The Catholic School of Life: Respect for Life is Not Just a Program of Instruction
by Joan Minardi Harniman
Make respect for life an integral part of students' school lives with these activities geared toward students of all ages.
In the classrooms of Catholic elementary schools “Respecting Life” is not a program of instruction with a required time allotment. It is in the air, the atmosphere, the actual “breath of life” of the community that lives in the classrooms and halls of the school. We go back, way back to the beginning when the earth was a formless wasteland, covered by darkness and windswept water (Gen. 1:1). Then it happened—the first and most productive work week ever. And at the end of it “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gen. 1:31). Thus Scripture defines the most important elements of creation. The source of life is Divine Will. Divine Judgment deems all creation “good.” God’s truths are simple and profound. These are the truths that Catholic schools are free to proclaim, celebrate, and live. Here are some age-appropriate art and writing activities that can be used to reinforce respect for life throughout the Catholic school curriculum.
Story of Creation
Listening and Art Activities—PreK-Grade 4
The story of creation itself can be an art activity that reinforces the truths about life. Even on a preschool level the story can be read and children can illustrate each day of God’s work. Each day’s work can be evaluated and the preschoolers will be able to complete the sentence—“and he saw it was ‘good.’” First to fourth graders will be able to listen to the story and work on the Creation Wheel, drawing their own illustrations of each day’s creation. Under the wheel they can write the reason why all life is so special and must be respected by all: “And he found it very good.”
God-given Talents, Interests, Treasures
Shared on Paper Bags, in Poetry, and Through Journal Writing—Grades 4-8
Older children in grades 4-8 can write bio-poems, describing their favorite activities, interests, and hobbies. Simple but creative art activities can offer opportunities to define themselves as well. Children can use plain paper bags to display pictures of words, people, places, pets, etc., from the internet, magazines, or newspapers that they relate to in some way. They may decide to draw their own pictures or paste photographs on the bags if they wish. Each picture describes something special to them. They may choose to use the paper bag to hold real objects, such as shells from their favorite beach or a book from an author they love. Journal writing also can be used to tell who they are and what is the best thing about themselves. Describing what they treasure really clarifies who they are and where they are in life’s journey. Sharing all these personal facts again allows each child to become more aware of his own gifts and gain insight and respect for the gifts of others. It might also change some preconceived notions about classmates and lead to new friendships.
God Calls Us by Name
Writing Activities, K-Grade 5
God personally gave each of us the “gift” of life. He knew us before anyone else since he knit us in the womb. Primary school children—pre-schoolers to grade 3—usually focus on the important word “gift.” Could any present be more special? But there is more. With this gift comes the assurance—a lifetime guarantee, if you will—that God’s love will be with each and every one of his creations always because we belong to him. The children learn this when they hear, recite, and later read and write a most beautiful line from Scripture: “I have called you by name. You are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
In schools everywhere children learn that their names are special, and nametags are visible in every classroom from the first day of school to the last. But in the Catholic classroom, children learn why. They have learned their birthright. God made them and God loves them and always will, not because of anything they have done or will do. God loves them simply because they are his creations.
There are many name activities to connect to this scriptural quote. Name acrostic poems can be written in small groups about a member of that group. Sitting outside on a bench during recess, a small group of kindergartners dictated this acrostic about Gianna to me.
Second graders were anxious to get in the act as well. Here are Rivka and Faith’s efforts. Keep in mind that this was during their recess!
Ice Cream Lover
Children of all ages love to write name acrostics. As they write about themselves or each other, identifying qualities or talents that define them, they are learning about what God has given them to make each of them unique. When the acrostics are displayed along with the Scripture above, the class can see the diversity and abundance of each person’s God-given gifts. Respect for their own lives and their classmates’ lives grows.
Posters and Prayers
Proclaim the Value of One’s Own Life and the Lives of Others—All Ages
The Giver of Life expects us to value the gift he gives us.
Children learn that God wants us to take care of our bodies by eating properly, exercising regularly, and keeping ourselves as healthy as we can by our knowledgeable and thoughtful behavior.
Learning helps us share our gifts and increase them. We learn that God expects us to use our gifts unselfishly. God gives us the gift of families to love and take care of us. In return we are to show love to our families, to our classmates, and to members of the community in which we live. God’s own son, Jesus, obeyed his parents. Showing love for others in our family is loving as God loves us. Using good manners; helping with family chores; and sharing time, toys, and energy are ways we show others our love. Children in primary grades can make posters or collages identifying the people who care for them and those they take care of as well.
