We recently welcomed to the Teacher’s Lounge podcast a friend and colleague, Kent Ezell. He is a teacher and a professor, but also the founder of Faith Journey. And so we want to talk to him about that product and an exciting opportunity that we have created through Curriculum Trak.

Michael: first, let me welcome Kent and ask him to share a little bit more about himself. What are you currently teaching?

Kent: I teach fifth grade at Dutton Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I also have been an adjunct at Cornerstone University in the teacher ed department. And then I’ve been a middle school math and Bible teacher. I have been a principal and pretty much anything you can think about in the Christian school, I’ve probably had some role in some way. And then my wife, who can’t be here, is a big part of Faith Journey. She does a lot of the work with me. She is so good with people and communicating the story of Faith Journey. But she is an English teacher at South Christian and then she also works at Cornerstone sometimes. Faith Journey is what we’re about, and we’re excited about doing it, Michael.

Michael: Yeah, and it’s not really a side gig. It’s a really big part of your heart and your passion. I know that from talking to you, but I also have heard you say more than once that you hope to stay in the classroom because that’s what helps you keep your edge. You’re not teaching as a way to support a hobby. You’re teaching because that’s a passion and that’s a calling.

Kent: That’s exactly right. I love it. And my passion is to help parents create fully devoted followers of Jesus. I do my level best to talk to these students about following Jesus, and not just on Sunday. It is in every aspect of your life.

So with fifth graders, whether you’re out on the playground or you’re hanging out with friends or you’re on the computer and nobody’s around, are you choosing Jesus in all those different situations? And that’s really what the mission of Faith Journey is.

We’re designed to aid parents and teachers and Christian schools in helping students become fully devoted followers of Jesus. And we do that in three ways: remembering, reflecting and collecting that evidence in their Faith Journey.

And so you’re right. This is my calling. I love being around kids. I love being around the excitement, but I also love empowering other teachers like myself to do that, to create fully devoted followers of Jesus.

Why Are Portfolios Important From an Educational Perspective?

Michael: I think that passion for education is so powerful. Let’s start with the idea that Faith Journey represents, which starts with educational portfolios. Why are portfolios important to you from your educational perspective?

Kent: I think this is my twenty-third year of being a part of Christian education, and I’m just remembering my middle school kids that look at me every day and I tell them about Jesus and tell them about being fully devoted followers. And it’s sad to me to see how many of those kids when they became adults walk away from the faith. As life happened and they got older, they left the faith, and it’s sad to me that they have made that choice. My prayer is that they will come back. Some do. But the research is showing that they’re not coming back. About 28% of the millennial generation attends church each week. Pretty low, right? I think that in my generation, it was in the high 60s or 70s, if I remember right. About 88% of kids that come from Christian homes are leaving the church.

And so I talked with my wife, and we said, “Okay, what can we do about that?” I talked to a man named Sid Helema, and at the time he was the faith formation coordinator in the Christian Reformed denomination. We were talking about how kids are leaving the faith, and I told him that I believe Satan uses forgetting as one of his tools. One of the reasons why our kids are leaving it is that they know it, but they forgot. And he mentioned phones and the technology that our kids have. It is so easy for them just to swipe. You don’t like it, just move on to the next screen.

And that is how their minds work, right? We’ve conditioned our minds that if you don’t like it, just swipe it. And so Sid just mentionedthat’s why he likes Faith Journey because it’s a technology application, but yet it’s helping those kids to remember God’s goodness

Setting Up Stones

Michael: I agree when you say that forgetting is a tool of Satan, but as soon as you said that, I was reminded how many times God commanded his people throughout scripture. My pastor just talked about the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and how he set up a stone to remember, and God commanded His people to set up stones or to set up opportunities to remember what He did. And I think that is a spiritual discipline that we’re just not very good at in our modern society. As you said, we run from one thing to the next. Setting up stones of remembrance is not a common practice these days, is it?

