Thursday, December 23, 2010

J.O.Y. to the World

Back before I had knee surgery and a daughter, I used to be a runner. And, as any runner will tell you, there exists what is known as a "runner's high"-- a blast of endorphins that kicks in after about 20 - 25 minutes of running-- that can make the 2nd half of a run seem even easier than the first. So exhilarating is this boost, that at times I would be able to finish a run in a dead sprint.

Unfortunately, many runners don't push past the pain of the first 10 - 20 minutes to experience the benefit of this natural energy kick.

There is also something to be said for the phenomenon of getting more and more excited for something the closer we get to receiving it. To further this idea of a run, knowing that the end is in sight (or at least close) can inspire one to pick up the pace incrementally, running at full tilt for the last few strides.

With Christmas only a day away, stores will be buzzing with last minute shoppers, children will be giddy in anticipation of their hopeful Christmas loot, churches will be packed with people dressed in their finest clothes, radio stations will broadcast non-stop carols, gas stations will jack up prices to rob holiday travelers, airports will be bustling.

The excitement will practically be palpable.

People will be filled with joy.

But, will they be filled with J.O.Y.? Will they put Jesus first, Others second and Themselves last?

J.O.T.? Er, to make the acronym functional, will you:
Put Jesus first?
Put Others second?
Put Yourself last?
On this last day of Advent, I offer one more example of how we should prepare for Christ's birth given to us over the course of the past four weeks: Jesus' earthly father, Joseph.

Joseph was a man about whom little is known (at least from Scripture). But, it may be safe to say that Joseph lived by this motto: "Put Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last." He decided to follow the advice of the angel, taking Mary as his wife and raising Jesus as his own.

He decided to honor and uphold Mary's dignity, choosing to marry her despite the unusual circumstances of her pregnancy.

He decided to put his own desires for a "normal" marriage and experience as a father aside and instead be joyful. In return, he had the blessing of spending the rest of his life with Jesus. Imagine that. Imagine the joy you experience when in the presence of your spouse or your child(ren) or your best friend. Now, imagine that person to be Jesus! What joy you would undoubtedly experience!

However, will we be filled with J.O.Y. tomorrow when Christ once again comes into our world? Will we be so overcome with joy to sing at the top of our lungs, "Joy to the world! The Lord has come! Let Earth receive her King!" Heaven will be singing. Will nature?

Like the song says, "Let every heart prepare Him room." If we have done that, if we have pushed past the pain of crowded shopping malls and endless holiday tasks and found time to pray, offered more of ourselves to those in need (even within our own families), spent more time thinking about what we can give instead of what we want to receive-- if we have truly prepared and made room for Jesus to be the most important part of our lives-- then let us not be ashamed to spread J.O.Y. tomorrow and every day of our lives. Let us sing, "Joy to the world!"

Let us not be afraid to put Jesus first tomorrow. Let us be enlivened in putting others second. And let us truly believe that in doing so, and in putting ourselves last, we may come to experience everlasting joy. J.O.Y. that is independent of circumstances, J.O.Y. that is constant. J.O.Y. that leads us from a birth in a dirty stable, to a cross on a hill, to a grave with a stone rolled away...

"...and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing!"

Joy to the world.

J.O.Y. to the world, indeed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Just Say Yes

Because of its juxtaposition to the word "no", the word "yes" is inherently positive.

Think about this. While there are some questions for which a "yes" response brings bad news or rejection (So, does that mean you don't want to go out with me?), more often than not, hearing a "yes" is a good thing.

"Can I go to Matt's house for a sleepover?"

"Are we going out to eat tonight?"

"Can I stay up past bedtime?"

"Will you marry me?"

Imagining a "yes" response to any of these or countless other questions, brings with it the hope, excitement and joy surrounding those situations. So close is the connection between the word "yes" and good feelings that simply saying "yes" with a little flair ("YESSSSSS!" maybe even with a fist shake or elbow pump) can heighten one's mode.

There are probably monumental yeses in your life ("Yes, I'll marry you", "Yes, we're pregnant"), but no "yes" in the history of the world was as monumental as the one given by a teenage girl over 2,000 years ago.

The Angel Gabriel asked Mary if she would bear God's only Son. With only a moment's hesitation (long enough to ask exactly how this could be), yet most likely frought with equal parts anxiety and hope, she responded, "Yes." The Gospels attribute Mary with a much more eloquent response,

Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy Word (Luke 1:38).

A yes, though, by any other words would still smell as sweet. And even
though unlike Mary we are born with original sin, and even though 1/2
of all of us are not biologically able to bear a child (a claim I
humbly make fully knowing Gabriel's words to Mary, "For nothing will be
impossible for God" (Luke 1:37)) God approaches us this Advent with the same
questions He offered to Mary many years ago:

Will you let me into your life?

Will you bring me into your homes and your hearts?

Will you bear me, and all that comes with carrying me with you?

Will you prepare for my coming?

Will you deliver me into this world?

God yearns for a positive response from us. He hopes that this year, this Christmas, we will answer with an unequivocal "yes", forever changing our lives and in turn, our world. Like Mary, we may be anxious and fearful about responding in the affirmative. We may even be excited over the prospect of a life with Christ.

But, are we courageous enough to just say yes?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Wisdom of Advent

I know I'm three Sundays late with this Advent reflection. As mentioned before, time has taken on an altogether new meaning for me. So, I apologize if it comes a bit late (technically 1/2 way) in this glorious season of Advent. But, our God of second chances is also a God of last second comebacks. So I hope that God would agree: it's better late than never.

In addition, I'm not only late, I'm also going to begin this reflection by looking at an event toward the end of the Christmas season. Much like a lesson plan designed by having the end in mind before beginning, I think it's worth knowing where we're headed before we start on our journey. It's in this spirit that I turn to the story of the Three Wise Men and what they can teach us about Advent. (

The Wise Men offer us a wonderful example of how we should behave during this season of Advent. First, we imagine that they had to prepare for their journey to Bethlehem before starting. Unlike jumping in the car and traveling from St. Petersburg to Tampa or even from Tampa to Jacksonville, we can imagine their trip taking extended time and requiring much more preparation than grabbing their keys. Second, the Wise Men had to make a choice. They had to choose between following what Herod wanted and what their hearts (and God) wanted. Third, they returned to their homes by a different road-- their encounter with Christ changed them in such a way that they could no longer go back to their old ways. They were different because of their Christmas day. Fourth and finally, history knows them as “wise” because of their gifts honoring Christ’s Kingship, instead of merely recognizing his birth.

Can the same adjective, wise, be applied to us during this Advent season? Personally, I want to be considered wise instead of the opposite. When Christmas is over and we’re returning to our everyday lives, I want to be a different person. I want to be someone who saw Christ not just as a way to get presents but as my Savior and King. I want to be a Wise Man, too.

We need to take the example of the Wise Men if we are to make the most out of our Advent preparation:

First, we must prepare for Christmas. This preparation, however, should take a different shape and tone than what society tells us it should entail ( We should worship fully. We should spend more time in prayer than usual and the time we do spend should be spent in participating fully, consciously and actively. While carolling we may belt out "Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer" at the top of our lungs, but in Mass we wouldn't dream of even opening our mouths. This Advent, sing. Instead of just praying at the end of the day before going to sleep, maybe we should take Christ's example and rise a bit earlier, go off by ourselves, and begin our day in prayer. Cracking open Sacred Scripture, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, lighting an Advent wreath at home-- whatever you do, do something different and/or extra and do it with your full heart.

