The Delta variant of Covid-19 – along with ongoing social and political unrest – challenges Jesuit high school educators again to Ignatian indifference, while we plan for a return to school that is predictable and supportive for students. “As a society, we are entering a crucial phase; states are reopening, but uncertainty persists around the next wave of COVID-19 infections and historic action against racism and brutality” (Staglin). How can we be “detached enough from things, people, or experiences to be able either to take them up or to leave them aside, depending on whether they help us to ‘to praise, reverence, and serve God’?” (Spiritual Exercises 23) (McCoy). Indifference allows us to be nimble in the face of extreme adversity. We practice indifference when we enter into the new school year with a spirit of positive intent, a sense of imagination and wonder, and a continued creativity to do that which is best for the safety and well-being of those we serve in our school communities – students and colleagues.
How do we serve for and with? What does service look like?
This year’s professional development opportunities are a continuation of last year’s work – as we move through this ongoing global health crisis, and navigate ongoing socio and political crises. When considering areas for focus this year, we asked ourselves, “What do our students and adults need most?”
- Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices & Cultural Competency in the Classroom
- Executive Functioning Skills, Predictability & Support in the Classroom
- Truth, Research & Technology in the Classroom
We front-loaded PD days prior to the start of school – so we are less disruptive during the academic school year. We introduced our topics through a variety of methods: brief resource articles/videos, small and large group discussions, case studies, role-plays, and by finally developing a list of best practices. We challenged one another to walk away from each PD session having a concrete set of practices to use, toward building habits during this school year.
“Up to two –thirds of U.S. children have experienced at least one type of serious childhood trauma . . . . Trauma is possibly the largest public health issues facing our children today (CDC, 2019) . . . . For traumatized students, the ability to learn and behave appropriately can be person-dependent. When they are with a safe and supportive adult, their behavior reflects that” (Minahan).
As we begin the school year, teachers are safe and supportive adults for students – many of whom walk through our doors carrying trauma that is visible and hidden. One of the first physical locations where we model for and help students are school hallways. Hallway presence provides structure in an otherwise unstructured space. We model mask wearing, because it is a safe and healthy practice. We encourage students by being present to attend to their immediate needs – such as helping open a locker or directly students to a particular classroom. We interact positively: in our specific, affirming language and even with fist-pumps.
We are countercultural when we develop policies and procedures to help students practice building healthy habits with one another – habits they may not otherwise develop outside of school. We talk with students about rules, and we enforce rules – with consequences. We also talk about why we have policies and procedures.
Prior to the pandemic, our school created and enforced a cell-phone pouch policy that required students to place their phones into centrally located pouches at the start of each class. This policy helps students reduce anxiety and stay focused. We returned to the policy this year, and I overheard a study hall teacher explain his why to students on the first day of class. He explains, “We have this cell phone pouch policy because we want to encourage you (the students) to focus on why you are here and to help you reduce your own anxiety . . . an anxiety that you might not even know you have” (Hutchison).
In addition to being clear and communicative with students, which is predictable, Mr. Hutchison supports the school’s cell phone policy, because he understands the potential negative impacts that technology has on students during school. “There is ample evidence that intense social media use is correlated with an increase in anxiety and depression as teenagers . . . (who) compare themselves unfavorably to their peers and worry about missing out. Research shows that excessive gaming — spending two-thirds or more of free time — is correlated with negative mental health outcomes, including higher incidence of anxiety, depression and substance use. There is evidence that multitasking — using social media, texting, watching tv while doing homework — undermines cognitive functioning and decreases learning” (Miller).
Mentored Study Halls
This year, we designed a mentored study hall framework and curriculum for students that encourages them to identify and practice executive functioning skills, so they can be successful in their other classes. This framework suggests that study hall proctors communicate with parents. One study hall proctor response was to create and send an email to her students during the first week of class. It reads:
I will be working with your son during his mentored study hall this semester. I recently graduated from Xavier University and this year I am serving De Smet Jesuit as an Alum Service Corps mentor and teacher. I am excited to work with the students here and guide them along their high school journey! My goal is to provide students with the support and structure they need during the day. During this study hall, schoolwork and assignments take priority. Cell phones will be placed in the cell phone collector before I take attendance. This time is meant to give students time during the school day to work on academic tasks, so they have less to worry about with the rest of their everyday responsibilities. I will check in with each student and look over his planner with him to help with organization and task management. Please feel free to reach out at any time if you would like to check in with me or if you have any questions or concerns.
