Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Remarkable Teacher, An Even More Remarkable Dad

We each have the opportunity to make a difference in other people's lives. This Physics teacher from a Louisville public high school uses his personal family story to change the lives of his students. 

Sportsmanship Transcends The Game

Basketball, when it is well played, is a beautiful team sport. Sometimes sportsmanship is even more beautiful. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Idea for Improving Math Scores in our Elementary Schools

Catholic elementary schools tend to produce students with much stronger scores in language arts than mathematics. This is generally true in dioceses across the United States.

I have a theory why: More so than public schools--with detailed curricular specifications, a governing bureaucracy that supervises this curriculum and public testing that measures its progress-- Catholic schools are heavily dependent on the interests and talents of our individual teachers to create and deliver the curriculum. This independence, of course, is generally a source of strength for our schools, empowering our faculties with a sense of ownership that encourages a culture of creativity and innovation. 

But in the area of Math, this independence may be problematic. Most elementary teachers have more affinity for language arts than mathematics, and like any of us, we tend to place our energies into what we are good at doing. That doesn’t mean our teachers don’t “cover” what the curriculum requires. It does mean their passion and creativity lean more toward languages than math. And it probably means that the 9- year effect of this “lean” will result in math skills that lag in comparison. 

Short of adopting the public school model, I am pessimistic that new programs or other curricular interventions in our Catholic schools will yield substantially better math results. The issue isn’t one of technique, design, or time on task. Rather, it resides in the natural proclivities of our teachers. 

Sumner Academy, a small but highly regarded K-8 private school in Gallatin, TN ( has a simple solution: It departmentalizes disciplines all the way down to kindergarten. Each “unit” (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) has a math/science teacher, a language arts teacher and a third teacher. Kids stay in one classroom, but the teachers rotate to that classroom. 

Organizing this way allows the school to hire teachers with a genuine love and depth of understanding for math (and science) for each grade level unit, without adding any additional salary costs to the school.  The headmaster of Sumner Academy, Dr. Bill Hovenden, points out additional benefits:

  • There’s better vertical alignment of the K-8 curriculum since it’s a matter of coordinating just three people in each discipline.
  • Since a particular teacher teaches each kid for three years in their particular discipline, he or she begins the year knowing much more about his or her students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • When a teacher is on maternity leave or out for an extended illness, the other two teachers in each unit can guide and support the substitute as the third member of the team. 

Most of the graduates from Sumner Academy attend our high school, so I see their test scores. The math scores are high. The model works. 

Because departmentalization at such a young age violates elementary school orthodoxy, I asked Dr. Hovenden if his kids seemed to have difficulty in adjusting to three teachers instead of one. He answers “no” rather emphatically. In fact, he argues that the trio of teachers can often provide more pastoral, loving support for a child than a single teacher because the teachers can talk as a team about each student, tackle issues together, and build longer term relationships with each student’s family. Students, families and teachers become very close to one another over the course of those three years. 

That's not speculation, he adds. They’ve been doing it this way for over twenty years.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On the Vocation of Teachers

"This is what you can and should do for your students, if you really are zealous for their salvation. Hurry then; take up this work of resurrection, never forgetting that the special end of your institute is, before all, to sanctify youth. It is by this that you will contribute to preparing the world for better times than ours; for these students who now attend your school are parents of the future, the parents of future generations, each one of whom bears within them a family. Influence them, then, by all the means of instruction and sanctification that have just been explained.

Then, and only then, can you hope to attain the end of your vocation by the renewal of the Christian faith and piety. May it be so! May it be so! "

(Father Basil Anthony Moreau, C.S.C., founder,  Congregation of Holy Cross, the founding order of University of Notre Dame).

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Remarkable Woman

It's been a little over a year that my mother in law, Virginia Mayhan, died of congestive heart failure. Her life was a testament to her love for her family and her devotion to her Catholic faith.  

She was married to her husband Al for 53 years before he passed away just a year before she did. Together they had seven children. Al worked in civil service for the Air Force during his career, and progressed to the point of being responsible for hundreds of people, creating stresses that wives, at times, must endure. But she was no shrinking violet! If her husband or her kids needed something and there was no existing way to meet those needs, she created new conditions to make it happen. For example, her two older daughters, Diane and Mary, were athletic, but there were very few athletic outlets for girls in the mid 1970’s in Montgomery, so Virginia created an independent softball league behind Goodwyn Middle School and manned the concession stand each game to pay the umpires and run the league. Eventually, the city of Montgomery realized Virginia was onto something, and opened up softball leagues across the city, leagues which thrive to this day.

And woe to the person who slighted her kids! I like telling the story of my mentor and good friend, Tom Doyle. For over 30 years, the tradition at Montgomery Catholic High School graduations was for the principal to roast each of the graduates. Tom Doyle started that tradition; we did it in tandem as president and principal for 13 years, and then I continued it forward when Tom left.  Catholics in Montgomery were very familiar with the practice and the graduates looked forward to it, but few knew its origin. In May of 1979, then principal Tom learned two hours before graduation that his speaker had canceled. Taking out a paper napkin at a restaurant, he scribbled some remarks for each graduate, and a cherished tradition was borne--except that he inadvertently skipped over one graduate-- my wife, Diane! Virginia was furious, convinced that Tom had done it deliberately. But being a good, Christian woman, she forgave him—about ten years later!  

