Catechesis and Assessment: Volume 2 of My Many Thoughts

I know we’ve moved on as a nation from the Great Religious Education Blogger Symposium, but like Pacino:

So here’s another post in the grand tradition of maybe by the time I’m done writing, I’ll know what I actually think.

Classrooms are not the problem.

It’s not that religious education shouldn’t be like (or at) school, it’s that we are measuring our success like we do everything else. We don’t really understand how to gather kids in a classroom and teach them about Jesus without then testing them about Jesus. Or maybe we don’t like those nasty old tests, so we craft about Jesus.

Testing - Do Not Disturb

Photo credit: taliesin from

I will cop to becoming more and more loosey-goosey about things like tests and homework since I dropped out of the SYSTEM, man, and tuned in to homeschooling. At the same time, I, personally, adore the taking of tests. The scent of a freshly sharpened #2, the countdown of the schoolroom clock — how these little joys of childhood can warm one’s heart when faced with the cold reality of adulthood, and its absence of gold stars. My pulse quickens at the thought of a scan-tron.

But this is mostly not about me.

There are different reasons to assess a child.

First, to determine whether the child has mastered a group of concepts, information, etc., in order to move onto the next stage – or the next chapter.

Second, to evaluate whether you, the educator, have succeeded in conveying to said child the concepts, information, etc.

Third, to (educare means to draw out, not to shove the brain full of facts, okay, that is not education, man, expand your horizons, okay) help the child recognize what he knows and how he can build upon said knowledge.

Fourth, to make sure we don’t get in trouble for passing the kid on to the next grade/sacrament/quiz round, because we need to make sure we at least taught the kid this much.

And then there’s the long-range goal of catechesis, which is: getting the kid to Heaven.

Carpool to that other shore
Photo credit: Seemann from

But no pressure!

Religious Education that “Sticks”

“Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me.”

– Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Whenever I get one of those Teaching Company catalogs, I dream of an alternate reality in which I learn ALL the things! There’s no limit to what I could know, if I just spent enough time watching DVDs! Then I wonder, “did I already learn all of this in college, but just forgot?” and despair.

It seems to me that the danger of assuming we’re doing a great job with religious ed. because the kids’ scores on the ACRE test were up three points from last year is that the kids might not remember any of the answers on the multiple-choice section six months from now. At the same time, without any sort of assessment, there lurks the spectre of FELT BANNERS, which have apparently become the go-to symbol for namby-pamby catechesis. (I’m kind of tempted to develop a super-rigorous theological curriculum based entirely on felt, just to redeem this humble fabric.)

It’s the biggest challenge for the Group 3 Kids – those who are only there for the bare minimum of classes in order to receive First Communion/Confirmation. They’re the most likely to do poorly on whatever assessment they’re given, because there’s no reinforcement at home of what we’re talking about in class. And their attendance is usually compulsory, due to the need to make sure they understand what the sacraments even are before they receive them. (Which is why one of the questions we’ve asked before in pre-First Communion interviews was “Is Jesus God?”)

So we make those kids come to classes, so as to be sure they’re as prepared as possible to receive the Sacrament. But if they do poorly on the quizzes, then we…

That’s all the time we have for now! Tune in next time when we collaboratively figure out the answer to that question!

Changing the Paradigm of Inside-the-Box Thinking re: Assessment-Based Measurement of Catechetical Learners

It is possible to teach children about Jesus in such a way that they actually grow in faith, and to assess how well you have done so without the assessment getting in the way of the teaching. I truly believe this. Whether I succeed at doing so – well, my mom had this friend who wanted her headstone to read “SHE MEANT WELL” and that’s about what I aim for.

I think you can do this and still have review games and the occasional quiz. The key is to approach catechesis as (gulp) relationship, maybe? And I might have some ideas about how to do that, I think? And a vague intention of writing more about this? Because Jennifer says we all have to post every day this week and last time I  only made it through one post before I dropped out.

