As a mom of a university sophomore who successfully navigated the waters of the college application process, and a high school junior who will be engaged in the process for the next year, I can appreciate all too well the stress our young students face these days when anticipating and planning for their futures. Gone are the days of one or two college apps and a single try at the SAT. They’ve been replaced by the Common App, students applying to dozens of institutions, and kids making monthly appointments to retake standardized tests in search of a few more points on their scores. I know too many teens who choose how they spend their time primarily motivated by how the activity will look to college admissions professionals. I’ve witnessed too many “meltdowns” brought on by the stress of the process.
So when I came across the work of Dr. Patricia Sisca Pace and her educational seminars that combine learning with faith, I was intrigued. I’m very grateful to Dr. Pace for participating in the following interview. Whether your children are five or fifteen, I know you’ll find her comments to be helpful and enlightening. Be sure to visit Dr. Pace at http://drpaceseminars.com/ for more information on her seminars and other resources.
I think the most interesting aspect of my family is our surname “Pace,” which means peace in Italian. My father’s name, Pasquale Pace, means Easter Peace; my mother’s, Assunta Pace, means Assumption Peace; and mine, Patricia Pace, means Nobel Peace. In a very real way, our family name has informed our lives as we have sought the promise of Christ’s peace for ourselves and others. For me, Christ helped me understand how to bring peace into a field where little peace resides—standardized tests. In fact, the image in my logo symbolizes personal best performance emerging from the outstretched arm of Christ’s cross.
My doctorate is in psychology, from the University of Southern California, and I have a certification in spiritual direction from the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA. In addition to my close association with the Jesuits, I am a Benedictine Oblate and an Associate with the Medical Mission Sisters. As part of my lay vocation, I live as a semi-cloister, spending two months in prayer each year.
Q: Please tell us about the academic and counseling services you render and how you decided to become involved in these efforts.
For over 30 years I have been offering educational seminars. Most of my programs prepare students for high school or college entrance and scholarship tests. I was always aware that nonacademic factors were getting in the way of students’ learning and test performance, but it wasn’t until my first Ignatian 7-day retreat in 1995 that I realized our Catholic Spiritual Tradition has exactly what learners need to keep them focused and motivated in the classroom and during long and arduous standardized tests. I knew that I had found the pearl of great price that Jesus speaks of and immediately signed up for the spiritual direction certification program at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville. It was during another retreat that the idea of an “SAT retreat” came to me. All the parts fell together with great ease, and I left that retreat with the first draft of the entire program. In it I incorporated the charism of healing from the Medical Mission Sisters, balance from the Benedictines, and discernment from the Jesuits. I initially began offering the SAT Retreat to students in my neighborhood to see how they would react. Even though no one was using Catholic Spiritual Tradition in test-prep, I felt certain that young people would respond favorably. And they did! Within a year, a Catholic high school principal asked me to offer the SAT Retreat to a group of students she was hot-housing. The high school is located in a working class section of Philadelphia and enrolls students from various religious backgrounds. The results were better than anyone could have expected: students who had taken only the SAT Retreat increased on average 165 points, and students who took both the retreat and my academic program increased on average 250 points. One of those students applied to every Ivy League university and was accepted into all of them—that had never before happened in the history of the high school! These results strengthened my conviction that the SAT Retreat helped test-takers perform at their personal best. Perhaps even more promising, the students gave the program excellent evaluations, noting how the graces of the retreat spilled into many areas of their lives, not just the SAT. I asked one girl, who took only the retreat and whose score increase was 460 points, to what she attributed such a large point increase. She responded, “Before the SAT Retreat, I never knew I could do it.” Her experience shined a light on one of what I call “dragons” that plague students, preventing them from performing at their personal best on standardized tests. Her dragon was low-confidence, and the SAT Retreat obviously helped bring her to health and wholeness.
Q: How does your approach differ from other “test prep” services?
I bring God right into the center of my students’ test-taking and learning experiences. That, in a nutshell, is how my programs differ from other programs, which typically ignore anything that hints of God. Some holistic services appeal to a person’s own power to deal with the things that block them. Such programs completely leave out the connection between the person’s power and God’s power. Certainly, some people encourage students to pray before taking a test, which is good. But my spiritual-academic programs go well beyond a prayer before class or before testing by seamlessly interweaving academics with spiritual techniques, leaving no division between the subject being learned and/or tested and God’s rightful place in that subject/test. And my spiritual-academic programs are not heavy-handed. Many students and their parents ask me about the spiritual component before they enroll. They are wary of indoctrination or a lack of academic excellence. People generally believe that a program can be either spiritually excellent or academically excellent, but not both. They are used to having religion locked into a religion course, liturgy, and service projects, but not at the heart of an academic program. Students will exclaim, “What does God have to do with mathematics!” And yet, at the end of my programs, these same students walk away knowing they have just had an excellent academic experience as well as a fuller appreciation of how God fits in a natural way into all the subjects on the test, even mathematics!
My seminars are also unique in that I involve parents. Specifically, for my elementary school seminars—Learning Skills for 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Students and Slaying the Dragons of Standardized Tests, High School Entrance Edition—I ask the parents to attend so that they can reinforce the techniques at home. Perhaps a more important benefit is that the parents come to know their children and the subjects they are learning in a new light, one that shines on the inner genius and its connection to God.
Q: In an age when academic performance is so competitive, why should families consider consulting with a professional to aid their student in preparing for educational pursuits?
