Bullying

Bullying is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart.

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by Erin DaCosta

Bullying is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart.  The thought of one of my students being hurt, either physically or emotionally, is heartbreaking.  I want my students to feel safe each and every day.

What happens if you know bullying is occurring, but you never witness it firsthand?  What happens if you overhear an incident, but no student is willing to discuss what happened?  What happens if the fear of being a “snitch” is so heightened that a student is not willing to disclose what is happening to them?

These are the questions I’ve been struggling with.  Students have come to me this year to discuss issues of bullying they have witnessed in their community.  They are worried about their peers, and they want to help.  Yet they sometimes do not want to share what happened.  Students are willing to say, “It’s bullying,” but they are not willing to share more specific details.  Students have also shared their own experiences of bullying, but often refuse to name other students as the perpetrators, out of fear of being a “snitch” and ultimately becoming more outcast as a result.

Students have come to me in tears, sharing details of their days.  They have written in their journals about incidents of bullying.  I have overheard conversations that seem alarming.  All of these incidents are reported to the Guidance Department, and guidance does their best to resolve these issues, but students are not willing to talk authentically about what is going on their community.  They are fearful, and confused.  And more often than not, the bullied find themselves on the other side of the fence days, weeks, or months later, and they are so relieved to be out of the spotlight that they don’t dare stand up for the bully’s latest victim.

I want to help these students.  I truly do. But more often than not, I feel as if I have failed them.  Educators can offer a listening ear, and pass these issues on to appropriate authorities.  But is this enough?

Every time a student shares an incident of bullying with me, my mind inevitably flashes to Episode 13 of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.  This series follows high school student, Hannah Baker’s, suicide, and each episode highlights one of thirteen cassette tapes she recorded before taking her life.  Each of the cassettes are addressed to one person who played a role in her death, and in each she explains why their actions (or lack thereof) contributed to her decision to end her own life.

In episode thirteen, we learn that Hannah Baker’s thirteenth tape is for her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter.  Over the course of the episode, Hannah shares that Mr. Porter’s lack of action left her feeling hopeless.  In her eyes, he didn’t do enough.  This episode haunts me.  Am I Mr. Porter to my students?  Do I do enough to help them feel supported and loved, particularly in instances of bullying?

How do we, as educators, show that we care so deeply about students, particularly when they are being bullied?  How do we show them that we are so much more than Mr. Porter?  How do we build a community of trust, where students can name their bullies without fear of retaliation?

Sadly, I have no answers, only the fear that what we’re currently doing is not enough.

Erin DaCosta teaches theology to sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Mount Alvernia High School in Newton, MA.  Previously, she served as a campus minister in a co-ed environment.

Teaching Toolkit

take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion

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Barbara Anne Radtke

I have a basic toolkit for household maintenance.  Every once in a while, I take everything out, clean up the tools and discard old packaging of items I needed to complete a project.  I am just making sure that my toolkit is in tiptop shape the next time I need to do a repair or launch into a new project.

Teachers usually have a toolkit, too.  It’s packed with go-to resources, reliable pedagogical strategies, approaches to curricular plans, new things we’d like to try. If you are a newly hired religion teacher preparing to teach for the first time or if you are an experienced teacher who wants to reflect on your classroom practices, maybe it’s a good time to take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion.

Boston College’s Summer at STM has a convenient, one–week evening experience for credit or audit, designed for those who teach adolescents religion in Catholic secondary schools.  Guided by Dr. Cynthia Cameron, an experienced secondary educator, those engaged in teaching religion in high school have an opportunity to explore the craft of teaching theology together.

For more details, see the profile for The Craft of Teaching Theology: A Pedagogical Toolkit for the High School Teacher

Honoring Ourselves: A Different Kind of Discipline

An honor code makes a strong claim about the dignity of our students.

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Kevin Decusatis

When I was a student, even the best-mannered kid lived in fear of receiving an all-too-common reprimand – Justice Under God, or more affectionately known as JUG.  A student would receive JUG’s for a variety of reasons ranging from being out of uniform to being disrespectful to a teacher or another student to arriving late to school or class – basically anything that didn’t jive with the rules.  This form of discipline is prescriptivist and very “letter of the law.”  After living and learning in an environment such as this for four years, my relationship with rules and laws was rife with angst and disdain. Given an option between a good and bad choice, it seemed that I was expected to make the bad one. I emerged from high school with a moral decision making process that first looked at the results of my actions rather than whether the actions themselves were just.

