Thursday, February 28, 2013

Just Say No

Pope Benedict XVI is in my prayers today. He'll be in my prayers for quite some time as my heart goes out to him, not in a way that I pity him or feel bad for him, but because I am so impressed by the courage of his recently unprecedented decision to retire from being the Pope.

One of the hardest things to do is say no. Most of us are overcommitted and we rush from one thing to another, taking on one task and responsibility after another. I am definitely guilty of saying yes to too many duties. In many ways, even though I think I do a pretty good job at compartmentalizing, I work too much, too long and too hard. "Too little butter on too much bread," as Bilbo Baggins would say.

So, I am impressed by people who set clear boundaries regarding their commitments and keep to them. I have great admiration, especially for those in positions of authority and/or who have a solid work ethic, who refuse opportunities. I respect those who set and see realistic expectations as to what they can accomplish effectively.

It's been hundreds of years since a Pope retired. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had the conviction to make the decision to retire, though, despite not having anyone in recent history to imitate or use as a model.

He needed humility. It's tough for us to resist power, authority, fame, influence, recognition.

He needed faith. Faith that he is continuing to follow what he believes to be God's will for his life.

It's a lesson that I hope to take to heart. I know my wife, children and even my school would benefit from me being a part of one less committee, program, or group. Stripping things down to what's most important and doing those things well would be quite refreshing. Mirroring the shift coming with the Common Core State Standards, I would be doing less things but doing those that I deem worthy of my time with greater depth, involvement and intentionality.

It's a lesson I hope families and students can learn, too. It is amazing how many activities students participate in after school on a weekly basis. From baseball, to dance, to tutoring, to karate, to piano our students are overextended. Family meals, weekly attendance at mass, spending time at home together talking, reading or getting to bed on time often take a back seat to being uber involved in as many things as possible.

Stay in your lane.

Know your role.

Just say no.

Let us use Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a model and let us pare down our lives to be able to spend more of them in prayer, reading, writing, reflection and spiritual growth.

Let us take advantage of this momentous occasion in our Church to teach kids to have the courage, conviction, faith and humility to just say no.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Family First

As Catholics, Canon Law states that parents are the primary educators of their children (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223). As Catholic educators within Catholic schools, it is incumbent upon that we partner with parents and families to ensure that the parents' place is maintained and supported in the education of their child(ren) in and through the Catholic faith.

Catholic schools could do more to help engage parents and families. Not only does it uphold Church teaching, but it is also sound educational philosophy. Recently, an article by Bruce Feiler was published in Parade Magazine that dealt with various aspects of the role that parents and families play in the formation of their children.

Most of it makes sense. Children's resilience is strengthened by having an understanding of their family's history. To encourage conversation and draw your family closer together, arrange the seats in your living room in a circle instead of all facing the TV. Siblings between the ages of 3 and 7 fight three to four times each hour! Girls delay the onset of sexual activity if they have had a close relationship with their fathers. Dads can also inspire greater confidence and better social skills in both sons and daughters with whom they have a strong relationship.

Other pieces of the excerpt of Fieler's book, "The Secrets of Happy Families" are much more eye opening and somewhat counter-intuitive: have a vote before discussing an issue in order to make the best decision possible; celebrating the success of a spouse is more valuable for the relationship than supporting him/her during a difficult time; kids should have a role in picking their own punishments (something we do at ICS - see "Discipline to Disciple"); its more beneficial for a child to be given freedom with his/her allowance than to be forced to save, spend and/or offer up in service.

One excerpt is astonishing: children will need to learn 3,000 new words each year from 3rd to 12th grades! This makes our work in transition to the Common Core State Standards and its emphasis on reading and Language Arts.

As parents, we are not only the primary educators, we are also the most important. So, spend time with your kids and family and stay up until 1:23 a.m. to do silly things like write blogs instead of doing it while they are awake.

May God strengthen families and may the model of the Holy Family, which graciously accepted the gift of the Incarnation, inspire greater devotion, dedication and love to each other and to God.

And may God grant me patience tomorrow when I'm sleep deprived because I put, and always will, my family first.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Got Inspiration?

At a recent diocesan event, Fr. Kenneth Malley, Pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Lutz, FL asked me how I stay full. How did I find inspiration in order to be full enough to minister to others. I wish I had been wise enough to turn the table on him, but instead I fumbled through a few clich├ęd answers. In reflecting on his question for the past few weeks, here is a more comprehensive answer:
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. -Hebrews 12:12
I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot! -Jeremiah 20:9
For God did not give you a spirit of fear but one of power, love and self-control. -2 Timothy 1:7
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. -Luke 12:48
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! -Luke 12:49
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 while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. -Hebrews 12:1-2
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. -Matthew 5:14
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those engaged in selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. -Matthew 21:12
Therefore, my brothers, let us set an example for our kindred. Their lives depend on us, and the defense of the sanctuary, the temple, and the altar rests with us. -Judith 8:24
Here are two:
"I couldn't look up, but God looked down."

"I won't waste any more time. My life's Yours, it is not mine. Use me, Lord, no matter what's at stake."
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
-Blessed Mother Teresa
Frodo: I can't do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Two Towers
So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees...

