“… One of the faith-enhancing practices that this was built on is the idea that reflective writing does enhance faith. So the idea of reflecting is now something that our students are learning to do. And simultaneously, our teachers are learning to do that alongside them. We live in a very busy world that’s very fast-paced, and the art of reflecting can sometimes be left along the wayside. And in school, as we move quickly from one thing to the next, there’s always so much to fit in. So taking that moment to reflect, first for the students on the question, and then later for the teachers on what was written, is kind of changing the way we think about some of the things that we do.” – Renee McKeone
Check out Renee’s blog post “Faith Journeys Made Visible” here.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast episode here or using the player below.
Faith Portfolios at Ann Arbor Christian School
Faith Portfolio Checklist
Michael Arnold: Renee McKeone and Becky Johnson join us in The Teacher’s Lounge today. Renee is the Curriculum Director and Student Support Coordinator for Ann Arbor Christian school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan (go blue, right?). Becky is the Spiritual Life Coordinator there at Ann Arbor Christian and Teacher Mentor and Coach as well.
Ann Arbor Christian was founded in 1991 and serves students K through 8., And we welcome Renee and Becky to The Teacher’s Lounge today. Welcome guys.
Becky Johnson: Thank you.
Renee McKeone: Thank you.
Michael Arnold: Well, I have been looking forward to our conversation because I grew up near Ann Arbor, just a little bit down the road, but was not familiar with Ann Arbor Christian until I moved away and started working for Curriculum Trak and then got introduced to Renee and found that you’re doing some great work there as I’ve had some some opportunities to work with you., Limited interaction, I guess, remotely, mostly, right? But it’s obvious that your school is rigorous academically and doing a lot of great things.
About Ann Arbor Christian School
Michael Arnold: And, so Renee, I wanted to start with you. Maybe you can just tell us a little bit about Ann Arbor Christian; how your school is made up, how many students, those kinds of things. How would you describe Ann Arbor Christian to someone who’s interested in the school?
Renee McKeone: Ah, that’s a great question. We describe ourselves as a school that’s very relational. So one of the hallmarks of our school is we want children to feel known and loved by their teachers and by the community here, but also by their Lord. And so in our academics, we try to bring everything back to that relationship with God and having that infusing our worldview as we explore different topics. We like to think of our school as being very integrated, in terms of subjects that inform each other, and worldview integrating through all of those things.
We serve 215 students this year. We have a preschool and kindergarten through eighth grade, with 116 families in that number of students. So we’re still a small school because we only have one classroom for each grade. But at the same time, you know, we are growing and expanding, as the Lord brings more and more students to our school.
Michael Arnold: Well, and Ann Arbor is a very diversely populated part of Michigan. And I know your school is nondenominational. I was reading through the teacher bios on your website, and I love the fact that they include what church they attend in their bios. And I was noticing, wow, what a wide range of church backgrounds and you know, other demographics. So I wanted to ask you Becky, since you’re the Spiritual Life Director there at the school, how do you protect that diversity, but also leverage that in your spiritual formation at your school?
Becky Johnson: That’s a great question, too. I would say one of the things we realized, as teachers on board, we need to be able to share a little bit about what it means to be ecumenically sensitive, to have different denominations represented. So we’ve created an ecumenical sensitivity document where we kind of go through, you know, major tenets of the Christian faith—what are things that all denominations hold in common, where are areas of difference? So we just want to empower teachers not to stumble into something accidentally and not realize, whoa, this is an area of difference. And in those areas of difference, we just say, hey, every Christian believes that we’re supposed to baptize. Jesus tells us. But in our school community, we have some people who baptize infants, some who baptize adults, you know. What happens in your family? Go home and talk to your parents, go home and talk to your pastor about what that means in your tradition.
So we try to not be afraid of those differences, but acknowledge that they’re there and then celebrate what unites us in Christ. And I really think it’s miraculous. I mean, we’ve done this now long enough that we just take this for granted, but even a generation ago, having such a wide range of church traditions represented in one school and working together in Christian unity it wasn’t happening. It just wasn’t done, right? And often, sad to say, people from different denominations saw each other as the enemy, rather than recognizing that we’re part of the wide diversity of people who are all trying to love and follow Jesus. And so that’s a real gift that we have at our school.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. I had an opportunity to teach in a nondenominational Bible classroom for a while there in Southeastern Michigan in another school. And I wanted to be very sensitive to the different faiths represented in the classroom and found, I think, as you kind of described, that was a great way to invite the families into the conversation, you know. As a question would come up in class, [I would say] Hey, here’s my perspective, or here’s how we might do it in this church or that church, but talk to your parents, talk to your pastor about that as well, and come back and share it with us tomorrow. I want to hear your answer, or something. So that was an opportunity to invite the families in. And I think there’s a lot of beauty in that diversity.
And I think that’s helpful, especially as we launch into what we’re here to talk about today, the faith portfolios that you guys put together, the process that you follow there to understand that this is coming from a non-denominational perspective, and it can help invite teachers into it.
