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Telling the Story in Teaching Religion

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My constant beef with middle school religion textbooks: There is no story. They just contain a hodge-podge of information strung together. Even when a particular grade level’s book has a theme, the chapters still follow each other like a gaudy striped scarf instead of a tapestry that weaves a picture. In one unit of seventh grade, the chapters cover giving alms and St. Francis, the Eucharist, the two great commandments, and then the raising of Lazarus.

Now, these are all areas ripe for discussion, which I would love to share with my seventh grade students. However, a random bunch of topics is not memorable. It is not relevant. It leads to students asking questions like, “Am I ever going to need to know any of this?” and “Why are we learning this?” and “How do we even know any of this is true, anyway?”

At the beginning of Unit 3 (not ideal, but better late than never) I finally attempted to give all three grades some context. I talked about the story of salvation: God’s creation of humanity, humanity’s rejection of God in the Fall, and God’s slow work to redeem us. The writers of our textbooks must have considered the bigger picture at some point, because sixth grade covers the Old Testament (the preparation for Jesus), seventh grade is focused around Jesus himself, and eighth graders are supposed to learn the story of the Church (our response to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection).

The yearly themes and the units make sense, even if the chapters switch topics more than a middle schooler the day after Halloween. But I finally decided to ditch the textbooks, to stop trying to cover each chapter. Instead, I try to fill each unit with a more cohesive set of examples or one figure. Sixth graders will spend this unit learning the story of David, the King of Israel. Hopefully by the end of six weeks they will feel comfortable with David, they will know who he is. They will remember that God is slowly building up his relationship with humanity by strengthening his chosen people into a kingdom. With Christmas and the Jesse tree we will make together, we can look ahead to see that David is preparing for Christ in a very direct way, being his great-great-great (etc.) grandfather.

Most eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are not eager to learn and master random pieces of information. If I ask my seventh graders to memorize the sacraments, then the beatitudes, and then talk about service project ideas, they will feel annoyed at being forced to check off boxes and jump through hoops. Hopefully if I show them the greater arc of this story that they are a part of—where humanity and God began, and where we are now—all those other things will have a place, a purpose.

And at the end of the day, if they remember that God loves humanity, and them in particular, they will have the knowledge they need to hold onto their faith and answer other questions as they arise. It would be great if my students knew a lot of the raw material of the Catholic faith. I would love it if even one of them could list all ten commandments. But they need to know why we have faith at all, and that’s why I will retell the story of God’s love for humanity every day, in every class.

Featured Photo: Carolyn A. Pirtle; used with permission.

Young woman at Delphi
Sami Burr

Sami Burr is '16 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She serves as an Echo Theology Teacher at Nativity Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis