May 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
As I’ve written about before, there are some really brilliant and innovative students that apply to our schools. The age of YouTube has given young men and women, even by 8th grade, the chance to know and learn things that once required thousands of dollars and a bachelor’s degree. The other day I met with a sophomore applicant who has already developed some anti-piracy software that some music companies are looking into. Another of our students has started his own record label and has built his own web site. Another incoming student is building robots and writing software with a level of technical sophistication that astounds. When I speak with these young men and women, I cannot help but think of men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, geniuses who dropped out of college because it just didn’t feed them.
Schools have to ask: how can we challenge these students? How can we make school worth their time? Does it serve them to sit through a typical (Catholic) high school curriculum, when those students are literally developing companies and new products? (And an especially hard question: how do you entice these students to study theology, a topic which, to them, seems boring and outdated, totally at odds with the experimental, innovative spirit that greets them in their tinkering with technology?)
I think we can (and should) make a very good argument that those students do need courses in history, the arts, literature, and theology, courses that explore the mystery of the human person and, above all, God (Jobs himself traveled to India to, in the words of his biographer, find “enlightenment through ascetic experience, deprivation, and simplicity.” He also dabbled in Buddhism). But they also have to feel like their time is channeled wisely and that their natural aptitudes are being developed. In speaking with the student who started his own record label, he told me that progress on the site moves slowly because he can only work on it at night, after all his other homework is done. But I thought, Why not let him work on it at school? The kid is building a company. Why not give him space to do that throughout the week?
Given my conversations with students, and my experience teaching history, English, and theology, as well as my interactions with some of our best students in our mock trial program, I proposed a new course for Xavier Prep (where I work, in Palm Desert, CA). The course tries to offer a classroom experience that welcomes innovation and creativity while, at the same time, connecting the student to enduring themes in Jesuit education. It’s received favorable responses and remains a work in progress. My colleagues and I continue to discuss ways we might integrate some of the features below to draw in some of these advanced students.
Educators, students and others, please offer feedback. This could be a crowd-sourced course. What would you want to see?
Xavier College Preparatory
(Tentative draft for new upper-class elective; subject to revision)
Prospective course names:
Independent Study in Entrepreneurship
Independent Study in Innovation
Independent Study in Design
Advanced Independent Study
Over the last few decades, advances in technology and corresponding changes in the world economy have led to a re-evaluation of the predominant mode and content of secondary education. As long ago as the 1970s, the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA) advocated for a shift “away from an emphasis on the school as a communicator of a static, clearly defined body of information to a vision of the school as a center where students ‘learn how to learn’ . . .” The JSEA also recognized that its schools could no longer be conceived of as a “total learning environment”; that, instead, Jesuit schools must organize, integrate and reflect on student learning experiences regardless of source.
To meet this evolving terrain, scholars and professionals are increasingly emphasizing the need for creativity, intrinsic motivation, imagination, collaboration, and the capacity to work across disciplines. One expert, Harvard professor Tony Wagner, stresses that schools must create innovators. Some theorists emphasize design theory, the creative process, and/or curriculum that includes project-based learning or, in the phrasing of one school, “investigative learning.”
Regardless of the approach, traditional emphases on standardized tests, worksheets, memorization, and streams of structured essays are giving way to different ways of doing school. More and more, students are facilitating their own learning, drawing from venues different from and beyond their campuses and classrooms.
Embracing the tension between old and new that is a classic feature of Jesuit education, this proposed course attempts to respond to the dynamics noted above and support Xavier students in their passions, their entrepreneurial goals, and their attempts to innovate. In so doing, the course attempts to encourage students to magis, to that thirst for more that always seeks to transcend boundaries and limits and which goes hand-in-hand with the innovative imagination.
In this independent study course, students will propose a project and will establish a timeline for the key landmarks of project completion. The project must possess a level of innovation, creativity, and critical thinking that bridges multiple subjects and skill-sets and which can sustain a semester-long time frame.
