Monday, March 01, 2010

On teaching middle schoolers religious ed

Up until this year, when asked to teach anyone above the age of 8 years old anything, my stock answer was always, without thought or breath, no. Period. Even when I had one of those children of my own, "Find someone else... not me... never..." And even for those 8 and under, I spent my time in the CCD week in, week out, teaching trench five years ago, and never again. Come February, I was worse than the kids for counting, "How many weeks are left?" Since then I've substituted for this younger set. Get them in, talk, color, play games for one hour and leave. Done. No real planning.

This year, something shifted. When the Director of Religious Ed and Youth Ministry was in full stride recruiting for teachers beg-a-thon mode I said, "I'll teach sixth grade one 6 week session." It was on the Eucharist. I can talk for six weeks on what is a weekly reflection and ritual in this house. No worries.

Still -- I'll never forget that first class. I walked in with a six week plan. An hour and a half later I walked out like a deer in the headlights. The Director saw me. I saw guilt on her face when she asked, "Are you okay?" All I could think, all I could formulate was one question that had no answer, "What have I done?"

Later that week I ran into an old time religion teacher, retired and still sane. She gave me this advice, "Keep their hands busy." She taught her class to crochet, I would get my students sewing. And if you read a previous entry, this was the birth of the Quilting Project.

All is good. "My" children are wonderful. We have our quilt, but we also have a tuna can drive, and a flip top drive as well. And a Shack where we go to post our questions to God. I stayed on for the whole year. We, as a group, want to be together through Confirmation. We will see.

Then I get the email, "Could I sub for 8th graders?" My reply, "Without saying yes, what subject?" The answer comes back they are doing Communication like the sixth grade. I had my plans for my next sixth grade class. We are going to focus on Active Listening. But how do you tell a sophisticated group of worldly eighth graders, "Yeah this is my next sixth grade lesson. No worries, I'll ramp it up for you." Right.

It was an hour and a half. Most parents don't allow their eighth graders to take guns, alcohol or drugs to church. I should survive. And I thought that too, until the first then the second and the third students arrived. They walked in with their walls of silence erected.

I tried the usual new teacher banter. Asked the usual questions, "What's your name? Where do you go to school?" Answers: Jane, Cameron. Maggie, Walsh. Andrew, Walsh. More walked in. More gave the two word answer -- name and school. Beads of sweat; what have I done?

I had the term Active Listening written on the board. I asked, "What is active listening?" No answer. Not listening. I point to the person closest to me and ask again. No answer. I sit down so I am eye level with the class and list off eye contact, nodding, engaging responses on topic with minimal I statements. Then I pair them up with the instruction to try it. They do. I ask, "How do you feel when your friend is an active listener?" A sheepish good comes out of the ether.

The point across, I bring it back to church and ask, "What is prayer?" The answer, "Talking with God," alights from the right side of the room. My response, a question, "How do you know God listens? Or is He just hearing? " After a pregnant pause and blank faces all around the left side of the room comes up with, "Listening, because when He listens, I feel good."

Of course, I shot back. "It's all well and good that you think God is listening to you, but do you listen to God." With that we head off to Mass.

When class resumes, we review for late comers. Actually the class did most of the talking. All up to speed, I took them to Our Shack. My 6th graders place where we post our own questions to God. Armed with pencils and paper they had a few minutes to ask God that one question or two that was plaguing them. Yes, our Shack is based upon the book by Wm. Paul Young. But our building is just a paper structure erected on the classroom wall. At first it was an empty shell. Now it is fortified with paper strips. All holdings embossed with important questions. I noted when these students were adding their strips of paper that they would read the others hung before them. Interesting.

Chris Padgett's music video I'm In Love was next on the agenda. The premise was, listening is done with more than just our ears. I could tell the class was still hesitant-- still not knowing what to make of this teacher who thinks Papa is real. For the music video we first watched the images with no words. Then we listened to the music -- without the images. And finally together. After each step, we discussed what we saw and what we heard. I told them, "You are Detectives. There are no wrong answers. Tell me why you think Mr. Padgett has put these images with these words. What is his point?" Towards the discussion I wrote key words or phrases on the board, real, love, peace, hope, prostitute, homeless, drugs, church, cross, mother with child, blankets, rain, your. Who is your?

At first the class thought the images made no sense. And the lyrics had them believing the song was about a girl being in love. But as a class, we teased apart the meanings and the word Eucharist was written on the board. Amazing.

Well, despite not having time to ask the question, "Can we learn about God from listening to others who happen to be on a different spiritual path?" Answering will involve listening to Guruamayi Chidvilasananda's CD on Won't You Make God Your Friend, I think we all survived.


Chris said...

Very Cool. Thanks for listening and reflecting on the song.

Anonymous said...

YOU are amazing!

PtCakes said...

You make me blush.