I like to teach about the lives of saints, but I always run into one small hitch: Real life is R-rated. Teaching my own children is fairly easy. I know the child’s maturity level, I know what will and will not be disturbing . . . as a parent, I can delve into tough topics at a fairly young age. I also have the luxury of time — there’s always another chance to share more details, or answer more questions.
But in the classroom, my job’s a lot tougher. I need to hone in on the essentials, and avoid watering down the faith, but still keep my material suitable for all-audiences. Here’s how I do it.
Pick a Saint. Most saints are suitable for a g-rated classroom . . . but not all. There are tricks for toning down sensitive topics, for example by glossing over a gory death with a simple, “she died for her faith.” But as much as I love St. Maria Goretti, there’s no getting around the pivotal moment of her life — she died from injuries received while resisting rape. Not a topic suitable for pre-teen classrooms, and one that needs to be handled carefully even in high school.
Do your own research. If you are using the saint suggested in your textbook, teacher’s manual, or VBS curriculum, there may be a kid-friendly saints bio in your book. It’s worth the time to do some research of your own. My two favorite sources are Butler’s Lives of Saints and Wikipedia. Don’t laugh! They tend to provide concrete, action-based biographies — whereas more devotional-style works often skip over the story to focus on a deeper message. Children learn concretely. Not “Saint Martin de Porres was kind to animals,” but “St. Martin de Porres took care of injured cats and dogs.” As you research, look for those little details that will interest your students.
Look for a theme. Try to tie your talk into the wider topic for your class. For some saints, you’ll have way too much information. Focusing on just one aspect of your saint’s life can help pare down your talk to a manageable size. At the other extreme, if there is a scarcity of information about your saint, you can flesh out the lesson by taking the one or two available details, and tying them to a broader discussion of Christian virtue.
Write up your talk. You won’t want to read this aloud to the class, but write it down in complete sentences anyway. Why bother? You need to know in advance what words you’ll use. Is there new vocabulary you’ll need to teach? Is there a sensitive topic, such as a gruesome martyrdom, or a dispute over divorce and remarriage, that you’ll need to put into nightmare-resistant, child-friendly terms? Pick your wording in advance, so you aren’t caught trying to improvise. Ask your DRE, pastor, or another catechist if you are struggling for ways to share something delicately.
–> For Vacation Bible School, give a copy of your Saint-of-the-Day talking points to the other volunteers. That way other leaders can reinforce throughout the day what students have learned at your VBS station.
Anticipate difficult questions. In teaching St. Joan of Arc to a mixed-age group (1st grade and up) last summer, I intentionally glossed over the fact that St. Joan was condemned in an ecclesiastical court. It sufficed to explain that her enemy had tried her unfairly, and that Joan had stood firmly for the truth even if it meant her own death. But I’m glad I prepared an answer to the thornier question, because one of the parents asked it! Plan to either answer the tough question in a child-friendly way, or to politely demure. When a student asked me about the details of St. Josephine Bakhita’s early life, my answer was, “That is too disturbing to share in class, but your parents can research it and let you know what they find.”
How about you? Have you ever run into saintly disaster? Or have a success story you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you.