Category Archives: Learn

“Be Nimble”: Words for Schools to Live By in the Time of Remote Learning

The following blog was contributed by Jan Coonrod, chemistry teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California and this year’s winner of the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching for California in the area of science.

Many of us are feeling no small amount of trepidation about opening up our school year with online learning. As a chemistry teacher, the thought of taking my amazingly successful and popular student-centered, inquiry- and activity-based course, and flattening it to the dimensions of a screen and a dimly lit image of myself is soul-scarring. In times like these, it’s good to remember that the only thing a problem needs is a creative solution, and teachers are nothing if not creative. I offer some basics here about how our school is approaching remote learning in the hopes it might prove useful to others or a jumping off place for ideas.

Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California decided early to go to entirely remote learning—it made the most logistical sense. We started in July with trainings and PD focused on our new reality. In response to the economic pressures of our times our school decided to freeze our salaries and make that money available as emergency financial aid to families. There were no objections. We also created a Student Emergency Fund for donors to support struggling families for the upcoming year.

We learned from online teaching in the spring not to bite off too much, so we now teach four days a week—Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Our classes are 80 minutes long. Wednesdays are reserved for office hours with students, department meetings, and some co-curricular activities for students. We found teachers desperately needed this Wednesday time to adapt and create new lessons. Plus, students needed a day away from the screen and time to catch up on work or to speak to teachers. Also, our day now starts at 9 AM and extends a bit later in recognition of the fact that teenagers just don’t do that well in the mornings. To start the new year with new students and new classes, the first two weeks are slower paced, taking real time to connect with the kids and allowing them to get used to the technology and expectations.

Since the keystone to my honors chemistry course is hands-on learning, I arranged to use some of the money normally earmarked for chemicals and equipment to create an at-home chemistry kit for my students. One of the more ingenious things in this kit is a digital meat thermometer which we will use as a temperature probe for a lab that generates evaporation curves for various liquids. With some online sourcing, I found a digital pocket scale that reads to the nearest hundredth of a gram and weighs up to 500 grams. It’s amazing and less than ten dollars! With help from campus maintenance we set up a contactless distribution system for the 200-odd kits right out of the chapel. While the kit is simple and extremely safe, I’m hoping that the interactive nature will stimulate some enthusiasm. I plan on creating “lab groups” of four or five students so that students can work on some of their activities in breakout rooms with a consistent set of individuals and feel more of a sense of community. Finally, the words of our principal, Dr. Chris Smart, ring especially true right now—our best approach to this whole situation is to “be nimble.”

A Catholic Approach to Face Masks…Unmasked!

The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane

The scientific evidence is clear that wearing face masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19. However, there continues to be a lot of social controversy about wearing them. Although face masks are small things, they raise big questions. One question we benefit from considering is if, in a Catholic context, wearing face masks is humanizing or dehumanizing? The answer is both! In the coming months, Catholic school educators will help their students if they demonstrate how to approach mask-wearing with creativity and offset feelings of dehumanization. If they embrace the pandemic health precautions as a “teachable moment,” these leaders will allow their students to gain a powerful lesson about solidarity and also develop virtue.

Wearing face masks as humanizing

In theological terms, an action is humanizing when it allows us to more fully develop the potential of becoming who God has created us to be. If we accept that human beings are created to be in loving relationships with God and one another and if we recognize that virtue aids this, then wearing masks is an exercise that is very humanizing. Rather than wearing a mask to simply adhere to school rules, Catholic school students can be encouraged to wear a mask to practice solidarity and develop the virtues of kindness, charity, and temperance.

Wearing a face mask is kind and also an act of charity to others

It helps a student to hear that while very few people like to wear masks, doing so is more tolerable when we acknowledge it as an act of care for others. Wearing a mask, much like other personal sacrifices (e.g., sharing one’s belongings or using good table manners) is a personal choice to respect other people and honor their dignity. When students wear a mask, they should feel good about performing an act of charity. And when students see their classmates wearing masks to protect them, they can be reminded that they are valued. Further, all students can be reminded that even though every community member will appreciate the good choices they make about health practices, those who are most vulnerable will benefit the most. For some students, especially those who live with elders or are close to people with preexisting health conditions, it is critically important to reduce their risk of contracting and transmitting the virus. Other students, those who suffer from anxiety, will benefit from a greater sense of well-being when everyone is wearing masks and exercising extra caution.