Kent: You’re right. And when Joshua brought the Israelites over the Jordan River, it was the first thing that God asked Joshua to do, to set up the 12 stones. They’re called standing stones in the Bible. It’s a way to remember God’s goodness.

So what is Faith Journey and why did we start it? It is a secure digital faith portfolio. Other people can’t see it. It’s not social media. It helps kids to look back on God’s goodness, much like those physical stones that you mentioned in the Bible.

Michael: So there’s a real spiritual, scriptural impetus for this, but there’s also a lot of research into the practice of educational portfolios as well. Can you touch on that a little bit?

Kent: Sure. My kids went through Christian schools. And I loved every aspect of it. And the school where I teach, Dutton Christian, is where my kids went through, and then they moved off into my wife’s school, which is South Christian for high school. But as parents, I’ve always felt like we have to run parallel to what the school is doing. Dutton Christian is just on fire for Jesus, and they promoted everything we ever asked of them to do with faith, but as a parent I didn’t have any part in it. I was teaching at another school at the time. And the same is true at South Christian, right? They were doing some wonderful faith formation things, but I didn’t have a role in it as a parent.

One of the things that Faith Journey does is that, instead of parents running parallel with the Christian school, it makes it more of a partnership. Anytime that a teacher sends what we call a Footprint in Faith Journey, those faith moments that happen in the classroom, as a parent, I get an email. And I am then able to talk to my kids about those faith moments that happened in the classroom. So it might be one of those dinner time conversations or a conversation in the car–those kind of in-betweens in life, right? We can talk with our kids.

There’s a wonderful teacher here at Dutton Christian, and he uses the reflecting piece of Faith Journey. So he will post something and then he’ll have the kids log in and they will reflect on it. It might be a meme. It might be a quote from somebody. He’ll unpack it with them and then he’ll have them reflect on it. The parent then is able to go and look at that quote, know who that person is that the teacher talked about, and then what the response was. The parents are then able to go onto their own Faith Journey and see their kids’ portfolios and provide their own reflection on it, too.

You asked about research. Judith Brown, a writer for educational leadership, talks about following outcomes, such as increased students’ learning of what, why, and how, and the enhanced communication piece. In other words, the results of her study, reinforce the importance of reflecting in learning.

Then there’s the faith aspect. So Faith Journey essentially is like a journal, right? David Mathis in desiringgod.org talks about how, as we capture in writing the careful thoughts we’re having about God, the scriptures, ourselves and the world, those impressions are being stamped more deeply on our souls in changing us.

Michael: I like the fact that, as you described, parents can participate in real time, and not wait until the end of the quarter or the end of the school year when the kids clean out their lockers to say, Oh, what was this about? Instead, let’s talk about it while the memory is fresh and have a chance to reinforce that.

Kent: We’ve heard great feedback from parents about that. So every time that a teacher posts a Footprint to their kid’s portfolio or album, if the parents actually drill down, grab their app and log into Faith Journey, they can see what the teacher was doing and the outcome of what kids were talking about. It also captures their reflection as well.

A famous quote in education circles for a long time is from John Dewey, who says, “We don’t learn from experiences. We learn from reflecting on those experiences.” What we talk about in Faith Journey training is that Faith Journey allows kids time to think about, Okay, what just happened here? What kind of experience did my teacher just bring me through?

As teachers, we spend a lot of time preparing life lessons that have faith integration in them. We are very intentional about it. We’ve had a lot of training on how to do that. But it’s important that kids get it, right? You can be the best teacher ever. You can be the best communicator. But if kids don’t get it, then all that is for naught. And so Faith Journey gives them a moment to go back and reflect, to think about what happened during that faith moment in the classroom.

The Bread and Butter of Christian Education

Michael: So we could say through Faith Journey, we’re trying to draw on all of the best practices with and reasons for educational portfolios, with a focus more on the faith-learning aspect of education, the bread and butter of Christian education. And Faith Journey makes that the focal point of the educational experience as we include parents and students in these reflection opportunities, right?

