Author: Carla Alblas

OACS Community Journalist

Summer PD Empowers Growth for Educators

The summer months not only give students a break from the daily routines of packed lunches, school buses, and learning adventures in and out of the classroom, but they also provide a season for educators to enjoy a break from the previous months of planning, teaching, and coaching—a time of refreshment and renewal as well as to reflect and refocus.

For many Christian teachers, this past summer also provided a chance to invest in several exciting professional learning opportunities. Educators from across Ontario participated in two collaborative learning development seminars organized by member schools of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) over the past months—the Christian Deeper Learning seminar hosted by the Niagara Association of Christian Education (NACE) and Responsive Classroom workshops specific to primary and middle school levels that were hosted by Halton Hills Christian School (HHCS) in Georgetown.

“We’re committed to supporting schools with professional learning activities that deepen our ability to design ‘practices and cultures’, that create engagement modeled on Christ’s love for us and for the entire universe,” shared Justin Cook, Director of Learning at the OACS. “There are three things that I’m excited about in these events. First, we want to offer professional learning that aligns with our vision for Christian education here in Ontario—both the OACS vision as expressed in our Dimensions of Learning, and the learning vision of individual schools as expressed by school leaders. Also, we want the events to embody the type of learning pedagogies—engaging, empowering, and formational experiences—that we want the students in our classrooms to experience. And finally, we want educators to experience a sense of growth through joy, collaboration, and effort in these professional learning experiences. If the learning doesn’t feel significant, why would educators do the hard work to incorporate them into their own classroom practices?”

One of these learning opportunities began already in early July. Over thirty teachers gathered with the much loved educational leaders Steven and Joanna Levy for three packed days of experiential learning, collaborative grappling, and collegial sharing, pursuing the goal of equipping one another with practical tools to deepen students’ learning in Christian schools. The Christian Deeper Learning sessions focused on character and culture, curriculum design, and assessment. Specifically, the Levys sought to help teachers find practical answers to questions such as, “How can a focus on deeper learning help me to engage students?”, and “What specific instructional practices can I use to inspire students to become active, engaged citizens in their communities and in the Kingdom of God?”

“The highlight of the workshop for me was on the first day,” shared Nate Oudyk, a grade five teacher at John Knox Christian School (JKCS) in Oakville. “While we were participating in a protocol exercise with other Christian educators, it struck me that we are not simply educating from a Christian perspective—we are building a Christian culture. And it isn’t happening just within our classrooms or our school communities; this culture is formative, so it grows with our students culminating in nothing less than the kingdom of God.

“This year, I plan to be much more reflective in my practice as I think about my place in building the kingdom of God,” he continued. “Every day that I go to school, I can reflect that my actions and words in the coming hours will be part of this kingdom. I plan to be more focused on building class culture and allowing the Spirit to lead us as we begin the work of the kingdom in grade five.”

Several educators were eager to find strategies that would increase student engagement in learning. For Dan Lee, a teacher at Covenant Christian School in Smithville, the highlight of the week came from an specific example that the Levys shared about how to engage students. “He used shoes—an ordinary everyday item—as an example and, after just twenty minutes of teaching, he was able to get each one of us super excited about learning where shoes came from. There was a package of readings on the table, and I felt like I wanted to rip open the packages and devour whatever was in there. It was amazing to see how excited we all became about the shoes! I am looking forward to creating that same excitement for learning in my classroom this year.”

Along with student engagement, the Levys shared practical ways that teachers could plan out their vision for learning in the classroom each year. “The seminar allowed us to not only hear about, but also to experience first-hand some of the components of Deeper Learning,” shared Betty Hovingh, a teacher at Community Christian School in Drayton. “The thing that I’m most looking forward to implementing in my classroom this year is working with learning targets that extend over the long term rather than just focusing on daily learning targets.”

Also in July, a second group of close to sixty educators met for four interactive days of learning about using core Responsive Classroom practices to engage students academically, to build positive community among students, and to create a developmentally appropriate learning environment in their classrooms.

“I was looking for something new and different to apply to my teaching, and I wasn’t disappointed!” shared Phil Hosmar, a teacher at London Christian Elementary School. “I’m most excited about sharing with my students the importance of the language that we use in the classroom—that it needs to honour the listener, the speaker, and the content. I’ve been actively looking at what I teach, how I deliver it, and how it is interacted with by students and I’m confident that it will change how things look in my classroom over the next months and years.”

