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Celebrating Día de los Muertos: A Melding of Indigenous and Catholic Traditions

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 by Clare Roach, M.Ed.

BlogDiadelosMuertos 2Photo by Nathan Solis, courtesy of the Eastsider LA. Originally appeared in Students learn about love, death & Dia de los Muertos at an East L.A. cemetery, October 30, 2014. For Catholic school teachers, celebrating Día de los Muertos can be a magnificent way to encourage students to pray for and remember their deceased family and friends. It can also be an opportunity to celebrate, honor, and learn from students and families of Mexican and Central American descent and the richness of their cultural heritage.

“the celebration of Día de los Muertos is as beautiful as it is profound”

Like Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a holiday linked to the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls in the Catholic liturgical calendar. But, unlike Halloween, which has become mostly about candy and costumes for the sake of entertainment, Día de los Muertos is a holiday that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have died and the generations of ancestors who have gone before us.

From family picnics at grave sites, to lavishly decorated home altars, to the aroma of marigolds and pan de muerto, the celebration of Día de los Muertos is as beautiful as it is profound. Here are some ways to help children young and old learn about this important holiday.

Integrating Pop Culture in the Classroom

Monday, October 26, 2015

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A couple weeks ago, we were lucky enough to hear from Dr. Ernest Morrell, a professor of English Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, on how we can make education socially, culturally, and digitally relevant to our students. While he was teeming with ideas for how to better walk and connect with students (everything from auto-ethnography projects to science rap battles, parent mentoring programs to new titles in multicultural literature), Morell devoted a portion of his talk to this stark reality: that “we compete with the media for students’ values.”

Go Cubs Go: What Catholic Schools Can Learn from the Rise of the Chicago Cubs

Friday, October 16, 2015

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There are some things that are just distinctly October. Flannel shirts, pumpkin spiced lattes, the changing leaves . . . and the Chicago Cubs.

What’s that, you say? The Cubs haven’t been to the NLCS in twelve years? The Cubs, infamous for having not won a World Series since 1908, have long been written off by baseball fans as being “cursed.” So while Cubs fans might still associate October more with Steve Bartman than with success, there’s no question that in addition to a crisp breeze, there’s a buzz in the air. The Cubs are rolling.

And that made us think — since baseball is the mother of all metaphors, we in the Catholic school world realized there might actually be a few similarities between the Cubbies and Catholic schools. Here are some thoughts:

We Can Do Hard Things

Monday, October 12, 2015 by Fr. Nate Wills, C.S.C.

At the end of August my Professional Learning Community conducted our first video chat. Through the wonders of the interwebs, it was delightful to see the smiling faces of our small group of Remick Leaders, now scattered across the nation. Mike Zelenka, a great principal at Incarnation Catholic School in Tampa, FL, thoughtfully led our meeting and reflected on his own experience of coming to Notre Dame for a couple days this summer. Mike spent time in classes and said the conversations about “root beliefs” got him thinking about his own root beliefs. He listed and explained some of the ones he came up with.

Lemme just tell you, they are really good.

How to Incorporate the Pope's Encyclical 'Laudato Si' into Your Classroom

Sunday, September 13, 2015

 

“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience”

 

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A great deal of anticipation always surrounds a new papal encyclical. People wonder: Is Church teaching going to change? Will I, as a Catholic, be called to greater conversion and prayer?  Will the pope use awesome words like “sourpuss?” (The answers are pretty consistently “Never,” “Always,” and “Probably,” respectively).

Back in May, you might remember the excitement surrounding Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home. But for many Catholic school teachers, that was right around the time they were grading finals, packing up the classroom, and getting ready for summer — not exactly the ideal time to read a 42,000-word encyclical.

Laudato Si, in short, is Pope Francis’ appeal to the faithful to take a closer look at how we are shaping the future of our planet, the effect of humanity on global issues such as climate change and poverty, and the protection and care for what Francis calls “our common home.” I can hardly think of something that functions as more of a “common home” than a school or classroom, so with class back in session and the Holy Father himself visiting our neck of the woods in a few weeks, here are some ideas on how the Catholic educator can incorporate some of the main messages of Laudato Si in their classroom.