...and let us continue. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lore of the Ring

Part 2 of "Conviction"

In limiting the possible places that my lost wedding ring could have been, I had narrowed the area of the park down to three spots:

1. The sandbox(!)
2. The bottom of the slide (I take turns)
3. Underneath the monkey bars

A few other locations crossed my mind - under the swing set where I do pull-ups, under the monkey bars where I also do pull-ups or anywhere within the playground equipment area - but I had done enough tests upon my return home that night that I had figured that my leg had to have reached a certain height / angle in order for the ring to have fallen out of my pocket. My legs really never attained this angle in these locales; therefore, my ring had to have been in one of the big three.

As already mentioned, I awoke early the next morning to scour some of these spots with the aid of a shovel and laundry basket. I would shovel a bit of the sand or playground mulch into a laundry basket in order to spread out the bits and pieces of the load to more easily look for my treasure. Then, assuming that the contents of my shovel were treasureless, I would move that load of earth to another spot and continue my search.

So, if you can imagine the scene, it is barely daybreak and I'm at a playground with a shovel and laundry basket. I'm amazed that the running man actually stayed to help me search with these utensils in my hand and at my feet. But he did and he not only helped me look, he prayed with me.

"You're going to find it," he said as he ran back into the ether.

And, like I said in an earlier blog, I did. But, it wasn't just because this stranger and I prayed about it. It wasn't just because I prayed about it multiple times that morning and early afternoon.

It was because of a metal detector...and the prayers.

Tampa has only one place to rent a metal detector. I called right at 10:30 when it opened. I asked if they had any machines available for rent and if so, if they would be open in about an hour. The owner of the shop explained that he would be at the store until about 12:00 p.m. before going out of town for a few days. I pleaded my case, "I'll have it back by the end of the day!" "How much would it cost to keep it for that long?" "Is there any way that I could pick it up before you leave and put it in some sort of after hours drop-box?" Luckily, the store owner confided that if I could get it before 12:00 that he could meet me back at the store by 3:00 before he headed out to the airport.

"I'll have it back at 3:00!"

After a trip to the local metal detector store and a quick tutorial on how to use it, I was off to the playground. I brought the shovel and basket again to scare off any would be treasure hunters in search of my ring and/or use it to dig and unearth my find.

I wanted to rule out the other two areas prior to diving into the sandbox so I went to work on the bottom of the slide. Getting too close to the equipment caused the detector to chime, but it didn't take me long to figure out where these nuts and bolts were located and that the noises were not betraying the location of my precious.

Next, I went to work on the area under the monkey bars. It was void of any fasteners so it was a pretty easy and unproductive sweep.

My heart sank at the thought of the sandbox. "Save it for last," I game planned. Instead of entering the desert, I headed to the other parts of the playground area that I knew Elizabeth and I had covered the night prior. A nickel and loose screw was all that I could find under and in between the various steps, ledges and rails.

I looked to see if there was anywhere else that I could scour before tackling the sandbox. We didn't chase in the field. We didn't run to the top of the hill. We only stayed on one side of the playground. There had to be somewhere else to check before the sandbox.

Under the swing set. I highly doubted it was there - I didn't swing the night before - but it was a diversion and another place to exhaust before the box.

I grabbed my detector and gave it a quick scan. Immediately I got a beep different than any before. I swung back over the spot that created the noise. I made it again!

I looked around for my shovel and basket, but noticed out of the corner of my eye I noticed my ring. It was half-submerged, half-emerged from the ground. It had been in plain sight the entire time but it took me spending hours of my time and lots of my money to search and secure a metal detector for me to find it.

The same is true of our faith. I could have believed that my ring would be found (and I did) but I would not have found it without actually looking. Our faith is dead without works. My ring was lost without the metal detector. Faith is important and was a necessary component to give me the hope, calm and confidence that my ring would be found. But, I also needed to work to find it.

Our God doesn't just want us to pray. He wants us to take action as well.

Faith and works.

Faith in our works.

Faith that it works.

Faith that He works.

Always and all ways. Forever. Amen.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Know Your Why

I came across this phrase earlier today while looking around a sporting goods store. Plastered across a t-shirt, it caught my eye. Not only am I a fan of t-shirts, but the phrase peeked my interest. Know your why. Upon returning home a quick Google search revealed that those words were made famous in the sporting world earlier this year when Robert Griffin, III used it as a motivational slogan in his Washington Redskins' locker room. A more extensive look at the phrase betrayed that the concept behind the phrase has roots in books, speeches and various other forums.

The premise is the same: know why you do anything, everything, nothing. Why do you read this blog? Why do you send your child(ren) to a Catholic School? Why are you the principal of a Catholic School? Why do you listen to certain music? Why do you workout? Why do you believe in God? Why do you do the things you do, say the things you say, invest time in the things that take your time? 


In schools, as I've mentioned recently, we get so caught up in the latest program or teaching strategy or textbook series or holding on to certain curricular content or pleasing parents or having power that we sometimes forget why we do what we do? As Commissioner Bennett said, if we can strip away everything else and get to the heart of ensuring that all children learn at the highest possible level, our approach may be much more effective. If we can see the purpose behind putting objectives on the board or designing formative assessments that link back to those assessments or in how we scaffold from lower to higher order skills we may be much more successful in our pursuit of educating kids. Being intentional with content, approach, assessment, time management, classroom management is one of the most basic ways to find success in a classroom. 

It seems to be a good approach to our faith lives as well. Know your why. Use this period of Lent to return to the reasons that you believe in Jesus. Use this period to strip away all everything else and get to the heart of being the best possible Christian you can be. Be intentional in your beliefs. Have a purpose to your actions, words, and time. Realize that everything you do is an opportunity to show reverence to God and allow that to shape you. Allow it to change you. 

