Category Archives: Religious education

Basic classroom management for Sunday schools

At today’s “Pot of Gold” religious education conference, I led a session called “Teaching 101” in which I went over some of the basics of teaching for Sunday school teachers. Below is my handout on classroom management — a PDF version, and a text version (the PDF version has some additional material):

PDF version of “Classroom Management: Some Ideas to Help You Mange

CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT: SOME IDEAS TO HELP YOU MANAGE (text only)

The basics
These are the simplest things to do to help minimize behavior problems:

(1) Make sure each child or teen is noticed and is heard. This is one purpose of the opening check-in: everyone says their name, and tells a little bit about themselves. Especially when new to a class, a young person needs to feel that they are noticed, that their voice can be heard, and that they belong. This can reduce acting-out behaviors.

(2) Help children or teens learn names of everyone in class. This is a long-term goal; at the beginning they should at least hear the names of everyone in the class during check-in. Everyone will feel more secure, and be better behaved, when they know at least barest minimum—the names—of all the adults and children/teens in the class.

(3) Be clear about the purpose of the class. It can help if everyone is reminded why they are in the class. If there’s a stated purpose, most children/teens will buy into it. When you must reprimand someone, it can help to remind them of the purpose of the class so they understand why they are being reprimanded.

(4) Be clear about the values of the class. In a UU Sunday school, we value behavior that shows we care for one another. Regular opening words (“We light this chalice…”) or a quick statement of purpose (“Here we are again to learn about human sexuality”) help remind everyone of these basic values.

More practices towards a well-managed classroom

(A) When preparing for the class, run a video in your head of how it will go. As you go over each activity, you imagine how each child or teen will respond to that activity. If an activity is very active and you know that T—— does not like to be very active, how will you involve that child/teen? If an activity requires sitting still and B—— has ADHD, how will keep that child/teen involved in the activity? Using this technique of running a video in your head as you prepare helps you build a mental model of the individuals, and of the class as a whole.

(B) Keep the educational goals and objectives in mind. Class sessions rarely go exactly as planned (one reason why teaching is so challenging and interesting). And kids often melt down when they sense that you, the teacher, have lost your direction. But if you keep in mind the educational goals (the big picture stuff) and the educational objectives (measurable things you want to accomplish in this class), you will find it easier to respond to classroom challenges. Thus when a class doesn’t respond well to a given activity, you can adapt it to their needs while still meeting your educational goals and objectives.

(C) Go from pre-assessment to teaching to assessment. “Pre-assessment” means finding out what the children or teens know before you begin teaching; in RE this probably won’t be a written test; it might be asking the children/teens what they know about topic X. “Assessment” means finding out what the children or teens have learned in the class session; again, in RE this probably won’t be a written test; it might take the form of asking the children/teens to state one thing they have learned during the closing circle. Pre-assessment and assessment can also take place just before or after a given activity.

Why does this help with classroom management? If you’re teaching a lesson about something the kids already know well, you’re likely to face behavior problems—some simple pre-assessment would let you know how to tweak your lesson plan to meet the needs of the students. Conversely, if your lesson is way above the level of the kids, you’re going to lose them, which can lead to unpleasant behaviors; again, some pre-assessment would help you to tweak the lesson so you don’t lose the kids. And some very simple assessment at the end of the class — asking each young person to say one thing they learned today, or one thing they’re taking away from the class — can help the participants see that the class had purpose and a positive outcome.

(D) Use class rituals. Children and teens will be more relaxed and comfortable when there are consistent class rituals that are followed. A suggested minimum for classroom ritual: 1. An opening ritual with names, check-in, and a restatement of the class purpose. 2. A closing circle where you review with the children/teens what they have learned.

Spot-the-Rabbit

Some of the sixth graders at Ferry Beach RE Week learned a game today in ecology, and I promised them I would post the rules to the game online.

I got the game from a book by Ernest Thompson Seton. He says it was a game played by the Plains Indians. Here are his rules for Spot-the-Rabbit

“Make two two-inch squares of white card, with the same drawing of a Rabbit on each. One person takes six spots of black, about 3/16 of an inch across, and sticks them on one of the Rabbits, scattering the spots anyway they like, then sets it up a hundred yards off. Another person takes same number of spots and the other Rabbit, and walks up till they can see well enough to put the spots in the same place. If the second person can do this at 75 feet, they’re a ‘swell’; if they can do it at 60 feet they’re ‘away up’; but less than 50 feet is no good. I’ve seen players have lots of fun out of this game. They try to fool each other every way, putting one spot right next to another one, or leaving one spot off.”

