What a start to the school year! Since my last Rapp Up, we have welcomed our largest incoming class in St. James history, opened new spaces for our new Rhetoric and Media Arts program and updated Computer Science and Business programs, had an incredible senior retreat at Prairie Star Ranch, celebrated National Merit recognized students, and so much more. The Homecoming festivities this weekend will be a fitting celebratory cap to an incredible six weeks for our school community.
As I have reflected on these various events, I thought about a conversation our staff had this past Wednesday during our professional development time. On our late starts Wednesdays, our staff meets for an hour of School of Faith formation followed by either a professional development session or Student Improvement Team meetings. The topic of each professional development session is chosen by the faculty, and this week’s session was on “The Praxis of a Catholic Worldview.”
Making the Catholic faith the foundation of everything we do has been a part of the vision for St. James from its beginning. However, there are inherent tensions that exist in that: how do I teach math or science or history through the lens of our faith while also preparing students for life after graduation? How do I explore the big questions that our faith proposes answers to while also developing the skills and dispositions our students need for success in their various enterprises in this life? These are tensions you likely feel in similar ways within your homes as you navigate the big picture of raising your child within the many moving pieces of modern family life.
Of course, we don’t believe these to be incompatible endeavors. What employer or spouse or friend wants a loved one who has not wrestled thoughtfully with the Big Questions? Nothing matures us, develops us as persons, and prepares us for living life well than courageously and honestly facing the mysteries of our origins and our mortality and the confounding coexistence of beauty and suffering.
Still, it can be difficult to help raise the eyes of teenagers to the universal and eternal when they (and, let’s be honest, all of us adults!) are often more concerned about the upcoming unit test or the real-world consequences of an ACT composite score.
As we discussed these questions yesterday, we looked at an excerpt from one of my favorite books on education, Beauty in the Word by Stratford Caldecott. In it, Caldecott proposes a few essential elements of a Catholic worldview: the relationship between the student and teacher, and the approach to content.
He says, “To make the content of the curriculum relevant to the everyday life of the pupil, it is essential not to shrink the content to match the pupil’s present experience, but to expand the life of the pupil to match the proposed curriculum.” How often have we heard those who wish to teach or, for that matter, evangelize young people, talk about “meeting students where they are at”? Caldecott would not disagree that we should do so, but he points out how necessary it is for the teacher (or the disciple-maker or even the parent) to resist the urge to stay there. Instead of finding ways to dull the edges or simplify the complexities of reality to make it more palatable for the teen, we instead invite them to expand their lives to meet the vastness with which they are confronted.
I think of the recently announced and horribly misguided claim by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE): “The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education” in favor of “using images and multimedia… to represent one’s ideas. ” This tendency is precisely what Caldecott is warning us against: to see the tide of multimedia sources swirling around and over our children, and to say, “Well, let’s just go with it.”
Resigning ourselves to a world where reading books and writing down our thoughts are superfluous skill sets, relics of a now irrelevant past, is to shrink the immensity of human experience into sound bites and clicks. It is hard to imagine a more devastating loss for our culture than the loss of reading and writing as central, no, invaluable and irreplaceable, tenets of the education and enculturation of our children.
The problem is, reading and writing are hard. They are even harder for those with disabilities or backgrounds where literacy is not as easily accessible or readily available. But we must try! We must be of good courage! There is too much truth, beauty, and goodness to be lost by simply following what is most pleasing or fun in the eyes of our youth. It is incumbent on we, the adults, to help lead the way for our young people.
Caldecott says it is precisely in the context of relationship that learning becomes real and meaningful: “The relationship is what makes the truth flow. We learn because we love. The teacher’s job is to bring about that relationship, that state of attention, or to be aware of it and nurture it when it arises, by loving the child.”
As we look back on all the craziness of red carpets and hallway decorating, of House Times and assemblies, we see that maybe these are essential aspects of education. They are part of the formation of relationships that provide a foundation from which we can venture forth into truths bigger than ourselves, into stories and ideas that transcend us, and to do so without ever being alone. We can do this while still engaging the changing world around us; this is in many ways the goal of our Rhetoric and Media Arts program. But we do so rooted in the truth and tradition which give us precisely the tools we need to expand our hearts and minds and those of the people we encounter, rather than shrink to the materialism and relativism with which we are surrounded.
Thanks for sharing your children with us and for a great start to our school year. Prayers to all for a happy, healthy, and holy Homecoming weekend!
Your brother in Christ,