There are a lot of things I am good at. I can MC weddings, put backspin on a 9 iron, and I can reverse a trailer, which is effectively the last remaining male initiation ritual in the developed world.
However, some things have always been beyond my ability and one of these is the ‘dark arts’ of curriculum and lesson planning. Luckily, there are more than a few good souls who know their scaffolding from their outcomes and their KLA’s from their scope and sequence. I’ve always thought curriculum stuff was a bit like the lions enclosure at my local zoo. Interesting to stare at but I would not want to jump the fence and get close to it.
The good news is that some people find this sort of stuff really interesting and thank God for that. If it were left to me I’d just tell my class to read Shakespeare (all of it) and come back to me if they have any questions. Thankfully, Carmen Bennet is one of those people and I got to interview her last week. You can download or listen to the whole interview just by clicking HERE. It’s worth the effort.
One of the outcomes (there’s a curriculum word sneaking in) was that I said I would take the time to grab some of her key ideas and get the down in a single post. She captures a great overview of what needs to happen in religious education if we want to make a serious effort to reach young people with the Gospel
And let’s not forget that the goal of religious education is the proclamation of the Gospel and an encounter with a real person, Jesus Christ. After that encounter young people may choose to undertake all sorts of good works and initiatives but the important concept is that whatever they do takes place after that crucial first encountering of the person of Jesus.
What follows is a simple and powerful checklist for anyone who teaches religious education with young people. I hope they are helpful and even more important, I hope you can reflect upon them and use them.
1. Why Do I Do This?
Teaching young people, especially when teaching the content of religious education is not like any other discipline. You need to have some sense of vocation. I think it would be incredibly difficult to seriously commit to teaching religious education without some sense of the action of God in your life and the desire to share that with young people. Of all the work in the world you could do, why do you teach religious education? If the answer is, “Because my principal told me I had to.” then something is wrong.
At some level you need to be aware of the deeper convictions that drive your decision to teach this subject. What has God done in your life so far? What is it about the great questions of existence that you find worth discussing with young people?
2. Is you relationship with God, self and others deepening?
Carmen makes the point that being a great religious educator is a lot about where you are travelling with God, with yourself and with others. It’s a constant process (hopefully) of deepening in each of these three key areas. Importantly, the ability to deepen in these areas requires time. We need to give time to God, to ourselves and to those we are in close relationships with. Each of these levels of relationship is about becoming more human, more capable of connection and empathy and love for God, self and others. In a time-starved world it takes discipline to make these relationships central. Are you making time for this process of deepening?
3. Know the content.
Artists know their tools and their craft and the best religious education teachers are artists of the soul. It’s not enough to slap on a video, hand out a worksheet and hope for the best. These are people’s souls we are dealing with. How well do you know the core content you are teaching? Could you go deeper? What if at some level the spiritual future of your students was dependent upon your level of formation?
Importantly, knowing the content is not just about the students. My experience has been that the deeper you go into solid theology and great spiritual writing the more it changes you. You become the message. As your heart and spirit deepen in faith you cannot help but communicate that.
4. What is central in the content that needs to be learned?
If the world were ending tomorrow what is the one main idea that you want students to take away from a particular lesson or topic? We know that not everything will stick but what is central? What really matters? If you can finish a lesson or topic knowing that the bulk of the class ‘got’ the one big idea then that can be a pretty good result.
5. How can you make it memorable and contextualised?
Years ago I remember teaching a class of senior students who were, how shall I say it, not the most academically gifted students in the college. That said, I never met a bad kid and we made the best of the content we had to cover. What I remember most however, was the day I hired a bus and took them to the local botanic gardens. I made them all split up and as part of our unit on prayer traditions we spent the time trying to access something of the ‘contemplative state’. Did any of them join a Trappist monastery? Well, I don’t know. Probably not! But they at least had a memorable encounter with something of the ‘book of creation’ and may have enjoyed a welcome respite from their perennially wired state of technology overload.
The concept of making it contextualised simply refers to the fact we want to avoid parachuting content into their heads that has no relationship to anything they already understand. So much of the story of scripture is spectacularly human. Relationships, betrayal, redemption, love. These are things they have experienced so we need to always be on the lookout for the ways that the content we share in religious education already connects with their lived experience.
Over to you.
Ok! So what have I missed? In the comments box below let me know of other key ingredients that you have found to be helpful in creating great religious education experiences for your students.