Kent: That is so right, Michael, and that’s what Christian education is about. It is about training, about showing faith. It’s about how the Bible and God intersect with what happens in the classroom. God owns everything that happens in our life and all of it comes from Him. But kids don’t naturally pick that up. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. It only happens when teachers are very intentional about showing faith in what is happening. A famous book is Wonder, and my fifth graders are reading that right now. God is not mentioned anywhere in the book, but yet there are a lot of faith elements in there. And so for fifth graders, we’re talking about how Jesus wants us to treat people that don’t necessarily look like us.

That’s the faith intersection. And we want our kids to recognize God in all things. And if we do that over and over again, from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade, then when kids get past high school, get past college, they’ll be able to see God in all things in their life too. So no matter where God has called them, there are intersections of faith and life in any situation. That’s where it comes back to the mission, of creating children to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.

Michael: Let me pitch an idea to you that I’ve been mulling around just to get your take on it. We’re at this interesting moment in private education where more and more states across the United States are diverting educational dollars towards private schools. And regardless of where you fall on that debate, for it or against it, there are more and more faith-based schools in the country who are finding it easier to provide a private Christian education than ever before.

And we’re also at a moment socially in our country when parents are awake, and they’re monitoring more closely what their kids are learning, and sometimes finding the public school system a little bit lacking when it comes to what they want for their kids. And so they’re coming to private schools and Christian schools in droves. There’s been a huge enrollment increase on average across the United States in every Christian school that I’ve talked to. I think the statistics bear that out. The concern that I have is with what a school puts on their website, what is stated in their mission, what they use in their marketing materials to invite students into the building–how do we make sure that we’re delivering on those promises to the parents at the end of the year or maybe year three or year five? Are we meeting the promises that we’re making to these parents as they come to our schools? And I feel like a portfolio is one of the key ingredients to that. Would you agree?

Kent: 100% agree. We have to make sure that we are actually doing what we say we are doing. And I believe Faith Journey is a powerful tool for schools to recognize that they are doing what they need to be doing, not just on an aggregate level, but in the lives of each and every one of their students.

And Faith Journey is not a collective portfolio. It is an individual, secure, private portfolio, or album, as we say in Faith Journey. It collects that evidence that we’re doing what we say we are doing, and it does it in kindergarten and first grade, but also in fifth and sixth grade, in middle school, and in high school.

And parents are being connected to that. They understand why they are paying the money. My wife and I, we’re Christian school teachers, right? We don’t have a lot of money, and we certainly didn’t have it when we were younger and our kids were younger. We had to scrimp and save and work another job, to be able to pay for Christian education. What Faith Journey does is it provides for parents the proof that yes, your money is well spent.

What Does Faith Journey Do?

Michael: We’ve talked around what Faith Journey tries to do in light of educational research and best practices. We could probably dig into that a little bit more, but maybe it’s time for an elevator pitch for someone who’s not familiar with Faith Journey or even the portfolio practice. What does Faith Journey do in a nutshell?

Kent: Sure. Faith Journey provides each student a secure, digital album. Teachers are able to add to this what we call footprints, those faith moments that happen in the classroom. Now, students can do that themselves as well, from fourth grade on up.

Parents also can put in faith footprints, too. If their kids are going to have a baptism at their church, for example, they can put that into Faith Journey. Then when a teacher does it, the parents receive an email and a notification on their phone that there has been something posted to their kid’s album.

Now parents see everything. The schools only see what the school puts in. We try to keep everything as secure as we possibly can. So each student has that portfolio and they’re able to add to it. That’s the remembering part, so students can look back over years. They’re a senior in high school, and they’re ready to graduate. They can see what their first grade teacher posted in their album, for example.

