Advice from Master Catechists—September 2010

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by Kate Ristow, Dan Thomas, Chris Weber, and Sister Janet Schaeffler

How can I be less resistant to our new text?

Q: Our parish program changed texts this year and I hate my new book! I am so upset that I honestly am ready to quit. What do you suggest?
—Frustrated and Dispirited
Kate Ristow’s Answer

A: Whoa! Price Pritchett, the famed author and expert on organizational change, once wrote: “Change always comes bearing gifts.” You need to realize that there is a present in your new series just waiting to be unwrapped.

Most catechists develop an attachment to their Catechist Guide and the content they teach. Over the years you have probably written notes in your guide—activities that were successful, ideas to try in the future, or perhaps the names of musical selections or literature that you’ve used to liven up a lesson. Now you have a new guide and you feel like you’re starting from scratch.

Catechists who are resistant to changing texts often look through their guide to see what’s “missing.” I hear things like, “But I’ve always taught the Corporal Works of Mercy at my grade level” or “There isn’t a separate lesson on Mary! That’s always been a special lesson for my fourth graders.” A negative attitude like this only makes things worse. Be open to the possibilities your new series offers—not just for you but for your students and their families.

Get to know your guide. Read all the information that overviews the program. This usually is located in the front section of your book. It will include your grade level scope-and-sequence chart that details the content you’ll be teaching this year. It also will explain each component and break open the lesson process.

Page through the first chapter. What will you be teaching? How many lesson steps are there? What do you need to do to get ready? What supplies and resources do you need to gather? As attached as you are to your old series, try to see the new book through the students’ eyes.

It’s a matter of attitude. Please don’t make this all about you. That’s not why you’re teaching, is it? Go with the flow. Accept that the change has been made. You’re an experienced catechist! You’re flexible! Don’t even think about complaining to your catechetical leader until you’ve taught six chapters.

Remember that your text is only a tool. What is most important is that this year presents you with yet another opportunity to share your faith with kids. Move beyond the nostalgia you are feeling for your former series. See in your new text fresh possibilities for helping your kids grow closer to Jesus. What a wonderful gift you and your students have been given!

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.

Chris Weber’s Answer

A: If I were a betting man, I would wager that you hate the textbook because you have to redo your lessons or rethink the way you do them. I would also bet that your catechetical leader had significant reasons for changing the series and feels that the current textbook is as good as or better than your previous one.

Have you afforded your leader the benefit of the doubt and given the new book a serious try?

This situation reminds me of the very first workshop I went to as a catechetical leader, and one that I taught several times: “The Catechetical Text as a Tool.” The title says it all. Your textbook is not your lesson; it is a tool to help you convey the lesson. It is an important tool, but it is not the only tool.

For example, when you build something, you may rely heavily on your hammer, but you also need screwdrivers, saws, levels, measuring tapes, and more. No single tool makes the project a success. Rather, it is the builder who, with vision and meticulous care, employs the tools to create something amazing. Professional artisans often use expensive tools to craft beautiful projects, but amateurs can do amazing things with cheap tools, or even broken tools.

In the same way, your textbook may or may not be the best, but it is not teaching the lesson: God is, and you are!

Use your disappointing textbook as an opportunity to become a better catechist. Carefully read each lesson and pull out the aims and objectives. Map out how the textbook works these objectives, and then brainstorm other tools you can use to meet the objectives: How can I tell the Scripture story in the lesson? How can I incorporate visuals, hands-on projects, writing activities, small and large group interaction, prayer, and music to convey the aim of the lesson?

A new textbook can make for a lot of extra work, but it can also help you refocus your energy. Rediscover your joy in the very heart of catechesis: seeing faith come to life in the shining eyes of your students!

Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years: as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD.

What’s a quick-and-easy review for the beginning of the learning year?

Q: I’ve been a catechist for seven years and each year I find it hard to figure out, generally, a starting point. It seems to take me weeks to figure out how much review I need to do. What’s a quick-and-easy “beginning of the learning year” review?

