Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

Last year’s classroom door design. Each blank page was filled with a picture of one of the students in my homeroom.

As part of our accreditation process, the staff at our school has spent a lot of time over the last year talking about our school culture.  We agreed that there were many ways we were promoting the culture we wanted at our school, but also some ways we were falling short.  As a result of our discussions about school wide culture, I have spent some time thinking about the culture of my individual classroom and the ways I can permeate even more of the day with our school’s Catholic identity.

In my post  If these walls could talk I talked about the importance of visible signs of faith on the walls of your classroom.  While my bulletin boards are pretty similar from year to year, this year I completely changed the area around my desk to reflect more of my own personal faith.  I included pictures of my family, my icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and other reminders of my faith and vocation.  During these first weeks of school I am going to encourage my students to do the same with the inside of their lockers- bring a symbol of faith, family and something that is just fun.

One easy way to create an obviously Catholic classoom is to have a saint spotlight bulletin board. This is something I have in my classroom every year, but I’ve gotten a bit fancier in my presentation. Like many classrooms will spotlight a student of the week with a form poster that the child fills out at home, I create a board for one saint each month. Now that I am writing this, I think it could be a really fun idea to fill out one of those student posters for the saint too.

This is where the saint of the month goes in my classroom. I am excited that the giant radiators got removed this summer!

Another way to create a Catholic classroom culture is to celebrate students’ baptism days or saint days. Because some of my students have not been baptized, finding a saint with their name or a similar name gives those students a similar type of celebration. This year I am going to make a calendar celebrating the saint’s days and baptism days of all my students and provide a small treat for the class on each of those days. While you could certainly do this instead of celebrating birthdays, I am choosing to do both for a few reasons. 1: families already have many special traditions for their children’s birthdays, and I don’t want any child to feel like they can’t celebrate their birthday the way they would usually. 2: more celebrations and snacks means more student buy-in for the whole thing. I can’t wait to see how it goes this year.

Of course there are many routines and actions that also clearly create a Catholic classroom culture. One of my coworkers has students stand and start every class with a short prayer using a Bible verse. By the end of the year, they have memorized scripture and hopefully internalized that you can pray anywhere, even in math class! When I was in middle school, one of my teachers had us say a prayer to the Holy Spirit before each test and quiz. There are all sorts of ways to make your classroom Catholic, but before school starts, the easiest way is through your decor and planning.

Because my school is currently undergoing a huge renovation, I haven’t been able to start setting up my classroom yet. When I am able to, I will post pictures of this year’s super awesome Catholic learning environment. Let me know in the comments if you have any other ideas to share with us!

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When I first moved to the Northwest, I was an idealistic 21 year old fresh out of a huge state school with a vibrant campus ministry. Before that I had attended 13 years of Catholic school in a VERY traditional religious community, and I also came from a family that prayed often at home and went to mass daily from first communion to high school graduation. I had a vague experience of CCD in 9th grade, where several of the kids didn’t know their prayers, but in general, I just assumed that there were certain prayers every Catholic knew. Fast forward eleven years of teaching and I’ve realized that I should never assume any knowledge of prayer on the part of my students. So here are my top five prayers every Catholic kid should know and why. The links are to websites with the full text of the prayer.

