Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present

When it is hard to imagine the future, looking to the past often gets us where we need to be. When I’ve hit a wall teaching, it helps me to remember that my job in the present is a way of honoring my past.

By Adam Green

Any person reading this blog is likely well aware that teaching often feels quite bleak.  We have a lack of instant-gratification in a world that thrives on that very thing.  Teaching requires patience and perseverance in a culture of rapidly increasing quick-fixes and focus-changes.  To make matters worse, we are called by God to instill patience, perseverance, personal connection, and meaningful pondering to teenagers –a demographic simultaneously most impressionable and most affected by the contemporary culture.  Sometimes I feel like the Little Engine who could…only as I chug along, I see other people continuing to building and lengthening the track I am on. 

I swear I love my job, but I sometimes question a God who would call me to such a frustrating career vocation.  I trust that the fact you are reading this blog means that I am not alone in this seemingly contradictory mindset of frustration and fulfillment.  This tension brings us to my point:  As teachers –particularly theology teachers- our job is to honor the past so that our students can move into the future, by means of encountering the present.  Put a bit more directly, I have developed my own teaching mantra: “I am not teaching the teenagers of 2019, I am teaching the adults of 2050 when they are teenagers.”  Any person who agrees with this mindset is likely able to do so only because they were once young and nurtured by an adult who was encountering the same struggles we do now. 

When I was an undergraduate studying theology, my mentor was a beloved Jesuit named Fr. Gray.  I remember Fr. Gray saying that “the purpose of Catholic education is to humanize students.”  In other words, the true purpose of any subject matter when approached from a Catholic worldview is to help the learner grow in their own humanity.  This is admittedly difficult in a world that is becoming more inhumane –more disconnected and sterile, less compassionate and empathetic.  Attempting to operate with a sense of hope –not optimism, but hope- can remind theology-nerds of the mantra of Realized Eschatology: “Already, but not yet.”  And thus, we return to our title:  Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present. 

In times of doubt and frustration –when the “not yet” seems to obscure the “already”- I remind myself of Fr. Gray.  Although I would love to say that thinking of the future of my students restores my hope, I would be lying.  I must honor my own past.  When it is hard to imagine the future, looking to the past often gets us where we need to be.  When I’ve hit a wall teaching, it helps me to remember that my job in the present is a way of honoring my past.  So ask yourself: “Who is a mentor that you honor in your vocation?”  What memories of a person in your past helps you continue moving into your own present?  Connect with that memory now. 

Presumably the individual or individuals you conjured into memory are people you wished your own students knew.  Well, guess what…your students can know them through you.  As teachers, we bear the privilege of linking our students to teachers whom they will never meet.  In doing so, we link back to the Ultimate teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.  What a privilege, to introduce the young people in front of us to the wisdom of people whom they will never meet so that our students’ futures can be a bit better.  And yet, this is not purely altruistic, we do not teach merely for our students.  We also do not teach merely to honor our own past.  Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present. 

Honor the Past is laudable, and moving into the future is progressive.  But do not forget that Encountering the Present is to encounter God.  By encountering the present we tread on hollowed ground no less than Moses did before the burning bush.  To encounter the present is to enter God’s realm, to enter Kairos.  In teaching, this is our primary responsibility.  The student in front of you…that is the present.  The “you” that you are in the classroom on any given day…that is the present.  When we accept the present as it is –not as we would have it be- we honor the past and move into the future.  The present moment is the linchpin.  And so we ask:  How can we encounter the student in front of us today?  How can we authentically honor who we are today?  How can you –as you are today- participate in the reality of the moment you are in?

Adam Green

Adam Green teaches Scripture, Ignatian Spirituality, and World Religions at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, OH.

The Mid-Year Boost: how to reenergize your teaching in January

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine.

by Margaret Felice

We’ve had a short break for the holidays and are back to work! Here in New England it’s hard not to be dreaming of snow days, and all of us might be thinking about upcoming holidays are looking toward spring break. Here are a few ideas to help you do your best teaching during these long mid-year months.

Consider the benefits of the middle of the year

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine. There is a string of long weeks coming up, too: a perfect time for a long-term project or workshop.

