Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

This post stems from one of my worst failures as a religion teacher.  At the end of every school mass, our principal directs the community to “turn towards the tabernacle” and we all genuflect together.  I like this teaching method of his for several reasons: as a community we all reverence the Blessed Sacrament together; he shows the students how to respectfully genuflect; and also it makes getting 375 students out of a mass a more streamlined and respectful process.  A few years ago Beverly*, one of my star students, said to me in February, “Ms. Appert, what is the tabernacle?”  I was shocked- not by her- but by the giant gaps in my teaching.  Beverly was new to our school that year and seamlessly fit in with the academic and social expectations of the school, so it hadn’t occurred to me to check in with her on the religious vocabulary we used in the Catholic Church.

Another impetus for this post is a conversation I had at a conference recently.  I was sitting at a table with religion teachers from a wide variety of Christian schools, and the only other Catholic School teacher at the table said, “Well, I’m Catholic, so we don’t really know the bible that well, and it doesn’t have as big a role in our class.”  I wanted to cry.  This is not how Catholic education should be!

So here are some essential skills that I teach and reteach each year that I would encourage you not to take for granted.  Even if your students know some of these prayers and practices, it’s good review, and you might have a Beverly in your class who really wants to know the “why” behind that “what” that we do at Catholic Schools.

Skill 1: How to make the sign of the cross, and why.  Probably one of the most noticeably Catholic practices is making the sign of the cross.  I love watching crime shows, and in Blue Bloods the family is Catholic- watching the actors make the sign of the cross never ceases to amuse me.  Even if students have been doing the sign of the cross for years, it’s a good reminder to be reverent and to remember that we are asking our prayers to be heard by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,and Jesus promised us that he will hear all prayers asked in his name.

Skill 2: How to look up verses in the Bible.  I think every Catholic school student should know whether a book is in the Old or New Testament and also how to look up scripture by book, chapter and verse.  There are lots of fun activities to practice this online and maybe even some in your curriculum.  Our school’s student planner has some really good ones that I use at the beginning of the year.

Skill 3: How to look up paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Because I am creating my own curriculum this year, this is an area I want to improve in my current teaching practice.  I’ve met numerous people in my career and in my days as a student who have very confused ideas of what the Church teaches.  But a thorough reading of the Catechism can really clear up a lot of misconceptions about Catholic doctrine.  If the Catechism isn’t an area that you are super confident in, stay tuned throughout the year for more lesson plans on this as I continue to develop a textbook free morality curriculum for the 8th grade class.

Skill 4: Mass responses and etiquette.  This is especially important where I teach, because many of our students aren’t Catholic, and of the students that are, many do not attend Church outside of school masses.  Before our first school mass, I take my students on a tour of the church (including the tabernacle!) and let them ask questions.  We also practice entering and exiting respectfully.  This is also a great time for the priests to meet the students too- I often try to get one of the priests to meet us along the tour and show us the sacristy and the bell tower, which are two parts of the church that students often don’t get to see.

Skill 5: How to pray out loud.  I had a class last year that refused to pray out loud.  It was a consistent battle to get them to pray even the old standbys like the Lord’s Prayer.  And to be honest, free-form verbal prayer is not a particular strength of mine either.  But I think that given some judgment free zones to practice prayer, and starting where students are confident- things they are thankful for, their intentions, leading a decade of the rosary, students could work up to creating and leading their own prayers.  I want to try a few strategies with this early in the year.  Around conference time I will let you know how it went.

Of course, this is just the beginning of the list.  Let me know of any skills I should add!

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