Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Few Good Humans

The Gospel stories throughout Advent speak of three main characters that help to prepare the way for Christ. Mary and Joseph, Jesus's biological and earthly parents, respectively, literally prepare for Christ's entrance into the world. John the Baptist, the other main figure over the past four weeks, prepared people for Christ's entry into public ministry. St. John the Baptist gathered believers to himself before pointing them to Jesus. All three set the stage for Christ to come into the world.

All three prepared Him room.

Let every heart follow suit.

Mary's yes and humble obedience is well discussed and documented and even debated. Her central role in bringing Christ into the world is starkly obvious. Christ came into the world as all humans do - through His mother. Beautiful and miraculous, all births take place because of the strength, love and care of women. Mary's importance is undeniable. Her special favor only surpassed in Christ Himself. Her simple "yes" has resoundingly echoed in the world ever since.

"Let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

Mary's model of saying yes to God, preparing for His coming and nurturing that relationship has no rival. However, Joseph's and John's roles have an incredibly powerful message as well. Radically say "yes" to God. Submit to His will. Decrease so He can increase (John 3:30). Point others to Christ. Be humble and generous of spirit. Defend Him. Protect Him. Trust and accept that accepting, embracing and following Christ can bring joy greater than your heart's most burning desire.

Joy. Singing. Resounding joy! Wonders of His love!

Say yes. Let it be done to us according to His word.

The counter-cultural slant of these messages are not new to the 21st Century. Submit. Obey. Be humble. Put God first, others second and yourself last. Don't worry about ridicule or rumor. Be indifferent - not in a way that doesn't care, but in a way that doesn't care who gets credit. Society's emphasis on power, greed, fame, money, status, sex, and pride did not result at the dawn of the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, printing press, aviation, sliced bread or even the internet. These emphases / ailments have been around for as long as humans have.

But, Jesus, in an earthly sense, hasn't. His birth was a mere 2,000 years ago, about 1% of the total time that humans have been on the planet. His birth was foretold by prophets. His coming was anticipated for centuries. Angels visited good people to tell them about the coming of the Lord. God started a relationship with Abraham and led His people according to His plan. But, even Abraham lived only about 2,000 years before Christ. Undoubtedly, there were good people prior to even God's covenant with Abraham. Undoubtedly, there were good people before the coming of Christ.

There should be even more good people after. Blessed are they who do not see and yet still believe (John 20:29). But, foolish are we who know of Christ and yet still don't believe. As I reflect on the past year, I think of all of the good people that have gone home to the Lord - my dad, my wife's grandmother, my sister's father in-law, my brother's father in-law, a colleague's father, the patriarch of a close family friend, a humanitarian from my hometown, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and countless other good people that left this world. I think of all of the pain, hurt, violence, war, hunger, illiteracy, and abuse in our world and I think that there aren't enough good people in the world. People who hold the door. People who let you in front of them in traffic. People who give up their seats so that families can sit together on planes. People who want to give more than they want to receive, love more than they want to be loved. Good people.

And then I think of Christmas. I think of the magnitude of God taking on our earthly state. God was a good human. Mary was a good human. Joseph was a good human. John the Baptist was, too. Countless people have been good. Countless people are good. God is doing something about all of the pain, hurt and sadness. He has done something and will continue to do something. All is not lost. Hope comes into the world in the same way that every child comes into the world - by being born. Be good. Be so good that other people want to imitate your good. Be good when you don't have to be. Be good when no one is watching. Do good. Be good. For God. For others. For yourself. Be good for goodness and for Goodness's sake.

Prepare Him room. Sing. Be good.

Be triumphant!

Emmanuel! God is with us!

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lovers of the Light

The days grow shorter; darkness increases. Cold grips the earth with a chilling embrace. Our world swells with violence, hunger, hatred, oppression, suffering, poverty, sickness, and death. Another year inches closer to its end. Reasons for despair abound.

But, the night is darkest right before the dawn. Even the deepest blackness is no match for even the smallest of lights. No matter how strong, no matter how pervasive, no matter how enduring the void, darkness always succumbs to light. Light a match and darkness is no match. It vanishes. Flip a switch and darkness runs away. 

This Friday we will celebrate the Feast of St. Lucy, patroness of the blind. Lucy literally means "light" and it is fitting that her feast day falls within the sacred season of Advent. We know Christ as the Light of the World. Lucy's own flame is a stirring model and example of letting your light shine for others. 

Lights abound in our homes, our neighborhoods and our Churches during this time of the year. We decorate our houses with lights. We put them on our Christmas trees. We light a series of four candles around our Advent wreaths. We light up our world during this secular season of winter to remind ourselves that Christ's light will conquer all, and that it is coming soon.

Yet, we so easily give into negative thoughts, feelings, emotions and tendencies. We hold onto anger, hurt, and jealousy. We so easily participate in gossip, lies, and deceit. We so easily give into sin. We vindicate ourselves by saying, "I deserve this. I am justified in feeling this way. Someone else deserves the blame. I have such bad luck. Someone up there must be against me. If God truly cared about me, he wouldn't have let this happen. I'm tired. I'm sick. I'm sick and tired. It's his/her fault. I'm right. They're wrong." 

What's more is that we don't keep this negativity to ourselves. Misery truly does love company. It needs it. Being the only person to be down in the dumps makes the dumps even dumpier. Having others wallow in our mud along with us validates our pessimism.

Everyone feels this way. I'm not the only person. Other people are upset, too. Lots of people are upset. A whole lot of them. The entire lot. Upset. The whole lot is very upset. 

Sound familiar? 