Know your why and start becoming the person you were created to be. 

Know your Why and realize that your why is to love Him.

Know your why. Love Him. 





Know your why. Come alive. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013


In late 2012 I lost my wedding ring. I use our jogging stroller to run with Elizabeth about 2.5 miles to a local playground. We play, I do pull-ups on the swing set, and then when we're done, I run us back home. It is the perfect way to get my workout in, spend time with Elizabeth while also allowing her to get some exercise and play outside.

This particular day, upon arriving at the park I decided not to tie my ring through the drawstring of my shorts or through one of my shoelaces. Instead, I put it in my pocket. It was about 15 minutes into our standard 30 that we usually spend at the park when I realized it was gone. I put Elizabeth on a swing and started looking. Unfortunately, dusk had already arrived and so with each passing moment my daylight dwindled. With each passing moment my anxiety increased.

Elizabeth and I spent about 20 more minutes in search of the sign of my love and fidelity. Then, I called Emily. It was perhaps one of the most humbling conversations of my life. She met us there and helped us look. We stayed as a search party of 4 for about 20 more minutes. The dark of night discouraged and discontinued our reconnaissance mission. Emily drove home; Elizabeth and I ran back without my ring.

I spent the rest of the night strategizing my next move. Tampa has one metal detector company. It didn't open until 10:30. Kids could go to the park before 10:30. Maintenance to the playground could be scheduled for the very next day. A squirrel could carry it off to his nest. The more that I thought about it, the more helpless and hopeless I became. I checked for sunrise the next morning and set my alarm for 45 minutes prior. I took a shovel and a laundry basket and headed back before sunrise to maximize the time I would have before the park's first visitors.

I had been there about 75 minutes when the first visitor ran up to the monkey bars. We exchanged greetings and he started to do pull-ups. The man was on his morning jog and seemed to see the same purpose in the playground that I did. Recognizing that my behaviors were a bit odd, I immediately followed up my morning greeting with an explanation of what I was doing. The man proceeded to ask me questions about where it could potentially be located and abandoned his workout to help me comb the area. After about 30 minutes I knew that my efforts without a higher power were in vain. I thanked the gentlemen for staying for so long to help me and told him about my next step.

Prior to departing, he asked me if it would be okay if he prayed for me because whenever he loses something he prays about it and then he finds it. At first I thought his question meant that he would offer up my sad situation later in his day. His next question didn't change the course I had assumed we were following: what's your name.

I was so shocked, though, that he proceeded to pray with me, in the middle of the playground, using my name, Michael, and reassuring me that my ring would be found.

He finished his prayer and the last words he said to me were, "You're going to find it."

I never got his name. I've never seen him at the park since. The memory of this encounter, however, has stayed with me in an extremely poignant way. I get paid to be faithful and faith filled. My job is ultimately one of ministry. I am supposed to profess my faith every day since I am the principal of a Catholic grade school. Yet, before that time I realized that I lacked the conviction to wear my faith on my sleeve regardless of what kind of sleeve that happens to be. I realized that I would not have had the courage to do what this complete stranger did for me that morning. I realized that I need to be as convicted of my faith as this stranger. I realized how much I still have to learn, grow, and become.

I was scared. I was tired. I felt hopeless and helpless. This man offered me his time. He met me where I was that morning in both a physical and spiritual way. Most importantly and powerfully, he comforted my heart through his actions, words and prayer.

And, as the man told me I would, I found my ring.

But that is another whole story.

Friday, February 22, 2013


This past Wednesday I had the honor to be a part of a group of educators and leaders who travelled to our state capital to meet with the new Commissioner of Education, Mr. Tony Bennett. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss school choice, the Common Core State Standards, and standardized testing as it pertains to private schools within our state. Florida is already one of the most innovative states in our country as it pertains to both school choice and vouchers / tax credit scholarships. Mr. Bennett had former served as Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction until being replaced during this past election. Indiana, in part because of the work that Mr. Bennett was able to accomplish in his tenure there, is also one of twelve states to offer school vouchers.

Me outside of the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee, FL.

Commissioner Bennett did not dance around the topics of school choice or of his offices' support of private education. He stated, "We serve you (private schools), just like we serve 2.7 million public school students." He also declared that one of his goals is to give children the "maximum amount of choices possible." 

As the principal of a Catholic school, just these two statements brought me great excitement and anticipation. He will serve my school in the same way that he serves those within a two mile radius that are public places of education. Furthermore, he supports the right of parents to choose the best educational opportunity for their child(ren). While this will not necessarily mean the cost of education following the student instead of going to a specific school / district, I do believe it means that Commissioner Bennett will fight for more and more state and private dollars to be made available for more and more students to attend the schools of their choice. 

But, this was not what impressed me most about this visit. In the world of education, we can get so wrapped up in so many extraneous things - assemblies, procedures, textbooks, management systems, instructional practices, curricular topics - that we sometimes get distracted from our real purpose. We can become overwhelmed with having too much to do and not enough time or support or energy to do it. In doing so, we can overlook what is truly important in schools: that students are performing at the highest level possible. Commissioner Bennett, who I'm sure has so many "distractions" and "responsibilities", mentioned multiple times how his main goal was doing what was best for children. 

