Small RE programs, pt. 2

Read the whole series.

We started off this second session in the workshop with me teaching a sample lesson. I taught the lesson pretty much as I would teach it to a small, mixed-age group of children.


We began by saying together a simple affirmation of faith, with hand motions. Then we went around the circle, and each participant said their name, after which they could say one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to them since we had met together yesterday. One participant had something very important to say, and we spent several minutes listening to her.

After the introductory bits, I read the story about the God of the Israelites parting the sea so Moses and his people could escape form Pharoah’s army. I read the story straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Exodus, all of ch. 14), and of course I made sure to read it dramatically.

The participants wanted to discuss the story right away (a quite different reaction than children would have had). But instead of allowing the discussion, I said, “Let’s act the story out. Who wants to be which character?” Sheila agreed to act out the part of the God of the Isrealites; I was Pharaoh, Mary and Helen said they would be the sea (“the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left”); and so on. We had great fun acting out the story, and we really hammed it up — I had Phraoh talk in a pirate voice, Sheila played God as a deadpan New England Yankee, Mary and Helen were very active as the waters of the sea, etc.

When we had finished acting, it was time to discuss the story. “What happened in the story?” I asked. The participants reviewed what had happened in the story. Then I asked, “What did you think about the story?” Some of the participants didn’t like the story, because it was violent, and the God of the Israelites seemed vindictive to them. But as the participants kept talking they came to some interesting conclusions: Moses was a strong leader; the God of the Israelites was like a superhero character; the parting of the sea could have been explained by natural phenomena. I asked whether this story was non-fiction or fiction.

“It’s a myth,” said Helen. I said that I really wanted them to decide whether the story was either fiction or non-fiction. They decided the story was fiction, though some participants weren’t happy with having to make a forced choice. “As Unitarian Universalists, we do not believe that this story is literally true,” I said. There was some grumbling, but in the end, all agreed that Unitarian Universalists do no believe that the story is literally true, so therefore it could be called fiction. “True fiction,” said one participant, and there were nods of agreement.

I ended the discussion (adults like to discuss things much longer than do children), and moved on to something else. “Let’s all try a spiritual practice together,” I said. “We are all going to sit quietly for 30 seconds, and try to keep our minds empty of thoughts.” I described how I wanted the participants to sit upright, etc. (standard simple meditation). We all tried sitting still for 30 seconds. “How was it?” I asked. Some participants said it was hard, some said it was easy. “I couldn’t empty my mind of thoughts,” said one person. We each admitted that we really couldn’t empty our minds of all thoughts.

At this point, I was at the end of my allotted 45 minutes. So I led a quick closing circle. “Let’s all stand up and hold hands,” I said. Yesterday, I showed them one way to hold hands: put your hands out in front of you with your thumbs to the left, and then without flipping your hands, grab the hands of the people next to you (try it, and you will see that everyone in the circle has one hand up and one hand down). “What did we do today?” I said. The participants reviewed what we had done. And then we closed the lesson.


I passed out teacher-to-teacher evaluation forms for each participant to fill out:

Teacher-to-teacher evaluation

Age group: __________________________
Date and Time: _________________________
Your name: __________________________
Today’s topic: __________________________
Lead teacher: _________________________
Asst. teacher (if not you): _________________

1. Where is the lead teacher on the following spectrum?

    Teacher is in charge — 2 — 3 — 4 — Teacher is co-participant

2. What was the stated objective for today’s session?

3. Describe what the teachers did today:
    How did they welcome participants?

    Describe the session (narrative account):

    How did they assess what participants had learned?

4. Reactions from participants?

5. Your reactions? (What did it feel like to participate in this session?)

6. Other remarks:

_____ read by Lead Teacher
_____ read by Asst. Teacher

I filled out a teacher self-evaluation form. Then we shared what was on our forms with each other — I read my self-evaluation, and the participants read their evaluations of my teaching. This prompted a pretty deep discussion of teaching, and philosophy of teaching. I let the discussion go on well beyond its allotted time, but finally I wrapped it up by saying, “This is what I hope to can do with your volunteer Sunday school teachers — prompt these kinds of deep discussions about teaching.” We talked about how that might happen. I said that I liked to hold monthly meetings for Sunday school teachers, for an hour on Sunday morning before church starts — half the time is devoted to an open discussion about how their teaching is going, and in the other half of the time I give them a concrete activity or skill that they can use immediately in their Sunday school classes.

“But who would go to such meetings?” said one person. I said that I expected that it would be a small core group of two or three people for whom teaching is their core ministry in the world.


