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Outward Signs and Symbols of Grace AND Culture: Incorporating Culturally Sustaining Sacramental Traditions

Written by Jennifer Dees, M.Ed., Katy Lichon, Ph.D. on Tuesday, 30 August 2016.

God’s grace is everywhere and always present.  In the Catholic Church, sacraments are the outward and visible signs in which we celebrate this grace.  Precisely because sacraments are tangible and visible experiences, our sacramental celebrations are full of rich symbolism.  We feel water and oil, see white garments and fire, taste bread and wine, and actively exchange rings, to name just a few examples.

Because sacraments are universally celebrated in Catholic churches around the world, they serve as magnificent occasions to invite families and communities to recognize and deepen their encounter with God’s grace. They also offer profound opportunities to integrate outward and visible signs of the cultural richness of our Church.

Over the next few months, the U.S. Church will be doing just this – incorporating more cultural traditions into the experience of the sacraments, starting with the sacrament of marriage. The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, an updated name, will be celebrated using language that more closely reflects the changes made to the new Roman Missal.

Additionally, and perhaps most exciting, new ceremonies that have traditionally been included as marriage practices in many Hispanic and Filipino Catholic weddings will now be embraced as options in the new rite. These ceremonies include an exchange of coins and a blessing of a lazo (a veil or cord), which is wrapped around the couple during the nuptial blessing.

“Historically speaking, the Church has been very open to using the elements of various cultures in celebrating the sacrament of marriage. Different cultures have different ways of expressing what marriage means, and the Church has shown a lot of willingness to take in some of these cultural expressions,” explains Father Andrew V. Menke, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship. The cord tied around a couple symbolically represents their sacramental bond to one another. And the exchange of coins is an outward sign that they now share everything, adds Fr. Menke, “which is what marriage is about.”

These forthcoming additions by the USCCB should lead all of us in Catholic schools to reflect upon the cultural aspects of the sacraments we prepare for and celebrate in our faith communities.  Do we welcome the active participation of padrinos (godparents) at First Holy Communion? Do we allow for the wearing of aiguilettes or ribbons on sleeves, the sharing of recuerdos, or the use of lit candles?  Perhaps we need to consider the languages we incorporate at the celebration of First Reconciliation or the music choices we use at Confirmation Masses?

The sacraments are such outward symbols of what we believe that taking time to consider their cultural dimensions is vitally important.  We invite your school community to ponder the following questions to get the discussion started:

  • What do I know about the cultural demographics of our school and parish?
  • How can I learn more about the sacramental practices and traditions within these cultural groups? What resources can I turn to?
  • How could the process of sacramental preparation be adapted to incorporate culturally rich traditions and values?
  • How might the family, particularly the extended family, be welcomed into the process of sacramental preparation and the liturgical celebration of the sacraments?
  • How could the liturgical celebration of the sacraments better reflect the cultural richness of our school and parish community?  What textiles, hymns, instruments, flowers, and imagery could be added to make the liturgy more dynamic and culturally sustaining? Are the families involved in the liturgical planning?

Additional Resources:


Hudock, B. (2015). Changes coming to the marriage rite in the U.S.: Rollout of ‘Order for Celebrating Matrimony,’ approved by the Vatican, is expected some sometime in 2016. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved from

Helping Vocabulary to Stick: 7 Successful Strategies for Schooling Saponification (or at least how to teach the word!)

Written by Katy Lichon, Ph.D., Clare Roach, M.Ed. on Tuesday, 30 August 2016.

When it comes to learning new vocabulary, especially with English language learners, research tells us that simple, one-time exposure is not enough for language to “stick.” For more effective vocabulary expansion, consider utilizing the following seven strategies: say it, spell it, see it and specify meaning, Spanish translation, show it, synonyms, and a sentence example.

Let’s use the academic word saponification as an example.

1.  Say it

The first step is to say the word aloud several times. Let’s try . . . saponification, saponification, and saponification.  It’s a mouthful, but it’s important!  Students need to hear and read the word repeatedly.


