Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

“I am the bread of life.” John 6:35

Happy Palm Sunday! Like me, many of you are probably spending this Palm Sunday in semi-isolation, away from your worship family. In our town, this will be our fourth Sunday without the ability to go to mass in person, our fourth Sunday without the gift of the Eucharist. And while this is difficult, and I appreciate the sentiments of loss and grief I see in the Catholic online community, this time away from the physical presence of the Eucharist, the bread of life, has given be some new perspective on the gifts Jesus gives us each and every day.

in Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul she talks about the day of her first communion as one of the most important in her life. She also writes of looking forward with eager anticipation to her second communion, which she alo remembers in detail. Throughout the book she talks about the occasions when she was able to receive communion. Being able to receive communion weekly, or even better yet, daily, is a very recent privilege. For Therese, she was only allowed to receive communion when granted permission by a priest or spiritual director.

We are so lucky that in normal, non pandemic circumstances, we can receive Jesus physically every single day! But even when we can’t, Jesus is STILL the bread of life. In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to give us this day our daily bread, and Jesus the bread of life is just that- our daily bread. Jesus is here to feed us, to fill us, to nourish us, every single time that we ask.

The image of Jesus as bread of life reminds me that bread brings people together. Almost every culture and feast that I know of has some type of special bread to it. In my community, I’ve been blessed to share pan dulce and fry bread with people very different from me. I’ve gotten to break bread with friends as a part of their Sukkot Shabat celebration. I’ve made bread and pastries for the feast of St. Joseph and shared them with students and coworkers. Jesus, the bread of life, wants to bring people together. In this time apart from others, I find a lot of comfort in that.

For today: I will pray for all those who are suffering from hunger and isolation in my community. If I can, I will make bread for someone. If that won’t work, I will donate to local food banks to help my neighbors who are struggling in this difficult time.

The link for Story of a Soul is an affiliate link- this means if you click through and buy the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Somehow, in the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever had, Holy Week snuck up on me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to go to church in person for several weeks. Maybe it’s because my “classroom” is currently whatever portion of the dining room table isn’t covered with playdoh tools and watercolor supplies. Maybe it’s because I spend large portions of everyday with only a 3 year old for conversation. (3 year olds are not known for keeping track of dates in the liturgical year.) Whatever the reason, Holy Week is only days away and I’m not SURE that I’m ready. Scratch that. I’m sure that I’m NOT ready.

For the past few years I’ve posted daily reflections during Holy Week. You can read last year’s reflections on the 7 sorrows of Mary or the reflections from the year before about the 7 last words of Christ by clicking on the links. (You won’t find all seven there, but it will give you the starting point for the series.) My amazing coworker Corinne turned these reflections into retreat booklets for our students, which you are welcome to use with your teen or middle school student as a Holy Week journal. There are a few markers that will indicate our school or the year we used them, but other than that I hope that they will be a helpful resource for you and your family during this Holy Week at home.

Just a note- these were designed to be printed or photo copied back to back. When you first print them, if they are single sided, don’t be alarmed- they will form a book! Just imagine you are photocopying two sided and arrange the pages like that.

And this year, starting on Palm Sunday and going through Holy Saturday I will be reflecting on and writing about the 7 I am statements of Jesus that are found in the Gospel of John: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the true vine. In a time of isolation and uncertainty, I find the images of Jesus that he gave us in the I am statements to be very comforting, and I hope you will too.

Everyone knows it’s a strange and difficult time for our country, and especially for students, families, and teachers as we adjust to the current “normal” of covid-19. Something that has been helping me keep positive and productive as I balance working from home, parenting a 3 year old, being pregnant and trying not to worry about my husband, (an essential worker) is keeping lists each day. I’m a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin and her work, and one of the things she does every year is create a list of 18 for 2018, and 20 fo 2020 etc. So I have decided to start keeping some 19 for covid-19 lists to help me stay grateful and connected to the good things that are happening every day.

So here are 19 things I am grateful for today: teaching edition. Keep reading to the end of the post for some free gratitude journal templates you can use at home or at school when we get back.