- Draft up a contract that explains the reason for the project, an outline of what will occur, and a schedule for its completion
- Connect with an industry or field partner who agrees to provide assistance throughout the semester
- Partner with a Xavier faculty member who can check-in to ensure timely completion of the assignment and track the completion of the established goals. The XCP teacher can also invite the student to reflect upon enduring understandings that emerge out of the project
- Include some kind of social media component for purposes of marketing and/or publicizing the project/venture. For example, students will have to develop a web site, a Facebook page, or other social media or online venue to showcase their project or finished product
- Consistent with Xavier’s Catholic, Jesuit nature, students will demonstrate a contemplative intentionality in the course of their project, showing how their work connects to a human or spiritual need that implicates “those deeper and sweeping realities in the ebb and flow of current events in their own lives and in the larger society around them.”
- Students will submit their finished projects/ventures to a panel that will judge the projects and award a prize (based on criteria TBA)
The types of projects students might choose are virtually unlimited. Projects centered in business, technology, law, medicine, healthcare, film, drama, photography, computers – or some combination of these fields (as is likely) – are permissible, as are projects that students have already started but wish to advance further.
The course is open to junior or seniors. Students will receive a semester of elective credit and must apply to be accepted into the course.
May 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
The beach is upon us, and as summer approaches, it’s already time (long past time, actually) to begin imagining changes for next year. It’s a time for administrators and faculty to review the past nine months, to consider what classes to add and what classes to drop, which books to assign and which to drop, how to increase the applicant pool, how to assign better homework, how to build a schedule that accommodates the retreats, the prayer services, the games, the dances, the immersion trips, the holy days, the holidays, and the need to learn enough to impress a college.
When it comes to educational reform, many books and articles summon schools to adapt to developments in curriculum and technology, and a lot of the tinkering centers in these areas. But not as much attention is directed to other aspects of running a school that are equally critical. Here I want to touch upon one of the most prevalent issues in Catholic education and propose what, to most schools, would be a big and perhaps controversial change.
I am speaking of the money question. Catholic schools don’t function unless they collect tuition revenue and fundraise aggressively year-round. While some high schools and universities have a large alumni base and an endowment in the millions (or billions, in the case of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown), many Catholic schools survive on thin margins. They run deficits every year and have very little to spare. The financial situation is increasingly dire at the parish level, where schools continue to close.
Most institutions at the secondary level (the high school level) rely upon a core group — the president’s office and the advancement team — to raise money for the school. They bear the entire fundraising burden, and the teaching faculty and other administrators have no responsibilities in this regard. But if schools need money, they might consider a change.
Let me start by way of analogy. My good friend and colleague says that for campus ministry to flourish, for schools to grow the faith life of their students, all faculty must become (in his words) roving chapels. Campus ministry, he says, cannot be confined to a few members on campus or to Mass days or retreats. Church has to be everywhere. Students have to encounter “houses of faith” throughout the day, through all their teachers and classroom experiences.
I agree with him, and I think Catholic schools should consider a similar principle when it comes to raising money. In other words, what if Catholic schools enlisted their faculties to help fundraise — and, in fact, made fundraising a requirement? I realize this would be met with opposition, some quite passionate. To ease the transition into the program, however, it could be a phased approach. For example, a school could introduce the program voluntarily for the first year and set a target fundraising goal for each faculty member. After that, the school could include the fundraising goal as a contractual requirement.
Suppose a school set the target at $1000 for each academic year. Faculty could meet this goal by deferring a percentage of each paycheck, or they could raise the money through conventional means (by phoning friends and family, or by soliciting donations through the Internet, through drives, etc.). As a basis for comparison, consider this: where I work, faculty receive two paychecks per month for a full calendar year. If you take $1000 and divide it by 24, you’re left with $41.67 per paycheck for the amount needed to generate $1000 in fundraising. Now, giving up over $80/month is no small beans; that money could be added to a retirement fund or pay essential bills. But faculty could switch it up. They could raise part of the money through paycheck deferral and part of it through donor outreach.
Regardless of the method, it could be done. Though many faculty would initially resist, I believe (or I’d like to believe) that most faculty could easily find ways to make the money. And for those who really resisted it, it could lead to some great conversations about mission, identity, and commitment.
