Combatting a “CliffsNotes” Culture with Literary Acumen

Literary Acumen:

The ability to be discerning and selective when it comes to enjoying books or other written materials. Involves developing a rich vocabulary and critical-reading skills.

– ONE OF 16 HABITS OF THE MIND PROVIDENCE SCHOOL SEEKS TO DEVELOP IN OUR GRADUATES

Combatting a “CliffsNotes” Culture

According to the Literacy Project Foundation, “the average American is considered to have a readability level equivalent to that of a 7th/8th grader (12-14 years of age).” A national reading survey by Scholastic further reveals what is known as “Decline by Nine” wherein the percentage of children fitting the description of “frequent reader” (one who reads books for fun between five to seven days a week) drops from 57 percent of eight year olds to 35 percent of nine year olds. This trend continues into high school as students get busier with sports, jobs, and other pursuits. Furthermore, some schools and teachers have reduced the number of novels read or have stopped teaching the novel form altogether as they simply cannot get the students to finish reading them. 

It seems to me that we are rapidly becoming a “CliffsNotes Culture,” literally throwing reading over the cliff, superficially discussing summaries of books in English class and writing papers by copying and pasting someone else’s generic analysis. 

I am happy to report Providence graduates are countercultural, marching to the beat of their own snare drums as they develop literary acumen, one of the 16 “habits of the mind” described in the “Portrait of the Ideal Providence Graduate.

The word “acumen” in Latin is defined as “point” and figuratively means “mental sharpness.” Literary acumen means more than just being “well read,” but describes the discernment needed to make wise judgments and choices from a depth of perception that comes from fully engaging in meaningful texts and being informed by them. 

How does one develop literary acumen in a culture that SparkNotes itself to a pseudo-competence and copy/pastes its way to grade success? As a humanities teacher, I see six ways Providence successfully combats a “CliffsNote Culture” with real literary acumen.

A selection of some of the books every Providence Upper School student reads and critiques.

1. Design a vibrant reading curriculum

Education should be teleological— based on God’s truth and designed for a purpose —much like how God has designed us for a purpose. To develop literary acumen, books and anthologies of shorter essays and poetry are chosen with the intent to discuss these works meaningfully. We select a wide variety of works that reflect the canon of literature, but also provoke thought, feeling, and various worldviews. For example: freshmen read and discuss Robinson Crusoe’s conversion scene, sophomores ruminate about the atrocities of WW1 depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front, juniors examine the dangers of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, and seniors contemplate brutal totalitarianism in 1984 and the different types of love in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. In four years of Upper School, Providence students will have read and thoroughly discussed at least 30 novels of consequence in humanities courses alone, as well as other numerous essays, short stories, and poems.

Chris Elwood devotes time and attention to creating a transformational experience for every student, up to—and beyond—Graduation Day.

2. Teach with the intention to transform

My personal purpose as an educator is to teach to the mind, heart, and spirit. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus commands, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He then instructs hearers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (vs.39). These are the greatest commandments and they are foundational. They are also the centerpiece to the practice of teaching wherein the primary aim is to illuminate minds and inspire hearts so that genuine transformation can take place. 

Dr. Martha MacCullough in By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview asserts, “If the aim of education is to promote the full development of each human being as he/she was intended to be (an image bearer of the God of the universe), we must help each individual student develop in all areas: cognitively, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.” 

Such transformation requires teacher intention and time devoted to directed discussion of texts. Exposure to a wide variety of texts, ideas, and feelings is essential to the transformational process, but a text without an intentional teacher falls flat.

Juniors studying American literature with Mr. Elwood recreate characters from The Great Gatsby.

 3. Foster discussion in small classes

Small class sizes foster holding robust and inclusive discussions, enabling teachers to personalize education and answer questions that are on the individual’s minds and hearts. Smaller classes are a tremendous advantage for discussing novels of consequence and shorter essays and poetry in different formats: teacher-directed, student-led, Socratic, etc. Given the safe place created to inquire and dialogue, teachers do not shy away from the difficult questions, but embrace them as a process of connecting what we learn to seeking God’s truth in shaping our worldview.

4. Recognize the purpose of literature

We recognize that literature is not an end itself, but the vehicle for learning to think critically, develop empathy, and hone writing and presenting skills. Every work read is either discussed, presented, or written about (or all three). The text read lives far beyond the pages, becoming alive in the mind, heart, mouth, and writing hand of our students. Literary acumen does not end with the reading of a work, but with applying it, appreciating it, counter-arguing it, and further developing upon its ideas.

