Insights from PacBay

Christian Schools and Service-Learning: A Different Approach
Dr. Michael Chen

 

As the head of a Christian school, one of my top goals is to graduate leaders of competence and character who will be compelling examples for Christ in today’s turbulent world. To achieve this, we strive to impart academic and spiritual knowledge that sharpen students’ minds and instill curiosity. We discuss pressing community and world issues as students engage in practical service opportunities, cultivating their compassion and empathy. These are core ingredients of a Christ-centered education. But, I’ve also come to recognize another often-overlooked, yet critical ingredient: learning to know and love people who are different from us through the development of authentic, committed relationships.

This concept is articulated by Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian and missionary:

 

3 middle schoolers in a pacific bay Christian School“But there is another kind of knowing…It is the kind of knowing that we seek in our relations with other people. In this kind of knowing we are not in full control. We may ask questions, but we must also answer the questions put by the other. We can only come to know others in the measure of which they are willing to share. The resulting knowledge is not simply our own achievement; it is also the gift of others” (Newbigin 1995, 10)

It’s this type of “knowing” that I see as crucial for my students to develop.

Our turbulent world is full of broken relationships. We are often surrounded by only the voices with which we already agree, making it easy to just ignore or write off people with different perspectives. Yet, Christ calls us to something different—to love our neighbors as ourselves. To be effective, Christ-centered leaders, we must equip our students to lovingly engage with people who come from communities, life experiences, and perspectives different from their own—without presumption or expectation, but rather with the desire to truly know them.

Learning to “Know”: Relationship-Based Service-Learning

There are many ways that I seek to integrate the practice of “knowing” others into both my school’s culture and curriculum. One approach I want to lift up is relationship-based service- learning. Service-learning is defined as “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school” (Swaner and Erdvig 2018). Studies identify several elements foundational to service-learning. These elements are: service participation of students; identified needs of the community; and integration of service and academic objectives (Shumer and Belbas 1996).

I have found that service-learning is most powerful when opportunities intentionally facilitate the development of meaningful connections and relationships to deepen “knowing” others in a lasting way. When I taught in Boston, our school took students to Nepal every summer for 10 years. On our trips, students shared meals with local families, organized community soccer tournaments, and threw birthday parties for children at the orphanage with which we partnered. Students and supporting teachers heard honest insights from local organizations, leaders, and community members on how we could best serve—and they shared these insights with us because they knew and trusted that we were with them for the long haul.

Some students went for repeat summers because of their relationships with individuals and organizations that they worked with and served. And, though only eight to 10 students went annually, our entire student body knew the names and stories of the people that we met and partnered with because we intentionally told their stories, raised money for them, remembered them in corporate prayer, and stayed connected with them until we met again.

This is the essence of relationship-based service-learning: building committed relationships with communities that we partner with and serve, not just during the service project, but in ongoing ways. When done well, the impact goes beyond the typical one-off service project that gets relegated into students’ memories as a “great experience.” Instead, students are more likely to meaningfully contribute to the communities they intend to serve; and, students’ empathic capacities are expanded as they connect with people during their service-learning experience and are also continually challenged to “know” those they meet—by remembering and standing in solidarity with them through relationship and justice action over time.

Avoiding Unintentional Harm

Relationship-based service-learning supports the development of young, resilient Christian leaders as they formulate their own understanding and empathy for the deep needs of the world. Yet, when the “relationship-based” aspect of service-learning is absent, it can unintentionally cause harm—both to communities being served, and in the discipleship of students. If service-learning is designed as a one-time experience without intentionally planning for continuity and relational commitment, it can be easy to lose sight of the real lives being impacted by our good intentions.

Students may come back from these experiences idealizing the people they met and overestimating the impact of their efforts without recognizing the complicated, lengthy, and iterative process of development work. Or, they may return discouraged because hoped-for change was not yet achieved, without recognizing that the impacts of service-learning might not be evident until years later. With relationship-based service-learning, schools can learn about and witness the non-linear development process and, with a long-term commitment, often see how seeds sown years before might begin to bear fruit.

