Virtual Virtue: Using Imagination to Teach Youth in a Digital Age

By Fr. Sean McDermott

Editor's Note: This is the first part of a series on teaching youth. Given the rapid increase of Zoom or other video platforms and the rise of distance/digital learning platforms, we have decided to write a series of post about how teaching in a digital age affects youth and provide resources on how to teach youth groups.

I thought I was a proficient teacher until this summer. Even though I had nearly a decade of teaching experience across all ages (but especially middle-school), I met my match over the last few months as I taught the youth group about virtues via Zoom. There is no education like in-person education-- I mean the day-in-day-out, meeting-face-to-face type of education where the teacher becomes wrapped up into the lives of the students. Now, however, I stare at a screen where all of the youth are bunched like the Brady family. Whereas I could once sense the mood of the classroom intuitively, now I did not know how the kids were reacting, nor how they understood my words. I had to learn how to disable private chats, mute the background noises, stop the screen share, etc. It was like whack-a-mole with middle school students. Once I got the technology straight, I realized further that it is much harder to connect with students on a digital platform. My lessons about the Cardinal Virtues seemed to fall flat, the kids did not want to discuss, and there was a definite decline in questions from when we had met in person. My confidence and hope faltered, and it was only when I reminded myself of the essentials of teaching that I got back on the right track. The essay below is the result of being forced to re-examine the nature of teaching itself and principles of good teaching.

Background: Imagination, Latin, and the Beauty of Relation

As I have used Zoom to teach the parish youth about virtues over the past few weeks, I have set goals in mind of what I want them to understand. For instance, I hope that they understand the virtues and vices, the idea of growth in the Christian life, and the necessity of self-examination for growth. This is the content for my curriculum. I could give dozens of lectures to help illustrate these points but that might never help them understand. While I needed to share key points and hand over important concepts, the class might be pointless if I was the only one engaging the material. As with all types of teaching, I realized that the students had to engage the content through their imagination.

In my previous career, I taught middle and high-school Latin. My life was an unending routine of grammar and endings, chants and vocab rehearsal, translations and map studies every day. On paper, that life sounds tedious and boring, and for many of you, sadly, Latin class was just that. But teachers who desire to reach their students realize that one must fold all of those necessary activities into a living classroom in which a student hardly realizes all of the hard work they have actually done. Overall, I enjoyed my decade of teaching because my job was to bring joy to the classroom while the students did most of the work. At my best as a teacher, which did not always happen, I was able to inspire students so that Latin itself, yes, even those nasty 3rd declension adjectives, were woven into an intricate tapestry that was beautiful to behold. It was my goal then to find ways to activate the students’ imagination so that they saw the wonderful end (telos) to which they were dedicating a lot of hard work.

In the end, the students developed a skill with Latin so that they could develop relationships. Primarily, this meant relating to ‘dead-white-men’ such as pompous Caesar, poetic Virgil, or austere Cicero. Strange as it may seem, these relations blossomed as the students translated their words, discovered their personalities, and saw how their ideas still challenged them thousands of years later. Grammar was a means to an end, and the end is yet another form of relation, a movement towards love through a little-spoken and ancient language. I pushed my students to learn their forms and memorize these foreign words so that they could come to enter a relationship that crossed the boundaries of time and culture. What they found was not an obsolete object but persons still communicating and offering their brilliant ideas to those willing to work hard to meet them.

Getting to this point in Latin took years for even the best students. Therefore, my job as their teacher was primarily one of encouragement and motivation. When I gave them new material, I had to do so in the right form and in a proper order, and I had to provide inspiration so that they saw the beautiful end to which they were working. The best compliment I ever received from a student acknowledged the difficulty but also recognized the beauty. She wrote, “I hated Latin because it was so hard, and even though it's still hard, now Latin is my favorite subject.” Latin, in fact, never changed nor will Latin ever change in the future--it still demands rigorous memorization and attention to detail--but this child’s perception of Latin changed because she could imagine the end for which she was working and enjoyed her work. That student went on and finally did meet those beautiful texts I often talked about, and as a result, she was changed by that meeting.

