Here are some general principles on teaching open level courses.
Teaching open level can be a frightening prospect for many teachers, especially for young teachers recently graduated. But teaching open level can be a very rewarding experience, and the students who take these courses, we have found, often have a certain charm all their own. That is why we believe it is worth providing an outline of some general principles to keep in mind if and when one is called upon to teach them. And that is all we can offer -- general principles -- because education is communication, and no strategies, activities, or methods can replace real communication. In fact, the former can be employed in order to circumvent genuine communication. A teacher, however, is a communicator, and teaching open level students is fundamentally a matter of genuine communication.
In order to enter into communication with others with a view to teaching religion, we believe there are a number of conditions that need to be in place if one is to have success. First, we need to keep in mind that teaching is a work of love. A good teacher loves his students. The work of a religion teacher must be rooted in a personal conversion. This is another way of saying that our love for the students must be rooted in our love for God, a love of the Church, and a love of the faith that the Church professes.
This is the indispensable foundation of any good religion teacher. A religion teacher must have a prayer life. If one has a chapel in the school with the Blessed Sacrament, it would be prudent to use it as much as possible before going into the classroom, to pray for the students, and to pray for inspiration, the grace of charity, and a spirit of joy.
It is essential, at the beginning of the semester, to establish a good relationship with the students, one that is genuine, unpretentious, and professional. Certain students have much better "radar" than others, and those that do will often be found in the open level courses; for many of the latter have been maligned, mocked, belittled, and insulted, directly or indirectly, from a variety of sources. All of this has made many of them -- unfortunately for us -- highly suspicious of teachers.
But these are precisely the students for whom the teacher must be able and willing to put his heart on the table, so to speak. Without genuine sincerity, the teacher will lose them. Consider the etymology of the word "sincere", from the Latin sincerus, which means "without wax". Sculptors would use wax to cover the flaws on their sculptures, but when the sun would shine on such works of art, the wax would melt, exposing the flaws. A teacher of genuine sincerity is not afraid to expose himself with all his flaws. This is how the teacher begins to earn the trust of his students, namely through his own authenticity.
Knowing the faith and knowing the students
The religion teacher in an open level class must know his "stuff" and be certain of his faith. He must be able to answer the most difficult and "in your face" questions and not be frazzled.
Also, from the first day of class, we can expect to be under their "microscope". To put this in more current pedagogical parlance, we are the ones being assessed, and what some students are seeking to assess is whether we are authentic, that is, people who are genuinely concerned about them, or whether we are in it ultimately for ourselves. If we unwittingly and habitually regard students as objects that provide us with a good income, great benefits, fantastic vacation time and an excellent pension, we are doomed from the start, for their radar will detect it no matter how clever we think we are. But if they discover that we can be trusted, that we are "okay", they will lean forward a little bit in trust, to see if what we are saying is worthwhile receiving.
Many students who land in an open level course -- by no means all of them -- will carry deep wounds, sometimes from unfair comparisons to older brothers or sisters. Often these students see themselves as the "bad", the "stupid", the "lazy one", or the "loser". Often they will employ classic defense mechanisms. Part of their defense is that they've become genuine individualists, because they have concluded, from past experience, that it is not prudent to trust anybody. Many of them have learned to rely only on themselves. The result, of course, is an inflated sense of self. A classic defense mechanism is to appear uninterested with what you, the teacher, have to offer them.
Many have been given the message that if you wish to be a success, you need good marks. Why? To get into university, so that you can get a good job and make lots of money. And so it should come as no surprise that many of them see themselves as "write offs", which in turn can generate chronic anxiety. Those who believe they are "write offs" suffer from a kind of self-loathing, which has led some to cultivate a certain degree of narcissism, which in turn begets the self-destructive habitus of sexual promiscuity, among other things.
Indeed, many students have good reason to be angry, for anger is a natural and healthy response to injustice. But when angry, a person has four choices before him or her: 1) self-destruction, 2) destruction of others, 3) a combination of self-destruction and the destruction of others, and 4) forgiveness. The only option that does not enslave them and in the end destroy them is forgiveness. Unfortunately, many of our students have become slaves to their anger, which is why some have become apathetic and sluggish.
One of the ways to help them is to expose this. The teacher might need to shine the light on this particular pathology. We could describe this psychological progression to them, or something similar or more accurate, and ask them whether they know anyone who fits the description. Invariably they do. These students need to be challenged: "What do you want to do? Do you want to be a slave? Sure, someone has done something really ugly to you, and every time you see them (i.e., parent, relative, former teacher, VP, etc.) they "yank your chain". Why do you give them so much control over you? Why do you allow them to enslave you? Why do you think the greatest psychologist in history, Jesus himself, tells us over and over again that we need to forgive?"
