Grades Are Not God

Grades Are Frightening Students Away From Mission

By Russell Fiorella

Lord,
Teach me to be generous,
Teach me to serve you as you deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to ask for reward,
Save that of knowing I do your will.
Amen

Prayer for Generosity, attributed to St. Ignatius

Teaching theology at a Jesuit high school has taught me grades are not God.  Discovering the wonders and struggles of the world and growing into a deeper understanding of oneself is a divine experience.  A student’s edification ought to reflect that. The most inimical word in Jesuit education is “reward.”  While the average student is conditioned to perceive education as a transaction, “If I accomplish this, I will receive this,” a Jesuit educated student should learn out of love. For learning out of love allows students to enter into relationship with the greatest of wonders, the greatest of loves, and hopefully inspires action in love’s name in light of that experience. The illustrious Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. summarizes this utmost point better than anyone:

Today’s prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ…men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of our neighbors.

Finding God in one’s education should be effortless, humbling, limitless, continual.  Finding God should be about broadening one’s perception of reality, using questions big and small as tools for insight. Finding love also requires using one’s heart as a source of courage and a compass for discerning how to realistically make an impact on others for the greater good.  Grades hamper this formational experience.

Jesuit educators ought to be honest about the effect grades have on the mission.  These thoughts and questions I’m posing are meant to stimulate an extremely challenging yet necessary conversation among learning communities, from students to parents, teachers to administrators.  This conversation requires a sizable amount of hard research, open mindedness, creativity, audacity, and a lot of time-time for contemplation, further conversation, and discernment.  A starting point is untangling how words like “success,” “vocation,” “reward,” “desire,” and “failure” among others are understood in the context of Catholic Jesuit education.  Such discussions could create a more refined and widespread understanding of Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity among students at the end of four years.  What follows can only be great.

I have had success intentionally directing my students’ attention away from grades.  Rather than pinning numbers and letters to their performance, I regularly serve my students feedback in the form of detailed written comments or face-to-face consultations.  At the end of each marking period, students take time composing reflective writing pieces. What they gleaned from their reflections helps them determine where they were in their journey before proposing a grade. Instead of me judging their performance, the student and I come to a conclusion together.  Out of over five hundred grades put forward by students this past, perhaps ten were off the mark. Half of those ten probably lowballed.  My students have responded to my less grade-centric approach to learning with resounding appreciation.  At the conclusion of the year they celebrated how the questions, conversations, projects, writing pieces, the general investigation into the human experience made learning infinitely more meaningful. 

No moment has been more inspiring than reading a final reflection from one of my quieter freshmen, Matt.  He expressed how his first year had been difficult-there were problems unfolding at home, friends were hard to come by and so were good grades.  Despite his forgettable struggles, my class proved a memorable adventure leaving a lasting impact:

“I truly looked forward to going to your class each day . . .   It was challenging and fun and not about ‘getting the grade.’’ And although I wasn’t your best student, your class makes me want to look deeper into what we talked about this year. Thank you.“

Matt was certainly not the most intellectual student. But throughout he “learned to learn out of love” and will be returning for his sophomore year.  Entering my third year teaching I continue to pray Saint Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity, hoping its words become real for students like Matt and all students enrolled at Jesuit schools.  But I also pray Ignatius’ prayer as a reminder of my mission as a Jesuit educator: to form students empowered and inspired to give themselves away to others, for the love of it.

-excerpt from Fiorella’s essay Save That of Knowing I Do Your Will: Grades Are Frightening Students Away From Mission

Russ Fiorella teaches Old and New Testament studies at St. Peter’s Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Catholic Schools Week

Building Community in a Culture of Individuals

By Eric Surat

The National Catholic Educational Association’s website currently has a live timer counting down to Catholic Schools’ Week, the way news outlets might have one leading up to the New Year, or ESPN for the Super Bowl. For many students Catholic Schools’ Week means going out of uniform, spirit days, and other fun activities. For teachers, it may also mean hosting a school open house. There are liturgical celebrations, often a Mass. But amidst all these activities, what is Catholic Schools’ Week really about?

The NCEA writes that since 1974 Catholic Schools’ Week has been a time to “focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our church, our communities and our nation.” In an increasingly diverse world, and indeed an increasingly diverse Church, the value a Catholic education provides is increasingly difficult to define. By what metric are we to determine this value? Standardized test scores? College acceptance rates? Certainly there are non-Catholic schools that are as successful or potentially more so in these types of categories. What about faith-based metrics; participation in sacramental preparation, Mass attendance, retention of Church membership after graduation? Such metrics miss the growing population of Catholic school students who are, in fact, not members of the Catholic Church or who may not conform to traditional metrics of membership. Surely these students are still imbued with the charism of Catholic education.

