A Father’s Love Story

The following blog was contributed by Adam P. Zoeller, a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY.

“I know your works (behold, I have left an
open door before you, which no one can
close.” (Revelation 3:8).

Sitting on the couch waiting past the curfew of your adolescent son and/or daughter is an experience filled with anxiety and anticipation along with fear and emotional exhaustion. However, when the vehicle pulls into the driveway, the feeling of being overjoyed that their child is home safely can supersede any negative emotion. This shared experience by parents is not the basis for the parable of the Prodigal Son, but there are some striking similarities. “So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20-21).

The message behind this selected verse of the Lost Son story is the anticipation of and
excitement by which God rejoices when one of His children returns home. This parable of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Luke is a summation of the entirety of salvation history (God’s actions and people’s responses), from the Fall to the Promise. The message is reinforced by the evangelist by including the parables of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) in the same chapter. The unconditional charity displayed in these stories captures the infinite mercy of God while providing a model for parents as faithful leaders of their unique and respective domestic church.

The reckless behavior of the Prodigal Son does not fulfill his personal expectations of
happiness nor God’s desire for us. The story emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships which begin in the family. According to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church.” (Lumen Gentium #11). The dynamics of the family have shifted and changed in our society, but the foundation of any family should be rooted in how we know, love, and serve God. Thus, the responsibility of parents is to maintain this standard in the family. What is the result of this standard? The answer is simple. The continual spiritual growth within the domestic church and the restoration of the relationships between families. This restoration can be seen in the witnesses of grace within families and communities, which in turn will provide a taste of God’s kingdom on earth.


About the Author

Adam P. Zoeller is a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY. He has nearly two decades of experience in male adolescent education and formation; teaching in both Carmelite and Xaverian traditions. He earned his B.A. in religious studies and B.A. in clinical psychology from Spalding University (Louisville, KY) and his M.Ed. in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH). He holds a Master’s Catechist Certification from the Archdiocese of Louisville. He has written blogs as well as presented workshops and webinars for the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), been published by the Catholic Journal of Education (“Tolkien’s allegory: Using Peter Jackson’s vision of Fellowship to illuminate male adolescent Catholic education”), worked on educational materials for Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story from Journey Films, and was an educational consultant for Ave Maria Press for their World Religions teachers manual.

Upcoming Projects: Adam is co-editor for Hollywood or History: An Inquiry-Based Strategy for Using Film to Teach World Religions (Information Age Publishing).

Adam lives in Kentucky with his wife and his three daughters. He can be reached at azoeller@saintx.com.

10 Lessons to Heed in Achieving School Financial Sustainability

The institutional knowledge of Habeeb and Associates Architects can help your school begin to map out financial sustainability. H & A Architects specializes in educational design and puts a spotlight on 10 things your school can be thinking about for the coming school year beginning with a “healthy building” and classroom designs that encourage student engagement. With 20 years of experience working with Catholic school facilities, the attached presentation features H & A Architects’ innovative but practical ideas on how to work toward and achieve financial stability.

Five Ways to Include Disability in Equity Work

The following blog was contributed by Stephanie Cawthon, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the National Deaf Center.

Last year brought not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also an intensification of the public consciousness and the need to recognize, unpack, and take action to remedy the deep racial injustices in our society, particularly those experienced by people of color. Data shows our disabled students of color face systemic barriers at far higher rates than their white disabled peers. That proves to me that advocating for disability rights must include addressing the racial divide in our work to support students with disabilities.

Here are the questions I’m asking you to consider, whether you’re a district administrator, school leader, or teacher: When you think about diversity in your school or district and the initiatives to support its increase, do they consider disability? Do you acknowledge racial disparities within the disabled community?

The case for including disability in conversations about race—and vice versa

If we want to truly improve equity in education, we must expand our thinking about what diversity is to include disability—and we must expand our thinking about racism in our work around disabilities—particularly when talking about inclusion, equity, and access to opportunity. Why? Because intersectionality is an important part of equity work. Intersectionality refers to the reality that we are not just one thing; that is, that several things, including race and ability, make up our entire identity.

Expanding our thinking is also important because, as Cindy Li says, “We are all just temporarily abled.” Disability, at one point in time or another, will affect all of us.

