In Matthew 16: 13, Jesus asks Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”
This is the essential question of our lives. Who do we believe that Jesus is? Does God really love us enough to become one of us? Is He really such a God that He would die for me? And if so, what does that tell me about who I am?
Schools in the postmodern era are not built to answer such questions. These questions require time, silence, intellectual and human formation, and a philosophical background which have been universally gutted from curricula and schedules in American schools. If education was once like a homestead with various disciplines each growing and bearing their own fruit, there were opportunities for cross-pollination, buffering winds, and attracting diverse wildlife to fertilize the soil. We now find ourselves in a situation more akin to industrial farms producing monocultures, engineered for economic benefit yet constantly requiring new innovations and efforts to stave off the diseases that inevitably arise when life is isolated or to reduce the acidity of soil used in the same way for too long.
It is understandable why this has happened: on the surface, what someone thinks about the identity of Jesus or the existence of God has no apparent impact on their ability to succeed in most areas of life, and even if schools wanted to help young people answer these questions, the answers one arrives at are largely outside of the control of educators. Everything from one’s family of origin to socioeconomic status to traumatic life experiences can outweigh even the most compelling or well-intentioned instruction. So, attention turned to what is controllable, measurable, and scalable.
But as we see the rotten fruit of this isolated world that has ignored the basic truths of reality, everyone knows we need to change; but how can that be possible when the entire system is built against the changes needed? It is again not dissimilar to how the world now knows how unhealthy monoculture farming is, yet our entire global economy is predicated on producing mass quantities of cheap food. Change seems impossible.
At St. James Academy, we have felt these pressures for a while. We have watched the shriveling of the Catholic Church in the West alongside the erosion of the mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing of young people, and we have become increasingly convinced of the unavoidable truth that we must do things differently. But it is intimidating to know where to start.
As a school, we went through a strategic planning process that led to six imperatives to try to live our mission more fully, and we believe them all to be invaluable. But perhaps the most important is partnering more intentionally with parents in the formation of their children, particularly through the implementation of our “Essential Questions” initiative.
As a school leadership team, we wrote an “Essential Question” for each grade level. Each April, students have to answer the Essential Question for their grade, and the answer to their question will be shared in the context of a conversation on campus with their parents, House Mentor, and, for our seniors, other staff and community members. There is no grade attached to the conversation; it is simply a requirement for re-enrollment the following year.
Throughout the year, the students have check-points with their Theology teachers and House Mentors to look at how they might answer the questions. In their answer, they are asked to reference three or more academic classes, their class retreat, and an experience from their service hours, as well as anything from their family or social lives that they found relevant.
The purpose of this experience is for students to see their learning as cohesive and unified and to understand how all of the pieces of our educational programming are directed towards a common end: understanding who God is, what His plan for humanity is, and where each individual fits in that plan.
The questions reflect that goal, and are listed here:
Freshmen: What is God’s story, and where do you fit in it?
Sophomore: What has God given man to play his part in the story?
Junior: How should you live your part in God’s story here in modern America?
Senior: What is God’s plan for your holiness?
We have a half day set aside for seniors and their parents to come in for their 20 minute conversations, and we have 15-minute time slots available during weekly late starts in April and May for families to sign up for.
When we started this last year, we were uncertain of how it would be received by parents and students or how the logistics would work out. However, our follow up survey had 82% of parents rate the experience a 4 or 5 out of 5 when asked whether it was worth their time. Additionally, 57% said it sparked additional conversations within their family (with another 19% replying “maybe”).
Certainly this was not a perfect enterprise. Some families found it more impactful than others; some had a great experience and others did not; there was messiness in the logistics and things we had not thought of.
But it was something. It was one irrigation channel running from home to school, one way to water places that once were dry or create a path for future rains to run along. And if you judge a tree by its fruit, these efforts at irrigation are indispensable in an age of intellectual, moral, and spiritual drought. These, we feel, are the trenches more worth digging than those for soldiers in a cultural war, trenches that may carry a Living Water to bring life to the full.
Whether a school uses Essential Questions or not, the digging needs to be done. Catholic educators need to be committed to looking at new ways to help students get past their grades, past the future potential benefits of scholarships or salaries, and past the view of parents as obstacles or chaperones, and see the world for what it is: a proposal from God Himself to enter into His beatitude.