It seems then, that a topic for reflection during Catholic Schools’ Week in 2019 could be a question not so much of value, but first, of identity. What makes Catholic education distinctive? Who are we that serve in the endeavor of Catholic education? What is uniquely Catholic in our methods and in our goals? What – beyond even Church membership – makes us Catholic? And why, in terms of education, does it matter that we are Catholic?

A possible answer to these questions could build on an understanding of Catholic schools as particular communities which inform the moral, ethical, and spiritual formation of young people. Catholic schools offer more than robust education. They offer an understanding of community and the human person that is grounded in a particular faith tradition; one that sees the human person as fundamentally in relationship with God, gifted with life, and deserving of love. This belief is at the core of Catholic anthropology. By identifying as Catholic, Catholic schools take on the task not only of academic formation but also the human formation of their students. And the task of forming adolescents has never been more challenging and dynamic than it is in 2019.

In her book Navigating Toward Adulthood: A Theology of Ministry with Adolescents, Theresa O’Keefe identifies several contemporary challenges facing adolescent development. One of the major challenges she describes in her second chapter, “Sailing Solo,” is a “cultural individualism” in the United States which “proclaims that the greatest accomplishments are achieved on one’s own. But these narratives promote a false vision, because they dismiss the essential role that relationships with others played in accomplishing the tasks.” She describes a cultural dynamic of self-interest in competition with relationships, as though they are caught in a zero-sum game. This dynamic can be particularly damaging to adolescents, who are focused on achievement and maximizing their value, all while not having fully realized their own cognitive development as adults. It sets up a world view in which adolescents understand success, and indeed personal value, as in direct competition with their peers’ from an early age. Therefore, identity is primarily formed by individual achievements or potential.

Catholic schools are in a unique position to challenge this kind of individualistic identity and replace it with a community that emphasizes relationships as essential for the human formation of adolescents. Catholic school identity, rather than one derived from achievement and success beyond one’s peers, is rooted in love and is made manifest by modeling that love and compassion for others. To use O’Keefe’s language once more, a Catholic school can be a “community [that] models the truth that we are never perfect – never free of mistakes – but always open to greater grace.” Catholic schools could function as a proving ground for the development of this relational consciousness, and could combat the notion that we work best when we work alone. In contemporary individualistic culture, this communal, relational identity may be the greatest offering of Catholic schools for adolescents.

“Team Teaching”

The Sacrament of Marriage, Teenage Boys, and Working Together

by Erin and Vijay DaCosta

Earlier this fall, Erin had a seemingly simple exchange with a student.  He lingered behind after class and was looking at the framed photos Erin keeps on her classroom bookshelf.

“Mrs. DaCosta, you and Mr. DaCosta look so happy together in this picture.”

“Liam, that’s because we are happy together!” Erin told him in response.  It was a brief, seemingly meaningless exchange, and Liam left her room moments later.  Yet this short conversation has stayed with us over the past few months. 

This past fall, we began a unique journey together as we were simultaneously hired to teach religious studies at an all-boys Catholic high school in Connecticut.  Previously, we had both worked in Catholic education, but never at the same institution, let alone the same department.  Our decision-making process involved many factors, but a point we kept coming back to was the potential power of our witness to the Sacrament of Marriage to our new students.

How often do students in this day and age get to see a normal, healthy marriage in real-life?  Sure, some of them have their parents’ marriage as a model, but even then, many of our students come from single-parent or turbulent home lives.  Parents can be great role models, but what potential could we have, as a young-ish married couple, both devoted to our faith?  We know our marriage is not perfect, but it is real, authentic, and rooted in the Catholic faith that has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of our relationship.

Our students get to see this day in and day out.  Sometimes the boys aren’t sure how to handle this.  They are, after all, goofy teenage boys.  They can be awkward, silly, and unsure how to navigate the fact that two of their teachers are married.  They joke about “who’s the better roommate” and speculate that all we do at home is talk about Church Doctrine and Morality (false).  But there is also something deeper stirring in them, and in the course of the past few months, we’ve been able to see moments of this shine through.