How to include disability in equity work

Here are five things that can help you better understand disability and its place in equity work.

  1. Begin by defining “disability.” What does “having a disability” or “being disabled” mean, anyway? Once you know what you’re talking about, it can be easier to decide what, exactly, to do about it.
  2. Acknowledge that disability is complex. Disability rests on a continuum. More specifically, disability is variable, contextual, embedded in culture, and not neutral. 
  3. Address ableism and language. Ableism refers to attitudes and behaviors that devalue people with disabilities. Ableist phrases, however unintentional they might be, can be found throughout the English language. They often use disability status as a way of putting someone or something down.
  4. Keep intersectionality front and center. The understanding that one size doesn’t fit all is foundational to work in special education, but we, as a field, are rarely explicit about how this concept applies to intersectional experiences related to race and gender.
  5. Be wary of “helper” mentality. Ableism can often masquerade as “helping” (quotes very intentional) instead of truly advocating or practicing allyship.

Read more on the NWEA blog, Teach. Learn. Grow., and on Stephanie Cawthon’s website. Interested in supporting students with disabilities in your school or district? Apply for a $10,000 NWEA Educators for Equity grant by June 11, 2021.

About the Author

Stephanie Cawthon is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the National Deaf Center. She is passionate about using research to help the deaf community succeed in school and beyond. She holds a BA and MA in psychology from Stanford University and a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Now STREAM-ing: A Catholic Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning

The following blog was contributed by Allie Johnston from William H. Sadlier, Inc.

STREAM is an acronym for a uniquely Catholic interdisciplinary approach. In this acronym, each letter stands for a discipline: S—science; T—technology; R—religion; E—engineering; A—art; and M—mathematics. Integrate them and you have STREAM, a vision and a framework that makes faith and Catholic identity central to interdisciplinary learning. For years, Catholic schools have been putting this approach to work, highlighting the interrelation of religion and Catholic school values with the STEM subjects and the arts.

What is STREAM in Catholic Education?

Though common today, the STREAM acronym has evolved over the past two decades. STEM as an acronym (representing science, technology, engineering, and math) was first used in 2001. And then, it became STEAM. The insertion of the “A” represents the arts, which some critics felt was a vital component missing from STEM. The addition of the “R” to STEAM to become STREAM sometimes represents reading. But for Catholic schools, the “R” represents religion, a subject at the heart of a Catholic education.  

For a simple visual illustrating the STREAM approach, take a look at the What is STREAM? Faith Fact.

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A successful STREAM approach seamlessly integrates ideas from the six disciplines into learning experiences. It is a vision that requires planning, development, support, collaboration, and communication. For nearly a decade, STREAM initiatives have taken root and grown in Catholic schools across the country. Though unique, their interpretations and applications share the incorporation of the central and foundational lens of faith to impactful interdisciplinary teaching and learning. You’ll see it described as STREAM curriculum, STREAM education, or even an entire STREAM school.

A successful STREAM approach seamlessly integrates ideas from the six disciplines into learning experiences. It is a vision that requires planning, development, support, collaboration, and communication. For nearly a decade, STREAM initiatives have taken root and grown in Catholic schools across the country. Though unique, their interpretations and applications share the incorporation of the central and foundational lens of faith to impactful interdisciplinary teaching and learning. You’ll see it described as STREAM curriculum, STREAM education, or even an entire STREAM school.

Why is STREAM beneficial?

A STREAM approach reflects the rich connections among disciplines that exist in real life. STREAM is an opportunity for today’s learners to learn via multiple lenses, including the lens of faith. This approach develops broad, creative, critical thinking skills that can be applied across disciplines and as disciples both in and outside school throughout learner’s lives—both now and in 21st century careers.

Ideas that Support a STREAM Approach

Implementing a STREAM approach requires an investment of time and effort to integrate the disciplines of science, technology, religion, engineering, art, and mathematics. Efforts to design STREAM learning experiences or projects support meaningful and engaging connections and applications. To inspire and encourage these efforts, here are some ideas to support STREAM thinking and learning.

STREAM Learning Idea: Sadlier Math Sample Lessons

See how Sadlier Math’s STREAM Lesson Plans help you integrate science, technology, religion, engineering, and the arts into your math instruction with short, quick activities that are manageable in just a few class periods.

