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Christian schools that pursue deeper learning will have a number of image-bearing characteristics at the foundation of their design, one of which is the following:

Created to engage – We are designed to put the love God has “shed abroad in our hearts” into action. Learning deepens when we are engaged in school, in our communities, and in caring for God’s creation.

Not only does academic learning deepen when students are engaged in this image-bearing experience of “real work for real people,” but it also fosters a deepening of Christlike character within them. Students spend upwards of 35 hours a week in school. Those many hours, year after year, are deeply formative. But is it conforming students to the pattern of this world in terms of personal achievement and worldly success? Or is the learning they are doing helping to form a heart of service found in the character of Christ?

I’d like to share with you the transformative power of this kind of student work in several projects at New Covenant School in Arlington, MA.

Engaging with the Elderly

At our school every 5th grade student has the opportunity to write the life story of an elderly resident of a nearby assisted living facility. One of the ways we can discern growth in Christlike character is by asking before and after questions eliciting student attitudes. Before the project begins the students write an answer to the question: “What comes to mind when you see an elderly person?” Their answers are almost universally negative. “They’re in pain.” “They’re lonely.“ “They don’t have anything to do.” “There is a lot wrong with their bodies.”

Over the course of the year, the students will generate questions for monthly interviews, write up their life stories, illustrate scenes from their lives, include photos of the residents at different ages, write a poem for them, and write a speech about the experience that will be given when they present the finished biography at a big end-of-the-year celebration.

Having character learning targets for these kinds of projects is key in fostering growth in the character of Christ. At New Covenant School we have Six Words of Servanthood culled from the character of Daniel whose acronym spells out the word CHRIST. We are intentional in weaving these character words throughout our school day and it is from four of these that we take our character learning targets for writing the lives of the elderly:

  • Courage: I can take risks to do what is right. Learning target: I can meet and get to know an elderly person.
  • Humility: I can lay down my life to do things God’s way. Learning target: I can be patient when my person repeats things they’ve already told me. I can speak slowly and loudly so that they can hear me.
  • Respect: I can recognize, honor, and protect the God-given value of others. Learning target: I can honor and value my person and their life experiences by doing my best writing for them.
  • Seeker of God: I can pursue an ever-deepening relationship with God. Learning target: I can pray when the work seems too hard.

Students journal before and after each visit to the assisted living facility. The first journal entry usually describes how nervous they are about meeting an elderly person and developing a relationship with them. We’ll talk about our courage learning target and seek God for the courage we need.

We also discuss and analyze the difference between what our culture and the Bible say about growing old. We study some of the Biblical characters who are remembered most for the time in their lives when our culture would have said they were done: Abraham, Moses, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna.

Over the course of the project, fear and avoidance transform into expectation and excitement at the prospect of spending time with their resident. They become captivated by the residents’ stories and love to share them with one another back in the classroom. Some residents would forget what stories they had told and repeat them every visit, but the students developed inspiring graciousness and patience with them. We prayed for our residents in our daily prayer time in the classroom.

At the end of the year the students are asked what they learned from this project. Here are some of their comments:

I learned that elderly people can be very fun, spunky, lively, and independent. They should also be treated as you want to be treated.

I thought before this project that old people just mind their own business and don’t care about people, but now I’ve learned they know a lot more than I do and that they really like children.

I have learned from this project to be patient with people and I have really learned how to listen.

I think I’ve learned more of just about everything from this project. I’ve learned that older people should be respected more than they are. I wish I could live last Friday over and over again when we gave Joe his biography because he looked so happy.

The students saw firsthand the impact of their work when family members of the residents wrote letters thanking them for their loved one’s biography. Further evidence of their impact were invitations to the funerals of some who passed away after the project. At a number of these the student-written biographies were featured in the eulogy.

Several years after this project I asked some of the students what they remembered of their resident’s life story and my heart sank when several boys replied, “Nothing.” 

“Nothing?!” I’m sure my voice betrayed some disappointment. “No,” one boy answered, “but I still visit him every month.” The other boy said, “Yeah, Sal moved to a new facility, but I still visit him there.”

Through the work they did in school these students grew in respect, compassion, patience, humility, courage and prayer. 

Conserving and Fundraising

 A combined 1st and 2nd grade class studied water. Where does it come from? What is it made of? Where does our drinking water come from? How does it get to our faucets? How does it get clean? What happens if you don’t have clean water? 

One of their character learning targets was about our word Integrity: I can be faithful and true to God and his word in all situations and circumstances. Learning target: I can be faithful to God and his word by conserving his amazing creation – water. And again, our word Respect was a focus: I can protect the God-given value of others by helping them have clean water.

The “real work for real people” that year was creating a water conservation calendar with a conservation tip on each page. These calendars were sold and the proceeds went to Ryan’s Well, an organization started by a six-year-old boy 20 years ago who was profoundly moved when he heard about the health crisis in countries without clean water. The class Skyped with Ryan and decided that’s where they wanted the proceeds of $1500 to go.

The same formative practices were used in this project: before and after attitudes, Bible study on water and thirst, journaling, reflection, character learning targets, and practical engagement with a real-world problem. 

 Water conservation tip from class calendar

A few years after one class had done this project, I asked what they still knew or did about water conservation. All of them said they still conserved water and reminded their families to do so as well. When I asked them if they thought this had been important work for God’s kingdom they were emphatic that they had become better stewards of God’s creation and that their work had saved lives by providing clean water to those who needed it and might otherwise have died of water-borne disease.

Real Work for Real People invites students to follow Christ as one who came not to be served, but to serve, and in the process to grow in Christlike character.

Joanna Levy has been a parent, classroom assistant, classroom teacher, instructional coach, and principal of New Covenant School, in Arlington, Massachusetts, where she continues to serve as spiritual director. In her work beyond New Covenant School she supports teachers in designing engaging curriculum that serves an authentic audience, meets academic standards, and fosters discipleship in the students. Her passion is to inspire and equip educators to create an intentional culture that develops practices in their schools in which both students and teachers desire to become more like Christ. She offers workshops to teachers and administrators on character growth and spiritual formation and co-facilitates a master class on Christian Deeper Learning with her husband, Steven.

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