Talking with Kids About Our Nation’s Social & Political Tension This Fall

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Wondering how you’re going to address the rising social and political tensions in our larger American culture with your students? Or perhaps looking for a good theme for your classroom this year? This June, I read The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. In this excellent book, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt team up to examine what’s really going on at college campuses around the country and how these waves of thought are impacting all of us, regardless of the level we teach. The best takeaway? Haidt and Lukianoff (4) zone in on the “three great untruths” that are being disseminated, both implicitly and explicitly, by university communities:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

The first one relates to the idea that our children are inherently fragile, so we should do whatever we can to pad their way through life. You know exactly what I’m talking about, because you’ve seen ‘em all: the snowplow parents, the lawnmower parents, the helicopter parents…I could go on and on. Really, I can’t be too high and mighty, because I’ve certainly caught myself thinking, “That might hurt her feelings, so I won’t say it,” or “They’re too young to handle this.” Of course, we must be respectful of students’ emotions, experiences, and developmental level–I’m all about that. But Lukianoff and Haidt point out that we sometimes treat our young people so gingerly that they will literally never grow out of seeing themselves as pansies. 

Instead of the untruth of fragility, let’s proclaim the truth of resilience. Let’s tell our students, “You are strong.” I’ve coached high school cross-country the past three years, and I’ve seen a lot of kids run in a considerable amount of pain. When they cross that finish line, though, the pain turns into a badge of honor. This is true not just of our students’ sports achievements, but also of their capacity to rise above the meanness and unfairness that often characterizes their social landscape. We’ve all watched kids rise above their situation, whether it be unsupportive parents, a difficult mental health diagnosis, or switching schools and friend groups at the same time. Let’s coach them through these times of trial, because that’s what they need most. TRUTH: God’s grace gives us the strength to conquer anything; let’s treat our students as “more than conquerors” through His blood (Romans 8:37).

The second untruth is about emotional reasoning and says that we should always trust our feelings. Let me tell you, I am a huge fan of Conrad Baars, so if you haven’t read any of his books on psychology, St. Thomas Aquinas, and a holistic view of the human person, you are in for a real treat. In his Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, he speaks eloquently to the importance of naming, owning, and feeling your emotions, backed by a very solid Christian foundation. God gave us our emotions. They are morally neutral, and acknowledging them is key to living a healthy relationship with ourselves, others, and Him. However, Baars does not advocate for always doing whatever your emotions prompt you to do, which is good because otherwise I would literally spend my entire day eating dark chocolate, drinking coffee, and reading murder mysteries. (Dang it, Dr. Baars!) Haidt and Lukianoff agree that our children will be happier and healthier if they learn to engage their intellect, emotions, and will when making decisions. 

What seems like an obvious way to live life is becoming increasingly radical; people today accuse each other of all sorts of feelings that the other person is, apparently, responsible for. They even equate their own violent actions with a legitimate emotional expression that they cannot be expected to control. Scary, isn’t it? Teaching our students to talk with the Lord in prayer about how they feel and what His Word guides them to do is critical. We can’t say enough these days about the Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Works of Mercy. To counter this untruth of emotional reasoning, we can pray regularly with our students and ask Jesus to be with them when they’re having a bad day (or a good day!), invite Him to help them experience His love amidst all of their emotions, and call on Him to inspire them to make wise, virtuous decisions based on the objective reality that surrounds them. TRUTH: Inviting Jesus into our emotions changes everything.

Lastly, Haidt and Lukianoff face the most vitriolic untruth of them all: the untruth of us vs. them, which holds that life is a battle between good people and evil people. Doesn’t this cut to the heart of everything that’s happened in the United States since Memorial Day Weekend? How often do we find ourselves demonizing our opponents? It’s a much easier way to deal with our disagreements than to have vulnerable conversations about how we’ve been hurt and how we’ve hurt others, so it’s not surprising that much of our national dialogue has descended into this. As educators, we have a huge opportunity to impact the way our students respond to these polarizing times, above all by the way we form them to view everyone as an image of God. I used to work with a youth minister who was incredibly gifted in this area; he had a way of pausing to say “hello” to everyone that seriously made you feel like a million bucks. His eyes would light up and he would pause everything he was doing to honor you. Now, I can’t always give that prolonged “look of love” to everyone I pass in the hallway…after all, we teachers are regularly cramming a bathroom break, coffee refill, and copy job into a slim five-minute window! Yet there are times we can slow down; let’s take advantage of those opportunities to model for our students that they are seen. They are known. They are loved. We can preach a great deal about the fallacy of the “us” vs. “them” mentality; in the end, we have to walk the walk. Kids who know they’re loved, love others…it’s that simple. TRUTH: We are all beloved children of the Father.

Perhaps you want to write three great truths on the board in September and then reference them often throughout the year. Maybe you can recite them with your students as part of a class prayer or cheer. However you feel led to share them, I hope you’ll find greater peace in knowing that you are helping your students find the joy that comes from living in the truth, which always sets us free.

Interested in reading the whole book? Here’s a link to it on Amazon.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. Penguin Books, 2019.