Wearing a face mask develops temperance

Scientific research to date indicates that masks must be worn consistently and correctly by all community members for the most effective protection. This means that self-restraint or temperance must be developed both individually (i.e., by each student) and collectively (i.e., uniformly across a community). When a student’s temperance waivers (as is predictable, because it will develop only gradually), it may help him or her to be made aware of and contemplate a unique aspect of the virtue, namely its “transferability” or value in all aspects of a person’s life. The teacher might explain how a student who develops self-restraint will benefit from it in all situations, such as when studying, (e.g., it helps fend off distraction), learning a musical instrument (e.g., it promotes regular practice), participating in a sport (e.g., it leads to better sportsmanship), or building the habit of prayer (e.g., it enables greater growth). Developing temperance is like building muscle strength—the more we practice the virtue, the stronger it becomes.

Wearing a face mask promotes solidarity

School-aged children are, quite naturally (due to their developmental stages), focused primarily on their own needs, rather than those of others. To succeed in life and flourish, a student benefits from knowing the truth—that they have been created by God for relationship and all of creation, including human communities, is necessarily interdependent.  The news headlines offer ample, irrefutable evidence that all members of the human family are inextricably linked, as Catholic social doctrine teaches. As long as some members of the community suffer, we all suffer.  And if some in our community are unprotected, we all are unprotected. Many current events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, illuminate our universal needs and humanity’s common destiny. Solidarity is about recognizing others as our brothers and sisters and working together for the common good. When embracing this truth in the midst of difficult times, school community members will find that joy is derived through solidarity and an active union with others. 

Wearing face masks as dehumanizing

Many sociologists predict that the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a significant, permanent decline in genial interactions among people in public spaces.  Although this is possible, it need not be so. Physical distancing undeniably impacts our social interactions, but only unravels the social fabric if we allow it. It will help us if we adjust our understanding of what pro-social behaviors are. For example, when a person is in public and avoids others to protect someone else this need not be interpreted as rude or unfriendly. We must learn to adjust and recognize it will take extra effort for everyone to remain close at a distance. Remembering to smile with one’s eyes and wave in greeting when moving to create a safe distance is important. Thoughtfully modifying one’s actions makes it possible to balance social connection and also the community’s physical health.

If one accepts, as Catholics do, that a person’s body is essential to his or her identity as an ensouled creature, it explains why wearing a face mask feels so unnatural. The stifling feeling we experience when our breathing is obstructed, the frustration that arises when we attempt to communicate using muffled speech, and the alienation we feel when we cannot easily read the facial expressions of our loved ones and friends, are all evidence that our physical experiences are an integrated part of our identity. The very same practices that allow us to exercise our care for others radically subvert our accustomed sense of humanness.

In difficult times, it is easy to feel powerless and focus only on the feelings associated with our physical, material experience. Yet Christians must challenge themselves to acknowledge the whole of reality. We are more than our bodies and feelings—we are created in God’s image and have the potential for love. Therefore, wearing a mask is only as dehumanizing as we allow it to be. By engaging creativity, a divine gift we share with the Creator, Catholic school teachers and leaders can adjust and adapt to the new conditions of practice and assist their students to grow in the ability to love as God does.

Here are some creative suggestions, or “workarounds,” that may off-set the dehumanizing feelings students often experience when wearing a face mask and help allow them to grow in their connections to and care for one another:

Supplement and augment support for “seeing” and connecting with classmates

The appearance of a person’s body (especially his or her facial expressions) is an important aspect of identity. It is often the first and most powerful mode for communication and a foundation for developing a relationship. A comforting smile can make a student feel welcome in a new place and initiate friendship. If a teacher can supplement ways for his or her students to “see” one another and get to know one anothers’ appearances, it will increase a sense of connection and develop a more cohesive classroom community. Mask-wearing need not preclude students from learning to visually distinguish between their classmates while wearing masks nor should it keep the students from getting to know what their classmates’ uncovered faces look like. Photographs taken without masks of the students, teachers, aides and other school personnel should be brought into a prominent display in the school building. They might even be displayed with the message, “My name is X and I care about my friends.” Where there are many new students and relationships, this will be especially helpful. Young learners might find it easiest to wear laminated photos on a lanyard, while older students might display them on their desk on a “name tent.” Their teacher could place his or her photo on a poster, coffee mug or t-shirt.

The students should also be encouraged to look beyond the masks in their classroom and learn to “see” one another as God does—as unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable people who are both body and soul.  The students would enjoy being coached to notice the other physical traits associated with their classmates, such as their posture, body language and eye color. Going even further, the teacher might emphasize that truly “seeing” others requires a concerted effort to explore their distinct character as it made evident in thoughts, values, talents, struggles and more. Students might be encouraged to pray for one another—bringing the intentions and needs of their classmates’  struggles to God. After so much isolation, opportunities for the students to get to know one another more fully, relate socially, and care for each other spiritually must be an acknowledged priority. 

