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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.        

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