Back to the Future

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed.

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by Sara Janecko Milone.

It’s Monday morning and I’m driving to work on familiar roads. I look around and glance at the houses that line the commute, taking note how they have been updated over the past two years. It’s all so familiar, and yet it has changed.

I am familiar with the school, the position, the ministry. But yet, like the houses that line my commute, I have changed. I am returning to a position at the school in which I taught and ministered for seven years, but have been away for two years to stay home with my young family.

These past two years have afforded me the opportunity to be present at home with my daughters and enjoy the little moments as well as the big milestones. Beyond family life, these two years enabled me to try new things, to stretch myself in my ministry and to explore new ways to respond to God’s call in my life. Spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy and online class facilitation have inspired new personal and professional growth, and have deepened my relationship with God. I know I will be a better teacher, minister, mother, and human being because of how these experiences have shaped me.

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed. I know the mission, I know my colleagues, I know the routine, and yet the students do not know me. My former students have all graduated. From perspective of the current students, I am a brand new teacher with no baggage, history or reputation. I have the unique opportunity to have a fresh start, to reinvent myself and my teaching. How many times do you have the opportunity for a second chance, a completely fresh start?

The courses may be familiar, but my philosophy of religious education has shifted and evolved. In my first tenure at the school, I had just graduated with my Masters in Divinity. I was intent on convincing the students to view Religion as an equally important and rigorous class as their other academic subjects. After all, people spent years studying theology in higher education.

My experiences during the past two years have prompted me to reflect on the primacy of cultivating relationships with self, others and God in the ministry of religious education. While imparting the content of our faith to my students is certainly important, my main purpose as a religious educator is to form disciples in the faith. This paradigm shift has energized me and inspired creativity with how I want to teach my classes and minister to my students. I’m grateful for the grace of a fresh start: to honor the familiar and embrace the change.

Sara Janecko Milone

Sara Janecko Milone is the Director of Campus Ministry and religion teacher at an all girls high school in Newton, MA.

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.

Decusatis

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

Sometimes It Just Sucks

Sometimes teaching RE does suck. but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.”

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Dale Clarke

“Can we have a lesson in the chapel?” This comes from Martin as I walk into my Year 9 Religious Education classroom (“Ninth Grade” – please excuse my Australian terminology). Martin has his schoolbag on one shoulder and a chip on the other. After five periods of English, Math, History and so on, he’s not in the mood for class. I do my best to fend off Martin’s question with some humour.

“A lesson in the chapel? I think maybe you just want to lie on the pews again.”

Marc tries a different tact.

“Can we take special intentions for prayer?”

“Yes, we’ll have three special intentions.” Yesterday’s prayer to start the lesson had descended into a filibustering to block any beginning of formal lesson time. I am onto them.

Marc’s not happy: “Only three? What – doesn’t God care about our prayers?”

“Yes, I’m sure he does – more than me anyway.” My response comes with a fading dose of jest. I can feel the boys’ resistance to my lesson starting to wear down my defence. My sarcasm is setting in.

Ernie walks in and doesn’t beat around the bush: “I hate RE.”

The above scenario involves only a little bit of creative embellishment, but represents the deflating battlefield that teaching Religion can sometimes be.

 

At the start of the year, I had great difficulty with my Year 9 class. There were a handful of students who seemed to be disruptive, and it was affecting many other class members, to the point where the culture in the classroom was not one conducive to class discussion, or productive work, or, well, teacher happiness! The silver lining of this situation, I thought, was that I would have something worthwhile and inspiring to write about for my blog entry, once I was able to turn the boys around. At this point you might be scrolling down to find the answer for how I turned this difficult class around. Well, keep scrolling – maybe there’s something useful in the comments!

As of “press time”, my Year 9 class is still a struggle. There are certainly breakthroughs. One of my more challenging students, Xavier – “I’m not doing this, it’s stupid” – is often the one who asks the most insightful or provocative questions (often out of turn): “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Wouldn’t they have thought of themselves as Jews then?” Yes, Xavier! Great question. Probably. What do you think? These discussions, prompted by genuine questions from the mouths of my students, are what I am for in teaching Religion. As a Jesuit educator, I strive to be a guide, an informed companion, rather than merely an instructor.

But as many Religion or Theology teachers discover, sometimes it just sucks. It’s hard. One of my attempts to spark involvement in my uninterested class was to take a nature walk – move in groups of three towards the school’s gardens, with two questions to discuss on the way. When you get there, be ready to share your ideas with the class. I had even allocated the small groups, so as to avoid troublesome combinations.

As I carried up the rear of the walking groups, I noticed two boys had taken a detour ­– Xavier and Martin, two of the very boys I had tried to separate. “We just wanted to go over to the statue to pray.” Where’s that eye-rolling emoji when you need it?

So amid classroom discussions falling flat, students disengaging, and occasional displays of dissent towards Catholic education, what works for me?

  • With my lovely Year 9s, role play or creating skits has worked well, particularly when it is to begin a lesson on scripture. I provide a scene, sometimes with a modern twist like “it’s set on George St, Sydney,” and they go to work preparing and then performing the scene in groups of four or five.
  • Bringing in the issues of the day – recently there was a crisis within the Australian Cricket Team and allegations of ball tampering. Think “Deflategate”, but imagine everyone in the country was a Tom Brady fan, and that the guilt was admitted in a series of teary press conferences. This fed into a fruitful discussion of Christian ethics, the Beatitudes, and sin.
  • Choosing to love. Maybe the hardest one. Sometimes it takes a while to warm to a class. But by deliberately taking small steps like welcoming each student to class as they arrive and saying goodbye as they leave, both parties are humanised.  They see me as a person, and I remember that they are lovable students often with a lot of baggage that they are bringing to school each day.

Perhaps most significantly, as Lauren Bjork pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, what works is to lean on our colleagues. It’s helpful to hear “Oh, I teach that group, yeah they are a difficult group”, and it’s even more helpful to hear what is working well for that teacher. What works in one context won’t work in another (as I discovered when I went from teaching all-boys in Sydney to teaching all-girls in Los Angeles!), so it makes sense to tap into the minds of those sharing our workspace.

So I didn’t find the answer for how to turn it around. It is my hope to have provided a sense of solidarity if you too have had the energy sucked from you from time to time by an “I hate RE” or an “RE sucks” sentiment. Sometimes teaching RE does suck, but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.” And I believe that is always happening – for students, and teachers too as we learn, grow, and hone our craft.

 

*Names of students have been changed to protect anonymity. Then in a moment of frustration after a lesson, they were changed back to real names. Then they were altered again.


Dale Clarke teaches Religious Education (9th, 10th, 11th grade) and English (10th and 12th grade) at Saint Ignatius College, an all-boys high school in Sydney, Australia. 

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.