On Catechesis, Volume 1 of My Many Thoughts

So far, all I’ve been able to do in the big discussion-o-rama of Catechesis is follow Christian LeBlanc around Patheos, clicking “like” under all of his comments. Here is a semi-coherent catalogue of my first round of thoughts on the matter. (I hate it that I have to be a person who doesn’t figure out what she actually thinks until she’s processed it out loud, but perhaps writing this down will be better than just frowning at screens.)

Disclaimer: I’m not the greatest teacher who ever held chalk. But I consider myself reasonably non-terrible, and I have experience as a teacher in various environments. And as a catechist in various types of parishes.

I remember asking a question of a our professor in one of my Education classes – something along the lines of whether the method being discussed was a good fit for gifted kids. The professor smirked and said “those kids? You could train dogs to sit in front of the classroom and supervise them, and they’d still be successful.” At the time, I was ticked off. Now, as an avid user of hyperbole myself, I get what he was saying. (I don’t agree, but I get it.)

As a teacher, I’d go to district professional development workshops at the really really nice middle school on the north side of town, the one where the parents pooled together resources to build a patio with a grill off the faculty lounge so that there could be…actually, I still can’t figure out why there needed to be a grill outside the faculty lounge. But there was.

Anyway, we’d go hear these sessions about parental involvement and how to guide kids in creating a really great Living History project, how to draw up an appropriate rubric, how to manage parental participation in these projects so that the work was genuinely the children’s and not the parents’, that kind of thing. Good stuff, really, because that IS a problem at some schools.

Then we’d go back to our school, where the kids were basically…their own parents. Not a big problem with PTO infighting when you can only get four parents/grandparents from the entire school to attend a meeting. The strategies that worked great in a nice middle-class school with a supportive principal and volunteers who would make copies for you were not going to cut it.

And yet, both of those were public schools, in the same district, with the same expectations upon teachers as to their students’ performance. We’d talk about What Teachers Should Do as though these were the same environments and the same kids.

At my school, with my students, I learned that sometimes your goal for a student isn’t going to be getting into college; it’s going to be staying out of juvie. And that, if you helped accomplish that, you could maybe feel good about how you had helped that student.

It’s hard to silence the voice that says “how could you lower your standards so much?! If you aren’t going to believe in these kids, who is?!” But setting a more achievable goal doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dumbing things down or abandoning your standards; it just means that you aren’t kicking yourself at the end of the year because your students aren’t getting the red-carpet treatment from college recruiters.

Can we stop acting like the problems with religious education are Parents and Kids? Because these are not the correct demographics.

We have parents who talk to their children about what you did at R.E. around the dinner table that night after lighting the Advent wreath and saying the blessing.

We have parents who try to get to Mass once or twice a month and who tell their kids to behave themselves at R.E. or else, I don’t want to get a call from the teacher, but don’t pray with their children (or, at least, near their children.)

And we have parents who don’t come to Mass except for at Christmas/Easter if Grandma’s in town, but who for whatever reason still want their children to receive First Communion. (And sometimes Confirmation, but I think this happens more frequently with First Communion.) We will see those kids in second grade, and then again in eighth grade (or whenever Confirmation is administered).

With Group 1, pretty much any approach you try is going to be successful. Whole-family catechesis, grouped-by-age catechesis, potluck-and-guest-speakers catechesis, whatever. Which is great!

With Group 2, grouped-by-age catechesis gets the kids up to the Church, and offering programs for the parents as well can be a great way of empowering parents to act as the primary catechists.

With Group 3 – the people who are only there because they want their child (or grandchild) to receive that Sacrament at the end of the year – now we should eliminate the one thing that’s getting their kids in the door at all? Keep in mind that some (not all) of these parents will actively and deliberately undermine what the kids are taught in class.