Just for Catholic Schools, every grade level of Sadlier Math features:

  • 14–18 chapter-based STEAM Lesson Plans that connect math lessons to real-world applications where students use their math skills to problem solve
  • STEAM activities aligned to standards such as Common Core and Next Generation Science and addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  • 10 STREAM Lesson Plans that integrate religion into selected STEAM Lesson Plans with an activity focused on one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teachings

Try a sample STREAM Lesson Plan for Grades 3 and 6 now!

Download Now

STREAM Learning Idea: Saints as Scientists, Engineers, Artists, and Mathematicians

Utilize technology to explore the lives of the saints and demonstrate the interrelation of faith and career. For example, invite children to use tools to research Saint Luke, a physician, Saint Hubert, a Franciscan mathematician, or Blessed Carlo Acutis, an amateur computer programmer. The stories of the lives of saints and holy people wonderfully illustrate connections of a lens of faith applied to the STEM and arts professions. A religious education class may offer an opportunity to discuss or artistically present ways that these saints influenced and impacted their work, the Church, and the world in faith-filled and interdisciplinary ways.

STREAM Learning Idea: Responsible Technology Use and Design

Help students understand that the Catholic principles that guide our communication and interaction with others and information in the physical world apply to the digital world, too. As rapid advances in technology and infrastructure impact the digital landscape and the ways in which we use digital tools, responsible and safe use and consumption of digital materials have important links with religion. Designing digital materials expands these links. Ask students to develop a multimedia presentation to teach their peers and classmates about this or one of the themes explored in your religious education program.

STREAM Learning Idea: Building the Church

Engineers build places for us to worship or meet and feel God’s presence. Throughout history, cathedrals and churches were extensions of the natural world and safe places to gather, pray, and celebrate the faith. Take students on a tour of your local parish church. Research the engineers and architects who built it and learn more about their vision and the choices (both functional and artistic or stylistic) that went into building your parish. Bonus points if you can set up a time to interview or meet with the engineers themselves! Contemplate the building’s connections to the natural world. As a class, embark on a project to design or build a model parish church or Catholic school that supports your community’s many functions and aesthetics. Intergrade technological tools to plan and mathematical concepts to bring models to life.

STREAM Learning Idea: Faith Illuminated in Art

Throughout history, artists have relied on the fine arts to express faith. Stained glass windows were an innovation originally used to teach parishioners who could not read about the faith as they attended Mass. A STREAM investigation might explore the science behind stained glass, and how and why stained-glass windows are designed, made, and installed. A project might invite students to design and engineer their own windows using mathematical concepts and art materials (like clear contact paper and colorful tissue papers) or digital tools to express faith.   

STREAM Learning Idea: Engineering Social Justice

Engineering is at the heart of one of our central focuses as Catholics: social justice. Brainstorm the ways that engineers are necessary for meeting the needs of communities at the center of various social justice issues facing the Church today (for example, the planning and building of wells in countries without water or the creation of sustainable agriculture in a world impacted by climate change). Determine an issue to investigate as a class or group. Rely on data to determine the scope of the issue’s impact and consider technologies or innovations that would support a solution. Consider art as a medium to share findings about, increase awareness of, or propose solutions to the issue.

STREAM Learning Idea: Making and Sharing Music

One of the beautiful contributions Catholics have made to the arts is in the area of liturgical and sacred music, which strongly ties to mathematics and the science of sound. Listen to examples and discuss ways music helps us to worship, pray, and celebrate as Catholics. Using machinery or audio technology, invite students to work in groups to compose, record, or remix and then share a song in this category.

In Summary

The benefits of STREAM and its creative implementation in Catholic schools have made it a powerful and successful approach for Catholic education. Download and share the What is STREAM? Faith Fact among administrators, teachers, or families to explain or promote STREAM in your community.





Education Pluralism and the Right to Education in the United States

The following blog was contributed by Quentin Wodon, the volunteer team lead for the Global Catholic Education website.

The fortunes for Catholic K-12 and higher education in the United States have diverged for some time. Enrollment in Catholic K-12 schools has been declining for more than 50 years, with an especially severe drop this year as schools became less affordable for parents due to income losses from the pandemic. By contrast, Catholic higher education has done well, with rising enrollment until relatively recently. Today, some Catholic colleges and universities are facing hard times due to the pandemic and unfavorable demographic trends. Still, many of the 250 or so Catholic colleges and universities remain strong. As a result, while the United States accounts for less than three percent of global enrollment in K-12 Catholic education, the country is home to a fifth of all students enrolled in Catholic higher education.

