“On the first Sunday the adventure is launched” [1]

At 11:00 a.m. this morning, children and teenagers and adults from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) gathered together in the Main Hall for the first fifteen minutes of worship service. Some of the teenagers didn’t quite make it into the Main Hall; they had cooked dinner for the homeless people who stay overnight in the church each night in September, and then they had stayed overnight at one family’s house. But when the children from our Sunday school group had gone into the Main Hall, some of the teenagers were there, and lots of adults of all different ages. Amy, the Parish Minister, had welcomed everyone, and invited everyone to stand up and greet each other. Then the pianist played Chopin’s Prelude no. 6 in B minor; from where I sat in the back of the Main Hall, I could see the children settle down and relax. A family with children lit the flaming chalice while Marianne, one of the worship associates, led the congregation in saying some words together. Amy read Eric Carle’s story The Mixed Up Chameleon, introducing it by saying that although the story is aimed at young children, older children are the ones who really understand the story. Then Amy led the congregation in singing the song “My Roots Go Down” while the children gathered to go off together to the newly-established 11:00 Sunday school class, called “Expanding Circles of Faith.”

By 11:15, nine children and five adults had gathered in Room 6 on the UUCPA campus. The children ranged in age from Dorit, who was 6 and in first grade, to Sara and Peter, both 11 and both in sixth grade; the other children were Oliver and Bill, both in second grade, Heather, Zach, and Andrew, all in fourth grade, and Ari who is in fifth grade. (These are not the children’s real names, of course.) The adults included Melissa, and Susie, and me, three members of the teaching team who will be teaching this group this year, and two parents who were visiting the class.

We sat around the low circular table in Room 6, and after attendance had been taken, it was time to light a flaming chalice. I asked Sara, as one of the oldest children in the class, to light the candle in the flaming chalice, while the rest of us said some words most of the children knew from other Sunday school classes at UUCPA: “We light this chalice, a symbol of Unitarian Universalism, the church of the open minds, the helping hands, and the loving hearts.”

Usually I like to allow time in Sunday school classes for the children to talk about one good thing and one bad thing that had happened to them in the past week.  But things were a little bit awkward, since most of the children and adults did not really know each other, so instead we took the time to play a name game called “The Grocery Store Game.” First we moved the table out of the way. “Pick an item that you can buy in the grocery store,” I said, “the name of which begins with the same letter or the same sound as your name. So I’m Dan Dog food.” Everyone smiled at that, and we went around the circle as the children and adults chose grocery store names for themselves: Sara Saran Wrap, Zach Zucchini, Melissa Marshmallow, Dorit Doughnut, and so on. “Now one person stands in the middle of the circle with a pillow,” I said, demonstrating what I meant, “and one person, let’s say Oliver Olives, starts us off by saying ‘I like…’ and then someone’s grocery store name.” Oliver got it, and said, “I like Bill Berries.” I continued with my instructions: “At this point, I will try to tap Bill Berries with the pillow before he can name someone else.” Bill berries said hurriedly, “I like Ari Asparagus,” who in turn said, “I like Heather Hair Spray,” who didn’t respond before I tapped her with the pillow, so she went into the center of the circle.

The children and adults enjoyed playing this game together. This is one of those games where, as long as you understand the rules, your age doesn’t make much difference in how well you can play — some people, no matter what their age, are good at thinking on their feet and calling out someone else’s grocery store name before they get tapped by the pillow; and others of us are easily distracted, or don’t concentrate as well, and we get tapped by the pillow before we can call out someone else’s name. Dorit was one of the best players; I was in the middle of the pack (even though I’ve played this game many times); and others just couldn’t seem to think quickly enough. There was no winning or losing (and because some people actually want to be in the middle of the circle), no one got left out, and we all had fun. After about ten minutes, I decided it was time to stop playing. We had two more rounds, just enough so that Bill Berries, who hadn’t yet been in the middle of the circle, could be in the middle.

I then told the story “John Murray’s Miracle.” After I told the story once, we acted it out together. Zach took the part of John Murray. Heather took the part of the baby, and Pete took the part of Eliza (they both said they wanted the chance to die on stage). There were parts for everyone — the captain of the ship, the ship itself, the sandbar, ship’s crew, Thomas Potter, the church, people who came to listen to John Murray preach — there were enough parts that all the children and adults who wanted a part had at least one part, and in the end I think Sara wound up with three different parts.