19 things I am grateful for: teaching edition

  1. My students. As much as I sometimes get frustrated with them, I really miss seeing them every day.
  2. My coworkers. I work with amazing and supportive people and I am so blessed by the way we really work as a team.
  3. My principal. As we struggle to grow and adapt to this new way of teaching, I feel grateful to have a principal who has the best interests of everyone at our school at heart.
  4. Our pastor. Right now, just like many priests in our country, he is working hard to stay connected with all of us and keep the sacraments available in any way he can.
  5. Formed.org. This website has so many amazing resources for faith formation. Each week I am sending ideas to families of things to watch and listen to.
  6. Zoom. Zoom has made its meeting platform available and free for teachers and students during the school closures and it’s amazing.
  7. Professional development opportunities. Our local educational service district is offering teachers chances to learn and grow from home too.
  8. Technology. With email, phones and online options I’ve been able to talk to almost all my students in the last week.
  9. Books. On the last day I was allowed in my classroom I filled a crate full of the books I’ve been wanting to read from our classroom library but just haven’t had the time.
  10. Independent book stores. Our local bookstore started offering free books for people once the libraries closed. Unfortunately the bookstore is closed now too, but they are shipping books. Check them out at https://www.inklingsbookshop.com/.
  11. Working in sweats. This one speaks for itself.
  12. Time to work on some cool religion resources. Slowly but surely this year I’ve been trying to design more of my standby resources into visually pleasing ones. Right now I am in the middle of a Beatitudes unit for my class and I am really excited about it.
  13. Flexible work time. I am still struggling with parenting/teaching balance, but in general I am enjoying spending mornings with my husband and son before William heads to work and I settle down at the computer.
  14. Working outside. It’s been beautiful, so I’ve been grading in the back yard while my son digs in the dirt. Everyone is happy with this arrangement.
  15. Finally being caught up with grading. Right now I have no pile of doom!
  16. A chance to explore new curriculum. I brought some prospective religion books home and am marking lessons I want to try when we are back.
  17. All of the companies making things available online. Many great educational resources are available to suddenly homeschooling families free of charge.
  18. Seeing people come together and help one another. All over our town people are making the best of this bad situation by spreading kindness.
  19. Knowing that this will pass. It mas not pass as quickly as I would like, and there will be a lot of suffering, but it will pass. Praying for those fighting this virus gives my small inconviences a purpose in the grand scheme of things.

What are you grateful for today? Taking some time to think about all the wonderful things in my life right now has given me a lot of perspective in this challenging time. To help you and your middle schoolers focus on the positive, these gratitude journal templates may come in handy. Let me know if you use them, or even better, share as a picture in the comments! Stay healthy and peaceful!

As promised, I want to share some of my favorite online resources for middle school aged kids. Many of the amazing resources floating around on Facebook right now seemed aimed at younger children or for other academic subjects than religion. So here’s what I’m going to be sending to my students in the days ahead.

Formed.org is a treasure trove of faith based movies, talks and books for Catholics of all ages. While you do need an account to access the information, many parishes and schools have this available for their students. My son and I are checking out their saint cartoons, and there are many beautiful prayers and reflections to listen to.

Magnificat magazine is a beautiful prayer resource, and normally not super cheap, but during mandated church and school closures, they are making the magazine free online. Each day features morning and evening prayer, a reflection (often from a saint), the mass readings, and often the story of a saint. It’s such a rich way to pray with scripture each day.

Look to Him and Be Radiant is an amazing blog by Katherine Bogner, a middle school teacher and DRE from the Midwest. All her resources span those middle grade ages beautifully- nothing seems “little kiddy” to my students. And best of all, her resources are totally free!

Dynamic Catholic is an online resource for short videos and books on faith formation. Some of the resources cost money, but a great many are free. Their Best Lent Ever videos and some of Matthew Kelly’s videos were big hits in my 8th grade religion class this year.

Busted Halo is a great website with all sorts of offerings- from podcasts to videos to articles, they have great graphic design to support their mission of “faith shared joyfully”. They also have a weekly newsletters and fun photo contests on Instagram- for your students on social media, a religious photo contest could be a nice change from TikTok.

