Following in the tradition of our Commander in Chief, I decided to use this post as an English Department equivalent to a State of the Union Speech. Staying true to form, I will open by saying, as has become the perfunctory refrain: the state of the union (department) is strong.
Over the past several weeks I had the opportunity to observe each teacher at length in their milieu. I witnessed courageous educators modeling lifelong learning behaviors while utilizing best practices. I watched as students engaged in thought provoking discussion and activities as they engaged with complex literature. I listened with delight as students worked to express their thoughts and feelings with eloquence and verve. If this reads more as a litany than a celebration, it is only that these educators have time and time again shown these things to be the norm and the rule. However, what did give me pause, and now cause to celebrate, was the unique passion displayed by each of these teachers.
Terrance Starnes continually demonstrates his commitment to doing justice by allowing students to reflect critically on their own lived experiences. He puts himself “out-there”; sharing his own life, the ups and the downs, and thereby giving license to his students to follow in his brave foot-steps.
If the phrase No Child Left Behind had not yet been sullied by cynical bureaucrats, I would say that John Stradley is a genuine embodiment of the phrase. In his classroom, each student is held to the utmost standard where no one is allowed to “opt out”. In fact, I heard the students using this phrase amongst each other when a classmate struggled to come up with an answer. It was not used as derision, but rather as an emboldening statement of solidarity.
Evan Chavez understands students. Going to great lengths to choose materials, examples, and “ways in” for his lessons, Evan has created a joyous culture of learning where students can genuinely “see themselves” in the curriculum. It doesn’t hurt that Evan understands the power of laughter and humor and uses those tools to the delight of his students.
Last, but certainly not least, Maria McDonald is one of the most focused educators I have ever observed. She knows where she wants the students to go and makes them work to get there. When Maria validates her students’ efforts and achievements, you know she is speaking with the greatest sincerity and with laser-like specificity. She provides her seniors with a classroom experience that requires they rise to the challenge of a more adult, college-oriented mindset.
As this school year come to a close, I find myself inspired and excited to work alongside these amazing educators to make further strides in the English Department. There is of course much work to be done and many challenges and changes yet to face. However, for all the reasons listed above and because of so many other things not listed, I am confident that next year, and each year subsequent, the state of the English department will not only remain strong, but will continue to get stronger.
We are officially in the last quarter at Verbum Dei. As fortune would have it, I am again writing this around our Grad at Grad week. This semester comes on the heels of interim assessments. The students braved the schedule, taking two tests a day while going to the rest of their classes as the week progressed. Overall, I am impressed with the arduous nature with which students addressed this week evident from the beginning of the prior week when they asked for a study guide before the bell for class sounded. In writing class the freshmen applied their writing acumen to creative pursuits and utilized tools developed over the course of the quarter.
The freshmen developed short stories as a project and as part of their assessments. One integral element to writing that the freshmen embraced whole-heartedly this quarter is the concept of rewriting. The students had to compose multiple drafts focusing on different aspects throughout the process. One class would focus on correcting grammar issues such as subject-verb agreement or pronoun-antecedent agreement while another would tackle the coherence of plot and establishing a tactile setting. Students used this project to flex their imaginations using highly descriptive adjectives and adverbs to paint vivid pictures of events and people unfolding on the page. Eventually, the students shared their work with in-class readings much to the delight of the class and their teacher.
“Thank you for coming out and supporting our students…Drive safe and God Bless,” were the words that concluded our Tenth Annual Mardi Gras Awards Dinner and Celebration held this year at the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, given my Fr. Mike, Verbum Dei’s President. To say it was a splendid evening severely understates its pomp and circumstance, as all sixty-nine graduating seniors were present and decked out in their finest threads, clean shaven, best mannered, and looking to network and to be honored for their hard work over the past four years. In fact, collectively, the class of 2015 has risen over $1.9M toward the cost of their education through their work-study program, not to mention their expected goal of 100% college acceptance rate for the eighth year!
Verbum Dei was also pleased to honor Edison International for eight years of commitment to Verbum Dei through their corporate partnerships, donations, and volunteerism. Edison International is a model supporter of Verbum Dei. Mr. Jim Scillacci, EVP and CFO, was present, along with staff, to accept an award.
Everyone was there—donors, corporate partners, foundations, board members, faculty and staff. Collectively, over $400,000 was raised for the scholarships for Verb students. We wish to thank everyone who supported this labor of love for our fine young men.
Link to Developing Men for Others Video: http://youtu.be/zNbyboF1494
Nick Spates ’15 delivering his speech
2015 Mardi Gras Dinner
Our department has been focusing on preparing our students for our annual Art Week from May 18-22. This week will showcase the works of our visual, dramatic and performing arts. As part of the Verbum Dei family, we cordially invite you to make your presence felt during our evening performances during that week. Below is the schedule and information that will help you in attending the events.
