A Call to Catholic Teachers

I just finished reading Jonathan Doyle’s new book Tools & Fuels last night. IMG_1083It is a truly inspirational book with simple advice for anyone involved in Catholic education. Doyle takes the reader on a journey of discovery. From viewing Catholic schools as a mission, “(That) they exist as an integral part of the mission that is the Catholic Church” to his mantra of, “you can’t do a supernatural task with only natural resources” Jonathan expertly narrows the focus of Catholic schools down to simply putting Christ at the center. It’s something so simple and so easy to put into action but many in Catholic education make it much more difficult than it needs to be.

I have seen first-hand how many Catholic schools focus more on college prep, test scores, and analyzing data than they do on putting Jesus at the center of all that they do. Mr. Doyle issues a clarion call to step back and put our total dependence on God, only then can we become Saints, beat burnout, and save the world.

Weaving personal experiences, stories of saints, and quotes from Popes and theologians IMG_1087into the narrative seamlessly makes for a captivating read. I can identify with the life experiences Jonathan shares on a very personal level. This man pours every fiber of his being into showing how the Catholic teacher is called by God to a vocation that is so important (helping form Saints) that only a total dependence on His help can we accomplish what He wants us to do.

I applaud Mr. Doyle for his energy, zeal, and willingness to be countercultural in a very disturbing point in our history. If you are a Catholic teacher, you MUST read this book. If there is one book you read this summer (other than the Bible) read this book! I’m just a high school teacher from Iowa but I truly think that if you teach, administrate, counsel, or work in a Catholic school that this book will change your life.

What’s the Point?

As a family we recently started watching the television series “The Walton’s.” I remember watching the series back in the days of three analog channels. The show takes place on a mountain in West Virginia during the depression. At the time, a person could buy a bull calf or a new drive shaft for $9.00. Radio was the only form of electronic entertainment and some houses didn’t even have telephones. Work was hard to find and those that could find it worked hard

.waltons

So why the history lesson? I get nostalgic whenever I watch shows like this. Shows that put our humanity into perspective and the values of life, love, journeys, family, and relationships. I ask myself at times if, with all the technology we have at our fingertips, have we lost some of these values? Do we not need these values anymore? Are the old days and old ways no longer applicable?

On “The Walton’s” John Boy is the oldest son and he processes his thoughts by writing pen on paper much like I process by typing on my blog. He was more diligent than I have been the past few months. Yet, there is still something about taking pen and paper to process thoughts that resonates with the human psyche.

I have noticed a number of news articles lately stating that using computers for notes and discussion in class leads to less retention by students. I try constantly to get my students to understand that by taking physical notes they will have better comprehension and retain information longer. Jesus taught by using parables and through example. He constantly challenged the conventional wisdom of the day. See, parables were intended to get people to stop and think. Isn’t that the point of a high school theology course?

Aha! We need to stop and think, we need to discuss Church teachings, we need to explore the values of life, love, journeys, family, and relationships. This must be face to face not device to device. If I didn’t sit with my students and process what they read in their textbooks, then good questions and relationships would not develop. If I didn’t introduce my students to the four types of love as put forth by C.S. Lewis, How could we have a discussion about family, love, and relationships?

Catholic theology teachers also need to teach students how to look references up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, and various papal encyclicals. They also need help knowing how to find the answer to the various questions that invariably come up in a teenagers life. Of course, getting them comfortable with asking their parish priest for guidance should be practiced also. How do they get to practice this if they either don’t go to mass or if they don’t have some sort of relationship with their parish priest? I have made it a priority to invite priests and other religious into my theology class so that my students can become comfortable in knowing these people at a personal level.

Nothing has really changed from the times of the Walton’s. The things around us might change, our modes of entertainment might change, but humanity has not really changed since our beginning. Values matter, relationships matter, love matters teaching our students with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and a Christ like spirit of charity is necessary in every generation.

Good night John Boy!

 

 

Preparing for Christmas 

Being a husband, a father of four school aged children, and a theology teacher to 70+ students can be challenging in the best of times. At a time like Advent it could downright drive one to drink. Christmas music has been playing for weeks, Black Friday has come and gone, Cyber Monday is upon us, and many a tree has been trimmed.

Society, school, and the media are telling us to buy things, to not forget that someone special, and that we’ll be happy if we get more things. Oh, and go ahead and spoil yourself while you’re at it. In listening to my parish priest’s homily this morning, I was reminded that Advent is a time for reflection/prayer, for looking forward to the coming of Christ not only in the celebration of Christmas but at the end of life, and for detaching from the rush of life.