We played the game a little differently. Instead of making six little tiny spots of black, here’s what you can do:

Print out a sheet of Spot-the-Rabbit cards on heavy paper or card stock, then cut them into squares, each square with a Rabbit on it. Then one person uses a pencil to color in six spots (make sure the spots are the correct size). The other person playing the game takes one of the cards and a pencil, and draws in the spots where they think they see them. Here’s a PDF with Rabbits on it that you can print out:

Spot the Rabbit cards (PDF)

One thing to remember — this game is as much about concentration as it is about how good your eyes are. If you have good eyes, but poor concentration, you won’t do well!

Section through Ferry Beach, Maine

If you’re at Ferry Beach and you start at the ocean, then walk inland, first you pass up over a sand dune covered with dune grass. Once past the primary dune, you pass over secondary dunes, with low-growing pines and various grasses and forbs growing in sandy soil. From the secondary dune, you pass down into lower ground, generally swampy and poorly drained and sometimes with open water, generally wooded with mixed hardwoods and conifers. If you keep walking inland, the ground gradually gets higher and drier, but the slope is gradual enough that where there are low places you’ll often find swampy areas.

Below is the sketch I made to show the kids in the ecology class how this all looks. And then we walked from the ocean inland, so that we could see it in real life.

A day at Nature Camp: insects, process art, stories

The second day of Nature Camp started with opening circle, as always. Our kindergarteners and first graders sat in a circle, and we sang one of the songs we learned yesterday, “The Earth Is Our Mother,” and the children remembered it well enough that they told me when I sang one of the verses wrong. Abby read a short story about Wangari Maathai, one of our Nature Camp elders. Kris also showed us a slug that she had found that morning, and we spent some time watching it before we released it in a shady place.

Then Kris introduced the them for the day: insects. Kris read some excerpts from Simon & Schuster Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders. We learned what an insect is, and we learned the three parts of an insect (head, thorax, and abdomen). Kris also read to us a little bit about butterflies and moths, or Lepidoptera.

Kris next told us that we were going to make some pitfall traps to catch some insects, by burying a plastic cup in the ground. We learned the ethics of pitfall traps: you have to empty them regularly (at least once a day) to be sure the insects don’t die, and they should not be placed in full sun (the hot sun can kill any insects that fall in them).

The children enjoyed finding shady places to put the traps, and then digging holes in the ground with trowels and placing the plastic cups in the holes. Each child got to put at least one insect trap in the ground. While we were doing this, we stopped at the plum tree and managed to find a few more ripe plums to eat, enough for every child who wanted one to have one.

The highlight of the morning for me was Abby’s “natural paintbrush” project. The children got sticks (the handle of the paintbrush) and then attached leaves or pine needles or some other natural object to the stick with masking tape or rubber bands.

We taped large sheets of paper on two tables, and provided red, yellow, and blue tempera paint. The children enjoyed mixing their own colors, then spreading the colors with the natural paintbrushes.

It was a great example of process art, since there was no “product”; instead the whole emphasis was on exploring the materials and colors.

After we painted for a while, it was time to walk over to Mitchell Park to play on the trees and eat some lunch. The children particularly enjoy climbing a tree that has a long branch that is almost horizontal the the ground, sloping gently upwards. It’s the perfect challenge for this age group. One or two of the children felt comfortable walking along the branch, but most of them moved along slowly, clasping it with legs and hands. Kris told them that they should only climb as far as they felt safe; at the same time she gently urged them to go a little beyond their comfort zones. One child was pleased to find that he could make it further along the branch than he thought he could.

While we were eating lunch, two California Gulls landed not far away and started fighting over some trash. We talked about how gulls like to eat trash, and I described the gull nesting colony near Charleston Slough. I also expressed my opinion that gulls are not particularly pleasant birds: they are loud, and messy, and kind of aggressive. While we were eating lunch, we also saw some butterflies flying by probably (Western Tiger Swallowtails), but it was breezy and the butterflies went by very quickly.

After lunch, Kris had a book that showed us how to draw slugs and butterflies. The children each drew some slugs and butterflies in their nature journals. One child drew a slug very carefully, trying to make it the same color as the one we had seen earlier in the morning. Another child drew a large number of slugs, and then dots all over them which he said was salt that was killing them. We talked a bit about why salt might kill slugs.