A Change of Heart

My perspective on discipline has since shifted in a very healthy and life giving way as a result of two experiences.  The first is taking a course with Hosffman Ospino in which we learned about Don Bosco and his philosophy on discipline.  While he would not advocate a free pass for anyone, Don Bosco worked tirelessly to institute a system of discipline in which bad, incorrect, or harmful choices were met with love and conversation in place of vengeance and lex talionis.  If you were late to school or stole something from the bread line or cheated off of a classmate or disrespected a peer/teacher, it was not assumed that you were acting in spite or defiance; rather it was assumed that there was something more insidious happening in your life and you needed to process it.  This course has been monumental in how I approach discipline because it demonstrated to me that discipline can be founded in love and not fear.

The second experience that cemented my philosophy on discipline is my work at a school with an Honor Code.  I currently teach at an all girl school academy where there are no detentions, no demerits, no infractions, and no JUG’s.  Instead, we have an Honor Code.  Our Honor Code, which emerged mid-century, is a product of dialogue between students and faculty members.  The Honor Code presumes an intense level of trust between the student and adult.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have given a student a test to take in the library by herself or when I’ve left my classroom to make copies while assessments are out.  It’s an unspoken bond that our students will live by their Honor so we can afford them such luxuries.  In fact, whenever asked what is their favorite thing about school, it is guaranteed that more than a handful will rattle off the Honor Code, or some iteration of it.

The Honor Code Where I Teach

The Honor code strives to create an open environment in which we gift responsible freedom to our students so that they can implement and live out Christian values in their lives.  It aims to develop the whole person and roots itself in integrity and respect for all.  It prioritizes accountability for one’s actions (staff and students like), and it requires that you develop the skill of self-discipline.  As a result, each member of the community cultivates a self-awareness, especially in regard to how their actions affect the community.

While I am a personal advocate for an Honor Code, there are some shortcomings.  In my estimation, I would say that the Honor Code is effective about 85% of the time.  For the most part, our students treat teachers with the utmost respect, greet each other with kind words, and actively love each other and the members of the community.  At the same time, though, kids still make racially charged remarks and commit microaggressions against our few students of color; bullying is rampant in the middle school; the use of alcohol, tobaccos products, and other drugs is still a concern.  However, I think anyone would be hard pressed to find a place where none of these issues existed when you are dealing with 12 to 18 year old humans.  While the Honor Code holds our students to a high standard, it also recognizes that they are still teenagers, and with being teenagers comes some stupid choices.

Theology Supporting an Honor Code

An Honor Code system of discipline makes a strong anthropological claim about the dignity of our students.  It assumes their inherent goodness and reaffirms that they are made imago dei.  It also assumes that they are capable of conversion – when a student breaks the honor code, there is a dialogue between student and adult; we remind her of her goodness and push her to act in accordance with it.

In place of rooting discipline in fear, anger, and negativity, we root it in trust and relationship. We wish to accompany our students as they grow and learn.  Wedding discipline to fear and “justice under God” makes some anthropological statements about me and my actions: I am bad, I am ugly, I am unworthy. In my opinion, a discipline system rooted in fear can lend itself to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  “I’m having a really bad day and I really don’t like this kid so instead of working through my beef with him, I am going to hit him and curse at him.” In this “JUG” mentality, there is a calculated risk – do something bad, you know the consequence.

An honor code is much scarier: you will be pushed to live by your honor and forced to humanize others.  You are called to act justly, regardless of how others are going to; there is no control for others’ behavior.  Using an honor code humbles the student – as she is not in control – and also introduces shame and guilt.  I feel ashamed that I broke the honor code because I disappointed a teacher, a coach, an administrator, and what’s worse – I broke their trust; I feel ashamed because I acted in a way that was contrary to my inherent goodness and the goodness of others; I feel ashamed because I could have acted more maturely and more justly, but instead my relationships suffered.  To me, the Honor Code closely mirrors the sacrament of reconciliation.  With the Honor Code we are confronted by our previous actions and are cajoled into repairing the brokenness we’ve caused.

The Honor Code is so appealing to me because it presumes our human nature – it asks us to to live the spirit of the law to the best of our abilities, knowing that at times we will stumble.  But the key thing here is that while God gave us freedom and humans subsequently have fallen and endured the consequences, God will always proffer the grace to try to learn from our past mistakes and grow from them.  It is this cycle of free will established in Genesis that gives me hope when disciplining my students.  The Honor Code presupposes that students will falter – no one is perfect.  But the Honor Code also presumes that the student will grow from her mistakes and thrive.  Each student, then, is not the sum of her actions, but rather how she grows from them.