Create alternative channels for the expression of emotion

Although we express ourselves with our entire bodies, everyone in the classroom will find it harder to communicate emotions with the obstruction of facial expressions due to masks. New ways of sharing feelings must be developed.  Our voices, though muffled, can be recognized as an even more important way of communicating ourselves, our sorrows and our joys. Students should be encouraged to speak directly and regularly with their teachers about their well-being. Although this important personal communication is best shared one-on-one and in an intimate, relational conversation, classroom settings do not often make this possible. To ensure it happens, a routine will need to be established. For example, young children may find it helpful to draw a face that communicates how they are feeling during the school day and display it on their desk. Older children will benefit from opportunities to give their teachers a quick emotional “status check” using methods such as hand signaling, journaling, or online polling. Procedures for how the students will express and get help with especially difficult emotions when they arise should always be in place. Given the unprecedented nature of the challenges many students may experience during the pandemic, creating a safe space where feelings are recognized and validated is of particular importance.

Expand methods for creating connection and welcome

Although children are more flexible and find it easier to adapt than adults, it should be expected that mask-wearing may negatively affect how comfortable students are welcoming others and being friendly. Whether greeting classmates from a safe social distance in a school hallway or crossing paths with staff on the playground, most students will feel encumbered as they engage with others. They will need to be encouraged that this is an important aspect of community and one they must intentionally work to preserve. The school community as a whole will benefit from the launch of an initiative to be even more welcoming and build a sense of connection and unity. For example, a plan might be developed to reward friendliness or a special, non-contact greeting (e.g., an eye wink or a special clap/snap pattern) could be developed for everyone to share. Such efforts allow the community to regain control over the impositions of the pandemic, reducing anxiety and increasing well-being.

As Catholics, we believe that our all-good and all-loving God does not cause pandemics or crises to happen, but draws good from them. Because God can write straight with crooked lines, there is nothing beyond the reach of his transforming love. Further, we believe God recognizes our dignity by allowing us to participate in bringing about this good. If Catholic leaders and teachers approach wearing face masks with creativity, they will find that their students and schools emerge from the crisis stronger for it.

Are Catholic Schools Small Businesses?

The following blog was contributed by Philip Dujardin, a theology teacher at Matignon High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Our daughters’ Catholic school was in a crisis. At one particular intense meeting, a priest assigned to hearing parent concerns made mention of a philosophy that is gaining popularity among Catholic leaders: Every school must financially support itself. Those that cannot will be forced to close. In short, our Catholic schools are now considered businesses, separate entities who will demonstrate their worth by their financial sustainability.

This sounds like a practical idea. People are willing to spend money on a service or product worth offering. Contributors demonstrate confidence by investing in businesses that will make a difference in people’s lives. Parishes and dioceses, freed from the obligation to support often struggling schools, would finally be able to focus their efforts on serving parishioners’ sacramental needs, church building maintenance, and other ministries that will sustain the Church into the future. Perhaps the school building itself could be rented to a local organization, perhaps even a charter school, that will provide consistent funds for the parish to make ends meet.

Despite good intentions, the idea that schools should operate as independently financially viable businesses threatens the existence of Catholic education itself. Our schools are not businesses, they are ministries. The shared mission of our schools is now more important than ever: Enrich the lives of young families by educating through the lens of our Catholic values. Unlike the alternative, students and teachers can mention the name of God as the source of all gifts. In our schools, students learn the love of Christ, providing them with purpose and dignity, and helping them to realize the worth of their brothers and sisters. As a theology teacher, I have seen lives transformed by the opportunities we provide for students to know God for themselves.

Local Catholic schools bring families serious about practicing their faith together. They are bastions of hope for raising our children within an atmosphere of love of God and neighbor. When we close the doors to these institutions, these families are scattered, leaving the embers of hope to lose their flame, not having one another to keep each other warm and bright in the enveloping darkness.

We cannot expect our schools, especially those that serve the poor, to operate independently of parish or diocesan support. Thanks to priests, brothers, and sisters who have given and continue to give of themselves prayerfully and sacrificially in following a vocation to serve, our schools have thrived. Now, faced with the reality of continuous school closings, our leaders, lay teachers and parents are challenged to respond to the question of where to go from here. However, this issue is not confined to those already involved with our schools. All the faithful, bishops to parishioners, must make the continued presence of Catholic education the priority of the present time. Are we willing to carry the torch of religious orders that founded our schools, to willingly pray and sacrifice for the shared mission.

In Catholic social doctrine we have a word for tending to the needs of the most vulnerable, the preferential option for the poor. In our economy and among our ministries, our Catholic schools are the most vulnerable and deserving of our attention. For families on the economic margins, having an accessible Catholic education is a necessity to gaining access to opportunities normally reserved for those in well-to-do neighborhoods. A quality education brings us closer to an equitable society. A Catholic education brings us closer to God.

