Book reviews: Discerning Critical Hope; Listening to Teach

A couple book reviews I wrote went live last week on the Wabash Center for Teaching & Learning in Theology & Religion‘s Reflective Teaching site. One reviewed Discerning Critical Hope in Educational Practices (eds. Vivienne Bozalek, Brenda Leibowitz, Ronelle Carolissen, and Megan Boler), and the other reviewed Listening to Teach: Beyond Didactic Pedagogy (ed. Leonard J. Waks). Both were excellent books!

listening to teachI read Listening to Teach at just the right time. I had a bit of a difficult class spring term, because we were talking about some sensitive topics such as race, class, gender, etc. without a lot of support or background on the part of the students. (It was an interdisciplinary capstone class where I had minimal control of the curriculum, and no control of the speakers and textbook.) I attempted to implement some of the skills of listening that I read about in Listening to Teach right away. I always find it interesting, however, that it’s the students who are often more resistant to moving beyond a didactic pedagogy than the teachers. I struggled to create a space that was safe for all perspectives to be shared, while also did not allow racist or sexist comments to stand. This is such a difficult balance, since I don’t want the conversation to just be me “against” a racist student, but also, I don’t want other students (particularly students of color) to be put in the situation of defending a racially inclusive perspective. At any rate, I was encouraged by what I learned in this book. Read my full review for more about the book itself.

discerning critical hopeDiscerning Critical Hope was a gem, since I’m working on developing an ecotheology of critical hope. I loved the book and found it encouraging, challenging, and helpful in getting my mind around what others mean when they’re using the term “critical hope.” Since it was a volume with chapters by all different authors, I wish there was a bit more that had defined critical hope, or given some sort of criteria, but by listening to all the voices, it’s possible to get a sense of what they’re aiming toward. (They’re basing the idea mainly on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, so of course going back and reading that would also give the reader a better understanding.) But I feel like critical hope is a direction to aim for any religious educator, and it would be good if we could aim in this direction as pastors or leaders in faith-based organizations, too. I think we (Christians) often get too caught up in the idea of making everyone comfortable, having warm and fuzzy feelings, and we forget how to challenge people to critique what’s going on and also to have a sense of agency that they can do something about it. It seems to me that that’s what the church is for, and the religious academy is there to help faith leaders to lead their communities to and through these difficult challenges, while remaining fixed in a hope-filled narrative of grace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation of all things through Christ. I hope that this becomes a theme that theologians begin connecting with, and specifically in the field of ecotheology.

The Wabash Center also has lots of other great resources for educators in theology and religion, such as syllabi, grants, thoughts on teaching, and lots of other book reviews. Check out the Reflective Teaching site to find other inspiring books, and read some great reviews, such as this recent one by my colleague, Laura Simmons, on a book about co-constructing knowledge in the classroom.

Stewards of the Vineyard

Last November, I had the opportunity to preach at my Friends meeting, North Valley Friends. I was asked to share about Query 19 in our Faith & Practice document, which has to do with being a Christian steward of God’s creation. A re-visioning of the Parable of the Tenants came to me then, and I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s inspiring to anyone else. (If you want to listen to a podcast of the whole sermon, it’s available here.)

Matthew 21:33-40 (NRSV): “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Usually we read this passage in the context of people misunderstanding who Jesus was, and not getting the fact that he’s the Messiah. Yes, but I think there’s another meaning going on here: God has set us up as stewards of the vineyard. I thought that was particularly fitting due to our location here in the Willamette Valley. So if we’re supposed to be stewards of this vineyard, if we’re tenants here, taking care of this place for the Creator, how do we do that? We want to, but how?

And those tenants seem pretty hopeless, right? They seem like they are the mean, spiteful, greedy kind of tenants who want everything for themselves.

What if we imagine the landowner giving the land to some new tenants? Imagine there’s a piece of property open out in the vineyards around Newberg. The previous tenants haven’t done a great job with it, but there’s a good infrastructure built up: gnarled old vines that need some TLC but are planted in good soil. A wine press, and maybe a rickety old house. A young couple has fallen in love with the Newberg area, and they are so excited about the prospect of making really great wine. They plan to do this by putting every ounce of love and care they can into growing and harvesting their grapes, and passionately practicing their craft in order to make an artisanal local organic wine, perhaps to be paired with their friends’ local goat cheese on bread from the Newberg Bakery. So this young couple is so excited to try to find a piece of land where they can practice their craft. They recognize they have no idea how to make wine besides what they’ve read in books, but they hope that they can learn, and they’re open to learning from others.