When Trying to be the Hero in Your Own Classroom Fails: Kristin Lavransdatter and Allowing God to Be Glorified in the Mess

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Kristin Lavransdatter, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is the saga of a middle class Norwegian woman’s life from childhood until the very end. (There are a few SPOILERS in here, so read on with caution!) Kristin grows up in a devout Catholic family, gets seduced by a handsome trickster named Erlend, and spends most of her adult years dealing with the consequences of their damaged, yet enduring, marriage. Through it all, she moves as if on a spiraling track, first toward God, then away from him. She lets her father down, betrays her betrothed (Erlend’s competition), engages in superstitious practices to save her nephew’s life, stands by her husband through a terrible imprisonment due to a political snafu, and watches some of her children die. Eventually, her husband dies, and she is left alone with her sons, who eventually take over responsibility for the management of the estate. She spends her final months of life as a boarder in a convent; lastly, a plague comes and kills hundreds around her, and she falls prey to it herself. 

What a mess, right? But in some of her final moments on earth, she realizes that God’s relentless love for her has overcome even her own stubbornness and self-centeredness:

“It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her–and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy”(Undset 1122). Kristin sinned a great deal, but she also suffered through the consequences of her sin, and she ended her life by performing an act of mercy– courageously burying a poor old woman, another plague victim, whose corpse had been abandoned. She became increasingly aware, in her later years, that her desire for God was nothing compared to His all-consuming desire for her. While she sought Him haphazardly, He sought her wholeheartedly, over and over again.

I think what I loved most about Kristin’s story was that it was truthful, often so truthful it was ugly. People in Kristin’s time didn’t have ibuprofen, cosmetic surgery, or diet soda. They couldn’t put filters on their pictures to make them look prettier. They sometimes died from wounds that we could easily treat today. And they did very hurtful things to each other, too, and these hurtful things turned into grudges and lies and insecurities. In the end, they weren’t the heroes of their own stories. If there was a hero in Kristin’s story, it was the Lord, not her.

As we’re preparing to start this school year, which will certainly be a year unlike any other, let’s keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. When everything else changes, He remains the same. When we try to measure our successes by earthly standards, He nudges us to seek sanctity for ourselves and our students, even though it will be messy. When we want to be the heroes of our own classrooms, He reminds us that He wants to be the hero; we have only to let Him. 

Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Summer Reading for Tired Catholic School Teachers

Summer Reading for Tired Catholic School Teachers

It’s summer and you’re excited, but you’re also super tired! Welcome to being a Catholic school teacher–or any school teacher, for that matter. Here are some books to uplift you, make you laugh, intrigue you, or help you improve your practice. I put calming books at the beginning of the list for winding down in June/July and more invigorating reads near the end to ready you to return to school…but don’t think about that now! 🙂

Also, I linked each title to a quick, easy & inexpensive place to order it–Half Price Books online, if possible; otherwise, Amazon.

In the School of the Holy Spirit–Fr. Jacques Philippe

This book is from one of the best spiritual masters, Fr. Jacques Philippe. He is an expert in coaching people on finding peace and hearing God’s voice. Take this to the lake and read it in the early morning by your lonesome, or throw it in your bag to take to Adoration some afternoon.

The Coddling of the American Mind–Gregg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

Did your end-of-the-year rant end with, “Why won’t parents let their kids experience natural consequences?” Do you wish you could snowplow the snowplow parents and bulldoze the bulldozer parents? This book offers the science and psychology behind why kids are becoming less resilient, as well as how cognitive behavioral therapy can help to change their patterns of thinking. You can use the suggested strategies on yourself this summer and try offering some of them to your students as conflicts arise in the fall.

The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time–Dr. Gregory Bottaro

Having trouble letting go of all the anxieties of the school year? This volume, recommended to me by an experienced spiritual director, is all about living in the moment without subscribing to some of the weird mindfulness practices out there. Jesus is present in the Eucharist and in the now. So if you’re like me and get tempted to use summer as a “catch up” season, take a deep breath and be. Just be.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking–Malcolm Gladwell

I think about this book regularly because of the degree to which it changed my awareness about intuition. Gladwell incorporates enticing psychological studies into his assertion of the brain’s capacity to work intensely, even when we don’t notice it. You’ll appreciate this book as a teacher but also as a spouse and parent. If you’re nervously anticipating an awkward grad party (aren’t almost all of them awkward?!), this book will give you lots of easy and interesting tidbits to share in those random conversations you’ll have at the sheet cake table.

Kristin Lavransdatter–Sigrid Undset

Looking for one book that you can read and delight in the entire summer and beyond? This classic will deepen your faith and make you want to travel to Norway, with its gorgeous landscapes and passionate people. Though set centuries ago, Kristin’s story will captivate you. Undset’s style is rich and nuanced; you will find yourself catching your breath at suspenseful vignettes, feeling with Kristin in her ache for God and His mercy, and settling into a family that will become your own over the course of this saga. You can buy it as a full trilogy; or, if you’d rather have a lighter beach bag, you could try one volume at a time. However, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself craving more pages and more tall glasses of lemonade on the side.

