Get organized with tips from those in the field
LISANNE V. JENSEN
Endless options exist for organizing a space: storage bins, shelves, bookcases, cabinets … but for educators, organizing your classroom or office doesn’t always involve a one-size-fits-all solution.
Where do you find an organizational system that works effectively for you and your catechetical environment? Evaluate your current situation and take that first step, advises Chris Corrice, who serves as the Primary School Religious Education Director at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Really, most of us find ourselves in one of two places when it comes to organizing classrooms: We either have complete control of the classroom environment or no control,” he says.
Chris, who also oversees Confirmation sacramental preparation, Youth Ministry, and Children’s Liturgy of the Word each Sunday, explains that his parish has a combination of both scenarios. The parish school shares the religious-education classrooms, whereas young people in Confirmation and Youth Ministry use a dedicated space that can be customized how they prefer.
Chris recommends keeping in mind the individuals being served — and choosing catechetical formation that meets them where they are.
“Never underestimate the ongoing need for both catechist and personal formation,” he suggests. “Your mission as a formation director is to keep the groups (parents, catechists, and students) you are responsible for all moving in the same direction: toward Christ. We are all at different stages of that journey.”
“I believe that less is more when thinking about organizing a learning environment,” says Vicky Wejko, Associate Director of Formation at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford, New York. “Kids these days are surrounded with everything at their fingertips. They are constantly busy and are constantly bombarded by visual ‘busyness.’”
Before rushing to the store and purchasing every organizational tool on the shelves, Chris suggests asking some preliminary, thought-provoking questions to help determine organizational goals:
■ What’s the space’s purpose? How does it need to function, and how can it work best for the people who use it? Should it have a certain structure, or does the area need to be flexible? If you share a classroom or office with another group, how does that affect the organization of the desks and seating areas? “If your program is in a shared space, be respectful and investigate what changes you can make to meet your individual classroom goals,” Chris says. “Remember that if you are using a school’s classroom, you are a guest!”
■ Which format works best? Sometimes a typical classroom atmosphere is more conducive to certain learning styles or lessons. But also consider creative options: Could students sit on the floor comfortably? Could the desks be arranged in a circle to create a conversational atmosphere? “We try to make our classrooms look more homey,” Vicky says. “We added bookshelves and got rid of the old metal cabinets. There’s a table that everyone sits around, so it’s more of a discussion and conversation when we try to teach the truth of our faith to the next generation.”
■ What do the catechists think? Always keep your team members’ suggestions in mind. Ask their opinions about what has worked well in the past and what needs improvement. Consult them several times during the Faith Formation year to reevaluate. “I am not afraid to change things around if needed,” Chris says. “Your catechists will be using the storage areas the most. Are they accessible for them and laid out in a way that they can find what they need quickly and easily?”
■ Is it welcoming and comfortable? Young people have different learning styles. Couches, rugs, and nontraditional lighting can create an inviting conversational format for classrooms. Decorations, religious or otherwise, should be meaningful and personal to the individuals using the space. Icons, statues, and paintings can be great teaching tools or places to gather for prayer. Vicky suggests using painter’s tape for wall hangings to avoid damaging walls.
Vicky and Chris both offer tips for catechists and DREs to take better charge of their specific organizational situations:
■ Simplify paperwork and make registering easier. The religious education program at Chris’ parish is bilingual, “so dedicating equal time and attention to students, parents, catechists, training, and materials in both languages is a must,” he explains. “Everyone needs to hear the message at the same time. Schedules and parent communication should be handed out and made available on the parish’s website under each language represented.”
■ When in doubt, throw it out. “Don’t hang on to items you are never really going to use,” Chris suggests. “Stay focused on organizing for speed and purpose when it comes to your desk, office, and storage. Focus on purpose, comfort, and adaptability for classrooms.” One caution, however: Pay attention to your diocese’s regulations for how long faith formation records and other important data should be kept on file. “Always look through it all, because sometimes you can find good nuggets, even in the old stuff,” Vicky adds.
■ Get a good bookshelf. Stock the shelves with main resource books needed as well as complementary resources. Organize the bookshelf with the most-used books at shoulder level for easy access.
■ Create a prayer space. Each of Vicky’s Faith Formation classrooms has a dedicated spot for prayer. “Parishioners have sewed cloths for each liturgical season; we also add a candle, crucifix, and Bible when they pray; [it creates] a nice area that they can center themselves around.”
■ Set up catechists for success. “I get a list of everything they need and make sure we have enough supplies so that they come into the building ready, and they don’t have to gather those things before they teach,” Vicky explains. “I try to make copies ahead of time if the catechists need them. Also, our catechists know that they can go to the supply cabinet and find everything they need there.” Vicky also created a mailbox system for her catechists where they can leave her notes about important matters (and vice versa).
■ Take advantage of resources. “Seek out experienced parents or other DREs for advice and assistance,” Chris advises. He often uses books such as The Catechist’s Toolbox and The Catechist’s Backpack, as well as the Effective Catechetical Leader series by Loyola Press.
Icons, statues, and paintings can be great teaching tools or places to gather for prayer.
Rather than the faith formation office merely serving as a storage room for paperwork, Chris and Vicky suggest ensuring that it’s a workable area for everyone.
■ Stay accessible. “Parents and students will come to see you as the ‘face’ of religious education,” Chris says. “Let them know when you are available in person. Provide them with other means of communication when face-to-face isn’t possible, such as calling, texting, email, or social media.”
■ Keep your workspace fully stocked. “A DRE’s office is mission central of the parish educational experience and as such should be well stocked and organized,” Chris says. “The main area of the DRE’s desk should always be an active workspace with everything else at easy reach. A Bible, appropriate catechisms, a calendar, forms, and program materials should be in easy reach but out of the way until needed.”
■ Organize in the summer. Vicky explains that she takes stock of all supplies after her parish’s Vacation Bible School ends and then orders what the classrooms will need for the coming year. While she tries to organize frequently during the faith formation year, the bulk of her cleaning and organizing takes place in the summertime.
■ Get help. Vicky encourages Confirmation teens to help with classroom and office organization. “It’s nice because they remember what it was like to be in the younger classes, and it also gives them a service opportunity,” she says. “We have a huge Confirmation program, so sometimes we think, What ways can we get them involved more? We’re also priming them to be catechists in the future.”
■ Go digital. While it requires a considerable time investment, scanning in printed resources and creating PDFs helps cut down on paperwork overload. “The less paper I have to touch, the better,” Vicky notes.
■ Keep binders for each year. Some catechetical leaders organize binders according to liturgical seasons or months. “I can pull out something I did three years ago, and it’s a better starting point than creating something completely new,” Vicky says. “It’s also a good reminder of what we have done in the past. I keep notes, too — for example, after First Communion I jotted down notes so I can look back at them the next year.”
And a final piece of advice from Chris, for both catechists and catechetical leaders: Always pray. “Pray about anything and everything that you need,” he urges. “The Holy Spirit will help you fulfill your calling to spread the Gospel to those in your parish you are entrusted with serving.”
LISANNE JENSEN serves as the coordinator of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry at The Church of St. Joseph and as the secondary Faith Formation and Youth Ministry coordinator at St. James, both in the Diocese of Albany, New York.
PHOTO: SDI PRODUCTIONS/ISTOCK
This article was originally published in Catechist, November-December, 2019.