Our conversation ranges widely, from John Murray, to suicide, to free speech

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

As is our new custom, all of us — children and adults — began together in the worship service in the Main Hall at 11:00. Amy, our parish minister, taught us a song called “Thula.” It’s a Zulu song, in 3-part harmony, and “thula” means hush — it’s a lullaby, but it’s also a great song for helping people become peaceful.

We gathered in a bigger room this week, and it was a good thing we did because we had twelve children this week instead of nine. Pete and Ari were not here this week, but Rawley and Chad (brother and sister) and Perry and Monty (brothers), and Lily joined us today (for privacy, I use pseudonyms for the children). All four of use teachers were present — Lee, Susie, Melissa, and me — as well as two parent visitors — Lucy from last week and Amanda.

It took us a while to settle down. We did not have enough space for the children to sit in a circle, so some of the adults and children moved tables around. I asked two children, Lily and Oliver, to put carpet squares down in a circle for our opening circle. They started to do so, got distracted by their friends, and then we realized we were going to have to move the circle again, by which time everyone was helping. While this was going on, Susie was taking attendance.

Most of the children got in the circle, but we were still settling in, and Susie was still trying to take attendance. I talked a little bit about regional accents — I had to explain what an accent was, because some of the children didn’t know — and then I had the children learn how to say some words in a generic eastern Massachusetts accent. “There’s a red thing that you eat, and it has claws, what would you call it?” I said. Rawley got it: “A lobster!” “Exactly,” I said, except that where I come from we’d say ‘lobsteh.’ ” The children and adults all said, “Lobsteh.” “And then where I come from we like to eat clams. Did any of you ever have clams?” Several people nodded. “We like to steam clams, and we call them ‘steamahs.’ And we like to dip our steamahs in buttah — you’d say ‘butter’.” All the children said “steamahs” and “buttah,” and most of them were smiling or even laughing by now. All this had nothing to do with my lesson plan, but it served to cover over the chaos of rearranging the room, and it also served as an icebreaker activity.

At last we were settled in our opening circle. “Who are the sixth graders here today?” I asked “One of you can light the chalice.” Monty, Sara, and Chad held up their hands. “Sara, you lit it last week, so Monty, why don’t you do it this week, and Chad, we’ll have you do it next week.” Chad lit the chalice, and in another digression from my lesson plan, I talked to the children about how hair burns really easily, so those of us with long hair have to keep our hair away from fires. I snipped a little hair from my pony tail, and demonstrated how quickly it burns. Some of the children had stories about people whose hair caught on fire: Sara told about a couple who were friends of her family, how they were having a romantic dinner, and the man asked the woman if she wanted to get married, and she leaned forward to say yes but she got too close to one of the candles on the table and scorched her hair which caused her to say ‘No!” (when she really meant “Yes, I want to get married.”) Another child told about someone her family knew whose hair caught on fire, and her face was badly burned; she still has a scar from it. Several other children spoke, too, and this discussion proved to be of some interest to all present.

“What is it we say each week when we light our chalice?” I asked. “Say it really slowly because I’m still learning it.” Together, the children and adults said, “We are Unitarian…” “Hold it right there,” I said, writing it down. “So why do we make a ‘U’ shape with our hands [I demonstrated]?” Dorit, the youngest in the group, said, “That stand for ‘Unitarian’.” “OK,” I said, “what comes next?” Everyone said, “…Universalists…” “Hold it,” I said, “let me write that down… and why do we make a ‘U’ with our other hand?” “It stands for ‘Universalism’!” We went through the rest of the words we say each week when we light the chalice, with me writing them down, and discussing the meaning of each hand motion we use as we went along.

This week, I wanted to give the children time to do “check-in”; that is, to share a little bit about their lives. “Let’s go around the circle,” I said, “and each of us will say their name, and then you can say one good thing and one bad thing that happened to you in the past week; or you can pass, and say nothing.” Three or four of the children chose to pass, but most of the children and all the adults told briefly about a good thing and a bad thing that had happened to them in the past week (although one child told about two good things, and two other children had a good thing to talk about but no bad thing).

Had I looked at the clock at this point, I would have seen that we were way behind schedule. I often forget to look at the clock, and I forgot this time; I was so engaged with talking with the children and getting to know them that I did not pay attention to time.