French Women Don’t Get Fat–Mireille Guiliano

This is the most feel-good eating book ever! It’s all about truly savoring your food in moderation and not using exercise as a form of punishment. If a flavorful dinner finished off with a glass of wine and a leisurely walk through town sounds refreshing to you, get this immediately.

Pearls Before Swine

Sounds holy, but it’s not. This is a compilation of comic strips, and it is awesome. When I was little and my dad would get home from the office, us kids would race to see who would get the paper first so that we could read the comics. I don’t think “Pearls Before Swine” was added to the page until I was a teen, but I absolutely savored it once it did arrive! If you like sarcastic humor and cute animals, you will relish this! Pro tip: Try not to read the whole book in one night…or if you do, be sure to mark your favorite pages with post-it notes so you can return to them frequently.

Consoling the Heart of Jesus–Fr. Michael Gaitley

If you ever look back at your day of teaching and say to yourself, “Well, bombed that one,” this book is for you. Fr. Michael Gaitley shows you how to give Jesus everything–failures and successes alike, in a marvellously unique and well-written mini-retreat. He suggests you do it over one weekend, but I usually take several weeks to ponder the contents during my morning prayer time. 

Things Fall Apart–Chinua Achebe

When you’re ready for some good literature that doesn’t feel as dry and difficult as some “good literature,” pick up Things Fall Apart. Neither long nor dense, this work of art will elicit tears, anger, or both. More importantly, it will awaken your compassion for the plight of native people who have everything to lose at the hands of their oppressors. Surprisingly, this is not too sad for a summer read, as you will likely find yourself in need of a dinner topic some night, and the plot is easy enough to explain to your friends you haven’t yet read it. You’ll be able to then dive into some deep questions about race, religion, identity, and hope…all of which are very applicable to our struggles today.

Unbroken A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption–Laura Hillenbrand

GAHHHH! This book is the BEST! An Olympic runner, a plane crash, sharks, a prison camp…all in one. I recommend this book all the time, especially to sophomore and junior boys looking for leisure reading. One caveat: The prison camp section is quite graphic, so if you are going to pass it on to one of your teens, do preview those chapters beforehand.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again–Roger Housden

Okay, okay. I admit it. I’m an English teacher, but poetry is sometimes really dry for me. Roger Housden, however, opened my eyes to the power of modern, personalized commentary to bring life and meaning to poems both old and new. Rather than a volume chock-full of poems alone, this simply presents ten works of art and offers a light, thought-provoking essay after each one. It’s sort of like taking a guided tour through a museum rather than attempting to make sense of its treasures on your own. And if you like this compilation, Housden has other, similar titles…and they all have beautiful covers, so they can sit at the top of your front porch stack in all their glory.

Shirley–Charlotte Bronte

If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know that Charlotte Bronte is a master. You probably haven’t heard of Shirley, though. Wait no longer–this delightful historical fiction piece is about strong women, farmers revolting against machine-makers, and a unique female friendship between two unlikely women. There’s also some romance sprinkled in for good taste. It does start out slow, but it’s worth the wait. If you root for the underdog, you will be enamored with Caroline Helstone. And if you like ambitious women, you’ll be the #1 fan of Shirley Keeldar. 

St. Dominic: Preacher of the Rosary and Founder of the Dominican Order–Mary Fabyan Windeatt

Pretty sure Mary Fabyan Windeatt wrote this for that doleful day in August when you wake up and realize that no, summer vacation will not last forever. Especially if this happens to you on August 8th, the feast of St. Dominic! Fervent about souls, the Gospel, and the adventures into which the Lord invites us, St. Dominic is the ultimate saint to get you revved up about education and evangelization! I know this is a children’s book, but what’s wrong with that?!

Proust & the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain–Maryanne Wolf

If you want to impress people, definitely bring this book to the pool! I’m not going to lie–I read this book during my honeymoon in Cabo last fall, and I was super proud of myself, although I’m sure absolutely no one around me cared! (I wasn’t ignoring my husband; I promise. He was very into Sudoku.) Seriously, though, this is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time! It’s a cool combination of history, science, and psychology, and it helped me understand the struggles of all children in learning how to read, not just ones with diagnosed learning disabilities. Take this in small doses and with less alcohol than you might typically sip. Or perhaps that is an indication that you shouldn’t read it at the pool at all? 🙂

The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools–Archbishop Michael J. Miller

Another inspirational read in the week or two before workshops. Remember the love you had at first, as a young teacher, and return to that in your heart as you read these inspiring reflections on your vocation in one of the Church’s most necessary and formative apostolates!

Girls on the Edge/Boys Adrift–Dr. Leonard Sax

Get ready to nerd up! Both of these books, written by a doctor who has worked extensively with teenagers, are excellent. As a high school teacher and coach, I thought I knew what my students were going through, but Sax opened my eyes to many struggles beneath the surface for our beloved teenagers. Even if you’re not a middle school or high school teacher, you’ll still learn a wealth of information about the culture that all of our children are living and breathing. A great book for the plane, this integrates stories, principles and science in a very readable and engaging manner.

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