Why? Why do we give into negativity? Why do we complain so much (as opposed to venting like I am doing)? Why do we believe the lie that negativity can produce anything productive

In the words of The Christophers, "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness." Author William Saroyan agrees, "Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed." St. Paul encourages the Philippians, saying, 
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (4:8). 
Be a lover of the light. Encourage each other. Build one another up. Be kinder than you think you should be. Be gentler. Give the benefit of the doubt even when you doubt someone deserves your benefit. Fight against the coming of the night. Rage against it. Light a candle. Share your flame with others. Lift. Elevate. Laugh. Give. Act. Love.  

Invite others up to the top of your mountain and help them ascend to your heights. Together enjoy the view and the fresh air. 

Stay positive. Stay awake. 


It may be dark for now, but soon and very soon...

Monday, December 9, 2013

And With Your Spirit


Peace, surprise, and gifts.

Advent preparation should afford us a sense of peace. Much like the calm of knowing that you have finished getting your house ready for a guest, or that a task was completed well in advance of a deadline or that you were ready to leave for an event before you had intended to depart. 

Usually, though, it doesn’t. We usually limp through to the end of Advent and exhaustedly celebrate Christmas. We do so much during these weeks. Parties. Shopping. Decorating. Wrapping. Cards. Events. Cooking. Cleaning. Worship. 

Advent should provide us with an opportunity to reconnect to our deepest needs and focus on our most fundamental relationships. It should afford us with an equal amount of reflection and activity, prayer and service, much like Lent. We should approach the Incarnation refreshed, ready and excited. We should be at peace with our level of preparation when Christmas finally arrives. Peace should be ours. Jesus tells us, “Peace I leave to you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Let us accept it!

Many of our readings during Advent focus on not only the birth of Jesus but also the second coming of Christ - the end of times. Our preparation for Christ’s coming should also direct our efforts toward being prepared for the end of the world as well. Advent should be a time when we strive for peace within our relationships and within ourselves, knowing that we do not know the hour or the day when Christ will come again. We should be awake and stay vigilant, but in a way that is filled and overwhelmed by peace. 

Peace He leaves to us; His peace He gives to us. During Advent, at Christmas and always. Let us accept it. 

Let us also have the courage to be surprised. We undoubtedly think that doing more will somehow make us feel fulfilled and happy. We fear that scaling back on the gifts or cards or decorations or food or guests or events will somehow leave us empty. If anything, doing less will allow more room for Christ to come and enter our lives this Christmas. Start with worship. Think of the Magi and how they brought gifts, wise gifts, to the Christ child out of love, homage and an understanding of Christ’s future status. They didn’t come to Jesus expecting presents, but came to Him expecting to be amazed by His presence. The “Little Drummer Boy” from the famous song approaches the Lord afraid that he doesn’t have a gift to give to his Savior. It is then that he decides to offer the only thing that he has, all that he has, his gift of playing the drum. Mary nods. Jesus smiles. And it was good. 

Slow down, focus on being a wise gift giver and be surprised by Jesus’s approval of your actions. Stay awake and present to noticing His message in the midst of all of our secular ones. Frosty doesn’t have a place at the Nativity. Avoid the snowball effect of getting so wrapped up in your to-do list and spend some time offering your gift to Jesus. Spend some time really connecting with family and friends. 

Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time of excitement. It is a time of expectant hope. My you feel abundant peace as you journey through Advent. May you be surprised at the wonders of His love as you spend time in reflection. 

Accept these gifts; accept Him. 

Find Christ. 

Find Peace.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

AMAZING Training Pillar #1: Improvement

Never stop improving.

Ever.

The Japanese call it "kaizen". Visualize a never-ending staircase and this concept may take on greater meaning (or more of a sense of despair!):

From a Christian perspective, St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." While perfection is never completely attainable, one must continue to pursue it as if it were. We can always love more, help more, listen more, do more, be more. Life constantly throws twists and turns at us that stretch our character. With all of its ups and downs, triumphs and failures, challenges and successes, we can very easily get caught up in our human desires of greed, shame, vengeance, vanity, righteousness, lust, despair, and hopelessness. Even Bl. Pope John Paul II went to confession every day!

We must never stop improving...and there is always room for improvement. No matter the level of excellence, no matter how much compassion fills our hearts, no matter how high we ascend in any single area, there is always room for improvement.

People who are AMAZING understand this idea of the necessity of improvement and embrace it. People who are AMAZING recognize that being complacent with stagnancy is a road to perpetual mediocrity. In fact, the only way to be AMAZING at something is to push beyond the plateau of good enough by focusing on continuous improvement. AMAZINGness is only achieved through constant improvement.

Therefore, it should make sense that IMPROVEMENT is the first and most important of the AMAZING Training Pillars. There can be no AMAZING without improvement. Small, incremental, purposeful steps that enable one to breakthrough good enough into the realm of AMAZING.

The expert in how to become an expert at anything, K. Anders Ericsson, argues that improvement is the key to excellence in any area. Innate ability only plays a small part in excellence. Focused practice, the use of a mentor, heightened awareness and small, incremental steps are the hallmarks of becoming AMAZING at something. Practice is the key component - 10 years worth of practice is necessary to become an expert. But, also important is having a mentor who will push you beyond the stumbling blocks of being "good enough". This mentor can help to design training programs that are incremental in their progressive steps. This person must also supply feedback at each step of the way. Finally, once must move beyond arrested development of doing something with automaticity. One must arrive at a heightened awareness of what is happening in order to be AMAZING.

Follow these four steps, according to Ericsson, and work your tail off and you can be AMAZING.

This concept is incredibly liberating for educators. Scaffold lessons so that information and skills are chunked in progressive sequences and sections. Challenge students to improve on areas in which they struggle instead of just allowing them to enhance their strengths. Provide opportunities for students to practice and then provide them with lots of formative feedback feedback. Embolden them by giving them not only the power of how but also the magic of why - get students to think about their thinking (metacognition) and become aware of the steps of a skill.

Do this and your students can be AMAZING.

