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Advice from Master Catechists—October 2009
by Dan Thomas, Kate Ristow, Janet Schaeffler, OP, Chris Weber
What should a catechist always have ready for a substitute? AND What should I know about the attention span of my learners?

What should a catechist always have ready for a substitute?
Q: I want to give all the catechists in our program a small tip sheet about what they should prepare to hand a substitute should they need to miss a session. Can you suggest some general things I should include on that sheet?
—A first-year DRE

Dan Thomas’s Answer
Having a substitute do an adequate job replacing the regular catechist is one of the challenging parts of being a DRE. There is such a limited number of class times that each session is important and care must be taken to conduct each session well.

Certainly it is essential that a substitute know what lesson is being covered. I have found it helpful to publish the dates for covering each chapter, and I strongly encourage catechists to adhere to that schedule. Catechists should let you know when they deviate from that schedule.

Also, it would be good for a substitute to know the normal procedure for a session. Each catechist should have an outline of his/her lesson flow. Does the session begin or end with prayer? Does the lesson plan follow the catechist’s manual or are things adjusted to accommodate the needs of the students and/or the learning environment? When teaching younger children, I find that following the procedure is especially important. Once when I was doing a last-minute substitution for a second-grade catechist, the children let me know when I deviated from the catechist’s order and rules.

The substitute should be given a brief list of classroom rules and procedures with which the students are familiar. For example, do the children read the text, does the catechist read the text, or are there a number of different ways this is done?

The substitute should be informed of any classroom arrangements that might enhance the session and make the learning experience more effective and enjoyable for everyone. This is a little harder to do and must be done with discretion. For example, should two children be separated from each other because they disrupt class when together? Or is one of the children not a good reader or becomes especially embarrassed when called on to read?

Finally, it is important for the substitute to know what you, as DRE, prefer with regard to basic procedures such as reporting attendance, handing out materials that go home, and dismissal.

In looking at all of this, it seems that it would be good to develop a form for the catechist to fill out for his/her substitute. The form would contain all of these details and anything else the catechist feels is important for the sub to know. Of course, the reality is that these things are not always done, so the important thing is for the substitute to be a person who is flexible and able to adjust easily to new situations.

Dan Thomas has been a DRE for 28 years and is involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two college-age sons.

Kate Ristow’s Answer

I love this question! We all rely on substitutes to fill in for absent catechists. Two things are important in this regard: 1) Develop a deep “sub list” and 2) Make sure your catechists are prepared to hand off their classes to a sub. As an analogy, consider the importance of the bullpen in baseball; this definitely is comparable to the importance of substitute catechists in your program!

Good coaches have a strong bullpen—pitchers who can come in as “middle relievers” for several innings. In your situation, that would be subs who can take on a class for several weeks due to a catechist’s surgery or family emergency. These are experienced folks who, almost seamlessly, can keep the class on track. Yet, you also need “closers.” These are the subs who can do a dynamite job for one class. They are able to follow a lesson plan and keep order—and they can do an equally good job with primary students as well as junior high kids.

However, as your question makes clear, asking subs to “wing it” is just asking for trouble. Even the most experienced substitute needs direction. In order to help subs be successful, make sure your catechists understand that they need to have the following items in their supply box at all times:
* a class list
* a current seating chart (Please insist that every catechist keep a seating chart—it avoids so many problems down the road.)
* a syllabus indicating the dates on which specific chapters are to be taught (Encourage catechists to update this chart frequently—a special event or a weather cancellation can impact the schedule.)
* self-adhesive name tags and markers
* a Bible
* copies of an interesting worksheet that reviews some important, age-appropriate aspect of Catholic teaching (Please—no coloring sheets or “word searches”!)

As DRE, you need to supply the substitute with the catechist guide he/she will need. Since the sub is experienced, it will not be necessary to do much more than hand them their supply box, point out their teaching space, and offer any help that may be needed. It is always a good idea to drop in on any class being taught by a sub. This shows support for your volunteer and lets the kids know you are keeping an eye on things.