At last it was time to go back for closing circle. We sang “The Earth Is Our Mother” again, which the children knew really well by now, as well as “The Adaptation Song” which has a verse about how California Gulls adapt to their environment. To close the day, Kris read part of an Arnold Lobel book about a grasshopper.

All in all, a very satisfying day at Nature Camp. We worked on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and knowledge about the natural world. Most importantly, we just spent time in nature, looking, touching, playing, being.

Note: We have media releases for all children depicted above. Nature Camp is sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

The Useless Tree

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

A certain carpenter named Zhih was traveling to the Province of Ch’i. On reaching Shady Circle, he saw a sacred tree in the Temple of the Earth God. It was so large that its shade could cover a herd of several thousand cattle. It was a hundred yards thick at the trunk, and its trunk went up eighty feet in the air before the first branch came out.

The carpenter’s apprentice looked longingly at the tree. What a huge tree! What an enormous amount of timber could be cut out of it! Why, there would be enough timber in that one tree to make a dozen good-sized boats, or three entire houses.

Crowds stood around the tree, gazing at it in awe, but the carpenter didn’t even bother to turn his head, and kept walking. The apprentice, however, stopped to take a good look, and then had to run to catch up with his master.

“Master, ever since I have handled an adze in your service,” said the apprentice, “I have never seen such a splendid piece of timber. How was it that you did not care to stop and look at it?”

“That tree?” said the Master, “It’s not worth talking about. It’s good for nothing. If you cut down that tree and made the wood it into a boat, it would sink. If you took the wood to build a house, the house would break apart and rot. See how crooked its branches are! and see how loose and twisted is its grain! This is wood that has no use at all. Not only that, if you try to taste one of its leaves, it is so bitter that it would have taken the skin off your lips, and the odor of its fruit is enough to make you sick for an hour. It is completely useless, and because it is so useless, the tree has attained a huge size and become very old.”

The carpenter told his apprentice to dismiss the tree from his thoughts, and they continued on their way. They arrived home late at night, and both of them went straight to bed.

———

While the carpenter was asleep, the spirit of the tree came and spoke to him.

“What did you mean when you spoke to your apprentice about me?” said the spirit of the tree. “Of course I am not like the fine-grained wood that you carpenters like best. You carpenters especially like the wood from fruit trees and nut trees — cherry, pear-wood, and walnut.

“But think what happens! As soon as the fruits or nuts of these trees have ripened, you humans treat the trees badly, stripping them of their fruits or nuts. You break their branches, twist and break their twigs. And then you humans cut down the trees in their prime so you can turn them into boards and make them into furniture.

“Those trees destroy themselves by bearing fruits and nuts, and producing beautiful wood,” said the spirit of the tree. “I, on the other hand, do not care if I am beautiful. I only care about being useless.

“Years ago, before I learned how to be useless, I was in constant danger of being cut down. Think! If I had been useful, your great-grandfather, who was also a carpenter, would have cut me down. But because I learned how to be useless, I have grown to a great size and attained a great age.

“Do not criticize me, and I shan’t criticize you,” the spirit of the tree said. “After all, a good-for-nothing fellow like yourself, who will die much sooner than I will — do you have any right to talk about a good-for-nothing tree?”

———

The next morning, the carpenter told his dream to his apprentice.

The apprentice asked, “But if the goal of the tree is to be useless, how did it become sacred tree living in the Temple to the Earth God?”

“Hush!” said the master carpenter. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. And I should never have criticized the tree. The tree is a different kind of being than you and I, and we must judge it by different standards. That’s why it took refuge in the Temple — to escape the abuse of people who didn’t appreciate it.

“A spiritual person should follow the tree’s example, and learn how to be useless.”

 

Source: from Chuang-tzu 1.16, based on translations by Lin Yutang, Burton Watson, and James Legge.

In a comment, Alyson writes: “I was wondering if you had any practical input on how to teach this subject without making the non-white children in the congregation feel uncomfortable or singled out in the process. Our RE class is actually fairly diverse, more so than the entirety of the congregation, and I do not know how to broach this topic with them.”

Alyson, I’m facing the same problem: how to teach a group of Unitarian Universalist children who are not all white about white supremacy. Here’s what I’ve been thinking so far….