They meet with the landowner of the vineyard we’ve just heard about, the one where the previous tenants did not exactly care for it, and, in fact, murdered any of the landowner’s envoys, though there’s no way to prove it. At this meeting, the landowner sees this young couple and sees that they are passionate about treating this land well, and bringing forth the best fruit the land can support. The landowner also sees that this young couple is clueless—they have no real experience. They can see the wine that they want to produce so clearly they can almost taste it. They are ready to put in countless hours of labor and to do so with love. They are open to learning, and they’ve started reading. In fact, they’ve read everything this landowner has written on the subject of vineyards and winemaking, and they can quote much of it verbatim.

And so, the landowner makes a decision. He or she (whoever you’ve been imagining) decides to move back onto this piece of land, and invite this young couple to work the land alongside. Every day they work together, side by side. As the couple works, they listen to the landowner tell stories of that land, the vintages that have grown out of it in years past, the previous tenants, the faithful stewards who have worked it before. They listen as the landowner tells them about pruning a vine just here, caring for the soil, collecting and distributing water, dealing with pests, when is the exact time to harvest, and what to do to produce the wine. Sometimes when the landowner sees a particular situation, s/he invites the young couple to help come up with a creative solution, and they work together to make it happen. Sometimes, these ideas fail miserably.

The first few vintages of this couple’s wine are terrible, and sometimes they wonder why the landowner even lets them help at all. But at the same time, they are so grateful that they get to be part of the process, and they hold tenaciously to their dream, and step by step they see themselves becoming the skilled crafts-people they envisioned when they came to the land.

The seasons pass, and the young couple is not so young anymore. They have children, and teach them the ways of the landowner. They tell their children the stories and teach the craft. The children also learn firsthand from the landowner, and the landowner delights in hearing their ideas. And new stories are created as the family grows up, being nourished by and nourishing the land.


Now, I don’t know about you, but this second story gives me a lot more hope. And I challenge us this morning not to think of the tenants in the first story as the Jews, or evil corporations who are ruining our planet, but to think of the not-so-good tenants and the young couple in the second story as parts of ourselves. Because at least for me, I notice that there are days when I feel like the old tenants, and days when I feel like the new ones. And maybe these tenants aren’t so different. Maybe the old tenants were just the same as the new ones, just as clueless about how to grow grapes and make wine, but they made different choices about what to do in that situation. The old tenants, out of fear, locked down their land, struggled on their own to try to produce what they could from this land that wasn’t theirs, and refused to give even a drop to the landowner. But the new tenants, the young couple, face life with joy and passion. They are teachable. They are open to community. They have a vision and they work hard to make that vision a reality. When an obstacle pops up between them and their goal, they brainstorm and problem solve and tenaciously hold on to their vision until they can bring it to fruition.

Spaceship Earth: day 5

On the final day of my Spaceship Earth class at Peace Village, Newberg, we spent some time reviewing what we’d learned, discussing what stood out, and then making seed pods. (See Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4 if you missed them, and/or download the full Spaceship Earth day camp plan.) Peace Village does a showcase on Friday night at the end of camp, where parents and other family and community members can see what the kids have been experiencing and working on all week. I had the kids look back through their field journals and talk about what stood out to them from each day, then I wrote down what the they said. Later, I made a reader’s theatre that explained what we did each day and what they learned. I asked for volunteers to read that night at the showcase. In hindsight, this was a big ask—to get 3rd-6th graders to read something they’d never read before on stage in front of a bunch of people—but they did great! I’ll copy below what they came up with. I also had a PowerPoint with the results of the compost, recycling, and trash project. Also below you’ll find some audio interviews of Peace Village campers recorded KLYC Yamhill County News Radio.

PV16 day 5
Seed pods drying in the sun

I thought it would be fun for the kids to have something they could take home to plant, and a friend gave me the idea to do seed pods. (Others call them seed bombs, but at Peace Village I figured sending home bombs might not be the best idea!) Basically, you get some clay from the art supply section at a supermarket, and then get some seeds to put inside. I got an package of assorted herbs and one of assorted wildflowers. I mixed them all together, but you could separate them if people wanted to know what they were planting. The people who suggest seed bombs are basically trying to do guerrilla gardening, so they suggest dropping them over the fence in abandoned lots, or planting them in the grassy areas in a median that isn’t very pretty, or other places in need of beautification. We handed out the seed pods at the evening showcase.

Seed Pod Instructions:

  • clay: 2 packages from a craft supply store or section of a supermarket
  • knife to cut up the clay
  • tray to set the seed pods on
  • seeds: I used about 6 packets of flowers and 4 packets of herbs for 45 kids
  • 2 bowls (one for herb seeds and one for flower seeds)

Cut the clay into small cubes, about 3/4 inch per side. Roll into balls.

