Tag Archives: teaching diary

Noah? Right…

Replaces a post lost during Web host problems.

[Update, 2021: Sadly, now that Bill Cosby has been called out by the #MeToo movement, I’d no longer show this video to children.]

The subject for today’s lesson in the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class was Noah. While the lesson plan in the Timeless Themes curriculum was pretty good, I knew immediately that I was going to scrap it — I knew I had to figure out a way to incorporate Bill Cosby’s comedy routine on Noah.

After taking attendance, we started out with some pre-assessment: “What do you know about Noah?” Some of the children knew quite a lot, and told what they knew in some detail and with pretty good accuracy. “So you pretty much know what the Noah story is,” I told them, “now let’s look at a video.”

The children loved the fact that I brought a laptop into class. “My dad has one of those!” “So does my mom, but I think hers is bigger. Do they make a bigger one?” With a group of this size — we had six children today, though sometimes we get ten — I much prefer having the children cluster around a laptop, where they have to deal with each other’s physical proximity, than sit back and stare at a big screen. I brought the video up. “My mom doesn’t let me watch Youtube.” I told the girl that her mom was wise because most of the stuff on Youtube was crap. “Make it full screen!” said several of the children in a chorus.
Continue reading

Puppets for a Jataka tale

This past Sunday, I read the version of Duddubha Jataka tale (no. 322) in From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Fahs, for which Fahs supplied the title “The Nervous Little Rabbit.” We made simple puppets — drawings on cardboard which we cut out and mounted on popsicle sticks. One seven-year-old boy chose to make a puppet of “hundreds of rabbits”:

If you look at this puppet from the point of view of developmental psychology, you can look for ways in which this boy sees the world somewhat differently from adults; you’ll also look for how his fine muscle coordination is developing, etc. If you look at this puppet from the point of view of an artist, you might think this is a compelling design with satisfying organic shapes arranged in a pattern that implies movement. I’m most likely to look at this puppet from a teacher’s point of view and remember how involved the children were when we read the story again and had the puppets act the story out. The resulting puppet show wasn’t much to watch, but the children were drawn into the mythic world they helped co-create — even the fifth grader who read the story, and who was a little ambivalent about hanging out with younger children, got drawn in.

We talk about Chang Kung, kindness, and the Golden Rule

At about 11:15, five children and two teachers left the worship service in the Main Hall and gathered in Room 4/5 here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto to begin a new Sunday school year together. Two of the children were returning from last year’s 11:00 Sunday school class for grades 1-6. The other three children were in class for the first time: two of them were new to our church, and all three had older siblings attending the meeting of the senior high youth group which meets at 11:00.

As soon as we sat down around the table, I took attendance. My friends Dorit and Lisa were back, both looking older and taller. The newcomers were the twins Ian and Edie, both of whom just moved here from Rhode Island, and Bert, who used to come at 9:30. [All names and identifying details are disguised to protect the privacy of the children.] Lucy, my co-teacher, who teaches high school for a profession, sat directly across from me. I lit the flaming chalice, and read some opening words. The class is open to any child in grades 1 through 6, and in case there were older children, I had chosen somewhat challenging opening words, and put them on a handout (PDF file of the handout). Here are the opening words: Continue reading

“The Sandy Road”

From my teaching notes of 11 April 2010:

Over 20 children, ages 4 through 11, at the 9:30 session; school vacation week for many kids so we expected low attendance and had all the kids together. I had my doubts about having the preschoolers in the class, but thought it was worth a try. C—, one of the older kids, volunteered to light chalice; turns out he had never lit a match before, so I talked him through it while reviewing fire safety for the benefit of all kids.

Read aloud the story “The Sandy Road,” from Ellen Babbit’s retelling of Jataka tales (Appanna Jataka, or Appanaka Jataka, tale no. 1). The children were completely attentive while I was reading.

Then we acted it out. There were enough major roles for all the older children (gr. 4 & 5) who wanted one: the wicked demon and helpers, the foolish merchant, the wise merchant. The children were very inventive in acting the story out: the smallest children were the oxen, and they dragged chairs as their wagons; they were very focused on dragging their chairs. The children were much less attentive while we were getting ready to act the story out, and I did my usual thing and tried to talk over them — this never works well, but I have a big voice and have gotten into the bad habit of relying on it.

Finally we settled down and actually acted the story out. Continue reading

We hear about Abigail, and learn to make storyboards with a ringer

It’s been a month since I got to teach Sunday school, but finally today I was the lead teacher once again; Susie, who had been the lead teacher last week, was the assisatant. Three of our regulars came to class today — Heather, Zach, and Dorit. We sat down in a circle, and Dorit immediately said, “Can tell about a good and bad thing?” Zach and Heather both said, “Yeah!” I said that we would do check-in as usual, but we had to do attendance first, and light the chalice. Susie took attendance, and when it was time to light the chalice, both Heather and Zach put their hands up.

