The following blog was contributed by Jill Annable, executive director of academic excellence at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.
I recently ran into an old friend, a fellow Catholic school alum, whose children attend a Catholic school. As we discussed the launch of the most unique school year to date, she candidly shared, “Our principal is a rock star.” I agreed. In her admiration, this parent did not know that her principal has not taken a day off since the pandemic hit; she serves with unwavering passion and is the core of vibrancy of the school.
When I became the assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, I had never been a school principal. My background is in teaching and curriculum development, and I must admit: I was initially intimidated! I took the first weeks on the job to observe classrooms but also found myself observing principals. It was fascinating. My tunnel vision of classroom life was nothing compared to the scope of principal responsibilities; as a teacher, I had been completely ignorant of school budgets and operational vitality. Now in this seat, positioned to support schools as the assistant superintendent, my internal questioning mirrored what my own children wonder about their principal: “Does she run on coffee alone?” “How does she always know the right answer?” I quickly learned that my role had to be singularly focused: How can I help you?
I focused on this question in my time as assistant superintendent, attempting to lift the work of curriculum and instruction so principals could focus on operations and relationships. It was fulfilling, yet it paled in comparison to what principals were handling on a daily basis.
Not many realize the crises averted and conflicts resolved by Catholic school principals. Parents see how the principal supports their own children, but the sheer volume of personal encounters and supports is unimaginable. The launch of the 2020-2021 school year was no exception. Principals filled their summer with tense brainstorming sessions ranging from safety protocols to instructional practices. They worked late nights, on the phone with parents who were worried about their children’s health, the options our Catholic schools could offer, and concerns much beyond the scope of the school. But how did our principals respond? They delivered. They did not wait for the rest of the world to come up with solutions; they instead rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to ensure Catholic education could continue in the safest ways possible.
When the old friend shared that her principal was a rock star, her next question was, “How can I help?” Reflecting on that moment, and in comparison to my own response years back, I am reminded of the beauty of Catholic school communities. This parent, who already sacrifices financially for her children’s education, seeks to give more. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us “It is in giving that we receive.” We are certainly seeing this in one another during 2020.
The most amazing part of watching principals at work is that I expect, by all laws of nature, to see signs of exhaustion, but it never comes. Instead, they are energized by the ministry. When I explained this to my friend, I encouraged her to pray that God continues to grant grace to those in Catholic school leadership and to perhaps send the principal a note of gratitude.
It is with great admiration that we celebrate this year’s Catholic Principal Appreciation Day on November 19. They are not only rock stars, but also headed to sainthood.
The following blog was contributed by Kathy Mears, interim president/CEO at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.
As Catholics, we are called to participate in civic activities, to work for the common good.
We are called to vote.
As a principal, my school was a polling place and our eighth graders were treated to lessons from poll workers and voters. Our students recognized that our school was important, as we were a place where we selected our next president, governor and other elected officials. Our students saw firsthand that people had different opinions, but everyone was respected, and everyone had the right to express their hopes and dreams by choosing the candidate of his/her choice. I believe that most people still honor and respect that right and I know it is what our teachers are teaching.
Pope Francis stated, that if “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,” the Church, “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183). As members of the Church, we are called to be part of the solution to the problems we face. We are asked to do what we can to assist in the political process in order to work for outcomes that support the common good. Therefore, we vote, we serve, we do what our conscience calls us to do for the common good. We are guided by our faith, our consciences, our hearts and our minds.
We must also remember that the election will not solve our problems. People will still need employment, people will still need food, and healthcare will be needed by all tomorrow and the next day. The election does not end our civic responsibility. It is one point along the journey of faithful citizenship. It is but one way that we participate.
As in all elections, someone will win, and someone will lose. We are called to challenge each other to respond with kindness and respect after the election. We must model this and teach our students that our response shows our character.