  1. All the prayers of the Rosary.
    The rosary is the quintessential Catholic prayer, and knowing the prayers that go into it connects students to thousands of years of tradition. To pray the rosary students need to know: the sign of the cross, the Lord’s prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory be, the Fatima prayer, the Hail Holy Queen and in some places, the prayer after the rosary which begins with the words “O God, whose only begotten son”. Once students are familiar with these prayers, the 20 mysteries of the rosary familiarize them with key scriptures and events in the life of Jesus.
    Why should students know this prayer? For many reasons, but one of my favorites is simply because Mary asked us to. In many famous Marian apparitions, Mary asks the people who see her to pray the rosary for peace. Our world desperately needs our prayers for peace. Our families desperately need these prayers for peace. Our students need these prayers for peace.
  2. The Memorare.
    The memorare is another beautiful Marian prayer that I think all students need to learn. It’s also a beautiful prayer of intercession, so it would make a great teaching tool within a unit on the various types of prayers. I learned this prayer in middle school and it is one of my go-to prayers when I am asking God for help with situations and people in my life.
    Why should students know this prayer? I love the idea that Mary is our mother and just waiting to bring our prayers to God. When explaining how Mary intercedes for us, I love to give my students the analogy of when something isn’t working for them at school. If they are really in trouble and need someone to go to bat for them, most of them know they can count on their mom. (As a teacher I know the power of a mom on a mission.) There are also many great vocabulary words in this prayer: intercession, incarnate, despise, petitions and more!
  3. The Saint Michael Prayer
    This was a prayer I said many times as a child. For some reason, many of my teachers used this as our class opening prayer when I was in elementary school. The story behind the prayer is that Pope Leo XIII had a vision of Satan that left him deeply affected and concerned for his church. He composed this prayer and encouraged people to pray it after each Mass for the protection of the faith and believers. This is a prayer I still pray when I feel I am under spiritual attack or when I find myself deeply afraid or troubled by something.
    Why should students know this prayer? While people may disagree with me on this, I truly believe in spiritual attack. I think that when we are trying to live God-centered lives and learn and live our faith, Satan is ready to try to get us off track. This prayer asks God to protect us from these attacks. I have found that when my mind is full or worries or fears, this prayer always reminds me that God’s power is so much bigger than my enemy.
  4. The Prayer of Saint Francis
    Before I go into this prayer, let me say this: I know that Saint Francis didn’t write this prayer, but I still love the prayer and when I learned the real story of how the prayer came to be, I actually loved it more. This prayer was first printed during WWI, and then distributed to soldiers on a prayer card with Saint Francis printed on one side and the prayer on the other. Soon it became known as the peace prayer of Saint Francis.
    Why should students know this prayer? This prayer contains so many powerful requests of God, and its inclusive language makes it a prayer that many religions can pray together. Its focus is on giving to others and doing God’s work in the world, which can expand a student’s view of prayer as mostly intercession to prayer as a mission.
  5. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy
    I’ve written about the Chaplet of Divine Mercy briefly before in some of my Lent posts, but someday soon I want to devote some serious time to the Chaplet on the blog. This prayer is the most powerful prayer I have ever prayed. Given to Saint Faustina in a series of visions from Jesus, this prayer can be prayed on a rosary and is simple to learn and remember. When I was in middle school and a friend’s dad died unexpectedly, we prayed this prayer. On September 11, 2001 we prayed this prayer at my school in North Jersey, where many of my friends had parents who worked in or near the Twin Towers. When I was in labor with my son and his heart stopped, I prayed this prayer top the rhythm of my contractions. Six weeks later he was baptized on Divine Mercy Sunday.
    Why should students know this prayer? Jesus told Saint Faustina to spread this prayer and that he wanted to shower the world with mercy. Middle school is such an important time to learn about mercy. Life is not fair, and middle schoolers desperately want it to be. Thinking about the fact that Jesus loves us and forgives us despite our complete lack of worthiness can help start conversation about how to live a life of mercy towards others. I also have seen so many answered prayers come about because of the Chaplet that for me it is an amazing way to show students the power of prayer.

These are just a few of many amazing prayers. Please let me know in the comments of any prayers you think I should add to my list of must-knows. I hope you have a blessed start to the school year. If this blog is helpful to you, please consider sharing it with a friend! Thanks!

Happy August all! As you read this, I am spending some amazing time in one of my favorite places in the whole whole: the Jersey Shore. But as I relax and spend some much needed time with my family before heading back into the day to day work of a classroom teacher, I am trying to build up or get back into some habits that make my life as a teacher easier, more rewarding and in general more effective. For many people these are habits they already have, but after the summer I always need a bit of a hard reboot before the school year.