What is primary here is coming to know who this person is before you and knowing what his wounds are. It's not about teaching curriculum; it is about teaching kids. Curriculum serves the human person, not vice versa.
It is one thing to love the subject matter, another thing to love your students. Indeed, it is difficult to stay interested in the subject matter after teaching it at the same level for 10 or 15 years. But if a teacher loves his students, he will be rejuvenated every semester, because his inspiration comes from them and from having another opportunity to enrich their lives with truth and the good news of salvation. Teaching is not about keeping students busy during a period, much less is it about filling them with information. It is about truth, and telling students the truth and teaching them to think in light of eternal truths is one of the most loving things we can do for them. The most fundamental truth that students need to know is that their primary duty is to "get to heaven", and that their secondary duty is to help others to get heaven (St. John Vianney).
It is prudent not to rely too heavily on a textbook. Instead, the teacher should think very hard about what it is he wants his students to know by the end of the semester, and certainly a textbook can help in this regard. Education is about the possession of truth, but it has for some people, unfortunately, become synonymous with the development of literacy and numeracy skills as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the possession and communication of truth. In our limited experience, students who take open level courses have been, for the most part, oral based learners, but we have found that their ability to grasp some very abstract ideas is often equal to that of students enrolled in the more academic level courses. Their weakness, however, is often literacy. Work on their literacy, to be sure, but do not allow their success level to depend upon their reading and writing skills.
It is important to make sure our students know the distinction between skills and talents. Skills are developed over time; talents are given by God in view of one's vocation and place in the plan of providence. Part of our work is to help them uncover their talents. The bottom line is that God will not ask our students for a report card at the end of their lives, but He will demand an account of how they used the talents He gave them.
But it is a mistake to allow the textbook to dictate what it is our students need to know or what we are to teach them. A textbook is an aid that is meant to serve our needs, not to govern the learning process. It is a good idea to allow students to tell us, at the beginning and/or during the course of the semester, what it is they want to learn and allow ourselves to be sidetracked with it, at least to some degree. But we must decide in advance, and be able to articulate, what it is we want them to know and what is important for them to know.
Course content that is highly structured goes a long way with students drawn to open level courses. As an example of the kind of brainstorming one can do, we may want our students to know some of the fundamentals of ethics, what constitutes happiness, that happiness is not merely a matter of pleasure and feeling good, etc. And since structure is so important, it might be prudent to treat Robert Spitzer's four levels of happiness.
Obviously they should know about the difference between character and personality, that one's ultimate destiny is not a matter of social success, but a matter of character, and why character is the key ingredient in a happy life. Perhaps they should know about the different kinds of love, which ones are fleeting, which one is the most noble and the most human, so as to maximize their chances for a successful married life. We may want them to be able to resolve a few typical cases of euthanasia, or understand the basics of the life issues, especially abortion, natural family planning, technologized parenthood, etc., not to mention the fundamentals of sexual ethics.
We should treat addiction and the effects of drug use, and we should try to inspire them to works of mercy and underscore the relationship between happiness, mental health, and a life of charity, that is, one devoted to the love of God in the love of one's neighbor, especially the suffering. Many of these students will likely have vocations in this area precisely because of the suffering that they've been through in the past.
And of course, they ought to understand the importance of the Mass, the meaning of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Transubstantiation, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the importance of Confession, etc. Students should be given the principles to acquire a critical awareness of modern culture, an awareness rooted in the faith, so that although they are in the world, they may be given the opportunity to freely choose not to be "of the world". As much as we can, we should use personal anecdotes and stories; students love stories.
But above all we should tell them the perennially fascinating stories of the lives of the saints. Students love to hear about the charisms of the saints, so it goes without saying that we have to study their lives. Of course, the ideal saint for students who struggle academically is St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. He was such an embarrassment to his brother seminarians and priests that they actually petitioned the bishop not to ordain him. He wasn't academically brilliant, he found learning very difficult, had a very limited knowledge of math, history, and geography, and he failed his entrance exam to the seminary. Once in, he failed so often that he was soon older than most of his professors. But he was humble. The petition that his brother priests sent out accidentally ended up on his desk. He read it, and actually agreed with it, so he signed it. His was the last signature on the petition.
Imagine! A student struggling academically becomes one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church, the patron saint of priests. St. Padre Pio is another saint that fascinates students, and he is one saint who can identify with the anger of those students who suffered ridicule and contempt, for he too was the object of suspicion and contempt by the official Church.
Indeed, it is the lives of the saints and the stories of their charisms that is the best proof of the existence of God for students.
