Catechist Chat: Don’t Force Sharing

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

On the dry-erase board: “Describe a time when you felt betrayed by your parents. Give examples from real life. Minimum one paragraph. A paragraph has at least five sentences.”

Ten minutes later, and the teacher asks, “who would like to share with the class first?”

EMO EDNA: “I first felt betrayed by my parents at the moment of my birth, when I was forcibly ejected from the comfort of my mother’s womb into the cruelty of the fascist state that defines every aspect of our world.”

SMARTY-PANTS SID: “I felt betrayed by my parents when I discovered I was actually a superhuman being from an alien world who had been sent to Earth as a lone survivor of an ice planet.”

TMI TINA: “I felt betrayed by my parents when they emailed the contents of my diary to my therapist and she realized that my habit of biting my toenails was actually still something I struggled with. I think it dates back to when I saw a dead armadillo on the side of the road after my birthday party in fifth grade. We had been to Chuck E. Cheese and I ate seven slices of pizza and then…”

HOSTILE HARRY: “I don’t HAVE any parents.”


This isn’t how journal-writing has to pan out.

First off – why are you giving them journal questions to answer, anyway? Is it because you feel like you’re supposed to do some kind of introspective something-or-other? Is it to pass the five minutes when you’re taking attendance and finding your pencil at the start of class? Or are journals something you consciously want to incorporate into a class routine?

I’m going to talk in another entry about Socratic Circles, which I think are a great model for real dialogue in a classroom setting. But the really important thing to realize is that journals don’t have to be for the sharingness of the whole class.  A journal can be a conversation between you and each of your students in a personalized way. Even kids who aren’t usually inclined to write down their thoughts can be encouraged to reflect on how your classroom discussions relate to their own lives – if they know that someone’s actually reading what they’re saying.

I don’t let my students take their journals home. I usually establish a separate section of their folders for journal entries, so that they can take home the notes from class if they need to but leave the journals with me. This gives me time before the next class to write short responses to their entries. It doesn’t have to be an encyclopedia entry, just specific comments that show you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say.

I use journals both at the beginning and the end of class.

Entries written at the beginning of class usually fall into two categories:
1. Questions which I’m going to relate to the topic for the day, even if the connection isn’t immediately obvious. For instance, when teaching about Joseph and his brothers, the question might be “Describe a time when you made a choice to forgive someone who had hurt you,” and then I’m going to reiterate the theme of forgiveness as we talk about the story in detail.
2. Questions to let them tell me what’s on their mind. Actually, the question is usually, “What’s on your mind this week?” and it’s always optional.

I usually give them three questions and have them choose two to answer. For those who write super-fast (because they have written three-word responses), I tell them they get to answer all three. This helps encourage more reflective entries.

Entries written at the end of class aren’t that different, but they are always more specific in how the students should process what we’ve talked about in that particular class. “Who* do you identify with in the story of Joseph and his brothers, and why?” “How did God bring good out of a bad situation after Joseph was sold into slavery?” “Which of the Biblical figures we’ve studied so far are most similar to Joseph?”

I’m not saying that sharing is bad. I just don’t think it always has to happen in a large-group setting, and I think you need to have built a good rapport with the students as a group, and as individuals, before you try to coax them into a deep discussion about their spiritual lives. Maybe four or five classes into the year, open it up to “who would like to share how they responded to the question about forgiveness?” and don’t pick on kids if they’re not interested in reading their responses aloud. We don’t have a lot of time with our students in religious ed. classes. Trying to force Deep Sharing Moments isn’t the best use of a class period.

No recommended resource this week, because I am technically on vacation! But I’ll have more to share down the road, so come back for more of my completely unsolicited opinions. What could be better? (Don’t answer that).

Catechist Chat will be an ongoing series of posts for teachers in religious education programs. It is based on my personal experience and not on any statistical evidence of the effectiveness of my advice. Suscribe to my feed to follow along, and Caveat lector, which is Latin for “your mileage may vary.” 