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

Making Our Schools Safe from Gun Violence

A Catholic high school educator reflects on reversing the pattern of gun violence in our schools.

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Lauren E Bjork

I remember very clearly where I was and what I was doing when the first school shooting, that I had ever heard of, took place. It was 1999, and I was in middle school. I found myself horrified by the way that half-way across the country tragedy had found its way to high school students in Columbine, CO. It seemed unimaginable. How could this happen? It was such impossible violence in a place that ‘should’ be safe that it just could not be.

In 2012, in the days that followed the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the world mourned the loss of 27 members of the Sandy Hook Elementary community. Fr. James Martin, S.J. wrote an article for America magazine shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy in which he identified that gun violence in our schools is, ultimately,  a pro-life issue. Our country continues to experience devastating gun violence in schools.  We have come to a place where a response of action is necessary in the wake of such offenses to the value of human life.

While individuals may disagree on how to solve the problem of violence in schools, one thing we can agree on is that children should be able to go to school in a safe environment, free from fear that violence may come knocking on the classroom door. We have become a culture where our children are desensitized to violence and hatred. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve to be able to go to school and not have to worry about active shooters, bomb threats, and lock downs.

So, how do we as Catholic educators respond to this crisis of life and love in our communities?

I’d like to propose some ideas for practical ways in which this issue might be addressed. First, what do we in U.S. schools need to do to promote safety in the classroom? I think our country needs to think about a twofold approach to a solution:

  1. Immediate: We need to keep our children safe at school. We need to prevent children from accessing firearms. We need to overcome our differences of politics and opinion, so that we can truly put the needs of our children’s safety first.
  2. Long term: We need to know our students and communities. We need to build relationship in a real way where students are much more than a name on a roster but rather a beloved child of God. We need to educate our communities and foster love and respect. We need capable, well-trained adults in our schools who can serve the needs of all students.

As part of the “Violence Prevention Initiative” at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers  suggest that a combination of these approaches could lead to the solution, that is limiting access to guns and  developing real and lasting community among students and adults.

Outside of the school setting, there is work to be done as well. I find myself tired of the discussion on gun violence in schools without the thought of practical suggestions. So, what might this look like?

  • Political action: Our students and school community members should feel empowered to speak out. We must encourage and support those who wish to make their voices heard by those in decision making capacities. We have seen young people do this best in the solidarity that was evident in schools across the nation on March 14th, when students honored the 17 people who died in the Parkland, Florida shooting during the National Student Walk Out.
  • Gun Control: Enforcement of firearms laws and, potentially, the incorporation of new laws that serve to keep communities and children safe is key. Upon researching the aspect of the enforcement of current gun laws, it seems that nationally there is significant work to do in upholding laws that already exist.
  • Education: There is a need in our communities for an increase in education about responsible gun ownership and the responsibilities that a person takes on when exercising his or her right to bear arms.

Our Catholic faith ought to propel action, promoting positive change in the world. Those actions often require sacrifice. What does this look like? Perhaps this sacrifice involves increasing firearm legislation and enforcement. Perhaps this sacrifice looks like individuals and communities increasing the finances allocated for additional staff, such as counselors and social workers, to be added so that school communities can grow into places where students are known and are loved. Perhaps great sacrifice looks like giving up violent games, movies, and TV shows that our children are watching at an increasingly early age. Could we do these things in the name of creating a culture that is committed to the well-being of others, putting the needs of others before our own desires?

If we want to be a community of love and service to one another, then we need to start living out that kind of love. If we look to the example of Jesus on the cross, we know that real love, radical love nearly always requires great sacrifice.

Lauren Bjork teaches theology to grades 7 and 8 at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. She also serves as a Director of Religious Education at her local parish in the Diocese of Worcester.

They Say It Takes a Village

Theology and ministry seem to be the perfect areas for some village building.

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Lauren E. Bjork

It is a common axiom of parenting that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I have heard and read this often, as a parent of young children. Now, you may be saying, ‘Sure, this may be true, but I thought this was a blog post on teaching and theology.’ And, here is where I would like to propose the idea that students and teachers need the village too.

