Big Changes Coming to Mustard Seed Training!

tl;dr:

Hello, loyal friends! It’s been 10 years since I started Farrell Ink! Wow!

In the past decade, I have encountered thousands of adult education students and teachers working hard to advance their career and educational goals. I saw administrators, teachers, and students become advocates for themselves to improve HSE exams, career prep curricula, and adult education programs.

Reading Out Loud

As a teacher myself, I enjoyed researching solutions to some of our stickiest educational issues, and sharing them on this blog! This website has been the core of my digital presence for the past decade, so I plan to leave my existing posts as a reference for adult learners and educators.

However, my new business, Mustard Seed Training, is going in a different direction and I need to switch web platforms to accommodate.

All posts will stay up, but by next year, this site will revert to a basic, free WordPress blog.

In addition to my career in adult literacy, for the past 10 years I have also been volunteering as a catechist, i.e. teaching religious education. It started with formation in a Montessori-based method called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). This method teaches adults how listen to God with children.

So… what is Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)?

Catechesis = Latin for “the process of forming disciples of Christ”

CGS was developed in Italy by Sofia Cavaletti and Gianna Gobbi over many years of teaching and observing children. It is based on the Montessori method with a multi-level classroom environment called the “Atrium.” Cavaletti and Gobbi identified key scripture verses, prayers, and elements of worship that connect with children’s spirituality at various developmental stages, and then created hands-on materials that allow children to “work” at their own pace.

Though it all started in an Italian, Roman Catholic setting 50 years ago, the method has been translated to languages and cultures around the world. It has also been adapted to various Christian denominations, as it highlights the key elements of faith that we share even though some of our practices are different.

My favorite part is the way the Montessori method in general emphasizes empathy and social-emotional learning, which builds a strong moral foundation for life.

I hope you see why I love it so much!

Mustard Seed Training formed two years ago to serve fellow CGS catechists and turn a ministry into a career. However, it has taken me this long to figure out: What does that look like, specifically?

At a formation this past summer, the National Association for CGS shared two big needs of fellow catechists: crafting custom wooden materials, and adult faith formation.

What are the materials needed for CGS?

Um, it varies… based on the catechist and location.

CGS is not like other curricula. It’s not a kit you can buy in a store or implement by reading a teacher’s guide.

It requires physical work and mental decisions on the part of the catechist about what objects are most essential and available in their context. It is intentionally this way, to force adults to develop themselves and their space in preparation for encountering the child.

The method is also extremely adaptable to various budget and size restrictions. You can put together a DIY program with found objects and donations, or you can buy individual sets for hundreds of dollars. Even with the cost of buying materials, over the long term this approach actually saves money over the annual textbook or app subscription costs.

Let’s take, for example, the Good Shepherd parable which young children find so attractive. Here is one version of the Good Shepherd materials:

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The children love when the shepherd finds the lost sheep and carries it home on his shoulders, rejoicing. Children will repeat this activity over and over again with great focus and joy. As they deepen their abstract thinking, they are able to enter in to some of the more challenging questions posed by the parable:

  • Who is the Good Shepherd?
  • Why did the sheep get lost?
  • Could this parable be talking about me?

The method involves dozens of such standardized activities for children ranging from 3-12 years old. Many catechists are continuing experimentation and observation with 0-3 year olds and 12-18 year olds. My long-term goal is to extend this into standardized materials for adults, particularly those new to a parish community (called RCIA or “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults”).

When I moved from Cleveland to Jefferson, Ohio, I helped my new parish get started with this method for 3-6 year olds. During the process, I got to use some of my woodworking skills (thank you, shop class!) to create materials we needed. Thinking I would save time, I also ordered some materials online, and experienced long wait lists from the few woodworkers who serve this growing national market.

Being in process of creating materials for my own local program, I realized that I am fortunate enough to already have the tools and skills to serve other catechists who need materials. So basically, I’m going to become a carpenter!

Where can you find me?

I’ll be building my new online blog/shop at MustSeed.org (currently redirects here)

Please join my “Catechists’ Corner” Facebook group or follow my Facebook page.

I’ll start off by recommending high quality materials that can be used for CGS and are readily available on Amazon. For example, you can find beeswax candles for a model altar, lovely writing paper for prayer cards, or a shepherd reacting to an angel by Fontanini.

In addition to recommending materials, I plan to make wooden sets as well. In the level 1 curriculum for 3-6 year olds, there are 24 standardized, unique-to-CGS wooden sets that you won’t find at WalMart or Amazon. The demand for CGS materials is only growing, and I am eager to pray over materials as I build them. It would be a blessing to turn my ministry into a career.

So what’s next?

Over the next few months, I plan to figure out sources for wood, create templates, develop a process for manufacturing and shipping, and build up some initial inventory. I’m also doing market research on which custom CGS materials are in highest demand. If you have an opinion on which materials YOU need, please let me know! I’m happy to take requests.

Thank you!! I greatly value your friendship, interest, and support for advancing adult education, and hope many of you will be interested in staying connected through this transition.

2018 100 Book Challenge Update

Where are you in your 2018 Book Challenge? Join me on GoodReads to track your progress.

