Growing up, my family always talked before Lent started about what we would “give up” for the Lenten season- often things like sweets, snacks etc. We fasted on the prescribed days and didn’t eat meat on Fridays (really almost ever, but definitely during the summer.). In college, due to health issues, my spiritual director suggested that instead of fasting and giving up, I should adopt the practice of doing something extra during Lent, which worked well for me at the time. When I started teaching, the students talked about “Lenten promises”, but had no real concept of what to do for Lent beyond giving up candy, which is certainly a valuable practice.

After my first year of teaching religion during Lent, I decided I needed some ideas to help my students be more intentional with their plans for Lent. As a nice side perk, my efforts also led to me having a much holier Lent. I try to alternate these two approaches each year, because that way the students who have me for two years in a row can think about Lent two slightly different ways.

Both approaches start with students brainstorming what their goals are for Lent. At the end of Lent, what do you want? Do you want to be closer to God? Do you want to be more disciplined? Do you want to have more peace? Do you want to know the Bible better? Be a better friend? All of these are great things, and all can help you pick a Lenten practice that will be easier to keep (although probably still challenging) and be a lot more meaningful.

The first way we make our Lent plans is with the idea of give something up and do something extra. Using the questions about goals, I model some ideas about how to give something up that will help me reach those goals. One year I gave up complaining. Because that was so hard to be subjective on, I wore a bracelet and switched wrists each time I complained. I also had two good friends to help hold me accountable. If the goal is self-discipline, giving up candy, sweets, or TV could be a great sacrifice. I’ve done all those before too. If the goal is to get closer to God, maybe you want to give up patterns of sin like gossip or lying. Then picking something extra can also follow these goals. Want to know the Bible better? You could read 1 chapter from each book of the Bible for each day during Lent. By the end of the season you will have had a crash course in Bible structure and style. (I will post some suggested plans for this- I know a lot of people who have gotten stuck in Leviticus.) Trying to be a better friend? Leave an encouraging note for a different person each day.

The second way we make our Lent plans is with the words pray, fast, give, which is commonly used in the Church during Lent. Busted Halo has some pretty cute videos that we often use to start the conversation when we are using these as our inspiration words. You can watch them here. For this, the first two words pray and fast can match with the give something up, do something extra, but pray I think leads students a little more to extras that will bring them closer to God. With the idea of fasting I try to get students to consider what takes the most of their energy and attention, which more and more I am finding is social media and video games. Fasting from these would make a huge impact on so many people, including me. As of yet I have not convinced any of my students to make this choice.

For give, we talk about time, talent and treasure. Most of my students don’t have money to give beyond spare change. While we do always keep a CRS rice bowl on the prayer table, it is much more likely that students can give their time and talent more freely. Maybe during Lent they could babysit for family or neighbors once a week. Or if a student is really talented at music, they could join the church choir for Lent. It’s fun to help students be creative with this, because giving often has the side benefit of really boosting students’ self esteem as they see how much they have to offer in service.

The last step is accountability. Depending on the year, I do this different ways, but this year I really want to have students create something that we can display in the classroom to remind us of our Lenten plans and promises. Once I’ve figured it out I will post pictures here. I’m also working on some handouts to help students with the brainstorming process.

What are your plans for Lent this year? Have any great ideas for middle schoolers and teens? Post them in the comments!