—M.C., teaching fourth grade for the seventh year

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer

A: Generally, the best guideline is to take the lead from your catechist manual. Years of work from theologians, catechists, Scripture scholars and practioners have gone into creating the texts and manuals that your program uses. That material contains the message of Scripture and the tradition of our Church, based on the developmental stages and ages of the learners. Each text is integrated into an entire series, connecting one year to the next.

What has your manual provided as the bridge from year to year? Perhaps the review you are looking for doesn’t come all in the first session. You probably will be “reviewing” continually as you build upon what was learned and experienced in the past—in the program, in parish life, and at home.

This means that we as catechists need to have a broad overview of what was taught and learned in the years preceding the year we are facilitating. In realizing this, we may also realize that our thoughts and expectations are not the reality.

One way of doing a review at the beginning of the year is to involve the family. This would coincide with a belief I have that our ministry is never just to the children and youth that we meet with each week—whether that be an hour a week or daily within the Catholic school. Rather, our ministry is to the whole family. In everything we do, we need to ask: How will this affect the family? How can I help the family grow and deepen its faith, its prayer life, its spirituality, its call to discipleship, and its baptismal commitment to serve and build the Kingdom of God?

Thus, even before faith formation sessions begin, invite families to reflect together on a few questions culled from past years of study/experience in faith formation at your parish. For example, here are some sample questions:

How do we define/describe Church? Who is Jesus? What did Jesus do when he was on earth? What are some things Jesus has taught us? How does Jesus teach us today? Where do we meet Jesus today? What are some of the things Jesus asks us to do today? What is prayer? What are some ways of praying? What is our favorite time/place/way of praying as a family? Why do we celebrate the Sacraments? The Mass sends us forth to do what as a family?

After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching. Sister Janet is the recipient of the NCCL 2010 Distinguished Service Award in Catechesis. Her website is

Dan Thomas’s Answer

A: Most textbook series follow what is called the “spiral method” of organizing curriculum. This means that each year, as the students get older, the same topics are covered (revelation, Trinity, Jesus Christ, Church, morality, Sacraments, and the Kingdom of God) at a deeper level. This lessens the demand for a detailed review of material that has been covered before. So, in a sense, reviews aren’t essential.


There is a real value in getting a sense of what your students have comprehended and retained so that you know what to emphasize. There also are students who are new to your program, and so you may not have a sense of what their faith formation has involved in recent years.

There are several ways of exploring what your students know.

* Play Jeopardy using words in the glossary of your textbook. Pick out terms that you consider important and, using a Jeopardy-type template, adapt the game to the age of your students. Pflaum ( has a Catholic Jeopardy game.

* During one of your early sessions in the year, have students look through their textbooks, specifically the table of contents, and develop discussion questions about the content of each unit. This will give you a good sense of what students are familiar with. Or ask students to comment on what material in the textbook is familiar to them, what they recall learning about in the past. Ask them if there are things they don’t recognize, and use these as “teasers” for what they will learn in the coming year.

* The Call to Faith series ( has an activity that asks students to think about something they already know about being Catholic, share it with a partner, and then write it on a piece of paper. Collect the papers during the session or at the end and share the statements (anonymously) with the entire group.

* Have students draw Catholic symbols and explain the meanings of the symbols to one another.

* If possible, take students on a tour of your parish church to see what items and areas they can name and describe.

It is important to involve families in this process as well. Send something home to the parents asking them to discuss with their children what they know and what they need to know about our Catholic faith. It would be interesting to see what comes of this activity.

There are many other ways to get a sense of what your students know at the beginning of the learning year. Your textbook series may have some valuable ideas to help you make this determination. The basic purpose is to begin the process of learning about your students and their needs. Reviewing is a great way to begin this process.

Dan Thomas served in catechetical leadership for over 30 years and remains involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two adult sons.

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