How can educators provide opportunities in daily school life for students to engage with God, and the work of His kingdom, while growing in Christ-likeness? How do we create environments that encourage the flourishing of God’s gifts, ‘created by Him and for Him’, in each child? (Colossians 1:16).These questions and others are ones that both Joanna and Steven Levy will be addressing in conjunction with the theme of this year’s Edifide Convention: “Leading with Love”.
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with both Steven and Joanna Levy, this year’s convention keynote speakers. Steven is an educational consultant, guiding teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging institutional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. Joanna Levy directs the elementary program at New Covenant School in Arlington, Massachusetts, where she has taught for over 25 years. She also leads workshops internationally to encourage and equip teachers to deeply engage their students in the curriculum, in their own spiritual growth, and within their community.
[one_half padding=”0 25px 0 25px”]Joanna: The words I would use to describe Steven are inspiring and kind. Kind, because he is generous, caring, and selfless. Inspiring because he is able to instill confidence and a desire to create, to go deeper, and to be better.[/one_half][one_half_last padding=”0 25px 0 25px”] Steven: I call Joanna “Pioneer Woman.” She is always ready for an adventure, and not afraid to go where no woman has been before - in earthly and heavenly terrain. She is the ultimate encourager, and loves nothing more than to see people - adults and children - grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord.[/one_half_last]
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I’m thrilled to provide an opportunity for everyone to get to know you both a little bit better before hearing you speak at next week’s Edifide conference.
Before we dive into the topics on which you’ll both be presenting, I thought it might be fun to ask you some questions about yourselves first. Perhaps you can start by sharing how you met.
(Laughter from both)
Joanna: I went to high school across from this hamburger place called Hamburger Heaven…
Steven: …it was about a mile away from where I went to high school, although we didn’t know each other.
Joanna: Hamburger Heaven was known for it’s sauce that it put on it’s French Fries, which I became slightly addicted to in my high school years. One night, when I was in my early 20’s, I decided I needed a dose of that sauce. So I went into this place—it only had 6 stools, that’s how small it was—and there were two young men there that were already ordering food. One of them was ordering fast food in a way that I’d never heard it ordered before. It was very poetic, and he was being quite eloquent about how he wanted his “party dog and French fries”. And I thought he was very interesting. I left with my roommate, but I think we had talked a little bit on the way out. So when we were driving out, he yelled, “Hey, what’s your address?” and I yelled it back to him. To my surprise, the very next night when I got home from work, he was waiting for me on my doorstep. We ended up staying outside to watch shooting stars together.
Steven: So, our match was clearly a match made in heaven—however, it was “Hamburger Heaven”.
How did your teaching careers begin?
Joanna: I hadn’t really planned on teaching initially. When my youngest child was about nine years old, he was attending a Christian school nearby, and one of the teachers needed a helper for some time in the classroom, so I offered to help. She was teaching a history unit on the pioneers at the time, and I kept trying to come up with ideas that would make the unit more interesting for the kids—like learning to do weaving and how to make cider. I thought of all these things that I hoped would bring history alive for them. The teacher was very gracious and she gave me a lot of room to try all the things I wanted in the classroom. I became more and more excited about finding ways to bring learning alive for the kids. Eventually, there was an opening for a grade 3/4 teacher at the school, and I was given the position. I ended up teaching the 3rd and 4th grade for about twenty years. I then became the instructional coach at New Covenant School, and four years ago I became the principal.
Steven: The first half of my teaching career was a fairly unique experience. I taught in a private school in which the teacher would start teaching a class when they begin first grade, and then stay with them for all eight of the years that they are in elementary school. So I took one class through eight grades, and then another halfway through. Then I moved into the public school system where I taught mainly 4th grade. Altogether I have been teaching for twenty-eight years.
For the past fifteen years I’ve also been working part time with an organization called EL Education. Mostly, I work as a school designer, which is kind of like a coach, providing professional development opportunities for teachers. I was always excited when I had the chance to work with teachers in a Christian school.
Can you talk a bit about what the intentionality that you practice in your teaching?
Joanna: Each year, our students participate in an exhibition—a long term project—and we try to focus on both academic learning and also character and spiritual formation of the students while they learn. For example, this year our 6th grade class is learning about how people become what they worship. The students are examining how they are spending their time by keeping a log of their activities each weekend. The end product is going to be a magazine that other middle school students can use for their own self reflection about current cultural idols, and what they can lead to. It’s about encouraging kids to put God first in their lives.
I’m really excited about this project because I think that looking at the idols in our current culture is really important. And unless you step back and look at them, they will take you over and form your desires and lead you down paths that you really don’t want to go on.
“It’s been really exciting for us to see that there’s a hunger in a lot of Christian schools to develop more engaging and rigorous curriculum … We’ve poured a lot of our hearts into this project.”
