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.

The Growing Season

Gardening mirrors educating in that both are labors of love.

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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.

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.

Student Leadership

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school . . .

leadership

Student Leadership: Meaning What We Say

Anonymous

If you look at the mission statement of almost every Catholic school, you’ll see that somewhere the word leadership is mentioned. Most schools aim to inspire leadership among their students, or they say they do. This year I’ve been prompted time and again to reflect upon what we mean when we say we want our students to be leaders. It’s not enough to put it in the mission statement. It’s not enough to tell the students they are leaders. It’s not enough to teach them the skills that lend themselves to leadership. It’s not enough if we’re not willing to listen and respect them when they try to lead.

This year, more than other years I’ve taught, has been marked by a number of students with strong moral convictions hoping to make our school a better place. I love that about them. I have the privilege of working with our student government officers. They have been at the forefront of the attempts to make change at our school. However, many of their attempts to voice their opinions and make real change have been met with indifference and resistance from the administrative body at our school. From trying to start a support group for LGBTQ students, to participating in the student walkouts across the nation, to organizing a fundraiser for cancer research, the students were denied an opportunity to lead. I think it’s fair to say that students hear their fair share of the word “no” throughout their time in school and many times the reasons behind that “no” are solid. However, in a number of cases this year it wasn’t just that students were told no, it’s that they were denied any sort of real meaningful dialogue about issues that meant a lot to them.

“We say we care about community here, but we don’t. I’ve been awarded for my leadership skills and it’s a lie….They only want me to be a leader when my opinion matches theirs.” These were the remarks of a student just days away from graduating. It broke my heart to see her so disappointed and disillusioned when I’d watched her work so hard for causes she really believed in all year. She had been elected by her peers and had been given awards for her leadership by administration, but was not being treated like one. It made me think about the leadership awards and societies that we nominate students for. Are we nominating people who show true leadership amongst their peers, or people who are polite and follow the rules?

As an educator who comes to work for the students, but whose livelihood depends on the school, I’ve felt like I was between a rock and a hard place this year. What is a teacher’s role when there is a conflict between students and administration? When students come in sad and discouraged, how can I support them in a meaningful way? In a number of instances, students contemplated breaking a rule that was set in order to demonstrate how much a particular issue meant to them. It seems counterintuitive to encourage them to practice civil disobedience against the very people who employ me, but it feels disingenuous to tell them to let it go. I suppose some people might say that if it’s a private school, students don’t have to be there and could choose to leave if they are unhappy, however that could certainly not be called community.

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school that promotes one unified student body?  How do I teach students to meet a response of “no” with respectful resolve to try again? In many ways this is an issue that extends beyond our schools and into society.  As an educator I feel called to listen and to help, but feel like my hands are tied by an administrative body that does not practice what it preaches. I’m not sure that I’ve found a way to navigate this issue yet, but it seems to me like we all need to get more serious about promoting leadership within our school communities or stop using the word if we aren’t prepared to support it.

The author teaches in a high school in Massachusetts.

Bullying

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

bully actions

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.

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.

Decusatis

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