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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Felt-board Sunday school lessons in the news.

Sunday school for infants! Today's New York Times highlights the work of Episcopal curriculum developer Gretchen Wolff Pritchard in a story about the Church of the Advent's Sunday school class for children under 3. The Rev. Patrick Gray, one of the priests at the Anglo-Catholic church on Beacon Hill, started leading a class using Pritchard's Beulah Land felt-board stories as a way to reach out to new parents:

"When you have kids you start thinking about church again," he said. "I was thinking, What's going to make it easy to come to church? Why not have what they're used to? What they're used to is story time at the public library, where you sing a couple of songs, tell a story, sing some more and play with blocks."

A round of applause for male clergy diving right in to Sunday school!

What's amusing about the story — and the earlier story in the Boston Globe that seems to have inspired it — is that all the other adults, perhaps including the reporter, spend a lot of time wondering how the class directly impacts the children. Do they understand the Bible stories? Does any of it sink in? What do the experts think? Gray himself gets it: Church becomes part of the child's experience because it becomes part of the parents' experience. Most of the education taking place is of course directed to the parents, who are learning how to pray with their children and bring the Bible stories into their children's lives. And yet we must interview a professor of early childhood development about the cognitive abilities of toddlers.

Pritchard, whose work Mrs Philocrites greatly admires, has developed an extraordinary variety of Anglican materials for children with Beulah Enterprises. She tells the Times that she hadn't yet developed materials for children so young, but will soon.

Large (and perhaps mid-size) Unitarian Universalist congregations developing their own innovative curricula should take note: The Church of St Paul and St James in New Haven, Conn., is developing, producing, and selling high-quality curricula to other congregations. I don't know any religious education directors who have a lot of time on their hands to transform the inventive work they're doing locally into an outreach campaign to other congregations — but some visionary partnerships between ministers, educators, church members, and donors could set up a production and distribution channel to turn creative work into material other educators will jump at. In UU circles, this would probably require partnerships between a few congregations, but sooner or later we're going to have to find ways to set up these entrepreneurial partnerships. (All part of what Clyde Grubbs recently described as decentralized distribution networks.)

"Spirit Play," the UU adaptation of Jerome Berryman's "Godly Play" program, is one such curriculum. I'd love to learn about other programs UU educators are sharing with each other — I confess to knowing too little about what's current in UU religious education — so please hawk your wares (or promote your favorites) in the comments below!

Media angle: Boston Globe "Spiritual Life" columnist Rich Barlow profiled the Church of the Advent program on November 19. The Globe is owned by the New York Times Co. Granted, it's a nice little story — but surely there are innovative and fun Sunday school programs to profile in New York City. I won't complain too loudly, though: I was in Philadelphia when Barlow's column ran, and would have missed it if the Times hadn't, um, been inspired by it.

("Schooling the Youngest Ones in Faith," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 11.19.05, reg req'd; "A Church Reaches Out to the Very Young," Katie Zezima, New York Times 12.10.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 December 2005 at 8:57 AM

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December 10, 2005 09:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Incidentally, this afternoon is the annual Children's Christmas Crafts day at Mrs Philocrites' church -- which means that those of us without kids at home have volunteered to transform the church basement into a workshop of kid-friendly crafts so parents can get a few hours to themselves. If only people can get through the 15 inches of suburban snow!

Clyde Grubbs:

December 10, 2005 02:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

UU congregations used to produce RE materials for themselves and other congregations, and some of our present materials were originally local products.

1st Weston, Mass once produced UU Christian materials and distributed them through the RE clearing house. Evensong was a Berkeley original. I wonder if the UU bookstore discovery that RE materials pay their rent, has prompted 25 to do pick up more of the local options....just speculating --- (I am no longer in Boston and the gossip is old by the time gets here.)

Dan Harper:

December 11, 2005 11:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

It would be interesting to actually observe Patrick Gray leading a Sunday school class, because the first question that comes to my mind is whether it's the resources (felt board, etc.) he's using, or whether it's the qulity of his teaching ministry. In my ten years as a religious educator, I found that the resources you use (curriculum, felt board, etc.) don't have a direct correlation with improved learning. New resources tend to work better when the resources excite the adult leaders (and the church community), who then in turn pass that excitement along to the young people.

It's also a really good point that the real issue is reaching the parents. Gray is onto something with his ideas about making Sunday school like story time at the library. Creating experiences shared by parent and child is critically important, including such things as shared time in worship (so kids and parents have something to talk about when they get home), shared home experiences (like booklets of bedtime prayers and table graces), etc. Developing firm expectations of learning outcomes is probably most important, including the tricky task of developing appropriate assessment genres for religious education (the Coming of Age worship service is often an example of good and appropriate assessment for religious education), and the even trickier task of determining what exactly it is we want children to learn in church (do we really want them to learn Bible stories? --if so, which stories, exactly? --what theological slant will we put on those stories? --and are Bible stories enough?). Story time at a library has a clear outcome: you want your kid to learn to like books, and to read more. By analogy, Sunday school time at church might have a pretty clear outcome: you want your kid to learn to like religion, and to keep going to church; those outcomes have to be reached before anything else can happen.

If you have really thought things out and you can clearly articulate what it is that you want young people to learn, parents will understand, and will help in any way they can. My main criticism with all the Unitarian Universalist curriculum published over the past fifty or so years is that they have incompletely thought-out learning outcomes. For example, the "Our Whole Lives" (OWL) comprehensive sexuality curriculum for grades 7-9 has what appear to be excellent, well-thought-out learning outcomes. But if you really listen to the hopes parents have for the program, and if you really listen to what OWL graduates say they got out of the program, you realize pretty quickly that sexuality education is only about a third of the learning outcome. The other two-thirds has to do with helping early adolescents learn to like coming to church; helping them understand that churches are places where you can talk about really important issues, and (related to that) helping them begin to understand more about being ministered to and ministering to each other; helping them bond with a peer group, and equally importantly bond with trusted adults; and finally, helping early adolescents see that church is a place they might like to come for the rest of their lives.

Not that the problem is really with the published curriculums per se. The problem is us. We have gotten into the bad habit of thinking that a new curriculum or some new resources can solve all our Sunday school problems. Alas, life doesn't work that way. Scholar Howard Gardner has pointed out that educational reform has four "nodes," including curriculum, community support, teacher training, and assement. Implementing a new curriculum without the other three nodes pretty much guarantees that any attempt at educational reform or improvement will die a fast death. I believe the recent history of Unitarian Universalist proves this point: lots of curriculum development, very little else accomplished.

Well, I could go on. My real point is that religious education is not rocket science -- *but* you have to be willing to abandon the old preconceived notion that curriculum or resources will solve your problems, and you have to be willing to pay close attention to what is actually going on in Sunday schools (as opposed to paying attention to what you'd like to think is going on).

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