Renee’s CT Blog Post: Faith Journeys Made Visible
Michael Arnold: Renee submitted a blog post for the Curriculum Trak Blog a few months ago, as we were relaunching it. I’m not going to say it went viral, because that’s I think a technical term, but we did get a lot of response and feedback to it, because you described, it’s called “Faith Journeys Made Visible,” that’s the name of the post, and we’re going to link to it in the description of this podcast, so that if you’re listening to this, you can find it. But I think it resonated with schools because a lot of the faith-based schools in our community want to make sure that the faith journeys are visible in their students, right?
So, Renee, without getting too deep into that blog post, because, you know, go and read it, right? But take just a couple of minutes to describe for us what those faith portfolios are all about, and why they came about there, in Ann Arbor Christian.
Renee McKeone: Okay, well, that’s a great starting place, and I’ll have Becky chime in at the end about how they came about, because they were really her brain child. I just had the privilege of writing about them and supporting our school in implementing this project.
When we think about a Christian school, there’s so many things that are important, you know, and as a school academics of course are important, but really, that Christian discipleship is just such an important part of what we do. And we realized that there are so many other things that we, you know, assess, so to speak, or we know how kids are doing, we know how to help them grow, but sometimes in faith it can be a little bit harder to see. So we wanted to have a way that we could gauge that growth in faith over time, and to see and to celebrate how students have progressed in their faith journey from the time that they were here at our school. So for some students that might be from pre-K through eighth grade and for other students, they might come in somewhere along the line and they’re not with us for as many years, but whatever it is, we wanted to see what that growth journey was.
And I’ll have Becky chime in and talk a little bit about how she came up with this idea.
The Origins of the Faith Portfolio
Becky Johnson: Sure. I had to actually do some digging. It’s funny how you think you’re going to remember things, but in the midst of, you know, busy life, I’m like, I, where did I? So I think the journey, I would say, started in 2012 when I actually took a class from Dan Beerens on Christian distinctives in education. And in that class, he presented 12 faith-enhancing practices. So things that Christian schools do to enhance the communication of the Christian faith, and kids engaging faith not just with head, but also with heart. And faith portfolios aren’t one of the 12 faith-enhancing practices that he presented. But I know that somehow it came out in our conversation during class. So it was kind of this thing that was in the back of my mind.
And then I think in 2015 we actually reached out to CSI (Christian Schools International) to say, Hey, do you have schools that do this? Can you put us in contact with them? Had some dialogue with a man named Kent Ezell, he was working for CSI at that point. He got really excited about the question. He directed me to Holland Christian and Byron Center Christian, they were doing some things in this area. He ended up then going on to do a webinar in February of that 2016. He and I met and it was enough to get us going.
So he provided some materials from the other schools, and then actually Renee and Sue De Zeeuw, who was our lead teacher in middle school, and I met over the summer and started to unpack, okay, what would this look like for Ann Arbor Christian School? So we took elements that we saw from the other schools, you know, added our own, and then talked about how do we get teachers excited about this, and how do we get them involved in the process?
Michael Arnold: Going back to something that Renee said, she alluded to it in the article as well; it seems to have grown from this desire, you know, being a Christian school, we can measure their heads through our academic tests and stuff, but how do we measure their hearts? How do we measure what’s going on in their heart? And I think that’s why that resonates so much with Christian schools, because that’s what sets us apart, right? Like we’re not just trying to be as good academically as a school down the road, or a little bit better. We have a unique mission. We have a unique spiritual commitment that we’re making to our kids.
And I’m sure your school did that in many ways before 2012, 2015, you were started back in 1991.
Why Faith Portfolios?
Michael Arnold: What were some of the frustrations that you were experiencing, or the concerns that you were experiencing, that led you to this exploration?
Becky Johnson: I guess I would say, I mean, it’s hard. You can be teaching a Bible lesson and many of the Bible curriculums have the kids do a worksheet or a response sheet, but often they’re just going to head: what are the facts about the Bible story? You know, did you memorize the events of the last week of Jesus’s life in order? But it didn’t necessarily give us a peek under the hood. And the picture I love is, like I’m a car mechanic putting in the dipstick to see, how much oil do I have, and realizing that sometimes we had activities that revealed that, but sometimes we didn’t. And so how do we really know where they’re at?
Michael Arnold: You can’t measure that on a quiz, right? You can’t say, you know, do you love Jesus, true or false? Oh, zero points cause you don’t love – you know, because of course everybody loves Jesus, but how do you – it’s hard to measure that academically. And you can fall into that trap a lot, you know, as Christian schools.
Becky Johnson: I totally agree. And I think we were learning, asking more open-ended questions, asking questions that ask for a personal response are things that help give a sneak peek. And actually, you know, every Christian school spends energy in doing chapels, and we started talking about, well how do we know whether what we presented in chapel has connected with the kids at all? And so around this time we started also developing some chapel response pages so that after every chapel, there’s some type of response that kids do that helps us see, did they connect with the main message, or are they applying the main message? And sometimes you get something really insightful and sometimes you don’t, which is okay, because sometimes the kids were totally distracted by something else and missed it, right?
