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.
July 12, 2013 § Leave a comment
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
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.
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.