Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Annunciation

 Today is the third week of Advent. Due to the snow and ice, we had only 8 children in the atrium this morning. They all went right to work when they entered the classroom. Many times the children work on their own while I give individual or small group lessons. Now that we've introduced more works it is so interesting to see what work the children return to over and over. 

This morning I introduced the Annunciation work to the whole group of children. I don't prefer to give these kinds of whole group lessons because, frankly, not all of the children are quite ready to sit for the whole lesson. Due to our time constraints, I chose to give the lesson to the whole group anyway. 

The Annunciation is part of the Infancy Narratives. We introduce these lessons during the season of Advent for obvious reasons. This year we will cover the birth of Jesus and adoration of the shepherds and the visit of the Magi (near Epiphany) in addition to today's work. Next year we will also cover Mary's visit with Elizabeth and the Presentation in the Temple. 

We always read the story directly from the Bible in the translation the children will hear at Mass. I gave a little background information about the Land of Israel and the cities we have been learning about (Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) to help ground the children in the idea that Jesus was a real person born in a real place. We remember our reading from last week about the 'People who dwell in darkness shall see a great light." And remember how long they had to wait. 

After reading the story of the angel Gabriel and his visit with Mary, I re-read the scripture verses with the materials. We then take some time to ask some wondering questions after we remember all the key players (Mary, the angel Gabriel). I wonder how Mary felt when the angel appeared? I wonder what she did when the angel left. The children's answers and ideas are always so thoughtful. 

It opens up scripture for me in ways that are often new and exciting.

After the lesson we invite the children to use the materials whenever they would like. There is a scripture booklet that goes with the materials and we let them know that they just have to ask if they would like us to read the scripture with them. When the first child took the materials from the shelf I heard, "What's this Miss Beth?" Sometimes we let the children discover things instead of showing them right away. This child found the little red bag with the materials. I did not show it to them when I gave the lesson. 
We opened the bag and found a dove. We remembered that the dove is the symbol for the Holy Spirit. Eventually the children may remember that red is for the Holy Spirit as well (which is in our Liturgical Colors lesson). I don't mention it, it will come in time as the child makes these connections and works with the materials. We introduced the dove as a symbol for the Holy Spirit when we learned about the Land of Israel. In that work the dove is placed over the city of Nazareth......get it?

I love how the materials work together to help the child make connections over time, as they work with each material again and again. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Time of Waiting

This photo is from my training, not our atrium, but it shows the items we used on the prayer table yesterday.
This week in the atrium we introduced a new color on our prayer table, purple. Purple is the color for waiting, which we learned in the Liturgical Colors lesson. One of the many things I love about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the celebration of the seasons. Our culture has been gearing up for Christmas since October it seems. It is such a joy to be able to talk with the children about this time of waiting that we call Advent. 

Although this is the second week of Advent, it was our first week in the atrium during Advent. We start by gathering outside the atrium until all of our friends have arrived. Each child receives something to carry (the purple prayer cloth, the Bible, a candle-we had five today!- a picture of Mary, etc.) We line up and walk on the line silently to the prayer table. It takes a lot of effort for some of the children to remain silent and not to bump into the person in front of them. And, of course, they are not all silent nor do they all remain on the line! It is amazing how well they do process, however. Reminds me of the congregation walking up for Holy Communion.

After we set our items one by one on the prayer table (more waiting and practice in being patient) we talk about the items on the table. Today, in addition to talking about the color purple and the four weeks of waiting, we remembered what we are waiting for - the birth of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas. 

We also talked about special people who lived in the land of Israel long before Jesus was born. These people we call prophets. Prophets were special people that listened. They listened to God. One of these prophets was named Isaiah (which elicited an exclamation from one four year old about his friend at school named Isaiah!). 

The children listened closely while I read from our new Bible, Isaiah 9:1. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. What were the people waiting for? A great light. We wondered what the great light could be. We talked about what it is like to be in the dark (scary!). We talked about the lights in our lives (night-lights, kitchen lights). We even remembered that Jesus said, "I am the light of the world."

We talked about how hard it is to wait. We talked about listening, like Isaiah. Just as we were finishing I encouraged the children to stop and listen by being silent (which sometimes I have to remind them means we aren't talking!). At our moment of silence we heard beautiful church bells from outside. We talked about how we would never have heard the beautiful bells if we hadn't been quiet. 

