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Using Hands-On Learning in Your Religious Education Lessons

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August 31st is the birthday of Maria Montessori, the woman behind the Montessori Learning Method. As I think of her today, I am reminded of how successful her methods have been in my Religious Education classes.

If you are not familiar with the Montessori Method, you can think of it, in the simplest sense, as learning by doing. It is active hands-on learning for children in an environment that has been especially prepared for them. The teacher facilitates rather than leads in the learning area using specially selected interactive learning tools, so that learners can make natural connections on their own. You can learn even more about the academic setup, features and strengths of this method in an article I wrote last year entitled, A Brief Intro to Maria Montessori and the Montessori Teaching Method.

When I was asked to become a Catechist years ago, I knew that I wanted to bring some of the positive experiences and activities that I had from homeschooling my own children at home, into my formal parish classroom. This meant learning by doing and interacting with the material – not just reading aloud in a classroom together.

I quickly found that I had made the right decision as my very first year brought me about fourteen children at different ages and learning levels, including gifted and challenged learners. Montessori and interactive learning were a saving grace.

I have heard over the years from Cats and DREs far and wide about how to make the classes more active or appealing to children. Montessori may be the answer. As bishops and pastors are asking families to become more involved in their child’s faith formation (even to the point of attending classes and activities together,) having class activities that are interactive, engaging, and fun becomes even more important.

I designed a few ways to get children engaging in the material in some non-traditional ways. I hope that these ideas can prove fruitful in your classroom too.

1. Have a question box.
Many children have questions that they are not willing to ask in front of others. Can my dog go to heaven? Did God create Cancer? What if Jesus doesn’t want to forgive me? My parents are divorced, can they get married again and can they still go to heaven? By creating an inviting and anonymous question box, children can put in questions that they want answered. By taking a few minutes of class time when needed, children feel a real sense of belonging without the fear of looking inadequate in front of their peers or embarrassed in front of their parents.

2. Take an interactive church tour.
Children love learning about the church – the building itself, and the sacramentals contained within it. Many children (and some adults as well) wonder what things are called, what are they used for, and why things have to be done a specific way? Taking an interactive tour helps develop reverence and while building knowledge. I have a special church tour worksheet that I created and use yearly. I attach it to a clipboard with a pencil tied on with string, and then we begin. It gives kids something to do with their hands and encourages purposeful listening. Learn more in my article called, CCD Lessons – Have You Toured Your Church Yet?

3. Use REAL things, when possible.
Whenever there is an opportunity to use the proper religious item, do so. Rather than just reading a scripture reference in your text, take out actual Bibles, pair the children in twos, and have them practice finding and reading the passages with you. The sense of accomplishment that they feel when they have found something themselves in God’s Word is very inspiring. If you are going to teach about portions of the Mass, use the actual missals from the pew. Along with a yearly missal, our church has monthly missalettes for daily Mass use, and I know for a fact that children wonder what the books are, and why don’t they have one. Our pastor uses a big print version of it during the Liturgy of the Word (not at the pulpit, of course), and I had a child ask me what the “special book” Father was using was. Children want to feel involved and a part of the congregation in a very actual sense. By letting them use the “real thing” they feel valued, and they learn how participate in Mass and grow in their faith.

4. Use Montessori Cards in the class.
I use Montessori cards featuring sacramentals in my classroom.

Montessori cards are simple little cards, which provide a picture (usually a photo) and a simple label. Although many think of them as flashcards, they are not. Montessori cards are used to teach vocabulary terms, reading skills, word and picture associations, as well as help build memory skill.

Here are a few ideas on how to use these Montessori cards.
1. Name the pictures on each card.
2. Play matching games with two identical sets of cards.
3. Sort a group of cards by topic criteria.
4. Recall narrative details about the topic. (Explain all you know about the material.)
5. Relate pictures in the set to one another.

5. Play Games to Learn and Review
The printable games that I have created do everything from teach prayers, drill the Ten Commandments, review the parts of the Mass, reinforce the Seven Sacraments and the differences in each, allow children to see and learn about sacramentals using photos and all in a hands-on format that children really enjoy using. Most games can be played individually or in teams of two or more. This is a sample of our newly updated Build Your Faith Bingo game. It is a fun game that reinforces: sacramentals from your church tour, Fruits of the Holy Spirit, identifying Holy Saints by their symbols, Mysteries of the Rosary, and the Parts of the Mass by title. It uses less color ink than our previous version and accommodates up to seventeen players at once.

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I revamped this game and many, many of our other resources to meet the needs of those who wanted to use less color ink and use our resources in a classroom or co-op setting.

6. Create a Holy Table or Mini-Altar in your classroom
I begin our class periods with prayer. Children file up to our Holy Table and bless themselves with holy water and return to their place to begin prayer. Our Holy table reflects the liturgical season in our linens and candles and displays, a large hardcover Bible on a wooden holder. A rosary is also on display along side a small decorative glass jar (which has an airtight cover) which is our holy water font. This is a basic setup, although I have other things that I put out as well. Another Cat on our parish team, has a beautiful altar, complete with big photos of our pastor and our Lord during Benediction and sacramentals from Holy Land. Oh, it is just so lovely. Children need to be able to see and touch the things that make our Catholic faith so rich and authentic.

