During the first fifteen minutes of the worship service this morning before we went off to Sunday school, the children got to hear the church choir sing a delightful arrangement of the folk song “Somos el Barco,” originally written by singer-songwriter Lorre Wyatt. Melissa, one of the teachers in our class, went up to light the chalice with her son Zach, who is in our Sunday school class, and her daughter who is in the high school youth group that meets at the same time as our class. Then it was time for the children to go off to Sunday school, while we all sang “This Little Light of Mine” together. This was a spirited rendition of “This Little Light,” with our music director, Henry, at the piano doing a rocking gospel-style accompaniment, which brought forth full-voiced singing from the choir and congregation. I noticed that a number of the children knew “This Little Light” and were singing it as we gathered together at the back of the church, and some of us kept singing during the last verse as we slipped out one of the back doors to head off to our classroom. Each of these elements of this opening time in the worship service has been planned with Amy, our parish minister: at my request, she chose ten hymns that are kid-friendly and that we will try to teach in Sunday school this fall; she is getting families with children to light the chalice each week so kids can see their peers participating in the worship service; and she is including different elements of the worship service during the first fifteen minutes so that the children can get a sense of the different things that happen during worship.
When we had gathered in our classroom, we had nine children: Dorit, Heather, Zach, Sara, Perry, Monty, Lily, Kerry, and Sid (note that I never use real names for children). Kerry and Sid were new this week; Kerry is friends with Lily, has come to church before, and is friends with Lily; Sid’s family is completely new to the church, and is in (I think) 3rd grade. There were four of us adults today: Susie, Melissa, me, and Sid’s mom who decided to us on Sid’s first Sunday.
“Let’s get the carpet squares in a circle,” I said. That took a while, but the children are beginning to realize that I expect them to help set up the classroom, and more children helped out than did last week. As we were settling in to the circle, I reviewed some of the silly lessons in speaking with a New England accent from previous classes: “What’s this called?” [patting the floor] “The flo-ah!” “And what city did I live in before I came here?” “Nu Befit!” [New Bedford] And so on. It turned out that Sid and his mom had recently moved to California from Massachusetts, so they were amused by my New England accent lessons. While these lessons in speaking with a New England accent are mostly silly fun, I have been thinking that many children are unaware that there are regional accents in the United States; they are fairly aware that people who grew up in another country, or speaking a language other than English, might have an accent, but they are not nearly so aware that people talk differently just because they live in a different part of the country.
Since this was Sid’s first day at church, I started us off playing a silly game called “Zip, Zap, Zoop” while Susie took attendance. (Some of the children knew a different version of this game, so I had to explain that there are lots of versions of this game.) First I taught the children the basic moves of the game: to Zip, you can use your right to point to your left, or your left hand to point to your right, while saying “Zip”; to Zap” you hold up your right hand to stop a Zip coming from your left and vice versa, while saying “Zap”; and to “Zoop,” you touch the top of your head and point to someone across the circle while saying “Zoop.” (You can see photos of these moves at the end of the post.) Dorit stopped me at this point and said, “But what do we do in the game?”
“Thank you for asking that,” I said, and I showed them. I started play by sending a Zip to Sara seated on my left; then I coached Sara to send the Zip to the next person, who (at my coaching) did a Zap, which reversed the direction of the Zip; when the Zip came back to me, I sent it across the circle to Zach by means of a Zoop. A couple of the children wanted to know if you can Zap a Zoop, and I said “No, you can’t Zap a Zoop.” Well, then, could you send the Zoop right back to the person who Zooped you? “No,” I said, “because that would be just as if you Zapped a Zoop. You can Zoop to someone else, or you can Zip in either direction, but that’s it.” I also taught them the last rule: if someone does one of the moves wrong (e.g., for a Zip it would be wrong to use the right hand to point right; or saying “Zip” when you are actually Zapping; etc.), then everyone who notices the error is supposed to make a sound like one of those buzzers they have on TV game shows when someone gets an answer wrong: “Ahnnnnn!” At which point the person who makes the error has to do the Funky Chicken, i.e., has to make some sort of chicken-like activity ranging from saying “Buc, buc” in a listless voice, to doing a whole-hearted chicken dance with thumbs tucked in armpits to make wings, wings flapping madly, making chicken sounds, and dancing. “Some people,” I said, “make errors on purpose just so they get to do the Funky Chicken.”