Micah 6:8 asks what is required of us. The response: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. It is our prayer that these words become our guide as we teach and learn during our electoral process. We pray for unity, grace, peace and mercy. We pray for our nation and its promise.
The following blog was contributed by John Reyes, Ed.D., executive director of operational vitality at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, VA.
“Over time, even an academically rigorous school with strong Catholic identity will not survive without operational vitality.” – National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, 2020
While much attention has been drawn to the academic and spiritual response of Catholic schools to the pandemic – are you tired of Zoom yet? – there is more we can and ought to learn about the operational response from Catholic schools. Catholic schools, while operating first and foremost as an apostolate of the Church and in service of the Great Commission, also happen to be businesses – “temporal organizations” with which school leaders are charged to operate in the four key areas of finances, human resources/personnel, facilities and institutional advancement.
In a survey we conducted with our membership and led by Annie Smith, our director of research and data management, we sought to gather insight on school and diocesan responses to the pandemic. (You can view a summary of the data set here.)
After analyzing an advance copy of the data with participants at our Catholic Leadership Summit last week, I pulled out a few key findings that helped to illustrate how Catholic school leaders “ran towards the danger” in responding to the pandemic:
Early infusions of cash from the state and federal level to support schools and businesses were crucial in addressing the uncertain financial position brought about by the pandemic. 91% of diocesan leaders and 78% of school leaders reported utilizing state and federal funding as a strategy to bolster finances over the last seven months. Conversely, only 37% of school leaders reported using savings to cover operating deficits; depending on the already fragile nature of school budgets and lack of clarity around future funding support for schools at the state and federal level, we may start to see many more schools touch “rainy-day funds.”
Leaders saw the use of technology as the most lasting change to “business-as-usual.” Despite problems with technology procurement, including delays and cost, 83% of diocesan leaders and 71% of school leaders said that improving or strengthening educational technology as a positive aspect of the shift in operations due to COVID-19. Sixty percent of school and diocesan leaders also stated that they intended to make technology-related changes permanent, even after the pandemic.
Our findings also raised some important questions and considerations, particularly as it relates to how we best move forward:
How will schools respond to the challenge of retention? One crucial piece of data that the survey was less than definitive on was the impact of the pandemic on school or diocesan Catholic school enrollment. While some schools and dioceses saw notable and even double-digit percentage point increases in enrollment, there were plenty of enrollment declines that mirrored or exceeded similar declines during the late 2000s. We are convinced, probably now more than ever, that offering in-person instruction matters greatly to parents – but how can school leaders experiencing enrollment growth sustain their pandemic-related boosts, particularly as more public and charter schools begin to return to in-person instruction?
What will staffing in schools and dioceses look like going forward? Salaries and benefits comprise the majority of most school operating budgets, yet in the midst of severe economic downturn, a mere 37% of schools reduced staff to address their uncertain financial position. Only “increasing advancement events” ranked lower in terms of strategies used by school leaders. We know that staffing has been an operational concern in Catholic schools for quite some time now – our own data at NCEA tells us that despite a two-thirds drop in enrollment from 1960 to 2017, staffing levels have remained exactly the same (!) – but could this be the moment where the levee finally breaks?
How are leaders choosing to make temporary strategies permanent? At the Catholic Leadership Summit last week, many diocesan leaders analyzing an advance copy of the data noted that leaders considered the majority of the new strategies implemented in the areas of enrollment, finance, marketing, staffing and advancement as temporary. It’s hard to tell whether respondents are “waiting things out” to see whether those temporary strategies are worth maintaining going forward, or if there is full intent to return back to business as usual in those areas once a sense of relative normalcy is restored. That said, we must see crisis as an opportunity for innovation and as an opportunity for things to be “born anew” – could there be strategies and tactics that, instead of being bound to the graveyard of reactive and short-term change, shine a path for a new chapter of vitality and vibrancy for Catholic schools?