To support Henderson Memorial Public Library, I signed up this year for the ICON 100 Book Challenge. Yikes! Posting reviews on YouTube Live kept getting shut down midstream, so GoodReads is the place to follow along.

While nearing the halfway mark, and want to highlight some of my favorites so far (in no particular order):

Thrawn & Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

If you’ve memorized the original Star Wars movie trilogy, Timothy Zahn’s work is extremely satisfying. He is adept at maintaining a wide range of delightful characters’ voices, while keeping a fast-paced plot moving and tightly focused. Just like with Darth Vader, Thrawn is written as the villain you love to hate: terrifyingly skilled, yet somehow still has a human (Chiss?) heart underneath it all, buried very deep. The juxtaposition of Thrawn with other beloved Star Wars characters such as Padme Amidala and Grand Moff Tarkin is brilliantly written.

I think in some ways, Thrawn is an autobiographical portrait of the author in terms of his ability to outthink everyone around them in ways that are awe-inspiring, instead of condescending. These newest additions to the bookshelves will have even more Star Wars geeks screaming to see Thrawn on the screen.

At one point, a stormtrooper reflects on Grand Admiral Thrawn’s leadership style: “If he lasted long enough, maybe those lessons would someday become the military standard. If that happened, he suspected, the Empire would stand forever.”

The Star Wars Empire, anyway.

Child in the Church, edited by E.M. Standing

This collection of essays documents the early experiments in applying Montessori’s educational methods to catechesis (religious education). The ideas are practical, refreshing, and inspiring. If you’ve participated in formation for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and want to go deeper, I highly recommend this book.

The Story of Job, retold by Regina Doman, illustrated by Ben Hatke

The best commentary on Job & the problem of evil I’ve ever encountered, in a format understandable even by elementary-age children. Read it.

Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Part storytelling, part sociological analysis, Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments are worth reading all the way to the end, even if you come to differing conclusions. If I were forced to recommend just one chapter, I would make “Seven Seconds in the Bronx” required reading. This is one of those books that might actually save lives.

Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz

Montessori children come with the same personalities, challenges, delays, and absurdities as other humans. This book confirms it.

Whether you’re in a Montessori environment or not, this book contains a series of valuable vignettes about developing an inclusive community among children. I have to warn potential readers, though, that the book turns into an argument for Montessori method first and only. If you can tolerate the constant digs against non-Montessori educators, the beautiful descriptions and creative solutions are well worth the read.

2018 Book Challenge #2: The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

New book review available! I’ve enjoyed KK.com for a while, and finally finished this longer work on the verbs that HUMANS will be doing in our new digital age. I’m having a little trouble with YouTube Live, so there’s a delay in posting, but I have a third book review video hopefully processing now on Little Book of Conflict Transformation by John Paul Lederach. I’m also in the process of reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and Laudato Si by Pope Francis.

Please support this read-a-thon by subscribing to the YouTube playlist and sending a donation to Henderson Library Association, 54 E Jefferson St, Jefferson, OH 44047.

Is Hallowe’en a Christian Holiday?

Short answer: It can be.

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The word “Hallowe’en” comes from “All Hallows Eve.”

Hallowed means holy, as in “hallowed be thy name.”
Thus “All Hallows” is another way to say “All the Holies” aka “All Saints Day” which is celebrated on November 1st.
 
Since we can’t possibly know all of the people who are in heaven, we lump them all together into All Saints Day.
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But why All Hallows’ EVE?

Just like Star Wars and Apple fans like to line up on the night before the actual release date, Catholics just can’t wait for the actual day of something. We have all these “Vigil” days where we celebrate the evening before, often with crazy outfits and candles and sometimes even prayers, hence “All Hallows’ Eve.”
 
But we don’t just remember all the holy people!
There’s evil in the world, too.
Just turn on the news and it’s in your face.
On the Eve of All Hallows, we remember that everyone–saint or otherwise–has a choice between good and evil.

And obviously, the best way to purge your evil desires is to dress like a demon and scare people, right?

(Side note: there’s a psychological and sociological benefit to “purging” rituals where you create a safe space to vent your undesired urgings. Another great Christian example of this purging is “Carnival” or “Fat Tuesday” where you party before Ash Wednesday and Lent.)
Thus beyond the superficial “trick or treat” of Halloween is the potential for a real spiritual message.
Each of us has a very real choice of being “tricked” into hatred, vice and death or choosing to “treat” one another as loving neighbors.
Some folks claim Hallowe’en is not a Christian holiday because it was intentionally celebrated at the same time as the pagan fall harvest festivals.
There is truth to that claim.
But if you can’t celebrate Hallowe’en, then you need to remember that every single Christian holiday has the same problem.
  • Easter was originally during the Jewish liberation feast of Passover. As Christianity spread it co-opted the eggs and rabbits from the Babylonian goddess of the Sun, Ishtar, among other traditions.
  • Christmas was celebrated during the Roman feast of Saturnalia. As Christianity spread, it co-opted various winter solstice traditions from around the Northern hemisphere.

You see, Christianity is in many ways the least original religion of all time. It comes in to new spaces, and says, “Oh hey, tell me more about that. That’s pretty cool. Here’s how I would do that in light of my relationship with Jesus…”

Christianity tends to be counter-cultural…

…but that doesn’t mean culture-destroying.

