Off to a Good Start?

Are you off to a good start this year as a catechist? Please share your comments with me and your fellow catechists about your first session (click on Comments below).

My first session last night went very well, thank God! Today I’ll share some observations about the Engage step, which, being the first class, took about 35 minutes:

  • My aide had a family issue to tend to and was unable to be there last night so I was on my own to get things organized. Also, there is a class in my room that doesn’t let out until 15 mintues before I begin so I don’t have very much time to get the room in order.
  • Thankfully, our supply bins are now being kept on our floor so we don’t have to lug them up 3 flights of stairs!
  • 2 of my students are related to other catechists and both of those catechists came by as I was setting up to introduce me to them…that was very nice.
  • I greeted each student at the door with a handshake which generally seemed to surprise and disarm them a bit. I immediately had them sit in assigned seats and gave them each an index card to jot down the names of 5 people they trust. They did not have a moment to breathe before I had them on task  and attentive.
  • I was assigned 10 students, 6 boys and 4 girls. 3 were absent and one was added so I ended up with 8 students last night. I have to say that they were very pleasant and friendly and I think we hit it off nicely.
  • I immediately began by introducing myself …about 20 seconds into that, one young man blurted out a question without raising his hand. I cut him off and said, “I’m sorry, but you don’t talk while I’m talking.”  He was a bit surprised at the quickness and firmness of my correction but he apologized and I continued on having asserted my authority very early on. That appearance of being strict was (hopefully) offset by my attempt to be very cordial in my tone as I continued my introduction.
  • Next, I had them stand and I explained that we’ll always begin with prayer and that I will say “This is the day the Lord has made” and that they are to respond, “Let us rejoice and be glad!” I had this written on a cue card and we practiced it a couple of times. They did very well.
  • I had them pass a candle (battery operated) around and offer either thanks for something they are happy about or a petition for someone who needs prayers. This year, I did not give the option of passing (last year when I did that, they ALL passed!). That went very nicely and they all offered thanks for something or someone and all were sincere (save for one who offered thanks for Jay Cutler, the new Bears quarterback, who had a miserable debut and was more worthy of a petition rather than a thanksgiving!)
  • I had them next introduce themselves and share the name of one person from their list who they most trust. Most mentioned either a parent or a friend, many of someone in the class which was nice.
  • Next, I mentioned that trust is not always easy and I introduced our song of the week, “From the Inside” by Linkin Park. They listened very attentively, looking at the lyrics that I had printed up for them.
  • After the song, I did a ball toss to several of them, asking them their take on the song and why it can be hard to trust. They said that it can be hard to trust especially when someone is two-faced.
  • I used that as my segue to move into the theme of the session which was that we can trust in the goodness of God the Father. That brings us to the next step of the session, the Explore step, where we make a connection between their lived experience (entering through their door) and the teaching of the Church (moving them toward “my” door). We’ll explore that step tomorrow.

The one thing that I really worked on this year and I’d have to say I feel very good about, was the fact that I kept them on-task from the get-go and itnroduced another task for them every few minutes. The clear message was that they were going to be asked (told) to do many things in this class and to “get with the game plan!”

I have to admit that my inspiration for this came this past Saturday as I went for my run in the park. There was a grade school football game going on and there were also a few army recruiters present who apparently offered the older teens who were present the opportunity to experience a 15-minute boot camp. As I ran around the park, I listened and watched as football coaches and army recruiters barked instructions to young people that were followed to a T. I thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t I teach with the same authority?” My tone was certainly different (cordially pastoral) however, my mindset was that of the coach and drill sergeant. I had it in my head that I have no less reason to show authority as a catechist than the coaches or military men that I observed.

Tell us about your first session…how’s it going so far?