2.  Spell it

Next, let’s spell the word. Spelling is important because it gets at underlying phonics patterns, as well as prefixes, root words, suffixes, and even parts of speech. Let’s be word detectives: sapo . . . what might that word look like to you?  Perhaps you think of soap. Additionally, when you see “ification” what do you think of? Perhaps a process. So, what might this word mean?


3.  See it and specify the meaning 

Let’s examine three pictures and see if we can determine the meaning of saponification


Saponification means the process of making soap. Saponification is a noun that describes a chemical reaction between an acid (oil or fat) and a base (lye) to form a salt (soap).


4.  Spanish translation

See if students know the word in another language.  In this case, saponification in Spanish is saponificación.  In looking at the words side-by-side we can highlight the parallel language pattern of “ification” and “ificación.”


5.  Show it

Let’s make an action for saponification to help us remember the meaning (this technique is known as total physical response or TPR). Perhaps we could rub our hands together like we are washing them. Maybe we could have a motion for each step (acid or oil = rub your arms like you are putting on sunscreen) + (base or lye = pretend to pouring water into a cup) = soap (rub hands like you are washing them). 

We might also watch a short video to aid in building background knowledge and add visual support.


6.  Synonyms

Perhaps there are other ways in which we might interact with this word: saponified (verb), saponifiable (adjective), saponifying (verb).  Additional synonyms include soap making, reaction, or conversion.


7.  Sentence use

The scientist made soap by completing the saponification process. She combined an acid and a base to form a salt in the form of soap.


We soap hope that you are able to see the benefits of teaching vocabulary using diverse strategies.  It’s no lye, our students will really appreciate it.

For more information about vocabulary development, view this ENL webinar.

Every Student Succeeds Act: English Learning Children Not Left Behind

Written by Katy Lichon, Ph.D. on Thursday, 04 February 2016.

MC2 1182English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing population in U.S. schools at five million plus, and the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and the newest version of the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), contains changes that will impact this population.

Reviews for ESSA’s support of ELs has been described as measured support by some members of the field and by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as an “improvement” from previous legislation.

Here is what teachers and school leaders should know about the key changes to how states, districts, and schools serve English learners.

1.  Funding

ESSA contains major revisions to the title funding mechanisms. Overall, ESSA would authorize an increase in Title III funds, but the challenge here becomes that the number of ELs is growing at an incredibly fast pace, potentially faster than the allocated funds. It is also important to note that authorization is not equivalent to appropriation, so we can all just hope for the best.

Overall, the manner in which ESSA will calculate fund allocation will allow for more equitable access by Catholic schools. Keep your eyes posted for updates related to Title I portability and the A-PLUS provision in coming months.

2.  Accountability

While Title III funds will continue to be provided, accountability for ELs will transition from Title III to Title I. Accountability under Title I will be measured as growth toward the attainment of English proficiency. The hope here is that by including accountability for these students in a larger funding pool, they will receive more attention.

Under ESSA, there will no longer be “supersubgroups” which statistically combined multiple groups of students for the purposes of waivers. “Supersubgroups” often masked underlying inequities. Member of civil rights groups consider this to be a win and a solid step in ensuring that ELs are not overlooked.

3.  Measurement

ESSA will allow states to take over the responsibility of ensuring that the needs of ELs are met and will allow states to create their own goals and systems for assessing students annually and for deciding what steps to take in regards to the results. States will determine their own goals, one of which must be English-language proficiency. Additionally, states will still be required to test students in reading and math grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, as well as science test at three different points, but now they must break apart data for ELs, a “subgroup” of students.  

Additionally, under the current law, EL’s test scores are included in school data after they have been in the U.S. for one year. Under ESSA, this can continue or states can choose report growth over a three year progression.

Changes will also be occurring in terms of how ELs with learning disabilities and long-term ELs are reported, as well as how EL reclassification takes place.

Overall, ESSA maintains service to ELs through a commitment of federal funds and through more nuanced accountability. However, as pointed out by TESOL International, the bill could have developed the following areas further: ENL/ESL trained teachers and specialists and support for bilingual, dual language, and multilingual programs.