Second, we need to recognize that like the Wise Men, we are also presented with a choice about the birth of Jesus. The world tells us that in order to be happy this Christmas we need to spend more money and buy the newest, most expensive gadget. Things are what we want. So, run around to as many stores as possible and buy as much (quantity over quality) as possible so that your precious loved ones will be happy. Our God presents us with a much different choice, one that focuses more on people, relationships and quality than it does on material things. Can you even remember all that you got for Christmas last year? How about five years ago? But, can you remember the people with whom you spent Christmas and what you did? The Wise Men chose, well, wisely. Hopefully we will, too.

Third, Christmas Day will come and hopefully we will come to experience and encounter Christ in a true and meaningful way. Will we be changed forever because of our encounter with Christ on Christmas Day (we will even find time for Church)? Or, will the 26th come as it usually does, seeing us trudge back to the stores, upset with the crowds and even more upset with having to return all of the things that we got but didn't want?

If we can make the right choice and truly prepare for Christmas as the Magi did, spending more time in prayer and less at the malls, giving more of ourselves to people we love and less of our money, if we can recognize the true meaning of Christmas and live our lives according, we just might be considered wise.

Heck, we may even go down in history.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Essence of Time

Time has taken on an entirely different meaning since the birth of my daughter. Not only is the time of day (especially on weekends) somewhat irrelevant, but time also passes and feels differently than it once did. Sleeping for a few hours at a time can be just as good as a night filled with slumber. Time goes quickly-- didn't I just change her diaper? Time is more precious, too. I try to get as much done as effectively and efficiently as possible so as to get home before the sun sets. Spending time with my daughter and wife is the most important part of my day.

I have come to realize that I do not have time to waste.

But, it's not enough to just spend time with them; I want to spend quality time with them. For instance, I'd rather hold Elizabeth than just be in the same room with her. I'd rather talk to my wife about her day than just passively watch another Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I can hold Elizabeth in my arms while talking on the phone or packing my lunch (which takes a bit more than when I use both hands); however, I'd much rather watch her track me with her eyes, read her stories or pat her back to soothe a cry or encourage a burp. I am happy to at least be present. Just like there's a difference between lying down and sleeping, there's a difference between being present and being engaged.

Not to sound silly, but there's a difference between the level of commitment of the chicken and the pig in an eggs and bacon breakfast: the chicken was involved, the pig was committed.

When it comes to husbandry and fatherhood, I do not want to just be involved, I'd much rather be committed.

The same goes for my role as an educator. It's not enough just to keep students busy. It's also not enough just to cover the material. When it comes to teaching, we must be concerned with both the time on task of our students as well as the nature of the tasks on which we are asking them to spend time. Yes, we need to keep students busy; but, we must keep them busy on work that is worth doing.

One of the biggest indicators of student success is their time on task. The more that students are actively engaged throughout the course of a lesson or day, the more they are likely to have learned. This is extremely logical. If students are only on task for 4 out of their 8 hours in school, at the very best they can only learn 4 hours worth of material. Bump up the amount of time that students are being taught, working on labs, participating in discussions and producing work, and you will also increase the amount of learning taking place.

Similarly, we must ensure that this time spent on task is done on more than mere busy work. Learning must be focused on student-centered objectives. Activities must relate back to those objectives and lead to accomplishing others. Lessons should both spiral and scaffold, reviewing past concepts prior to introducing new ones and teaching lower order thinking skills (i.e. define, list, recognize) prior to reaching for higher ones (i.e. analyzing, synthesizing, comparing/contrasting, creating). In the end, students must be able to use their new knowledge in meaningful ways. Units should not necessarily end with a chapter test and the material forgotten after obtaining a particular grade. Students' knowledge should extend beyond the walls of the classroom and school and prepare them for a future of positively impacting our world.

None of this can be accomplished just by running in place or spinning our wheels through worksheets, end of the chapter questions and taking notes off of an overhead. An involved and well behaved group of students is a good first step, but it does not necessarily indicate the occurence of great learning. Not all students learn visually or audibly. Some require moving around (bodily-kinesthetic), incorporating music, working with others (interpersonal) or other non-traditional strategies to learn.

When it comes to education (or parenthood or even being married) time is of the essence. It's not enough to just be involved or present. We must take our presence a step further and be committed and engaged. Doing the first can lead to good things; doing the second can lead to incredible ones.

We must recognize that the essence of time is that it is a gift too valuable to waste.

Just be sure to make time for breakfast, even if it's just eggs with biscuits and gravy...unless, of course, it's chicken flavored.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

It's Not About You

Last Friday, October 29 at 8:34 p.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, Elizabeth Anne Zelenka. Three things occurred to me at this moment:
1. There must be a benevolent God
2. I've never been more in love with my wife, Emily and
3. My life will never be the same.

While I won't bore you with the details of my reaffirmed faith in an Almighty, Loving Creator God, or how my love for my wife intensified because of the strength and love she showed throughout the labor process, I will focus on how my life, at that moment, was forever changed.

The night of Elizabeth's birth was a prime example of how my life is no longer about me. As I'm sure all parents can attest, that night was filled with tests and check-ups and heating lamps and measurements and inconsolable cries. In fact, our night was so jammed packed with activity that it was well after 3 a.m. on Saturday morning before mom, dad and baby finally got to sleep. The next day came just as quickly as the previous night was long, by 6 a.m. the Zelenka family was up once again and tending to her many hospital visitors.

Our 2nd "night" as parents was just as sleepless. But, even in a completely sleep exhausted state at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, holding on to my frantically crying daughter, I could almost hear God whisper to me, "Mike, it's not about you anymore." I knew I had to put my own need for sleep aside and instead focus on Elizabeth.

Our days and nights since our three night, two day stint in the hospital have calmed significantly, and Elizabeth, like her mother, holds the key to my heart. I absolutely adore her. So, even though my sleeplessness (and cluelessness) has dwindled, this idea of my life not being about me anymore has lingered.

During my prayer and reflection time over the past four days I have also come to sense a connection between my musing on fatherhood and my other vocation as a Catholic educator: "Mike, it's not about you."

I issue this same message to all Catholic educators-- teachers, administrators, support staff, even parents-- everywhere: "It's not about you."

Teaching must be centered on the student. Gone are the days of a taught curriculum, where the teacher merely covers the material, with little to no regard for individual student performance (that's what Bell Curves are for, right?). Instead, students must learn the material at hand. The central focus of a classroom cannot be the teacher/teaching; it must be the student/learning.

This approach to education puts aside many "old school" tactics: teachers lecturing from a podium and students passively taking notes, punitive pop quizzes meant to "get back" at students, failed tests being dismissed as a lack of student preparation ("I taught the material all last week!") and covering material from a textbook in straight succession from the introduction on page xiv to page 367.

The needs, backgrounds, abilities and temperaments of students must take precedence over the desires of the teacher, or any adult in the educational setting. Teachers must overcome tiredness, angry parents, riffs with colleagues and administrators, or a distaste for a particular subject for the good of student learning.

Time on task has a huge impact on student learning-- it must be maximized and not wasted on an abundance of study halls, homework time during class, or parties for every "holiday". The dignity and value of the student as a child of God must always be maintained, especially during disciplinary situations. Teachers must identify the ways that students, individually, best learn and differentiate their instruction so as to touch on these many and varied multiple intelligences. Lessons need to be analyzed, reorganized, and re-taught based on student performance. Each and every student must be challenged yet given the necessary supports to succeed.

