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Frequently Asked Questions About Classroom Catechisms

Something They Will Not Forget was published four years ago today. Since then, hundreds of classical educators across the country have begun using classroom catechisms. There is no subject about which I get more questions than catechisms and so—given the occasion—I thought I’d answer some of the most common questions I get.

Is it necessary to recite the catechism every day?

When I am asked this question, I usually respond, “Necessary for what?” A classroom catechism has many, many potentials and uses—some of which are practical, some of which are spiritual. Depending on what a teacher wants from the catechism, it isn’t necessary to recite it every day. You could recite a six-minute catechism at the start of every class, at the start of every other class, just on Mondays, just on the first Monday of the month, or the catechism could be thirty seconds long and you could say it only on December 12, although it is my contention that in order to get all the benefits from a classroom catechism (more about that below), it ought to be about six minutes long and it ought to be said at the start of every class.

The less often the catechism is said, the fewer benefits it offers. It’s sort of like exercise. It’s better to take a walk once a month than to never take a walk, but it is far better to make a habit of taking a walk every day than to resolve to “take a walk occasionally.” The best way to do anything regularly is to do it daily. Most people who pray regularly pray daily. Most people who read their Bibles regularly read them daily. There is no greater way to prove the importance of something than to do it daily.

Granted, there are some days wherein saying the catechism seems more a chore than others—the same is true of doing the dishes—and on such days the teacher will be tempted to say to himself, “It isn’t necessary to say it every day.” However, if the catechism isn’t said in a scheduled manner, students enter class every day asking, “Are we going to say it today?” and are disappointed when the answer is, “Yes.” If it’s said every day, students enter class knowing what to expect. There’s work to be done, it’s not the most pleasant work in the work, but some of its unpleasantness is mitigated by the fact its predictable, and habitual things quickly become invisible, even unnoticeable.

Daily use of the catechism means that class begins every day with a brief ceremony. This ceremony sets everything which happens afterwards on a higher footing. It’s like praying for a meal, saluting a higher-ranking officer, reading the card before opening the gift, or reading a suspect his rights. My classroom is certainly not free of drama or vexation, yet there are a handful of problems I hear other literature teachers describe which are unfamiliar to me, one of which is students who brazenly insult or complain about how boring or stupid a classic text is. My students don’t do this, and I believe this is because they begin class each day by offering a formal sign of respect to God, to the school, and to our books. When my students complain, it’s not about John Milton.

So far as benefits of saying the catechism are concerned, not having students openly complain about the text isn’t a practical benefit so much as a spiritual one, which means its hard to pinpoint the moment it begins “working.” And yet the more often the catechism is said, the more quickly and deeply it will be seen.

How do I employ a catechism in my classroom if I only teach once a week at a co-op?

As I said above, the more habitually the catechism is said, the more a teacher can expect to gain from it. But what of the teacher who only gets seventy or eighty minutes a week with his students? With so little time, it not only seems extravagant to spend six or seven minutes on the catechism, one also must wonder what can be gained from saying it so infrequently.

I have two thoughts on this. First, if the catechism is said at the beginning of every class period, the five-days-a-week teacher is giving up the same percentage of his class time as the once-a-week teacher. Second, the fact that class only meets once a week doesn’t mean the catechism can only be said once a week. Many co-ops and college model schools assume students are doing a good bit of work at home every week. Class may only meet once a week, but students are given enough work to do on their own to last the other four. When this is the case, having students say the catechism on their own before they begin their studies can spiritually connect daily independent work with weekly in-class work. They may feel silly saying the catechism out loud to themselves, but it will be good preparation for saying their prayers daily when they begin living on their own.

Having formerly taught at a school where classes only met once a week, I know that students often sense a significant divide between their independent work and their weekly classes. Similarly, it can feel weird to hear a passage of Scripture read in church which you’ve only ever read on your own. In a different place, in a different posture, at a different time, in different clothes, surrounded by different people, is the work really the same? Yes, but students need some meaningful token of this fact. The recitation of the catechism at home can bridge the gap between homework and class.

I use a classroom catechism in a manner which is somewhat different from what you suggest in Something They Will Not Forget and yet I still think it offers a lot of the benefits you describe. Is this okay?

Yep. What I’ve written about catechisms is born of trial and error, philosophy, common sense, and theory—but it’s all about getting the catechism to work, by which I mean 1) creating an orderly, pious classroom 2) spending every minute of class time profitably 3) getting students to both say and memorize beautiful literature 4) affording daily opportunities for quiet students to speak 5) giving honor where it is due 6) embodying the importance of ceremony and formality to students 7) giving students time to mentally change gears between one subject and the next 8) reminding students of all they’ve studied over the course of the year and 9) proving to students that they can go deeper into classic literature through repetition. And yet, if a teacher realizes that the kind of practices that allow me to reach these goals isn’t working for them, that teacher should tinker with the catechism until it does. Granted, I believe that reaching these goals requires patience and that it may take several months to start seeing fruit, but if some fellow is—for whatever reason—finding certain aspects of the catechism untenable seven or eight months in, he should change what he’s doing.

The way I’ve described the use of a catechism (in Something They Will Not Forget) works right down the middle. It works on average. It works most of the time. But there are just too many weird variables in the life of a class, a school, and a teacher, to assume that what works for most people will work for all people.

3 thoughts on “Frequently Asked Questions About Classroom Catechisms”

  1. Matthew Shedd

    I teach Humanities at a co-op that meets two days a week for 90 minutes. I introduced a catechism and it worked beautifully. The students knew the catechism by December, and by March they were making games out of it (I think games like this are a natural outgrowth of ceremony).

    Each book we read, the students were excited when we found one of our catechism quotes. Our last day of class, we took the full class time to read one quote at a time and talk about what it means for our life.

    This may be your most important contribution to classical education!

  2. I think the class catechism is especially crucial to homeschooling parents; it gives you the opportunity to separate and signify studies in a way that is set apart from day to day life. It teaches your children to follow set expectations and procedures, and it accomplishes much of the memory work you otherwise have to fight to achieve when you have no classroom assignments in a more traditional sense.

  3. Mr. Gibbs,

    I read your book soon after it came out and, and I’ve been using a classroom catechism ever since (for three years going on four). It has been a wonderful tool and I could hardly be more pleased with the results. I am the primary teacher for a combined class of 5th and 6th graders, and we recite the catechism at the start of every day. Since the students have me for two years in a row, I have to alternate from year to year which books we are studying in History and Literature, and so too, I have been alternating the catechism, since much of it is tailored to the books we read. That said, there is a core of questions at the beginning of my catechism that remains the same from year to year.

    This summer I have the opportunity to assist in the creation of catechisms for our school’s 7th and 8th grade years as well. The idea is that there should be a certain amount of continuity and coherence across the middle school grades.

    I would love to hear if you have ever attempted the design of catechisms at the meta-classroom level, if I put it that way, or if you’ve any relevant thoughts, principles, or experiences to share. I wonder whether you think this is even a good idea.

    Thank you for all the good work you’re doing.

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