Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

In planning Catholic Schools Week with my students, there’s a moment each year that warms my heart. Two years ago, when planning this day, one student suggested that the whole day be about saints, because they were the ultimate success story. I can’t really top that, so here are four ideas for the theme succeed.

  1. Pick a patron saint for the day. It could be fun to pick a variety of saints who had different types of “success” and then dramatically changed their lives to reflect the gospel. Ignatius Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Katharine Drexel, Rose of Lima and many more would make great choices for this day.
  2. Dress in college swag. While I am a firm believer that college isn’t the path for every student I teach, going to college is still a large marker of educational success. The local Catholic high school uses it as one of their main marketing tools. Also, this is a free dress option that most students and staff will be able to do without a whole lot of fuss.
  3. Dress as a favorite saint. The year we did this was probably my favorite ever. At our St. Blaise prayer service which coincided with our saint day, the entire gym was filled with saints blessing saints. It was amazing.
  4. Have students create a commercial about success. For this I would show a few inspirational commercials about unexpected “success” stories. I love Nike’s Iron Nun commercial and the Find your greatness series. After finding some inspiration, students can work in teams to act out their own commericials about what success looks like. If you want to be an overachiever, film the commericials and share with your school community.

One of the amazing things about Catholic education is the way that students are asked to lead. At our school, from kindergarten on, students are given the chance to read and sing in front of the whole school at prayer services, masses, Christmas programs, concerts and more. They are asked to think critically about problems facing the community and try be part of the solution. Here are five ideas for celebrating leaders in your school:

  1. Choose a patron saint for the day. John Paul II, John the 23rd, Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc, and many other saints would be a good example of leadership,
  2. Dress as someone who is a model of leadership. The year we did this, it was so inspiring to see who the students and staff chose to dress as. I came to school as Sally Ride, and some highlights included Malala, Pope Francis, Clara Barton, Joan of Arc, various presidents and more.
  3. Create a “trust” maze. My coworker showed me this and I am stealing the idea from her. She drew a pretty simple maze in chalk on the parking lot, then had students try to lead a blindfolded classmate through by giving directions. Students had a blast, and it stressed the importance of good leadership. If you had enough space, you could make several and classes could take turns completing the activity.
  4. What makes a good leader? Have a class discussion where students brainstorm the characteristics of a good leader. Then use those characteristics as a jumping off point for some time of self reflection. Students can take some time to think of ways they are already good leaders, and think about some of the characteristics they would like to develop more in their own lives.
  5. Learn about church leadership in your area. Find out more about your pastor, bishop, and even Pope Francis. Students could read biographies of these leaders, or maybe even have the pastor visit classrooms to talk about what it’s like to lead a parish and a school. You could also have a leadership panel with leaders of ministries so students can see how they can be leaders in the church as lay people too.

For the past few years our school has focused on the four word theme for Catholic Schools Week: Learn, Serve, Lead, Succeed. The 8th grade students planned activities and events for each of the four days we were in school during the week and matched the free dress themes to each of the words. I really enjoyed seeing their fresh new takes on a long time tradition at our school.

Here are five ideas for ways to celebrate the theme of Learning during Catholic Schools Week.

  1. Pick a patron saint associated with schools and learning to be the patron of the day. Find an easy biography or activity page related to the saint, or maybe a few at different difficulty levels. We chose Elizabeth Ann Seton as our patron for the theme of learning, but there are many other good choices including Thomas Aquinas, John Baptiste De LaSalle, and Aloysius Gonzaga would all be good choices too.
  2. Have students dress in bright colors to celebrate both their good ideas and also the light that Catholic education brings to the world.
  3. Give each class a puzzle piece to fill with all the things they have learned so far this year. Assemble all the pieces to create a school wide work of art that celebrates student learning.
  4. Celebrate your learning environment by creating a bulletin board as a class that celebrates milestones in each student’s learning. Last year my 8th grade class also designed a scavenger hunt for each classroom, hiding clues in items that most classrooms will have, such as books, a map or globe, hand sanitizer etc. At the end of the scavenger hunt classes found a flash light to remind them that Jesus is the light.
  5. Have students dress as a favorite book character. We did this a few years ago and it was so fun to see even the big kids dress like some of my childhood favorites. We had Max and Ruby, Madeline, Horton the Elephant, Nancy Drew and more!

Coming back to school after Christmas always means one thing in my 8th grade religion class: time to start planning Catholic Schools Week. Each year the 8th grade classes plan and prepare all the activities for the school during Catholic Schools Week, which this year is from January 27th to January 31st. Our school approaches this week the way many schools approach a Spirit Week- lots of fun activities and assemblies and chances to wear themed “free dress” (aka not uniforms).

