Cross-firing in Education, part I

Cross-firing in Education, part I

Cross-firing in Education, part I

A series of crop failures on his own farm about ten years ago drove John Zempf, a then 18-year-old Amish farmer from Ohio, to school himself in the sciences.  I read about his work in  Roc Morin writes, “For two years, he pored over research in biology, chemistry, and agronomy in pursuit of a way to save his fields.

The breakthrough came from the study of plant immune systems which, in healthy plants, produce an array of compounds that are toxic to intruders.’The immune response in plants is dependent on well-balanced nutrition,’ Kempf concluded, ‘in much the same way as our own immune system.’

Modern agriculture uses fertilizer specifically to increase yields, he added, with little awareness of the nutritional needs of other organic functions.  Through plant sap analysis, Kempf has been able to discover deficiencies in important trace minerals which he can then introduce into the soil.

With plants able to defend themselves, pesticides can be avoided, allowing the natural predators of pests to flourish.

Reading this encouraging retelling of a young Amish farmer’s research – and remarkable action on that research – the truth sat hard and beautifully on my heart.

I reread this sentence, “The immune response in plants is dependent on well-balanced nutrition in much the same way as our own immune system.”  Yes.  Yes, it is.

After witnessing too many crop failures in our existing education system, I have come to the same conclusion.  School today is focused on output; educators are required to produce great yields – it is all about the performance, “with little awareness of the nutritional needs of other organic functions”.

But our human immune systems are dependent on well-balanced nutrition; interventions applied to enhance production are injuring our very circuitry.  We are created to bear abundant fruit – this is the original design for our lives.

However, the output of our lives is dependent on the nutrition we receive; healthy fruit is dependent on healthy input – not greater focus on targeted objectives, artificial incentives, or stricter regulations about our performance outputs.

We are asking students to make bricks without straw, and we keep raising the quotas.

Perhaps too many farms and too many schools are living the tragedy of Matt Emmons in the shooting events of the 2004 Olympics.  As reported in USA today, “With one bullet left to shoot, all Matt Emmons needed was a score of 7.2 to win his second gold medal of the Olympic Games. On his first nine shots in the finals, Emmons’ lowest score was a 9.3. He took careful aim, fired … bull’s eye.

Only Emmons’ shot pierced the wrong target — known as a crossfire — resulting in a score of 0. Instead of gold, Emmons, 23, of Browns Hill, N.J., was left trying to explain the rare mistake that left him in eighth place.”

Emmons’ last shot hit a perfect bull’s eye in lane two; he was competing in lane three.  As educators we are cross-firing, too.

At some schools, after spending a great deal of money, time, and effort, we are hitting a perfect bull’s eye – on the performance target.  The adults hang the “exemplary” commendation on the brick exterior, too often not noticing the injuries this great weight has inflicted on the lives of the young burden bearers.

The fluorescent light shines brightly, validating great scores and grand success on intellectual battle fields.

But do we consider the costs?

  • Are relationships in tact?
  • Do children know who they really are?
  • Are they coming more alive each day, or are they celebrating what they can do, only to wake up to another day of more rigorous performance goals?
  • How much medication does it take to enhance performance?
  • Do the students feel like they belong – because of who they are instead of because of what hoops they are applauded for jumping through?
  • And what if they struggle to jump?
  • Are they afraid of struggling – are they afraid to be vulnerable in the areas of their weakness – for fear that approval and belonging is based on scores, not on being real?
  • Is the “exemplary” medal just a cheap trophy, rewarding us for being great producers, when the truth is we are not created to pursue production at all?
  • What are we genetically modifying so we can celebrate self-effort and pleasing others?

What if the truth is we are consumers, of a healthy sort, – created to be well-fed and beautifully nourished?  What if the truth is abundant production is just a simple by-product of who we are, created dependent on well-balanced nutrition?

What if the performance target is in lane two, but we are created to live in lane three?

In lane three, life – and, therefore, education – is about well-balanced nutrition.  The focus of the adults is input, not output.

The elders know the beautiful story of our original design; we believe John 15:4-5.  “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

The scripture says, …”he it is that bears much fruit“, not “he it is that MAY bear fruit”, or “he it is that bears much fruit if he goes to a good school, gets a great teacher, and never really struggles”.

In lane three, educators trust, abide, and give grace – and help children learn to trust, abide, and give grace, too.  Abiding provides perfect nutrition – the best books, worthy work, real relationships, beauty, inspiration, and struggle.  In lane three, abundant fruit is a reason for real and regular celebrations.


Abiding teaches us to delight in our weaknesses because the environment of grace meets our needs; we trust others to help us, and we know that being real is more a criteria for growth than masking our needs and looking like a good performer.

We learn to help each other see their performance masks, too – and love them in a way that encourages them to risk being vulnerable.

Over and over again, we witness the original design:  weakness combined with vulnerability combined with grace results in growth, healthy immunity, expanding integrity, and abundant fruit.

Read more about these ideas:

A Story – Cross-firing, part II

Doug and I are living this dream with families right now; we believe John 15 Academy will provide this well-balanced nutrition in a school setting. If you want to read more about our dream – visit

Even better, let’s work together.  We know this dream is bigger than what we can do on our own; if you’d like to live this adventure with us – send us an email and let’s share dinner or a cup of coffee.

  • marisa H

    Wow, such powerful, truthful words, maybe even painful for some to hear or to face. Could this really be the reality of what is happening? After working in schools for 16 years, it is such truth. Thank you for sharing and challenging us as teachers and parents, there is a better way! Help us Lord to 1) Awaken to this truth and 2) to know what to do in response to this reality.

    • Janet Newberry

      You are trusting the beautiful truth, Marisa – you are living with your aim on the true target, and I am cheering you on in my prayers. Yes, “Help us Lord.” Thank you, friend.

  • Rachel

    This remains one of the main posts I direct people to when they ask about “that crazy Grace thing” I won’t stop talking about. A thought provoking read no matter how many times I reread it.

  • Janet Newberry

    Abide in the vine, friend! John 15 – dependable nourishment. Abundant fruit!