New Jersey Teacher Embraces Community through English Language Learning

Written by Rebecca Devine on Friday, 13 November 2015.

Saint Cecilia Catholic School in Camden, NJ, is permeated by what the students and faculty like to call a “Beatitude Attitude.” No one encapsulates that phrase better than Charlotte Brown Perez, the school’s resource teacher and a member of the 10th cohort in ACE’s English as a New Language (ENL) certification program.

Even though the local community is afflicted by poverty and violence, Perez’s school is part of its own small community that works against those negative influences.

“When the parishes were no longer able to support the schools financially,” Perez explained, “the diocesan school leaders decided to pool their resources.”

Today, the five Catholic Partnership Schools of Camden maintain their unique identities and traditions, but work hand in hand to advance the mission of Catholic education.

Even before teaching English, Perez was responsible for supporting the learning of all students as her school’s resource teacher. Many Catholic schools lack the means to support various forms of differentiated instruction, so her presence is a blessing to all.

“My lesson plan book looks like an intricately woven tapestry of grades and subjects,” Perez said. “I might be teaching seventh grade math and fourth grade reading during the same period, or eighth grade writing and fifth grade social studies the same block.”

There is no doubt that Perez’s work helps alleviate any stigma against students with special needs. Children at Saint Cecilia have come to embrace the notion that everyone learns a little differently. Perez particularly loves how she is able to empower and encourage parents.

“I get to see parents who were told their child ‘can’t’ and tell them ‘they can, and they did!” Perez said. “How amazing is that?”

Saint Cecilia, like many Catholic schools in urban areas, is full of minority and immigrant students who need extra instruction in English in order to thrive academically and socially. Perez’s particular role at Saint Cecilia did not, until recently, involve teaching English to non-native speakers. A few years ago, a colleague asked for her help during a summer ENL program, and she fell in love.  It was a smooth transition from helping her special education students to helping non-native English speakers, as the underlying principles—justice and equal dignity—are the same.

As much as Perez loves her students, though, her background as an educator was not always sufficient to help them learn English.

“My lack of formal training was preventing me from being as effective as possible,” she said.

The ENL program at the University of Notre Dame was just what Perez needed. She wanted a program that would allow her to teach—and learn—with a holistic view of her students’ lives in mind. Many of them have experienced very difficult situations, and the non-native speakers are no exception. ACE’s ENL program was a Catholic institution, she knew, designed particularly to form and educate leaders in Catholic schools.

“I am so thankful that I can talk about religion when comforting students who have experienced trauma,” Perez said. “I'm not sure I'd be able teach without talking about faith.”

Today, Perez is better equipped with skills and strategies to be an effective ENL and special education teacher, but she has always been a powerful presence in her students’ lives because of her advocacy and love.

“I pray every day that those students feel validated, that they know how special they are to know two languages, and that they know how important their cultural traditions are,” she said. “My goal in Catholic education is for all students to thrive academically, socially, and spiritually.”


Dual-Language Immersion Fosters Good Fit with Students, Catholic School Identity

Written by William Schmitt on Wednesday, 04 November 2015.


Stephanie Margetts, executive director of Holy Rosary Regional School/Juan Diego Academy (HRRS/JDA) in Tacoma, Wash., says she has seen the future—and heard it, too. She is leading an educational innovation called two-way immersion, or dual-language instruction that is transforming this Catholic school with a previously shrinking enrollment.

“Now, you walk in and you feel the energy of a bicultural school that celebrates the English and Spanish languages equally,” Margetts said. Enrollment, spanning pre-K for three-year-olds through eighth grade, increased 28 percent last year to 191 currently.

“Now, you walk in and you feel the energy of a bicultural school that celebrates the English and Spanish languages equally”

The student body is roughly half English-dominant, half Spanish-dominant. Pre-schoolers, regardless of their dominant tongue, spend their whole day speaking 100% Spanish; kindergarteners follow a 90% Spanish and 10% English model; and as of 2015, grades 1-3 maintain a 50-50 schedule, rotating one day totally in Spanish with the next immersed in English. Over several years, the approach will climb age levels, up through grade 8.