This also applies to our walk as Christians. Never stop improving. Fight against the danger of thinking that our good enough is actually good enough. Find a spiritual mentor who can help to challenge you to move past who you are and toward who you need to be. Become aware of and be present to every area of your life. Stop just going through the motions and start to move with purpose. And never stop trying. No matter how hard the fall, no matter how dirty the landing get back up. Today. Tomorrow. Always.

Do this and you can be AMAZING.

Oscar Wilde claims, "The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future."

Never stop improving. Ever.

Do this and you will be AMAZING.




Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Be AMAZING.

At some point in May of 2013, I attended an in-service for administrators. While I typically try to make the most out of such events, I grew particularly frustrated with this training from the very beginning. Scheduled for a 9:00 a.m. start, the training didn’t begin until sometime after 9:30. I hate to waste time, so even though I plowed through emails and kept busy in my mobile office, I entered the training less than enthusiastic. 

Then, the topic centered around anti-bullying. A noble focus, but when we began to do a close-reading of the anti-bullying policy, my frustration swelled. I taught high school Language Arts. I’ve published articles and written research projects in graduate school. I can definitely read. In fact, I can read pretty well. So, to take time to do a close read of this document seemed like a further waste of my time. 

After going through each line and putting it into our own words and finding words that really strike us and asking questions of the interpretation of colleagues and only getting through 1/2 of the document, the morning ended. 

I am not calling the topic unworthy of an administrator’s time. I’m not making a statement about the importance of an administrator knowing what and how to do a close read of a piece of text. Both of these areas of focus have immense merit. The afternoon, though, did not bring with it the promise of a game changer. More of the same, or so I thought, littered the afternoon’s agenda.

Lunch was provided. It was free. It was pretty good. At least I had a full stomach going back for more line by line analysis of this policy.

God has a wicked way of getting people’s attention. The afternoon proved to be one of the most productive trainings I’ve ever attended. He had played on my emotions, almost as if to set me up for a dramatic AH HA! moment, throughout a dismal morning. I was unprepared for the thoughts and ideas that were generated, germinated and developed over the course of our afternoon. 

It was, very simply, AMAZING.

The speaker, Dr. Randall Woodard from St. Leo University, was dynamic. He was entertaining. He was polished. He was risky and even challenging in his address. The tenor of the room shifted during his portion of the training. Focusing on the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, the leading expert on how to become an expert, Dr. Woodard outlined the steps for anyone to become an expert at anything. And, anyone can become an expert at just about anything. Talent, innate ability and genes are not as valuable as training. 

EXPERT TRAINING:
1. Focus on incremental improvements. The larger task of becoming an expert _________________, must be broken into the most fundamental, incremental steps.

2. Use training tasks that take the performer outside of current capacities. We tend to focus on the things we already do well instead of working on the areas of our performance in need of improvement. 

3. Our attention to our practice must be so focused that we eliminate all facets of automaticity. We have a tendency to settle for good enough in just about all that we do. We reach a plateau and most of us settle to live on that plain as opposed to ascending to even greater heights. 

4. Rely on coaches / mentors to: set goals, design domain specific training tasks, and provide meaningful feedback that allows for growth. Without outside help, we often remain in the secure confines of the plateau-topped heights of good enough. 

Then, Dr. Woodard applied this line of thinking to moral development: is it possible to design a training program, based on expert training, that focuses on moral development? Can we provide the opportunities, the mentoring, the incremental steps to have students become morally excellent?

What if we went back to our schools, Dr. Woodard challenged us, and said, "We are going to develop a training program where people are going to be amazing."

My pen couldn't keep up with the ideas. 

Non-academic character traits needed to become a focus in our school - organization, responsibility, pride, manners, improvement. 

We need to provide students with opportunities to work closely with mentors. 

In alignment with our theme (HOME) for the upcoming school year, my mind jumped after hearing this quote from Blessed Pope John Paul II, "The Christian family is the school of love." What if we included into our school households in addition to homerooms? Students would be divided into multi-aged houses headed by a faculty member. Time would be etched out throughout the year for these relationships to be forged and fostered.

And so, the inception of two initiatives occurred:

AMAZING Training Pillars and Households.

The summer would allow for the growth and maturation of each.

12 Pillars ensued:

1. IMPROVEMENT
2. PRIDE
3. MANNERS
4. MOVEMENT
5. RESPONSIBILITY
6. ORGANIZATION
7. COMMUNITY
8. KINDNESS
9. STRENGTH
10. COURAGE
11. AWARENESS
12. MOTIVATION

In meeting with ICS's Mr. Brett Woodward, our School Counselor, Households, Priories and the Irish Cup started to take on a life and momentum of their own throughout the months of June and July. A cup was purchased. Banners were made. Priories formed. A chant was concocted.

video


An AMAZING year began...and continues.

Be AMAZING. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Hide It Under a Bushel?


On Tuesday September 24, I was fortunate, blessed and honored to visit our state capital, Tallahassee, to receive one of 15 Shine Awards given to educators from across our state in recognition of their efforts in education. In honor of Incarnation Catholic School's work to partner with parents and families for the better of the children of ICS, Incarnation was selected to receive this prestigious award. I not only had the distinction to receive the award on behalf of ICS, I was also afforded the chance to address Governor Rick Scott and the members of his cabinet at Tuesday's meeting. The following is a copy of the address:


One of the main tenants of Catholic Social Teaching is to provide options for the poor and the vulnerable. Furthermore, the teachings of the Catholic Church promote that parents are the primary educators of children and that parents should be afforded the ability and opportunity to make the best educational choice possible for their children. Thanks to the grace of the state of Florida, and many of you here today, Incarnation Catholic School is able to serve over 70 Step Up for Students scholarship recipients who would otherwise be unable to afford the cost of education at our school. These students, and the 60,000 other scholarship students in Florida, wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience programs like the one at Incarnation and the other outstanding schools represented and recognized here today if it wasn’t for these scholarships.