We finished our time at the prayer table by learning a song with the lyrics, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

What a beautiful beginning to Advent in the atrium. I am looking forward to the next two weeks with the children and hope that you and your family are finding ways to stop, be silent and listen as we wait for the birth of Jesus.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Liturgical Colors

Above you can see the work we use to teach the colors of the church year. The four chasubles are in the four colors of the church: white, purple, green and red. We present the colors fairly simply at this time. White is for the feasts of the Church. The two great feasts are Christmas and Easter. Purple is before the feast. Advent and Lent are two times when we are preparing for the great feasts of Christmas and Easter. Green is after the feast. It is a growing time when we learn more about Jesus. Red we present only as for the feast of Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit. 

The poster is on the wall and is a control chart for this work. I've been a bit surprised at how much the children look and refer to these charts (we have one for the altar work,too). It just goes to show how important the environment and order is for the children of this age (those sensitive periods!). 

I happened to present this lesson to the group on the Feast of Christ the King. One of my four-year-olds remarked to me in passing (quite a while after this presentation) "Father Leo was wearing white today." Because I was working with another child I could not talk to him about why Fr. Leo was wearing white (it not being Easter or Christmas). I love how much these young children notice! It's one reason I always sat towards the front of the church when my own children were young and encourage others to do the same. Especially as we continue to learn about the Mass, sitting with the children in a place where they can see what is happening on the altar will help them incorporate what they are learning in class and feel more a part of the larger Church.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Work in the Atrium

The Bible in the Prayer Corner
Altar 1 Work
We have finally begun working with some of our Mass works in the Atrium. It has been so hard for me to wait on these beautiful materials! I think it has been a little hard for the children as well. We have been focusing on practical life in the Atrium to help the children learn order, concentration, coordination and independence. It is by working on these skills that the children are more prepared to absorb the religious lessons. They are more capable of sitting and listening, of moving more deliberately, of carrying things one at a time, of sitting and looking at the beauty of the altar or of walking slowly for a procession.

This week we began class with a procession on the line to set up the prayer table with a new element: The Holy Bible. In this whole group presentation we talked about the Bible as the most precious book in the whole world. We showed the Bible and how beautiful it is and I read Jesus' words from the gospel of John, "I am the light of the world." We remember that although we are hearing Ms. Beth's words, the words are the words of Jesus. We remembered that these words are the reason we light a candle. Over and over we repeated the words of Jesus, "I am the light of the world."

During our free work time, I showed a few children the Altar 1 work. In this work we begin naming the articles used during the Mass: The altar cloth, the chalice, the paten, the candles and the crucifix.  I explain that the chalice is used to hold the blood of Christ, the wine and the paten holds the body of Christ, the bread. After the lesson, the children are able to use these materials themselves. If they want the candles lit they must ask an adult who then sits with them until they extinguish the flames. 

I purposely showed two 4 year olds this work. A three year old joined the lesson. All three children were enchanted by the work. It was the three year old, however, who set up the table (which you see above) and then asked for the lighted candles and sat silently for a very long time admiring the work until she was interrupted by one of the 4 year olds coming back to do the work again. ("Darn" he said when he saw the work was being used!)

We have only two weeks left in the atrium until Advent. Come Advent there are some beautiful works to present. Each week I am left wishing I could have more days and more hours with the children! What a blessing this work is to me and to them.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Importance of Movement

Above you can see the 'walking line' that graces our atrium. We use the line to practice movement exercises such as walking, walking while carrying an item and to enter the classroom during a procession. Yes, I know, technically this tape isn't a line. It isn't perfectly straight and it doesn't go on forever! In Montessori nomenclature any tape on the floor (no matter the shape) is called the line. It took me a few weeks to get used to this.

In this post I talked about the sensitive periods for the young child. Movement is one of those sensitive periods that we take very seriously in the atrium. The children may practice walking on the line at any time (and many of them LOVE entering and leaving the classroom by the line), but all of the work in the atrium is filled with movement. 

Any person who has had the most limited time with young children know their penchant for movement. Many never stop moving from morning to night. I can remember my youngest hopping, jumping, climbing and scaling everything. I don't think her really ever walked or sat still. Even while I read him books he was active, he did not sit quietly at my side. Yet, when I asked him about the story, he could always tell me.

Knowing that the child has a need for movement, everything in the atrium is geared toward this movement. Each child has the freedom to move from one area of the room to another at will. He or she can take out any work he or she has been given a lesson on. Each lesson consists of some type of movement (pouring, spooning, walking, etc.). Although we do not hop or jump or run in the classroom, we work on controlled movement. 