And the results could be impressive. Imagine a Catholic high school with, say, 75 faculty members. Imagine if every year, the school could depend upon (at least) $75,000 from its faculty. If invested properly, that money could be an excellent source for financial aid, for technology upgrades, or for countless other improvements. As one colleague told me, “We could pay for a retreat house with that.” And he’s right: that revenue could easily cover a mortgage on a very nice property.
That this idea is controversial is unmistakable. The few colleagues to whom I mentioned it greeted the idea with a mix of intrigue and hesitation. One of my friend’s reactions is, perhaps, the one that would become most common. It essentially boiled down to this: But we already do so much! On top of teaching and coaching and proctoring and attending retreats and service trips, we now have to fundraise?
That’s a valid question, and I sympathize with its sense of feeling stretched. And my answer to those concerns coils down to this: Yes. We do have to consider this. Catholic schools don’t get money from the government. We depend upon the generosity of donors and the consistency of parents to pay tuition. And now, especially in light of the economy, it might be time for the faculty to re-imagine its role, just as we have to re-imagine our role in light of emerging curriculum models, new technology and the alterations demanded by the Internet age.
I don’t think this is as hard as it might seem. Schools can set up online databases where people can donate as easily as they can buy a song on iTunes. Moreover, with so many faculty searching for potential contributors, someone might stumble upon a few people who might want to contribute substantial sums or consider a recurring donation (there is another discussion to be had about what happens when a faculty member fundraises more than the required amount. Could there be a bonus structure, something along the lines of what happens in the corporate world? I know this kind of talk makes people head for the exits, but could we at least consider it?) Enlisting faculty to donate would also, I believe, give teachers a more profound “buy-in” to the institution, a stronger stake in the venture. They would also identify more fully with what many parents have to go through when they try to pay tuition, which often involves a lot of asking around, a lot of humility and a lot of sacrifice.
What do people think? It might be just as helpful to shift the burden of proof: What are the reasons not to do this? What are the reasons not to require faculty to have to raise money? I’m still pondering this issue and open to competing positions.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
May 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
Education can seem ceaselessly mysterious, simultaneously one thing and its opposite, impossibly complex until it becomes quite simple. Accordingly, no aspect of the process goes unexamined. Reformers study things with quantum specificity. Educators puzzle over curriculum, learning styles, and how much, and what kind, of homework to give. We worry that we exaggerate the importance of standardized tests until SAT time, and then we realize we haven’t emphasized them enough. In the course of pondering lesson plans and new buildings, we consult architects, psychologists, and design theorists. Schools offer Yoga. I’d bet that someone has written a PhD examining the ideal location of a teacher’s desk, perhaps titled something like: “Authority Communicated Through Structural Placement: On the Pedagogy of Classroom Furniture,” and I’m sure it would include the latest research on the brain and, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex, which would still not be developed enough.
A lot of this thinking and wrestling is very healthy — and fun. I love these conversations and I’m in education, in part, because of its mix of tradition, innovation, and imagination. At the center of everything is a deeply philosophical, non-formulaic pursuit to draw the best out of the human being. Education is multidimensional and paradoxical; it requires an eye on the past and and an eye on the future. It is an intersection of specialties, a bridge between the changing and unchanging.
But as another academic year comes to end, and as I reflect upon my year and the latest trends in education reform, I find that there is one thing that is not mysterious. Amidst the voices calling for new this and different that, I see once more that there is no curriculum, there is no lesson plan, there is no piece of technology that can replace or supersede a supportive, loving home environment. Sometimes this might be a traditional two-parent home, and sometimes not. Regardless of the particular makeup, when a child comes from a stable and attentive family, everything else is secondary. Students find ways to overcome obstacles. They find ways to succeed. They learn how to take charge of their own academic life. They navigate temptations and, even if they occasionally succumb to them, they don’t fall away.
When a student doesn’t have a loving home, all the technology in the world, all the latest methods or theories in education reform, can become meaningless. The students who struggle most are those whose parents are not involved in their lives. These are parents who don’t know their children’s friends, who don’t monitor Twitter or Facebook accounts, and who don’t know who their child is becoming. They are the parental equivalent of the “watchmaker God”: they bring new life into the world, and then recede, failing to intervene when it’s most crucial, making far too many assumptions about the capacity of their children to direct their own lives.