Why not call to mind our duty to our young people and their families by praying for Catholic schools at every Mass, every week? Is it possible to hold more collections for our Catholic schools? Can we nurture more partnerships between struggling inner city schools and their counterparts and parishes in surrounding areas? Can priests and bishops who support Catholic schools encourage their fellow priests and bishops to do all they can to keep Catholic schools open?

Jesus’ Great Commission states clearly that our primary work is to evangelize. This past year, the students in my sophomore theology class, in the spirit of the Great Commission, set out to share the Gospel with students younger than themselves. Students wrote stories from the perspective of Biblical characters who were changed by encountering Jesus. We then traveled to local elementary schools, reading the stories in small groups, presenting stories as a one-man show or rapping to the entire class. We encountered a receptiveness to the Gospel that is rare in the public domain. We could sense the openness that the students had toward the message, to us as visitors and to their teachers. Sadly, one of the schools we visited, the one serving a low income community, was forced to close this Spring. Nine other schools in our diocese alone also were closed or consolidated. I wonder what will happen to those students and their families. I wonder what will happen to our Church and our ability to transform society.

Sowing the Seeds of Academic Excellence

The following blog was contributed by Tina Moore, vice principal and middle school religion teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Charleston, SC. She has taught in Catholic schools for 20 years, with 16 at BSCS. Tina’s passions are God, family and walking with young people in their journey to Christ.

Listen, understand with your heart, and produce good fruit. This is the message of Jesus from the parable of the The Sower (Matthew 13). The Sower scattered seeds, symbolizing The Word of God, in four places: on a path, on rocky ground, among thorns and in fertile soil. This parable could be useful in considering the environments in our Catholic schools. In his homily, my priest shared that the seeds that fall on the path and are snatched by birds  are the times when we refuse to listen for understanding; the rocky ground likened to hearing with our heads but not allowing it to take root in our hearts; and the thorns a symbol of hearing the message and believing but not transforming into action. 

The rich soil, however, is a setting where authentic sharing of ideas is an intentional part of the culture—and precisely the kind of environment learners, both student and adult, need as our new school year approaches.  Fertile soil lies in forming a school culture to build relationship, community with others (adult and young person) in order to build up the person, our Church, and the world. A proven way to create an environment of collegiality in our Catholic schools is through adult collaboration: adults in the school being open to one another through professional learning communities, with their students and families being at the heart of all they do, working side by side to see the mission accomplished.

In seeking academic excellence at your school, research shows that we produce good fruit when the adults establish and share a vision for the school. In between all of the planning of schedules, safety precautions, and parent communication, we must know with clarity and strength of what we envision academic excellence will look like, sound like, and feel like. Professional development aimed toward growing that vision through teacher collaboration pushes your school forward in the midst of uncertainty. Teaching tends to be isolative in nature; combatting that isolation with regular opportunities for adult learning springboards your school toward collegiality.

As Jesus sums up the explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:23, “But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Fostering a culture in which faculty and staff are geared toward bettering their craft while enhancing their students’ lives is fertile soil. To that end, in today’s environment, seek ways for your faculty and students to connect and build. Being a flexible, adaptable community will get us through the year we have ahead of us. Ask yourself, “How can I build a culture of collaboration and collegiality? What does the Sower want me to sow in my encounters with others today?”

The New Back to School Reality: A Masterclass on Bullying Prevention and Working with Parents

The following blog was contributed by Jodee Blanco, New York Times best-selling author and consultant.

We’ve never seen a back to school like this before.  We’ve also never had an opportunity like this before either.  Challenge and uncertainty, when met with faith, optimism, hope and resolve, can become blessed catalysts for growth and even unexpected joy.

If we approach this fall with a sense of adventure and focus our energy on how we can make this work instead of worrying about why we can’t, there is nothing that can stop us.  This coming school year more than ever, we need to set the tone for students and parents with unprecedented energy and positivity, not because we’re putting on a brave face, but because we know we got this.

Just imagine, we will be living history as it unfolds in real time! Think of the 20/21 academic year as an infinite teachable moment. As you’re finalizing your re-opening plans, remember, we’re all human. Some days will be bumpier than others. As long as everyone—students, parents, and the school–is on the same page about what’s really important, what might feel like a burden now, when we look back, may have been a gift in ways that we can’t yet see.

How does a school or diocese get everyone on that same page? How can teachers and administrators make the transition back to the classroom as comfortable as possible for students and encourage an environment of inclusion and tolerance amidst such dramatic change?  What strategies and techniques can schools implement to reassure every student that no matter what next semester holds, the school has their back?

