By now school is back in session for the spring semester and many teachers and administrators may be looking at the schedule and wondering how the curriculum is going to be covered before the end of the year. Certainly we should not ignore the importance of covering important material in our classes with our students, nor should we go into the semester without a plan to accomplish our goals. Nevertheless, I wonder how often we jump into new semesters without assessing something incredibly significant to our students’ education: the liturgy of our school.
The liturgy of a school (or each of our lives, for that matter) relates to those practices that teach us by repeated experience and practice. As James K. A. Smith says in his work, Desiring the Kingdom, “In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or ‘understanding’ of the world.” Smith is arguing that our practices are a form of pedagogy that teach us a worldview. More specifically, Smith ties this liturgical education not only to worldview but, more specifically, to desire: “liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”
Readers can consult Smith’s more comprehensive argument for this conclusion, but I find his work in this regard compelling. The way we go about our lives and the practices we consistently engage in are shaping us to be certain kinds of people; they are defining our identity by defining our desire, the object and order of our loves. Consequently, what we teach in our schools, however good that may be, could effectively be slowed, distorted, or altogether abandoned by our liturgical practices; that is, how we go about our school days. So as we enter into this new semester, I want to suggest some questions we can ask about the liturgy of our schools in order to consider whether these liturgical practices are promoting, supporting, competing with, or ultimately denying our core convictions.
Questions to Consider Regarding School Liturgy
- How do you begin each school day? Each school week?
The way in which we receive students from their families for each new week and each new day says something extremely important about what we value. Many spiritual discipline books advocate morning prayer and devotional time because it fills our minds first thing in the day with thoughts of God that then influence our entire day. Many secular books on self-help do something similar—begin each day by visualizing how you want the day to go and avoid toxic thoughts and distracting activities (like email inboxes or social media). Whether Christian, religious, or otherwise, how we begin the day says a lot about what we value and has a significant impact on the lens through which we will view that day.
2. How do you end each school day? Each school week?
Similarly, the way we send students out each school day says a great deal about our values (how much more when we send them out on Friday for the weekend!) The sending is our final reminder of the truths learned that day, the lens through which they should be viewed, and the exhortation to live faithfully to these truths in the world. Many churches have rightly understood this truth and, especially more “liturgically-minded” churches have a formal sending that remind the congregation of their mission upon leaving the doors of the church. Alexander Schmemann, for example, in For the Life of the World, speaks of how the church gathers together to experience the kingdom through the Eucharist, return with the light of that kingdom, and then be sent out on mission “for the life of the world” (hence the title of his book). How we end a school day, likewise, is our sending—what mission are we communicating to students with our final words? What is most important? How then shall they live?
3. How do we begin each class?
The liturgy of our school extends also to the classroom where the “formal” instruction takes place. In these instructional times, however, how do we as a school (consider whether there is a school policy or the choice of individual teachers) begin each class with a focusing lens, or is each class begun with only the lesson in mind?
4. What is the atmosphere of the class?
The atmosphere/environment in which a class is taught has significant effects on learning from a liturgical standpoint. Do students feel free and encouraged to participate, explore, and share? Or do students feel bound by rules, constrained to memorizing propositional truths, and expected to remain quiet? Almost certainly this depends to some extent on the teacher, the subject, the students, and will likely fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Also, I would suggest not simply projecting our own feelings on the classroom environment; ask students how they feel. How would they describe the classroom environment?
5. What do we allow to interrupt our scheduled class time?
Most teachers probably find it difficult to cover all they think students ought to know in the time that they are given. Certain things like snow days (which are allowing me the time to write this long-overdue article!) are unavoidable. We will surely lose a few days each year to unavoidable distractions, cancellations, and more. But sometimes we intentionally cancel classes because of other opportunities. These may be field trips, guest speakers, conferences, or competitions. Every time a class is cancelled for one of these activities, students are clued in that they are being given a special opportunity that is worth missing a scheduled class time. These interruptions speak to value—this opportunity, the student knows, is more important in the eyes of the administration than the class period(s) that will be missed. Looking over the course of the year, what is the nature of these interruptions? Are they consistently opportunities to improve one’s Christian faith (e.g., message from visiting pastor, prayer service, activity surrounding a church holiday or important date like Reformation Day)? Are they consistently academically related (e.g., lecture from a local college professor, visit from college recruiter, ACT/SAT test prep)? Are they consistently cultural (e.g., congressman, business owner, artist/musician)? Are classes missed routinely for all of these, which also speaks to students who may perhaps struggle to know how to rightly order their affections? Every interruption to the school schedule sends a message to students. Which message are we sending?
6. How are our schools decorated?
If classical Christian education is, at least to some extent, a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what does the aesthetic quality and design of our school and its décor say about what is good and beautiful? Is our school an industrialized building churning our human labor machines? Is our school a church, surrounded by crosses, hymnbooks, and stained glass pointing to the transcendent God who became flesh and dwelt among us? Is our school decked with American flags and famous presidents that remind us of our national heritage? Is our school an ugly hodgepodge of confused symbols that suggest that life is chaos and void of meaning? What hangs in our halls speaks visually every moment of every day to what we love. If our students close their eyes and think about the décor, what would they say we value most?
Certainly these six questions are not comprehensive of our school’s liturgy, but I think they provide a helpful starting point. As we enter into this new semester, then, in addition to the concerns and plans to get through our formal curriculum, I pray we all take the time to consider our liturgies and what they teach our students about what they should love.
I would love to hear from you. What other questions would you ask to assess school liturgy? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Litrugies Series. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 25.