Who Do You Say I Am?

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by Kate Ristow

See the end of this article for a service idea that will help junior-high kids help primary-grade students learn the traditional prayers of the Catholic Church.

Alice met a caterpillar who asked her who she was. She replied, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Later, during a conversation with a pigeon, Alice complains, “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to the next” (see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll).

For anyone who has ever worked with a junior-high youngster, Alice’s words seem to describe perfectly the capricious nature of this age. Middle schoolers—roughly age 11 to 14—are in an almost constant state of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual change.

The rapid growth middle-schoolers undergo at this time of their lives rivals the constant changes that were part of their experience as infants and toddlers. In fact, some experts who have spent decades studying junior-high development have said that, to a certain extent, kids at this age revisit many of the same patterns of those early years—even the “terrible twos,” with all the highs and lows that accompany that stage.

To work effectively with middle-school youngsters, we need to understand what is happening with them. Knowing what’s going on with them gives us the insight we need to communicate with them and plan lessons that will engage and help them grow in faith.

Under Construction
Think of the most massive highway construction job you’ve ever driven through. It was a
pain, right? Well, the bodies of junior-high kids are under construction—and it’s an
enormous project that takes several years to complete.

The bulk of the work, however, takes place during the middle-school years. Almost every big muscle and skeletal group in the bodies of kids in this age range—in both boys and girls—undergo a metamorphosis. Waists slim, hips widen, shoulders broaden, bones lengthen—and this internal task list goes on and on. All of the changes make the kids feel awkward and out of control. That’s normal.

In the past, we’ve attributed the moodiness and volatility we observe in junior-high kids almost solely to hormonal changes. Recent findings, however, have revealed something else: These children, for the most part, are exhausted from all that growing. Studies have determined that middle-school kids need roughly the same amount of sleep as toddlers—12 hours a night, plus a nap. Poll your class and you’ll see. Not one of your kids is getting the sleep they need.

A Strategic Shift of Focus
While you can’t change students’ sleep patterns, you can make sure you provide lots of variety in your sessions. It will keep them awake and involved. Here’s a strategy for figuring out how many different change-of-focus opportunities you need to build into your classes:

Divide the number of minutes in your session by the age of your students. For example, if your class sessions are 90 minutes and your kids are 13, your quotient is 6.9. That means you need to have six to seven “movements” during the session.

You might begin working as a large group, then move students into small groups, then bring them together around the prayer table, then have them work independently at desks or a large table, reading a page or doing an activity in the text. Try having them stand and stretch before a new lesson step, then settle down to listen as you tell or read aloud a Bible story.

If you implement this strategy, you’ll notice results immediately. The kids will be more alert and engaged. Do the math for your group and you’ll see a difference!

Brain Power
No one had more influence on our understanding of how kids learn than Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist specializing in cognitive and developmental psychology. He identified four stages that individuals go through as they grow in acquiring knowledge and intelligence.

Piaget’s work is still revered today. However, modern developmental psychologists point out that Piaget identified only four stages of cognitive development. Stage three encompassed ages 6 and 7 to ages 11 and 12. In Piaget’s model, stage four included everything after stage three—from age 11 and 12 to adulthood. That’s a mighty big leap! Piaget called stage four “formal operations.” He believed that individuals who achieve this stage are capable of both logical and abstract thought.

Today, many developmental psychologists are likely to extend stage three when describing how junior-high kids think. Other psychologists who specialize in adolescence have used brain scans to bolster commonsense notions that young adolescents think much differently than adults. Most kids that age are not yet able to think abstractly; they do better dealing with concrete topics and activities.

Engaged with the Text
With this in mind, what strategies can help junior-high kids learn from their textbooks and stay engaged? Here are two proven ideas that build on their ability to think and reason:

TPS: TPS stands for think, pair, and share. Assign a section of the text or a Bible story to the class. Ask students to read the section and think of the two most important things they learned. Have them pair up, discuss the selection, and reach an agreement about the two most important points. Finally, have them share their conclusions with the class.

Jigsaw: Divide the students into the number of groups that equals the number of “content” pages or columns in the chapter you are studying. For example, there are often three “content” or “teaching” pages in a typical religion text lesson. At the junior-high level, the text is usually set into two columns per page. Assign a different column or a section of text preceded by a headline to each group. Instruct the groups to read their assigned columns and identify the main ideas.

Be specific—ask for two or three bullet points. Insist that students in each group reach consensus by agreeing that the ideas they choose are key concepts. Have them record their conclusions on paper, a poster, or the board. When groups have completed their work, have them report what they learned to the class.

The beauty of the “jigsaw” activity is that “pieces” of the lesson come together as a whole as each group reports its findings. This activity involves everyone and allows you to move through the content of the lesson quickly, giving you time to build in activities that help the kids apply what they have learned. If the kids somehow miss an essential element of the chapter, you can call attention to it and make sure everyone understands the concept.

Activities that Work
Make Charts: Because middle schoolers learn best by doing, have them work in small teams or pairs to make visual “maps” or charts of a lesson or unit. For example, if your unit focuses on the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist, ask students to work in teams to create charts that explain what the Sacraments of Initiation are, what they do, and how they are celebrated. If you are finishing up a unit on the Holy Trinity, have students create poster charts identifying each Person of the Trinity, how we “know” each person (i.e., Father: Creator; Son: Savior; Holy Spirit: Guide) and how each Person helps us live our faith.