Kids take a clay ball, make a dent in it with their thumb, and sprinkle in herb or flower seeds, close up the hole, and roll it into a ball again. Set on tray. Once all the pods are finished, set the trays outside in the sun until hard and dry.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spaceship Earth Showcase Readers Theatre
(Verbatim remarks from students about what they learned)
7 Readers + Teacher

Teacher: This week we focused on the theme “Spaceship Earth,” a term coined by the Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding. We enjoyed putting on our space suits each day as we imagined our little planet traveling through space.

Reader 1: We learned that Earth is like a spaceship because 1. It zooms around in space, and 2. If we run out of something, like if an animal goes extinct, we can’t get it back.

Reader 2: I learned about the different things that Earth provides and that if we lived on any other planet we’d probably die.

Reader 3: When you go on a spaceship you need to bring food and all you need to survive, like water and oxygen.

Teacher: The other days we learned about the life support systems that keep our “Spaceship Earth” running. On the second day, we learned about food and waste.

PV16 day 5 - 2Reader 4: Earth breaks down things, and they don’t just lie there, or else we would all die.

Reader 5: Almost any kind of food can break down into compost, but plastic can’t, and neither does metal or glass.

Reader 6: And lavender smells really good!

Teacher: On the third day, we learned about the water cycle and pollution.

Reader 7: There are living things everywhere, even in dirty water. We saw them through the microscope.

Reader 1: Water can be an entire city for creatures!

Teacher: On the fourth day, we learned that not only is diversity important in people, it’s important to have biodiversity. We need all the living creatures in order to keep this spaceship running smoothly!

Reader 2: We learned about how bees make honey and I learned that to make a queen they either use eggs or they give a bee royal jelly.

Reader 3: We learned that honey is bee barf!

Teacher: Today we talked about how we participated this week to make sure Spaceship Earth keeps running smoothly by composting and recycling instead of putting everything in the trash.

Reader 4: We are giving peace to the planet by composting.

Reader 5: We are helping plants grow when we get and use compost, and that goes to helping people eat who might not otherwise have food.

Reader 6: On Monday, we had 60% trash, and only 9% recycling and 31% compost.

Reader 7: Everyone helped out, and today we composted 59%, recycled 15%, and only threw 25% away in the trash.

Teacher: Overall this week, we learned to participate in taking care of Spaceship Earth so it can support life into the future. Our totals for the week were 59% compost, 31% trash, and 10% recycling. Here’s a chart that shows our day-to-day progress. This final chart shows how many pounds of waste we created. This is much better than the national average! Most Americans get rid of 4.4 pounds of trash, recycling, and compost per person, per day, and only 1.5 pounds of it is composted or recycled, meaning that 2.9 pounds per person goes into landfills every day. Eventually we’re going to run out of space for landfills on our little spaceship if we don’t all do our part! Here at Peace Village, we got rid of 2.53 pounds per person, per day, and we recycled and composted 1.74 pounds of it per person per day. That’s pretty good! Well done, everyone!

The rest of you can participate in taking care of Spaceship Earth, too. We talked about biodiversity, and how we can help create habitat for pollinators, who help pollinate our food. We had a beekeeper come share with us, and we got to taste his bees’ honey! We want to support those bees, so you can take with you tonight a seed pod we made in class today. There are herb pods and flower pods. Set the pod in your garden or a flowerbed and it will decompose and you’ll eventually have flowers and herbs to enjoy, to help pollinate, to help cycle the air, and to eat. Thanks to everyone who’s participated this week, and who will participate by planting these seeds!


KLYC Yamhill County News Radio

KLYC came to record some of the kids at Peace Village sharing about their experiences. If you want to hear those interviews, listen below. Check out Peace Village interview 3 at about 2:10 to hear a very special Peace Village camper!


PV16 group photo
Peace Village 2016

Friends Journal, Quaker Spaces, and Civic Ecology

I’m grateful for the community we have at North Valley Friends, and I wrote about it for the August issue of Friends Journal. This issue focused on the theme of Quaker Spaces, and in my article, “It’s the Spirit that Makes It Beautiful,” I shared about how our worship space isn’t the most up-to-date, or even the most Quakerly, but we have some really great things going on in both our indoor and outdoor spaces.

I ran across the call for submissions as I was working on a course in civic ecology last semester, and I was thinking about how many of the things we do at North Valley are listed as civic ecology actions that community groups might do. Therefore, when I heard the call for sharing about “Quaker Spaces,” I thought about how our “space” isn’t just our indoor worship space, but includes all the land we steward. I was also working on interviewing individuals about watershed discipleship, and I listened to several of them share about the history of indigenous people in their region, something I had been thinking about, too, so I added some of that into the piece.

