Communicating with Parents
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the important role of the family in religious education: “Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the ‘first heralds for their children’…Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith. Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God” (CCC 2235-2236).
Use the suggestions below to partner with parents. Keep in mind that establishing a working relationship with parents will help children recognize that both their folks and you care deeply that they learn about and live their faith.
• Introduce yourself to parents with a phone call early in the year. Ask parents to tell you about their child—likes, dislikes, hobbies—anything that will help you get to know the student. Encourage parents to contact you to share any questions or concerns they may have. Provide the parents with your full name and contact information.
• Utilize the chapter family pages provided by your publisher. Periodically, personalize these pages by adding a sticky note about individual children: “Dakota adds so much to our class discussions” or “It’s great to have Madison in our class.” Not only do your comments affirm the child, they also encourage the parent to read what you send home. Prepare the notes before class so you can quickly attach them as you dismiss the children.
• E-mail is a great way to connect with parents and children. Collect e-mail addresses early in the year and make sure you have the parents’ permission to e-mail their children on occasion. When children are absent, e-mail the parents about the work they missed and ask them to cover the chapter at home. E-mail absent children to let them know they were missed and that you are looking forward to seeing them at the next class.
• Invite parents to participate in your program when appropriate—attending an open house, chaperoning a field trip, or celebrating with their child at a class Mass or a holiday program. Consider planning one class session during the year for children and parents to participate in together. Working through a chapter with their child and other families is an excellent strategy for building community and common goals.
Don’t be discouraged if some parents seem unresponsive to your efforts. Today’s families are often over-scheduled and have many demands on their time. Keep reaching out—as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do.
June / July
Evaluating the Year
As your last class approaches, you still have some important tasks to complete. You and your students have come a long way together, but you are not finished yet! Don’t let the year end without looking back at all you’ve accomplished, celebrating together, and giving some serious thought to next year.
Planning Your Final Session
Build an end-of-the year review into your lesson plan. If your religious education publisher provides assessment resources, you may want to test the students on what they have learned over the year or in the last unit. Consider whether it will be more productive for the students to complete the test individually, in small groups, or as an “open book” experience. Remember that tests not only measure what the students have retained from your class sessions; they also help you gauge how effective you have been in teaching the content in the text. As a low-key alternative, plan on reviewing and discussing the Table of Contents in your text with the class. Invite students to name the important concepts and words they have learned this year.
Prepare an evaluation form for the students to complete during your last session. List the major activities, prayer experiences, and service projects that have been part of your students’ experience this year. Provide an instrument next to each item on the form for students to rank their response to the activities. For example, a happy or sad face for primary children or a numerical assessment (1 for least effective; 5 for most effective) for older students. You might also provide space on the form for students to write what they enjoyed most about their experience in your class this year and one thing they might change.
Pray and Celebrate Together
Plan a special prayer service incorporating one of the significant Scripture stories from the year. Include a blessing ritual in the prayer service in which you will call your students forward one at a time to trace the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads as you say something personal to each of them and remind them of God’s love for them.
Schedule the prayer service near the end of your session and invite parents to attend. Call a few moms in advance and ask them to supply treats and beverages for a party following the prayer. Take time during the celebration to thank the students and their parents for their cooperation during the year. You may also want to give each student a small gift—a prayer card on which you have written a personal note, a medal, or a religious pin—as a memory of your year together.
Take some time in the coming weeks to evaluate your experience as a catechist this year. What did you enjoy most? What challenges did you encounter? What will you change if you decide to return next year?
As a rule of thumb, most first-year catechists benefit from teaching at least two years. In the first year, everything is new—you are learning how to use a Catechist Guide, how to work with students, class procedures, and parish policies. The second year is much more rewarding because you can really focus on sharing faith with your students. Veteran catechists return year after year because they can see the difference they make and they enjoy the fellowship and sense of shared mission with other catechists. Whether or not you are a new or veteran catechist, give serious thought to making the commitment for another year. Your time and talent are needed to continue Christ’s work in the world!