Bullying is likely to take on some new forms, especially patterns of exclusionary, digital and cyber bullying.  How do you recognize and identify these behaviors early on, and what are some simple, practical tools for intervening with love, grace and truth?  What about bullying intervention in the virtual classroom? Where does the school’s responsibility end and the parent’s begin?

What specific communication policies and procedures can schools implement so that parents are working in partnership with the school and not counterintuitively, especially during periods of adjustment or sudden disruption?

I’ll be exploring the above and much more in my Masterclass series for the NCEA later this month entitled The New Back to School Reality: A Masterclass on Bullying Prevention and Working with Parents.

Let’s inspire new levels of creativity together and celebrate how we can transform dissonance into discovery.  I’m SO excited and honored to have been asked by the NCEA to do this series and hope that you’ll join me!


About the Author

Jodee Blanco is the author of four books on bullying, including the New York Times bestselling memoir, Please Stop Laughing at Me. She is also the author of the NCEA’s Anti-Bullying Survival Series. Jodee travels to schools, sharing her story to save lives, and has spoken to thousands of people worldwide. For more information on Jodee and her in-school anti-bullying program, please visit jodeeblanco.com/catholic-schools/.


Jodee’s Other Webinars on Bullying:

Jodee’s Publications with NCEA:

Focus your efforts: Identifying what matters most to close learning gaps for back-to-school student success

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance Learning, Inc.

Note: This is an excerpt from a blog series on using assessment data to address learning gaps during the 2020–2021 school year. To read the series, click here.

As you reflect on the many unknowns around Back-to-School, you may feel as if you’re facing another “first year of teaching”—but with one key difference. This time, you know exactly what to do. Identify the most critical skills for learning, and focus instruction there. But how do you know which skills are most critical?

The “backbone” of Renaissance Star Assessments is an empirically validated learning progression for reading and math. Our experts take each state’s educational standards and break them down into discrete, teachable skills, then organize them into the ideal teachable order, so educators can help students move along the pathway to greater mastery.

During this process, we identified a subset of skills that are fundamental to students’ development at each grade level—Focus Skills.

When you can easily identify the most critical skills, you know exactly where to focus instruction to move students forward. You also know the most critical skills from prior grades, which help determine what to review and—when needed—what to set aside. For BTS 2020, Focus Skills can become your “vital few,” with intense work on these skills producing the greatest returns in student learning.

So, where can you see Renaissance Focus Skills?

They’re highlighted on the Instructional Planning Report in Star Reading, Star Math, and Star Early Literacy. Teachers can generate the Instructional Planning Report at the class level to identify the “vital few” for core instruction. Likewise, teachers can create instructional groups based on students’ Star data and the report for each group. Finally, teachers may choose to run the report for individual students.

Additionally, you can see Focus Skills in the Renaissance Planner, which enables you to view more details about each skill (related academic vocabulary, prerequisites, state standards alignment, and grade-level domain expectations).

Educators who use Star have multiple options to access Focus Skills. But given the urgency around reversing COVID-19-related learning loss, we’re making the full list of Focus Skills available to all educators, parents, community members, and students in an interactive, engaging format.

We encourage you to explore the reading and math Focus Skills for your state and review the distribution of Focus Skills across grade levels. Equipped with this knowledge, you can reasonably infer the grade levels with the greatest potential for student learning loss, as determined by the number of Focus Skills. You can also use these lists to identify the most critical building blocks of learning for each grade, so you know where to focus your efforts for the greatest return in student growth.

Now that you know the power of Focus Skills and how to access them, we hope you see why these skills will be critical in the new school year—and the key role they can play in helping students make up lost ground resulting from this spring’s unexpected school closures.

We encourage you to explore the reading and math Focus Skills for your state and review the distribution of Focus Skills across grade levels. Equipped with this knowledge, you can reasonably infer the grade levels with the greatest potential for student learning loss, as determined by the number of Focus Skills. You can also use these lists to identify the most critical building blocks of learning for each grade, so you know where to focus your efforts for the greatest return in student growth.


About the Author

A third-generation educator, Dr. Gene M. Kerns was born with a passion for learning. Over the past two decades, he’s served as a public school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. Dr. Kerns earned a doctor of education in educational leadership from the University of Delaware as well as a master of science in secondary curriculum and instruction and a bachelor of arts in English education from Longwood University in Virginia.

Authentic Identity in Catholic Education

The following blog was contributed by Emma Ladwig, a senior majoring in marketing at the University of Notre Dame and a summer intern with the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a common question, and one I have asked myself (and been asked) countless times. As a college student, I now hear it phrased differently, perhaps in questions like “what are your plans after graduation?” or “what jobs are you interviewing for?” or something else along those lines. No matter how it is asked, though, the crux of the inquiry is the same. The question is focused on what role I will play, what my title will be, and what responsibilities I will have.