When it comes to education, adults (teachers/administration/support staff and parents alike) must put aside their own egos and focus on the good of the child(ren). Because, much like being a parent, as a teacher it's not about, and can't ever be about, you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Waiting for an Extra Marshmallow

This past Sunday was one of the fortunate times in the Celebration of the Eucharist that all three readings from the Liturgy of the Word followed a similar theme: perseverance (for last weekend's readings go to: God presents us with three wonderful images of perseverance: Moses straining to hold up his arms with Aaron and Hur helping to support his arms as Moses grows weary; an infant listening to the stories and lessons from Sacred Scripture, and a widow persistently asking a judge to side in her favor and eventually receiving a just decision. Our Heavenly Father explicitly tells us that we must persevere in our faith and that if we do, we will, like the widow, receive our just reward.

But, persevering in our faith (or in any aspect of our lives) is difficult. We live in a society and a world that demands speed. Diets should shed double digit pounds in a matter of days; exercise routines should shred fat within a few workouts; food should be received in a hurry, consumed in a hurry, and eaten in huge quantities (unless, of course, we're on a miracle diet promising double digit weight loss in a few days); abridged versions of books should guarantee the same substance of a novel in less words; music should be downloaded instantaneously; and all people should be reachable by cell phone or text at all hours of every day.

Constantly living by this modus operandi, is it any wonder that we expect the same urgency and ease from our spiritual lives? We want many things-- to win in battle, to be equipped for every good work, and for things to go in our favor-- but we do not want to work for them. Likewise, we do not want to wait for them either. Working hard and delaying the gratification of something runs directly against the current of our society-- get anything you want right when you want it.

Working hard was a principle upon which our country was founded. The Puritan work ethic believed that God rewarded those individuals who worked hard enough to deserve it. And whether or not God truly does shower blessings upon those who work hard, it makes sense that working hard toward the attainment of some goal gets us that much closer to achieving it. While we may not become the starting point guard or earn first trombone, working hard for something does pay off.

Similarly, delaying gratification is also healthy. We're taught to eat our food slowly and to wait 10 minutes prior to going back for seconds. If we're still hungry after that time, it's okay to have a second helping. Waiting overnight to press send on a scathingly drafted email response can also have its benefits; looking at our words with a clearer mind can keep us from forwarding an email we would otherwise regret. Holding off on a purchase can also yield dividends: it can allow the price to drop to a more reasonable sale and/or help you to realize if buying the item is really worthwhile. Patience, therefore, is not only a virtue, it can also lead us to success.

If we can just hold on, good things can happen. An experiment conducted in the 1960s at Stanford University revealed that there is a correlation between self-control and future success. The famous "Marshmallow Experiment" offered young children one marshmallow to consume immediately or two if they were willing to wait to eat the first for an undisclosed period of time. In tracking subjects, those who were able to delay gratification at an early age typically scored 200 points higher on their SATs than the impulsive children. Furthermore, the children who waited performed better in school, encountered fewer behavioral problems as adolescents, and led healthier lifestyles later in life. In this case persevering not only resulted in the gratification of another marshmallow, it was a predictor of future success in life. (Click on this link to see a humorous update on the marshmallow test:

Perseverance may also point toward another quality, and one of utmost importance to Catholic educators: holiness. For as St. Paul encourages the Hebrews (12:1), "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us." If we can persevere in our faith, and remain true to ourselves and our Heavenly Father in a world that encourages us to sell out and get the quick fix, our just reward will be well worth the wait.

If nothing else, it will be more than an extra marshmallow.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's For Their Own Good

Last Friday, I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee to repair a torn meniscus. While I wish I could say that this injury was a result of some exciting feat of strength or daring act of kindness, I "tore" it by merely standing up from a squatting position. Torn last month over Labor Day weekend, I had adjusted my lifestyle to accommodate my limiting condition. Not being able to run or workout was initially a hard pill to swallow. But, over the course of the month leading up to my surgery I grew accustomed to doing one-legged workouts, going for walks instead of runs, and coping with not being able to squat past 90 degrees. In fact, in this short time, I became so comfortable with this new way of life that I was worried about this surgical procedure.

Thoughts of "What if something were to go wrong? What would the rehab be like? How much longer would it be before I'd be able to workout, or even just walk normally?" raced through my mind. Even though I knew that this surgery would put me on a path back to my pre-September lifestyle, I was reluctant to go through with the procedure.

Similarly, just yesterday I removed the very large post-ob padding and bandage that had covered my knee for five straight days. Even though I knew that this would be yet another step toward my recovery, I felt comforted by its protective covering and hesitated exposing my repaired knee. "Would I be able to sleep? What if a student bumped into the next day? Would I feel wobbly without it?"

These are two examples from the past week that point to a much more important issue than my pending rehabilitation: change, even change that we know is good for us, is often met with resistance.

Think of a new dieter and his/her attempts to steer away from sweets, the smoker doing his/her best to kick the habit, or even a child before taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. All of these changes are good; but all are also hard. They can also be scary. In many cases, the difficulty involved in making a change and the fear associated with the uncharted territory of change can immobilize us. It can keep us from changing. Or, mid-change, it can send us running back to the familiarity of our past selves.

But, as Catholic educators we must embrace change. We must fight the urge to announce "but we've always done it this way" and remain entrenched in our past mediocrities. We must embrace each new school year as another chance to improve on the successes of the past one. Much hype has surrounded the recent documentary, "Waiting for Superman" and our educational system here in the United States. Staggering statistics have surfaced: the United States ranks 10th in Reading Literacy, 12th in College Completion Rates, 17th in Science Literacy, and 24th in Math Literacy of all industrialized nations. 67% of our nation's 4th graders read below their grade level. 25% of America's seniors don't graduate from High School and of those that graduate, only 35% read proficiently.

This is not to say that every school, and more specifically every Catholic School, falls into these same percentages. However, our educational system in general is in dire need of change. Changes in our approaches to instruction, administration, parenting, grading, planning, discipline-- everything are essential if our students are to reverse these horrifying statistics. If we continue to do things the same way we've always done them, we should expect to get the same results we've always gotten.

We must be open to change and open to the fact that change, no matter how good it is for us or our children, will be difficult.

In the final chapter of John's Gospel (21:18), Jesus says to Peter, "Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus concludes this message to Peter by saying, "Follow me."

Luckily for us, Peter and countless other followers of Jesus were willing to change. We, too, must have this same openness of spirit if our children are to succeed.

Changing, in this case, is for their own good.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Intelligent, Backward Design

It's probably safe to say that in fashioning creation, God had a clear picture of His end products prior to starting. I firmly believe that humans (and all of creation for that matter) did not occur by accident. Rather, we were made in God's image and likeness. We were fearfully made. We were wonderfully made. We were made for a specific purpose or end, and this end was clearly known prior to our creation.

Even if you factor in the theories of Evolution and Natural Selection, God still has a place and His Intelligent Design is easy to experience. Look at any aspect of creation and it's easy to see that Something smarter than a human is responsible. The intricacies of cells and atoms, the complexities of life cycles and our bodily systems-- all point toward God's Intelligent Design. And since it's intelligent, it's also fairly likely that the end was known before He ever began.

Few culinary feasts are created without an idea of the sights, smells and tastes that those who will dine at the table will experience.

Few embark on journeys by plane, car, foot or even boat, without first identifying a destination.

You don't start training for a marathon without an understanding of just how far 26.2 miles really is. Likewise, you don't participate in the race unless you've undergone some sort of training.

While I could go on with other examples to demonstrate earthly examples of having the end in mind before beginning, I'd rather not completely reveal my lack of impulsiveness. In addition, I'd like to get to the purpose for which I started this blog entry: how this relates to Catholic education.