“We’ve created a model that people want,” Margetts said. Reaching out to a working class region of the state where diverse families share high aspirations for their children, “the model allows us to serve, to bring cultures together. That’s an exciting part of what we’ve been doing.”

A combination of incremental changes has kept every day exciting for students. In 2010, Holy Rosary’s enrollment had declined to 101; the Fulcrum Foundation, providing financial support to students in the Seattle Archdiocese, consulted with the foundation’s diversity committee to establish the first ever two-way immersion program in the archdiocese. The school continues to seek teachers with subject-area knowledge who are bilingual.

Experienced mentors have come together to help make the investment in HRRS/JDA bear fruit. A bilingual, bicultural teacher already on their staff became the leader of this mission—building a Catholic school whose curriculum is fully aligned with the changing demographics of the Catholic Church.  An estimated 35-40% of Catholics in the U.S. today are Latino.

In 2011, HRRA/JDA joined the Two-Way Immersion Network for Catholic Schools (TWIN-CS) initiative at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. Dr. Tim Uhl, now superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Helena, led Holy Rosary’s transition as its principal. Dr. Bridget Yaden has worked closely with the school as a board member and as chair of a local university’s Hispanic studies department.

An estimated 35-40% of Catholics in the U.S. today are Latino.

Margetts arrived at HRRS/JDA for 2014-2015 from Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C. Sacred Heart adopted dual-language instruction 16 years ago. Along with Escuela Guadalupe in Denver, Sacred Heart was one of the first Catholic schools in the United States to implement two-way immersion. For the past three years, TWIN-CS has supported other schools adopting this model (close to 20 in total).

Elise Heil, who leads Sacred Heart as its principal today, said the school’s enrollment has held steady around 200 students, with the two-way immersion model consistently appealing to many parents from various backgrounds, some of whom can utilize the District’s school voucher program.

This model helps schools garner interest from parents because they see it boosting academic rigor and student readiness for a diverse culture. English language-dominant families see fluency in Spanish preparing their children for a multilingual society, Heil said, adding that numerous Spanish language-dominant parents appreciate the life-skills development as well as the school’s Catholic identity. Schools have become more intentional in how to engage all families in embracing diversity.

Heill noted that immersion fosters solidarity because “everybody is a language learner.” But this two-way approach is not easily replicable among all schools, she said.

“This is still a very new model,” although the diverse, competitive D.C. education marketplace has prompted more ventures into multiple-language immersion. The model is familiar in many public schools around the country, but it is generating insights as more schools implement it.

“everybody is a language learner"

“The younger you start, the better,” Heil said, recommending that a school initiate the approach among three- and four-year-old preschoolers, then add grades incrementally over a period of years.

Sacred Heart is sharing its expertise with some of the newcomers. Heil said every school experiences challenges, including her own. Non-bilingual applicants cannot be accepted beyond second grade. No Catholic high schools in the area replicate the approach, so no long-term K-through-12 continuity exists. The model’s major sectors of growing student enrollment are in the pre-K classes.

Luis Ricardo Fraga, Ph.D., who helped start HRRS/JDA in Tacoma as a board member with the Fulcrum Foundation, continues to study the approach closely among his research topics as the Arthur Foundation Endowed Professor of Transformative Latino Leadership at the University of Notre Dame. As a political scientist and fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives, he has written about Holy Rosary’s transition.

“Two-way immersion in Catholic schools can be an effective mechanism for building intercultural communities that capture the richness of diverse communities,” he said. “As the Catholic Church in the United States becomes more and more multicultural, two-way immersion values both English and Spanish languages and cultures in ways fully consistent with recent statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

Fraga and other scholars have noted that the approach is well-suited to Catholic values—a respect for the dignity of distinct cultures, the notion of a “common good” to be pursued by all, and a special care for those on society’s margins.

Although the resources available for language education models will differ among schools, the stewardship of those resources takes place in a strong family context, as Heil pointed out.

“We’re kind of a home for many immigrant families, and the Catholic piece is something that brings us all together,” she said of Sacred Heart School. “We have a shared mission and a shared goal. Becoming a bilingual school really benefits the entire population.”

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