But I mean, when you say we’re spending all this time doing chapel, but we don’t really know what’s getting through – we should try to do a dipstick to know what’s getting through. Part of it is just realizing, like we were doing all these things, but we weren’t peeking under the hood as intentionally. And now we’re much more intentional about trying to look.
Michael Arnold: I love that analogy because anytime you go under the hood of a car, it’s messy, right? It is so messy, but that’s the relational part of teaching, right? That’s the part that’s unpredictable. We don’t know how this relationship is going to play out. We just have to go along for the ride, and relationships are messy. And yet that’s the core of disciple-making at the same time, is relationships, and it’s messy, and of course, Jesus lived through that with his disciples and invites us to do that as well. So I love that analogy.
When a Student is Struggling with their Faith
Becky Johnson: I’m just going to jump in because I think this makes a connection. That’s important to actually train teachers in, because I think as we’ve done our faith portfolios over the years, and as we’ve had these reflective writing pieces, we’ve had to talk through as a staff, how do you react or respond when a child writes something where you’re like, whoa, they don’t believe it. They’re not interested in it. And then to say, we need to live in that disquiet, we need to be able to be okay with that and stay curious, affirm wrestling.
You know, Jesus loved Thomas in the midst of Thomas’s doubts, in the midst of Thomas’s questions, and that we allow the Holy Spirit to work, and to know that God’s timeline and students’ wrestling and times of spiritual awakening happens over years. And to be peaceful about that.
It can inform us on how to pray, like yeah, this student is really struggling, and so I want to pray for the student. But not to react in such a way like, oh no, and then put all this pressure on this kid, that we need to get them to say the right answer. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Our job is to water, to plant, to cultivate and to create a safe space for kids to wrestle with their faith.
Michael Arnold: Well, and even Jesus didn’t get the right response out of his disciples all the time, right? I mean, Peter for crying out loud, you know, what’s going on with Peter? And as teachers we fall, I believe. I was there too as a teacher where it’s like, I taught the lesson, why didn’t they get it? Why am I not seeing – and we go into that academic mind shift that I think it’s great that you created some space for, what are we calling it? I mean, it’s failure, right? As a teacher, we set up a lesson and our students didn’t get it. We failed. Right? So wrestling with that.
Challenges in Implementing Faith Portfolios
Michael Arnold: What other challenges did you have from your teachers? You know, thinking about the diverse faith backgrounds of your staff, your faculty, were there other challenges that they had in embracing this approach to their instruction?
Becky Johnson: Well, I would say anytime you launch something new, remembering it. Like, you know, when you talk about it in the summer, we do our staff development and meetings, and people get all excited, and then you go back into the classroom, and there’s a million papers, a million things, and you think everybody’s on board and everyone’s got it, and then I would do a check, you know, how are you doing remembering to put things in your students’ faith portfolio? And I’d see this look of horror come over this teacher and I’m like, okay. That’s okay. We still have five more months of school. So it’s a process of developing habits. So one part is the practical piece, of remembering to do the activity, to do the reflective writing question, to make a copy, to put it in the portfolio, to send it home.
I’d say it’s also a process of continuing to unpack the value. You can have a teacher who does the task, but doesn’t really read through them reflectively to say, what does this tell me about how kids are perceiving devotions and Bible class. What do I want to emphasize? Like letting what the students write inform how we’re teaching and how we’re leading devotions, the topics of devotions. That’s a process over time, right?
We’ve now built in that spiritual life as part of our meetings before school starts. I’ve brought the students’ samples, like I have teachers share copies with me. We do some PD on that. So, you know, what do you see in these students’ writing? What do you notice? Where is there a gospel orientation? Where is it about being good? Do we see our kids sometimes missing the point, that they’re just focused on the acts of being good people and not what does it mean to be a Jesus follower and to know that he has died on the cross to forgive your sins? But the more we’ve had those conversations, it’s been so rich with our staff
The Benefits of Faith Portfolios for Teachers’ Professional Growth
Michael Arnold: Well, that was something I wanted to ask too, and maybe invite Renee in on this too. You (Renee) alluded in the article about some of the growth that teachers were able to experience as a result of thinking about, as you said, Becky, being reflective about the work that you’re getting, what were some of the other benefits? Now, this isn’t an academic way, I guess, but some of the professional growth that you were able to see as a result of the teachers applying themselves to this process?
