What to teach?

In the comment section of my last post, Mary asked me these questions:

In a world where you were totally in charge of religious education (and what a glorious world that would be), would you teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently in your school? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?

I’ve been mulling over this for the past few days, as I have been lesson planning for my current classes.  I teach juniors a yearlong course called Morality (which is so fun to teach) and seniors a semester course called Social Justice (which is also fun, but the students find it personally and academically challenging).  But this week, I also gave a presentation to freshmen religion classes on the school’s service learning program and why we do service, so I spent way more time than I usually do with our first year students; all of these facts together have certainly influenced my ideas in this post.

The first thing to say is that I would under no circumstances teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently from one another.  What is challenging about teaching both demographics isn’t lack of familiarity (Catholic students are often just as ignorant about the intricacies of doctrine as non-Catholic students are) or even diversity (I enjoy hearing about what diverse faith traditions my students uphold; often the discussions we have where a non-Catholic speaks up gives a great opportunity to dig into the point deeper, a clear case for the fruitfulness of ecumenical/interfaith dialogue!).  What is challenging is that I simply have to pretend that I teach all Catholics.  In my last post, I pointed to this problem, as my department is a religion department and such a department seeks to make “better Catholics.”  It seems to me that the best way to avoid this issue is to opt for the “theology” model of teaching, rather than the “catechetical” model.  It would not solve the issue entirely, but catechesis attempts to demonstrate truth, rather than search for it, and it is that “I already have the truth, you just need to accept it” presumption that makes it difficult to teach non-Catholics.

The second thing to say is yes, there is a core of religious education all students should have; ideally, a well formed high school curriculum should prepare a student to speak intelligently on the Catholic faith tradition.  The questions that remain then are: what is the essential material necessary for a clear understanding of the Catholic faith? And more importantly: how can that information be presented in age-appropriate fashion?

My basic idea is as follows:

First year–Liturgy: Sacraments and Saints
Sophomore year—Bible: Old Testament and Jesus
Junior year—Morality: Fundamental theological topics and Moral Decision Making
Senior year–World Religions and Catholic Systematic Theology

I’ll start with Junior year.  Junior year is absolutely the perfect time to teach Morality; the topics discussed are incredibly necessary for today’s teenagers.  Students are just about 15 or 16 years old and beginning to face serious moral decisions; as a result, they enjoy the class a lot and delve into the issues deeply.  Additionally, I found last year that the first few months of Morality are the perfect time for a short overview (about one quarter’s length) of fundamental theological topics as they relate to Morality: Jesus as a moral teacher, the Church as a moral guide, sin, anthropology and conscience, etc.

Sophomore year, as a precursor to Morality, is an excellent time to teach Bible.  One year is obviously not enough time to teach the Bible (I’m sorry, Mary), but I think it’s a time when they are growing a little more serious and are capable of understanding things like biblical criticism and myth in a more sophisticated way.  I also think ending the sophomore year on Jesus is a good set up to Morality.

Senior year is really interesting; students are willing and able to handle more depth.  I think it’s incredibly important to teach World Religions during the senior year, as the students head off to college and beyond.  But I think senior year is also the perfect time to teach a genuine theology class, preferably a class that does theological method and a run through of Catholic Systematics.  I say this because a lot schools opt to teach a yearlong Catholic doctrine course to freshmen.  It is understood as a primer that sets all students, Catholic or non-Catholic, on a level playing field of Catholic literacy.  However, I think this idea is not entirely age appropriate; freshmen are not ready for intricacies of Catholic doctrine.  I think a class that seeks to educate on Catholicism would yield far richer fruit when taught to seniors.

So, then, what are freshmen ready for?  Given especially that all students won’t be Catholic, how can a freshmen year course in a Catholic religious education department capture their attention?  To answer this question, I had to reflect personally and ask: what spoke to me in high school, and made me think that being Catholic was something I ought to consider?  The answer is definitely not “doctrine” or even “theology.”  The answer is definitely liturgy.  Most people are not interested in faith because they checked a Bible out of the library and read it cover to cover; most people are interested in faith because of an experience, a community, or a ritual that spoke to them on a deeper level.  Saints and sacraments are two of the most compelling and interesting aspects of Catholicism and they are ideas that can be taught with great ease to a variety of grade levels.  If the goal of a freshmen year religion course is to get students to engage with their faith in a deeper way and to start a conversation about what makes Catholicism interesting or special, liturgy seems like the perfect entry into that discussion.

As I conclude this post, I am painfully aware that I have been teaching for less than 2 years, and I teach only two of the 4 classes offered by my department.  I don’t presume to think that the curriculum I’ve outlined here is superior for any reason, but they are my ideas for what I would like to see taught (and to teach) in high schools.

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21 thoughts on “What to teach?

  1. Thanks for this, Carmen! I have to admit, I was a little surprised when you put “liturgy” as the freshman-year curriculum, but after you explained your thought process, it makes sense. Liturgy is the aspect of Catholicism that your students are most likely to have had extensive experience with. I know that when I was 14, liturgy was probably the aspect of religion that I had the most opinions on, and the most experience in participating in (even aside from going to church every Sunday, I sang in the choir and was an acolyte). I wasn’t so sure about, you know, Jesus (not that I’m particularly more sure now), or even God, but I loved the Book of Common Prayer. So I think you’re right–that’s a subject that students immediately feel a connection to and whose relevance in their lives is immediately apparent.

