We’re pleased to share with you our interview with Dan Beerens, a valuable part of the Curriculum Trak team for many years. He has recently stepped away from CT to focus his energies in other areas, but his friendship with us brought him back once again for a talk about the work he’s doing. Here’s a portion of the interview. If you’d like to listen to the podcast, you can find it on The Teacher’s Lounge.
Michael Arnold: It’s an honor today to have an old friend joining The Teacher’s Lounge. Dan Bereens is a longtime promoter of Curriculum Trak. It’s safe to say that a majority of the schools using Curriculum Trak today came through Dan Beerens. Recently he stepped out of that role to pursue some of the other things that he had on his plate. And boy, what a full plate it is! We’re excited to talk to Dan today about some of the other things that he has been working on, primarily the Christian Deeper Learning Network and conferences that he hosts through that network.
So it’s nice to talk to you today, Dan.
Dan Beerens: Thank you, Michael. Nice to be here.
M.A.: So for those who don’t know you–which I think are probably few and far between–let me just run through some of the highlights of your experience in education before we start talking more about Christian deeper learning, and you can break in with any extra details that you’d like to add.
You’ve been in education for around 40 years as a teacher, a building principal, a curriculum director. You taught a grad course or two for Dordt University. You served as Vice President of Learning Services, and Director of Instructional Improvement for Christian Schools International. Was that more in the accreditation role, or did it have bigger applications than just school accreditations through CSI?
D.B.: Yeah, it was really anything to do with teaching and learning. So it was writing a blog. It was putting together workshops and online courses. It was editing a journal. It was working on the accreditation instrument that we developed with the team there. The K through eight Bible curriculum was under revision and I inherited that as well and brought that to completion. And so those are some of the pieces that I was involved in.
M.A.: And then in your free time, you wrote or co-authored a couple of different books, one about the evaluation of teachers and one about some changes in education, the Mind Shift book. Recently you did some writing about the history of Christian education in the United States.
D.B.: That was for a conference that C.A.C.E. (the Center for Advancement of Christian Education) put on around the impact of Calvinist Day School and reformed education in the United States. For our attendees, we wanted to provide them some context and it was a great way to share resources, authors, the history, and documents that were foundational.
So, blogging has been a part of my life. I started blogging back in 2006 when I was at Christian Schools International. We had a resource center with a number of things in it, which was great, but nobody knew it was there. So, I thought, Well, I’m going to start writing in a blog and pointing out these resources. Then it ended up being a blog called Nurturing Faith. It really was based around spiritual formation, classroom pedagogy, and the mission of Christian schools.
And then I started blogging for CACE.org. And, now, I am writing a digest on Friday for the Christian Deeper Learning site. So, that’s been a joy for me, and hopefully helpful to folks out there.
M.A.: Yeah, you’re writing your encouragement for educators. And so all of those experiences grew into the Christian Deeper Learning work that you’re doing now. Tell us how you got involved with that.
D.B.: That’s really a long story, but I’ll try to keep it somewhat brief. I taught in public education and then in Christian education. I was an administrator first in public education, and then moved back into Christian education administration. And I think, being a big picture person, I was always looking for how everything connects and when do I feel happiest with who I am, what I’m doing. If I can connect what I believe with how I do my work, I’m happiest. But I had that sense as a teacher that there were things I was doing that I had been taught in my coursework and my internships that really didn’t align well with what I believed about students and teaching and learning.
And that bothered me. I felt like there was a disconnect there. And of course, in that time period, we started recognizing that students were disengaging from learning. What should we do about that and how could we engage students?
And then as I started to think about my faith and who I believe God made us to be and made students to be, my desire grew to connect those pieces together. And so the reconciliation of those disconnected pieces really has been my passion for the past 15-20 years.
So I raised questions like, does the way I organize my class curriculum, instruction, assessment, and culture honor my students as image-bearers of our Creator? Are my students really engaged in the work I assign or are we both going through the motions of what we imagined school is supposed to be? Have I made compromises in my practices? Am I focusing too much on individual student success and keeping parents and administrators happy? Am I doing it the way it’s always been done? Is there a better way I can model the creativity and innovation that I see in Jesus and what He calls us to do and be? And, what can I do to explicitly and implicitly focus my classroom on loving God and neighbors?
I needed to identify models that I felt were connecting who we believe students to be and how we should be encouraging them. At the same time, there was a sense that in Christian schools, we were becoming more isolated and insular. We were losing our saltiness, if you will. We weren’t engaging our kids in learning or in faith particularly well. And so is there a way to bring all those things together?
I started to believe that that could be done. Then, of course, research approved how project-based learning really enlivens kids and sets them on fire with their learning. That just added to my conviction that this is something Christian schools really needed to get involved in.