A key reason for these differences in fortunes relates to tuition. Many parents have a hard time paying for the cost of K-12 Catholic education, even though they may appreciate the emphasis placed by the schools on values and faith. Catholic colleges and universities also charge tuition, but so do public higher education institutions, albeit at a lower rate for in-state students. Therefore, one could argue that public institutions have (slightly) less of a pricing advantage at the higher education level than at the Catholic K-12 level.

This in turn leads to very different levels of education pluralism depending on the level of education being considered. The Global Catholic Education Report 2021 released today suggests a new measure of education pluralism based on the literature on market concentration. The measure is ex-post, based on the shares of students enrolled in different types of schools or universities, as opposed to ex-ante based on whether laws and regulatory frameworks are conducive to pluralism or not. It turns out, not too surprisingly, that in comparison to other countries, education pluralism at the K-12 level is low in the United States, while the country fares better for higher education. Differentials in comparative advantages related to pricing between public and private education are likely to play a role here.

Combining the new measure of education pluralism with data on more traditional educational outcomes, the Global Catholic Education Report 2021 proposes a new set of indices to measure the fulfillment of the right to education at the primary, secondary and higher levels. The United States does well on educational outcomes, but not so well at the Catholic K-12 level on education pluralism, therefore not entirely fulfilling the promise of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

What is measured gets done, the adage goes. It remains to be seen whether the measures of education pluralism and the right to education suggested in the Global Catholic Education Report 2021 will catch on. But the report at least makes an attempt to provide a simple quantitative assessment of education pluralism and the right to education globally. More generally, the goal of the report is to make the international community aware of the contributions of Catholic education, while also making Catholic educators aware of lessons emerging from international experience on how to improve educational outcomes. The theme of the 2021 report is education pluralism, learning poverty and the right to education. The report is published under the Global Catholic Education project and co-sponsored by the International Office of Catholic Education (OIEC), International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), World Organization of Former Students of Catholic Education (OMAEC) and World Union of Catholic Teachers (UMEC-WUCT), the four organizations representing Catholic education globally. The report is available for free download and results are summarized in a short YouTube video.

Phonics and the Science of Reading

The following blog was contributed by Wiley Blevins, an author and phonics specialist living in New York City. Mr. Blevins holds an M.Ed. from Harvard University.

Recently, a national conversation in schools and the media has emerged around how we best teach our young learners to read. This conversation has been couched under the umbrella of the Science of Reading. We certainly have a large body of ever-evolving information about how to teach children to read. This information comes from educational researchers, cognitive scientists who do brain research, linguists, school practitioners like yourself, and so on. Unfortunately, some of this knowledge—especially that from outside of education (e.g., brain researchers)—is largely unknown by classroom teachers and not applied to many of our most commonly used reading programs. As a result, districts around the country have begun reexamining the materials they use to teach children to read to ensure these materials are aligned to this body of knowledge.

Two older established models of reading have emerged during this national examination of our early reading curriculum: the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that reading comprehension is a product of decoding (e.g., phonics) and language comprehension (e.g., vocabulary and content knowledge).

Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001) fine-tuned this model to specify aspects of each area of reading instruction and how they intersect. As a student’s decoding skills become more automatic and they become more strategic in using their growing language comprehension skills, these skills intertwine. The result: students develop into skilled, fluent readers.

In these models, the decoding piece includes foundational skills like phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, and phonics. So how do we align our phonics instruction to the Science of Reading? There are four important guideposts to consider.

Guidepost 1: Scope and Sequence

In order to effectively teach phonics, we need a clearly defined scope and sequence. This is a scope and sequence that goes from easier to more complex skills. Confusing letters and sounds are separated, and so on. This scope and sequence provide the spine on which all of the instruction rests. It is a roadmap for teachers. What to teach. When to teach. And how much focus to give each of these skills.

