by Matt Renwick
I have the upmost respect for catechism teachers. They volunteer their time to teach students after the kids have experienced a whole day of school already. I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of one class recently.
I was working on work in the church lobby while my son was with his class, when a group of 8th graders herded into the same area as me. My presence was not noticed. The posturing, the flirting, determining the pecking order…such an awkward and social age. The catechism teacher joined them a moment later. She stepped to the front and got started, showcasing her built-in filter to ignore the hormone-induced behaviors and focus on why she was there.
What happened next really caught my attention. Amid all the chatter, the teacher informed the students to get ready to say the Lord’s Prayer. She listed several intentions for the students to consider before they got started, such as for an ill relative or a friend in need. Once the prayer started (“Our father, which art in heaven…”), every teenager spoke in concert. No one was out of sync. This ritual, augmented by the stated and important reasons for their practice, seemed to make all the difference.
“Turn to page 70”
Unfortunately, once the prayer was done, the chatter recommenced. Getting every student to turn to the same page in the workbook was much more of a challenge.
Do we notice this in our daily classroom instruction? When we ask our students to read the chapter and answer the questions on page 70, what is the typical reaction? What would be your reaction if you were the student? Learning intentions do not mean just posting the target on the board. It is more important that the students are a part of the instruction and see meaning in their work.
What if, instead of going to page 70, the students were given a question that had more than one answer, that delved into the grey area of a moral issue that learners, especially teenagers, are developmentally equipped and highly motivated to handle? Maybe after some modeling, students could start future lessons with a provocative question of their own. Their own questions would probably elicit better answers and deeper understanding than anything we or a textbook could provide.
This line of thinking leads to a very important question that we should ask ourselves as we prepare learning for students: Why am I doing what I am doing? If the answer is difficult to find, we need to either find a different approach or consider whether the topic is worth our students’ time at all.
“If we just had more technology…”
Technology seems to be the answer that is given to some of these quandaries. “If I could hand each student a laptop, then they could type their answers on a Google Doc, and peers could provide feedback.” Maybe this will engage our students, at least for a while. But the intent of the learning is still unclear and devoid of meaning. If a student’s work could be done on paper and pencil because what they would produce lacks any benefit for a broader audience, then technology is just a replacement.
Our job as educators is to be thought-provoking instead of thought-providing. Students can find the answers to the questions on page 70 by doing some simple searches online. An often-shared concern by some educators is that technology may replace them. Teachers are only at risk of being replaced by technology if they continue to operate using outdated practices.
Technology has not solely created this condition; it has simply provided the access to a world of knowledge that was formally sacrosanct. We as educators have needed to change our roles from teachers to learners for some time. Technology has accelerated the process. Some of us weren’t ready.
We have to help students make meaning
Our students will make meaning if what we present is meaningful to them. This means taking advantage of strengths that may in the past have been seen as problems. “Talking” and “arguing” are fine examples. Students’ social skills have quickly become just as important as their academics, maybe even more so in some cases.
If all learning is social, let’s ritualize these practices. Make social protocols such as Socratic seminars and value line ups a regular part of how we learn. Teaching students how to find and make meaning, instead of waiting for understanding to be delivered, will benefit them in ways that answering the questions on page 70 will never attain.