While there is much clarity on assessing growth in academic areas such as reading, math or science, Christian schools face the unique challenge of measuring growth in a student’s faith journey. To address this challenge, Ann Arbor Christian School initiated faith portfolios. These portfolios document each student’s faith journey, giving parents and teachers the opportunity to “peek” into a child’s developing faith. We recognize that faith is a journey and the pieces in a child’s faith portfolio give us insight into their faith development from expressions of love for God to doubts and questions, from areas of confusion to a commitment to follow Jesus.
The portfolio contains a variety of yearly additions, including items from Bible class, class devotions, and chapel reflections, as well as a yearly formal faith writing piece. These pieces start out as simple drawing and dictation in preschool and kindergarten and develop in content and complexity through eighth grade. The formal faith reflection pieces are structured around developmentally appropriate “essential questions” of faith for each grade level and crafted by the classroom teachers. Students understand the importance of the formal writing pieces and the purpose of their portfolio. Despite knowing they will be read by teachers and shared with parents, we have been amazed and blessed by the thoughtful and honest answers to questions such as “What does it mean to be a Christian?” (Grade 5) or “In Mark 9:24, a man says, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.’ Write a letter to Jesus expressing what you believe and what you have trouble believing” (Grade 7).
As teachers compile these items in the portfolios which follow the students through their years at Ann Arbor Christian School, we can clearly see growth and development in the students’ faith journey. It also provides an avenue to come alongside those who express struggles within their faith journey, helping our staff to be better able to support and pray for their students. Additionally, we are able to share pieces from the portfolio with parents to give evidence of how we see their child growing as a disciple of Jesus. Teachers are encouraged to share one of the pieces in the spring parent teacher conference.
Ann Arbor Christian School’s spiritual life director, Becky Johnson, has spearheaded this effort working with teachers to help students grow in their reflective practice as well as providing support in understanding stages of spiritual development and interpreting student responses. Through this our staff has grown in helping students to answer reflective questions and to use student responses to create growth opportunities such as specific devotion topics or Bible lessons that are responsive to student needs. The spiritual life director periodically reviews the portfolios to gain an overall picture of faith development in our school. She has experienced the joy of reading a student’s reflection filled with doubt and questions one year to reading their affirmation of faith and commitment to God several years later. Although there is not a formal “grading” of the portfolio pieces, we are able to confidently use the pieces to assess how students are growing and like any good formative tool, use that knowledge to inform our practice.
We developed our portfolio program in 2016. In planning to implement this program, we looked for another school that had done something similar, but did not find another school that had successfully implemented such a program. At Ann Arbor Christian School, our spiritual director worked to create and implement the program with the support of the curriculum director and the staff. Teachers were involved in crafting the formal grade level questions, as well as identifying other items from the curriculum that would make good additions to the portfolios. Our spiritual life coordinator created the organizational system to make it easy for teachers to implement and oversee the project. By asking teachers to include a minimum of 3 items per year, we keep the portfolio manageable but also capture a variety of faith expressions.
In eighth grade, prior to graduation, as a culminating experience, students are given a chance to look through their portfolios and reflect on their own spiritual growth. During our graduation ceremony, students are given their portfolio as we send them out from our school with the hope and prayer that the growth that has begun in their elementary and middle school years will bear fruit as they continue on their faith journey.
Please reach out to AACS if you would like more information about implementing a faith portfolio program in your school.