In the middle of October, Vijay decided to talk about his own faith journey with his junior classes. As students have always seemed very curious to know who we are and sometimes ask questions about our lives and our relationship, he found this to be a golden moment in helping his students in their own faith formation. Moving from the usual setting of his classroom to the school chapel for a day, Vijay spent an hour talking about the highs, lows, ebbs, and flows to his discovering faith in his own life. From speaking about the influence of his lay and Jesuit teachers in high school, to his year with the Capuchin Franciscan Volunteer Corps, to the discerning a religious vocation, to our courtship and marriage — it was a chance for students to see their teacher in a fully human light not often expressed within the confines of a classroom. Several students had questions about dating, parental relationships, and even why both of us chose to work at the school together.

However, not all experiences of reaching students are as idyllic. In our first semester, Vijay was given a very challenging class of seniors made up mostly of athletes. Often very guarded when it comes to conversations about emotions and feelings, they usually tune him out by putting their heads down or chatting with someone near them. Feeling helpless and anemic in his teaching abilities when he has them, he often wonders if they actually listen to anything he says, much less care about anything that he tries to teach them.  

However, teaching has its surprising positive moments that are unforeseen. One day, a student in that senior class sought him out immediately after school and told Vijay that his lessons on friendship changed his life and made him realize who truly cares about him and who doesn’t. He also said that it made him realize the kind of friend he wants and needs to be to others. The whole interaction was about 20 seconds, whereafter he scampered off to football practice. It was a small experience, but it has made an impactful and lasting memory for this first year.

As we continue on this journey together, we will continue to form new and enduring relationships with our students.  We will have our ups and downs, and explore what it means to minister in a new community, both as a couple and as individuals.  

Erin and Vijay DaCosta work together at an all-boys Catholic school in CT.  They have been happily married for two and a half years.  Previously, Vijay has worked in numerous all-boys Catholic schools.  Erin has worked at co-educational and all-girls schools.  They enjoy cooking, exploring new towns, and spending time with family.  

A New Season of Ministry

. . . instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life

By Huy Huynh

Looking back on my last school year, I can now see there were some places where my work had become stale, stagnant, and routine. Having been in this position for over ten years, I was able to run some programs and retreats on autopilot. However, the danger of being complacent became clear during my last retreat of the year.

I was unsure of whether or not I wanted to write about this. Would it be a poor reflection of my ministry, my workplace or, in general, me as a person? The more I thought and prayed on it, the more I believed that at least some of you would be able to relate. So here it is. 

It was a retreat that I had created and run many times. However, this time it would be different because two other high schools were joining us. I made some adjustments to involve the other schools but, in large, kept the program the same. I think the retreat was fun, relaxing, and valuable to some degree, for all the students. However, as the retreat finished, I knew that I had missed the mark. I had used a program that was planned for my students. I forgot to start with the “who.” Who was I ministering to? Where were all of these students coming from? What were their needs? In short, how could I meet them where they are?

What had led to this complacency? I have come up with a few ideas.

Having run these programs so many times, I could treat these programs like a formula. I lost sight of the fact that the variables are always changing. The students and leaders are always different. Their chemistry and the spirit of the retreat is always different. The context, or what is happening in our lives is different. No program, class, or retreat is really the same and I tried to make it that.

There was something else that was different. Me. There had been so many changes in my personal life. My second child was just born a few months before and my daughter had just turned two. While, for me, becoming a parent has often felt like the best thing that has ever happened in my life, it has also changed everything. There is more to balance. More to do. More to take care of. More to love. 

I can also say parenting is ALL consuming. It has taken up so much time, energy, and attention. There is more worry and more gray hairs. There is less sleep and less time for relaxing. It can seem like there is no time for hobbies, personal care or my own spiritual wellness. There are few opportunities to go for a run, go hiking, read, be silent, pray or go on a personal retreat.

But being a father is not all sleepless nights and busy days.  It has also enriched my life in so many ways.  It has helped me to remember that everyone was someone’s little baby, everyone is a child of God. It has helped me to learn to trust my instincts.  I have had to learn how to be more flexible and ready to reset when things don’t go according to plan.

I think that last year I was so consumed by trying to manage the busyness of family and worklife, that I allowed myself to become stagnant at work.  But this year, instead of seeing my role as a parent as taking away from the energy I could give to my work, I was able instead to notice all the ways that this can enrich my work and faith life.

With this new perspective, I felt different coming back to school. Something shifted. It did not feel like just another school year. Rather, it felt like a new school year with new students and new possibilities. I engaged my work with a sense of openness, freedom, and creativity. I started with the questions of who am I serving, what is our goal, how do we get there, and how is God in this? I have loosened my grips on planned agendas and programs to leave space for new ideas from students, co-workers, myself, and of course the Holy Spirit. My ministry has felt alive and fulfilling.

