A couple weeks before Lent started, I was inspired to do a project for Lent, but wasn´t quite sure what. After talking to a lot of different people, and the idea changing daily, I, really we, collectively came up with Proyecto Cuaresma or Lent Project 2011.
I wanted to deepen the Lent experience for my students, create something fun and simple for them to do, and then follow up with something that could continue for the next 40 days. As for the high school, we ended up coming up with three things: going to each class to talk about Lent, giving out rubber bands to wear, and signing students up for the Cuaresma Facebook page.
Giving it in Spanish
Before I went to my first class, my plan was to give the whole talk in English. I was going to write the three words of Lent in Spanish (ayuno, oración, limosna) on the board, translate them into English (fasting, prayer, almsgiving), correlate other words I wanted them to think about for each word (to sacrifice, to pray, to serve/give time) and then connect all of it to the three different types of Lenten promises they could make with concrete examples (less Facebook, pray nightly, participate in service activities).
What happen, instead, was when I introduced myself to the first class in Spanish like I always do....I didn´t stop talking in Spanish! I kept going on writing the words on the board, explaining things, and only Spanish left my mouth. I would ask them for examples in Spanish, they told me them in Spanish, and I wrote them down in Spanish. I was completely surprising myself that I was doing all of this seamlessly, ha even the teacher in the classroom commented that she was surprised I was spelling everything correctly. It was like all my school Spanish and experience Spanish all showed up. It hit me then---wow Matt, you could teach/explain in Spanish to a class if you had to. It was the first time ever I had experienced that long of a time period (35 minutes) of straight Spanish in front of a classroom. I was so proud of myself, especially from where I´ve come from in my Spanish.
Giving away las ligas
In the middle of my charla, or talk, after I had finished writing down all the examples, I would stop and explain that I was here part of a project the entire school is doing. I would take off the rubber band I was wearing on my right wrist and raise it up for everyone to see. In all of the classes I went to, if anyone had been talking up to that point, no one would be at this moment. Everyone would be so silent and it was so uncanny and cool to experience. "Qué es esto?" I would ask, and many would respond "Una liga." Then in that silence, I would explain that when they choose their Lenten promises, or their Cuaresma compromisos, they can get a liga, or rubber band, from me, they would be able to wear it for the next 40 days as a reminder, and on it they could write two or three words to remind themselves of what they´re doing specifically. For example, the three words they could write could be "chismes, confesarse, hermana" which meant for that person, she would sacrifice gossipping, would try to hit up confession during Lent, and that she´ll try to get along with her sister.
As expected, I got some heat for some of these difficult expectations. I finally closed my charla asking them who was the most important person in Lent (response: "Jesús") then would ask what was His sacrifice (response: "su vida") and then emphasize that if He could do what He did, we can do this small sacrifice for Him. That´s why we do this. I had them take out a sheet of paper and to start coming up with their Lenten promises. I went around to push them to make their promises as personal and specific as possible. It was so cool to see what some of my students were giving up, "I´m giving up all of Facebook" "malas palabras (bad words)" "going to spend time with my abuelita (grandmother) on weekends" "I´m going to pray every morning." I told them that when they were ready, they should find me in my office to get a liga.
Getting the guys and power by numbers
I remember that first day I gave talks, I waited in my office during breaks and lunch for the hoards to come. And they came. Two, five, or ten at a time would come and fill my office, asking for my rubber bands, but they were 90% girls. I was like, oh no. I´m not about to do this whole project and get only girls. Actually, part of my motivation behind the whole thing was so I could get guys involved. As we all know, getting guys to think prayer or God or anything is cool is a lot harder. I figured out that even though some guys may be interested, they´re not going to go out of their way during their break time to get a liga from me. I changed my strategy.
The next presentation, I quickened it so it left me with 10 minutes left in the period. Then, I told them that when they were ready, they could get the ligas right there in the class. Boom. I noticed when students saw their peers get in the long line at my desk to get a liga, it motivated them to do the project, too. Even the most skeptical student didn´t want to be left out, and he even came up with something to do for Lent. Success.
Reflections: a blessing and a curse
For me, to give away these rubber bands wasn´t enough. I wanted something that could keep me and the students in conversation with each other the entire Lenten season. So I created a Lent Facebook group, and when students got a liga, I had them add me on Facebook from which later I would add them on the FB group. My goal was to get all 500+ students on the page, but some of them didn´t have Facebook, some of them ironically gave up Facebook so I couldn´t add them, and some of them (maybe an average of 9 or 10 per class) simply didn´t participate in the project. I ended up getting a little more than 300 in the group.
