Eighth-graders Kaylie Dropinski and Theo Pashley react as Fr. Luan Tran and Arnaud Prevot respond to a student during a theology class at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland last month. Drawing from their respective vocations as a priest and a husband, the two instructors offer students a rich perspective on the Catholic faith. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Eighth-graders Kaylie Dropinski and Theo Pashley react as Fr. Luan Tran and Arnaud Prevot respond to a student during a theology class at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland last month. Drawing from their respective vocations as a priest and a husband, the two instructors offer students a rich perspective on the Catholic faith. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)

At the front of a St. Agatha School classroom, eighth-grade theology teacher Arnaud Prevot begins the day’s lesson on Advent and the sacraments. He’s just a few sentences into his introduction when another voice chimes in from across the room: “Advent comes from the Latin word ‘adventus,’ meaning ‘coming.’”

Father Luan Tran steps around a desk and smiles at the students, who sit with open notebooks and attentive looks.

For the next 40 minutes, the quick-witted pastor of St. Agatha Parish in Southeast Portland and Prevot, a gregarious father of three, pace back and forth in front of the room gesticulating, asking questions, finishing each other’s sentences — engaging the students while tackling substantial theological ideas.

It’s the first time in memory a priest has co-taught a class at the school, according to Chris Harris, St. Agatha principal. Father Tran and Prevot guide one of two weekly eighth-grade religion lessons, blending the insights of their respective vocations to offer a rich view of the faith.

“What showed me it was special was during our first class,” said Prevot. “The kids perked up, and they thought it was something really different.”

Harris believes the two men — one an emigrant from France, the other from Vietnam — “are a great team.”

The duo “are passionate and enthusiastic, and it’s neat for the students to not only see role models in the faith but to see the lessons come alive; they are not coming from a static textbook or lecture.”

Prevot and Father Tran typically meet once a week over coffee at a local bakery to formulate their plan for the upcoming class. They decided early on to conduct the lessons seminar style, with each asking the other questions.

“The back and forth makes it more interesting,” said eighth-grader Theo Pashley, adding that if one teacher offers an explanation that seems confusing, the other can help clarify.

Father Tran had never taught at an elementary school before but knew he wanted to help with instruction at St. Agatha after being transferred to the parish last summer.

“A priest is a teacher,” said Father Tran. “He’s a preacher and a sanctifier, but also a teacher. This is a way to exercise that responsibility.”

He said teaching is also “a way to know what the students are thinking, what they are struggling with, so I can better serve them and be there for them.”

Father Tran hopes to show the eighth-graders that the Catholic faith is more than rules in a book, but that “it’s about interactions and relationships” — a reality he affirms with his own presence. 

The eighth-grade homeroom teacher, Christine Taylor, leads the second weekly religion class and helps ensure the classes are covering required topics. Thus far the co-teachers have explored a range of subjects, including proof of God, the parts of the Mass and the Incarnation.

“We don’t dumb it down,” said Prevot. “Students are thirsty for the real.”

Prevot explained that with a priest and married father teaching, students see the “beauty and possibility in each path.”

“I think together we help form a real understanding of vocations, whether students choose married life or the priesthood or religious life.”

Kylie Morley said both perspectives have added to her understanding of Catholicism. Father Tran is “able to go in depth with theology, something he’s been studying much of his life,” she said. “And since Mr. Prevot is a father of three, he can relate some things in his life to stories in the Bible, like the joy of having a child.”

Prevot admits trying something new meant there were kinks to work out.

He recalled that in the beginning, “the students were like, ‘Wait, who is the teacher?’ and ‘Should I be taking notes?’”

With glitches solved and the kids acclimated to the approach, Prevot believes the classes are “phenomenal.”

He suggests such a co-teaching model with a married instructor and a priest could be beneficial at other parish schools, although he acknowledges the commitment can be tricky for busy pastors.

But Father Tran said teaching the religion class is personally rewarding.

“It’s a tremendous experience,” he said. “It’s energizing to see students responding thoughtfully and prayerfully. They really give me a glimpse into their hearts about their views on God and the future. It’s moving.”