Three Ways Teachers Can Strengthen Their Content Area Expertise

Monday, August 31, 2015 by Brian Collier, Ph.D.

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The new school year is upon us in most parts of the country and my former students are now returning to schools across this country. A friend recently asked if I had three pieces of advice for teachers as they start up a new (or another) year of teaching. The Professor in me responded gleefully because we love to be asked for advice so below is the advice I gave:

  1. Go to your professional conference this year! I know that it’s often hard to get to these conferences, but go! These conferences are a great opportunity to re-engage with the profession, particularly your content area.  Going to these conferences can be what sustains us and energizes us as educators. We can get new ideas, new tricks, and hear from others who are passionate professionals. Make sure to go to your professional conference – be it your regional conference, your state conference or even your national conference – make sure to go once a year and connect with the profession.  

    While you’re at the conference make sure to talk with veterans and new teachers alike, both have great ideas. Make sure to let others know where you teach and that you’re a proud teacher – if you’re a Catholic school teacher don’t be shy but announce yourself – if you’re a homeschool teacher share your success stories and favorite methods – if you’re a public school teacher share freely what is working in your community system. Be bold and share widely our colleagues are our colleagues regardless of where they teach – we all teach children and that’s what is important.

  2. Focus on inquiry! All content areas really can connect through inquiry if they’re being taught well. A really great teacher I know has really pushed his students to do inquiry based learning and has had great success. Make sure that students leave your class knowing that they should look at the whole world around them and be asking, “why is that there?” or “why does that work in that way?” or “what is going on when that Gospel was written?” They should be filled with the ability to ask questions and then a confidence that they can, through work, figure out answers to really just about anything.

  3. Read some books! Model for your students that you’re continuing to learn. I know there isn’t a lot of time during the year for reading, but showing that you’re an expert in a field by talking about what you’re reading is so very important. It also lets students know that the expectation for successful adults is that they be reading some things. If you really don't have time for a book how about pointing them to other things you’re reading for instance I’m currently reading national newspapers that I could share with students, but also always reading America Magazine, Notre Dame Magazine, Social Education (the Social Studies Journal) and The Western Historical Quarterly. I regularly throw in things in class that I learned from reading these articles or from the books that I’m reading or even from the podcasts that I regularly listen to such as This American Life or Reply All, or even Serial when it is in session.

For me all of these podcasts, journals / magazines, and a myriad of books make up my intellectual life and are part of who I am. I want my students to know that my thinking and decisions are ever-evolving and I want them to showcase that kind of thinking and evolution of the mind too, so we as the adults in their lives have a responsibility to read and then to talk about it with students when the moments are right.

I’m wishing all of my friends returning to classrooms in the K-20 world a successful start to a new academic year. I hope you’re able to find time to hone your expertise through connecting with colleagues, focusing on inquiry, and modeling that you’re a citizen of the mind.

 

Brian S Collier, Ph.D. teaches with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame.  He is @collier_brian on twitter and can be found at: www.brianscollier.com

The Moment I Fell in Love with Catholic Schools

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 by ACE From the Perspective of a Website Intern

I wish I could tell you that I immediately fell in love with Catholic schools when I started as an intern at ACE in March 2013, and that I was convinced and passionate about the mission of ACE. But that would not be the truth. Working at ACE started as simply a way to make some extra cash on campus and a place to hone my computer science skills.10486561 10155689026430858 357528230797447533 o copy copy

God calls us many, many times in our lives to a deeper relationship with him. Venerable Fulton Sheen referred to this as the “Divine Invasion.” Often times we fail to notice or ignore these calls, but every once in a while—perhaps stirred by the realization of the frequency of these invitations—we respond to God’s calls. Though we may fail to respond to an individual invitation, it can prepare us for the moment when we actually do respond. It seems that in a similar way, ACE has invaded my life as well.

That is what a Catholic education does—it brings a spiritual profundity to the world of education.