We played for about five minutes. It is hard to get the moves right at first, and we had lots of people doing the Funky Chicken. “This is boring,” said Dorit. “Well, it is boring,” I said, “until you get good enough at it to go really fast. Let’s try going really fast.” We tried going really fast, but it was still only marginally fun, so I stopped the game.
“OK,” I said, “let’s light the chalice.” Sara and Monty, the two sixth graders in the class, had already lit the chalice in previous weeks. So this week I asked Kerry, who is in fifth grade, to light it for us. We said our regular words together: “We light this chalice as a….” Then it was time for check-in — this week, I told the children that after they said their names, they could say one good thing that had happened in the past week, or one bad thing. Sid chose to pass, but all the rest of the children (and all the adults) shared something that had happened in the past week. This is in contrast with that first week of class, where quite a few of the children chose to pass.
I asked the children to review the story that we had heard last week. Sara raised her hand first, and said, “That guy… um, I forget what his name is… anyway, he was sailing, and he hit a sandbar, and he was the first preacher in this country.” I prompted her, “His name was John Murray. I’m glad you remember that story, but that was the story we had two weeks ago. Anyone remember last week’s story?” No one could (or at least, no one admitted to it). “Dorit,” I said, “you’ve got a good memory, can you remember?” But she too remembered the story from two weeks ago. Finally someone (I’m not sure who) remembered something about a rock, and then in a rush the children remembered all the details of last week’s story: “They threw water on him, and on the congregation.” “They threw eggs at him.” “There was that guy who challenged him to a debate, um, that guy…” “Mr. Croswell.” “Yeah, him, and he kept kicking John Murray, and shouldering him, and telling him to stop talking.” I reminded them of the stinky asafoetida that Murray’s opponents had used.
By now, it was 11:30. Originally, I had been planning to tell them another story at this point, but Melissa had to leave at ten past noon, and since she was leading the craft project this week we had arranged that she would do her craft project first, and I would do the story later.
Melissa explained that we were going to make a quilt together. The children would paint designs of flaming chalices onto squares of fabric, then we would arrange these painted squares into a pleasing pattern, and Melissa would sew them together into a quilt. We would use this quilt to decorate our classroom. Aware that we had a new family present (a family who may or may not have known about Unitarian Universalism), I interjected a quick question: “Melissa, why is it that we’re painting chalices?” “Oh, yes,” she said, “because that’s a symbol of Unitarian Universalism.” Melissa explained that we would go through a process: draw designs on paper first, then lay unbleached muslin over the drawings in order to trace the design onto the muslin, then paint in the traced designs. Interestingly, I noticed that Melissa chose to stand up to talk to the children; I am so tall (6′ 5″) that I long ago discovered that I must get myself down to the children’s level in order to relate in a manner that I find satisfactory; but Melissa is quite a bit shorter than I, so the difference in height is much less remarkable.
Melissa moved us over to the tables where she had already set up the fabric and the fabric paint. I sat down at the table with Sid, Sid’s mom, Sara, and Kerry. Melissa was handing out sheets of paper, and I asked her how big our drawings could be — could they be as big as the whole square of fabric? — how big was the square of fabric compared to the paper she was handing out? Melissa told us that the squares of fabric were ten inches by ten inches, and that we needed to leave an inch all around the design so she could sew the fabric together, so if we wanted to measure things out our drawings should be eight by eight inches. Sara and I asked for rulers so we could each measure out eight-by-eight squares on our pieces of paper. Pretty soon we were all drawing. Sid did a bright bold drawing of a chalice; Sid’s mom did a beautifully designed and colored drawing; Sara had a chalice floating on water, with stars overhead; Kerry worked on a careful and detailed representation of the carved chalice that sits in the Main Hall. We talked as we worked; at least, Sara, Kerry, and I talked, and Sid and Sid’s mom occasionally chimed in. Kerry said that she thinks she might want to be an artist when she grows up; certainly, what she did today shows that she has good drawing skills and a commitment to producing excellent work. As we worked, we admired each other’s drawings (though I kept mine pretty much out of sight).
