Notes – Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization

Today I’m at the National Catholic Educational Association’s Convention and Expo in Pittsburgh giving a presentation entitled “Catholic Schools: Centers of the New Evangelization.” Below are my notes and materials from the presentation as well as links to additional resources. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter where I’ll be posting notes, thoughts, and pictures from the conference!




The Art of Teaching


“The art of teaching is a vocation. It calls for fitness and training as well as a consecration; hence it is a special kind of vocation. Whether one is called upon to teach religion or one of the secular subjects is of no vital concern. All knowledge comes from God and is a remote reflection of His divine wisdom. The teacher participates in the creative power of God in the sense that he forms and educates the mind and will and other spiritual powers which the Creator left for others to develop in His children. The ultimate objective of education is to know God better, to love Him unselfishly, and to serve Him prayerfully.

“Pope Pius XI, in his famous encyclical, “On the Christian Education of Youth,” thus defines the aim and nature of Catholic education:

This is the preeminent educational mission of the Church… The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to co-operate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by baptism… For the true Christian must live a supernatural life in Christ.

“The teacher’s vocation is a dedicated service that is second to none in importance. Speaking particularly of the priest’s obligation to teach religion, a document of the Holy See declares: ‘The office of teaching has precedence over the sacramental and liturgical ministry according to the divine command of Christ to the Apostles. The Apostles, obeying this command, placed the work of teaching ahead of any other activity; for St. Paul himself could affirm, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel.” The reason for the precedence of the teaching office is evident; one cannot enrich the soul with grace if it has not first been enlightened with truth.'”

– Very Rev. Joseph B. Collins, SS; Confraternity Teacher’s Guide (1960)

Gaming and Catechesis: GenCon Trade Day Report – Part 1

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the GenCon Trade Day in Indianapolis. For my non-geek readers, GenCon is a huge convention dedicated primarily to tabletop games — board games, role-playing games, card games, etc. Before the convention, however, there is a day-long program for teachers and librarians on how to introduce and use games in an educational context.

I went to a few sessions during the day, but by far the best workshop was the first one, “Critical Hits: From RPGs to Humanities,” which was run by faculty members from the Todd Academy.

The teachers gave three suggestions for how to incorporate games into the humanities. In the first, students are encouraged to create a narrative game based on a fairy tale, story, or myth. In the second, “Choose Your Own Apocalypse,” students design a city, a monster to attack the city, and defenses for the city. This was a really fun “hands on” part of the presentation.

The terrible EscarGore threatens the peaceful inhabitants of our botanical city!

Finally, we were shown how to incorporate simple improv games (think Whose Line Is It Anyway?) in the classroom. Students from the Todd Academy were present and they  demonstrated  some of the games for us.

The first and last suggestions seemed readily  accessible  to religious  education. In the first, students could create a game based on a story from Sacred Scripture or the lives of the saints. For instance, imagine a game in which students follow Jesuit missionaries traveling from Europe to Asia to establish new churches.  Students should be encouraged to focus on the central conflict, journey, or objective and avoid simple “roll and move” mechanics. Have students identify the most important parts of the story and how the game rules will reflect those parts.

For older students, improv could be an interesting method for exploring catechetical ideas. Students could play the Superheroes game but use virtues, sacramentals, or other religious themes as the basis for their superheroes. (If connected with a particular unit students may even pull them from a hat instead of suggesting the themes themselves.) Similarly, the Three-Headed Expert game could be used as a silly and fun way to review at the end of a lesson or unit.

The presenters were kind enough to hand out their lesson plans for non-commercial and educational use.

Have you ever used games in your classroom? How did it go?

“This is what education is all about…”

I have been told that most of you come from Catholic high schools. For this reason I would like to say something about Catholic education, to tell you why the Church considers it so important and expends so much energy in order to provide you and millions of other young people with a Catholic education. The answer can be summarized in one word, in one person, Jesus Christ. The Church wants to communicate Christ to you.

This is what education is all about, this is the meaning of life: to know Christ. To know Christ as a friend: as someone who cares about you and the person next to you, and all the people here and everywhere ”no matter what language they speak, or what clothes they wear, or what color their skin is.

And so the purpose of Catholic education is to communicate Christ to you, so that your attitude toward others will be that of Christ. You are approaching that stage in your life when you must take personal responsibility for your own destiny. Soon you will be making major decisions which will affect the whole course of your life. If these decisions reflect Christ’s attitude, then your education will be a success. We have to learn to meet challenges and even crises in the light of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection. Part of our Catholic education is to learn to see the needs of others, to have the courage to practice what we believe in. With the support of a Catholic education we try to meet every circumstance of life with the attitude of Christ. Yes, the Church wants to communicate Christ to you so that you will come to full maturity in him who is the perfect human being, and, at the same time, the Son of God.