But having a scope and sequence isn’t enough. A scope and sequence must be more than a list of skills that you march through in an exposure-focused way. In order for a scope and sequence to be impactful, it must also have a built-in review and repetition cycle. Once we introduce a new skill, for most of our students, it takes a significant amount of time to get to mastery. Students have to get to mastery so that they can transfer those skills to all reading and writing situations. So after a skill is introduced, it should be reviewed, applied, and assessed for at least the next four to six weeks. 

Guidepost 2: Systematic and Explicit Instruction

Phonics instruction needs to be systematic and explicit. Systematic is related to having a scope and sequence and teaching those skills as a system. But teaching phonics as a system means that we go beyond skill-and-drill practice. We must also have robust conversations with our students about how that system works. So great phonics instruction is active, engaging, and thought-provoking, whereby children are observing and talking about how words work. Activities such as word building and word sorts (with follow-up question prompts like “what did you learn about these spelling patterns?”) aid in these conversations.

Explicit refers to the initial introduction of a phonics skill. Teachers need to explicitly state the sound-spelling connection (e.g., the /s/ sound is represented by the letter s). In an explicit introduction to the skill, the teacher models how to sound out words with the new skill and then gives children guided practice opportunities to apply the skill in isolated words and in connected text. This avoids the pitfalls of discovery learning, which require students to possess prerequisite skills that some may not have. 

Guidepost 3: Daily Application to Reading and Writing

Daily application to reading and writing during the phonics lesson is critical. It is in the application where the learning sticks. This requires students to read, reread, talk about, and write about decodable (accountable) texts in which they can apply their newly acquired phonics skills to get to mastery faster. These texts have a high percentage of words that can be sounded out based on the phonics skills children have learned, as well as some irregular high-frequency words and the occasional story word to make more engaging reads.

The most impactful instruction has students not only read and discuss these stories but write about them as a follow-up. If it’s a fiction story, students can write a retelling. If it’s an informational piece, students can create a list of facts learned. This requires students to apply their growing reading skills to writing immediately. The book can serve as a useful and supportive scaffold. 

Guidepost 4: Assessment

Assessment needs to inform instruction. When it comes to phonics, assessments must be viewed through two lenses: accuracy and automaticity. This tells us if students have knowledge about what has been taught (accuracy) and if they have acquired fluency with those skills (automaticity).

Phonics instruction requires two critical types of assessments: comprehensive and cumulative. A comprehensive phonics assessment is a survey of all the skills a student would learn in a phonics continuum (from identifying letter-sounds to reading words with short vowels, long vowels, complex vowels, and finally multisyllabic words). This assessment is essential at the beginning of a school year to identify which students have not mastered previous grade-level skills, which are meeting grade-level expectations, and which are beyond the scope of skills covered in a grade.

A cumulative assessment is what’s missing from most instruction and is critical for phonics success. A cumulative assessment assesses the new target skill and previously taught skills (generally looking back 4–6 weeks). This assessment monitors skill growth over time—a more accurate assessment since it takes weeks for most students to get to mastery on a taught skill. It can also alert a teacher to decayed learning (skills in which not enough review and application has been provided and the skill has “slipped away”) so that course corrections can be made to avoid potential and serious learning issues as students move from grade to grade. In addition to these assessments, teachers need to regularly listen to students read aloud and evaluate their writing for evidence of transfer.

These four guideposts alert us to key aspects of phonics instruction that need to be in place, how to teach them (see the 7 Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction link), and how to assess them. Evaluating our phonics curriculum against these guideposts can strengthen our instruction and maximize student learning.


7 Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction eBook

Meeting the Challenges of Early Literacy Phonics Instruction Leadership Literacy Brief

Selected References

Blevins, W. (2021). Choosing and using decodable texts. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Blevins, W. (2020). Meaningful phonics and word study: Lesson fix-ups for impactful teaching. New Rochelle, NY: Benchmark Education.

Blevins, W. (2019). Meeting the challenges of early literacy phonics instruction. Literacy Leadership Brief No. 9452. International Literacy Association.

Blevins, W. (2016). A fresh look at phonics: Common causes of failure and 7 ingredients for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Blevins, W. (2017). Phonics from A to Z: A practical guide. 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Overcoming the Forgetting Curve: Conceptual Interleaving a Consistent Ethic of Life

The following blog was contributed by Sarah Kernan, a high school theology teacher in Denver, Colorado.

