In my last column I promised to explore “… how to take this living, bleeding, breathing message outside our classrooms and into the world.”
The Gospel message as well as this how to drive this Year of Faith home to our students and, in turn, their parents. Some of the ideas were tried this past year, others are on the calendar for this new liturgical year.
The first one is one of those common sense, right-under-your-nose approaches:
- 1) Read the Gospel
Our Bishop encouraged us to begin each class hour with the Gospel reading. It was a no-brainer really. We made sure there were stacks of Bibles in each classroom. What excited the teachers the most were the children as young as third grade pulling us into the classroom before class started to show us their Bibles open at the Scripture verse written on the blackboard and ready to read. They learned quickly how to locate the Gospel readings. It often became a competition to see who could find it first.
After class, teachers began to arrive in my office lamenting that they had spent the entire hour discussing the Gospel reading. Was that a bad thing?
No I didn’t consider it’s wasted time at all.
Catholic children reading and discussing the Gospel? Sounded like I good beginning to me.
Afterall, our Bishop had suggested it, encouraged it, insisted on it.
An added plus was their confidence level in using their Bibles and being able to locate Scripture in it. We know how great the Bible skills of other religions are. The Catholic Church gave us the Bible; Catholic children need to reclaim that ownership and know how to use it.
The usage of the Bible and the connection to the Gospel reading was in place quite effortlessly.
- 2) Liturgical Year
Next was something I had come across my first year of directorship at our church:
In Quas Primas, an Encyclical on the Feast of Christ the King written in 1925, Pope Pius XI instructed us to focus on the new liturgical year as a teaching tool to touch both the mind and heart of our youth. In part:
(21) “For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church (emphasis mine). Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year—in fact, forever. The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.”
The liturgical year as a teaching tool! Such a simple, effortless idea!
We had our classroom altars in place. Green, purple, and white clothes are supplied for the children to change out as the feast days changed. I also sectioned several specific feast into annual observances for our students and their parents.
September is always the focus of our Blessed Mother whose “Yes!” brought our Savior into the world. We begin our school year with an Open House and a Cookie Rosary.
In October we have a Parade of Saints and a display of Relics. Classrooms vote for their classroom saint and doors are decorated as learning tools. Something planned for St. Francis’ feast day either with a blessing of pets or simply by placing stuffed animals in every classroom is fun. This year we will have a creation skit where, as the creation story is read, our fifth graders will appear holding various items: a basket of dirt, a goldfish in a bowl, a bouquet of wildflowers, a rabbit in a cage, new kittens, and the list goes on.
Meditations are always successful and Mother Church encourages us to remember the dead…always…and to pray for them. This has become a morbid, almost anti-Christian observation when, in truth, it is Christian in every way and our children are not being prepared for it. They are told to live for the here and now, tomorrow will take care of itself. Life is too short to think of death, and so we don’t. In recent years the Church is seeing where we are failing in giving our attention to the dead and it might be a good idea to reclaim the devotion for the poor souls. Because of this, this year we will remember our deceased loved ones with a special altar and meditation during November: the month of All Souls. More on that later.
In December we have an Advent Presentation and Retreat.
In January we focus on the Epiphany with the three wise men visiting the classrooms and writing with blessed chalk over the doorposts 20 + C + M + B + 12 and the lower grades rehearse a baptism in the Atrium complete with the children role playing the parents, godparents, priests, etc.. Some also reenact the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River using jump ropes and reading Scripture.
February is reserved for a Lenten Presentation (often a Silhouette Stations of the Cross) as well as classes going one class to the prayer garden to walk the stations in prayer as well as some Lenten treat such as making pretzels.
March is when we honor St. Joseph with our St. Joseph Altar.
April is glorious in Easter and the Resurrection and 1st Communion and Confirmation preparation. There’s never enough days to cover it all.
- 3) Field Trips
Everybody loves a field trip, especially little people who have been in a classroom all day long. ‘Field trips’ are scheduled into our year to visit the church, the adoration chapel, and the prayer garden. Teachers have told me that students appear at class asking, “Where are we going today?” It’s a chance for movement, a chance to explore, and a chance to realize that this whole church complex is for them and their spiritual needs. It should be their second home.
- 4) Ministries
This is something new we’re trying this year. The concept is a simple one of discuss, pray, minister, and focus. We cannot sit at a table and talk about the works of mercy and doing for others without physcially passing the bread as well.
Each grade is assigned a ‘ministry’ for the year:
K & 1st graders: Nursing Home Ministry
2nd & 3d graders: Needy Family Ministry
4th & 5th graders: Foreign Child Ministry
6th, 7th, & 8th graders: Pro-Life Ministry
9th, 10th, & 11th graders: Seminarian Ministry
From time to time the class will discuss their ministry and ways of helping them.
At every class they will pray for their ministry intention.
They will collect for their ministry throughout the year. Nursing Home ministry will do craft items to send to nursing home residents. Needy Family Ministry will collect moneies and can goods to distribute and clothes if necessary. Foreign Child Ministry will participate in a shoebox project where they collect such things as hygiene items like tooth paste, toothbrushes, soap, etc. as well as rosaries, scapulars, and prayer cards to send to a foreign child. They also spiritually adopt a foreign child to pray for and write letters to. The pro-life group will be given baby bottles which they return when filled with money. The money will be used to purchase something for our crisis pregnancy center. This group also spiritually adopts a mother and her baby to pray for during the nine months of school. The seminarian ministry is a chance for our confirmation candidates to remember to pray for and learn about vocations. We try to have a seminarian come to our classes and speak to them each year. This includes collecting letters, prayers and a spiritual bouquet to send to our church’s seminarian throughout the year.