Not all Christians have been gentle, but I would argue that Christianity has largely spread as an organic force, just as Jesus described: a seed that grows, a yeast that rises within. Organic cultural contact is an irrevocable element of being human, and an inevitable part of being religious.

Still, there are limits when “organic” turns to “toxic.” Christianity can only grow as long as it values and redeems the lives and symbols and societies it touches.

Following Jesus does change everything!

But that change comes by transforming our lives with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, not merely by external traditions (or their rejection).

I get this idea from the way Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as:

  • yeast in the dough
  • salt (a preservative)
  • a seed that grows hidden in the earth
  • a treasure hidden in a field
In light of this “hidden treasure,” how would Jesus view Halloween as it is practiced today?
I imagine He would chide some of its excesses (I mean, do we really need to make every female costume “sexy”?).
But would He declare every last decoration and celebration as inherently evil? I don’t think so. He might even turn some apple juice into hard cider.
Jesus could have created armies from his followers, but He did not choose to dominate and conquer Herod or Pilate or Caesar. Instead He asks us to repent of our own free will. He asks us to choose to return to the path of forgiveness and mercy.
Sometimes the people in authority listen, sometimes not, and all the time imperfectly. That’s why He reminds us not just to follow outer laws, but to reform our inner law and motivations:

Love God with all your mind, heart and strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

But we struggle to live that out in our every day choices.
Which explains why All Souls’ Day (or Dia de los Muertos) follows All Saints Day and All Hallows’ Eve (aka Hallowe’en).

Because not all the dead are holy.

On Oct 31st we remember evil,

on Nov 1st we revere holiness,

and on Nov 2nd we remember all our beloved dead.

We remember the Most of Humanity who left this world somewhere in between, those who made good and bad choices in this life.
These three holidays challenge us to remember and pray for All Souls, known and unknown.

So is Hallowe’en a Christian holiday? It can be.

Like any day of the year, it can be thoroughly secular: lived only for the material goods of costumes and candy and decorations.
But if you want to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve as a Christian holiday, then I say “Trick or Treat,” friends.
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Avoid the tricks of evil, and treat each other well.

Christians have many hundreds of years of Hallowe’en traditions to draw from, so enjoy wearing costumes, purging inner demons, and sharing the sweetness of neighborly hospitality.
As you enjoy, I also invite you to join me in the challenge of remembering the central Christian message of this day, and passing it on to our children:

YOU have the choice between good or evil, between love or hatred of neighbor, between worship or mockery of God.

When we remember the dead, holy or not, we remember our own mortality, that we have one brief and beautiful life in which to choose our path.
 
May you have a Blessed All Hallows’ Eve. And may all your days be blessed.

If I Ran the School: Blended Learning

If you ran a school for at-risk teens or non-traditional adult learners, what would you do?

I’ve been fortunate to work in adult education, where this question gets asked daily. What do you do when 100% of your students have the most barriers to learning, and a bad taste in their mouths?

What works, and what doesn’t?

I would focus on two words:

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Next week, I am facilitating a live course about BLENDED LEARNING for Virginia Department of Corrections educators. 

Want to join us? Sign up for details about how to follow along online!

Tell Me More

Here’s a closer look at common adult education program structures (and why I think blended learning is the best):

Business as Usual: Face-to-face Instruction

No matter your student population, some teachers are all about classic face-to-face group instruction:

  • lecture,
  • textbooks,
  • long videos,
  • and now many students ignoring it all in lieu of cell phones…

Okay, Ferris Bueller is a super exaggeration. I mean, I have seen some really excellent group instruction: engaging, interactive, relevant. But… it’s still face-to-face group instruction.

“What’s wrong with business as usual?” you ask.

Well…if you miss a day, you’re behind. Or you show up, but you don’t understand it, you’re behind. Guess what? Most at-risk students already start BEHIND!

Actually, the truth is that a slim majority of high school students actually pass with business a usual. At least, they graduate.

But I’m not worried about “most students,” and neither are you. We’re worried about the ones who didn’t get it the first time, the ones who fall through the cracks.

What alternative programs do high schools or adult education classes offer for the large minority of students who do not succeed in traditional face-to-face group instruction? How do they stack up against 

Worst Outcomes: Self-Paced Online Learning

A few years back, some members of the educational press were crowing that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were going to be The Golden Ticket that was going to FIX education!

As predicted, MOOCs did not fix business as usual… follow up studies showed that only 10% of students who enrolled completed a MOOC.

These outcomes could be improved by adding elements of faciliated coursework. But that required removing the Massive and Open parts of a MOOC. Then it’s just an OC (online course), and stops being entirely self-paced.

The high school where I worked fell into a similar trap as MOOCs. The district offered online learning for students with barriers:

  • teens who had babies,
  • were ill for extended periods, or
  • their behavior was too disruptive.

Most of the at-risk online students didn’t have the discipline to complete their coursework. For the 10% of motivated, self-paced learners, online learning is critical.

But purely online learning needs additional support, not less than traditional teaching. It works well for traveling artists & athletes, not discipline cases.