I sometimes think that with Group 3, we should be dancing in the streets if we see that family at Mass once in the next 52 weeks. And if those children were in my Sacrament Prep class, you can bet I’d going to go all Crazy Church Lady because I really would be so happy to see them. Would I be happier if the parents came every Sunday and then had their marriage convalidated and then got Confirmed, finally, because they dropped out of the program as teenagers, and then were on fire with the Holy Spirit and brought five more families back to Church and were enthusiastic, raise-the-roof disciples?

Well, yeah. But I’m not going to brand our year together a failure if that doesn’t happen.

Teaching/Catechesis/Evangelizing/Disciple-izing/Whatever-word-we’re-using is about sowing seeds and the long, long view. With some of the places I’ve taught, if I start thinking about where those kids are now, I get really down. But I also don’t know where those kids will be in ten years, when they have children of their own. Maybe, for my CCE kiddos, having had a non-terrible teacher will be enough to make them think about giving Church a try again.

(Gosh, this is dark. Maybe I should just let Christian speak for me.)

So I guess that’s where I am coming from when I see a great deal of this Catechesis Reconsidered talk as piling on, as saying “gosh, let’s ditch all this dumb stuff we’ve been doing that clearly hasn’t worked whatsoever! What wasted years these have been! What were those DREs thinking! Down with crafts!”

I would hate for a new catechist, one who took pity on the DRE and finally signed up to volunteer, to internalize this discussion as “you know how sometimes you worry that what you’re doing is all a big waste of time? It is.”

Here are some other random thoughts I have, upon which I may or may not expand in a later post because it’s been a battle for the ages just to get myself to stop not-blogging again:

  • Textbooks are almost always boring, and religion textbooks are almost always the worst of all. Yes, I, condemner of blanket statements about catechesis, have just made a blanket statement about catechesis.
  • Textbooks are the thing that allows you to feel reasonably secure that the teacher isn’t going to go completely off the rails (whether we’re talking about religious education or regular old education), because the textbook has the correct information. Therefore, we use textbooks.
  • I cannot conceive of a reason to assign grades or homework in a CCE/PSR/CCD class. Okay, we need to know that Little Johnny understands what the Eucharist is before First Communion, but we can figure that out without a metric. “Johnny has a 57 in Faith Knowledge and a 62 in Piety. Please work with him at home.”
  • In theory, I believe that if a child presents himself for a discussion with Fr. Pastor about Confirmation and clearly indicates an understanding of and desire to receive the Sacrament, the child should not have to do anything else but show up and receive the Sacrament.
  • In reality, I know that if we started applying that approach, Fr. Pastor would be besieged with calls from angry parents asking why Ambrose gets to be confirmed next weekend but Julius has to go on a retreat and four service projects and two semesters of classes.
  • And/or, you’d have parents coaching Julius-es to say the right things to get a dispensation for just going ahead and being Confirmed.
  • And/or, the retreats and service projects and semesters are worthwhile and purposeful, but the requirement thereof often undermines the kids’ receptiveness to seeing any value in attending them.
  • So I basically have no clue what should be done about Confirmation prep, and I understand why we do it the way we do. I’m sure glad I took the time to type that out.
  • Kids really like – or, at least, don’t mind – being in class if they are actually learning something, and they really like reading the Bible if it’s presented to them in a way such that they understand what it’s saying.
  • When reading the Bible in class with the kids, you need to have a plan for what to do when Penelope reads ahead to, say, the story of Onan.

I just went around and re-read all of the posts in the Carnival of Catechesis Reconsidered, and now I have decided I misrepresented what some folks have been saying, but my head hurts and I need to mop. So I’m going to click “publish,” take an Excedrin, and reserve the right to completely change my mind.

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols A Tiber River Review

Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.

Signs and MysteriesAquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.

Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.

Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.

I wrote this review of Signs and Mysteries for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.

I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints ~ Catholic review for Tiber River

AblazeI knew I’d enjoy Colleen Swaim’s Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints just by the cover. (Yes, there’s a saying about that.) It’s contemporary and engaging without screaming “STORIEZ 4 TEENZ.” Just like Coleen’s writing.

