Teaching Religion in the 21st century, a changing art form

When researching the history of pedagogy, it is easy to realize that it is a changing art, which requires the teacher's ingenuity and professionalism to adapt. But it is important not to abandon the good, and to keep in mind that adolescents, like children, are accustomed to short tasks. The key is that the students acquire knowledge, and that the subject of Religion serves for their personal development.

Arturo Cañamares Pascual-September 1, 2017-Reading time: 5 minutes
Girls in a primary school classroom teaching.

We hear that lately students are finding it harder than in the past to maintain their attention in the classroom. Perhaps this is because they are "digital natives" and that we may have taught them to interact in different ways with the environment. Technologies have contributed to this, with their continuous "banners", that distract from what was being done; the way of watching television as a family, changing channels frequently; and even the way of talking to them, with short questions and answers that only seek information and not the development of their imagination and ability to explain themselves.

But it is what it is, and we teachers have to adapt. It is true that we can no longer teach as we did in the twentieth century, because we are not in the twentieth century. When you do a little research into the history of pedagogy, you soon realize that it is an art that is changing and that it requires the teacher's ingenuity and professionalism to adapt to each situation. It is very important not to abandon the good things: a master class is absolutely irreplaceable and cannot be missing among the strategies frequently used in the classroom. But as we said, if students now demand their own way of learning, we will have to know how to work with it.

Well, how to do it? Adolescent boys and girls, just like younger children, are very used to doing short tasks: if we look at it, it is their usual way of being: they use a toy for a while, leave it and start watching TV, then they go to get the cell phone and play a few games... The class can be a reflection of their way of acting: first they listen for a while, then work in groups, then make a diagram..., and then go back to listening. We have to take advantage of the strategies and methods that the latest teaching experiences offer us, keeping in mind the good of our students.

Useful strategies and resources

I will make a small inventory of some of the strategies and resources that have proven to be most useful, knowing that the final criterion must be the teacher, who knows his or her students and their learning rhythms best. Not all of them are included, nor are they intended to be. It is only intended to be a short list of some that have already been implemented in some centers and the results are satisfactory. Before starting with the list, it remains to warn of the prudence that the teacher must make of these resources without forgetting that the most important thing for their students is that they acquire some knowledge and that, especially in the subject of Religion, they serve them for their personal development. Here is the inventory:

1. Master class. The teacher explains and the students attend. When it is well prepared, it is very useful and, as mentioned above, irreplaceable. But it does not have to occupy the whole class or classroom session. It is important to accompany it with other resources: to make an outline of what is being discussed on the blackboard or to write the most relevant questions on it; to use a power point with a few slides (better with good images and little text); or read from the book some more relevant text.

2. Cooperative work (called in pedagogy TBL, which comes from Team-Based Learning). Make small work teams where each student has a role, which can be coordinator, secretary, speaker... and indicate the work to be developed.

3. Thinking skills. The use of different ways of accessing information that seeks a double purpose, that they learn to think and that they learn the subject matter. For example, the use of metaphors to understand a concept, to look for the causes of what we are studying, to find evidence about an event or notion explained, to promote critical and reflective thinking about reality, etc.

Gamify (new anglicism used in our profession). Use small games in class to enhance attention, once the teaching objectives foreseen in that unit have been achieved. We recommend visiting the educational website free to use, where you can create your own questions.

5. Ask students, preferably in groups, to make presentations on the following topics power-point that they then have to use to explain a topic. It is also useful to create a classic mural and have them go out to exhibit it as a group.

6. Encourage interest in reading a book (especially the Gospel, lives of saints, etc., or with younger children "The Bible as told to children"). How to encourage this? By reading a little bit in class and making them imagine the scene narrated and then saying that they can continue at home.

7. Use the portfolio to collect the evidences learned in class; or in the traditional way, to paste in the notebook the activities carried out in class. But the portfolio can also be used to record the progress made by each student (metacognitive analysis of their learning).

8. Theatricalize some scenes from the Gospel or the Old Testament (a living nativity scene at Christmas is the most obvious example, but other scenes can also be sought: the sacrifice of Isaac, the Sinai covenant, the prodigal son, the resurrection of Lazarus...). A resounding success is assured if it is accompanied by some small costumes and have sheets of paper with what everyone should say. This year we have dramatized in 3rd ESO (Secondary) the martyrdom act of St. Justin and St. Fructuosus and companions: the students told me that this way they had understood what martyrs are and what the current persecuted Christians are suffering.

9. Flipped classroom. It is to record a tutorial that makes the teacher sharing with his students a short video in which he explains a content of the class or how to work an exercise. The students watch it at home and come back with what they have learned. The class will start solving the doubts that have arisen.

As you can see, the strategies and modes are very varied. When a painter paints a picture, he does not use only one color. Rather, the work of art emerges when he is able to compose with different colors, or even to combine several materials. The class is a major art, because the result is our students. The challenge is great but worth it.

Religion class

Finally, we must comment on something that is even more important than the different resources used: the need for each Religion class to be a class that has a series of characteristics that are specific to it and that we will briefly enumerate, since it is worthwhile to reflect on whether we are taking them into account:

1. The Religion teacher must teach "in the style of the Lord": He taught with parables, adapting himself to the understanding of those who listened to him. He did not speak in the same way to the doctors of the law as to the simple people. It is also part of that "style" to show deep respect and affection for our students, a reflection of God's love for them.

2. The Religion class has to move in very defined coordinates: it must show Jesus Christ as the center of all revelation, within our Trinitarian faith, and we will explain that Jesus has saved us; we will explain what the Church is, who are part of it, and we will show its mission, giving abundant examples of lives achieved in the saints.

3. The message transmitted in the subject must be complete, without omitting fundamental questions, even if some are more difficult to explain; and it must be meaningful for the students, that is, it must support the new contents in the knowledge already known, both in Religion and in the rest of the subjects.

4. The subject of Religion is not, as it is often said, a "Maria". We must treat it with rigor and assert its right: participating in the teachers' cloisters, that it is included in the curriculum, that it is effectively offered to parents (which, by the way, is demanded by almost 70 % of the families). For our part, we will also protect this quality by taking good care of the classes: it is well known that students detect when a class is prepared or not, which teacher does or does not appreciate their subject.

It only remains to wish you a good course. Do not hesitate to write if you want help or if you want us to comment on any of the aspects studied in this article.

The authorArturo Cañamares Pascual

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