We invite you to look at the data for yourself – let us know what resonates with you, what aligns with your experiences, what you’d like to learn more about. A commitment to challenging our preconceived notions, testing our presumptions and asking questions only serves to strengthen and not undermine the shared work we do in leading and sustaining vibrant Catholic schools.
The following blog was contributed by Tiffany Norris, MA, school counselor at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, California.
As a society, we are in a time of tremendous insight, potential transformation, listening and for many a newfound understanding. The horrific acts of cruel injustices inflicted upon George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others have become the most recent cry for change in the African American community. As a faith-based community, we are called to love all of God’s children and bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our Catholic schools, we have a unique opportunity to implement change that is long overdue, and can better address the injustices that are rooted in over 400 years of systemic oppression.
The question for faculty, staff and administrators then becomes, “what tangible things can I do to help at my school?” It seems as though thoughts and prayers are no longer enough, and so we must now take action. To overlook this opportunity to address our Catholic school communities would be a failure to accept our responsibility as Catholic school educators. Upon return to school in the fall, conversations with students (no matter the subject area) can start fairly simple. Develop ice breakers that discuss what topics really resonated with them over the summer. If no students openly discuss social injustice, make that your topic of choice and hold open discussions in your classroom about what students feel will help them better understand social injustice in the world around them. It will be important to remain upfront with them and let them know that you, as an educator, are willing to take on hard topics for the betterment of the class. For example, in visual and performing arts classes, study African American music, base a school play or musical on an African American show. Take time to reflect upon why this has or hasn’t been a part of your school’s curriculum in the past, and if it hasn’t been…change that.
Knowledge is power. As an educator, you have a chance to make a tremendous impact. Take time to decide what you want your students to get out of the school year, and find reading material for them that addresses systemic racism and how that plays a role in your subject area. I would recommend making this an individual versus group project, so that students are engaging and everyone has an opportunity to learn.
As you work through this next school year and new topics are discussed, one thing to keep in mind is that many people are still learning. As you take the lead in these discussions, carefully foster all perspectives, which will lead to deeper learning opportunities for everyone. With transition in curriculum there also may be negative feedback from time to time. Your focus must remain on what God has called you to do, and that is to lead by His example.
The devil is the root of fear, but God is the presence of truth. You’ve got this!
The following blog was contributed by Kevin Baxter, chief innovation officer for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.
When COVID-19 turned everything upside down in the spring, we knew that NCEA was going to need to think differently about how we approached our work moving forward. We were inspired by the courage and creativity we saw in Catholic schools across the United States as they adapted to virtual instruction so effectively. Thus, with prayer and faith in the Holy Spirit, we dove in and transformed our annual Convention, which was scheduled to take place in Baltimore, to a completely virtual event. With nearly 7,000 registrations, we knew there was interest in and need for high quality professional development in Catholic schools.
For the 2020-2021 school year, we were determined to take our innovative approach to a higher level. Thus, we developed several different professional services that we will offer over the course of the school year. The first of these is our New Leaders Academy, which starts the first week in October with a unique blend of synchronous content delivery, professional collaboration and network building, and one-on-one coaching for new school site leaders. We have a great cohort of participants and exceptional, experienced facilitators and coaches to support this new program at NCEA.
We also recognized that one of our anchor events each year, the Catholic Leadership Summit (CLS), required new thinking and an innovative approach to address the current reality. So, we looked at the event through an adult learner perspective, and with the frame that understood that collaboration and networking were the aspects of CLS that attendees most appreciated in years past. We began by addressing the issues that have consumed much of our nation over the past six months – first, the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted not just our schools but all aspects of our lives. Leadership in crisis is something every superintendent, principal and higher education leader must understand and be prepared for to be effective in their roles. Thus, we wanted to be sure we addressed the challenging reality we are faced with in Catholic schools at this moment.
Second, we have all been impacted by the issues of racial justice in our country and, specifically, how we can do a better job in Catholic schools to address the underlying aspects of equity. We want to address this question directly and have honest and difficult conversations in order to begin the process of healing and moving forward with intentionality so that we can educate the students in our schools with our Catholic faith at the forefront.
