It’s time to start planning your class for the new school year. My trouble in planning is never a lack of ideas — it’s having too many. As a catechist, I’ve got to say No to 1,000 great ways to teach so that I can say Yes to a few good ones. How to choose?
I start with three big questions:
What’s required? When the students walk out your door, is there anything they absolutely must know? Is it your job to make sure they know how to receive Holy Communion, or make a good confession? Does your diocese have teaching standards for your grade that include the memorization of certain prayers or facts about the faith? Sometime you have to set aside time for plain old practice and memory work. There are fun ways to practice and memorize — just make sure the activity you pick will accomplish your goal, and not just be entertainment without results.
What’s needed? What can you bring to the classroom that students aren’t getting at home, at Mass, or in their every day life? What are parents trying to teach at home, that they need your help in reinforcing? I’ve been impressed as I read through Christian LeBlanc’s new book The Bible Tells Me So by how he weaves in comments about chastity and the holiness of marriage into his Bible history course. When our parish designed our own vacation bible school program last year, one of our priorities was the study of saints — a topic that is easy for Bible-belt kids to miss out on. During the school year, our parish emphasized Bible-reading by having 5th-8th graders look up, read, and journal the coming Sunday’s Gospel at the start of each class session.
What am I good at? I wish I knew the Bible as well as Christian LeBlanc (I’m learning!), or had knack for theater like Lisa Mladnich with her fabulous collection of free puppet-show scripts. Maybe that’s you. I have a friend who is skilled at leading conversations. She can draw kids into exploring and sharing their faith just by talking about the news and the Church year. Another catechist has years of experience as a sacristan, and captivates her class with the details of liturgy and traditional devotions. As you read about different teaching ideas, grab onto the ones that naturally play on your strengths.
Answering these three questions will help me come up with a general idea of what I want to teach and how I want to teach it. Then I’ve got to do two more things: Organize and Prioritize.
Organize. I’ve got my list of ideas — now what’s the natural order for fitting them into the class schedule? In our VBS plans last summer, we wanted to include games. (Of course! It’s VBS!) We also wanted to teach fun but serious Bible and saints stories. The plan was obvious: Main course first, dessert second. It didn’t matter too much if we did the saint or the Bible story first, so we experimented and picked the most convenient classroom set-up. But it did matter that we saved games for last, so that students had an incentive to work seriously, and so they wouldn’t be all wound up from freeze tag just when we wanted them to sit still.
Prioritize. One of the cardinal rules of classroom planning is that you should always have a little too much material. So as you write down your plans, put parentheses around the optional activities, and underline or circle the non-negotiables. If you’re crunched for time, skip the optional items. If you need to fill time, have fun with the extras.
What does your religious ed or vacation Bible school class look like? How have you picked what to include and what to skip? Any insights you’d like to share? Any planning problems you’re struggling with, that you’d like to discuss?