Teacher Professional Development Placed in a Better Story
by Joanne den Boer, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
Sixty Christian school teachers, kindergarten to high school, descended upon Vancouver’s Granville Island Market. Equipped with cameras and a sizable dose of enthusiasm, they came to learn – through play. Their assignment, as part of a summer course1, was to look for evidence of God’s story in the ordinary moments that unfolded before them.
Was it really possible to recognize God’s hand in creation, or the effects of man’s fall into sin? Could they observe the effects of Christ’s redemptive work? Would there be examples of His restorative kingdom at work? If so, then this would be a formational learning experience that would solidify their understanding of the biblical story and biblical through-lines in the units they were developing. It would enable them to shift from theory to practice. Moreover, it would give them a sense of how to design formational learning experiences for their students.
It was an invitation to a better story, God’s story.
This field experience was a welcome change of pace after the rigorous first two days of class. These teachers had expended a lot of intense energy to focus on designing a unit plan of study. It takes effort to create learning experiences that will have middle schoolers debate Money or Mantle: Which Comes First? to understand the link between human activity and natural disasters. How do you design learning experiences for pre-calculus students so they can answer the question of why astronauts exit the space shuttle on wheelchairs? The Fair Trade – it’s Not Just for Coffee unit will examine concepts of fairness and honesty while applying math principles. Intermediate students will grapple with how people explore and live while being mindful of treating their neighbours as themselves, such as European explorers being mindful (or not) of their First Nations neighbours. In contrast to community-building, third graders consider What Would My Life Be Like if I Was All Alone? On day three, the stamina required to write ebbed, creativity and ingenuity waned, clear thinking became cluttered – the timing of the excursion to Granville Island Market was exactly right.
Docks, vegetable stands, cement factories, breweries, artisans – the more teachers beheld, the greater the chase2. The more they sensed, the more thoughtful they became. One teacher later remarked, “I’ve been here before but never saw God. I didn’t realize that I had never looked for Him.”
The impact on teachers observing the biblical story lived at the market seems to have inspired intentionality around naming, or renaming, units. Doing so counters a so-called neutral curriculum. The unit plans described above could just as easily have been titled Playing Store: Adding and Subtracting, Pioneers, Exploring Canada, Natural Disasters, or Radical Functions. Using “neutral” unit titles could shift the teacher’s attention from an intentional, biblically-marinated and faith-informed approach to learning3 to a more skills-based and knowledge approach. A disconnect, or a gap, between what a student knows, what a student believes, and how a student behaves, might be the result of inattention to a seemingly minor detail such as a unit title. I wonder if it could be argued that “neutral” unit titles promote learning as head knowledge only, and that opportunities for learning with heart and hands might be overlooked. Being deliberate about something as simple as a unit title shapes practice4.
If you were to walk the halls of your school and read the titles on bulletin boards, would you want to see a “neutral” title to describe the students’ learning, or would you desire to read a title that proclaims the Lord’s sovereignty, his Lordship over all things? Don’t school board members want their teachers to create learning experiences that are formational and transformational, not just informational? That requires teachers to “search out the will of God for our content and how we go about teaching it,” 5 including naming the unit to tell God’s story. To search out the will of God is to know the story of God. Being steeped in the biblical story, for all unit lessons or themes of study, is essential. At the market, teachers were immersed in the biblical story which reinforced the impossibility of a neutral curriculum.
To apply a rich biblical narrative to the unit of study requires the teacher to adopt a humble and prayerful posture before beginning the design process. Then, immersing the unit in the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration framework will allow God’s story to be told. When we ask what was God’s purpose when He created the stars, the salmon, or polypeptides, or when we ask whose story is being told in the fossil evidence, or what comes first – thought or language, then we start our thinking with God and not with humans. When we ask how sin has distorted God’s purpose, or what the competing stories are, then we start to surface what went wrong with God’s intent for creation. We ask questions about fair trade coffee, the effects of deforestation, or the abuse of power over First Nation’s people. When we consider Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, then we humbly acknowledge that He has come to redeem people from their fallen state, to establish His kingdom, and to bring restoration until He returns when restoration will find its fulfillment. This glorious story was, to varying degrees, being told at Granville Island Market. Teachers saw it, heard it, and experienced it. It was humbling.