Over the past two and a half years, my work at ACE brought me to experience—peripherally, at least—many of its powerful and game-changing initiatives. Whether I was designing the websites for the Notre Dame ACE Academies, changing the background image of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program page, or updating some of the phrasing for the ACE Teaching Fellows pages, I began to see not only the breadth, but the depth of the impact ACE is making in Catholic schools. These people are changing hearts, bringing them closer to Christ and his Church—what a mission.

Regardless, I still saw the ACE team merely as good people doing good things. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for good people doing good things. But I still had yet to be fully convinced.

I can narrow it down to a single moment when my heart was persuaded; it wasn’t more than a few months ago. For one reason or another, I ended up at a weekly Mass at a local Catholic school. Unexpectedly, there was something that stirred inside of me seeing the kids struggle through the readings, sing off-key in the choir, and scamper up the aisle for Communion. It struck a chord that had been building in my soul since I began working at ACE. I could see it all in perspective. That is what a Catholic education does—it brings a spiritual profundity to the world of education.

All the webpage styling, article updating, and database configuring were more than they appeared to be. They slowly but surely prepared my heart for that moment. I suddenly could see why all the people who surrounded me for the past few years were doing what they were doing. It’s a shame it took me so long to understand that not only were Catholic schools a great good for our country, but they are vital to the mission of the Church.

This realization gives a new meaning to the seemingly meaningless moments of my time here. ACE called me into a deeper relationship with Catholic schools, and it took my hard heart a while, but I eventually came around.

The ACE Summer Through the Lens of the Chambered Nautilus

Friday, May 22, 2015

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In order to explain to you what I am most looking forward to about ACE Summer, let me first introduce you to an incredible animal. It’s called the chambered nautilus (above).

A little bizarre for sure, but looks aren’t everything—the inside of this animal’s shell is extraordinary. I’ve adopted the nautilus shell as something of a guiding symbol for my life ever since it was introduced to me in high school. Here’s why: Every year, at our Opening Banquet, the headmaster read “The Chambered Nautilus,” a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Holmes finds inspiration in the nautilus because it is a model of constant self-improvement. As the nautilus grows, it builds new compartments and closes off the previous ones. In each old compartment, air is trapped, which then buoys up the nautilus as it navigates through coral reefs.

What I love most about the nautilus’ growth is that it is in the shape of a spiral. Linear growth is flat and circular growth is frustratingly unproductive, but spiral growth is perfect. Spiral growth allows for true progress, and yet, no matter how much you grow, you retain the same center.

I’ve found the nautilus to be an apt metaphor for my growth thus far. My first year of teaching has definitely been spent growing into what Holmes calls a “more stately mansion,” for the life I live as a teacher is, in many ways, “nobler” than the life I led as a college student. It is the closest I have ever come to truly living a life for others and for God.

But come June 6, it will be time to return to Notre Dame for some much-needed relaxation and camaraderie. As teachers in ACE 21, we will metaphorically seal off the experience that was our first year of teaching and start to build new internal homes for our improved and enlarged selves. As we do so, the past will become part of what “buoys us up” in the present.

This process, however, takes time. I imagine that time, plain and simple, will be one of the greatest gifts of ACE Summer. Time to reflect on the past, time to imagine and dream for the future, time to reconnect with friends, mentors, family, and even God (in the special way that he is present only at Notre Dame). Time to wander and walk. Time to explore.

If I grow as a nautilus does, I can trust that the moral compass—the guiding principles at the center of my life—haven’t changed. The center holds.

Of course, as beautiful as this concept it is, it’s not always that easy. Like the nautilus, I sometimes feel like a “child of the wandering sea.” I sometimes ask myself: “What am I doing here in Florida, so far away from any home I have ever known?”

But given time during ACE Summer to reflect and reorient myself, I have faith I will discover that though I have wandered, I have not really wandered away from my spiritual home, but instead circled around it, building “more stately mansions” to house my nobler soul.

8.5 Ways To Be A Better Teacher: Advice from A Fourth Grade Class

Monday, May 11, 2015

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For those working in the field of education, help is easy to find. Advice is constantly thrown our way, whether from coworkers, professors, students' parents, administrators, online blogs, scholarly articles, NGOs, professional development speakers . . . the list (for better or worse) goes on and on. Yet since I've entered the classroom, I've learned that perhaps some of the wisest, most practical, and most meaningful advice comes from a group we don't listen to nearly as much as we should: the students themselves.