This outreach is an invitation to positively partner with parents in our educational endeavors, and it explains her “why.” Mentored study halls are also opportunities for proctors to explain and use our school’s academic tools, such as our academic planners, because we understand the importance of “integration of planning tools in daily routines” (Edutopia). In addition to implementing a mentored study hall curriculum, study hall proctors check in with students – both one-on-one and in small groups.
Two years ago, our school developed an “Ignatian Conversation” framework that includes the following qualities:
- Slow to speak,
- Attentive listening,
- Seeking the truth in what others are saying,
- Disagreeing humbly, respectfully, and thoughtfully, and
- Allowing the conversation the time it needs.
This is one tool that, when used, taps into all of our PD foci this year. As such, we challenge one another to post and use this framework to listen to and communicate with students. On the first day of classes, a senior in my advisory was uncharacteristically late. When he arrived, I was excited to see him, as I had not been with him or the class in person during the last year and a half (we had eliminated homeroom/advisory during 20-21). The senior was quiet and took a seat in the front, put his head into this computer and avoided eye contact with me. I quickly began a conversation, asking him about his summer and if he worked over the summer. “No,” he replied. “How come?” I asked. “I thought you usually worked during the summer and school year.” He went on to talk about how this past summer he had to care for his mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. We talked, and the conversation and my attentiveness to that senior and his life (and trauma) allows me to connect with my student this year, on a deeper level. He seems to be doing well as the school year begins, but knowing about his life reminds me to check in with him frequently.
Many teachers begin the school year with student surveys. One teacher’s survey asked students:
- Where do you live in St. Louis?
- Talk to me about your family.
- What are a few things you’d like me to know about how you learn best?
Student responses to these questions provide teachers with valuable information to help learning in class by helping the teacher understand students better. Finally, our teachers are required to identity and work on two growth goals during each school year. Two of our teachers identified these goals, specific to being in conversation with students:
- Improve personal stands and progress conversations with students. The purpose is to inform mutually for a more trauma and culturally responsive class environment.
- Have a conversation with each student twice a month.
I suggested that these teachers develop conversation frameworks and share those with students (for predictability and support). I suggested that teachers track conversations. Finally, I asked, “What would it look like if you schedule student conferences during their first conversation rounds, then have students schedule the conferences?” We know that “giving students tools won’t work unless students are motivated to use them” (Edutopia). Teachers motivate students to use tools we provide.
Settling Routines & Rhythm
Routines in school are predictable and supportive for students. “A settling routine could be as simple as a few moments for students to chit-chat, get seated, drink water, and use the bathroom. It could be more structured, with stretching, movement, or breathing led by the teacher. Either way, planning in routines that address the needs of our minds and bodies can help foster a sense of predictability and calm” (Shevrin Venet). Routines help students settle into a rhythm that is predictable and supportive.
Teachers begin class by posting the day’s learning objectives and detailed class agendas. Two teachers use breathing exercises and small “two-minute” meditations (respectively) with students, as they begin class. One reported, “These meditations seem to quiet students and help them clear their heads for the upcoming class.”
Using Experience to Connect
The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm is a teaching framework with components that correlate to the experience that a retreatant has with a retreat director during the Spiritual Exercises. Just at a retreat director might challenge a retreatant to talk about prayer in the context of his or her own lived experiences, teachers are called to “help students identify real world problems within the curriculum . . . Connecting school tasks to their own experiences . . .” (Shevrin Venet)
How do we connect course content and skills to the world in which we live? Challenging students to use their own experiences as they grapple with content and skills is assurance that what we do in class is relevant to students. We need frameworks to make this happen. In July, one collaborative group from a freshmen teacher cohort that participated in our school’s Summer Seminar developed a collaborative group project titled, “A Call for Justice in Cuba.” This unit is taught in our Spanish and theology classes and focuses not only on the Spanish language piece, but also on the history of Cuba and how the current situation there intersects with social justice issues.
With the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan and the emerging reality of an influx in Afghan immigrants into St. Louis, one teacher sent out an email that challenged us:
- Here are some relatively simple ways of how we could help – item donations, monetary donations, offers of physical assistance, etc.
- Here are some more ambitious ways of how we could help – enrolling refugees, hiring refugees, hosting gatherings for refugees, seeking some type of long-term partnership with the International Institute relative to this situation, etc.
- Curriculum-wise, there are a lot of opportunities to incorporate and support participation in these efforts . . .
These are invitations to make connections between the content and skills we teach in school and the events that are happening around us.
When we offer professional development that addresses specific student needs, when we encourage faculty to practice what we learn during PD days with students, then we advance habit-forming actions that help students.