As Catholic educators we must begin with our ends/purposes clearly in sight: to educate life-long Catholics in such a way that they not only contribute to but also positively change society. With these goals in plain view, we can approach our lessons, plans, assessments, extra-curriculars and all that we do so that they further this mission. Anything not advancing this mission should be scrutinized as to whether or not it should be included in the school's agenda. Similarly, simply knowing our objectives as Catholic educators makes it more likely that we'll actually accomplish them.

A similar method must be used regarding instruction-- teachers must begin with the end in mind. Known as "Understanding by Design" or "Backward Planning", this method asks for teachers to start their planning by identifying those concepts they hope students will learn by the time the lesson(s) is(are) over. This approach also moves past checking off a list of standards to imparting enduring understandings, concepts and ideas that are much broader in scope and much more important. Units don't typically end with a chapter test (although they can). Instead, teachers end with an assessment that tests whether or not students are able to use their new knowledge meaningfully.

While much too complex of a technique to adequately cover here, Understanding by Design is successful for the same reason that a recipe produces culinary delights, Mapquest directions and GPS systems get us to our destinations and marathon training plans enable us to complete a distance that toppled Pheidippides.

It may be backward, but in this case doing things backward is smart...even intelligent.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Run, Run As Fast As We Can

My nephew Frederick will turn two years old later this month. His favorite things, which also happen to be his favorite words, include cars, trucks, cheese, boats, trees, sail boats, and dump trucks. He also runs everywhere he goes. Literally. At first I thought it was just to get his favorite toys, or to come to dinner (especially if cheese was on the menu!). But, this sense of urgency was apparent when cleaning up his toys, going down for a nap or giving hugs goodnight. He runs everywhere.

When I wasn't getting a good chuckle out of how fast his little legs could propel him, I was thinking about how different my life would be if I were to do this (and in saying this, I mean to live with such a sense of urgency-- if I ran everywhere I'd not only set a bad example for all of the students at ICS but also it would be entirely weird). Frederick made me think about how much I'd love to live with such passion, enthusiasm and zeal at every moment during every day of my life.

And why should any of us lack the fervor of a 2 year old? Despite the daily grind, which often wears on our hopes and dreams, we have few other valid excuses. For, since everyone has a purpose, everyone also has a limited amount of time to accomplish it. God has given us work to do that is worth doing. He's also issued a deadline by which He needs it done.

My intent is definitely not to offer a message of doom and gloom. Instead, it's intended to be a realistic reminder that we have little time to waste when it comes to doing God's work. Each day, we receive the gift of 24 hours. What we do with those hours is our gift back to God.

St. Francis de Sales put it this way, "Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity there to remain forever what we have made it."

Of course, we need to recharge from time to time. We also need time to rest. Burnout can and does happen. To avoid it we must be smart in our work. Not everything can be accomplished in a day, week, year or even a lifetime. But, each day there is good work to be done. We need to do all we can to accomplish it.

As Catholic educators we truly have good work to do. It is work that is noble and even heavenly in that it deals with things not of this world. Our mission as Catholic educators is both to educate and evangelize. Even if our purpose was solely educating our students it would still deal with material that is heavenly: children. It is work worth doing. It is work that needs to be done. It is work that needs to be done today and every day. God is counting on us.

The alarm is ringing. The bell is chiming. It's time to get up, to get to school and to start working. If we had the sense of a two year old, we'd be running to get it done.

"There is only one thing to do here below: to love Jesus, to win souls for Him so that He may be loved. Let us seize with jealous care every last opportunity of self-sacrifice. Let us refuse Him nothing-- He does so want our love!"

-St. Therese of Lisieux

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An Attitude of Gratitude

In light of my most recent blog, I share this short video clip, forwarded to me through All Pro Dad's Email Play of the Day.

Enjoy, and be thankful:

Monday, September 6, 2010

Thanksgiving Days

Last weekend, my wife Emily and I stumbled upon the Emmy's on television, and though we didn't watch much more than a few minutes of this awards ceremony, it was long enough to hear a handful of acceptance/thank you speeches. Some were heartfelt and spontaneous. Others were written down and rehearsed. And whether the thanker listed out every thankee or just covered everyone with a blanket "and-anyone-else-I-forgot-to-mention" thank you, award winners made a point to express gratitude to all of those who made their moment of success possible.

This year's Emmy Awards Ceremony also fell on the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on New Orleans. Sadly, the effects of this devastating event can still be seen and experienced today. Not to dismiss the gravity of just how tragic this event was (and still is), but Hurricane Katrina and its effects brought out the best in our country, united a city and ultimately inspired us all. While I'm sure this weekend dredged up the pain of that event, remembering some of the stories surrounding it also invited feelings of gratitude, thankfulness and being truly blessed.

Two very different occasions. One common theme- thankfulness. Isn't it unfortunate that we seldom take time to express gratitude unless we are truly showered with abundance or extremely humbled by tragedy or loss. Much like a pre-game speech that fades by kick-off or an in-service that does little more than change one small aspect of our practice for an even smaller amount of time, our spirits of gratitude wane shortly after our lives return to normal.

Even holidays' (including our "Holy Days", too) effects are short-lived. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter may produce the most long-lasting thankfulness. But, once the Christmas shopping bills arrive or we've eaten enough chocolate to more than make up for our Lenten abstinence our spirits of gratitude dwindle.

In order to have a consistent attitude of gratitude, we must make every day Thanksgiving Day. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests that Christians engage in a daily Examen, the first part of which is a review of one's day, from start to finish, noticing moments of God's presence.

Another tactic is to write down (on an actual sheet of paper) the people, things, and ideas (i.e. freedom) for which you are thankful. From there, review its contents daily (or even multiple times each day). Add to the list (hopefully without subtracting anything) as you see fit. Do it for a month and your awareness of the many blessings in your life will increase.

A final way to grow in appreciation for all that we have is to use good manners. It's amazing that simply "minding our p's and q's" can lead to more satisfaction with our current state in life. Say please and thank you, good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night. Wave at people in cars who let you into traffic. Offer true and specific compliments to others, even strangers. Pray before eating. Pray before going to bed. Pray when you first get up in the morning. Hold doors. Pick up trash (even those that aren't yours). You'll come to find that the more polite you are, the more thankful you become. In turn, the more thankful you are the more for which you'll become thankful.

So, before your next moment of glory comes or before the next storm of your life hits, make a habit of spending time each day recognizing the many gifts bestowed upon you.

You might just thank me that you did.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A New Hope

There's a saying in sports that everyone is undefeated until the season starts. Teams are filled with optimism and enthusiasm about their upcoming years and just about every team has championship dreams until Opening Day, Night or Week 1. But, before a game is played, teams have hopes of grandeur; at that point, everyone's still undefeated.

This same holds true for the first day of school. Everyone has perfect attendance. Everyone has perfect behavior. No one has forgotten any homework. No one has left their math book at home. The first day of school is filled with hope. It is filled with expectation. It is filled with optimism. Pencils are freshly sharpened. Folders and notebooks are still crisp. Crayon boxes still have all colors. Teachers and students share a mutual respect. High expectations are also held in common-- teachers believe that all students will give their best efforts, and students believe the same of teachers.

Unlike the world of sports where only one team will emerge as the "champions", however, all students have the ability to achieve greatness. More than one student can win a "championship" when it comes to academic, behavioral and spiritual success. In fact, if the hope and optimism present on the first day of school can be maintained, all students can.

