Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

The other day I experienced a first. The weather was so bad that our bishop displeased the Sunday obligation for everyone in our entire diocese, asking us to pray at home, especially the luminous mysteries in honor of world marriage day. As I stayed inside for yet another day with a toddler who desperately wants to play in the snow except for the actual touching the snow part, I was thinking of ways families can use snow days to increase their faith and come together as a family. Here are some fun and easy ideas for a faith filled snow day.

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1. Build LEGO Bible scenes. For Holy Week the last few years, my friend Kelly has posted pictures on facebook of the events of the last week of Jesus’s life as her sons imagine them in legos. I love seeing their creativity, and I love the way God can work through our talents. While we are strictly a Duplo family currently, I think it would be lot of fun to read the mass readings for the day and then try to build the scene from Legos. There’s also a really fun Catechism of the Seven Sacraments book available on Amazon that could provide some other ideas for what to build while also teaching really important faith concepts.

2. Do a color and pray rosary. In my earlier post about ways to pray the rosary, I mentioned that this is one I have used with my class and their third grade peace partners. We’ve also used stickers before too, which students really enjoyed. Because my old copy of the coloring sheet is getting a little ratty looking, I may use my next snow day to create my own. With littler children, you could break up the rosary throughout the day and pray one decade at a time.

3. Listen to religious podcasts for kids. I really enjoy Shining Light Dolls new podcast “Saint Stories for Kids” which is available on many podcast platforms. Shining Light Dolls also has some beautiful picture books and toys for Catholic kids.  You can see their full line of products at  Shining Light Dolls on Amazon.

4. This one might make your neighbors look at you a little funny, but I think it could be hilarious and fun. Make a saint snow person! Make a bunch! It would be so much fun to talk about common symbols for certain saints while figuring out how to portray that in snow- like flowers for Saint Therese, or animals for Saint Francis. One of my favorite parts of the classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strips was the scenes Calvin would create out of snow. You can channel your inner Catholic Calvin!

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One of my favorite ways to pray has always been to sing or listen to music. I think it must be in part because I grew up with a professional musician father and many talented siblings. I also love to use music in class, and changing playlists with the seasons is a great way to teach the Liturgical year in a way students can understand and appreciate.

Here are some song suggestions for an amazing Lenten playlist or for use in praise worship.

This post contains affiliate links. Each song is linked to where you can buy it on Amazon. If you click through and purchase the song, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. It will also help me maintain my affiliate status 🙂

  1. Sweetly Broken by Jeremy Riddle.  Favorite lyrics: I am lost for words/ so lost in love/ sweetly broken, holy surrender.
  2. Love Song by Third Day.  Told from the point of view of the Good Thief, this song pairs really well with a lot of my Lenten projects where students have to imagine that they are really present on Good Friday.
  3. Liquid by Jars of Clay.  I know this is an old one- but I promise it’s great.  I love the mix of Gregorian Chant and Contemporary Christian at the beginning.
  4. Jesus, Friend Of Sinners by Casting Crowns.  My class led the school in a really cool reconciliation prayer service based on this song a few years back.  You can read more about it here.
  5. East To West, also by Casting Crowns.  This is a great song about love and forgiveness. It’s also a great one to use when having students look up the scripture references in songs.
  6. Hymnus: Pange Lingua.  This beautiful Eucharistic hymn is traditionally sung at the close of mass on Holy Thursday.  The simple and beautiful chant is one of my favorites.
  7. Lead Me To The Cross by Hillsong United.  There are many beautiful recordings of this song, but I find this one the easiest for students to sing along to.
  8. Redemption Songs is an entire album by Jars of Clay.  It features fun re-imaginings of old school hymns, mostly about the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is go-to classroom music in my classes during Lent.
  9. Lord, I Need You by Matt Maher has been an incredibly important song in my own spiritual journey, but it is also the song chosen by one of my eighth grade classes as our go to worship song.  Favorite lyrics: Where sin runs deep/ your grace is more/ where grace is found/ is where you are.
  10. Jesus, Only Jesus by Phillips, Craig and Dean is one of those powerful songs you just have to sing along with.  I love the instrumentation and the voices.

Are there any songs I should add to my playlist?  This is not the complete list, but definitely some of my favorites.  Let me know what your favorite Lenten hymn or song is.

Growing up, my family always talked before Lent started about what we would “give up” for the Lenten season- often things like sweets, snacks etc. We fasted on the prescribed days and didn’t eat meat on Fridays (really almost ever, but definitely during the summer.). In college, due to health issues, my spiritual director suggested that instead of fasting and giving up, I should adopt the practice of doing something extra during Lent, which worked well for me at the time. When I started teaching, the students talked about “Lenten promises”, but had no real concept of what to do for Lent beyond giving up candy, which is certainly a valuable practice.

After my first year of teaching religion during Lent, I decided I needed some ideas to help my students be more intentional with their plans for Lent. As a nice side perk, my efforts also led to me having a much holier Lent. I try to alternate these two approaches each year, because that way the students who have me for two years in a row can think about Lent two slightly different ways.

