Mentor Spotlight: Maureen Ryan, Prima I, Long Island, NY 

My family started homeschooling in 2012 when my oldest was entering first grade. It was supposed to be temporary—just until we settled into our new home. However, I found the Long Island Center of Aquinas Learning in those first months and immediately knew this would be our “school” resource. I now have a 6th, 4th and 2nd grader enrolled in the program. We’re also blessed to be part of a larger Catholic homeschool group on Long Island.

Mrs. Ryan with her class, Long Island, NY.

I started mentoring the Prima 1 (first through third grade) boys and girls in 2013. It is a constant source of joy and very humbling to be with these children every week, and my heart swells when I think of the “small moments” in the classroom. These little ones have such charity, it’s humbling. I’ve had very ill children in my classroom, children who were brand new to our community and knew no one, children who were “difficult” to get along with. Always, my students have approached these new friends (who I know would struggle in other settings) with absolute friendship and love. They constantly give each other little gifts and accept one another in such a Christ-like way.

I love to watch over the course of three years as the “youngest” Prima boy matures—the one who couldn’t remember any answers, was too shy to do a presentation, or was repeatedly reminded of the rules of the classroom—and becomes the natural leader and the true class “mentor” to the other children by his own third year. The mixed-age classroom is one of my favorite aspects of the program, because it encourages the children to help each other and to take on responsibilities in a gentle way, over time.

Academically, I love to teach writing. I find the Primary Arts of Language (PALs) program an excellent way to build early storytelling and composition skills. At the end of each year, I have the children work in pairs or small groups on writing their own final story. It’s a project even the most reluctant student gets excited about. The stories are also hysterical: ant armies, heroic cheetahs, mermaids, LEGOs coming to life. Their imaginations explode!

There are sometimes struggles. I’ve seen mentors try to find ways to cope with discipline and the children’s “energy.” It can be challenging, especially since we have children who are not used to sitting in a classroom environment for a long day. For me, throwing out some of the conventional classroom rules is the best way to keep children focused and excited to learn, so they don’t get distracted (and then distract the entire class). So, for instance, when it’s time to outline our PAL stories, feel free to stand at a table, sprawl out on the floor, or sit nicely in a desk. I’m a writer; I get the need to move around when I’m brainstorming and organizing ideas for an article, so I don’t have a problem if the kids need to move too. We also go outside and do math and other memory work while moving around. I think skipping to a song, for instance, is good for memory and for behavior.

I try to always correct behavior by connecting it to a virtue: If we’re grabbing someone’s pencil, there needs to be more charity. If we’re constantly making jokes to be the center of attention, there’s a lack of humility.

At the Prima 1 age, there’s also a great tendency for the children to scream out what their peers are doing wrong (often while the one doing the correcting is doing something that needs correcting as well). I constantly stress the need for each of us to teach by example. If you are listening, following instructions, and respecting classmates, the other children will see and learn. It’s a good lesson for me to remind myself of too. If I expect these little ones to be respectful, I must be respectful to them.

One other thing I recommend is that every adult try and recapture some of that joy of childhood discovery: Behold, be in awe, and see the world’s beauty as a child does.

Finally, with Aquinas Learning and on my own, my family continually tries to center our lives around the Church’s liturgical year. I am constantly learning all the beautiful feasts and traditions of the Church that I was never taught growing up.


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