Imagination and the Christian Life

I still work with many kids, but my classroom is now the parish at which I work full time. My content is no longer Latin but the Christian life in all of its facets. And yet, I have been reminded recently, the method of teaching still remain the same. Learning about the Christian life could be as dreary as memorizing the Latin subjunctive verb forms without any idea of what one was doing. I could teach the youth a long list of things-to-avoid and things-to-seek-after with a pinch of moral theology for those questionable situations and then call it a day. Yet, any youth would forget that information quickly, still be blind to the end for which they are seeking, nor be inspired to seek after that end. I need for them to learn about the spiritual life as well as my previous students knew their first declension noun endings, and so I realized that my task as their teacher is the same: to ignite their imagination.

Imagination is needed for two reasons: understanding content and entering a new horizon. This can be seen well in a passage from Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) describing the need for kids to read the Bible on their own:

“But let the imaginations of children be stored with the pictures, their minds nourished upon the words, of the gradually unfolding story of the Scriptures, and they will come to look out upon a wide horizon within which persons and events take shape in their due place and in due proportion. By degrees, they will see that the world is a stage whereon the goodness of God is continually striving with the wilfuness of man; that some heroic men take sides with God; and that others, foolish and headstrong, oppose themselves to Him. The fire of enthusiasm will kindle in their breast, and the children, too, will take their side, without much exhortation, or any thought or talk of spiritual experience.”

By reading the Bible on their own, children will start to understand the narrative not just by memorizing the material but engaging with the stories through their imagination. As they imagine the characters — their physical characteristics and foreign dress, the locations and scenery, etc — kids enter into the narrative at a deeper level. Once this happens, the stories become the imaginative examples through which the kids will live their lives. They will remember Solomon as they imagine his incredible palaces and gardens, his vast hordes of wealth and fancy clothes, but they will also remember Solomon’s pride and the danger of all that wealth. Using the imagination is essential for truly understanding the content (the personality of Solomon, his timeline and relations, his story), and it is also essential for entering into a new moral horizon (seeing how and why to live a certain life). In effect, placing oneself into the story provides the basis of the moral imagination.

Another favorite educator of mine, the Anglican priest Fr. J. Paterson Smyth (1852-1932), has a brilliant (and short!) essay on teaching in which he offers the most effective methods to engage children. Following the classical model of pedagogy (placere, docere, movere), Fr. Smyth notes that the first task of the teacher is to interest the child.

Some teachers seem to think that to interest the pupils is a minor matter. It is not a minor matter and the pupils will very soon let you know it. Believe me, it is no waste of time to spend hours during the week in planning to excite their interest to the utmost. Most of the complaints of inattention would cease at once if the teacher would give more study to rousing their interest. After all, there is little use in knowing the facts of your subject, and being anxious about the souls of the pupils, if all the time that you are teaching, these pupils are yawning and taking no interest in what you say. I know some have more aptitude for teaching than others. Yet, after considerable experience of teachers whose lesson was a weariness to the flesh, and of teachers who never lost attention for a moment, I am convinced, on the whole, that the power to interest largely depends on the previous preparation.”

I wish I had read this in my first year of teaching! But let us be careful to understand what Fr. Smyth means--he never condones the teacher pandering to the children. Offering candy to the children does not count as engaging the interest of the child. He specifically charges the teacher to make the content of the lesson come alive. To do this, the teacher must effectively engage the imagination of the student.

But more than reading is necessary. You know the meaning of the expression, "Put yourself in his place." Practise that in every Bible story, using your imagination, living in the scene, experiencing, as far as you can, every feeling of the actors. To some this is no effort at all. They feel their cheeks flushing and their eyes growing moist as they project themselves involuntarily into the scene before them. But though it be easier to some than to others, it is in some degree possible to all, and the interest of the lesson largely depends on it. I have done my best in these books to help the teacher in this respect. But no man can help another much. Success will depend entirely on the effort to "put yourself in his place."

It is the imagination that helps the child enter into story and understand the content. The imagination, briefly put, allows the teacher to teach (docere) and finally to move (movere) the student to action. In second part of this series, I will examine how a teacher can engage a youth's imagination when teaching about the Christian life.

Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.