5. Analyze texts with integrity

In a Christian school, we teach a hermeneutic (textual interpretation) that has integrity. Cultural and reader responses to a literary text have their time and place in the process of interpretation, but frequently land stuck in the swamp of epistemological relativism where all truths are acceptable. It is most important to seek what the author intends to mean and not rest on what we want the work to mean. Literary acumen demands accuracy in interpretation, regardless of whether one agrees with the authorial intent. Responding in dialogue with one another as we seek textual understanding is a valuable skill our graduates develop through reading and interpreting a wide breadth of works in a vibrant learning community.

Miss Olivia (Avery) with Preschool children, modeling the joy found in reading.

6. Model the joy of reading

The teacher needs to be an ideal example by continuing to read and discuss works of literature; perhaps this is the most valuable gift we can give the lifelong learner, our Providence graduate. Parents, too, can model this joy by continuing to read to their kids and reading on their own as a pleasant pastime. “Decline by Nine” is correlated with the fact that parents typically stop reading to their children at age nine. The bottom line is, if we want our kids to read well and develop literary acumen, we need to read well.

With the goal to create lifelong learners, literary acumen is essential to this process as a base of content knowledge is needed to advance thinking skills, empathy, and wisdom. Wisdom is acquired, not gifted (except in Solomon’s case, but notice he was wise enough to ask for wisdom in the first place). Curriculum should be designed with the purpose of developing the mind, heart and spirit so that any skill may be acquired down the road. 

My goal as a humanities teacher is to make critical thinking, reading, feeling, and writing accessible to all students so they will fall in love with learning for life. It is our hope that every graduate of Providence develops literary acumen – not just earning the label “well-read,” but “well done.”  

Chris Elwood
Chris Elwood

Upper School Humanities Teacher

Chris Elwood teaches humanities and senior Bible courses at Providence School. He loves the humanities-based interdisciplinary approach to learning through a Christian lens. Being able to discuss literature, philosophy, and history in a distinctly Christian context enriches his life as a teacher. 
His favorite books to teach are East of Eden, Universe Next Door, A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Frankenstein, 1984, and Till We Have Faces.

Theater and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence:

The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others in a group setting in order to produce positive outcomes.

– ONE OF 16 HABITS OF THE MIND PROVIDENCE SCHOOL SEEKS TO DEVELOP IN OUR GRADUATES

Doing theater raises a big question

We’ve finally finished auditions for James and the Giant Peach, and while I’m headed full steam ahead into the most stressful season of my year, it provides me an opportunity to reflect on the question we must always ask when purposefully putting ourselves into stressful situations, “Why?”

Why take on stress?

I’m looking at long days, sleepless nights, and big emotions—not only my own, but belonging to the students involved in the show, the production team, and anyone who happens to cross my path. So the question stands, “Why?” Why put ourselves into these situations? Why do we go out of our way to encourage students to undertake a potentially stressful project? And, the bigger “why” question: Why do we strive to create something that will exist only for a moment, and then dissipate as suddenly as it appeared? 

I am happy to say there is a point to all the craziness. A beautiful fruit comes from theater and the other performing arts; it is called social emotional intelligence.

Every aspect of performing teaches us how to understand and control our emotions and how to navigate emotions between others. 

Becoming self-aware

In acting classes, we learn self-awareness. While studying the works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and other like-minded acting experts, we learn where emotions sit in our bodies. Through psychological gestures we learn that not only do emotions manifest through our body language, but that we can actually change our emotions by choosing different physicalizations. In class, we learn to recognize our own emotions and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. We find our strengths and weaknesses, which builds self-confidence.

Mr. Escamilla teaches students how to produce their own weekly newscast, “PSN—Providence Student News.”

Three rules for improv…and for life

In our eighth-grade enrichment class, my colleague, Abigail Pryor, and I place a strong emphasis on improvisational acting. We believe that improv—which requires acting without a script—develops self-management, a basic life skill.

The three rules of improv we encourage students to take with them are 1) Yes…And; 2) Make Statements; and 3) No Mistakes, Only Opportunities! These three skills teach even seasoned improvisational actors to start with an open mind and that their own ideas are worthwhile. They teach actors to come up with solutions, not to look for problems. Finally, they teach that every mistake, no matter how seemingly overwhelming, is just an opportunity to move forward in life.

In improv, we learn we are able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage our emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Taking the audience on a journey

Meanwhile, performance pieces, such as plays and musicals, teach us about social connection. It is not enough to only understand our own emotions and how they affect us, we must extend that understanding to the audience. As performers, we are asking the audience to trust us to take them on a journey they’ve never experienced before. In order to build that trust, actors must be authentically interested in the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. It is imperative that actors are able to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable socially.So, what is it all for? What is the “why” behind choosing to undergo a season of stress in order to put on a transitory performance? We do this so our students can learn vital life skills, which come around to be the very antidote to the aforementioned stress: self-awareness, self-management, and social-awareness.

Producing positive outcomes

From Day 1 (handing out retreat t-shirts), Mr. Escamilla has brought order to chaos and made Providence students feel welcome and appreciated.