One other thought: DREs often differ on whether catechists should arrange for their own subs or if this is the catechetical leader’s responsibility. I vote for the latter. You recruited the sub; you should make the call. Plus, arranging for the sub yourself ensures that the same people don’t get called every time there’s a need. It helps you to maintain a relationship with your “bench” and also lessens the burden on a catechist who is miserable with the flu having to make multiple calls when where they really need to be is in bed!

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.

What should I know about the attention span of my learners?
Q: How can I determine the general attention span of my fourth-graders?
—Tim, Pittsburgh, PA

ster Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
Perhaps the simplest answer about how to determine the general attention span of your fourth-graders is this: The attention span of your students will quickly and easily become evident after working with them over a few short weeks.

The reality is that, most likely, all your students do not have the same attention span. Rather, each youngster is a unique individual with unique interests, a unique background, and a unique learning style. Each learner will have his or her own attention span as well.

Educational theorists and human development specialists have various theories about the attention span of young people, especially children, but their theories vary widely. Some say a young person’s attention span is one minute per each year of the child’s age; some say it is three to five minutes per year of the child’s age; some say it is 10 minutes + the person’s age.

One element that seems to be an important and logical consideration is that children (all of us, in fact) are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something they find enjoyable, of deep interest to them, or intrinsically motivating. I think of my 3 ½-year-old great nephew who can stay totally enthralled with craft clay for over an hour; nothing will distract him or cause him to lose focus.

Theorists feel strongly that the general attention span of today’s children has been affected by the instant gratification made possible by modern technology: TV, video games, and internet browsing (most internet users spend less than one minute on the average website).

What does all this mean for catechists who are walking with others along the faith journey? Many things. Let’s just look at a few important pieces of information:
* Your catechist manual (in the catechist’s guide section) will give you background information and many ideas for leading catechetical sessions that are focused on learning sessions rather than teaching sessions, for that must be the focus. 
* The focus is on the learner. The learner must be active and involved rather than passive and quiet. We all learn best when we are involved not just listening. Young people sitting at desks and participating little will not have their interests and imaginations engaged or motivated. This does not form their readiness for commitment and faith. 
* It’s all about the connection of faith and life. If each theme of each session leads to a connection between faith and life, and all learning activities engage learners in exploring that connection, we won’t need to worry about attention spans. Our young people will be engrossed in learning and living, as well as on their journey of being formed as disciples of Jesus.

Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Associate Director for Adult Faith Formation, Office for Catechetics, Archdiocese of Detroit, writes frequently for CATECHIST and other publications. She has many years of experience as a catechist and parish DRE.

Chris Weber’s Answer
Conventional wisdom says that a learner’s attention span is his or her age in minutes. For fourth-graders, that means learners can stay focused on any one activity for about nine minutes. So in any given class, offer a change of focus every nine minutes. If you teach in a sixty-minute time block, offer at least six activities. It wouldn’t hurt to have eight or nine activities ready in case some activity proves to be a flop or your group is especially restless.
Start with a central lesson aim and devise activities to reinforce it. If, for example, you are doing a lesson on making good choices, string together activities that illustrate the why, the what, and the how of making good choices. Here’s a fictional example:

* Prayer: Open with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-48, about being disciples; two students act out the Scripture with simple props.
* Activity: Read from the textbook; Billy Bob and Janey Meet the Bully.
* Activity: Write about what Billy Bob and Janey should do.
* Activity: Large group discussions about what you might do if you encounter a bully. What does Jesus say we should do?
* Activity: Groups of two or three role play other moral scenarios. Have some groups plan skits with a “bad way” to respond and have other groups plan skits with ways that Jesus wants us to respond.
* Activity: Have a full group presentation of skits.
* Summary: Summarize the teaching and what students have learned.
* Prayer: Song and prayer for Jesus’ help to always do what is right.

The key is engagement, not entertainment. All activities should be purposeful! Most textbooks offer ample activity suggestions.
One final note: That formula for attention span tops out at around 15 minutes. Catechists of adults should use the same variety of activities to keep their learners engaged.

Chris Weber is Director of the Catholic Education Ministries Center of Central Maryland, a regional office in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, MD. He is a frequent contributor to Catechist, and publishes monthly columns online at

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