Friday, June 16, 2006

Lessons Learned

This summer I get to reflect on my first year of teaching Sunday School (or, as they call it in Catholic environs, CCD, except now it's CFF, which is okay because even though nobody can remember what CFF stands for, nobody could ever remember what CCD stood for, either). It was quite the experience, and I've agreed to continue teaching it next year, in accordance with the "Hit me again, sir!" philosophy of life.

What did I learn? First, that classroom teaching is very, very different from the tutorial system that is homeschooling. Duh. Yes, everything I learned was pretty much a "duh" thing, but there's nothing like learning the hard way. Experience is the best teacher, though her tuition fees will break you. I have a new respect for teachers dealing with classrooms, though at the same time less patience for those who think only certified teachers trained for the classroom ought to homeschool. The two things are so entirely different that I'm amazed I ever could have thought my years of hs'ing could have given me any advantage in the classroom. Other than the general confidence that I can, in fact, teach.

The most successful part of CCD: using the Bible. Much as it kills me to post this in public where anyone can see, the horrifying fact of American Catholic religious education is that the Bible is missing in action. We've thrown out traditional memorization-based catechetics (the Baltimore Catechism, as well as any materials based on it, is specifically banned in our diocese, as in many others); we've thrown out firm statements of doctrine; we've thrown away our heritage as the intellectually serious brand of Christianity. (One of my favorite illustrative moments was when my non-Catholic husband, looking over Offspring #1's second-grade CCD text, remarked "Hard to believe you're the same people who produced Thomas Aquinas.") We've done all this in the name of the Spirit of Vatican 2. Well, if there's anything Vatican 2 made clear, it was that Scripture is the gemstone in the ring of Tradition, the wellspring of doctrine, the source of liturgy, and above all the Word of God. So how come the CCD kids never, never, never crack open the covers of a Bible in any class? Sure, the textbooks, wretched things that they are (but I won't hop onto that hobby horse again right now), have dumbed-down "Bible stories." And that's reasonable for the littler kids. But I was teaching the third/fourth grade class, and not a single one of them had ever opened a Bible before.

So every morning, my co-teacher, P., and I would lug the Bibles up from the Religious Ed. office to our classroom. And the first day, I introduced the Bible to the kids. And we started with the most basic basics. Your Bible is in two parts: the first 3/4s is called the "Old Testament" ... The first four books of the New Testament are called "Gospels" and they tell the life of Jesus ... and so on. Chapters and verses, prophets and epistles. After three to four years of Catholic education, this was all hot news to the kids. We looked up a verse every single day. The first day we did Genesis 1:1, and it took twenty minutes before all the kids were able to find it. But by the end of the year, I could give them 1 Timothy3:15, and with one or two exceptions, they could find it in less than a minute. Yeah!

I also told them they needed to own their own Bible, and that anyone who didn't own one by the middle of the year would get one free from me. P. and I split the cost of some decent Ignatius Bibles (RSV). I was a little worried about getting myself in trouble for not using the wretched bishop-approved NAB (wretched translation, not wretched bishops--well, at least not in most cases), but I had quickly discovered that the NAB was so footnote-laden and poorly laid out that the kids were consistently confused as to what was Scripture and what was notes. So by the end of the year, they all had their own Bibles and knew how to use them. Mission accomplished. Or at least underway.

The least successful part of CCD: teaching the kids an an appropriate level. First, it took me a while to get the hang of classroom techniques for making the central points clear, and ensuring that the kids at least left with the main things I wanted them to learn that day. That was my fault. Not my fault, and not sure what I could do differently (so I'm taking suggestions), was the incredible diversity of knowledge and capacities among the kids.

First, though CCD kids are usually thought of as the poor children of CINO (Catholic In Name Only) parents who don't know or practice their faith--otherwise the kids would be in the parochial school instead of CCD, wouldn't they?--my experience as both parent and CCD teacher is that this is only true in a few cases. Though to some extent it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the accordingly low level of catechesis, based on the assumption that these kids come to CCD in complete ignorance, causes the frustrated parents who do a good job of raising their kids in the faith to withdraw their children. Yes, there were some children with non-practicing parents who dropped them off for CCD but didn't take them to mass. I was horrified to overhear one of my brighter students mentioning that her parents hadn't taken her to mass in months; she hadn't even been at Easter. And there were some with devout parents who taught their children thoroughly, prayed together as a family daily, and could have taught the class themselves.

Further, at our parish the third and fourth grade are combined, apparently because second grade is the First Communion year, and the theory is that most families will pull their kids once the CCD requirement for the sacrament is satisfied. (See above re: the theory of Bad CCD Parents.) The fact that this doesn't actually occur fazes no one, and so my class every year is packed. Twenty-plus kids this year. I was assured, upon first discovering this, that most of the kids would be no-shows, not to worry. But foolish me, I gave out stickers for participation and right answers, plus other freebies on a regular basis, and allowed the kids (poor things, most of who had just sat quietly through an hour of mass) to talk quietly and even wander around, so long as they came to attention when I asked them to. (Freebies, BTW, are a total hit. Glow-in-the-dark rosaries and prayer cards with particularly gory martyrdoms [Sebastian, Denis] or Disneyesque princess-type saints [Helen, Kateri Tekakwitha] make the teacher very popular.)

