Tag Archives: teaching diary

Teacher’s meeting

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

Susie, Lee, Melissa, and I met this morning to plan out the next few months of our Sunday school class. We have just about finished up the fall quarter, when we have been focused on Unitarian Universalist identity, and we’re about to move into the winter quarter, when we will focus on our Jewish and Christian heritage. (And Melissa and Susie have promised that they would write up a short description of last week’s class, which I couldn’t attend since I was preaching.)

We decided that we will have to try to finish up our UU identity quilt this Sunday, the last Sunday in the fall quarter. Then we talked about the winter quarter. I suggested that we spend the weeks in December talking about the Christmas story, relating it to other miracle birth stories (the birth of Buddha, etc.). We all agreed that we like our current method of telling stories about people — it seems to work well with our wide age span — although Melissa is pushing us to bring in more of the Unitarian Universalist seven principles. So we chose two Bible characters we wanted to present. Melissa said she would like to do a unit on Esther, and Susie suggested we do a unit on David (of David-and-Goliath fame).

We had all noticed that four children who had been attending regularly had not been to Sunday school in two or three weeks — Perry, Monty, Heather and Sara. So each of us hand-wrote a note to one of the four saying that we hoped the child would return to Sunday school, and we each signed all of the notes.

We also talked about what had been going on in class, especially this past Sunday (we had to explain to Melissa what had happened while playing Red Light Green Light). We talked about the children — how much we enjoy Monty and Perry swapping nametags to confuse us, interactions between siblings, the newcomers who started with our class then moved to the earlier session of Sunday school, etc. And we seemed to talk quite a bit about our own lives, too — jobs, and families, and so on. I find that I really enjoy working with this teaching team, and I enjoy just spending time with them — Sunday school is not just about the kids, it’s also about the friendships that develop between the teachers.

Next entry.

We play games, and experience conflict

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

During the first 15 minutes of the worship service, Amy, our parish minister, told a really good story about a rabbi who dreams about treasure (Amy sometimes reads this blog, and I let her post a summary of the story in the comments if she feels like it). Then we sang “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a lovely hymn that we want the children to know. Those of us going to Sunday school went out during the fourth verse of the hymn.

Melissa was going to be the lead teacher this week, but she had sent email to Susie and me, asking if one of us could take over for her. Susie had replied that she’d come up with something, but when we got to our classroom, Susie said she had been ill. She was ready and willing to lead the class in — something — unless I had something I’d like to do….

Now one of the things I’ve learned teaching Sunday school is that it’s good to always have activities in mind that you can use. Sometimes planned lessons turn into disasters, sometimes I have had to fill in at the last minute, sometimes I have planned a lesson only to find that one of my co-teachers did pretty much the same thing last week when I was off — so now I always have some activities ready that aren’t related to the formal curriculum, but which will help us work on our big educational goals. this week, I had been thinking about some theater games, and I also had a story that I wanted to tell the class…. Continue reading

Two new children join our class, and we play some games

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

Earlier this week, Amy, our parish minister, said she wanted to talk with me about the worship service. “We’re going to have some dancers, and I’d like the children to see them,” Amy said, “but we’re also welcoming newcomers, too.” “Why can’t the children stay in for both?” I said. I thought it would be good for them to see the newest members of the church sign the membership book and be recognized, and I also thought they’d like to see the dancers. We both knew that the children would be getting religious education whether they were in Sunday school or in the worship service, and I assured Amy that those of us who were teaching wouldn’t mind — if we needed more time we’d run late, or some teachers might just as soon have a little less time to fill.

As it happened, the worship service started late to begin with, at about seven minutes past eleven. I always like to sit in the very back during worship services so I can observe how the children respond. The prelude, “Calm As The Night (Still Wie Die Nacht)” by composer Carl Bohm, played on cello and piano, lived up to its name: it was calming. Worship associate Wynne Furth opening the service with a very short poem “written a thousand years ago by Ono no Komachi, and translated by Jane Hirschfield who lives near here.” When she lit the flaming chalice, Wynne said she remembered the very first time she lit a match; she had waited after her parents said she was ready, until she herself felt she was ready to light a match. I thought what she said was short, matter-of-fact, and charming, and I wondered how the children perceived it.