The second part is reflecting. This might happen with a science experiment. The kids could be making slime in the experiment. If you’re talking about the three states of matter, for example, you may want to have pictures of kids making that, and then post having kids reflect about the wonder of God. Here are these three states that matter, but what does this slime actually fall under? So that’s a reflecting piece.

The last part is the evidence portion. So administrators can look back and see what their teachers are posting. They can see their school-wide Faith Journey account and they can see their teachers planning and what the effect of it was, the evidence that is provided based off that planning.

Michael: So is it fair to describe Faith Journey as a social media platform, in some ways? It feels a little bit like a Facebook or an Instagram kind of user interface, but it’s not broad and wide. It’s very locked down to parents and teachers interacting together over the learning journey of the student.

Kent: It does have the look and feel of a social media platform. We did that by design because people know how to use that, like using the camera roll, for example. But we try to shy away from it being social media because that kind of implies that it gets broadcasted out. It doesn’t. It’s not like posting kids’ work on a website. Kids can only see their work and parents can only see what their kids do. They can’t see anything else. Teachers can only post to the kids that are in their classrooms and what they’re assigned to.

In my fifth grade class, we’re making a devotional book. And so every kid is going to be able to make a page, right? They will actually get that book and they will be able to remember that way. It’ll be a physical copy, but I’m also going to post it in their Faith Journey. I’ll do the PDF of it, right? And they will be able to have that for as long as they want. They’ll be able to go and look back at that experience.

Michael: As I think about the opportunities, you’ve already outlined how some teachers might be able to post something in Faith Journey that their students will interact with within the platform. Some will post memories, maybe kind of act as a news feed for parents. Here’s what we did today. We talked about the color blue (or whatever). For others, it may be more of a triangulation between, Here’s what we did, here’s what the students thought, and here’s your opportunity to think about it as a family. Endless opportunities. It’s really a communication vehicle, in addition to that memory tool there that just invites everyone to be part of the process. It follows a student through their educational career, right?

Kent: They will be able to look back there, you know, when they’re 30 years old and they’re starting to raise their own family. They can look back at how their Christian school impacted their faith over the years. Most of it they won’t remember, but they will by looking through their Faith Journey account. They’ll be able to see God’s goodness and how He taught them all the way through that experience.

Relationship Between Curriculum Mapping and Faith Journey

Michael: Let me ask you to give your website and then we’ll talk about the opportunity that we’ve created with a partnership between Curriculum Trak and Faith Journey.

Kent: Sure. The website is myfaithjourney.com. And there is a contact page. I’ll give you lots of good information about it, and I’ll give you an opportunity to do a demo and you can just see if Faith Journey fits into your school.

Michael: We’ve been talking for the past several months about the intersection between curriculum mapping, which is, the Curriculum Trak space, and the evidence of education, and I thought you had just a brilliant take on that connection. What is the relationship between curriculum mapping, unit planning, and what you’re trying to do with Faith Journey?

Kent: Michael, as you know, I’m a big baseball fan. I love it. So, look at Curriculum Trak as the pitcher, right? It’s the planning, trying to figure out what pitch I’m going to throw, how to shape my fingers around the ball to create a desired effect. Then what happens in the classroom, you take those plans and you implement them, right? That’s the pitcher throwing the ball. And then there’s the catcher at the end.

So, with Curriculum Trak, you’re right at the beginning. You’re planning it, right? And, like the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. It is very easy to do as a teacher, quite frankly, just to be ad hoc, especially as you’re starting off in this. Planning makes the crucial time that you have with your students as impactful as possible.

You have all the wonderful plans, you presented it well, but in the end, you want to know, did kids’ faith really get impacted through math and science and social studies and literature, and writing, and all the rest of the courses, right? Was their faith impacted?

That is the mission of Christian schools. And that’s where Faith Journey comes in. We created a fun little tool to connect our plans with the actual faith impact. Teachers are able to do their planning and then they can click a little button and they can see the evidence or the outcomes of those plans in place.

