Wednesday, April 24, 2013

religious education

For the last year and a half I've been teaching CCD.  For the last five years, I've been looking for some way to contribute to my community, and in particular my parish, but nobody would take me.  So when my vicar said they needed CCD teachers, I signed up right away.  From there insanity ensued.  I think he had said something about third-graders.  Instead, I got five high-school boys, who were supposed to have had confirmation preparation in seventh and eighth grade (and been confirmed in eighth grade), but their parents didn't sign them up.  There are syllabi for all the grades up to eight, but none for this sort of remedial class.  Plus, their parents hadn't taken them to religious education ever, so most of them knew nothing.  Also, their parents don't take them to Church on Sunday. 

I started again this year expecting to take my five boys through the rest of confirmation prep and see them all confirmed.  Instead, the teacher who was supposed to take on the new first-year class of remedial confirmation prep never showed up.  Eventually I had eleven students - five girls and six boys.  They range in age from thirteen to seventeen.  Eight are first- or second-generation immigrants (all speak good English).  They have never been taught the Church's views on chastity (not even by their parents), and obviously the dominant cultural influence is something very different.  That's not part of confirmation prep, but given their ages it is essential.  Three of them have very substantial familiarity with Church teaching and Scripture; the other eight have next to none.  And did I mention that five of the eleven had class with me last year and are being confirmed this year, another three had class last year at a different parish (no idea what they covered), and another three are in their first year of confirmation prep?  And I had to teach them all at the same time.  Again (of course), I had no syllabus. 

Plus, this year, the (new) DRE told me that they would have a content exam at the end of the year.  I asked every week for a month what would be on it.  He finally admitted he had no idea and couldn't find out, and I told him to expect them all to fail.  (I have no idea what the archdiocese thinks these kids should know, but I'll settle for them learning anything they didn't know before.)  A week before the exam, I was told they wouldn't be tested.  Okay. 

I decided to focus on them learning something about living the Christian life.  Last spring, I had covered the seven sacraments and spent several weeks on prayer.  This year, I covered the ten commandments, and then moved on to the Scriptural narrative, and God's plan, as revealed throughout history, for man's salvation - and, in particular, theirs.  Of course it took longer than it should've and I spent too much time on Noah and had to give short shrift to the crucifixion (!!!).  I somehow forgot that I am not a Scripture scholar and they asked all sorts of question about the Old Testament I couldn't possibly answer, making me (and the Catholic faith) look stupid.  Why do I set out on every challenge assuming that I know everything? 

I tried to focus on some broad concepts.  I started with basic philosophy and logic (the principle of non-contradiction, the problems with relativism) and the idea that we all have a responsibility to seek the truth.  Every kid started every class with a Bible and the Catechism.  I got the kids to where they understood how to find passages in the Catechism by paragraph number, generally knew how to use the index, understood that there were footnotes, and even (sometimes) if I said, "Now, where would we find more information about this?" they would venture, "Um...the Catechism?" 

I was more ambitious with the Bible.  Some of them started out opening it upside down (I am not kidding).  I believe now most of them can reason logically to whether an item will be in the Old Testament or New Testament.  Given five minutes, they can each find the third chapter of Jeremiah (for example) without assistance.  They know where the Psalms are, and almost all of them have spent a class combing through the Psalms to find a good passage to offer as the class's closing prayer (I said I would offer them a passage or they could find their own, and I was surprised by the popularity of that exercise).  They know - in a general way - what happens in Genesis and Exodus.  They know what, and where, the four Gospels are.  One of them - my troublemaker - started listening to audio files of the Bible on in his free time.  He started at Matthew and by the end of class had started Corinthians.  I would not have believed him if he hadn't had detailed knowledge of books of the Bible we hadn't read.  I'm still stunned. 

I can tell that not all of them are entirely convinced of the wrong of abortion, or of the value of saving sexual activity for marriage.  But I can see with several that it's sinking in - including some I considered the least likely.  One of them is depressed and engaging in self-harm (I wasn't sure of the latter until our very last class), and I would appreciate your prayers for that student.  I am working with the DRE to talk to the parents and (my preference) the counselors at school to get the child some help.  Because of the VIRTUS rules, I cannot talk to the student privately myself - though I'm the one she chose to confide in.  I understand the value of the rules, but what a waste. 

In addition to getting them used to leaning on the Catechism as a reference and developing a comfort level with opening the Bible, I tried to instill in them an understanding of and respect for the Church's teaching authority.  When one had a difficult theological question, I would ask him to write it down and save it for the vicar's next visit to class.  (And God bless him - he always had a good answer.)  This exercise worked fairly well too (when they remembered to bring their notebooks). 

