On being a ‘miracle worker’

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I spent the morning with a longtime Catholic educator and administrator who is now the President of a Catholic high school in San Diego. For me, he’s served as a mentor and source of wisdom for all matters in Jesuit education, and our recent encounter was typically enriching. At our breakfast, he told me something that I’ve thought about just about every day since.

Talking about our mission as Catholic educators, he said he tells his teachers to be “miracle workers.”

This was powerful. Powerful because it demonstrated a great optimism, a great hope, a sense of the sacredness and transcendence of education. I’ve thought, “Yes, I want to be a miracle worker. Yes, I want to do great things!”

At the same time, in the midst of these exhilarating thoughts, I remember that I am not a messiah. I am no one’s savior, and the moment I begin to conceive of myself or my lesson plans as bearing salvific powers, the moment I deny the truth of creation. God alone is God. God alone saves. God alone performs miracles.

If I am part of a miracle, it is not because I possess miraculous powers. Mary didn’t even possess miraculous powers. She herself didn’t bring about the Incarnation — it was her role to say “yes” to letting it happen. Likewise, I will participate in a miracle not when I become superhuman, but rather, when I let my very ordinary powers be transformed, when I give permission for my mundane acts to serve as channels for God’s grace.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


From Athens to Cupertino

July 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today I have an op-ed in my local newspaper, The Desert Sun, that considers two strands, or two broad ways of conceiving, education. I consider these strands in terms of two icons of the Western world, one ancient and one new. Socrates and Steve Jobs.


Posted by Matt Emerson.


June 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

“I also worry that iPads might transform the classroom from a social environment into an educational subway car, each student fixated on his or her personalized educational gadget.”

“But beneath this fretting is a more fundamental beef: the school system, without meaning to, is subverting my parenting, in particular my fitful efforts to regulate my children’s exposure to screens.”

“Still, I can’t be the only parent feeling whiplashed by the pace of technological changes, the manner in which every conceivable wonder — not just the diversions but also the curriculums and cures, the assembled beauty and wisdom of the ages — has migrated inside our portable machines. Is it really possible to hand kids these magical devices without somehow dimming their sense of wonder at the world beyond the screen?”

“And if experiencing this blast from the past weren’t troubling enough, I also get to confront my current failings as a parent. After all, we park the kiddos in front of SpongeBob because it’s convenient for us, not good for them.”

“In the course of mulling this question, I stumbled across an odd trove of videos (on YouTube, naturally) in which parents proudly record their babies operating iPads. One girl is 9 months old. Her ability to manipulate the touch screen is astonishing. But the clip is profoundly eerie. The child’s face glows like an alien as she scrolls from app to app. It’s like watching some bizarre inverse of Skinner’s box, in which the child subject is overrun by choices and stimuli. She seems agitated in the same way my kids are after “quiet time” — excited without being engaged.”

— Steve Almond, writing in the New York Times Magazine

The above are just a few of the many memorable lines in a compelling essay on the increasing trend to fill classrooms with iPads and the larger cultural embrace of technology as a means of delivering education, entertainment, and general interaction outside one’s own mind. Almond nicely captures the ambivalence that unsettles our nerves. We don’t want to reject technology; we don’t want to be seen as “behind the times,” but we also don’t want to lose something essential about our humanity. We feel a dread at what might be coming, when one day we have substituted a monitor for a person, when we care more about machines than our neighbors. Perhaps that day has already arrived.
Posted by Matt Emerson.

Private schools, social media, and the courage to teach

June 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

The Courage to Teach is a book by the writer and educator Parker Palmer. It was published in 1998 and is a reflection on the challenges of teaching and what makes for good teachers. The book is not a technical overview of best practices but a reflective, at times spiritual, meditation on the fears and joys and ups and downs that all teachers face.

Its title has a new meaning today given the rise of social media and the ways that the Internet has altered every facet of education.

To be a teacher today — one who truly cares — does require courage. To be a teacher today is to be vulnerable in new ways to new threats. More and more, students are taking to the Internet — to Facebook, Twitter,  YouTube, and venues I’ve probably never heard of — to broadcast their frustration with a teacher or school. Today, if a student is upset with a grade or a class, he or she can now set up a fake social media account, perhaps posing as a teacher or principal, and say and promote some nasty stuff. One high school student recently filmed another student walking out of a classroom while berating their teacher, reprimanding her for not being inspirational. It was posted on YouTube and within a few hours had hundreds of thousands of hits. People all over the country — people who don’t teach, who don’t know the teacher being surreptitiously filmed, who have no clue about the class, the assignments, or the unique dynamics of that particular school — chimed in to congratulate the student. It became Exhibit A in what is wrong with our schools.

Courtesy of Amazon.com

Courtesy of Amazon.com

It was appalling, not only because these students posted the video online, but because so many people took no thought of sharing and liking the video. I wanted to shout: would you subject your job to such scrutiny? Do you know what you’re doing when you support stuff like this?

Good people — good teachers — can have their careers ended or their reputations ruined for no legitimate reason, the result of a few impulsive students who might carry a grudge. Imagine the impact this could have. It’s already hard enough to recruit teachers. But now a potential teacher might say, “If I alienate a student, my entire career could be destroyed because of one or two students and their supporters on Facebook who, although they have never met me or stepped foot in my classroom, have decided that I’m part of the problem and should be publicly criticized.”