About Joe Paprocki 2366 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

19 Comments on Off to a Good Start?

  1. Hi Joe.

    I’ve been waiting for your report after your first class! Thanks for sharing….once again, you’ve calmed my nerves. My first class doesn’t start until this coming Sunday night. I’ve mentioned that I will teach 8th grade this year instead of 7th so yet another new experience. I’ll only have a short amount of time with my group as part of our 90 minutes of time (we only meet twice a month for 90 minutes each) will be spent in a meeting with both students and parents combined.

    You mentioned the Linkin Park song and the ball toss. Great ideas. I know we all were very curious about playing music in class in some of our posts over the summer. Do you think you will continue doing that? I think you said you hadn’t done much (or any) of that before with regard to music. Do you think it engaged the kids a lot more? I really like the idea……particularly for 8th graders.

    Also, how long do you keep your kids in assigned seats? Or are the assigned seats permanant? Last year I did the tent cards with their names but let them sit wherever they want (mistake) so I will do assigned seats this year….but was curious if you do it for awhile or for the whole year.

    Thanks also for pointing out that you had to cut one of your students off and let him know that he doesn’t talk while you are talking…..not sure if I got that advice from you (probably), but that was one of my major rules last year.

    • Hi Greg and thanks for your comments. I wish you well with your 8th graders this Sunday! You’ll be great!
      Actually, I used the music quite regularly last year and thought that it was a good way to grab their attention and make connections to the lessons. Judging by how well things went last night (they calmly listened whereas last year, a few of them played air guitar, etc.) I plan to keep using music. As for the assigned seats, I find that, like most of us, they are creatures of habit. Once they have grown accustomed to their assigned seat (I put the name tents out the first 2 weeks), they tend to just gravitate back to that seat the rest of the year. And yes, they do tend to think they can just blurt things out (Kanye West!) when it’s not their turn so that’s a biggy to nip in the bud. I look forward to hearing about your session including the combined meeting with parents and students. Thanks again.

  2. That’s a great outline of your first class…..I started off my class with a ball as well, throwing it up & bouncing it, using it to get the kids to explain to me the difference between physical law and moral law. This first class is an introduction to God’s Law in general, and the 10 Commandments in particular.

  3. We started this past Sunday at my parish and my first class went really well. I teach RCIA for kids and had 4 kids, 3 girls and 1 boy. They range in age from 2nd-6th grade.

    We colored covers for their notebooks and all introduced ourselves. Then we played 2 truths and a lie.

    After that, we did a project to get a general idea of the gospel, God made us, we sin, Jesus died on the cross for us, we have a relationship with God through the Sacraments. I discovered last year, the first time I taught this class, that we really needed to start with the basics and this gives us an overview to “hang” all the stuff we will learn this year.

    Then we talked about expectations and homework and that kind of thing. Then they each got a “quiz.” It was just a short multiple choice worksheet, some stuff about them, some knowledge of beliefs stuff, and some on their participation in Mass, prayer etc. I just wanted to see kind of where they were all at. Turns out they all know at least some, which is better than last year, and 2 go to Mass every Sunday, the other 2 have never been. I suspect they have had some participation in a protestant church though because they seem to know a fair amount.

    In all, it went really well. I’m excited as they all seem really interested in being here and excited about being baptized. 😀

  4. Hi Joe,
    I’m new as a catechist and I have to say it was harder than I thought it was going to be. I teach 4th grade and I planned lots of activities for my session, I had them occupied all the time, but I had trouble with the boys to take the tasks seriously. I have to say, one of them made a comment about my skin color and my accent and it made me feel pretty bad. I was taken by surprise and I did not know what to say. From that point on, it was harder for me to deliver the message I wanted. Do you have any suggestions for this kind of situation?

    • Gaby, thanks for your comments. It sounds like you were fully prepared but were derailed by a comment that one would not expect in a faith setting. When something like that happens, it catches us off guard and can totally disarm us. It is important for you to deal with innappropriate behavior as soon as it happens. Given that this situation has already progressed, I would encourage you to take this young man aside at the next opportunity and tell him point blank that such disrespect will not be tolerated. Also, do what you can to keep the boys separated from one another as much as possible. Keep planning your sessions in such a way as to keep them on task…you’re definitely on the right track with that. However, as soon as improper behavior occurs, calmly call them out on it, tell them that will not be tolerated, and explain that this is not how followers of Jesus are called to act. Be confident and strive to separate yourself from the behavior…don’t take it personally but rather view this as an opportunity to challenge behavior unbecoming of a disciple of Christ.