For initial inspiration, I start with Dr. Marcia Chatelaine and her crowd-sourced #FergusonSyllabus. Although Chatelaine’s Ferguson syllabus was mostly aimed at public schools and post-secondary education, this is actually incredibly useful for those of us working in Sunday schools that are at least somewhat diverse — because Chatelaine’s syllabus has to deal with far greater diversity than exist in most Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, it helped me see how to structure lessons that do not assume that everyone is white, that do not assume that everyone shares exactly the same opinions about race, etc. In other words, I feel that Chatelaine’s approach opens up a metaphorical space in which to explore the topic from diverse experiences and diverse points of views. This article by Chatelaine at The Atlantic has a good set of resources to explore, including links and children’s books; at least some of these resources could be useful in teaching a diverse Sunday school group about white supremacy.

As noted in an earlier post, Chatelaine recommends working in subject areas that you know something about. With that in mind, I’m working on some Unitarian Universalist-specific children’s stories from Unitarian Universalist history (based on serious historical research I did, including in primary sources). Two stories I’m working on right now are about nineteenth century African Americans, one a would-be Unitarian and one a short-term Universalist, that reveal how Unitarianism and Universalism were less-than welcoming places for non-white persons. One of these stories-to-be also touches on class bias in Unitarianism, so we can get into intersectionality at a kid-friendly level (one of the points Chatelaine made in a workshop that I attended is that intersectionality is a useful strategy in teaching this general topic). In the other story, the African American was a vital part of a local congregation, but only for a short time. Most importantly, the stories of these two people are complex, not simplistic, and inspirational: some white persons were moving away from white supremacist worldviews at the same time that some black persons were moving towards liberal religion, and all these persons had complex lives and motivations worth telling stories about.

If I manage to write these two stories, and I think they’re worth sharing, they’ll get posted here on my blog. But even if I don’t, maybe this can get you thinking about how you can take Chatelaine’s advice and use YOUR strengths as a Unitarian Universalist religious educator — what topic area do you know best, and how can you apply that to teaching about white supremacy? And then how can you use your expertise to open up a metaphorical space in which children with diverse experiences and diverse points of views can explore the topic?

I think it’s also important to acknowledge some of the resistance we will face when we try to create this open metaphorical space in which a diverse group of children can explore this topic. I think we religious educators will face strong and conflicting pressures: white parents who want to protect their children from this topic, non-white parents who don’t want their children to have to be in a white-dominated environment to learn about this topic, non-parent adults who want us to adhere to a strict party line, congregational leaders who want us to fit into what they’re doing (instead of asking us what we’re doing, and building something around the children) — and some of us may also have to deal with micro-managing parish ministers and clueless denominational leaders and busybody academics, all of whom think we religious educators are not competent to take on leadership in this area.

But acknowledging the potential sources of resistance helps me clarify three basic pedagogical challenges. First, we know there is always resistance to tackling tough moral and ethical issues; we have dealt with this before, in teaching comprehensive sexuality education, in teaching about death, in teaching children to think for themselves. Second, we know Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion devoted to open inquiry; we constantly challenge children to think deeply and openly about everything from the Bible and God, to masturbation and consent, and we constantly have to work to hold open that metaphorical space where children can enter the zone of proximal development in a learning community. Third, we know that race and racism are topics that make adult Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable, which means they will tend to judge us harshly no matter what we teach; but we’ve been through this before, when we religious educators quietly taught about sexism and heteronormativity in Sunday school classes, even though those topics made many adults uncomfortable.

I think the thing that makes me most nervous about this white supremacy teach-in is that so many people will be watching me, ready to judge my teaching inadequate. And I wonder if your question stems in part from that same feeling. As an educator, I know these one-shot teach-ins never accomplish much, so I know already that whatever I do in a one-hour teach-in will be inadequate. Teaching and learning are long, slow, mysterious processes; we will not achieve miracles in an hour; we need to be in this for the long haul. And that means that the most important thing I can do in this teach-in is to respect each individual who participates, listen with openness to what they have to say, create a supportive learning community — so that they will keep coming back. It’s just like teaching OWL for grades 7-9 — many of the teens don’t want to come to the first few sessions, so you have to build a supportive community where any question is taken seriously and everyone feels a part of the community. For this white supremacy teach-in, then, our most important goal will be to make people want more.

That’s all I’ve got for you right now. Not sure if I’ll post my lesson plans and supporting material here — Unitarian Universalists are far too prone to savage and destructive criticism when it comes to teaching about white supremacy, and I just don’t have the energy for that right now. But feel free to contact me through email.