How can students—and everybody else—develop and apply these social emotional intelligence tools? 

For starters, enroll in an acting class! We have several at Providence, covering the gamut from singing, dancing, and acting to learning the technical aspects of performance, including lighting design, set and prop building, stage management, and stage makeup (offered as a TRIAD course in the May third term). 

More practically, remember, God has given us emotions to guide us through life.

Start with self-awareness. What am I feeling right now? Where am I holding this emotion in my body? If it is anger, you might feel your jaw clench. If it is fear, you might feel your heart race. If it is happiness, you might notice a lightness in your step.

Then, look to manage the emotion. For example, anger serves as a call to action to eliminate injustice, while fear directs us to find safety. 

I have built my performing arts curriculum around recognizing, understanding, and expressing emotions. The benefits of having the language to identify your emotions and the skill to appropriately control them is a rarity in many adults today. It is a priceless skill to develop during the school years.

Finally, find the connection. We have a tendency to only share the emotions we find “good” and “acceptable.” To live authentically, we must honor ALL the emotions we’re experiencing by allowing others to understand us on a deeper level. 

All arts, be it performing, visual, or other, are about connecting with others. 

And, isn’t connecting at the very heart of the Gospel?

Austin Escamilla
Austin Escamilla

Performing Arts Director

A lifelong performer, Austin Escamilla has spent many years working in the Santa Barbara theater world. He has a passion for improvisation and sketch comedy, as well as acting for the stage and camera. Mr. Escamilla is beyond excited to share his passion for all things theatrical with Providence students. He is inspired by their talent and creativity and enjoys helping build a top-notch performing arts program.

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: The ability to skillfully conceptualize, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and apply information. Involves identifying the validity of facts and sources presented and reading critically.

– One of 16 Habits of the Mind Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

A student once asked me whether I peppered my wife with scores of probing questions at home. No doubt, he was feeling sympathy for anyone else who had to endure my skewering train of inquiry. Perhaps he imagined this dinner table conversation:

WIFE: “So, honey…how was your teaching today?”

ME: “Well, dear,” I answer in this imaginary conversation, pointing my fork at my wife, “it depends on how you define ‘teaching.’ What exactly are you asking me? Why do you bring it up?”

I assured my student that my wife and I never—well, seldom—have such conversations. Just because students frequently give me squinty-eyed gazes, or complain their heads hurt after enduring my series of probing questions, does not mean asking questions is all I do. But it is an important part of my work as a teacher. A bit like running laps or doing push ups, being pushed through the hoops of this mental exercise can be painful, but the results are worth it.

Thinking well about important things

We need to enrich the definition of critical thinking, particularly in a distinctly Christian school, such as Providence. Many schools do a good job, overall, of teaching and modeling how to think clearly, deeply, and well. Beyond that, though, it’s important we help students recognize the importance of what topics and questions they are thinking about. While gossipy pop-culture sound bites may be appetizing, what we’d really like students to encounter is what is good, true, and excellent.

Thinking virtuously

Besides nudging students to think about important things, we also mustn’t assume all deep thoughts are equally virtuous. It’s quite possible that a well argued, logically constructed, articulate argument for infanticide is more dangerous than a sloppy argument for that abhorrent practice. Again, it’s not just how we think but what we think about that is important. We teachers strive to cultivate virtue: we prepare the soil, plant seeds, water, fertilize, and—ouch!—prune. The goal of practicing critical thinking is not to deconstruct students’ views on the big issues of the day and leave those views chaotically disassembled in a heap on the floor; it is to create something beautiful—that is, well ordered, well oriented, and God-honoring.

In our era, ever-shorter attention spans combined with political and social polarization leave us trapped in a cultural war where sound bites are weaponized and thinking is itself aborted as soon as we encounter a view we don’t like. The wonderful thing about a distinctly Christian education is that it provides the antidote to this cultural poison. Christian thinkers don’t ignore the big issues; with Scriptural truths in one hand, and a newspaper (or a mobile device) in the other, we clarify definitions, examine assumptions, and explore consequences for all sorts of questions.

For example, what exactly is “justice?” Or “social justice?” Is there a difference? And how did esteemed thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Old Testament prophets, Augustine, Locke) view justice? One of my favorite economists, Frederic Bastiat, said justice is the “absence of injustice,” and the sole function of laws is to create the absence of injustice. What does that mean, and is that true?

Bringing this train of thinking closer to the students’ own world, what does justice have to do with the student debt crisis? With earning a higher minimum wage for a summer job?

(Is your head hurting now? My long suffering wife does listen to me practice this sort of musing—a lot.)

Creating mental muscle

Plowing through a cascade of questions creates a sort of mental muscle, tempered and shaped by Scriptural truths. I never tire of reminding students that in the first few chapters of Genesis, two central truths stand out:

1) As image bearers of God, humans deserve dignity.