Classroom culture and the ability to help students develop their social-emotional competencies was something that struck a chord for others at the Responsive Classroom workshops. “Our instructor shared something that will stick with me for a very long time,” shared Angie Bonvanie, a teacher at Halton Hills Christian School in Georgetown. “He said that if a student enters your classroom without knowing their five times tables, we wouldn’t tell them that they should know that by now and then move on. So why would we do that with a student who struggles with empathy or self-control? He challenged us to teach the skills that are necessary to all students where they’re at, and I’m sure this challenge will improve my ability to educate and reach students this year.”

For several teachers that share a classroom, attending the seminar together also helped them to unite their teaching strategies for the upcoming year. “Some of us teach the same group of students over the course of the year in different subjects,” shared Allison Hendriks, also a teacher at Halton Hills. “We’ve been working closely as a team the last few years, and I’m hopeful that now we will all be on the same page when it comes to approaching our students and establishing classroom culture.”

Tony Schaafsma, a teacher at Woodstock Christian School, is also excited about the way that each of the professional learning opportunities he has attended in the last year have tied together and can already see the way they have made a difference in the culture of learning in his classroom over the past year.  “Professional development opportunities such as the Responsive Classroom workshops that I’ve recently attended are encouraging educators to rethink our strategies for teaching and assessment,” he shared. “As the grade eight teacher in our school, part of my responsibility is to choose and hand out academic achievement awards at the end of the school year. As I’ve been using the new model of assessments modeled by the Levys and others—where students are in a space of constant revision—students are handing in work that is a much higher quality. This makes it difficult to give a select few an academic award because most students now fit into that category. That’s exciting to me!  After all, one of our goals in teaching is to encourage students to create beautiful work!”

Now that the summer months have ended, teachers are taking the things they’ve heard, seen, and experienced first-hand during their professional learning experiences this past summer and are beginning the work of establishing a new culture of learning in their classrooms this fall.

“It’s exciting for me, as a teacher, to see so many educators, both newer and seasoned, who share an obvious and deep desire to improve their ability to educate and reach their students,” shared Angie Bonvanie. “With the practical teaching strategies that were presented at the summer professional learning opportunities this summer, I think everyone was challenged and equipped to do an even better job of teaching their students this year!”

What Makes Canada Special?

Staff and students at Orillia Christian School put together a video of their recent celebrations of Canada 150. As students celebrated our country’s anniversary, and enjoyed the beauty of the outdoors, they were asked to reflect on several questions about Canada, including, “Why do you love Canada?”, “One day, where would you like to go in Canada, and why?”, and “What makes Canada so special from any other country?”


Learning Stations Focus on “All Things Canadian”

Students at Timothy Christian School in Williamsburg were given the opportunity to celebrate “all things Canadian” recently, by participating in various Canadian learning stations.

In “From Sea to Sea,” the students learned about the geography of Canada. Students labeled a large floor map, and then played a game of twister. “Right foot on Manitoba, left hand on Nunavut!”Students also learned about how Canada stretches between two oceans, and did a fun relay of moving water with sponges from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

At “Proud to be Canadian,” students talked about symbols of Canada and drew one or two on a pennant. These patriotic pennants will be sewn together and used as part of the Canada Day display in Timmy’s Place in Morrisbug.

Did you know that Canadians invented the telephone, the paint roller, the zipper and the garbage bag? Another station was called “Great Canadian Inventions.” Students talked about how inventors use creativity and lots of trials and tinkering to solve a problem. Then they got a chance to explore circuits and machines and make a little gadget of their own, using Little Bits Kits. At the station named, “O Canada – the Boomwhacker Edition”, student in the school got a chance to use these fun Canadian instruments!

And,of course, there was a station called “The Good Old Hockey Game,” where students learned about hockey and got to do some relays. Finally, the students posed for a celebratory “Canada 150” picture. God keep our land, glorious and free!

Canada Cup!

The grade 3/4 class at Alliston Community Christian School  (ACCS) celebrated  our country’s 150th birthday with Canada-themed activities throughout the last week of school.   Students were divided into teams to compete for “The Canada Cup”.  Each team created a finger-print flag on which each member’s finger prints had to be visible.  This represented Canada’s diversity, with many people groups leaving their mark on the tapestry of our nation.   Teams also worked together to solve challenging math problems about the geography of Canada and created bean graphs to compare the populations of the provinces and territories.  Each bean represented 10,000 people, so with 13.6 million people in Ontario alone, the students did a lot of bean counting!

Students also learned about The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and discussed how life is different in countries that do not enjoy these same rights.  They discussed responsibilities as citizens to obey the law, vote in elections, protect our country, and treat others with respect.  “While we are proud and happy to be Canadian citizens, we are also grateful to be citizens of God’s Kingdom,” shared MaryEllen Span, the grade 3/4 teacher.

Regardless of which team won “The Canada Cup”,  all of the students at ACCS finished the week with a greater appreciation for both citizenships.