"I do not promote more bad schools."

"I'm not for more or less accountability (for private schools who receive state money). I'm for the right accountability."

"Strip out the stuff that isn't important to get to how kids learn."

"Your job is educating kids. Our job (the Department of Education) is staying out of the way."

Commissioner Bennett seems to have a realistic approach to improving education for all students. He seems to understand that we do not need more regulations and paperwork and things to keep us from focusing on students. At the same time, though, he will demand accountability of all schools to ensure that all students in the state of Florida learn at the highest level possible. 

To me, it seems that Commissioner Bennett has a clear understanding that in addition to offering our students an outstanding education, we in private (and specifically private Catholic) schools also offer our students and families capital - an asset or advantage. 

We offer a top notch education that is coupled with faith development and an emphasis on service. We love, nurture and support our students and value the role that parents and families play in the education of their child(ren). We can educate the whole child: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. 

May the newest addition to our state capital offer more capital to all students here in the state of Florida. May God bless you and your work in the Sunshine State, Commissioner Bennett. 

Let him begin.  


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Time to Make the Donuts

In the early 1980's there was a commercial from a well known doughnut company in which the main character was seen waking up in the dark and uttering the words, "Time to make the donuts" even before getting out of bed. This almost robotic pursuit of doughnut making became the company's catch phrase and a series of commercials were released featuring this man who was so dedicated and passionate about making doughnuts.

In conjuring memories of that series of commercials, I have grown in appreciation for the work ethic, drive, and determination of the doughnut baker featured in these spots. Despite the weariness associated with putting out such a consistent and excellent product, the man uses a quiet yet intense strength to continue with his passion. Day and night he immerses himself in the creation of doughnuts. Even though he must be exhausted, he gets out of bed, everyday, and utters the same words, "Time to make the donuts." In an odd way, I find this phrase and this approach incredibly inspiring.

This commercial has been valuable to me because of the motivation I draw from it. However, I had no idea that the commercial and the phrase would take on new meaning this evening.

This evening, my Mom, Linda, gifted our family with a present that she and my Dad purchased before his passing. My Dad loved food. He loved eating food. He loved making food. He loved sharing food. Trying new food. Watching cooking shows on television. If it involved cooking or food, it was for him. He also loved certain foods that I'm sure had some sort of emotional connection for him. He loved the ethnic Easter food that we would get blessed on Holy Saturday - kielbasa, nut roll and poppy seed roll, egg cheese. He loved the Slovak viliya dinner that we would eat every Christmas Eve - pierogies, barley, mushroom soup, potato bread. I assume he valued these foods and meals because of the connection to not only his faith but also, potentially, to the good memories he had of eating them. Family. Friends. Holidays. Gifts. Parties.

Another food that my Dad loved was pumpkin doughnuts. In the fall, he and my Uncle Dave would talk about how their mother would make pumpkin doughnuts and how they absolutely loved them. They reminisced about eating them with over-easy eggs, so that the doughnut could be used to sop up the runny yoke. And, on a handful of autumn weekends throughout my life, either one of them would actually make these doughnuts. This past fall, in having a taste for these treats, my Dad stumbled upon a doughnut maker that would bake instead of fry these cakes. Trying to eat more healthily yet still craving these pumpkin doughnuts, my parents bought the machine and my Dad raved. Immediately, my Mom retells the story, she and Dad went to the store to buy three more for me, my brother and my sister.

It was perhaps one of the most meaningful, beautiful and valuable gifts I have ever received and I took such great joy in making a batch right away. I'm not a fan of doughnuts, and even with them being baked I would have been a reluctant participant if there wasn't an emotional connection to this doughnut maker. I love that it came from my Dad and using it will forever be a way that I can feel close to him.

It's funny what we find valuable. I have no idea how much one of these doughnut maker machines costs and I don't care. To me, it is the most expensive piece of culinary equipment I own. Likewise, I will eat doughnuts (homemade from this machine, of course) because of the connection I will feel to my Dad when I do. When I get bogged down and think of the phrase and the dedicated man behind, "It's time to make the donuts," I won't just think of the commercial and the quiet strength of the doughnut maker. I will think of my Dad.

I'll remember how he loved me with a consistent, passionate and dedicated love. I'll remember how he selflessly did so much for me throughout the course of my life. I'll remember how much he loved doughnuts, especially pumpkin ones, because of how much he loved his mom and family.

I'll remember that a price tag doesn't make something valuable. People make things valuable. Memories make things valuable. Relationships make things valuable. God makes us valuable.

It's time to begin.

It's time to make some doughnuts.          

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DWD - Part 2

One of the things that Tony Dungy talks about in "The Mentor Leader" is how when he first came to the Buccaneers, his most immediate and important goal was to get the organization to embrace a culture of winning. He did this through encouragement and emphasizing the positive. My fourth goal for the 2012 - 13 school year is to ENCOURAGE.

I have tried throughout the course of the year to encourage our teachers. I have tried to be more conscious and aware of showing my appreciation for all that they do. I have tried to emphasize, highlight and celebrate the heroic efforts of our teachers. I've encouraged teachers to offer a note of praise after completing FOCUS group walk and talk thrus (FOCUS group walk and talk thrus are when I travel with a group of 3 - 4 teachers and conduct short, pop-in observations and then conduct dialogue with the group about what was just observed in the classroom). I've acknowledged noteworthy efforts by our teachers in my weekly bulletin to faculty and staff. I've tried to continue to recognize students for living out our schools mission statement during monthly morning assemblies. This year, I've even started to invite parents to come and witness the presentation of this Incarnation Inspiration award at our assemblies. I have tried to remain positive and promote that positive energy to the various groups within our school community.