For families with littles, I am going to cram my 3 favorites into one paragraph because I said that this would be resources for middle schoolers. But I am a mom to a three year old, so these merit a mention. Catholic All Year is Kendra Tierney’s blog about liturgical living, which could really help all of us homebound Catholics during this season without mass and the sacraments. Catholic Icing has tons of great craft and homeschooling ideas. Catholic Family Crate is a monthly subscription box filled with things to help your family live the Church year. It can be pricey depending on your budget, but it was a family gift to ourselves when I got a raise this year. Each month you get a box full of crafts, celebration ideas and a spotify playlist sent to your family. I love it so much. (By the way, I’m not getting paid to advertise them- they just are really wonderful and I want everyone to try it out.) Their special Lent and Advent boxes are even better and are also available as a separate subscription.

What are your favorite online resources? Share them in the comments to help families out in this tricky time for education!

If you’ve somehow missed all the coronavirus posts, recommendations and people generously sharing teaching resources, I’m pretty impressed with your persistance. And while I don’t intend this to be a coronavirus post, the reality for many teachers is similar to mine. We are facing a different type of teaching than we are used to, many while juggling having our own children home with us.

Friday was a strange day for me. Life in Washington State had been tense all week, and on Friday we found out that we needed to shut down immediately rather than wait for the end of the school day or our Governor’s subsequent announcement mandating school closure. So at 11 am I was checking out scared students, some of whom were in tears. I was struggling with my own emotions- because of how the virus has spread here, I no longer felt that I could in good conscience travel to my sister’s wedding, which is scheduled for this weekend.

Then there were ALL the internet posts about homeschooling- the kind ones from people wanting to help, the self-righteous ones from people assuming that regular schooling parents would be horrified at all this time with their children, and the silly ones promoting unlimited screen time and a real life reenactment of Lord of the Flies. ( I chose to mostly read those.)

Here’s the truth all teachers know: we never totally have the situation under control. But every day we do our best to reach each student and to help build their knowledge in appropriate steps. The same is going to be true for all of us moving forward. Teachers will be figuring out how to teach remotely and parents will be figuring out how to manage this new normal. And we will all make mistakes. That’s ok. I’ve made a million mistakes in my ten years of classroom teaching, but learning from those mistakes has helped me become a stronger and more empathetic teacher.

I don’t know what my next six weeks as a distanced teacher will look like. But I know that I will learn how to be a better teacher through it. I know that I will continue to want the best for my students, wherever they are learning. I will also try to post as many awesome ideas, book reviews and products as I can here, to help those of you on the front lines of home education. I will pray for all of us, for our health and safety. Please pray for me and my family too.

One of my coworkers loves to retell the story of his first year at our school. After a jam-packed Advent season, I jokingly remarked to him, “Just wait- Lent is Advent on steroids!” While the two seasons are incredibly different, in the life of our school community, they follow a similar pattern. During Lent our school has its usual Friday masses and monthly rosaries, but we add a prayer service each Monday to help center us for the week and we also have a school wide penance service where each teacher and student can go to individual confessions. Often the second grade students make their first reconciliation during Lent, so that’s another chance to come together and pray.

Each Lent is something a little different at school, so in this post I am just going to tell you about some of the things we are doing this year to make the season meaningful for our students. At the end I’ll post some links to past Lent posts.

Holy Week Themed Prayer Services. This year we won’t be in school for Holy Week, which is a huge bummer. It can get crazy because I am also a church musician, but I LOVE spending Holy Week with my students, and it’s a beautiful way to introduce them to a lot of traditions they wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. But this year, Holy Week is also spring break. So the third grade religion teacher (also my mother-in-law) came up with a brilliant solution: each of our Monday prayer services will focus on one day of Holy Week. This way we can still introduce some of those traditions, but in a slightly different setting. My class has Holy Thursday, and I am getting some delusions of grandeur about a school wide Holy Hour. I’ll keep you posted.