– Pope John Paul II, Address to High School Students at Madison Square Gardens (October , 1979)

Book Review: Quiet

Shy. Weak. Unmotivated.

These are some of the words that might come to mind when the average person thinks about introverts. Most of us think of them as immersed in their own worlds, unable to cope with social situations, and less likely to contribute ideas and innovation compared to their extroverted counterparts.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking seeks to explode these myths about introverts by examining the overlooked gifts that they bring to the office, the classroom, and society at large while understanding the underlying science behind introversion.

The book is composed of four parts. In the first, Cain begins, not with neuroscience or psychology, but culture. Specifically, she explores how modern western society came to embrace the “extrovert ideal.” This ideal embraces the outspoken, the fearless, and the gregarious over and above the quiet, the timid, and the intimate. Yet, as studies have shown, it is the gifts of introverts that actually lead to greater creativity and productivity in the workplace.

In the second part Cain explores the biology of introversion, highlighting research demonstrating that introverts actually process sensory input differently from extroverts. She also talks with experts researching the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and environmental factors that may influence their  temperament.

The third part explores extroversion and  introversion  in other cultures, while the fourth gives concrete strategies for introverts and extroverts for dealing with the differences between the two. This includes a very interesting chapter on how parents can help their introverted children.

Cain includes an impressive amount of  interviews and anecdotes which serve to illustrate the research and studies she discusses. Cain talks with Harvard business students, an evangelical pastor, children, a beloved psychology professor, and others. These help to flesh out some of the drier academic content and put real human faces to the struggles introverts overcome.

If you have an introvert in your life you want to understand better — or if you are an introvert and want some strategies for living in an extrovert’s world — Quiet is the book for you.

Disclaimer: I recieved a free advance reader’s copy of this book from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

Catholic or Private?

A few weeks ago, during a curriculum standards meeting, one of our principals related the following incident:

A prospective parent called the school to get information about enrolling their child. During the course of the conversation the woman said that she wanted “a good private education” for her child. The secretary (God bless her!) replied that they have “a very good Catholic school.” Undeterred, the mother reiterated again: “Well, I just want a good private education for my child.”

Somewhere along the way people have got the idea that Catholic education is private education. This is, I believe, a dangerous misconception, for it implies two things which go against the nature and purpose of a Catholic school.

1. Catholic schools are non-exclusive.

Private schools are by their very nature exclusive; some people are allowed in, others are not, usually on the basis of some sort application process. This is not to say that they don’t value diversity or offer scholarships to students who cannot afford the tuition, but the assumption is that students have to earn their way into the school.

Catholic schools, on the other hand, welcome all. At their best, Catholic schools reflect the communities in which they are situated. This includes race, ethnicity, special educational needs, and socio-economic status. Tuition must be paid, of course, but I have seen Catholic schools bend over backwards to provide scholarships for students who could not otherwise afford to go to the school.

This committment is even reflected in educational policies. In our own diocese we have an unfortunate history of racism (including some so-called “sundown towns”) which actually led the diocese to enact a policy forbidding parents from using Catholic schools as a means of de facto segregation. The focus for the Catholic school should be on inclusion whenever possible, and avoiding an air of  privilege  or partiality.

2. Catholic schools are focused on discipleship, not matriculation.

Catholic schools, like many private schools, have a reputation for academic excellence — and rightly so! Students from these schools have higher rates of college attendance and higher SAT scores than students from public schools.

Yet, for Catholic schools, this isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) the main focus. The main focus is on creating disciples for Christ. Catholic schools are a tool for evangelization and catechiesis, not an alternative means of secular education. Catholic schools prepare students to live as Christians in a world that, too often, is  ambivalent  or hostile to faith. This means that, before anything else, schools must encourage their students to build habits of virtue, participation in the faith, and prayer if their faith is to survive after leaving school.

Education in history, science, math, and the like are a part of that preparation, but only with an eye towards a lived faith.  Indeed, this focus should be so unrelenting that, if things were to get drastic enough, I would rather see Catholic schools toss out math and reading than their religious curriculum!

If Catholic schools are to survive into the 21st century, they must be clear on who they serve and what they seek to accomplish. Allowing a perception of “private” education to creep into the public’s perception of our identity is, I believe, counterproductive to our survival and our goal.

photo by mertala/FlickrCC

Like Putting Skylarks in Cages

In spite of almost universal school custom, it must be said that God did not intend children of primary school age to sit assembled in desks and endure long formal lessons; if he did he would have made them differently. Least of all did he intend this to happen in teaching religion, and the whole idea of it is rather blasphemous, like putting skylarks in cages.