And so what has changed? Perhaps it was the humbling experience of a tough retreat that woke me up. Perhaps it was finding more confidence, peace, and trust in my role as a father. Perhaps it was being more intentional about making the time to take care of my mind, body, and spiritual life.

In all of this, the thing that has surprised me most, is my comfort with the lack of balance and my imperfection. In my younger years, I would have spent so much time beating myself up for not running a “perfect” program. There is nothing like parenting to remind you that “perfect” is just not possible. I can only give what I have to give and that has to be enough.

I wonder if anyone can relate to this. Have you experienced these different seasons of your ministry, your personal life, and your spiritual life? How do you see them connecting or affecting each other? How have you made peace with imperfection?

Huy Huynh is a campus minister at a Catholic high school in the Boston area. 

Back to the Future

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed.

 back to the future

by Sara Janecko Milone.

It’s Monday morning and I’m driving to work on familiar roads. I look around and glance at the houses that line the commute, taking note how they have been updated over the past two years. It’s all so familiar, and yet it has changed.

I am familiar with the school, the position, the ministry. But yet, like the houses that line my commute, I have changed. I am returning to a position at the school in which I taught and ministered for seven years, but have been away for two years to stay home with my young family.

These past two years have afforded me the opportunity to be present at home with my daughters and enjoy the little moments as well as the big milestones. Beyond family life, these two years enabled me to try new things, to stretch myself in my ministry and to explore new ways to respond to God’s call in my life. Spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy and online class facilitation have inspired new personal and professional growth, and have deepened my relationship with God. I know I will be a better teacher, minister, mother, and human being because of how these experiences have shaped me.

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed. I know the mission, I know my colleagues, I know the routine, and yet the students do not know me. My former students have all graduated. From perspective of the current students, I am a brand new teacher with no baggage, history or reputation. I have the unique opportunity to have a fresh start, to reinvent myself and my teaching. How many times do you have the opportunity for a second chance, a completely fresh start?

The courses may be familiar, but my philosophy of religious education has shifted and evolved. In my first tenure at the school, I had just graduated with my Masters in Divinity. I was intent on convincing the students to view Religion as an equally important and rigorous class as their other academic subjects. After all, people spent years studying theology in higher education.

My experiences during the past two years have prompted me to reflect on the primacy of cultivating relationships with self, others and God in the ministry of religious education. While imparting the content of our faith to my students is certainly important, my main purpose as a religious educator is to form disciples in the faith. This paradigm shift has energized me and inspired creativity with how I want to teach my classes and minister to my students. I’m grateful for the grace of a fresh start: to honor the familiar and embrace the change.

Sara Janecko Milone

Sara Janecko Milone is the Director of Campus Ministry and religion teacher at an all girls high school in Newton, MA.

Why I Left

So I made up my mind. . . that this had to be my last year there.

woman_1

by Anonymous

When I was about 10, my family went to a church picnic after mass one summer morning.  While there, the pastor came over to my three teenage brothers and I, and with great exuberance, asked, “Would you like to travel the world, meet amazing people, and serve God?” My older brothers, knowing where this was going, shuffled their feet, stared at their shoes and mumbled into their collars.  But I excitedly answered, “I want to do that!” To which this pastor responded, in a kind but disappointed voice, “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that.”

I think I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove this pastor wrong.  I studied hard, got theological degrees, and followed my vocation to teach high school theology and work in campus ministry.  I did this for many years, certain that this was God’s will for my life.  And I was good at it, even receiving the highest award in Catholic education given in the archdiocese in which I live.

However, in the last few years of my job, there was a change of leadership.  The lay person that hired me became a friend and mentor who I trusted implicitly.  Though he still held a leadership role in the school, a member of the religious order that “technically” ran the school (in basic ceremonial roles for the majority of my tenure) was given top billing.  This priest was familiar with my work, as he and I had been interacting for a few years.  But with his new leadership role, he took to micromanaging my job.

Bit by bit, he began to tear down my confidence: second guessing my choices, double checking my details, and generally causing me to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.  Like any good manipulator, his tactics worked.  I began to slip and make errors I had never made. I started to doubt my own abilities, never realizing why I was doing what I was doing. I was convinced that I was losing my touch and getting too old for my job.

It just took one moment to see everything with clarity; the moment he spoke to me in that demeaning way he spoke to our teenage students.  He reprimanded me for a comment I made among colleagues; a comment that I had made 3 months prior, at the end of the previous school year.  It was not a comment that I regret making, for I spoke a truth about our Church.  He then felt entitled to follow his reprimand with a personal attack that went right to the heart of everything I believe about myself.  In that moment, I was that 10 year old girl, being told that I couldn’t serve God.

