You can direct pre-class enthusiasm into the faith-sharing experience of the day through activity. Here are some creative ways to move from chatter to lesson using prayer, art, or word games.
As young people arrive for the week’s faith-sharing session, you can tell from the pleasant hum in the room that the group is in a good mood. You’re feeling upbeat yourself and looking forward to the day’s lesson. But as you continue to listen to the group’s cheerful chatter, you become concerned about how to begin in a way that won’t throw a wet blanket over this spirited group of young people and the lesson you have planned.
To Get Class Started Using Prayer
Because it is familiar and flexible, prayer can serve as an effective connecting experience. Set aside the traditional announcement—“Let’s begin today’s session with a prayer”—and the memorized recitation that customarily follows. Instead, provide a more spontaneous and less mood-shattering prayer option, one that will let you gently bridge the gap from chatter to lesson.
Make copies of the prayer titled May We Learn (see below) and fill in the blank about the lesson for the day. Then, without interrupting the informal conversations going on among the students, distribute a copy of the prayer and a pencil to each group. As you move about the room, explain quietly to each small group that they may continue talking and to use their discussions to fill in the blanks in the prayer.
May We Learn
Today we spent time doing things we really like to do, such as ________ and ________ and ________. We also spent time doing things we don’t like doing very much, such as ________ and ________ and ________. Later today, there might be chores to do at home, like ________ and ________. So Father, help us to use this short time we have together to learn more about _ (lesson for the day)_ so that we can ________. We ask this through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Young people should have no difficulty expressing the things they have done during the day or the chores they expect to perform later. The challenge for them will be to consider what kind of response the day’s lesson might require. If your lesson for the day is about the Apostles, possible responses might be: “…act like them;” “…learn who they are;” “…understand their relationship to Jesus;” “…get to know them better.” Clearly there are no right or wrong responses.
As the young people continue to talk and fill in the blanks in the prayer, invite them to raise their hands when they are ready to pray together. When all hands are in the air, you or a volunteer can read the prayer aloud, slowly. When the reader comes to the blanks, young people, in pre-arranged order, can share what they added to complete the prayer.
This kind of prayer allows the group to connect their own lives to what is about to be discussed in the lesson. At the conclusion of the prayer, as you begin to present the day’s lesson, the group likely has its initial positive spirit still intact.
To Get Class Started Using Artwork
Many young people come to faith-sharing sessions after completing a day filled with textbooks and reading assignments. So it’s not uncommon for them to display fatigue or boredom when the catechist begins with “Please open your books to page 27.”
You’ll get a much better reception if you pass out drawing paper and markers to small clusters of students as they await the start of class. Ask each group to chat briefly and informally about the topic for the day, which you have written at the top of the drawing paper or on a chalkboard. Have each student take about five minutes to sketch a simple picture or symbol that, for them, illustrates the day’s lesson.
Depending on the age of the group or the abstract nature of the topic, you may want to share additional descriptive comments that will give learners more direction for their drawing. For example, if the lesson is to be about the Resurrection, you might remind students of the time of day when the Resurrection was discovered, the people involved, or the location.
Allow five minutes for this activity, but after about four minutes, ask learners to raise their hands when they are ready to share their drawing. When everyone is finished or time has expired, ask for volunteers to share and explain their artwork. If young people are timid about sharing, you might have them pass their pictures around the room. After a few passes, ask for volunteers to explain the picture they are holding. Let the artwork serve as a springboard to lead you into your lesson.
Five minutes of well-directed introductory artwork can move a group from conversation to concentration. Plus, the pictures can be displayed periodically during the session to keep students focused on the theme. Depending on the quality of the work, these same pictures might be used later in the year as helpful review tools.
To Get Class Started Using Word Games
While the learners are chattering in groups, distribute a piece of paper and a pencil to each student. Have the topic of the day’s lesson—for example, The Birth of Jesus—written at the top of the paper or on a chalkboard.
Invite learners to continue talking together and to include in their conversations some sharing about what they know about the lesson for the day. Have students write down five words that they would associate with the day’s topic—that they expect you will say during this lesson. For a lesson on the birth of Jesus, students might include in their lists words like Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, star, manger. Ask learners to raise their hands when they are finished with their lists.
You can move forward in a couple of different ways. You can ask learners to listen carefully for the words on their lists during the first five minutes of the lesson. If they hear one of their words mentioned, they should silently raise a hand. This helps to sharpen listening skills and encourages attention. After the first five minutes, you might have students put their lists aside. Later, should the group need to refocus, referring to the lists again can be helpful.
Another approach would be to ask students to keep their lists handy and to put a check next to each word they hear throughout the lesson and to share the results of their tracking when the session concludes.
This transitional game has many possible variations. Students can exchange lists and work with someone else’s list, again putting a check next to the words when they hear them used in the session. Sometimes you will find that making a combined list of words drawn from all students’ lists and putting the list on poster board or a chalkboard can be a good transition and an attention-keeping exercise. The words clearly indicate to you a lot about what your students already know about the topic.
The word game, in any of its variations, helps alert your group to the basic elements of the session. Almost without noticing it and probably without complaint, students move from their small chattering groups to active lesson participants.
Choosing a Way to Get Started
These ideas for getting class started likely will not work always and everywhere with the same effective results. Choosing which idea to use depends on several variables.
Group composition: Every group of young people has their own unique make-up and chemistry. Getting to know that chemistry will help you select the best idea for getting class started and make adaptations when various group members are absent. Before you use an idea, decide if this particular group gathered for this lesson consists of youngsters inclined to work together or if youngsters might be more inclined to work independently using their own creative expressions.
Group mood: Using any idea in the classroom calls for a degree of flexibility because there is no way to predict what mood a group will present to you on any given day. You need to be willing to go with what you see and appropriately match your intentions to both the existing chemistry as well as the prevailing mood. A group that is expressing itself at maximum volume before the session begins, for example, probably doesn’t need the extra stimulation of raising a hand every time they hear a particular word. Nor is this necessarily the timing for a prayer activity. Artwork, on the other hand, might bring the class to focus with enthusiasm on the day’s topic. Your ability to match the idea to the group mood will improve as you come to know a particular group over time.
Variety: As you decide on a way to get class started, remember not to overdo any one method. In fact, there may be times when you prefer to or need to begin class in a traditional manner—by simply calling the learners to settle down, to focus on the lesson, and to ask them to pay attention to the lesson’s introduction. Any idea, no matter how creative it might be, may lose its effectiveness if used too often.
Your comfort level: Never dismiss your own state of mind. What kind of day have you had? How energetic are you? Are you feeling challenged by the material in the day’s lesson? Considering your own overall readiness is crucial. Using a new idea to get class started when you are tired or somewhat less prepared then you would like can bring less-than-satisfying results compared to using the same idea when you are energetic and well-prepared.
Starting a faith-sharing session doesn’t have to bring down the curtain on the good spirit your students demonstrate as they enter the learning space. You can smoothly redirect your students from informal chatter to faith sharing without any loss of anyone’s enthusiasm. Just come prepared to confidently unpack a prayer, a drawing activity, or a word game.
Lee Danesco holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University. She has served as a DRE and a pastoral associate, and is a published author. The Confident Catechist was published by Saint Mary’s Press in 2007.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, September 2009