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Photo: MEC participants build mosaics. Photo by Kayla Berkey.
The Mennonite Educators Conference opened Feb. 1 in Leesburg, Virginia, with worship and an invitation for conference participants to color the paper squares spread across their tables and use them to build mosaics. The conference theme, “Unexpected Encounters…God Surprises,” showed up in the mosaic images that slowly emerged throughout the weekend.
The three-day conference, hosted by Mennonite Education Agency, aims to provide professional development and networking opportunities for educators in early childhood schools through grade 12, and to engage in current trends and innovative practices in education and faith formation. This year’s conference attracted about 440 educators from 18 Mennonite schools and three universities, with attendees representing five countries: Albania, Canada, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the United States.
Keynote speaker Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), opened the gathering with a focus on “composing the place” for students, asking educators to reflect deeply on the context in which students are formed. He highlighted realities that students face, such as information overload, changing demographics, anxiety for future occupations and global dilemmas. He also focused on the importance of empowering teachers to support transformational learning, sharing stories of several students he’s worked with from varied backgrounds at F&M.
“Our work today requires us to equip students with the will and the skill to tackle today’s hard problems,” said Porterfield. “We need educators who are open-minded, brave, relentless and prepared to put students first.”
In his second talk, Porterfield discussed the importance of mentorship and holistic education, dispelling the myths that the value of education is only found in measureable outcomes or achievements.
“Great education nourishes the spirit,” he said. “Education is not the filling of the paperwork or the stamping of a certificate, but the kindling of the fire.”
The second keynote speaker was Sarah Bixler, a Ph.D. student in practical theology at Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary. Her two talks focused on intentionally integrating spiritual formation into the educational process.
She discussed the importance of helping children connect faith formation with learning at a young age and encouraged educators to create transformational classrooms where they establish a secondary level of control.
“Jesus shows us a model of classroom control based on compassionate authority for students,” said Bixler. “We prepare classrooms for a divine encounter.”
Bixler encouraged teachers to foster a sense of expectancy in themselves and in students for divine encounters to appear. She suggested regarding classrooms as sacred space, cultivating attentiveness and spiritual awareness in children and allowing them to lead.
“We should be open to unexpected encounters with God in our classroom, and it might mean we don’t get through the lesson plan that day,” said Bixler. “It’s not our job to transform students — that’s God’s job.”
Conference facilitators introduced several ways for conference participants to engage with resources and each other. Following general sessions, participants were encouraged to take breaks and connect, and those who were interested could gather for more intimate talk-back sessions with the keynote speakers called “hubs,” moderated by Elizabeth Landis, principal of Lancaster Mennonite Middle School.
In place of traditional workshops, the conference held MennoCamps, inspired by the EdCamp model. In this model, informal group learning sessions were structured as participant-driven and collaborative. Participants were asked to create the sessions through sharing their resources and experiences, and they were encouraged to leave a MennoCamp if it was not feeling beneficial to their grade level, subject matter or experience and join another group where they might find more value.
Session topics were created by inviting all participants to write topic ideas on Post-It notes, which conference organizers narrowed down into 48 MennoCamp focus topics. The wide range of session topics included flipped classrooms, student phones and social media, student anxiety, project-based learning and honest conversations on faith and politics.
The conference provided an opportunity for participants to interact with Encounter, the Mennonite Schools Council’s Bible and faith formation curriculum currently in its pilot year. During one session, Bible teachers met with others in their grade levels, and other teachers met in groups arranged into their topic areas. The small groups provided feedback and suggestions for best practices in using the new curriculum.
At the final general session, Luis Velez, director of Academia Menonita Betania in Puerto Rico, offered an update on the damages the school suffered since hurricane Maria hit the island Sept. 20. The school reopened to students Oct. 23, with no water, electricity or communication. Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Mission Network launched a campaign in January to raise $100,000 for the school’s recovery.
Velez acknowledged the ongoing economic challenges for parents in Puerto Rico who have lost their jobs and the ability to pay for their children’s education. He shared the school’s financial needs to subsidize student education, as well as rebuild and replace lost equipment.
“We can reconstruct and make everything new in our building, but if we don’t have students, we can’t do anything,” Velez said. “Thank you to all of you for the support and for sending us letters.”
Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency, shared that the campaign has already raised $94,000. Many schools held fundraisers for this campaign and students wrote letters. Romero invited the school administrators to present Velez with the funds and prayed for Betania and all of the schools present.
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