So I made up my mind that day–at the very beginning of a new school year–that this had to be my last year there.  I knew I could never go to another school; I had too much love and devotion for my principal to do that.

In the #metoo movement, I have nothing dramatic to claim: just a few clerics thinking that they are inherently smarter, infinitely more worthy of authority, perhaps even more deserving of God’s grace and love than me.  In light of the most recent Church scandals, this is what terrifies me the most about the priesthood, and the future of the Church.  Until the church hierarchy can acknowledge that its seminaries helped to form this,  we’ll continue to perpetuate the formation of a group of people who see themselves as other, as better, and who treat women (not to mention anyone other than priests) as less-than.  Though I don’t know any women who have had dramatic experiences of sexual abuse by a priest, I know far too many who have been treated as utterly and completely inferior.  The damage done by the choices of a few priests who have done unspeakable actions has caused grave harm to the Church, but I wonder daily about the lesser harms, like those that happened to me and too many other women.
By the grace of God, a new ministerial job fell into my lap.  I left a job where I had been for the entirety of my adult life; a job that I had poured my heart and soul into as I felt that I was living out my vocation.  Even though I knew that the Lord had opened new doors for me, leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.   I’m still working for the Church, but in a different role (and not for a school).  And I’m still trying to find, heal, and re-inspire that little girl who had always felt like God had a plan for her.

The author worked in Catholic high school for nearly two decades and is now engaged in a parish faith formation ministry. She would like to return to high school education someday.

The Growing Season

Gardening mirrors educating in that both are labors of love.

plants_classroom

Kevin DeCusatis

The month of August is coming to an end, I’ve begun writing numerous lists of what needs to be done before the school year begins next week. As my third year of teaching approaches, there is one particularly daunting task that awaits me: moving my many plants back into their home, my classroom.

I have always felt a connection with plants, and one of my fondest memories of childhood is cutting back the hostas with my mom at the beginning of fall. Anyone that knows me is well acquainted with my love of plants and desire to have as many as can fit in my house and classroom. I consistently post pictures of my garden’s progress on social media, and whenever I get a new houseplant from a Farmers Market, IKEA, or a school event, I take a survey of my classes to see what we should name the plants: Ruth for my golden pothos, Naomi for a hydrangea, Cain & Abel for plants in twin pots.

Plants and gardening are so attractive to me because they give me a sense of immense satisfaction. I can see the progress almost immediately. My seedlings can double in size in a week’s time and their fruit can emerge in a blink of an eye. It’s apparent to me why I gravitate toward gardening so much – it mirrors ministry.

In order for both students and plants to thrive, I need to give them my attention and provide an environment conducive to growth. Integral to this is having a healthy and realistic set of expectations; if I don’t, they’ll eventually spoil. As an educator, I have very high expectations of the quality of work my students will provide me; however, it would be unrealistic to expect this at the beginning of the year. I first need to give them all the tools to succeed, and then I can expect that they will work to their potential. The same happens when I have a plant that has outgrown its pot and I have to use a bigger, wider pot. While it looks so overwhelmed by the new soil and pot, it eventually settles in and begins to grow – robustly and quickly. It is a learned skill to know when to push to the next level: are my students ready for the next level of inquiry? will my plant acclimate to its new home? Along the way, I need to take stock to see what they need – does my plant need extra water this week due to excessive heat? Does my student need extra support crafting an argument for a paper because she is struggling with a new concept?

plants_1.jpg

Gardening also mirrors educating in that both are labors of love. In my classroom, I spend much time checking in with my students about their lives; students have often commented that my classroom has a good “vibe.” Many even cite things that happen in my class as their favorite moments of their year: our ritual of singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before every class during Advent; our thank you card writing exercise during Thanksgiving; opening class with a song or video clip of their choice.  The raison d’etre for these activities is for me to get to know my students better and create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable leaning into who they really are and who they want to become. I approach gardening in a similar way. I “listen” to my plants: if their leaves look droopy, I add water; if they look cramped, I try to a new pot; if they haven’t grown, I try different levels of sun. In order for me to be so skilled at this, I need to take the time to know my plants; this is not automatic knowledge.

veggies

Both students and plants are living and organic. They need to be nurtured to grow; they’re complex with varying needs. I approach my classroom and garden with the same amount of care and attention, knowing that they are both on a path of growth where hopefully they will eventually flower and bring forth their gifts.  I take delight in accompanying them both on their journeys.

Decusatis

Kevin DeCusatis teaches 7th grade and sophomore religion outside of Philadelphia.