I love retreats. I love going on retreats, although it can be a little difficult in the rural area where I live and teach. I love helping on retreats- especially in the planning and behind the scenes work. But there is something truly special about exposing someone else to their first ever experience of a spiritual retreat, and that is what this post is about. Middle school is a great age to develop retreats for, and here are some tips, tricks and reasons why you might want to plan a retreat for your class, grade or school this year.
Why? Middle school students, like everyone else these days, are busy. Many students maintain a grueling schedule of pre and post school lessons, sports and activities. Taking time away from class might at first seem like a waste of instructional time, but I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. At the beginning of the year, a retreat clearly shows students old and new that the culture of your school is Catholic. It can also help build unity between classes and grades. At our back to school retreat each year, we make sure that each small group has at least one student from each homeroom in it. This way students start the year knowing more than just the kids in their class.
Retreats offer a time to prayer and focus on our relationship with God with fewer distractions, and students desperately need that. (So do their teachers!) It’s also a great time to teach different methods of prayer and give students a chance to practice things like praise and worship or lectio divina.
Retreats are also a great time for you to share with and experience your students in a different environment. Sometimes students who struggle in the classroom are able to engage more in a retreat. You also get to see talents and leadership skills that aren’t always evident in class. Retreats also build community within the school and your class. We always ask parents to come help with the retreat, and this helps to build rapport and communication between teachers and parents too. We also get our priests involved, so it connects your students to the larger community of the Church and lets them see the priests in a different light.
When? I think there are no bad times for a retreat, but some times seem to lend themselves well to a retreat: beginning of the year, Advent, Lent, Easter and end of the year. Not every retreat has to be a huge event. You could do a mini retreat in just one class period with a little planning. (Stay tuned for more on that as Advent approaches!) Right now we do one at the beginning of the year and one for the 8th grade students before they graduate, but I would like to add more mini retreats throughout the year this year.
How? Half day retreats have worked best for us so far. We do all the talks, small groups and activities in the morning and then do service projects as a grade or middle school in the afternoon to try to put the words we have heard in the morning into actions in the afternoon. The 8th grade retreat at the end of the year is a full day off campus.
Retreats are a great way to get to know parents and other people outside the class who might be able and willing to help in your religion curriculum. We ask local youth group leaders to be involved which is a win-win. We get their time, experience and ideas, and they get to advertise their youth group to our students.
Practically speaking, pick a theme and develop your talks and activities around that. So far our themes have been Love. Pray. Serve. which was a retreat based on the life of Mother Teresa and Made to be Saints which was a day of reflection on how to become a saint. This year we are doing Happy and Holy: Living the Beatitudes in Middle School and using Pier Giorgio Frassati as our patron saint. Some other ideas could be Fruits of the Spirit, Armor of God or the lives of any number of Saints. We try to keep talks to about 10 minutes and activities to 20 to 30 minutes. Middle schoolers don’t love to sit still.
Never done a retreat before? Don’t be afraid! Get your team together, start planning and let the Holy Spirit do the rest!
Comment with any questions or ideas- I’d love to hear from you!