Annie and Rachel are trying to suppress giggles as they race walk down the hallway, toward their guest. They compose themselves at the last minute. This is a serious matter, after all. As representatives of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy’s preschool class, they wish to convey a little dignity.
The girls plant themselves in front of their visitor and look up at her intently. The visitor breaks the silence. “Are you here to take me to Sister Stefanie’s class?”
They giggle and nod, turn and lead the way, picking up speed again. They’re in a hurry: Annie is leader today and must begin leading. She nabs her pointer as she enters the classroom and rushes up to the Smart Board.
Welcome to Sister Stefanie MacDonald’s four-year-old preschool class. A bit of happy chaos mixes with a liberal dose of joyful noise here to create a party-like atmosphere, even when the children are paying attention and, ahem, learning.
Right now it’s Calendar Time at the Smart Board, a window-sized computer-powered whiteboard hung on the wall in front of colored carpet squares. The children sit criss-cross applesauce on their assigned squares while Sr. Stefanie projects the days of the week on the board. Annie swings her pointer with gusto, smack!, on each day of the week as it is sung to the tune of The Addams Family.
The rest of the morning is filled with other kinds of Center Time (math and more literacy), reading books, free play and what Sr. Stefanie calls “Jesus Time.” Back on the colored squares, Sr. Stefanie tells her kids to shout as loud as they can while her arms are up, and stop the second she drops them. Mayhem. And then silence.
Her voice is soft. “Let’s think about Jesus. No talking. Shhh. Say something to Jesus in your heart.”
Jesus Time begins with a preschool version of Centering Prayer, and lasts about a minute. But Sr. Stefanie believes the children need silence as much as grownups.
“Okay, let’s talk about what happened on Easter Sunday,” she says. Several children raise their hands. “Right,” she says. “Jesus came back to life. Can you think of anything else that goes into a dark place and seems dead before being reborn?” Nobody gets this one.
“A butterfly!” Sr. Stefanie announces. “Should we make butterflies today?”
Again the joyful noise as children rush to their tables, where coffee filters and markers await their creative impulses. Antennae will be twisted into place with pipe cleaners and the final beautiful creations affixed to the bulletin board.
“I never liked the idea that learning isn’t supposed to be fun,” Sr. Stefanie says, over lunch. She usually has 30 minutes to eat, but an accident on the playground – one of the kids walked under another child hanging from the monkey bars just as her feet were swinging down – took up time today. She’s got 20 minutes to eat, be interviewed, and check parent emails.
“I tell parents that learning is supposed to be fun. That children learn through play. That my job is to direct their play, so they learn what we want them to learn.”
What that includes – besides getting them ready for kindergarten academically – is helping them develop love for God, and love and respect for each other.
“I have a certain joy and pride when I see students helping and comforting each other, like they did today after the accident,” Sr. Stefanie says. “I want them to learn to serve others like Jesus did.”
Sr. Stefanie says one of the ways she promotes service is by grouping children of different abilities for each task.
“That way, they have to help one another to accomplish the task,” she says. “It’s a huge lesson from the Gospels. We are to be Jesus Christ to one another.”
Lunch is ending; Sr. Stefanie needs to get back. Despite her hectic schedule, she seems calm, and laughs easily.
“Before I entered the Benedictine community, I used to cram my prayer in wherever I could,” she says. “I’d pray the rosary on the steering wheel of my car. I’d do personal prayer at 2:00 in the morning.
“Now I start my day quietly, in the early morning with God at Lauds. I end it in the evening with God at Vespers. My prayer life is more intentional now, more centering and grounding for me. When I enter my classroom in the morning, I bring more silence and spirituality with me. I credit that sense of balance to Benedictine life.”
And with that, Sr. Stefanie excuses herself to return to the children for the rest of her simultaneously noisy and quiet afternoon. Read Sister Stefanie’s adventures in the classroom in her blog, Sister Stefanie’s ABC’s!