Back at CUA, we had a link on the campus ministry Web site that had a daily reflection written by a student, a different one per day. I wanted to bring this idea to St. Francis, and I asked students from our youth group to write reflections for the group. A lot of what they had written, some in Spanish, some in English, were so beautiful, so profound, so thought-provoking and well-written. I was so impressed and proud to be associated with these fine writers as each day I posted their different reflections on the page. It was a hit, too, as many students would "Like" what they read from their peers on Facebook. It was an opportunity to empower students and see the hidden talents they had. It was one of the true blessings of this whole Lent experience.
The curse was after about a week of getting reflections from students, it became pretty difficult to get reflections from students, especially as the next following week was exams and everone was focused on studying. I started using reflections from other Web sites, started writing my own, but was trying to ask more and more students to write something, even teachers, but wasn´t getting much success. I didn´t want to ask the same students to write something because I didn´t want to make it seem I was favoring anyone. But ended up happening was me writing or finding reflections from an outside source for probably about half of the 40 days. Were I to do this again (and I plan on it, in whatever school or youth group I end up working at), I´d get these reflections a lot sooner. It´s a good idea were I executed it better. Lesson learned.
It took me about a week to go each classroom 7th graders through Seniors in the high school. What was cool is that the religion teachers in la primaria, or elementary school, had heard about what I was doing, and wanted me to do the same in their classrooms. I did not expect nor was planning for this. I met with one of the religion teachers, and she said she wanted to do two class periods (one hour) per class, and she suggested maybe I could play a song on guitar.
After ordering more rubber bands, I went back to the drawing board. I thought to myself, "OK, I´m not about to each 4th graders about the word "almsgiving". So I simplified my presentation and came up with three main words I wanted them to take away: ofrecer, orar y compartir (to offer, to pray, to share). And during my talk I told them how they can "offer up" different types of sacrifices like chocolates (response: "Nooooo!") they could pray daily, and they could share---their time with a grandparent, or get along with a sibling.
It was a lot different in la primaria. First off, they were more enthusiastic, which was pretty cool, but they also had a lot more energy and got off track a lot easier, which I had to adjust accordingly. They also had a harder time writing on the ligas, especially the first and second graders. But when we handed out the ligas and they were all working, that silence in the room was simply the best "sound" I´ve experienced in recent memory. I´d walk around and they´d run up to me, "Vea, Mateo! (Look, Mateo!)" and I´d affirm them, encouraging them that they did a good job.
I remember being in my room thinking of a song I could play when I decided, "I´m going to write one." I used the music of a song I really liked from a retreat I recently went to, and I wrote away, using pieces of my talk, especially the three main words "ofrecer, orar and compartir" as my main emphasis of the song for reinforcement. Also, I knew from my experience with kids (thank you Mom and Sto. Niño), that choreography to get them more involved would be better. So at the chorus "podemos ofrecer" (we can offer up), "podemos orar más" (we can pray more), "podemos compartir" (we can share) "con amigos y los demás" (with friends and others) I had them lift up their hands for offering, put their hands together for praying, hands out for sharing, and hands back and forth like a jig for the last part. Below is the song I came up with, the song I played at least three times per class, one to teach, twice for repetition, a song I know very well by now. A song I played for each class from 1st graders through 6th graders. Here it is:
Durante Cuaresma, necesitamos hacer cosas
para Jesucristo, nuestro Salvador
Durante Cuaresma, necesitamos mejorarnos
por cuarenta días, para nuestro Señor.
Podemos orar más
Con amigos y los demás
Todo es para Dios
Es difícil, pero si Cristo pudo,
One day I´ll record this song. I know I will use it again, maybe next year if I´m ever surrounded by little Hispanic kids. I remember after two weeks of playing the song, I came to my last class, and played for a last time. I got pretty nostalgic. These talks had become repetitive, some better than others, and I was feeling about done with them, but I played that song with all my heart that last time.
Well, that´s all I have to say about my Lent project. Unforseen, this project allowed me to step into every single classroom to see every single student in the entire school of St. Francis. That´s pretty cool. I think if I´m remembered for anything at St. Francis, this project will be it and will be the biggest footprint I leave. I´m happy knowing that. I´m still not done and feel like I have something else up my sleeve before I leave here (two months from now), but I´m happy for what this was for now.
At least in some small way, I hope I bettered the experience of Lent for each of my students. That was all I hoped for in the beginning anyway.
Happy Lent and Happy Easter everyone. Feliz Cuaresma y Felices Pascuas a todos.