The contents of this article were first published as the chapter “From Machine to Human” in the book Mindshift (2019).
This article is the third of three parts. Part I defines the three dimensions of learning within the context of the Biblical story, Part II names specific core practices and data cycles that support the development of these dimensions with educators and students, and Part III describes the dimensions in action through a case study telling the story of one specific elementary school: Halton Hills Christian School.
Part III: The Dimensions in Action: Halton Hills Christian School1
Located just outside the massive urban sprawl of the greater Toronto area, Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS) is a school on a journey.
Principal Marianne Vangoor knew that she and her staff were passionately committed to the well-being of the 350 PreK-8 students in the school, but she believed they could do more. As this chapter highlights, Marianne was not content with the status quo of a transactional education of grade acquisition. So she and her staff asked each other a pivotal question at the summer staff retreat in 2015: “What does love require?” This became the staff theme for that year and has shaped the learning journey at HHCS ever since.
The goal for the staff at HHCS in 2018-2019 sums up this desire well:
To be an outpost of grace for families and students alike where young minds and bodies and hearts are nurtured, shaped, taught, and challenged, in order to become active and passionate ambassadors of the King right now and for all of their tomorrows!
The goal highlights two key facets of how learning at Halton Hills Christian School moves from machine to human. First, the school is passionate about supporting students inwardly: the development of the whole child in a culture of unconditional love and grace (“young minds and bodies and hearts are nurtured, shaped, taught and challenged”). Second, the school is convinced that through their learning, students can actively contribute culturally to the flourishing of others and our world, both near and far (“in order to become active and passionate ambassadors of the King right now and for all of their tomorrows!”) This inward and outward formation forms the humanizing learning vision at Halton Hills Christian School .
HHCS educators believe strongly that social-emotional learning cannot be separated from academic learning, and the school has chosen to use resources from Responsive Classroom to enact this belief. Responsive Classroom is an evidence-based approach that seeks to create a culture of joy and belonging for students, by integrating academic and social-emotional learning.
The daily schedule at HHCS intentionally makes time for this connection of academic success and social-emotional learning. The morning begins with time for devotions in a morning meeting. In developmentally appropriate ways—the meeting looks different in kindergarten from grade eight—each student starts the day with four key elements:
A greeting, where each child is welcomed and welcomes each other by name;
A time of sharing, where each child has a chance to connect their own stories with the stories of their classmates, recognizing that they all have ways in which they are similar but also ways in which they’re different;
An activity, which helps build community and energize their minds and bodies for a day of learning together; and
A morning message from the teacher that gives an indication of passion and purpose for the day.
Each day also provides ten minutes of quiet time after the second nutritional break, so that students can again relax, recharge (especially those more introverted), and re-focus for learning after an outdoor recess. And lastly, the day ends with a closing circle in each classroom, where students have a moment to reflect on the good and the hard parts of their day together before returning home. These practices help to ensure that each student at HHCS is known, loved, and valued as a contributor to school life.
But HHCS is not only committed to supporting students in their inward social/emotional and academic development. At HHCS, a project-based learning (PBL) pedagogy is the key driver of this desire to develop active and passionate ambassadors. Over the past number of years, students have engaged in significant learning projects that have blessed their larger community:
Preschool students grew their own food in a garden that was planned and maintained by them.
Kindergarten students became marine biologists, challenged the school community regarding how plastic bottles and bags were used, and then led the way by designing and selling metal water bottles to fund ocean clean-up.
First-grade students created HHCS welcome guidebooks for visitors and prospective parents.
Second and third-grade students educated the community about endangered species in the area, by creating an information-packed 18-month calendar.
Third-grade students created an architectural guide for historic buildings in the town of Georgetown to be used by visitors to the town.
Fourth-grade students wrote and illustrated a picture book comparing their daily lives with that of a fourth-grade student in Afghanistan. The sale of the book raised funds to send 200 girls to school in Afghanistan through the non-profit Pennies for Peace.
An agricultural fair was hosted by fifth-grade students for the school community that included food trucks, animals, and even a tractor pull.
