Conference prepares early childhood educators

August 13, 2019

Dr. Kathryn Bojczyk (left),associate professor of education at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was one of the speakers at this year’s “Let the Children Come” conference held Aug. 2. Charleen Katra, associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, said the department organizes this annual conference to support the formation of leadership and early childhood educators. (Jo Ann Zuñiga, Texas Catholic Herald)

SPRING — “Can I take my toys to heaven?” was one of the unexpected questions from the kindergarten class of Kathryn Bojczyk, Ph.D.

“My heart is with the little people. They are so curious,” Bojczyk said as the keynote speaker to 350 teachers from the Archdiocese’s early childhood centers as well as pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes, set to start in mid-August.

Bojczyk, associate professor of education at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., kicked off the conference themed “Let the Children Come.” The Aug. 2 meeting was hosted at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring. 

The educators agreed with the speaker that they would tell the child concerned about their toys that “Heaven is perfect and even better than we can imagine.”

Using the word “spirit,” Dr. Bojczyk drew possible lessons for the new school year starting with “S” for space, both physical and auditory. 

“Do the children feel God’s presence in your classroom? Do the children feel welcomed?” she asked the teachers, suggesting they sit on the floor to get a child’s perspective of any décor.

With auditory space, she recommended teachers “talk less and listen more.” “You want to leave time to allow the children to process any question you give them. Don’t just select the one who always wants to be first. Wait, count to 10 internally,” she suggested.

Another way to equally give each child time to speak, even shy ones, is to pass around an item, such as a cross, plush Jesus doll or seashell, so everyone knows whose turn it is to talk, she said.

“P” is for process, rather than the final product. “Play is a child’s work. It’s how they learn. When you take them outside to see nature, God’s creation, give them clipboards so they can write down or draw what they see,” Bojczyk said.

“I” is for imagination that could include letting the children act out Bible stories. They can use puppets, or the teacher can use the puppet if the students can’t manipulate them yet. Singing while using hand movements also reinforces vocabulary and memory, she said. If using sign language for babies who haven’t started talking, still vocalize the word. 

“R” is for building relationships and a safe environment for children to ask questions and share. “At the start of school, children can decorate their name tags and please ask so you can pronounce their names correctly,” she said.

“We need to teach empathy early. Children have the capacity to be kind, and we also need to teach them to value diversity,” Bojczyk said.

The second “I” is for intimacy, creating a holy space and sense of peace, playing music for a calm environment, she said. 

Finally, “T” is for trust. “Children need to know that you will be responsive to their needs. They are separated from their parents, so they need consistency, routine and a safe structure,” the professor reiterated.

Lorena Reyna, pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School in southwest Houston, taught in public schools for 28 years until she retired and decided to teach in a Catholic school. Even with her years of experience, she said the annual conference reinforces some of the methods she has used and gives her new ideas.

“Plus, at Catholic schools, you have smaller classes, more one-on-one, less paperwork and more parent involvement,” she said of her class of 16 students. 

Dominican Sister Ngoc Diep Rosemary Nguyen, OP, teaches at Mary Immaculate Preschool. “I liked the conference. I learned new information and outlines for class. I learned about what works best to help the children,” she said.

Charleen Katra, associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, said the department organizes this annual conference “to support the formation of our leadership and early childhood educators so that the children and families they serve feel the love of Christ.”

Melanie Gehrt, assistant director at Genesis Early Childhood Center at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in northwest Houston, said they have 230 children ranging from 18 months to four-year-olds.

“This conference helps build camaraderie and we exchange ideas and programs that go beyond your own parish,” she said.