Susie pointed out that Heather had been lighting the chalice a lot lately. I proposed that Heather light the chalice first, then blow it out, then Zach would light it. Heather and Zach said that Dorit should get to blow it out. After a more discussion, that is what we decided to do. Heather lit the candle in the chalice. Dorit blew it out. Zach lit the candle, and we were ready to begin.

We were about halfway done with check-in when tow more people walked in: Bobby, and his father William. (Bobby usually attends the 9:30 Sunday school.) I explained what we were doing, and asked them to join us in the circle. We continued the check-in; I had to explain to Bobby that just one person talked at a time (I believe they don’t do check-ins in his regular Sunday school class). Heather had gone on a sleep-over; Zach had had a good football practice; I had seen a car accident on the way to church; William had gotten a good letter from a client; Bobby wasn’t ready to say anything yet. When we got done, Dorit had “two more things” she wanted to add to her check-in. At last check-in was done.

“Because we have some new people, let’s go around the circle and everyone say our names,” I said. By now, our regulars are used to doing this, so we went around the circle twice and said our names. I asked who could say everyone’s name, and Dorit said she could, and she did. Continue reading

We welcome visitors, and hiss at Haman

During the first fifteen minutes of the 11:00 worship service, we had a child dedication this morning. Five children from two different families were dedicated, including one baby and four older children. The godparents each brought their own children. Thus after the child dedication was over, and the children left for Sunday school, I expected to see perhaps a dozen children come out of the Main Hall — the children associated with the child dedication, plus another 3 or 4 of our regulars. At the end of the first hymn, I opened one of the sliding glass doors at the back of the church, and as the children kept coming I realized that we were going to have more like 20 children.

Melissa, the lead teacher today, was waiting in the classroom for us. She, to was surprised as the children streamed in. I rounded up a few stray children; Melissa quickly rearranged the rooms so we could all sit down in a big circle. “Let’s take attendance first,” she said, and looked at me. “Dan, do you mind taking attendance?” I didn’t mind at all. Melissa asked each child to say their name and age; we had 18 children, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old. Of our regulars, Dorit, Zach, and Heather were present (Heather’s sister, Sara, who is 12, is now staying with her parents to hear the sermon). Dorit brought her friend Vi. Rawley and Carl, who usually attend the 9:30 session, had been with us before. The rest of the children were either one-time visitors, or usually came at 9:30.

After I took attendance, Melissa asked me to do our regular check-in (and in an aside to me, said that she had to run and make some more photocopies that she would need later). I said we’d go around the circle, and everyone would have a chance to tell about one good thing and one bad thing that happened to them in the past week, or they could pass. Usually when we have new children, they choose to pass. However, this Sunday, most of the children chose to say something — this felt like a real accomplishment! Melissa was so welcoming, and I think our regular children have become quite good at accepting and welcoming newcomers and visitors. The children were mostly quite attentive to each other — except for Dorit, which is most unusual, but Dorit was distracted by the novelty of having her friend Vi, and the two of them could hardly keep from talking to each other.

Melissa began telling the story of Queen Esther. I had to run off to gather some more supplies. When i came back, Melissa was in the middle of the story. Now whenever I’ve heard this story before, the storyteller has always had us hiss when Haman’s name comes up, so when Melissa said “Haman,” I almost started to hiss — but caught myself when no one else did. So at a break in the story, I mentioned this point, and Melissa said that was a good idea. She began the story again: “So the king turned to Haman…” — and she paused while we all hissed.

Melissa told the story very well, and the children listened attentively. (By “attentively,” I mean that there was the usual squirming on the carpet squares, but no side conversations, and no wandering eyes or heads.) At the end of the story, Melissa asked the children what they thought of the story. Rawley said she thought there might be a lesson to the story, and Melissa asked her what she thought that lesson might be. After Rawley gave her idea, Kayla, who was at the 11:00 Sunday school for the first time, spoke passionately but not very articulately, saying we should stick up for our ideals. A couple of other children also said what they thought the story meant. Melissa and I said the story could mean all these things, and Melissa had a couple of other ideas of what the story could mean.

Ellie (who usually comes at 9:30) asked if the story were true, which prompted another general discussion. Continue reading

Not teaching, but still doing religious education

One in a series of entries in my teaching diary. First 2009 entry.

