Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

It’s almost October, and in my planning for classes, this is when I prep for my students to learn about Saint Gianna and for my 8th grade students to begin researching and learning the lives of the saints they will perform on All Saints Day. You can read more about that here. While my enthusiasm for All Saints is certainly ok, sometimes it means that I miss the beautiful month of the Rosary in my preparations for November’s feasts. So this year I want to make sure that I spend October celebrating in addition to preparing. Here are five ways I am going to celebrate the month of the rosary in my classroom.

  1. Start each class with a decade of the rosary. If you do a different set of mysteries for 5 days each week of the month, by the end of the month your class will know and have prayed all 20 mysteries of the rosary. Of course some school schedules won’t have a full four weeks of classes in October, but that can be a great way to encourage families to pray the rosary at home!
  2. Pray the rosary at Eucharistic Adoration. I am so blessed that my 8th grade class has the opportunity to go to Adoration each Thursday afternoon, so during the month of the rosary, we are going to bring our rosaries and pray together in front of the Eucharist.
  3. Learn the history of the Rosary. It took many years for the Rosary as we now know it to come together. And because the Rosary has always been a way of learning the faith in addition to a way of praying, it makes sense to learn some of its history. Franciscan media has a great article on this topic and Loyola press also has some interesting resources.
  4. Find all the mysteries of the rosary in the Bible. While there are certainly great scriptural rosary books, I like to have my students look up the scriptural references themselves, especially because my 7th grade curriculum is New Testament. As an added prayer activity, I sometimes have the students write the mystery from a new point of view- like the Annunciation from Gabriel’s point of view, or the Baptism of Jesus through John the Baptist’s eyes. It’s a beautiful creative writing exercise and then can be used for class prayer.
  5. Learn about saints who loved the rosary. There are so many! Saint John Paul the Second would be an easy place to start, especially because of the luminous mysteries. But there are many saints who famously loved the devotion to Mary through the rosary- Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, Louis De Montfort and so many more!

Check out some of my other posts about the rosary:
Our Lady of Fatima Rosary
Five ways to celebrate the month of the Rosary (2016)

What ways do you make a rosary a part of your life at home or in the classroom? Let me know in the comments!

Our annual middle school retreat was a huge success! While I have so many amazing things to share about it, first I wanted to post the talk I gave on St. Therese’s little way of holiness. She was the patron and theme for our day and it was such a wonderful time of prayer, sharing and fun. I hope this helps you find encouragement today and maybe gives you some ideas for talking about the saints in your class.

The Little Way of Holiness

There’s a quote from Mother Teresa that I’ve seen many times and in many places.  “I cannot do great things,” Mother Teresa said. “I can only do small things with great love.”  While I find this quote super inspiring, I also struggle a little bit with it. If you know anything about Mother Teresa, you know that she did do great things.  She completely changed the world. But Mother Teresa’s words are still true, and they are a great illustration of the topic I am going to be speaking about, which is the little way of holiness that St. Therese of Lisieux lived and taught. 

We’ve already heard about who St. Therese was and how she lived, first in a tight knit family of sisters, then in a convent of sisters for the last 9 years of her life.  Aside from her trip to Rome, Therese in many ways lived a very small life- literally, she only lived until 24 and she never left the convent grounds once she entered them at 15.  It was on her trip to Rome that she saw something that would inspire her teachings of the “little way”. Here’s what she wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul.

Instead of being discouraged, I concluded that God would not inspire desires which could not be realised, and that I may aspire to sanctity in spite of my littleness. For me to become great is impossible. I must bear with myself and my many imperfections; but I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight, a little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. I have sought to find in Holy Scripture some suggestion as to what this lift might be which I so much desired, and I read these words uttered by the Eternal Wisdom Itself: “Whosoever is a little one, let him come to Me.”[4] Then I drew near to God, feeling sure that I had discovered what I sought.