Sixth-grade students developed an action research project to determine whether or not the main artery Trafalgar Road should be widened, and presented the findings to Halton city planners.
Seventh and eighth-grade students provided leadership for the community to more deeply understand and begin the process of reconciliation with indigenous friends and neighbors.
Student feedback from these projects demonstrates the power of PBL in outward formation. In one of these projects, fifth and sixth-grade students published a book of historical fiction, called From Chains to Freedom, using the novel Underground to Canada as their mentor text. Each student’s story was included in the book (not just a handful of the “best”), and the students used the profits of the book sales to support the International Justice Mission Canada in combating modern-day slavery. At a school-wide celebration of learning that included this project, one of the students shared how the project helped him to overcome his struggle with editing, as well as how to develop his voice as a writer. In reflecting about what he learned through sharing and selling their book at a local mall, the student commented that “people need to be informed about slavery today. You need to get out of your comfort zone, not stand behind a table and wait for the money.” Another student indicated that she was nervous to share her book with others “because we’re reading excerpts of our writing in front of an audience. But I’m also pretty excited.” Why? “Because I’m really changing history, and I’m freeing slaves today in different developing countries.”
In addition to projects like these, each grade eight student also prepares a graduate presentation to a panel of staff and parents. The presentations are not about grades but about growth. They include a portfolio of the beautiful work the student has created, but more importantly, students reflect on their character formation over the course of their HHCS career. Their presentations address developmental questions like, How have they grown in their sense of self and in practicing and living out their faith? Where do they see their lives going after HHCS? What is God calling them into and how will they serve in the bigger Kingdom?
Supporting the Story
This desire to support students in both their inward formation and their outward cultural contributions through their learning “as ambassadors of the King” takes time and commitment at all levels. For instance, HHCS hires with this vision in mind, recognizing that it is the passionate commitment of teachers that makes this vision for learning a reality. HHCS has also created a position on staff for one of their teachers to be a PBL coach, offering support and expertise to her colleagues. In addition to internal professional learning, many HHCS teachers have attended the Christian Teacher Academy, which is a week-long project design academy with a distinctively Christian model of PBL hosted in the summer in Ontario to support the design of projects like the ones described above. This unique academy helps faculty to address three dimensions of student learning—culture and character; mastery of knowledge and skills; and beautiful work—that emanate from the “core aspects of a Christian school’s identity,” namely that “Christian schools confess that the life of Jesus Christ is the embodiment of wisdom. Our own lives, and indeed all of creation, are redeemed and restored through him” (The Academy Model of PBL, 2019).
HHCS is committed to embodying a growth mindset where beautiful work is created through healthy cultures of critique and revision. Fundamentally, a growth mindset fostered in a culture of love and acceptance requires grace and commitment. To this end, at HHCS students learn how to work together in groups, as well as how to employ conflict resolution techniques and give descriptive feedback that is kind, helpful, and specific. Students track their own learning and growth in their data notebooks and set goals for how they wish to continue to develop.
Faculty themselves are on a similar journey; along with administrators, they have engaged in the “learning walk protocol” where small teams visit all classrooms to look for specific practices that have been named as a priority by the full staff. Although the intent is not to judge or evaluate teachers, the teams utilize an observation protocol that lists out items to look for as well as questions to ask students. The data collected is shared and celebrated with the full staff in a letter written by the walkers. The staff has reported that leading with love as educators is hard work, but that the practices highlighted through the learning walk do indeed lead to deep engagement and a sense of purpose for both students and teachers.
A commitment to growth mindset also undergirds the HHCS desire to go deeper in implementing their vision for dynamic learning. Joined by fellow leaders from sister schools in their support organization (Edvance Christian Schools Association), teams from HHCS have visited schools and systems that model the type of learning to which they also aspire (such as A.B. Combs in North Carolina, High Tech High in California, Genesee Community Charter School in New York, and even the Finnish school system). Each visit has provided HHCS teams with an opportunity to both learn how to humanize the education machine from others who are trying to do the same, as well as engage in team learning—which ultimately leads to greater success and fidelity in implementation.