Sunday 27 December 2009

There was no Sunday school today, so I got to go to church to hear the sermon. I arrived a little bit late, and sat down just before the opening words. I could see Marco and Natalie sitting on the other side of the Main Hall with their godmother; I tried to catch Marco’s eye, but I don’t think he noticed me. Roger Jones, the visiting preacher, gave an excellent sermon — I was glad our church brought in a really good guest preacher on this low-attendance Sunday. Marco and Natalie stayed in for the whole worship service, and Roger’s sermon was good enough that I suspect Marco (and maybe Natalie) could pick up something from it; at the very least, the children got to hear the speech rhythms of a good preacher, rhythms which can be hypnotic and entrancing in their own right. I wanted to try to talk to Marco and Natalie after the service to see what they thought about it, but unfortunately I had to leave immediately; but I will make a point of asking them about it the next time I see them.

Later in the afternoon, I took a break and went over to the Baylands Nature Preserve, to go for a walk, and to do some birding. There were hundreds of wintering ducks in the marshlands, and I was standing on one of the dikes looking through my binoculars at a pair of Gadwall when I heard a familiar voice saying, “I don’t know if Dan wants to be disturbed.” It was Lucy, standing there talking to her daughter Dorit, who is in my Sunday school class.

I said hello to both of them. Lucy said she didn’t want to bother me, but I told her (truthfully) that I was pleased to see them both. Dorit is now six and three-quarters. I began talking to her about birds, and quickly figured out that she was interested in birds, and had some basic knowledge of how to tell different kinds of birds apart. “Would you like to look through my binoculars?” I said. Dorit nodded, and we went over to a nearby bench so I could sit next to her (when you’re six foot five, you either have to kneel down or sit beside a child when you’re going to let them use your binoculars, and it was too damp for me to want to kneel). The three of us sat on a bench looking out at tidal flats with American Avocets, various kinds of ducks, and lots of shorebirds. I asked Dorit if she knew how to use binoculars, and she did — she held them up, managed to hold them steady, and used the focusing knob. They were kind of heavy for her, though, and not much fun to use. So we just sat there looking at the birds without binoculars. It was a little chilly, and after we talked for about five minutes, Lucy and Dorit went off one way, and I went off the other way.

Strictly speaking, birds have nothing to do with religious education. But I remember that I liked it when the adults in my childhood church shared their interests and passions with me — it was nice to be treated by adults as a person instead of a child. So talking to Dorit about birding may have nothing to do with religion, but it has everything to do with being human; which I suppose is just another way of saying that it has everything to do with religion.

Intergenerational worship service

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

We didn’t have Sunday school today; instead we had an intergenerational worship service. Dorit and her mom forgot that it was going to be an intergenerational worship service, so Dorit came up to me before the service started, and said, “We made banana-nut muffins for class today!” I ahd to explain that there was no class today. Dorit, being Dorit, heard this news with equanimity, and we quickly figured out a way to share the muffins after the service. Heather also came this week, and I think a couple of our other regular Sunday school attendees.

Amy, our parish minister, and I had thought hard about how to make this intergnerational worship service both kid-friendly and meaningful to adults. We decided not to change the order of service; we wanted children to experience a normal order of service as part of their religious education. We talked with the lay worship associate, Dave, about how to communicate the theme for the worship service, which was “gratefulness.” We made sure children and young people would be part of leading the service. And we made sure that no one element of the service would last too long.

The prelude was played by a 7th grader from the morning session, who is an accomplished classical guitarist. Dave lit the chalice, and told briefly how the chalice grew out of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee in the Second World War, and how the chalice still symbolizes our commitment to living out our faith through social justice work. I told the old story of Thanksgiving. In his reflection, Dave mentioned many of the things for which he felt grateful. The Children’s Choir sang twice, once early in the service and once at the offertory. Amy began her homily with a reference to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she looked ahead to the Christmas buying season telling us that while nowadays we are meant to believe that the best gifts have to be purchased, that isn’t necessarily so.

The Children’s Choir had to sit through all this twice. They were not as attentive in the second service as they had been in the first service, but they stayed calm — and they seemed to quite enjoy hearing the adult choir sing at the second service. At the beginning of the service, Heather had left her parents and gone to site with the eight girls of the Children’s Choir. After the service, I heard that Heather was going to start singing with the Choir — since they rehearse between the two worship services, I hope that Heather will still be able to attend the 11:00 Sunday school.


(a) We have the children attend intergenerational worship services to help us reach our goal of raising children who are likely to become Unitarian Universalist adults. If children don’t get to attend worship services with a fairly ordinary order of service, if they don’t learn how to sit through homilies and sermons and reflections, I believe that when they get to be adults it will be more difficult for them to make the transition into the adult religious community.