The focus part of this is on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy so that by the time they confirm they are familiar with what we are calld to do as Christians and, instead of just talking the talk, they have walked the walk.
- 5) Catechism
I received the Church’s new Catechism from our pastor when I was in college and working the evening shift in the church office. It terrified me. I didn’t even open the book until I was in my thirties. Didn’t study it until I was in my forties. How’s that for a slow learner. 😉
Then at a workshop about a year ago, I overheard a teacher of some-30-years whose responsibility it is to catch-up the children who are behind in religious ed, haven’t made the sacraments, or who have never been to religious ed. She commented that after 30 years she has always gone back to the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism. I remember her lifting her hands and telling the nun before her, “What else can we do in only an hour a week? We have to go back to the basics. That’s all we have time for.”
Go back to the basics. Her words have stayed with me through the planning of every lesson and every activity. Stick to the basics: Scripture/Catechism/Liturgical Year
I knew that children would never get the big book but there was an older children’s version which has been revised and updated and there is the new YouCat which is endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI and, when I presented it to our pastor, his response was, “If it’s good enough for the pope, it’s good enough for me.”
So I have broken down this year as such:
- K—Bible Stories and prayer
- 1st–Parables and prayer
- 2nd-Mass and 7 Sacraments (1st Communion Baltimore Catechism)
- 3rd-5th-Pink covered St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism
- 6th-8th-Gray covered St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism
- 9th-11th–YouCat and Beginning Apologetics book
By getting the children familiar and comfortable with the Catechism during their early years and in this early form, we are hopefull preparing them to embrace the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its fullness. At least we have taken the first step.
Also, going “back to the basics” allows us to fully explore and embrace the Liturgical Year and all the beauty and wisdom the Catholic Church offers. Pope Pius XI (see above quote) and I both feel this is a necessary teaching tool during the early years.
- 6) Saintly Visits
This was a huge success at our recent VBS this past summer (everyone wanted to be a saint!)so I am in hopes of including it in our yearly program as well. This year we hope to have the “Saint of the Week” dressed in costume and walking the hallways before and after classtime. The children must try to guess who the saint is and the teacher will be given a brief bio of the saint to read after prayer time.
At the teacher’s meeting I also give each teacher a personal prayer card with their patron saint for the year. This is their “mentor saint” for them to turn to throughout the year. I encourage them to do likewise with their students. They also vote for a classroom saint and decorate their classroom door with information about their saint. Then we have a contest and every classroom door wins a prize: The Most Informative, The Most Holy, The Most Spiritual, The Most Inspiring, etc. The kids love this!
As I mentioned above for October, the children also participate in a Parade of Saints. One child from each class is chosen to represent the classroom saint. At the hall presentation with parents, each little saint must have three clues to tell the audience ending with “Who am I?” If no one guesses the saint, they reveal who they are. It is important that each saint hold the symbol he/she is known to carry in religious art.
- 7) Art work: icons, statues, paintings, mosaics, stained glass windows
I’m thinking this subject is too rich to confine within this space. Many times artwork speaks to children (and adults) far more than lengthy lectures and/or boring textbooks. This is how the early church taught the people. On second thought…I will write this up in a column all its on.
- 8) Lectio Divina/Meditation
Such a beautiful, ancient form of prayer and children love this, they actually get this form of prayer because it goes back to a reverant, meditative form that we have all but given up in today’s world of noise. Lectio Divina brings them before the voice of God (Scripture) and allows Him to speak to them. Lectio Divina takes away all other noise and people. It is prayer only between the child and God.
We all need to try this form of prayer. Here is how it is done: How to Practice Lectio Divina
- 9) Nature
Some people’s eyes roll when they hear nature and spirituality used in the same sentence. They almost always assume we’re going into some hippy-New Age theory. But I defend it. God created nature. He did not create iPods and xboxes and iphones and computers. In this day of overwired children and adults (myself included) we can still find God most often in the stillness of a lake, the peak of a mounntain top, the delicate texture of a flower, the first autumn breeze, and the gentle hum of a creek.
It is known that our children are having nature withdrawal and severe nature deficits. They are out-of-touch with God’s creation while fully embracing what is man-made.
I encourge our teachers to take the children outside on pretty days. Let them pluck grass while listening to the lesson. Let them lie on their backs and stare at the clouds while absorbing the lesson.
Have an outside mediation with the children. Let the little children listen and listen well while feeling the grass blades prick behind their ears, the train whistle blow lonely in the distance, the smell of autumn flick the air, and a short meditation of the beauty that is God’s still their ears.
If your church has a prayer garden, now is the time to embrace it. Plan a “field trip” out to the prayer garden. Let the children explore. Discuss each statue, each area, each devotion found in the prayer garden. Don’t over talk; let the children ask the questions. You give the answers. Encourage the children to bring their parents.
- 10) Atrium/Learning Space
This is the area where hands-on learning comes in for younger grades and those with learning disabilities. It is a Montessori teaching approach with a huge Catholic twist. This year I sectioned out at least 3 separate learning sessions where the teacher will take their class in our Atrium (learning space) for the entire hour class.
This also demands its very own column.
What are your plans this new school year? I encourage ideas in the combox and look forward to hearing from you all. 🙂
Happy Learning and God’s Blessings Always!