Let me add an important qualification: the vast majority of students I interact with are kind and responsible and do not take to the Internet to vent. My guess is that most high schools fare similarly, at least Catholic high schools. On the whole, we have great and supportive families, and they make our jobs a lot easier. But it’s not a numbers game. All it takes is one student with a mean streak to make life really, really difficult.

Schools are going to have to respond. Without unfairly encroaching upon student freedom or adopting a “Big Brother” posture, schools have to make it clear that they will defend their teachers, that they will not allow students to mock the school or the faculty through social media. Schools, too, must be more active in motivating parents to track what their children are doing online. I have already written extensively about that, but I’m still floored by how many parents let their children roam freely on the Internet, never finding out what they are posting or what they are doing on Facebook or Twitter.

Fortunately, Catholic high schools have more freedom to respond because they are private schools. The First Amendment does not restrict Catholic high schools the way it does public schools (and that because the First Amendment’s protections apply only to government entities). Students at private schools don’t have the same rights to post whatever they want. If a student at a private school mocks a teacher or a fellow student through social media, the school generally has a lot more freedom to suspend or expel a student or take other actions to protect the dignity of the campus culture.

At the same time, Catholic schools cannot be too quick to suspend or expel. We cannot blame students for being caught in a culture that they did not choose. It is part of our mission to form the consciences of young men and women and to teach them responsible, virtuous behaviors, online and elsewhere. We cannot expect students to arrive on campus already formed. One of the major tasks for the Catholic school of today is to help students navigate the expanding empire of social media.

Before returning to Jesuit education, I practiced law, and I remain intrigued by the ways that courts are responding to the intersection of campus life and social media. A post on that could take hours, so I’ll spare readers. While there aren’t many cases involving private schools (because the First Amendment isn’t implicated), there are a number of fascinating cases involving social media and public schools that show the contours of the challenges and the political and constitutional issues that arise.

Brian D. Wassom, an attorney in Michigan, has an excellent web site keeping people updated on developments in this area. Check out his overview of private schools and social media as well as his rundown of cases involving public schools. It’s very informative and user-friendly for the non-lawyer.

Related links:


“Social Media and Student Speech in Colleges and Universities” (from Wassom.com)


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Related posts:

Ignatian Education in the Age of YouTube

Some insightful questions on social media

June 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

While doing some research for a new project, I came across this insightful paragraph from a June 2011 speech by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The speech was given to commemorate the 45th World Communications Day and is titled “Truth, Proclamation, and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” It includes some questions that might help students — and teachers — discern proper responses to the expanding empire of the Internet and social media:

The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbour” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

Full speech here.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

The awesomely obsessive nature of Steve Jobs — and what it teaches us about greatness

June 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, a very fine book with a number of great anecdotes. I know that a biography on Jobs might not be material normally found on The Ignatian Educator, but there are a few excerpts from the book that connect to themes found on this site.

For example, in 2009 Jobs was in a Memphis hospital being treated for his cancer. Isaacson reports:

Even when he was barely conscious, his strong personality came through. At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. The doctors looked at [Jobs’s wife], puzzled. She was finally able to distract him so they could put on the mask. He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex. He suggested ways it could be designed more simply.

So that’s what you get when the man behind the iPhone is your patient.

It’s a telling story, and I think some may dismiss it as part of Jobs’s eccentricity. But it’s more than that. I think it’s a look into his greatness as a designer and executive. He absolutely loved the world of technology and design. It was his obsession, essentially his religion. I realize there are risks in absolutizing anything that isn’t God, and Jobs’s totalizing commitment to his work alienated many people, including his family. But his life does teach the lesson that greatness must come from a passion for the work, or for the product, or for the institution or company.

I see this with teachers. The best teachers LOVE their subject, and their students, and everything that goes into being a teacher (except, of course, grading); they obsess over the arrangement of desks and the details of assignments and exams. The best teachers I’ve met — some of whom are my colleagues — have a devotion to their teams and their classes in a manner analogous to a parent’s devotion to a child. They see their work as intimately connected to their own identity, their own imprint on existence. The success of the universe hinges upon their students’ breakthroughs. In their work on the whiteboard or near the lockers, there are cosmic implications.

I think this is what, in part, made Apple so successful. Jobs wasn’t in it for the money; he was in it because he couldn’t conceive of a life where he wasn’t utterly immersed in creating great products, marrying art, technology, and simplicity. On his worst days, Jobs was demonized by his passion; on his best, though, he let that passion empower a creativity that has done what he always wanted to do, “put a dent in the universe.”

So here’s the question: how do we get teachers thinking about their classes the way Jobs felt about products and design? How do we get teachers who believe that their teaching can and should put a dent in the universe?


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Educating Steve Jobs: The Classroom and the Entrepreneur

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?)

“What I could have done with a Jesuit education…”

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’ . . .”[1] 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.[2]

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.

Course requirements:

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.

Students shall:

  • 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.”[3]
  • Students will submit their finished projects/ventures to a panel that will judge the projects and award a prize (based on criteria TBA)

Project type:

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.

[1] The Jesuit High School of the Future (published in the JSEA Foundations collection), Chapter III, Sec. B.

[2] Ibid., Chapter III, Sec. A.

[3] The Preamble (published in the JSEA Foundations collection), para. 13.

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Ignatian Education in the Age of YouTube

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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