Encounter: Helping Students Know God

A new curriculum brings spiritual transformation to both students and teachers

By Nina Atcheson and Arne Nielsen

Have you noticed the trend to reject, or perhaps it’s more of a subconscious dismissal of, the Bible as an authority on life’s questions? An unspoken assumption pervades - perhaps the Bible isn’t so relevant after all. Well, maybe not to the issues I’m dealing with. Culture is different now. People change. The issues we face are unlike those in the times of the biblical writers, so using good sense and reason, I’ll find my way through life, despite the Bible’s claim to be my personal lamp (Ps. 119:105), and God’s gracious offer to enlighten the darkness before me (2 Sam. 22:29).

To offer an alternative worldview, one that is founded solidly on the Bible as truth, requires intention; a purposeful approach – especially for the youth in our schools who we hope will become “thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts” (Education, p. 30).

In the summer of 2015, the North American Division Office of Education (NADOE) began rolling out a new Bible curriculum. Using the Bible as the textbook, the Adventist Encounter Curriculum seeks to help the students in our schools develop a tangible, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ; to have a deep and personal knowledge of the truths of the Bible and Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and apply them to everyday situations; and be passionate about the salvation of others.

Advice from the Spirit of Prophecy has helped guide the development of this curriculum: “Parents and teachers should constantly seek for improved methods. The teaching of the Bible should have our freshest thought, our best methods, and our most earnest effort.” (Education, page 168). Through rigorous pedagogical practice and the use of 21st century learning techniques such as collaboration, problem-solving, digital literacy, higher order thinking, and creative expression, students are encouraged to use the Bible as their guide book to grow in today’s world. Students are led to think deeply, to make practical applications of their learning, and to, as Mrs. White recommends, “see the force of truth for themselves” (CT, p. 434). Kent Rusk, pilot teacher of Encounter and Associate Superintendent of Schools shares: “I am convinced that Encounter is God’s answer to how we’ll reach students in our Bible classrooms. We have realized that merely teaching our children about God is not enough. We want to reach them where they live, with the saving message of a living, loving, involved Father God. The Encounter Bible Curriculum is enabling our teachers to do just that.”

From Kindergarten through 10th Grade, the Adventist Encounter Curriculum was initially developed by the Australian Union Conference and New Zealand Pacific Union Conference in response to their schools’ needs for a curriculum that honored the Great Commission—to “go, make disciples.” The NADOE was in the process of updating some of its curricula, and consideration was given to the possibility of adapting Encounter to the NAD context. After a thorough pilot of the Encounter Curriculum over a two year period, involving thirty pilot teachers across each union in the NAD, a decision was made to use the pilot feedback to review and update the curriculum under the guidance of the NADOE Encounter Steering Committee. The curriculum has been examined by the Biblical Research Institute and they have expressed support for its sound biblical approach.

“With the Bible as the textbook, a plethora of good resources and helpful teacher guides based on proven learning strategies, it was evident that students were being led to ‘encounter God.’”

Dennis Plubell, Vice President for Education, North Pacific Union Conference was involved in the pilot process, “I still remember clearly sitting in five different classrooms in five different locations across the NAD where units of the Encounter curriculum were taught on a pilot basis. It was evident that this was far different than the Bible class I took in academy. The engagement of students in deep discussions in all classrooms did not resemble a textbook-based curriculum. With the Bible as the textbook, a plethora of good resources and helpful teacher guides based on proven learning strategies, it was evident that students were being led to ‘encounter God.’” Following this, the decision was made to develop Grades 11 and 12 so that a complete, seamless curriculum could be shared with all Adventist schools in the Division. Currently, Grades 9 and 10 have been rolled out, and Grades 11 and 12 will be subsequently released in the coming years, along with the elementary curriculum.

