Hands-on religious ed method keeps kids engaged

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hands-on religious ed method keeps kids engaged

Sarah Chapman and Julia Dawn Students of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Montessori program at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, put the life of Jesus in chronological order during class on Jan. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Thomas Rotaton and Luca Lissuzzo, students of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Montessori program at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, engage in a song following a prayer service on Jan. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Vivian Picciotti does a reading during the prayer service. Students of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Montessori program at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, participate in a variety of faith-based activities on Jan. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Katherine Andolina, Grace Buterbaugh, and Vivian Picciotti plan a prayer service for later in class. Students of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Montessori program at St. Giles Parish in Oak Park, participate in a variety of faith-based activities on Jan. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

For those recalling their own religious education experience, the scene created in the Montessori-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classroom must look more like play time than rigorous academic exercise.

Students navigate the room on their own terms, stopping to set up a makeshift altar or moving figurines of the Virgin Mary and animals into a tabletop barn. Experiential and hands-on, the Good Shepherd method provides a tactile experience that seeks to bring faith to life for students.

“It’s experiential, not experimental,” said Marrey Picciotti, who coordinates the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at Oak Park’s St. Giles parish, one of the earliest U.S. sites to adopt the academic program.

Working on the idea that children are ready to be in a relationship with God, Good Shepherd proponents say the Montessori method provides students an environment to express and deepen that relationship.

“We allow space for the mystery of God to meet the mystery of the child,” Picciotti said.

What is it?
Rooted in the Bible, the liturgy and the teaching principles of Maria Montessori, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum calls forth each child’s own interests and readiness for knowledge.

“As a result, we believe it enriches students’ lives in the liturgy and helps them deepen their spiritual exploration,” said Rachel Faulman, director of business operations for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the national organization that supports religious education in the Montessori method.

Rather than the typical classroom of rowed desks, Good Shepherd students gather in an atrium, an age-appropriate space prepared specifically for them. There are three atrium levels — ages 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12 — and the spaces are viewed as a tool for instruction.

Rather than textbooks, homework and tests, Good Shepherd students interact with accessible materials to foster an encounter with Scripture or the liturgy. For instance, students might set apostle figurines around a Last Supper table or prepare a small altar with the actual elements used for the Eucharist.

And rather than a teacher directing the lesson, students in the Good Shepherd classroom move around the atrium and pursue their own exploration with the provided materials, often following a Scripture reading. With silence, time and the right tools, the theory goes, students embark on their own religious experience and develop their “inner teacher.”

“The catechist’s role is largely preparing the materials and environment and then getting out of the way so the child can discover,” said Regina Thibeau, director of catechesis at Mary Seat of Wisdom Parish in Park Ridge. “The idea is to allow children to cultivate their own contemplation and experience of mystery.”

Sense of wonder
For Faulman, the principal benefit of the Montessori method is its ability to meet the child where his or her development naturally occurs.

“After all, not all 4-year-olds or 7-year-olds are the same,” she said.

Kathleen Heneghan, a parent at Mary Seat of Wisdom, called the Good Shepherd program a “perfect fit” for her son, Jack, who was involved with the program throughout his elementary school years.

“For who he was as a kid, active and curious, this was a beautiful program that engaged him throughout,” Heneghan said.

Yet more, Heneghan felt Jack was called to participate in his faith in a deeper way, largely prompted by the spirited work of the program’s instructors.

“The catechists had their own sense of wonder they brought to the program and that added to the richness of [Jack’s] learning,” Heneghan said.

Given the Good Shepherd program’s hands-on focus grounded in Scripture and the liturgy, Picciotti believes many of the Montessori students achieve heightened connections to the Bible and a greater appreciation for the liturgy.

“A large percentage of our altar servers come from this program and that’s because they have greater familiarity with why we do what we do during the Mass,” she said.

In the archdiocese
In the Chicago area, about 15 Catholic institutions use the Good Shepherd curriculum.

At St. Giles, parents have the choice between traditional religious education and the Montessori method. Currently, about 100 students participate in St. Giles’ Good Shepherd program, about one third of the parish’s entire childhood religious education enrollment.

Similarly, parents also have a choice at Mary Seat of Wisdom. Of the Northwest suburban parish’s 300 religious education students, enrollment is split almost equally between the traditional classroom environment and the Montessori method, which Mary Seat of Wisdom has offered for more than a decade.

“The challenge in teaching the faith is that we want to help the child enter into his or her own relationship with Christ, but all children learn differently,” Thibeau said. “In these days of catechesis, we need to be versatile, innovative and willing to try new teaching methods with new expressions of the faith. The Good Shepherd program allows us to do just that.”