2) As sinners, humans are ever prone to selfishness.

So, how do those two truths enlighten our understanding of justice? Equality? Politics? Theology? Cinema? Music? Art?

Critical thinking nourishes civil debate while developing spiritual virtues, and therefore is an essential part of a distinctly Christian education. Regrettably, such a form of critical thinking is a rare experience in today’s educational landscape. 

In I Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to “test everything” and our Christian school classrooms are excellent places to do just that. Grounding excellent reasoning with Scriptural truths is an exercise—a habit of the mind—that shapes students’ minds and hearts. I hope and pray such habits will help students transcend our superficial and polarizing culture.

Bruce Rottman
Bruce Rottman

Upper School Humanities Teacher

Bruce Rottman teaches humanities, economics, and American government and directs the Libertas Scholars Program at Providence School. He loves helping students develop their critical thinking skills by posing provocative questions that will lead them to a greater understanding of human flourishing.

Compassionate Community: Shining a Light in the Darkness

Compassion: The ability to understand and empathize with other cultures and personal situations and to respond in love, kindness, and generosity. Involves a desire to alleviate others’ suffering through action.

– One of 16 Habits of the Mind Providence School seeks to develop in our graduates

An uncomfortable time

In 2017, when I accepted a position to teach at Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School, I found myself in an uncomfortable limbo. While enjoying my interactions and experiences with new students and colleagues, I found myself grieving a loss I hadn’t anticipated in this transition: I was missing community. 

Having left a school where I actively participated as a teacher, coach, mentor, and colleague for six years, I recognized changing schools would come with unique challenges (my 100-mile round trip commute from Camarillo to Santa Barbara being one of them). It  took me weeks, however, to realize that the confusing ache in my heart came from missing meaningful connections with others. And even though I knew these connections would eventually come with time and effort, it was at that moment the power of true community became real to me. I mourned the loss of one community while looking forward to opportunities to build and grow relationships within a new community.  

It wasn’t long before I felt a personal connection to the Providence community and—even after a few twists and turns in the road—I remained confident God had led me to this school in his timing and for his purpose. Two years later, in the fall of 2019, the Providence community shone brightly for Jesus in a compassionate way that not only directly impacted me, but produced ripple effects felt by others beyond Santa Barbara. 

I am grateful for this opportunity to share my story.

A dark time

A year after the 2018 merger between Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School and El Montecito School, the newly branded Providence School saw a need for two sixth grade classes. My principal asked me to move up a grade, where I would continue to teach many of my former fifth grade students. I complied, partnering with April Torres to create a cohesive sixth grade program. In all honesty, I wasn’t thrilled to be changing grade levels, but little did I know God had ordained this change for a greater purpose. 

Fast forward two months into the school year when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. According to my medical team, my prognosis was “the best it could be,” but after surgery I would need six rounds of chemotherapy. 

My world was rocked. I was scared and I was angry. All sorts of emotions and thoughts swirled in my mind. It was hard to hear encouragement. Praying was even harder. 

I vividly remember driving to work and finally crying out to God, “Fine! I’ll do it! But I need you to somehow be glorified in all this!” Immediately, his peace that passes all understanding filled my heart and set my feet on a firmer foundation. Later that day, as I told a room full of students what I would be facing, I was able to do it with a calm voice and a new determination I hadn’t felt until then. We prayed together and the journey soon began. 

I could tell a myriad of stories from this season in my life but there are a few key ones that encapsulate the compassion demonstrated by the Providence School community. I shared these stories with doctors, nurses, family, friends, and anyone who read my CaringBridge journal, which had over 3,000 views. The Lord used the compassionate Providence community to shine the light of Jesus in a dark time in my life and that light was seen by many.  

I would like to share  three snapshot stories out of the many acts of loving kindness I experienced.

Thursday mornings

My chemo treatments took place on Thursdays, every three weeks, from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm. I began each treatment day with a consultation with my oncologist and then went to the chemo lounge to begin treatment. Remember how I hadn’t been happy to change my assigned grade level earlier in the school year? Well, the Lord knew my students and I were going to need the kind and loving Mrs. Torres on our team! On treatment mornings, Mrs. Torres brought both sections of the sixth grade class together for a time of worship and prayer. As I sat and received treatment, they were worshipping the Lord together, praising him for his faithfulness while being gently reminded of who he is when we face trials in this life and the hope that only he brings. In my time of trial, that was a meaningful and powerful testament to the compassionate heart of the Providence School faculty and student community.

Powerful prayer

Before I began treatment, my students and I had set two main prayer requests: that I could continue to work while undergoing treatment and that I wouldn’t be nauseated. Both prayer requests were answered with a resounding “yes.” At my second treatment, my doctor told me he was “blown away” by how well I was handling the chemo. He attributed it to how perfectly the dosage coincided with my body mass index, weight, and other medical rationales. I smiled and politely told him, “I believe you. But I also have an army of prayer warriors surrounding me and supporting me, and I believe there is miraculous power in that, too.” 