Teaching about white supremacy

How can we teach young people about “white supremacy” within the constraints of a typical Sunday school? What are some of the theoretical considerations, and what are some practical considerations?

One of my professional organizations, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) has called on Unitarian Universalist religious educators to participate in a “white supremacy teach-in” in the coming weeks, to follow up on the denominational brouhaha which led to the resignation of Peter Morales from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

This is a great call to action, but where do we come up with pedagogical strategies to teach children and teens about white supremacy? I’ll get to practical suggestions after a brief review of theoretical resources; although if you’re a hands-on educator you may want to go straight to practical suggestions, skipping over theoretical considerations which may seem pretty remote from actual children and teens.

Theoretical resources
Practical suggestions

Theoretical resources

Let’s start with the obvious: with bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress, and with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both these books provide useful theoretical perspectives. However, in my experience these books are not very useful for children and young people since they focus on persons age 18 and up.

Lev Vygotsky is another obvious source of pedagogical insight. Vygotsky’s theories provide us with such well-known concepts of “scaffold-and-fade,” and the zone of proximal development. For a helpful summary of zone of proximal development, I like Seth Chaiklin, “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction,” in Kozulin et al., Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003]). Chaiklin makes a number of points that might prove helpful. Chaiklin points out “the zone for a given age period is normative, in that it reflects the institutionalized demands and expectations that developed historically in a particular societal tradition of practice,” thus implying a strong connection between institutional demands and children’s development. Chaiklin also carefully defines the technical meaning of “imitation” in Vygotsky, and then points out that “the main focus for collaborative interventions is to find evidence for maturing psychological functions, with the assumption that the child could only take advantage of these interventions because the maturing function supports an ability to understand the significance of the support being offered”; thus, there are definite psychological and developmental limitations to the amount of learning that can take place within the child.

And in a Unitarian Universalist context, I believe it’s helpful to connect Vygotsky’s collectivist understanding of learning and development with James Luther Adam’s theological conception of the congregation as a voluntary association in mass democracy. Adams’s conception of congregations as voluntary associations helps us understand that face-to-face and personal encounters within a congregation help prevent the atomization of the individual, which in turn can prevent mass democracies from hurtling towards totalitarianism. So Vygotsky teaches us that “a person is able to perform a certain number of tasks alone, while in collaboration, it is possible to perform a greater number of tasks”; and Adams’s work suggests not only that the congregation is a place where we can collaborate together to support a liberative and liberal democracy, but also that the congregation as a whole can support the developmental growth of children and teens towards healthy maturity.

Another useful theological resources is William R. Jones’s essay Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows. In this essay, Jones makes a very helpful connection between theism and the “left wing” of theism: both are humanocentric worldviews, in which it is up to humans to effect positive change. Jones help us see that we can’t wait around for some Daddy God to bail us out — for that matter, nor can we wait around for Big Daddy Science to bail us out — a humanocentric point of view acknowledges that it’s up to us humans to effect change. (Jones makes the same point in his book Is God a White Racist?)

For theoretical resources specific to religious education, I’d turn to my other professional organization, the interfaith and international Religious Education Association (REA), which includes both scholars and practitioners. Over the years, the REA has published or presented interesting scholarship on how to teach liberation and social justice; the most notable recent instance is REA’s 2012 conference “Let Freedom Ring”: Religious Education at the Intersection of Social Justice, Liberation, and Civil/Human Rights. So REA conference proceedings and the REA journal Religious Education have plenty of theoretical material that would help in teaching about white supremacy. The problem with the REA publications is that you have to read through a great deal of material to find relevant articles, and even then you often have to do some translation from another cultural contexts (e.g., figuring out how an article outlining teaching peace to Israeli and Palestinian youth might translate to a U.S. context).

Beyond REA publications, there are plenty of progressive religious educators who have written books that offer resources for this kind of endeavor. A couple of books that come immediately to mind are John Westerhof’s book Learning through Liturgy, and Robert Pazmino’s Foundational Issues in Christian Education; Westerhof’s book helps usnderstand how learning takes place in and through worship services; and I have found Bob’s book extremely helpful in confronting my own internal inclinations and biases. A few Unitarian Universalists with anti-Christian biases and prejudices might be repelled by these books; but I’d suggest that the exercise of tamping down anti-Christian biases long enough to find the good in those books could be a useful preparatory exercise for those who have a serious desire to teach against racial bias and prejudice.

