How I Learned to Love Throughlines

TfT isn't just a journey for students–it is also a journey for teachers. Secondary English teacher Matt Berka from Southwest Christian reflected on his own journey into the world of Throughlines and shares that experience with us below:

I love throughlines, but I didn’t always.

During my first few years with Teaching for Transformation, I felt strongly about Deep Hope, Storyline, and FLEx. Though I’m still growing in my ability to use these frameworks and practices, their function and benefits were clear to me from the start. Throughlines, though, were a different story. I struggled to see their place in my classroom and wasn’t convinced that I should put in the work or take the risks to figure it out.

However, I began to notice something troubling: my work in the classroom felt increasingly hollow. Students weren’t getting as much out of our work as I hoped they would, and my ability to point students towards my Deep Hope plateaued. Clearly, something was missing, and I suspected that a neglected Teaching for Transformation core practice was part of the reason why.

Usually, this realization would cause unease; a mid-year curriculum overhaul—even one that is in response to a deeply-felt conviction—is an undesirable task for any teacher. I knew, though, that superficial throughline integration would produce superficial results, so, unfortunately, starting from scratch was the only real option. Thankfully, however, I found myself in an ideal situation last school year: I needed to build a new unit that would be used only once. After the school year, that unit’s literature would be shelved indefinitely and the unit’s curriculum would become obsolete. Consequently, I felt a sense of freedom and saw this an opportunity to go “all
out” and give throughlines a fair chance. If the unit worked and connected well with students, I could carry the newly-designed throughline practices to my regular, established units. If it didn’t, I could abandon the unit and carry on, knowing that at least I gave it a shot.

When constructing this unit, I had three goals:

  • Learn how to incorporate throughlines into the core—the bones—of a unit.
  • Discover what value throughlines added to student learning.
  • Find how far I could push throughlines before students pushed back.

To my delight (and surprise), it worked.

  • I used throughlines as the primary framework for building my curriculum, and my unit’s connection to and dependence on specific throughlines began to emerge. Throughlines became the regular, daily language that my students and I used to critically read and analyze the literature in question.
  • I noticed how throughlines added meaning to our classroom work in a way that maintained academic rigor and pointed students to Jesus. They also helped create a bridge to other Teaching for Transformation core practices and habits of learning.
  • I found that students were largely along for the ride and did not tire of throughline work in the way that I feared they may.

After the success I experienced with throughlines last school year, I had the confidence to carry my work forward and integrate throughlines into my course’s other units.

In an anonymous, end-of-year course survey, my students identified different lessons or units that we completed throughout the year that were academically rewarding. While they named different Teaching for Transformation practices and classroom activities that were personally meaningful, one word rose to the top as the part of the year that they enjoyed the most: throughlines. More than anything else we did in the school year, throughlines were the most commonly-named course component that had a positive impact on their learning and overall experience.

One student stated that she was “proud of how I considered our course throughlines and took steps in following Jesus.” Another reflected that when we “took the time to analyze them and how they relate to the work we were doing” the throughlines “had the biggest impact on me wanting to be a person who reflects Christ in my speech and actions.” Another student noted that our work with throughlines were “beneficial for me to think through and made it easier to connect some of my thoughts and our coursework to broader Christian ideas.”

While I’m confident that not every student felt this way, I know that many did. While I know that I have much room to grow in my ability to use throughlines as a core practice of my teaching, I know that I’m in a much better position than I was a year ago.

Surprisingly, throughlines have also helped students better connect to my course’s Deep Hope: “May we critically analyze words and ideas to help us better see and pursue a life in Christ.” As we complete the classic work of an English classroom (i.e., reading, thinking, speaking, and writing), I continue to discover how throughlines become a powerful tool to help students notice how those academic and intellectual disciplines point towards something bigger.

It is “Loved by God; Lovers of Others” and “Seekers of Justice” that better help students feel the full power of Frederick Douglass’ words in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
It is “Image Bearers” that better encourages students to reflect on the quality of their own Christian communities as they read and analyze Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th-century classic, The Scarlet Letter.
It is “Order Discoverers” that better creates urgency and lasting value for a student who has much to say to the world, but struggles with grammar and writing conventions.
It is “Stewards of Creation” that better reveals to a student how her speech about pollution and lake runoff is Kingdom work that invites others to take practical steps towards obeying a core command in the life of a Christian.

In short, a throughline is a part of what it means to follow Jesus, thoughtfully and faithfully; to anchor course content and student learning to a throughline is to invite them to take a real step towards that eternal end. As teachers, we hope to see these throughlines manifest in the lives of our students and in the air of our school community. I want my students to grow as followers and disciples of Jesus in these particular ways, just as I do in my own faith.

Early in my Teaching for Transformation journey, I wasn’t sure what to do with throughlines. I thought it was fine if they were forgotten and dropped as long as I engaged other Teaching for Transformation core practices (i.e., Storyline and FLEx) and my Deep Hope. Throughlines felt cumbersome and forced. They felt secondary and tacked-on. I worried that students would become fatigued and frustrated with the teachers who kept pointing them back to those same, tired phrases. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. While I’m sure that some students do become fatigued and frustrated at times, I also know they have experienced deep learning and have seen glimpses of what it looks like to faithfully follow Jesus because of our work with throughlines.

So how did I learn to love throughlines? I actually tried. Then, I prayed and trusted that the Kingdom of God is endlessly and eternally compelling. Throughlines have added a level of depth and meaning to my course that, if I’m honest, had been missing for years.

I used to not know what to do with throughlines. Now, I can’t imagine teaching without them.

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