Celebrating and Proclaiming the Word of God
The theme for Catechetical Sunday and the entire 2008-2009 catechetical year, The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, is also the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for the Synod of Bishops that will take place from October 5-26 this year. Just as bishops from all over the world, chosen to represent their local conferences, will gather to study, pray, and discuss the role of Sacred Scripture, catechists are invited to spend this year reflecting on the importance of the Scriptures in our personal lives and our relationship with Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. We are also called to renew our commitment to proclaiming God’s Word to our students. Our mission is to help those we teach to grow in their knowledge and love of God’s Word.
One of our joys as catechists is to open the Scriptures to our students and help them to appreciate what a wonderful treasure the Bible is. Here are some ideas for helping students develop a life-long love for God’s Word.
Enthrone the Bible
Highlight the centrality of the Scripture in our lives by giving the Bible a special place on your classroom prayer table. Drape a seasonally-colored cloth over the table and place a Bible stand in the center. If you do not have a Bible stand, place a book underneath the cloth to elevate the Word. Set a candle next to the Bible and complete the display by using a wide ribbon in a seasonal color as a bookmark.
Enthrone the Bible by having students process in line from outside the classroom to the prayer table, with one student carrying the Scriptures on high. Have the children sing together an Alleluia verse or some other appropriate song. After the Bible has been placed on the table, encourage the students to show reverence for God’s Word by tracing the Sign of the Cross on the open Bible, bowing before it, or touching it reverently with their hand. Each week, as you prepare to read from the Scriptures, begin with an invocation of praise and thanksgiving, such as, “We thank you, Lord, for the gift of your Word!”
Teaching Students to Use the Bible
Even students as young as third grade can learn to navigate their way through the Scriptures. Pair the students up and give each pair a Bible. Turn to the Contents page and point out the two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. Have them count the number of books in each section. Ask them to locate the first page in Genesis and read the first passage aloud. Do the same with the first passage in Matthew. Point out and explain the significance of the chapter and verse numbers. Then have the partners work together to find specific Scriptural passages you list on the board. It will be slow going at first, but once the students “get it” they will feel a real sense of accomplishment. During subsequent classes, have students locate the Scripture you are studying each week in their classroom Bibles.
Acting Out the Scriptures
Dramatizing a Scripture story often helps students to better understand its meaning. This is most effective when the story involves multiple characters: the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37); the Coming of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-13); or the Calming of the Storm at Sea (Mark 4:35-41). After sharing and discussing the story, work with the class to prepare a play. Older students can do this on their own, working in groups. Have props on hand to bring the story to life: a few old robes; costume beards; and objects mentioned in the passage. The students will enjoy performing their plays for one another, but for very special occasions, arrange for them to share their dramatizations with another class or during a prayer service with parents in attendance.
Praying with the Scriptures
Choose a relevant verse from your weekly Scripture story to proclaim in prayer with the class. Have the students repeat the passage as a refrain during a Prayer of the Faithful. Invite students to work in groups to study the Psalms and find an appropriate passage that mirrors your lesson theme (God’s love, faithfulness, presence, forgiveness, greatness, and so forth). Praying with the Scriptures helps students to recognize that God continues to speak to us today.
Eight Kinds of Smart (pdf)
How do Children Learn?
Many Gifts, One Lord
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord.
1 Corinthians 12:4-5
How do you prefer to learn new things? Do you like to attend a lecture or watch one on TV? Do you like to read novels or see movies and reflect on the life messages they hold? When you cook, do you follow a recipe or learn through trial and error? Do you just want the facts, or do you like open-ended questions with lots of possibilities? The way in which you answer these questions tells a lot about how you prefer to learn and express yourself. You may prefer to learn by listening, by seeing, by imagining, or by doing. Children, as well, have preferred learning styles.
But there is another way to think about learning. Learning preferences may reflect only our “comfort zones.” According to the popular theory of the well-known educator, Howard Gardner, each of us is born with at least eight different ways of processing and responding to new information that he calls “multiple intelligences.” We might think of them, as one write has done, as eight different ways of being smart. All of us possess each of these kinds of “smart” in one degree or another. The particular combination of these intelligences that we have is one of the things that make each of us unique. One or several of these intelligences is probably dominant is each of us.
