Another school year has begun in my parish, and I find myself very blessed to have the opportunity to once again get into the classroom and interact with the students. Part of the reason that I have such an interest in teaching in the parish school and am excited about it is that I know my own vocation to the priesthood began with classroom visits by the parish priests.
Sadly, I realize that, with fewer parish priests and with more demands on them, it is getting harder and harder for priests to get into the classroom. I would like to share with you three of my favorite classroom activities. They take very little preparation and are repeatable. I hope that these three ideas will allow you to interact more with the students in your parish schools and in parish catechism classes.
Exploring the Gospel
The first lesson plan I call “Exploring the Gospel,” and most of the preparation mirrors that of your preparation for the Sunday homily. I have the class sit in a circle. I have one boy read the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday, and then I have one girl read the same Gospel passage so that the students hear the Gospel passage twice. After they have heard the Gospel twice I ask them the same question each time to start them off: “What in this Gospel passage strikes you?” Do not be afraid of silence.
First couple of times it can almost be like pulling teeth to get an answer, but once they realize that we are not moving on until someone ventures an answer, the answers come more readily. If that question does not take up the allotted amount of time, I follow up with other questions about the Gospel passage with the aim of helping the students go deeper.
After our group discussion on the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday, I invite the students to hold hands and we go around the circle offering any prayer petitions that they might have. In order to facilitate this process, I always encourage the students to gently squeeze the next person’s hand when they are finished so that the next person knows it is his or her turn. After everyone has had an opportunity to offer a petition out loud, I offer a small prayer and have them pray the Our Father with me.
I have found that this simple method of exploring the Gospel can help them find new meaning in Scripture passages that they have heard a thousand times, such as the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Good Samaritan, and the miracle stories. And, on occasion, I receive the extra bonus of not only learning something new but also receiving some valuable ideas for my Sunday homily. On occasion, I will also bring my CD player and play a contemporary Christian praise and worship song at the beginning and the end of the session to help set the atmosphere.
The Cup Game
The second idea for engaging students in the classroom in a fun and interesting way I simply call the Cup Game. For this game, I use bulk Styrofoam coffee cups that I buy at a warehouse store, different colored poker chips, and computer mailing labels. Using my computer, I type a bunch of questions and print them onto the mailing labels. If you wonder what type of questions you should ask a certain age group, you may wish to borrow an extra textbook from the teacher.
Once the questions are printed, I stick one label onto the side of each upside-down coffee cup so that the question can be read when another upside-down cup placed on top of it. After all the cups have been labeled, I stack them upside down into towers of five or six, making sure to place a poker chip in between each of the cups. The poker chips I bought came in different colors, so I assign different point values to each color: black 25 points, blue 20 points, red 10 points, and green 5 points. Now the game is ready to take into the classroom.
When I arrive in the classroom, I divide the students into three to four teams and have them sit with their teams. As the players look at the stacks of cups they can see that there are questions for them to try to answer. If everyone is not in a position to see the labels on the cups, I read the questions aloud.
I invite team one to choose a question to try to answer. If they get the answer right, I congratulate them and lift up the cup to reveal the color of the poker chip and the number of points that they earned for that round. If they get the question wrong, I take the time to explain what the correct answer was and then remove the cup to show them how many points they missed. This reveals a new question for the teams to try to answer. We keep playing the game until time runs out. The winning team is the team with the most points. You may wish to have some sort of prize, but please check school policy on this because in some schools it is forbidden to give out candy as a prize.
The third game that I would like to share with you is a great game for playing outside. I know as a kid that I loved it when the teacher took us outside for a lesson instead of keeping us in the classroom all day. For this game that I call “Freedom Frisbee” you will need four playground balls that can be thrown at a person and a Frisbee (To help drive home the point of the game, I often draw or with a mailing label place the face of Jesus on the Frisbee).
To begin, I select two to four students to be “it” and hand them the playground balls, which I call “sin balls.” I explain to everyone that, if they are hit by a sin ball, they are frozen because sin freezes us and prevents us from doing the good that we should. I explain to the students that the only way to be free from our sins is to receive Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation so the only way to be free in this game is to receive Jesus by catching the Jesus Frisbee. I also make it clear that, if they have the Frisbee and get hit by the ball, they are frozen and they must give the Frisbee to someone else and receive it back again before they can become unfrozen.
I pray and I hope that you have found these three lessons helpful and encouraging, I have many more for you to browse on my website www. mayjesuschristbepraised.com.
Above all, I wish to just encourage you to make it a priority to make time to stop by your parish school and let the students see you. You may join them on the playground at recess for a game of kickball or sit next to them at lunch.
Help them to know that Jesus cares about them by you yourself caring for them, and as you get to know the students don’t forget to ask them about vocations to the priesthood or religious life. I would not be here today if my parish priest had not asked me that when I was in the fourth grade.
FATHER PASTORIUS is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He was ordained in 2003 and is currently serving as an associate pastor at a suburban parish in St. Louis (St. Mark’s Parish in Affton, Mo.).
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 edition of Priest Magazine