We had a short discussiona bout the story. “Do you think this is a miracle?” I asked. “John Murray told us this story, and maybe he didn’t remember how long it was that the ship was stuck on the sandbar; maybe it wasn’t several days, but only one day. What are your thoughts on this story?” One child said that he thought that the ship was probably only stuck for a day. One of the other adults pointed out that the miracle was only that the ship was stuck on the sandbar for so long. Another child asked if the story was really true, and I said that we know John Murray came to America at about this time, and we knew he had preached in Thomas Potter’s church. Another child thought that John Murray had told a true story, because the ship could have been stuck that long. We talked a little longer, trying to sort out what each of us wanted to believe about this story.

After the story, I said that I wanted us to start a project together. Our class shares Room 6, which is used by many other groups over the course of the week, but I said I thought it would be nice to make it our own. I explained that over the next few weeks we would be making a quilt together, a quilt with blocks designed and painted on fabric by the children. The theme, I said, would be symbols of our Unitarian Universalist faith — we would paint different designs of flaming chalices on the quilt blocks. Alan, one of the adults visiting the class, said he had grown up as a Unitarian Universalist, but that when he was a kid his congregation didn’t use the flaming chalice. I said the same was true for me, and Lucy, the other visiting adult, said she had also grown up Unitarian Universalist and she too had not seen a flaming chalice as a child. The children seemed interested to hear that the flaming chalice is a relatively new symbol.

I showed the children a variety of flaming chalice designs, and explained where the designs came from: the old chalice logo of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a flaming chalice used by Interweave (an association of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Unitarian Universalists), the old off-center cross used by Universalists, and so on. “We’re not going to actually paint on fabric today,” I told the children. “We’re just going to draw, and later we’ll figure out which of the drawings we want to put onto fabric.”

We brought out a table, and the children sat around it (there wasn’t room for the adults — we had more people than we expected). We had markers and crayons, and I provided some sample chalices for children who didn’t feel confident enough to draw their own; Andrew was unsure about what to draw, so I gave him one of the sample chalice drawings. Dorit, on the other hand, knew immediately what she wanted to draw, and drew a detailed and colorful chalice design that was quite remarkable.

It was almost time to go; we could see the adults coming out of the worship service in the Main Hall. We did a perfunctory clean-up, and then all stood in a circle. Each child had a chance to show the drawings they had made. We asked the children to leave their drawings at UUCPA until next week.

Then we all held hands. I explained how to hold hands in a circle: “Hold your hands out like this [both palms down]; now turn over your left hand — let’s see, I get my left and right mixed up sometimes [Heather tapped my left hand] oh yes, like this — now take your right hand and put it over your neighbor’s left hand [demonstrating as I say this] and hold hands. Now, as you can see, everyone’s thumbs are pointing left!” Often at least one child refuses to hold hands with the person next to them, but this group simply held hands without any complaints or hesitancies.

“Now it’s time for our closing circle,” I said. “What did we do today?” “We drew!” “We acted.” “What did we act out?” “Um, the story about that guy, ah, John…” “John Murray.” “And that other guy, the guy with the church!” “Don’t forget the baby!” “Thomas Potter you mean?” “And John Murray’s wife!” The children remembered little bits and pieces of the story, but had a hard time remembering the whole thing. I didn’t prod them, simply helped them remember what they could. “OK, now it’s really time to go,” I said. “I’ve had so much fun with you this morning, and I look forward to seeing you all next week.” Most of the children went out to social hour in a burst of high spirits; one or two stayed long enough to put their names on their drawings before they left.

Next entry


(a) One of our primary interests in teaching this class is to mix age groups. Our hypotheses is that the younger children will learn much from the older children, and that the older children will learn by having to be role models for the younger children. What also came out today is that younger children may perform above their age level in one area — as today Dorit drew one of the best and most delightful drawings — and older children feel relieved that they don’t have to perform at a high level in all areas of competency — as happened with Andrew when he was unsure what, if anything, he wanted to draw, and he was relieved when he didn’t have to produce a masterpiece.