Discovering Canada Through Projects

To celebrate Canada’s 150th, the staff and students at Trinity Christian School in Burlington created a wide variety of projects to help us learn more about our amazing country and history. From totem poles to cookbooks, travel books to museum exhibits, their projects helped students discover the people and places that make Canada what it is today.

Recently, the students and staff invited the community to a Celebration of Learning Open House. They also focused our Grandparents’ and Senior Friends’ Day on Canada.

“Our prayer is that God will continue to rule from sea to sea and keep our land glorious and free,” shared principal Sara Flokstra, “and that our school might be a city on a hill, shining God’s light for all to see.”

Celebrating Canada in Community

Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday became a community event at Woodstock Christian School last month. Students and parents walked alongside of a float in the Victoria Day parade while the grade 7/8 band played their favorite Canadian songs. At the back of the float hung a mosaic Canadian Flag, created by students. Each square that made up the giant flag was created by a student, and held a symbol of something that they thought represented their country.  “It was truly a community event!” shared principal Carol Verbeek.


Celebrating Meaning Through Stories

I read an article recently published by the Huffington Post, which confirmed to me once again why it’s important to share our stories. In the article, entitled “Why Tell Stories?”, Mitch Ditkoff wrote that in the last 60 seconds 168 million emails were sent, 700 000 Google searches were launched, and 60 hours of YouTube videos were uploaded—not to mention all the spam, banner ads, phone calls, Facebook posts, tweets, texts, and telemarketing calls that found their way to our attention span—leading to what is now being called “information overload”.

These statistics led the author to ponder the important question of how we can share things that are important in a way that can be heard and remembered. As I expected, he concluded that telling stories is the most effective, time-tested way to transmit meaning from one person to another. After all, telling stories has been going on since the beginning of time. It’s how parents share the values they want to impart to their children. It’s how faith is passed on from one generation to another.

The stories I’ve been invited to share this past year have reflected the ways that school communities are a part of a much larger Christian school movement in Ontario that strives to be connected and to celebrate, encourage, inspire, and grow together.

We began the year by writing about the beginning of school and some of the angst that can accompany this transition for students in Kindergarten. We shared the creative and thoughtful way that a teacher came up with to ease her new class of students into their unfamiliar environment on the first day of school.

“The new students are often timid and scared the first day of school. This activity provides a great way for me to introduce them to their new surroundings in a fun and inventive way. It’s about building community and helping the new students to build trust in those they’ll be sharing a building with for coming years. It’s important for them to know that others at the school care about them.”

Yvonne Grootenboer (teacher), Laurentian Hills Christian School

Kindergarten students are shocked to realize that their Gingerbread man has escaped in Gingerbread Man Hunt at Laurentian Hills.

The year also began with a look at some of the big issues that the Christian schools are working through as communities. When teachers at Guelph Community Christian School put together a program to teach students about the proper use of technological devices in school, they were quick to share their story in hopes that others could benefit from the resources they had created.

“We have adopted a technology policy at the school that is designed to promote a God-honoring learning environment. It allows our students to enjoy the wealth of information and online resources that are available to them via the use of the school devices, within the context of the digital citizenship they have earned.”

Tanya Pennings (principal), Guelph Community Christian School

Students learned responsible use of technology to earn their ‘digital license’ in Teaching Digital Citizenship at Guelph Community Christian School.

While our stories are often celebrations, some important stories are not always joyful. While still processing their own grief after the tragic death of their son, Jordan Hiemstra, his parents asked us to share his story in hopes of helping others who struggle to deal with issues, such as depression, that plague many teenagers.

It’s so important for us to share Jordan’s story with as many people as we can. We feel that by letting others know what this journey has been like for us, perhaps we can create opportunities for others who are struggling to recognize that there are those who care about them and to find ways to get help.”

Chris Hiemstra (parent), London District Christian Secondary School

Remembering Jordan Hiemstra in Sharing Jordan’s Story.

During the Christmas season, many schools are intentional about partnering with organizations in their community to help families in need. Our article titled “Christmas Chicken Cheer” highlighted the story of students at Strathroy Community Christian School who circled the school with pictures of chickens as they partnered with World Renew to buy chickens for families in Honduras.

“Sometimes we don’t think that we can make a difference, but when we look at the chickens on the walls as we walk through the hallways, we can remember that all of us have worked together to make a big difference in someone’s life this Christmas.”

Micah, grade 8, Strathroy Community Christian School

Pictures of chickens circle the hallways , showing student support of World Renew efforts to feed hungry families at Christmas in Christmas Chicken Cheer.

