LEESBURG, Virginia (Mennonite Education Agency/Mennonite
Church USA) – The Mennonite Educators Conference opened on Thursday, Feb. 1
with music and worship led by Marcy Hostetler and an invitation to create artwork.
Conference participants were given instructions to color the paper squares that
were spread across their tables and use them to build mosaics throughout the
weekend. The conference theme “Unexpected Encounters…God Surprises” showed up
in the mosaic images that slowly emerged throughout the weekend.
Mennonite Educators Conference (MEC), hosted by Mennonite Education Agency,
took place in Leesburg, VA. MEC 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 a large group of about 440
educators from 18 Mennonite schools and three universities, with attendees
representing five countries – Albania, Canada, Colombia, Puerto Rico and the
Daniel Porterfield on Holistic Education
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 like 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
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.”
Sarah Bixler on Spiritual
The second keynote
speaker was Sarah Bixler, a Ph.D. student in practical theology at Princeton
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.”
Hubs, MennoCamps, and
The MEC facilitators
introduced several innovative 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, MEC held MennoCamps, inspired by the EdCamp model. In
this model, informal group learning sessions are 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.
MEC also provided an opportunity for participants to
interact with Encounter, the Mennonite Schools Council (MSC) Bible and faith formation
curriculum that is 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.
Academia Menonita Betania Reconstruction
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 do 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 MEA, shared that the campaign has
already raised $94,000. Many MSC 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.
The conference ended with an extended time of worship through song,
poetry and prayer.
“God is at work in so many ways in our institutions and throughout our
communities,” said Romero. “Ultimately, we believe what we do in Mennonite
education at all levels can make a difference in the world.”