Some children learn and express their ideas through words, others by thinking things out or putting them in categories, and still others learn by using their bodies. Some learn and express themselves best when things are presented in a musical or rhythmic way. Some are best at writing and quiet, self-directed activities, others at group activities or sharing. Still others learn best through their contact with nature, through field trips, or by nurturing plants and animals.
In religious formation, as in classroom education, attention to the variety of gifts among the children will help them grow in an understanding of their faith and deepen their relationship with God. Good curriculum offers you many different strategies to honor the gifts that already exist in your learners and to encourage them to express themselves in new ways. Here are some activities related to the eight intelligences that support the different ways that children can learn about their faith and express their relationship with God and one another.
Language – and Music – Related Activities
• Researching word meanings
• Word games and puzzles
• Reading and Bible search activities
• Storytelling and journal writing
• Learning hymns and Mass responses
• Writing prayers or songs
• Using background music for activities
Object – Related Activities
• Learning “how many?” of different categories: sacraments, Apostles, and so on
• Celebrating the liturgical seasons of the Church
• “You are there” activities placing oneself in the action of the Bible story
• Using maps and models
• Graphic organizers to display information visually
• Posters and “designing” activities
• Crafts and classroom dramas
• Using gestures with songs and prayers
• Expressing response through dance
• Nurturing plants and animals
• Creating gardens or nature areas on school grounds
Person –Related Activities
• Cooperative-group learning activities
• Peer tutoring and sharing
• Teaching other students
• Games and simulations
• Quiet prayer times
• Writing and drawing in journals
• Creating autobiographies
• Self-assessment activities
What kinds of activities did you enjoy most as a child?
What kinds of activities are you most comfortable leading? What is a new kind of activity you would be willing to try with the children?
The Learning Environment
Creating an Inviting Environment
Create an environment that is inviting but also oriented. Use pictures, posters, flowers, banners, and plants to make the room visually appealing. Arrange the room so that you can be accessible to every child. Such a setting helps to facilitate interaction.
Put chairs in a circle. A circle allows children to see one another, puts each learner on an equal footing, and helps create a sense of community. You as the catechist are part of the circle.
Arrange separate areas for specific tasks. Areas for prayer and for discovery or for show-and-tell table, as well as large group activities are desirable.
Use a variety of visual materials. Bulletin boards, posters, and paintings, engage learners. A bulletin board that has been set aside for the children’s work helps them feel that the room belongs to them and permits the sharing of their work.
Review safety and fire codes. Review building-specific plans with the children in the beginning of the year and occasionally throughout the year.
Create an Emotionally Positive Environment
Through your example, show the children how you expect them to behave. Show reverence and respect for each child in the group. Be sensitive to the children’s feelings as well as their ideas.
Build a warm welcoming spirit. Show by your actions and expression that you are happy to be with the children. Call the children by name and welcome them warmly to each session. Let them know that you expect them to do their best and that you will do your best.
Encourage the children to praise one another. Model behavior that supports being kind and caring. Celebrate birthdays and name days. Send home special notes to children who miss a session.
Allow the children to share their concerns. Respect their need for privacy but help them to realize that, during the session, it is safe to share. Discuss events that are part of the parish community, too.
Give the children ownership. Invite them to help with tasks such as taking attendance, assisting with prayer, distributing materials, and watering plants.
Create a Safe and Disciplined Environment
Live by session rules. Begin the year by talking with the children about your expectations. Next explain that to attain these goals the group will need to follow certain rules. Together with the children, create rules based on mutual respect and personal responsibility. Write the rules on a large poster and refer to them often. Try to keep the rules general and have as few as possible. Be sure to communicate to parents the rules that you have established for the group sessions.
Make safety a priority. Be sure to arrive before the children to inspect the room. Do not leave them unattended. As you greet the children before the session, take note of any injuries or other health problems that may require special attention on your part. Do not depart the facility until all the children have been picked up by a parent or guardian.
Provide consistent routines. The ways in which you welcome the children, begin the sessions, and take attendance, as well as the other ongoing tasks, provide repetition and a safe, comfortable structure for them.
