Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review 6: Y'all Do What Ya S'posed T'Do

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets

Liguori Publications has recently published Classroom Management for Catechists by fellow South Carolina catechist Jennifer Fitz. I received a review copy which I have now thoroughly marked up. I've been catechizing since 1998, so I have lots opinions about running a classroom, and love to compare them to what other catechists think. Here are some of my observations on a chapter-by-chapter basis (but not necessarily using each chapter’s title):

1. Your World as a Catechist

You're a volunteer and an amateur. Yikes! Angst! No! Don't be afraid; and don't forget why you're a catechist. You know- "because you want to share Christ with your students." Umm...yes! That pretty well covers it. And being a volunteer amateur gives you a lot of discretion as to how you'll teach. You know about the Holy Spirit and the charism business, right? You got some gifts, so figure out what they are and then use 'em.

2. The Elements of Discipline

Oh yeah- just say it out loud: DISCIPLINE. 'Cause if the little pagans don't behave, there won't be much Christ-sharing going on. Right away Jen notes that "vague admonitions...don't really mean much," and proceeds with "The Six E's." I won't cover all of them, but then that's why there is a book.

Set an Example: I do set an example, but hadn't quite put it in these pithy terms: "This is how Christians behave; this is how you should behave." But mos def the kids will never take class more seriously than you do. So act and look serious.

Environment: Uh-oh. There's a ton of stuff in here which I think applies more to littl'uns than the proto-teenagers I have in 6th-grade. But I do follow this advice: "Remove Temptations." Like Jen, I "bring visual aids and props," and if that stuff isn't out of sight until the instant it's relevant, it's a distraction.

Keep 'em Engaged: "If your students have nothing to do, they will think up something to do." This ties into having a lesson plan that will fill the whole class period. But if it doesn't, Jen offers some easy quick fixes. I know from experience they work.

But to keep the YouTube Generation engaged doesn't require Technology In The Classroom: "...stand out by offering human interaction." Ask leading questions, guide discussion, encourage the kids to take an active role in their own learning experience.

Enforce: I like the sound of that- ENFORCE. But Jen first points out that "You cannot control your students. You cannot." A timely observation: just this week I experienced the oddest behavior I've ever seen in a classroom in my entire life, and we just worked around it 'til class was over. Anyway, Jen lists about 10 discrete problems and solutions from her own classroom; and to the extent that I have those problems, my solutions are virtually the same.

Encourage: Jen has about a half-dozen ideas here. My favorite is Personal Encouragement: praise the kids out loud when they do well, and encourage them to keep trying when the answers are wrong. I generally think of the kids in class just like I think of my own kids: I love them and want to maintain an environment in which they can do well.

3. Rhythm and Routine

Oh man I am so thankful I don't teach younger kids. Jen has all kinds of good, concrete recommendations about ways to structure classtime...I don't do this stuff...I'm tired now.

4. The Young and the Restless

This chapter is so spot on. Love the kids; ask serious questions; ask silly questions; let 'em talk; don't dumb it down; don't flinch from teaching the big words; say things opposite; use props; pretend. Every bit of this I use all the time because all of it works all of the time.

5. Teaching Beginners and Advanced Together

I have to do this every year for the whole year. Everything Jen says I agree with, and I follow most of her recommendations. Truly, I like having to teach such that for any topic (e.g., Baptism) we start at the very bottom and work our way up to the big picture; because even if some kids know a lot, they rarely see how the all the parts fit together into a bigger whole.

6. Include Every Student

I get quiet kids, and shy kids, and kids that are unchurched; with respect to those kids, Jen’s remarks are spot on.  I haven’t ever had a child with any kind of disability that required the type of accommodations that she also covers, but what she says makes sense.

7. More Than One Teacher

A few pages about coordination, who does what and when…I don’t team-teach…I’m getting tired again.

8. Class Plans

At first I thought, “oh yeah, lesson plans, I know all about it,” but this chapter is less about lesson plans, and more about the catechist’s dynamic use of available space and time. Interesting. I can see how this applies more to younger kids, where one must plan for craft logistics, physical space for games, that sort of thing. Regardless, Jen emphasizes that the plan is a plan. Or as Feldmarschall Helmuth Carl Bernard Graf von Moltke would say, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” So between Jen and von Moltke, plan on making changes to your plan, which will make your life easier next year. You heard me: next year. And the year after that.

9. Conclusion

I haven’t mentioned this yet because it’s implied in the last two pages: this book isn’t about Class Management per se. It’s really about how you are going to evangelize the children that the Church has entrusted to you. Jen says, “This is the most important subject your students will ever study.” I agree it is. So the parents put soccer above Sunday School? So the kids are tired and inattentive? So catechizing takes up too much of your time and energy? So what? God put you in front of those kids for a reason: To Change the World.  So- change it.
This book will help.