And therein lies the challenge: how do we sustain this momentum? How do we inspire students to continue to give their best effort despite some inevitable setbacks? With the many different challenges and obstacles present throughout the course of a year, how do we forge ahead and ensure that students are developmentally ready and prepared for the upcoming grade level? How do we do more than just teach to the middle and have only a percentage of our students experience success? How do we excel as individuals, as classes, as grade levels and as a Catholic School?

In order to achieve greatness, the Administration, Faculty, Students and Parents of Incarnation Catholic School must focus on the school's Mission Statement. We must continue to live up to and live out the goals set forth in these words:

Incarnation Catholic School continues our tradition of:

Inspiring life-long learners,
Challenging each individual to develop spiritually and
Striving to serve each other and the community

as we prepare students for the future.

We must be able to keep this larger vision clearly in sight regardless of what occurs during the daily grind. Daily recitation of our Mission Statement is a way that we can come to internalize its messages. Periodic review of our progress toward these objectives allows us to identify areas of strength, weakness and opportunities for growth. Community awareness of its words can help us to hold each other accountable to its high ideals.

We can maintain the momentum of the first day of school by focusing on our mission, our purpose, our reason for existing as a place of education. When we are mission-driven the small bumps and hiccups are just that-- small. They become surmountable. They become conquerable. They become stepping stones in our overall journey to accomplish our mission. Like the Emperor Hadrian said, Rome was not built in a day but "brick by brick, my citizens, brick by brick."

So, at the start of a new school year, let us relish in its excitement, anticipation and hope. Let us learn the words of our Mission Statement so that we have a firm understanding of where we are headed as an institution and why. Let us turn our efforts over to God, so that God can turn them into something good.

Every student can become a champion. Let us all do everything we can to make sure that at the end of this year, all of them are winners.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Discipline to Disciple

God's omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-loving nature is readily apparent in Psalm 139. God knows us intimately. He cares for us unceasingly. He is always with us, regardless of where we go. And most importantly, He loves us, despite our imperfections, despite our shortcomings, despite our sinfulness. He knows us, everything about us, and yet He still loves us more than any human being (who know considerably less about our "real" selves).

We are "fearfully and wonderfully" made (Psalm 139:14) because God made us. Therefore, we are inherently good; we are not, however, inherently perfect.

We make mistakes. Actually, we make lots of them. We make bad decisions. We choose unhealthy foods, behaviors and lifestyles. We hurt others. We're mean. We're lazy. We're rude. We lie. We cheat. We sin in all kinds of ways.

Yet, despite all of these shortcomings we are still fundamentally good, and God still loves us with the deepest, purest, most intense love possible. We're not perfect, but we are good.

This goes for our students as well-- they may not be perfect, but they are good.

As Catholic educators, this is a very important concept in our approach to our students' moral formation. First, we must always maintain, recognize, and honor our students' divine heritage. We respect them. We value their opinions. We care for their concerns. We treat them as children of God. We believe that we're not turning bad children into good ones, but rather good children into even better ones.

Second, we use discipline as a way to help our students become disciples of Christ. Instead of a focus on punishment, we shift to a focus on developing the self-discipline of our students. This must be paramount in our efforts to form our students morally. We must encourage them to be self-disciplined, give them opportunities to develop and use this self-discipline, and offer them guidance as they mature in their abilities to self-regulate their behaviors. Ultimately, we must challenge them to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. We must call them to be disciples of Jesus.

As disciples of Christ ourselves, we can help our students develop greater self-discipline by modelling that self-discipline. We must keep our tempers in check. We must be consistent in our interactions with students, parents, visitors and other teachers. We must be present to our students, actively supervising them (especially during the many unstructured moments throughout the day-- lunch, recess, passing in the hallways, etc.). We must exercise patience, addressing students' misbehavior and not the emotions conjured in either ourselves or the students. We must use gentle reminders. We must have clear and consistent expectations in our classroom management plans. We must connect, in a personal way, with each student in our classrooms and our school each and every day. In a sense, what we must be as concerned with how we teach morality as with what we're teaching about it.

We must teach with love. We must love our students unconditionally and love them enough to discipline them. In Paul's letter to the Hebrews, he writes, "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges" (Hebrews 12:5 - 6). There are times when students have not exercised self-discipline and our supervision has not deterred an inappropriate behavior (and/or our attempts at redirecting the behavior have failed). It is during these times that we correct misbehavior through age appropriate consequences and remediation. We do this to discipline our students, not to punish them. We do this to help them develop greater self-discipline. We do this to help them become disciples of Christ. We do this to help them become the people God created them to be:

Good people capable of amazingly wonderful things, but incapable of perfection.

Good yet imperfect people completely, totally, unabashedly, and perfectly loved by God.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Full, Conscious, and Active Participation

My wife and I were driving to Jacksonville this past weekend to visit my brother, sister-in-law and their two children. On our way to I-75, we hit a pretty rough patch of storms and driving became a bit treacherous. Emily was behind the wheel at that point, and she turned the radio off, asked me to be quiet, gripped the steering wheel with both hands and leaned forward in her seat. For the next twenty minutes or so, she demonstrated full, conscious, and active participation in her driving. If in a similar situation, I hope that I, and many of you, would do the same.

As Catholics, we are called to a similar level of engagement every time we take part in the Celebration of the Eucharist. The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, a body of the Second Vatican Council, advocated "full, conscious, and active participation" by the faithful "both inwardly and outwardly." This manifests itself in many and varied ways: we stand, we sit, we kneel, we process, we recite, we respond, we listen, we meditate, we sing, we offer sacrifices, we exchange signs of peace, we receive, we eat, we drink, we are transformed and sent to bring Jesus to others. And while our minds may wander and our focus shift, we are called to be truly present during the many different aspects of the Mass. God can do miraculous things with those who merely "show up", but He wants us to be on fire with love for Him. A simple example issues forth from this past Sunday's Gospel reading. Many of us could say the Lord's Prayer with little thought or concentration; our Lord wishes, however, for us to be fully aware of the words that we recite and to say them "with all of our hearts, with all of our beings, with all of our strength and with all our minds"-- instead of just with our lips (Luke 10:27). He wants us to be as engrossed in Him as we are with watching a Rays' game, listening to music, or driving through a rainstorm.

This idea of "full, conscious, and active participation" can also help us with our approach to Catholic Education.

As teachers, we are called to be truly present to our students. Classroom instruction must be more than lecturing and standing behind a podium and/or sitting behind a desk. Teachers must design dynamic lessons that activate prior knowledge, introduce new concepts, show relevancy to broader themes and ideas, and demonstrate that new knowledge was assimilated into the brain. Teachers must move around the classroom, subtly quieting a disruptive student, nonchalantly calling the distracted student back to task, and checking on student progress and work. Teachers must take supervisory duties seriously, circulating among students as opposed to conversing with colleagues. Teachers must differentiate instruction, being certain to appropriately challenge and engage students of all ability levels. A teacher's presence-- in the classroom, in the hallways, at recess, at lunch, and at dismissal-- is a teacher's present to his/her students.

Students can demonstrate full, conscious, and active participation in the classroom by coming prepared for school each and every day. From eating a hearty and healthy breakfast, to wearing the appropriate school uniform, to ensuring possession of all of the necessary supplies, a student must walk through the school's doors in a successful position to learn. Students must listen with both their ears and their eyes, giving the speaker their full and undivided attention. Students need to participate in class activities by answering questions, asking questions, working diligently on class assignments and helping others in need. Students need to focus on W.I.N.-ing every situation throughout their days. By focusing on "What's Important Now", students can recognize that appropriate behavior during lunch can be inappropriate during Mass. They can come to recognize that "there is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens" and in doing so understand how to fully, consciously and actively participate in all of the many events throughout a school day and year.

