Thursday, May 12, 2011
End-of-the-Year Reflections on Confirmation Catechesis with Hispanic Kids
While teaching has normally been a bit "like falling off a log" for me, I have to admit this was a hugely challenging year. These children of immigrants, who live in the cusp between the Hispanic culture and the mainstream American one, were largely a closed book. They were reluctant to participate in class, though I used story, was often personally revelatory in an effort to model how faith sharing is done, asked questions that related to their lives, some one-on-one sharing activities, and more. I even used that ice-breaker "beach-ball" with the questions on it that students are supposed to answer when they catch the ball. Sadly, the only time they seemed to be fully engaged all year was during the final two classes - and the engagement was not around the lesson, but was about the pressure they felt as they were being asked to complete the recitation of their required memorized prayers. Not exactly my highest catechetical priority, frankly - but individual accountability apparently hit them where they live.
I have to admit I had some sense of relief a few Saturdays ago when an experienced retreat leader, my friend John Donahue-Grosssman, admitted to me during a break in the Confirmation retreat that he had trashed his plan for the day and was re-tooling his approach - because the kids were not responding to the usual ice-breaker activities. We had arrived at nearly the end of the morning and the kids were still stiffly sitting there giving each other very minimal answers to the faith-sharing questions. It was not just me, apparently. These kids ARE hard nuts to crack.
I shared with John the wisdom I had received at the beginning of the year from the diocesan leader for Hispanic youth ministry - that the greatest issue for these kids is self-esteem. I mentioned that the parish catechists, in their mid-year meeting, had expressed a concern that they did not understand these students - and wanted help in learning who they are. That, for John, affirmed his sense that he needed to do some values-clarification and affirmation exercises with them. His afternoon with them was more successful, but he admitted this was hard work.
Why were these Hispanic teens (from a recent immigrant population) difficult to catechize? First, obviously, is that self-esteem issue. Most were reluctant to share personal thoughts or feelings on any topic, even when I worked overtime to help them feel "safe" in our group. It wasn't even peer pressure in the normal sense - since these kids went to a variety of different day schools, and were at several different grade levels and only a few knew each other outside of class. A few of them were less reluctant to participate, but even their example was not enough to galvanize the rest of them into participation.
They have one foot in each culture - and each child has a different mixture of elements. Some were familiar with traditional Hispanic devotional activities because their families still practice them. Some regularly attended Spanish Mass. For most of the others, however, this was not true. Activities in catechetical texts often assume the students have full familiarity with elements of American culture. That, frankly, was not true for my group. Also, as a musician, I like to use music in the faith formation classroom - but I never knew which church music to use to illustrate a point with these kids, because they attend Spanish Mass when they do go - and I only know some of the bilingual music - which was not familiar to them. Liturgical catechesis - on the symbols of water, oil etc. worked a little better than some other things - but largely throughout the year, the only signs of understanding were pretty much non-verbal: the widening of the eyes and leaning forward, the sudden abandonment of the typical bored-teen facial expression and body language.
I will be praying for them between now and Confirmation and beyond.