Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

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While most of my posts so far this summer have been about books that have been helpful to me in my own walk with God this year and at other times in my life, I thought I would take some time to talk about some books that have helped me to teach the faith to my son. Many of these books will seem very juvenile, but they do translate well to classroom use. I love using picture books in middle school. Students find it somewhat unexpected, and many beautiful children’s books can deal with topics that apply to our study of scripture and the moral life. The following books are all books I have read to my son and several I have also used in my classroom.

Saintly Rhymes for Modern Times by Meghan Bausch is a beautifully illustrated book with paper pages. Each page focuses on a single saint with a short rhyme describing a few of the things that make that saint special. I especially love the fact that this books highlights more recent saints, and many of the saints that I feature in my religion class. While I haven’t used this one in school yet, my son loves it and it has his patron saint in it. I will be using this book as I highlight our saint of the month in class this year though.

Probably one of the most classic saint books of my childhood was the Picture Book of Saints by Lawrence Lovasik. The update version has many of my favorite saints in it, with the same style I remember from when I was little. Each page features one saint, their feast day, patronage and a short story of the saint’s life. I have 10 copies of this book in my classroom and we use them often. Because they are designed for children, my students can use them as a quick reference when they need to select a saint for a project. The concise written story provides a launching point for further study.

While The Clown of God by Tomie De Paola is not strictly a saint book, I think it can fit into this category of books. A classic story retold with De Paola’s gorgeous illustrations, this book is a great one to use with the parable of the talents or to talk about stewardship. Giovanni is a gifted juggler who spends his life gaining fame and fortune through his fabulous juggling. At the end of his life, Giovanni is left with nothing and ends up in a Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, where he has only one gift to give the Christ child. It’s a truly beautiful book, and this is one I have used in school. De Paola has lots of other beautiful religious books too.

I also love The Song of Francis by Tomie De Paola. While not strictly based on Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, this book takes the spirit of that beautiful prayer and puts it in a format for children. This book is beautiful and bright and is a great way to teach students about adoration and praise prayers. Often I will have students write their own “Song of (their name)” and illustrate is as a companion project. My son likes the pages with the birds.

All of these books are easy to read, so they all get a popcorn rating of 5. As for stars, I love illustrations and children’s books. I think that picture books are highly underused in a classroom setting, and I give each book 5 stars for spirituality and teachability.

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When our former assistant pastor Father Peter was in the seminary, he was placed at our school for a semester to see what it would be like to serve in a church that also had a thriving school community. The students loved him immediately, and I discovered another person who seemed to love the saints as much as I did. One of the books he left for my classroom, (in addition to Peter Kreeft, who is clearly above most middle school reading levels) was Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints.

This book tells the stories of 8 beatified or canonized young people, some I was very familiar with, and some that were completely new stories for me. The saints are: Bl. Chiara Luce (Fr. Peter’s favorite), St. Maria Goretti, St. Teresa of the Andes, St. Stanislaus Kostka, St. Alphonsa from India, St. Dominic Savio, St. Kizito, and Bl. Pedro from the Philippines. While I sometimes didn’t love the story telling style, I could see that it would definitely be appropriate for my students. Each chapter has reflection questions, and there are spaces for students to take notes. In places there are even movie suggestions.

By the end of the book, I loved the new saints I had learned about. I plan to read more about Blessed Chiara and Teresa of the Andes in particular. For my students, I would love for them to be able to reflect on the ways that these two normal teenage girls became saints. Chiara’s live changed on a retreat, when she decided she wanted to pursue her relationship with God above all else. But she was also completely average- she loved sports, and hanging out with friends. When it was clear that her cancer was terminal, she planned her own funeral as a wedding for when she would get to spend the rest of her life with Christ. I also love that she was alive for a short part of my own lifetime. With Teresa, I loved that she heard her call from God and pursued it, despite the fact that those closest to her couldn’t understand it at all.

I can see how this book could work well in a middle school or early high school classroom. Because there are 8 saints, I could see getting enough for small groups to use and highlighting one saint each month of the school year. You could also jump around the book and match the various saints to other teaching goals- the book does connect each saint to a virtue or character trait. It would also work well as a read aloud, maybe leading up to All Saints Day.

Popcorn factor: 5. I read the entire book in two days. It would definitely work for 2 to 3 days of class time if you broke it down by saint.
Stars: 3. I do want to note that I am not the intended audience for the book. For classroom use I would give it 4 stars, for adult spirituality it was light.

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I first bought Ponder last summer, but got side tracked in my attempts to finish it- I think I made it to day 3 of 28. Ponder is a 28 day journal and scriptural workbook focused on the mysteries of the rosary. Each set of mysteries is a week, so the format of the study is day one of each week is a memory verse, the next five days are reflections on each of the scriptures for the mystery of the day, and the seventh day is labeled Selah and given as a day to rest, reflect and catch up.

