The Mid-Year Boost: how to reenergize your teaching in January

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine.

by Margaret Felice

We’ve had a short break for the holidays and are back to work! Here in New England it’s hard not to be dreaming of snow days, and all of us might be thinking about upcoming holidays are looking toward spring break. Here are a few ideas to help you do your best teaching during these long mid-year months.

Consider the benefits of the middle of the year

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine. There is a string of long weeks coming up, too: a perfect time for a long-term project or workshop.

If your classes are struggling with writing, maybe a week-long writing intensive would raise their confidence (and make your grading more pleasant for the rest of the year). You don’t need to abandon your curriculum to do this; pick a topic for them to explore in more detail and guide them through the steps of good writing.

You can also break up the winter slog with contemporary topics if they are not already a part of your curriculum. Make connections to Women’s History Month, or Black History Month, or current events – and give yourself the time to really dig in and make them more than a token.

You might even have time for some play! Plan a simulation (in Church History, my students have enjoyed imagining they were bishops at Vatican II, or representatives at the French Revolution) – the prep is labor-intensive but once it’s set up your students will be able to run with it. Letting them walk in another person’s shoes and consider themes from a personal perspective will be an unforgettable learning experience.

Be patient with yourself (and your students)

I write from the perspective of someone living in the northeast, where winters are dark, cold, and tough. Each year I become more patient with myself at this time of year, realizing that my energy levels in the winter are lower than they are during milder seasons. Sleep, nutrition, and quiet time become even more important during these dreary months.

No surprise, then, that my students might be dealing with the same doldrums. Depending on your school schedule, you might have a January mid-year exam routine. How can you help students through that stressful time? Are there nights when you can give no homework? Can you give them more precise guidance on how to study? Can you build in an extra few moments of quiet reflection during class to let them catch their breath? It’s tough to balance the value of slowing down with the pressures of tackling your curriculum, but with planning it can be done.

Find things to celebrate

Routines have been established at this point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bust those up once in a while! Be creative about ways to make the time special. Adolescent brains love things that break from the norm!


Maybe there is a day of the week, or of the schedule cycle, when you can add in something different (playing hangman is a great 10-minute energizer, with the added benefit of being good for vocab acquisition). Point out notable days on the liturgical calendar, or bring an allergy-free treat on the day of a test or project.

Many of these ideas involve the dreaded “more work”, and I understand how daunting that can feel when we are swamped with everything else we have going on. But in my experience, energizing myself and my students has long-term benefits that far outweigh the burden of picking up a few bags of Jolly Ranchers or preparing character cards for a group project.

And hopefully this goes without saying, but however you decide to give your teaching a boost this season, find time for prayer and reflection so that you can listen for God’s wisdom and consider how your efforts have enriched your students’ lives.

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College.

She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020.

Margaretfelice.com

Imagining your classroom

by Margaret Felice

he began to marvel at the difference and to reflect upon it, realizing from experience that some thoughts left him sad and others joyful.

This is how Ignatius describes, in his autobiography, the realization that his heart’s reactions to his imaginings were a way of hearing God’s voice and discerning God’s will. As a champion daydreamer, I have always been drawn to this part of Ignatius’s story, and to the valuing of the imagination that comes with it.

Summer months, with long days and more relaxed schedules, are a perfect time to daydream. On long care rides, or while sitting and enjoying the sun, I might imagine a new retreat to offer at school, or design a handout for a lesson. Vacation’s clear-headedness frees up space for the Spirit’s voice to sneak in with guidance and encouragement.

In addition to imagining certain programs or activities, I have found great value in simply imagining my classroom environment.

There are many ways to organize a classroom, and many ways to serve students well. What’s right for you will take into account your needs, your students’ needs, and the larger environment of the school community. Depending on your experience and length of employment, you have varying degrees of knowledge of those things. What you do know, is what kind of teacher and person YOU are, and your students are better off if you are teaching to your own strengths.

When you imagine your classroom different ways, which feels right to you? Students taking different seats every class? Students in assigned seats? Students taking advantage of window ledges, radiators, and corner benches for their work, or students sitting at desks? Do they ask you to go to the bathroom, or silently take a bathroom pass, or just walk out of the room? Depending on your context, any of these could be a fine way to approach your class environment, but if one is going to make you uncomfortable, there’s no reason to organize your class around it.

Once you have decided, be strategic about how you are going to implement it. It’s acceptable to shape some classroom procedures around your preferences, but it’s not acceptable to ask students to be mind readers. Tell them what your expectations are. To use a mundane example: If there is a bathroom pass, have it ready on the first day, explain what the policies are, and repeat them until everyone is acclimated.

Be thorough in your imaginings – if you imagine a daily introduction of the saint of the day, and that feels like something that would energize you and your students, keep going with your thoughts. Would there be a daily handout? How would you make it a routine? Is there a creative way to assess what you are introducing? The more you have thought through your plans before the year begins, the easier they will be to implement.

If you’re really feeling ambitious, spend some time imagining how you will handle conflicts. What happens when a student doesn’t do his or her homework, or when they break a significant rule, or when a parent challenges your grading, or when a colleague says something frustrating? If you spend some time imagining what your ideal reaction would be, you’re more likely to be your best self when you’re dealing with a challenging situation.

We do a lot to prepare for these first days of school. In between the organizing, cleaning, poster-hanging and roster-reviewing, try to find a few moments alone with your thoughts to see where your imagination leads you in your teaching this year.

Initial quotation from A Pilgrim’s Testament: The Memoirs of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as transcribed by Luis Gonçalves da Câmara and translated by Parmandanda R. Divarkar. Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College. She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020. Margaretfelice.com

Teaching Toolkit

take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion

toolbox-poster_2018

Barbara Anne Radtke

I have a basic toolkit for household maintenance.  Every once in a while, I take everything out, clean up the tools and discard old packaging of items I needed to complete a project.  I am just making sure that my toolkit is in tiptop shape the next time I need to do a repair or launch into a new project.

Teachers usually have a toolkit, too.  It’s packed with go-to resources, reliable pedagogical strategies, approaches to curricular plans, new things we’d like to try. If you are a newly hired religion teacher preparing to teach for the first time or if you are an experienced teacher who wants to reflect on your classroom practices, maybe it’s a good time to take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion.

Boston College’s Summer at STM has a convenient, one–week evening experience for credit or audit, designed for those who teach adolescents religion in Catholic secondary schools.  Guided by Dr. Cynthia Cameron, an experienced secondary educator, those engaged in teaching religion in high school have an opportunity to explore the craft of teaching theology together.

For more details, see the profile for The Craft of Teaching Theology: A Pedagogical Toolkit for the High School Teacher