Children get hands-on lesson of Jesus’ birth

Published 12:01 am Saturday, December 15, 2007

NATCHEZ — Tucked discreetly in the halls of Cathedral Elementary School is a sacred space.

In that place a group of kindergartners sit intently on a beige rug waiting to hear the story of the birth of Jesus.

While that may sound like the ordinary religion class, the children at Cathedral are actually participating in a program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

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The program stresses a hands-on approach to religious learning for young children.

Catechesis instructor JoAnn Waycaster said she does not know of any other schools in the state using the program for their primary religion class.

This is the first year Cathedral has implemented the new program exclusively for kindergarten through second grade.

Though many people probably have not heard of the program, children love it Waycaster said.

“They just respond so well to the ideas we present to them,” she said. “It gives them the essentials of their faith at a young age.”

Waycaster starts by showing the children a globe with a dot on Natchez and one on Israel.

“That really gives them a sense of place,” she said. “If they can see it they can understand it better.”

She then builds the idea by using a puzzle-map of the area then a relief map to reinforce the idea of the area where Jesus once lived.

From there Waycaster, using visualization techniques, introduces different themes and practices of Catholicism.

“We just giving them a parable and they figure it out,” she said.

In one of Waycaster’s recent classes she used a miniature replica of the manger to tell the story of the birth of Jesus.

Once Waycaster finished the story, using the Bible as her only textbook, children swarmed around her to see the last of the figurines be put away.

Once the children have learned a parable or idea, they are free to use the props that go along with it in an exploratory and educational playtime.

Waycaster began teaching the Catechesis at St. Mary Basilica two years ago.

Waycaster said children took to the program so well she though it would be a success in the classroom also.

So the Rev. David O’Connor and Waycaster made their pitch to the school’s principal Shannon Bland.

She loved it.

“The kids just respond so well,” she said. “It’s very meaningful to them.”

But the choice was not just up to Bland.Members of the Dioceses from Jackson came to Natchez to see the program in action.

O’Connor said they were impressed.

“It’s an awesome program,” he said.

And while O’Connor is impressed with the program, he is equally impressed with Waycaster.

Waycaster said she felt a call from God to leave her job as an attorney and teach the Catechesis program.

“I told my husband I was either being lead by the Holy Spirit or I was going crazy,” she said.

But the biggest beneficiaries of the program are the kids.

After their lesson they broke into groups to further explore themes discussed in the lecture.

Anna McDonough, 5, playing with the manger scene summed up the day’s lesson.

“Jesus doesn’t want presents, he wants people to be good.”