Award-winning idea lets pupils learn patience, trials of a monk

Val Jones shows examples of text on the smart board as she conducts her classroom lesson to her eighth-graders at St. Peter Interparish School. Jones has become nationally recognized for her approach to religion class.

Val Jones shows examples of text on the smart board as she conducts her classroom lesson to her eighth-graders at St. Peter Interparish School. Jones has become nationally recognized for her approach to religion class. Photo by Julie Smith.

Fanciful script and decorative borders on delicate paper bring to life church history in Valerie Jones’ middle school religion classes.

Her perennial project, allowing students to become Medieval scribes to create their own illuminated manuscripts, will be honored this week as the national “Great Ideas Grand Prize Award Winner” from “Today’s Catholic Teacher” magazine.

“Little learning and culture was going on outside the monasteries,” Jones said. “They were the lamp of learning.”

First, students select a favorite and meaningful Bible verse. Then, they consider how it will best fill their page. Next, lines, borders and decorations are plotted out. A realist about calligraphy, Jones provides students with see-through paper so they may trace a selected font. “It’s painstaking and time-consuming,” just as it was for the monks, Jones said. One day during the lesson, she even imposes silence as it was in the monastery. “They get to be monks and scribes for a week,” Jones said. For young people who have grown up with instantaneous changes at their fingertips on computer programs, this is also a lesson in patience and perseverance, Jones said. No spellcheck or WiteOut, if a monk made even one mistake on the ornate page, he would have to re-do the entire thing. Jones is not that harsh. But she does expect students to problem-solve how to fix or work around a mistake. “It’s a nice, hands-on creative project,” Jones said.

Along with several of her fellow teachers from St. Peter Interparish School, Jones are attending the National Catholic Educator’s Convention in Boston this week, where she will be honored.

Fellow St. Peter teachers Julie Wankum and Jackie Remis presented “Integrating Technology into your Religion Curriculum” at the convention. And Principal Joseph Gulino also hosted a session, “Fundraising Made Easy.”

Gulino encouraged all of his teachers to submit a lesson plan for the competition this year.

For Jones, this recognized lesson says “your life’s work can be a prayer,” Jones said.

Similarly, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade religion classes is a calling for her.

Intimidated at first about teaching the middle school age when she returned to teaching five years ago, she now prefers the older students.

“I love my faith,” Jones said. “I like all the bells and whistles, rights and rituals.”

But it can be a challenge to cover 2,000 years of church history in one school year. That is a benefit to her teaching seventh and eighth grade — she knows what she covered the year before, Jones said.

“I’m able to spread it out and get more into things, not just hit the surface,” Jones said. “I don’t have to assume the teacher (before me) did it.”

Today’s world is pretty tough for teenagers, Jones noted. She hopes her religion lessons will help equip St. Peter’s teenagers with a foundation in their faith.

“I want them to learn to love their faith; that it’s not just something they do on Sundays,” Jones said. “If they understand the ‘why,’ then (maybe) they’ll want to follow it.”

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