If your classes are struggling with writing, maybe a week-long writing intensive would raise their confidence (and make your grading more pleasant for the rest of the year). You don’t need to abandon your curriculum to do this; pick a topic for them to explore in more detail and guide them through the steps of good writing.

You can also break up the winter slog with contemporary topics if they are not already a part of your curriculum. Make connections to Women’s History Month, or Black History Month, or current events – and give yourself the time to really dig in and make them more than a token.

You might even have time for some play! Plan a simulation (in Church History, my students have enjoyed imagining they were bishops at Vatican II, or representatives at the French Revolution) – the prep is labor-intensive but once it’s set up your students will be able to run with it. Letting them walk in another person’s shoes and consider themes from a personal perspective will be an unforgettable learning experience.

Be patient with yourself (and your students)

I write from the perspective of someone living in the northeast, where winters are dark, cold, and tough. Each year I become more patient with myself at this time of year, realizing that my energy levels in the winter are lower than they are during milder seasons. Sleep, nutrition, and quiet time become even more important during these dreary months.

No surprise, then, that my students might be dealing with the same doldrums. Depending on your school schedule, you might have a January mid-year exam routine. How can you help students through that stressful time? Are there nights when you can give no homework? Can you give them more precise guidance on how to study? Can you build in an extra few moments of quiet reflection during class to let them catch their breath? It’s tough to balance the value of slowing down with the pressures of tackling your curriculum, but with planning it can be done.

Find things to celebrate

Routines have been established at this point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bust those up once in a while! Be creative about ways to make the time special. Adolescent brains love things that break from the norm!


Maybe there is a day of the week, or of the schedule cycle, when you can add in something different (playing hangman is a great 10-minute energizer, with the added benefit of being good for vocab acquisition). Point out notable days on the liturgical calendar, or bring an allergy-free treat on the day of a test or project.

Many of these ideas involve the dreaded “more work”, and I understand how daunting that can feel when we are swamped with everything else we have going on. But in my experience, energizing myself and my students has long-term benefits that far outweigh the burden of picking up a few bags of Jolly Ranchers or preparing character cards for a group project.

And hopefully this goes without saying, but however you decide to give your teaching a boost this season, find time for prayer and reflection so that you can listen for God’s wisdom and consider how your efforts have enriched your students’ lives.

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College.

She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020.

Margaretfelice.com

Teaching Ignatian Prayer through Chess

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action.

by Russell Fiorella

The point of chess is to checkmate, or to force the opposing king into a position where it is unable to occupy an unthreatened space. It may sound simple, but within a few opening moves, the amount of possible combinations swells exponentially to near infinity. While each player controls her or his movements, they can only forecast how the opposing army shifts, parries, advances, making the game uncannily similar to the dynamics of life. Benjamin Franklin, an ardent chess player himself, expressed something similar in his “Morals of Chess:”

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, cherished active prayer through meditation and contemplation in his Spiritual Exercises. Prayerful meditation is filtered primarily through the mind, inviting participants to linger over meaningful relationships, ideas, symbols, and words. Contemplative prayer on the other hand is about harnessing the imagination in order to induce the heart to discover authentic emotions and desires.

Every high schooler in America is subject to the frenetic pace and braying of contemporary life. Introducing teenagers to prayer in our postmodern context requires creatively reaching them where they are in their daily lives. Entering into a good game of chess usually means finding a quiet setting and over time my classroom gradually became favorable for chess playing mixed with spirituality. Again, I turn to Ben Franklin and his list of skills chess imparts on its players: foresight, introspection, and caution.

Foresight and circumspection require a great degree of imagination. Learning from prior mistakes, recognizing familiar situations, and projecting what moves might come in the later stages of the game are intimately woven into a formidable chess player’s decision making. The same is true of one’s imagined prayer space. The third skill listed, caution, is also invaluable to chess players and likewise develops over the course of one’s spiritual journey. Perhaps what is most striking is Benjamin Franklin’s attention to the relationships between pieces and how they impact each other. God is revealed in others. Searching the heart’s inner chambers calls for strong companions. Thus it is through contemplating and meditating on our relationships with others that enlivens the spirit of God within us.

