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Teaching by Being Taught

By Ad Meskens - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As an institution, De Smet Jesuit High School has exercised a guiding hand in my life since before I can remember. In 1983, the year of my birth, my father accepted a teaching post there before eventually becoming the Dean of Students for the rest of his career, retiring just a few years ago now. I attended school there from 1999 to 2002 where I participated in sundry sports, activities, and classes and, after four years at Loyola University—Chicago, I returned to teach in the English department where I’ve been for the last fifteen years. The De Smet faculty, staff, administration, and student body have all influenced my maturation in just about every facet of my life, but especially as an educator. The school—old enough to have whittle out some rare breathing room amongst the suffocating local competition, but young enough still to evolve with the world around it—the school actually engages with its students in a manner similar to its namesake, Belgian Jesuit priest Pierre-Jean De Smet, the missionary famous for his unconventional-yet-effective work amongst Midwestern, Northwestern, and Canadian Native Americans.

Whereas the stereotype depicts the missionary charging into an unfamiliar territory and correcting the native peoples’ supposedly errant ways, updating their rituals with new-and-improved Christian replacements, De Smet interpreted the Jesuit mission as working with and amongst the people he sought to serve rather than condescending them with heavy-handed customs absent their defining context. He sought first and foremost to learn from the natives, to earn their respect and admiration, to become one of them, to exchange ideas with them rather than to indoctrinate these communities of people he wanted to help. De Smet eventually negotiated on behalf of the Native Americans with the United States government and even inspired from the natives a brace of warm nicknames: “Black Robe,” referring to his attire, and “Friend of Sitting Bull,” a more telling sobriquet that demonstrates his cache amongst even the aggressive adversaries of the Americans’ “Manifest Destiny.” I suppose De Smet taught the Native Americans in a way, but more importantly, he allowed himself to be taught. He entered these tribes with deference instead of harboring any preconceived notions of social or racial superiority. He fostered a community and expanded the works of Christ beyond traditional religious signposts that over time undercut the original message. Christianity, we all know, isn’t just a crucifix.

And school isn’t just a textbook—at least, not anymore. The information the textbook offered in the past—the information the teacher had and the student wanted—that is now free and available at the push of a button; on the phones in their pockets, students can access information faster than any teacher could lecture it out and in greater depth than any textbook could explain it. School now is about skills: What do we do with the information we possess? How do we use our knowledge? These are the questions our students ask when they enter our halls, or, increasingly, our Zoom meetings. On top of that, our students now inhabit and control a territory—that brave new online world of computers and digital technology—that schools only have begun to explore. I believe we as Catholic educators need to plant our flag in this space, but only has Father De Smet would have it: learning from the students about their experiences and utilizing that knowledge to help them appropriate actual skills that apply to their world today and in the future. Only then, when we show the connection between the digital and the actual, will those two domains begin to converge for our students into one recognizable whole.

Ultimately, helping our students make this connection is exactly what attracts me to the collaborative classroom and the Bridges project at AVLI. If administered correctly, the blended learning model has been proven to open new opportunities and awaken new intrinsic motivations for our students, and with AVLI already having developed the network, the philosophy, and the aptitude to push forward in this area, joining their mission was the obvious next step in my career. I look forward to learning from my new colleagues, certainly, as what they have built represents a colossal achievement for education as a whole, let alone Catholic schools; crucially, though, I take my new role as a way to learn more from our students, to help them find and become the best version of themselves rather than dictating what that is or may look like. School isn’t just a textbook. Catholic schools have known this from their inception. And now that the technology has caught up to this belief, I look forward to the challenge of designing and building a blended environment that prepares our students for whatever comes next.


CONTRIBUTOR: Nick Dressler, Director of Collaborative Programming - Arrupe Virtual

vol 3 issue 2


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