I want to follow up a bit on my last post (“Don’t Force Sharing”), to address a couple of things that came up in the comments or in emails I received.
First off, it seems there are quite a few “Introvert Irenes” out there who were, at one point, manipulated into sharing by a well-intentioned teacher. The fact that several of us remember these experiences highlights for me the perils of requiring students to write about their feelings.
And what’s the point of having kids talk about their feelings? Because we think we’re supposed to do that, and we’ll call it faith-sharing? I just think that’s the wrong approach, especially (also brought up in the comments) with young men. Every group of kids is different, but my experience has been that lots of kids aren’t at religious ed. because they begged their parents to go. They’ve come because a parent or grandparent has told them they have to, or because it’s counting towards a requirement for a Sacrament, or some other non-voluntary reason. Smiling at them and saying “Tell me about a time you felt frightened” may backfire.
So, why do I ask them about their “feelings?” (I don’t ever say “Tell me about your feelings. I kind of don’t like the word, especially having now typed it multiple times).
Well, I see my primary role as R.E. teacher as academic – teaching them more about the faith. It’s academic from a spiritual perspective, of course – exposing them to different types of prayer, helping them to understand why we’re reverent, showing them the beauty of the Sacraments. But another dimension of being their catechist is being a – gulp – role model. Being for them another (or sometimes the only) adult who tries to live out our faith, who cares about them, and who’s going to be praying for them even after they’ve left my classroom. For some of the kids, that question – “what’s on your mind?” – may be the only chance they’ll have to talk something over that’s been really bothering them.
As far as ground rules – I never promise that I’m the only person who will read their journals, but I do tell them that I’m not going to force them to share journal responses with the class. I tell them that if they talk about something dangerous to themselves or other people in their journals, I’m required by law to report it to people who can help.
And, especially for the reluctant journal-writers…I make the “feeling” questions optional. So I’ll usually give them three questions, tell them they have to answer two, and only one of the questions will be a feelings-based question. That’s not to say that my other questions don’t relate to their personal experiences – I think a prompt like “Describe a time when you had to choose whether or not to believe someone” is open-ended enough that they won’t feel like they have only one experience to talk about.
If they’re flippant in the journals, I don’t chastise them – I’ll be a little flippant back, maybe, but I think once they see that I really am going to respond to what they’ve said, they are more likely to write something worth reading.
One question I always avoid is “The Church says this. How do you feel about that?” (“The Church teaches abstinence until marriage. How do you feel about that? And isn’t prom this weekend?”) Um, no. Had a class like that, and the whole thing consisted of us arguing with the teacher. They don’t pay me enough to argue with teenagers for a living. When I want to see if they understand something the Church teaches, I ask them to apply the teaching to a situation, and we talk about if they’ve done that in a way consistent with the teaching. But I think asking “how do you feel about this topic” just invites them to make all their decisions about religion based on how they feel at the moment about a particular teaching. And, guess what? We’re kind of counter-cultural. Not sure if anyone noticed that.
I want to step out of catechist-mode for a moment and revert to my previous incarnation as Social Studies teacher and say, in general, the “how do you feel about that” approach to journal questions is not the way to go. “How do you feel about the electoral college?” “I think it sucks, because people’s votes don’t really count.” Okay, great – now you’ve triggered an antagonistic response when you could have provoked actual thinking by rephrasing it as “what are some arguments used in favor of changing the way in which elections are run in this country? Which arguments do you consider most valid, and why?” Still encouraging their individual point of view, without making it all…feely.
ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: On the Myers-Briggs test, I’m a T and not an F.
REGULAR DISCLAIMER: Catechist Chat will be an ongoing series of posts for teachers in religious education programs. It is based on my personal experience and not on any statistical evidence of the effectiveness of my advice. Suscribe to my feed to follow along, and Caveat lector, which is Latin for “your mileage may vary.”
Click here to read other entries in the series, and be sure to follow Catechist Chat on Facebook! You can also sign up for my email list, and I’ll send you resources, including non-PDF versions of the activities I post (which means you can edit them in Microsoft Word to customize them for your own students).
OH, AND ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: There were years when I didn’t ever read the journals and they ended up in a dusty pile in the corner of my classroom. I was probably pregnant at the time. For these and all my other classroom-related faults, I am truly sorry.
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