“Now it’s time for the story,” I said. “The story today is a continuation of last week’s story. Does anyone remember last week’s story?” The children tried to remember the story: “I was the baby,” said Heather, “and there was a priest…” “A preacher, actually,” I said to her, “but yes, and can you remember his name?” She remembered his name. Andrew remembered there was another guy, “that church guy,” and I said, “You mean the man who built the church,” and then Sara remembered he was named Thomas Potter. Then Dorit raised her hand, and I pointed to her, and she gave a truly excellent summary of the whole story, right up to the point where John Murray got married.

After we remembered together last week’s story, I told them the story of John Murray and the Rock. My notes for the story included some passages from John Murray’s autobiography because I wanted to be able to read them some of Murray’s actual words; when I got to those passages, I had to explain several of the words and phrases. Someone asked what a “debate” was, and Andrew came up with a pretty good definition, drawing on his memories of his father watching the presidential debates. When the story got to the point where Mr. Croswell tried to interrupt John Murray, I had two adults, Lucy and Susie, act this out: Mr. Croswell (Susie) kicked at John Murray’s (Lucy’s) legs, pulled at Murray’s clothing, shouldered Murray, etc.

When I got done with the story, I said, “So what happened in the story?” I had thought about having the children act out the story the way we did last week, but I thought I’d take a chance and try to lead a straight discussion of the story. We went over the story, and got the facts straightened out. I asked the children whether they thought that people should have been allowed to stop John Murray from talking about Universalism. Rawley thought that it should be OK to say whatever you want in your own home, but maybe not in public. Gradually, we refined that idea, and we talked about how in America we do have freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression — in fact, this is one of the things that John Murray gives thanks for in his autobiography. We talked about the limits of free speech, and of religious expression. These ideas are prevalent in our schools and in our society, so the children seemed to already have a good understanding of them. We talked a little bit more about whether John Murray’s opponents should have thrown rocks at him, and some of the children did not think that was a good thing: Murray should have been allowed to speak.

I was moving towards wrapping up this conversation, when Rawley raised her hand. She asked a question about the recent teen suicides in the area, where over the summer three teenagers have committed suicide by jumping in front of trains. Somehow — perhaps the talk about the violence that John Murray had faced up to? — got her thinking about this. “Well,” I said, a little taken aback, “that’s a little off topic. Maybe we could talk about that later.” But it quickly became apparent that many — perhaps most — of the children were very interested in this topic, and I realized it was not just Rawley, and that I should not pass over this lightly. So i told the children the story of how last week I had been on a train, and a man had jumped under the train to commit suicide, and how the police and EMTs had had to come, and we sat on the train for an hour and a half. Both adults and children listened attentively to what I had to say, and one of the adults added some additional information. We also talked a little bit about how one of the teenagers had been part of our church, and some of the children seemed to have known who she was. “We should talk about this more next week,” I said. And it seemed that everyone was content to wait until next week to talk about this subject.

At this point, we were supposed to continue the project begun last week: drawing chalices on squares of fabric, later to be painted with fabric paints and then assembled into a quilt. But as I started to turn to that, Melissa pointed out that it was close to noon, close to the end of our time. So instead of working on the quilt project, we stood in a circle, and sang “Thula”: we split into three groups, each group with an adult who knew one of the parts, and and we sang the song in three-part harmony. I felt a little rushed, and would have liked to work more on the song so that we really sounded fabulous; but we did pretty well.

We had our closing circle, and I reminded the children how to hold hands in our closing circle (right plam down, left palm up, join hands, everyone’s thumbs point left). “What did we do today?” I said. “Sang ‘Thula’!” “Heard a story.” “What was the story about?” At about this point, a parent came into the room to pick up her children, and I invited her to join our closing circle. We went over the story (mostly i reminded the children of what the story was about), and then I said how much fun I had had, and that I hoped to see them next week. This week, I did not notice the children rushing to leave class quite so much as they did last week.

Next entry in this series


(a) The discussions were greatly helped by having older children mixed with younger children. In particular, the children in grades 3-4 seemed most vocal, with two of the sixth graders contributing as well.

(b) After the children left, the four of us who are teachers met briefly and talked. We talked about the process we’re going to use to make the quilt — Melissa has worked as an art teacher, and she is going to take charge of that project. I emphasized that I hoped the quilt would be a true group project, so that quilt squares need not be signed by the children, and that we should be looking at the project as a whole, not as a bunch of individual drawings thrown together. We also talked about how to introduce the topic of suicide next week, and I said that I would take on that task (tune in next week to find out how I do!).