These controlled movements transfer to the church. We will work on the sign of the cross, genuflection, the gestures of the mass (moment of Epiclesis or Consecration and the Offering this year). All of this movement also does something unexpected for the children: It helps them to sit still. The movement exercises in all of the other works assist the child to learn to control his body. As he gains control, we can present the more time consuming lesson that include Bible readings. It it will also assist the child in sitting through the Mass.

So the next time your young son or daughter wants to run, run, run......know why he or she NEEDS to!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Thoughts about the Land of Israel

The Land of Israel relief map. This is not ours but from another atrium.
I get so much joy from the children in the Atrium. It is especially wonderful to see their interest in the materials and the thoughts that they share with us.

On Sunday, at the end of our time in the Atrium, the children were putting away their work and gathering around the prayer table. One child walked by our relief map of the land of Israel. I haven't presented this work yet. She asked, "What's that?" I responded, "That is the land of Israel. It is the place Jesus lived." A three year old looked at me with eyes wide open and asked, "Is he still there?" I told her he was not. She then asked, "Why not?" 

Well.....we'll be learning all of that soon but I just told her he lived there a long time ago and that we'll soon be learning all about his life and family and where he lived.

What a wonderful way for the children to begin to anticipate the work we have in the next few weeks! I will be presenting the historical background of Jesus (where he was from, that it was a real place) and then in Advent will begin to present the Infancy Narratives. The children are so looking forward to using those materials that they see on the shelf but have not been presented to them yet!

And so am I!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Golden Age of Catechesis

Painting of the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs of Rome, 3rd Century.
To become certified in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes two years of training. I took the first half of the training last summer in an intensive course so that we could start our Atrium at St. Mary's. I will complete the training next summer. In addition to the training (which incorporates theory and philosophy of the Catechesis, the doctrinal foundations for each material, as well as learning the atrium materials and time for prayer and reflection) we are required to visit a Montessori classroom. Since I work in a Montessori classroom I am instead required to visit another Atrium which I hope to do this winter sometime. 

I am fortunate to be able to attend any other session of the training given by my trainer at no additional cost. I was able to attend a session yesterday and wanted to share some of the information we covered with you.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd work is based on the philosophy of Maria Montessori regarding the child. Dr. Montessori broke up development into what she called 'planes.' The children in our Atrium are in the first plane of development which continues until about age 6. At each phase of development, the child is focused on different aspects of his growth in the world. Dr. Montessori called these 'sensitive periods.' A sensitive period is a particular period in a child's life in which he or she has a particular need and ability to learn something. The child will learn these things more quickly and easily than at any other time of her development. For the children in our Atrium they are attuned to the following:

  • Movement 
  • Language  
  • Order
  • Sensory preparation
  • Social Graces
The young child is in 'the Golden Age of Catechesis.' It is a perfect time for the child to fall in love with Jesus and the Church due to her unique developmental abilities at this time. I feel blessed that St. Mary's has allowed us to take on this beautiful work for the children in this first plane of development.

In the next few posts I will talk about how we use these sensitive periods in the work of the Atrium to assist the child who says, "help me to help myself."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why a multi-age classroom?

The prayer table as set by the children with our new Good Shepherd statue and leaves for Autumn.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) has three levels. Each consists of a three-year age span. We currently are running the level one Atrium which is for children ages 3-6. Level two is ages 6-9 and level three is ages 9-12. At this time our Atrium is only made up of 3 and 4 year old children due to the number of children we had initially signed up for the program. Next year will should have the full complement of ages. 

Why does this program promote a multi-age classroom and won't the children become bored being in the same environment for three years?

In a multi-aged classroom we have a more authentic community than we would if there were only children of the same age present. In the Atrium each child works at his or her own pace. This means that the children are free to work with materials that are appropriate for their developmental levels. The Catechist takes time to observe the work of the children and to modify the classroom as is needed for their continued growth. In addition, the younger children look up to the older children in a way that far exceeds their admiration for the adult in the classroom. They can envision a time when they too will be 5 and will be able to master the work that the 5 year old is doing. In addition, the older or more experienced children are able to assist the younger children with their lessons or in cleaning up a spill or finding part of a missing work. At all ages the children are provided with opportunities to assist in their growth as individuals - all without the help of the adult!