That wouldn’t be the last time my doctor marvelled at little miracles that allowed me to point him to the Lord. 

By Christmas 2019, I reached the halfway point in my treatment. The day of the Lower School Christmas program my sixth graders were at a tech rehearsal and I used my free time to sub in the third grade classroom. When I returned to my own classroom, I found a card on my desk, with the following note:

Dear Mrs. Wilson,

You’re doing it! I’m so happy to have you as my teacher for a second year in a row! You’re a great teacher and a great role model. It’s amazing how you’re teaching and going through chemo! If I were in your situation I would lose it. I’m really amazed at how you do it and still have the patience to teach 3rd graders. I know you can’t wait till all of this is over and so can’t I. If I believed in luck then I would wish you the best, however I know that the reason that you’re powering through chemo is most definitely not luck, but it’s prayer and your faith in God! I know it will be fine and normal in the end.

This thoughtful and compassionate student learned about the power of prayer in an experiential way that went far beyond any lesson I could have taught.

Note received from a sixth grade student

Helping hands

Outside the classroom, the Providence community supported me in a variety of ways. My students’ families and also families whose children I had never taught sent Amazon wish list items and meals to our home. A few families even made the trek from Santa Barbara to Camarillo to deliver meals. Colleagues paid for house cleanings prior to treatments and offered to cover my class during their prep time if I needed a break. Administrators supported me by finding consistent substitute teachers during my treatment weeks—a huge relief for my teacher’s heart—and bringing me necessary caffeine when the fatigue hit hard. Middle and Upper School teachers sent encouraging texts and emails. I felt seen, known, and loved by my school community in the most profound ways. I truly saw the love of Jesus as all members of the school community demonstrated a desire to alleviate my difficult time through their Christlike actions.     

With a student while sporting a wig at the Christmas program.

Love is a verb                

From the beginning of my cancer journey, I was very transparent with my class about my expected hair loss, a visually startling side effect of chemotherapy. I prepared students ahead of time as to when I would be cutting my hair short, then shaving it off, and even gave them permission to ask to see what my head looked like under the beanie I typically wore. (I wore a wig for the first time at the Christmas program and their reactions were priceless!). 

The week of my final treatment, four boys came to school with their heads shaved. They walked into my classroom and told me they wanted me to know they supported me and this was “how I would really know they meant it.” That Thursday, as I sat with my oncologist at my final treatment, I showed him a picture of me with these boys. At that moment, his very professional demeanor dropped away and his eyes filled with tears. He cleared his throat and asked, “Where do you teach, again?” When I answered “I teach at Providence School in Santa Barbara,” he smiled and replied, “It must be a very special place.” 

Shaved-head support crew!

Providence School is a very special place. Ask families, students, administrators, faculty, and staff what makes Providence special and you’ll hear a variety of answers: each one true and distinctive. Ask me what makes Providence special and my response will always be “it is a community of people who truly love the Lord and also love others well.” 

When a community is rooted in Christ, God’s faithfulness, love, mercy, and goodness are clearly demonstrated to others. It’s for his glory and purposes that we endure hardships or celebrate blessings alongside one another. 

May Providence School continue to shine brightly as a compassionate community and a beacon for Christ as we enter a new year and beyond! 

Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson

Lower School Assistant Principal

Mrs. Wilson loves finding ways to make learning engaging, fun, and enriching. Her many strengths include curriculum development and leadership. She was declared in “complete remission” in November 2021.

Gratitude: A Clean Wind to Blow Away the Fog

Gratitude aligns us with the will of God

It’s a fair bet that all of us, at some point in our lives, have found ourselves wondering about God’s will for our lives. Every so often, we hit those crisis moments; the trail forks and we wonder if God would have us follow the left path or the right… or does he want us to double back? Maybe he would have us break away altogether and start crashing through the undergrowth!

 In these moments, I’ve always found comfort in a little Scripture verse found in I Thessalonians Chapter 5. While it may not speak to the direction I should take in this or that particular situation, it absolutely addresses the manner in which I should make my choice.

 “…in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (ESV)

 In everything give thanks! Whether we choose to go left or right or even experience the agony of retracing our steps, we can know with certainty that doing it with a grateful heart is the will of God.

Gratitude expands our perspective

In my own experience, I’ve found that gratitude has a powerful way of clearing the fog, allowing me to see more clearly where I am. Gratitude forces my thoughts away from myself, away from my problems, away from my pain, and it directs my attention outward. Whether my thankfulness is directed outward to those around me or outward to the Lord himself, that outward shift in attitude is always a win. In fact, I would suggest that it is impossible to maintain selfish or fearful thoughts while one is being grateful. Gratitude is a clean and refreshing wind blowing through the stagnant, self-centered caverns of our souls.