In addition to what I wrote for Friends Journal, the full text of which you can read here, I’ll share some of the reflections I wrote for my civic ecology class. This was an annotated bibliography entry on the following article:

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.

Krasny, et al. (2014) define civic ecology as “local environmental stewardship actions taken to enhance the green infrastructure and community well-being of urban and other human-dominated systems” (177). These practices are “active, hands-on stewardship or restoration of nature by a group of individuals” (177).

In this article, they are suggesting the importance of measuring the impact of civic ecology practices on ecosystem services. Since they recognize that most locations practicing civic ecology won’t have the scientific know-how or the time and human-power to do extensive scientific data gathering and analysis, they suggest three different ways that community groups could engage in measurement of ecosystem services benefits after their civic ecology practices occur.

First, practitioners can do citizen science measures of biodiversity. These can be measures of species presence, abundance, or diversity in a number of ways, and studies could be defined by scientists in a large-scale, data-gathering call.

Second, practitioners could measure ecosystem function. Although these functions are harder for normal people to measure on their own compared to counting species presence/diversity, they could work in collaboration with scientists, or use simple software that can help them gather data with more accuracy. Also, Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest that the data gathered could have to do with cultural services, since social systems are part of the overall social-ecological system.

Third, practitioners could gather data about the value of ecosystem services. They may not be able to measure and put a dollar amount on larger-scale impacts, but they can measure the small-scale value that individuals put on their time in nature, their ability to grow healthy organic food they otherwise couldn’t afford, or have access to city parks. This data can be gathered through open-ended or Likert surveys.

This article was interesting because it makes me feel like my congregation is already engaging in civic ecology: in the last decade, we put in a walking trail around our property and the public is invited to use it. We did this in collaboration with the city’s park and recreation district. We also put in a large outdoor labyrinth that provides spiritual services, which is one of the measures of cultural ecosystem services Krasny, et al. (2014) suggest (182). Around the labyrinth we planted native species (and some non-native ones) to serve as a berm, as well as to attract and provide sustenance for pollinators. We also have a community garden for the provisioning of people. We sought and found a local nursery willing to donate a number of trees to line the trail in areas that currently have few trees, and we planted them as a community. All of these provided opportunities for our community members to participate in these practices actively. We also provide the space for “passive recreational use” (182), and many people come to walk or run the trail: alone, with their dogs, or with family or friends. This provides ample opportunity for the development of a stronger social network, not to mention personal psychological and physical wellbeing from contact with nature and from exercise.

It’s also amazing to notice in myself the movement in environmental/ecological identity (which I learned about last semester in conservation psychology) as I take on this label as someone who has already participated quite a bit in civic ecology practices, and who is part of a community who has done so. Finding and calling out the things that we’re already doing and framing them as pro-environmental behaviors (De Young, 2014), and even as part of something larger, like the movement for civic ecology, really does make me feel like I’m already farther along on the path toward my goal than I had thought. This has much to do with my work on hope, too: finding the stories of success from my past (or our collective past) to base our next steps on can give us the sense of self-efficacy to feel like we will be able to find the motivation to move toward our hoped-for goal. It’s also helpful to see that we’re already oriented in this direction, and even taking steps in this direction, so finding the momentum to continue doesn’t feel as daunting.

I can see my congregation possibly doing some sort of value measurement survey of people who come to use the trail and labyrinth (we’ve already done informal ones, when the pastor, for example, asks people she sees along the trail how they heard about the trail and how often they use it, just to make conversation and out of curiosity). Seeing this as a part of the ecosystem services that this space provides is kind of a novel thought to me.

Also, if we count spiritual connection to the space as one type of ecosystem services, this has broad implications for how communities of faith might be able to envision themselves and their work as contributing to ecosystem services. If we can start there, and they can have that experience of suddenly seeing their environmental identity through a different lens like I just did (regarding how much my community has already done in enacting civic ecology practices), even if their community isn’t very far along that path, they can still see themselves as part of the whole. I think it’s great to think of cultural and spiritual connections as part of ecosystem services. It values the contributions of all different types of people and organizations, and places us on a similar trajectory, rather than feeling like we need to reorient in order to participate in civic ecology.

Photo credit: Paul Bock


De Young, Raymond. “Some Behavioral Aspects of Energy Descent: How a Biophysical Psychology Might Help People Transition through the Lean Times Ahead.” Frontiers in Psychology; Cognitive Science 5 (November 2014): 1–16.

Krasny, Marianne E., Alex Russ, Keith G. Tidball, and Thomas Elmqvist. “Civic Ecology Practices: Participatory Approaches to Generating and Measuring Ecosystem Services in Cities.” Ecosystem Services 7 (2014): 177–86.