Moderate Success: Dual Enrollment

With the merger of workforce development and adult basic education through WIOA, career pathways are all the rage.

Dual enrollment combines high school level study with post-secondary credentials.

Technical training, classes at a local college campus, and supervised work-study tend to help students persist in learning, and give them a head start on productive careers.

There are plenty of data backing up the effectiveness of these programs for those who enroll.

Men in ties in a carpentry workshop
Returned soldiers at vocational training in Queensland, 1920

So why aren’t they top on my list?

These approaches are not scalable because enrollment is limited.

And limited enrollment is a good thing! Specialized technical training is not for everyone, especially when we’re preparing people for jobs that won’t exist a decade from now.

On top of that, the students with the most barriers–OUR adult basic education students–are often the least likely to benefit from highly structured programs.

Best Solution: Blended Learning

What can we do? 

How can we consistently improve outcomes for adult education or alternative high school programs?

How do we reach the at-risk adults and teens who lack:

  • the stability for dual enrollment programs,
  • the discipline for self-paced online learning, and
  • the attention span for face-to-face instruction?

We throw in a mix of each with blended learning!

Blended learning combines face-to-face, instructor-led programs with self-paced student use of technology.

Multiple pathways are accessible for students in the same building. Through online learning, students can engage the world… while maintaining the support and continuity of instructor oversight.

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Vulnerable students of all ages need genuine human connection to successfully graduate.

But they also need the flexibility and autonomy to make their own choices, and accommodate the messiness of life.

Graduate schools have figured this out: they are expanding their reach by adding flexible, blended learning programs that encourage individual inquiry while developing a community of scholars.

Those at “the top” of their careers share the same barriers as those who are most vulnerable:

  • unpredictable schedules,
  • work and family responsibilities,
  • need for increased support, and
  • an inability to participate in an immersive on-campus experience.

Blended learning meets all those needs, plus it’s scalable. Thus blended learning is the optimal solution to prepare at-risk high-school-level graduates for a 21st century economy.

Graduates will be entering a world that mixes:

  • oversight and autonomy,
  • independence and teamwork, &
  • technology and human connection.

Blended learning prepares students for the “both… and” aspect of our strange new world.

“Blended learning is the optimal solution… for a 21st century economy.”

Next week I look forward to discussing the details of how to implement blended learning in adult education programs. I hope you can join us!

 

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Why Do Rainbows Remind Us of the Dead?

Like grass withers in circles in a field, sometimes we come to a season when it feels like people are dying all around us. In truth, people are dying every day. But in these past couple weeks, I feel the breeze from death’s scythe circling me as people I know are cut down in their prime.

On those days, clouds cover my heart.

Death and rainbows have been a theme of this week. After the spring storms flooding Northeast Ohio, social media is flooded with pictures of refracted light and attributions to the beloved deceased.

What is it about these bright, thin glimpses of color that remind us of our loved ones who have gone before us?

Monday, Memorial Day in the US, was a Rainbow Day. It’s already marked off as a day to barbeque and remember the dead. On top of that Ron Cramer of Jefferson fame had a fatal heart attack while running a 5K, an experience he survived exactly four years ago.

Ron leaning against a stone cross in a graveyard
Ron Cramer

The news added a litany of stories to our extended family gathering, and I just got quiet (which is very out of character!). That evening, our immediate family went cycling, training for a long distance bike ride. Rain was forecast, so we put on our raincoats.

Instead of asking not to bike, our boys wanted to get wet. They laughed about “getting skunked” by the water sprays that soaked their butts. We peddled through a sunshower, when the warmth was on our backs, but heavy drops still peppered our faces.

Then we came out the other side of the storm to a rainbow.

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Double rainbow by Wikimedia user Lauri Kosonen

A rainbow by itself is just color, a distortion or mirage. We can’t touch it, but it reveals a hidden truth about the spectrum of light that is hidden from our eyes on ordinary days.

I believe it is the experience of a rainbow that reminds us of dying.

It is the experience of peddling hard through a storm, and being rewarded with beauty on the other side. It reminds us how to be grateful for things that can’t last.

The death of a friend reveals something to us that is usually hidden in our workaday world: that the spectrum of life is more than the sum of our works.

Simple drawing of a rainbow

It hints that there is something more, something deeper. There is something in a human life that disappears as soon as we try to touch it or put in in a box, but that stays with us long after the mirage has faded.

I found myself singing:

“Alleluia, the great storm is over,
Lift up your wings and fly.”

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes also put this experience into verse (12:1,5,7):

Remember your creator in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come,
when one is afraid of heights,
and terrors are in the road;
the almond tree blossoms,
the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails;
because all must go to their eternal home,
and the mourners will go about the streets,
and the dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the breath returns to God who gave it.

Grief is a storm that comes in waves. But when mourners gather, we do so to remember the vanity of life with gratitude, and with a hope that at the end, there will be rainbows.

Daily Reading: Celebrating Our Adoption Day!

This morning, I got to read one of my favorite verses in scripture. The first reading is from Acts 15, when the early Christian communities have gathered in Jerusalem to deal with one of the biggest controversies in the early Church. As you may have figured out by now, I love to study controversy, and am particularly fascinated by peaceful ways to address them. Whenever I see a “success story” of people taking a topic head-on and growing together, I pick it apart.

