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Experiencing Deeper Learning

by Steven and Joanna Levy

When we were praying about whether or not to resume the Deeper Learning in Christian Schools institute after two years of Covid interruption, Joanna received a word from God that we were to provide professional development, but also invite the participants into God’s rest, refreshing, restoring, and renewing of their calling as Christian educators.

And indeed, God was faithful to provide what he called us to do.

Thirty-two Christian educators from Nigeria, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and eight states throughout the U.S., gathered in North Andover, MA, for the 6th Deeper Learning in Christian Schools Summer Institute. We were excited that 10 out of 11 schools that attended sent more than one teacher (two sent five!). We have found sending teams of teachers highly increases the likelihood of implementing the learning back home.

We began the institute in 2015 as a way for educators to personally experience Christian deeper learning by wearing both a “student hat” and a “teacher hat”. The week is focused on four areas: spiritual formation, curriculum design, instructional practice, and assessment.

Spiritual formation was woven throughout our time. The first morning we discussed how we wanted to live the week together in a way that reflected the character of Christ. Toward that end, we used Joanna’s school’s (New Covenant School) six words of servanthood as the virtues we would intentionally engage during the five days. We added a seventh word- joy- to the list and spent some time generating bullet points for what these words would look like in action. Each virtue was “guarded” by a group of participants, and throughout the week, we used these words as a way to pray and reflect on God’s work in us. There were several workshops on how to implant character learning targets into chapel, the school day, and long-term projects, using embodied material practices that appeal to the students’ imaginations and hearts, not just their intellects.

Since we had strongly sensed that this week was to be a time of spiritual refreshment and renewal for the teachers, we started with worship each morning, scheduled in a Sabbath time to enjoy God’s creation in the lake and woods around us, and provided a time for people to be prayed for. Participants could hike the lakeside trails or take kayaks or canoes out in the afternoon.

We started every day with the community building practice of morning meeting. Each person was greeted by name in various engaging ways, and there was a fun initiative that involved everyone. We reviewed our goals for practicing our guiding virtues and looked at the day’s agenda.

A good portion of the time was spent on designing curriculum that provokes complex thinking, inspires beautiful work, and forms Christlike character in the students. Participants were able to explore hundreds of student products that were aligned with curricular standards and served an authentic audience. They experienced for themselves the whole process of doing “real work for real people” through building background knowledge, fieldwork, and meeting with experts. Back at the institute, each team created their own beautiful work that served a real purpose - to promote a service organization and honor the people they serve.

We explored a variety of instructional practices that included Building Background Knowledge, workshop structures, and protocols that facilitate student engagement and equity of participation. We experienced various lesson designs that ensured the participation of all learners.

We looked at models of student products to define the qualities of “beautiful work.” We demonstrated how to teach literacy (specifically writing) as participants began their writing for the final product. We established criteria for excellence and used peer critique to guide revisions.

The evenings were a rich time as well. One night we offered soaking prayer to the group. This is a method of prayer where the person is invited to bring a blanket, a pillow and a prayer request (optional) and lie down in a dimly lit room with worship music playing. Several prayers move quietly about the room praying over each person as they “soak” in God’s love. One evening was our trip to our fieldwork site. The third night was Moth Hour night. Moth hour is an NPR program where ordinary folks tell personal stories that have been somewhat crafted, but not memorized. We met at sunset by the lake and heard stories of rescue, provision, foolishness, and bravery. Listening to one another’s stories felt like a deeply Christian act, and this was a highlight for some of our participants. The final night was an optional trip into Boston or one of the many historic towns in the area.

A synthesis of highlights from our evaluations:

1. We felt the guidance of the Holy Spirit in everything we did (starting with the beauty of worship every morning with Meredith).

2. Getting to experience learning as a student (BBK, fieldwork, creating a real product for a real need).

3. Hearing the stories of people we met to interview.

4. Integrating the "Guiding Virtues" into our academic work and rhythms of the day.

5. The joy of meeting and being with others who were also looking to provide deeper learning experiences for their students.

A synthesis of their responses about what they’re excited about bringing back to their school/classroom:

1. Converting existing projects into longer term ones- with an authentic audience- looking for connections with their local community

2. Knowing how to design and implement a project from start to finish

3. Incorporating core values/guiding virtues into the classroom

4. Teaching students how to assess their own work

5. Teaching and scaffolding students to produce beautiful work

6. Using the new instructional practices they learned

7. Making time/space for teachers and students to be in God’s presence

I think all of us felt what a joy it was to spend time with others who are committed to bringing deeper learning to our students. We both sensed God’s blessing and leading over our time together. Indeed, the week was a highlight for both of us!

It’s probably too early to think about next summer, but not too early to plan your budget! Consider setting aside some funds to send a team to the 7th annual Deeper Learning in Christian Schools Institute.


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