Renee McKeone: That’s a good question. I would say that the discussions that we’ve had, so anytime teachers are collaborating, it’s really great to get teachers together, talking about things in our school. We have only one first grade teacher, one second grade teacher, so they can be more isolated about their work. So anytime we can bring teachers together and talk about shared experiences, we enrich each other. So those conversations that Becky was talking about have been really meaningful. A lot of your listeners might be familiar with the type of thing you would do with an English class where we would have, you know, everyone read the same essays and we would kind of talk about what we saw, and it would help us, you know, maybe look at those essays differently because I might come at it from one lens, but my colleague might come at that from a totally different lens with the writing style. And then I begin to see things that I didn’t see at first, and it kind of enriches my understanding. So that experience has really helped teachers, I think, to take in what students are saying and look at them sometimes with different eyes, and broaden their experience.
So that’s probably been the best part, but I think the process for students as well, there’s a lot within the process, so one of the faith-enhancing practices that this was built on is the idea that reflective writing does enhance faith. So the idea of reflecting is now something that our students are learning to do.
And simultaneously, our teachers are learning to do that alongside them. We live in a very busy world that’s very fast-paced, and the art of reflecting can sometimes be left along the wayside. And in school, as we move quickly from one thing to the next, there’s always so much to fit in. So taking that moment to reflect, first for the students on the question, and then later for the teachers on what was written, is kind of changing the way we think about some of the things that we do.
Michael Arnold: And it seems like writing, which is an academic practice in itself, would be a great way to connect to the academic content of the course and not just say, okay, now we finished our math lesson. Let’s go into the spiritual portfolio part of our practices. It helps you integrate.
How Faith Portfolios are Integrated into School Life
Michael Arnold: How did you push towards integration and not just, you know, we have two separate rails going on here and never the two shall meet, you know?
Renee McKeone: This might be a tangent answer. I was thinking about it when you and Becky were talking a little while ago: these pieces aren’t graded, but they are evaluated. So students do take them very seriously. They are presented as, this is something important that we’re working on, and they understand that it’s being kept in the portfolio. But because it’s not graded, even with that parameter students tend to be very honest with them. At the same time, it’s set up as a kind of formal piece that they need to do their best on.
So one of the classes now is preparing for their one more formal piece, which makes me realize we haven’t explained the whole structure yet, Becky. I know that’s in the article, but there’s some informal pieces and every year we try to capture one that’s more formal. And we usually do that about this time of the year in the spring, close to parent-teacher conferences so that it can be shared or discussed in terms of, here’s something we can share about how your child is growing spiritually this year.
But as this fourth-grade class is preparing for it, you know, it’s not just given to them one day; they’ve been thinking about this question. And their question is pretty deep for a fourth grader because they’re using the verse in Hebrews about sin, which so easily entangles, and running with perseverance. So they’re really looking at what sins might entangle them. That’s a pretty big question for a fourth grader to think about. Like they might not have really wrestled with, where are my areas that I really struggle falling back into sin? And so as they’re talking, they’re having multiple discussions about it, kind of the pre-writing, looking at the structure of how they’re going to respond to this in writing. And then they do it.
I wouldn’t say it’s so much integrated with other subject areas, but there is an integration. That question comes out of their class verse – we have class Bible verses for each grade. That is kind of a theme. And so that one comes out of their class Bible verse. So it sort of brings that together, and it’s kind of tied into that class community. Here we are, this group of witnesses that are supporting each other as we run this race that we have. And so there’s lots of ways that there’s connections between the different things that they’re doing within their class community by the time they get to that piece.
The Eighth Grade Capstone
Michael Arnold: I want to unpack, what does this look like as far as the process just a little bit more, but let’s start at the end. As I read your article, I got goosebumps when you started describing that capstone commissioning piece in eighth grade where you present these portfolios to the eighth graders to reflect on – I’m getting goosebumps now, just thinking about how powerful that is. Becky, if you want to share some about that, what does that look like? Like the final presentation, you know, paint that picture for us.
Becky Johnson: One of those 12 faith-enhancing practices was culminating experiences. So at Ann Arbor Christian School, obviously graduation in eighth grade is a culminating experience by itself. Eighth graders also do chapel family leadership. So they have a big role in this.
So they have two parts. One is a reflective question, so they do that around this time of year. But then in May, shortly before they were getting ready for graduation, they actually are given their portfolio and they go through the whole thing. And they’re asked to reflect, like, how have you seen your faith grow over the years? What was a piece in your portfolio that really stood out for you? What does this tell you about where you are on your faith journey? So just some prompts. And the eighth grade teacher said, you could hear such a buzz in the room. The kids have so much fun looking back, you know, seeing the picture they drew of their favorite Bible story when they were in kindergarten, you know, seeing what they wrote in fifth grade, when they answered the question, what does it mean to be a Christian? And then they write some of their own reflections, but then those portfolios come to me, and I package them nicely in a kind of portfolio folio to go. And then those are actually part of the eighth grade graduation ceremony, where one of their faith statements or one of their reflections is put into their grad graduation bio.