As Americans we believe that all people are created equal and that everyone is guaranteed the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Offering children and families the chance to participate in the outstanding education offered at private schools throughout our state allows students the opportunity to pursue, with greater chances of success, these rights that make our nation so amazing.
Governor Scott, members of the cabinet and other distinguished leaders gathered here today, on behalf of my fellow educators and Shine Award recipients, I thank you for affording us the opportunity to give all children, regardless of race, regardless of religion, and regardless of economic status the education they so rightly deserve and the education our state and nation so desperately need its children to receive.
We, as educators, give our students roots to stand firm in the face of adversity and the courage to fight for peace and justice in our world. As educators, we give our students wings to reach new heights and to accomplish those things that right now remain nothing more than a distant dream.
As educators, we give our nation hope.
But today, we, as educators, give you, state officials, our thanks. Thank you for your work, thank you for your support for education and for Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship. May God bless you. May God bless the State of Florida. May God bless our children. And may God always bless America.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to teach in such a way that the divine spark inside each of our students may receive the breath of God and be a source of light and warmth to the world. As educators, we must allow our light to shine so that our students are liberated to do so as well.

Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it SHINE!

Monday, September 16, 2013

“Let us begin building!”

Then I explained to them how God had shown his gracious favor to me, and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us begin building!” And they undertook the work with vigor.


-Nehemiah 2: 18

This past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to attend the dedication of the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, the seat of the Bishop within the Diocese of St. Petersburg. On what I considered to be a closely related note, this past Thursday was also the first time that ICS Households met for their first ever Family Suppers / Irish Cup Activity sessions. The first reading from the dedication Mass came from Nehemiah; this was also the main book of  scripture used at our beginning of the year faculty retreat this past August.

Our school's efforts with Households (a division of students within Incarnation Catholic School that separates them into groups of all ages headed by one of the faculty members at the school) started as a complement to our school's theme, "HOME". Households are intended to help further establish, build and reveal community within our school. Households should afford students and teachers the opportunity to truly become a school family. 

Whereas most, if not all, Catholic schools would use the term "family" to describe the type of community harvested within their walls, few devote the intentional time ICS will give to fostering relationships this year. We will eat together. We will play together. We will pray together. We will afford Middle School students leadership opportunities within each Household. We will give each student a greater, deeper and another sense of belonging and identity within our school. We will give each student another adult to whom they will be connected. 

We will give students another "HOME"; we began building them on September 12, 2013. 

To say that it was coincidental that this was also the date that our diocese dedicated its Cathedral would greatly disregard the immense role played by Providence in each and every moment of our lives. I stumbled upon Nehemiah over the summer. I had been invited to the dedication months ago. ICS was supposed to start its Households a week prior, on September 5. 


Bishop Lynch's homily also struck a Providential chord. He unpacked the reading from Nehemiah and connected it not only to Paul's letter to the Corinthians but also the Gospel. He stated that Nehemiah is always read at dedications and that it is a wonderful story of Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilding the people prior to rebuilding the walls and temple of the city. Their focus on the law strengthened the people and gave them enough courage to rebuild the city with "vigor." Prior to rebuilding the structures, Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the people.

Paul furthers this paradigm shift in his letter to the Corinthians. He tells his readers that they are temples of the Holy Spirit and that the their foundation must be solid in the Lord. This metaphor emphasizes the grand importance of the Church being the Body of Christ and that the Body of Christ be made up of the people. 

Finally, Bishop Lynch talked about Zecchaeus and the story from Luke's Gospel in which Zecchaeus climbs up a tree to get a better view of Jesus only to be told to come down and take Jesus to his house. Because of Zecchaeus's faithfulness, Jesus tells him that, "Today salvation has come to this house." Zecchaeus brought the Lord not only into his home but more importantly into his heart. "Behold," Zecchaeus says, "half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor."

The most beautiful of buildings is nothing more than mortar and brick without people who have welcomed the Lord into the home of their hearts. 

The newly renovated Cathedral is breathtaking. The spectacle of the Dedication Mass was equally as captivating. Images of darkness and light, smells of both chrism oil and incense,  and music accompanied with trumpets and a full choir were only moving because of the faithful gathered within the walls of the Church, including 165 priests, 82 deacons, 32 seminarians and over 60 religious all from within our Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The Bishop's final words in his homily were, "We've only just begun." He intended it for the diocese and its pursuit of building the Kingdom of God within our five counties. He could have very easily, though, also intended to say the good work started earlier in the day at the School of the Incarnation. 

As for us and our HOUSEHOLDS, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15) and we've only just begun.

 

 













Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

HOME


"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
-Joshua 24:15

As you may have noticed, ICS will begin three different yet connected initiatives during the 2013 - 14 school year: Family Suppers, Irish Cup, and Household Meetings.

All three revolve around the 2013 - 14 ICS theme "HOME". All three are intended to help our school community grow closer together and closer to God. They should provide us with greater and more opportunities for us to actually be something that all Catholic schools worth their salt claim to be: a family.

PURPOSE

    • To further the mission of the school by providing greater pastoral care to all our students while strengthening our sense of family, school spirit and faith in God. 

First, the overall concept began during an in-service training I attended back in May. The focus of the day was anti-bullying and strategies to help prevent these negative interactions from occurring within the walls of our schools were the main topic of conversation. During one of the many activities throughout the day, I was struck with two thoughts.

First, we do not do enough to actually promote and create a sense of family within and among our students. We take for granted that since we are a Catholic school and most of our students are Catholic or at least Christian and therefore will treat each in Christ-like ways.