Model desired behavior. If you expect the young people to act in a certain way, model that behavior for them. Make ample use of praise. A nod or a smile can do wonders!
Expect attention. Wait until you have the attention of every learner before you speak. Don’t attempt to speak over the children’s chatter.
Do low-profile intervention. Be careful that a child is not rewarded for misbehavior by becoming the focus of attention. If possible, approach a misbehaving learner inconspicuously, giving a quiet reminder of your expectations. If disturbances continue, enlist the help of the director or coordinator of religious education and the child’s parents or guardians.
Give direct instructions. Begin by telling the children what will be happening during the session. Outline verbally and on the chalkboard what they will be doing. If you wish, explain that there will be time at the end to chat with friends.
Monitor the group. Circulate around the room, giving your attention to each learner. Observe how each one is doing and offer help as needed. Again, use a quiet voice as you give your personal attention to each child.
Media Savvy Catechist (pdf)
Strategies for Asking Questions (pdf)
Jump Starting the Year
Organization is one of the key elements in becoming a successful catechist. When we are organized, it helps us to feel more in control and enables us to focus on what we have been called to do: share our Catholic faith with children. Here are three tips to help you get organized.
1. Plan Your Space
Whether your “classroom” is a partitioned section of a large hall, the family room of your home, or a traditional space with desks, chairs, and chalkboards, take time to consider how you can best utilize the area. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Where will I have the children sit as we work in our texts?
• Where will we pray?
• Where will the class gather to work together on arts and crafts projects?
Ideally, you should have enough space for the children to sit on chairs or the floor for the formal part of a lesson; an area they can gather around, sitting or standing, for prayer, and an easily-cleared space for projects—with furniture and flooring that can be wiped clean in case of spills. If you don’t have the space for movement between these areas, keeping in mind that even the smallest change of venue helps to keep the children alert, plan how you can adapt the area during class—by sliding tables or chairs against the wall or shifting quickly to a nearby room more suited to your next activity.
2. Prepare a Prayer Area
If there is an empty desk or tabletop in your space, you’re all set. All you’ll need to do is add religious symbols appropriate to your chapter theme and the season. If you don’t have a flat space suitable for a prayer table, you’ll need to be a bit more inventive. A portable TV tray is perfect for creating an instant prayer area—it’s lightweight, folds easily, and can be stored in a corner of a cloak room or closet.
Basic items for the prayer table include a Bible, a crucifix, a candle (lighted or not, depending on fire regulations), and a fabric cloth in seasonal or liturgical colors. Add and delete objects or symbols as appropriate throughout the year that relate to your lessons—a bowl of water if Baptism is your theme, a loaf of bread for a lesson on Eucharist, a paper scroll inscribed with the Ten Commandments if you are teaching morality. Some catechists prefer to have the prayer table completely set up before the children arrive for class each week, while others find that children are more responsive if they have the opportunity to take turns “setting” the table each week with the symbols you provide.
3. Pack Your Tool Kit
Your catechetical leader will usually provide a supply box stocked with many of the basic items you’ll need for class sessions: pencils, crayons or markers, lined paper, masking tape, a stapler and staples, and chalk and an eraser. You will need to request specific items for different projects called for in your lesson plan—things like construction paper, index cards, yarn, watercolors and brushes, a video, music tape or CD, and so forth.
However, you will also need your own “tool kit” to transport back and forth from your teaching space to your home. You might prefer a large canvas tote bag, but a plastic milk crate or banker’s box with handles works just as well. Keep the resources you need each week in the kit—your Catechist Guide, a folder with your class list, family contact information, any important forms or policies regarding teaching in your parish, a notepad, and several pens. From week to week, you can add specific items called for in your lesson plan—magazines to make a collage, for example, and your prayer table supplies. You may also want to include a few “goodies” in your kit—colorful stickers, prayer cards, a bag of sugarless candy, a pad of post-it notes, and other items you want to have on hand. Keep your kit in a specific place, so you’ll always know where it is. That way, on class day, you’ll be “good to go!”