I'm going to continue to try my best with encouraging people!

My fifth goal for the 2012 - 13 school year is to EMPOWER. I have asked students to help with the planning and execution of prayer services (Advent and Grandparents Day). I've had students being the DJ's at two of our school events this year (Family Fun Run and Spring Picnic). I've asked teachers to work in professional learning communities to assist in our efforts to incorporate Understanding by Design into our planning, instruction and assessment. I have attempted to have teachers maintain power and control of their classrooms and/or students by helping to guide them through various issues and problems, as appropriate, instead of solving it for them. I have given our still relatively new Dads Club a bit more autonomy this year. Our School Advisory Board is working toward an alumni event at the end of the school year. People, as a general rule, are reluctant to take on leadership positions. I have tried, though, to offer smaller tasks and more confined time frames to help people feel more empowered.

The sixth goal that I am trying to accomplish this school year is to ENERGIZE. I'd like to think of myself as an energetic and enthusiastic person. I hope that even doing something as silly as trying to compose 40 blogs throughout Lent is somehow energizing. If nothing else, maybe some of the songs that I post are uplifting.

(Cue upbeat jam):

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have hoped to ELEVATE all that we do at ICS to a level worthy of being a Catholic School. I have tried to stay focused on Christ, realizing that He is the Reason for our school. It is my goal to ensure that always use our mission to inspire life-long learners, challenge individuals to be disciples of Christ and strive to serve others as the lens through which we make decisions, interact, speak, behave and even exist.

If we can't make incarnate His teachings, actions and life then our work is nothing more than toil and our goals are nothing more than earthly.

And all of the other goals I hope to accomplish this year are for nothing, if I don't have love and I don't make real Christ's love to my teachers, my students, their parents and families and our Incarnation community.

It's time to being.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dreams with Deadlines

Goals are dreams with deadlines.

Similarly, I have heard that the likelihood that you will accomplish a goal increases if you not only write down the goal, but also if you mark out the steps you will follow to attain it. Furthermore, telling someone else about your goals, especially someone you trust, can help hold you accountable, especially when you would rather ease up and give up in pursuit of your goal.

In addition to the strategies mentioned in yesterday's post, I also formed a list of goals for myself throughout the 2012 - 13 school year. They are not as specific or measurable as I would like for them to be. Furthermore, I have not been very successful in remaining faithful to any of them. I wrote them down over the summer, and I offered up some specific steps for each one. The final piece, making them public, happens now.

This past spring and summer I read Tony Dungy's book, "The Mentor Leader". Having read both "Quiet Strength" and "Uncommon" I was excited to read more from one of my models in education. I'm not one to get wrapped up in celebrity sightings. Seeing Tony Dungy at a local breakfast place, though, made me giddy. Emily had to practically hold me back to keep me from ruining the man's breakfast. Even now, I've digressed too far from the point: Tony's newest book outlines 7 things that a mentor leader should do. I adopted them this year as things that I would aspire to incorporate into my tenure.

Today, I share numbers 1, 2 and 3 (I am trying to compose 40 blogs, after all!).

1. Engage. One of the things that I've tried to do this year is be more visible to the school community. I have tried to spend more time engaging our parents, our students, and our teachers. I have sponsored monthly coffees with the principal as a way to engage parents. For the first part of the school year I worked lunch and recess duties. I continue to volunteer my time as a sub and enjoy visiting our pre-morning gathering as well as our carlines. I have tried to spend more time in classrooms and less time in my office.

2. Educate. Part of being the chief educational officer of a school means that I am charged with teaching teachers about new teaching techniques, programs and/or initiatives. Since arriving at ICS two and a half years ago, I have challenged teachers to utilize Bloom's taxonomy; I've asked teachers to be purposeful with student-centered, specific and measurable objectives for each class period; I introduced Understanding by Design, which has now become a diocesan effort as well as a way that we will prepare for the Common Core. This year, ICS faculty has spent much time on assessments and rubrics. They have done a great job with all of these various projects and ICS teachers continue to impress me with their commitment to the school and its students.

3. Equip. Unfortunately, equipping people costs money and money is something that many schools do not have in abundant supply. I have tried to ensure that teachers and students have the necessary tools to do the tasks required of them. I hope to be able to continue to provide my team with more and more equipment to more successfully compete in the game of academics. I've tried to loosen the belt strap of our budget this year while still being a good steward of the school's and church's resources. It is a delicate balance.

Even as I make public only the first three goals that I had for this school year, I feel my stomach fill with humble pie. I have so much good work to do to accomplish my goals. I have fallen so short in so many ways. My deadline is quickly approaching - the third quarter is already half over.

To paraphrase Mother Theresa, yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come (but will soon!). Today is as good a day as any to recommit to making these dreams a reality.