Finally, as parents, you can fully, actively, and consciously participate in the lives of your students in a multitude of ways. First, put the cell phone down during drop-off and pick-up. These are great times to not only be safe but also offer your child(ren) a goodbye, hello and/or I love you. Parents can ensure that students are prepared for the day, offering support and reminders but not enabling by rushing back to school with every forgotten lunch, project, and set of PE clothes. Oftentimes, enduring the consequence of being forgetful is a great way for students to rid themselves of this habit. Check grades on Sycamore. Assume that your child's teacher is correct and that your child is in need of formation (if they didn't need guidance, there would be no need for the educational system). Even the best, smartest, and holiest of kids make mistakes.

Parents can also become engaged in the life of the school: volunteer and fulfill your required service hours. Our operating budget depends on the good work of parent volunteers to sustain our school. Pay your tuition and other fees. Our faculty and staff depend on this financial commitment to make a living and implement our academic and extra-curricular programs. Participate in fundraising and development efforts giving your time, talents, and treasure. Tuition alone does not cover the cost of educating our children. Participate in community revealing activities: bring your students to Sunday Mass, come to Back to School Nights, join us for Mass on Wednesday mornings, reach out to new families, attend an ICS sporting event, and immerse yourself in the ICS family.

St. Irenaeus claimed, "The glory of God is the human person fully alive." I'm sure that he would agree that the glory of God is also the Catholic School who's members are fully, consciously, and actively involved.

I look forward to glorifying God with you, our teachers, and our students at Incarnation this upcoming school year and beyond.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Just Show Up

To be completely candid, I have had a hard time coming up with the material for my last two blogs. This isn't for lack of trying. I've prayed every day. I've gone to Mass and participated wholeheartedly. I've read chapters in a book on Jesuit spirituality. I've listened to Christian music. I've even meditated. I feel that all of these efforts were made in vain, though; I'm afraid my blogging well has run dry.

But, I'm blogging nonetheless, and what's more is that today's blog doesn't end here.

Sometimes you just have to push through the writer's block and start writing. At times, just opening the blog is half the battle.

The same is true for a workout regime. Undoubtedly, in the midst of a regulated exercise routine there will be days when you just won't feel like breaking a sweat. That's when just showing up, or tying the laces on your running shoes, or starting to warm-up can get you through to the end.

And so it is with many of our daily activities that wear on us, or those that take part in the grind. Whether it's paying the bills or taking out the trash or spending time with your kids or putting away the dishes, there are times when you just don't feel like doing something.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "What you are afraid to do is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do." Perhaps we could paraphrase this to say: what you don't want to do (but probably should) is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do. It's precisely when you don't want to do something (but know that you should) that you need to get up and do it; otherwise, you fill with regret. Or worse yet, you compound the amount of things you'll just have to do tomorrow. Why put off until tomorrow that which can be accomplished today?

Including prayer.

Especially prayer.

Being vigilant in our prayer lives is hard. Ashamedly and unintentionally, one of the first things that gets cut from a busy day for me is spending time with God in prayer. Other days, I just don't feel like praying. But, if I can catch myself, this is exactly when I'll turn to the Bible, spend some time in quiet meditation, or search out some sort of prayerful inspiration. It's not always the most fruitful exercise for me. At times it can offer a moment of clarity or motivation, and other times it seems as if all I did was go through the motions. But not every prayer session has to be a conversion experience. God just wants us to show up. Like a good friend, He just wants to spend time with us. If we turn to God in prayer, He's the one that can turn it into something beautiful. It doesn't require a monumental effort. It just requires us and Him.

A wise friend once told me, "Reading the psalms is like digging irrigation ditches for when the rains come." I think the same holds true for prayer. We may not always feel like praying, but consistently doing so can help us to prosper through life's storms.

Just like consistently studying can help you to do well on a pop quiz. Just like practicing the trombone every day can help you to hold on to first chair when 2nd chair challenges for your position. Just like cleaning the house (or your room) a little every day can make you feel more comfortable when an unexpected visitor drops in. Just like checking your tire pressure can help your car to endure an unseen pothole.

So, the next time you don't feel like doing something, just show up...and just do it.

You'll be glad you did.

Monday, July 12, 2010

This Little Light of Mine

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, one of my favorite summertime activities from my childhood was capturing fireflies (also known as lightning bugs). If you've never seen one, the appeal is that from about dusk until around 10:00 p.m. these bugs rise from the grass and light up for a few brief seconds at a time. Trailing them in their "dark" stages, the fireflies light up again, giving you a chance, after sprinting to the location of the last illumination, to capture them in your hands.

On more than one occasion, I would fruitlessly put my captive lightning bugs into a jar with holes drilled into the top (thanks to my Mom for the jars and thanks to my Dad for drilling the holes-- and thanks to both for humoring me). I was even thoughtful enough to put in a twig or two with some grass, thinking that making them feel more at home would help them to survive the night. But without fail, my new pets would not come out of their night in prison alive. Maybe the holes were too few. Maybe grass was not part of a healthy diet for lightning bugs. Maybe lightning bugs need more space to sleep-fly. Regardless, trying to keep their glow to myself was futile.

Luckily for the lightning bug species, it did not take me long to learn this lesson:

Lightning bugs do not belong in jars.

Lightning bugs were not created for my own enjoyment, but to light up the summer nights in the Midwestern United States (and various other locations throughout the world). Trying to contain them and keep them hidden went directly against the purpose for which they were created-- to shine for the whole world to see.

Lightning bugs everywhere, please accept my apologies, but know that your comrades did not fall in vain.

There's a greater lesson in all of this.

How often do we do the same thing to ourselves? How often do we bottle up the gifts and talents God has given us instead of sharing them with the world? Or, what about the times that we do this to others? How often do we try to categorize others upon meeting them and assume that we know everything there is to know about them?

How often do we put ourselves, or others, in jars?

In education, it is imperative that we not merely fill our students' jars with knowledge so that they can glow for a test or project, only to die out when it comes to having this knowledge endure. We must give them the tools and skills needed to light up the world around them. We must allow them the freedom to test their abilities in various situations and locations so that they can acquire the courage to learn new ways to light up.

As educators, if all we ever do is improve test scores we've only done about 1/4 of our jobs. We must teach our students how to use their new knowledge meaningfully. We must demonstrate to our students how this new knowledge relates to larger themes and ideas. We must inspire them to use this new knowledge to benefit others and the world around us.

Put simply, we must teach them how to shine.

This is how the Master Teacher taught, telling His disciples, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father" (Mt. 5: 14 - 16).

Just like lightning bugs, we do not belong in jars.

It goes against that purpose for which we were created: to shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our heavenly Father.

Everyone has a light. You, me, lightning bugs, our students-- everyone.

It's about time we let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forget It Not

On Friday of last week, I had the honor and privilege of attending the 150th Jubilee Celebration of the founding of the Nashville Order of Dominican Sisters. As a classmate of five of their ranks in the ACE Leadership Program, I travelled to Nashville for the day's Celebration of the Eucharist and Jubilee dinner. Theirs is a beautiful charism which is clearly evident in their ministries across the US (and recently Australia), and their vibrant and youthful and well populated convent.