  1. Start waking up earlier and build a morning routine.
    To be honest, I have always been an early riser, so even in the summer I have been getting up early. However, some of the morning habits I have developed this summer are not going to be feasible during the actual school year. For example, a huge blessing of this summer has been taking a daily walk with my family at 7:30 am each day. But during the school year I need to be at work by 7:30 at the latest, so I need to start shifting the walk earlier, or develop another routine to spend time with my husband and son before work starts. Throughout August I start getting up earlier and trying to get through my morning like I do on school days. An added perk is that without having to go to work yet, I tend to get more housework done before the day truly starts for the whole family.
  2. Exercise two to three days a week at a time when you could during the school year.
    During the summer I am spoiled. As a distance runner, it can be hard to get good workouts in during the school year, but once summer hits, I can go for a run almost any time during the morning, especially because of my husband’s work schedule. Because of this, I’ve been enjoying running between 7 and 8 most days, which is simply not feasible during the school year. So starting in August, I move my runs to late afternoons or early early mornings because that is what I can do once the year starts. If you’ve been enjoying morning or lunch time workout classes or groups, start looking for the same type of class in the afternoons or evenings.
  3. Try to set up monthly non work social gatherings during the year.
    Because my husband works nights, I spend most of my time with children only. I teach middle school all day and then from the end of work to bedtime I solo parent our two year old. Not only is this tricky for a marriage, it also took a toll on my mental health last year. Working out childcare for a once a month outing with friends is completely worth it. Some ideas are: bowling, trivia at a local restaurant, a manicure or even just a kids-free walk in the park. I know hiring a sitter can be pricey, but it’s totally worth it. And for all my single working friends, it’s still super important to invest in yourself and your friendships this way- it’s not a working mom tip only, but that is where I am in my life right now.
  4. Plan ahead for spiritual growth.
    If you’ve been following the blog or just joined this community recently, you’ll have hopefully caught my summmer spirituality series. You can read about it here and catch the entire book list for this summer here. But at the end of each summer I make a pile of all the spiritual and self help books I want to read throughout the year and commit to reading at least one a month. This helps me continue my own spiritual growth and also gives me lots of great ideas to chare with my students. So far on my list for next year I have Praying with Therese of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen, a Spiritual Reader. I’m thinking of focusing on the female Doctors of the Church this year. Having a pile set for the year and the flexibility of when to start and finish each book helps me to stay commited to spiritual reading by making it easy to do.
  5. Appreciate the summer break.
    While many people think that teachers take the summer “off” anyone who knows a teacher knows the truth. We are always learning, growing, and working on our days away from the classroom. But in August it’s really easy to get bogged down in the labeling, letter writing and classroom prep. This year I am being forced to take a step back from these pursuits because my school is a construction zone and I had to turn in my keys. So I am making a conscience effort to do the things I need to for the year, but in the times when I am not working, I am trying to enjoy the moment. I’ve been blessed to travel this summer, and while it is hard to relax and not think about the work and the money and the struggles of teaching and having a family, I am doing my best. I even wrote this post ahead of time so I could relax on the beach while you are reading it.

Hopefully these ideas can help you prep for your best school year ever! What are some habits that help you stay happy and healthy while teaching?

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

Thanks for following along with my summer spirituality series. This will be the last post in the series, so it’s just a recap of the books in list form, with links for where to buy them and links back to the original posts. In August I’m going to be posting about getting my room and lessons ready while my entire school is a construction zone.

Here are all the books I reviewed this summer:

Interior Freedom by Father Jacques Phillippe, which you can read about here.

Forget Not Love by Andre Frossard, which you can read about here.

A Man of the Beatitudes by Luciana Frassati, which you can read about here.

Esther by Beth Moore, which you can read about here.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, which you can read about here.

Beautiful Mercy by Matthew Kelly, which you can read about here.

Story of a Soul by Saint Therese of Lisieux, which you can read about here.

Ponder by Elizabeth Foss, which you can read about here.

Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints by Colleen Swaim, which you can read about here.

Call Me Blessed by Elizabeth Foss, which you can read about here.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which you can read about here.

Thanks so much for reading and thank you to everyone who purchased books using my links- this helps me to keep offering content for teachers and students for free. Thanks again and stay tuned for some great back to school topics including classroom culture and retreat topics and talks. Have a great rest of the summer!

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click the link and purchase the book, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

The summer after I had my son, I purchased The Artist’s Way at our local bookstore. My sister Anne, a super talented artist, had recommended the book to me several times, and I felt my stay at home would be a good time to undertake the immense amount of writing that goes into this book. As with many of my reflections this summer, I horribly failed at doing The Artist’s Way and shelved it to try again the next year.