If parents want their children to perform at their personal best on tests, it is best they consult a professional who addresses both academic and nonacademic factors.
Regarding academic factors, professionals well-versed in a specific test are able to see the big picture and condense the major components into a few clear concepts. Such a level of expertise takes many years to acquire, as it would in any field; a student, even a bright student, cannot be expected to gain that level of expertise within a short period of time. On the other hand, if the goal is not personal best but rather a small point increase, such as 30 more points on an SAT, some students might be able to achieve that goal through self-study. However, whether through self-study or with outside help, test-takers should become familiar with the test format, timing, and problem types before they take the test.
Regarding nonacademic factors—such as distractions, boredom, fatigue, low self-confidence, nervousness, lack of motivation—my years of experience have shown me that students need quality assistance. From a spiritual perspective, forces are at work that move learners both toward and away from their best, their unique talents, their goodness, God. As a spiritual director, I see the need to teach learners how to recognize and deal with those forces in a healthy and productive way. Moreover, it is important to remember that the whole person takes the test, not just the mind; so, in order to achieve personal best, the whole person—body, emotions, spirit, and mind—must be healthy. It is easy to understand this if you visualize performance as a continuum, ranging from the person’s personal worst to personal best, with an average performance in the center of the continuum. We all have bad days, when nothing seems to go right, and good days, when everything seems to go well—whether the task is running a race, playing the cello, or taking a test. This explains why most score reports show the student’s score within an expected range of scores; that is, if the student took the test again, he/she would be expected to fall somewhere in that range. Preparing the whole person equips the student to deal with the host of dragons that get in the way of scoring at the upper end of his/her range. And that score difference can be very important! For example, a high school senior came to me a few years ago and told me she had been accepted into her first choice college and she was awarded a scholarship. But her SAT scores were a bit low. The school informed her that her scholarship would increase if she could raise her SAT scores. She took my course and then took the test. Her SAT score increased by 70 points, which is about seven questions and within her performance range. For those seven questions, they gave her an additional $20,000 dollars in scholarship! So, to answer your question about professional assistance: Yes, unequivocally! Professional assistance is needed to address the host of dragons that get in the way of personal best.
Q: For those with younger children, what can parents do at an early age to help develop students’ passion for learning?
Instilling wonder and awe for creation and tying that wonder and awe into each subject being taught (and tested!) needs to begin at the earliest possible moment within the child’s consciousness. Such an approach will ward off the dragons that destroy the love of learning and can ultimately thwart talent development.
Parents can instill wonder by helping their children observe the patterns, relationships, connections between all manner of things. Young children need to see how the big picture is connected to the detail: how the forest is connected to the tree, the tree to the leaf, the leaf to the cell, the cell to the quark, the quark to the forest. Likewise, parents need to show how talent is connected to their children’s best dreams of themselves, which is all connected to the Creator of the universe. Parents can surround their children with people who have a love of learning and a reverence for life, with people who see their goodness, the goodness in creation, and the value of each of God’s creatures. Parents can steep their children in nature; awaken their senses by listening to the sounds of nature, detecting its scents, touching its multifold textures, and by playing in nature—run, skip, jump, and discover with your children. Show them how all that they hear, see, touch, and think is connected to math, geography, history, art, music, faith, science, engineering, business, inventing—every field of human endeavor. And why not do all this on retreat grounds? I highly recommend that parents take retreats with their young children so that they grow together in their experience of creation on holy grounds. By doing this they will build a sacred history that their children can always fall back on, remember, and carry forward. In short, nurture body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Together, plant the seed of learning in wonder and awe—in its truest form, in health and wholeness, the way God intends—and watch goodness and talent grow.
Q: Is there a correlation between faith and values formation and educational performance?
As a matter of fact, my contribution to the field of education shows that there is a correlation between faith and educational performance. And if I have been able to demonstrate a correlation between God and standardized tests—a seemingly incongruous pair according to most students!—surely there is a correlation between faith and values formation! In fact, I liken my programs to the Gospel story of the paralyzed man to whom Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven you.” The people present were neither satisfied with nor trusting of that effect. It was only when Jesus told the man to walk—and he did indeed walk!—that they believed. Likewise, people are sometimes skeptical that spiritual-academic programs have a real impact on students by helping them regain their trust, re-order their lives, and practice discernment so that they no longer allow personal dragons to sabotage personal best. But when these same people see their children’s test scores significantly increase, they believe. So, yes, a significant correlation between faith and educational performance does indeed exist!
Q: What advice do you have for parents as we prepare to begin a new school semester?
Parents can begin the new school semester by asking God every day to deepen their trust: trust in themselves and trust that God is at every moment co-laboring with them to help their children’s talents fulfill God’s dreams for them and for the world.
Q: How can readers who are interested in your programs learn more?
I recommend they visit my website: www.drpaceseminars.com. It provides a lot of information about my programs and products, including point increases and personal testimonies from teachers, principals, parents, and students, as well as articles written in a variety of publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to The Intelligencer. A good place to learn about my spiritual-academic approach is from my book, The Last of the Dragon Slayers: The Ultimate Guides to Personal Best Performance. In it, parents will find excellent ways to nurture the genius within their children, that is, the talents they are bringing into the world. If they want to contact me or order my book, I can be reached at [email protected] or at 215-725-6568.
Q: Are there any additional comments you wish to share with our readers?
Thank you for this opportunity to share my spiritual-academic approach to personal best performance! My hope is that parents who read this interview will be inspired to look into and pursue these programs for their children, and all children!