Teachers need each other. Having worked in multiple schools, in a variety of different capacities, I can say without a doubt that teachers thrive in community, where they are not individual islands, but rather interconnected adults working effectively towards the same goals. Students need to see the example of adults living, loving, and working together in a way that does not demand that they do everything the same way, or are unwilling to challenge one another. Rather, I think our children today need to see adults respectfully debating, disagreeing, and challenging one another to be the very best version of themselves, in a way that, especially for teachers, allows for the teacher to be of service to the student. Students and teachers both benefit from the experience of living community. Committing ourselves to living and working in solidarity and love is hard, yes, but worth it.

Theology lends itself as a perfect setting for the village of teachers to come alive and thrive in education. If we are truly practicing what we teach, then the village is a natural living out of the building of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God on earth is not a place of perfection or even a place where we all agree, but rather it is a place where we commit to one another, rely on each other, and get busy in the work of living out faithfulness and justice.

In thinking about the village in education, I am beginning to be convinced more and more that perhaps, this is exactly what our schools need. Could the village of adults working together in service and love help combat bullying among our students? Could the message of Jesus to love one another really come alive to students if they see it embodied in their teachers? Or, perhaps the village could stand as examples of positive self-talk and body image? Even further, could the village help combat violence in our schools and greater communities? Remembering the reality that we belong to one another might be part of the necessary discussion on school violence, a nightmare that students and teachers are facing far too often. Ultimately, I think that the community built among adults is essential when trying to foster community among students. And, for theology teachers and campus ministers, this is truly the message that we teach: to develop relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others that are rooted in great love.

Of course, this applies to all educators. And yet, I do not think this is the common experience of many teachers today. Theology and ministry seem to be the perfect areas for some intentional village building, because, it is a subject and setting that in its nature calls for the development of both formation and education, ministry and academic understanding. We need to be living examples of what we teach, that is, the Body of Christ. Relying on each other is NOT a sign of weakness, but rather a response to our call to belong to one another in humility and solidarity.

How do you do “village building” in your school?

Lauren Bjork teaches theology to grades 7 and 8 at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. She also serves as a Director of Religious Education at her local parish in the Diocese of Worcester.

Every Week is Catholic Schools Week

the vocational call of Catholic school teachers

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by Lindsey Hughes

Since I have been able to call myself a teacher, I have been a Catholic school teacher.

And, since I have been able to call myself a teacher, I have been criticized for the type of teacher that I have chosen to be.

Whether it is a family member who chides me for working in a Catholic school, when I could be teaching history (as I intended as an undergrad) in public school “and making so much more money”, or a well-meaning friend who comes to the conclusion that I am “lucky” to teach the “easy” kids, there seems to an underlying belief that teaching in a Catholic school is some lukewarm version of the righteous struggle that the “rest” of the teachers in the world are undertaking. I would like to dispute this mild interpretation of what we, as Catholic school  educators, do on a regular basis.

Additionally, I would like to validate my belief (and likely, that of countless other educators) that the choice to work in a Catholic school is one of vocation. Author and minister Frederick Buechner, in discussing vocation, states that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It has become increasingly clear to me that Catholic schools (and those who teach in them) are meeting the “deep hungers” of our communities, often in ways that are not evident at first glance.

So, to anyone that may need a reminder, I want to definitively state that all teaching is a radical action. As a teacher, you are rejecting the general belief of so many in society that our youth are lost or misguided. You provide a place of hospitality and safety – really, of normalcy – that is not found in some of our students’ homes, neighborhoods, and families. Lest you forget that what you are doing is making a difference – I beg you to believe differently. It does. You do.

To illustrate my point further, let me provide you with two instances from my own experience. In the first, two juniors in my theology class were staying after school to work on an essay about C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I went to check on the step team’s practice (since I have recently become their moderator) and came back to these two boys looking at their iPads and phones. When I asked why they were not working on their essays, they told me they were looking at information from a recent fatal shooting in Boston. They proceeded to tell me how the young man who had lost his life had previously saved the life of an individual who fell on train tracks four years ago. Then, between themselves, they talked about others who had lost their lives recently to gang violence. As they talked back and forth about which gang these people were a part of, where they were from, and if they had seen them in their neighborhoods, it became increasingly clear – my students’ lives outside of our school are much different than what they experience in our small, Catholic school setting. So then, when we question why they hang around after school or constantly want to practice their three point shots for hours in the gym, we may want to consider what they may be avoiding, and treasure the fact that our schools have created a refuge from what they experience in so many other places.