(b) I believe a key educational moment in this intergenerational worship service was having the Children’s Choir sing. Although this is a new choir (less than a year old), they have come a long way: they had good volume, good intonation, good enunciation, and it was pleasant to listen to them. Obviously, they made an impact on Heather; whether she wants to join them because they sounded good or because she wants to hang out with other girls her age doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that now Heather can see herself as being one of the children who will participate in the worship service. As for the children who have no interest in singing in the Children’s Choir, they now see that children can contribute to worship, and are an important and valued part of the congregation.

We work on our quilt

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

Before we went into the worship service, Melissa found me and said that had something come up at the last minute, and she would have to leave before the class time was over. We had planned that I would tell a story about Theodore Parker, and then she would get the children to finish painting their quilt squares with chalice designs — but since she had to leave early, we quickly decided that she would start the children off painting their quilt squares, and then after she left I would read the story.

Four children came to Sunday school at 11:00 a.m. this week: Lily, who had come once before, was here while her parents were in a meeting; Kali, who usually comes to the 9:30 session; Dorit; and Heather. Their parents told us that Zach and Andrew both play football, and both had games this Sunday morning. I learned later that Sonnet, Heather’s sister, decided to stay in the worship service this week. Monty and Perry, our other regulars, attended the 9:30 session this week.

We had a quick check-in time, and then Melissa started us in painting our quilt squares. Melissa brought regular acrylic paints instead of fabric paints this week, and we all found that it was easier to use the acrylic paints. I asked the children if any of them wanted an apron, but no one did — we had not had any problems in the past while using fabric paints, so I let it go.

Melissa told us that she hoped this would be the last week for painting, and that she would try to assemble the quilt over the next two weeks. There were some quilt squares left where children had outlined a design in pencil, but had never painted; we all decided that those of us who were in attendance could paint in these outlined designs. We all got to work.

We painted away, and talked about all kinds of things — no big topics, nothing important, just the idle but very satisfying chit-chat that people carry on while they’re working on a project together. Dorit completed her intricate chalice design, and announced that now she had to paint in the entire background of her quilt square with light green paint. As she started painting, she sighed and announced happily, “I’m never going to be done!” Soon Melissa had to leave, so Hong, the Religious Education Assistant, came in to be the second adult in the room. All the children were still busily painting their quilt squares, so I decided we would skip the story for this week — we wanted to complete the quilt squares this week.

Before I knew it, it was ten past noon — past time for us to end class. Kali still hadn’t finished painting her intricate design, and she asked Lily and some other children to help her paint in the last details. Dorit painted madly and finally filled in the background on her quilt square, stopping once to declare again, “I’m never going to be done!” The rest of us cleaned up around them, and I began to realize that some of the children had paint on their clothing: Dorit had a splotch on the front of her shirt and one on her pants; Lily had a bit of paint on the sleeve of her dress. Dorit said that her mother wouldn’t care about the paint (which proved to be true). I was more worried about Lily, who takes great care in what she wears, demonstrating far more visual skill and creativity in her dress than you’d expect from a nine year old; but she managed to get most of the paint off, and didn’t seem too worried.

At the end of the class, Sara came in to get her sister Heather. “Sorry I didn’t come today,” she said; she had stayed in the worship service with her parents, which is a good thing for an eleven year old to try. I told her it was good to see her, and then I introduced her to Lily, telling them that they were the two most creative and talented dressers in the Sunday school: “Of course, Lily, you are more arty-funky, and Sara, you dress more like a fashion plate [this was a phrase I had heard Sara use about herself], but even though you have different styles, you’re both really creative.” They nodded to each other, and I think they were pleased to be recognized for their obvious talents. I looked at the other children and said, “We’re witnessing a historic moment, when the two best and most creative dressers in the Sunday school get to meet.” The children expressed extreme skepticism at this judgment of mine — “I don’t this this a historic moment” — but I assured them that I thought the New York Times would carry this story.

By the time we finished cleaning up, it was twenty past twelve. All the quilt squares were finally painted, and set out to dry in the storage closet in our classroom. There had been no time for the story, but it felt like it had been a successful and satisfying session.

Next entry.


(a) While there was no formal learning in this Sunday school session, we nonetheless made progress towards one of our four big goals:– we had fun and built community by working together on a group project. To a lesser extent, we worked on a skill important to our religious community:– the children gained experience in working cooperatively at church, important preparation for the kind of work adults do in our church on committees, in social justice, as worship associates, etc. I would also argue that we probably made some progress towards another of our big goals, to raise children who are more likely to grow up to be Unitarian Universalist adults, but it would be difficult to say exactly how that took place.

Questions for reflection

(1) Most often, we think that Sunday school should focus on communicating religious knowledge and information. However, one explicit goal in our program is to build community and have fun. How do you feel about not doing any teaching of religious knowledge in a class, and just focusing on building community and having fun? Does that feel like a wasted session to you? Do you think it will feel like a wasted session to children and/or parents/guardians?