Jared DEES. 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator. Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013. pp. 160. $8.95 pb. ISBN-13 978-1594713842. Reviewed by Jeffrey S. BURWELL SJ, St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, MB, R3T 2N2
Holding master’s degrees in both education and theology from Notre Dame, Jared Dees has the sufficient theoretical knowledge to write about religious education. The initial concern when opening the book, as is often the case with those written about classroom instruction, is whether his academic foundation translates into something relevant for those with practical teaching experience. Fortunately, though this book is short with chapters lasting no more than four or five pages, Dees provides an excellent starting point where new and seasoned teachers can improve as religious educators.
The book is arranged into four sections that help an educator become a better disciple, servant, teacher, and leader. The first and second parts focus on the theological foundations of teaching, including the reasons that the teaching profession might be understood as a vocation. The third and fourth parts explore practical ways that educators might grow confident and successful in the classroom while approaching their work from a faith-based perspective. These four sections are tied nicely together, and one part flows nicely into the second. All the same, each chapter remains a wealth of practical information on its own.
It was refreshing to see that Dees begins his first section on becoming a better disciple with a chapter that looks at the educator’s unique relationship with Christ. Gratefully, he wrote boldly about the need to foster a personal life of prayer without an apologetic tone. He also stressed the position that religious education is more than just a transmission of abstract knowledge. Dees invites teachers to consider the importance of imitating the best practices of their academic mentors, reading scripture regularly, being open to learning from the students, and always striving to grow in prayer. The foundation upon which Dees builds his work is one of reflection and action. It asserts that the religious educator must open to varieties of new experiences while remaining centered on Christ as the primary teacher.
The second section on becoming a better disciple moves the focus from the teacher to the student. It highlights the necessity of seeing the strengths and needs of the students as unique individuals. Rather than looking at the instructor as the head of a class, Dees approaches education from the basis of the relationship. He offers practical hints on how teachers could get to know students in unique ways as well as how to give feedback that is meaningful. Personal care for the whole student (cura personalis) is a uniquely Catholic approach to education, and it emphasizes how teachers must see each student as having his or her mind, body, and soul. Highlighting this need for individual attention, Dees provides ways that teachers can affirm the inherent dignity of every student in the classroom.
The third section focuses on how teachers can become better leaders, and it proposes strategies around which they can organize their classroom. In this section, Dees recommends concrete ways that both classroom procedures and vision might be updated and clearly articulated. In these chapters, he draws on the apostolic legacy of the Church and its recognition that different spiritualities and charisms exist. He wisely suggests that not every classroom need to approach the world in the same way, and it is often helpful to see each member of the community will possess different gifts and interests. Because of this, he claims that it is important that teachers do not begin the year with rigid notions of the sorts of students they will find. They should rather be open to the dynamic movements of the Spirit and endeavor to be flexible when dealing with the class both individually and as a whole. Although this section is more pedagogical in nature, it remains firmly rooted in a positive anthropology that recognizes that students are individuals and not mere commodities.
The final section, which Dees titles as help for those looking to become better teachers, is perhaps the most practical of all the sections. Nevertheless, while looking at essential skills such as lesson preparation and assessment, he continues to ground each chapter in a very Catholic world-view. For example, his material on creating learning objectives concludes with an interesting lesson that incorporates the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This exercise could be of particular help to Catholic educators looking to expand their familiarity with Church documents. That said, despite its integration of Ecclesial texts, his work remains acceptable and appropriate for most Christian educators regardless of their denomination.
In general, this book is recommended favorably to all educators working in Catholic schools and those Catholics teaching in public, non-denominational institutions. Each of the chapters begins with a quotation from the Bible, a comprehensive introduction as well as an overview, a variety of practical exercises, and many practical suggestions for those who want to deepen their knowledge. Although not every chapter will be useful or relevant for every teacher, this is to be expected in a book connected to pedagogy. For example, the chapters on incorporating music into lessons or liberating students from their chairs were not suggestions everyone might regularly embrace. Despite this, there is always something to learn in each of the chapters regardless of whether a teacher embraces either the whole or only part of the chapter. Considering both the cost and the readability of this short work, it would be a book worth picking up for anyone who is both a Christian and an educator.