Second, we have "homerooms" within our school - the room in which all students begin and end their days. Some spend the entire course of their core content there. Others use it as a place for lockers and starting and ending their days. In either case, camaraderie may be developed and fostered but only on a grade level basis. In cases where there are two sections (or homerooms) within a grade, this fellowship is delegated to include only half of the class. If anything, and despite the healthy rivalries that can result, homerooms serve as a divisive aspect of our schools. So, the idea to include "Households" into our school community was hatched. Students would still be divided into homerooms by grade level. They would also, though, be divided into Households - headed by one of our faculty members and comprised of students from all grade levels.

Thus, a purpose was also envisioned: to further the mission of the school by providing greater pastoral care to all students while strengthening our sense of family, school spirit and faith in God.

METHOD

    • Meals
    • Meetings
    • Masses
    • Recreation

This vision, if it were to become a reality within our school, needed time and activities worthy of building and developing a greater sense of family within and among the various constituents in our school community. We couldn't expect people to grow closer together without giving them time and opportunities to establish, develop and cultivate worthwhile relationships. Household activities needed to be more often than once a month and more involved than a 15 minute meeting, sitting together at Mass or playing games together during a pep rally.

The method behind the vision has since taken on many layers and involves many different activities. Households will gather twice per month and the activities will include Household meetings, attendance at Mass as a Household, Household Meals (called Family Suppers) and recreational activities (called Irish Cup Activities).

Household meetings will take place during 1st period on one Wednesday per month. Students within a Household will gather together and enter into a "family meeting" focused on getting to know the various members within the household and working together to accomplish team building activities. At the conclusion of these meetings, Households will gather attend Mass as a Household, sitting together instead of with their grade level homerooms.

Recognizing that 20 minutes of discussion and then worshipping together will not provide enough time to fully create a sense of family, Households will also gather once per month to eat lunch together. Deemed a "Family Supper", Households will eat in classrooms as a household. Taking Christ as our example and model, we believe that eating together as a family will help break down the walls that divide us and allow all students to feel more included and a part of our larger school family. Our Mass is the commemoration of a meal (the Last Supper), Jesus is frequently either at a meal, going to a meal or coming from a meal in the Gospels. From the wedding feast at Cana, to feeding the 5,000, to eating with Peter on the shores after the Resurrection, the Gospel is filled with stories of Jesus breaking bread with others.

Finally, we also realized that families need to play together. In conjunction with our Family Suppers, students and teachers will also participate in a competition for the Irish Cup. Friendly competitions will be designed to center on academics, athletics and school spirit and Households will accumulate points toward the Irish Cup throughout the course of the year for the various Household activities. The culmination of the Irish Cup competition will occur during the Irish Cup Championship - formerly known as (the somewhat isolated and purposeless) Field Day.

STRUCTURE

Finally, and in an attempt to bring the entire school closer together as a result of these efforts, Households will be grouped into 4 different priories (taken from the organization within many religious orders, a priory is a small group of monks or nuns governed by a prior or prioress). This larger structure will help Households to feel connected with more than just their small group and will create an even greater sense of healthy competition between and among Households within our school. Priories will be  named for one of the letters of the word, HOME.

As a way to ensure that students understand this structure and recognize that all Households and Priories are part of the same family, time spent together in Households will always end as a larger school community and will incorporate the following rallying cry:

Give me an H. H!
Give me an O. O!
Give me an M. M!
Give me an E. E! (Each of the above is yelled by the Households representing that particular priory.)

What's that spell? HOME! (Yelled by all.)

Who lives in a HOME? A FAMILY! (Yelled by all.)

Who is our FAMILY? ICS! (Yelled by all.)

As for me and my school, we will serve the Lord.

GO IRISH!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The First Day

This past Saturday was the first day since the death of my father that I did not speak to my mother. It wasn't that I didn't try. I called and texted. Our schedules just did not coincide and so the sun set and both of us ended our days without speaking to each other.

This saddened me incredibly. As I realized that touching base with my mom wasn't going to happen, I also realized that perhaps speaking to her was more for me than for her. She could have called me. She has never asked or even hinted that she needed me or my siblings to talk to her every day. In some small way, perhaps I figured it was a gesture that I could complete that would allow me to feel important and helpful, as if a daily phone call from me could somehow help to compensate for the loss of her husband. As I said, the call, I realized last night, was for me. I'm the one who needs it.

I didn't like how missing this conversation with my mom for the first time made me feel. Therefore, it will inspire me to continue, for my sake, to pick up the phone and call her. There will undoubtedly be a second time, third, fourth and maybe even tenth. But, the pain of this first time will inspire me to continue to reach out via phone and touch my mom.

The first time that something happens is filled with poignancy. The first time you drive a car by yourself. Your first kiss. The first time you hold your child in your arms. The death of a loved one. The first time you try a new dessert, or listen to a new song or watch a new movie. The first of something, while not necessarily the best, is usually incredibly memorable. Research supports this; which is why, especially for pleasure, we often continue to seek out new and novel treats. The surprise adds to the effect.

The first day of school is always filled with emotion and is usually more memorable than the rest of the year. A new classroom, a new teacher, new books, new supplies, new classmates, new clothes, new backpacks, new shoes, a new year. Unlike the first day of the calendar year, the first day of school isn't just an extension of the last day of last year. All of these novel features make the first day feel incredibly new. The first day, therefore, becomes very memorable and has the potential to allow a student, teacher, administrator and even parent to be different than previous campaigns.

The death of my father changed me. I make a point to connect with my mother every day and my siblings much more often than I had prior to his passing. This novel event changed me. It changed the person that I was and the person that I wanted to become. Missing a day to talk to my mom will only reinforce my desire to continue to be this new creation.