Let me begin.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Gateway to Knowledge

As a former yet still 6-12 certified English teacher I am quite fascinated by the language development of my children. At this point, I am amazed at the number of words Elizabeth knows - mustache, snow flake, chap stick, and speed boat are a few that I know I never incorporated into her daily vocabulary lessons. I thoroughly enjoy grammar; therefore, I have thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth's progress with standard English grammar. It is adorable that she refers to herself as "you". It also makes complete sense. Just as we call her Elizabeth, we also use the pronoun you when speaking with her. Similar to her vocabulary progression, most of her development with grammar has been the result of her own independent study. Her pronoun confusion is diminishing. The fact that I still find adorable her attempts to use pronouns correctly is not.

Back track to 3 month old Catherine, and my fascination with language development soars. Some of her happiest times are when she has the undivided attention of a face who mimics, answers and responds to her coos, goos, gahs, and bubs. I know that she's still trying to gain greater control of her CNS, so I'm sure that some of her noises are uncontrollable. Others, though, reflect her foray into language and I know that my incoherent face time with her is paving the way for her acquisition and understanding of words.

Entering elementary (PreK to Grade 8) education after beginning my career in high school opened my eyes and gave me an appreciation for the importance and difficulty of teaching students how to read. Having children of my own has furthered this awakening to include the importance and difficulty of developing emergent literacy skills in younger-than-school-aged children.

As our Diocese has prepared for the upcoming shift to the Common Core State Standards, the role that reading plays in these new benchmarks is readily apparent. Reading is to span across all subjects. Furthermore, the CCSS focuses on reading non-fiction texts instead of fiction. In the CCSS, students must develop decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills sooner and with much more depth than before. All teachers, regardless of grade level, content area or comfort level, will have a hand in helping students gain familiarity with and skill at comprehending non-fictional texts. All subjects in all grade levels should be text dependent and driven.

Most students enter school and then learn how to read. The first few years, especially Kindergarten, are geared toward teaching students how to read. Around 4th grade, the emphasis shifts to using reading as a way to learn. By Middle School, students use reading as the primary mechanism by which they continue to learn.

Reading is the gateway to knowledge. Regardless of future advances along the information super highway - eReaders, tablets, apps, touch screen, Siri - being able to read will be your ticket to ride. Without it you are stuck. With it you have knowledge, power and freedom to go wherever your mind and the words you know can take you.

The more you read, the more you'll know and the more places you'll be able to go.

Oh, the places you'll go...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dumbo's Feather

As a way to help ensure this school year at ICS was different than the previous two, I spent a lot of time over the summer reconnecting with and tapping into things that I find inspirational (see any of my posts from the Summer of 2012). At the same time, I sought out parts of my prayer life that have been meaningful to me, but that had, unfortunately, been replaced, ignored, or forgotten over the years. Just like an athlete preparing to be his / her best, I sought after some sort of edge that would give me, even if just from a psychological standpoint, the grit, enthusiasm, optimism and faith to ensure a successful year.

In some ways, these things are no more than Dumbo's feathers. The grace of God is no less with me without these things than It is with them.

This year, more than any other, I have gone through cycles of facial hair. While not tapping into the trend that is the purposefully unshaven look (I do not have style and do not care enough to be trendy), I have used facial hair in my adult life to help me through things like finals in college and other times of trial and intense effort. In the same spirit as athletes growing a playoff beard, I have used facial hair as a way to make periods of time seem separate, special or different from times of being clean shaven. Facial hair denotes toughness. It harkens to figures like John the Baptist or Ignatius of Loyola and speaks of times like Advent and Lent. This year, without intending for this to be one of the purposes, my beards have helped me to feel closer to my dad, who had a beard for about 99% of the almost 34 years that I knew him. Even in grieving his passing, it has given me an edge.

Another, less emotional way that I have sought after an edge this year is by wearing something on my right wrist / arm. As an athlete, I would typically wear a sweat band on my arm for games and competitions. As I haven't played organized competitive sports consistently since college, my workouts can get stale and I've gone through times of being uninspired to exercise. In those times, I've turned to wristbands to help make the workout seem as if I'm preparing for something or to simulate game day itself. Even though it does not help me to jump higher, lift more weight or run faster or farther, it has given me the mental push needed to push physically. This year, I have tried to carry this concept over to my work, as well. Underneath my work shirts, I started the year by concealing sweatbands. Now, I have transitioned into wearing a rubber bracelet with the words "Catholic Education Providing Hope" on it. These small right arm accessories have helped to supply hope to me. In turn, I hope that it has helped me to bring hope to others.

Finally, and perhaps most effectively and/or importantly, I have recommitted myself to prayer. I begin each day, before getting out of bed, with the Prayer of Release:
Dear Lord, please give me a faith that expects greater things. Whatever I do, let me give it my best. Anxious in nothing, at peace with the promise that when I've done that I can that You'll take care of the rest. Amen.
Furthermore, in my back pocket I carry a prayer card with the poem Desiderata on it. It has always been one of my favorite poems and I use its message as a prayer. It has reminded me that my focus must be on God and that I must take time to feed myself spiritually if I hope to have anything worthwhile to feed to others. I have prayed more this year than I have in quite some time, which is probably the reason that anything else I've tried has seemed to be successful.

The thing about feathers isn't that they actually make you fly. It's that you actually believe they do.

And I believe (and) that is why I have found the edge.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

In the Name of the Father

Catherine will get baptized tomorrow morning. I am so happy for her and so excited to officially welcome her into the Christian family. I am proud to bring her into the Catholic Church and am honored that God has gifted me with a faith that has inspired me to desire baptism for my daughters. I cherish my family - its traditions, history, members, flaws, shortcomings, love, humor, joy - both in a human and faith based sense.