As a high school moral theology teacher, and especially after a tumultuous political season, I’m deeply invested in whether my students gain a solid understanding of a consistent Catholic ethic of life—which recognizes the human person’s inalienable dignity from womb to tomb. Whatever their future vocation, I hope they retain a deep-in-their-bones conviction that all human life, and indeed all of God’s creation, has profound value that must be nurtured and protected.

But how can we make sure a consistent life ethic “sticks” with our students? How can we best nurture in them a life-long commitment to the Church’s social mission, as a vital aspect of discipleship? 

No doubt you’ve experienced the so-called (and rather depressing) “forgetting curve”1 in your classroom. Without reinforcement, we human beings tend to forget prior knowledge at alarming rates—approximately 56 percent after one hour and 75 percent after six days!2 Fascinating neuroscientific research suggests that our brains are actually wired to forget rather than to remember information.3 But on the bright side, this same research highlights strategies that help students actually retain their learning. I’d like to explore what they might look like as we educate students about Catholic Social Teaching and a consistent life ethic.

One strategy that helps learning “stick” is called “conceptual interleaving.” Interleaving involves helping students make as many connections to an idea as possible—typically to other, seemingly unrelated concepts—creating a “‘spiderweb’ of neural connection.”4 So let’s say students are discussing harmful cultural trends concerning human sexuality in a Christian Life course. These include an exaggerated notion of personal autonomy, loss of genuine intimacy and mutual responsibility in relationships, and a contraceptive and abortive mentality that hurts everyone involved. Then what if, in English class,5 these same students could analyze poems by three Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, in which these women reflect poignantly on their deeply personal experiences of motherhood, abortion, and loss. And in a Social Studies unit,6 they could review historical examples of the systematic extermination of marginalized groups, such as Native Americans, but then consider the present-day practice of disability-selective abortion (DSA) as another example of this kind of injustice.

A secondary benefit of this interdisciplinary “interleaving” is that students can begin to think creatively with the Church’s rich Social Tradition, learning to apply pro-life principles consistently and transcending a simplistic liberal-conservative framework for recognizing and addressing social injustice. Having considered well the tragedy of abortion, students could consider immigration, racism, and environmental degradation as life issues, too.7

Sounds awesome, but also like a lot of curriculum work for teachers, right? Here’s the great news: Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life continues to add to its Teaching Life and Human Dignity series, a one-of-a-kind collection of free, high-quality learning resources that incorporate a Catholic vision of human dignity into curriculum areas like English, social studies, economics, mathematics, and even health class. The curriculum “heavy-lifting” is already being undertaken by leading pro-life scholars and educational specialists.

Theology teachers need help forming the next generation of compassionate, courageous pro-life leaders. And the latest research suggests how much our students will benefit when we overcome the artificial silo effect between academic disciplines and help them discover the Gospel of Life where they might not expect it. Our colleagues who teach outside of theology are essential partners in doing just that.

5You can access the unit, Women’s Hidden Experiences: Poetry about Motherhood, Abortion, and Loss, at Mcgrath.nd.edu/liferesources.
6You can access the unit, Making Sense of Historical Atrocities, at Mcgrath.nd.edu/liferesources.
7If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Dr. Charlie Camosy’s recent book Resisting Throwaway Culture and his online course through Notre Dame’s Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP). 

About the Author

Sarah Kernan is a high school theology teacher and graduate of Notre Dame’s M.T.S. program. She also facilitates online theology courses through Notre Dame’s STEP program. She lives in beautiful Denver, Colorado with her husband Matt and their three daughters.

The Year of the Catholic School

The following blog was contributed by Philip Dujardin, theology teacher at the Cambridge Matignon School in Cambridge, MA.

Our Catholic schools have been nurturing the faith and evangelizing to families since they were established. In fact, nurturing and sharing the faith have always been their primary purposes. They should be celebrated in this time of uncertainty. It is time for our Church to declare a “Year of the Catholic School.”

Within a culture that challenges the idea of truth itself, most public educational institutions deliberately avoid acknowledging God. In contrast, Catholic schools offer students a sense that God is in control. Most begin and end the day with prayer, dedicate an entire class period to religious instruction, and display faith-filled pictures, statues, crucifixes and words of encouragement in their rooms and hallways. Surrounded by these reminders, teachers and students grow in confidence that the Lord loves them and has the power to overcome all evil.