In a similar way, the first day of school, because of its novelty, can inspire monumental and permanent changes. Students can recommit to having exemplar behavior or completing all of their homework or just studying harder or taking school more seriously. Teachers can rededicate themselves to their profession and with each new school year comes the opportunity to correct last year's mistakes and try the things that weren't attempted in the past. They can be the teacher they always thought they'd be. Administrators get another chance to reestablish policies, procedures, climate and areas of emphasis. Parents can re-devote themselves to working with their child(ren) and their child(ren)'s teacher(s) for the success of their kid(s). They can re-create more time in their schedules for their families and make this year like the one they always envisioned it would be.

The first day of school will be memorable. In a similar way, the year will be as well. But, the year will only be as good (or bad) as we make it. Homework will be forgotten, morning schedules and routines will cause a tardy to school, tempers may flare and patience may be lost. But, perhaps this year those negative things will be the exception rather than the rule and perhaps the first time these things happen will be so poignant, so impactful, and so meaningful that they become the only time.

Happy first day of school. May it be filled with blessings beyond what you can even conceive or imagine.

May your first day, and the entire year, be amazing!

   

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sustenance


This past weekend, I received the Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education as part of the Commencement ceremonies for the University of Notre Dame's ACE Programs. As such, I was asked to speak about what has sustained my commitment to Catholic education.

In a word, my family has.

"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15)."

Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, OH, I owe my commitment to the Catholic Church and Catholic education to my family and the institutions of my Catholic educations. 

My mother Linda worked for the majority of her career as a teacher in a Catholic school. As a 2nd grade teacher she handled preparations for the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In addition, she worked as a catechist on both the Middle School and High School Levels. My father Bob not only volunteered as a coach for the CYO basketball teams of both me and my brother, he served the Church as a lector and Eucharistic minister. My parents tithed regularly and set an example of giving by affording their children opportunities to give as well. They sang at Church, which outside of celebrations here at Our Lady's University is rare. We ate family meals together practically every day of the week. We prayed before we ate, giving thanks for both our food and for each other. While none of their children attended Catholic elementary schools, all went on to either Catholic high school and/or college. As my sister, brother and I left home my parents became more and more involved in the Church to fill their empty nest. When my father passed away this past December, we celebrated not his death but his life and his passing into eternity with our Savior, Jesus Christ. His funeral Mass was perhaps the most beautiful celebration I have ever witnessed.   

The Catechism of our Catholic Church states that parents are the primary educators of their children. As I reflect on my professional career, spent entirely in Catholic schools, I recognize the important role that my family has played and continues to play in sustaining my commitment to Catholic education. My beautiful wife, Emily, is a product of Catholic education on all levels and as a fellow ACE graduate, she has also continued her service to Catholic education beyond the two year commitment - 7 years at Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa and the past three as a stay at home mother. Her Catholic home school has a classroom of two, our daughters Elizabeth and Catherine.   

As for the Zelenka house, we will serve the Lord. 

Despite this strong Catholic upbringing, I didn't step foot in a Catholic school as a student until high school when I entered Cleveland Benedictine. My brother and I had followed our father and his two brothers to this all-boys Catholic high school on Cleveland's east side. It was there that I began to build upon the solid foundation of faith that my parents had laid.  I appreciated the rich traditions of not only the school but also the order and developed a profound respect for the humility portrayed by the priests and monks working at the school. Benedictine fostered a family atmosphere - our football team took the field to the rallying cry of the word "together". Prayer became an even more entrenched part of my life. The Benedictine motto, Ora et Labora, or prayer and work, resonated deeply with me. Prayer during my time at Benedictine was no longer separate from any other aspect of my life but rather intimately intertwined with everything I did. Prayer and work, not prayer OR work. We prayed before classes. We prayed before meals. We visited our grotto before and after practices and games. We went to Mass before sporting events. We prayed the Rosary. Students had the opportunity to attend daily Mass, furthering this connection between faith and life, prayer and work.   

My faith experiences at this wonderful university continued where Benedictine left off. My understanding of Eucharistic celebration blossomed here at ND, and I again appreciated how at home I felt while here as an undergraduate and for my two experiences in the ACE Program. Obviously, a sense of family is strong here as well. Dorm Masses here at ND are perhaps the best representation of a true extension of a family of faith rivaled only by ACE Masses and evident by the wardrobe selections (pajamas) and length of time needed for the exchange of peace (hugs take longer than handshakes and peace offerings are never limited to just those in seats in front of or behind you). A spirit of service also started to form within my heart. It wasn't enough to use my Notre Dame education for selfish gain; instead, I realized that I was being called to fight to make the world a better place. I joined ACE Service through Teaching and what started as a noble graduate-service project blossomed into a vocation. Joining the Remick Leadership Program furthered my commitment to this vocation as a Catholic educator. I recognized my inclusion in a movement much broader than my school or diocese. I also realized the grand importance of sustaining Catholic education in our world today. Our work truly changes the world and touches on eternity. 

As for my high school and college, they serve the Lord. 

I am so proud and honored to be a Zelenka and now have the chance to educate my own children in the Catholic faith bestowed upon me by my parents. I am so proud and honored to be a Man of Benedictine. I am so proud and honored to be a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and owe my formation as a Catholic educator to my professors and classmates here. I am so proud and honored to be a Catholic and to fight for the greater good of the Catholic Church and our world. 

I am humbled to receive this prestigious award and be held in the company of my fellow recipients, Drs. Gray Werner, and Yeager, as well as the family of Dr. Michael Pressley for whom this award is named. I am truly and incredibly honored.  

As for me and my house, we are Catholic and we serve the Lord. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Always. 


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Brave and the Beautiful

I have yet to see the Disney movie, "Brave" about the adventures of Princess Merida as she shoots arrows and battles to save her mother. From what I have heard, though, Merida breaks the traditional Disney Princess mold in that she's daring, active, natural in her beauty, and the hero(ine) who does the saving (instead of the damsel in need of a savior).