Michael: We’ve lived in that planning space for a long time. We want every lesson to land, but good intentions are not enough. We want to make sure that it’s landing with every single student, and that is where a student-based, evidence-based approach comes in. It gives all the stakeholders–the teacher, the parents, the students themselves–an opportunity to reflect, and so tying those two things together, I think, is a great opportunity.

We’re excited about it. As a result of our partnership, Curriculum Trak schools can get a really great deal on Faith Journey. You’ve even got an exclusive form of Faith Journey, a light version for schools who just want to start to dabble with it. When you talk with Kent at myfaithjourney.com, make sure you let him know that you’re a Curriculum Trak school, and he’d be glad to share the details of our partnership.

So tell us, if you can, some of the success stories. I know you’ve been working with some schools. What have you seen as the results for teachers, for students, for parents? What comes to mind?

Success Stories

Kent: For administrators, they are able to see the teachers who are doing really well with faith integration, the teachers who are fully implementing the mission of the school. And then the ones who are not producing the outcomes that they would like, they’re able to go and work with them and look for tools or resources for them to be able to figure that out. That’s on the administrators side of it.

Another way is for teachers, right? As a teacher, I claim that I’m aiding parents to create children to be fully devoted followers of Jesus. Am I doing that? And so Faith Journey is a way for me to say, Yeah, this lesson landed, like you said, a home run, right? Or do I need to go back and retool it?

For parents, we hear endless stories about how they appreciate those emails and having those conversations with their children about what happened in the classroom or through a chapel experience. I know how often I go and ask my son, “Okay, what’d you learn today?” Nothing. He doesn’t really talk like that, but this is a way to show that as a parent we are actually doing something. As a parent, you’re able to say, this is the value, this is what I’m paying for. In West Michigan, there are some fabulous private, charter schools. Many of them are moral-based, right? They do a fantastic job. Test scores are out of this world, right? But are they creating the Christ-centered worldview that we are hoping for? They don’t and they can’t, right? And that’s the space in which the Christian schools land.

Michael: As we kind of wrap things up here, I like to give my guests the last word just in case I didn’t give you enough opportunity to talk. I’d like to invite you to think about the teachers in the classroom, much like you. They may or may not have an opportunity to make the decision about Faith Journey or Curriculum Trak for that matter, but they’re making decisions every day that impact their students. How would you encourage them, inspire them, challenge them from your vantage point?

A Word of Encouragement

Kent: Teachers, we have a hard job. And we have kids with so many different needs. Over the 23 years that I’ve been a part of Christian education, the needs that kids come in with today are more than ever. I get that we are all extremely busy. You’re probably wondering about a tool like Faith Journey: Oh man, it’s one more thing to do.

But it gives life and longevity to your lessons. You put so much time and effort into creating lessons that are from Jesus. This is a way to give it legs, to give it some life, to have it live longer than just that moment that’s in the classroom. And that is worth so much more than the time that it takes to put it in. For administrators, you’re able to see classroom by classroom how your teachers are doing with the mission of your school, and then, parents are getting that feedback, that communication, as you said, of this is what I’m paying all this money for.

Michael: I love the tangible aspect of the portfolio. I think Faith Journey takes it to the whole next level. And so I’m grateful for your time today, Kent, and for your vision to bring something like Faith Journey to the table for Christian education. And we’re looking forward to what we can do to help schools as we move forward together in this partnership. Thanks for your time today.

Kent: I appreciate it, Michael.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Kent Ezell and his wife Reba are the founders of Faith Journey. Faith Journey provides Christian schools with an easy-to-use web and mobile application that captures moments that help shape students’ faith. Students, teachers, and parents are then able to reflect on these experiences. Kent is currently teaching 5th grade at Dutton Christian School. He has been an adjunct professor in the teacher education department at Cornerstone University, served The Potter’s House as the Director of Admissions, taught middle school math and Bible, and was a school administrator. He and Reba have two children, Carolyn and Joshua.