In the second-to-last class, my brightest student (and the one with the most familiarity with Christianity generally) asked whether a person could remarry who had been in abusive marriage.  For those not familiar with Catholic teaching on this subject, the answer is that a marriage that is invalidly contracted can be investigated and declared null (annulled); for example, if one party was not mentally capable of giving consent, or one party was already married, or if the parties' consent was to something other than the essence of what marriage is (i.e., if they married intending to be closed to having children, or intending to be unfaithful, or intending to end the marriage later).  If the marriage was validly contracted, however, then each party is bound by his promise.  The fact that the promise later turns out to be spectacularly unfortunate doesn't change that (if it did, it wouldn't be a promise).  However, the Church teaches clearly that it is appropriate to use the civil law to protect a person in danger of harm - thus, a civil divorce (and restraining order or prosecution, as appropriate) would be permissible.  But a valid canonical marriage cannot be dissolved, so the abused party could not remarry. 

It's relatively easy to set out this information, but remember, this is my bright student - and she only asks questions when she has a serious issue.  Otherwise, she is silent, and maintains perfect composure while the twin boys ask 700 stupid questions, many of them about random popular movies, usually interrupting me mid-sentence.  I can pretty well imagine what she thinks of them, but she says nothing.  She also doesn't overshare, so I don't know who in her life has run into this problem or how deeply it affected her, but I know there is somebody and I have to keep that in mind.  After answering the question, I went home and realized I had dropped the major issue. 

So I started my last class (in which I breezed through the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension into heaven, and descent of the Holy Spirit, accidentally skipping the Gethsemane passage and the judgment before Pilate along the way) with what I think can best be described as a rant on the relationship between truth and love.  I think I hit my major points well.  I emphasized that we as a society want to push suffering people away.  I used being infertile as an example (something I have not previously mentioned), because I know adults have limited credibility with children on theoretical concepts.  It's what you've lived that makes an impression.  But I de-emphasized how hard it is (I know they don't really get it at their age), and pointed out that if people say insensitive things to me to make me shut up, it must be ten times worse for someone with a heavier cross.  And I invited them to look at Our Lady, standing by in agony as her beloved Son was scourged, following as He carried His cross, covered in blood and near collapse, waiting at the foot of the cross for three hours, unable to help Him, unable to save Him, able only to suffer with Him.  That is the example we're called to follow.  They were dead silent.  I know I made an impression with that.  But maybe just because I was ranting like a madwoman. 

I had two other major points for this rant.  My earlier one was that a lie is not compassion.  The strongest example here seems obvious, to me.  The world wants to tell women in unwanted pregnancies, "It's not wrong to kill the child," "The child won't suffer," "It's better this way," "You need to live your life."  The idea is that this would be a burden and she should not be asked to carry a burden.  And that is not the Christian message.  I told them that the message was, "This situation is incredibly hard and will demand a huge sacrifice from you.  But you have an opportunity to do something heroic - to give of yourself so that someone helpless and dependent on you will have a chance to live.  And when I look at you, I don't see someone weak and selfish.  I see a hero.  I know you can do this, and I love you and I'll help you in every way I can."  Why is this not the message we want to give to women?  Why is the side that claims to want to see women free and strong and fulfilling their potential telling them to be the least they can be?  When you look back on your life, do you want to see someone for whom the way was always smoothed, for whom life contained many enjoyments and few troubles?  Or someone who, when life got difficult, sacrificed self, did difficult things, loved heroically, and made the world a better place with her courage and generosity?  Who wants the first?  So why do we avoid the second?   

My last point was that Christ, who died on the cross for us, loves the suffering person more than we ever can love him, and we have to leave room for His action, even if we can't see what that will be.  I think this hit home, also. 

For a brief minute, I was proud of that.  But what of what I didn't emphasize?  I didn't go through Pilate's "Quid est veritas?" and why we always have to embrace the truth.  I didn't emphasize the importance of daily prayer, although I meant to.  I didn't go through Gethsemane and talk about what Jesus suffered and that suffering is evil but redeemed.  (I did get to go through "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" and talk about our experience of feeling abandoned although, like Christ, we never are.  And that provoked a lot of comments.  They do feel that God is distant.  Two asked how to pray better (!!).  I wish I could prepare for these questions, but I told them to ask God for the grace to pray better, suggested they use Scripture as a starting point, and recommended Adoration, which is available at our parish.  I hope they look into that.) 

I neglected to wrap up the Scriptural narrative with my point - this is what God has done, this is what He's offering, this is what you need to accept or decline before you are confirmed.  I said it at the beginning, but they need to hear it again.  I had so little time with them, so little I could get through, and they aren't really ready to be adults in the faith - not even close.  They haven't seriously contemplated Christ's invitation, and made the decision to drop their nets and follow him.  I talked about God's love - but I didn't talk about it enough.  I missed opportunities to make it personal enough.  Throughout the year, I should have been reminding them, every week, to ask their parents to take them to Mass.  I don't even know whether I said it once.  I bet many of them didn't go to Mass even on Easter (we didn't have class that week or the week before, and I never plan far enough ahead with these things).  I grilled them about their Lenten sacrifices, but I don't know whether I got to the heart of the matter.  There are a million million things I didn't say at all, or explained poorly, or failed to say enough.  I am a stunted witness, obviously, and that too is a giant limit on what I can teach. 