Virginia was a woman of deep and simple faith, with a special devotion to Mary. She prayed the rosary often, and I know she brought all her worries--about her husband and children, about her brothers and sisters who preceded her in death, about her mother and father, and in those final years, about her own death--to the Lord. With her husband Al she sacrificed to send all seven children of her children to Catholic schools, because they both believed that Catholic schools were important to raising their kids in the faith.  Being in civil service, they moved often in the early years, and she and Al told me the way they picked out a house in a new city was to first find out where the Catholic school was, and then pick a house nearby--to which I often replied, with appreciation, “They don’t make families like you anymore.”

Indeed they don’t.

Virginia battled through a variety of health problems with strong resolve--motivated, I believe, by a love for her family. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980’s, resulting in a mastectomy. Five years later, the cancer re-occurred and she underwent radiation treatment. In the late 1990’s she developed diabetes, and somewhere around 2005 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Though the doctors told our family to “gather” to pay last respects about six years ago, Virginia insisted she "wasn’t going anywhere” until she celebrated her fiftieth anniversary with Al. When that came and went, she declared she wasn’t dying until she attended the wedding of her youngest son, Danny, a year later. After the wedding, she fought on to care for her husband, who was diagnosed late in life with leukemia and kidney failure.  It was only after his death, when she was sure that everyone in her family was accounted for, I think, that she gave herself “permission” to die. But even then, she battled through to her last breath, maintaining a sense of humor in those last days, enjoying the company of her three devoted daughters, Diane, Mary and Rita, and her four sons Albert, Mike, Jim and Danny, who came to visit often. 

Virginia was the fire that lit our family, and I say “our” because from the very beginning, Virginia welcomed me in. When I first got married, I flinched every time I addressed her, not knowing what to call her.  I tried “Mrs. Mayhan” for a while.  “Call me Mom,” she would tell me, smiling.  That was hard for me, because I already had a wonderful mother. So I called her “Virginia” for a number of years after that. “Call me Mom,” she would insist, privately.  At some point over the course of the 26 years I knew her, I guess I began calling her “Mom” without noticing.

It’s been a little over a year now, Mom.  We miss you.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Showing Up

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to students on February 4, 2013.

Recently, I’ve heard a number of your teachers express concern about your absenteeism. Some of you are missing too much school, and teachers tell me it’s hurting your grades.

Before I get into this, let’s make some distinctions about absences: some absences are school related—two Fridays ago, for example, we had about 60 kids absent for March for Life in Washington, D.C. and other 20-25 that were out for the regional swim meet. Some absences are legitimate absences caused by long-term illnesses, such as mono or the flu or short-term health issues, such as migraines. But there’s a third layer of absences that boil down to “I was feeling a little under the weather,” or  “I was really tired and decided to sleep in, “ or “I decided to take a mental health day.”  I‘d like to challenge those of you who might, from time to time, find yourself in this third category.

Do absences really affect grades, or is that just something teachers say?  Let's look at some statistics off Veracross: 

The average grade at this moment at JPII, about one month into the third quarter, is an 85. That’s pretty good: a solid B.

I then pulled the ten of you who have missed the most school this month. Your average is a 73, or twelve points below the school average. That’s a very significant difference.

To understand how significant, I decided to compare that average with the effect that God-given ability might have on your grades.   Since all seniors have taken the ACT test by now, I took the ten seniors who had the lowest composite scores and looked at their GPA compared with the rest of the school, and it was a 79, or C+. 

A twelve percentage point difference for those who miss school often, but only a six percentage point difference for those with lesser ability. On the basis of those statistics, coming to school is apparently twice as important as natural ability. Perhaps this is what Woody Allen meant when he said “70% of life is just showing up.”

While I’m on the subject, let me remind you of our school policy about absenteeism. The state of Tennessee has laws against truancy that all schools, public or private, are compelled to enforce. Our way of doing it is to say you can’t miss more than 35 hours in a semester, excused or unexcused. And we break that up a little further: If you miss more than 2.5 days in a quarter, you’re on pace to exceed the 35 hours and we make you come in for Saturday school to make up for missed time.

Some times there’s confusion as to whether an excused absence or a doctor’s note “exempts” a person from the 35 hour rule. No, it doesn’t.  Both excused and unexcused absences count toward the 35 hours; the difference is whether or not you’re able to make up the work missed, or if the work or tests you take are marked as zeroes.

But aside from truancy laws, the reality is that showing up matters. I suspect you know this already. Getting good grades at JPII is hard enough when you are coming to school every day; it’s much harder when you’re trying to catch up with work that is late and when you’re trying to understand something in class that everyone else seems to understand because they didn’t miss the class before.

If you’re feeling a little under the weather, then, or tired, or a little sick, if you’re not truly sick or truly contagious, come to school any way. In the short run, yeah, it’s tough—much easier to roll over in bed and sleep through the day. But in the long run, you’ll be healthier, happier and end up with much better grades.