Placing unit plans under the framework of restoration allows teachers to design formational learning experiences. The intent is that students experience what it means to live in harmony with God’s story for creation, to live in harmony with each other, promoting others before self. It requires students to consider to make responsible choices. It requires the whole school community to be mindful of what it means to live before the face of God, and to act justly, righteously, and with mercy – not just with another five-year old in the kindergarten class, but with other five-year olds on the playground, at the park, at the community skating rink. A formational learning experience has the middle schooler rethink his posting to a social media site. It should create a sense of justice in the high schooler when he or she creates a business plan in an economics class. Most importantly, a formational learning experience is to be a powerful reminder to students that they are in God’s story – just as being a visitor, and therefore participant, at the market reminded teachers of their place in God’s story.
Designing unit plans from a faith-informed vantage point also allows the chapter on brokenness to be told. It surfaces competing worldview stories, such as consumerism, individualism, and the “cure for all things” – science and technology. By identifying and articulating the competing worldview6 in the design process allows teachers to be mindful of it at three levels: designing the learning experiences before the unit is implemented, seizing the teachable moments in class, and ensuring students recognize it in their learning activities.
A unit plan that invites students to a better story would be incomplete without the provision for students to live out the story. Students are engaged in discipleship training through the careful selection of elements of discipleship such as worship, service, stewardship, discernment, community building, or beauty creating. Teachers ask themselves which element(s) will best help tell the Story? Which will provide a different way of being that is counter to the competing story?
How did the field experience at Granville Island Market promote teacher professional development? By inviting them into a better story!
Teachers were asked to create a visual essay or collage that told the biblical story in an unexpected learning environment – the market.
Have you looked at a fruit stand through the lens of creation, fall, redemption and restoration? What about structures, natural and man-made? Would you have thought that God’s amazing design for plant structures inspires architects? Have you viewed dilapidated structures scrawled with graffiti from the perspective of distortion? What about litter pick-up, gifting a homeless gentleman with an ice cream, or green fuel efficiency as gestures of bringing restoration to the brokenness of this world? These kinds of experiences, along with rich dialogue while creating their visual presentation for colleagues, gave teachers greater insight into the design process and to think deeply about the role of elements of discipleship, or Biblical through lines, when designing formational learning experiences.
During the one-week summer course, this community of teachers designed over one hundred frameworks for unit plans, steeped in the biblical story. Some teachers began implementation in the first semester. If ten teachers echoed the voice of one, “I’ll never teach the same again”, then 250 students will learn differently this year. If all 60 teachers implement just one unit, then over 1500 students will be immersed in a transformational way of learning, of being in this world.
Why not dialogue with your principals to learn how students are affected through the units developed this summer? Better yet, why don’t you visit your teachers’ classrooms? Then you will see for yourself how your investment in teacher development this summer is making a difference in the lives of your children, because “collectively, the [units] of the whole program make an overall impact, shaping the outlook of the heart and patterning a vision of life.” 7, 8
1 – The 30-hour summer course, Designing Formational Learning Experiences, was given university-equivalent status by the CPABC, CTABC, and SCSBC.
2 – idea borrowed from S. Levy. (1996). Starting From Scratch. Heinemann. Portsmouth, NH.
3 – A faith-informed approach, in contrast to a faith-based approach, denotes a dynamic relation between the teacher and his or her faith in Christ. A faith-based approach could denote the intellectual endorsement of the Christian faith or of Scriptural teachings, and perhaps the adoption of moral practices of Christian principles yet lack the personal relationship to Jesus Christ.
4 – What’s in a Name? Bill de Jager, LINK article Nov. 1, 2012
5 – SCSBC (2001). Good Teaching Comes from the Inside, p. I-22.
6 – Dr. Kimberly Franklin offers another, insightful way to think about “worldview”. See her August 31, 2013 posting at http://educatingwithreverence.com
7 – Stronks, J., Vreugdenhil, J. (1992). Hallmarks of Christian Schooling. Ontario Christian Alliance of Christian Schools, Ancaster, ON. p 57
8 – Thank you to Darryl de Boer for his editing comments.