Also, without relationship and trust, communities served by traditional service-learning efforts may feel reduced to “subjects” in a school project. I’ve heard many communities express that they feel “forgotten” by service and missionary organizations that bring volunteers to “serve” in the communities. They experience a constant churn of outsiders that enter their community but are never seen or heard from again once assigned projects are completed. When this happens, we miss the opportunity to share the fullness of Christ’s love, compassion, and justice to the people impacted through our service and actions. And, we miss the opportunity to grow in our own understanding of “knowing” others.

One Approach: Pacific Bay Christian School

As the new head of school at Pacific Bay Christian School in California’s Bay Area, I have explored new opportunities for relationship-based service-learning. One program that centers relationships in its service-learning philosophy is World Vision Ignite, which pairs schools in the U.S. with partner schools or partner communities in another country with the goal of mutual transformation. The program and curriculum work uphold the goal of combating global poverty, while supporting the development of globally and justice-minded students, school leaders, and staff through long-term relationships with friends around the globe.

In the coming years, we will partner with World Vision Ignite to integrate service-learning into our curriculum and school cultureOur focus will be in the Philippines, and our school community will connect with local communities in many ways. In sponsoring a group of children in a Filipino village, we read their stories, see their photos, and exchange letters with them to build relationships. Our students from kindergarten to 12th grade are taking ownership of this effort to know and care for the sponsored children, like sending birthday presents and taking the initiative to donate livestock to the village. In October 2019, our school will host a 6K run to raise additional funds for these children and raise awareness in our local community. We are also offering Advanced Placement Human Geography for our next school year where we will intentionally learn about our sponsored village and the surrounding community to connect academic learning to the real lives that we care about. Throughout, we are exploring opportunities to virtually build relationships with these children and our partner community through live-stream. And all of these efforts will prepare us for the launch of an annual service-learning and vision trip to the Philippines in summer 2020, where our students and the sponsored children and village will meet and engage in person.

This is just the beginning of our planning, and we know our approach will evolve over time as we learn more about how to serve and love our sponsored village more effectively. We as a school are committed to build this partnership over time, and not jump from issue to issue or community to community. We aim to cultivate a deep sense of “knowing” these brothers and sisters.

Questions to Consider

As your school explores relationship-based service-learning and consider programs, I encourage you to keep these key questions in mind:

  • Who are the partners (individual or organizations) that can invite you in and provide ongoing local perspectives to the communities that you will serve?
  • How do these partners engage local leaders and community members in collectively owned actions to address injustices, alleviate poverty, and promote overall well-being—whether economically, socially, spiritually, or physically?
  • How will you demonstrate commitment over time to a cause or community?
  • How will you remember the individuals and communities that you meet, continue to learn to “know” them, and practically stand in solidarity with them beyond the actual service-learning initiative?
  • How will you bring the whole student body into active partnership with partner communities and help them grow in their ability to “know” these communities?
  • How will we as educators address the fact that all of us still have blind spots when it comes to cultures and communities outside of our direct experience—and provide opportunity for self-reflection and truthful conversations that not only lead to our growth, but also model it for our students?

Additional Resources

References

Newbigin, L. 1995. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Rah, S. and G. VanderPol. 2016. Return to Justice: Six Movements That Reignited Our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.

Shumer, R. and B. Belbas. 1996. “What We Know about Service Learning.” Education and Urban Society 28 (2): 208–23.

Swaner, L.E., and R.C.S. Erdvig. 2018. Bring It To LifeChristian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning.Colorado Springs, Colorado: Association of Christian Schools International.

Our Beautiful Work
Dr. Chen

 

At Pacific Bay Christian School, we are engaged in a beautiful work, as explained here by Justin Cook, Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS):

teacher is assisting a study on computer

  Beautiful work is defined as quality work which invites students into God’s story.  It is complex, authentic, and involves craftsmanship, it encourages a deepening understanding of the knowledge of God’s Story and His kingdom. Beautiful work extends beyond the acquisition of knowledge encompassing a lived understanding which, over time, through modeling and practice, develops into applied conviction in a student’s life

kindergarteners are helping the school gardenOur beautiful work happens everyday as we help students engage in authentic learning.   We journey with them to discover our place in God’s story and we challenge them to apply their convictions in meaningful ways through such opportunities as Senior Thesis.  Ejypt Gates ‘19, recently wrote these words about PacBay and the impact of her Senior Thesis project:

Ejypt's photo

  I was able to identify and communicate how I can overcome a concern such as ethical issues in sports and improve the world that we live in today.  Pacific Bay Christian School has prepared me to be a confident Christian in  the realities of our world. I am absolutely confident that in the future I will be  and do something great, and I indeed do believe that that is what PacBay is trying to instill and teach in their students.