Both approaches start with students brainstorming what their goals are for Lent. At the end of Lent, what do you want? Do you want to be closer to God? Do you want to be more disciplined? Do you want to have more peace? Do you want to know the Bible better? Be a better friend? All of these are great things, and all can help you pick a Lenten practice that will be easier to keep (although probably still challenging) and be a lot more meaningful.

The first way we make our Lent plans is with the idea of give something up and do something extra. Using the questions about goals, I model some ideas about how to give something up that will help me reach those goals. One year I gave up complaining. Because that was so hard to be subjective on, I wore a bracelet and switched wrists each time I complained. I also had two good friends to help hold me accountable. If the goal is self-discipline, giving up candy, sweets, or TV could be a great sacrifice. I’ve done all those before too. If the goal is to get closer to God, maybe you want to give up patterns of sin like gossip or lying. Then picking something extra can also follow these goals. Want to know the Bible better? You could read 1 chapter from each book of the Bible for each day during Lent. By the end of the season you will have had a crash course in Bible structure and style. (I will post some suggested plans for this- I know a lot of people who have gotten stuck in Leviticus.) Trying to be a better friend? Leave an encouraging note for a different person each day.

The second way we make our Lent plans is with the words pray, fast, give, which is commonly used in the Church during Lent. Busted Halo has some pretty cute videos that we often use to start the conversation when we are using these as our inspiration words. You can watch them here. For this, the first two words pray and fast can match with the give something up, do something extra, but pray I think leads students a little more to extras that will bring them closer to God. With the idea of fasting I try to get students to consider what takes the most of their energy and attention, which more and more I am finding is social media and video games. Fasting from these would make a huge impact on so many people, including me. As of yet I have not convinced any of my students to make this choice.

For give, we talk about time, talent and treasure. Most of my students don’t have money to give beyond spare change. While we do always keep a CRS rice bowl on the prayer table, it is much more likely that students can give their time and talent more freely. Maybe during Lent they could babysit for family or neighbors once a week. Or if a student is really talented at music, they could join the church choir for Lent. It’s fun to help students be creative with this, because giving often has the side benefit of really boosting students’ self esteem as they see how much they have to offer in service.

The last step is accountability. Depending on the year, I do this different ways, but this year I really want to have students create something that we can display in the classroom to remind us of our Lenten plans and promises. Once I’ve figured it out I will post pictures here. I’m also working on some handouts to help students with the brainstorming process.

What are your plans for Lent this year? Have any great ideas for middle schoolers and teens? Post them in the comments!

Lent starts on March 6th this year, which currently feels like a long way off, but in terms of teacher planning, this is the time to start gathering resources and making your plans for how you want to celebrate the season with your students. Over the years I have done many different things, but I wanted to share some books that have helped me during this season in the past.

This post contains affiliate links. This means if you purchase a book using my link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions For Kids and the other two books in its family of devotions, Jesus Always: 365 Devotions for Kids (Jesus Calling®) and Jesus Today Devotions for Kids (Jesus Calling®) are all great daily devotionals that can be used year round, but I especially like using them in Lent.  The Jesus Calling series of devotionals is originally written for adults, and this children’s adaptation I think runs a little old to be labeled for “kids”.  The reflection questions seem to fit better with middle school and older.  Each day is written as though Jesus is talking to the reader.  There are reflections and scriptures for further reading.  The layout is bright and fun and would definitely work for family reflection as well.

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare has been one of my favorite books for a long time.  I first read it in 8th grade and I have used it in my literature and religion classes for the last 8 years.  This is a novel which features Daniel, an ardent Zealot at the time of Jesus.  Over the course of the book Daniel meets Jesus, who slowly but surely begins to chip away at the anger that Daniel has used as a shield for years.  The vocabulary in this book is challenging, but students really engage with the text and especially enjoy when they hear Bible stories they know through the eyes of a character who often completely misses the point.  There are also some great opportunities for Bible study and history lessons as students work through the novel.

The Shadow of the Bear: A Fairy Tale Retold is a book I have used as a read aloud every year in my 7th grade religion class, but would also be a fun read aloud for the Lenten season.  It is a modern retelling of Snow White and Rose Red set in New York City with the backdrop of a Catholic school and abandoned Church.  The themes of false accusation and suffering for a just cause fit well within the Lenten season, but this would definitely more of a read for enjoyment than a strictly academic reading.  I also always brag a little when I read this to my students because the author was friends with my older sisters and graduated from the same high school that I did.

The Divine Mercy Message and Devotion is a small pamphlet which tells the basics of the story of Saint Faustina and her message of Divine Mercy.  Jesus appeared to Saint Faustina many times and gave her several missions: to write a journal, to commission a painting of him as the Divine Mercy, to create a Divine Mercy Sunday and to teach the world his chaplet prayer.  This prayer has become one of the most powerful and important prayers in my life, so I always share it with my students during Lent and teach them how to pray it.  We also research the life of Saint Faustina, and this little book is a great resource, as her diary is over 500 pages long!

What books/prayers will you be using with your kids and students this Lent?  Let me know in the comments below.  