Getting to Know You: Building Community in the Classroom
As Jesus began his public ministry, he gathered together a diverse group of disciples. He spent time with the disciples, traveling with them and sharing meals together, teaching them to pray, and more fully explaining his teachings so that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they could continue his work in the world after he returned to the Father. In short, he formed the disciples into a community of believers, ready to share with others the Good News he shared with them.
You, too, have a diverse group of “disciples” who have been entrusted to you for this catechetical year. Your goal goes well beyond merely finishing your textbook. In addition to sharing the truths of the Catholic faith with the children and helping them to apply what they learn to their daily lives, you are called to create a classroom community that in a sense is a microcosm of the Church—the Body of Christ and the new People of God called together in Jesus’ name.
Building community begins with helping the children get to know one another and, hopefully, eventually leading them to respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. This doesn’t happen overnight. Try a few of the ideas below to begin forming your class into a community of disciples.
• Prepare an information sheet for each child to complete during the first few weeks of class. If you work with primary-aged children, create a form that can be taken home and completed with a parent’s help. Older children can fill in the information on their own. In addition to biographical data, provide space for the children to indicate their interests and opinions, such as what they like to do on a day off from school; something they are proud of; two things they want their classmates to know about them, what they want to be when they grow up, and a lists of favorites—foods, movies, TV shows, and so forth. Over the next several weeks, take time to discuss different items on the questionnaire. It will help the children begin to recognize all they have in common and to learn a bit about one another.
• Have the children work in small groups frequently throughout the year. Working with three to five peers on a common goal helps the learners to recognize the many gifts and talents they each have to offer to the community.
• Begin class with ice-breakers for the first several sessions. A perennial favorite is “Ball of Yarn.” Before class, roll a long skein of yarn into a ball and also prepare a list of “quick response” questions (places I have visited, favorite holiday, most cherished possession, family pet and name, favorite hobby, etc.). Gather the class into a large circle and, holding the end of the yarn string, call out one of the questions, toss the yarn ball to one of the children. The child should catch the ball, respond, and toss it to another classmate, while still holding on to the string. Repeat this procedure several times until the yarn ball has been tossed around the group, several times. At this point, the children will be holding several different parts of the string ball. Have the group look at the design they’ve created with the string and identify what it says about your class. The ideal answer would be “We’re all connected!” However, accept any answer that helps the children recognize they are a group with a common purpose. This game often gets a bit rowdy, so make sure you play it in a large, uncluttered area.
• Honor a different “child of the week” throughout the year. Create a poster displaying the child’s name and picture and invite the learners to affirm their classmate by naming qualities that make the person special. Have one of the children write the qualities the group suggests on the poster. Conclude this activity working with the group to use the qualities they named to write a petition about the child. For example: “Lord, we thank you for Makenna, who tries to be a friend to everyone.” After each child has been honored, assemble the petitions into a class litany. Have the children respond, “We are the Body of Christ, Lord, called to love and serve one another” to each petition.” Pray your class litany aloud together often.
Keep in mind that building community is an on-going endeavor. Continue to find creative ways to help the children interact with one another throughout the entire year and to provide them with opportunities to live their faith by demonstrating caring and respect for one another.
Teaching the Saints
The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults explains that a saint is a “person who, after having lived a life of virtue, dies in the state of grace and has been granted the reward of eternal life by God. The saints enjoy the beatific vision and unceasingly intercede for those still in earthly life. They also serve as a model and inspiration to us” (AC Appendix A. Glossary). The lives of the saints show us what it means to love God and others, to put our beliefs into practice, and to demonstrate our concern for others.
The saints are a light for us on our journey of faith because they lived their faith in concrete ways. The saints come from all walks of life and from every racial, social, and economic group. What they share in common is their desire to respond to God’s call. Teaching about the saints give students the opportunity to see how those who have gone before us in faith who lived out their baptismal calling in extraordinary ways. The example of the saints can motivate our students to express their faith in Jesus by acting with love, care, kindness, peace, and justice toward others.
