On Thursday, January 14, 2016, I had the pleasure of attending Smithville Christian High School’s annual Open House and Celebration of Learning. Smithville’s mission was clear to me as soon as I pulled into the school property: “Belong. Believe. Succeed.” Their three part identity is displayed prominently on their front sign and website.
Pulling into the parking lot, I struggled to find a spot to park; clearly the community was excited to participate in the evening celebration and I felt like I was late to the party. That fear dissipated, however, as soon as I entered the beautiful, newly-renovated front atrium of the school. I was immediately greeted by student ambassadors with “Ask Me” buttons pinned to their shirts.
“Welcome to our celebration!” one student said, and handed me a program for the evening. They briefly described what was happening and how I might move through the evening. After thanking them, I was drawn next to the huge sculpture of the tree that was climbing up the wall and growing over the ceiling. I had known about the school’s partnership with sculptor, Floyd Elzinga. But to see it towering over me, up close, in the atmosphere of the evening and people milling about, with light glinting off of its bark and leaves, I was captivated by it.
The piece is called Flourish and again it reveals both the school’s mission and our mission here at the OACS: “Flourishing Christian Schools.”
The tree image from Scripture has deep meaning for all of us. We yearn for the promise of Christ as Lamb on the throne as promised in Revelation 22:
“Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (NASB)
This reference moves me, and the story of Flourish in the atrium brings the reference into reality. Floyd Elzinga wasn’t the only sculptor involved in the piece. As part of the project, Floyd came to work with the student body to create individualized leaves that he then incorporated into the finished sculpture. The students aren’t passive recipients of their education at Smithville. Like the ambassadors greeting me at the door, the students are Smithville Christian High School, both the recipients and the embodiment of its mission—Belong. Believe. Succeed. How inspiring to see the students themselves speaking through the leaves of Flourish, actively committed to offering their own gifts for “the healing of the nations.”
This vision of our students as agents of “flourishing” gets to the core of how we want to pursue learning in OACS schools. Principal Ted Harris expresses it powerfully in the program of the evening:
“You have no doubt heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child. What we are discovering in the world of education is that it also takes a village to make the learning of our young people more authentic. This is especially true of a Christian community where we share the responsibility of encouraging members of the next generation to take up their calling as disciples of Jesus.”
And for the rest of that evening, I revelled in the beautiful work of the students that arose from this village of support. Again, from the program:
“Our goal tonight is to feature the work of as many students as possible so that (1) students are motivated to do their best work and (2) the community that supports our school can be in touch with the work of our students.”
I don’t use the phrase “beautiful work” loosely. It is one of the three core “Dimensions of Learning” that we want to support students in developing—the other two being “mastery of knowledge and skills” and “culture/character.” As a dimension of learning, our work is “beautiful” because it reveals the coherence and inter-connectedness of all things in Christ. It is “beautiful” because it involves craftsmanship, and because it is authentic—both to the student’s own passions and to its purpose within the community. I have a growing gallery of beautiful work created by students from all across the province and beyond. We use examples of actual student work to help us get better in our work as educators, too.
So, just as the the leaves on Flourish reveal how each student is a beautiful work, the products on display that evening at Smithville reveal our learning mission to produce beautiful work too.
As I moved through the building, I listened to students and teachers explain the work on display:
A grade 12 student described to me the four seasons of literary critic Northrop Frye’s Monomyth, and indicated how story shapes our experience of reality.
A senior math teacher described her students’ use of graphs and equations of advanced functions to create their own images that revealed the theme “Thriving in God’s World.”
Grade 10 math students used trigonometry to measure a structure (like a silo on a farm) that would otherwise be “unmeasurable”.
Grade 10 science students displayed presentations that answered this driving question: “How can we help our family and friends understand the complex conversations connected to climate and climate change?”
Grade 9 geography students displayed 3D models and reports of how they would take current vacant lots in the Smithville community and repurpose them.
The first half of the evening allowed the community to move freely through the building, interacting with the student work and socializing with others. Students and teachers were on-hand to offer their own perspectives and explanations of the work displayed. I was so excited to see student work reveal the mission of the school firsthand.
In the second half of the evening, we were all together in the gym to enjoy performances and worship. After milling through the building, it was powerful to see the full community in one room, buzzing with a sense of joy and purpose in being together.
After performances and robust singing, spirtual life director, Gord Park, offered a brief meditation that once again unified so powerfully with Smithville’s mission and identity. He opened by playing for us the song “Thrive” by Casting Crowns:
Like a tree planted by the water
We never will run dry
So living water flowing through
God we thirst for more of You
Fill our hearts and flood our souls
With one desire
Just to know You and
To make You known
We lift Your name on High
(John Mark Hall, Matthew West)
Gord went on to describe how the Smithville community had been pursuing this desire in their weekly chapels, exploring how their roots find nourishment in Christ’s living water, so that, just like the leaves they each added to Flourish in the front atrium, the student body could do more than just survive, but be “made to thrive” as the song revealed. The whole evening embodied exactly that. Smithville Christian High School drinks deep from Christ’s offered living water. The students embody an authentic passion and joy that arises from the way their school community wants each of them to Belong. Believe. Succeed. The unique and diverse gifts were also evident in the craftsmanship of the student work on display.
I left the evening, pulling out of the parking lot with the rest of the Smithville Christian High School community, deeply moved by a community that reveals our collective desire to see not only our students, but all things, flourish.