Already I find it encouraging that Therese’s spirituality is inspired by such an ordinary thing: an elevator! She and her sister saw these for the first time on their trip to Rome and thought they were the coolest thing. It seems so relatable to me to think of the elevator as a way of skipping the hard ways to perfection: heroic martyrdom or great deeds. Therese wasn’t afraid to ask God for a different way to reach her goal.

The first step to Therese’s little way is this: think small.  Instead of worrying about all the big things you can’t do, instead find the small things that you can do. Therese tells a story of her first years in the convent.  She was very young and had been very spoiled in her life before becoming a sister. One of her first jobs was to sweep, and she received a lot of criticism from the other sisters for her lack of ability in what were pretty normal chores.  Instead of worrying about it, Therese made sweeping a way that she could show her love to the people criticizing her.

The next step to the little way is the one that gives me the most hope: know that you can’t be perfect.  In middle school, you have a lot of pressure on you. Our school is an academically challenging school. Some of you are facing big pressure from family and friends to get certain grades, do well in certain sports or have certain friends and attitudes.  The good news from St. Therese is: you can’t be perfect. Even the people you look at and think, “Oh, they’re perfect, they have it so easy,” aren’t perfect. In some ways, letting go of trying to be perfect can feel like giving up, but it’s not. Letting go of being perfect is being free to let God do big things in your life. 

Another way Therese lived her little way of holiness was to never let people know that she found them irritating.  Living in close quarters with a small community of women for nine years wasn’t easy for her, and there was one sister who Therese really struggled to get along with.  She found everything about this nun annoying, so she made a special effort to be extra nice to her. After Therese died, the nuns were talking about her, and the super annoying nun said that of course it was hard for everyone, but Therese had been especially close to her, so of course it was harder.  Therese had hidden her irritation and been so kind that the sister had no idea that Therese struggled so much. 

 Part of the little way of holiness is to not draw attention to the small ways you are trying to spread love.  This is hard for me. It was hard for Therese. It’s natural to want to be acknowledged for doing the right thing and for being extra kind, but that’s not why we need to do the right thing.  We need to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and I promise people will notice. Therese became a saint in record time because people read her book and did notice.

Holiness is hard.  When you are trying your best to be holy, people often misunderstand you or judge you.  I was 12 years old when I had an experience that completely changed my life. My class was praying in front of the blessed sacrament when all of the sudden, I knew- really knew- that Jesus was there.  Jesus loved me! It was something I had always been told and always known, but in that moment I had a powerful experience of God’s love. I started to sob, which as you can probably guess is super embarrassing in a quiet church filled with all your friends.  When I tried to describe what was happening to my teachers, they thought I was crazy, all except for one. My friends thought that I was making the whole thing up to get attention. But that day in front of the Eucharist was real, and it’s part of the reason why I want you all to have a chance to meet Jesus in the Eucharist.  

Therese’s small community couldn’t always understand what God was doing in her life, but the ones who could saw that it was something big.  In your walk towards holiness, expect that others won’t always understand what God is doing in your life.

This last part of the little way is the part that isn’t super fun to think about.  Holiness is often accompanied by suffering. Therese suffered in many different ways.  She was lonely being the youngest nun in the order. Her father suffered from a really intense physical and  mental illness before he died, and this was incredibly painful for Therese and her sisters. Therese also died a drawn out and painful death from tuberculosis.  When you are trying to be holy, God knows what you can handle and you often have to handle some pretty difficult things.

But to end on a more positive note, even when holiness seems too hard or out of reach, you can always start small.  I know it can be a little scary, but I really want you to try to close your eyes and listen to this song. Use this as a time of prayer and reflection on the Little Way of Holiness.

Play “Dream Small” by Josh Wilson. *

So, to wrap up, remember the parts of the Little Way of Holiness:
Think Small.
Remember that you can’t be perfect.
Do kind acts in a way where you won’t receive attention.
Holiness is hard and often accompanied by suffering.

If you are already on the road to holiness, that’s awesome- recommit to that path today.  If holiness is a new endeavor for you, remember that you can do small things with great love every single day.

*The song link is an affiliate link. This means that if you purchase this song, I receive a small commission at no cost to you.

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!

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.

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