      I would like to hear some advice from other catechists out there as well. This is a very challenging problem but you sound like the kind of catechist who is prepared to tackle the situation given the right strategy. Please keep us informed. Gaby, may the Spirit inspire you to forge ahead!

    • Hi Gaby,

      I was a first year catechist last year so I feel for you. If you planned a lot of activities for your first class, you are on the right track! I’ve learned planning is everything.

      I didn’t assign seats last year so it was boys on one side, girls on the other, and the EXTREMELY well behaved kids in the middle (we have pretty big classes in may parish – 20+ students). This year, I’m starting out with assigned seats having done A LOT of reading on Joe’s website. Ironically, the boys seemed to respond when I called them out on the spot if they mis-spoke. I did have one boy, however, that seemed to be a real smart a—. After a few classes, I finally realized that he may either have A.D.D. or be lacking attention at home. Regardless, I started engaging him much more if he said something that he thought might be funny. I asked him questions and opened up some of those questions to the group. This might, at first, seem like I was rewarding his behavior but, in fact, I tried to pull him into the main discussion of whatever we were talking about at the time. I learned from my son, who was in the class, that maybe we shouldn’t write off the “goofy” kids when they act up. Hopefully, the other kids in my class felt that way. Anyway, by Thanksgiving he was a “calm” student and didn’t give me any grief.

      I actually had a bigger problem with a couple girls that were best friends that would NOT stop talking despite my best efforts. I separated them (rather angrily) during one class and I think the shock of my anger straightened them up for the rest of the year (this happened mid-year).

      Not sure if it was a Jesuit that said this or what but I LOVE the advice of “don’t smile before Christmas” when it comes to establishing your authority! We’re all volunteers when it comes to being Catechists and sometimes I think we may sell ourselves short because we are volunteers but, in fact, because we are proclaiming God’s Word, we are the most important authority.

      Good luck to you Gaby. Keep following the wonderful Catechists communities online. You won’t ever feel alone!

  5. Hi Joe,

    I also started on Monday eve. I have a group of twelve 6th graders (7 girls, 5 boys). We have the kids for 90 minutes. Thing’s went well, but we moved thru my planned activities much faster than I expected we would, and there was still a half hour of class left. Fortunately I had a liturgical bingo game in my bag and I was able to use to occupy everyone for the remainder of class. I think next week should go a little smoother in terms of time because we’ll actually be working in the textbook. Last nights class was designed for us to get to know each other a bit, thru sharing something about ourselves. After starting off the class with a prayer, we discussed the ground rules for the year and I asked them for thier input. I also introduced them to the textbook and how it was organized and what they could expect in future classes. Than we moved on to the sharing part of the eve. I asked them to share what they thought thier talents and gifts were. (explaining how we are all unique and God has given us all our own gifts to share) I provided them with envelopes which they personalized and put thier talents into. I allowed all those who were comfortable sharing time to share thier talents with the others in class. (About half the class was eager to do this) Thier homework was to take thier talent envelopes home and share thier gifts with thier family and others. I’m looking forward to a great year and I’ll definately be checking your website regularly. You really have made being a catachist a little less “scary” : )

    • Diane, this sounds like a wonderful start to your year. Good thing you had “plan B” in your bag…that can be a great challenge to have so much time left over. I look forward to hearing more about your year as it progresses.

