Catholic Herald staff
This fall, children from the Douglas/Washburn County cluster will be first in the diocese to experience a religious education program based on the Montessori method.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a 50-year-old program designed by Sofia Cavaletti, an Italian Scripture and Hebrew scholar, will be launched for ages 3-8 for parishioners of St. Pius X, Solon Springs; St. Anthony, Gordon; and St. Mary, Minong.
St. Pius X parishioner Jodi Cosgrove is a force behind the change. Before she moved to Solon Springs a year ago, Cosgrove lived in the Twin Cities and worked at Way of the Shepherd Montessori Catholic School in Blaine, Minnesota.
Initially skeptical of the non-traditional approach to education, she soon changed her mind.
“When I started watching the children, I was blown away by the response,” she said.
Ever since, Cosgrove has championed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and the Montessori method, which was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, also an Italian Catholic, in the early 1900s.
The Montessori method favors mixed-age classrooms where children learn by using tactile objects – topographical maps, statues, models and more – and specially designed materials based on their developmental stage. They interact one-on-one with a trained Montessori teacher rather than being taught in groups by an instructor, and they are free to move around the classroom, which is called an “atrium.”
The first time students come to the atrium at St. Pius X, their teacher will explain the importance of the room.
“We tell them this is a very special place – this is a holy place where Jesus calls them by name,” Cosgrove said.
After the teacher calls them in by name, they will be directed to the prayer table, which is child-sized, like all the other materials in the room. Following prayer time, the children can move on to one of the stations.
A child might begin altar work at the tiny model altar, where they handle the candlesticks, altar cloth and candle extinguisher and learn the names of each object.
Their teacher, meanwhile, observes them without being obtrusive.
“We try not to get between the children and God,” Cosgrove explained.
Three- to 6-year-olds, the youngest age group, will do altar work, cruet work and learn about the parts of the Mass, she said. They’ll also learn about the priest’s vestments, liturgical colors and the liturgical calendar.
The atrium also has a practical life area, where younger students practice fine motor skills with punching work, and older children learn the sign of the cross with the help of illustrated booklets.
In the historical area, there are three-dimensional figures from historic moments in the Bible, e.g., a Nativity scene, and the geography area will feature a topographical map of Israel and models of places where Jesus lived and traveled.
Cosgrove said when they read from the Bible, it’s the unaltered version, not a simplified one.
“It’s a meditation thing when we do it,” she added.
Questions also spark meditation; instead of just telling children how Mary reacted to God’s request that she bear his son, the teacher might say, “I wonder how Mary felt.”
The intention is to invite children deeper into that moment.
“They can have quite the responses, very in-depth,” she said.
All the sensory objects in the atrium – things to touch and see, candles to smell, sounds to hear and more – are also part of the Montessori approach, which teaches the more senses you use, the more information you absorb.
On one of the tables is a small Jesus figure surrounded by sheep. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the basis of all materials for ages 3-6, according to Cosgrove.
At that stage of development, “they need to know they are safe and cared for,” she added.
As the children grow older, those figurines are replaced by figurines of a priest and people of all nationalities, which build upon the Good Shepherd theme and represents the universality of the church.
Six- to 9-year-olds learn about the timeline of the Bible – at that age, children are developmentally able to understand time, Cosgrove said – and they learn more about the Mass and undergo preparation for first Communion and reconciliation.
Older children study the books of the Bible in order to understand the Bible as a collection of works rather than a single book. At 9-12 years of age, children often say, “That’s not fair,” because that’s when they come to understand justice, Cosgrove explained. That age group studies the Old Testament and learns how the New Testament builds on ancient texts.
Overall, the program encourages creativity through art and writing, includes celebrations of religious holidays and teaches kids “how to slow down and listen to God.”
“It’s silent in here,” Cosgrove said of the atrium. “They learn that silence inside to hear God.”
By junior high and high school, students have outgrown Montessori methods, and they continue with traditional faith formation. Adults, however, will have new material to explore – this year the cluster is introducing the “Catholicism” series, created and hosted by Fr. Robert Barron.
“It’s really kind of a u-rah-rah for our Catholic faith,” Cosgrove said. “We’re excited about that one.”
The new faith formation programs were introduced to the cluster at an informational workshop Aug. 23.
Cosgrove is one of three cluster catechists – the others are Mary Brand and Kathy Biertzen – who are pioneering the program, but, according to Brand, Fr. James Kinney is “the big promoter of this.”
For years, he’s been saying, “Where are our children?” Brand said. “Father’s been throwing these seeds around for a couple of years now, and we’ve just been sitting on them, waiting for some germination to take place.”