The three-year cycle provides adequate time for the children to work through all of the lessons and to continue to slowly master the lessons they have been working through. We are given the luxury of time that is not available to a classroom that exists for only one year before the children move on. The children are free to contemplate the Gospel truths of the Nativity during Advent, the Empty Tomb at Easter and the lessons of the Mass and the Parables throughout the year. Every lesson is not given each year to each child. It is over the three years that the Biblical and Liturgical lessons are given, each in their own seasons which correspond to the seasons of the Church. 

As we grow together in the Atrium this our first year, we will continue to see the community of children develop and mature. Over the next few years this cohesiveness will increase as we have returning children who are familiar with the Atrium and it's peacefulness and will help to pass this joy onto the new children entering. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Practical Life in the Atrium

 What is Practical Life and why do we have it in the Atrium?

If you've ever been to a Montessori Primary Classroom (ages 3-6) you will see that Practical Life is one of the areas of the classroom. All of the children, but especially the youngest, will spend much of their time in this area. The purpose of the Practical Life exercises is multi-faceted. As anyone who is in ear shot of a preschool child knows, if one is cleaning, sewing, dusting, sweeping or cooking, the preschooler says, "I want to do it, too!" In addition, that same preschooler can often be heard to say, "I can do it myself." She says it even if it isn't quite true. 

Young children have a need to work in a way that is different than an adults view of work. The adult works to accomplish a task. The child works to perfect himself. We see this when a child will do a task over and over and over again without tiring. It is in the process of this work that the young child is meeting an internal developmental need that is unknown to the adult observer. Only the child knows when he has tired of a task. He does not work to accomplish the task. It is in the doing, the moving, the focused independence that the child is creating himself. It is, in a way, a form of prayer. For who has given the child this need but our Creator?

It is through the work of Practical Life (in the Atrium we find work to do, we do not play) that the child begins to learn to control and coordinate her movements, to find inner order and to work independently. These skills are so important for every child and are the skills that the young child has an inner need to master. Each child does his own work and can work at a lesson for as long as he needs without interruption (hopefully!). As teachers, we do not teach so much as guide the child. We ask only that the child respect herself, her environment and the others in the Atrium. The children have freedom with limits. Freedom to move at will, to choose their own work, to determine when they are finished with something and even freedom to not work. All as long as they follow the three rules of respect.

In this way, it is through the work of Practical Life that the children are preparing themselves for the lessons about the Life of Jesus and the Mass which require more control of attention and movement. They should also be more prepared to sit through Mass which requires a great deal of control!

Below are some of the Practical Life exercises that were on the shelf at the beginning of the year. I have just changed most of them to reflect the season of Autumn and to add a small dimension of difficulty. When your children return after having a week off they will be excited to see new things in the Atrium!

Flower Arranging 
Pouring and Drinking Water
Spooning apples

Pouring Small Shells
Placing Apples by their stems

Tweezing Puff Balls

Polishing a Mirror
Threading a Needle
The Prayer Table as set by the children.
A word about the prayer table. You can see the many flower arrangements placed on the prayer table by the children. I think flower arranging may be one of the favorite works in the Atrium right now! Setting up the prayer table is a work the children may do although at this time no one has chosen to set it up. I think the children are still too immersed in the newness of the Atrium and the Practical Life work. At the end of the morning we gather together at the prayer table as a group. If the table is not set, we will set it together with flowers, objects (shells at this time), a picture or statue, a prayer card and a candle which I light. We sing some songs and are beginning to practice 'making silence.' It is here that we can contemplate our work in silence, we can say something to Jesus out loud or in silence if we like. We also dismiss from the prayer table. 

We have had five weeks in the Atrium so far. I am so pleased with the progress of the children. Having 20 children who have never been in this kind of classroom in the past was daunting to me. Being a new Atrium means we will have to go slowly this year and take our time presenting new lessons. Fortunately, slowing down is one of the goals of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For in this slowness we have the time to contemplate the Goodness of God.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Welcome to Historic St. Mary's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd blog! My intent with this blog is to provide education about the Catechesis to parents and parish members who are interested. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. Mary's is a classroom for three and four year-olds. We have 20 children enrolled in the program this year. As this is our first year running this program, we are thrilled to have this many students. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd generally serves children ages 3, 4 and 5. It is our hope to incorporate all three ages into the program next year. 

Stay tuned for more information about the program. If you are a parent with a child in the program, this is a great place to learn about the program and what your child is doing each Sunday morning. It is my goal to educate not only parents but also the St. Mary's parish and parishes in the Diocese of Harrisburg about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Thank you for joining us on our journey!