With these two themes in mind, we sought to have high level, keynote speakers for each of the four days, each one of which would address a specific domain of the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (NSBECS). We were blessed to have such a positive response and our lineup is extremely impressive on multiple fronts.
Dr. Howard Fuller is a legend in the school choice movement and his advocacy for families, especially those from low income backgrounds, is an inspiration for all. His commitment and dedication to the civil rights movement extends back to the 1960s, so he is a particularly appropriate keynote on Day 1 for Governance and Leadership. Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University of Notre Dame. As she stated when she was appointed, “As the first American-born member of an immigrant family, I have benefited tremendously from the transformative power of education” so we felt she was a great person to speak on Day 2 for Academic Excellence.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory needs little introduction to Catholic school educators. He is the seventh Archbishop of Washington and a former president of the USCCB. Archbishop Gregory brings a great pastoral approach to the challenges we are faced with today and we are blessed by his keynote on Day 3 for Mission and Catholic Identity. Betsy Bohlen is the chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago. With an MBA from Harvard and 16 years of experience at McKinsey and Co. she brings both a business approach to her work and a commitment to the Catholic faith. She is ideal in keynoting the last of our four days on Operational Vitality.
Each day will start with a welcome message and some words of hope from four American Cardinals (Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Cardinal Blase Cupich, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin). This will be followed by opening prayer and a brief welcome message. The keynote speaker will then address the group live and set the tone for the day in the domain area of the NSBECS.
Following the keynote during each day of CLS, we will have Focus Sessions. These will group attendees into one of three different groups: one for diocesan level leadership, one for school site leadership and one for higher education and other leadership. Each of these sessions will be led by colleagues in the field to 1) address the theme of the keynote at a high level and 2) create a collaborative space where participants can share successes and challenges they face in their work in the specific domain. It will be part content delivery and sharing but much of the time will be spent in smaller groups to address specific questions from the keynote and the topic.
Finally, each day of CLS will end with Professional Learning Groups (PLGs). These will be comprised of approximately 10-15 participants with roughly equal representation from each of the leadership sectors. The PLGs will be led by trained facilitators who will draw input from the various Focus Session meetings so that the conversation centers on how we all can collaboratively assist Catholic schools in dealing with this unique moment in history. Ideally each participant will leave with some tools and strategies to bring back to their own work in their region of the country.
We recognize that this year presents unique challenges to Catholic schools and leaders at all different levels. Our hope and expectation are that the Catholic Leadership Summit will provide an opportunity to learn and be inspired, and then collaborate and share with colleagues around the country to think through the most positive way forward.
The following blog was contributed by Julieta Raymundo-Almayda, middle school math teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School in San Antonio, Texas.
Hi all! My students, parents and colleagues call me Mrs. Almayda or Mrs. A. I am from San Antonio, TX. I’ve been teaching middle school and high school math for over 20 years. My school recently recognized me for my acceptance as a 2020 Khan Academy Ambassador. It is not every day that I get to share my life and teaching experiences with a big audience.
My joining Khan Academy is my driving force, my “challenge” to myself to be better and become an expert in NWEA using Khan Academy as I make my learners better. At Khan Academy, the “challenge” has become an inspiration to aspire to go beyond what is expected. With the support and encouragement from Khan Academy, the trust and confidence of my administrators and parents and the cooperation of the learners who have limitless potential, I can push the limits.
I have met many students as well as professionals who have a strong aversion to numbers. As a budding mathematics teacher back in the Philippines, I had that thought at the back of my mind. I heard many say that mathematics is such a difficult subject to learn. As a teacher, I want my students to find math easy, fun and interesting and I resolved to make it so. I observed my students to better understand why they find math difficult and boring. This way, I know what technique or strategy to use for every lesson and for certain groups of learners. It is said “first impressions last”; so, I make it a point to start with very easy lessons to impress upon my students that math is easy to hurdle. It is more of giving the students that “feeling of success.” This may seem insignificant, but in my experience, it makes a difference.
