“Can we have a lesson in the chapel?” This comes from Martin as I walk into my Year 9 Religious Education classroom (“Ninth Grade” – please excuse my Australian terminology). Martin has his schoolbag on one shoulder and a chip on the other. After five periods of English, Math, History and so on, he’s not in the mood for class. I do my best to fend off Martin’s question with some humour.
“A lesson in the chapel? I think maybe you just want to lie on the pews again.”
Marc tries a different tact.
“Can we take special intentions for prayer?”
“Yes, we’ll have three special intentions.” Yesterday’s prayer to start the lesson had descended into a filibustering to block any beginning of formal lesson time. I am onto them.
Marc’s not happy: “Only three? What – doesn’t God care about our prayers?”
“Yes, I’m sure he does – more than me anyway.” My response comes with a fading dose of jest. I can feel the boys’ resistance to my lesson starting to wear down my defence. My sarcasm is setting in.
Ernie walks in and doesn’t beat around the bush: “I hate RE.”
The above scenario involves only a little bit of creative embellishment, but represents the deflating battlefield that teaching Religion can sometimes be.
At the start of the year, I had great difficulty with my Year 9 class. There were a handful of students who seemed to be disruptive, and it was affecting many other class members, to the point where the culture in the classroom was not one conducive to class discussion, or productive work, or, well, teacher happiness! The silver lining of this situation, I thought, was that I would have something worthwhile and inspiring to write about for my blog entry, once I was able to turn the boys around. At this point you might be scrolling down to find the answer for how I turned this difficult class around. Well, keep scrolling – maybe there’s something useful in the comments!
As of “press time”, my Year 9 class is still a struggle. There are certainly breakthroughs. One of my more challenging students, Xavier – “I’m not doing this, it’s stupid” – is often the one who asks the most insightful or provocative questions (often out of turn): “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Wouldn’t they have thought of themselves as Jews then?” Yes, Xavier! Great question. Probably. What do you think? These discussions, prompted by genuine questions from the mouths of my students, are what I am for in teaching Religion. As a Jesuit educator, I strive to be a guide, an informed companion, rather than merely an instructor.
But as many Religion or Theology teachers discover, sometimes it just sucks. It’s hard. One of my attempts to spark involvement in my uninterested class was to take a nature walk – move in groups of three towards the school’s gardens, with two questions to discuss on the way. When you get there, be ready to share your ideas with the class. I had even allocated the small groups, so as to avoid troublesome combinations.
As I carried up the rear of the walking groups, I noticed two boys had taken a detour – Xavier and Martin, two of the very boys I had tried to separate. “We just wanted to go over to the statue to pray.” Where’s that eye-rolling emoji when you need it?
So amid classroom discussions falling flat, students disengaging, and occasional displays of dissent towards Catholic education, what works for me?
- With my lovely Year 9s, role play or creating skits has worked well, particularly when it is to begin a lesson on scripture. I provide a scene, sometimes with a modern twist like “it’s set on George St, Sydney,” and they go to work preparing and then performing the scene in groups of four or five.
- Bringing in the issues of the day – recently there was a crisis within the Australian Cricket Team and allegations of ball tampering. Think “Deflategate”, but imagine everyone in the country was a Tom Brady fan, and that the guilt was admitted in a series of teary press conferences. This fed into a fruitful discussion of Christian ethics, the Beatitudes, and sin.
- Choosing to love. Maybe the hardest one. Sometimes it takes a while to warm to a class. But by deliberately taking small steps like welcoming each student to class as they arrive and saying goodbye as they leave, both parties are humanised. They see me as a person, and I remember that they are lovable students often with a lot of baggage that they are bringing to school each day.
Perhaps most significantly, as Lauren Bjork pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, what works is to lean on our colleagues. It’s helpful to hear “Oh, I teach that group, yeah they are a difficult group”, and it’s even more helpful to hear what is working well for that teacher. What works in one context won’t work in another (as I discovered when I went from teaching all-boys in Sydney to teaching all-girls in Los Angeles!), so it makes sense to tap into the minds of those sharing our workspace.
So I didn’t find the answer for how to turn it around. It is my hope to have provided a sense of solidarity if you too have had the energy sucked from you from time to time by an “I hate RE” or an “RE sucks” sentiment. Sometimes teaching RE does suck, but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.” And I believe that is always happening – for students, and teachers too as we learn, grow, and hone our craft.
*Names of students have been changed to protect anonymity. Then in a moment of frustration after a lesson, they were changed back to real names. Then they were altered again.
Dale Clarke teaches Religious Education (9th, 10th, 11th grade) and English (10th and 12th grade) at Saint Ignatius College, an all-boys high school in Sydney, Australia.