And that portfolio is physically given to them. And maybe in a way also given to their families, right? To say, you know, you entrusted your children to us, and we were partners with you in their faith development. And here’s the tangible evidence of that process.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. So there’s no sword, you’re not like dubbing them, but what a tangible gift for the student, for the family, something specific that they can point to, to say here is why we invested in Ann Arbor Christian, and sent our children to Ann Arbor Christian. What a beautiful peace. So this process is fascinating.
Stories of Student Growth
Michael Arnold: We’ve talked about it kind of at a high level, you know, the teacher’s involvement, the capstone gift, the portfolio at the end – people like to hear stories. Are there specific stories of student growth that you’ve been able to experience or that kind of sticks out in your mind?
Becky Johnson: Yes, there’s a couple. So one was a student who graduated recently, who in fifth grade and sixth grade, in particular, both his answers to the formal reflective writing piece were a little concerning. It just didn’t seem like he was really connecting with the heart of the gospel message, you know, like heart was a little bit hard. You know, definitely it was like lights the were going off. I was definitely tracking him, to see where things happened.
And by the time the student got to eighth grade, I was so moved to read the final piece, where he was reflecting on What does it mean that Jesus is Savior and Lord – he got it. Like, it was clear that he had had this shift, this aha. And he’s like, I cannot look at the world and not believe that there is a God who is Creator, and he loves me. I don’t always get it. I have lots of questions still. But he had clearly come to his own personal, like, yes. So that was a process of fifth grade, you know, having some level of concern, and then seeing him come through to eighth grade, and express that.
And I have another student who, same thing, fifth grade: just like I don’t know if I believe this Christian stuff; to the seventh grade piece: if it wasn’t for God, I don’t know if I’d be making it through. So yeah, being able to track some kids over a period of time has been so powerful and just exciting, to see the work of the Holy Spirit in softening hearts and bringing understanding, and the faithful work of teachers who keep nurturing.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. What a great way to highlight that concept of, it’s not our job to finish the work. We’re planters, we’re waterers, God gives the increase. And what a great way to just unpack that, because, you know, as teachers, we like to see where our students go, right? Like, but you don’t always get a clear definitive response for every one of your students. So that’s a great, great story. Thanks for sharing those.
Reflection Prompts by Grade Level; What Goes in a Faith Portfolio?
Michael Arnold: If we were to reverse engineer that, do you have a formal portfolio contribution point at each grade level? How does that work?
Becky Johnson: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we actually developed a kind of, we have a checklist for each grade, and there’s basically three categories. So every year we have one reflective writing piece. So that was the formal piece that Renee was alluding to. And we used some of the prompts that Holland Christian had first developed, then we tweaked them to make them our own. So every grade is responding to a different prompt, that is, you know, we feel like developmentally appropriate.
So, you know, first grade: I know Jesus loves me because…
Second grade: I show Jesus I love him by…
Fifth grade: what does it mean to be a Christian?
Sixth grade is a question about a time when you’re faced with a choice, and how do you determine what’s right and wrong.
And seventh grade it’s, you know the prayer, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” So write a prayer where you express what you believe and things that you’re struggling with.
So those give you just a feel for the types of, you know, hopefully open-ended questions. Every teacher has a kind of formal writing prompt that their students are going to respond to.
Every year, we have something from a chapel reflection so that every student, when they get their portfolio, has some piece that would represent the chapel theme and their response to the chapel theme from that year.
And then when we first developed this process, we asked the teachers to think about their own Bible curriculum and natural activities that came out of the Bible curriculum from their grade level that give us a little sneak peek under the hood. So teachers then generated that. So for most teachers, that was three different pieces.
It can be more; last year I was teaching second grade Bible. I did an activity where I got all sorts of amazing answers from the second graders, so I decided, I’m going to put this in their faith portfolio. So it’s flexible. You can put things in that you didn’t plan to put in, things that are already embedded in the curriculum and sometimes just needed a small tweak to make them more insightful into what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the kids.
Michael Arnold: So it sounds like you have somewhat of a framework to help guide your teachers, but also give them some freedom to be thinking about what else I might want to add based on what’s going on in our classroom.
Becky Johnson: Yeah, and it was great. Like this year, our language arts teacher in middle school had the students write a personal narrative. She’s done this every year. We had two students who had joined Ann Arbor Christian late in the year, last year. So this is their first full year at Ann Arbor Christian.
They were eighth graders, and the two of them wrote the most encouraging and inspiring narratives about the difference that coming to a Christian school had made in their lives. Basically the before and after, what they experienced in public school and where they were at spiritually and emotionally, and this just, God – I mean, they’ve, they’ve encountered the Lord personally at AACS. And their narrative was full of it.
And our ELA teacher brought it to me. He’s like, we need to put this in their faith portfolios. I’m like, yes. So that’s totally unplanned. You know, you had no idea that that was going elicit – but now what’s neat is, she was alert to this, like, yeah, this is not planned, she doesn’t teach Bible, but she knew this was the kind of piece that should be in a child’s faith portfolio.