This question of what we want to be is ever present in our conversations since early childhood—and it’s an important one. Our job and the responsibilities we have are often our means for providing for ourselves and contributing to the betterment of society. But I argue that there is another question, seldom asked and seldom answered, which is also important for us to ask ourselves and the youth with whom we work: who are you going to be when you grow up?

Beyond our titles and responsibilities, we are each called by name to be people who reflect Christ in our work. Whether we work as a CEO, school nurse, teacher, custodian, principal, secretary, superintendent or intern, our roles are what we do—not necessarily who we are. As a community that strives to cultivate minds and souls, our witness of living who we are called to be by God is essential. Ideally, our jobs should be extensions of our nature and purpose as sons and daughters, but fruitful membership in the body of Christ should always be our primary goal regardless of our occupations at any time.

As an intern at NCEA this summer, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing how employees across the association integrate their identity as Catholics with their roles within the workplace. Every morning, we begin with prayer to recall the importance of starting our day in the presence of God, realizing our entire lives and every part of the workday is ordained by Him and for the advancement of His kingdom on earth.

Throughout the rest of the day, I have the opportunity to learn from the people with whom I work. The individuals at NCEA have already taught me many lessons about what it means to be true to whom God has authentically created them to be, simply by working in accordance with the traits God gave them and the Christian identity that guides their lives. I have seen a servant leader who strives to listen and asks the important questions. I have experienced the joyful kindness of a long-time employee. I have learned from an incredibly knowledgeable individual who acts with humility and helpfulness. I have discovered nuances of the association because of a thoughtful coworker who followed up after working with me.

I don’t just work with directors, representatives, coordinators, and managers. I work with people of service, joy, humility, patience and peace. These differences may seem like small things, but living a Christian life is often about the small, silent things that pull hearts slowly and surely heavenward.

Though subtle, these small movements are not lost on students, and I posit that they are instrumental in creating an environment where children are reminded of the importance of using their distinct natures and qualities to glorify God. How wonderful would it be if they notice how a teacher has made them feel welcome and try to imitate that trait when a new child joins the class? How rewarding would it be if they witness their custodian’s positive attitude and think to emulate that when they work on a tough assignment? When we talk to children about their future, how wonderful would it be if they mention their desire to be saints, to be people of praise, and to be servants of their parish and community in addition to serving in various jobs or roles?

Although I doubt that the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” will change, I do have faith that Catholic education is asking the question, “who do you want to be when you grow up?” through the actions of school staff, parents, clergy and religious. As we seek to educate our children to be both citizens of our world and citizens of Heaven, then, it is our duty to continue walking in a way that fulfills the work God has prepared for each of us.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:10 RSVCE

Sweet Spirit: Educating for Freedom in Catholic Schools

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Brandi Odom Lucas, principal, and Karen Chambers, director of campus ministry, at Verbum Dei High School in Los Angeles. Dr. O.L. earned a Doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from Loyola Marymount University. She is passionate about how faith and culture enhance education, is a mom of three amazing humans and a super fan of students, educators and gospel music. In addition to her role in campus ministry, Karen Chambers, M.Div. also teaches theology. She earned her Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley.

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,
And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord;
There are sweet expressions on each face,
And I know they feel the presence of the Lord.

 The above lyrics are to the gospel song Sweet, Sweet Spirit by Doris Akers. It describes the feeling I have when I walk on my Catholic high school campus each day. Which is why it pains me to say what I am about to say.

There is racism at your (and my) school. Hard Stop.

It is lurking in your classrooms, your curriculum, your handbooks, your locker rooms, your faculty rooms, and even in your relationships.

It is sneaky and camouflaged in phrases like:

“It’s our tradition.”

“We’ve always taught it this way.”

“We can’t become political. We are just a school.”

“They (students) are hearing that from their parents. What can we do about it?”

It threatens to disarm you with beliefs like:

“If I say something the board will get upset.”

“That parent is a donor and we need them.”

“I am white. What can I do/say about it?”

And it gains strength through your denial which can sound like:

“This is an isolated event.”

“I know the student’s family…s/he’s a good boy. He didn’t mean it like that.”

“Racism doesn’t exist at my school.”

There is racism at your school. Your job, as educational leaders (administrators and teachers), is to measure it regularly and extinguish it immediately. Any racism occurring in an institution opened in the name of Jesus Christ, a Catholic institution, is an abomination of God.