I love this passage, because it tells us a lot about HOW the Apostles and early community dealt with controversy. Today we start with a debate. But what are they debating? Who is debating? And why?

They are:

  1. In Jerusalem. After Jesus’ death & resurrection, this became the center of activity for those who believed His Good News.
  2. The Apostles and presbyters. Presbyters are the first Christian priests, who are different from the temple priests, or hierus–although some of the temple priests have also joined this “Christian” movement.
  3. Representatives from all the churches. As the Apostles have gone out in the world to proclaim the Way, they all came together to debate and resolve this major conflict. These include what would latter become known as “deacons” and “lay-people,” and sets the precedent for the Ecumenical Councils that we now hold when worldwide controversies need to be addressed. I could say a lot more about this.
  4. Jews. All of the people who had gathered were either raised Jewish or converts to Judaism. Non-Jews were called “Gentiles,” and their status in the growing community is the topic of discussion.

So basically, more and more Gentiles (non-Jews) want to be baptized. Woohoo, right? Isn’t this what Jesus told them would happen? But those Gentiles are hoping they can opt out of full conversion to Judaism, which means being circumcision as adults, strict kosher laws, and other lifestyle obligations.

So we start this text by asking what we should always ask:

Who is “us”?

 

Peter addresses the group by saying that God “made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts.”

“Us” here means Jews, who observe the ritual purity laws, and also believe and proclaim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, living in the tradition of Moses, and raised from the line of David.

“Them” means everyone else who also has faith in Jesus.

Eventually, the group said “yes,” Gentiles can join the Family. But only after listening to all sides of the argument, to appeals from the prophets, and from lived experience. This process is what fostered agreement, and maintained unity.

The Apostles and presbyters and representatives from all the congregations remained in their Jewish traditions, which they loved and valued. They continued observing the Sabbath and eating kosher. But they decided at this point to allow others a simpler lifestyle, recognizing that the traditions of their ancestors were not the Way of salvation. And the missionary Apostles also would eat with these Gentiles, new to the faith, as a sign of unity.

The underlying issue here was a question of purity. To approach God, one had to be without SIN, which are impurities. All the ritual acts of daily life (washing, eating) combined with the temple duties (circumcision, sacrifice) were designed to purify bodies and hearts to approach a God who is truly pure.

Some Christians interpret this passage as a total negation of everything that came before, as if the Apostles suddenly became Christians and denied any Jewish traditions or rituals. But the text doesn’t support that. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James still went on to observe the Jewish holidays, attend the Synagogues and Temples, and follow their own traditions.

But they recognized that these practices are only good in-so-far as they accomplish their purpose of purifying our hearts. There is still a basic foundation of practices that the Ecumenical Councils proclaim as a “Christian lifestyle,” but it’s not as all-encompassing or strict as many would proclaim. One baptism for the forgiveness of sins, weekly worship, annual Confession and Eucharist, and chastity in singleness or marriage… Those are the big ones.

So what about the rest of the trappings? What about stuff like Bible studies, and Youth Groups, and what languages you speak, and the clothes you wear, and the hymns you sing? Do those need to be in conformity as well?

Indeed, in today’s reading, Psalm 96 answers that question:

“Sing to the LORD a new song,

Sing to the LORD all you lands,”

This decision to open up the Christian Way beyond the confines of Judaism is not a denial of Judaism and Jewish traditions. But nor does it elevate some other Tradition in its place. Every new culture and tradition that enters this Family offers a new song of praise. When I read these passages together, which is the purpose of the daily readings, I think they say something more than each passage on its own.

This pivotal moment, the moment of the Gentile adoption into the Jewish-Christian movement, offers non-Jews an opportunity to become part of a larger, global network and community. But it does not require total conformity to one global lifestyle. Beyond the basics, non-Jews have the option of following other cultural traditions, and to even branch out with creativity to “sing a new song.”

This decision challenges me not to grow complacent in my comfort zone. Like the Apostles, I need to be willing to commit to annual traditions and daily spiritual practices that I find life-giving. And I also need the courage to recognize the Holy Spirit at work in others, that my Way and their Way can work together. The true test of our unity is whether we can commit to each other, and support each other on the different task to purify our hearts. Then we will truly become “God’s people.”

Then “us” and “them” becomes just “us.”

Sister’s Secret: Victoria’s Got Nothing on Us!

Confession: This summer, I became known as “the underwear lady.”

Quick links:

Picture this:

700 people at round tables in a banquet room in Orlando, Florida. The tables are tastefully decorated with white tablecloths, seeds from around the country, and green and blue ribbons that matched the event logo projected on five giant screens. Muggy day outside, chilly air conditioning inside. 75% of the room are vowed Sisters of St Joseph, the rest are partners committed to their ministry of reconciliation between neighbors, and with God.

Each table is surrounded by 7-8 people mixed from congregations across the United States, with a few international partners sprinkled in, for the 50th anniversary CSSJ Federation Event.

They are all looking at a microphone set up in the middle of the room.