In education, then, the most revolutionary reform is not the technology of the iPad. It is the technology of the dinner table. It is a place where children arrive knowing that they will be loved unconditionally, a place where kids are asked about their day, and about their friends, and about the vast range of observations and influences that roam through their mind, trying to take root in their soul. It is a place where students are constantly called back to the best version of themselves, to dignity, to virtue, and to the larger arc of life’s purpose.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
My senior synthesis classes are just a week away from ending. I’ve taught the class the last two years. As the name suggests, the class is for seniors. It’s the last required theology course that our students take, our last chance to get them on the road to Skylar. Most people are initially puzzled by the name, and I could offer thousands of words discussing what it’s about.
But I’ll spare you that soliloquy to give you the short version: the Synthesis class requires students to write a paper explaining what they believe and why. The paper is guided (each section is methodically and slowly completed) and it’s broken into four chapters. In chapter 1, students discuss their formative experiences; in chapter 2, students research and present answers to the philosophical or theological questions that chapter 1 raises; in chapter 3, students respond to their chapter 2 and provide their own statement of belief; and in chapter 4, students answer the question, “What now?” That is, in light of the insights achieved in ch. 1-3, what will they do and who will they become?
In addition to the paper, there is a second half to the course. The second half is a kind of general introduction to faith and to some of the main teachings of Catholic Christianity. In the materials I assign, I try to answer the question: How does someone move from unbelief to belief, especially from a total denial of the divine to a daily profession of hope in the God of Jesus Christ? Given those questions, and given the age of the students, the class allows us to delve into some heavy stuff. And as we read and discuss, my perceptive students go right to the material that matters. They ask questions about the nature of God, His relationship with humans, the response to suffering, free will, the reason for existence and many more. Class conversations soar into fundamental questions of philosophy and theology.
In the course of these conversations, I’ve realized why it can be so difficult for students to embrace organized religion.
Students in high school are starting to sense the thrilling adventure that is education. High school, in some measure, is the dawning of the academic mind. On the threshold of adulthood, high school students confront varying theories and historical figures; they are reading about wars, conquerors, belief systems, gods, physical laws, inequalities, theorems, proofs, characters, motivations, plots . . . and doing so while navigating the often brutal terrain of teenage social life. It is fragmenting and distracting, often overwhelming — like being dropped into the middle of a foreign city.
Students, I have seen, want to wrestle with what they are learning, and they want to do so freely and without the belief that their speculations are meaningful only if they resemble a preconceived framework imposed by a teacher or textbook. They are explorers, and things they had never heard of, nor thought of, are visible. It all entices, it all beckons, it all calls to be experienced and explored. To commit to one particular religion is, for them, to give up the journey. It is to accept a restriction that seems arbitrary in light of the number of other belief systems that look so tantalizingly authentic.
For public schools, this open-endedness does not pose much of a problem. Public schools do not rest on any preordained theories about the way the world is. Public schools are institutionally committed to the idea that truth is what you make of it. But consider the position of a Catholic school and more particularly a Catholic religion teacher facing young men and women at this point in their lives. A Catholic school presupposes a certain account of humans and history as the truth of all truths. A Catholic institution proceeds upon the conviction that certain issues, or certain potential points of confusion, have already been decided. A Catholic school cannot be indifferent to the question of God and to the nature and moral responsibilities of the human person. A Catholic school cannot say to students, “Believe in whatever you want; it’s all up for grabs.”
This, then, creates a challenge. We have to sympathize with our students’ context; we have to value their beliefs and appreciate their excursions into the world of ideas. Students don’t want to be told they are wrong; they don’t like thinking their worldviews are incorrect. Students often find claims to religious exclusivity to be insensitive, sometimes even an attack on other people or cultures — or themselves. So a Catholic school has an especially fine-tuned task: to persuade students of the paradox that what to them appears exclusive or arbitrary is actually the very ground of their freedom, to show that committing to the truths of revelation does not limit their intellectual exploration, but enriches it. To show that what might seem provisional and limiting is actually universal in scope — or, shall we say, catholic.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
May 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
Over the last few days I’ve been pretty busy with matters at the school and with a few other writing projects. The interlude in posting has offered a chance to step back and think through some things without feeling compelled to wrap my winding deliberations into artful prose.