Celebrating a “Year of the Catholic School” will rejuvenate a vital ministry of the Church. Our Catholic schools are facing a major crisis. It is time for all Catholics to acknowledge Catholic schools as a priority. Just as God wrote the Bible through human authors, God built our Catholic schools through the sacrifices of parishioners, families, priests and religious brothers and sisters, most of whom responded to a call from God’s Self to serve.  God anointed them with a vision that is still as important as it was when the schools were founded.

Our urban Catholic schools offer opportunities for disadvantaged youth, combating racial inequities inherent in many school districts. A “Year of the Catholic School” could garner support from within and beyond the Church. Some believe that our schools should be able to stand on their own, that if they cannot sustain themselves then they need to close. The reality is that Catholic schools are ministries, not small businesses.  All schools, especially those that serve the poor, need support from all Catholics. Catholic schools, especially those that serve the poor, would benefit from public funding. Celebrating our schools would provide an opportunity to promote school vouchers, giving struggling families the same choices granted to the well-to-do. Latino families would recognize Catholic education as an option that supports their deep faith as well as academic opportunity, providing schools with an influx of students that would sustain them.

It is vital that our schools be a place where Catholic teachings can be taught. A “Year of the Catholic School” would solidify the connection between the official teachers, our bishops and those who teach on a daily basis in our schools. Priests, bishops and families would recognize the good work of our schools. Dioceses would encourage and equip them to promote the faith as taught by the magisterium. There would be an opportunity for real dialogue between school communities and bishops about why the church teaches what it does and how this can be promoted.

By celebrating a “Year of the Catholic School,” communities of faith would honor the work of these institutions to educate so many in the faith, past and present, many of whom are still in the pews of our churches. Imagine the possibilities. We could strengthen the trust between clergy and the schools, garner much needed public support for our schools, mend the pain that school closings have caused families who fought to keep them open, advertise our remaining schools to families and discover creative ways to make Catholic education available, especially to the poor. A renewed commitment to Catholic schools will provide hope in a world that needs it.

Encountering the Humanity of the Unborn through Pro-Life Teaching Resources

The following blog was contributed by Colleen Halpin, theology and mathematics teacher at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah.

If education is to be transformative, it must engage the mind, capture the imagination, and spark a desire for real engagement with the world. Julián Carrón writes, “Education is not explaining reality or forming some argument about it; it is helping another person… enter into reality.”1 This kind of education is not a passive memorization of facts, but rather an “encounter.” Such encounters captivate the attention, propose “a hypothesis of meaning”, and inspire students to search for what is good, true, and beautiful.

How might this culture of encounter inform the way we address life issues in the classroom? Often, discussions surrounding life issues become sterile and even hostile. We become entangled in the complexity of divergent opinions and lost in the disparaging rhetoric of this highly politicized issue. When I started brainstorming how to discuss the issue of abortion with my Moral Theology class, I was intimidated. How can I showcase the humanity of the unborn in a compelling way? Is it even worth it to try to teach on a topic that’s become so controversial?

Soon after, I stumbled upon the Teaching Human Dignity series from the McGrath Institute for Church Life. These are a series of free resources that empower teachers to incorporate life and human dignity issues into existing curriculum. I realized the lessons on Disability Selective Abortion (DSA) that were part of a social studies unit: Making Sense of Historical Atrocities could be easily adapted for my class. DSA refers to the widespread practice of aborting unborn children who are positively diagnosed with Down Syndrome through prenatal testing. By inviting my students to encounter the reality of DSA, I hoped to open their eyes to the injustice of abortion of any kind.

My students viewed news segments that covered the prevalence of DSA. Along with the video links and accompanying worksheets, the lesson included a discussion guide and answers that went beyond just the basic facts of the video, helping the students to probe what was said, shown, and left out of the videos and how all of this conveyed a particular message. It was amazing to see my students recognize how society’s idolization of productivity and fear of suffering lead to a devaluing of those who suffer and “fail” to meet standards of productivity.