“Hi, I’m Meagen, an Associate from Cleveland, Ohio. I want to talk to you about underwear.”

We have just looked together at “a series of pictures” from Sister Mary Johnson, SND. As a sociologist, she used charts to describe the current generation of Roman Catholics in the U.S., particularly religious sisters.

How can we prepare ourselves to receive our new reality?

I propose we buy underwear.

Before I explain why, I should start with some history that I took for granted my audience already knew (and most of them lived).

Once upon a time, religious congregations bought underwear for all their members. Not just underwear… all their clothes! Habits were mandated.

But at this year’s U.S. Federation Event, we had 700 Sisters and partners who all bought clothes separately. I asked myself: How much buying power could we have by banding together again?

And would this room of religious sisters be willing? Some would consider such a move as “going backwards” towards an era of top-down conformity, into “uniforms” that unnecessarily separated Sisters from those they served.

After Sr Mary’s presentation on the history, we were challenged by panelist (and my friend) Erin McDonald, CSJ to pursue “holy recklessness” and follow the Holy Spirit into new places.

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To take it a step further, I think some of those “new places” may mean revisiting “old places” with new eyes. Sr Mary Johnson also challenged the audience to look at “traditional” practices in fresh ways…through the perspective of young adults. 

Let’s take habits: Most of the Sisters of St Joseph do not wear them, and are not shy about explaining why. Senior sisters describe the physical and emotional discomfort caused by the layers of garb. They joke about their challenges with the once-a-year cleaning and weekly starching, often with a bitter laughter.

But many younger adults consider habits and other “traditional” liturgical garb as a way to serve in a visible way. One young habit-wearing woman at the conference wore a light and functional utili-skirt, pockets and all. Many young Christians and Catholics don’t want to blend in…we want to embrace the countercultural challenge of the Gospel! For some, they can do this in a very vidible way by wearing a habit. Unfortunately, the younger generation’s “return to the habit” is used by some commentators as a threat to chastise older sisters for their enthusiastic embrace of the reforms of Vatican II and shedding “the veil.”

In the 1970s, our now-senior sisters embraced their “active” vocation when asked to research and return to their roots. Sisters of St Joseph are called to the streets! Their mission is to spread out and “divide the city,” to love the dear neighbor without distinction, to promote union of neighbor with God, and reconciliation of neighbor with neighbor.

You can see the change in clothing, along with the recovery of the unique SSJ mission and spirituality, in the 50 year retrospective video played at the closing banquet:

Our panelists pointed out that the charism of unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. But…they challenged the audience to give ourselves permission to be visible when it’s appropriate. We don’t have to erase our differences to embrace the dear neighbor.

“Please don’t tell me you don’t see color when you look at me,” asked the panelist Meyer Chambers. “My mother and father gave me this beautiful color.”

unnamed

To rephrase Meyer’s words…it was Jesus and the Holy Spirit that gave the Sisters their beautiful vows and charism! Listening to the entering generation of women religious, the SSJs are being challenged to stand out at times, especially to be loud and proud about the countercultural nature of their vows. Religious women combat society’s worship of money, sex, and power with the threefold vows of poverty (simple living), chastity, and obedience (mutual self-giving). That’s pretty cool!

“Women religious…are being challenged…to be loud and proud about the countercultural nature of their vows.”

Guess what, Sisters of St Joseph! I want to see your beautiful vocation when I look at you! It’s a gift from God. And when I see another partner in mission, I want to see a connection. Visibility, whether it is from the color of your skin or the clothes you wear, does not have to be uncomfortable…if it is a sign of relationship and connection.

In the spirit of unity, how do we embrace both realities? How do we encourage a new generation of Sisters and Associates, many of whom feel called to be more visible? Who see themselves as committing to a countercultural community? Who long for justice, prayer…and comfortable clothes?

My idea is simple: Let us pursue justice by paying attention to our clothes.

Let’s use our buying power to promote fair labor and sustainable materials! Let’s promote our countercultural charism of unity by branding ourselves at the same time.

It’s easier these days to find fair trade gifts, coffee, and t-shirts… but what about everyday purchases like underwear? What about church clothes? I am a lector at my parish, and would love to wear a dress or business casual in liturgical colors when I read. I have yet to find a simple, appropriate green dress that I am also sure is made with fair labor and sustainable material. Or a fair trade, feminine, purple polo shirt!

That’s the long form version of my mildly silly, hopefully practical, and perhaps bigger-than-my-britches idea. Someone called it “Sisters’ Secret: Victoria’s Got Nothing on Us!”

“Let’s use our buying power to promote fair labor and sustainable materials!”

My assigned small group, Table 56, laughed appreciatively and encouraged me to share at the open mic. (Look for “undie 56” in my upcoming clothing line! Just kidding) I tried to briefly suggest to 700 people that we should make our charism visible by branding ourselves with fair trade, eco-friendly clothing.

I suggested taking the lovely swirling blue and green logo for the 50th anniversary Federation event as branding, and to allow partners in ministry like myself to identify ourselves as committed to the SSJ mission. But we probably need to ensure that the Sisters can maintain their unique identity, to be loud and proud about their vows. Because vows are special and valuable for all of us.