Gratitude transforms our daily lives

As I mused about gratitude and its role in our lives, I couldn’t help but seek out our own Middle School teacher, Carri Svoboda. Back in January 2013, Ms. Svoboda began a new habit: keeping a daily gratitude journal. Her first entry read: “Beginnings and fresh starts. I am grateful that we have an endless number of opportunities to start fresh, to begin again. We don’t only have new years and new seasons. We have new beginnings every day.” Her original inspiration was to see if she could hit the 1,000-entries mark.

Eight years and 17 filled-out journals later, Ms. Svoboda is currently nearing entry number 12,500. In her words, “I’ve discovered not just that I am grateful, but that expressing gratitude creates a more grateful heart. Keeping a record of blessings has not only transformed my perspective on each day, but it has transformed me.”

A practical guide for focusing on gratitude 

Ms. Svoboda gave me some pointers to share for those who might consider beginning a practice to focus on gratitude: 

  • Embed it into an existing ritual or begin one—a cup of tea (or coffee) never hurts. I write my list in the mornings because that is when I practice the spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, and study. But I could just as easily create a nighttime ritual or a mid-day ritual. It just needs to be a time to which you can commit.
  • Nothing is off limits. If you are grateful for the morning sunshine, that is just as valid as being grateful for your children. It is the gratitude, not the degree of gratitude that matters.
  • If you miss a day, who cares? This is for you, not for a grade. Writing in your gratitude journal is not securing your place in heaven. This is about your transformation, not your salvation.
  • If you have children, it could be a rich and wonderful experience to keep a list as a family. Maybe it is something you do at the dinner table each night and you keep track in a family gratitude journal.

With all of these encouragements, the only thing left for us to do is to join in. You don’t need to be particularly skillful, intelligent, or even practiced; a six-year-old child can begin this habit just as well as a sixty-year-old adult.

 How else to close these thoughts but with sincere thanks? I thank the Lord for the good community I enjoy each and every day, a community I too often take for granted. I thank him for planting me in a place where learning is valued and people are cherished.

What are you grateful for today?

Rodney Meadth
Rodney Meadth

Middle School and Upper School Principal at Providence School

Looking to Jesus: The Perfect Model for Spiritual Disciplines

A Recess & Rhetoric Blog Post by Evan Covell, Athletic Director


An important reminder when thinking about spiritual disciplines

There are some things you need to know about me in order for this blog post to make sense. I am an athlete at heart. I am competitive; I really enjoy winning. Because of those two qualities, I tend to be hard on myself. I desire to be good at everything I do and when I start to make mistakes, I beat myself up for them. I truly value being disciplined, particularly with my physical training and my work.

Often when I think about spiritual disciplines in my  life, I spiral out of control. I start to think about how I’m not reading the Bible enough, praying enough, taking Sabbath rest consistently enough. I begin to beat myself up, thinking lowly of myself for not being good enough for God. 

Then I take a pause … and I remind myself of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I will never be enough, I will never live up to God’s glorious standard. And just knowing that truth brings wonderful freedom. Because I know the rest of the story; that because I am human, a broken, messy human, Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect life I can not live, died the death that I deserve. And the story doesn’t stop there. Jesus defeated death, gifted me the Holy Spirit, and joined the Father in a perfect union that he freely offers me.

This Gospel truth reminds me that cultivating spiritual disciplines has no impact on my eternal salvation. Scripture is clear, we were dead in our sins and God rescued us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

When I think about this truth, an image often comes to mind. I picture myself struggling to keep my head above water when Jesus reaches a hand out to grab me and I take hold of his hand. He saves me, right? No. I don’t think this image conveys the actual truth. A truer image would be me, already dead, floating lifeless in the water. Jesus gets in, drags me out, resuscitates me, and miraculously brings me back to life. You see, in this image, I have absolutely nothing to do with my salvation. That’s the way it truly is. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins…But  God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—” (Ephesians 2:1 and 2:4-5).

I want to offer this truth to you, too. As we look at the life of Jesus and the way he modeled spiritual disciplines, remember that even though we seek to live like Christ our salvation is not dependent on our success. Our salvation is securely safe in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. 

Now, let’s look at three disciplines Jesus modeled for us: prayer, rest, and community. 

Prayer

Providence faculty members Taylor Hurt (left) and Evan Covell (right) beginning a new school year with prayer.

In fall of 2019, I was feeling disconnected and discouraged in my relationship with God. I decided to retreat for a half day to a place that is special to me: a little turnout on Mountain Drive. I parked my car, set out a blanket, sat down, and opened the Bible. I decided to read through Luke’s gospel and take some notes. As I was reading, I started to make note of how frequently Jesus was recorded doing just what I was doing that day. I counted at least 10 instances recorded in the Book of Luke where Jesus retreated to solitude to pray to God. 