Incorporate the saints into your weekly lessons in the following ways:
• Go to www.FaithFirst.com to locate saint stories to share with your students. Weekly profiles of saints can be found in the Kid’s Clubhouse (Grades K-3); the Kids Only Club (Grades 4-6); the Teen Center (Grades 7-8), Faith First for Families; and the Catechists and Teachers section.
• Purchase a book on the lives of the saints. Make sure that it is organized according to the calendar. Take time each week to read aloud a story from the book and help the students make the connection between the saint’s life and lived faith. Ask your catechetical leader to suggest an appropriate book for the grade level you teach. Better yet, let your catechetical leader know that a book on the lives of the saints would make a excellent Catechetical Sunday or end-of-the-year gift for each catechist!
• After sharing a saint story with your class, invite the students to suggest ways in which they can follow the saint’s example in their own lives.
• Choose a “Saint of the Month” to share with older students. Invite the students to use various saint reference books and the internet to research biographical information about the saint. Have the students write short reports or create skits highlighting some aspect of the saint’s life. You might also have the students work in groups to create a poster or bulletin board display on the saint.
• Over the course of the year, encourage the students to compile a booklet of saints they have “met” in your class. Give them time of a regular basis during your sessions to add to the booklet. The booklet pages might include a profile on the saint, a drawing that illustrates how the saint showed love for God and others, and a short prayer. At the end of the year, display the booklets in a public area of the parish so that others may benefit from your students’ work.
• Using resources suggested by your catechetical leader, explain the beatification and canonization process to older students. Invite them to visit the Vatican web site at www.vatican.va to learn about the holy men and women who have been beatified or canonized recently.
• Explain to your students that the Church teaches that everyone in heaven is considered a saint, whether or not they have been officially canonized. Remind them they we are all called to sainthood and that if we try our best to live as disciples of Jesus, we, too, will be welcomed into God’s kingdom and share everlasting life with the Communion of Saints in heaven.
Connecting with the Liturgical Year
Scripture proclaims: “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:10). This passage has special meaning for Catholics because we prepare, remember, celebrate, and live “time” each year through the lens of the liturgical year, the annual cycle that celebrates the Paschal Mystery and God’s loving plan for the salvation of all people through Jesus Christ.
Teaching students about the seasons and celebrations of the liturgical year is an important responsibility for all catechists. We can do this in a variety of ways.
• Set aside one lesson each year to overview the liturgical year. With older students, display a poster that illustrates the Church year. With younger students, draw a circle on the chalkboard or a poster as you explain the major seasons and mark them on the circle. Point out that the major seasons of the year are Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, the Easter Triduum, and the Easter Season. Explain to older students that we celebrate two periods of Ordinary Time; the first after the Christmas Season, and the second after the Easter Season. Point out that the liturgical year begins on the First Sunday of Advent. Work with the class to clarify what and how the Church celebrates during the different seasons.
• Visit the parish church with your class to point out signs and symbols of the Church year. For example, note the presence of the paschal candle and explain that a new paschal candle is lighted each year at the Easter Vigil. Take the children into the sacristy and show them the vestments worn by the priest. Work with them to match the colors of the vestments to the different Church seasons. As the year unfolds, remind the students of the signs and symbols you explored during your church visit.
• Throughout the liturgical year, decorate your classroom prayer space with colors and symbols that represent each season. During Advent, center your prayer around the Advent wreath; during Lent, make the crucifix the focus of prayer; during the Easter Season, pray with signs of new life—blessed water, eggs, flowers, and so forth.
• Incorporate the lectionary into your lessons throughout the Church year. Set aside time to read the Sunday Gospel and to discuss it with the class. Help the students make the connection between the Word of God, the Church season, and their lives.
Preparing for and celebrating the liturgical year is a joyful way of helping students experience God’s love and Christ’s presence throughout the year. As a catechist, capitalize on these opportunities to walk with the Lord!
Add a Dash of Creativity
In spite of our best intentions, sometimes we find that our class sessions have become predictable, following the exact same steps each week, in the same humdrum order. While children need a certain consistency to learn, they often respond more enthusiastically when we vary the routine and look for more inventive ways to approach a lesson. Use the ideas below to liven up your lessons plans.