CSSJ event logo 2016

I was not so eloquent at the mic as I’ve had the time to be in this article. 700 people in the banquet hall quietly, politely, looked at me blankly, many of them wondering why I was still at the mic talking about underwear. So I quietly, politely, went back to my table.

But that’s not the end!

In line for dinner, I was approached by someone who was told she had to talk to me. She’s in charge of creating a social enterprise for clothing manufacturing for the Sisters of St Joseph in Concordia, Kansas. They are currently teaching local, underemployed women to sew (they’re starting with scrubs). Next step is to teach their job seekers sewing manufacturing, to be eligible for jobs in local factories. The third stage will be to develop their own facility to employ their graduates, and are talking to some of the health systems run by the Sisters about selling scrubs in bulk.

Wow!

Adult literacy, workforce development, fair labor, and faith-based social justice, all in one place! I love the Sisters of St Joseph!

See how this stuff all intersects?

By day 3 of the conference, everybody was talking about labor trafficking, and how to promote fair food in solidarity with workers.

Throughout the conference, more people in conversations shared their ideas, suggestions, and stories with me. Some funny clips:

  • “The Holy Sock”: when you do good deeds, don’t let the left foot know what your right foot is doing!
  • Lace-making retreats bring folks back to the Sisters’ roots as contemplative lace-makers… maybe a lace underwear retreat should be next?!
  • A Sister in West Virginia is advocating for pilots to grow hemp to repair the land after strip mining. She is excited about (agricultural) hemp because it requires fewer resources than cotton.

Table 56 kept returning to the underwear idea. By the end of our event, the hilarious and wide-ranging possibilities for eco-friendly, fair labor, and branded clothing was spreading. The more we talked, the more the idea made sense! Well, maybe not to all 700 attendees, but to several dozen people, at least. Maybe you are one of them?

Now that you want to pay more attention to your everyday clothes, what can you do about it?

[Quick links: CSSJ Federation Event 2016, Event Banquet VideoEsperanza Threads, PACT women’s apparel, Fundraise with Spreadshirt, CIW’s Fair Food Shirts, Cruelty Free Clothing Guide]

A few suggestions:

Show support for Cleveland with Esperanza Threads!

You can get your Cleveland skyline t-shirt, show your love for Cleveland sports, or purchase a soft, cotton meditation robe. Esperanza Threads teaches employability and sewing skills and sells comfortable, organic cotton products. Since 2010, they have worked with Migration and Refugee Services to help new residents learn a trade.

adult-Cleveland-Skyline-t-shirt-1

Personally, I’m in the market for some new towels, and look forward to buying from Esperanza Threads.

Buy fair trade, organic cotton clothes from PACT

PACT is the only brand on Amazon I could find with consistently organic and fair trade cotton products. Note: links to Amazon are through the affiliate program.

They make socks, underwear, shirts, leggings, hoodies, and even a super-soft maxi dress. If you find this dress in forest green (for ordinary time), let me know. I’ll buy six!

31dAXm7RfNL._AC_US200_

Brand YOUR Religious Community or Social Enterprise with Spreadshirt

Coalition for Immokalee Workers promote their Fair Food campaign (more on that later) with an online t-shirt store through Spreadshirt. Since promoting fair labor is their mission, I tend to trust their judgment that at the shirts on their site meet their fair labor requirements. They offer several colors, but only the organic cotton and American Apparel tee shirts. I am curious to hear their appraisal of the other products offered by Spreadshirt.

FairFoodTeeShirt

So how can you get started? First, work with your skilled artists to create your branding logos and icons. Upload your artwork, and let Spreadshirt manage the money, production & shipping for you!

Spreadshirt also offers a responsibility statement that you can use to start discussions with your marketing/branding team.

Check Out the Guide to Cruelty-Free Clothing… and Those Who Aren’t

One Green Planet’s guide includes Esperanza Threads, and a whole lot more. Whether you are printing t-shirts for your sports team or shopping for a high class gala, you can find something in your size and price range on this list.

But what I really like is their list of those who should be added.

This week really drove home the power of consumer pressure in bringing about change. Years ago, I had heard that Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) had a “boot the Bell” campaign. They convinced college students to stop buying from Taco Bell until the fast food chain agreed to purchase their tomatoes from fair labor farms. I also heard for many years that Taco Bell was dismissive and resistant.

What hadn’t made it back into my news feed was that eventually Taco Bell and their parent company, YUM! Foods, realized they were losing tens of thousands of dollars a year from a generation of boycotting students and graduates.

FFP_Logo_Final

They agreed to participate in the Fair Foods program! CIW won! The Fair Food label now represents an award-winning workplace monitoring program that insures workers receive the “one penny more” bonus from participating purchasers and just working conditions. CIW is hoping to branch into strawberries and peppers next. They’re even in WalMart!

But WalMart is NOT on the list for sweat free clothing. And unfortunately, Fair Food tomatoes are not yet sold in ALDI, Giant Eagle, Wendy’s, or any number of stores where I have shopped and worked. We have work to do with our dollars!

Thankfully, I have relationships with employees and managers that I can approach with the question: “Did you know we have an opportunity to support fair labor?”