As an educator, I have been greatly inspired by Marcia Chatelaine’s workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson,” given at Ferry Beach Conference Center in July, 2015. Chatelaine, a professor of history at Georgetown University, helped me understand how intersectionality could be a useful pedagogical strategy. Her workshop also helped me to understand how to get past the strong emotions elicited by Ferguson; she suggested addressing Ferguson from within one’s own area of disciplinary expertise. Thus, as a historian, she could talk about the history of Ferguson as a white-flight suburb, using her are of disciplinary expertise to generate insight.

Finally, I would also turn to the works of educational philosopher Maxine Greene. In particular, I have found her short essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings” to be foundational for the kind of liberative religious education I hold us as an ideal. I’ll give one brief excerpt from this essay that might serve as an inspiration for a suitable pedagogic practice for teaching about white supremacy:

“[T]here has been a prevalent conception of the self (grand or humble, master or slave) as predefined, fixed, separate. Today we are far more likely, in the mode of John Dewey and existentialist thinkers, to think of selves as always in the making. We perceive them creating meanings, becoming in an intersubjective world by means of dialogue and narrative. We perceive them telling their stories, shaping their stories, discovering purposes and possibilities for themselves, reaching out to pursue them. We are moved to provoke such beings to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move towards others, as they try to see through other’s eyes. Thinking of beings like that, may of those writing today and painting and dancing and composing no longer have single-focused, one-dimensional creatures in mind as models or as audiences. Rather, they think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose.”

I wanted to end with that passage from Maxine Greene because it points the way to the kind of flexible, learner-focused teaching that I want to do.

Practical considerations

When I translate these (and other) theoretical resources into practical pedagogy for young people in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school setting, here are some of the things I think about:

1. My teaching will be centered on activities that allow learners to be “selves in the making.” And, given my own strengths as a teacher, this means I’m going to use the arts; and knowing my limitations as a teacher, I’m going to do best with telling stories (I could see other people using dance, drama, etc., but those are not in my skill set). [This point inspired by Maxine Greene.]

2. My learners are going to be at various points in their development. I would love to be able to do some kind of formal pre-assessment, but that’s not realixtic in the context of an hour-long Sunday school session. Therefore, I’ll have to be a flexible teacher, willing to adjust my lesson plan to accommodate those who turn out to know very little, as well as those those who already know a lot. [See Bob Pazmino’s chapters on “Sociological Foundations” and “Curricular Foundations.”]

3. The educational goal of teaching about white supremacy is a BIG task. Since I have to be realistic about what can be taught (and learned) in a given limited time, I’m going to set realistic — and probably modest modest — educational objectives for one teach-in session. But for the long term, I will also continue the liberative educational praxis I’m already using and committed to. [See bell hooks about the realities of teaching.]

4. Anybody who has taught knows that teachers have to regulate the emotional temperature of a class. The phrase “white supremacy” will obviously generate strong emotions in many people; in fact, that’s the whole point of using that phrase. But I don’t want to limit my educational objective to merely eliciting emotions of shame, anger, guilt, and/or hatred, because from experience I know that too much of those emotions can stop the learning process temporarily (e.g., white people can shut down due to shame, non-white people can shut down due to anger, etc.). So I’ll need to balance how these emotions are elicited in the short-term, against a long-term goal of liberative educational praxis.

5. Oversimplification is always a temptation in teaching, and I think it’s a particularly strong temptation when teaching about white supremacy. To avoid oversimplification, I’m going to take inspiration from Marcia Chatelaine’s advice on teaching about Ferguson: use intersectionality. Intersectionality asks: how are different oppressions linked? (I suspect this will be an especially useful approach for adult Unitarian Universalists, because so many of them are already doing significant work and learning in sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, etc.; thus intersectionality can connect what they’ve already accomplished and learned about to the topic of white supremacy.) [This point inspired by Marcia Chatelaine.]

6. Chatelaine also suggests: focus on an intellectual discipline or subject area you know well, and delve into that. The intellectual disciplines where I have some level of professional knowledge and expertise — philosophy, liberal theology, religious education — aren’t particularly well suited to teaching children and teens about white supremacy. So I tried to think of a subject area where, although I don’t have professional expertise, I have enough knowledge that I could teach something to children — and I thought of environmental justice, a topic I have already taught to children and teens, and a topic that lies at the center of social justice concern in our congregation.

