Happy Advent, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!

This time of the year marks a very special time for Catholics as we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent is a time of preparation of our whole selves for the celebration of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus the Christ. This is a special event as it reminds us that God chose to experience every bit of our fragile and joyous human experience in order to be as close to us as possible.  Often time, this season of the liturgical year gets over looked because most of our nation is already in full Christmas, elves, presents, and shopping mode. While this is all wonderful, advent teaches us that before we can celebrate, we must prepare. Broadly speaking, we are called to take a step back, simplify our lives, and focus on bringing wholeness of life to our families, communities, and to be sure we are taking care of ourselves. How do we do this? Below is a simple but effective approach adapted from how Jesus lived his life.

  1. Take time for prayer, even if only for a few minutes. Jesus is depicted as praying in the midst of his busy ministry in order to help him rest and rejuvenate. Prayer, some quiet reflection time, is a good way to care for yourself in order to care for others. Check out Sacred Space online. This cite is run by the Jesuits and guides you through short prayers you can do during your lunch break or when you have downtime at home.
  2. Acts of Shalom. This semester the senior class learned about the concept of Shalom, which Dr. Elizabeth A. Johnson equates to, “an absence of war and fullness of life.” This is, in essence, what the kingdom of God is. We are called to work towards bringing about the kingdom of God, to do acts that bring about peace and fullness of life. Find ways every day to bring goodness and peace to the lives of those around you. It can be as simple and smiling at a stranger, telling those loved ones how much they mean to you, forgoing that large almond milk vanilla latte and instead donating that money to a cause that brings life to others. It can also mean reaching out to those you’ve wronged and asking for forgiveness, forgiving others who have wronged you, praying for those who cut you off while on the 405/10/101/5/110 freeways, or taking part in the sacrament of reconciliation at your local parish.
  3. Get to know your community of faith. We all know that Church isn’t necessarily the most exciting part of our weekends, especially with brunch, football, and sleeping in as other options to Sunday mornings. That being said, being part of your community of faith is an important part of being Catholic. While praying alone is very much part of our tradition, being in community is just as important. We see Jesus pray, eat, and travel with his friends all throughout the Gospels. We are called to build a strong community of faith to help us grow as individuals and as a Church. Moreover, the incarnation itself shows us that God desires us to be in community with each other since God chose to be in communion with us through Jesus.

As we celebrate Advent/Christmas/that time of the year when all the parking lots are full, let us remember to prepare for the party by praying, doing acts of shalom, and spending some time with our communities of faith. By doing this, we are preparing for a celebration that calls us to be our best selves, which is a gift we can keep giving to baby Jesus all year round.

HERO

This year I was given the opportunity to become part of Verb’s Instructional Leadership Team with the role of Academic Lead for Student Support. With this came the task of re-organizing the HERO period. The HERO period is a time within the day in which student can receive time to do their homework, study and receive re-engagement in a course they are taking. HERO has become a resource to address student needs outside the classroom and has become a way in which students are receiving target academic support from their teacher at any given day. Efforts in student support are essential for our boys to master skills. Consistent re-engagement sessions help teachers track who needs extra support in a given unit. Teachers are doing this in the 9th and 10th grade classes and their efforts are coming to fruition.

The HERO space has become an important piece to ensuring students are receiving the support needed in order to pass their classes. Teachers, students and staff have all played a helping hand in supporting the HERO space.

The Silver Tongued Jesuit

Br. Frederico Gianelli has been assigned to Verbum Dei for the next several years.  Although he is trained in palliative care and serves as a campus minister, he also comes to Verbum Dei with a passion for landscaping and facility improvement that is amazing to see.  Like the Pied Piper of beautification, Br. Fred draws others into his magical transformation of the Verbum Dei campus with his charm and enthusiasm.

Br. Fred and Cristina Cuellar

Already, he has cleared out old vegetation and replaced it with bark dust that makes the campus look fresh and clean.  You will find new tress in three of the planters where old dead ones once stood.  He has also cut out overgrown areas of the 300 corridor where there used to be cactus and palm trees that looked like they were from Skull Island in a King Kong movie.  But what is most amazing is the fact that Br. Fred wants to put a statue of Saint Ignatius in front of the chapel.  To do it, he has persuaded a number of donors to help fund the creation of the statue, as well as move the old Eagle statue to a new location to make room for Saint Ignatius.