We devoted the next 45 minutes to a sample lesson where I taught a basic religious skill. Story-based lessons are typically designed to increase the religious literacy of children by teaching them common Bible stories, and stories from other world religions. But, I said, I feel it’s also important to teach children basic skills that they will need to survive and thrive in our church communities.

The skill I chose to teach to the participants in the workshop was singing. Some of the participants were very pleased that we were going to sing, and others were very apprehensive. I pointed out that this is exactly the kind of reaction that you get from a typical group of children: some of them will perceive themselves as musical, and will look forward to singing, and others won’t.

We started out with a simple song, “Mother Earth Grace.” After 15 minutes of practice, we sounded pretty good — we even sang the song as a round. Flushed with success, the participants seemed ready for more of a challenge. “Would you like to try a hard song?” I said. They did want to try a harder song, so in another 20 minutes we learned a song in three-part harmony. We sounded fabulous, and everyone knew that we sounded fabulous. It was one of those moments you hope for in teaching — when suddenly, in spite of their apprehensions, the whole class comes together and really gets what you have been teaching, and is able to show their competence.


At this point, I decided it was time to read from the book Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds by Helen Firman Sweet and Sophia Lyon Fahs. The bulk of this book is a teacher’s diary written by Helen Firman Sweet, about her experiences teaching a group of eight year olds in the laboratory Sunday school of Union Theological Seminary in 1927-1928. I read the entry for the first Sunday. The participants in the workshop were charmed by Sweet’s close and careful observations of her Sunday school class. This led to a brief discussion of Sweet’s teaching methods. In closing, I pointed out that this Sunday school did not use a printed curriculum guide, and that the learning of the children was assessed in a couple of different ways.

The last part of the class was taken up with more routine matters. The participants signed up to teach 45 minute sessions in the class time (like the sample lesson I began this session with), and we went over some ideas for how to plan lessons when you don’t have a printed curriculum to follow, but you do have educational outcomes that you are trying to achieve.

It was a good and productive session. It’s a great group of participants, and it feels to me as if we’re really making progress towards our learning objectives.

4 thoughts on “Small RE programs, pt. 2

  1. Jean

    Ah. Fiction and nonfiction discussions creep up everywhere. I still love Tim O’Brien’s words:

    “Somebody tells you a story, let’s say, and afterward, you ask, “Is it true?” And if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.”

    Kind of a riddle-like way of saying that we want stories that matter to be “true,” to have actually happened. If a story isn’t “true” — in the fiction/nonfiction sense — and is made up, we feel cheated. It *should* be true, our inner small self pouts. Kind of like hearing a great story told by a friend then learning it’s all made up. We want to slug our friend (maybe not literally slug, but you know) for tricking us.

    In this part of the country, where a great number of my students are raised with the notion that the Bible is true, and truth itself — I find students have a very hard time with simple literary constructs such as metaphor, analogy, satire, etc. Recently a student read Johnathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and interpreted it literally, but side stepped the notion of eating babies, by seeing that particular detail as eating baby animals. (What a reader response critic does with that I do not know…!)

    This student was horrified when I pointed out what Swift was “really” saying. We then had a long discussion about methods of getting readers’ attention in writing, many of which do not involve literal truth at all. As the Bible tells us, shows us, over and over again.

    As a writer, my contention is that people hunger for stories that lead them somewhere new, that tell “truths” that do not depend upon the simple designation of fiction or nonfiction. Like the Bible story you used. Really interesting lesson, Dan!

  2. Dan

    Jean — There is something about religion in America that seems to confuse people’s ability to distinguish between literal statements, and irony, metaphor, analogy, etc. Even people who are not conservative Christians can find it hard to apply the concept of metaphor to something like the Biblical story of creation. It really is a fascinating area for teachers to teach in.

  3. Steve Caldwell

    Dan wrote:
    “There is something about religion in America that seems to confuse people’s ability to distinguish between literal statements, and irony, metaphor, analogy, etc. Even people who are not conservative Christians can find it hard to apply the concept of metaphor to something like the Biblical story of creation.”

    Dan — I’ve used the “fan fiction” analogy to describe Bible stories and stories from other world religions.

    Like Star Trek fans and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, the folks from long ago who came up with the Bible stories were creating these stories to explore the characters (especially God) and to comment on the situations in their lives.

  4. Dan

    Steve Caldwell @ 3 — Nice analogy. Just surprising enough that I can see how it might break through to some people. Thanks.

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