Pray Fast Give Posters. This was an idea one of the first grade teachers found on Catholic Icing. Each building at our school will have a large cross poster with a bunch of small cut out symbols. We are using a cross for pray, a fish for fast, and a heart for give. Each time a student does one of these things, they will be able to add their symbol to the cross. Hopefully by the end of Lent our crosses will be filled with good deeds!

Extra prayer time. Of course we pray in every class throughout the day, but during Lent I try to add extra and richer opportunities for my students to pray. Our parish already has adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Thursday, and the 8th graders have been going since the beginning of the year. During Lent, Friday afternoons are added as a time for adoration, so I can bring one of the 7th grade classes each week too. I work with the other 7th grade teacher to make it so each class gets to go every other week, because except for Fridays, I don’t actually teach 7th grade in the afternoon.
I also try to make sure that each of my classes prays the Stations of the Cross at least once a week. There are many ways to do this, but one is that our art teacher posts the Stations all around the hallway of the elementary school building. We also go to the church and pray there, and sometimes we pray a simple version in our classroom, using the Smartboard to project the images.

Pray Fast Give bulletin board. I came up with this idea last year, and I love it. I made pray, fast, and give banners for the bulletin board by my prayer table, and then I cut three swatch paint samples into tag shapes using our school’s di-cut machine. Each student filled out a tag with a way they were going to pray, fast, and give this Lent. We then filled the board with the colorful tags and kept our Lenten promises easy to see and remember.

For a great Lent playlist, check out my 10 Songs for Lent post. For a reading plan that will take you through the whole Old Testament during the Lenten season, check out my Lent Reading Plan. I also have a free Lent planning sheet to help students develop meaningful practices for each of the pillars of Lent: Pray, Fast, and Give. Here is a great list of books to use during Lent. What will your class be doing for Lent this year? Share your ideas in the comments.

Lent is only a week away! It’s hard to believe. Somehow it tends to sneak up on me more easily now that I juggle working and being a mom. Lent is a great time to reflect on where I’ve been in the past year and to decide the direction I want to be going for the rest of the year. I have a tendency to go a little crazy with my Lenten resolutions, so my biggest temptation is to go over the top with my praying, fasting and giving. This year I am feeling really called to think small, to slow down, and to take time to really connect with God and with others.

So I am trying to keep my practices this Lent simple but meaningful. I am choosing one way to pray, one way to fast, and one way to give and sticking to those without adding too many events, prayer meetings or extra sacrifices.

Pray: For my prayer practice this Lent I will be working my way through the book Hosanna,* which is published by Take Up and Read. It’s a bible study and prayer book based on the Gospel of Matthew, which is also the Sunday cycle we are in this year, so I am hoping the study also gives me added insight into the Sunday gospels. Take Up and Read makes beautiful resources that are thoroughly grounded in scripture, which I love. I am excited to get started on this beautiful book. For everyone who’s busy, their studies also work in days of rest, which is something I always desperately need.

Fast: For this one I am going to have to get a bit creative. Normally I follow all the prescribed fast days and days of abstinence, but this year I can’t literally fast because I am expecting a baby. (Yay for answered prayers!). So I am going to go with an old standby from my childhood and give up sweets. I know that this is a very specific Lent stereotype, but for me this year, this will actually be quite sacrificial as sometimes sweets are the only thing that taste good during the season of morning sickness and terrible headaches. I am also going to avoid added sugars and sugar in my coffee, which is where the real sacrifice will be I think. On the prescribed days of fasting, I am going to completely fast from non teaching essential technology. For abstinence, I already mostly don’t eat meat on Fridays, so I will continue to do that.

Give: Each week during Lent, our family is going to decide on someone to give to. Some weeks these will be charities and causes, other weeks they may be friends who could use a meal or for us to watch their kids so they can go on a date night. God has blessed us this year, and we have the ability to be flexible in our spending during Lent. There have been other years where my giving has had to be completely time or talent based because money is incredibly tight.

So that’s the simple plan for Lent this year. I’m hoping that by not adding too much to the plate, I can have a Lent full of meaningful connection with God and with the people he has put in my life. What are you doing for Lent this year? Let me know in the comments!

*the link for Hosanna is an affiliate link. This means if you purchase the book using my link, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

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