In the other instance, a student for whom I was writing a college recommendation let me read some of his written reflections he had composed in his free time. Though I was aware that this student overcomes significant challenges just to get to school every day and have his work done for his challenging course load, this glimpse into his non-school life was quite eye-opening. He chronicled his days, explaining that after school he often goes to work until late in the evening, and once his shift is completed, makes the often-intimidating trek home to complete homework and study. What struck me most were the descriptions of the individuals he encounters on his commute home from work. Knowing who to avoid and what to say to these individuals in order to communicate his neutrality, it broke my heart to read how complicated it was for him to simply go home. It also gives me great insight into why when I taught him last year he often asked for extensions on assignments, and was late to school more than any of us would suggest. I feel so lucky to have been deemed trustworthy enough for him to share these challenging details with. I feel even luckier to have been able to brag to colleges about how great he is.

It doesn’t have to be as extreme as gang violence, it could be family issues, rigorous after school responsibilities, or the countless other struggles our students endure – regardless, I hope you can remember that the communities of acceptance, love, and yes, even safety, that we create in Catholic schools are making a difference. I believe that lives have been transformed because my exceptional colleagues and I have made a vocational choice.

If you, too, have made a similar choice, what difference does your school make in its community?  What lives have been transformed in the learning community in which you teach?”

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Lindsey Hughes currently teaches sophomore and junior theology at Saint Joseph Preparatory High School in Brighton, MA. Outside of the classroom she coaches girls’ soccer and co-ed track and field.

Hurry Up and Wait

Being an expectant church in the time of instant gratification

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By Julie Penndorf

Today’s world is a very different place for teens than it was for their parents and for many of their teachers (including me).  Our young people are expected to manage increasingly intense school work loads, while excelling in athletics and activities, and upholding an active social media life in addition to their real life. Their social existence hinges on the now; sometimes it seems it has to be even faster than that, or they run the risk of social suicide. And these are the kids who have supportive families and plenty of means.  So many students have to add difficult home lives, health problems or other issues to their already heavy burden.  In the last few years, I’ve dealt with multiple students with severe mental health issues that I did not see to this extent early in my teaching career.  Everything is now, now, now, and it is affecting them in ways that no generation before can give them any guidance because no one before has ever come of age in a time like today.

And yet, I juxtapose this current experience of our young people with our church, – a church which advocates waiting for so much of church life.  Experiences of waiting by far outweigh the experiences of gratification.  Though the liturgical calendar may say differently, most of us experience 6 weeks of Lent and just one day of Easter.  Something innate in our humanity calls us to dive deeply into the waiting – so much more so than the experience of joy.  Perhaps it is out of necessity, that good things come to those who wait, but I think it speaks more of our need to spend time in preparation, preparing our heads and hearts to be ready for the joys.   Joys are great, they are a beautiful blessing, but they can be incredibly draining.  The hype, the excitement, and all the stress around Christmas celebrations jump to mind here.  Most people are just barely hanging on through the month of December, and when Christmas finally comes, young and old alike tend to collapse from exhaustion at the end of it.  I’m grateful for a church that forces us into Advent beforehand, to slow down, to wait, and focus on what is important.

But where do our young people fit in this church of waiting? How do we teach them to wait when everything else in their lives teaches them to hurry forward?  They are moving from/searching for/lusting after one moment of ‘joy’ to another – though those ‘joys’ are false and fleeting (instagram likes, twitter retweets,  etc).  So how do we find a place for this generation in a church that wants us to hurry up and wait, a church that likely won’t give them a place on snapchat to uphold their streaks?

My problem with this question that I’m posing is that I don’t really have an answer. I too, struggle with waiting, and am constantly in prayer for patience (for my students, my own kids, my spouse).  I try to teach my own students the same tricks that work for me to slow down.  But why should we bother to immerse ourselves in the waiting?  Why am I asking my students to slow down and wait instead of asking the church to hurry up?  This goes to the very heart of our faith, that no matter how much we want to hurry things along, we are waiting, waiting for an experience of God, waiting for death to bring us new life, waiting for the second coming.  Waiting has always been, and until the end of time, will always be, central to the Christian experience, because faith cannot be forced, it cannot be hurried. Even though the challenges to waiting faced by our young people are new, the need to allow the space for waiting is not.  “Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.” – Psalm 27:14

Julie Penndorf is the Director of Campus Ministry and a Christian Ethics teacher at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, MD, where she has worked for the past 17 years.