I've already quit for next year.  Writing lesson plans from scratch takes more time than I really have, the class is impossibly organized and impossible to teach (and the DRE needs to be forced to teach it himself for a few weeks before he will pay attention and address the problem - I made it too easy for him not to look for a second teacher for the first-year students), and class on Sunday mornings is really out of the question for me.  All the people I need to maintain relationships with, I need to see on Saturday night.  I spent so many Saturdays at 3AM writing lesson plans, and so many Sunday afternoons catatonic, barely waking up in time for evening Mass.  So, I've volunteered to help with the youth group on Sunday night.  I will be going to Mass on Sunday morning again! 

I don't know whether to feel triumphant or defeated.  I know I am tired.  I am worried about every one of these kids.  I want to shake most of their parents - how could you neglect this most essential thing so completely???  I feel a little guilty for leaving - I know they need teachers - but I was totally burned out by January and by now there is no doubt that I need to stop.  I guess I could abandon my social life altogether to make room for this, but this is an appropriate volunteer activity for those whose family circumstances already dictate a 10PM Saturday bedtime and waking on Sunday by 8AM, whether there's CCD to teach or not.  That isn't me.  My community isn't the people who live under my roof, and maybe by normal standards that makes me a hedonist, but that's how it is.  This is the life God gave me and I'm not going to run from it or try to pretend it away or do a half-@$$ed job at it. 

But I'd like to think that one thing I said made one bit of difference for even one of those kids.  Please God...


  1. Wow, just reading the list of everything you did cover with the students, it sounds to me like you covered a LOT and not just fluff stuff, but hardcore, soul impacting, life changing stuff. Even if you never know the totality of your impact and I know you are not asking to do so, I have no doubt you would be surprised by the sheer enormity of your impact. Okay, sorry for the crazy long run-on sentence, but I think you get my drift.

    And for what its worth, teenagers strike terror into my heart, so I am doubly impressed that you took on the challenge to nurture them and challenge them as they journey along the road to confirmation. Give me pre-school - 3rd graders any day and anyone over 65+, but anything inbetween...ugh...I am inept.

    All this to inspire me.

  2. In my professional opinion, you sound like an amazing teacher and your students were lucky to have you. I was once lamenting to DH that teaching is like parenting (I know you're not a parent and neither am I; and I know this is a sore point for both of us, sorry) in that every day, you fail in a thousand different ways. DH responded that maybe teaching is like parenting in that you can fail every day in a thousand different way, but overall, in the big ways, you can get things right.

    After eight years of CCD, I would not have been able to do one quarter of the things that your students can do after taking one year of CCD with you.

    I think that I'd like to teach CCD when I retire, but right now, teaching is work and if I worked on Sunday mornings, I would lose my mind.

  3. You inspire me as well! I've wrestled with being called to serve our parish through religious education. Our priest, not so subtlety, has asked me to take over...and my parents make comments as well, but that age scares me! I'm a primary school teacher...3rd is as high as I enjoy! BUT, since I will begin staying home after the end of this school year, I think I should get more involved in my parish. I do know that if I do teach, I will want to teach all of the things I had to learn on my own in the last few years that I was not taught during my 12 years of religious education. And it was A LOT!

    I'm saving this post as a type of "syllabus" for my future teaching...if I gain enough courage to do so! Your students were lucky to have you as their teacher.

  4. Miss C - I shall suggest to you the unbelievably fantastic book that a friend (a DRE) recommended to me: Forming Intentional Disciples. Responsible for all of the good ideas I used in this class, and additionally one of the best books I have read in a long time - though simple and short (and though I generally read ONLY fiction outside of work. And blogs!).

  5. It sounds to me like you touched and changed the lives of each of these teens - whether you ever see it played out or not. It's a shame you didn't have support because I can only imagine what a high-school remedial confirmation program would look like if you had the support you need - A.MA.ZING!

    Prayers for you as you embark onto the youth group - they are blessed to have you!

  6. After teaching 7/8th grade last year & 10 years of high school YG. I am teaching 4th grade boys this year. I like the boys, but they ask a LOT of questions.. like questions about everything. Every grade has it challenges. You should like helping out with YG.

  7. Like JBTC said - you inspire me AND you tackled a TON of info. I can tell that you've touched these children's lives just by the impact they shared with you ... listening to the Bible, figuring out where to find that book in the Bible, and being confident to share a secret with you. I understand why you're not able to teach next year, but if you are ever able to again, you make a GREAT teacher!
    I helped teach 4th graders (I think) about 8-9 years ago & was overwhelmed at that. You took on high schoolers! My worst fear.