(b) I have been working closely with Amy, our parish minister, to make sure the first fifteen minutes in the worship service works well for children. This Sunday, I felt the children came out of the Main Hall feeling centered from the calming music and the chalice lighting) and also joyful (from the fun story). That first fifteen minutes made all the difference — we had no behavior problems in Sunday school, and I give lots of credit to the calm and joy experienced in worship.

(c) We plan to do ongoing assessment of learning in this Sunday school class. I incorporated two forms of pre-assessment in this lesson: (1) the name game was a chance to see how the children interacted as a group, and (2) the closing circle was a chance to see how much they retained from the story. The results of the pre-assessment were as follows: (1) the children had no problem with the name game: they were willing to jump right in and play without holding back (except for a little shyness) and they began to learn each other’s names quickly; (2) the children retained little of importance from the story, and did not really remember anything of the discussion about whether or not they thought the story incorporated a real miracle. Since I have done these activities a number of times with children, I have the sense that (1) the children work well together as a group, better than many groups I’ve played this game with, and (2) the children did not perform well as a group in retaining the essence of the story that they heard.

Queries for the reader

(1) At the closing circle, would you have corrected the children when they did not remember the story well? Or would you prefer to wait and see what they remembered so that you could adjust your teaching in future lessons?

(2) I was fairly directive in this initial class; I set the agenda, and did not try to make this a child-centered class. I was also fairly clear that as teacher I was in charge, not to the point of being authoritarian, but certainly to the point that I did not offer them much say in what we were going to do today. Would you have taken this approach on the first day of a new Sunday school class, or would you have been more child-centered?


Footnote 1: This is the title of the first chapter of Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds by Helen Firman Sweet and Sophia Lyon Fahs (New York: Henry Holt, 1930). Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds serves as an inspiration for this experiment in Sunday school. I hope, too, that my experiment will serve as something of a corrective to the problematic aspects of the book — the too-closely-graded classes, the paper-and-pencil tests used as assessment, the lack of a congregational affiliation and consequent lack of multiple adult role models, etc. — problematic aspects of liberal religious education which continue to haunt us 80 years after Sweet and Fahs’s marvelous experiment.

5 thoughts on ““On the first Sunday the adventure is launched” [1]

  1. Joe Chee

    Answer 1: I would not have “corrected” the children. Instead, after they had an opportunity to say what they remembered, I would tell them 1 or 2 essential or main ideas about the story that I would want them to leave with, and/or some closing thoughts or questions about the theme of the day – what does it mean to be who you truly are?

    Answer 2: I don’t see being a fairly directive teaching style as the antithesis of being child-centered. To me, being “child-centered” means taking into account the learning style and particular interests of the children in the class. This is in contrast to “teacher-centered” instruction where the needs and interests of the instructor is paramount, or “assessment-centered” instruction where the aim is to have the learned perform well on a test.

    One final thought: many people confuse “child-centered” education with with a “child-led” education. “Child-led” education is typically more Montessori-style and does not necessarily offer a structure or opportunities but instead waits for the child to ask or initiate.

  2. Dan

    Joe Chee @ 1 — Your answer to the first query is really powerful — obviously there’s no one “right” answer to the query — but I really like your approach.

    Regarding your answer for the second query, you’re getting at one of the key discussions in liberal religious education over the past thirty years. The dominant trend in Unitarian Universalist Sunday school has been to rely on teacher-friendly curriculum books that offer cookbook-style recipes for lesson plans. This is in contrast to Unitarian Universalist curriculums from the 1960s and 1970s such as The Haunting House, Life Issues for Teenagers (LIFT), and About Your Sexuality, which were child-centered (and, in the case of LIFT, youth-led to an extent). As a corrective to the teacher-centric curriculums, there has been a movement to integrate the insights of Montessori education into liberal religious education and liberal Christian education, beginning with the work of Jerome Berryman in Godly Play, which was adapted for specifically Unitarian Universalist needs by Nita Penfold, Ralph Roberts, and others in their “Spirit Play” program. On the other end of the spectrum, the Workshop Rotation Model (WoRM), which began as liberal Christian education and which is now being used in several Unitarian Universalist congregations, represents for me the extreme working out of teacher-centered programs — WoRM is set up for the convenience of the volunteer teachers with little thought (or so it seems to me) about the quality of the experience for children.