Our learners come from different orientations, different learning experiences and different family backgrounds. We do not simply breeze through lessons and at the end of the day say we have accomplished our lesson plan. That is not what it means to teach, because for me to teach is also to touch lives – the lives of the learners. To do this, I simplify a complicated number lesson. I do my best to make it meaningful and enjoyable for them. I exert every effort to make the lessons relevant to them, especially in this challenging 21st century milieu. I see no harm in combining strategies and techniques, from traditional to non-traditional teaching platforms to approaching with modern technology. I modify and innovate. I believe that we teachers are endowed with the gift of being creative, and we need to hone our craft. I do not stop “educating” myself with the latest trends in education. I see favorable opportunities and I grab them, and in the end I contribute to the betterment of our learners. They are the beneficiaries of my efforts to do better each time in my vocation as a teacher, just as our Lord Jesus Christ was.
I am from a poor family in the Philippines. The challenge was not just to survive, but to finish my studies. It was not easy to focus on this. I did not simply rely on what my parents could do, because they could only do so much. I helped send myself to school. I held on to my dreams, my goals and I never allowed desperation, frustration and failure discourage me. I held on tight to my faith in God. Even after I was a teacher, I faced obstacles. My immediate supervisors did not seem convinced that I could be a good teacher. Do you know how it feels when your administrator is not supportive? I felt like changing my career track, but I never gave up. And that also accounts for my thirst for more knowledge, for opportunities to do better, never to be complacent just because I already achieved something. For me, there is no stopping. I believe, educating oneself and learning is a lifetime process.
This year of 2020, uncertainties and difficulties stare at us. This pandemic poses challenges difficult to surmount, but as teachers in Catholic schools, let us remain unruffled. Let us hang on. We owe it to our students and parents, too, who are looking up to us. Let us be the role models. It is easier said than done, but with prayers and steadfast faith in our Lord, we shall overcome. At this time of pandemic, let us use whatever technology we have to reach out to our learners. Let us keep the faith while staying safe.
St. Anthony Catholic School, I am truly indebted to you. I am heartily grateful to Mrs. Patricia Ramirez, our school principal, Mrs. Rita Rodriguez, our vice-principal, our school board president, Mr. Derrich Rodriguez, my colleagues and the St. Anthony parents for their trust and confidence in me, for giving me the chance to contribute to the growth of the learners, and for giving me room to grow and make myself a better Catholic school teacher.
I also would like to thank my supporters and my fan base, my husband Tony for his untiring support, sacrifices and love and my children Kaela and Bethanie who give me joy and inspiration always.
Most importantly, thank you God for all these opportunities. I will be forever grateful for your grace and mercy. Please continue to protect and help us. We know that we cannot do anything without YOU. We surrender and lift everything to you.
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. This article was originally published on the McGrath Institute blog and is being offered here with permission from the publisher.
Going ‘back to school’ always involves a transition for families and educators, but this year it will be even more challenging. Families returning to traditional, in-person schooling will need extra face masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes, in addition to the usual school supplies and back-to-school clothing. Families transitioning to new modes of schooling—whether online instruction, homeschooling, or “pandemic pods” (i.e., education co-ops)—will need to develop new routines, practices, and relationships to make learning both effective and sustainable. And educators, regardless of who, where and how they will be teaching, will need both creativity and grit as they flexibly adapt to changing conditions when teaching and connecting with their students. Given all this, something everyone will need and benefit from taking back to school this year is hope.
