by Jessica Langdon
SHAWNEE — The eighth-grade assignment might have sounded almost easy at first.
At its most basic level, the “Honor Project” instructed students at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Shawnee to live their lives for eight days.
But it came with a special condition: no moral shortcuts, no hurting friends or family, no breaking any rules.
“I don’t think they expected it to be as challenging as it was,” said Kathy Clevinger, the religion teacher who organized the project.
She even participated along with the students, knowing it would mean a week without so much as even sneaking a little chocolate.
“We started it out by saying we’re all good people,” said Clevinger. “Could we be better if we really focused on it? That was the launch pad.”
Clevinger’s husband Ralph actually sparked the project when he read a magazine article about someone’s experience living with no moral shortcuts.
“Kathy, this would be an awesome thing for your eighth-graders to do,” he told her.
Both Lent and confirmation were approaching, and the eighth-grade religion curriculum aims to show students how their Catholic faith fits into their lives.
The pair brainstormed examples of scenarios leading up to the eight-day project the students participated in from Feb. 9-16.
In one, a boy dashed back to a fast-food restaurant to pay for a sandwich after noticing he wasn’t charged.
In another, a girl sacrificed a certain ride home from the mall when she insisted on going back in to return a bracelet that had attached itself to a scarf.
“They were really good about it,” said Clevinger. “We talked about what would it look like if you were this person at home, what it might look like at school, what it might look like if you’re playing CYO basketball.”
The students wore bracelets around the clock as reminders.
Clevinger didn’t expect them to be perfect. That’s why she suggested that when they stumbled, they switch the bracelet to the other wrist as a fresh start.
The project prompted them to think through everything they said and did as they focused on conscience and virtue and honoring God.
“Could it change our school?” Clevinger asked them. “Could it change your family? Could it change you?”
According to the responses from the students, who wrote journal reflections each day, the answer was: Yes.
“I realized I didn’t put much thought into my choices,” said eighth-grader Rebekah Nelson. “That really surprised me.”
Peter Merrill, also an eighth-grader, agreed.
“When I put some forethought into my choices, I realized the things I could be better at,” he said.
The power of the project hit home for him when he and some friends were hanging out and they started talking about people.
“I remembered the Honor Project and said, ‘Guys! We really shouldn’t be doing this,’” said Peter. “Just like that, they changed the subject. I thought, ‘Wow! I really can affect my friends.’”
Clevinger noticed the students’ efforts to live up to the project’s standards at school, and some said their families were spending more time together at home as well.
The students were also asked to meditate on certain Scripture passages each day.
Clevinger was impressed with the ideas they expressed in their journals.
“One young lady wrote, ‘It surprises me how much we sin without realizing it,’” she said.
And another student wrote: “God is telling me to let him show through me.”
“I have become more aware of my sins and I’m trying to work on them more,” another student reported.
“I pray to God more and I have more motivation to pray,” said another.
“I should only hang around people who bring out the best in me and lead me toward God,” was another comment.
Even when the project wrapped up on Feb. 16, several students decided to wear bracelets — new purple ones Clevinger found with the word “spirit” — through Lent as a reminder to continue the project.
The class wholeheartedly recommended that next year’s eighth-graders take on the Honor Project.
“Because you want them to suffer like you suffered?” Clevinger asked her students with a chuckle.
She was assured that was not the reason.
Rather, as one student put it, “It should be a rite of passage before confirmation,” she said. “You should have to do this to know what you’re capable of.”
“It’s a good preparation for high school and just to be a better person,” said Peter. “It’s neat to realize you actually can make a difference with your friends and the attitude of those all around you.”
“The Honor Project was a good experience,” said Rebekah. “It opened my eyes to see how much I don’t think about my choices. The effect is lasting beyond the project.”