Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wednesday Sunday School

I teach 6th grade Religious Ed at my Catholic parish. This is my 5th year of doing so; each year it gets better. Before that, my wife & I team-taught RCIA and an adult class. We enjoyed that, we had some great people in the classes. She's a professor, and I taught at the college level for a couple of years as well, so the older the student, the better, as far as I was concerned.
Anyway, at one point there was a need for a 6th grade teacher, and I was made an offer I couldn't refuse. I really was not interested in dealing with kids...what do they care about the Council of Nicaea?

But God does work in mysterious ways. The kids are 11-12 years old, and I was wrong to think I'd have to dumb things down for them. As an age group, I've found them to be ready to learn, ready to think, ready to know more about God and Faith. They have an as-yet unjaded view of life, and a natural disposition to take God seriously. They grasp big ideas quickly, adjust to new information, and leap to conclusions in a single bound. Their brains are more nimble than an adult's brain. They like to be respected as people, not just as children. They will meet high expectations and enjoy doing it.

(I bet none of this is news to other teachers, but it sure was a revelation to me that first year.)

Teaching kids is different, though. One reason I started the blog is to keep a record of what works in the classroom. Our textbook is designed for a 180-day school year; we have 30 evening classes to cover the same material. What I plan to do is write little teaching vignettes as they happen so I don't forget them.

Here's the first vignette:

Last night we had to cover (among other things) the Holydays of Obligation:
January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God;
Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension;
August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
November 1, the solemnity of All Saints;
December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception;
December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Instead of dealing with them individually and in order, we did this:
First, All Saints: we recap St Paul's cloud of witnesses, the Communion of Saints, the images & statues of saints in church, the presence of the saints with us at Mass (they already knew these concepts from 2 weeks ago). The old way of saying All Hallows, and relating that to 'hallowed be thy name'. We have a few Spanish speakers, so we spent a minute on All Hallows' Eve, and El Dia del Muerte. We also call holydays feastdays, and I ask "Como se llama feast in Espanol?" then repeat quickly in English "How do you say feast in Spanish?" so the Anglophones don't feel left out. Someone will respond fiesta, and we observe that in English a fiesta is a party, which suggests how Catholics have traditionally understood holydays, not as burdens, but as days of celebration and eating!
Now, all the other holydays relate to Jesus directly, or to Jesus indirectly through Mary. These holydays are all presented as a group. We begin with Christmas, which of course they already know just fine. I have a 3 inch plastic fetus I got from Family Honor. I hold it on my stomach, I play Mary and here's baby Jesus growing in me, which through a line of questions leads the kids to the Immaculate Conception and the title 'Mother of God.' They learn the Greek word Theotokos; a student will tell us what Theos means (someone always knows...6th graders!?), and I add that tokos means bearer, or carrier. I waddle around with the fetus, playing Mary carrying God around inside her. We discuss how Mary is the mother of Jesus' divine and human nature, remind ourselves that this is a mystery.

We move to the Ascension by starting with Easter, and why it's a movable feast. I ask the kids how many days did it rain on Noah's ark, how long did Jesus fast in the desert, how long did Moses fast on Sinai, how many years did Israelites wander in the desert? A student will then point out Lent is forty days long, too. They see that forty is a special number indicating a time of preparation, and from there we then discuss the Ascension.

The Assumption follows from the Ascension. Through a line of questions they see the difference between ascending into heaven and being assumed into heaven. I ask them what a dormitory is and how to say sleep in Spanish (dormir). We discuss the Dormition, the 'falling asleep,' and note that Mary, who was Immaculately Conceived, remained sinless. The kids figure out Mary would not suffer a normal death because they already know that St. Paul says the wages of sin is ....death. They also remind themselves that Adam & Eve wouldn't have died before they sinned, either. I bring out a chicken bone, which is an imitation saint's relic (they've seen this 'relic' before), and the children work out that Mary's body isn't on Earth, because if it were, her relics would be venerated.
In some key ways this was a typical lesson:
No reading from the book or looking in the book during class.

I asked a lot of questions; each correct answer led to the next question, until a conclusion was reached.

I had props: the plastic fetus and the chicken bone.

The kids had to remember information learned earlier and apply it to new concepts.