In order to move the old statue, Br. Fred needed a forklift.  Not one to let anything stand in his way, Br. Fred asked a local recycling center if he could “borrow” their forklift.  When he told them it was for Verbum Dei, they offered to share the lift for free because they said, “Verbum Dei makes such a wonderful difference in this community.”  We are truly grateful for the spark of inspiration that Br. Fred brings to Verbum Dei.

Gratitude

As Thanksgiving quickly approaches, I want to take a moment to reflect on the importance of gratitude in living a spiritually healthy life. Sometimes we get caught up in the daily struggles of life and we forget to take the time to pause and remember for whom and for what we are grateful. In Catholic theology, though, gratitude holds a place of special importance. After all, we celebrate Eucharist at each Mass, and Eucharist translates to “thanksgiving.” Each time we celebrate Mass, we give thanks to God for the many blessings in our lives.

As mentioned, though, we sometimes get overwhelmed with our days and have a hard time seeing those blessings. For me, those blessings usually come in the form of people: people who love me, people who support me, people who make me laugh, or sometimes the person with the cart full of items at the grocery store who let me cut in front when she saw I only had 2 items to purchase. I believe that I focus my gratitude on people instead of things because our relationships with others are so much a part of who we are. We might want to deny it at times, but the reality is that, for better or worse, we are who we are based on our relationships with family, friends, acquaintances, creation, and God.

We held our Freshman Retreat in the beginning of October this year with the theme “I GOT U.” It works not only as an acronym for how to enter into a retreat (Intentional, God in all things, Open, Timely transitions, U get out what you put in), but also as a reminder of the type of community we want to build here at Verb. We are not just classmates, students, teachers, and colleagues. We are family. We know we can rely on each other and on God. And when we see someone else in our Verb family who needs us, we are quick to respond with “I got you!”

To help me focus on who and what I am grateful for each day, I keep a gratitude journal on my laptop. Each night before I go to bed, I jot down at least three moments during that day for which I am grateful. It helps me remember my blessings. Not surprisingly, my three “things” that I typically jot down are people: students, colleagues, family – people who I had a positive moment with that day. They are people who showed me through actions that they “got me” and people who allowed me to say to them, “I got you.” And, of course, I am always grateful for God continually saying “I got you!” to each of us every day.

Sophomore Parables…

Christian Scriptures is one of my favorite courses to teach yet, it can be challenging to get students to see the relevance of scripture in their lives. I begin this course by asking students to reflect on their own lives, their own stories. I remind them that they have a unique story to tell and then we move to make the connection between their stories and the stories of our faith. As we read and study the Gospels, I challenge them think about how this might be relevant in their lives. In the Gospels, we read that Jesus used parables to teach about the Kingdom of God. He made sure that these parables were drawn from everyday life, were thought provoking and challenged the contemporary perception of the Kingdom of God. This year, I challenged my budding theologians to use their creativity and write a modern day parable based on one we read, analyzed and reflected in class.

Presenting…

“Imagine you are running in a Marathon. At the end of the race [there] is a prize. You will run and run until you reach there. On the way, you might trip and fall. A person will be there to help you and he will help you when you trip and fall and is determined to get you to the finish line. He is determined until you finish your run. After the marathon, you will be celebrating with the person who helped you, so you shall earn the prize. If you don’t you will give up the marathon and wont, get the prize.”

“Think of heaven like a gaming clan. It starts with a leader. Then, it begins to grow over time. Getting more members and the clan starts to go global. It is like heaven and Jesus/God as our leader and us as the members joining the clan.”

My hope is that by not only engaging the Gospels but also engaging their own lives, my students can grow in their faith and come to understand that their own story is part of this larger story of Christianity. How would your modern parable read?

My Story

Growing up, I was the only girl of color in my elementary magnet school.  I struggled with reading and was put in the ‘Orange Uh-Oh’ reading group.  I didn’t know then, but later learned that my parents had to fight long and hard for me to receive the support I needed to be a success in my academic career and continue in the magnet program.  The discrimination they endured while they were in school, and saw their daughter going through, drove them to fight for something better for me.  They won their fight, and I thrived.  Having later learned of my elementary experience, I was determined to make sure that all people are treated with respect, given every opportunity for success and to make my parents proud.