———

The above are some preliminary considerations and practical ideas for implementing a one-shot “teach-in” on white supremacy. Note that what I am proposing does not necessarily conform to the teach-in called for by Black Lives of UUU. I’m specifically addressing the educational considerations of teaching young people in a Sunday school setting; Black Lives of UU has issued a broader call to include this topic in worship services, Sunday morning Forum, etc.

Furthermore, my practical ideas grow out my own congregation, here in the very specific cultural context of the Bay Area — a region where Cesar Chavez started his career, a region where Chinese immigrants at times lived in virtual slavery, a region where Japanese Americans were illegally (and immorally) interned during the Second World War, a region where one police force (Oakland P.D.) was under federal control because of racial prejudice. I could also mention Oscar Grant. I could also mention to overt sexism and racism of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., and of start-up culture, and of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. In terms of environmental justice, I might consider why it is that East Palo Alto, a historically black city, doesn’t have enough water supply to support the kind of development that could bring more jobs (and could also bring more gentrification that might drive out people of color). Bay Area racial history is complex, and your area will differ.

Preferred pronouns

Non-binary gender meets arts-and-crafts…. I was trained up by old-school DREs (Directors of Religious Education) who addressed many congregational issues with arts and crafts projects and filing systems. Sure, arts and crafts and filing systems can’t address every social challenge, but you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish through simple means.

In our congregational, we’ve been thinking about non-binary gender. How do you educate people about non-binary gender? How do you make non-binary gender seem fun and interesting? If you were trained up by old-school DREs, the answer would be obvious: stickers! Stickers and a filing system for them!

You can see my prototype above. We’re going to try it out this Sunday, though I expect a number of problems. First off, an index card file box is not the ideal storage system, and and it may not work well during real-world coffee hour. The stickers may prove to be a bit small, though I had to size them to fit on our name tags (recognizing that people who would use these might have one or more other stickers on their name tags already, e.g., rainbow sticker, UUSC sticker, etc.). And I’m sure someone will criticize my choice of personal pronoun sets (’cause we’re Unitarian Universalists, and we love to criticize each other).

Aside from the inevitable problems, I think three things will work well from the start: 1. the stickers will affirm those who don’t fit into binary gender (even if they don’t use the stickers because they don’t want to be out about it on Sunday morning); 2. the stickers will serve an educational function; and 3. everyone likes stickers!

Specifics of how I formatted the stickers are below: Continue reading

Sayyambhava finds the truth

This story of a Jain elder might wind up as one of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.

Prabhava was one of the great teachers of the Jain religion. He wandered all over the earth teaching people to live a simple life, and to not be distracted by the pleasures of the senses, and to harm no living beings. Prbhava taught that if you could live like that, you could get rid of all your karma and achieve omniscience, so that you could see and know everything.

After Prabhava had been teaching for some time, he began to wonder who could take his place once he died. He thought about all his students and followers, but none of them (so he thought) would be able to take over for him. Then he used his upayoga power, that is, his mental sight, a power which allowed him to see everything in the whole world. He looked and looked until at last he saw someone who could take his place, a man named Sayyambhava.

This Sayyambhava was a priest of the Vedic religion, and when Prabhava saw him, Sayyambhava was in the city of Rajagriha, about to kill a goat as a sacrifice. Even though Sayyambhava was a priest in a religion that killed other living beings, because of his power of omniscience, Prabhava knew that he would make a good successor. “The beautiful lotus flower grows in the mud,” Prabhava said to himself, “so if you want a lotus flower you have to look in the mud.”

Prabhava went to Rajagriha to meet Sayyambhava. He sent two Jain monks ahead of him, and told them to go to the place where Sayyambhava was about to sacrifice the goat. “When you get there,” Prabhava told the two monks, “beg for food.” (Jain monks made their living by begging food from others.) “If the Vedic priests give you nothing, turn and walk away, and as you walk away, say in a loud voice, ‘Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.'”

The monks got to the place where the sacrifice was about to take place, asked for alms, and when the Vedic priests refused to give them anything, they turned and walked away, saying in loud voices, “Ah, it is too bad you do not know the Truth.”

When Sayyambhava heard this strange remark, his mind became unsettled. Did these two monks know something that he didn’t know? Was his religion not the Truth? Instead of sacrificing the goat, he turned to his spiritual master, his guru, and asked, “Are the Vedas true — or not? Is our religion the path to the Truth — or not?”

His guru shrugged his shoulders.

