How do you teach a 'teaching document'? Arizona high school shows how

Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home" was widely lauded for its scope on the moral and ethical response to protecting Earth's environment for future generations.

But if an encyclical is a teaching document, how does that get filtered down to everyday life? How does one apply its principles on the printed page to practical situations?

Leave it to a teaching institution — in this case, a Catholic high school in Arizona — to learn how to teach a teaching document.

Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, run by the Carmelite Sisters, calls itself "a 'Laudato Si' ' high school." At the request of Carmelite Sr. Jane Remson, a participant in her order's Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation program in Rome, teachers adapted the encyclical into lesson plans — the low-hanging fruit of religion and science classes, but after two years, it had infused "Laudato Si' " into all parts of its curriculum. It also started thinking, and rethinking, how to make "Laudato Si' " relevant in the school's life outside the classroom.

Remson is also part of the team that has met each year for the past six years writing a handbook on how to introduce justice and peace chapters for Carmelite-staffed parishes and Carmelite-led organizations.

She remembers that when "Laudato Si' " was issued in 2015, "I was very supportive of it. I think we're really bringing the church back into the modern world. I think it's an extension of (St.) John XXIII's initiative."

Remson also recalls one meeting of her team before 2015, when a priest addressed them detailing the encyclical's development and his role in it. "I thought, 'This is so comprehensive. We've got to get this to young people so they can build their faith around this,' " she said. "Not just in a religion class or in a science class where they can teach it, but we need it to permeate the entire curriculum of the school."

Thus was the seed germinated for the "Laudato Si' " curriculum.

In 2015, but still before the encyclical was issued, "I met with some facility members and some people at Salpointe High School. We told them of getting the encyclical involved in every part of the school. They were interested and they said: 'We'd like to do a pilot on this,' " Remson said.

Loretto Sr. Helen Timothy, Salpointe's principal, said faculty started working on the curriculum that January and were finished by July.

"It is a curriculum that touches every area of academics at the secondary level. It is all designed around themes of 'Laudato Si',' " she said. "It is designed in such a way that it can be part of current lesson plans that are used in school"; by doing that, schools don't have to buy new textbooks to teach the principles found in "Laudato Si'. "

She added, "We're trying to effect change in students here who are age 14 to 18. We have agreed that for the next three years, our theme for the school is 'Care for Our Common Home.' "

Being a "Laudato Si' " school can come in handy in some of the most unexpected ways.

Not only is Salpointe a "Laudato Si' " school, it is also a Google school. "Through Google Projects — we have 1,250 students and 180 employees — we communicate via Google Docs to share what we are doing. We have a committee of 15 that spearhead that and document what we are doing" on "Laudato Si'," Timothy said.

And, not only is it both a "Laudato Si' " school and a Google school, "we are a One-to-One Chromebook school," she added. "So when the new Chromebooks come, they came on pallets. One of our IT people came in and made some furniture with those pallets. Instead of turning things in to the dump, make some things with it."

Those skills were vital in Tucson, which had been shipping its recyclable materials to China — until China announced earlier this year it would no longer take American trash. "There has been a lot of interest in our school" as of late as a result, Timothy said. "Now the city of Tucson is reducing the amount of recycling pickups. How can we as a community react to the fact that the city is no longer a recycler?"

Not every idea works out. "We talked about doing — and actually did — Meatless Mondays. That went over like a big lead balloon," the principal said with a laugh. Billboards promoting it were put up. "We wanted something last October that would get the kids' attention," she added. "It's not enough to wear a lanyard around your neck that says, 'Care for Our Common Home.' "

However, "we have the two biggest ranchers in Arizona's daughters go to this school." More telling, "Monday at breakfast, when they (students) went to look for beef burritos, they weren't happy."

On the school's Google spreadsheet, which was shared with Catholic News Service, one teacher said, "I have reduced my paper consumption dramatically by putting all assignments on Google Classroom for students to view rather than printing. I have also asked that students use ALL of the surface area for each sheet of paper turned in to me to help reduce paper consumption in that area."

Another teacher wrote of a financial literacy lesson connecting a TED talk on "What Consumers Want" with "good habits of money management," and tying Pope Francis' comments on consumerism in the encyclical — "moderation and capacity to be happy with less" — and "compulsive consumerism," in which the pontiff wrote: "The emptier a person's heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume."

Remson said she does not know precisely how many schools have used the Carmelites' "Laudato Si' " curriculum, just the countries that have accessed it, including the United States, Peru, and several in Europe.

Lest adults feel they're behind on the learning curve, "we published for adults a study guide to accompany the encyclical," Remson told CNS. "The most interested in this are the Methodists. They have more copies of the study guide than any other denomination, including the Catholics."