Thursday, 12 April 2018

Building a Community of Belonging

Building a Community of Belonging
I love history.  I have a real keen interest in how everyday people lived their lives in the past.  One aspect of those lives is schooling and I find the concept of the one room schoolhouse intriguing.  The idea of a room full of multiage children learning together has its benefits.  It was an opportunity to build community and allowed older students to teach younger students; therefore, solidifying the concepts in the older students’ minds.  The best way to learn is to teach.  I also realize that my thoughts are very likely tainted with a romantic view of the past.  The reality, I am certain, was not as rosy.  However, the swing to the opposite side is also not healthy.  In modern schools, we tend to encourage same age interactions exclusively.  Each grade level becomes a separate culture inside of a school.  One of our learning goals is to learn to belong to and live in community, creating a single culture that celebrates diversity of gifts and talents as highlighted in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

I saw a beautiful example of community building earlier this week that highlights what we are endeavouring to achieve.  I walked into the Kindergarten room to find a section of the Grade 7/8 band working with Mr. Adams at the back of the room.  They were working on a piece of music that they are hoping to perform later this spring.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Culp was working with a group of JK/SK students at the front of the room.  The JK/SK students were preparing for their celebration of learning.  They are going to make and perform with their own musical instruments.  As the Grade 7/8 students played, the JK/SK students were focusing on what they heard and saw to integrate that knowledge into their work.  Two teachers from opposite ends of the building modeling collaboration and team-work.  Students working on grade level and age appropriate skills and knowledge, but engaged in learning together.  This is community.  This is beautiful work.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Community of Belonging

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

Genesis 1:27 is an easy verse to read and I think it is easy to miss the richness of that verse. A simple look around our communities and our world reveals that we have a problem with that verse. An honest look at ourselves reveals that we have difficulty with this verse. We malign the images of God in many ways. We rob people of worth and dignity. We fall into the trap of ranking ourselves against others to boost our worth. We manipulate others in order to bend them to our will. These are real because it is in our nature to do these things, but it is not God’s will. Also, because it is in our nature all of these things are in schools. It is even more dangerous when there is a power imbalance between human beings, particularly when we look at the teacher/student relationship. We have to confess this in order to take the next steps towards reconciliation and creating shalom. We have to be intentional about creating shalom.

As a school, we have a stated value of belonging. We want everyone, especially students, to know that they belong to our learning community. This valued is rooted in the recognition that everyone is created in the image of God. Everyone has worth when viewed God’s eyes and through he redemptive work of Christ. By acknowledging this value, we commit to building a community of belonging through the culture we create. We change the culture in order to align with the Biblical value. One example of aligning school culture with our value of belonging is the morning meeting. Every grade takes time for morning meetings. There are a variety of activities involved, but one essential piece is the greeting. Students greet each other by name and look each other in the eye. Each greeting begins to recognize the worth of someone else. It is an intentional way of creating community. It is an intentional way of fighting against our nature.

We are not alone in this journey. There are many Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools that are implementing this approach. It is part of a TK called Responsive Classrooms. It was the topic of last February’s PD day. This past Friday at the PD day, we were able to share stories about Responsive Classrooms. I imagine the discussion was the same at many tables, but I only know about the discussion at mine. I sat with the other school administrators. As the stories were shared the theme was common. These practices are transforming school cultures for the better, not perfect but a little closer to shalom. Since most schools are only into the first year of change, the culture is not firmly established. We were all excited about and anticipating the results of this culture in a few years.

We spent the rest of the day on Friday exploring the next step in recognizing and valuing image bearers. I will tell that story next week.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Jesus the Beggar

I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. Matthew 25:42-45
Jesus the Beggar
Over the March Break, I read James K.A. Smith’s book, “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” and yesterday at the Upper Grand Principal’s Meeting, we spent an hour exploring the implications of this book. James Smith makes the argument that liturgies, or habits, routines and common practices, have a lot of power and influence to teach and to direct lives. In fact our lives are filled with liturgies. We commonly think of the sacred liturgies that we find in churches; however, Smith makes the argument that we are surrounded by secular liturgies as well that reflect the beliefs of our culture. In his book, he explores the liturgy of the mall and how it reflects the vision of the good life expressed in the belief of consumerism. Liturgies have the power to re-centre our lives back to God, which is why we go to church, but they also have the power to draw us away from God and centre us in other beliefs.

As I thought about the liturgies in my life, this example made its way from my unconscious thought to my conscious thought. My son has epilepsy, which for the most part does not impact the way he lives with one exception. He cannot drive. Whenever, I am home and have the opportunity, I drive him to work. It is a routine or a habit, but contains a liturgy. I take the same route every time. Just before I enter downtown Kitchener, I drive past St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and outside of the church is this beautiful sculpture called “Jesus the Beggar” made by St Jacob’s artist Tim Schmaltz. If I am not quite paying attention, I have been startled by the sculpture because I momentarily think it is a real person sitting on the sidewalk. Once I begin thinking, I am reminded of the sculpture, the story it represents and teaches and the verses printed above. I am intuitively being taught what the artist and the church wants me to learn, which is to remember and serve the marginalized of society because through these actions we serve Christ. The beautiful thing about this particular liturgy is that the next thing I do is drive into the core of downtown Kitchener. If you have been to the core of downtown Kitchener, it does not take very long to see the marginalized of society. I need that simple liturgy of viewing a sculpture and its rich teaching before seeing the marginalized to re-centre my thinking. It is too easy for me to drive into the downtown and begin to judge the marginalized. I need this re-centring in order to lament, to pray, to see them as image-bearers and listen to a call to action. I need the liturgy of the sculpture to call me back to a faithful life because I forget too easily.