So attendance was consistently high, and the kids ranged in age from eight to nearly eleven, factoring in differences in background and sharpness (not to mention interest level), and further included one dear girl with Asperger's who needed far more individual attention than I could possibly give her. The best I could do was teach to the middle of the class, restating main points in simple language (and writing them on the board) for those who were just not up to the level I was pitching at, and throwing in some advanced asides for those who were horribly bored. But in the end, some kids were confused, and some kids were convinced yet again that CCD is a waste of time. Whether they learned a darn thing, other than how to use their Bibles, I leave in the hands of God, and hope experience improves my teaching next year. Oh how I pray they'll split the class up next year: I literally begged, but we have a new DRE coming in, and she'll have plenty of other more pressing things on her hands.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to encourage my 75-year-old, former 1970's DRE mom to read your blog, but I'm trying to acclimate her slowly. The long and short of it, my dear OH, is that I cut and pasted your posting and sent it to her. She has a master's in elementary education, and taught on a high-school level for 10 or 15 years in Texas.

She desires to know what your curriculum is (in other words, which pretty set of books the parish bought), and what sort of teacher training (I'm snorting with laughter now) you were given. I personally thought the books were written so that a teacher was just supposed to read the chapters to the class and perhaps pull some craft projects from the teacher's guide.

If you could respond, especially on the training question, I'd like to pass it on to her. I think I can look up the curriculum answer on the diocese's website.

God bless you and have a happy Monday/Juneteenth.

8:54 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Our parish uses the Blest Are We series. There was no teacher training. Though all catechists are required to do lots of hours of spiritual formation, none of it relates in any way to catechesis, except I suppose on the general theory that you teach the faith better if you live it yourself.

10:42 AM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

It sounds as though you did an admirable job for your first year. My theory when I was a Catechist (and this carried over into when I was a DRE) was that if I could give the kids one thing each week I was doing a pretty good job. The one thing I wanted to give them was a love of their Catholic faith. If it was a love of Scripture one week or a love of the saints another week or a love of the liturgical cycle another it didn't really matter, so long as each thing I introduced I did so in a way that they became enthusiastic for it and wanted to know more.

I think you did a great job. Don't beat yourself up about how much you didn't cover, if your kids wanted to come back and they could find stuff in the bible by the end of the year and they knew a martyr's holy card when they saw one you did a fine job. Look at how far you led them from where they were at the start of the year!

For next year try doing some baltimore catechism, just don't call it that, call it Catholic Trivia or What Want's to be a Millionaire (using Baltimore Catechism questions) Start small and each week give them some new insight into Catholic faith and life and.


11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So did you have to take all the classes to become an official catechist? I've heard this is a three-year training course. Is a Sunday School teacher at your parish required to be a catechist?

2:02 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Thanks for the words of support. I think the "one thing a week" idea is the right approach. I really can't use the BC, though; a great CCD teacher was let go two years ago for using a book based on it; and enough parents sit in with their kids that you can't take the risk. It's not our parish that's so draconian, btw; it killed our DRE to have to make the teacher quit, but she has the chancery breathing down her neck, and her job is her livelihood. But I did (like most of the catechists) make extensive use of materials other than the official text.


I'm not quite clear on your question. I didn't have to take any classes to be a catechist in this parish. The spiritual formation classes are required, but you only have to be not skipping all of them to stay on as a catechist.

Now I believe there is some "official" level when you've finished all the courses; but I admit that I don't see the distinction. It's not like they're going to start paying me or anything.

Is it the case that CCD/CFF teachers in other parishes have to finish the course before they get called "catechists"?

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking back over the comments, it looks like I asked a question, the OP answered it and made a comment about catechists, and I inferred from that that Sunday School teachers were required to be catechists.

I think about a month or so ago, the new catechists were commissioned at our parish, and I was thinking that in order to be commissioned as a catechist you had to take all the classes.

A few years ago, at our old parish, in Houston, an announcement was made about a 3-year series of classes that, once completed, would enable a person to be a catechist. I assumed from the announcement that one had to complete all the courses to be a catechist.

The role of catechists seems to vary from parish to parish, also. I remember that when I was attempting to get married in a different parish in Houston, I was required to meet with a catechist before I could do any pre-wedding preparation. Her role was to get our papers in order.

So maybe I can make a good resolution to call my current parish office and ask what the relationship is between catechists and Sunday School teachers, and how the catechist classes fit into all of this, instead of spreading confusion!


Anyway, thank you for teaching the Sunday School -- offering formation is a great service, and you never know when the seeds of grace will flourish. Good heavens, you gave them Bibles -- that's terrific right there. If you're concerned about your effectiveness, remember [I think] G.K. Chesterton saying that if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. But it sounds like you did pretty well.

Have a good day!

11:25 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have been not teaching for about three years, but I spent three years - the first three years of my Catholic life, as a third grade CCD teacher (but ah, we call them catechists, not teachers, because you have to complete "Echoes of Faith" which is the same as "course 1" (of three courses - the last two have to be taught by a priest in our diocese) which is what Anon was asking about, I think), and because being a 'catechist' is subtly different than 'teacher' - and this is looking like a posting of its own on the silly semantics we confuse ourselves with in the Church). Kudos to you for jumping in and for sticking with it for next year too! Since I was such a new Catholic, I was shocked by the lack of Bible usage in everyday Catholicism, and we played a game called Fast Fingers which was just what you described. GOOD FOR YOU! Keep it up! We of the homeschooling mentality need to be interspersed throughout our parishes, and homeschooling THEM too!!! (OK, that is a wacky comment, but I'm going to leave it, because you have inspired me A LOT with this post!)

6:05 PM  

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