The high school Encounter curriculum consists of from 5-10 teaching units per grade. Each unit consists of a detailed teacher plan, which includes a variety of age-appropriate creative activities, short videos, object lessons, in-depth Bible studies, group activities, discussion questions, assessment options, and worship moments that seek to build the student’s knowledge, faith and relationship with God. Each teaching unit also comes with a Resource Kit which includes various items such as posters, DVDs, books, and other unit-specific resources. The variety of material and learning activities seeks to engage all learners from all backgrounds and knowledge bases. Betty Bayer, Director, Office of Education, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada and chairperson of the Encounter Elementary Committee shares some feedback from teachers in her union about the material: “Teachers have found the units and accompanying resources to be “planning friendly” and, even more importantly, that their students have been powerfully engaged.” “Their learning experience is so much richer than it has been in the past and the connections that they are making are that much stronger as well,” said one teacher. “My students love the hands-on, group, and responsive activities,” said another teacher. “They really seemed to develop a close and authentic relationship with their Creator. There were so many times I could just strongly sense the Holy Spirit working on their hearts.”

Jud Lake, Professor of Preaching and Adventist Studies, Southern Adventist University, has reviewed the curriculum and shares,: “Teachers will especially appreciate the whole-person lesson plans that impact students intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally. Accordingly, students will learn not only how to read and understand the Bible, but how to apply its lessons to everyday life. From a creative application of Bloom’s taxonomy to the nine intelligences, this curriculum applies the latest learning theory and strategies to the academy Bible classroom. Teachers will find it a pleasure to use this material and students will discover that learning the Bible is fun. Through Encounter the secondary Bible classroom will achieve its ultimate objective—transformed teenagers who are authentic Seventh-day Adventist Christians. Adventist education will never be the same!”

With the help of the Holy Spirit and guidance from their teacher, Encounter encourages students to search for truth in the Bible for themselves and to be able to explain and defend their faith to others. Jim Ingersoll, Associate Director of Secondary Education in the Southern Union testifies of the impact of this. He shares, "The Encounter Curriculum has proven to have an indelible and life-changing impact on students in the Southern Union. What we have witnessed is a spiritual renewal for students who are learning that the Bible has something to say to them personally. As this curriculum continues to roll out for all four grades in academy I believe we will see an ever-growing understanding by our students of what God has done, is doing, and will do for them."

The NADOE and each of the nine unions have invested in running many two-day training in-service events for all Bible teachers before they teach this new curriculum, to have a thorough understanding of new pedagogy and methodology that will make a real difference in the classroom. At these training events, teachers not only hear again the purpose of Adventist education, and the methods and approach of the Encounter curriculum, but they are personally challenged to spend more time with Jesus in His Word - for we cannot share with others what we do not have. As we abide in Jesus, we are able to model His love to others. Deborah Daniel, Bible teacher at Columbia Adventist Academy, Oregon shares: “This curriculum has such an emphasis on developing a personal, real relationship with Jesus, it is impossible to teach it without ensuring that I am experiencing such a relationship with Him myself. Teaching Encounter challenges me to make sure I take the time to grow my own relationship with Jesus so I can lead my students in authentic worship of Him.”

Teachers and administrators have enthusiastically shared how their students are responding to the Encounter curriculum—that it is changing the way their students are responding to the truths of the Bible, the call to walk in a close relationship with Jesus Christ, and the call to share the Adventist message of hope and wholeness to those around them. Joyce Fortner contacted us to share her experience as the principal at Little Rock Adventist Academy. “Just want you to personally know that this program is awesome! Our students have been spiritual moved and blessed. We have ended the year with the Sabbath unit. Our Communion was so meaningful for the students, and their preparation of the Sabbath sections was so detailed and done so well that the local pastors have asked them to present them for the 11:00 Hour.” Linda Vigil, Bible teacher at Maplewood Adventist Academy shares: “My students say they like the Encounter curriculum because they explore biblical topics and beliefs through interactive and hands-on activities, plus the assessments allow them to creatively express themselves according to their learning styles. Watching the students react to class information and activities is really exciting as we discuss, laugh, and even cry together. This curriculum challenges me in new ways to personally know Jesus more intimately and to share that with my students.”

It is a huge, humbling responsibility to be called to lead our young people to Christ as their personal Savior. The precious hours in the Bible classroom cannot be wasted! Elder Edward Zinke, former president of the Adventist Theological Society and previous associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference, has given guidance on the content of the curriculum and notes, “The Encounter curriculum is Christ centered and Biblically founded. It is designed to lead students to a closer personal relationship with Christ. I thank Nina for her work, and am grateful that my grandchildren will have the opportunity to study this curriculum.”

For more information on the Adventist Encounter Curriculum and to view a sample teaching unit, go to http://encounter.adventisteducation.org/

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