On the reflection days, you use the practice of Lectio Divina to contemplate the scriptures and there are writing prompts to help you focus your thoughts and prayer time. Then there is a short reflection written by a woman who connects her life to the mystery. After that you finish with a few more writing prompts, a suggestion for how to put the scriptures you have just studied into action, and a chance to color and pray the rosary.

I loved that on the Selah days there was a rosary bouquet to color. I learned a lot about flowers, and I did find the practice of coloring to be prayerful and meditative. I also got to use the awesome new crayons I had gotten for Christmas. On the rosary days I just prayed the mystery for that day, because I was often in a time crunch with a baby who wakes up at the crack of dawn and my own need to get ready for work.

I also appreciated that this made the rosary manageable for me. I’ve always struggled a bit with the rosary, and this book made me feel like saying it every day was doable and also more like scripture study than a rote recitation of a prayer. (Although at some point I want to do a post about why rote prayer matters, because I really think it does.). This book is very pretty too- I was happy that the authors took the time to make it visually appealing instead of academic.

While the rosary is very much a Catholic devotion, I do think that my non-Catholic readers would love the Bible study portion of the book, and the reflections, while they do have a Catholic bent, really speak to the realities of being people of faith in a very broken world.

Popcorn Rating: 3. The book breaks the study into very easy daily prayer sessions, but contemplating the scriptures can be difficult at times.
Stars: 4. This really helped me grown my love of the rosary.

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It all started with Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe. When my parents came to visit after I had my son, my dad gave me a copy, which I had great intentions of reading while on maternity leave, but I didn’t actually finish until a full year later. It was a book which completely transformed my spiritual life, which you can read about here.

At the end of last summer, when we were in the full swing of getting our classrooms ready and initial lesson planning done, I asked one of my pastors if I could meet with him to go over some ideas I had for my 8th grade religion class. We set a time, and when I realized I had a little time before the meeting, I slipped into the daily mass chapel at my parish where there was Eucharistic Adoration. During that time, I finished Interior Freedom and put the book in my bag so I could take some time to pray in thanksgiving for the incredible spiritual blessings I had received in reading it.

An even farther back piece of back story is this: I have always had a huge spiritual block about Saint Therese of Lisieux. In high school, all the extra holy girls in my very rigidly Catholic high school were always saying rose novenas to Saint Therese for “my future husband”. In a completely unfair and judgmental way, I subbed the spirituality of Saint Therese with the annoyance I felt for these girls.

But Father Jacques is incredibly influenced by Saint Therese and her wisdom is present throughout the entire book Interior Freedom. As I was sitting in adoration, I felt God pulling at my heart. Ok God, I thought. If you really want me to, I will read Story of a Soul. As you probably know, when you allow God to speak to you like this, he often moves fast. As I met Father Peter at the door, he greeted me and then asked, “Would you be interested in a group that reads Story of a Soul and then meets to discuss it?” At that point I couldn’t ignore God’s invitation any longer. I bought the book and read it. Unfortunately Father left our parish before the group could come together, but two friends joined me to read and discuss the book together.

So much has been written about Saint Therese that I don’t know if my review can really do her justice. She was the youngest of five sisters, all of whom became religious sisters, and most in the same order as Therese. Her parents are also canonized saints. Therese became a cloistered nun at 15 and died at 24, and in that time she was asked to write her life’s story out for various Mother Superiors of the Order. I expected that I would learn some valuable things from Therese. I mean, she is a Doctor of the Church. What I didn’t expect is to fall in love with a saint I had kept at a distance for so long based on a high school prejudice. But fall in love I did.

A few of my favorite quotes from the book:
I felt that there was a heaven, and that this heaven was peopled with souls who actually love me.
And my soul grew through contact with holy things.
My God! I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves!
(This is recorded in the afterward, not written by Therese, but said as she was dying.) I will return! I will spend my heaven doing good on earth!

This book has certainly done me a world of good. Definitely read it. đŸ™‚

Popcorn rating: 3. Because the book was written in French, sometimes the translation feels a bit awkward. Also, Therese has a beautiful melodramatic writing style with lots of italics and creative capitalization.
Stars: 5. Therese’s little way of growing closer to Christ is doable for everyone. She also has a great sense of humor about her shortcomings, which I always appreciate.

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

Additional disclaimer: This book is also available on DynamicCatholic.com, where if you jump through some hoops you can get it for free. Their website is an amazing resource for Catholic teachers, students and anyone who wants to know more about Jesus.

