How to Help Teens Learn Their Faith
These Montessori-inspired principles work with teens and adults, in all sorts of subjects
Among catechists and parents familiar with the program, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is consistently ranked one of the most effective ways to help children develop a deep, personal relationship with God. That’s super, but there are two challenges: Not all parishes can offer CGS, and CGS is only for children up through age 12.
So let’s look at how we can take a few principles from this Montessori approach to faith formation and apply them to teens at home and in the classroom. The ideas I’m going to explain here are applicable no matter what curriculum your parish uses or what your usual teaching style is.
Helping Teens Play with Ideas
Montessori runs on a cycle of introducing an idea to the child, then letting the child "play with" the idea. With little kids, we use hands-on activities. With teenagers, we don’t abandon hands-on, but we get a couple upgrades.
First upgrade: As their abstract reasoning grows, teens become able to play directly with the ideas themselves – indeed getting chances to play with ideas are the way that teens grow their reasoning skills. This lines right up with the task teens have of moving from an acceptance of their parents’ faith to asking themselves whether what they received from their parents holds true.
Second upgrade: Teens are young adults able to do adult things. So the other thing they need to "play" with is doing actual adult Christianity on their own. Your challenge as a parent or teacher is to create opportunities to hand over to the kids real responsibility for doing adult Christian activities.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how this has played out in my home:
- I took the boy out to work on a disaster zone. It was my lead, but he willingly followed. In turn, when released to undertake his own initiative, he and his friend started going down every month or so to do maintenance and construction work at a convent an hour out into the countryside -- something they choose to do without my being involved at all.
- My seventh grader and I had a rare chance to do some volunteering with the homeless for a few hours a couple of times a month. I guided the choices of activities, but she made scheduling decisions, grew in competence, and developed the skills needed to serve in the ministries that interested her. In turn, with no prompting from the grown-ups, she and her older sister both started grabbing at chances to volunteer for or with the homeless on their own (with various ministries -- not just a pair of teen girls chatting up strange men on park benches, ha). All I do is say yes when they ask and make the calendar work.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. The children have heard the Gospel, they've seen others taking care of the poor, and they’ve studied Church teaching. The groundwork for corporal works of mercy had been laid.
How might this approach work in a classroom? Here are a series of activities that lay that groundwork, and provide the present-and-play approach to education at a teenager’s level:
- Introduce a problem in the mode of story. You could watch a short documentary like Living on One Dollar (not suitable for all audiences) or share a newspaper article that profiles the difficulties of a specific family.
- The kids talk through the problem and think through solutions. Your job is to suggest questions they should consider and guide the discussion so they don’t go off the rails.
- You give your students a Church document (excerpted) to wrestle with. You read the text together, and they ask questions, discuss, and work through what it means and how it applies. In your guidance you might give them historical context or share relevant other teachings -- you're their expert witness they can call on to figure out their problem.
- You lead them through lectio divina on a pertinent passage in the Gospels or the book of Acts. You might do this several times in different ways, using meditative prayer in some sessions and discussion or journaling in other sessions.
- Into all this, as you're guiding them you come back to the Good News over and over again, as part of the general conversation. The problem you have presented poses bigger questions: Why is the world so full of evil? Why doesn't God fix things right now? Why do Christians do these works of mercy?
- You challenge the group to step up and act. The kids (not you!) research options for what they could do and how they could do it. (You might guide with suggestions or inspiration, but let them lead you.) You have them as a group choose a task and make the thing happen.
- The kids take total responsibility for their acts of service, except where you absolutely must take control. For example, you will have to manage permission slips and chaperones, but the kids can make supply lists, develop their work strategy, carry out the actual work of mercy, and so forth.
Meanwhile, you are building relationships as you go. In your time together, you are allowing time for prayer requests, personal updates and general conversation. As you listen and observe, you'll notice concepts you need to introduce to your teens, depending on the kinds of questions and struggles they are having.
I chose the example of corporal works of mercy because it is an excellent bridge to the faith for teens who don’t yet have a relationship with God, but I’ve used these principles in all sorts of subjects, in groups ranging from pre-teens to adults.
No matter what you’re teaching, your role is the same: You show your students what can be done, teach the basics of the practice and the spirituality behind it, then step back and give them opportunities to run with what they’ve learned.