So last summer I tried again, and this time made it through the entire 12 week program laid out by Julia Cameron in the book. Each week you read a chapter, take a weekly artist’s date for one hour and commit to writing 3 pages every single morning. While the book is not a prayer book, Cameron very much believes that our creativity is a gift from God, and that our use of our creativity is our gift back to God. I personally very much agree with this point of view, and my experiences of writing my way through the exercises became one of the most spiritually enriching things I did last year. My writings last summer through her program actually became last summer’s spirituality series.

The two main activities in the program are the morning pages and the artist’s date. The morning pages are exactly what they sound like. The very first thing in the morning, right after you wake up, you write 3 long hand pages in a notebook or journal. There are no specific requirements for these pages beyond the length, although Cameron emphasizes that writing out by hand is much preferred to typing. The artist’s date is the practice of taking one hour a week to just do something fun that connects you to your creativity. For artist’s dates I painted my nails, made jam, went for walks and checked out local thrift stores. (Mostly I was trying to find fun and free or nearly free things to do.). By the end of the book I had pages and pages of ideas and I had tripled the readership of this blog. I also had gotten into the habit of using my third morning page each day as a prayer journal, which had helped me grow closer to God, which is always my goal.

Popcorn rating: 1. This book is hard, but incredibly rewarding.

Stars: 5. This book changed my life, and made me own my creativity in a way I hadn’t before. It also gave me a daily prayer practice that I want to continue moving forward.

This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you click the link and purchase the book, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting my ministry in Catholic education.

I’ve written before about my small community of women who meet to study God’s word with me. While the numbers fluctuate and members come and go, this group has been one of the greatest sources of spiritual nourishment for me in the last four years. So when I found Call Me Blessed by Elizabeth Foss and her ministry of Take Up and Read, I knew my group had to try it.

This book was set up a lot like Ponder, which you can read about here. There are five days of study each week for a four week study. One day is a rest and check in day and one day for a memory verse. The five days of study each feature one woman of the Bible, her story in the scriptures, additional scriptures to deepen understanding, lectio divina templates, reflections from writers and quotes from John Paul II’s Dignity and Vocation of Women. So it’s a fair amount of time for each day of study, and sometimes the pacing of this book was too much for me. I wanted nearly twice the time to study each woman.

I really liked the format of some of the pages, so I am including pictures in a review for the first time ever.

Popcorn Rating: 3. Some days there was a lot more to think about and do than others, and the lack of depth on certain Biblical women made some days go quickly.
Stars: 3. I loved the layout of the book and the style, but some of the character choices were confusing. For example, in the story of Jairus’s daughter, the book focused on her instead of the hemorrhaging woman, who has much more to say and do than Jairus’s daughter.

This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you use my link to purchase one of the books I am reviewing I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

Last summer I wrote a post about My Badass Book of Saints by Maria Morera Johnson, which you can read here. Super Girls and Halos is Johnson’s second saint book, which is organized very much like the first one, but with a twist. In this book she matches up inspiring saints with strong fictional women from popular culture. There are four sections to the book, one for each of the cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. Each section has two chapters featuring two women each.

I wanted to love this book, just like I wanted to love the one before, but there were a few things that I struggled with. For one, Johnson spends A LOT of time on her analysis of the characters in pop culture. It reminds me of friends who really want you to like D and D so they keep explaining and reexplaining how cool it is. Also, at times I felt like she loved the character but had struggled to find a saint to match. Some of her saint stories seemed flat compared to her character sketches. That being said, this book was super interesting to my students- two borrowed it and actually read it during the year, which is more than I can say about any other saint book I have in my classroom. And even if I felt there could be more about the saints, she picked some really great powerhouse women to highlight.

The saints and character match ups are as follows:
Justice: Wonder Woman and Katharine Drexel; Rey and Claire of Assisi
Prudence: Black Widow and Mary Magdalene; Dana Scully and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Fortitude: Storm and Cunegunde; Hermione Granger and Margaret d’Youville
Temperence: Katniss Everdeen and Mary MacKillop; Nyota Uhura and Kateri Tekakwitha

Popcorn Factor: 3. I got really bogged down in the Wonder Woman chapter.
Stars: 3.5 Again, the saint stories were great, but I felt the balance was slightly off.

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