Like Ejypt, those who sit in our classrooms today will one day be corporate leaders, ministers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers – to name only a few of the opportunities open to our students.   As their teachers we are partnering with families to develop lifelong learners who desire to seek truth, do justice, create beauty, and live in community.

Emilie photoAlthough not a PacBay alumna, a former student of mine, Emilie Hodge Osman, articulates well the impact of our beautiful work; “It was always clear that Dr. Chen meant for us to apply what he taught to our lives and take it outside the classroom. Whether he was teaching about microloans or philosophy, he wanted us not just to receive the information, but to internalize it and understand what it meant for us in the world we live in.”

After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in Global Development Studies, Emilie moved to Turkey where she works with Syrian refugees.  Our vision at PacBay is for students and faculty to form relationships that help students like Emilie “to think big and think outward.”

Senior SpeechCourses such as Human Geography, that encourages students to examine socio-economic organization and its environmental consequences inspire PacBay students to consider their place in the larger world.

I pray that when PacBay students reflect on their education here, they will recognize as Emilie has, “[being] pushed towards deeper and broader thinking is invaluable [and enables students] to find their way through issues of social justice, politics, and culture.”

Warmly,

Dr Chen's Signature

 

 

 

Michael Chen, Ed.D
Head of School

Digital Immigrants
Dr. Michael Chen

students-are-working-with-laptop-computers-and-Mrs-Crystal-Moberg-is-teaching-them

(This article, written by Dr. Chen, first appeared in the CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education) newsletter in November, 2017.

Re-imagining Christian Schools: Immigrants and Natives

NOVEMBER 21, 2017

At a recent education conference, I was struck by a distinction made by John Couch, the head of Apple's educational arm. He referred to the millennials as digital natives and those of us who are generations above the age of 30 as digital immigrants. To his point, he talked about how we needed to reimagine schoolings with the fast-changing technological environment in mind so that we could best prepare the next generation of students. Meanwhile, my mind drifted to the drastic divide between the natives and immigrants.

Growing up as an immigrant kid, I experienced first hand the challenge of navigating an environment and culture that were not of my own.

  • I did not know that I needed to give a firm hand shake during my college interview as a way to give a good impression.
  • I did not know why I kept getting into trouble for not giving the teachers the due respect by not looking into their eyes when they talked to me.
  • I did not know that there were other career and vocational options beyond the ones that were described by my immigrant parents or other immigrant peers.
  • I did not know that there was a whole world out there that I could explore or that there were a whole host of ways to think about the world or life beyond in this new land of opportunity and beyond what I knew.

The gap between the realities of a native and the immigrant me was just too big for my imagination to bridge.

In a similar way, those of us who are above the age of forty face a great chasm between us, the digital immigrants, and the digital natives. And yet, we are the ones making decisions that aim to prepare the young generation for their future. Setting our pride aside, we must ask ourselves, "how in a world do we know how to prepare this young generation for their future?" This question is in light of the fact that no place in human history have we experienced such technological advances and cultural changes as rapidly as ever before. We have to admit that it is possible that many of our assumptions about how we know what we know (epistemology) and how humans behave and develop (anthropology) are dubious and should be put to question.

Moreover, for those of us who are educators, we have to hold the tension between the tried and true of what works, and what new teaching and learning should be like for the world that we may not fully comprehend. This is a difficult tension to hold because we like to teach the way we were taught, and yet that may not be the best for our students as they face a future that we, as digital immigrants, could hardly imagine.

Whatever your opinion might be of John Dewey, an influential and progressive educational philosopher in the 20th century, we should heed his insights from these words: "if we teach today as we were taught yesterday, we rob our students their future." These words are particularly relevant in today's fast-changing digital environment. We must prepare our students, not for our past, but for their future that is unknown to us.

So, what are some features in today's world that make teaching the digital natives so challenging?

Grant Lichtman, an educational thought leader, describes that our educational paradigm, a remnant of the industrial age, focuses on being scalable, controlled, predictable, measurable, contained, and repeatable. As we think about all aspects of our schools, ranging from teaching in the classroom to curriculum development to homework policies to extracurricular activities, I think we can all find ways to apply the aforementioned characteristics to our schools.