I remember with a smile first introducing chess and prayer to my freshmen as part of their unit on Ignatian Spirituality. Our task was to learn about the principles and charisms that ground Ignatian spirituality like discernment, consolation and desolation, detachment, Finding God in All Things, For the Greater Glory of God and cura personalis. After excitedly setting up their boards, my boys readied themselves, assuming a pensive, prayerful state. Then, quietly, they executed their opening moves. Five minute long segments of playing alternated with journaling sessions responding to reflection questions pertaining to Ignatian spiritual lingo. An example in the opening stages of the exercise are the questions I posed to students to introduce detachment:

“Detachment” means exactly as it sounds-letting go of fears that keep you from fighting like a lion, having fun, being happy, finding God.
Imagine you are an actual general commanding your army of knights, bishops and pawns. What fears do you bring with you to this battle? There are many examples of Jesus in the Gospel confronting his fears, like in the garden of Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers were hunting him. Like us, Jesus experienced tremendous fear when confronting death. Imagine he is near you as you write about what personal fears or “dragons” you face in your life.

With eyes closed the boys listened, paused for a few moments to behold the questions, and then responded in their digital journal. The melding of activity and imagination in a contemplative setting seems ideal for young adults. And these questions along with others in the opening movements of chess and prayer are pertinent to the formation of an adolescent’s unique character.

Over the next few days the focus of our prayer shifted from the personal to the relational. Cura personalis, Latin for “Care for the Whole Person” was another principle contemplated over:

There are many dimensions to you. Imagine now that each of your pieces represents a certain part of who you are. Consider each question carefully before writing. 

Pawns (Soldiers) Who are some of your closest friends, supporters? Describe your feelings towards them? 

Queen (Leadership) Who in your life serves as a role model or leader? Why? 

Castles (Strongholds) What are you most passionate about? What activities or people bring you the most joy?  

Knights (Cavalry) What do you savour doing physically day to day? Do you play a sport? Walk or run?  

Bishops (Faith) Where do you find the presence of God in your life? What is most wonderous or mysterious to you? What are you most curious about?  

King (Your Flag) What values do you hold as most important? Why?

Most of these questions are associated with relationships-role models, friendships, family. Words like “joy,” “passionate,” and “wondrous,” seek to draw out responses predicated on desires and feelings. It’s important to note that writing is an essential component of this process, as it immerses students further into a prayerful state. When we write, we think more actively and intentionally, become more aware of things that normally would go amiss if we did not intend to write about them in the first place. Noticing traces of the sacred is the business here.

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action. I do not think it is difficult to find answers to these pressing questions. Simply look to the ordinary, look to what students enjoy! Purposefully merging Ignatian spirituality with chess is my weapon of choice. And while adapting Ignatian prayer to chess in the classroom has been encouraging, what is more encouraging are my boys’ earnest desires months afterward to play, and pray, over one more game. Checkmate.

-adapted from Russell Fiorella’s essay Knights, Castles, and Ignatian Prayer”  

accessible at https://russellfiorella.wixsite.com/sacraterras/mp-3-projects-exodus

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

Ora et Labora et Magis: A Response to Skipping Class

It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them . . .

by Mark Dushel

In a recent issue of The Hawkeye, the student newspaper at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, one of our seniors wrote an Op-ed piece calling for leniency for seniors to skip class in the midst of completing college applications. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation was met with great enthusiasm by his classmates. However, what I was surprised by was why his classmates were so receptive to his idea. It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them and skipping class to work on something else seemed like a reasonable suggestion to them.

The student who wrote the article is certainly correct in saying that the pressure of completing college applications, excelling in their teams and clubs, along with the challenging workload we give our students takes a toll on everyone. As a campus minister at the Prep, I see how this stress affects our students everyday. I also began to think about what we, as a Jesuit School, and I myself, as an Ignatian educator, can offer spiritually in order to help our students grow from these challenges.

For us as a school to help provide students with the tools to respond to these challenges, I felt that it was important for me to offer my own suggestions for how each Prepper, (and in turn, those of us entrusted to care for these students), may approach the demands our responsibilities place on us.

