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Setting Goals and Facing Challenges

This summer, the panel participants were asked to reflect on several questions related to preparing for a new school year. The following questions guided the discussion:

  1. As you look ahead to a new school year, what are the upcoming challenges that give you the most concern? What are some things you will do to prepare yourself to meet these challenges successfully?
  2. Do you set goals for yourself as you look ahead to a new school year? If so, what are some of these goals? And again, how do you prepare to meet these goals?
  3. Do you have any hints for teachers who are looking to reinvigorate their teaching or to change things up a bit? What do you do when you feel it is time to make some significant changes in your teaching or classroom?

The response of each panelist is noted below.

Justin Cook:

Thanks for the intriguing prompt questions, John. Your first question asks about challenges and strategies. I think the largest challenge in education is the significant shift away from teaching content to “learning how to learn”—moving from information to formation. In Christian schools we add to that the beautiful and difficult challenge of sharing the biblical narrative and faith from one generation to the next. How do we do this in a way that is authentic and invitational rather than a form of indoctrination? So exciting! But so challenging . . .

Across North America there are numerous Christian professional learning events that are pursuing this shift. As I write this, we’re gearing up for the Ontario Christian Teacher Academy, our professional learning week in August. We use a project-based learning model that moves from a school’s core mission and identity in Christ to the specific designs of a project. (We’ve outlined our learning model in this document if anyone is interested in taking a look: <drive.google.com/file/d/0BwfT_e3s8h9nVWFPU2VJbkhmVWM/view>. In their Cardus review of Mark Shaw’s book Work Play Love, Darryl DeBoer and Matt Beimers describe this approach to learning as “real work that meets a real need for a real audience.” (You can read their great article here: <cardus.ca/comment/article/4404/work-play-love-and-learn> or elsewhere in this issue of CEJ.

By the time this is published in the CEJ, however, we will have already moved into the busy space of the actual school year. The challenge now is in creating dynamic structures where educators can get the ongoing support they need during the year. This means clearly articulating goals and professional learning targets, creating a work culture of shared leadership and a growth mind-set, and designing structures in which professionals can continue their learning and implementation with mutual support and time for growth—both within the school and at events like summer professional development and fall educators’ conventions.

We can tolerate that sense of busyness as long as the work feels meaningful. Mark Shaw’s book I mentioned above is helpful here too. How do we look at work and play and love not as separate competing commitments but as overlapping aspects in our lives that give us a beautiful sense of purpose? It seems simpler in the summer, but this is also my hope for all of us for the upcoming year.

Christian Altena:

The challenge for me as a history teacher is—as the Talking Heads put it—“the same as it ever was,” namely: relevance. Before Sputnik, history wasn’t necessarily more loved by students, but it didn’t need to be explained. This is what happened and it’s important because we say it is. Because America. Next chapter. Now that STEM has completed its takeover, we in the humanities have been scrambling to justify the time we take from the practical, clearly monetizable pursuits of math, science, and technology. So we’ve learned to emphasize reading, critical thinking, and writing (I’ve called my class an English course with lots of dates). Of course, these skills are the real deal; after all, the date of D-day is just a Google search away. Don’t get me wrong; I love STEM. And STEM teachers are lovely people. But STEM can’t explain the meaning behind Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, and New York. It can’t explain income inequality. It can’t explain the growing post-Christian nature of our society. It can’t explain why (at the time of this writing) Donald Trump leads Republican presidential contenders.

Justin, I was very excited to read your post. I think it’s just the tonic we need—not just poor, benighted history teachers, but all of us. I love the graphic for the Academy Model for Project-Based Learning: Christ in the center, surrounded by learning purpose, goals, and skills. With every discipline challenging students to ponder real-world issues and problems with meaningful work, as you say, we can all face the right direction.

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The panel consists of:

Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.

Justin Cook, who serves as the director of learning at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools in Ancaster, Ontario.

Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Gayle Monsma, who serves as principal at Covenant Christian School in Leduc, Alberta.

John Walcott, who is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.