Art Isennagle stood on the balcony at Nonnburg Abbey watching the morning sun slowly reveal the rugged beauty of Untersberg Mountain in Salzburg, Austria. The morning air, newly washed by an early rain, was crisp and cool.
The brisk stroll to the abbey had invigorated him. To get there he had walked through streets uniformly lined with immaculate houses, each one sporting window boxes spilling over with June flowers. His mind was flooded with anticipation.
For five years in the mid-1980s, Art had been successfully fast-tracking his way up the corporate ladder in an insurance company, yet he was deeply dissatisfied, nearing burnout, and unsure of God's purpose for his life.
One evening, after reading "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help" in Psalm 121, he decided to seize the moment, trekking from Ohio to the Austrian Alps. As he hiked deep into the mountains, Art kept hearing a line spoken to Julie Andrews by a nun in the film The Sound of Music: "You have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is how God wants you to spend that love." By the end of his journey, Art realized he would spend his love on young children.
Fast-forward to the 1990s:
Art Isennagle, with a sly smile on his face, looks out across a classroom swollen with chatting children. He takes a deep breath and shouts in full voice: "Prepare to be freaked out!"
"Prepare to be freaked out!" he exclaims again, racing to the front of the room, where books line the chalkboard rail. Art grabs a book, opens it, and a castle pops out from the center.
The children squeal and their eyes widen. The class is planning to build model castles, and these books are just the thing to start their minds working on the plans.
Art can't wait to show them what else he has. "I have a gift for you," he teases, with a widening grin. Waiting on their desks are poems by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. The students in Room 22 of Olde Orchard Alternative Elementary School are about to burst with excitement.
Suddenly, the bell rings to start the day, and everyone sits down and turns to the first poem, Maya Angelou's "I Love the Look of Words." But these students don't just read poems—Art has them jumping around the room like the popcorn on a "hot black skillet" described in the poem.
"One cannot write if one does not experience," Art tells the kids, "and one cannot experience if one does not feel."
CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE
Welcome to the public-school mission field. The recipient of a 1992 Walt Disney Company American Teacher Award, Art has taught in the public schools in Columbus, Ohio, since 1988.
While Art does not represent the typical organized ministry, his vocation has been transformed into a living ministry to children. If you believe all the rhetoric in today's culture war, the public schools are either godless bastions of secular humanism or troubled institutions victimized by extremists of the Religious Right.
Yet between the rhetorical polar opposites is the vast middle, where Art Isennagle and teachers like him believe not only in teaching the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also add in role modeling and teaching right from wrong. Christians in public schools have their feet in two worlds and strive to bring a vital faith appropriately into classrooms and expose their churches to the hard realities they encounter in public education.
Art's successful career change from the business world to the classroom has put him among pioneers who experience a second vocational calling from God. But sometimes, changes—even God-inspired ones—do not come easily. In Art's case, he had to take acting classes to overcome his shyness as well as study education at Ohio State University.
TEACHING AROUND THE CLOCK
For Art, teaching children does not start on Monday and end on Friday. Sunday mornings, he is right at it again. This 36-year-old single man can be found teaching, playing tag, or even teaching teachers since his recent appointment as a Sunday-school superintendent, showing them how to reach kids who have already spent five days of their week in a classroom.
Art motivates not only students, but teachers as well. At a four-day conference sponsored by an early-childhood department of the Washington, D.C., school system, he shared with other teachers his philosophy of teaching. These hungry educators devoured his message. Afterwards, novice teacher Shelley Jennings told Art, "I now have a vision. You helped me focus my enthusiasm and passions."
To Maudline Odiletu-Obodoefuna, a teacher at Webb Elementary School, Art's message was more than that. She recognized the Christian world-view that inspires Art. "When I heard that you teach Sunday school," she later wrote to him, "I said, "No wonder.' God is wonderful to send a deliverer to our school system."
The Isennagle method of teaching is driven by experience. His classroom is a special place filled with quirky things to awaken and excite young minds.
Costumes in special "imagination baskets" are at the ready to transform children into storybook characters. Posters, poems, and plaques wallpaper the room. Makeshift shelves invite small hands to grope the 2,000 books along the walls, not to mention the eight-point buck trophy that hangs nearby. It is the classroom as a curiosity shop, a sensual delight.
In Columbus, Ohio, where Art teaches, 39 percent of high-school seniors are unable to pass a ninth-grade proficiency test. Left on their own, these students would likely become what many of their older brothers and sisters are: dropouts or drug dealers.
"Good morning, graduating classes of 2003 and 2004," Art often says in beginning a school day. " You are all learners, discoverers, and future high-school and college graduates. Every one of you can learn."
"WE'RE BURNING TO LEARN"
At the start of one school year, a boy who had difficulty reading came into Art's class and gave an overwhelmed gaze at the posters on the walls. "I'm gonna flunk," he declared. But Art stepped in immediately and gave the boy books on audiotape, plus a tape recorder to take home. Then Art surprised the boy by calling him and reading with him over the phone.
A few weeks later, the student told Art he now loved to read. "[I] want to suck all the juiciness out of life!" he proclaimed.
In Room 22, Art's students, unlike those in other classes, don't tolerate others wasting precious class time. They look forward to memorizing poetry and speeches. Art has, as he puts it, "created an atmosphere where learning is a sacred goal."
To achieve these goals, the students allow nothing to interfere: "I'm on fire!'' a boy told a school administrator one afternoon. Art cringed. The administrator was paying an impromptu visit to Art's class just before the last bell.
"What do you mean?" the administrator asked.
"I'm burning to learn," the boy boasted.
Then the rest of the class took up the chorus: "We're burning to learn. We're burning to learn."
In disbelief, the administrator watched the passionate delight wash across the children's faces. Art stood back and smiled. The bell rang to go home.
But the students protested: "We don't want to leave" they said. "We want to stay and learn."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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