Beautiful Mercy is a compilation of writings by spiritual powerhouses, including Pope Francis, Scott Hahn and Fr. Mike Schmitz. I think it was originally written to be read during Advent in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, but I read it just this year and really enjoyed it. I am also thinking of using pieces from it in my religion class next year.

The book is organized into the Spiritual and Corporeal Works of Mercy with short inspiring stories and essays for each one. I learned about a lot of inspiring people trying to make the world a better place through reading the short and manageable chapters. Some chapters were a bit of a stretch as the author wanted to talk about their area of expertise and then vaguely connect it to mercy, but others were really in depth looks at what actually living the works of mercy looks like for real people in the real world.

I am always looking for resources for my 8th grade religion class, especially as we no longer have a textbook. Some of the essays in here would be an easy read for them, while others could be more challenging. I also think that many Catholics don’t actually read what the Pope writes to us, and we should. Teaching them at 13 that they can handle reading some of the Pope’s wisdom will drastically improve their understanding of the Catholic Church. And besides, Pope Francis is pretty cool.

Another reason this would work well in classroom setting is because it also has lots of companion videos you can stream for free on DynamicCatholic.com. This would be a great resource for someone who commutes on public transit- you could pop your headphones in and learn more about your faith on the ride. I know my friend Corinne has used the videos with her sixth graders with a lot of success.

Popcorn Rating: 5. This book is nice and easy to read, and also easily divided into chunks if you wanted to use it as a daily devotional.
Stars: 3. Some of the articles were better than others.

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

When I was in college, I read a lot of Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who left an illustrious career in academia to live with the mentally disabled, his simple spirituality and his incredible honesty spoke to me at a time where my own spiritual journey had taken me from a very devout and robust community of faith to the relatively unchurched Northwest. The Return of the Prodigal Son is a book written during his time of transition from professor at Harvard to pastor of a L’Arche community in Canada and follows his journey with the parable and also with the titular painting by Rembrandt.

In the parish where I made my first reconciliation, communion and confirmation, this same painting hung on the wall. Nouwen first saw it in a friend’s office and then went on a journey to see the actually painting in Russia. At that time, he most identified with the younger son in the painting, but as he talked about it with more and more friends, he began to see ways in which he was more like the older son. Then the same friend who had the painting on a poster in her office told him that his real challenge was to become the Father in the painting.

And that is how the book is organized: his encounter with the painting, and then a series of reflections on each of the characters in the painting and in the parable. Each section held different insights for me, but I really appreciated Nouwen’s honesty about his own struggles with unforgiveness and resentment. At this season in my life, that part of the narrative really resonated with me. At times his analysis of the painting reminded me why I DIDN’T take art history in college, but I really enjoyed his personal reflections and the parts that focused more on the Bible story. This has always been one of my favorite parables, and I know I will have more depth of knowledge when teaching it next year.

Popcorn Rating: 4. If you love art history, probably a 5.
Stars: 4. I got a lot out of this book, but it wasn’t one that I immediately felt like I needed to take action on after reading.

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Esther is another amazing study by Beth Moore. From the first time I was introduced to her studies in college, Beth Moore’s insight into scripture and her obvious love of the Bible have inspired me. You can read about my experiences doing her Breaking Free bible study here. Esther is another study that I have done several times, but last summer I was really blessed to be able to go through the story with a wonderful group of women who I know through our church and parochial school.

Esther is a nine week study that goes chapter by chapter through the book in the Old Testament. By the end, you really understand the story and all of the ways God’s plan can write through some very crooked lines. Each week has five days of reading and study, which was good for me flexibility wise, because last summer I had an 18 month old. I loved Beth’s insights on the way scripture all comes together, and the ways that she tied other books of the Bible and lots of Bible history to the actual story of Esther.

If you don’t know the story of Esther, it is amazing! And also, a very doable read in just one day. Obviously this study takes much longer, but you could sit down and read through the whole thing in probably an hour. It reads like a movie- a set of bitter enemies, the planned destruction of the Jewish people, and a girl being used as a pawn by both sides. What makes Esther truly remarkable is how easy she is to relate to. At one point, if she keeps silent, she will be safe during the destruction of her people. But her uncle forces her hand, and she has to decide how brave she can be. It’s really a great book to read. I’m also really partial to the women of the Bible- they aren’t highlighted very often, and only a handful get their own book.

Popcorn Rating for the Bible Study: 2. Beth Moore makes you work hard and think a lot. But it’s so rewarding
Popcorn Rating for the book in the Bible: 5. So exciting you can read it in one sitting.
Stars for both: 5. Great way to know more of your faith history and spend time in God’s word.

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