In a time when religious vocations in the States dwindle, the Nashville Dominicans thrive:

-they presently have over 250 sisters in their Congregation (their largest population over the past 150 years)
-the Congregation has grown by 46% over the past 14 years
-the median age of the sisters is 36
-61% of the Congregation is under the age of 40
-over the past 12 years the average size of their postulant class (the term for those young ladies in their 1st year of vocational discernment) has been 12.

With such an energetic and enthusiastic group, it was truly a blessing to have been a part of this day.

As would be expected during an anniversary celebration, the day's focus was the past. But, this was not merely a trip down memory lane. From the homily to the many other addresses and speeches during the Mass and dinner reception , the message was clear: embrace and honor the past as a healthy approach to the future.

One point recurred and stood out in my mind. A"5th Century monk named Mark" was cited both times the point was made and despite this cryptic reference the message was poignant. One of the greatest hindrances to spiritual development, Brother Mark claimed, was the reality of forgetfulness. Following along this line of thinking, if forgetfulness is a hindrance, remembrance must be an aid.

What, then, are we to remember? No history is perfect, no family tree without blemish, no resume without inadequacies. Dredging through the closets of our past will undoubtedly uncover some skeletons. How can this exercise be anything but scary?

First, we must acknowledge the many gifts bestowed upon us by God. Mother Ann Marie Karlovic, O.P., the head of the Nashville order, said it this way, "Don't stumble over the graces God is giving you, be sure to get them-- all of them!" In order not to stumble, we must be more aware of the graces already bestowed.

It is this awareness that can lead to a thankful spirit. To be thankful we must first be aware of/think about that for which we are grateful. In fact, think and thank come from the same Latin root-- tongere, meaning to know. It makes sense, therefore, that these two actions are so closely linked. More awareness can lead to more thankfulness. It can help us to receive God's graces instead of stumble over them.

One way to grow in awareness is to remember those graces already bestowed. A thoughtful reflection on my past can reveal that 6 extra hours in the Atlanta airport was a great opportunity to reconnect with friends from my past over the phone. It can reveal the strength gained from enduring and persevering through the many difficult moments in my life. A heartfelt reflection can demonstrate that every step of the way God has been with us, not to make our lives/histories perfect but to comfort us in times of sadness, encourage us in times of fear, accompany us in times of loneliness and clarify instances of doubt.

A true and honest celebration of our pasts can lead to a joyous engagement with our present and a hopeful anticipation of our futures. While no past is perfect it is filled, over-abundantly, with God's goodness. Celebrating who we have been can help us to embrace who we are as well as envision who we want to become. This, as the Nashville Dominicans taught me this past week (or actually re-taught, for I have stumbled over this grace at least once before), is a pathway not only to spiritual growth but success for any group, organization, or even individual.

It's a lesson that I hope I never forget.

Monday, June 21, 2010

All Things Work for Good for Those Who Love God

WARNING: Reading this blog may waste approximately 2 minutes, 55 seconds of your life.

In fact, if you just read that sentence (and this one) you will have potentially wasted about 10 - 15 seconds.

If you're still reading, thanks. I hope that either you have an extra 3 minutes to spend in any way you choose, or that you don't find reading this blog to be a waste of your time. If it's the latter, I know that your approach to what I write will have a much greater impact on the quality of time spent in reading than any eloquence in my words or profundity in my message. It's our attitude that will determine the worth of things.

Think about it this way: if you are optimistically reading this to get a message or an idea or an insight, chances are good that you will glean something that satisfies your appetite or at least satiates your hunger. On the other hand, skeptically reading this with the attitude that I will either dazzle you with poetic diction or bore you with verbose nonsense will most likely result in you wanting for more. Beauty is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it; unfortunately, so is ugliness.

Recently, I finished reading J.D. Salinger's famous story of teenage angst, "The Catcher in the Rye". As my wife Emily can attest, I was less than impressed. On more than one occasion she advised me to either stop reading it or to stop complaining about how much I disliked it. Much to her pleasure, I chose to read the final 100 pages without updating her on Holden's exploits, or lack thereof.

Would I read the book again? No. Am I glad that I read it? Of course. Not only am I glad that I read what is considered one of the greatest American novels (and despite my displeasure I can see why it is held in such high acclaim), I am glad that I finished something that I started.

No matter our situation in life, we can choose our attitudes. More often than not, our chosen attitude will bear fruit. I would bet that if you set out tomorrow to have the worst possible day, you would succeed. You could get in the wrong lane in traffic (or worse yet, the grocery store). You could get frustrated with others at work because they are not behaving as you want them to behave. You could be upset about your weight, or your clothes, or your job, or your house, or your life. Even in writing this I can feel my blood pressure rise. In reading, I bet yours is higher, too.

Or, we can choose to have a positive attitude. We can focus on those few extra minutes in the car to gather our thoughts (or pray!) prior to getting to work. We can recognize that our relationships with others are ways to grow closer to God and accept the challenges of being more patient, forgiving, understanding and loving. We can resolve to eat a little better/exercise a bit more. We can pare down our wardrobes to only those items we actually wear. We can recognize that having gainful employment and a roof over our heads are blessings. We can live each day as if it truly were a gift from God. (Feel any calmer?)

The choice is ours.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the main difference between optimists and pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves. Optimists see the setbacks as temporary, limited in effect, and have a clear understanding of their responsibility for or control over those setbacks. Pessimists, on the other hand, consider the setback to be permanent, far reaching, and entirely their own fault. The setback for the pessimist is debilitating; for the optimist it is merely a bump in the road.

Furthermore, Dr. Seligman concludes that optimistic people are more successful than pessimists. This, in turn, leads to either greater optimism (and success) or pessimism (and failure).

Whichever path we choose, optimism or pessimism, will ultimately become our reality. Therefore, we must choose wisely. We must choose to act instead of react. We must choose to become problem-solvers instead of problem-spotters. We must choose to become up-standers instead of by-standers. We must choose to achieve excellence instead of just accepting mediocrity.

As Christians we must choose to follow Christ up that hill, carrying our own cross, believing with the same fervor of St. Paul that "all things work for good for those who love God" (Romans 8: 28).

The choice is ours.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sports & Spirituality: Updated and "Perfected"

A few weeks ago I wrote about my work on a presentation for the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Living Eucharist initiative in which I dealt with the connection between sports and spirituality.

For anyone interested, or in need of a good remedy for sleeplessness, you can listen to the audio of the presentation here: You'll be able to hear my presentation from April 30, 2010 as the slides progress along with the audio. Luckily, the presentation isn't just me lecturing; there are clips from three different movies that help to illustrate the message and to keep you engaged (*just as a disclaimer, there are two "bad" words in the clips, so be mindful of little ears).

If you're still interested but would rather not spend over an hour listening to me ramble on, you can access the slides here: click for a link to PowerPoint slides.

Or, if you just want the abridged version, check out this story of Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga: An umpire's blown call on what should have been the final out of a game last week against the Indians cost Armando a perfect game and a chance to become the 21st player in MLB history to retire all 27 batters he faced. To put the magnitude of this near-feat into perspective, more people have orbited the moon than have pitched a perfect game in Major League Baseball.

And while Armando won't be remembered in the annals of Major League Baseball as the 21st player to be "perfect", Mr. Galarraga will be remembered instead for something even more impressive and unfortunately even rarer: being a perfect gentleman.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

5 Loaves and 2 Fish Are All We Have...

As I listened today to the proclamation of the Gospel according to Luke (Lk 9:11b-17 ) in which Jesus takes 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and feeds a crowd of 5,000, I couldn't help but think about just how incredible our God truly is. Even in preparing for today's Mass by reading the Gospel ahead of time, I was struck by the same thought-- our God is truly an awesome God. Jesus teaches us through this miracle that we can bring Him the equivalent of our "5 loaves and 2 fish" and He will turn it into something greater than we ever could have even imagined. If we commit the work of our hands, however feeble, to Jesus, He will take it and turn it into something life-giving, something miraculous, something that helps Him to establish His Kingdom here on earth.