Consequently, I'd like to share some excellent advice from some excellent individuals: my fourth grade students. The advice is extremely applicable to teachers, but I think you'll find that even if you're not working in the classroom, you'll still be able to glean some important insights. Here are eight (and a half) pieces of advice to get you started:

"Always be prepared." – Carl

It's impossible to be prepared for every possible event with a given school day. But it is possible to always be prepared for the unprepared. In other words, situations are going to arise for which you could not have been prepared, but you can be prepared to stay calm, trust your instincts, and remind yourself that everything will work out.

"Gain [students'] trust by not being so strict." – Liza

I firmly believe that you can be a strong and efficient disciplinarian and classroom manager without being strict, and the best way to achieve this is through conversation. Don't just dole out punishments when students break the rules. Converse with them: find out why they did it, what they can do differently next time, and explain the consequence. They'll gain more respect for you.

"Be a real person." – Alejandra

Be yourself in the classroom. Your students will love and respect you even more than they would otherwise, and you'll be more comfortable in your teaching.

"Don't get frustrated." – Clarissa

When you're teaching fractions and you don't understand why your students do not understand the concept (after all, you've presented it five different ways), check yourself as you become frustrated. Frustration doesn't help you teach or the student learn. This ties directly to Jason's piece of advice: "Patience." Enough said.

"If you need help with a lesson, tell the kids to read while you get help from another teacher." – Natalia

While I certainly had to do this a few times, you should probably keep it to a minimum. The main point is, though, that you cannot be afraid to ask for help. Whether with teaching a concept, managing the classroom, and giving discipline, asking for help is beneficial for both you and the students.

"You have to take your students seriously." – Luke

Students are people too, and their opinions matter. Respect and listen to what your children have to say. Chances are that you'll learn a lot about them and yourself.

"Have fun." – Dorota

In an educational world of instructional minutes, unit planning, learning differentiation, assessment analysis, and professional development, it can be all too easy to overlook another equally important responsibility: make learning fun. There are few jobs that give adults the privilege to spend each day with children. Appreciate and help foster the joy and curiosity of your kids!

"Don't be afraid to fail." – Cassie

You're going to have moments of failure, because you're only human and teaching can be really, really challenging. Learn from these moments but don't dwell on them. They're going to make you a better teacher and person. Plus, they're great teachable moments for your kids, and they'll allow your students to see you as a real person.

"Ask your students for advice!" – Mr. Casey

ACE Teachers Pass the Baton as Another Summer Approaches

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The end of a race is always bittersweet—especially when it requires the passing of a baton.

Having somehow run some three-quarters of our year of service through, together, our community must now round its final turn. Our lap has had its hurdles, but always, we have sprinted to one another's aid. And as another ACE summer approaches, we are still racing—to make new memories, to leave a lasting impact on our students, to not have to even think of saying goodbye.untitled

Just twelve months ago, we left these starting gates as utter strangers. Now, I can hardly remember having had closer friends. Still, our ministry calls us onward. And for two of us, new races must be run.
Thanks be to God then that this is not just any other race. For I have run not with a community, but a family. And family has no end—family has generations.

Dizzying as it is to reflect upon the challenges, growth, and abundant joy this year has brought, I find profound peace in recalling how we got here. ACE summers might well be considered a pressure cooker of sorts. Following the summons of vocational discernment, ACErs are called to hit the ground running from the moment we step out unto this great unknown.

Not only juggling a full schedule of masters coursework, but the novelty of single-handedly leading a classroom, ACErs must race from day one in order to take full opportunity of every precious moment of spiritual renewal, professional formation, and foundation of community. Such a feat ought to be exhausting. And at many times we certainly did off of pure adrenaline. But more than this, it was love that saw us through.

At the time, I could never fully comprehend how we managed to run so far, so fast. But looking back, the source of our stamina stands clear as day. For even as we first-years struggled to envision exactly what this intentional Christian community would mean, we never ran alone. And in those doubtful moments where the road seemed too long, the responsibilities too great, and God's will obviously seemed to have been misinterpreted, our second-years were there, to humbly lighten our yoke.

