. After you have written the letter write a two-part critical reflection. Part one: through the lens of class 6, reflect on your experience of the fast – including stating how long your fast was; you may want to utilize some of Erisman’s questions in your reflection. Part two: reflect on the experience of communicating through the handwritten, pen and paper medium what did you learn? It should be one page single-spaced and is due by class 7.
Spend an hour at a mall observing how it acts as a religious place of formation and worship. Liturgy and worship practices reflect what matters to us and shape us; they give us a vision for a way of life and call us to that way of life, invite our allegiance and obedience. What is the foundational narrative of the mall—its basic truths? What is its view of the human, of “sin”? What is the vision of the good life it calls us to? What kind of people does it want us to become? As you are at the mall seek to discern the “liturgies,” the “sermons,” the “worship” practices of the mall. How does it communicate its foundational narrative/basic truths and how does it seek to shape and call us to be the kind of people it wants us to be? Write a one page (single-spaced) analysis based on your observations. Answer the above questions. Integrate specific examples from the last question (How...?) into your answers to the other questions. (Idea borrowed from James K. A. Smith [Desiring the Kingdom, Baker Academic, 2009, 96-101]).
Watching TV commercials with a critical eye
Be a critical watcher of TV commercials this week. Take notes as you watch. What messages are communicated explicitly and implicitly? What are common themes and methods? How do they cohere with and conflict with the gospel and the Kingdom of God? Write a response letter reflecting on what you observed and learned. Send it to your friend and me before the next class.
Five-day TV and Internet Fast
Take a five day fast from T.V., videos and entertainment/news on the internet (You may continue to use internet based forms of communication like e-mail, but some break from that is encouraged as well). Write a response letter reflecting on the experience and what you observed and learned. Send it to your friend and me before the next class.
Food – do something different
The action part of the assignment is to do something different than your normal routine in relation to food. This is very open ended. Some possibilities include: shop at a farmers’ market, prepare meals at home, get a trial CSA box for one week and prepare meals based on what is in it, visit a farm and discuss issues that have come up in this class, invite others to join you for a meal, have a meal be part of a Bible study or other church event, plant some vegetables, exclude sugar or fast food for the week, volunteer at a food bank, eat together as a family, etc. (you may already do some of these things, the idea is to do something that you do not normally do). Come to class prepared to report on what you did and reflect on what you observed and learned through the experience.
The actions made all the difference. That was the new addition to the course. But all three elements evident in the assignments are necessary. For instance it is not the action of going to the mall that is significant. Many people do that all the time. Rather it is going with the intent to observe as these comments display:
“The Mall has a very specific idea about the type of person it wants you to become. It is one thing to be aware of that at some level—and a very good thing at that—but to be consciously aware of the mall’s myriad attempts at high-jacking your desires for its own purposes is something else. Going to the mall with the intention of being consciously aware of its liturgies is staggering.”
“As I walked through the mall with a life full of experiences of paying down credit cards, I realized that these stores which offer jewelry for ‘low financing.’ or the clothing store which offers introductory credit cards, were not trying to help better people’s lives or help them as a person but they were instead offering a false promise of a ‘better’ life.”
“I noticed in that moment how easily one can be drawn in to the promise of the good life.”
Similarly, we see ads on the TV and Internet all the time, but to stop and observe with intentionality is something else. The step of observation is important in relation to all the actions--even the ones that will be experienced as new and attention grabbing. As one student wrote, “Impressive how our view on things changes if we are more mindful of what is happening.”
It is not, however, just to observe, but also to reflect. What do we learn about ourselves and society? What important issues does the action raise? The value of not just acting, but reflecting is evident in these comments:
“I do think that I have a clearer understand of just how damaging this environment is for me. It is apparent how the mall as an entity aims to lead us in a direction that may in fact be opposite of where we need to be headed.”
“At the moment, movies are the background noise I hide behind. As I stepped into the silent evenings and quiet moments during the day when my work was done, many things I didn’t really want to think about or didn’t want to pray about but needed to were slapping me in the face constantly. My mind was free. No static. I was forced to think. Forced to pray. Forced to heal.”
“I realized how much time and energy I spent caring about what other people were doing on social media, instead of using that energy to focus on today and what I need to get done. I also realized how much social media makes me feel like I need to work harder to catch up to others, yet at the same time is stealing my time to get things done.”
“In my most consumed moments of social media and technology there are instances where I become aware that I am looking for something. I ask myself in that moment: what am I looking for? What do I need right in this moment that I think social media can fill? Is it friendship? A connection? Personal meaning? Motivation? Am I avoiding something? Am I seeking attention? Recognition?”
The depth of reflection flowing from these assignments encourages me and calls me to ponder with the students. Perhaps what I most enjoy, however, is the way students stumble into unexpected joy through the actions taken. For instance, one student’s family rather than grabbing fast food, committed to make all their suppers and eat them together at the table. He made some comments about healthier food—the sort of thing I had expected. But mostly he reflected on relationships and the way family dynamics changed, positively, through their eating together. Regularly students, after recounting their children’s resistance to joining in the TV/Internet fast, then describe in wonder the joy of the family playing games together.
I do not require students to spell out specific applications, although writing this blog has led me to make changes in the assignments. I have added "adjust." It is a key question flowing from reflection: How will you adjust your life, what will you do differently? Yet, even without asking that question, the power of the experience frequently leads people to state: “I have decided to….” “I will start….” “I will stop…..”
How might you adapt and use these act-observe-reflect-adjust activities? I invite you to take a few moments and think of settings where you could use them. What are other action oriented learning activities related to themes of this website that you have used or can imagine using? (Please share them with the rest of us in the comment section.)