            I first encountered Ignatian Spirituality as a student at Boston College where I met many great Jesuits and Ignatian educators who helped me understand what it means to strive for the Magis: to seek more. However, it took meeting a Benedictine monk for me to conceptualize exactly how I could go about striving for the Magis in my day to day life.

As a graduate student of theology, I had the fortune of getting to know a Benedictine monk named Michael working on his PhD. Michael invited me to visit his monastery in Minnesota to learn about what it means to be a monk. For Benedictines, the core of their spirituality is captured in the phrase ora et labora, prayer and work. Anselm Grun, a Benedictine monk and writer, explains in his book Benedict of Nursia: His Message for Today that “more crucial than a balanced partnership of prayer and work is their internal connection. Work is to help us to pray well, and prayer is to help us to do our work well.”

As I spent time in a Benedictine Abbey, I was amazed at how full each day was. I woke up early, exercised, prayed, worked in the woodshop building furniture, prayed again, studied for an exam, prayed again, cleaned the monastery, prayed again, made candles, prayed again, and watched college football before I went to bed (after night prayer, of course).

It was a lot of prayer and a ton of work. Through each I built friendships, deepened my relationship with God, and stretched myself physically and intellectually. I had the kind of days I hope our students have every day they come to 17th St. and Girard Ave. Most importantly, I learned that surrounding myself with a community built on ora et labora helped me accomplish much more than I can on my own. Grun says that “when we work out of prayer we will still get tired, but we will not be exhausted. It is a good tiredness. We have the feeling of having done something for God and other people.” In short, working out of prayer gives us a clear way to strive for the Magis.

Dealing with our busy schedules and increased responsibilities is not something that goes away. Our students will learn after graduation that as we get older, people will ask more and more from us. Building the skills to deal with them here and now is an important step for our students to become “Men and Women For and With Others.” Building the skills to deal with them requires us to learn to entrust our work to God so that we approach our work generously and lovingly.

I don’t think the answer to our busy lives is to do less. In fact, as the great charisms of both the Jesuits and Benedictines teach us, these busy times may be where God is inviting us to learn how much more we are able to do.

Lord, teach me to be generous,
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 look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
Amen.

Mark Dushel is Campus Minister for Retreats and Liturgy at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA

Imagining your classroom

by Margaret Felice

he began to marvel at the difference and to reflect upon it, realizing from experience that some thoughts left him sad and others joyful.

This is how Ignatius describes, in his autobiography, the realization that his heart’s reactions to his imaginings were a way of hearing God’s voice and discerning God’s will. As a champion daydreamer, I have always been drawn to this part of Ignatius’s story, and to the valuing of the imagination that comes with it.

Summer months, with long days and more relaxed schedules, are a perfect time to daydream. On long care rides, or while sitting and enjoying the sun, I might imagine a new retreat to offer at school, or design a handout for a lesson. Vacation’s clear-headedness frees up space for the Spirit’s voice to sneak in with guidance and encouragement.

In addition to imagining certain programs or activities, I have found great value in simply imagining my classroom environment.

There are many ways to organize a classroom, and many ways to serve students well. What’s right for you will take into account your needs, your students’ needs, and the larger environment of the school community. Depending on your experience and length of employment, you have varying degrees of knowledge of those things. What you do know, is what kind of teacher and person YOU are, and your students are better off if you are teaching to your own strengths.

When you imagine your classroom different ways, which feels right to you? Students taking different seats every class? Students in assigned seats? Students taking advantage of window ledges, radiators, and corner benches for their work, or students sitting at desks? Do they ask you to go to the bathroom, or silently take a bathroom pass, or just walk out of the room? Depending on your context, any of these could be a fine way to approach your class environment, but if one is going to make you uncomfortable, there’s no reason to organize your class around it.

Once you have decided, be strategic about how you are going to implement it. It’s acceptable to shape some classroom procedures around your preferences, but it’s not acceptable to ask students to be mind readers. Tell them what your expectations are. To use a mundane example: If there is a bathroom pass, have it ready on the first day, explain what the policies are, and repeat them until everyone is acclimated.

Be thorough in your imaginings – if you imagine a daily introduction of the saint of the day, and that feels like something that would energize you and your students, keep going with your thoughts. Would there be a daily handout? How would you make it a routine? Is there a creative way to assess what you are introducing? The more you have thought through your plans before the year begins, the easier they will be to implement.

