Faith is central to our mission at Trinitas, and so we take seriously the task of cultivating an environment in which faith can grow. In addition to striving to maintain high standards in the context of warmth and demonstrating that we are “all in,” we also intentionally foster inter-age relationships as part of faith formation.* In the study mentioned in our previous posts, the authors focus on the important role of grandparents and great grandparents as moral and religious models for children. Their findings suggest that strengthening intergenerational bonds strengthens faith.
In addition to family, church is the place where children are most likely to engage with those who are generations removed from them. Our own family has been deeply blessed by witnessing the faithfulness of older congregants and hearing their stories. And our children have been blessed by opportunities to share their own stories as well. One Sunday, a nearly ninety-year-old gentleman asked our sixth grader if she had read any good books lately and if she would be willing to write a review for the church newspaper. As soon as we arrived home, she eagerly ran to the computer and quickly produced a piece on The Narnia Chronicles. The older man’s interest in her and her ideas eventually led our daughter to become a regular contributor of poetry for the church paper. This prompted others of his generation to warmly express their appreciation for her work. These and similar experiences, like singing in the Holiday Choir next to choristers five to six times her age, have given her a deep feeling of belonging to this intergenerational family of God.
One of the most joyful days at Trinitas is Grandparent/VIP Day, when we celebrate such intergenerational bonds. Some of these same guests have also blessed us through the years as volunteers in our classrooms. And, while interactions across such large generation gaps don’t happen frequently in a school setting, we do regularly create space at Trinitas for building multi-age relationships. We have multi-grade classrooms; and, from the first day of school, through our year-end Field Day and various Friday Focus periods in between, students are engaged in activities across all the grades. We have weekly all-school lunches with mixed-age seating, and students of varying ages play together at recess (that our middle schoolers even have recess is also something worth noting). Students in grades 3/4 and kindergarten are reading buddies each Friday, and students in grades 5–8 regularly help younger students with history crafts and snow clothes. Twice a week, we have in-class worship; and, three times a week, all of our students worship together. We are intentional about these opportunities because we believe that time spent in multi-age groups is good for the moral and spiritual formation of our students, especially our middle schoolers.
The K–8 interactive environment allows middle school students to maintain a level of innocence at a time when they are often insecure and feeling pressure to “fit in.” We strive to create and maintain a culture in which they can both stay young and think and talk maturely about Ultimate Questions, a culture in which learning about and desiring those things God makes true and good and beautiful is “cool.” When middle schoolers are isolated by age, or are in a school with older students, too often pressure runs the opposite direction. We believe a K–8 inter-age culture makes room for faith to grow rather than allowing it to be crowded out by what is often all-too-common junk.
This K–8 grade configuration also shows middle schoolers, in a concrete way, that they and their peers are not the center of the universe; but at the same time, it shows them that they are valued. It allows for the formation of the virtues of both humility and leadership. Trinitas students in grades 7/8 go on a backpacking trip each fall with the express purpose of thinking about how they can be servant leaders in the year ahead, which includes helping the younger students play Four Square, cut paper, and zip coats. The multi-grade classrooms allow for a regular cycle of humility and leadership—one year a student is an “underdog” (in the lower of the two grades); the next year, he or she is a “top dog” (in the upper of the two grades). And so the cycle repeats, year after year. Learning from those who have gone before you or are “more mature” than you and serving and being a role-model for those who are less experienced or “younger” than you are both important aspects of the life of faith.
Multi-age interaction can also be delightful. Whether one is in elementary or middle school, there is a unique kind of joy in observing and interacting with a younger child and a unique kind of joy in feeling noticed by and worthy of the attention of an older child. The life of faith is one in which we learn to be other-focused and to notice with wonder new things about others, God’s world, and God himself. Insofar as interacting with those outside our immediate peer group draws our attention away from ourselves and widens our world, it prepares our hearts to delight in the other-focused-ness of faith.
Finally, the curriculum and worship at classical Christian schools like Trinitas are in some ways profoundly intergenerational. We cultivate humility, become other-focused, and learn to be Christian leaders as we study the thought and lives, sing the hymns and songs, say the creeds and prayers of the wise and faithful throughout history. At Trinitas, we seek to be not only a multi-age but also a deeply intergenerational community of faith that stretches far throughout both time and space. It is our hope and prayer that our students graduate well-grounded in that faith.**
*Findings about the importance of these three characteristics for passing on faith come from one of the largest studies of religion and family across generations discussed in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations by Vern Bengston, with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris (Oxford University Press).
**While our focus has been on the impact that an interactive K–8 environment can have on faith formation, studies have shown that such a grade configuration also has a positive impact on academics: for example, students from similar K–8 schools have demonstrated higher math and reading scores throughout those grades, had higher GPA’s in 9th grade and significantly stronger SAT scores in reading, math, and science, and were more likely to be enrolled in selective high school programs than students in traditional middle schools or grade 6–12 settings. Findings also suggest that K–8 schools are better for student emotional well-being. These benefits were found to extend even to new students who transferred into a K–8 school during their middle school years.