Steven: Yes, it’s really important to both of us that educators provide opportunities in daily school life for students to engage with God, and the work of His kingdom, while growing in Christ-likeness.
One of the most exciting projects that I did with a class was with a group of grade four students in the school community of Lexington, Massachusetts. The students were pretty well-off materially in this town, but they suffered from a different kind of poverty—I called it the poverty of gratitude.
So one year, I wrote a letter to each of the students over the summer and invited them to come to school on the first day with a map of what they thought the ideal classroom could look like. When they arrived, their classroom was empty. There was nothing there for them—not even desks. So anything they wanted to have in the classroom they were going to have to work for. The challenge was to find a way to fund and then build their ideal classroom. And it was my challenge, as a teacher, to help them solve the problem while at the same time teaching them the content they needed to learn.
What was the reaction of the students?
Steven: They were pretty freaked out at first. They had to sit on the floor, which they didn’t love. However, we were surprised at how well we adjusted to life without furniture. It was nice to have all that space in the room. We found ways to adapt and we’d move to the library to use tables if we needed them. It wasn’t until February that we had our first seats funded and built for our own classroom.
We tied the experience in with a Social Studies unit that we were covering that year on the pilgrims. As a class, we felt like pilgrims. They had ventured out into a new world and they had to make all kinds of decisions and organize themselves so that they could meet all their needs. And we were the same; we were this little band of 4th graders coming into a new world, and we were going to need to solve problems and make decisions. Whenever we’d hit a problem, we’d look back at the pilgrims to see if they ran into a similar problem, and discover how they’d solved the problem. When the kids needed to get money in order to buy material for building desks, they studied what the pilgrims did who had no money for resources. The pilgrims basically got local businesses to invest, so that’s exactly what we did as well.
“It’s really important to both of us that educators provide opportunities in daily school life for students to … grow in Christ-likeness.”
What are some of the things that you’ve been working on lately that are close to both of your hearts?
Joanna: For the past few summers, we’ve been working together on providing a week-long seminar called the Summer Training Institute for Christian Teachers. This is something that we’ve been really passionate about. This past year, we had over thirty teachers from nine different schools attend. We take them through the concepts of expeditionary learning, and through what engaging curriculum is, what assessment can look like, best practices, and fostering spiritual formation. It’s been really exciting for us to see that there’s a hunger in a lot of Christian schools to develop more engaging and rigorous curriculum, and to be more intentional about the character and spiritual formation of students. We’ve poured a lot of our hearts into this project.
Steven: We’ve also been working with schools in other parts of the world. For four years in a row, we’ve worked together in a school in India, outside of New Delhi. It was amazing to be working there together with their school community. We’ve also worked with the faculty of a sister school in the Dominican Republic, in a place called Jarabacoa. It’s been exciting to work in these different places, helping teachers to come alongside their students to learn in the best way possible.
Looking forward to next week’s Edifide conference, what are some of the things that you’re excited about? Or, perhaps nervous about?
Joanna: We’re both very excited to be able to talk to that many educators! We have spent so much of our own lives in the classroom—doing exactly what they are doing every day—and we’re looking forward to being able to connect with them and share things that will be immediately relevant to them.
“… we come with more of a worm’s eye view. We come to you directly from the classroom … we’re very excited to come and share some of the things that have inspired us in terms of what kids are capable of doing … as image-bearers of God.”
Steven: It’s always a little nerve-wracking to follow a speaker like Andy Crouch (last year’s keynote speaker). He has such a cosmic perspective with big ideas and life-shaping attitudes. If we were to compare our perspectives a little, I’d say that he comes to his audience with an eagle’s-eye view, while we come with more of a worm’s eye view. We come to you directly from the classroom, and—like Joanna said—we’re very excited to come and share some of the things that have inspired us in terms of what kids are capable of doing, what curriculum can look like, what assessments can look like, and what engaging instructional practices can look like in ways that really honor who our children are as image-bearers of God. We hope that the teachers will be excited to be able to take the ideas that we’re sharing and adapt them in their own classroom settings.
I love how you were able to portray such clear images of the “eagle-eye” and “worm’s-eye” view in contrasting a theoretical with a more practical focus of teaching. I’m certain that those who will be attending next week’s conference will be excited to take the ideas you’ll be sharing back into their own classrooms.
Any final thoughts?
Joanna: We’re really looking forward to sharing our hearts at next week’s convention. It always excites us when we can really inspire and encourage the lives of teachers—we think they’re just the greatest people on earth!
It was such a pleasure for me to get to know both Steven and Joanna a bit better through our conversation over the phone. I hope that this interview gives all those who are planning to attend the conference later this week a sense of who they are as well.
See you on Thursday!