Through videos produced by the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, my students and I encountered a new narrative. We saw that those who live with Down syndrome live full lives in which they struggle heroically, achieve greatly, work creatively, and love fiercely. As a class, we acknowledged that people with Down Syndrome suffer, but who in life is free from suffering? Who are we to say that their particular suffering is unacceptable, while mine is acceptable?

These videos were profoundly moving for one student in particular. As the last video finished, I noticed tears in her eyes. She explained that her brother has a developmental disability and that she has spent time working with other people who have disabilities. She spoke of their love and their joy. Her witness uncovered the humanity of those who are regularly discarded—those whom others deem “unproductive” or doomed to a life of suffering. Her authenticity and genuine love spoke louder than any set of statistics ever could. In Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI wrote, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (§41). I am grateful that these resources allowed me to step aside and make room for my student to witness to the dignity of all life, and so become a teacher to us all.

1Julián Carrón, “A Communication of Yourself,” in Disarming Beauty (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

About the Author

Colleen Halpin received her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2020. She currently teaches at St. Joseph Catholic High School in Ogden, Utah. She also serves as a formation assistant for the Echo program, a ministry of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Writing Lessons Anchored in Human Dignity

The following blog was contributed by John Brahier, a high school theology teacher at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan.

During my second year of teaching, I had a very unique schedule. After my second-hour precalculus class, my sophomore theology students walked into the room for Church history. Given the sharp difference between the two classes and my personal interest in mathematician-theologians like René Descartes and Blaise Pascal, I began asking how I could make my math classroom a place for students to encounter the faith. Certainly, this is the ideal. A math, or any class in a Catholic school, ought to have a distinctive character, a formative dimension that transcends the intellectual component of education.

Simple steps came to mind as I pondered my question. Live as a faith witness.1 Start class with prayer. Display a faith-related poster.

But what about my class content? Could I bring students to a genuine encounter of the Catholic faith through math instruction?

Like many teachers, my lessons typically revolved around an anchor problem or question. This,  to me, was the opportunity to authentically integrate the faith into my class such that it did not appear to students as an awkward tack-on. For example, my lessons on exponential and logarithmic functions provided the right mathematical lens for students to dive deeper into China’s one-child policy. After studying the one-child policy and its origins, I developed an anchor problem for this unit that required students to apply their understanding of exponential and logarithmic functions while also considering the ethical dimension informed by Church teaching. This allowed me to develop students’ abilities to view a situation (like the one-child policy) from multiple perspectives, the mathematical and the ethical.

Anchoring a lesson in a human dignity issue is a natural way to authentically present students with a situation that requires multiple levels of analysis. Developing anchor problems like this requires considering the range of human dignity issues from abortion to immigration to poverty,  careful study and research, conversation with colleagues and consultation of existing resources.2 With an anchor problem in mind, attention must also be paid to the integration of relevant Church teaching. Being intentional about properly framing questions and clearly presenting Church teaching requires significant attention and, in some cases, scriptwriting to ensure that the material is accessible for teachers and students alike.

This might sound like a time-consuming and challenging process. It is! However, it is rewarding both for the designer (especially when done in collaboration with colleagues) and the students. Most importantly, this type of encounter is why Catholic schools exist.

While not all teachers have the time or necessary support and resources to create such lessons, the McGrath Institute of Church Life at the University of Notre Dame is taking the lead in creating resources and making them freely available for any teacher to use. They are also reaching out to the community of teachers already deeply invested in this approach. Through the Teaching Human Dignity Resource Contest, winning teachers can work with the McGrath Institute to have their materials incorporated into the Teaching Human Dignity series and made available to teachers worldwide. The unit Exploring China’s One-Child Policy with Exponential and Logarithmic Functions will be made available this semester for any interested teacher.

The task of a Catholic school “is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge  through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues  characteristic of the Christian.”3 Our job is not simply to produce mathematicians, doctors, and lawyers. No, it’s to form students as saints (who are mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, etc). This goal cannot be accomplished with only one department interested in students’ spiritual development. Rather, it takes a community of teacher-ministers united in a commitment to developing students’ minds and hearts through teaching anchored in faith encounters.

2The Teaching Human Dignity series from the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame offers an ever-expanding set of rich resources with this aim in mind.

About the Author

John has taught high school math and theology and enjoys exploring opportunities for the faith to be infused throughout the high school experience. He is married to Annie and has a one-year-old son named Stephen.