As Catholics and Christians we are called to be counter cultural and there is no better time to do that then during Advent. We are asked to live and work in the world but not be of the world. How can we possibly live this out during this busy time of year? It takes some planning, dedication, and strength.

I will be sharing my personal plan with my ninth grade theology students and my grade 7/8 religion kiddos (see plan below). I will ask my students to begin some sort of Bible reflection (daily Bible reading, Advent reading, or even readings from an Advent calendar). Once you have found your source, set up your plan.

The keys to doing this are simple. 1. find 15 minutes each day for just this activity. If that means waking fifteen minutes earlier in the morning, then just do it. Set up what you will need for the morning the night before. 2. Find a place that is comfortable. 3. Find a holy object to hold onto or to look at that is calming. 4. Play Advent music in the background (this works best if it is just instrumental).

Whatever you do, put Christ in the center and reflect on what he has done for you and make a plan to be for him and with him at the end of time.


MY ADVENT PLAN

The Most Difficult Teaching

For the past three years I have had the pleasure and the honor of teaching at a Catholic Jr/Sr High School. Many people have said that teaching in Catholic education is easy. Less discipline issues, smaller class sizes, greater support of parents, etc. While sometimes these things are true, being a teacher in a Catholic school definitely has its challenges.

The most challenging course I teach is religion. I have three sections of ninth grade theology. In this course I want to draw my students into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the perfect class for putting faith into action. However, I’m constantly amazed at how ninth grade students can know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong yet consistently choose to do what’s wrong!

This past week we had an all school mass on the feast of the Archangels. Father gave a wonderful homily that focused on Jesus’s core teaching to love one another (Matthew 22:35-40). He talked about being Catholic by living a Christian life in word and deed. This is not the first time my ninth grade students have heard this message, but it’s like it goes in their heads for about 30 seconds and then it’s completely forgotten.http://commons.wikimedia.com The three Archangels[/caption]

I am certain that this message gets reinforced daily but they keep forgetting or regressing. It is even the primary lesson I want my students to be able to understand and put into action when they are both inside and outside of my classroom. If I can’t help my kids to love one another and their neighbors as themselves have I failed? 

I believe that theology is the most difficult teaching we do in Catholic schools because we have to model Jesus in our thoughts, actions, and deeds as well as teach a curriculum that is literally endless. Putting others especially God first is so counter cultural. When our culture dictates that we need personal branding, that we need to use social media to keep up to date and talk with our friends, and that being a leader and an extrovert is far superior to being a reflective thinker and introvert we will struggle to put faith into action. While our culture reveres the athlete, the movie star, and the accumulation of things over living the Gospel message, our teaching and modeling will continue to fall on deaf ears. What can we do to get our kids to become counter cultural and seek to do God’s will?

Is High School Theology Just About the Content? 

For about a year now I have been searching. I have been searching for ways to engage my freshman theology students. I go between the USCCB’s “Framework,” my school’s textbook, the Bible, etc. I often feel like Moses wandering through the desert. I have learned from the National Directory of Catechesis that there is a different way to teach theology.Alpha and Omega

I am not a creator of teaching materials, I am a searcher for the best materials for my students. I have searched for any freshmen theology teachers who have developed standards that augment the bishop’s “Framework.” The “Framework” does a good job of outlining the content that should be included in high school theology courses, but it lacks what the students should be able to do or how they are to show what they have learned.

Do I decide what it is that my students should be able to do? Am I the one to decide how my students show their learning? What are the best ways for students to show that they understand, that they remember, that they can apply, analyze, evaluate, and create? The Church is the authority on many things, so who is the authority when it comes to theological pedagogy?

I guess that I feel I rely on the Church for so much that when it comes to something that is so extremely important like preparing the souls of adolescent learners, I need more than just my feelings, prayer, and approved textbooks to guide these decisions. I do have textbooks that have suggestions but that’s the rub, they are just suggestions. Can I make those learning decisions? Yes, I can. Do I know why I would choose an essay to express the four senses of scripture or an album cover with liner notes, or are the senses of scripture not really that important? Where should I be expending my efforts?

To me, it appears that there is a disconnect between what research is showing in education in general and the specifics of what is to be known in theology. What should freshmen theology students be doing? What should they be producing and creating? How do they show that they are making the connection between knowledge and the heart? How do we help them come to know the goodness, richness, and Tradition of the Catholic Church?

What Makes a Catholic School Catholic?