Incorporate Group Work
Kids love working in groups. Extroverts enjoy the give and take and more introverted children often find it easier to contribute in a small group setting. Sadly, some catechists avoid group work because they worry that the increased noise level in the room will somehow reflect on their ability to “manage” the class. It’s true that group work is louder than having children work independently, but that doesn’t mean you’ve lost control. During group assignments, roam about the teaching space, checking in with each group frequently. That will keep the children on task and guarantee that the conversation is productive.
Experiment with a variety of groupings—pairs, threesomes, and small groups of three to five children for different activities. Children can complete a worksheet or textbook activity, write a group prayer, or read together a page in the textbook and find a creative way to present the three most important concepts on the page to the rest of the class. The latter idea is a terrific way to break the pattern of having children read aloud every word in a chapter. If the group somehow skips over a major teaching, you can always reinforce it by directing the class to the pertinent paragraph in the text and discussing it.
Try Something New
As catechists, we each have a certain comfort level. If we are unsure about how an activity will work with our class, we may avoid it. Fear of failure is a powerful force in convincing us to stick with the “tried and true.” However, variety will spice up your lesson plans and help you find different strategies to engage the children.
• Invite children to role-play how they can live a specific commandment, how a sacramental rite is celebrated, or how a child of their age might respond when faced with a moral choice.
• Introduce your class to different types of Church music throughout the year—familiar hymns they can sing together, instrumental songs for reflection, traditional seasonal songs, sung Mass responses, even Gregorian chant. Have a music selection that relates to your chapter theme playing to greet children as they arrive.
• Create word games or puzzles for the children to solve that preview or reinforce chapter concepts. Write the puzzle on the board or duplicate a copy for each student.
• Use a variety of prayer formats from week to week—traditional prayer, spontaneous prayer, meditation, responsorials, “echo” prayers in which the children repeat phrases after you, or alphabet prayers in which the children name things they are thankful for that begin with different letters of the alphabet. Encourage children to write and read aloud original psalms based on the chapter theme.
If an activity isn’t a roaring success, take heart. There’s always next week!
Making Prayer a Priority
Whether we minister to children or adults, we are often so focused on achieving the goals of our session that prayer becomes little more than an after-thought. Yet, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “prayer and the Christian life are inseparable” (CCC 2745). When we make prayer a priority, we invite the Holy Spirit to lead our sessions so that all we accomplish is done in the Lord’s name. Here are three ways you can incorporate prayer into your sessions.
• Traditional Prayers are official prayers of the Church that have been handed down to us throughout history and include prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Act of Sorrow, and other memorized prayers. It is especially important to help young children to understand and learn these prayers so that they have a rich treasury to draw from to express their prayer needs. However, traditional prayers are also an important prayer tool in ministry with teens and adults. Praying together connects us with the worldwide Church and helps a group deepen its sense of community as they pray together. Begin or end your classes with a traditional prayer and integrate different memorized prayers into your sessions over the course of the year.
• Spontaneous Prayers allow participants to use their own words to express their thoughts. Introduce spontaneous prayer to children in a structured format. For example, invite them to name one thing for which they are thankful to God or to name someone in need of God’s care. Spontaneous prayer can be more free-flowing with teens and adults. After reading aloud a passage from Scripture or calling the group to prayer in your own words, invite participants to speak to God from their hearts. Conclude with a short prayer thanking God for listening to and responding to our prayers.
• Ritual Prayer can involve words, movement, symbols, gestures, and objects. It is a powerful way of engaging a person fully in prayer. Sprinkle participants with holy water as they make the Sign of the Cross to recall their Baptism. Invite children to venerate the cross by bowing before it or touching it reverently with their hand. Sign participants’ palms with oil to remind them that they are set apart to serve others. Work with the group to choose gestures to accompany a traditional prayer or a passage from Psalms.
Trying new ways of praying will enrich your sessions with the individuals you serve. It will also help your participants become aware of new opportunities for lifting their minds and hearts to God.