Recently, she was crowned the 11th Princess in Disney's line-up of royalty, and like all celebrity make-overs for a big event, Merida received enhanced curves, lengthened eyelashes, sparkled eyes, softer eyes and stylized hair. She was also de-bowed; the weapon used throughout her story was stripped from her for her Princess Portrait (click here for an image from The Guardian with the before and after). Why? Princesses, and therefore value in this marketing strategy, are only derived from beauty and can't involve anything but being beautiful once crowned.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, only days after her coronation, Disney reversed Merida's extreme makeover. Due to an overwhelming response from parents who voiced outrage over this emphasis on physical appearance, Disney re-instituted the real Merida sans airbrushing, surgery, botox, make-up and other appearance enhancing techniques. In doing so, Disney displayed immense courage in also re-instituting why so many young girls were attracted to Merida:

Beauty emanates from within.

As the father of two daughters, I feel I have the incredible responsibility of teaching them what is beautiful. I have the task of doting on them not just because of what they look like but instead for who they are. I must allow them to be than just pretty and do more than just need saved. I must show them a future that for them could entail, potentially, more than just being pretty - especially in finding value in how pretty the world says that they are (check out this letter a father wrote to his daughter about her future husband: letter). I must teach them that God created them fearfully and wonderfully and beautifully. I need to guide them to give their hearts to Jesus so that any man who hopes to win them must go to Jesus first...and then me.

I do this each and every day in every interaction with them, my wife, and any other woman in my life. I'm blessed to have the most incredible and incredibly beautiful wife in the world. The way that I show Emily my love paints a very detailed picture as to how my daughters will view love in their own lives. Emily sets the example of womanhood. I add the detail of how a woman is to be loved, treated and valued. I must show my daughters that Emily stands holding my hand next to me, not sitting behind me. I must show them that true womanhood is more than a pretty face. 

My daughters are beautiful. As a father, my willingness to show them affection and attention will significantly impact their future understandings of beauty and love. Studies prove that their relationship with me, their father, will dictate their propensity to engage in pre-marital sex, eating disorders and drug use. It will determine their self-esteem, body image and self-worth. It will hopefully make them courageous enough to live in a world that defines and sees beauty with a different definition and through a different lens. Prayerfully, my relationship with them will make them brave enough to understand that they aren't loved because they're beautiful but rather they are beautiful because they are loved. 

By me. By my wife. But most importantly by God. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Witness

HEBREWS 12:1 - Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every sin and burden that clings to us and run with perseverance the race marked out before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith. 

Class of 2013, this past school year we have focused on this scripture passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews in many and various ways. We’ve talked about the cloud and how we need to surround one another with love and support. We mentioned how difficult it would be to run with a heavy backpack or full arms. We focused in on the fact that perseverance involves commitment, determination and grit. We stated the importance of keeping our sights set on our goals, dreams, aspirations and even more importantly Jesus. We unpacked the word RUN - READ, UNCOVER, NOTICE - and how an emphasis on the words of this acronym could lead us to more knowledge, an enhanced ability to solve problems, and more purposeful eyes to see areas in our lives and world in need of our help and assistance.

Since we have so many great people - parents, teachers, classmates - surrounding us, supporting us, loving us, we are able to do wonderful things. Since we are encouraged to leave behind our baggage that would otherwise weigh us down, we are more capable of carrying out the work that God has entrusted us to do. And, since we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can come to truly understand what specific work God has in store for us. When we have great people around us, when we put aside those faults and failings that make us less than who God created us to be, when we remain committed to Jesus despite all of the many distractions and disturbances in life, we are able to RUN. St. Paul, obviously, uses the words RUN and RACE as metaphors. His strong athletic language compares the spiritual and sporting lives. It conjures up images of athletes spent after expending a great effort. When talking about running a race he promotes the urgency with which we need to live our lives. RUN, don’t walk. PERSEVERE, don’t quit. COMMIT, don’t waver. PREVAIL, don’t endure.

RUN. With all your heart. For your heart. To show your heart. RUN. 

Look around you. Notice the cloud of witnesses that are surrounding you. Look at your classmates. Look at your teachers. Look at your families. They are all around you today. They are next to you, they are behind you, they are at your side, they have your back. They RUN with you. They RUN to you. They RUN because of you. They will always be with you.

RUN. With all your heart. For your heart. To show your heart. RUN. 

Don’t look back. Focus on Jesus. Don’t carry the loads of sin, doubt, worry, and fear. Focus on Jesus. Don’t stop. Keep going. Press on. Focus on Jesus. Look straight ahead. RUN. He will always be there waiting, hoping and loving.

To close, I offer to you a poem inspired by your 8th grade books and the wonderful witness you have been to me and our entire school community:

WITNESS
RUN deep. 
RUN and PLAY for you are filled with God’s embrace. 
Bask in His beauty and glory, you have been one of his most stunning works since birth. 
RUN unshackled. 
RUN because you choose. 
Fight the wicked. 
Protect all from harm. 
Spread the peace. 
Remember to smile. 
RUN. 
Your never ending song goes on. 
Your pyramid touches the sky, rising to mythical stars, wandering through space and defying gravity. 
RUN. 
Follow your heartbeat quick and rise up again. 
Search. 
Shine brighter than before over mountains never climbed and oceans never swam. RUN. 
Remain healed despite rain, corroded steel and broken shells beneath your feet. 
You are not a fail. 
Like a Titan you were made for power. 
You were made to RUN. 
RUN into the great hall. 
Give them one more reason to remember the name. 
It was everyone’s dream one time ago, evermore to be a happy ending. 
Into His arms. 
His spirit lights up. 
RUN the race, your race. 
Fight the battle. 
Keep the faith.
He’s at the finish line.
RUN. 


Class of 2013, may God continue to bless you and may you run your race with perseverance and may you win. We congratulate you, we will miss you. Good luck. God bless and GO IRISH.  