If you’re really feeling ambitious, spend some time imagining how you will handle conflicts. What happens when a student doesn’t do his or her homework, or when they break a significant rule, or when a parent challenges your grading, or when a colleague says something frustrating? If you spend some time imagining what your ideal reaction would be, you’re more likely to be your best self when you’re dealing with a challenging situation.

We do a lot to prepare for these first days of school. In between the organizing, cleaning, poster-hanging and roster-reviewing, try to find a few moments alone with your thoughts to see where your imagination leads you in your teaching this year.

Initial quotation from A Pilgrim’s Testament: The Memoirs of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as transcribed by Luis Gonçalves da Câmara and translated by Parmandanda R. Divarkar. Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College. She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020. Margaretfelice.com

My Time with Special Olympics

Community Forged through Differences

by Kevin DeCusatis

Special Olympics has been the most impactful experience for my teaching career. It has defined my pedagogy as one that values community and differences, and, as a result, reaching students where they are at, specifically in regard to their faith journey.

Every year, I most look forward to the weekend where I get to work with the friends that I’ve made through Special Olympics. Since we first met eight years ago, this tradition has endured through the community that we formed as unified partners for Special Olympics. My experience as a coach and unified partner has taught me to emphasize the importance of community and comfort in the classroom. I often will use instructional time in creative, community-building ways to inculcate a strong, cohesive class identity for each of my five sections. Maybe it’s having Taylor Swift Tuesdays, or Fave Band Fridays, or perhaps having discussions about an upcoming dance or concert. What I’ve learned, though, is that carving out time for this fun has a profound effect: it builds community, involvement, engagement, and interest. I learned this from Special Olympics. While we probably could have used a few more minutes to go over plays or new techniques, we would never think to shorten our birthday celebrations or team chant at the end of practice for some more tactical or administrative tasks. Special Olympics taught me that it is sometimes more important to take time to be silly and caring than to stick to a rigid, unyielding schedule. Both my Special Olympics athletes and students have responded to that. 

Another critically important lesson that I learned first-hand from my time with Special Olympics is the value of working with a community different from myself. As an able bodied person, one who runs marathons, climbs stairs with ease, and navigates crowds and public transportation without concern, I had to confront how I approached difference when I worked so closely with and befriended Special Olympic athletes. This challenged me exactly because our differences were so stark. 

The skill of acknowledging difference is clearly demonstrated on the track or cross country course. I’ve been a track and cross country coach at my high school for a few years now. Perhaps the most jarring, and at the same time attractive, aspect of these sports is that there is demonstrably someone better than you at any point in the season, as well as someone who is worse than you. Some of my current athletes are nationally ranked while others can barely manage to end their races without turning blue in the face. This disparity in skill is what I love about running: track and cross country are so quantitative. Because of this, I am able to have very clear discussions with my athletes in order to make realistic goals and strategies. I don’t think I would feel so comfortable with difference had I not been a unified partner in Special Olympics. As a unified partner, I would play soccer with my athletes as well as coach them. That meant I was feeding them the ball, charging down the field with them, celebrating our victories, and mourning our losses. Among the athletes, there is a wide gap in ability level, however, we always followed the mantra “play to their level;” we needed to push them, to make them work for the goal or the ball. I yelled, “You better hustle if you want the ball,” more times than I can remember during our matches. Adriana may be a stellar goalie, but Maggie can’t run very fast; Andrew may be eager for the ball, but wouldn’t know what to do with it once he got it, while Kevin would know exactly what to do with the ball but did nothing to get it.  This disparity in ability is also seen in the classroom: I have students that can write a very sound argument while in the seat next to her is a student who can’t make an inference based on a church document we just read in class. What I learned from my athletes is that I need to respond lovingly while having standards. My Special Olympics athletes didn’t want a free pass; they wanted to compete. They were hungry for more, and they taught me how to strike a balance of love and discipline. They forced me to learn how to forge community through lifting up and honoring our differences, all by living up to the athlete oath: “let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

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

Photo of basketball game courtesy of Special Olympics Hawaii under CC by 2.0

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.