I’ve concluded — and this may be a surprise — that I am still adjusting to blogging, to the tension between wanting to write and the concern that, given the need to update unceasingly, I might not be doing it memorably well. Usually, when I write, I like to spend hours honing. I like to examine every word, every piece of punctuation, the entire landscape of syntax, sentence, and paragraph. In my most ambitious moments, I want to think like Socrates and write like Ian McEwan. But blogs, of course, are just not suited for that obsessive particularity. You have to send off your words with the occasional untucked shirt.
Over the last few days, moreover, I think I have realized that I’m going to have to change up my writing time. Right now, given my day job, I usually write at night. Once I start writing, it’s very difficult to stop, and a captivating subject can easily compel me to remain unsleeping long into infomercial time, into those hours of the darkness when the silence of the world drowns out all superfluous thoughts. This, as you can imagine, makes rising early an extraordinary feat, one that requires enough coffee to fill a UPS truck.
The writing shall continue, as it must, as it has to, as it will always. I have a few posts that are lining up in my head, impatient from remaining unwritten. I will be back tomorrow with fresh material. Until then, good night.
May 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
My parents live on a golf course connected to a gigantic Marriott. It’s one of those resorts that is more like a tiny, opulent city than a hotel. It has two golf courses, actually, and on weekends, music from the resort roams its way a few hundred yards to my parents’ back porch.
Across from the resort is a shopping complex known as “Desert Ridge Marketplace.” It has everything that you’d come to expect from a modern American super-sized strip mall: TGI Friday’s, Staples, Target, JoAnn’s, Barnes & Noble, movie theaters, Verizon, and probably a few dozen places to get a burger or burrito. The complex probably draws thousands of people a day and earn millions of dollars.
My parents moved to that neighborhood when I was a junior in high school. When they arrived, the area now filled by the resort and the marketplace were vacant. They were flat, dusty tracts that attracted no attention, an afterthought on the margins of Phoenix. There was only an isolated golf course. When I first saw my parents’ new home, it seemed too remote, too far from action and fun. Between my junior year of high school and the end of college, however, developers transformed the land into a nerve center of commerce. In fact, in addition to the shopping venues, the Desert Ridge center now includes a number of healthcare facilities, an apartment complex, and homes.
As I think about this, and as I think about similar projects, it occurs to me that real estate development, or land development, has paralles with teaching. The average person looks at vacant land and sees emptiness. Developers look at land and see possibility — perhaps a hotel, a restaurant, or maybe a gorgeous worship space or a theater. Where I live, magnificent golf courses are woven into the mountainous desert lanscape, a feat not only of engineering but of imagination.
And developers know it’s hard work. They know the land might need improvements, a few stray buildings might have to be torn down or the area rezoned. They know that construction will require thousands of hours of negotiation, the drafting of contracts, haggling with lawyers and city officials and the provision of millions of dollars. Delays will ensue. Costs will increase. Conflicts will rise.
But they do it anyway. They believe. They dream of what could be, and then, one day, it’s done.
The connection with teaching hit me the other day as I spoke with a colleague about education. Students come to us in various stages of development. They arrive with a diversity of capacities, talents and liabilities. They might be great at math but bad at writing. They might hate art or be bored by religion. They might love sports but not physics; they might run for student government or decide to pursue piano. But no matter what they’re like, teachers have to see students for what they could be, not only for what they are. If I have a student who is maybe a bit surly and reserved, I cannot assume that’s how he or she will always be. I have to teach to other versions of that student, to someone who one day might lead a company or run a school. I cannot see my students as one-dimensional or anchor their identity in first impressions. I, all teachers, have to see students like a developer sees the natural environment — as filled with possibility, as ripe for transformation. And teachers have to commit to this knowing there will be struggle, resistance, and a few false starts.