From the very first chapter in Genesis we learn that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Scripture doesn’t say God created some people in God’s image. Scripture shows us that every human is made in the image of God, inherently has equal dignity, and that it is imperative to take action when that dignity is called into question. In 2018, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter against racism entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts, The Enduring Call to Love,” in which they remind the faithful that, “Every racist act—every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and in many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.” This sin of racism rejects the dignity of our Black brothers and sisters, and it works against the consistent ethic of life that Catholics believe vital to the faith. We deny God’s greatest gift to us – life – when we devalue the life of God’s children.

Catholic Social Teaching, which is based on Scripture and tradition, revolves around the central theme of “Life and Dignity of the Human Person.” The personal and social sin of racism violates the central theme of our moral and ethical foundation. Pope Francis recognized this when he stated in his general audience on June 3, 2020 (following the murder of George Floyd) that, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” However, simply “not being a racist” is not enough. When we stand by and watch it without taking action, we are complicit at best. The U.S. Bishops recognize this when they say, “Finally, too often racism comes in the form of the sin of omission, when individuals, communities and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered” (“Open Wide our Hearts”). To stand by and do nothing is a sin. Our faith calls us to be disciples of Christ who recognize the dignity of all people, who stand with those on the margins, and who fight for justice. If we are not taking action against the sin of racial injustice, we are failing in our Christian faith, we are missing the mark, we are sinning.

Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove,
Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love.
And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise;
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.

In the past, the tendency has been for us to designate spaces in our schools where Black students and students of color are comfortable to be themselves. Most times these spaces are found in the relationships with certain faculty members. And many times, those faculty members are also persons of color. Many schools have allowed these relationships to shoulder the sole responsibility of responding to, comforting and healing students who are facing racialized experiences in and outside our school. Recent responses from alumni of Catholic schools to “Black Lives Matter” social media posts indicate that those safe spaces are not enough to counter the trauma caused by unchecked racist practices in Catholic schools. Catholic schools must be the safe spaces for its Black students and students of color.

In order to become safe spaces for our students, Catholic schools must educate for freedom. This involves:

  • Showing commitment to shifting the consciousness of their faculty and staff. This is accomplished through challenging racial biases and residual white advantage at our schools.[1]
  • Affirming and acknowledging the identities, cultures, experiences and perspectives of their students of color.
  • Identifying, addressing and protecting all students against racialized experiences occurring within the institution especially in areas of curriculum, policy and stakeholder relationships.
  • Strengthening student’s ability to name their oppression and those of other marginalized communities using both theory and experience.

The result of the above commitments is a transformed student who is free to interact with and change their world. The schools that educate for freedom are better positioned to work alongside the student’s family and community to transform their self-concept and view of the world. The institution’s shift from an inactive-complicit approach to an active-healing approach helps to better prepare all students, especially Black students, for the world they will experience and positions them as active participators in that world. The Catholic school then assumes a countercultural position through its commitment to an education that heals and restores the damage caused by a society that devalues the lives, histories, contributions and experiences of Black people and people of color. Teachers and staff members become “care agents” who, through their critical teaching, “provide opportunities for deeper reflection and affirm students’ lived moments”[2]. 2 Corinthians 3:17 reminds us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. To what degree does the Holy Spirit dwell in your institutions? How will you answer God’s call for freedom?

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[1] Singleton, Glenn (2015). Courageous Conversations About Race. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, California

[2] Odom Lucas, Brandi, “Sweet Spirit: The Pedagogical Relevance of the Black Church for African American Males” (2014). LMU/LLS These and Dissertations, 205. https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/etd/205

Ancora Imparo: Spiritual Reflections to Combat Racism in Catholic Schools

The following blog was contributed by Vincent Hale, music and theater teacher at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in New York, NY. For a more complete and in-depth understanding of Who, What, When, Where, and Why to respond to Racial and Social Injustice, check out his piece on the Partnership Schools blog.

As a Black male Catholic school educator and leader, ancora imparo—I am still learning. I am challenged to expand my knowledge, the capacity of my influence and the impact of my instruction, especially in the current state of our country, laced with violence, hate and systemic oppression. I have been wondering how I should respond to these heinous acts of police brutality against people of color and the requests of my white colleagues and friends for suggestions on how they support the Black Lives Matter movement.

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek prompts the reader asking, “Why did we start doing what we’re doing in the first place?” As educators we should ask, what policies, curriculum, systems, structures and routines implemented in my school advance or hinder racial justice? Scripture animates my educational philosophy. I get out of bed every morning to have a transformational impact on the lives of children and families through the power of music and theatre infused with love and joy. I encourage all Catholic school educators and leaders to return to their “Why?”

Through personal connections to scripture and individual relationships with God in prayer, He imparts infinite wisdom. The fruits of the spirit are the keys to overcoming the racism that devalues the image of God in others. We must access our faith to see people how Christ sees them. This process will require self-reflection, mindfulness, and being open to addressing all the thoughts and feelings that arise. Below you will find six scriptures with a probing question that support my version of “Why” to respond to racial and social injustice as it stands now, while ancora imparo.

