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Advice from Master Catechists—November/December 2009
by Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Kate Ristow, Chris Weber, Dan Thomas
Q: What can be done about a student who does not return activity sheets? Q: How can I educate myself about Scripture?
Q: What can be done about a student who does not return activity sheets?
One of my fifth-graders never returns projects that I send home to be completed with her parents. The child is always prepared for class in other ways and is obviously learning. But activity sheets and other items that need to be returned are never returned. The parents are apologetic but say that the chaos of a large family (there are seven children in the family) makes it difficult to do family projects with each of their children. I sometimes use take-home-and-return worksheets for a class activity, and so this girl often has nothing to refer to. I don’t want to quit using these activities simply because one student lives in chaos. Suggestions?
—Frustrated in Fresno

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

One of the fascinating challenges of responding to these questions is that we have only a small slice of the picture rather than the whole picture. As I read this, it’s interesting (to me) that this fifth grader is “always prepared for class in other ways and is obviously learning.” 

That sounds very positive. It certainly is a plus. It would be what we want/desire. It sounds like this child wants to be there.

My question is (and this is one of the things I mean by saying we only have a small slice of the picture): How is she prepared? If she isn’t doing the activity sheets or the family projects, what is the child doing that makes her prepared? Is she doing other assignments that are sent home? What “other ways” make students prepared? That might be a crucial key to answering your question. We’ll return to this in a moment.

What you are doing is certainly important! That is our role—not just to minister to and catechize the child, but to minister to and reach the whole family. How do we do that, given today’s family schedules? It sounds as though this family is concerned (“apologetic”) rather than indifferent; they just live a busy lifestyle with a large family. 

Here are some possibilities:
* These would not be grade-specific activities, but is it possible for the total program to periodically send home family ideas so that families are doing one project, one family prayer, one discussion, rather than three, four, or five separate ones?
* You didn’t mention the ages of the seven children. Is there a child older than the fifth-grader who could help the fifth-grader with the project so it doesn’t always fall to the parents? Could there be a mentoring/sponsoring family in the parish who might “adopt” this family and walk with them on their faith journey? It could be a senior couple who might act as adoptive grandparents.
* Affirm these parents and how their family life is already holy. God is already present because of the love, care, and forgiveness that is present in the everyday moments of family life from morning to night. Parents cannot hear this enough. Give them simple suggestions of ways that they can deepen that holiness, that awareness of living as God’s holy people right within family life (and then letting that love and care reach out to others).

Let’s return to “the child is always prepared for class in other ways.” You know best what those other ways are—so capitalize on them. Affirm the child. Congratulate her on all the good she is doing. Suggest other things she can continue to do to be prepared, to keep on learning—always remembering that the goal is discipleship, intimacy with Jesus, and living as Jesus did.

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.

Kate Ristow’s Answer
Do not stop using these activities because of one non-compliant student! Frankly, I simply don’t buy the “we have too many kids” argument. I’ll bet this excuse isn’t used by the parents for academic assignments, sports, or other activities the student is enrolled in.

What the parents mean is, “We have too much going on in our lives with all our kids to mess around with this religious education stuff.” Sad but true. Remember that Jesus taught us, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). This family’s treasure will not be found in their involvement in your home-based faith activities.

I feel sorry for the child. She’s probably embarrassed that her parents say that chaos reigns in her home. Speak to the child in private, saying something like, “Ella, I certainly understand that you are having difficulty doing these activities with one or both of your folks. So, it’s perfectly all right with me if you tackle them on your own and do the best you can. Either way, I expect you to bring the completed activity sheet to class next week.” You might also send an e-mail or write a note to the parents explaining how you’ve decided to handle the situation.

Too often, we are not clear on expectations with parents or students. A catechist I know offers her kids an option regarding the occasional homework she assigns. They can either stay after class to complete it with her supervision or they can do it at home as suggested. The implication is clear: Either way, it’s going to get done. She only does this three or four times a year. Her goal is to help students recognize that learning about our faith is an important part of their lives—it’s more than just another activity built into a busy schedule.

Keep in mind that today’s families are busy and have many demands on their time. Take care not to overdo family-based activities. Make them occasional opportunities rather than weekly assignments. You’ll get better all-around participation!

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.

Q: How can I educate myself about Scripture?
As a catechist, I am embarrassed to admit that I know very little about Scripture. So throughout this learning year, I am going to learn as much as I can. What resources will help me educate myself about Scripture?
—Meltina, Laredo, TX

Chris Weber’s Answer
I consulted with a colleague, Scripture scholar Sr. Mary Kate Birge of Mount St. Mary’s University. She recommended two very readable books about Scripture: Margaret Nutting Ralph’s And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms (New York: Paulist Press, revised 2003), and Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).  In addition to these, I would suggest The Bible Companion: A Handbook for Beginners, by Rev. Ronald Witherup, SS, and a newer book by Margaret Nutting Ralph, A Walk Through the New Testament: An Introduction for Catholics (New York: Paulist Press, 2009).  These books are very readable for someone just getting started.

Another great way to get into Scripture is through weekly reflection and study of the Sunday Readings. My very favorite resource for this is The Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University’s Sunday Web Site: The site is replete with prayers, reflections, and commentary by noted scholars. You will find the “Get to Know the Readings” link particularly helpful. In just ten to twenty minutes a week, delve deeper into Scripture while preparing for the Sunday Liturgy of the Word at the same time!

If you would like to take a course, but are worried about the time commitment or cost involved with a full-blown college class, consider an online workshop. A couple of examples are the University of Dayton’s Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation (, and the University of Notre Dame’s Satellite Theological Education Program ( Both are reasonably priced, allow you great flexibility for study, and give you the chance to mingle electronically with students from around the country.

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

Dan Thomas’s Answer
It is a wonderful thing to realize that you need to educate yourself about Scripture. Many Catholics don’t know much about the Bible partly because of the remnants from the days when we were told not to learn or read Scripture because we might misinterpret it. Thankfully, those days are gone and the Catholic Church encourages us to learn as much as we can.

A second difficulty is that often we don’t take time to learn about our Catholic faith because we are busy about many things. So a second wonderful thing about your question is your desire to make the time to do the learning that will help you become a better catechist.

The first place to check for learning about the Bible is the courses for catechists offered in your area. Many dioceses have these and they can give you outstanding information> In addition, you can meet others who are interested in learning as well.

Also, there are many outstanding resources available today to those who want to know more about the Bible. These begin with the Bible itself, because most Bibles have an introduction to each part of the Bible and to each book of the Bible. These are good places to begin if you are working on your own.

Two online resources that I would recommend are the American Bible Society’s Bible Resource Center website ( and the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ( The American Bible Society’s site has Bible Engagement Tools (e-mail, videos, podcasts, print, and RSS), Resources from the Learning Bible, and much more.

The USCCB website focuses on the New American Bible (the translation Catholics use for liturgy) and has that Bible with introductions and footnotes for each book of the Bible. There is also a FAQs section and prefaces to the Old and New Testaments that are helpful.

Two additional resources that I think are outstanding are The Catholic Youth Bible (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, revised 2005) and Introduction to the Bible: A Catholic Guide to Studying Scripture by Stephen J. Binz (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007). The first is a Bible that is full of information and includes several suggested reading plans that are very useful. It is nearly impossible to do what many are tempted to try, that is, start at Genesis and go through the entire Bible.

The second is a clear, simple, and accurate introduction that can help anyone get into Bible study.

It is important to know that Bible study is only the beginning. Biblical prayer and faith-sharing are essential next steps. But that is an entire discussion in itself.

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.

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