Clearly, this was an important aspect of a healthy lifestyle for Jesus; time spent alone in prayer, cultivating his relationship with God the Father. Jesus set his followers a goal to bear fruit. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). The way that we are guaranteed to bear fruit is to abide in Jesus. Abiding means staying connected with him. We can do this through consistent prayer and conversation with God. 

This conversation with God can extend beyond carving out time in our weeks to find solitude and to practice focused prayer. I teach my athletes something I call “breath prayers.” Essentially, they are prayers you can say in one breath: “Lord, help me” or “thank you, God” or “here I am, Lord.” These small prayers can recenter us and remind us of God’s active grace in our lives. Try it out, if you’d like.

Rest

Providence Lower School students take time to reflect and write in their journals on a spiritual retreat.

Sabbath rest is a glorious gift from the Creator of the world. God knew from the beginning that we humans would need to rest in order to thrive. I do not consistently keep Sabbath, but I wish I did. And when I do get in a good groove with taking a day of rest each week I recognize a difference in my mood, energy, productivity, and kindness to those around me. Initially, the idea of taking an entire day off from work seems impossible, especially to high school student-athletes. There’s homework to do, tests to study for, and seemingly not enough time in the week to get it all done. I often surprise students with a suggested 24-hour period in which they could Sabbath: Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown. By being efficient with weekend homework on Saturday morning or midday, students can set themselves up for success and simply put in some finishing touches on Sunday night. Try out this schedule to see if it blesses you.

I often get too fixated on Sabbath rules, which really are rules that I set for myself. So I remind myself to simplify Sabbath-keeping by focusing on activities that are life-giving, recentering my focus on God, and refraining from activities that I consider “work”. For me, “work” includes laundry, cleaning, emails, writing practice plans, etc. I don’t consider exercise to be “work,” because, for me, exercise is life-giving. I recommend taking some time to create a list of life-giving activities and “work” activities to help you structure a Sabbath day.

Community

Coach Covell enjoying community with a team of Providence Upper School students as they serve the younger students with organized carnival games.

Finally, I want to touch on Jesus’s knack for creating and investing in a community. I think this is a key spiritual discipline for cultivating a healthy lifestyle. Jesus surrounded himself with people, unless he took a deliberate break for solitude. He called his disciples to follow him closely and to live life together with him. He consistently shared meals with others and generously served and accepted being served by others. Demonstrating love and compassion for friends was a staple characteristic of these communities. I am forever astounded by Jesus’s kindness and love for others. I strive to follow Jesus by showing kindness and love to others, and there is no more important place to do this than within my consistent community.

My wife and I have fervently sought community throughout our four years of marriage. We know that it is crucial to our well-being that we have friends to hold us accountable, who check in on us, who we can share our lives with, from joking around to praying for each other. I highly recommend finding a group of friends who share similar values and meeting with them frequently. Your time together doesn’t need to be structured or formal. But it’s best to be as consistent as possible. We gather with our community once a week. For you, it might be once a month or twice a week. Whatever is best for you, I pray that you will find community and experience the love of Christ.

As broken, messy humans, practicing—not necessarily mastering—the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, rest, Sabbath-keeping, solitude, and community, among others, lead to a healthy, Christlike life that blesses us as individuals and the people around us.

Evan Covell
Evan Covell

Before being named Providence School’s athletic director in 2021, Coach Evan Covell was already deeply involved in the Providence community, having trained the track and field and cross-country teams for the previous four years. He continues to coach those teams while directing all Providence athletics programs. Coach Covell is wholeheartedly committed to the power of athletics to build character and instill strong Christian values in both athletes and coaches.

Taking a Moment: The Key to Compassion

A Recess & Rhetoric Blog Post by April Torres, Sixth Grade Teacher


Take a moment to remember

Who God is and who I am

There You go lifting my load again . . . .

His yoke is easy and His burden is so light

I’ve been listening to these words from a song, “Take a Moment,” by United Pursuit over and over again the past few weeks and have been struck with the idea that the heart of compassion—something we all need to practice and to receive— can be characterized by the first three words of this song: Take a moment. 

I invite you to listen with me as you read this blog post.

Compassion and taking a moment

Two concepts of compassion emerge from the Old Testament.

First, compassion is the intense longing of tender love that can cause physical pain, extending from the innermost depths of our vital organs or the womb.

Second, compassion is the act of sparing someone from harm or pain or difficulty.

We see examples of these concepts of compassion many times in Scripture.

In Genesis 43:30, a prideful, favored son turned slave and prisoner finds himself lord over the entire Egyptian empire. Interactions with his starving, fearful brothers cause him to take a moment to allow his intense grief and tears to rise to the level of deep longing for restoration even after suffering grave offenses. After taking that moment, Joseph’s compassion leads him to extend his resources to save his father Jacob’s family—including the brothers who betrayed him—and thereby preserves the Hebrew family tree.