Each One, Teach One: Junior-high students love to show what they know. They also enjoy working on specific tasks with younger kids. Pair your students with first- or second-graders. Together they might make a Bible storybook using stories from the younger children’s texts, Mass or Stations of the Cross booklets, or posters that show how to keep the Great Commandment. The younger children will benefit from the attention of the older children, and the older children will learn by doing and teaching. If at all possible, plan this type of activity so that it ties in with the theme of the junior-high curriculum.

Service, Service, Service: Get junior-highs students out of their desks and textbooks and give them opportunities to put learning into practice. As always, link the service opportunity to something concrete that the budding teens have learned: the Church’s long tradition of social justice, the Spiritual or Corporal Works of Mercy, the Beatitudes, the dignity of the human person, love of neighbor, and so forth. Help them make connections between the activities (service) they do and the example of Christ and the teachings of the Church. Following each experience, discuss with the class what they did and how it helped them follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Here are some ideas for on-site service to and for others:

* Create greetings: Obtain a list of names and birthdays of the members of your parish’s senior groups and shut-ins who are visited by your ministers of care. Provide art materials for the students to make birthday and holiday cards for these individuals. Encourage students to personalize their work by including messages in which they tell the people things about themselves.
* Plan and pack meals: Work with the kids to plan and pack one or more three-squares-a-day boxes for families in the parish or the community who are in need. The St. Vincent de Paul Society or some other organization in your parish can give you a broad description of the household that will receive the meals—i.e., two adults and three kids; three seniors; a single mom with two kids; and so on.

Several weeks before “packing day,” make a list of foods to offer for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is best to provide nonperishable items. In some communities, the household often receives a voucher from the parish for dairy and meat products that can be purchased at a local grocery. After your list is complete, divvy it up, asking kids to donate one or more items. Involve another class if you need additional items to provide a more bountiful food box.

Designate a date for the class to pack the food box. Have students make an oversized card to enclose in the box. Pray over your donation, reading aloud Acts 2:44-45 and inviting spontaneous prayers from the kids. Then arrange for the food box to be delivered.

Talk with the kids about the possibility of continuing this service on a monthly basis.

*Volunteer duty: Most parishes are so busy that routine activities like cleaning and organizing frequently used places—such as the parish pantry, the nursery, and the hymnal racks in church—does not happen on a regular basis. Contact the head of each of these ministries (or others in your parish who need a little junior-high TLC) and draft a list of exactly what your class can do to spiff up the ministry area.

For example, every toy in the nursery can be washed, and puzzles with missing pieces can be discarded. Old bulletins, gum wrappers, and assorted junk can be cleared from the hymnal racks. Food in the parish pantry can be organized according to type (fruits, vegetables, snacks, etc.), and all the shelves, cans, and bottles can be washed or dusted.

There is always lots for kids to do! Allow students to choose the area in which they want to work, and make sure you have enough adult supervision on hand to keep everyone on task. Afterward, discuss the project and how it served others. Conclude by inviting a student to read aloud 1 Corinthians 12:12-20. Individually bless all the junior-high students for their efforts to build up the Body of Christ through this very practical service activity!

*Honor the faithful departed: November is a good time to remind the students that God calls each of us to be good stewards of the earth. It is also the month when we remember in a special way those who have gone before us in faith. Combine both of these themes in a service activity to visit your parish or town cemetery. Give kids paper grocery bags they can use to collect dead leaves and other debris from around the graves. Help kids understand how the work they are doing corresponds to our responsibility to care for the earth. Before you leave the cemetery, use the names on the headstones to pray a litany asking God to bless each departed person with the reward of eternal life.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 30 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs.

Service Idea: Prayer Captains
In addition to weekly lessons, catechists who work with students in first, second, and third grade have the responsibility of making sure their students learn and understand the meaning of the traditional prayers of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, very few catechists have the time to teach a complete lesson and listen to each of the children individually recite their prayers. Junior-high youngsters can easily do this while, at the same time, serving as a source of encouragement for daily prayer.

Use the procedure detailed below or one that will work best in your situation:

1. Begin by pairing a junior-high students—a Prayer Captain—with one or two younger kids, depending on the size of the two groups.
2. Before the first session, have Prayer Captains make a chart for each child they will be working with. The charts should include a listing of the prayers primary-grade students are expected to learn. The listing at the back of the child’s text is an excellent model for the chart.
3. Supply each Prayer Captain with an envelope of congratulatory stickers (perhaps stars) to place on the chart as the younger children successfully master the various prayers.
4. Plan the activity for the last five to ten minutes of regular class sessions over several weeks.
5. Instruct Prayer Captains to help the children with pronunciation as they recite their prayers. Encourage them to explain any parts of the prayers that are confusing to the younger children.
6. When the younger children have learned all their prayers, display their prayer charts in a public area of the parish. Include a blurb in the parish bulletin explaining the role of the Prayer Captains in helping the primary-grade children to learn their prayers.
7. After a few weeks, allow the younger children to take their prayer charts home to post on their refrigerators.


Copyright 2014, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, March 2014.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 497168905

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