I love being a Zelenka. I love being a Catholic. I love being a part of these families and all of their respective traditions, history, members, flaws, shortcomings, love, humor, joy.

My last name means "little green" in Slovak. Some of my grandfather's siblings, in immigrating from Slovakia, decided to spell their name "Za" instead of "Ze". As a certified Language Arts instructor, I embrace being unphonetic; English is such a beautifully complicated language. I revel in the fact that instead of potentially being called Junior, my dad decided to name me Michael Robert instead of after him as Robert Michael. It means so much to me to bear his name yet still have one of my own. My sister was named after my grandmothers, my brother after my grandfathers. I am humbled that my wife and my two daughters share my last name. I love that, for now, it is our last name. I love being a Zelenka.

Similarly, I love that my parents not only instilled in me a sense of family but also a sense of the importance of my faith. As I strive to more dutifully live out the tenants of the faith in which I profess every weekend to believe, I take very seriously my various roles within the Catholic Church. As a Catholic man, I hope to imitate the manhood of Christ - meek yet strong, firm yet understanding, patient yet passionate, selfless to the point of death.

As a Catholic husband, I so desperately desire a strong marriage. I am incredibly blessed to have married my best friend. I thank God every day for the gift of Emily and every day I hope that I adequately convey how grateful I am for her love, support, humor, and companionship. I love her so much.

As a Catholic father, I want my children to recognize the gift of faith. I want to present to them, as my parents did for me, the importance of a life of faith and then I want to get out of the way. I pray that I will be wise enough to know how and when to allow God to use me as His instrument and when to let Him speak directly to their hearts. I pray that I am worthy to be called the name we also use to address Jesus - father. It means so much to me to bear His name albeit in such a drastically inferior sense.

Lastly, I feel that my role as a Catholic educator allows me to combine both what I do and who I am. I would hope that even in the secular world I would still have the conviction to live out my faith. I fully appreciate, though, that my opportunities to do so would be so different in number, degree and kind. I hope and pray that I am further establishing God's kingdom here on earth. I hope and pray that the school I lead is above all else truly Catholic.

I love being a Zelenka. I love being a Catholic. I love that tomorrow I will welcome a member of my family into my family. I will welcome my daughter, who bears the last name of my father, into the Catholic Church in the name of our Father.

May God bless you, Catherine Rose, and welcome, once again, to the family.      

Friday, February 15, 2013


"Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry."

-Luke 4:1-2
I love the simplicity in the last line of this passage. Jesus did not eat for 40 days and afterwards he was hungry. I also love what seems like a contradiction that occurs at the conclusion of Jesus's time in the desert: Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region (4:14). Jesus spends 40 days in the desert. He does not eat a thing. He is tempted by the devil and He emerges from that experience in the "power of the Spirit."
If we are made full in our hunger, than put a fork in me.
I was hungry after what amounted to a 9 and 1/2 hour fast on Ash Wednesday. At about 9:30 a.m., as we finished the Eucharistic Celebration, my stomach growled. I was hungry. I'm not sure it was because of a lack of sustenance in my belly. Instead, I feel that the psychosomatics of knowing that I wasn't going to be able to eat in between meals played a trick on my body. All day long I felt hungry. Even throughout the course of Thursday and Friday, I have felt hungry.
Jesus made it 40 days. In the desert. With the devil tempting Him.
I had a hard time making it through day one.
Furthermore, I set out before the beginning of Lent to try to compose 40 blogs throughout these 40 days. I didn't even make it to day two with this one. I went to bed last night tired, empty and worn.
And hungry.
This hunger, though, is precisely what God wants us to feel. He wants our physical, temporal and earthly hungers to lead us to Him. He wants us to hand Him our yoke and burden for with Him it will be easy and light. He wants us to come to Him when we are worn. He wants to make us anew.
The Psalmist (51:12) writes, "A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit."
May this be our prayer of Lent. May our hunger remind us that we do not live on bread alone. May our tiredness amplify our desire to rest in His peace. May our emptiness allow us to recognize our incompleteness without Him. May our struggle invoke the perseverance of our Lord on His way up Calvary. Finally, may our striving humbly attempt to mimic God's intense pursuit of our hearts, and may we, this year, finally allow ourselves to be caught...and loved...and saved...and fed.   

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

They'll Know We Are Christians

Ash Wednesday is no longer a Holy Day of obligation. It remains, however, one of the most heavily attended Masses throughout the course of the year in Catholic Churches. Like Palm Sunday, the Church gives something in addition to the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday. Attendees process in the same fashion as Communion and receive ashes, made from the palm branches from last Palm Sunday, in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. While receiving this sign of faith, the minister of ashes says one of the following phrases:

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

"Repent and believe in the Gospel."

The readings taken from the Mass speak of returning to God with our whole hearts. They encourage us to rend our hearts and not our garments. We are to proclaim a fast and gather the assembly of people. Reconcile. Do not perform deeds so that others can see you. Give alms but don't blow your trumpet. Don't even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Go and pray by yourself. Fast in such a way that those around you would think you've had your fill. Wash your face and anoint your head.

And walk around all day with ashes on your forehead.

The message seems to be a bit mixed. Do all of these things in secret but write your commitment to Christ literally across your forehead. Don't let anyone know that you're fasting and doing penance but everyone that you see today will notice the smudge on your forehead.

