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.

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.

THAT IS Being Catholic

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

fingerprint

by Julie Dienno-Demarest

We are called to evangelize through witness (living out our faith) and sharing (explicitly spreading the Good News).  So often our instinct is to examine what else we can do. We focus on the call to conversion and re-evangelizing our colleagues through Faculty Faith Formation. We also have a tremendous opportunity to engage in the “new evangelization” to colleagues who have become distant from the faith by simply naming the ways in which we are already living God’s love in our life, work, and ministry.

Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other…in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work. (Go and Make Disciples, 35)

Too often, the Catholic Identity of our schools is (mis)understood too narrowly by those who work with us. Our non-Catholic faculty and staff tend to see Catholic Identity as coming from the concrete experiences of morning prayer, retreats, liturgies, and catechesis from the Campus Ministry and the Theology Departments.  While those encounters are certainly essential, too many adults in the building compartmentalize our Catholicity as existing solely within these sources.

In reality, as professional religious educators, we know that this is simply not the case.  In reality, so many of our colleagues have been drawn to our schools because we live out this Catholic Identity in our way of being with one another and our students.  Put another way, our colleagues have an implicit knowledge of our schools’ Catholicity; we need to do a better job of explicitly naming what we implicitly know as true.

A caring school community is being Catholic (Acts 2:42).  Placing a student’s well-being ahead of academic expectations is being Catholic (Jn 15:12).  Coaches who prioritize sportsmanship and the well-being of their athletes above winning is being Catholic (Prov 24:17-18; Phil 2:3).  Teaching with mutual respect is being Catholic (CCC 1930).

What would happen if we respectfully invited our colleagues to recognize that their natural way of being in and contributions to our schools is being Catholic?  How might affirming that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17, CCC 843) foster a shared sense of accomplishing Catholic Identity?  Imagine if every faculty meeting began with a few minutes of specifically affirming the goodness and excellence that we see in the work of our colleagues and explicitly connecting those actions with the Catholicity of the school.

It is the responsibility of every member of the faculty and staff to support the vision and mission of the school.  Supporting the school’s vision and mission isn’t asking faculty and staff to be all things to all people, but it does require that we support one another as one body (1 Cor 12:20).  For example, what if our invitation to support Campus Ministry was rephrased as: “Would you rather assist student retreats by being personally present or by enthusiastically substituting for those colleagues who will be personally present”?

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

Julie Dienno-Demarest is a professional religious educator living in Houston, TX. She has previously served as a high school teacher and campus minister and was a contributing author and editor for a high school textbook series.