Having only just finished a year of service that would irreversibly transform their lives, they had just said their own difficult goodbyes. From Friday to Monday, their role had reversed from teacher back to full-time student. And already missing the graduated members of their own community, they returned to the juggling act of coursework, reconnecting with dear friends, and somehow inviting three brave new ACErs into our fold.

Despite every opportunity to cling onto the past, to resist the tide of change, and move forward in blissful denial, they instead prioritized our own well-being. They did not push, nor set expectations, but rather, welcomed us to join in the authorship of the untold adventures that lay ahead. And it was their intentional acts of service and ever-present inclusion that formed the bedrock on which our community now stands.

All of us have since come to appreciate exactly what it is to be a part not of an ACE community, but an ACE family; for the latter requires far more than passing off the baton after two years of service. Each and every one of the ACErs who graduated from our community last year has remained an active member in the race of our site's on-going ministry. Though now scattered across the country, they have made a point of visiting on multiple occasions, and whole-heartedly continued the legacy of this family's expansion.

Recognizing the sincerity of this selfless love, I welcome the growth of another ACE summer's beginning. For as we pass the starting gates anew, our dear friends will never truly have left us. Rather, it is the inspiration of their continually enacted love that will lead us to welcome our family's newest members with open arms.

Our dear friends will return to share in still more memories, to offer up their honest experience, and to minister from afar to this next generation of ACErs. We too must then strive to humbly exemplify all that an ACE family might become. We must share our short-comings as honestly as our successes, be forever inviting, but never expecting, and challenge ourselves to growth we ask of others.

The race we run together does not pass the baton from mentor to mentee. For each individual's experience in teaching is shared and supported across generations. And as the next leg approaches, there truly is no end in sight—only the welcoming of a new beginning.

My Daily Daring Adventure as a High School Teacher

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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6:52 AM: Already on my merry way to school, I'm getting my daily dose of perspective from the combination of NPR on the radio and the Florida sunrise on the horizon. 

7:41 AM: Stealing a moment of peace in the Tampa Catholic Chapel—Fr. Hendry is saying Daily Mass. He's got a great Scottish accent, and I love seeing my students here. Afterward, I chat with Barrett, one of my juniors who has his sights set on ND. (Needless to say, I'm totally psyched for him.)

8:00 AM: First bell. Let the games begin! #Homeroom. Today I'm playing DJ and exposing them to Tracy Chapman's "Crossroads," but really, all they want to hear is "Baba Yetu." (Not that I blame them, it's an amazing song).

9:28 AM: Midway through second period, Evan, one of my students, shares the amazing story of his grandfather who escaped from a work camp in Communist Cuba by cutting off his own toes. We're reading Of Mice and Men, and talking about whether any of the characters have a real chance of achieving the so-called "American Dream." He's told me before that his favorite quote is "Sometimes, you can't see the window through the glass." I wonder if there's a connection...

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11:55 AM: Lunchtime! A much-appreciated break from the teaching grind to eat with my compadres in the English Department. Spotlight on this legend: Pat Bindert. I hardly know where to start, but let's just say when I gave everyone in our department the cooking spice which best captured their personality for Christmas, she got a single vanilla bean. Wizened, pure, and paradoxical—a flavor which is both exotic and familiar, universally recognized as wonderful. She's taught at many different kinds of schools, and she is an endless source of wisdom, guidance, and inspiration for me.

2:17 PM: It's the last period of the day, and because my American Literature class is currently studying Transcendentalism, we are outside, discussing examples of modern-day Thoreaus. We finish with an exercise in nonconformity. Inspired by one of Mr. Keating's antics in The Dead Poet's Society, I challenge them to express their true self in the way they walk around the picnic tables. Hesitancy soon gives way to confidence. The result is simultaneously hilarious, strangely moving, and really cool to watch.

3:00 PM: Last bell! The class day is over, and I get my daily visit from a junior football star named Treyvon. I'm pretty sure he started coming by because of a rumor he heard that I always have chocolate in my room, but now it's just a tradition. I ask him for a quote for this blog post: "Tell them Ray Lewis is my hero because his leadership and work ethic inspire everyone to be greater than they are." Perfect. Love it.