When the new members were welcomed, I noticed that one boy in the very back row was busy coloring and one girl in the second to last row did not seem to be paying attention. This was not surprising: these were younger children, so most of what they could see was the back of the chair in front of them. I often think how much of what children see in church is the back of the chair in front of them. (a) Fortunately, the dancers made a point of extending their dance down the length of the center aisle; the boy who was coloring looked up as the dancers got closer to him, and once he looked up he didn’t go back to his coloring. Continue reading

We play “Zip, Zap, Zoop,” and we talk about conscience and the voice of God

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

The children went to the first fifteen minutes of the worship service with the adults as usual. It took a long time for the worship service to get going this week. We started three minutes late, the announcements went on for four minutes, and we wound up taking about five minutes to greet the people around us and introduce newcomers, so it was 11:12 before the worship service really started. Fortunately, this week’s worship associate, Kay Brown, told a wonderfully effective children’s story. She started by saying that the story took place “far, far away, ten thousand miles away, in the land of India, where I was born.”

The story was about a man who made his living by selling caps (Kay put a baseball cap on her head to show the kind of cap she meant). He carried around some 50 caps in a big basket calling, Who wants to buy a nice cap? Red ones, green ones, all kinds of caps! Then the man walked under a tree in which some 50 monkeys lived. The monkeys saw the caps and wanted them. They climbed down out of the tree, and each took a cap. They liked the red caps best, said Kay, “because the red caps matched their red rear ends.” The man called to the monkeys to return his caps, for if he could not sell the caps, he would earn no money and his children would starve. He pleaded with the monkeys, but the monkeys just laughed. The man grew sad, and then angry, and when he realized the monkeys would not give his caps back no matter what he said, he grew disgusted and threw his own cap on the ground (Kay demonstrated this with the cap she was wearing. Lo and behold, all the monkeys imitated the man and threw their caps on the ground where he could pick them up. “The moral of the story, parents and children,” Kay said in conclusion, “is this: children will do what adults do, not what you say.” (I can’t remember the exact wording of Kay’s moral, but it was something like this.) I found it to be a very satisfying story — it was a familiar story told in a personal way, it was fun for children, and the moral was not simplistic. I liked that the moral was really two morals in one: it told adults that words are not enough; and it alerted children that they should pay more attention to what the adults in their lives actually do, as opposed to what those adults say. I thought to myself that I might want to take some time to talk about this story with the children in class.

We went off to our regular room. I was surprised to find that several of the things I had set up had been put away — the candle we were going to light was gone, the markers and crayons I had ready for the project were gone, the snack was gone. We found the candle and the markers had been put away in the closet in our room. I went off in search of matches and snack while Melissa said the opening words with the children. I grumbled a little bit, but there wasn’t much we could do. This is always one of the challenges of teaching Sunday school: things move around when you’re in shared space.

I got back to our room in time for check-in. There were just four children today: Dorit, Andrew, Perry, and Monty (attendance was light in most age groups at the first worship service as well). There were five adults today: Lee, Melissa, Lucy, Amy (our parish minister) and me. Lucy is Dorit’s and Andrew’s mom, and she said, “Is it OK if I come to class? I like it in here.” Of course we said it was OK for her to come to class. Amy has been wanting to visit the Sunday school for a while, and since we had a guest speaker today she was able to come.

After we had each checked in, Dorit asked if we could play “Zip, Zap, Zoop.” Continue reading

A day of rest

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

It was Columbus Day weekend, and to give the volunteer teachers a break we decided that I would hold a “chapel service” this past Sunday. As a result, many families decided not to come to church at all. Attendance at the 9:30 service was 22 children, compared to 45-60 children on the previous three Sundays. And attendance at the 11:00 service was 2 children, both of whom were children of Sunday school teachers (there were also 5 teens and a couple of toddlers at this service, but they were in other programs).