- May 19-Tuesday
- Drama perfomance
- 7pm- in the MPR
- May 22 -Friday
- Choir Performance/ Art Show
- 7pm- in the MPR
- Suggested Donation
- $5 Adult
- $2 student
- Suggested Donation
- 7pm- in the MPR
- Choir Performance/ Art Show
As this year has progressed, I am reminded of all that the arts provide for our students. Through each artistic medium, our students learn how they belong everywhere. Whether they are attending a Puccini opera, an art exhibit at the Norton-Simon, or a performance at the Dorothy-Chandler, the arts become a means to breaking cultural, socio-economic, and racial boundaries.
Whenever an organization encounters a shift in leadership, the stakeholders, the senior leadership must evolve a new mindset. In Admissions this is exactly what we are doing. We are excited and have implemented a new system for evaluating prospective students and their families seeking enrollment into Verbum Dei High School. The new evaluative formula ensures that all students admitted to Verbum Dei exemplify the school’s mission and will be appropriately served by the resources that we provide. Transitional experiences are often the most important developmental aspects of any new structure; as such, stakeholders must remain dedicated to the mission. We have a significant responsibility to follow the metamorphosis closely and monitor the change as we evolve.
In my observation, this period of change has afforded an opportunity of analysis which allows a boundless level of appreciation. The security I describe is in the way we have worked together to do the things we needed to do and how we have done them. Father Michael Mandala, SJ and Dr. Brandi Odom-Lucas Interim Principal have pulled things together, assumed their leadership positions and have guided the Faculty and Staff well during this challenge. This certainly can be recognized by measuring the agreement shared throughout the room most recently during our in-service following the revelation of our new Integral Student Outcomes.
The goal of the perceptible transformation we stimulate in the students we serve does not change. As we are seeking to adapt and serve more students and their families during these turbulent times we cannot forget that the change we seek for them must also be reflected in us. Essentially, when we pursue professional approaches to restructuring and replacing stakeholders and humility, empathy and moral courage is not the procedural pursuit, we lose part of the ministry for which I consider to be my most valuable quality and the most valuable part of what we do here. There are always opportunities to reframe problems, reinterpret alternatives and reform strategies and to do so continuously. The goal of this expression, the point of the message, is within the challenge to operate differently in our behavior, in our response. Our continuous challenge is to be merciful, kind, generous, loving and willing to do all that it takes, even at one’s own expense, to help another (‘the least’) in true need.
If a man has 100 sheep, but one of the sheep becomes lost, then the man will leave the other 99 sheep on the hill. He will go to look for the lost sheep. Right? And if the man finds the lost sheep, the man is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 sheep that were never lost. I tell you the truth. In the same way, your Father in heaven does not want any of these little children to be lost. — Matthew 18:12-14
With the recent transition caused by Dr. O’Connell’s departure, I found myself extremely concerned about my students. How will they respond? Will they be comfortable with my leadership? Is this the best thing for my students? I was confident in the resiliency my boys have demonstrated personally and academically, but I was very nervous that this transition would be a negative disruption to their already busy lives.
Once the announcement was made Donaven, the 6’3” senior who is the Center on the Verbum Dei Varsity Basketball team came up to me and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Odom. How do you feel?” I responded, “A bit nervous!” Without skipping a beat Donavan smiled and said, “Don’t worry… you’re good! You got this!”
I walked away but couldn’t help but hear his voice saying, “You Got This!” What an amazingly simple, yet poignant expression that, to me, represented the lessons the Verb has taught him these past four years. Lessons about having faith in the small things, being a man for others and exercising resiliency were undoubtedly taught both inside and outside the classroom. Donaven’s response to me demonstrated his understanding of life’s twists and turns. He showed that he understands the importance of faith when facing a new endeavor- faith that God’s love will sustain you, faith that you have exactly what you need to face this challenge. But Donoven also showed the importance of standing with your brother or sister in their time of need. What more could I want a senior to know as they leave the Eagle nest?
But this is what makes the Verb so different. Not only do the faculty and staff at Verbum Dei seek to edify and strengthen the students’ spirits but we also help students understand the importance of edifying and strengthening the spirits of their brother or sister. Donaven’s response to me was important, not just because it contained the exact words I needed to hear as I began the role as Interim Principal but it reminded me what an amazing job the Verbum Dei parents and teachers are doing in the formation of our young men.
As I work with the Faculty and Staff of Verbum Dei to lay the foundation for an exciting future, I can’t help but say to all our supporters…..Don’t worry, WE GOT THIS!
