Thursday, December 15, 2011

Give Teenagers More Credit

I started teaching an eighth grade religious education class at my parish this fall.  In my archdiocese, students receive the Sacrament of Confirmation as eighth graders.  Knowing that Confirmation is on the horizon, combined with my students' apathy for their spiritual development, has been the source of a lot of anxiety and doubt.

I started the year with high hopes and high expectations.  I expected that my students would be familiar with the Bible, be able to look up Scripture verses, know basic tenets of the Catholic faith, be able to recite common prayers, regularly attend Mass with their families, and have a basic understanding of what the Mass actually is.  

Throughout the course of the semester, I have had to revisit my class goals and expectations.  Slowly but surely, I developed a course of action appropriate for my students that would prepare them for their Confirmation in March.

I had more than my fair share of classes that I would call "epic fails."  Fortunately, I had several weeks in November where we had guest speakers and Thanksgiving break to afford me the opportunity to take it to prayer.  God humbled me and taught me a lot:  I need to be okay with meeting my students where they are, answer their questions, reassure them that it is okay to have doubts, and to show them that the Catholic Church loves them and wants them to call it Home.  

In preparation for my lesson last night, I decided the topic would be making a New Year's Prayer Resolution.

I started the class by having them take an inventory of the activities they do each day, how much time they spend on each activity, and how they prioritize these activities in their lives.  


Then we discussed the results of their inventory using these questions: 
  1. Which 3 activities, other than school, do I spend the most time on?  How did I say I prioritize these activities (1-14)? 
  2. Do my priorities and how I spend my time line up?  (In other words, am I spending the most time on things that I say are my top priorities?)
  3. If my priorities and how I spend my time are out of sync, what changes do I need to make?  Are there any activities I need to cut or limit in my life?

After that brief discussion, we talked about the different kinds of prayer.

First, we talked about having a "healthy prayer diet."  I briefly introduced the "ACTS" model of using Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication to format prayer. 

Second, we talked about the differences between formulaic and spontaneous prayer.  We talked about how beautiful the formulaic prayers are.  We talked about the "Our Father" being given to us directly from Christ, the Scriptural sources of the "Hail Mary," and the beautiful other devotions such as the Rosary.  I emphasized the importance of praying the words rather than merely saying them.  I introduced spontaneous prayer as being a kind of conversation with God where the words are not prepared ahead of time.  I emphasized here that it is important to remember that this should not sound like any other conversation we have with a good friend, and to remember that it is God we are talking to.  It doesn't have to be formal, but it does need to be prayerful.  

I introduced meditation by encouraging them to close their eyes and use their imagination to make them present at the birth of Christ, using a Scripture reading as our guide.  I read through the passage and asked them to imagine being different participants in the story--even the silent ones like the animals.  They absolutely loved being exposed to this new way of experiencing Scripture!  One of my regularly "too cool" male students said to his neighbor, "That was actually cool!"  I love how teenagers don't think we can hear their conversations.  It makes these comments all the more moving.

I briefly discussed contemplation as being a "heart to heart" conversation with God, where we just sit with Him and ask Him to speak to us.  I said how blessed we are as Catholics to be able to go to the "real deal" in the Blessed Sacrament--that we can sit and literally gaze upon Him.

I told my students about my sister and brother-in-law's awesome tradition of sharing a weekly holy hour.  They asked what you actually do at a holy hour.  I told them that everyone does something a little different--some people bring devotional readings, some people journal, some people pray the Rosary, some people sit in complete silence.  The basic idea, I said, is to spend time with Christ. 
 “Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?” Matthew 26:40
Leave all other distractions at the door, open your heart up to Christ, and allow His presence in the Blessed Sacrament to penetrate your soul.  

A student who usually zones out, doodles, and makes smart-alek remarks was completely focused on this part of the class.  After I described a holy hour, his mouth was wide open, and he said, "That sounds like the coolest thing you could ever do!  Awesome!"  The skeptic in me thought he was being sarcastic, and so did the other students, so they started to laugh.  He said, "No, no, seriously.  That is, like, amazing.  Jesus is really there!"  All I could do was tear up and say, "Yeah, isn't it awesome?"

Then we talked about how to practically establish a prayer habit:
Step 1:  Create Your Own Prayer Station Arsenal. 
Place a star next to the items that you would include in your own prayer station.  List any other items that you would like to have in your prayer station.

Helpful Tools Include:
-       Books of lives of the saints
-       Catechism of the Catholic Church
-       Bible (New American Bible or Revised Standard Version)
-       Rosary
-       Holy Cards
-       Daily Missal
-       Other devotional books by Catholic authors (see for ideas)
-       Journal
-       Candle
-       Other items:
Step 2:  Make a Daily “Date With God”
1.     Find a time that you can spend at least 10 minutes of interrupted time in prayer.  My time is:  _____________________________________________________________
2.     Where will you have this “Date With God”? 
3.     I will do this to remind myself to have my “Date With God”:
4.     Find other times throughout the day that you can offer up prayers to God.  Examples include:
a.     When you hear an ambulance
b.     Every time you walk up or down a flight of stairs
c.      When you are waiting for a web page to open or for your computer to start up
d.     Doing chores
e.     Random times throughout the day when I can offer prayer are:

I brought my prayer box that I wrote about in my previous post on creating a prayer routine.  I picked out all of my devotional items, flipped through my journal, told them that I pray for them by name, and described my individual prayer routine as well as how we pray with our children and how Philip and I pray together before bed.  

I concluded the lesson by asking them to journal for five minutes on their New Year's Prayer Resolution.  Usually, I struggle to get them to do much of anything for one minute, let alone five.  I don't know what it was, but they stayed focus for those five minutes, writing and writing.  When the time was up, I asked them if they had any questions about prayer and if the lesson was helpful.  They asked a few questions, and one of my female students said, "Wow, I didn't know you could just talk to God.  That's really cool.  I'm starting a journal."  Several of them echoed, "Yeah."  

I told them I'd like to close the lesson with a prayer before we had a little Christmas party.  The student who was really excited about holy hours said, "Oh, good!  I really like your prayers."  Who were these kids, and what had they done with my old students???  After saying a spontaneous prayer to God asking for the safety and rest of my students over their Christmas vacation, I opened it up for petitions.  They volunteered very deep, personal, and thoughtful prayers, which showed me that they were beginning to trust more in God and one another.  We closed with an "Our Father." 

We spent the last ten minutes of class munching on cookies, drinking pop, and discussing our plans over Christmas break.  They all thanked me (another welcome change), several wished me a Merry Christmas, and one gave me a box of cookies she baked all by herself.  

I was in the depths of despair with this group prior to bringing my concerns to prayer.  Unfortunately, I'm not exaggerating!  Only after humbling myself and figuring out that it's not up to me to make this class a success, God took over.  He will never cease to amaze me with what He can do.  I can actually see many of the students coming on fire for Christ.  Now, I really look forward to the rest of this year with these students, and I know I am going to be sad when the year comes to an end.   


  1. Great post, Catherine! It is inspiring and you are a wonderful writer. :)

    Katie M.

  2. Oh, Katie, you're too sweet. These kids are inspiring, and I'm so thankful for this opportunity to be taught by them. Their faith is so refreshingly simple.