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Love, Engagement, and…… Data?

An earlier version of this article was published in the winter of 2017.

In October 2016, we were honoured to welcome Steven and Joanna Levy to our Edifide Educator’s Convention. The theme of the convention was “Leading with Love.” In his opening keynote address, Steven stated this about the theme:

How do we know what love looks like in our schools? In the same way we know about God through the way he was embodied in Christ, we know about our schools’ love by the practices and the cultures that we create in our schools. At the very heart of it is engagement.” 11:07 in the video found here.

According to Steven, leading with love means deepening cultures and practices in our schools that lead to engagement and not just to well-behaved, compliant students who do work for a grade. Loving students through engagement has been at the core of our learning priorities highlighted in the Edvance Christian Schools Association—formerly OACS (Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools)—Three Dimensions of Learning. As we pursue mastery of knowledge and skills, develop our character and culture, and create beautiful work, we want love and engagement to be experienced by all community members—students, teachers, administrators, and parents. What specific practices help us to embody this love? 

We have focused on creating cultures that encourage growth mindsets for mastery of knowledge and skills, we have visited schools like Genesee Community Charter School that also prioritize student engagement through the use of Responsive Classroom; we have designed projects in our schools and at the Christian Teacher Academy that create engagement through “real work that meets a real need for real people,” where students’ beautiful work blesses others and isn’t just completed for a grade. Engagement means that we pursue these learning dimensions WITH our students. 

Supporting all OACS/Edvance schools in pursuing these priorities and initiatives has been exciting, and I’m convinced that these initiatives do indeed embody the “love of Christ” that Steven highlighted in his keynote.

However, how does a school get specific and focused in pursuing these practices? And how can a school track the implementation of these professional learning priorities into its actual classrooms? As stated in Part II of the Dimensions of Learning

Edvance is […] committed to supporting schools in measuring their implementation of these dimensions. We want meaningful tools by which we can enter into effective data cycles that clarify whether or not we are accomplishing our goals in supporting students. The data cycle indicates how leadership can name a specific focus and use data to evaluate their effectiveness in accomplishing that focus. 

I confess, as an English teacher, I didn’t expect that I would ever professionally connect the “love of Christ” with “data cycles.” The problem was with me, however. Of course, we don’t want to reduce kids to a number, and the system of education has often been guilty of this reduction. Wrongly, though, I assumed that data was inherently dehumanizing, and that is unfair to those who know how to gather a wide variety of data and understand it well. In a word, data is information. How do we gather information and incorporate that information into our ongoing learning? It can involve numbers (like our use of MAP—Measures of Academic Progress) but it can involve much more. Information—data—can take many forms. 

In our “commitment to supporting schools in measuring their implementation of these dimensions,” I invited Steven Levy to partner with me in a school visit to Halton Hills Christian School for two days in late November 2016. The HHCS staff had been working hard at implementing the Dimensions in a number of ways, and we wanted to gather information—data—to support their desire to lead with love through engaging students. 

The visit had two key components.

First, we looked carefully at what Halton Hills had been prioritizing in learning by examining and discussing their Professional Work Plan. A Professional Work Plan names 2-4 key goals that a school staff wants to pursue over the course of the year. The goals should be clear, specific, and measurable (think of the acronym SMART here). The work plan also articulates how these goals will be pursued. I believe all school leaders should be working with their staff to create and pursue an annual professional work plan. Kevin Bouwers, Principal of Providence Christian School, was also with us at Halton Hills as we deepened our ability to use a work plan effectively. The HHCS work plan named four key goals for this school year:

  1. To incorporate inclusion of Responsive Classroom techniques and philosophy into the culture of the school.

  2. To continue to develop meaningful PBL projects at all levels.

  3. To support the teaching of math at all grade levels.

  4. To have HHCS be a place of invitation, welcome, and safety where “soul food” is shared with all.

After discussing all four of these goals with the HHCS leadership team, we decided to prioritize the first two in our time together in those two days.

And that led us to our second key component: out of his experience with EL Education, Steven was introducing to us the use of the learning walk protocol. We asked this driving question: 

How will we use learning walks to measure specifically the status and success of the first two goals expressed in the work plan?

A learning walk involves one or more small teams visiting all classrooms of a school for short 5-10 minute visits, looking for specific practices that have been named in the work plan. Team members can include visitors like Kevin and myself but ideally would also include staff members from the school itself—both administrators and teachers. Teams take with them a note catcher that helps define what it is they’re looking for, and that gives them a place to record their observations. Here’s the two charts we looked to complete on our brief visits, recording things we saw, heard, and wondered. 

Learning Walk Note-Catcher 1—Culture & Character

Learning Walk Note-Catcher 2—Mastery of Knowledge and Skills/Beautiful Work

What type of data were we collecting through the learning walk? Kevin helped us with this great analogy: a learning walk was like scooping some ice cream off of the top of the carton. You might end up with a chocolate chunk, you might not, but you would certainly get a sense of the flavour through the short visits. And they were meant to be celebratory and inquiry-based—we might wonder things because of our observations on the visits, but we would not make any definitive statements or judgements based on our short time in the classrooms.

The HHCS staff had been working hard on these two goals expressed in the work plan for more than a year by the point that we were welcomed into their classrooms. And yet, it was still crucial that we communicated clearly that we were not visiting their classrooms to judge them or evaluate them as teachers. The data we were collecting would be shared back with them in a letter that we would write to them personally.

The letter highlighted three areas: patterns we identified from our shared observations, specific highlights of our time in classrooms, and questions we were wondering to consider as HHCS continued in its pursuit of these two goals from the work plan.

Here is how we communicated through the letter the patterns we had identified:

The team recognized a number of patterns as we moved throughout the school. Students were very well mannered and readily engaged in conversations with team members. There was an apparent sense of joy and enthusiasm throughout the building. It was abundantly clear that the adults in the building are committed to the students and desire to see them learn and grow. Student work was liberally displayed on hallway walls and in classrooms, which is a strong indicator of how beautiful work is valued, respected, and celebrated.    Responsive Classroom, especially the inclusion of morning meetings into your daily routines, has led to engaged and excited students at the start of the day. Displays of gestures used were noticed throughout the school. A number of classrooms also had other responsive classroom displays such as logical consequences and hopes and dreams, which are helpful reminders to both teachers and students. The morning messages we observed in a variety of classrooms were engaging and built positive connections between students and their teacher.  Student developmental levels were honoured by the wide variety of seating arrangements throughout the classrooms. The grouped and table spaces were conducive for collaborative learning. Classroom carpet spaces created alternative learning spaces and allowed for student movement throughout blocks of time which is good for both bodies and minds. 

We shared this letter with the staff in hard copy at the end of our second day together, taking the time to share food together and verbally thank them for letting us into their classrooms. There was a sense that “leading with love” as educators is hard work, but that the practices highlighted throughout our time together do indeed lead to deep engagement and a sense of purpose for both students and teachers. It seemed clear that the culture of a growth mindset existed for all of the community members at Halton Hills Christian School.

So, what inspires me in my work as the Director of Learning at the Edvance? Listening to inspiring keynote addresses like we received from Steven and Joanna Levy at the convention under the theme of “leading with love.” Connecting the love of Christ to the actual practices in our classrooms. Re-defining data in a way that allows us to experience it not only as a humanizing process in measurement but also as an affirming celebration of the learning. Partnering with Christian school communities like Halton Hills across Ontario and beyond.


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