Hitting the pocketbook helps, but it’s not enough. We need to respectfully discuss and advocate for fair labor for everyday products in every store. The Federation is also investing in the companies that need to change, like Ohio-based Wendy’s, then using their stakeholder power to get worker-advocates to the table. To change social structures, you need people on the inside willing to open the door and listen.

With this list of shopping choices, you can help! As the song croons, do you “like a girl who wears Abercrombie and Fitch?” Let her know that she can ask for better from her retailer. Our supply chains should be channels for mutual compassion and resource exchange, not chains of modern day slavery.

How will you be loud & proud about your vocation today?

What DO You Do All Day, Meagen?

“You’re a house-sitter, Mom, because you sit in the house all day!” That’s my four-year-old’s understanding of working from home.

When I was a kid, my Dad worked from home for IBM. On conference calls, he would wear a hands-free headset while watering plants or doing dishes. My brother joked that Dad’s job was, “Yelling at plants.”

Today my own family is just as mystified by what I do up in my attic office, and maybe you are curious, too, Farrell Scholars.

Attic OfficeI have two jobs: Teacher Trainer and Instructional Designer

TEACHER TRAINER

The easiest way to explain my job is online teaching. Thanks to phones, email, and video conferencing, I can teach without being physically in the room with my students.

My “students” are teachers and administrators who are using computer-based products for adult education. The company I work for, Essential Education, is based in Corvallis, Oregon.

Here’s a picture of Global Headquarters! This is “The Vatican” of Essential Education, where my awesome Boss works and decisions get made!

Office BuildingInside, you are greeted by a cardboard cut-out of Leonard, the teacher character who is the virtual voice and face of all of our programs.

Meagen and cardboard cut outI visited Oregon once, but I live in Ohio.

Our customers are located all over the U.S. and we’re branching into international markets. We’re making headway in South Africa, but I haven’t been invited there…yet!

When an adult literacy organization purchases one of our products, then I set up their account and help them get started using the product.

Webinar Welcome PageFour times a week I provide interactive webinars for new teachers or customers. Another Teacher Trainer, the fabulous Dr Carmine Stewart, provides one webinar a week.

After the webinars, I provide ongoing support along with the sales reps and our other admin staff. This means I respond to emails and phone calls from teachers and administrators.

Sometimes it’s as simple as logging in for the first time, other times they have questions about program design or how assessments are scored.

Meagen Thinking
Thinking about a customer question

Most days, I only get a few requests but some days the phone is ringing off the hook. I try to clear my inbox every day, too. Customer communication is my first priority, but not my only job.

The rest of the time, I am BUILDING!

INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNER

An instructional designer is a fancy name for a multimedia author. I don’t just write text. I create interactive, online lessons, quizzes, tests, and work with a team to design courses for adult learners.

GED Academy Social Studies
I helped build this!

Right now I am focused on Social Studies with another designer who is based in Hawaii.

We divide up material to be created (right now lots of quizzes and practice tests), and the other team members provide editing and feedback.

Our materials adapt to the student, so the tests and quizzes we’ve been writing create individual learning plans to prepare students in different subjects.

We also share articles and videos about education, technology, and topical issues, discussing perspectives and ways we can incorporate best practices into our work.

My job is similar to Instructional Coordinators or Technical Writing, with a bit of Computer Support Specialist thrown in.

MYTH 1: I work with kids home

Um, no.

True, occasionally me or my co-workers have kids at home during work time. But if you’ve ever met my children, the two of them together are like the Tazmanian devil.  They will tear up the house if I don’t give them my full attention.

Kid yelling with utensils
This is my kid relaxing. No joke.

On the other hand, I’m not tied to my phone and computer 24/7. Some people work like this, but not me. I protect my family time. After-hours calls automatically go to voice mail. When I’m off work, I’m unavailable.

Myth 2: I work part-time

Nope!

My hours are 8:30am to 5:00pm weekdays, and some evenings.

I have to be responsive to the teachers, students, and design team. I have deadlines, meetings, provide trainings, and that definitely adds up to a full-time workload.

If I don’t “show up” or do my assigned work, it’s obvious pretty quickly.

While I’m not in the physical room with the team, they know whether or not I’m “there” on Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, and Dropbox.

Truth: No Snow Days

Since I don’t have to commute, I don’t get snow days or most federal holidays. My office has a nice view of the houses and field across the street.

Snow houses trees
Can you see the SNOW? In March?

So what kind of projects do I work on?

Example 1: Grading Extended Responses

Essential Education is unique among adult education publishers in that our team grades all the Extended Responses that students submit online. I grade on Wednesday mornings, and we typically get 40-60 responses each day.

If I don’t get my responses graded, then it’s quickly obvious to the next in line if they log in and see 30 still to be graded!

Example 2: Tagging and Testing

This month we’re entering tons of metadata on lessons, tests, and quizzes in our new course management system.

It’s data entry–mindless and repetitive–but still engaging because I helped to build what we’re entering.

I do my best to keep myself entertained and focused. A couple weeks ago, I was adding lessons to a unit called “Social Studies Analysis.” To find “Analysis” I got to type “anal” over and over again, 25 times.

So that’s what I do all day: type “anal.” I love my job. No joke!

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