This is my first Blog about Catholic schools and theology. I am a teacher at heart, but the BIG eternal questions have begun to dominate my time. The seriousness of trying to get others to Heaven has been weighing heavily on my mind as a new school year has begun.
Catholic School

First and foremost a Catholic school should be the face of Christ to the world. The very first question we in Catholic education must ask ourselves is, will what we are doing help our students to become saints? A very close second question should be, what are we doing to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life? I teach high school theology, junior high religion, a college and careers class, and a mobile computer science principals class. I teach in a Catholic school! But, how is a Catholic school any different from a public school or a charter school? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are three types of Catholic elementary and secondary schools.”(There) are parochial schools, which are associated with particular parishes; diocesan schools, which are associated with the larger diocesan unit; and private order schools, which are associated with specific groups within the Catholic church, such as the Christian Brothers, Dominican, Jesuit, and Marianist Orders (see full statistics here).”

In choosing to send my children to a Catholic school as well as 20 percent of my meager income, I expect that they will have theology or religion class on a daily basis because we all know from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that our purpose here on earth is to know, love, and serve God in this life so as to be happy with Him eternally. I choose not to send my children to public schools because most public schools are bigger and I want my children to be part of a smaller albeit strong academic community of disciples responding to the call of Christ. I also expect my children to learn charity by serving the culture of life through total giving of self. I expect a Catholic school to ground my children in the mission, sacramental life, and magisterial teachings of the Church. I want everyone of my students to be able to combat social relativism, know what and why the Church teaches what it does, and then be able to defend and apply that teaching to their lives.

I came across the following article recently by Jason Adams, “Raising Religious & Moral Standards for Catholic High School Students,” and after just one year of teaching high school theology I concur with his findings. I am especially disappointed that theology (the study of God) is not given the same academic status (rigor, or as I prefer, vigor) as the rest of the curriculum. This all begins and ends with the culture of the school. If the culture in a Catholic school is not clearly focused on Christ, if it is at all caustic, negative, or even doubtful about Church teachings, then students will pick up on this and theology or religion will become a touchy-feely-everyone-sing-kumbya-and-be-happy class because the tenants of our faith really don’t matter. If all a Catholic school does differently than a public school is pay lip service by “looking” Catholic and praying, then is it really a Catholic school?

In my opinion, theology is probably the most academically challenging course a student can have. In theology we are trying to understand God, to prove that He even exists. I have a lot of priest friends and one of them told me about a class where he was talking about concepts like eternity, God being outside time, and the uncreated creator. At one point he stated, “I only began to be able to understand this concept enough to explain it to others about five years ago.” His advice to me that same day was, “we all should be aware that if we don’t practice what we preach, then we begin to lose that which we once knew.” Theology is definitely not like learning to ride a bike. We will never fully understand God in a lifetime of committed theological study, but we can begin to know Him better and be able to evangelize others through this study.

One of Adams’s solutions for making Catholic schools more Catholic is,

          “Students should be made accountable for learning, retaining,
           and applying the content of the faith. They should read primary
           documents, research matters of faith and morality, write in-depth
          analytical papers, take notes frequently, and give quality individual
          presentations. They should be exposed to adult thinking about the faith
           from their teachers, guest speakers, and other sources such as articles
          from Catholic periodicals and audio/video presentations from orthodox
          theologians. Accountability for learning also means frequent testing and
          honest evaluations of the quality of students’ work. Religion courses
          should be anything but cupcake classes, considering the volume and
          complexity of theological concepts that they survey.”

This is a serious charge to undertake and sometimes stake holders at Catholic schools get sucked into the idea of the school having a “Catholic identity” but get distracted by numbers of graduates attending college (don’t get me wrong here as I want all my students and children to attend college, but not at the cost of their eternal happiness), numbers of students taking advanced placement or honors classes, or even numbers of students scoring high on state achievement tests. Many Catholic schools have a Mass, pray, and have kids wear uniforms, but does this alone make the school truly Catholic? Most Catholic schools have theology courses but at many of those schools people continue to see theology as a fluff class. The question often is, how can you assess my son or daughter on religion? So, the conclusion is that it’s a feelings course with an automatic A attached. We cannot afford to do this to our children especially in an era when Catholic church numbers are dropping drastically. In May, the publication Crux published a finding from a Pew Research survey which showed that only sixteen percent of Millennials (those people born between 1981 – 1996) identify as Catholic (see article here).

Religion should be at the heart of every Catholic school’s educational program and research has proven that Catholic schools, religious orders, and the priesthood begin to thrive when there is a commitment to the Magisterium, the principles of Catholic faith, and the moral life of the church. Students need to be exposed to the roots of our Catholic Faith and its relevance and application to contemporary living and faith issues. If Catholic teachers and administrators really took to heart what the Church teaches and the eternal implications of what we do here on earth have on the next part of our journey, then we would be on our knees daily as a staff praying for the students and families we are privileged to serve. As St. Theresa of Calcutta was fond of saying, “I see and adore the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.”