We should never be afraid to shine the light on the darkness of the vices that students have. We must give them the honest, genuine goods on the effects of vice in their lives, but always against the background of the divine mercy and the joy that results from a life centered around God. If we don't tell them, we're keeping from them the truth that we've been given in order to impart to others.
Once you know in your own mind what it is you want your students to know by the end of the semester, take your time, you have 120 hours to accomplish this, there is no hurry.
Patience, Rules, and Discipline
The maturity level of some students who often choose open level courses is usually well below the average, and so the teacher has to give them much more room than he would others. The deeper the immaturity, the greater the patience required. But one has to know where to draw the line. If a teacher is too impassive, students will walk all over him or her. We have to establish boundaries very clearly, but the boundaries have to be wide enough. Too narrow, and they will resent it, too broad, they will resent that as well. There is no formula for determining the right amount of space to give them; it is an entirely prudential judgment, requiring experience, intuition, circumspection, common sense, memory, docility and flexibility, shrewdness, good reasoning, foresight and caution. The more we know our students, the easier it will be to find that balance.
Certain rules should be established immediately, ones that they can abide by easily. But rules have to be few. For example, one thing that we should not tolerate is foul or dirty language in the classroom. One should never tolerate students getting up and walking wherever and whenever they want. Demand that they be civil with one another. You can be tough with them once they know you love them, but it is prudent not to start off tough. Let them know you mean business, but do not be confrontational. You must establish trust, for they need to know you love them. After the relationship has been established, then you can tell them who they are (i.e., human persons created in the image and likeness of God), what they might have become through the choices that they've made, and what they can be, that is, what God calls them to be.
Besides patience, students must always be treated with great kindness, even when we discipline. We must always respect the dignity of the student before us. It is very important that we not lose control, but administer discipline with great control, without anger, firmly, but with a light heart and with deep respect for the student's right not to be looked upon with contempt, or humiliated. It must be a discipline that aims at restoring them to a certain level of integrity for their own good.
Teaching open level courses demands that we learn to take ourselves very lightly. If a teacher has to raise his voice, it must be done without anger. And since fear is the root of anger, we ought not to fear. The humour of our students can be very immature, but at times immature behavior can be very funny, so one should be able to laugh -- even at ourselves. But we must never be disgusted with our students, and never seriously ridicule them. We must always see in them what they cannot see in themselves at this point in their lives, namely their goodness. We have to be able to pick up on their specific gifts, see our students for what they can be, and mirror what we see, to them.
Whenever we catch our students doing something good or saying something intelligent or asking an intelligent question, we need to realize it on the spot, affirm them, and show them their intelligence. Always talk about their potentiality. Always look at them with reverence, but never obliterate the necessary professional distance. Do not try to be "hip".
Do not evaluate open level students on schedule. Evaluate them when they are ready, after we are sure they can be successful. Always teach them what you are going to test them on, and test what it is you taught them. Surprises beget anxiety, and fear is the root of anger. Allowing them to compose their own tests will accomplish a great deal. Ask them what they want you to test them on, how they would like to be tested. Usually students will produce a very good test that accurately measures their learning.
Allowing for lots of discussion as well as allowing yourself to get sidetracked on issues that they are genuinely concerned about is always very fruitful. In the course of such off topic discussions, opportunities will inevitably arise in which you can teach, in the context of the discussion, something in the curriculum. It may mean having to teach a unit two months in advance, but it will be more fruitful than if we were to slavishly follow a schedule. We need to be ready to teach something that we hadn't originally planned, for example, something to do with politics, elections, science, or philosophy, etc. And so although the course content should be highly structured, the direction of the course need not be.
Teaching students who take open level courses is in many ways missionary work. Fundamentally it is about bringing a piece of heaven into the classroom with us every day -- in fact, this is true regardless of the course level one is teaching. That is why our entire life at school must be permeated with a joy that does not depend on a smooth day, but a joy rooted in the love of souls and a love of the cross. Every day we must pray for help, and we must study the faith so that we can impart it. But in the end, we really have to be the gospel that we intend to teach them, because we all know students forget the details, as we have, but do we ever forget the teachers who loved us, who prayed for us, and who were genuinely happy to see us? We haven't. We don't believe our students will either.
Deacon Douglas McManaman, Francis Hill, and Thomas Benton. "Teaching Open Level Religion." CERC (November 2009).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of Anger, Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.
Thomas Benton teaches Philosophy and Religion at St. Robert's Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ontario. Thomas Benton has been teaching the Theory of Knowledge Course for the International Baccalaureate program for the past five years. He has taught high school for 29 years. Tom is married and has three children.Copyright © 2009 Deacon Douglas McManaman, Francis Hill & Thomas Benton
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