I enjoyed learning more about familiar saints while also being introduced to several saints I hadn’t heard of before, particularly those canonized in the past couple of decades. Swaim has included saints whose lives can be tied to familiar themes for young people today – family conflict, physical violence, sexual immorality. Her writing is subtle in showing the grace at work in each saint’s life without becoming preachy.

The saints included in this first volume are:

  • Saint Dominic Savio
  • Saint Teresa of the Andes
  • Saint Kizito
  • Blessed Chiara Luce Badano
  • Saint Stanislaus Kostka
  • Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception
  • Blessed Pedro Calungsod
  • Saint Maria Goretti

Each biography is bookended with a Scripture passage, memory verse, “Saintly Challenges,” and space for journal writing. I liked the use of photographs and the focus on saints from around the world. The suggestions in the “Saintly Challenges” are pretty clever, such as when Swaim suggests that you could “strive to really listen to the other person in a conversation, striving not to cut him off or monopolize the discussion,” in imitation of St. Dominic Savio.

I originally purchased this as a resource for my 10-year-old, but the “mature content” of some of the stories means that I will be waiting a couple of years to share the book with him, although I may read some of the stories aloud to him. Some of the saints either died very violent deaths or encountered graphic sexual violence, and these aspects of their lives are handled with candor without being overly sensational. St. Maria Goretti’s story, with which many readers may also be familiar, is told frankly enough that for a younger child unfamiliar with the concept of rape it would require an explanation. The book is geared towards teenagers, though, so it’s not that I don’t think these subjects should have been included; just something for parents to consider when evaluating the age-appropriateness of the material.

I would recommend this book as a Confirmation gift or as supplemental reading for seventh graders and up, based on the content, although I myself found things to contemplate as a much-older-than-teenaged reader. It’s poignant to read about these lives that ended so soon and how strongly these young people adhered to their faith, often without the support of their families. It’s also an excellent window on global Catholicism to learn about the lives of saints from India, Uganda, and the Philippines. I’m excited to see that Coleen has a new book out and I’m looking forward to adding that to our library, as well.

For an excellent interview with Colleen Swaim, check out Nancy Piccione’s Q&A, where Colleen addresses the scope of the book:

My goal throughout the process was to seek out saints of both genders who are representative of the worldwide vitality of Catholic youth lived to incredible heights. With some saints and blesseds, that meant scouring Vatican resources for newly recognized individuals, while others fell into my lap through the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I tried to include both classics and those who I felt Americans need an introduction to, and I believe the book succeeded on those fronts.

I agree! Very nice to see this slim-but-substantive collection of biographies that speaks to the challenges that modern teenagers face.

I wrote this review of Ablaze for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.

I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

A Basic Approach to Guiding Your Child’s Reading

“All good parents – homeschooling or not – expend all the resources they can on their children’s education. With homeschooling, you do so more directly.”
– Laura Berquist

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by Laura Berquist, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum. Mrs. Berquist is a homeschooling mother of six who oversees Mother of Divine Grace, a homeschooling program in the Catholic tradition. Her talk gave me a lot to think about, particularly in terms of revisiting the “bare basics” of our own curriculum.

By “curriculum” here, I primarily mean “math plus trips to the library,” although we do use a few other formal materials. In general, though, we’re fairly unschoolish around here. I consider a day to have been a success, schooling-wise, if we’ve done math and then the kids spent a few hours reading. Granted, we aim higher than that, but given my own unpredictable schedule as a working mom and my general tendency towards procrastination, I need that baseline understanding of “what we MUST do today” in order to make sure we’ve stayed somewhat on track.

Guide your child's readingA big thing I’ve neglected is to formally structure my children’s reading time. I do supervise their book choices at the library and supplement them heavily with materials I’ve chosen for them. And occasionally I make them memorize a poem or a quotation. But it’s all been pretty random, most of the time. I haven’t done much by way of formally focusing on teaching my children to comprehend what they read.