As I was at CSI, I started to do a lot of workshops around the country, and a lot of them in Canada. I found there were folks in Canada who were working on one of these projects which we now know as Teaching for Transformation. There was great interest in it. And through the work of CACE and folks like Tim Ol and Darryl Debore and others,TfT has been brought to over a hundred schools in the U.S. About 10 years ago, we started moving towards the Christian Deeper Learning Network. We did not want to be an organization, we didn’t want to be collecting dues or anything like that, but we are a volunteer network that gathers people for encouragement and for learning.
M.A.: Well, you mentioned things like Teaching for Transformation and project-based learning. Christian Deeper Learning is not synonymous with those things, right? That’s not all you do and all you’re about. Those are definitely elements of deeper learning, but it’s much more robust than just a few instructional practices or design methods.
D.B.: Christian Deeper Learning is an umbrella term. It’s really a cultural change. It’s a belief change in what we believe about students, and a willingness to examine your own practices that may be hindering students.
We describe really three ways in our definition. First, the people of God’s story. This is a celebration of a learner, what it means to be created in God’s image. Secondly, a mindfulness towards learning design. So how do curriculum, instruction, and assessment inspire inward and outward engagement? And then the third part is, are you just going to sit there in your bubble of holiness? No, it’s a responsiveness to culture, how to embody our mission in every aspect of school life and how to live it out in God’s world.
So that process is a matter of forming the students and helping to shape the world and live as Jesus would have us live with our neighbor. And so we unpack that all in a document on our website. It’s called Deeper Learning in Christian Schools: Playing Our Part in God’s Story. We describe it as people of God’s story engaged in real work that forms self and shapes the world.
M.A.: I’d invite people to go to your website, ChristianDeeperLearning.org. There’s a lot of information there that might be helpful even as a companion to some of the things that we hope to explore here.
I like that phrase, Connecting students to God’s story. And it’s really about questioning the status quo, isn’t it? I’m glad you brought those questions up because if teachers would just think about those once a month, it would probably lead to some reconsidering of the things that we just continue to do in our day-to-day practices.
D.B.: You know, my education was in special education and particularly dealing with behavior disordered children and emotionally disturbed children. So the default approach was behavior modification. Behavior modification can be effective particularly for animals, but is our goal to manage the behavior or are we sitting back and saying, Why are so many kids disengaged in the learning process?
I’ve shared this story many times in my workshops, but as a fourth grade teacher, one day I was teaching the middle group of kids, and of course you’re working on skills to get them up to higher level readers. And I was standing by the door and saying hi to kids, and I overheard a couple girls saying, “I hate coming here. This is such a boring class.” I thought, What is wrong with this picture? I love reading. I’m killing this joy of reading in kids. I’m shutting down learning in fourth grade. So that led us to move to more of a literature based approach and to rethink how we were doing things.
M.A.: Being intentional about what you’re communicating or not communicating matters in the choices that you make as an educator.
D.B.: Exactly. And how does that flow from your faith? If you believe kids are image bearers and they have intrinsic worth and value, you can’t treat them like a number, you can’t not care about them. You have to connect your faith and your practice.
M.A.: Well, the next question is, Are my students really engaged in the work I assign? Starting with the belief that boredom is not a discipline problem, lack of engagement may not be the student’s full responsibility. There’s certainly an element to that, I think, but it’s also on the teacher to invite the students into engaging learning experiences.
D.B.: Well, and to take it even a little further, and this sounds pretty radical perhaps, but I have asked audiences, Are you actually sinning against your students? Because if you are killing creativity, not allowing for that person to have expression of who God’s made them to be, if you are deadening the learning process, then you are fundamentally discouraging faith in them. So I think it’s pretty serious. This disengagement is connected to their faith and how they view God and what ways they can be involved in the work that He calls us to do with loving our neighbor.
M.A.: Yeah. That’s convicting to think about.
D.B.: Kids love to do real work. You know, they love to do things that have an impact and they can. I think sometimes we too often underestimate them and we don’t allow them to do this because, yes, this does take extra work, but what I’ve heard again and again from Deeper Learning teachers who are doing it seriously is that yes, there’s much more preparation at the beginning, and yes, it is scary to give up some control, but these are the experiences that kids remember from their learning.
M.A.: That’s powerful. So, the Christian Deeper Learning Network in some ways is an outgrowth of your experience and your network, the people that you connected with, Dr. Steven Levy, Darryl Deboer, and others. And the upcoming conference is in March of 2023. So this is number six this year in March of 2023, and I’m sure there’s going to be a seven and eight, to 10 or 15 into the future, right?
D.B.: Well, hey, we’re all getting older, Michael! So, we’re actually going to do some visioning following the conference and we’re pulling together a group to help us do that. We want to hear from people what their desire is with it.