Click here to read other entries in the series, and be sure to follow Catechist Chat on Facebook! You can also sign up for my email list, and I’ll send you resources, including non-PDF versions of the activities I post (which means you can edit them in Microsoft Word to customize them for your own students).
*Whom. Whatever.

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  1. Kate says

    My 7th grade teacher did journals like this and it was one of the highlights of an otherwise grey and cheerless year.

    And my husband would applaud anything that reduces the amount of 'sharing' in CCD. He is of the opinion that most CCD and youth groups focus on subjective experience over objective fact, and that this alienates boys and young men. As you can guess 'sharing' was never his thing. It assumes an intimacy that probably doesn't exist and it opens kids up for all kinds of outside the classroom teasing.

  2. Jonathan Sullivan says

    Great post! Agreed that journals are better for teacher/student interaction than large group sharing. I had a great college professor who used this technique to great effect.

    Kate — good point on how sharing alienates boys/young men. I worry that our tendency to focus on "faith formation" in adult catechesis — which tends to mean "sharing" — contributes to pushing men away from more involvement in the Church.

  3. Marc Cardaronella says

    I'm hoping that journals will allow the students to really open up and tell me what's going on in their brains about the topic. I'm thinking in terms of adults in an RCIA class. You get a lot of that in small groups but sometimes not…especially from men who often don't want to "share."

    Do you find that men/boys are more likely to open up about what's going on with them in a journal? Will they even do that? Are there ground rules for journals?

    I don't really need to know all the personal stuff that's going on and don't necessarily want to know all their feelings, but I would like to know how what's being discussed in class is affecting them. I guess sometimes that means sharing feelings but only how it relates to their faith journey and joining the Church.

  4. Enbrethiliel says


    This discussion might have moved to the other combox, but my thoughts are still with this post, so . . .

    There is another side to this shady sharing business. When I was growing up, my school had yearly retreats that were big, unapologetic emo-fests. Everyone would get to sit in a circle, pour out their hearts, and cry all night. It happened year after year; everyone expected it and some people even eagerly anticipated it. It was the annual catharsis cry-out. Sometimes the retreat masters played mood music so that we'd cry harder. Don't even get me started on the candlelight!

    I don't know if any good ever came of it. Think of the movie The Breakfast Club. We always ask, "Did they remain friends on Monday?" because we're really not sure. They opened up to each other in ways they had never opened up to anyone else in their lives . . . but even if they changed for the better, high school is still high school and appearances must be kept up. (You know what I mean?)

    So, yeah, not a fan of public sharing. Okay, I'm off to your post about journals now . . .

  5. says

    Dorian, Thanks for your wonderful wisdom regarding student journals. I’m wondering if you’ve given any thought to how electronic tools like Facebook, Collaborize Classroom, blogs (private or open) and any other e-tool could be used for journaling with your students?

    • Dorian Speed says

      It’s been a few years since I was in the classroom full-time (versus teaching weekly religious ed. classes). I haven’t tried anything like that for weekly religious education. It seems like various blogging platforms – particularly my One True Love, WordPress – could work for journals. Within WordPress, it could be set up to allow a student to write journal entries and a teacher to respond, with the content only viewable by the teacher and the student.

      The big thing that stands out for me is the restrictions on online interaction between teachers and students – for example, states that have made it illegal for a teacher to be “friends” with a student on Facebook. I’m not sure how that would impact such a project. Certainly, with the Facebook restriction (which I don’t think is a bad one, BTW), that would severely minimize the potential for using Facebook for any kind of journaling.

      A super-tech-savvy teacher COULD set up a Facebook page for a class and via a custom tab on said page, allow a student to enter a journal entry that way.

      I just am leery of online interaction between teachers and students that involves something so personal as journaling because I always come back to “what safeguard would be in place to protect the student in the event of a creepy teacher?”