I never expected to see a theological debate to play out on the carpet of the fifth grade classroom where I student teach. But I’m finding out that in teaching, the thing I least expect is often what happens.
“What do you mean? You’re so wrong!”
Malachi’s voice, raised with feeling, cut through the hubbub of twenty-seven fifth-grade students working “quietly.” I walked toward the four students sitting on the carpet who were engaged in some sort of debate.
“Of course God made the trout: they’re alive!” Malachi was up on his knees now, pointing adamantly toward the fifty-gallon trout tank in our classroom.
“OK, fine. But he didn’t make the chickens – they came out of eggs.” It was Keantay whom Malachi was addressing.
Malachi sighed and shook his head, as if overcome by the challenge of trying to convince a flat-earther that the world is round. “But they’re alive . . . people didn’t make them . . . God made everything. He literally made everything that people didn’t make.”
Keantay was squinting now, trying to fit this comprehensive statement into his arguments and ideas. Then he thought of something. A debate-ender. A truth that could not be refuted, even by Malachi.
“OK, but God didn’t make stink bugs.” He looked at Malachi expectantly, waiting for the concurring statement, for the indication that here at least was solid common ground. When no affirmation was forthcoming, Keantay rolled out his evidence.
“God didn’t make them because science did. They just stink and are nasty. They aren’t even animals because they’re like science things. I saw it on YouTube. God did not make stink bugs!”
This passionate debate had stemmed from discussion about why one of the chicks that just hatched in our classroom died shortly after escaping from its shell. The students had heard it peeping in the egg for two full days before it finally broke its way out, but by that point it was too weak to stand or eat.
We had also been discussing the tiny baby trout that had amazed the students by hatching with their own supply of food for the first few weeks of life outside the egg, in the form of an attached yolk sac.
There was amazement and wonder on my students’ faces as they noticed the trout’s eyes looking out from inside the eggs, as they peered through the microscope at red worms from our classroom worm farm, as they watched the tiny new chicks fall asleep in their hands.
Despite the world these children live in, where video games teach that violence and death are just for entertainment, where children spend more time on TikTok and Instagram than in the woods or on the farm, where God is more often an expletive than a recipient of honor; despite the legislation that prevents teachers in public schools from teaching about God, there is something in children that recognizes that God is real and powerful.
They don’t need to read scientific studies or have a PhD in theology to know there is a God. They see him in his creation and they know. But we have to let them see and experience God’s creation.
There is nothing easy about having a trout tank, a worm farm, and an incubator in an already-crowded classroom, but moments like Malachi’s debate make it all worth it.
I want my students to know God, but I don’t always feel as if I am the best tool for accomplishing this purpose. Also, it’s not part of my teaching mandate, and by law I can’t teach my students about God in a public school. So I’m pleased when I can collaborate with worms, trout, and chicks – or even with stink bugs.