We have space for 500 at Surrey Christian Secondary Campus to comfortably interact together. We’re up to 426 as of today. We’ve got 64 different presenters. We’ll have about 75-80 workshop slots that people can choose from. For the conference we created something called EMTs. So you’ve heard of TED Talks. Those are about 18 minutes, I guess. And someone on our committee said, “Oh, teachers have a shorter attention span. We should go shorter.” And they asked me if I had ever heard of a PechaKucha. I had to look it up. This is 400 seconds, about seven minutes on a topic. So we thought that seems a little short, and we decided on 11-minute talks or EMTs, for short.
I am so grateful that you’re going to do one about the Curriculum Trak TFT connections. There are 18 people and each talk will fall into the two categories of tools and resources. There are some really neat people and ministries that connect with schools that I want to expose people to. Then we’re going to have classroom teachers talk about stories of change and inspirational stories that they have been involved in in their classroom. I’m so excited that we’re going to have18 people sharing the cool stuff that they are called to be involved in.
M.A.: Well, I think that’s the beauty of a conference, which just allows you to get together and rub shoulders with people and hear their stories and what they’re doing in ways that maybe you couldn’t otherwise.
Tell us about some of the other things that you’re doing through CDL, particularly on your website. You’ve got the blog, the podcast, and other resources there as well.
D.B.: Yeah, this has been a labor of love for Steven Levy, who is a dear, dear brother, and outstanding educator. Krista Wallace who started EL school, has done a podcast. She’s very busy with a full-time job, working with urban schools. Steven is very active helping schools implement the pedagogy. He’s a pedagogy expert particularly. I’ve worn various hats with my own consulting, Curriculum Trak, CACE, Deeper Learning, and Mind Shift.
It’s been really joyful work. We really want to be a platform that unites people, encourages people, brings people together. So,we’ve been blogging the past two years on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This year I decided to do a digest on Friday and give updates for our conference and introduce people and so forth.
Beyond that, there’s a wonderful summer institute that Steven and Joanna Levy run. I’ve done it for several years now. The information’s on our website. It’s a week at a beautiful location, a retreat center out in Massachusetts, and it’s in June. I think they’ve got room for 35 this year. If you’re interested, please go to the Deeper Learning website and look for the tab labeled Summer Institute.
M.A.: Yeah. It’s been encouraging and also challenging to see and hear the things that educators are doing as they try ultimately to be the educator that they believe God has designed them to be for His glory. I think that’s really the driving heart of most that I’ve met in the network.
What would you say to someone who’s maybe learning about the Christian Deeper Learning Network for the first time? What would be the best way for them to get connected?
D.B.: I would say come to the conference. I get schools calling me up, saying, Okay, we’re ready. We’d like to look into this more. We’d like to consider moving into Deeper Learning to a greater degree in our school. And I’ve become a really strong advocate of site visits. It’s really the best way to process with somebody new, why a school is doing what they’re doing, to see what they’re doing. See the evidence, see the kids, see the kids’ interaction.
At the same time, process with your team. Don’t go and do this alone. Be sure to take three or four key thinkers, leaders, or people who want to be involved in deeper ways to move your school forward.
I really admire the educators that come to our conferences. They’re risk takers. They’re willing to step outside the box a bit. They’re excited about kids. They’ve thought through what they believe about students and understand how they learn, and they know what it means to follow Jesus and help their students do the same. They have connected the dots of belief in practice, philosophy and pedagogy. They believe each child is an image bearer and should be educated accordingly. They’re willing to act on what they believe, and they do this sometimes in the face of opposition, or at least many additional hours of learning and preparation so their students can experience the joy of learning and come to understand how to live out their faith in more meaningful ways. They love to share and collaborate with each other, learn from each other, and they’re generally positive people, some of the very best Christian educators in the world today.
M.A.: Dan, thank you for the work that you’ve done, not just with Curriculum Trak, but with faith-based education for so many years, and your heart and your passion for education that you’ve poured into CDL.
What would you say to educators in this moment in faith-based education? What encouragement would you give them?
D.B.: Understand who you are, first of all, and what you bring. Sometimes we do things that are challenging for too long, and it leads to stress and burnout. If we’re doing things that God has made us to do, we experience a lot of joy in doing that. So understand who you are. You need to be deep in your own faith. You can’t give away what you don’t have, what you don’t believe.
If your work is not bringing you joy, then seriously look back at your strengths. Be joyful. Be an encourager. I think if you start to get cynical and bitter, then it is time to leave. And I didn’t leave for that reason. I’m just getting old! I don’t know what God’s calling me to do in the future, honestly. But, I think it’s worth keeping one eye on the call and saying, Is this still what God’s calling me to do? And is this the way I should be using my gifts to His honor and glory?
M.A.: It’s good advice. Thanks a lot, Dan. It’s been great to have you with us today.
D.B.: Thanks, Michael. I appreciate the opportunity.
Photo Credit: Skye Studios, Unsplash