As I traveled to various schools throughout the year, it was striking to see how many teachers are beginning to play with the idea of what a classroom can look like in the 21st century. When a grade six teacher redesigned her classroom to include a variety of learning environments for students, her story was shared in hopes of engaging other educators in conversation about intentionally transforming learning spaces.

“Before you can even begin to teach, you must create an environment that is safe, cozy, and comfortable. It’s essential for a teacher to create relationships with her students, and their environment is such a key part in being able to do that. Once you do that, you can begin to do your job as a teacher.”

Marianne Visser, Chatham Christian School

Students show off one of the newly created learning spaces in their grade six classroom in Building a Better Classroom Culture.

As the school year wrapped up, I had the opportunity to share stories that highlighted the learning and beautiful work students had created throughout the year. As a high school drama teacher recognized the powerful way that improv had changed his own life and the lives of his students, he reached out to share his story in hopes of collaborating with other high school teachers to develop vibrant improv programs across the province.

“Before improv, I had been struggling to engage non-drama nerd’ students in my class. I had been pushing the skill-learning components of drama. Preparing for the Canadian Improv Games showed me students engaged up to their eyeballs, learning skills more effectively than the ways I had been teaching them and having a blast throughout the process. It was clearly life changing for the kids involved!”

Richard Peters, Toronto District Christian High School

The Improv Team from TD Christian won first place at the Regional Canadian Improv Games in Toronto in Improv Games Champions Head to Nationals.

When I look back at my office whiteboard, it is filled with story titles and publishing dates. I am amazed and even a bit overwhelmed as I reflect upon the opportunities I’ve been given each week to meet so many of you and to hear about—and in many cases to visit your school and be a part of—the amazing learning that is happening in Christian schools across Ontario. The variety of stories that you’ve allowed me to share—school events, celebrations of community engagement, reflections on service opportunities, student projects, and even a story of grief and loss—remind us that every school and every classroom has a story to tell and that story has a place in the present fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.

Thank you for allowing me to get to know you and to share your stories this year! I’m looking forward to meeting even more of you in the fall—whether by phone, email, or by taking a trip to your classroom— to hear and share your stories as part of the Christian school movement happening across Eastern Canada.

Students Campaign for Education in Afghanistan

As a result of a novel study they completed recently, students in the grade 5 class at Huron Christian School in Clinton decided they wanted to do something to help those who have less educational freedom in Afghanistan.

“In grade 5 this year, we read a book called The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis.   This book is about Parvana, an 11 year old girl who lived in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban rule.  Parvana’s father is arrested, and since Parvana isn’t going to school, it is her job to go out and provide money for her family.

After reading this story, our class decided we wanted to do something to help.  We talked about and researched what the situation was like for girls in Afghanistan, and came up with stats such as only 24% of girls go to school, and the literacy rate for females in Afghanistan was around 12%.  We wanted to do something to help.  We researched some charities, and decided on Global Giving, where we could raise $400 to help send a girl to school.

We researched what life was like in Afghanistan and created brochures to share our story.  After  writing scripts and presenting our project to the Dennis Group—who gave us some valuable tips—we went campaigning.  We blew past our goal of $400 in the first day, and were able to raise $2,305 dollars!  With this money, we are going to be supporting two girls, plus we are able to stock a library in a girls’ school with 250 textbooks. Any leftover money will go to help women become teachers for Afghan girls’ schools, which is a big need as well.

This has been an incredible learning opportunity, not only for our Language Arts, Social Studies and Bible classes,  but also the realization that we can make a difference, and that God can work through a group of 10 and 11 year old students.”

–Daryl DeBoer, teacher

Why Florida? A JK Inquiry-Based Learning Project

Students in the Junior Kindergarten class at Strathroy Community Christian School had some questions for their teacher this past spring, as they overheard the plans of several families to travel to Florida over the March break.

  • Why is it hot in Florida in the winter?
  • Why are some of our classmates going there?
  • How do you get to Florida?

This was the beginning of another inquiry-based learning project, focusing on Florida. Students wondered about airplanes and airports, so their teacher Shelley Berg, along with ECE Stephanie VanderSchaaf, took the students to visit the London International Airport and the Jet Aircraft Museum.

This inquiry-based learning activity grew into a much larger project-based learning idea, which culminated with the students and teacher transforming their entire classroom into an airport with an airplane. The airport was complete with a check-in station, security, a baggage train, air traffic control, and a lounge with a Tim Hortons restaurant. The airplane was fitted with a cockpit, passenger seats, and a cart for the flight attendents.

Students in the JK class had the opportunity to share their transformed classroom and the things they’d learned about Florida and airplanes with parents and community members during the school’s Celebration of Learning this past week.