Queries for the reader

(1) How would you have handled the inevitable chaos at the beginning of the session, as we worked to set up the room to accommodate more children? I threw in several things that weren’t in my lesson plan — is it OK to diverge as far from the lesson plan as I did? — was it OK to not do anything on the quilt project this week?

(2) What would you have done when Rawley brought up the issue of the recent suicides?


Story: John Murray and the Rock

Please note: This is a rough draft, and I improvised quite a bit while telling this story.

You remember the story last week — how John Murray learned about Universalism, and how he came to America, and the ship ran aground on the sand bar, and how John Murray met Thomas Potter, and how he wound up preaching in Thomas Potter’s church. And I told you that after he met Thomas Potter, John Murray began preaching Universalism in America, and that he convinced many people of the truth of Universalism.

Well, four years after he met Thomas Potter, John Murray took a long trip through to preach Universalism. This was in the year 1773, before the American Revolution, when the thirteen original colonies still belonged to England. John Murray went as far south as Maryland, and he traveled through Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, up to Portsmouth, N.H., and from thence back to Boston, preaching the whole way. He’d stop in a city where he knew some people, find a place where he could preach, and then get lots of people to come hear him. But it wasn’t easy. There were many people who thought John Murray should not be allowed to preach
Universalism. Sometimes people would try to interrupt him while he spoke; sometimes someone might even try to throw him out of the building where he was speaking.

When he got back to Boston in 1774, after a long trip, he began preaching again in a church in School Street in Boston. The proprietors of the church, the lay leaders, had invited John Murray
to preach there, but the minister, a man named Andrew Croswell, did not like John Murray, and did not like Universalism.

Well, in November, John Murray went in to Mr. Croswell’s church to preach Universalism. He preached on Sunday evening, and again on Wednesday evening. On Wednesday evening, someone threw water all over the audience who had gathered to hear him, and someone else threw an egg at John Murray (which didn’t hit). The very next day, Mr. Croswell wrote a nasty letter to the newspaper about John Murray.

So John Murray challenged Mr. Croswell to a debate the next Sunday evening — they would argue in public about whether or not Universalism was true. The debate started; a big crowd came out to
hear them; and Mr. Croswell was pretty nasty to John Murray. At last Mr. Croswell demanded that John Murray prove the truth of Universalism, and John Murray took that to mean that he should talk
at length about Universalism. But, says Murray, “All the time I was speaking, Mr. Croswell was kicking my legs, or pulling the skirts of my garment, ever and anon vociferating: ‘ Have done, have done; you have said enough; quite enough,’ &c. &c. Sometimes he stood up close to my side, shouldering me as hard as he was able. The congregation noticed his behavior, and it did not give them pleasure.”


“My next evening lecture was uninterrupted; but, on the succeeding Sunday evening, the throng was so prodigious, that it was with much difficulty I reached the pulpit; and when entered, I was nearly
suffocated by the strong effluvia, arising from the asafoetida with which the tools of the adversary had wet the pulpit and the pulpit cloth, plentifully sprinkling the whole house with the same noxious
drug. For some moments I was so much overpowered, as to induce an apprehension, that it would be impossible I should proceed; but the God of my life was sufficiently abundant for me. The demons of
confusion were, however, not quite satisfied: many stones were violently thrown into the windows; yet no one received any other injury, than the alarm, which was created. At length, a large rugged
stone, weighing about a pound and a half, was forcibly thrown in at the window behind my back; it missed me. Had it sped, as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, and waving it in the
view of the people, I observed:

” ‘This argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.’

“Exclamations from various parts of the house, were echoed, and re- echoed: ‘ Pray, sir, leave the pulpit, your life is at hazard.’

” ‘Be it so,’ I returned, ‘…Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth, or arrest my testimony.’

John Murray did not get hurt, although he was threatened again and again. But he said that the threat of violence, although very real, was not as bad as it could have been, because at least it was illegal…..

4 thoughts on “Our conversation ranges widely, from John Murray, to suicide, to free speech

  1. Terry Passarotti

    1) about the beginning time…when the kids didn’t go to service, we had an entrance activity that required little instruction which could be given by a teacher or by a student who was already doing it. This kept the chaos of getting everyone in the room to a minimum usually.