Christian hope is not some vague, circumstantial belief that ‘the future will be better than the past.’ Rather, it is a virtue that combines a desire for something and the expectation that it will be received. More specifically, Christian hope is a desire for divine union with God and the expectation of eternal happiness through it. But we need not wait for this union if we practice hope now. Union with God can be experienced in the present and with increasing fullness, if we continually allow our words, actions, and selves to be conformed to and by divine love. Christians consider hope a virtue because it is an act of will—an intentional choice made to approach the events of our lives with a particular orientation. With hope, we can choose to view the upcoming 2020–2021 school year as an opportunity to grow in holiness—especially through our relationship with the source of our hope, Jesus Christ.
It helps to remember that we are the latest in a 2,000+ year succession of Christians who have endured suffering and prevailed through hope. I am reminded, in particular, of Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Moreau put the motto “Ave crux, spes unica”—”Hail the cross, our only hope”—at the center of his community, founded in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In so doing, he ensured that the sisters, brothers, and priests of Holy Cross who founded schools around the world would form generations of students to approach their lives with hope, even to this day.
If faith illuminates one’s experience of reality with an awareness of its design and purpose (e.g., a call to intimate and loving relationship with God), then hope is the lens that enables us to see beyond the Cross—to experience the invisible reality of God’s love. When carrying hope along with the Cross, trust in God transforms suffering to joy. As St. Paul wrote, “I pray that God, the source of hope will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).”
One way to take hope back to school is to meditate on the following questions each morning.
What particular struggles am I experiencing today? Ask God to assist you in meeting these struggles with hope.
As I engage people, relationships, and events today, how can I more fully awaken the joy that comes from hope? Ask God to open your heart to a greater, deeper trust in him.
How can I be a model of hope for others (my children, my students, my colleagues)? Ask God for the gift of perseverance as you carry your cross, and for the grace to see beyond your struggles—to find in the Cross of Christ a sign of hope.
Hopefully, by returning often to these meditation questions, your experiences of the 2020–2021 school year—whatever those may be—can be transformative, not only educationally but also spiritually.
The following blog was contributed by Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance Learning, Inc.
Back-to-School 2020 involves new challenges. Catholic educators must make distance learning work, full or part time. But will formative assessments be accurate and reliable when administered remotely?
The answer is “yes.” With the right planning and processes, you can use tools such as Renaissance Star Assessments to gather formative data remotely. However, remote testing involves unique considerations to ensure your assessment data provides reliable insights to guide student learning.
1. Define your purpose for testing.
Testing runs more smoothly when everyone understands how results will be used. Students apply their best effort, parents recognize that results are used to tailor instruction, and educators are prepared to analyze and act on the data.
Defining your purpose prevents over-testing. Only test when you’ll use the data: to identify struggling students, guide instruction and intervention, ensure all students are learning, or all these purposes.
2. Consider your timing.
Determining when and how often to test relates to your purpose for assessing and ensures the data accurately portrays student achievement. Schedule the initial test early enough in the year to get data to inform instructional decisions—but only after you’ve had time to get to know your students.
Regarding time of day, consider when students will be able to do their best. Avoid testing as the first or last thing in a day so students are less likely to rush.
One of the benefits of Star is each assessment takes about 20 minutes. If your test is longer, consider how to manage breaks to get students’ best efforts.
3. Provide clear testing instructions.
How you set up remote testing depends on available resources. Having a teacher administer the test to small groups of students using video conferencing provides a good experience. Another option is to have a parent or other adult family member in the same location as the student serve as proctor.
No matter who supervises testing, make sure they understand the test’s purpose and their responsibilities. Our Teacher Guide for administering Star Assessments remotely outlines how to ensure a smooth experience and reliable results.
Test security and cheating are often educators’ biggest concern. One of the best ways to prevent cheating is also the simplest: clearly explain the test’s purpose. When teachers and parents reward effort instead of results, they’re showing students that trying their best is what matters.
4. Communicate clearly with parents and students.
Sharing your remote testing plans is also important. Consider using a variety of communication channels, keeping messages targeted and tailored to the audience:
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.
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.”
The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member at theMcGrath 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.