Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conclave

This school year, I've joined up with a friend of mine to team-teach 4th-grade catechism class at our Catholic church.

Before our first class, we obtained the year's textbook. It stinks. It's all disconnected bits of factoids, word search puzzles, match the word with the definition, dumbed-down, sanitized, dull dull dull. The layout looks like somebody's design program barfed on the page. Yes, our curriculum is the Everyday Math of religious ed. We've even got the dreaded "spiral" effect: as my friend discovered this week, "they've done the Beatitudes for the past 3 years, and they don't know anything about them!"

My friend and I agreed that we could get through the assigned content of a chapter in about 10 minutes, so that leaves us 45 minutes a week to do something else.

I decided that we should try to teach the kids some history in our remaining time. The first week, I presented a brief wrap-up of Vatican II, with the line-up of recent popes. I threw out what I thought was a softball question:

Me: "Who elects the Pope?"

Kid 1: "We do!"

Kid 2: "Priests! ... um, catechists!"

Kid 3 (confused): "I thought we elected Obama ...?"

Her friend: "No, he's the President!"

After some discussion, I explained that the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, who were appointed by previous Popes. The kids were surprised. One asked, "if the Pope appoints the Cardinals and the Cardinals elect the Pope, how did we get the first Pope?" (Excellent question, I thought.) My friend said, "Next week, we're electing a Pope!"

So, yesterday we held a Conclave. I was really hoping we could burn ballots and produce black and white smoke, but my friend talked me out of it (we waved black and white fabric instead.) I gave a brief talk about how the Conclave works, appointed the kids Cardinals, and passed out the first round of ballots (I Elect as Supreme Pontiff ____). Suddenly, the room came alive. The kids were competing to be the one to read out the ballot names or tabulate votes on the whiteboard. After four rounds of balloting, they elected a girl (a historic first.) Habemus Papam!

So, for all you teachers who read this blog, I am now getting some experience from your side of the desk. Wish me luck!


  1. Fascinating! I remember attending catechism classes once a week, too (though even then I think people were becoming uncomfortable with the word "catechism," just around the same time they became uncomfortable with movie reviews in the Catholic newspaper that categorized some movies as "condemned"). I don't remember that kind of Everyday-Mathish approach, but whatever approach they did use, I can't say there was much long-term retention in my case...

    I've had a similar reaction when I see what now passes for the Guinness Book of World Records. That book was always a best-seller at our annual book fairs, and was basically about five hundred pages of relatively small-font text with some occasional photographs -- we loved it. The ones they sell now are made up mostly of full-page, full-color photographs with a little text here and there, often contained in little sidebars and captions, with a lot of big-print in various trendy fonts. The result is that there are far fewer actual world records discussed. You could probably "read" the entire book in less than an hour. Because the default assumption is that kids have no interest in reading and can't focus on anything for more than about thirty seconds.

    By the way, I know of a Mennonite woman here who, as part of her church's Sunday school program, performed the Beatitudes as a rap song, to help the kids learn and remember it. Not crazy, really -- the verses seem to fit the rap mold surprisingly well. If you try it, though, please post a video!

  2. Chris, how right you are. It isn't actually called "catechism", it's called "PREP", which stands for something or other.

    It's bizarre. We dumb everything down for kids, and then criticize them for being restless. I'd be restless too!

  3. Funny -- I think ours was technically called CCD, which also stood for something or other, I never knew what.

  4. If there's anything I disliked more than regular school, it was Sunday School. I went for probably nine years, and I really don't think I retained a single thing. It was all workbook stuff, crafts that were fun but didn't teach anything or reading from the Bible and then discussing (that was occasionally interesting). Yours sounds much more interesting!

  5. Thanks, Megan! I fear that we might have peaked too soon. I just hope we can continue to hold the kids' interest.

  6. "if the Pope appoints the Cardinals and the Cardinals elect the Pope, how did we get the first Pope?"

    Oh, geez. Next they'll be asking if Adam had a navel.