The first fifteen minutes of the worship service this week were particularly welcoming to elementary age children. Susan Owicki, this week’s worship associate, made sure to mention that one of the children in the family who lit the chalice was having her fourth birthday today (the children in that family had already come to Sunday school at 9:30 and left right after they lit the chalice). The guest musician was a folksinger, and he sang a song that many children know, “A Place in the Choir” by Bill Staines. And the first hymn was an easy-to-sing “zipper song,” an African American hymn titled “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I thought to myself, Too bad only two elementary-aged children came this week!

Through a communications glitch, all four of the teachers showed up this week. Melissa brought all the materials for painting quilt squares, and although I had a lesson plan ready, we decided that the best thing to do was to have a non-structured session during which we simply worked on painting our quilt squares. In addition to Zach and Oliver, Melissa’s teenaged daughter L—- also joined us.

Zach finished painting a quilt square he had started last week; we all admired how well it turned out. Oliver worked on his quilt square, but he did not feel as good about it as did Zach; perhaps he felt he couldn’t live up to Zach’s quilt square; in any case, he wanted to stop working on his even though it seemed to the rest of us that if he worked a little more he would have a really good-looking quilt square. Oliver dabbed a little with the paint, and goofed around in a very charming way, but didn’t add much to what he had already painted. L—- and I worked on our respective quilt squares; the other adults mostly observed or helped out Zach and Oliver, but did not work on quilt squares.

It was a very informal session. Even though Zach finished his work fairly early on, and Oliver wasn’t enthusiastic about painting, the time passed quickly in idle conversation. We didn’t talk about anything important or notable; we just enjoyed a pleasant companionship together. Continue reading

We have a chapel service, and the Buddha tells about the quails and the net

This week, the Children’s Religious Education Committee and I wanted to give volunteer Sunday school teachers a break — it was Columbus Day weekend, which often means attendance goes down, which can be discouraging for teachers who plan a lesson only to have two or three kids show up — so I said I would lead a chapel service for all kids who showed up. And that’s what I did this past Sunday….

As usual, the children went in to the first fifteen minutes of the regular worship service. The first fifteen minutes of the worship service this week were particularly welcoming to elementary age children. Susan Owicki, this week’s worship associate, made sure to mention that one of the children in the family who lit the chalice was having her fourth birthday today (the children in that family had already come to Sunday school at 9:30 and left right after they lit the chalice). The guest musician was a folksinger, and he sang a song that many children know, “A Place in the Choir” by Bill Staines. And the first hymn was an easy-to-sing “zipper song,” an African American hymn titled “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I thought to myself, Too bad so few elementary-aged children came this week! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“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. Continue reading

Small RE programs, pt. 6

Read the whole series.


This session, we opened with a reading from an old Unitarian book titled The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, a collection of 31 daily readings for Unitarian parents to read to their children at the breakfast table. (You can download the entire book, or read it online, here.) I read the introduction by the editors, William and Mary Gannett, where they explain the purpose of the book. They say in part:

Are not many mothers and fathers today vaguely longing for some kind of “household altar,” fitted to our own time and feeling? A few of these may like to try our simple way. Not a return to the old form of “family prayers,” but some custom akin to it is needed, — greatly needed, if conscious reverence be a quality as worthy of culture in ourselves and in our children as truthfulness and kindness.

While many of the readings now sound dated to our Unitarian Universalist ears, some of the readings could still be read aloud by parents to their children between age 5 and 10 (see, e.g., p. 16). I suggested that this kind of resource would be a great help in trying to reach some of the big outcomes we identified. For example, if one of our desired outcomes is to help UU kids become UU adults, this kind of simple activity could help move towards this outcome by making Unitarian Universalism and UU values become a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, The Little Child at the Breakfast Table was put together in 1915, and it won’t work for us today. But if enough of us start thinking about it, I’ll bet we could assemble a similar book for 2009 UU kids. (I’ve collected a few such readings here, but this is a bare beginning.) Continue reading