These are just a few ideas of how you can incorporate the Montessori Learning Method into your Religious Education or CCD classroom and help you bring the faith to life in your classroom.

**If you have recently purchased our Religious Pack DVD, all the printable resources I have mentioned above are already included on your disc. If you haven’t picked one up yet, there is still time to do so. It is an easy way to view, click, and print our most popular printables and hundreds of revamped and brand new resources perfect for classroom or homeschool use.        

Creating a Living CCD Class

In teaching and homeschool circles, the word living is usually used in reference to literature.  A living book is one that brings the plot, setting and characters to life, engages the reader, and encourages completion of the work because it is so well written.  It doesn’t distract the reader with fluff and irrelevant details; rather it feeds the reader’s hunger for knowledge and enjoyment while providing incremental learning chapter by chapter.

A living CCD or Religious Education class tries to be engaging from start to finish and encourages attendance on its own accord.  Over the years, I have had children choose to attend my CCD class rather than soccer practice or tell me face-to-face how much they enjoy coming weekly because it’s fun.  Granted, some years I have been overwhelmed from issues in our family life or homeschooling and felt a bit burnt out, but I attribute my return each year to the Holy Spirit and our dedicated pastor who inspires me regularly, values the work that I and the other catechists do, and holds a retreat for us Cats annually to recharge our batteries and grow in our faith.

I am an educator by trade, and over the years have designed a layout for my living CCD class that has been quite effective.  Here is a quick overview.  I try to use a little mathematical formula for my 75 minute weekly class.  10-10-30-10-10.   By breaking up the class into increments, the children are kept interested and engaged, and lots of different mustard seeds can be planted at once, many times with tangible activities, hopefully providing a very full harvest later in life.    


10 - The First Ten Minutes of Class – Greeting, Prayer and a Liturgical Theme.
This is the time to greet and welcome students, take roll, and join in prayer.  Children (and parents who are joining us as well) approach the little altar in our class, bless themselves with holy water, and return to their spot.  I then ask for special intentions, and we pray for them and our own personal needs with a simple prayer or two – The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, or Glory Be.  I transition into a liturgical theme featuring an event from the life of Christ, a particular feast that may be occurring on the liturgical calendar, or the solemnity or memorial of a particular saint. **

10 - The Second Ten Minutes of Class – A Quick Review of the Previous Week’s Lesson and Checking Homework.
Most times the homework I assign is reading from the text of our class – Faith and Life 2.  I will spend a few minutes for questions, and then I proceed with a review.  Most times it is oral in a game form while a few other times it is a written quiz or one of my worksheets.  If the previous lesson was using an F3 Folder, we take a look at it and review the pieces.  We then move on to covering new material.

30 - The Thirty Minutes of New Material – The New Lesson for the Week
Considering that the children in my class range in age from about seven to eleven years old, and we meet in the evenings after many children are tired because of school and other extracurricular activities, I try to keep my new information to within a thirty-minute span.  It usually includes a visual or tangible prompt of some kind (F3 Piece or F3 Folder, a religious poster to look at, teaching prop, or a sacramental of some type,) as well as a short oral presentation.  As a general rule, I will not read from the textbook or do reading as a class, as I feel that is something that can easily be done at home with a parent or other family member.   Many times, I try to incorporate changing positions around the room (gather into a circle, move to another portion of the room, move your chair to get into groups of two) to help keep children alert.

If everything goes well, we end up leaving our classroom twice a meeting.  The first time we leave our class is to see the lesson in action.  It is my goal to meet in our big kitchen almost every week to see the lesson I have just presented in action – this means using SCIENCE!  Yes, I said it; I use science to teach about the faith.  You may have heard of using videos, books, games, crafts, even a magic trick or two, but I like to use science experiments.  (You’d be amazed at how their little eyes light up when I present an experiment, and God ends up being the star of the show.)    

10 -Ten Minutes with Our Lord – Visiting the Adoration Chapel as a Class
We return from the kitchen clean up a bit and reorganize our tables, if need be, and then head out for the second time to visit our Lord in Adoration.  We are very blessed to have perpetual adoration at our parish.  We have a small, intimate and inviting adoration chapel that the children love to visit.  Each of our CCD classes incorporates adoration into their class period.  When this practice began,  I was a bit worried at the time that I would lose too much formal teaching time doing this over the course of the entire year (10 minutes x 28 formal classes = 280 minutes or almost five hours (four whole-class periods).  Even so, over time I began to see how Jesus worked in the lives of the children.  Since many children are over stimulated throughout the day, Adoration provided them with a small little gift of a few minutes of peace and silence.  They learn reverence, patience, how to appreciate solitude, and best of all, that Jesus is available for them whenever they need Him.