    As for assessment-centered religious education, the paradigmatic model there is traditional conservative Christian education, where children are expected to memorize a large number of Bible verses. Assessment-centered education has not been a strong force among religious liberals since the 19th C.

  3. Terry Passarotti

    Query 1: I would have added the parts I though were most important just as my own sharing, just as the kids were doing – not like my ideas are better, just what I remembered from the story.

    I would not have had the idea of using what they got / missed as feedback for my future lesson planning. It’s a great idea, but I probably would not have thought about it so much in the moment. Thanks for making it part of the question as now I will have it in mind.

    Query 2: I think “child-centered” for younger age groups does not preclude exerting a certain amount of authority – this is in line with Joe’s comment. What I have seen work for groups I have taught (2-5th grade) is a firm hold by the teacher on what we have agreed on as classroom ‘rules’ (be safe, be kind, be respectful and listen) helps all the children participate, not just the more extroverted ones. When the teacher is firmly ‘in charge’ then kids are more confident in their participation. We only have 45 minutes together so some authority to move the class along its intention helps tremendously.

    That said, being authoritarian is not helpful in my experience – cutting kids off, suppressing behavior in a negative way just to get the next curriculum item checked off the list…this is not usually helpful.

    In our class at 9:30 (4th & 5th grade), Dan successfully got some boys out of a tree climbing excursion mid-name game without making either child feel singled out or embarrassed. They just got out of the tree and got back in the circle based largely on the authority in Dan’s tone and look. One of them was my son and I would have heard about it afterward if he felt upset about it! And as a parent/teacher, I was grateful to have Dan handle this so quickly and so well.

  4. Dan

    Terry @ 3 — You write: “We only have 45 minutes together so some authority to move the class along its intention helps tremendously.”

    Really good point — Sunday school is so brief, we often have to be more directive.

  5. Susie Idzik

    I got to be in that fun class on Sunday – so wanted to share my thoughts:

    (1) Retaining information… reflecting the story: After you told the story, you asked the kids who were the characters of the story that might need to be acted out in a play. I think that with very little prodding the kids did an amazing job of coming up with the players in the story and certainly outperformed my retention! I was impressed with their memory. Acting out the story really reinforced it for them. I would take that moment (the discussion of who was in the story) as the moment of key assessment. I think the questions at the closing circle were a bit clouded with “can we go now? Are we done?” It will be interesting, over time, to see what the retention was – I would suspect that it was a bit more than was shown at the closing circle.
    (2) I think you absolutely took the right approach for the first day. Especially considering that it was a new model for this congregation and the kids didn’t really know what to expect – even those who have been in Sunday school for a while. I think that being directive can be very comforting and doesn’t come at the expense of listening and adjusting for the group. I also think, at this point, with the age range, being directive is crucial as we can gear what we want to teach to kids of many ages but if we start asking for input, I think the age differences will really start to show…but that’s just a guess at this point.

    Other thoughts:
    a) Mixed age groups: performing at “age level”. One thing I think UUs do very well is to have respect for people of all ages. I think that having a mixed age group not only lets kids perform at different levels (above or below their “age level”) but it also reinforces that we respect people younger and older than us and that they have valuable things to say and pieces to offer. I think that it lets kids come to us wherever they might be on the spectrum of growth, development, achievement and it really backs up our UU values. One of the things I really like about kids at our church is that I continually see respect and enjoyment of kids at all ages by kids of all ages- I rarely see teens eyerolling at youngers or youngers feeling inferior to ‘tweens, I think the kid culture of our church is very inclusive, and I think this mixed class is a great place to reinforce that value. Not only can olders “help out” youngers, but more importantly, they can show youngers respect and attention and, dare I say, friendship.
    b) I love the idea of the kids coming to class after being in the church service. I think that it provides the kids with the clear sense that they belong to a bigger community – meaning that when they come into the class we don’t have to establish that connection. In other classes I have taught there is much more effort needed to “come together” at the start of class. I think that this is particularly effective for the mixed grade class which may have more flux of attendees each week.

    Thanks Dan!

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