I continued on my path, not knowing where I would end up.  I proudly earned a B.A. in Sociology at CSU Dominguez Hills. After obtaining my B.A., I decided to try my hand in teaching and fell in love with the process.  I decided to further my education and am blessed to have obtained my M.A. in Educational Administration, as well as gained experience in grades K – 10 as both a learner, educator and administrator.

I never expected to be a teacher.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to do something that would leave a positive imprint on society.  Upon reflecting on my journey, it is evident that God’s hand has always been leading me to where He needs me to be.  A counselor, a friend, an encouraging word, an educator.   My experience has allowed me to assist hundreds of students improve their skills and see them thrive in a positive environment.  Seeing them walk in the classroom on day 1 as an unsure student, and walk out standing tall and thankful for what they have learned is a great gift.

The journey has not always been smooth, but it has brought a plethora of knowledge and experience that I have needed to complete God’s work.

I am blessed to be able to share that with the Verb community.  Thanks for having me!

The Privilege of Time

Older generations have always rolled their eyes at the younger generation’s complaints of how hard they have it. To be fair, I wouldn’t trade an hour of my day for that of my grandmother’s when she was a young adult. Her daily encounters with overt racism, sexism, and every other experience of oppression she endured would undoubtedly make any reasonable person roll their eyes at my recent tantrum caused by my 5th cracked iPhone screen. That is not to say I do not encounter issues that are traumatic and overwhelming to my emotional and physical wellbeing but some of our first world problems cannot compare.

And so, it is with our students. Whether in an affluent school or school serving working class children, country school or rural, suburban or urban, our students are carrying psychological, emotional, and spiritual loads that would overwhelm even the most seasoned among us. And yet, within the classroom, many educators continue to create classroom policies and procedures that presume the opposite.

My co-blogger today is Mr. Tyon James. Tyon is a member of the Class of 2020. He is a member of the National Honor Society and a leader of multiple organizations on campus.

I asked him what assumptions he feels teachers make regarding how much time students have outside of their class. He offered to solicit input from his friends on social media. Here’s what they said:

You’re Not the Only One! Teachers assume students have no responsibilities outside of school.

“There’s never really enough time for me-for real personal development. To actually figure out what I want to do and to do things I like to do.”

Teachers tend to forget that not everyone takes on the traditional role of a dependent child in their household. Some people play more of a parenting or adult role in their own lives and the lives of others. When teachers say, “This is your only responsibility!” and “You have nothing better to do!”, it puts blame on the student. That’s showing disrespect for my time and experience.”

“I sometimes wish I had more time. More time to sleep, to talk to my family, to do something I want to do and not something I have to do.”

Teach teacher! Teachers assumes the class is their personal talk show. They use the allotted class-time to talk about irrelevant things that don’t hold substance or merit within the subject matter.

They talk about irrelevant things and things that don’t relate to the lesson, they focus on the bad kids and talk about what they are doing wrong and end up taking all our time. Outside of school, they give us homework that is more like busy work than something you can actually learn from.”

 “I feel like they are not respectful of our time because of the way they teach their curriculum. For example, I have teachers who have us watch Crash Course videos in class. Like… if I wanted an online teacher, I would not be going to public school.

Hold Up, Wait! Teachers assume their subject takes priority. Teachers don’t give enough time to complete assignments.

Teachers give too many major assignments due the same day for multiple classes.”

They don’t give enough time to finish assignments and they take the entire class time explaining instead of explaining for like 5-10 minutes and then letting us explore and helping us with any questions.”

Are You Going to Grade This? Teachers assume we don’t know what meaningful work is. They assign “busy work that is meaningless and boring. It’s a waste of time.

Teachers waste my time by giving busy work and not actually going over the class material. I believe that students have different learning styles and teachers should be able to utilize all those styles, so every student is engaged. Busy work is not for everyone.”

Is This Thing On? Teachers assume in-person communication is more effective than online communication. Some teachers aren’t very tech savvy. They seem to only want to interact in the classroom.

When they read your email and never reply! And then wait 3 days later to address you in person.” 