  6. Hi Joe – I appreciate your moving, step by step, through your first class. It is helpful to see how you assembled your opening session. I have a question for you on the battery-operated candle. I liked how you used it to encourage class participation and, of course, it’s a great embodiment of the light of Christ. For future classes, will you use the candle in the same way each time? I have been lighting a candle at the beginning of class when we say our opening prayer but my DRE is warning against any candle burning, so I’m interested in a battery alternative. I like how you take it a step forward in your class.

    • Hi Margaret and thanks for your feedback. Yes, I plan to (and have in the past) use the battery-operated candle in that way for each class. I “light” it before class starts and place it next to the Bible on the prayer center in the middle of the room so that the students see it when they arrive. Then we pick it up and pass it around for the prayer as I described in my post before returning it to its place for the remainder of the class. It is a nice alternative to the lit candle which can indeed be a real danger.

  7. My first class was literally HOT! It was so hot I had to take the class into the hall where it was cooler. So much for “creature comforts!” The ceiling fans just did not cut really warm air. I encouraged the kids to bring a bottle of water and wear layers of clothes so if it is cool out side and the classroom is beastly HOT again they can take off layers.

    I was derailed right away by smart remarks and so I attempted to assert my authority, but I may have come off as mean. I kept reinterating that only 1 person talks at a time! (Several times during the class). I tried to get them back on track, to understand the importance of being still, but I don’t blame them. The room was like an oven! I was uncomfortable. I have to bring a fan from home.

    I have an aide who is a senior at a local all boys catholic H.S., I have more boys than girls in my class. I am pretty sure I know who is going to give me trouble this year and plan on seperating them. I am frustrated and I am not sure how to utilize my resources! Any suggestions?

    • Ann, that sounds like an unbearable situation that is not at all conducive to learning, praying, etc. Asserting your authority is good and if you came off as mean, not to worry unless you said something you regret. However, if you asserted authority with firmness and expressed some anger and or frustration, that is understandable and acceptable. Better to lay down the law first and then be able to ease up as the year goes on. It’s a good idea to go ahead and separate the potential troublemakers. It’s not surprising that you’re frustrated at this point given your description of the conditions. I’m hesitant to offer to many other suggestions since I don’t know what you have or have not attempted. Hopefully those conditions will improve and allow you to teach in an environment that’s conducive to faith formation.

      • Joe,
        My second class went much better, (the room was considerably cooler.) I still have to assert myself several times during the class. I am pretty sure several student think I am pretty mean. Thanks for the reassurance! I made it clear that each time a student interrupts me while I am talking or attempting to teach something there would be consequences. The first time, I give them a pass. The second time I write the students name on the board or move them. After that the student get to go see “Arlene.”

        • Ann, I’m so happy that conditions were much more conducive to happy teaching! Glad to hear that as a result, you had a much better class. Doesn’t sound to me like you need to worry about coming across as too mean. What you’re describing sounds reasonable and it is better to be thought of as too mean than to be thought of as a pushover. You can soften from the former but can rarely recover from the latter. It’s good that you give warnings, chances, and consequences…that too sounds very fair. How do you feel about their reception of the content you’re teaching? Do you feel they are grasping it?

  8. Hi Joe,
    I have enjoyed your books, your Webinar this summer, and your blogs. They have all been most helpful to me–a first year Catechist. I have Level 1 students–First graders in regular school. Expect for 2 boys who are just beginning their religious training–one boy is in the 2nd grade, the other in the 3rd. These fellows were fine during our first meeting; however, I can easily see that as we proceed with the Level 1 lessons, they may become disinterested in what they may see as “baby stuff.” Anyone have any suggestions for me to keep my 2 “older” guys interested? I have about 60 minutes for class so there is not a lot of time for individual attention–plus, they do need the basic instruction to (as has been said) hang the rest of their learning on. Would appreciate some help.

    • Hi Linda,
      Actually I am a first year catechist, but I have done some home schooling. Sometimes using older children to be your teaching assistants engages their interest as well as provides you with an opportunity to teach them. You teach them at the point you are giving them instructions to help the younger child. Many children like being put into the role of a mentor and take it seriously. Good luck!

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