This same multiplication of "food" happens every time Mass is celebrated. For as we offer up our gifts of bread and wine, we also offer up, in the words of Teilhard, our "labors" and our "pains" and place them on the altar along with the food, so that we, too, may be transformed into Christ's Body and Blood. Then nourished by his Body and Blood, and having become what we have received, we are sent forth to be Christ to others. But, we are not sent alone...God is with us.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, in his Prayer Before Serving Others, puts it this way:

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may not be complete, but it is a beginning, a step along with the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

As we prepare for the 2010 - 2011 school year, let us dedicate all of our efforts to God. From our teachers in preparing dynamic lessons, to our students working diligently in and out of the classroom, to our parents in their support of Incarnation Catholic School, let us pray that even though "5 loaves and 2 fish" are all we have, when we turn it over to the "master builder", it will prove to be more than enough.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

ICS Mission Statement


The Book of Proverbs (29:18) states, "Without vision, the people perish." A Catholic school, like any organization, must be driven by vision. Decisions must be made in accordance with the organization's mission statement; to do otherwise ultimately leads to lack of direction, confusion, frustration, chaos and eventually the end of the organization.

As a Catholic school, our overall vision very explicitly comes from Canon Law. Catholic education deals with forming the whole person-- a person's intellectual, physical, moral and social abilities (Canon 795). Even though particular Catholic schools may use different words in their mission statements, the message must be the same. But, the message must not only appear on paper, or on walls, websites or brochures. The particular mission of a Catholic school must be tied to Canon Law and it must be the driving force behind everything done by the institution. Without an adherence to the vision of Catholic education, our schools will fail.

At Incarnation Catholic School, the mission statement clearly coincides with the Catholic Church's directive on Catholic education. The ICS Mission Statement is as follows:

Incarnation Catholic School continues our tradition of:

Inspiring life - long learners

Challenging each individual to develop spiritually

Striving to serve each other and the community as we prepare students for the future.

At ICS, our delivery of curriculum will not just be geared toward performance on a test, but instead have as its aim the development of enduring understandings. Spiritual growth will be a priority for all members of the school community-- students, teachers, administrators and even parents. Finally, it will not be enough to just become smarter and more spiritual. We must use our knowledge which is inspired by our faith to go out and make a difference in the world today, tomorrow and in the years to come. The learning at Incarnation must take on greater depth than to just do well on Friday's test. It must be used to help make the world a better place tomorrow than it is today.

All members of the ICS family must share this vision. Teachers must use it to guide their instruction of not only subject matter but subjects that matter. Students need to be inspired by it so as to bring an excitement and enthusiasm to school each and every day. Finally, parents must be willing to support both teachers and students, truly becoming partners with the school in the education of their children.

And when this happens, when all members of the organization can be motivated by a common vision, amazing gains can take place. As Edward Schillebeeckx, one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of modern times, wrote, "What we dream alone remains a dream, but what we dream with others can become a reality."

Or, "Without vision, the people perish."

With vision, however, we can move mountains. I look forward to moving some with you soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sports and Spirituality

Recently, I had the opportunity to share some of my insights on the connection between sports and spirituality at the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Living Eucharist Conference as one of its breakout presenters.

As a life-long athlete (all I wanted for my 2nd birthday was a soccer ball) and a coach at many different levels over the past 9 years, my belief in the connection between our spiritual and sporting lives has evolved into a passion.

Sports can lead us to a deeper understanding of and participation in some of the central mysteries of our Catholic faith: the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Pascal Mystery.

Because of Jesus, our pursuit of excelling in those things that make us uniquely human, make us more like Him, and in turn, more like God.

As God is three persons in one, He is by His very nature relational. Created in His image and likeness, we are also relational. Therefore, anything that brings us into relation with others brings us closer to God. Sports, by their very nature, bring us into relation with others; therefore, they also bring into deeper relationship with God.

All athletes experiene the pains of struggle, agony, error, loss, and defeat. All athletes also experience triumph, victory, and redemption. The journey of an athlete entails suffering (in practice or throughout games or over the course of a season), death (loss of a game, an injury, a mistake during a game), resurrection (winning the next game, overcoming a mistake with a great play, coming back from an injury, executing something never completed before) and ascension (learning a valuable life lesson through sports, honoring and congratulating an opponent after a great play or game, recognizing that in the end it's just a game). Of course, these are the same stages of the Pascal Mystery.

As Pope John Paul II said,
“Sport has, in itself, an important moral and educative significance: It is a training ground in virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests.”
Therefore, the time, attention and energy devoted toward developing the sports programs in our Catholic schools must be analyzed. We must come to realize that sports in Catholic schools are both "just games" and yet "so much more than just games". We must come to understand that sports have the power and potential to influence our students more powerfully than any academic or extra-curricular endeavors.

We must challenge our athletes to play to win while also playing with courageous sportsmanship.

We must encourage, train and support our coaches so that they can use sports as a way to draw student-athletes closer to God.

We must embrace the ability sports offer to transform our lives, our schools and even our world.

May God bless you on your sporting and spiritual journey so that, at the end of your "game" you may be able to echo St. Paul's words in his 2nd letter to Timothy, "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."

Good luck and God bless.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Greetings, Incarnation Catholic School and Church!

Dear Incarnation Catholic School Parents, Students and Families:

At the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus commissions His disciples saying, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19).

It is in this spirit that I have accepted the position of Principal at Incarnation Catholic School. I truly feel that God has called me to “go, therefore, and make disciples”. Or, in words from our final year of the diocesan wide Living Eucharist Initiative: I feel that I am being sent to serve as your principal. I am filled with much anticipation and excitement to begin working with you, our teachers, and your children. I have thoroughly enjoyed my few introductions to the community and I look forward to other occasions for us to meet prior to and throughout the 2010 – 2011 school year.

The Incarnation is one of the central mysteries of our Catholic faith and I find it a wonderful springboard for the work of which I hope to take part starting next year. The Incarnation, God entering our humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, completely changed the course of human history. From that moment on, all human endeavors, because of Christ’s divinity, became ways for us to grow closer to God. Much as we become more like God when we receive Him in the Body and Blood of Holy Communion, our humanity became sanctified when He took on flesh and became human. In doing so, He made our lives as humans into something meaningful, something beautiful—something that can ultimately lead us to Him. Therefore, all of our endeavors at ICS, including all of the many curricular, extra-curricular and spiritual aspects of our school, are ways for us to participate in the Incarnation. Emmanuel, the name given to the Messiah by the prophet Isaiah, literally means “God is with us”. I hope and pray that Incarnation Catholic School can be a place where all people: students, teachers, parents, and even visitors can declare that God is, in fact, with us.

In closing, I thank Fr. Michael Suszynski for affording me this opportunity to work as your Principal. I also thank Mrs. Carolyn Goslee for her many years of faithful service at Incarnation, and the wonderful faculty and staff for their openness to the transition ahead. Finally, I ask all of you to pray for all members of the Incarnation Catholic School family. May God continue to bless us, lead us, and guide us as we finish this school year and look forward to the next.

In Christ,

Michael Zelenka