Helping Kids to Make a Difference
As a catechist, one of your most important responsibilities is to help students recognize that faith is meant to be lived out in our daily lives. Providing opportunities for your students to serve others throughout the year will help bring the meaning of teachings like the Great Commandment and the Corporal Works of Mercy to life. Students of all ages enjoy getting away from their desks and texts to reach out to others. Through service activities, they quickly discover the joys of giving and what it means to live our faith.
Service opportunities don’t just happen; they require at least three months’ advance planning. Work with other catechists, your catechetical leader, or older students to explore needs in the community and beyond. Contact local organizations that serve the poor or marginalized people in your area. Be open with service providers and explain that you are looking for an appropriate service opportunity for your students. Provide details—for example, your students’ grade level, the time commitment your class can make, and if you are able to transport your students to a site. With primary students, be open to service activities that they might be able to participate in at the parish or during class time, such as shopping for and packing a holiday food box for a family, making cards for hospitalized or housebound parishioners, or baking cookies for a parish group—R.C.I.A. participants, a Christ Renews His Parish weekend group, or a gathering of senior citizens.
Here are a few ideas for off-site activities for older students:
• Visit a nursing home or senior-assisted residence. Have a definite purpose in mind for your visit: delivering donated or new magazines, large print books, audio-tape books, or “friendship baskets” you have collected or made prior to your visit; organizing a Bingo party, providing entertainment for a holiday party; acting out a seasonal Scripture story; or visiting with the residents at an “Adopt a Grandparent” day. The Activity Director at the facility may suggest additional options that have worked well with other groups.
• Visit a children’s or senior day care center in your area. Your students can bring games and treats (pre-approved by the staff). They can spend time playing with the children, talking with seniors, or serving a snack. Be sure to bring along several disposable cameras and have the kids take lots of pictures of your visit. After the field trip, have the pictures developed. Show the photographs to the students to help them to recall their experience. Consider having the students use the photographs to create an album to send to the people at the site you visited.
• Collect canned foods and deliver them to a local soup kitchen or food pantry. Arrange for the facility director to give your class a tour of the site and answer questions about the services the facility provides. Older students can also help out by setting tables, assisting with the food preparation, and clean up.
Growing as a Catechist
Rowland Bailey Howard (1808-1937), a Congregational minister and author, once wrote “Do not let your chances like sunbeams pass you by /For you never miss the water till the well runs dry.” Little did Howard know that his words would have great relevance for today’s catechists and Catholic school religion teachers. As we share faith with our class, it is important that we ensure that our wells do not run dry. Faith needs to be nourished and nurtured. Through our ministry, we are called to cultivate a deeper relationship with the Lord and to expand our understanding of the Catholic faith and how it is meant to be lived. We are invited to grow both personally and professionally.
The National Directory for Catechesis calls for us to develop our spiritual lives—our “communion of faith and love with the person of Jesus Christ…(through) an intense sacramental and prayer life” (NDC 55 E). Participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, being part of a prayer group or a neighborhood Christian community, spending time each day in quiet meditation, and reading the Scriptures on a regular basis are all ways of communing with God and being open to the Holy Spirit’s direction and presence in our lives. It is not enough to simply pray with our class—we must pray for the children in our class and their families—and allow Jesus to speak to us in our hearts.
Catechists have so many opportunities to learn more about the faith we teach and the skills we need to be effective in our ministry! Official Church documents, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, help us to better understand what we teach. The National Directory for Catechesis helps us to appreciate the Church’s vision for catechesis in the United States and our own role in that mission.
Catechist formation programs enable us to share faith with other catechists and to become more confident and competent in our work with children. In most dioceses, the courses we participate in make it possible for us to work toward certification—the official recognition of our growth in the catechetical ministry.
Diocesan-wide conferences and workshops help us to hone our catechetical skills and draw inspiration from talented speakers who deepen our awareness of the importance of our ministry. At workshops we learn new strategies for teaching different aspects of our faith—everything from the Liturgical Year, sacraments, and morality, to practical methods for helping children to celebrate and live their faith through prayer and service.
Finally, the Internet has increasingly become a source of growth for catechists and a real boon for on-going support, classroom activities, current events viewed through the lens of faith, and advice—all just a click away!
How are you growing as a catechist? Come to the water and prime the pump!