10 -Ten Minutes of Housekeeping – Reminders, Homework and Such
After adoration, we return to class for housekeeping details.  I assign the reading homework, and they all write it in their folder.  I give out any handouts or newsletters, remind the kids about attending Mass and completing an entry in their Mass Journal, as well as give a hint about the content for the next week’s class.

10 -Ten Minutes of Playing to Learn – Reviewing with Games
I reserve the final ten minutes of class for reviewing year-to-date content with games.  Games are usually played in teams, and everyone is encouraged to play and participate well.  Sometimes I will use a game with pieces such as putting prayers in order, reviewing the Ten Commandments, or my Tell Me About It question game; other times I will hook up my laptop to the classroom TV and play a video review game that I created.  (The kids’ love this style of review game too, as many are used to computer interaction – even at such a young age.)

To close the evening class, we finish in prayer, and I wish each child a safe and healthy week.
This is just one layout for a Living Religious Education class.  For younger children, you may want to use an 8+ style of timing, which changes the learning activity every eight minutes or so.  Older children, who should have a longer attention span, can easily benefit from a 20, 20, 20, 10 setup.

**A Note on Liturgical Theme Resources: 
If you would like to incorporate Saint study into your class and are looking for a nice intro prompt, our Saintly Symbols Coloring Sheets are perfect for this.  They are fun to use to introduce the Saint and discuss his or her symbol, plus they can be colored and used to decorate the classroom.  So far, I have only been able to post a few on the site, but our Faith Pack DVD has over 75 of them on it plus almost all of them have an accompanying fill-in biography notebooking sheet and fill-in biography learning card, either of which could be completed as a class.  You can simply use resources you have on hand or that come from your parish library.


I almost forgot to share that Our Virtue Lessons Are Back and Better Than Ever!! I'd like to thank Anabela, who dropped us a line to ask if Our Virtue Lessons are still available and are they included on the Faith Pack DVD. Find out about all FIFTEEN of Our Virtue Lessons now.

Let's Get Ready for a Great Year of CCD - Putting Together Student Binders

What I Give My Students of the First Night of Religious Education Class

As we have quite a few Catechists in our online family, I thought that I would share how I get ready for each student in my CCD class. As I updated a few things for my own needs, I thought I would share them with you.

The first night of CCD begins with the blessing of books and materials, and then we proceed to our classrooms for introductions, expectations and rules for behavior throughout the year.  I give out texts and the always anticipated student binders.

Each year, every student receives a white 1.5” 3-ring binder with inside pockets and a vinyl cover pocket as well. I like the vinyl front pocket because the children can customize a cover for themselves. This year I created a number of printable folder covers featuring four virtues (faith, hope, love and joy) and various images of Christ, the Blessed Mary and others. I posted two of them on the site, although I have more in the new faith pack DVD.

In each 3-ring binder I provide the following essentials.

Yearly Goal Sheet
To help foster independence and help children keep track of their yearly goals and personal achievements, I created a check-off sheet called Keeping Track of What I Know to help students keep track of the end of the year goals they must complete to be eligible to receive their sacraments.

Prayer Sheets
I place the prayer sheets called Prayers I Should Know and More Prayers I Should Know in vinyl heavy weight sheet protectors so that they open as a full spread and withstand the wear and tear of frequent use. (There are two versions of the Prayers I Should Know sheet. The difference is in the version of the Act of Contrition.)

As we learn and dissect prayers for their meaning, I sometimes give larger single sheet versions of individual prayers including the Our Father in color or Our Father printer friendly black and white. For your convenience, if you have our Faith DVD, you will find all of the collection of printable prayer pages including Latin and English and most with Black and white and color versions.

Ten Commandments and Examination of Conscience for Children
Additionally placed in the vinyl covers is my special gentle examination of conscience, which also doubles as a Ten Commandments reminder sheet. We use this resource all year long. An updated and re-edited version is available on on Faith Pack DVD.

Homework Helper
To conquer and keep up with homework children are encouraged to use the "To Do" sheet which allows them to easily write down and check-off weekly reading and assignments.

Newsletter and Handout Acknowledgement Sheet
Make sure that important information like newsletters, forms and handouts are seen by parents with this simple acknowledgment sheet. Parents should sign and date the sheet throughout the year as important things are sent home.

Mass Journal Sheets
As part of my yearly goals, I require a monthly mass journal to be kept. I choose a suitable style based on the general abilities of the class and I include eight blank journal pages in their folder. There are a half-sheet style Mass Journal Sheet which encourages more writing and a full-sheet style Mass Journal sheet which encourages more drawing and some writing. In years gone by I have printed mass journal sheets off on different color paper so that they stand out easily from the rest of the folder. I separate these sheets from the rest of the papers with a blank prepared F3 folder that gets used a bit later in the year.

(I sometimes add a few goodies, too. This year I think I may use my newly updated learning cards for prayers and basic catechism reinforcement. I laminate them and put them on an open clasp ring, and then it slides right into the binder.)

I hope this helps out somehow.

I want to thank Grace from the Catholic Toolbox for inspiring me to get ready and going toward the new CCD year. If you are looking for more ideas, stop by her blog.