    It also makes much more sense to me to go from the experiential to the abstract; that is, start with something they can participate in and feel, and move from there up to systematics–something that (IMO) they’re not going to engage with unless they see why it matters–not because they’re heathens, but because anything involving intense and challenging abstract thought needs some kind of carrot attached to it. I wish I could say that this only applies to children/teens, but let’s face it, I would have given up on Sumerian a long time ago if I didn’t really want to read Mesopotamian mythic and religious texts. So understanding that, yes, there is a REASON for every aspect of liturgy is a way to provoke their interest in what those reasons are.

      • Mary has already commented on all of the points I wanted to. I had the same reaction of surprise when you listed liturgy for freshmen, but after reading your argument, I am convinced. I think it’s a great idea. Also, I liked very much the structure and flow of your post, starting at the course listing and ending just prior to the apology at the end.

  2. Also–yes, you’re a second-year teacher. But that doesn’t mean that your ideas aren’t good–in some ways, you have fewer things that you KNOW work, so you’re forced to be creative and look farther afield to try out things that MIGHT work.

    • I find that to be true in more ways than one–more experienced teachers can often be stuck in ruts, something I hope to avoid. But there is still so much I don’t know about how to teach!

  3. Also (sorry, so many opinions), as for Bible, I think that’s actually a good amount of time to spend on it. Yes, there’s too much material to cover in detail in one year, but that’s as much time as you can reasonably devote to it, and if you teach it well (always the challenge) you can get in enough to let students navigate it in good ways. What I think is a bad idea is trying to teach the OT and NT in one semester. That’s really too much to cover in too little time.

      • *Excellent* question. I’d be particularly interested to know–what cuts would you make? How can you teach the OT in enough detail with so little time?

        • Oh goodness. Time to put my money where my mouth is, I guess? Well, for starters, most intro Bible courses are taught in roughly the order of the books/history: Genesis and the patriarchal narratives, return from exile and giving of the Torah, rise of the United Monarchy, political squabbles, exile, return, and all the crazy stuff that goes on in the second Temple period, if you manage to get there. I’d be interested to see what would happen if you organized the course by topics/genres instead: a section on history, a section on mythic and poetic texts, one on prophecy, one on ritual texts, one on apocalyptic texts, and so forth. Obviously not every section would receive the same amount of time, but I tend to think that the genre-based approach is useful for teaching students to start trying to look at a text on its own terms and figure out the “rules” by which it runs.

          • I’m not sure what to do with the New Testament, though. The historical approach might be the best there, since the texts to cover aren’t so disparate–gospels –> Paul –> early Christian community. I also think it’d be useful to give a nod to the apocryphal works while you’re at it. The question of why and how texts get canonized and what that means for their role as sacred scripture vs. historical documents is uncomfortable enough to be really worth dealing with.

  4. Some curriculums I’ve seen ask sophomore year teachers to cover the OT and NT in one semester, in order to leave one entire semester for Christology, a tactic which seems counter-intuitive to me. Catholics are generally understood to be pretty ignorant about the Bible, so favoring doctrine of Jesus over the very text that serves as the foundation of that doctrine seems to feed right into that problem. Yes, Christology is important. But the Bible is the best way to start to understand who Jesus is and the meat of the Christian faith, in BOTH the Old and New Testaments. (and NEVER be sorry for opinions, lady!)

    • Yeah–I think the intro undergrad classes at [mystery university which we both attended at the same time] covered the whole Bible in one semester. I remember a friend who’s in OT being pretty frustrated by it. Then there was another person, whose name will not be mentioned because, luckily, I don’t remember it, who was in I think Systematics. He came up to me with a question on a pretty tricky topic (ritual purity and sin, actually); halfway through my (okay, fairly didactic) answer, he said, “Well, I don’t really have time to go into the details, so I’ll just say [drastic oversimplification].” That was pretty irritating to me. It seemed to be a combination of genuinely not having the time to cover things in enough detail, and not caring enough about the discipline he was teaching to do his homework on it.

        • Unfortunately, I think that’s a pretty typical response (oversimplification in favor of breadth). But I’m not sure there’s enough time in the average high school semester for what you laid out above, Mary. I’ve never heard of a class getting past Psalms, because of time constraints. I might get rid of the Monarchy in favor of Psalms and prophets.

          I actually starting talking about this very topic in the lunchroom today with a few other religion teachers, and there were some varying opinions on how long to spend on the OT. Most did not think a quarter was enough,which I agree with, but my suggestion was to ax Paul in order to make enough space for the OT, and there was widespread disagreement about that.

          • Yeah, I can’t see them giving up Paul. But seriously, even if you only have time to spend a WEEK on what came after the exile, that’s a REALLY IMPORTANT week. How else are you going to give the students any sense of how the OT and NT are related?

      • X-Ray Christology uses the effective Bragg diffraction of atoms in a single crystalline lattice in an X-ray beam to determine the structure of sacraments.

        • Hahaha. There’s no “like” button on this site!

          Christology is just theology of Jesus–who he is and his significance. At the high school level it would cover Incarnation, Jesus as perfecting Revelation, Jesus as fully man and fully God, etc.

          • When Christology was first developing, they’d plot out the sacrament using balls on pegs, and a superb doctoral dissertation might solve just one simple sacrament. In the modern day, however, with the aid of computers, a sacrament can be solved in a couple of hours, making this a routine theological technique.

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