    Now that they are in service for the 1st 15 minutes and are coming as a more or less cohesive group from the hall with a teacher we haven’t really included an entrance activity in the plan for each class. Since you will be working on a quilt, maybe the quilt squares can be laid out already on a table when they walk in. They could get their square, or a new one if they are new, and go sit down. They could start doing something with their square while attendance is being taken and they are settling down. You could review last week and do check in with the option of continuing work on the quilt while this is going on or. Most kids seem to be able to work with their hands and listen/share at the same time.

    If the quilt tasks need too much instruction to make this feasible, maybe there could be another hands on activity that’s easy to do and follows the general flow above. I think this would keep attention more focused so you wouldn’t have to add in extra material just to cover the motion.

    Some of the topics that came up (suicide), however, do come up during sharing time. I think you handled that well, although I am not sure how consistent your group in terms of really being able to follow-up next week. Will they be the same participants? Will they still be interested next week? You may have covered all their questions in your brief discussion so it might be strange to bring it up again next week.

  2. Terry Passarotti

    Additional comment/question from the morning session: Blue class did not do opening or closing circles this week. We are doing the Time Machine curriculum. I was the lead teacher and I was nervous about getting things done for Part 1 of a 2 part class…

    The kids came in and sat down just fine. We did a quick attendance and then we had a name game follow-up (short version) to reinforce last week’s learning. We talked about their ideas of what time was and if they could go back in time, what would they go see? There was a lively commenting period and then we told them that this semester we would be going back in time to try and see for ourselves how things were when different UU people from the past were alive.

    Then we did a guided visualization from the curriculum with musical background – Star Wars themes, etc. The text was mainly about how it is to actually be in the time machine and make it work. This was a very fidgety time for them and some acted out the words that were being read instead of just visualizing. Others seem to enjoy the fact that silliness was present in the form of the actors :). There was a lot of giggling, but in the end, when given the task to create the interior of the the time machine (control panels, etc) they were right in line with the words from the visualization and got right to it.

    We had some of items missed from the previous week like decorating the 7 principles and some cut-out chalices that we wanted to incorporate. We decided to put them in the time machine as part of the decor. Someone decided we should push the Chalice ‘button’ as our way of returning home after our trips.

    And then I looked at the clock and it was 10:30 – time to frantically clean up and go!! They cleaned up, but we completely missed opening circle, check in and closing circle.

    Overall, I think the class went really well in terms of interactions, activities, & creativity. I did not go well in terms of our agreed upon format. Suggestions??

  3. Dan

    Terry @ 1 — Alas, even if we had had something set up to attract the children’s attention at the beginning, our forced re-arrangement of the room would have disrupted whatever we had set up.

    It will be interesting to see who comes back next week, and whether suicide is still of interest to them. I’m working on next week’s lesson plan right now, and what I’m leaning towards is telling a story in which someone dies, so we can have a generic discussion about death, and see where that leads us.

    Terry @ 2 — Thanks for sharing a brief teacher’s diary of your Sunday school class! My first thought is — maybe we should just accept the fact that when we run out of time, that means we are doing really well.

    One thing that really stood out for me was your mention of the guided meditation, and how it didn’t work for every child. The first thing I noticed when I looked in on your class on Sunday was how crowded you were in that room. I wonder if it was crowded enough that the more fidgety children simply found it impossible to focus. I wish we had a bigger room for your class… and to put more pressure on your class, the Children’s Choir has to come into your room promptly at 10:35 three times a month, meaning it’s difficult for you to run over time. Part of the reason you’re running out of time, I suspect, is that it takes longer to get things done in a crowded room, on top of which you can’t run over time.

    As for the opening and closing circles, here’s one thought — the work you’re doing right now in building the time machine is an excellent way to build bonds among the children — just working together side by side accomplishes some of the same goals of the opening circle. Either method can help your group work towards one of our big educational goals, having fun and building community. Once you start thinking about it in that way, I’ll bet you can find ways to building in additional community building into your work of making the time machine.

  4. Terry Passarotti

    thanks, Dan! we are having a great time in our class and even though it’s a bit small, the kids seem to be engaged. i heard someone is going to find a place for the large-ish rolling table thing so we will have more room. and maybe we could use the hexagonal tables instead of rectangular ones. it’s a work in progress.

    this week we actually managed a closing circle and clean up! i am going to set my phone alarm with a 5-10 minute warning for myself so i know when we are getting close.

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