At one point, I got up and tried to move to another table so I could hang out with the other children. There were no empty seats and I quickly grew tired of standing behind the children’s chairs and looking over their shoulders. Some of the children at the other table were already painting with the fabric paints, and I offered to go get aprons to protect clothing; but only one child wanted an apron, and Susie and Melissa were already spending time at that table, so I went back to where I had been sitting, and continued to work there. I pretty much stopped working on my drawing, and just enjoyed watching the children work, and chatting back and forth with them about nothing in particular.
We worked for half an hour — we were all having fun, and how time flew! — and soon it was approaching the time when Melissa had to leave. We told the children they had to wrap up what they were doing, but that we would return to this project next week. Slowly, everyone finished what they were doing and put their work away.
This week, I knew the worship service would run fifteen to twenty minutes late, so I gathered the children once again in a circle. “Oops,” said someone, “I already put the carpet squares away.” “that’s OK,” I said, “we can put them back again.” We tried playing Zip, Zap, Zoop again, and this time it went more smoothly. We played a couple of rounds, and then it was time for closing circle. We went over what we did today, and we all said goodbye. The children rushed out to social hour on the patio outside our classroom door.
Even though we went for over an hour today, we did not have time for the story — the quilt project was so much fun, we didn’t have time for much else. I am dissatisfied with the way our closing circle went today. I have been using the closing circle to review the week’s story, which is fine, but when we have no story (as happened today) I realize that our closing circle is kind of empty. Perhaps next week I will start teaching the children a song or two that we can sing during closing circle.
(a) I decided to spend quite a bit of time on the Zip, Zap, Zoop game at the beginning of the session, primarily so that Sid (and his mom) could feel more comfortable in the group. This eventually meant that I had no time to tell the story I had planned. I had to balance two educational goals here: the goal of religious literacy (introducing Unitarian Universalist children to the historical figure of John Murray), and the goal of building community (a new child joining the group, and a new family coming to church).
(b) I use a conceptual framework for building community in which groups are understood to go through stages, from less to more community. Each group begins at zero, or the zeroth stage. The first stage is called “Bonding,” in which you do activities that require the group to work together on some project or otherwise get to know a little bit about what the other people in the group are like. The second stage is called “Opening Up,” in which group members share more about themselves: their likes and dislikes, who they are, what their identities might be. The third stage is called “Affirming,” in which become more aware of their differences and learn how to affirm those differences while building on their similarities. (There are other stages beyond these three, but these are the three stages most likely to be encountered in a Sunday school class.) This model, which I have borrowed from Denny Rydberg’s book Building Community in Youth Groups, says that each time someone new joins the group, you must go back to the first stage and then work your way up (though once you’ve worked your way up through the stages, it is easier and faster to get back to the higher stages).
This conceptual framework for building community also offers a rough way to assess how well the group has learned to work together. At present, our Sunday school class is still at “Bonding,” though we are moving towards “Opening Up.”
(1) When you teach children or otherwise interact with children, are you more likely to place yourself at their level (e.g., sitting on the floor with them, sitting at child-sized tables with them), or are you more likely to place yourself above, behind, or in front of them? When you are not the lead teacher, would you be likely to sit and participate in the activity with the children?
(2) How would you balance the educational goal of religious literacy (which is about information) with the goal of building community (which is relational)? When is it OK to drop religious literacy during one or more lessons in order to focus on building community?
(3) Do you have a conceptual framework that you use to building community intentionally in groups of children?
Here’s how you Zip to the right. You’d use your left hand to Zip to the right, and your right hand to Zip to the left.
Here’s how you Zap to the right. When the Zip is coming from your right, you’d use your left hand to Zap the Zip; if it’s coming from the left, you’d use your right hand.
Above is the beginning of a Zoop. You touch your hand (right or left, doesn’t matter) to your forehead, and look directly at the person you’re going to Zoop…
…and above is the Zoop move completed. You point to the person to whom you are sending the Zoop.