Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review

Fellow catechist Lisa Mladinich has written a new how-to booklet, Be an Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation. If that sounds familiar, it may be because I link all of my catechetical posts to Lisa's Amazing Catechists website.

I have not reviewed a book before, but given my particular interest in, you know, catechesis, I'm inclined to go through Sacramental Preparation a section at a time, hitting a few points, and see how each compares to what goes on in my classroom. By the way, I think the content would apply just as well in the homeschool classroom. Not that I have ever homeschooled.

That's the cover: is your class like that? Fired-up, attentive kids? Lisa's classes are, and if you follow her instructions, your class can be, too.

Let's start with the introduction, God's Living Grace.

I like the opening line: This small booklet is a guide for teaching the Seven Sacraments accurately and vibrantly, so that both you and the children will come to a more complete appreciation for their purpose, beauty, and power to transform lives. Number one, vibrant is good: kids won't learn a thing if they're in a stupor. Teacher is vibrant/ kids learn. Number two, the teacher learns too. Three, if the sacraments can transform lives, then catechesis can transform lives as well (although not in the same way). No point in aiming low, is there? You say: NO!

Chapter 1: Here I Am Lord! (btw, that's from 1Sam 3)

This bit reminds us that a catechist, like Samuel, is called by God to a particular task. And like Samuel,  catechists can't be casual about their vocation. That's right: vocation. Like marriage and parenthood and all that. Serious, substantial business. Lisa writes that if you do take it seriously, God will support you, just as he supported Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. You're in famous company; you should feel ennobled. I do.

Chapter 2: God's Faithful Love

Handing down the faith isn't just serious business, but joyous business as well. What? In the classroom you aren't feeling the joy? Lisa tells the reader that the catechist stands at the living tip of a long shoot going back to Jesus & the apostles, who may be reasonably regarded as the first Christian catechists. The future depends on how well that tip hands on a living faith to the kids. Still no joy? It may take some time, and the support of the Holy Spirit. No kidding: my #1 catechist prayer is Holy Spirit don't let me screw this up. 

Chapter 3: Heroes in the Classroom

The title photo is a kid in a homemade Superman outfit. Don't think for a second that the kids are the heroes: that's a kid imitating the heroes the catechist has got him fired-up about. Great points in this chapter:

Mention those "quiet heroes" who care for the sick (I use Mother Teresa, Fr. Damien, St. Clare). You know, small-scale heroes.

Introduce the kids to Bible heroes and Saints: I like to discuss the tough-guy saints: Isaac Jogues, Max Kolbe, Joan of Arc. (Yes, Joan is a tough-guy saint). Lisa doesn't give you a list of saints: you're supposed to teach the ones that matter to you. Don't have any? Then go find some, and not just Peter and Francis.

Saints are sinners: not as in 'sin,' but as in SIN. Like St. Augustine...ewww. Hey, Jesus doesn't demand perfection. Thank the to speak.

You are the face of the Church to a lot of your charges: oh, man, how many kids in my class actually go to Mass? Don't ask. So be aware that you may be it as far as religion goes in their lives. That's not bad: it's an opportunity. God put you in front of the class for a reason.

Chapter 4: Holy, Holy, Holy (from Rev 4; known in Greek as the Trisagion, the triple holy. Also like Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom)

Teach the kids to be reverent...among other ways by treating God and His stuff with reverence yourself. Lisa suggests a lot of good things I, ummm, don't do in my class, such as praying a decade of the rosary; actually going into church; praying before the Tabernacle; simply learning to be reverent in church. Ehhh...ummm...on the other hand, she also recommends using religious art in class regularly, to which I can offer an emphatic ditto.

Chapter 5: Lesson Planning Basics

I am a fervid believer in the Lesson Planning Gospel.  Lisa doesn't tell you how to make a lesson plan (that would be a whole 'nother book), but rather covers some stuff that you (or at least I) may not have considered, such as:

A quick and useful rule for gauging attention spans. No I'm not going to give it away for free. Buy the book.