*All the links to books in this post are affiliate links.  This means that if you purchase a book using one of the links, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

I was fortunate to work with Jane for ten years. Her dedication to her students and her commitment to being a life-long learner are inspiring. I miss working with her for many reasons, but just one of them is her ability to troubleshoot any weird problem with our school’s outdated technology. Here’s why she teaches in a Catholic School:

I was recently having a discussion with a former co-worker from a public school about my job as a teacher at a Catholic school. She and I talked about the similarities; dedicated professionals, amazing students, innovative programs and ideas, as well as the discipline problems, curriculum challenges, endless meetings, standardized tests and lesson-planning. We also talked about the differences; lower pay (she thought that since it was a private school, we were paid more!), fewer resources, budget constraints, and lack of support for students with special needs, to name a few. But what really stood out when we were discussing the differences, was the rewards or blessings one receives when teaching at a Catholic school. These rewards may not be easy to see at first, but after you’ve spent time in a Catholic school, you begin to see them all around you. Now, this is not to say that teaching in public schools is not rewarding. I’m writing about the blessings I experienced and continue to experience in my 19 plus years as a Catholic school educator. 

 The first thing that stood out to me when I began to teach at St. Joseph-Marquette Catholic School in Yakima, Washington was the incredible amount of support I received from the parents. I was amazed! Volunteer hours are required at most Catholic schools as part of the tuition agreement, but most of these parents are enthusiastically engaged. Parents supported me in discipline, classwork and homework issues. I seldom experienced this in my 5 years teaching at a public school.

 Another blessing is the sense of belonging to a close-knit faith filled community. Beginning each day with prayer, monthly rosaries, special prayer services and weekly Mass all contribute to this feeling of oneness. One experience that still resonates with me to this day is the impromptu prayer service we held after our bus driver was hospitalized with a heart attack. We quickly gathered for a candlelight prayer service and prayed for his healing and for his family. The students were prayerful and engaged. It brought tears to my eyes. Again, this was something that I never experienced at any public school. This is repeated often as our school prays, mourns and celebrates together. Our school community sincerely cares for each student, staff member and family. 

 Perhaps the biggest reward or blessing I have received as a Catholic school teacher, however, is the opportunity to practice and learn more about my faith. I am more conscious about how I practice my faith and about being a good role model for my students. I can talk with them about my own faith journey and how God is a part of my life, in and out of school. My faith has grown and become stronger. 

 Ask anyone who dedicates their life to teaching at a Catholic school and they will probably tell you that it is a calling. You are called to teach at a Catholic school. You don’t choose, God chooses you. I truly believe that God chose me to teach at St. Joseph-Marquette 19 years ago. Due to circumstances unrelated to my wonderful job, I found myself in need of a new teaching position at the end of last school year. It would have been tempting to find a job at a public elementary school. There were many openings and I would have made much more money. (I’m talking 2-3 times more!) But I would have been missing all the rewards I received by teaching at a Catholic school. But the decision wasn’t really mine. God found a new place for me at Assumption Catholic School in Bellingham. I have found the same parental involvement, close-knit community and sense of belonging that I had before. I continue to pray that this will be my home for many more years to come. 

Jane Town graduated from the University of Montana in 1994 with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and earned her Masters from Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington. She attended Catholic schools as a child and taught at Saint Joseph Marquette for 19 years. She currently works at Assumption Catholic School in Bellingham, Washington. She has been married to her husband Nathan for 36 years and they have been blessed with 3 sons, 1 daughter and 6 grandchildren. She enjoys reading, genealogy, computers, photography, , traveling, fly fishing, camping and hiking.

Happy Catholic Schools Week! I am so excited to feature three amazing Catholic educators on the blog this week!

Our first guest blogger is someone I have had the privilege of working with for 8 years at Saint Joseph’s. Esther and I met in my third summer of the PACE program at the University of Portland, which was her first summer of the same program. Her second year of teaching she moved to our school, where I was her super nervous and probably not that helpful mentor. I also take credit, although I shouldn’t, for Esther and her husband getting together. That first summer I put them together to team teach commas in my summer school class, and now they are happily married and have a beautiful daughter.

Since those early days of teaching, Esther has become a close friend and a role model to me of compassionate teaching and leadership. Here is why she loves teaching in a Catholic school in her own words:

I was first drawn to Catholic education because of the excellence in education. I found the more I worked in Catholic education, the two things I most appreciated were the ability to share my faith and the supportive community. I grew up in the Catholic faith, but I didn’t become really active in my faith until graduate school. At first I was very hesitant to pray or talk about my faith or God with the students. My thoughts would be, “Where does God fit in with math? We don’t have time for this.” As I grew in my faith, I felt God calling me more and more to share my faith. Doing so has so deeply enriched my life and the classroom environment. Each day I am also so thankful for the supportive community that will always be there to lift me up in prayer. 

Esther Seidl hails from Lexington, Kentucky. She attended undergrad at Clemson University and earned her Masters of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland. This is her ninth year teaching middle school; she has taught mostly math but also religion, science, and history.

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