Our faith is filled with contradictions, though. Be in the world but not of the world. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Be strong in your weaknesses. Die so that you may have life.

Perhaps the ashes on our foreheads help us to remember that our true focus should be on Jesus. Perhaps they are a way to humble us, knowing that maybe we'll give up chocolate to hopefully lose a few pounds or that we'll be nicer to people to gain potentially some sort of social advantage. These are noble reasons, but like the pharisees, we will gain earthly rewards if we have an earthly focus. Instead, our purpose in submitting ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving should be to return to Jesus with our whole hearts, not just the part that has something else to gain.

Perhaps this Lent we will recognize the temporal nature of our bodies and the eternal heritage of our souls. Perhaps this Lent we will repent and believe in the Gospel.

Perhaps the ashes are a challenge for us to get outsiders to know that we are Christians not by the crosses on our foreheads but by the love in our hearts.

By our love, not ashes on our foreheads. By our love.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Cast Your Net - Annual Pastoral Appeal Speech

At the risk of putting you to sleep, I want to ask you to close your eyes. I want you to participate in the Ignatian exercise of imaging yourself in a piece of scripture. I want you to think of yourself as one of the disciples on the boat with Simon Peter or even imagine that you are Simon Peter, or James, or John or an additional member of the crew that night. In whatever way you can, put yourself into today's Gospel reading as I reread and paraphrase a portion of it.

You've been out fishing all night, which means you've been up all night. You also haven't caught a thing. You're tired. You're damp from the crashing waves and maybe even a bit sweaty from casting and collecting your nets, which have grown heavier and longer as the night has continued.

You're just about to cut your losses and head back home when Jesus tells you, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”

Simon says in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”

So, one more time, even though you think it completely pointless, you go back out into the deep water and cast your net.

You catch a great number of fish, so many that your nets are actually tearing from the weight. You call to your partners in the other boat, "We need some help with this catch! You won't believe it! Come quickly!" 

Your companions hurry to where you are and assist in reeling in this abundant catch. Your excitement turns into giddiness and for a second you imagine that you must be dreaming. You haven't had a bite all night and now, exhausted, you yield the biggest catch of your life.

Both boats get filled with so many fish that they are in danger of sinking.

You and the entire crew are absolutely astonished at the number of fish. You hear Peter say something but you're too overwhelmed to process what he's saying. You hear Jesus respond, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

You return to shore. You unload the boat, still amazed at the enormity of what has happened. In this moment, you commit yourself to following this man named Jesus wherever he may lead you.

Now I want you to consider this story in light of our Annual Pastoral Appeal. I want you to consider that your emotion about hearing me speak this morning is probably similar to what the disciples felt when they heard Jesus tell them to put back out into the deep one more time and cast their nets. You've been asked for money from so many different people in so many different ways. You're tired of it. You figure that nothing good will come of it or that what you can give won't make enough of a difference so why bother. 

If I'm correct in this assumption, or at least close to hitting the mark, I want you to also consider that casting your net by making a donation to this year's annual pastor appeal will yield such an abundant harvest that you will be overwhelmed by the catch. You may not be met with the giddiness that the disciples experienced on the morning of that record setting catch, but you will make a difference that extends far beyond the walls and property of Incarnation and is far greater than any monetary amount you can offer.

The German poet Goethe writes, 
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”  
Cast your nets. Give Him two fish and five loaves. Bring Him six jars of water. Commit and let Providence, that is Jesus, move.

Today, Incarnation Catholic Church is asking for your commitment in this year's annual pastoral appeal.

With the help of APA funding last year Catholic Charities helped over 14,500 clients; 3,600 children and over 11,000 adults. Shelters of Hope programs provide safe living environments for families and individuals facing a limited income, disability, crisis, or other situation that causes them to be without housing. Over 4,000 families received this service thanks to APA funds last year. Pinellas Hope, a facility that provides temporary housing for up to 250 people, has helped over 1,000 individuals since opening in 2006. 67% of APA funds go for services for our parishes, Catholic schools, and social services such as those previously mentioned. APA funds support the education of our 30 seminarians and it supports 17 men and their wives who are in formation for the permanent diaconate. The other 33% of the funds go to support Parish and diocesan ministries such as the migrant apostolate, prison ministry, Spirit FM, Scouting, and the Marriage Tribunal which helps people going through difficult process of a divorce and potential annulment.

This year our APA goal is $211,180. This assessment must be paid through your generosity. Otherwise the funds come out of Incarnation's normal collections or savings, cutting into the ministries and services offered here at Incarnation.

If you are prepared, you can make a donation today. There are envelopes and forms in your pews. If you're writing a check, please just ensure that you put Incarnation in the memo line. You can decide to spread your donation out over the course of the year making monthly payments instead of one lump sum. You can pay via credit card. You can apply match grant funds if your company or business performs this charitable service.
Above all else, right now, we are asking for your commitment. In just a moment you'll be afforded some time to pray, reflect and even dialogue with your family about making a commitment. It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit will come into your hearts and inspire you to cast your nets.

You may be tired of giving. You may think that what you have to give doesn't matter or isn't enough to make a difference.

But today, providentially, Jesus is telling us to "Put out into the deep waters and lower our nets for a catch." He's telling us to commit so that Providence can move, too. Jesus is encouraging us that whatever we can do, or dream we can do, to do it.

Cast your net and allow Jesus to turn it into something amazing.