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3:41 PM: After-school tutoring is over and it's time for lacrosse practice! Tryouts are this week, and I've been working with the brand new recruits. They take me right back to my own freshman year of high school, when I was "in their cleats," awkwardly trying to figure out how to fail with grace. Important life lesson, that one.

6:07 PM: We finish with a bit of conditioning and all come in for the breakdown: "Heads, Hearts, Get Together! TC LAX fights forever! Go Crusaders!" The moment is perfect, and I know it's going to be a great season.

6:40 PM: Tonight, the TC basketball team is hosting "Faculty Appreciation Night," so I change quickly and head to the gym. I chat with my buddy Tony, a pillar of the TC community who has been at the school for 30+ years and sells tickets at every sports game. He's the real deal. Then, I find a spot with several other faculty members (including Mike and Vincent, two other ACE teachers at TC!) to watch the game. Two of my boys are on the team and several of my girls are cheerleaders or dancers.

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To other spectators, our squad may appear as just a row of numbers. Not to us. It's incredible how fast each one of them has become so, so much more than a number to all of us in the faculty section. I often wonder if our students have any idea how much we care or how proud we are...

8:32 PM: I finally pull into our driveway. Home. We have a quick community pow-wow over ice-cream, and then it's straight to the shower.

11:54 PM: At this point, I've been deep in planning mode for a while. I've designed a Frankenstein test, planned lessons for my writing class tomorrow, submitted online reflections for our Educational Psychology class, and graded a batch of quizzes. I'm completely exhausted. Time to make my lunch, pack my bag for tomorrow, and head to bed. I call my sister for a quick check-in, but then its lights out. Until tomorrow.

"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all." –Helen Keller

ACE Ireland Keeps St. Patrick's Fire Alive

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

web stpatrickThe “Fighting Irish” moniker did not always apply to the men gathered on our football field; before Notre Dame football assumed the name as a badge of pride in their Irish heritage, the title belonged to the Irish Brigade of the Civil War, a band of Irish-Americans known for their bravery on the battlefield and their battle-cry “Fag an Bealach,” Irish for “Clear the way!”

Today, the three surviving flags for the “Fighting Irish” regiments can be found in three locations: at Notre Dame’s own Snite Museum, in New York at the sixth-ninth regiment’s Armory bar, and in Dublin at the home of the Irish parliament. At all three locations, the flag serves as a testament to history and a call to live up to the zeal and determination modeled by the young men who first earned the name of “Fighting Irish.”

ACE Ireland embodies this zeal in its fight to revitalize the Irish Catholic School system. Led by John O’Malley, recent recipient of the Malpass Award, the ACE Ireland Advocate Committee has been hard at work to “clear the way” for greater vibrancy and engagement among Ireland’s Catholic youth by supporting Irish Catholic schools as the lifeblood of Irish society.

Through partnerships with select schools in the country, sponsored fellowships, and monthly community masses, ACE Ireland has built a network of teachers and community leaders who have been breathing new life into the Irish church since 1996. Whether sending teachers to the Notre Dame as part of the Irish Teaching Fellows program, bringing American scholars to Ireland through the Ryan Fellowship, or training Irish teachers in Catholic education through their diploma program at Maynooth, ACE Ireland has continuously found new avenues for revitalizing the Catholic schools and Catholic faith that is so central to Irish society.

More than a thousand years ago, in an act of outright rebellion and defiance against the Irish king and his druidic faith, St. Patrick dared to light the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Legend has it that the fire Patrick lit that night in Ireland will never go out, but will burn forever in the hearts of the Irish people. Miracles and legends aside, fires do not continue to burn without someone to tend them and fan their flames. ACE Ireland continues to do exactly that, following in the footsteps of St. Patrick and embracing the hard and joy-filled work of keeping his fire alive. 

The Ultimatum That Changed My School—For the Better

Friday, March 13, 2015

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You've got five years.

Five years to revamp your instructional practice and standards.

Five years to dramatically raise your enrollment.

