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?

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Stressed

by Erin DaCosta

Every Friday, I invite my students to start class by spending ten minutes journaling.  I provide a prompt, and the rest is up to them.  The prompt is rarely related to class topics.  Rather, they are questions that invite them to reflect more deeply on their daily lives.  Several weeks ago, I gave my students the prompt, “What is on your heart and mind?  Share with me.”  The results broke my heart.  One entry in particular has stayed with me, and I want to share it with you today.

One student wrote:  “Many times I have to choose between spending time with my family and homework.  What is the point of all of this?  What is all of this stress for?  We live in a cycle of work, work, work, work, work, work…I feel like there is a problem in America’s schooling system.”

This student’s journal entry put into words what I have been witnessing in my students over the past few years:  they are incredibly, dangerously stressed and overworked.  They feel burdened by homework, quizzes, tests, and projects.  They are drowning in a world that bombards them with Snaps, likes, favorites, notifications, and more.  They are overcommitted, overinvolved, and overstimulated.

Do I add to this burden?  Do I, as their teacher, offer meaningful assignments that will aid their growth and development?  Does their homework supplement their in-class learning?  Should I do away with homework altogether?  How can I help them stop, breathe, and engage with the world around them?

These are the questions I grapple with on a daily basis.  I want to ensure that my students learn, that we cover enough curriculum, and that I offer structure and consistency.  Yet, I do not want my students to suffer.  And what I am seeing now is that they are struggling, immensely.  No student should have to choose between eating dinner with their family and doing homework.  No student should exist in a constant state of stress and anxiety.

My student closed her journal entry with a haiku, and I leave you with her words,

My generation
We need less stress, more support
Can we find a way?

I close by asking you this:  what stress do you see in your students?  How can we, as ministers and educators, appropriately respond?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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.