Today’s session started off with one of the participants teaching a sample Sunday school lesson. Four of us participated in the lesson, with the understanding that we would be writing down our observations and reactions after the lesson was over. A fifth person, Sheila, was both a participant and Lisa’s assistant. The sixth person, Mary, acted as an observer, and instead of participating she wrote out a rough narrative account of the lesson while the lesson was taking place.
Lisa led us in a lesson about Queen Esther from the Hebrew Bible. First she asked the participants what they knew (if anything) about Esther. We didn’t know all that much. Then Lisa told the story of Esther in the first person, as if she was Esther (this was a summary of the story told in the book of Esther, chapters 2-9). To reinforce the story, Lisa asked us to make a diorama depicting one of the scenes from the story; Sheila, acting as her assistant, facilitated the making of the diorama. To connect the story to the participants, Lisa introduced the concept of heroes, and said that Esther was a hero (or heroine, if you prefer). Lisa asked us to name someone who was a hero to us; there was silence for a bit while we thought that question over, and then Sheila broke the silence (and modeled for us what to do), telling about a heroine of hers. Lisa ended with a short wrap-up and review.
After the sample lesson was over, we all wrote up evaluations: Lisa wrote a self-evaluation; the four participants and Sheila wrote up their observations and evaluation; and Mary added to her narrative account. After about 10 minutes, we all shared our evaluations, beginning with Lisa. What was most interesting to me and the other participants was hearing Mary’s account of the sample lesson: because she was not involved, she saw and heard things that the rest of us missed. There was general agreement that having such an observer was extremely helpful in gaining perspective on this teaching episode.
Sharing the evaluations got us into another deep conversation about teaching — so I threw out my lesson plan for the day, and let the conversation go on. We started talking about teaching, and how to evaluate our own teaching; and that led us to talk about how clearly stated outcomes can drive teaching.
From there, we got into a good discussion about outcomes; specifically, we talked about how to reach the outcome that we want our Unitarian Universalist kids to grow up to be Unitarian Universalist adults. I asked what kinds of things kids need to know in order to sit through, and even profit from, a typical adult worship service in one of our churches. We agreed that children have to learn how to sit still for up to an hour and a half. We also agreed on several other specific skills: the ability to listen to a sermon (i.e., we’ll have to strengthen their auditory learning capability); the ability to speak in public, since so many of our churches rely on lay people to assist with and/or lead worship; the ability to sing the kind of hymns that are in our hymnals; etc. We also agreed on some knowledge they need to have: they need to know to come to church with money for the offering, etc.
We also talked about ways we might teach these skills and this knowledge to children. I suggested that it’s best for kids to attend the first 15-20 minutes of the worship service every week. Lisa said that her church had tried that, but many parents took that as an excuse to arrive late. I said that while I recognized that this must be a real problem, I believed that if parents were involved in planning the desired outcomes for the religious education program, they would better understand that having their kids attend the first part of the worship service was a part of their religious education. It would be even better, I said, if there was some way to assess children’s learning, to see what the kids had learned by being in the worship service.
And that took us into a conversation about assessment. One participant pointed out that many parents will hear “assessment” and immediately think “testing”; and we pretty much all agreed that not only would there be lots of resistance to testing, but that tests are not a good way to measure what kids learn in religious education programs. I introduced the concept of “assessment genres,” that is, there are many different kinds of assessment. We named some different assessment genres: portfolios, public demonstrations of competence, memorization, etc. In talking about memorization, I said that I thought memorization was very useful in assessing learning — but I don’t believe that we should ask our kids to demonstrate memorization as individuals. Rote memorization by individuals, I said, is appropriate for Christian communities that believe that salvation is an individual matter, which occurs between the individual and his or her God. However, in a Unitarian Unviersalist context, we believe that the way salvation is going to happen is if we all work together to make the world a better place. Given that notion of salvataion, then we can test the memory of a group, assuming that individuals in the group will learn to rely on each other to recall the knowledge they need; or they will know where to look beyond their group to find what they need to know.
At this point, it was 11:00, and past time for a break. We took a short break, and then turned to learning the religious skill of singing. We worked on the two songs we had learned yesterday, and today we sang much better — in fact, we sounded great. One participant told us that she had been told never to open her mouth, that she could not sing; but now she realized that she could sing. We affirmed that she was correct; she had a fine voice, and sang very well indeed. (This prompted a brief side discussion about what children go through, when they are told that they are not able to do something.) We decided that we would ask if we could sing one of our songs to the whole conference, as the grace at dinner two nights from now.
With 20 minutes left, I did a midpoint evaluation. I went around the circle and asked each participant how the workshop was going for them — what was going well, and what was missing for them — and as each participant spoke, I took notes so I could remember what they said. In general, the participants feel the workshop is going well (a couple of them even said they look forward to coming each morning); but there were also a few things that I have let slide, and I will turn my attention to those things in the second half of the workshop.