Five years to right this sinking ship—or we will be forced to shut your doors.

Countless Catholic schools faced this ultimatum while struggling to stay afloat amidst an economic downturn that ravaged our nation. It placed a still greater strain upon families prioritizing the sizable cost of a private, faith-based education for their children.

For one small, family-oriented, and diverse Catholic K-8 school in particular, such conditions were issued four years prior to my own arrival. Despite these conditions, though, not all schools—indeed not all students—have been so lucky.

It would be an oversimplification to propose that the Alliance for Catholic Education singlehandedly saved the school I now consider a second family. But the loving labors of ACE Teachers have made an incalculable impact towards the continuity of this community. And as AmeriCorps members, we have indeed gotten great things done.

Long before I ever stepped foot in my classroom, greeted my smiling students, and considered myself an educator, AmeriCorps safeguarded the possibility for my predecessors and fellow staff to afford my students the educational choice that they fundamentally deserve. Our school stands as a safe-haven for many, welcoming students from all walks of life.

By means I still cannot fully conceptualize, they endured and continue to work selflessly towards the re-imagination of our school's circumstance. But it just so happened that a five-year ultimatum came as our school's first ACE teacher arrived in 2010.

She elected to continue serving her position to date, and was joined two years later by my own predecessor—for the first time in far too long a time, our school had a certified instructor of science. Suddenly, my coworkers could more intentionally focus their freely given energy to their subjects of passion and expertise. Suddenly, our school had even more energetic young role models serving our students. Suddenly, we were back in the black and things were finally looking up.

While I have only enjoyed the privilege of participating in this most recent year of transformation, the vigor with which our community has rebounded could not have been foreseen. Classrooms, once struggling to get by with textbooks outdated some twenty years now, boast unprecedented integration of state-of-the-art technology. Our enrollment has achieved its greatest numbers in memory, with waiting lists for next year growing every day. And for the first time in decades, families from our neighborhood are choosing to send their students to the small, family-oriented, and still diverse Catholic School that was always right there, waiting across the street.

I, and the ACE Teachers who served before me, are but individual participants in this on-going story of grit and revitalization. But through the relationships forged, students inspired, traditions re-imagined, and hours clocked, AmeriCorps has catalyzed a change that will support our students far beyond our classroom walls.

Every single day, I remind myself to stop to look into the smiling faces of my students, and thank Heaven: for the opportunity to call them my family; for the funding that makes it possible to serve them through the trying uncertainties of adolescence; for the opportunity to spark their imaginations and aspirations in ways a textbook never could; and to proudly support these bright young women and men who will undoubtedly continue our mission—challenging the limitations of circumstance, actualizing equal opportunity, and re-imagining this nation.

We had five years to right this ship.

Give us five more, and just see what we get done.

AmeriCorps Helps Students Find Optimism for American Dream

Monday, March 09, 2015

Anyone who knows the story of the glittering Jay Gatsby and his obsession with an unattainable, idealized love knows that the cautionary tale is a comment on the so-called “American Dream.” So when my English III Honors class started reading Fitzgerald’s classic this week, I introduced the concept of an “American Dream” with a series of prompts:amc logo

Stand up if one of your goals is to “be rich.”

Stand up if you want to be married.

Stand up if you want to have children.

Stand up if you want to own your own house one day.

Stand up if you want to live in the suburb.

The list went on, and their responses were fascinating. Only boys stood up to affirm their desire to be rich, and then all but two of those boys sat down when I asked about being married. Interestingly, every single person stood up to affirm that it was important that they own their own house someday.

But then I read the two most important prompts of all:

Stand up if you feel empowered to reach all your goals and live your dreams.

Every single student stood up. I’m not sure why, but I have to admit I was surprised. Then:

Stay standing if you feel that where you’ve come from, or something about your background, is a barrier to your success which you will have to overcome.

One brave young black woman stayed standing. I thanked her for her honesty.

I left school that day optimistic, because I live in a country where youth, at least those in my classroom in Tampa, feel empowered to achieve their dreams. But I also left with a renewed awareness that for many youth in this country, the journey to achieving those dreams will be a long, difficult, and (at least for the one young woman in my classroom) potentially lonely road. 

