Finding God in math class (and physics and English, too)
St. Louis University High School (SLUH), founded in 1818, is the oldest Jesuit secondary school west of the Mississippi River. Recently, Jim Linhares, the school’s assistant principal for mission, invited a group of faculty members from different disciplines to discuss how the Jesuit character of the school influences the way they teach. A video of their discussion can be found below. This excerpt from their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Jim Linhares. What is God trying to do for and with your students through your classes, your discipline and in the daily activities of life in high school?
Jennifer Carroll, English teacher, 10 years at SLUH: I hope the way that my students are trying to experience God is through the literature that they read. We want our students to be alive and thinking human beings who have a story to tell and who know how to tell their story. We have these great works of literature like The Odyssey. This classic work has a lot to teach us about how we relate and interact with each other. How do we help these young men understand the great insights that great works of literature provide? And how can they make those insights meaningful in their own lives?
How do Jesuit teachers talk about God in the classroom? A group of teachers from St. Louis University High School reflect.
Tim Curdt, director of the learning center, 27 years: An Ignatian term that I’ve always been drawn to is “discernment of spirits.” What is bringing you desolation and consolation? We use the examen St. Ignatius gave us. It works in the learning center as a great spiritual method for being both brutally honest and genuinely loving at the same time.
Ignatian spirituality talks about the voices of God and the voices of the evil spirit in a way that doesn’t encourage self-loathing, anxiety or judgment. Even in the process of really tense situations with students about their academic future, we encourage them to discern the honest—but ultimately, the foundational and loving—way in which they’re being called to work through the struggles and find solutions, solutions that at the beginning of our sessions didon’t seem possible.
Bill Anderson, science teacher, 38 years: I start every year with the same slide: “Science is awesome”—italicized and capitalized. You can’t help but look at the world around us and be awed by the mystery and the beauty of it. We get a really good chance to see that in projects like our weather balloon launches. The pictures that the boys get, especially the ones at 100,000 feet well up into the stratosphere, let them see the curvature of the earth, the gradations and colors as the atmosphere transitions into space. It’s an experience most high school kids are never, ever going to get, something we share with the community as a whole.
‘Maybe I’ll talk about choral warmups, something that wouldn’t appear to have anything to do with spirituality.’
J.L. How , when, and to what effect can we create moments in our classes that are not explicitly religious and that may not even label God or prayer or theology or faith? How do we nevertheless, through reflection and awareness, have students understand that God is indeed in the midst of what we’re studying? What are the challenges of doing that?
Matt Stewart, S.J., director of campus ministry, 11 years: Maybe I’ll talk about choral warmups, something that wouldn’t appear to have anything to do with spirituality. When you warm up, you want students to work on a particular skill, whether it’s intonation, breathing, vowels, rhythm or whatever—to get people working together on a project. I remember my very first day in the freshman band as a student at SLUH. We played a B-flat major scale, and I was like: “This is thrilling!” There’s this excitement that comes with being a part of an ensemble. In those moments—as band musicians or in a choral setting—you say: “Let’s talk about what you just felt.” In that moment, you’ve made a connection with somebody. You’re singing nonsense syllables and all of a sudden, we’re harmonizing! We can draw their attention to something spiritual even though we’re not talking about theology and we’re not singing a religious song.
Jennifer Carroll: One of the things I do a lot, especially with freshmen, is to make sure that they talk to a partner, that they work in groups. We change seats regularly. I’m just aware they need to form those bonds. They need to form those connections. It’s not something that I say explicitly, but it is really what motivates me to do it.
‘The relationship piece is key: trust. Feeling valued. Valuing each other.’
Mary Russo, science teacher, 23 years. The relationship piece is key: trust. Feeling valued. Valuing each other. If they feel like they’ve got a voice I’m hearing, they’re gonna start to trust me. I always give students a personal prompt: “What do you have for breakfast? Who watched the Cardinals game last night?” Just something to get them looking at each other, connecting with each other. Learning chemistry takes trust, right? It’s not easy and we have to do it through community building.
J.L. How do you pray better and relate to God better because of the experience you’ve had with the young men you teach and accompany? How are you closer to God because of your students?
Tracy Lyons, math teacher, nine years: I go back to the word joy. I’m not a particularly joyful person. I live in what I like to refer to as my “den of cynicism.” But I find joy seeing students at a game or in the hallway or in the classroom. Geometry or stats aren’t the most exciting things, but students do get excited when they work on a problem. Or they are excited about a new topic or whatever. The joy of seeing them being young people brings me energy. It makes my job feel like a calling.
Bill Anderson: I think the hope comes primarily from the young people I see everyday. I see them struggling with those questions and grappling with ways to make a difference. I also see students that we’ve taught out there making a difference: working in science or business, engineers having an impact on society and our climate.
J.L. Tim, you have the benefit of having sons who are recent graduates from St. Louis U. High. When you think about your own boys, what do you see that consoles you, that reassures you this formation we’re talking about is actually happening for them?
Tim Curdt: You know, the ages of 20 through 24 are not usually known as years for religious identity and spiritual practice and attending church. But I know my sons do connect back to the foundation they were given—not just to what my wife and I have given them our whole lives, but to things that were reinforced, complicated, nuanced and celebrated during these key formative years at SLUH. When they’re talking about the next stage of their life—what they’re interested in or what they’re stressed about—I can actually hear their hearts kind of expanding.
I know they’re gonna be all right; God is with them. They are connected whenever they’re engaged with social justice issues, being out in nature or in leadership training. When they are doing those things, I see their hearts on fire. Even if they’re not putting explicit theological language to it, I see their hearts jump and that says to me, “It’s going to be all right.”