  1. I Corinthians 12:15-26 NABRE
    “But as it is, there are many parts, but one body.”
    If I am in a position to hire, what practices do I employ to ensure diversity within my staff?
  2. Proverbs 22:6 NABRE
    “Train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.” Am I helping students learn from an early age that their voices, lived experiences and opinions are valuable?
  3. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NABRE
    “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” How have I fed into the idea and perpetuated the effects of white privilege?
  4. Matthew 28:19-20 NABRE
    “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” How are my thoughts, words, actions, and character shaped by my environment?
  5. Colossians 3:13-14
    “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.” How can I listen with the intention to understand without judgment?

I have been the victim and inflictor of racially charged biases on several occasions. White people, probably with good hearts, have unconsciously asserted microaggressions against me and I have done the exact same. The key is to acknowledge those missed opportunities for human connection and ensure we are prepared for an alternative response in the future. My hope is that this post points you in a clear direction of “Why” to commit to this work.

Student Voice Survey Series: ‘I can’t talk to my teacher in-person, so it makes my learning harder’

The following blog was contributed by Gretchen Guffy and Katie Gragnaniello.

What students are experiencing during the coronavirus outbreak while learning at home

This spring, we began the series on students’ perceptions of coronavirus with a blog summarizing the technological devices available to students at home as well as their internet access and quality. In this blog, we highlight students’ responses related to learning experiences at home.

Learning at Home

We asked students how well learning at home is going, online and otherwise, compared to when they attended school.

Overall, students expressed concern that their learning experience is not as effective as in classroom settings.

In late March, the majority of students (89%) reported a continuance of class-related work even when their schools were closed. And of those students, 95% reported receiving at least some form of instruction from at least some of their teachers.

However, the format differed depending on where students live. Rural students, in particular, reported receiving more printed learning materials and less access to online learning than counterparts in urban, suburban and other communities.

In all, 76% of students reported receiving online instruction for classroom materials, while 15% received printed instructional materials.

It was clear from their responses that students miss their access to informal, real-time teacher feedback and interaction with peers. Without this traditional approach, learning new material is difficult, particularly during the sudden shift to an online setting.

Comments from students reflect a range of concerns about learning without the physical presence and support of teachers:

  • “It’s a little harder to learn the material because the teachers are not actually present, and it’s all through the internet.”
  • “I feel like I’m not learning as efficiently and effectively at home rather than school. It is very hard to learn new topics at home without the instruction of a teacher right in front of you. I prefer learning at school than at home.”
  • “It is much harder to learn online especially when many teachers are not actually teaching, they are just dropping new materials. I am a person who needs physical interaction to be able to comprehend and learn well.”

New Normal

Students also expressed concern that they are not able to focus as well at home as they are in a classroom and feel less motivated. This creates challenges for maintaining academic success, which may impact further educational pursuits.

Thirty-seven percent of students said school closure will affect their academic preparedness “a great deal,” and another 51% said “somewhat.” Students clearly expressed strong preference for their traditional classroom setting.

  • “I feel more engaged and motivated in school than at home. It is harder to learn new topics at home.”
  • “Online classes do not take into account the attention span of teenagers and it is sometimes difficult to communicate with teachers outside of class or do online work when the internet cuts out.”
  • “It was better in school because it was easier to ask questions. Also, the school environment improved focus.”

Teachers are Essential

Our survey results highlight the importance of instruction and the significant role that teachers play in students’ ability and willingness to learn new materials.

For this reason, while CARES Act funding to states will potentially enable students to have greater access to technology (e.g., one-to-one devices and internet services), technology in and of itself will not wholly fulfill students’ academic needs.

Exploring ways to improve the delivery of online education—for example, funding professional development and support for teachers to conduct effective distance learning—will be a critical investment in our current environment as well as in the future.

ACT Student Survey Series

At least 55 million students are now learning at home after approximately 124,000 public and private schools have closed their doors due to the coronavirus.

ACT wanted to hear from students about their experiences during the pandemic. We invited 130,000 college-bound high school students who registered to take the national April or June 2020 ACT test to participate in an online survey. A total of 13,000 students participated between March 26 and April 1, resulting in a 10% response rate.

We sought to gather students’ responses related to…

  • the technological device and internet quality that they have access to at home for school-related activities.
  • how well they are learning at home and online compared to when they were in school.
  • whether their basic needs (e.g., housing, food) are being met during the pandemic.
  • their current living situation, including whether they are employed, need to care for others, or are home alone.
  • the types of health behaviors (e.g., eating healthy, exercising) they are engaged in during the pandemic.