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. 

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.