The summer months not only give students a break from the daily routines of packed lunches, school buses, and learning adventures in and out of the classroom, but they also provide a season for educators to enjoy a break from the previous months of planning, teaching, and coaching—a time of refreshment and renewal as well as to reflect and refocus.
For many Christian teachers, this past summer also provided a chance to invest in several exciting professional learning opportunities. Educators from across Ontario participated in two collaborative learning development seminars organized by member schools of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) over the past months—the Christian Deeper Learning seminar hosted by the Niagara Association of Christian Education (NACE) and Responsive Classroom workshops specific to primary and middle school levels that were hosted by Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS) in Georgetown.
“We’re committed to supporting schools with professional learning activities that deepen our ability to design ‘practices and cultures’, that create engagement modeled on Christ’s love for us and for the entire universe,” shared Justin Cook, Director of Learning at the OACS. “There are three things that I’m excited about in these events. First, we want to offer professional learning that aligns with our vision for Christian education here in Ontario—both the OACS vision as expressed in our Dimensions of Learning, and the learning vision of individual schools as expressed by school leaders. Also, we want the events to embody the type of learning pedagogies—engaging, empowering, and formational experiences—that we want the students in our classrooms to experience. And finally, we want educators to experience a sense of growth through joy, collaboration, and effort in these professional learning experiences. If the learning doesn’t feel significant, why would educators do the hard work to incorporate them into their own classroom practices?”
One of these learning opportunities began already in early July. Over thirty teachers gathered with the much loved educational leaders Steven and Joanna Levy for three packed days of experiential learning, collaborative grappling, and collegial sharing, pursuing the goal of equipping one another with practical tools to deepen students’ learning in Christian schools. The Christian Deeper Learning sessions focused on character and culture, curriculum design, and assessment. Specifically, the Levys sought to help teachers find practical answers to questions such as, “How can a focus on deeper learning help me to engage students?”, and “What specific instructional practices can I use to inspire students to become active, engaged citizens in their communities and in the Kingdom of God?”
“The highlight of the workshop for me was on the first day,” shared Nate Oudyk, a grade five teacher at John Knox Christian School (JKCS) in Oakville. “While we were participating in a protocol exercise with other Christian educators, it struck me that we are not simply educating from a Christian perspective—we are building a Christian culture. And it isn’t happening just within our classrooms or our school communities; this culture is formative, so it grows with our students culminating in nothing less than the kingdom of God.
“This year, I plan to be much more reflective in my practice as I think about my place in building the kingdom of God,” he continued. “Every day that I go to school, I can reflect that my actions and words in the coming hours will be part of this kingdom. I plan to be more focused on building class culture and allowing the Spirit to lead us as we begin the work of the kingdom in grade five.”
Several educators were eager to find strategies that would increase student engagement in learning. For Dan Lee, a teacher at Covenant Christian School in Smithville, the highlight of the week came from an specific example that the Levys shared about how to engage students. “He used shoes—an ordinary everyday item—as an example and, after just twenty minutes of teaching, he was able to get each one of us super excited about learning where shoes came from. There was a package of readings on the table, and I felt like I wanted to rip open the packages and devour whatever was in there. It was amazing to see how excited we all became about the shoes! I am looking forward to creating that same excitement for learning in my classroom this year.”
Along with student engagement, the Levys shared practical ways that teachers could plan out their vision for learning in the classroom each year. “The seminar allowed us to not only hear about, but also to experience first-hand some of the components of Deeper Learning,” shared Betty Hovingh, a teacher at Community Christian School in Drayton. “The thing that I’m most looking forward to implementing in my classroom this year is working with learning targets that extend over the long term rather than just focusing on daily learning targets.”
Also in July, a second group of close to sixty educators met for four interactive days of learning about using core Responsive Classroom practices to engage students academically, to build positive community among students, and to create a developmentally appropriate learning environment in their classrooms.
“I was looking for something new and different to apply to my teaching, and I wasn’t disappointed!” shared Phil Hosmar, a teacher at London Christian Elementary School. “I’m most excited about sharing with my students the importance of the language that we use in the classroom—that it needs to honour the listener, the speaker, and the content. I’ve been actively looking at what I teach, how I deliver it, and how it is interacted with by students and I’m confident that it will change how things look in my classroom over the next months and years.”
Classroom culture and the ability to help students develop their social-emotional competencies was something that struck a chord for others at the Responsive Classroom workshops. “Our instructor shared something that will stick with me for a very long time,” shared Angie Bonvanie, a teacher at Halton Hills Christian School in Georgetown. “He said that if a student enters your classroom without knowing their five times tables, we wouldn’t tell them that they should know that by now and then move on. So why would we do that with a student who struggles with empathy or self-control? He challenged us to teach the skills that are necessary to all students where they’re at, and I’m sure this challenge will improve my ability to educate and reach students this year.”
For several teachers that share a classroom, attending the seminar together also helped them to unite their teaching strategies for the upcoming year. “Some of us teach the same group of students over the course of the year in different subjects,” shared Allison Hendriks, also a teacher at Halton Hills. “We’ve been working closely as a team the last few years, and I’m hopeful that now we will all be on the same page when it comes to approaching our students and establishing classroom culture.”
Tony Schaafsma, a teacher at Woodstock Christian School, is also excited about the way that each of the professional learning opportunities he has attended in the last year have tied together and can already see the way they have made a difference in the culture of learning in his classroom over the past year. “Professional development opportunities such as the Responsive Classroom workshops that I’ve recently attended are encouraging educators to rethink our strategies for teaching and assessment,” he shared. “As the grade eight teacher in our school, part of my responsibility is to choose and hand out academic achievement awards at the end of the school year. As I’ve been using the new model of assessments modeled by the Levys and others—where students are in a space of constant revision—students are handing in work that is a much higher quality. This makes it difficult to give a select few an academic award because most students now fit into that category. That’s exciting to me! After all, one of our goals in teaching is to encourage students to create beautiful work!”
Now that the summer months have ended, teachers are taking the things they’ve heard, seen, and experienced first-hand during their professional learning experiences this past summer and are beginning the work of establishing a new culture of learning in their classrooms this fall.
“It’s exciting for me, as a teacher, to see so many educators, both newer and seasoned, who share an obvious and deep desire to improve their ability to educate and reach their students,” shared Angie Bonvanie. “With the practical teaching strategies that were presented at the summer professional learning opportunities this summer, I think everyone was challenged and equipped to do an even better job of teaching their students this year!”