I think in schools we have had the habit of forgetting about the marginalized of the classroom. Our goal of creating inclusive classrooms is our attempt to re-centre around being faithful servants and acknowledging that all students are image-bearers. Flexible seating, morning meetings as part of responsive classrooms and changing teaching methods. In reality we are changing liturgies in order to align our practices and structures in line with our Christian beliefs. This is important because our practices and structures also communicate a story. The story that God has created us in His image.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Bearing Good Fruit

I am the vine (tree); you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

The trunk of the tree is Jesus
The branches of the tree are Christians
The fruits of the Spirit are:
True good works are done:
By God’s people
With God’s heart
For God’s glory

The above Bible verse is a promise of God that states we will bear fruit if we are in Christ. The students and I have examined over the past couple of weeks during chapel. This week I shared the words below the Bible verse to help us remember the promise, but also why we produce fruit. I like the graphic because if you use your imagination you can see a tree, but more importantly, I love the last three lines because I/we need the constant reminder that we are bearing fruit for our Lord. It is for His purposes not ours. It is for His glory not ours. We are called to do good works His way not ours. With the life giving strength of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are able to bear that good fruit.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Success Criteria

At the Membership meeting last week, I highlighted the professional development work done by the teachers on Tuesday afternoons. This year they have been working on learning goals, success criteria and planning for our project-based learning theme. During the meeting, I asked the members to create a self-portrait, but the exercise was not about the self-portrait but about seeing and understanding how learning goals and success criteria are developed and used. We develop these tools in order to promote learning, mastery of skills and beautiful work.

Now this all sounds good, but unless it makes its way into practice and into the classroom it is meaningless. The good news is that these tools are present in the classroom. Let me share a story about what occurred yesterday.

Success Criteria on the Whiteboard
Yesterday morning, I was in my office working on a document that identifies the skills and knowledge of great teaching and I was working with statements on using learning goals, success criteria and other assessment tools. As I was working, the language that was appearing on my written work was being echoed by the language coming from the Grade 7 room. Since hearing the language was more interesting then writing it, I left my office to go and see what was happening. What I observed confirmed what I was hearing.

The grade 7 class, facilitated by Mrs. Dam were co-creating success criteria for a children’s story project. I am not sure if you are going to be able to read the success criteria in the accompanying photo, but it is worthy to note that all of the responses, the success criteria or the benchmarks of beautiful work, were supplied by the student based upon their prior knowledge. The teacher was assisting the students to make connections between their prior knowledge and the new work they are about to create. Now each student is equipped with the knowledge and a checklist of items they need to incorporate into their work.

Grade 7 Students and Teacher
As an administer, it is a privilege to witness this work. In my office and in the staff room at the beginning of the school year I posted a simple sign that states: think, plan, execute and repeat. The story I just shared, demonstrates these steps. Yesterday, I was able to express my joy and thanks to the teacher and the students of Grade 7 for their work. I now eagerly wait for their beautiful creations.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Welcome Back

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:8-10

Welcome back. This is the message that I hope the students heard loud and clear when they returned to school on Tuesday. While summer breaks are enjoyed by everyone, school besides being important places of learning are also communities. First and foremost a learning community, but also very importantly a community of fellowship and we should miss that fellowship when we are away from it for a time. A welcome back is an honest expression of joy of coming back into fellowship.
One learning opportunity that the teachers will engage in this year is a conference that has the theme “Learning through Relationships.” I believe that this theme is important. Learning can only occur when there are a healthy relationships and a healthy community. A broken relationship and community is a barrier and stumbling block to learning. Therefore, all the relationships within a classroom must live out the directions in the verse above.

As a Christian organization, we also have intentionally recognized that creating a sense of belonging and community is important throughout our organization. All of the different types of relationships are too numerous to mention, but each one is important. It is one of our purposes to foster the deep sense of belonging. Again, that means we must all live out the Biblical advice of Peter.
This will be a part of our challenge this year. At Tuesday’s assembly, I had the pleasure of introducing one new staff member, twenty new students and ten new families. There are a lot of new people who need to be grafted into our community. The Lord has blessed us with their presence and we need to be a blessing to them by ensuring that they feel like they belong.

The most important tool in either maintaining old relationships or fostering new ones is communication. Communication that is open and honest, which demonstrates love, hospitality and service. Communication that embraces both the successes of community, but also addresses the brokenness that comes from living in community.

We pray that everyone feels welcomed in our community, the courage to talk about broken relationships and the wisdom to facilitate reconciliation. May the Lord bless our year together.