Michael Arnold: Yeah. So you’re giving the teachers, you’re almost instigating opportunities for them to be alert to the spiritual. So I love how this tool – yeah, there’s a process, it’s a tool, it’s a product, but it ties so many different best practices together for faith-based educators. That’s wonderful.
Integrating Academic Work into Faith Portfolios
Michael Arnold: Outside of Bible, we talked about some Bible activities that teachers have brought in, and some writing activities. What other academic areas have fed into this portfolio for your students?
Renee McKeone: So with our curriculum areas, we do try to have an essential question that’s defining that unit or bringing everything in that unit together. And often when it works in a way that’s not artificial, we try to have that essential question be something that brings faith into it.
And so we have seen students respond to some of that work, and that might be more on a test or more as an assignment, but on their own, they’re bringing that faith piece to it.
So one example that came to mind is with a fifth grade unit on the American Revolution, and they learn about some of the different protests that the colonists did, and that type of thing, and have some experience with that in the classroom, with some classroom taxes that get imposed on them. They end up responding to a question about civil disobedience. And how do you decide when you should stand up against a law. So that question obviously brings it into a lot of things that are happening in the world currently, or, you know, things that students have heard and trying to make that decision of, when do I know that a law goes against God’s law and I should stand up for it?
So things like that, even though they might be on a test, might create an answer that is really an aha moment for a student, that a teacher then could see and copy and put into that faith portfolio.
Michael Arnold: That’s great. I could also imagine where, you know, Hey, this year, the fifth graders did not protest.
Renee McKeone: Yes.
Michael Arnold: That’s a great example.
Renee McKeone: And I would say with that, Becky has helped the teachers with those more formal questions. So while we had some ideas to get started, and I think, you know, Becky and Sue De Zeeuw, she mentioned, and I had worked on kind of crafting some of them, but then taking those to the teachers – how is this going to work for your grade, and being open to the other ideas that they might’ve had. Or sometimes when a new staff member comes in at a certain grade level, you know, they just see things in a different way, and trying to be responsive to also what they’re seeing with their students and what they think is important.
So while we have a guide, it is a guide that’s not set in stone. So those teachers can come and discuss with Becky, you know, this question isn’t getting what we thought, how can we change it? Or what might we ask differently in a certain grade level? And so we’ve made those changes over the years by bringing the teachers in and valuing their experience in the classroom with the students and what they have to bring to the
Michael Arnold: That’s powerful.
Becky Johnson: One other thing we’ve invited teachers to do is, as you read something that the students might’ve written, and you have some concerns or questions, to come and talk to me. So I’ve processed them with teachers one-on-one, wow, like this is this, isn’t what we expected this child to write. What does it tell us? How should we respond? Because we want kids to be honest, we don’t want to have a “oh, no,” response that will shut the child down; but we don’t want to ignore things and not minister to what we’re seeing. So just processing together. Each case is a little different. What do they need? How do we respond? How do we help kids share their doubts or questions with their parents so their parents are fully informed? I think helping teachers not feel alone in that, that they have somebody else to go to, to discuss that with, has been really helpful.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, I find, as I’ve talked with teachers, especially in the area of biblical integration or faith learning integration, they often feel ill-equipped, like, you know, I’m not prepared for this and what am I going to get myself into if I do introduce these kinds of ideas. So I think that is a really valuable part of the process, you know? A network.
Becky Johnson: Yeah.
Parental Responses to Faith Portfolios
Michael Arnold: Speaking of parents, how have your parents responded to this generally? Have you had parents who were like, whoa, this is a little bit too deep for us, or are they more generally positive and affirming of this practice?
Becky Johnson: Yeah, I would say they are very positive and encouraging. Even when a piece has raised some concerns because a child is really struggling, it creates the opportunity for that dialogue to happen.
So last year in particular, we had an eighth-grade student who was really struggling with her faith, and some of that had kind of come out in some Bible class discussions, but when she got to her formal portfolio piece, which, the question in eighth grade is, what does it mean that Jesus is savior and Lord? Where are you on that journey? And she said, very bluntly, I could give you the Sunday school answer, but I won’t. And then she just was so honest about her wrestling with God and, you know, she’d prayed and God hadn’t answered. And so she’s not sure that she believes. And, and so the eighth-grade teacher was able to talk with her and just say, have you talked to your parents about this? And she hadn’t really. And so, during student-led conferences, she did that, and they had this great, rich conversation. And I’d say where she was at the end of the year was a little bit different than where she was in March. But the biggest thing was that it opened the door for her and her family to have some honest discussion, which might not have happened if that question hadn’t gotten prompted and that dialogue hadn’t been opened.
Michael Arnold: And how powerful is that, to demonstrate, you know, as a Christian school, we partner with families. We’re not working against families, as we often see sometimes in the public counterparts.
