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As I’ve mentioned here before, this year it’s fallen to me to teach the First Communion class at church. Three weeks into the experiment, and already I’m realizing afresh what I knew going in: I am not a classroom teacher.

I know how long it takes one kindergartener and one second grader to, say, turn a page in a book. What I didn’t know until recently was how long it takes thirty second graders to turn a page in a book. Think about how long it takes a train to stop, from the time the brakes are applied until it slides to a complete halt, a mile or so up the track, and you have some idea.

Already I begin to despair of their ever knowing who God is, where God is, and what God knows, never mind the doctrine of the Trinity and all the rest of it. I on the other hand have learned some very useful lessons so far.

For example, I have learned that no matter how entertaining the head catechist’s use of candy to teach a mock-up lesson on Saint John Vianney might have been (ask how he performed in school; everyone holds up a Dum-Dum pop, etc), it’s not a good idea to replicate this activity with thirty second-graders. I mean, unless you want the whole hour to devolve into a candy-eating party it’s not. Ask people who made them; crinkle crinkle choruses the class. All very dispiriting.

Ditto the clever use of a balloon to illustrate the relationship of our soul to our body. Again, I had some idea of the level of spontaneous hysteria generated by two children sighting an adult holding a balloon. I’m bad at math, though, and had to learn by doing what that hysteria looks like when multiplied by fifteen. Fortunately I had the decent sense not to pull the balloon out, or to give anyone else one, until the very end, which meant that only our marching out into the social hall to meet their waiting parents was an exercise in chaos.

Still, let’s just say that I’m looking forward to teaching a really boring lesson next week.

Meanwhile, I’m casting about for resources to enhance our mutual learning experience. Principles of entropy aside, I take seriously the Sisyphean task of immersing these thirty children in the beauty and richness of Catholic tradition and culture, and of nurturing their natural, if sometimes pretty darn latent, sense of reverence, in one hour a week. To learn about the Mass is to regard it with wonder . . .

Speaking of which, I wonder about this. I first encountered it last April, over at the Mere Comments blog, where I had a heck of a lot to say about it, if you’ve got the time.

Revisiting this Mass kit, I find that my judgment of it is pretty much what it was. Meaning no disrespect either to the devout parents who created it, or to Archbishop Burke and others who have endorsed it, I think that here we have a case of execution at cross-purposes with intent.

“Created for early childhood education,” reads the accompanying copy. Parents are advised to instruct their children in the reverent handling of the items in the kit: chalice, paten, ciborium, crucifix, candles, and play Host. The problem is that the design of these objects doesn’t suggest any need for reverent, or even careful, handling. That they’re made of cloth and rendered in primary colors not only makes obvious the fact that they’re not remotely “real,” but also suggests as well that little children can’t be expected to handle real things carefully, let alone with reverence. Prophecy, meet self-fulfillment.

I’m not particularly a devotee of Maria Montessori, but certain elements of her philosophy ring true to me, chiefly the driving idea that very young children can participate in real-world endeavors. This is why Montessori schools are full of child-sized brooms and dustpans: because even a toddler can do something as genuinely, present-momently useful as sweeping a floor.

I weaned my own children very young from plastic sippy cups to little china mugs — fortunately I own a very durable set of white china — and witnessed firsthand the difference in their handling of these objects. Plastic sippy cups got thrown. China cups were manipulated with care, and with, after the first couple of tries, minimal spills. I’d held my breath initially, but even in a house with tile floors, the worst that happened was the loss of a couple of handles. Encouraged, I proceeded to toss the plastic kiddie plates, replacing them with salad plates from the real china everyone else ate on.

I’m one who likes a pretty table, I confess, so these moves were as much about aesthetics as they were pedagogical. But the message to the children, I think, was that a) family dinner is a solemnly sacred, if also frequently hilarious, occasion; and that b) from an early age their serious participation was expected.

All of this is why, for both home and church use, I would save my $89.99, then save up a little more, and buy this set instead. You have to scroll down a bit to see the Mass kit (also pictured here to the left), but there are lots of lovely things on the page.

Compare this Mass kit with the one from Wee Believers. Even small children can handle it, yet it doesn’t scream “little kid.” There’s no aging out of this set, at least not until the child’s hands are nearly adult-sized; aside from the scale, there’s no gap to be bridged between toy and tool. Though these implements exist for the purpose of catechesis and training, I’m not sure you’d have to spend much time teaching children to handle them reverently, any more than you have to spend time teaching a child over the age of one not to throw a breakable cup.

A friend of mine has this set already, so I’ll be using it in my class, without candy and without balloons.

And finally: after a year in this house, I’ve unearthed the box containing my all-time favorite resource for catechism. I like one reviewer’s idea of using it as a three-day at-home retreat for her daughter just prior to receiving her First Communion. Now to figure out how to translate that for thirty second graders, one hour a week . . .

ADDENDUM: A friend recently sent round some favorite outtakes from a “Theology According to Student Bloopers” article in the latest issue of New Oxford Review:

? God is a different person to everybody, and to some he may not have a corpulent form at all.

? I think God’s ways are mysterious, and the meaning is not going to jump out and bite us in the a**.

? Doris Day started the Catholic Worker.

? In the Bible, God is loving, forgiving, powerful, and a creationist.

? In the Greek language of the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the “haggis” or Word of God.

? God wrecks havoc on the Egyptians in a fairy tale manor.

? Human beings are God’s masterpiece which he wanted to survive.

In my First Communion class, we’ve had our own first blooper of the year. We were looking at a picture of God creating the world and figuring out who was who. God the Father we identified readily enough, with accompanying hosts of angels. Angels are easy, by the way: they have wings and sometimes, but not always, faces.

“What about these two little people down at the bottom, in the bushes?” I said. “Who are they?”

Hands shot up. Before I could call on anyone, a voice in the wilderness spoke with authority: “That’s Odd and Even.”

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