We are not calling for less homework (ok…most aren’t). But we are asking for teachers to be more thoughtful and intentional about what they are assigning.

Well said Tyon! Teachers, if we must assign work on their personal time it should be relevant to the course and to their lives. The facts are that time is a commodity and free time is a privilege. Our students need us to be open to creating spaces where all students can succeed, thrive, and be well- even those without the privilege of (free) time.

One Big Family

It is always easy to reminisce on my time as a student at Verb. Walking down the corridors, the field, or even speaking to the students are always a reminder of my time here at Verb. I always remember the constant support and guidance from teachers, coaches, and staff. We as students bonded over homework assignments, sports, and everything else going on in our lives throughout our teenage years. We created a brotherhood that will last a lifetime no matter the distance or the different paths that our lives will take. The Verb became a second home, a place for us students to develop as young men with and for others.

Now in my third year back at home I have seen all the long hours and hard work that everyone at Verb endures. Constantly seeking to grow not just for ourselves, but also for the students. The constant theme is not, how I can make this situation better for me, but rather how can this situation be better for the students. It is this passion and love that I see on daily basis that makes me want to grow and become a better person for everyone around me. It makes me appreciate what my teachers and the staff did for my family and me.

As the admissions season continues and we as a department start getting assistance from the teachers, staff, and students I notice that we all care about one another. We all pull together to ensure that any visiting student, or family has a memorable experience of the work that we are doing here. It does not matter if it is 70 students visiting or just one, the experience is equally as impactful as the next. Everyone on campus greets the visitors with a warm smile, a quick greeting, and every single time students and parents leave the Verb knowing that we are a family. Any prospective family leaves the campus with the feeling that this is not just a place of higher learning, but also a place of community – a family. Any student or family that visits will know that who we are and what we do.

WE ARE VERBUM DEI!

Post-secondary Planning

Post-secondary planning is never an easy task, but when you add the additional layer of being a first-generation college student, things seem to become a bit more challenging. At 16 and 17 years old, students are asked to plan to the direction of the rest of their lives. While this decision can be undone later, a lot of students do not see it that way. Students want to find the right fit for them from the beginning of their college career, so whether that is a trade program, a 2-year college, 4-year college, or enter the workforce – either way, students go into senior year with a plan.  For many Verbum Dei students, they are the first in their family to apply for college, and as a college counselor, it is my duty to help students navigate through the process of finding the best fir for them.

When thinking about fit, for many, it goes beyond their GPA and test scores. Many students consider the schools’ reputations, location, academic programs, etc.  For many Verb students, however, the number 1 factor is financial fit. The issue with using financial fit as the determining factor is that most financial aid packages are not available until March or April and students need to commit a college or university by May 1st. A good way to estimate college cost is by looking at cost of attendance, scholarship programs, financial aid from the institution, and plugging the students’ information into the Net Price Calculator tool, linked here: https://collegecost.ed.gov/net-price  So, what can we do on our end to support students in identifying the other aspects of a best fit college in the meantime? I will list them below:

  1. Consider all the factors connecting students to the best fit for them outside of financial fit (i.e. academic fit, location, Verbum Dei success data, and social emotional fit)
  2. Meet with students regularly and loop in their parents to chat about why certain schools are on their list and others are not
  3. Have a healthy mix of reach, match, and safety colleges/universities on their list.
  4. Use resources available to the students to learn as much as possible about a potential college/ university (i.e. Net Price Calculator, Verbum Dei Alumni, College Fly-in Programs, Summer Programs, and College/University Repetitive Visits)
  5. Making sure the student is comfortable with all the decisions they are making about their futures

Finding the best fit can be a challenging process, but the reward is so great knowing that students are in a place where they feel comfortable living and learning which leads to better retention rates and student stress levels. Here is a video on what the reward feels like, enjoy!

Life-long Positive Effects

On the first day of school I read a thank you email from an alumni that not only brought a smile to my face, but it also validated that the work that we all do at Verb is something to be proud of.

He recalled the times we talked about test-taking skills and grade check-ins. He shared everything he was thankful for – I was surprised that he still remembered conversations we had during his freshmen year!

The relationships we build with students can create  life-long “positive” effects, but most importantly we have an impact in students fulfilling their long-term goals and their dreams.

We are Verbum Dei!