Boston. Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Pedagogy

Educators and school administrators from across America and Puerto Rico spent four days at the annual EdConference in Boston to discuss “the risk of education,” judging together the daily reality they face in schools and their own methods of answering it.
Annemarie Bacich

An old Protestant sanctuary in the middle of Cambridge’s Harvard Square served as the concert hall for a 30-piece orchestra, including a grand piano. A crowd of people milled about on the lawn outside in the muggy Massachusetts weather waiting for the concert to begin. A buzz of excitement hung in the air, a sense of expectation for what the weekend would bring, an unusual climate for the opening evening of an education conference. But this was not your usual education conference; this was the the 2009 EdConference entitled, “The Risk of Educating: the Student–Teacher Relationship.” In an atmosphere where teachers groan at the thought of attending conferences and courses heavily laden with pedantic teaching methodologies, which aim at inculcating them with the latest fads from university education departments that have little or nothing to do with the reality of being in the classroom, the EdConference is a welcome change. Centered around a unifying proposal, Fr. Giussani’s educational method, the EdConference is an invitation into a friendship with educators who are trying to verify this method in their classrooms.

From July 17th to 20 th, the EdConference drew 70 participants from 20 states across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Brand new teachers, fresh out of college; experienced teachers, fighting the frustration that can set in after weathering years of decline in schools; administrators, struggling to put new schools on their feet or keep old ones afloat; Catholic school teachers; public school teachers; independent school teachers; and even homeschoolers came together with hope, an increasingly rare sentiment among educators in America.

The EdConference began Friday night with a concert of Mozart and Hayden, performed by the Metro Chamber Orchestra of New York. Fr. José Medina introduced the concert, which was also open to the public. Fr. José explained that being confronted by beauty was part of the method Fr. Giussani used to educate the person. “Beauty opens you up to the Mystery. This openness is what we hope to foster in our students,” said Medina. The opening concert was one of two cultural outings during the weekend, the second being a boat tour of Boston Harbor on Sunday evening. The weather was extraordinarily clear and mild, allowing for a spectacular view of the sunset over the harbor. One of the participants wrote in her final review of the conference, “The concert and boat trip were great! Both events were beauty in itself, part of a clear proposal to follow.”

The hinge pin. The first full day of the conference began with the keynote address, on the theme of the student–teacher relationship, given by Christopher Bacich, a history teacher and leader of Communion and Liberation in the U.S. Bacich built on last year’s theme in the opening address: “Last year, we saw that the key element of this educational vision is the proposal of a world view, a viewpoint on everything and ultimately this is what we believe is necessary in order to actually educate.... The hinge pin of this educational proposal is the relationship between the educator and the student. Only a human person can affirm a meaning of any given reality. Therefore, it is impossible that a human being can encounter a hypothesis of meaning that is not his/her own; it is impossible to meet, to be invited to a world view outside of the encounter with another human presence.” He went on to develop the theme, starting with the foundation of the student–teacher relationship, which focused on the human heart, a reality completely ignored by the educational culture at large. Bacich then posited that without attention to the heart, the educational proposal becomes unreasonable. From here, he outlined the goal of the relationship as fulfillment, the dynamic of the relationship as love, and the ultimate method, whereby fulfillment is reached, as communion. According to the majority of conference participants, the keynote address was the highlight of the weekend. One educator, new to the EdConference and Communion and Liberation wrote, “The keynote address was a good springboard for discussion. Chris opened up deeper questions about the student–teacher relationship as well as some terms (for those of us not in CL) that helped us to look more closely at what we do–or want to do–in the classroom. In particular, he focused on the student as embodying more than a physical reality; the call of the teacher himself to be engaged in the questions of his own life and to communicate this; and the role of freedom. I was especially grateful that his address went well beyond educational pedagogy-speak.”

Networking and workshops. After the keynote address, the first part of Saturday afternoon was dedicated to workshops led by practicing teachers in a variety of disciplines. Participants appreciated this “hands on” approach illustrating Giussani’s method as used by teachers in the classroom. The final session on Saturday featured a journalist, Patrick McCloskey, who writes for The New York Times and recently finished a book documenting a year in the life of an inner-city Catholic school in Harlem. While coming with the intention of presenting his book, McCloskey also found himself drawn into a friendship with the EdConference organizers and participants, even attending a brainstorming meeting for next year’s conference. This kind of organic “networking” during the conference was one of its most prodigious signs of the presence of God at work. Friendships were being generated at meals, between sessions, and even in elevators!

Mass was celebrated on Sunday morning by the Cardinal of Boston, His Eminence Sean Patrick O’Malley, followed by a panel discussion on the theme of the conference. The Sunday afternoon session featured a discussion by Catholic school administrators entitled, “How to Foster Catholic Identity through the Student–Teacher Relationship,” and Dr. Holly Peterson, teacher in Sacramento and author of a thesis on Fr. Giussani’s pedagogic thought, concluded the conference with a talk about the importance of teachers within the dynamic of experience.

Friendships on the move. Over and above the immense value of the scheduled events, the relationships and initiatives born during meals or over beers in the evening were enough to make participants begin asking for more opportunities of shared life and work as educators. One response to this is the development of the EdProject, an online network for educators who want to use and promote Giussani’s method through curriculum material, forums, job links, and the like. The site will be launched this fall. News of the EdConference is spreading by word of mouth, from teacher to teacher. Many participants came this year because they were told of it by friends or colleagues who had come last year. Simone Rizkallah, an education student, echoed this phenomenon in an e-mail she sent recently to one of the organizers: “As a future teacher, I found the Education Conference very helpful. It helped me to focus on my vocation by teaching me that the nature of education has less to do with the specifics of what I teach and more to do with who I am to the students. I have been telling every teacher I know about it, so hopefully I’ll be bringing some new faces next year!”