Mrs. Berquist argued that the most important activity for children is structured reading; she does this with Bible stories, primarily, but it seems to me that this approach could work with any vitamin-enriched reading material. The basic structure – and she explains it more fully in her talk (available in PDF format) – is as follows:

Day 1: Read to the child (or let him read) a specific selection you’ve chosen
Day 2: The child tells you what he read and you write it down, pretty much verbatim. “But, if the time sequence is wrong, I’ll ask a question about it, trying to jog his memory, and if I have to, I’ll just tell him the correct sequence.” Composing the summary is not as hard as the physical act of writing it down, so by separating the two, you are letting the child focus first on recalling what he’s read.
Day 3: The child copies what you wrote “The finished product is truly his work, both in terms of composition and the physical act of writing, but the two parts of the process have been separated. Additionally, we have employed imitation, which is the earliest natural form of learning.”
Day 4: Have your child illustrate his story, which entails re-telling it in a different mode

The final product is “a well-done composition of their own making.” It is a very efficient use of time because you accomplish so much in that amount of time through non-standard writing activities.

This is so simple, isn’t it? That’s what I need – a very basic structure so I can tell myself, “okay, this is Tuesday, so it’s time for the retelling of yesterday’s story.” And it’s also extremely flexible, as you can choose whatever reading material you’d like for your child to focus on. Best of all, it really doesn’t take that much time, particularly once kids are reading on their own.

So, this year, we’re adding this component to our homeschooling weekly routine. I’ve got lots more good stuff from Mrs. Berquist’s talk that I hope to share in a future post, though. I’m curious – for those of you who do read-alouds regularly with your kids – either as part of homeschooling or to supplement what your child is learning in a traditional school setting – what are some favorite books you draw from?

A Transformative Weekend ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art

Before we begin, let us first consider the elements to which the author has applied the descriptor “transformative” in the past seven days:

  • 85% Dark chocolate
  • Evernote
  • Vacuum-seal travel bags
  • Greek yogurt
  • Mint-infused simple syrup as basis for mojito (Y’ALL.)
  • Steam mops
  • Buc-ee’s

Therefore, it could be argued that the description of the diocese of Kansas City’s course on Catholicism and the Arts as “transformative” employs a term deprived of any sense of meaning by its hyperbolic application to any and every new experience enjoyed by the author.

Having accepted this premise…

YOU SHOULD GO. You should go next summer, when they are going to offer the course again, and you should become steeped in the wisdom of the ages.

Look at all this wisdom of the ages:

Taking notes with Evernote


I had expected an immersion in how to understand Christian art – what do the numbers symbolize, what’s that flower in the corner supposed to mean, how come Mary wears blue, that kind of thing. And the course certainly will include discussion of the traditional language of Christian art through various styles. But this class, in particular, does so within a context of how we can rediscover and reestablish a Christian approach to art in the modern world.

So much of the material we discussed is percolating in the back of my mind right now, and this weekend was only the beginning. The weekend seminar I attended was the launch of a year-long distance learning class offered by the diocese of Birmingham (England’s) Maryvale Institute in conjunction with the diocese of Kansas City. Attendees had the option of just coming to the initial weekend to enjoy the classes and conviviality with fellow artists and, uh, appreciators of art (yours truly).

I’ve elected to take the full course, which should take a year to complete. The class is intended to form catechists in understanding how to draw upon our rich heritage of sacred heart for evangelization and for our own devotion. The Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance learning college offering programs in catechesis, theology, philosophy, and religious education:

Part-time distance learning means that students can follow stimulating and complex courses of study leading to publicly-recognised awards whilst maintaining their existing vocational, family and work commitments. In this way the Institute gives new possibilities of access to formation and to the immeasurable treasures to be discovered in the Christian Tradition and in contemporary Church teaching and thought.

Oh, there’s so much more to say, but for now I’ll just tell you to MARK YOUR CALENDAR for next July, so that you may attend this – yes- transformative event. And great thanks to everyone involved from the Maryvale Institute and the diocese of Kansas City.