Renee McKeone: Actually, that’s part of our school mission statement, “in partnership with Christian families”; that is very important to us. And I think our parents really feel that. I do know on our school survey, when we get feedback from families on things, our spiritual life category has consistently, in the last four or five years, been one of our highest categories. We’ve, in the last few years, our parents have been very pleased with what they’re getting here. I think some of that is just, you know, seeing the ways that the world has responded to the pandemic, and Christian schools have been able to be a little bit more nimble and a little bit more responsive. So overall we’re doing really well in all areas, but spiritual life has consistently been a high area. And I think it’s practices like these that communicate to parents, we really mean what we say when we’re trying to help students live out their faith.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, this whole process just speaks of being very intentional, which has, I was thinking as I asked the question about parents, they have to respect the fact that you mean what you say, and that that should build trust and and encourage them, you know, again, because it’s a big investment of time and resources, to put your kid in a Christian school. And so to feel like you’re getting a good return on that investment, not in dollars so much, but in eternal rewards which is where this dwells.
Unexpected Aspects of the Practice of Creating Faith Portfolios
Michael Arnold: So as you think about this process, going back to about 2012, 2015, when you first launched it, and what you’re hoping to do with it, what has surprised you, or what has exceeded your expectations as a result of this process? And then we’ll flip that and ask you where you’re still working to improve and refine.
Becky Johnson: I think the honesty of the students has been a delightful surprise, even when it’s hard. And I, you know, you kind of wish they weren’t so honest because it shows you that there’s more work to be done. But that’s been a delightful surprise, to say, you know what, they aren’t just giving us what we want to hear. They’re being honest about where they are.
And I think as we’ve done staff development around this, it’s interesting, cause I think one of the times where we, I shared some different samples of students’ writing and asked staff to analyze, and at that meeting, we had all of our aides present. And one of our aides is a former parent. So all her four children went through Ann Arbor Christian, you know, she’s now a grandmother, but now she’s working as an aide in preschool. And she was like, well, you know, I’m not a classroom teacher, I shouldn’t speak to this. I’m like, but you’re a parent. You’ve raised your kid. You have something to say. And that was so powerful for her. She had wonderful insights, but then shared with me, like, the fact that non-teaching staff were invited into this conversation about spiritual formation and portfolios, and what, what are we learning about our students, made them feel like an essential worker. Does that make sense?
Michael Arnold: Yeah, Absolutely.
Becky Johnson: And I never thought about that ahead of time. That wasn’t something planned, but I just realized, yes, it’s not just the teachers. It’s every person in this building who’s impacting students’ faith. And to get their voice, to have them be part of our discussions around this help them experience that, that they were essential. And that was really unexpected.
Michael Arnold: That’s great. Renee, you want to jump in on that question?
Renee McKeone: I would have said the same thing as Becky. The honesty is I think what has really brought this project a lot of joy and a lot of prayer at times, but just being able to see, one, that the students really trust their relationships with their teachers to respond honestly, that they, you know, feel safe and comfortable in our school, secure enough to say what they are really thinking, has really blessed, I think, our mission here.
Michael Arnold: That’s awesome.
Integration of Technology
Michael Arnold: So I’m sure, because this is so close to your heart, you’ve thought about, okay, we want to get better in these ways, or here’s some of the ideas that we’re pushing towards. What are some of those?
Becky Johnson: So I think for me, one of the pieces that hasn’t always flowed smoothly is, the teachers have gotten the idea that we’re saving these pieces in their faith portfolio, but they also need to go home, you know, a copy needs to go home because we don’t want parents to wait four years or five years to read this, right? So that feedback loop and helping that work smoothly.
So it’s interesting because we’re exploring the idea of moving to a digital platform. So Kent, who I spoke with way back at the beginning of this process, has created a digital platform called myfaithjourney.com, which is basically a digital way to track faith portfolios, which would follow a student for their lifetime. And what it does is, as soon as something’s put in the portfolio, it immediately sends an email to the parent to allow them to see it. And it would allow them when students, for example, participate in leading a chapel, a video could be put in. So parents who maybe weren’t able to attend the chapel in person could see it.
Michael Arnold: So that’s myfaithjourney.com.
Becky Johnson: So, I mean, we’re still kind of moving towards that. But my hope is that that would be where we would be next year. So that’ll be a new kind of learning curve as we move from a kind of physical portfolio to a digital one. I think what it’ll do is it’ll close the missed gap of like parents more immediately seeing work their children are doing. It also opens the door for those conversations to happen kind of more in real time, right? Cause you know, often parents ask their kids what’d you do at school today? And what do they say? “Nothing.”
Michael Arnold: Yeah.
Becky Johnson: Even though there might’ve been this awesome thing. But now parents have like, oh, I see in Bible, you did this project. Tell me about it. And it opens the door for that conversation. So that’s at least where I’d like to head us next.
Renee McKeone: Yeah, I would guess a lot of your listeners are used to, like the Seesaw kind of concept that they use in a lot of elementary schools for sharing work. So it’s kind of like a faith Seesaw, where things can be uploaded easily and easily viewed by teachers and parents.
Michael Arnold: That’s awesome.
