When Russ Quaglia first proposed the idea of a weekly blog exploring the journey from theory to practice, I had an initial hesitation. Not because I don’t enjoy writing. I actually love to write. And not because I didn’t think the idea had merit. Even in the short time I have been at it, the effort to practice what I preached has been fascinating. I hope my first few forays into articulating my learning for a wider audience have been similarly engaging. And certainly not because I knew I would be required to be forthright about the challenges and stumbles in this effort. If you have been following this blog, you know I have attempted to share with honesty and integrity.
My hesitation stemmed from my content area and the school I teach in. I am a theology teacher at Catholic Memorial School. CM is an all-boys school in West Roxbury, MA—a neighborhood of Boston. I teach Juniors and Seniors required courses in religion and theology related to Jesus, Discipleship, World Religions, and Catholic Ethics. I was concerned that my subject—an area I have a B.A. and an M.A. in—would not connect with the predominantly public school audience the Quaglia Institute served and continues to serve. Russ and I hoped that many of those we work with would be interested in the blog. While I am a person of faith, I trust that the people I have worked with in public schools over the years would agree that my approach was appropriately secular and professional. My religious beliefs rarely, if ever, came up. When they did it was with someone I had known a long time and at their initiative.
Additionally, I was concerned about the “elitist” brush with which Catholic schools are sometimes broadly painted. CM is an urban school (49% of CM students live in Boston). In all honesty our biggest daily discipline issues relate to dress code and a lack of focus in class, though there can be the occasional larger issue. While the single gender nature of the school has its upsides regarding behavior, there is a trade off in a lack of the moderating influence of girls on boys’ behavior. All in all I knew that many of the issues I would face at CM would be significantly different from the ones I had seen in my time at QISA.
Despite these qualms I agreed because I knew I would still face one of the more profound challenges all teachers face. And in this case the challenge is not despite my subject matter, but perhaps because of it. That challenge is relevance. What is potentially less relevant to adolescent boys in 2016 than religion? History and calculus likely have a more obvious relevance for a 16-year-old. While many (though not all) of my students are Catholic, many do not regularly attend church. Many have yet to grow into a mature understanding of God and the tenets of Catholicism. Many place religion and faith low on the list of interests and priorities. Sports, activities, relationships, work, home life, video games, and politics all rank higher for time and attention.
My efforts to make my subject relevant include personal sharing—how my faith makes a difference in my everyday life. I talk about my prayer life, my relationships with my family, raising my daughters, my friendships. I try to be personal and never share what is private. So far this seems to have the desired effect of engaging student in the relevance of faith to one person’s effort to live a meaningful and purposeful life. I trust that those of you who teach other subjects—Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Science, Art, Physical Education—have similar strategies for relating your subject personally to show its everyday relevance. Feel free to share these strategies below.
I also have created an ongoing assignment called the Twitter Trey. Each student is required (with parental permission) to follow a prominent Catholic Tweeter—the Pope tweets as do several Cardinals and bishops. There are several lay Catholics with thousands of followers and a handful of Catholic news agencies. Students are asked to monitor the person they are following and bring to the class’s attention any tweets that relate to what we are studying in class. Once or twice per week for three minutes (hence “trey”) we spend time on this in class. If something is relevant we tweet or retweet as a group from @CM_Theology. @CM_Theology also follows local news stations. We look for political, economic, social, and other topical issues that relate to what we are studying. Several days a week, I have a twitterfall going on a second screen as a kind of window onto the world. Juniors last week were studying Hope and we wondered where people who were impacted by Hurricane Matthew and other natural disasters find hope. How do you open a window onto the wider world and the conversations happening beyond your classroom as they relate to your subject?
These are just a few of the tentative solutions I have to the issue of relevance. Next on my list is to bring in regular people (i.e., not teachers) from our community to talk about the role their faith plays in their lives. Please share your strategies below.