How to teach Theology of the Body

In teaching Theology of the Body to high school students in various settings for the past decade, I have been struck by the power of discussion. Many of the young people I have taught have joked about my comfort with “awkward silence,” but I have found that giving young people the space to reflect, think and then formulate a response is priceless in leading them to discover deeper answers to their questions about the meaning of life.

We often gloss over teenagers’ ability to think or to move beyond superficiality. The reality I have experienced with so many of the youth I have been blessed to serve is that they simply need encouragement to reflect and to see the depth of our Catholic faith.

When it came to creating a high school curriculum that brings Theology of the Body into every course within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s high school curriculum framework, I knew that discussion needed to play a key role.

When high school students think and reflect together, they also learn from one another and realize that they are not alone. Another person – one who is my age and enjoys many of the same things as I do – is thinking the same things, asking the same questions. Or, perhaps, the person with whom I eat my lunch every day has raised a question or offered a thought that sparks something new inside me.

Of course, a key dimension to the success of discussion within the classroom is that it be guided discussion. This requires the educator to listen attentively, picking up on ideas that need to be challenged or nuanced. The art of the follow up question is invaluable to this process. “What do you mean by that?” “Have you considered …?” “We hear that a lot, don’t we? Do you think that statement fully realizes our dignity?”

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It’s important to encourage students as they ponder difficult questions and not simply to reject their thoughts or ideas. At the same time, though, they need – and even want – to be challenged.

Young people know when they are challenged, that they are respected. Truly, they can discover through difficult questions that require a thoughtful response that they are “called to be more.” When the content of a curriculum and the method through which it is communicated coincide, our students will be able to receive and more fully comprehend what is presented to them.

When the content of a curriculum and the method through which it is communicated coincide, our students will be able to receive and more fully comprehend what is presented to them.

Asking difficult questions and engaging in discussion can involve lively moments or times when the proverbial crickets can be heard chirping, but we offer our young people a space to reflect and to respond that is far more formative than simply handing them information in order to pass a test. And if we want to grow in holiness along with those students entrusted to us, these moments of authentic thinking allow the penetrating voice of Christ to lead us to a deeper understanding of who we are and Whose we are.