Teaching 7- and 8-year-olds about their faith

In 2019, I started volunteering as a faith formation teacher for Grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it someday, and that I ought to. Then suddenly it occurred to me that now would work, so I signed up before I could change my mind.

I only have a little bit of experience teaching a group, but I do love kids this age (seven and eight). They are extremely sincere and funny, eager to please, and ravenous for information about how the world works, and most of them haven’t developed a fear of asking questions that might sound foolish. They are also very silly, very immature, and some of them are in constant need of redirection. My hat is off to full-time teachers who manage kids for many hours every day! I don’t think I could do it.

I think it’s going well so far. Here is what I have discovered about teaching kids this age:

They love body movement. When I want them to remember something, I try to come up with a bodily motion or gesture to help it stick in their heads, and they love getting up and doing something.

One especially popular one is when I shout, “Who made you?” and they shout, “God!” I shout, “Why did God make you?” And they shout, “To know him [stamp left foot], to love him [stamp right foot] and to serve him [stamp left foot] in this world [point to the ground dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever], and to be happy with him forever IN THE NEXT [point to the sky dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever].

We also learned the American Sign Language sign for Trinity when we did our first lesson on the Trinity: Three fingers of your dominant hand are showing behind your non-dominant hand, then the dominant hand goes under and comes up in front with one finger. Three persons, one God. We shall see if they remember next week. I bet some of them will.

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Photo By: Cpl. Katherine M. Solano (detail) (Public Domain)

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

In which I give thanks for the Chicken of Life

Last Sunday, I had the kids in my faith formation class draw a picture of a Thanksgiving feast at their house. Most drew a table, some food and family and friends gathered around. Then I had them draw a picture of the Mass and nudged them toward drawing a similar scene. We talked about how the altar is a table, as well as a place of sacrifice, and how the food is Jesus, and all of mankind is one family.

I was working my way up to the central idea—that “Eucharist” literally means “Thanksgiving.” But the lesson did not really land because most of the kids did not know the word “Eucharist” yet. Also, some of them did not know what “Mass” meant, and some of them did not know what to draw since they were going over to their mom’s new boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, and they weren’t sure if he had a table. One child steadfastly insisted that last time he went to Mass they had wine and chicken. The chicken of life.

And, of course, three of the boys were still convulsing on the rug because, during the story portion of class, I had made the tactical error of showing them an illustration of St. Juan Diego in his tilma, and you could sort of see part of his butt. His butt.

Some weeks, my husband says I come home from teaching with my eyes shining and my face alight. This was not one of those weeks.

On a good week, the kids are spellbound while I tell them that God made the world because he is so overflowing with love, that he just wanted to be even happier by making more things to be good and beautiful and true, which is why he made the stars and the animals and you and me, and all he wants now is to get back together with us again.

On a good week, someone wants to talk about the war in heaven, and another kid pipes up, “But Ms. Simcha, the devil didn’t have to go to hell because he had free will!”

On a good week, we read about how Jesus called the shambling, shocked Lazarus from his dark grave, and one of the boys screws up his face with skepticism and blurts out, “Is this a story true?” and I can look him in the eye and say: “Yes, sweetheart. This is a true story. It’s all true!”

Those are the times when I feel keenly what a privilege it is to be there, to be allowed to feed these eager young Christians who are so hungry for the truths they were made to receive. Sometimes it feels like the cluttered little classroom is blazing with light and I am so glad, so glad to be there with them.

But we do have bad weeks . . . 

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Image: Dion Hinchcliffe via Flickr (Creative Commons)