The Oscar-winning song “Glory,” written by Common, John Legend, and Che Smith, took Tampa Catholic High School by storm this week—students begged to listen to it, and when it played, they would sing along. It’s a catchy song, but that’s not why they got so into it. The song is an empowering, optimistic tribute to the promise of future “glory,” and you can feel it as you listen. 

AmeriCorps embodies this American optimism. At this moment, 75,000 AmeriCorps members are serving communities across the country, innovating and building a better America. Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal woman, once said to mission workers:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.”

AmeriCorps members do not come “to help” in any patronizing way—they come to stand with those they aim to serve because we are all part of the promise of America. At a time in history when it is perhaps easier to become jaded and cynical, they see and work toward a better future.

I am proud to be one of them. 

Seeking Truth and Seeking God in Middle School Science

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"We are the Universe becoming conscious of itself. We are the stewards of Creation. And we are restless."

These are the admittedly flowery lines with which I chose to open my personal statement in application to the Alliance for Catholic Education, now a head-spinning thirteen months ago. Granted the opportunity of their rediscovery during our program's recent December retreat, I can find no more holistic way to articulate my profound affection for the sciences and far greater passion for their communication.mc4 7530 1

Many a scientific reductionist will smugly tell you that Psychology, to which they reduce the complexity of the human person, simplifies to Biology, which simplifies to Chemistry, and then to Physics, and finally Math. And they are right in saying that no fact, no theory, indeed nothing in science stands in isolation. Rather, the whole of existence exists as an interwoven fabric to be explored across multiple layers of complexity.

Yet one must not forget the glaring omission of our reductionists. For as Christians, we hold that only the loving Providence of our Creator could have authored such elegant interconnectedness into existence. To deepen our understanding of the Creator, and thereby our relationship with Him, we might then unravel the mysteries of His masterpiece.

Allow me to rephrase my point in relation to my classroom:

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of Truth."
– Pope Saint John Paul II

These are the words that greeted my students to science class with Mr. Wilde on our August bulletin board. They have since served in reverberating echo of my application's personal statement. To the best of my ability, my daily instruction seeks to communicate scientifically validated truths in accord with our diocesan standards.

But the reason I teach is to touch lives, not fill minds. Memorization of facts and skills of data analysis pale in comparison to the repercussions of scientific inquiry complimented by spiritual development. And so I strive day in and out to gradually convince my bright young students of the deeper truths behind our covered content—to even begin to comprehend just how dizzyingly complicated, how humblingly dependent, and how irrefutably connected we are—as humans—to the whole of Creation, and thereby our Creator.

I relish the opportunities to explain to my students that the iron in their blood once destroyed stars, that the atoms in their bodies might once have been a part of Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr., and that genetically, the odds of each of us existing as our exact selves have been calculated at close to one in 10^(2,685,000), essentially zero.

I want my students to dare to trust that if they seek, they will indeed find, to recognize that they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and to believe that they can ripple intentional change into this world.

It hasn't happened overnight. And the unearthing of my personal statement's opening lines came as a desperately needed reassurance of my efforts. But what were once cracks of fleeting, almost embarrassed curiosity have increased in near exponential fashion.

My 7th graders, who often act far too cool for school, frequently, if not subtly, drop science and math vocabulary into the jokes they love to make in front of me. Hardly a day now goes by where my 5th and 6th graders do not stop me at lunch with surprisingly insightful questions they have connected to the day's subject matter.

"How can the first cell really have been alive if there was nothing for it to eat?"

"If the Universe is already so huge, and it's still expanding, why do we think it even ends?"

"So technically, all of the atoms that were in Jesus' human body are still
somewhere on Earth, right?"

And one 8th grader tearfully stopped me after class to thank me, saying she doesn't feel small and alone anymore when she looks up at the stars. I wish that I had one, picture-perfect story to communicate how my passion for scientific inquiry infused with spiritual discovery has impacted the lives of my students, but such precious glimpses of reassurance come more often than I could ever have hoped for.

And so, I trust in the slow work of our God, in whom all things are made possible.

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