As Verbum Dei seniors anxiously await responses from the colleges to which they have applied, I find myself taking the time to reflect on the growth that these young men have experienced during their four years at the Verb. They have grown academically, socially, and athletically, but also, and most importantly, they have grown in their awareness of the human rights and have learned the importance of advocacy in times of injustice.
The “Nine Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching” by Thomas Massaro, S.J is beautifully written piece that eloquently highlights the theme of human rights. According to Fr. Massaro, if we were all formed in the image of God, then each and every human being, regardless of who they are and what they have done in their lives, should have access to basic human rights including the ability to attain what is needed to live fully and completely. He argues that when opposition to this belief is experienced, it is the role of the faithful to stand up and speak up.
At Verbum Dei, our mission is to serve the underserved. It is no secret that many of our students come from homes where resources are limited and parents work tirelessly to make ends meet. Despite the situation of their home lives, Verbum Dei students come to school each day to make a difference both by expanding their minds educationally and becoming men of character who stand against injustice and who have love for the fellow man. These students serve, on a regular basis, giving of their time to make the lives of others better. They have worked in soup kitchens, in nursing homes, and have stood in solidarity with the homeless and refugees. They have traveled to the United States border to leave water for those who are crossing and paid homage to those who lost their lives on the journey. They have raised funds to bring awareness and support young people all around the globe. They have laughed together, cried together, and have created a bond that will last longer than the brief four years they have together at Verb.
In a recent lecture I attended, the question was asked of whether two high achieving students, one attending public school and one attending Catholic school, had access to the same education. I believe the answer is no because there is no common core standard that addresses morality and ethics, love and compassion, forgiveness and faith. It is student who attends the Catholic school that will receive the most priceless gift that can never be returned, and who, by far, receives the superior education.
So as our seniors sit on the edges of their seats in anticipation of learning which colleges and universities have deemed them worthy of acceptance, they should take comfort in knowing that whatever the result, on this voyage, they have become men of character, who are academically competent and socially aware, and ready to be agents of change that this world needs.
As I step down as principal of Verbum Dei, below are some excerpts from a reflection I shared with faculty and staff in my final Monday meeting:
In June 2008, I arrived here fresh out of my doctoral program, jumping from the classroom to being principal, eager—and scared—about this new challenge. Just 30 years old. Those first two years were rough, as the school had severe financial problems made worse by the 2008 economic decline, resulting in having to cut $1 million from the budget, eliminating 9 jobs, and operating a skeleton of a school. And, the next year or two was marked by difficulties as we moved to fully adopting the Cristo Rey model.
Being principal of Verbum Dei has been the most rewarding job I will probably ever have. It has also been the most challenging and stressful job that I ever hope to have.
I have grown and learned so much professionally, but more importantly, I’ve grown as a person here within a loving, supporting community. My family grew, as I got married and had a child. And the Verb family grew too, as many of you got married and had children. We grew and celebrated life together. But we also mourned and grieved together. Our community last year went through trying times, as we first lost a beloved student, Nathaniel Mota, and then a loved one—Yvonne’s husband Patrick—and then a longtime colleague and friend, Gustavo Lopez. Last year was tough, but we persevered as a community, and through these tragedies, the best in us came out. The Verbum Dei community is a strong community.
God knows I’ve made my missteps during my time as principal, but hopefully the school is in a better place than it was 6.5 years ago.
During the past few weeks during this transition period, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things I’d still like to do here at the Verb, and about all the things that I never got around to doing, or those things that I just didn’t get right. These thoughts have caused me a lot of turmoil, but I’ve found comfort in praying and meditating on the Prayer of Oscar Romero, which reads:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
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 cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
Hopefully, I’ve planted some seeds here and laid the foundations for something amazing to grow. But I leave that in God’s hands, in your hands, and the hands of Fr. Mike, interim principal Brandi Odom Lucas, and the next principal of Verbum Dei. Let this be an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
Please know that I will miss this place—a lot—and even more I will miss you—a lot. I am so grateful for the blessing of working with such caring, wonderful people. Because of you, Verbum Dei will continue to soar!
As the students walked across the stage, at the Commencement Ceremony in June 2014, all I could think about was “We did it again…We helped one more class along their way towards their dreams of graduating college!” And, it wasn’t easy, for the students or the faculty and staff. Yet, as I look back, it certainly was a labor of love.
Fast forward to January 2015 and we’re half way there to getting another class through. Yet, this time it’s different, we have larger goals in the Mission Advancement Office: $2.4M and planting seeds for future support. You see, we now know we can’t keep raising funds for the current year without laying a foundation for the future of fundraising at Verb. What does that mean? It means increasing Development staff and adding more opportunities for supporters to donate to Verb. So, in August 2014, we hired a new Development Assistant, Ms. Michelle Cordova, to help us expand our reach. Ms. Cordova has more than six years of experience in fund development working for such organizations as STOP CANCER. She is charge of one of the most important programs, Adopt-A-Student Program, as well as several other newer programs: Adopt-A-Teacher and our Planned Giving program cultivation. We are thrilled to have Ms. Cordova.