The first thing we establish during our planning sessions is how we will embrace the theme. Some years we focus more on the theme for the week, which this year is Learn Serve Lead Succeed, and other years we focus on the daily themes. These themes are parish, community, students, nation, vocations, and faculty, staff and volunteers. Once we’ve picked our themes, students break into teams to plan the activities for each theme. The 8th graders also host a door decorating contest with prizes in many different categories. You can see our doors from the last several years in the posts Catholic Schools Week: Door Decorating Contest and Amazing Catholic Schools Week Doors Part 1.

For ideas about how to plan actvities for the various themes suggested by NCEA, check out these posts:
Community
Students
Nation

Coming soon: some ideas for each of the words in the theme of the week: Learn, Serve, Lead, Succeed. Also, stay tuned for this year’s guest blogger series about why families are choosing to send their children to Catholic schools.

O Emmanuel, of King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

Emmanuel is probably one of my favorite names of Jesus. As soon as I hear this name, I picture Advent and a particular mass memory. My sophomore or junior year in high school, our choir was supposed to sing at a fancy event in New York City. Before the event we stood in the very back rows of a beautiful church for a mass celebrated by a Cardinal, which was a first for me. I don’t remember much from that night, but I remember hearing the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” echoing through the beautiful dark church and the way the sounds and harmonies swelled on the words: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Many people know that Emmanuel means “God with us,” but I think many if us forget the power of that promise in our day to day lives. God is with us in all that we do. Sometimes I find this helpful to remember when I am feeling overwhelmed by piles of laundry, stacks of grading and a sick two year old. But even these things can be a chance to bring God into the reality of life as a teaching mom. As I fold the laundry, I pray for my husband and son. As I grade each paper I pray for the student who wrote it. I try to remember to pray for all the students who are struggling and couldn’t turn in something for me to add to the stack. Every moment, Emmanuel. God with us.

Of course this sounds lovely and zen and beautiful in a blog post, and the reality is much messier. While I would love to have you think of me serenely folding socks and praying for my cherubic child, it doesn’t work like that all the time. But Emmanuel is God WITH us. Even in the mess. Even in the hours of cleaning the hourse only to have it look like a tornado hit it as soon as nap time is over. Even in the procrastinating grading the giant essay. Even in the staff meetings that go on and on and on. Emmanuel, God is with us.

One of our campus ministers at Rutgers University, Father Peter, once told me that every morning, before he gets out of bed, he tells God, “Today I choose to live with an awareness of your presence.” I love this way of setting the intention for the day. He went on to say that he would try to make sure that the rest of the day he would consciously look for God’s presence in everything. At the end of the day he would make a Examen, then start over the next day. God is always with us, but sometimes we have to make a conscious effort to be aware.

For today: Start the day with Fr. Peter’s prayer: “Today I choose to live with an awareness of your presence.” At the end of the day make a list of all the ways that God was present to you. Use the small tasks of the day- folding laundry, grading papers, straightening a classroom- to become prayers for all the people affected by those actions.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

The school I attended growing up proudly proclaimed “Jesus is Lord!” on all of its signs, logos, etc. While I am not sure that this was fully lived out by the people who ultimately made the decisions there, it’s a bold statement. This O Antiphon invites us to reflect on our own lives and see if Jesus truly is the king of our hearts and lives.

As I was reflecting on this O Antiphon, at first I mistakenly read keystone as cornerstone, which is an image I’ve heard before in scripture. But a keystone is quite different. The keystone is the last stone placed in a stone archway, and it is the stone that keeps the entire structure together. Because of this, the word keystone has come to mean something that keeps other things together- for example, bees are called a keystone species. To me this changed the image of Christ that the O Antiphon invokes.

Christ truly is the King of all nations and the Keystone of the Church. In the last few years of scandal, lies and systematic abuse of power, we need Christ the Keystone more than ever. When my husband and I first heard the reports of the grand jury in Pennsylvania, we had an honest discussion about whether or not we could remain a part of a church that could do those things. We decided to stay for many reasons, but chief among them were that we believe in Christ the Keystone more than we believe in his flawed followers. We also felt that now more than ever, our church needs people who will stay and fight to keep Jesus as Lord of our Church.

Advent gives us a time to focus on some of the keystone beliefs of our faith: the first and second comings of Jesus, the triumph of light over darkness, and the power of hope, peace, joy and love. Advent is the season to make room in our hearts so that Jesus truly is Lord.

For today: Which of your beliefs are keystones to your faith? Would others know that Jesus is Lord in your life? How? Take some time to pray today and ask Jesus to be the keystone of your thoughts, actions, and words. Ask for the grace to keep him at the center of your hopes and plans for your life.

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