Pupils, teacher give new faith course an A+

Teacher Stephanie Denman's Grade one class sits in rapt attention during their religious class.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Teacher Stephanie Denman's Grade one class sits in rapt attention during their religious class.

October 26, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Teacher Stephanie Denman seems clearly motivated as she teaches the new elementary program for religious education to her Grade One class.

She uses a large book filled with illustrations and stories to teach the lesson. A large smartboard helps her bring out the content. Students seem genuinely interested, raising their hands to answer her questions.

"We really like it," Denman said of the new curriculum, called Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ.

"I think it's just a really great step forward for our district in Christ-centred learning."

Denman, a Grade One teacher at Bishop Greschuck School in Edmonton, is one of hundreds of teachers across Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories using the new curriculum in their classrooms.

The program came to life after the bishops of these areas realized the old program no longer reflected the evolving nature of the Church and decided to craft a new one. The task fell on Pearson Education, a Toronto-based publishing company.

"The previous program is over 20 years old so the bishops of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and the NWT decided that it was time to renew the religious education program for Catholic Schools," notes publisher Carol Stokes of Pearson Education.

What is new about it? "It is still based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and on the religious education policy document that has been developed and adopted by the bishops," explained Stokes.

"So it's still the same base of Catholic faith. However, it is much more highly visual, there are digital components and the pedagogy and catechetical messages used, of course, are updated and more relevant to today's students and teachers."

LEARNING GUIDELINES

Sandra Talarico, a religious education consultant with Edmonton Catholic Schools, said the difference between the old and the new curriculum is that Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ follows 21st century learning guidelines.

"The books are more colourful, they are interactive and they give you these technologies to learn," she explained. "It shows you how to permeate the faith in different subject areas and it also provides professional development for teachers."

The programs for Grades 1 and 2 are already published. Grade 3 is coming out in April 2016. Grades 4 through 8 will be published over the next three to four years.

The development of the program is guided by the bishops, who approve all content, said Stokes.

The writing and review team comes from Western Canada and Ontario, and consists of a series of theologians, teachers, religious education consultants, liturgists, parents, diocesan partners, First Nations, Metis and Inuit, and Eastern rite reviewers.

The components for Grades 1 and 2 are a student resource for school and home use, two big books with Scripture stories, a set of 24 posters, a CD of 20 songs, and a very comprehensive Teacher Resource Binder.

The digital versions of each of these components include lots of rich embedded multimedia such as video, music, audio, interactive elements and additional visuals.

They can be accessed 24/7 and on various devices by students and parents, teachers, and pastoral teams via web portals.

There are also on-line professional development modules for teachers that support faith development and understanding of the key concepts in the religion curriculum.

According to the Catholic Bishops of Ontario and Western Canada, Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ creates strong links between home, school, and parish.

"The classroom experience helps students to deepen their love of God and their neighbours," the bishops said in a statement.

"Using the best pedagogical practices, the program seeks to engage students in knowing and living their faith. This will not only help them today, but will also prepare them for tomorrow as they grow and mature and make significant contributions to our society as faith-filled Catholics who radiate the joy of believing."

Every student gets an illustrated textbook of the Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ program "and every child can access the material from their tablet, from their computer, from their mobile phone and they can read the Bible stories with their parents," noted Stokes.

INTERACTIVE ACTIVITY

"If they are at soccer practice they can click on a story to see a video or to hear a song related to the story and then reinforce their understanding through an interactive activity. So it is very 21st century."

There are six strands to the program: believing, celebrating, living a moral life, living in communion, living in solidarity and prayer. Each unit contains enquiry questions, Scripture, prayers, story narratives, profiles of saints and holy people, faith facts, faith in action and faith words.

Each unit connects the program to lived experiences in homes and parishes.

The curriculum takes an integrated approach to connect religious education with other subjects on the school curriculum such as language, science or socials studies.

And, as Talarico points out, each grade of the Growing in Faith, Growing in Christ program is organized into five units, which follow the course of the liturgical and school year. "That's important because the kids are learning about the particular seasons when they happen."

RELIGIOUS SEASONS

For instance, there is a unit specific for Advent and Christmas so that the children are actually learning about Advent and Christmas when is actually Advent and Christmas.

"And then they learn about Lent and Easter and all the themes around it when is Lent and Easter."

Denman is happy with the new curriculum, especially the "beautiful" illustrations and the "wonderful music."

"It's a great change from the old program because it is a lot more hands-on and a lot more developmentally appropriate for the kids in the kids language.

"It's not really beyond where they are at right now."

She describes the program as child-friendly and says the content applies to their young lives.

"For example, it has prayers that are created by children. It has questions like 'What do I wonder, what does the Bible teach me, why do I pray?' It has children asking themselves those questions so it allows the children even in Grade 1 to be reflective and to be thinking about God."

SPECIAL NAMES

Denman is still working on the beginning of the Grade 1 program and likes the part where students learn why their names are special and how each of them is called by God by name.

"We are talking about families right now and how all families are different and how we pray together," she explained. "That's what we are learning right now and they really like that."

Denman teaches the religion program every day. "Sometimes I like to teach it after lunch time but religion is such a special part of the curriculum you can apply it all day long with your teaching, in your role-modeling, how you interact with your children," she explained.

"Really religion is in my classroom all day long because we are learning through Chris twho is our role model."