In contrast, Lichtman asserts that the new schooling paradigm should focus on these characteristics:

dynamic, adaptive , permeable, self-correcting, creative, and systemic.

Without fully explicating these adjectives, the point of these descriptors is that the current ecosystem and technological context in which we think about education are both a treacherous wilderness and a land filled with milk and honey. It is fraught with challenges and ripe with opportunity equally. The next question is, how do we get through this? Do we need to wander through the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the Jordan River into the promised land like the biblical Israelites?

In graduate school, I learned that at the foundation of any great idea is a thoughtful theoretical framework from which we develop innovative ideas in order to advance human thinking and doing. In the same way, I suggest that we must start with a foundational question when reimagining schooling so that it may be able to grow and develop along with the pace of our fast changing information age. And this question is:

How do we know what we know?

The answer to this question about the nature of knowledge should shape the design and architecture of a 21st century school.

So, what is your theory about knowledge (epistemology)? Is it consistent with the design of your school (organizational theory)? Can your theory about knowledge adequately respond to the dynamic movement and development of society and world (anthropology and sociology)?

In the next article, I will suggest the application of the epistemological work of Esther Meek to the way we re-imagine Christian schools.

Can you teach a five-year-old Calculus?
Dr. Michael Chen

5-years-old-kindergartener

Can you teach a five-year-old Calculus? Dr. Maria Droujkova suggests that we can and I absolutely agree. “5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus,” an article in this month’s The Atlantic, highlights Droujkova’s new book Moebius Noodles: Adventurous math for the playground crowd and her educational approach called “Natural Math.” Instead of talking about the nuts-and-bolts of “natural math,” the takeaway is that complex conceptual mathematical learning can happen early and it can concurrently foster in a child a love for math by engaging their natural knack for observation and play.

Our traditional educational model builds from counting to addition and subtraction, culminating with calculus. But, Droujkova suggests that this is “developmentally inappropriate, [and the learning] experience amounts to torture.” Instead, Droujkova suggests we can teach young children complex concepts by engaging them in easy educational activities introducing them to the “playful universe of mathematics.”

Studies and my teaching experiences suggest that despite the policy tensions between traditional and reform math, textbooks, various institutional constraints, and teachers’ own learning experiences typically shape daily pedagogical choices. 1 And, compared with other industrialized nations, American math education offers “a constellation of features that reinforce[s] attention to lower-level mathematics skills.” 2

This article challenges us to rethink math education practically. And, this also should translate into how we talk about math intentionally and affirmatively to our children, in spite of many of our own negative math-learning experiences. Let’s foster a love for math similarly to reading and the arts and learn to make math meaningful.

Math, a language to explore God’s fingerprints in humanity, should remind us of our patterned, purposeful, and meaningful existence. This should inspire the way we teach math. We have a calling to, as Socrates suggests, “lead the soul forcibly upward” by creating an inspiring math-learning experience for our students. The first step starts with us. As Christian school leaders, we should be steeped in our thoughtful understanding of math the same way we are in other disciplines. We don’t need to solve Calculus problems necessarily; we just need to love and value their complexity. Let’s make exponential progress to this end!

The article was first published by CESA (Council on Educational Standards & Accountability) in 2014.

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1 See Ball, D. L., Hill, H. C., & Bass, H. (2005). Knowing Mathematics for Teaching: Who Knows Mathematics Well Enough To Teach Third Grade, and How Can We Decide?

Schoenfeld, A. H. (2004). The Math Wars. Educational Policy, 18(1), 253–286.

Robinson, S. P. (1996). With Numeracy for all Urban Schools and the Reform of Mathematics Education. Urban Education, 30(4), 379–394.

Silver, E. A., & Stein, M. K. (1996). The Quasar Project The “Revolution of the Possible” in Mathematics Instructional Reform in Urban Middle Schools. Urban Education, 30(4), 476–521.

Tate, W. F. (1996). Introduction Urban Schools and Mathematics Reform: Implementing New Standards. Urban Education, 30(4), 371–378.

2 See Hiebert, et. al. (2005). Mathematics Teaching in the United States Today (and Tomorrow): Results From the TIMSS 1999 Video Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27(2), 111–132.