With the addition of Ms. Cordova, Ms. Stephanie Andrade, Development Associate, is freed up to do more higher-level development such as meeting with donors and writing grants. Ms. Andrade has been at Verb for over 13 years and is in charge of two very large programs, the Annual Mardi Gras Awards Dinner, which generated over $450K last year, and our Foundations program, which should generate $1.1M this year. With her institutional knowledge and fundraising acumen, she has proved herself invaluable to the Mission Advancement team.
Our big push for the second half of 2014/15 is the Mardi Gras event, Planned Giving, and our Adopt-A-Teacher Program. This year’s Mardi Gras will be held at the Biltmore in Downtown LA, where we are honoring Edison International and the Class of 2015. Since 2006, Edison has been a part of Verb’s Corporate Work Study Program, as well as showing support of our mission far beyond what has been asked of them. And, as you know, we honor the Class of 2015 because all that they have done to reach for their dreams of a college education. Planned Giving is important to the future of Verb because it allows donors to support the school in a significant way—through bequests, will, trusts, etc. These types of gifts often help on into the future. Our Adopt-A-Teacher Program, where we allow donors to support a specific teacher and their class for a year, helps connect supporters to what is actually happening in the classroom.
…And, after the Class of 2015, we, in Mission Advancement, will sigh in relief of a job well done, yet we will continue to try to expand our tools even further to raise even more support for resources for our students’ futures. Stay tuned…
In the 1960 film adaptation of the H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” a man from Victorian England travels to the distant future where he discovers the desiccated remains of books amongst the ashen ruins of a long-forgotten library. The child-like denizens of this seemingly idyllic future society, called the Eloi, live care-free lives of hedonism, unencumbered by the harrowing self-reflection that is often the beautifully-tragic byproduct of literacy. However, beneath this veritable future Eden, there dwells a race of monstrous creatures called the Morlocks who use the ignorant, blissful, surface dwellers as cattle — literally; they eat them. Perhaps it would be premature to start battening down the hatches to defend against the next Morlock attack; but one need only follow the shockingly ignorant and grammatically impaired comments on any given youtube video to feel that the future of literacy and critical thinking is imperiled. Wells’s not- so- subtle symbolism aside, as an English teacher it can be tempting to view this generation as becoming more and more like the Eloi and, consequently, more opportune prey for the corporate, government, and infotainment Morlocks of the world. But are they? Is our current crop of youngsters really hurdling blissfully and ignorantly towards a bookless, illiterate future? The answer, thankfully, is resoundingly no!
What I have discovered about these so-call digital-natives is that, far from being reading averse, they are actually consuming more written information, ideas, and stories than probably any generation prior. The profusion of mediums through which students consume writing, much of it digital, may seem to be a precursor to Wells’s charred, forgotten libraries; however, a library is just a building – a sagacious and venerable building to be sure – but its demise would be no more an indicator of waning literacy than the loss of a church to a hurricane signifying the loss of God’s presence. Perhaps the real concern is one of quality over quantity. Sure, students might be reading more, but if that reading is dominated by the derivative fan-fiction of a gregarious dilatant (“50 Shades of Grey “ anyone) , or the paint-by-numbers adventure of yet another teen protagonist in a cliché dominated dystopian future, then it may be a case of them simply becoming a more literate version of the Eloi. Don’t misunderstand me, I love fun trash just as much as my younger millennial compatriots. But our mission in the English department has to be to provide students with thought-provoking, world-challenging literature that enlightens as well as entertains.
From the horrific and inhuman death camps of Nazi Germany presented in Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to the mean streets of a segregated Chicago in Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, Verb students are engaging literature that presents complex characters in difficult situations. The conversations that I have been a part of concerning those titles, as well as many others, reassures me that our digital-natives are not destined to be either Eloi or Morlock, but rather true exemplars of a grad at grad. Importantly, it’s not just the anointed titles of the so-called cannon that are being thoroughly analyzed and discussed on an advanced level, but the contemporary work of tomorrow’s cannon.
Being open to the inclusion of great writing from an increasingly diverse, dynamic, and digitally-based pool of writers is the key to making reading relevant and meaningful to our students. I am pleased to report that the English department has taken great strides in this direction as each teacher looks for new and innovative ways to reconcile the analogue and digital domains of today’s literary landscape. The sheer quantity of stuff out there is mindboggling and with so much drivel cluttering up the interwebs it can seem as though the age of the Morlocks is nigh. However, each day I am encouraged and emboldened by what I see and hear when students connect with great stories old and new.