Advice for a School Aiming to Live into their Mission through Faith Portfolios
Michael Arnold: So I’m a school who wants to lean into my mission. I love what I’m hearing today. What advice would you give me to get started? Where do I start? How do I, cause you’ve talked about inviting the teachers in, and preparing them for these difficult conversations, and making sure that your school is a place of love and warmth and acceptance. Where do we start, as a school? What advice would you have for a school?
Becky Johnson: Well, I would say first, you want to help show the need. Why do we need a portfolio when we already have Bible tests and Bible worksheets and activities? So I think the idea of looking under the hood and that we need a place where kids kind of reveal a little bit more about where they are personally in interacting with the concepts that are taught in chapel or Bible. So first they need to say, oh yeah, I don’t always know what’s underneath the hood.
Then sometimes, keep it simple when you start, like, make it a manageable chunk, because you can always keep adding. Harder if your people feel overwhelmed, like “you’re asking me to do one more thing?” So, I mean, that was part of our having teachers participate in the question, but there’s only one formal question for every class. One That’s not too big of an ask. And then having the rest come out of what we’re already doing. It’s, you know, look through your Bible curriculum, pick three activity pages that you already do that gives some insight. Well, that was easy! Like that wasn’t hard for teachers to do. They’re already doing it. The tricky part was remembering to put the copy in the physical portfolio.
I’d say, presenting the need. Why, what, how portfolios reveal something different than we might see on a day to day way. Keeping it simple and manageable., Having teachers’ voice in some of that process, be some of the things I would suggest.
I don’t know, Renee, if you have any other things to add?
Renee McKeone: It sounds a little daunting with everything we talked about. So I would just say one step at a time, just like any project, you know, just if it’s something that someone has a desire to do, you know, having that group of people in the school who are going to initiate it and kind of work out the details to present it to the staff. But as Becky said, starting small and just one step at a time and, you know, let it grow and flourish, but not try to do too much, too soon, or too fast.
We did take some time getting a lot of things worked out as we launched it, and we’ve definitely improved on it. And we’ve been doing it six years, so in those six years, we’ve definitely made improvements.
Michael Arnold: You started thinking, didn’t you say Becky, as soon as, as early as 2012, right? So almost 10 years in the works here, but six years as implementation.
Michael Arnold: So yeah, and I know in this format, you know, we can’t – this isn’t training, this isn’t like, take this and go do it. But what else would you like to share with the Curriculum Trak community about this? Anything else we didn’t cover?
Becky Johnson: Well, I would just say, we’ve had several schools reach out to us directly. So I’ve met with several, you know, over Zoom. I’ve shared the documents that I’ve written, where I kind of spell out the rationale. So this is something I would give a new teacher when they onboard at Ann Arbor Christian. So here’s our rationale. Here’s the big picture of what it is. And I’ve just shared those, because when we were asking questions, Holland Christian and Byron Center shared with us, and they probably don’t even know where we took it., So I just think in the Christian schools circle, we need to share the good things that we’re doing.
Michael Arnold: I was going to say, that sounded like an invitation; you’re inviting people to reach out.
Becky Johnson: We are. We are, because the reality is, I mean, in some places, you know, on the west side of the state, there are lots of schools that are very large and are very well-resourced. So they don’t maybe need to reach out because they have it within their community. But we’ve talked to a Christian school in Texas, Christian school in Montana, where suddenly you’re not surrounded by a bunch of other CSI schools or other Christian schools. We need to help each other. And, wow, to be able to do that virtually, how great is that? I mean, that’s a great result of the pandemic, of just this comfort with Zoom, and making connections, sharing an idea and hopefully it’ll take off and flourish in that community.
Renee McKeone: In fact, Michael, if you were linking things, those documents that Becky is talking about, we could just send to you if you’d like to link them with this, which is that rationale and some printed material that Becky had put together, because we have met with a few other schools that she said, who set up a Zoom call with us, and Becky has done some and we’ve done some together.
Michael Arnold: Yeah, I mean, you guys have day jobs. You still have to run your school, but I know that other schools are going to be like, yes, this sounds like a good [practice], and I’m seeing it from that mental image of, here’s your portfolio, eighth grader, reflect on it, think through it, and just a representation of all of teachers who poured into them, to say your faith is important to us. That’s why we exist. And I know you feel that way about students who are not at your school, right? At other schools around the U.S. and around the world. But yeah, so that’d be great to have those resources.
Becky Johnson: We’d be happy to share.
Michael Arnold: Wonderful.
Michael Arnold: Well, it has been so great to talk to you about this. My heart is just warmed by this process and the benefit that the students receive from it. So thank you for taking the time to share your thinking and your process with us. And I’m sure the people from our community, we’ll try not to bother you too much, but I hope that this is an idea that might take off and be helpful to other students as well.
Thank you very much.
Renee McKeone: Oh, you’re so welcome.
Becky Johnson: You’re welcome. Our pleasure.