To be a teacher is to imagine a future on another’s behalf. To be a teacher is to believe that a student can reach the best version of himself even when he might say, “No, the work is too hard. Let me remain as I arrived.” A teacher co-imagines a new reality, a new self, into being.
May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today, Dave Gregory returns to The Ignatian Educator with a meditation on one of the central experiences of Jesuit education, the Kairos retreat.
The Kairos Sacrament
May 6, 2013
By David Gregory
In the spring of 2004, I traversed the wilds of Staten Island with two dozen of my sophomore classmates to make the famous “Quest” retreat, better known in other Jesuit schools as “Kairos.” I didn’t know what to expect, although I certainly was a bit jealous of the cultish attitude surrounding the retreat’s alumni and those “waffle” crosses they so proudly bore around their necks. (I would learn years later that these are in fact Jerusalem crosses, distributed to the solid majority of Kairos alumni from Jesuit schools all over.)
The particulars of my retreat escape my memory, and I can’t remember my leaders or the talks they gave. However, I do remember this much: at some point during one of the central exercises, I thought to myself, “If this is what Jesuit education is all about, I want to be involved with it in some way, shape, or form for the rest of my life.” That singular thought has defined the following decade of my existence. It has sent ripples — and occasionally shockwaves — rambling through my life, and has led me down a road my teenage self could not predict. Teenage Dave would have been amused and shocked, maybe even a tad horrified, if he knew what was to come.
Nowadays I view Kairos as the peak of Jesuit secondary education, the experience toward which the lives of students flow and the experience in whose light these lives will forever remain. I’ve spoken with dozens of alumni from Jesuit high schools, and it seems that just as the Spiritual Exercises unite Jesuits, Kairos binds Jesuit schools’ alumni. Just as the Exercises set the Society of Jesus apart from other religious orders, Kairos sets twenty-first century Jesuit institutions apart from any other mode of secondary education.
I can’t speak about the particular details of Kairos, lest an unsuspecting student stumble upon this writing in an attempt to unveil the retreat’s clandestine happenings, but I can say this much: Kairos provides a window into who we are and who we’re meant to become, both as individuals and as a community. Ryan Maher, S.J., one of my professors in college, had a list of what he liked to call “Catholic axioms,” or principles upon which the Catholic imagination rests. My favorite of these is this: “Faith is not so much about the constancy of the gaze as it is about the intensity of the glimpse.”
Everything in Catholicism bends toward these glimpses, thus bringing us into moments of (in the Greek) ekstasis – ecstasy – in which we find ourselves drawn out of ourselves. In engaging the Sacraments, we celebrate milestones of life worthy of being lifted up and named: initiation, community, vocation, and illness, moments which are linked to the life, death and resurrection of the Christ. In grasping “sacramentals” (religiously charged items such as rosaries, crucifixes, and holy water), and in beholding religious artwork and iconography, Catholics experience a world that is not entirely our own, a world that will be the culmination of all finite existence. Glimpses serve as a reminder that nothing we now know is perfect, that we are in the world, but not of it.
These things fill our hearts with yearning for preternatural life; they hold us in a non-sexual ecstasy, and though they belong to the immanent, they point toward the eternal. This holy longing remains central to the Catholic imagination and compels us toward a reality that lies outside of space and time. As Catholics, we dream of this, we hold it dearly and live it. We try to communicate its meaning, but this task proves impossible.
Kairos presents the culture of Jesuit secondary education with a profound little “s” sacrament, in which the difference between chronos (the temporal) and kairos (the eternal) is fuzzy at best. It shatters the quotidian high school world, and students leave feeling shaken and transformed. Is there a more powerful sign of the agency of grace than the awareness that things are — somehow — different? I remain unconvinced that there is.
Dave Gregory graduated from Manhattan’s Regis High School in 2006 and from Georgetown University in 2010 with a double major in philosophy and theology. Prior to coming to Xavier, Gregory was in the Jesuit novitiate in the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus. Gregory’s interests include Ignatian spirituality and the practical implications of the Spiritual Exercises for secondary education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.