Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference started this morning. Once again this year, Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6.

One of our groups this morning was filled with really great kids — I knew most of them from last year’s conference — and I was expecting the group to be lots of fun. But this group just didn’t come together. In fact, things started to fall apart, which meant that the children started acting out the stereotyped roles they have learned:– some of the boys started acting out, some of the girls sat there passively, one or two kids started acting like the good kids telling the others to behave. Nobody was learning anything. Nobody was having any fun.

It was raining off and on, so maybe the kids were cranky. Or maybe the chemistry just wasn’t right. I don’t know why things weren’t working, but I knew something had to change.

So I threw out the lesson plan we had written up, and did something that was more or less unexpected: “OK, everyone stand up. Make a line, and hold hands. Follow me.” The line broke down a couple of times, but finally we made it over to some trees. “Look at this…” We started picking up different kinds of lichen. “What’s it feel like?” Damp. Squishy. Soft. “Usually lichens are dry and crispy, but now they’re all wet from the rain,” I said. “It’s OK to pick it up, because wherever you drop it it will start growing again.” The kids started telling each other what they knew about lichen (these were 5th and 6th graders, so they knew quite a lot.) Lichen is fungus. No, fungi. It’s fungus and algae together. Look at this one growing on the tree! Look at this one, it’s completely different!

We ran back to our picnic table. Earlier, I had collected different kinds of seaweed down at the beach. We compared the lichen and the seaweed. “Seaweed is a kind of algae,” I said. Some of the lichen looked a little like some of the seaweed. Both the seaweed and the lichen felt damp, squishy, and soft.

By now, we were all re-focused. We sat down, and I asked them to come up with a list of ground rules that we could all live by. They came up with some good rules: No physical violence. One person talking at a time (they’re thinking of using a talking stick, but we’ll see). The Golden Rule: treat other people the way you’d like to be treated. And a few other common sense rules.

By the time we got the rules written down, and all agreed on, it was time to go to lunch, so we all went off to the dining hall.

Thinking back, I’m trying to figure out if there was anything I could have done differently at the beginning to keep things on track. I probably had higher expectations for the group than I should have had. Many of them are strong kinesthetic learners, and I probably should have had manipulatives for them to play with, or an immediate physical activity for them. I’m also not thrilled by having kids rotate through the different activities on such a tight schedule (I prefer spontaneous programming that arises from children’s interests, rather than schedules that force children to change to a different topic whether they’re ready or not) — and my negative attitude towards the schedule may well negatively affected how the group interacted.

But I suspect that in this case, there may not have been much that I could have done to change the way we started off. And it’s fine, because it worked out pretty well in the end — even though I never made my key point, that for many of us Unitarian Universalists appreciating Nature is a big part of our religion.