When I was a student teacher, I was very proud of the first class I taught. My mouth had a motor on it, and I never ran out of gas. When class was over, my cooperating teacher congratulated me on surviving, and said I did a good job, but bluntly said, “You talk too much.” I thought teachers were supposed to talk. “Yes,” he replied, “but not all the time. The spotlight is not supposed to be on you; it’s supposed to be on your students. They are the ones who are supposed to perform, not you.” This was a “Copernican revolution” for me, but it made great sense. If I do all of the performing, then I become an entertainer, and the participants become a passive audience. The spotlight is shining in the wrong place.
In every learning space, there is a spotlight waiting to shine. If we focus that light totally on ourselves, we are putting a great deal of pressure on ourselves. Our goal as catechists is to turn that spotlight around and spread it over the entire group of participants. We need to learn how to shift the focus or pressure off of ourselves and onto the group, where it will allow us to see our participants in a whole new way. Here are some tips on how to shift the focus away from yourself and onto your participants.
- Look over your lesson plan. How much talking are you planning on doing? Sometimes lecture is necessary, but if you are always doing all of the talking, when and how will the participants learn to express their faith? Take some of your talking time and brainstorm ways of getting the participants involved in bringing forth the material you wish to cover.
- Review your learning outcomes. Remember, your learning outcomes are not statements about what you are going to do but descriptions of what your participants are going to do. If your outcomes call for participants to articulate an understanding of the Beatitudes, that means that they are to articulate that understanding, not you. Most catechetical textbooks articulate the learning outcomes for a lesson. As you grow in your role as a catechist, you will learn to develop your own learning outcomes when needed. The key to learning outcomes is that they must be measurable. They must identify a behavior or skill that you will be able to look for (assess).
- Identify ways participants will be engaged in learning. Participants can demonstrate learning and understanding in a wide variety of ways. Don’t rely solely on oral expression. Provide your participants with a variety of ways in which they can demonstrate an understanding of material, such as through drawing, writing, role-playing, or poster-making. The old image of learners as sponges who will soak up the information you offer them does not work. They are already saturated with information that society bombards them with and will not be able to retain what you offer them. However, experts estimate that learners retain 90% of what they do. Get your learners doing. This is especially important to keep in mind when learners are viewing a video. It should never be passive viewing but rather should include an “assignment”—what to look for; what to “do” with the content delivered by the video.
- Be prepared with open-ended questions. Strive to use questions that are open-ended or, simply put, cannot be answered in a “yes” or “no.” For example, instead of asking, “Do you remember your First Communion?” ask, “What are some of the things you remember about your First Communion?” Granted, you may still get one-word answers, but if you have more than “yes” or “no,” you can at least begin making a list on the board for further discussion.
- Develop techniques for “deflecting.” Difficult questions can put the heat of the spotlight right on you. Learn to deflect such questions by shifting the attention off of yourself and onto the question. Respond to a difficult question by tossing it back at the questioner (i.e., “What do you think?”) or by inviting anyone else in the group to share their thoughts while you compose yourself and collect your own thoughts. Jesus was very good at this. Recall how he often responded to a question with a question, such as when the Pharisees asked Jesus where he gets the authority to forgive sins and Jesus replied by asking, “Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?” (Matthew 21:25)
- Resist the temptation to talk too much. I imagine it would have been easier for Jesus if he had given a lecture to his disciples about who he was. Instead, he asked them two questions: “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27, 29) Jesus did not jump in with the “correct answer” but waited for the disciples to offer the best replies they could. As catechists, we too need to resist the temptation to give the answers so we can help our participants grapple with the questions of life and faith. Instead of getting nervous when no one replies to a question, let your learners get nervous! They are the ones who should be in the spotlight.
(Adapted from The Catechist’s Toolbox)
Prepare your catechetical sessions with the Christ Our Life Online Lesson Planner, which incorporates the learning outcomes for each chapter to help you focus your sessions.
Excellent summary and pointers, Joe. In addition to having prepared, open-ended questions incorporated into the lesson plan, I continually try to be mindful of, and improve my attentive listening to the students’ responses to the questions – so that their responses can be affirmed or further probed and clarified. So often, one student’s response will be a wonderful “seed of faith” that can be expanded upon and used to further engage the class.
I also try to “shine the spotlight” on the youth through the class updates I email to the parents, highlighting not only what we covered in class but also sharing examples of what the students said, or questions they asked. I think it’s important for the Parish to see examples of what the students are doing and learning; our Parish Catechetical Leader has been supportive of getting displays of the students’ work in the Church Narthex, or published in the Parish bulletin.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experiences, Joe!
This article serves as a great reminder as I plan and prepare for the upcoming PSR year. I believe I have gotten better at asking the open ended questions and letting the children share their ideas even if they sometimes take us off topic. We do many hands on activities and I agree that they are more engaged and remember the lesson more completely. As you point out it is important to let them show their understanding in a variety of ways.
As a 4th grade teacher, I love to have the children engaged in discussions as we read our lessions, I always remind them of the two great commandments, the love of God and neighbor. We are connected to God
In the wireless network. Each lesion teaches us ways to
become closer to Jesus.
I have gotten some good pointers for this years’ 5th grade class. Thank you Bernadette
Thank you for this article. I was praying about what to use or present to our catechists and someone had donated us beautiful spotlights. So I am using this article and when I first taught 7th grade class with my friend they happened to say the same thing to me- you talk too much. I always like to share a story from my life, so I will use this one. When we talk about learning, I have asked them each to bring a treasured religious item or a symbol of their faith to our gathering. I will have them share the story behind their symbol in small groups.
I am sure they will remember what the others shared because they are doing!
Thanks for the inspiration. I am going to spotlight the catechists in our bulletin weekly.
Glad this turned out to be helpful to you, Sharon!