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Perfectly Imperfect

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, I am the furthest thing from perfect. I make mistakes all the time. I make bad decisions. I do things that I regret. Even just right there, I misspelled regret (I actually did it again when writing it for a second time!). The perfectionist in me, though, fixed it.

The difference between a sinner and a saint isn't that the saint never fails. It's that after failing, the saint picks himself back up and tries again.

Only two perfect people ever walked the face of the Earth: Jesus and His Mother Mary. That's it. Even John the Baptist, who was probably pretty darn good, said that he was unfit to even loosen the strap on Jesus's sandals. We know Peter's fallible story. Paul was Saul. Augustine needed his mother to advocate on his behalf in prayer in order to turn more fully toward God. Ignatius had aspirations to be a hero in physical warfare, not spiritual.

The Communion of Saints is filled with reformed sinners. It's not that they didn't sin; it's that they continued to get back up after falling.

I wouldn't have a job (or at least the job that I currently hold) without imperfections.

Life would be pretty boring without imperfections.

Faith would be unnecessary without imperfections. We'd have no need for a Savior. We'd have no need for each other.

Life would be perfectly imperfect without imperfections.

In this way, being imperfect isn't a bad thing. It's doesn't make me bad. It doesn't make salvation an unattainable goal. It makes me human. God doesn't expect me to be perfect. He expects me to try.

How awesome would it be if in our schools we found a way to humbly accept our imperfections while at the same time not settling for them? Envision how incredible schools could be if administrators admitted that they were wrong. Imagine if parents and families embraced the fact that their children make mistakes. Consider the tremendous growth that teachers could experience by pledging to a spirit of continuous improvement. See the irony in the fact that places of education - Catholic schools included - have existence because of imperfections and yet have such a difficult time coming to terms with them.

It's not complacency with mediocrity. It's not pessimism. It's acceptance.

I am imperfect and God loves me. You are imperfect and God loves you. Every student and teacher and parent and family member and administrator in every school - Catholic and public and private alike - are imperfect and loved by God.

This acceptance doesn't keep me or us in the mud. It liberates us to get back up no matter how many times we fall face down into it.

Get back up. Get back up. Get back up.

You are perfectly imperfect and you are perfectly loved.

Accept it.

And get back up.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Law

We have certain non-negotiable rules that Elizabeth must follow:

-Look both ways before crossing the street (which for now is also coupled with having to hold either my or Emily's hand).
-Give Catherine another toy if you take one from her.
-Hold our hand in a parking lot.
-Pray before going to bed.
My brother and I (above) recently completed a Tough Mudder mud run. The race has certain non-negotiables, too. They make participants recite and abide by the following pledge: "I understand that the Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge. I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time. I do not whine - kids whine. I help my fellow Mudders complete the course. I overcome all fears."
Also recently, I had the opportunity to visit one of Elizabeth's toddler classes at a local Christian church. Attached to a school, the teacher in charge of the program did a wonderful job engaging both the students and the parents. As such, we engaged in a conversation about what I did for a living. After finding out that I was a principal of a Catholic school, she asked what our law was regarding teachers. 
Law? I immediately thought of certification laws, and safe environment mandates, and Level II background screenings. Confused, I asked her to clarify. 
She stated that all of the teachers in the schools attached to this particular sect of Christianity come from the same college. In this way, all of the people that work in their schools and for their churches have the same formation. 
"How do you know that your teachers follow the philosophy as you or the Catholic Church?" she asked.
I was at a loss to respond. The question continues to resonate with me almost one month later. How do principals of Catholic schools know that teachers they hire / employ are quality in both an educational and Catholic sense? Only so much can be gleaned from an interview. Reputation lives in the unsteady hands of other people. Even direct observations are corrupted by the the observer effect. Teachers within our Catholic schools have various backgrounds, experience, knowledge levels and faith lives. 
We must have faith in things unable to be seen.
So, this question about the law of Catholic school teachers lead my leadership-oriented mind to think about it from a broader perspective - what is the law of a Catholic school?
In looking for answers, I came across some great resources. First, Archbishop Miller writes:
A Catholic school should be inspired by a supernatural vision, founded on Christian anthropology, animated by communion and community, imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout its curriculum, and sustained by gospel witness. These benchmarks help to answer the critical question: Is this a Catholic school according to the mind of the Church (http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/education/ed0395.htm)?
The Pastoral Council on the Church in the Modern World states, "the Catholic school sets out to be a school for the human person and of human persons." 
Finally, the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness (School of Education, Loyola University Chicago), in partnership with the Roche Center for Catholic Education (School of Education, Boston College) compiled an entire set of defining characteristics, domains, standards and benchmarks to help Catholic schools determine their Catholicity, viability, academic excellence and success. The defining characteristics are as follows:
Catholic schools must be centered in the person of Jesus Christ.
Catholic schools must contribute to the evangelizing mission of the Church.
Catholic schools must be distinguished by excellence.
Catholic schools must be committed to educate the whole child.
Catholic schools must be steeped in a Catholic worldview.
Catholic schools must be sustained by Gospel witness.
Catholic schools must be shaped by Communion and community.
Catholic schools must be accessible to all students.
Catholic schools must be established by the expressed authority of the Bishop.
Miss any one of these and you miss one of the defining characteristics of a Catholic school. Many dioceses across the country are moving to using this set of criteria to conduct school accreditations. Catholic schools everywhere would be wise to use them as a self-assessment to help them more closely live out the mission of Catholic education. 
It may not be the law (yet), but it helps to level the playing field across the broad range of Catholic schools and provides concrete goals for bearing the title Catholic. 
As for me and my school, it will act as a set of non-negotiables (like ensuring that I write at least one blog post a month), as we strive to serve the Lord.