–  Rev. F.H. Drinkwater,  Doctrine for the Juniors  (1933)

Homeschooling and the Local Parish

Our Sunday Visitor has an interesting story up on the tension between Catholic homeschoolers and Catholic schools. I was very interested to read the article since my family has been living with this tension this past school year — a tension made more acute due to my position with the diocese. (Catholic schools are part of the office I direct.)

I encourage you to read the whole article (and OSV’s remarks on the feedback they’ve  received). In this post I want to focus on remarks made by  Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the  Catholic Education Foundation:

There are several reasons to prefer Catholic schools, Father Stravinskas told Our Sunday Visitor, including that the Church Fathers made clear that catechesis is the job of the whole Church, with the main responsibility resting on the shoulders of the pastor, not the parents.

And Catholic parents who choose to home-school when there is a Catholic school available at least implicitly send the message that they do not trust the Church to educate their children properly, and the children get that message.

“On the same property where they go to church on Sunday is a school where the parents don’t wish to send them,” he said.

That leads to a subtle anti-clericalism, he said, because the children learn that priests cannot be counted on to hand on the faith. It shows in what he sees as a dearth of vocations from home-school families. “Why would you want to join the club if its members can’t be trusted to their jobs?” he said.

I’m not sure that this necessarily follows; there are many reasons to choose to homeschool, not all of which pertain to the perceived merits or deficits of the local parish. The homeschooling families we’ve met this past year are extremely loyal to their parish and their pastor; no one has mentioned any concerns about doctrine or orthodoxy to me.

Our family chose homeschooling for a number of reasons, including the fact that our second child, who was slated to begin kindergarten, was already reading chapter books the summer prior. On top of that was my wife’s increasing dissatisfaction with her job situation and a desire to remain at home with our younger children.

But a primary reason for our decision was our firm belief, informed by the teachings of the Church, that parents are the primary catechists of their children. Pace Fr.  Stravinskas, it is not my pastor’s duty to educate my children in the faith. That duty belongs to my wife and I, assisted by the Church. Homeschooling has brought this into stark focus for us. I won’t speak for my wife, but I certainly feel more engaged in my children’s education that I did before,  precisely  because we have taken more ownership of it. Which is not to say that the teachers educating our children before this year made us feel left out or in the dark. But there is a difference in the type of engagement we have now.

All of that having been said, I do believe that dioceses have a role in setting up guidelines and policies for how homeschooling parents connect with parishes, particularly when children come for to  receive  the sacraments. Pastors have the duty to ensure that children are properly formed before receiving  Confirmation or First Communion. But I also believe dioceses can do more to support homeschooling parents and provide them with resources and guidance in the catechetical formation of their children. I will be working in the next few years to develop this more in my diocese and will be sure to report the results here.

What Does the Book of Acts Tell Us About Catholic Education?

One of my favorite parts of the Easter season (pilfering jelly beans from my kids’ baskets aside) is the readings from the Acts of the Apostles we hear proclaimed at Mass.  Acts tells us the story of the early Church “ how, after the Lord’s Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the apostles “did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” to the Jews and the Gentiles (5:42). We are told that “many of those who heard the word believed” (4:4) and the “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (5:14).

We are also told of the great deeds done by these believers: miraculous healings (3:7; 5:16) and speaking in tongues (2:4-6), yes, but also providing for widows and the poor (4:32; 6:1ff) and proclaiming Christ even in the face of martyrdom (7:59-60; 12:2-3).

So what does the Book of Acts have to tell us about Catholic schools?

As our bishop, Thomas John Paprocki, stated so well in his homily at our recent Principals’ Leadership Conference, the purpose of Catholic schools is not to impart academic knowledge or focus on the “Three Rs.” If that was our purpose there would be no difference between Catholic schools and public schools.  Similarly, the faith-based character of our schools is not simply an “add-on,” something tacked on to the public school model.

Rather, the imparting of the faith — the preaching of the Gospel in word and in deed — is at the very heart and purpose of our Catholic schools. Like the early disciples, our task is to preach Christ to our students and show them through our works what it means to take on the name “Christian.”  We are charged with building up our students to be disciples for Christ. Everything else, no matter how valuable or important in the secular world, is secondary to that charge.

As you listen to the readings from the Acts of the Apostles over the next weeks, pay attention to how the early Church worked to spread the Gospel. It was hard work (and dangerous!) but they persevered with charity and joy. We are called to imitate these saints and martyrs by passing on this faith to those in our care — to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and build up the Body of Christ.