Learning styles. Uh-huh...I agree with the three she describes and how to adapt to them. What three? La-la-la, I can't hear you!

Taking risks: I support this 100%. How else will you learn what works? Hey, that reminds me of a famous saying I like in Italian better than English: chi non risica, non rosica (nothing ventured [risked], nothing gained). It's true even in catechism class. And when stuff bombs, just channel Pee-Wee, say "I meant to do that," and change the subject.

Be crafts conscious. Uh-oh: I am not only crafts un-conscious, I am crafts-comatose. But hey, Lisa's advice and examples extend way down to a younger crowd where I can see it'd be indispensable. OK, I allowed crafts once; it was terrific, I must confess.

Give the children your best: Pray for them, dress nicely, and smile! All catechetical gospel. I always wear a coat & tie (if not a suit & tie) to class. Early on a child will always ask why. I say it's a way to show that I respect them. makes a difference.

Chapter 6: IGNITE. That's an acronym. Letters I really like:

I for Investigate, as in investigate the Catechism and the Bible. Totally valuable advice. It does take time to do it, but I bet God took up a lot of  Peter's time, too. And catechists can still live with their spouses, which is a better deal than Peter got.

The other I for Illustrate: Not just drawing on the board which I do, but telling stories with vigor, and other stuff such as...just get the book.

T for Trust: ya can't do it all; leave something for the Holy Spirit to do so He can keep His job.

Chapter 7: First Reconciliation

Like most sacraments, Confession is given depth by comparing it to everyday circumstances when we screw up, have to apologize and make amends. Lisa offers ways to to get these points across in class.

Chapter 8: Be Not Afraid! (Matt 28, John 6...)

This chapter isn't about drownproofing per John 6, but about putting the kids at ease for First Confession. I've never had to teach kids this young, but the advice is practical and doable.

Chapter 9: First Holy Communion

15 (as in fifteen) pointers here. I might have thought of five of them. Per First Confession, I teach kids who have already had their First Communion. Regardless, my favorite here is to tell miracle stories (especially food miracles such as Feeding the Multitudes) and act them out. Did Jesus teach by telling stories? Why, yes he did! Did he tell them while firmly grasping a lectern? I doubt it.

Lisa also adds a block of points about the physical reception of the Eucharist.

Chapter 10: Confirmation

My excuse this time is that my 6th-graders are too young for Confirmation, so I never have to cover that sacrament in any detail either. Here Lisa is concerned with dealing with teens, which is definitely different from teaching the 11 and 12 year olds I'm used to. Lisa reminds the reader that vivid storytelling connected to Catholic concepts is always a winner no matter what the age of the audience.

And this is worth remembering: the teacher is not the kids' friend.

Chapter 11: Rote, Rote, Rote Your Boat

Aaack! Memorization! I don't make my kids memorize anything! But Lisa outlines 9 sets of Catholic terms or concepts that students should know by the time they are confirmed. Let's see...Gifts of the Holy Spirit...aren't there 7 of them? Yes! That's a relief. What are they? Ehhh...let me look at this list.

Chapter 12: Go Team

Lisa discusses reinforcing the teens' Catholic identity, which is a critical part of the kids acquiring a Catholic worldview. The first of 7 points is the Life & Dignity of the Human Person, which even 6th-graders can begin to understand.

Chapter 13: Parents & Progress

Uh-oh. Lots of useful ways to keep parents engaged in the children's catechesis. I'm a slug where parent stuff is concerned; although per Lisa's last bit, I do recognize that I may be the face of the Church to the parents as well as the kids.

Chapter 14: Help Wanted

This editorial reminds the catechist of the importance of his work, points out that the catechist should always grow in faith and knowledge, and emphasizes how much the Church needs committed catechists.

Chapter 15: The Holy Last Word

On this last page, Lisa offers some final words of prayer and encouragement.

The verdict: 30 pages of pithy catechetical advice, including many how-to's; a good tool especially for those looking to invigorate a textbook-based curriculum.  

Here's the order page.