JSEA Colloquium Day 2: Teaching as a spiritual exercise

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Our class is a prayer.” These were the words of Susie Cook of St. Jospeh’s Prep in Philadelphia in her keynote presentation yesterday, and they were my favorite lines of the day. Her talk came in one of the “context” sessions, which help establish the broad themes of the week and provide real-world examples of the application of Ignatian ideas.

Cook called her English class a sacred place. And listening to her talk, I believed it. I didn’t get the sense that Ignatian identity was an element she added to her class; it was her class. What she taught was reflection, action, experience, and discernment, and the subject of English was merely the vehicle. The repetition of vocabulary words and grammar exercises builds to a mastery that she compared to the practice of prayer. The community that develops during the writing process mirrors the community of faith. She wanted her students to be “writers with and for others.”

"The Pilgrim." Statute of St. Ignatius outside SLU's main building

“The Pilgrim.” Statute of St. Ignatius outside SLU’s main building

For Cook, teaching students to write well was a way to teach them to become more thoughtful, more prayerful, more dedicated to excellence, and more authentic. Speaking of one of her student’s progress, she said, “He has learned to hear himself.” What better way to describe the fruits of contemplation, wherein we strive to “hear ourselves” in total unfiltered honesty?

The entire day drew heavily from Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. The morning opened with JSEA President Fr. Jim Stoeger, S.J., leading all participants in a “composition of place,” a method that Ignatius employs in the Exercises to help the retreatant enter into the scene or image that forms the context for one’s prayer. In the composition, we try to imagine precisely what we see, what we hear, what we touch, and what we feel. We try to form a visual and emotional context for our meditations. (Composition of place often occurs when people pray on a passage in Scripture. For example, if I’m praying on the Last Supper, I would imagine myself actually attending the dinner with Jesus and the apostles. I would try to see the candles on the table, smell the scent of the air, hear the bread being broken, the shuffle of nervous feet under the table . . .)

Yesterday morning’s composition wasn’t primarily a spiritual exercise, but Fr. Stoeger, along with Andrew Boone of McQuaid Jesuit (Rochester, NY) and Laura Krueger of Walsh Jesuit (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio), engaged in a kind of composition of place for Ignatian education. The goal was to describe, through an informal interview, a few features of our schools, a few of the challenges, a few of the lights and shadows with which the entire room could relate. Fr. Stoeger asked Boone and Krueger questions like (and I paraphrase), “What Ignatian or Jesuit characteristic matters to you most? How do you relate with your colleagues? What are the lights and shadows of your ministry?”

The composition of place exercise led to some great discussions at my table. My group focused on social media and technology. I was surprised to hear of the openness of many schools regarding technology. “We don’t want to fight them,” said one principal. He thought it made no sense for students to be required to use old-school daily planners when the rest of their life is catalogued and programmed into their smart phone. “What,” he said, “would we think if medicine used such outdated technology?”

Another teacher said, “We want to change the language surrounding technology.” “We don’t want it to be us v. them.” Another offered, “Banning is not a teaching tool.”

The consensus seemed to be a classic Ignatian thought: live in the tension. Rather than choose an extreme (complete embrace or outright ban), my counterparts emphasized that teachers and schools must teach and model responsible use. One school actively encourages teachers to be on Twitter so that students can see Twitter used properly (although, to be fair, some teachers struggle to do that). Treating social media as a forbidden landscape only encourages a “wild west” mentality that further increases online anarchy. The idea was to enter into the chaos and be an example of the intelligence and charity that we want students to demonstrate.

The morning sessions also discussed cura personalis. Joe Ryberg of Creighton Prep (Omaha) and Kristen Cupillari of Loyola School (NYC) spoke of cura personalis in terms of the four weeks of the Exercises: love (week 1), mission (week 2), challenge (week 3), and hope (week 4). Put another way, the four motifs correspond to discovering that one is loved by God despite one’s sins (love); that we are invited to make a choice to follow Jesus (mission); that sometimes the choice to follow Jesus brings with it suffering (challenge); but that we must summon our students to live in the light of the resurrection (hope).

Ryberg and Cuillari then spoke of specific ways they’ve used these four themes in dealing with students. For example, when it comes to student discipline, Cupillari talked about how students need to know that though they might sin, they are still loved. Though they might make poor choices, their lives (or their high school careers) won’t be forever defined by those choices. Turning to another example, Ryberg mentioned those moments where a student’s “world collapses” and everything they thought meaningful is gone. In those times, he said, we have to live out week 3 and join students at the foot of the cross.

Colloquium participants also attended a couple small-group presentations depending upon their particular interest (I will spare you commentary on the ones I attended). Those smaller presentations were followed by Mass in St. Francis Xavier College Church, a nice and timely reminder of what, ultimately, this entire week and our schools are about.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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