In the Catholic school, prayer is the beautiful freedom and expression of love that is used throughout the day. We show love for anyone in need, praying both for those in our own families and for families around the world whose need becomes apparent through natural disasters or emergencies. Children learn that they are never powerless because prayer connects them to the creator who is the power and knows the need already. All ages can add to the list of intentions during prayer at any time of day. At St. Paul’s School in Valley Cottage, NY, a decade of the rosary is said each day by the entire school. The Fatima prayer is recited at the end of each decade, as well as “Jesus, protect and save the unborn.” Life is affirmed and defended by these simple words.
God’s Rules Help Us to Value All Life
Reading and Writing About Saints Who Honored God’s Rules
To become the holiest, wisest, and healthiest individuals we can be, we follow a set of rules called the Ten Commandments, given to us by God. Each grade level explores them at an appropriate level.
Children can be assigned reports or projects on the lives of the saints, identifying how each man or woman lived true to the commandments and attained holiness. Students can report on how the saints chose love for others as they followed the example of Jesus.
A Matter of Choice
Writing About Fictional Characters Who Don’t Choose Life, Love, and Stewardship—Grades 5 to 8
Middle-grade students can meet in groups and brainstorm a list of behaviors that clearly are not in agreement with the Ten Commandments, such as gossiping, lying, shoplifting, cheating, destroying property, bullying, smoking, etc. Each group can work on a book describing a situation in which a fictional character has to make a choice about one of the behaviors above. The strong feelings before the choice is made should be identified as well as the feelings that follow once the choice has been made. What feelings follow a choice that involves life, love, or stewardship?
Students might decide to write poems about choices involving that fictional character.
When the ill effects of a wrong choice, sin, are thoroughly considered about, being wise by following God’s guide for respecting one’s own life as well as the lives of others begins to make sense.
I’m Peter Pinocchio and I have a tale to tell.
I did something wrong and now I want to yell.
Lying is addictive to me.
But a good friend, I do want to be.
When I lie something happens to my nose.
It just grows and grows and grows.
I used to be me, and I liked it a bunch.
Now I don’t know who I am—don’t even have a hunch.
I changed my whole life into something it wasn’t.
I ask myself now, “Did it pay off?” and no, it doesn’t.
All of my friends don’t trust me at all.
‘Cause I told a tale that was way too tall.
Now sometimes I want to cry.
I realize I am living a lie.
I am now stuck with an overgrown nose.
And trying to cover up lies from my head to my toes.
Written by Madison McGrath—Grade 6
Biblical Skit Writing and Organizing Outreach Activities
Show Respect for Lives in Need—Grades 5-8
Older children might enjoy writing their own biblical skits focusing on the two Great Commandments, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. They might perform them for the lower grades, teaching how God expects us to show respect, love, and forgiveness toward every life with which we come into contact.
Older children study the corporal works of mercy and can be leaders by organizing activities for all children at the school, such as collecting items for the food cupboard, Birthright, homeless shelters, and Toys for Tots. They can highlight needs in their own communities and spearhead aid to deal with emergencies resulting from sickness and/or natural disasters. We help anyone in need because every person is a child of God. God created each person and deemed him or her as good.
Speaking Out, Standing Up for Life Peacefully
In addition to just keeping the Commandments, God expects us to do more as we mature. We must avoid harming life, but we also must protect it as well. We need to stand up to all that threatens or takes away life or the dignity of that life.
Students can write to members of Congress to protest laws that clearly are against life. Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders can discuss the loss of gifts to the world through the choice of abortion.
They can use poetry to express their feelings of loss:
Today was the day,
My right to life was taken away.
I had so much to give,
If only I could have lived.
I would be the person
God sent to find a cure,
For autism, cancer, diabetes,
And much, much more.
I would have saved so many lives
From their sufferings and pain.
But since my mother aborted me,
The world will never hear my name.
God gave me many gifts.
Gifts which make me skilled.
I dance, sing, knit, and crochet.
I even love to quill.
But, I’ll never share these gifts with the world
Because my mother aborted me.
No one, except the saints in heaven,
Has heard my silent plea.
After reading this poem,
I hope you’re anti-abortion.
Because it is not right for anyone
To kill God’s creation.
Written by Kelly Houlihan—Grade 6
Choices that contradict the will of God, as discussed before, never lead to peace. With parents, students can take part in peaceful prayer vigils or life chains to change laws that are not supportive of life and God’s teachings.
It’s simple—as stated at the beginning, not only of this writing, but at the very beginning. God created life and saw it was good. And that is what the Catholic school of life is all about.
Joan Harniman taught at St. Paul’s School in Valley Cottage, NY, for twenty-three years. Since retiring last year, she has time to devote to activities she loves including writing with students and painting with Tim, Josie, and Jack, her grandchildren.
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