In Exodus 2:8, a privileged, protected, pampered princess takes a moment to notice a basket in a river and investigate its contents. She connects the cries of the baby she finds there to the Hebrew families who must sacrifice their children to obey her father’s commands. She spares the baby, a direct descendent of the once-favored Joseph, not only out of the basket, the river, and death, but to a lifetime of care and protection. Pharaoh’s daughter spares Moses with multifaceted compassion that hinges on the moment she took  on the banks of the river. 

A personal experience with taking a moment

Recently, a young woman kept popping up in my mind. I eventually texted her a short message: “Hey, thinking of you.” It turns out, her mother had just passed away from COVID pneumonia. She was on a sudden three-day trip to Georgia to meet with her sisters and say goodbye. She so appreciated my tiny kind words. When she returned, we walked along the harbor while she shared her memories of her mother and the mysterious struggle with grief. It only took a moment to activate compassion. 

How do we help students learn, practice, and value compassion?

Providence School, where I teach the sixth grade class, has a mission, motto, and various “habits of the mind” we strive to develop, with the goal to see them flourish in our graduates. Compassion is one such habit.

Recess-time provides the perfect arena for spreading wings of compassion. Students leave the routine and structure of their classrooms and race toward relief, freedom, and recreation. They move their bodies and renew their minds running across the field or climbing up slides and ladders. Most of the time, partnership and laughter prevail.

At other moments, students jam their fingers, scrape their knees, struggle to compromise, find their ideas are not chosen, or even are ignored. Their eyes dim; their shoulders droop. In that moment, another student may reach out with help and comfort. These daily experiences provide the perfect opportunity to learn and practice compassion.

Teachers are moment-makers, hoping one day these children will be moment-makers on their own. Our goal is that they will take a moment and help someone, apologize, love someone, or lift someone in Christlike compassion.

Daily life on the playground and in the classroom provides students the arena to nurture compassion through consistent practice. Extended isolation and too much privacy short-circuit opportunities for bending, adjusting, and showing preference for the needs of others over oneself. With social interaction, our students have built-in motivation for extending second chances and a gracious perspective.

What about adults in the school setting—and elsewhere?

At Providence, as well as at other distinctly Christian schools, we who encourage students to take moments for compassion must ourselves actively practice compassion. Words of kindness, offers for support, encouraging texts, or reassuring calls make a big difference in the lives of our communities. 

Over the past 19 months, COVID has impacted our efforts for active compassion, at school and elsewhere. Deep relationship history and loving trust are tested by each families’ unique needs and perspectives. More than ever before, we are tempted to isolate, grumble, or make judgments that might strain or even break opportunities to cement lifetime friendships. Birthday parties, play dates, and parent events have to pass through complicated steps to reassure safety for participants. 

We must reestablish markers of trust and respect and acceptance after months of letting go and prioritizing protection. The forbearance we extend each other demonstrates the active, wise, and loving compassion of Jesus within us.

We must cultivate, care, and respond to the moments around us. I know I couldn’t have made it through this last year of teaching without my loving and prayerful colleagues. Teachers need teachers. Moms need moms. Dads need dads. Kids need each other. We all need friends we can count on. Take a moment to embrace the vast resources in your community, as we are so blessed to have at Providence.

And, finally, what about Jesus?

I routinely ask my class, “How does this biblical story, verse, or concept point to the person and work of Jesus?” 

In Matthew 9:36, Jesus sees the multitudes fainting and scattered, harassed and helpless, without a shepherd and hungry. He takes a moment to invite his disciples into his compassion for these followers and feeds them bread. Jesus broadens love to action and we can do the same with our meager offerings, comforting and preserving the people we do life with.

In Luke 23:39, as Jesus endures death on the cross, he takes a moment to speak with a fellow prisoner. He recognizes repentance and humility and hope in the person next to him. As the crucified One offers forgiveness to the crucified criminal beside him, Jesus offers us his compassionate mercy and grace and the reality of paradise, despite his own agony, blood, and labored breath. 


Take a moment.

What do you see in the eyes of the person next to you? Do their shoulders, walk, or posture show signs of pain, weariness, conflict, or doubt? When we extend the mission and vision of Jesus’s compassion into the moments of our day, we will bless those around us with an easier yoke and a lighter burden. Habitually offering active compassion releases good into our days.

As you lift the loads of others, the Lord will lift you.

<strong>April Torres</strong>
April Torres

A 6th grade teacher at Providence School in Santa Barbara, CA, she enjoys leading students through core content areas that activate discovery, discipleship, and human creativity inspired by God, shepherded by Jesus, with significant purpose in the Holy Spirit.