Growing angry, Sayyambhava continued in a loud voice, “Those were holy monks, who obviously tell no lies. You’re not a true teacher, you’ve been lying to me all this time!” He took the dagger which he had been going to use to kill the goat. “Tell me the truth! If you don’t, I’ll cut off your head.”

Seeing that his life was in danger, the guru said, “I have not been telling you the truth. It is pointless to memorize the Vedas.” (The Vedas were the holy scriptures of the Vedic religion.) “Not only that,” the guru said, “but a statue of one of the Jain deities — a Jina, one of the highest Jain deities — is buried at the foot of the post where we tie to goats we are about to sacrifice.”

Jina (modified Wikimedia Commons public domain image)The guru pulled the sacrificial post out of the ground, and Sayyambhava looked down into the hole, where he saw a statue of a Jain deity. The guru went on, “There, that is a statue of the true religion. The only reason we do sacrifices is because we get to keep the meat afterwards. It’s an easy way to make a living. But what good is a religion that kills innocent animals? It is no good at all.

“Yes, I have been lying to you all these years,” said the guru to Sayyambhava. “Lying just so I could fill my stomach with easy food. But you are too good for that. Leave me, so that you can follow the true religion. If you do, I know that you will become all-seeing, and all-knowing.”

But Sayyambhava said, “You are still my teacher because in the end you told me the real truth.” Then Sayyambhava bid his guru a fond farewell, and went in search of the two Jain monks….

To be continued….

 

This story is from Canto 5:1-37 of The Lives of the Jain Elders, by Hemachandra (1098-1172). I used the following sources:

Sthaviravali Charita, or Parisishtaparvan, Being an Appendix of the Trishashtisalaka Purisha Charita by Hemachandra. Ed. by Herman Jacobi (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1891), pp. 39-41.

Hemacandra, The Lives of the Jain Elders, trans. R. C. C. Fynes (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 117-119.

The image of the Jina is a modified Wikimedia Commons public domain image.

How the rabbi missed Yom Kippur services

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. Source and notes at the end.

This is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived in Lithuania in the 1800s:

It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. All the people had gathered in the synagogue to wait for Rabbi Israel to lead them in reciting the Kol Nidre, the prayer that begins Yom Kippur. But Rabbi Israel didn’t come. After waiting a long time, the people in the synagogue recited the Kol Nidre without the rabbi, hoping he would appear. Still he didn’t come. The people continued to wait for Rabbi israel, though by now he was so late they began to worry that he would not arrive until after the service was over.

Finally the rabbi came into the synagogue. The people looked at him in amazement: they saw down stuck in his hair and his beard, and his clothing was wrinkled and messy. But Rabbi Israel walked in as if nothing were wrong, as if he were not horribly late. He put on a prayer shawl, and began to recite his prayers. When he had finished praying, he at last explained to the congregation why he was so late:

He had been walking to the synagogue [he said], with plenty of time to spare, when he heard crying inside a house he was walking past. He went into the house, and there was a baby lying in its cradle, with a six year old girl fast asleep nearby. A bottle of milk stood above the cradle, just beyond where the baby could reach it. The rabbi could see what had happened: the mother had gone off to the Yom Kippur service, telling her six year old daughter (who was too young to go to the service) to give the baby its bottle if it started crying. But the girl had fallen asleep, and she did not hear the baby crying. So Rabbi Israel fed the baby. When the baby finished the milk, the rabbi tucked it in the cradle and watched it fall asleep.

It was just then [said the rabbi] that the little girl awakened. She was afraid to be home alone, and begged him to stay with her. The rabbi looked around, and saw that the candles the mother had left were burning low; here was a good reason not to leave the child alone. So he stayed until the children’s mother got back from the synagogue. He concluded his story by saying he was very glad that he had a chance to do such a good deed on the most holy day of the year.

The people in his congregation stared at him. One of them asked: You mean you didn’t say the Kol Nidre, you were absent for the Yom Kippur services, you missed the most important moment of the whole year, all this just because a baby was crying? You, the greatest intellect, the smartest person of our time, you missed being here because of a baby? Rabbi, what were you thinking?

The rabbi scolded them all, saying: Don’t you know that there are reasons why we Jews are allowed to skip prayers, reasons why we are even allowed to break the laws of the Sabbath? If there is the slightest chance of saving a life, we are allowed to — no, we must skip prayers and break the Sabbath. Then too, don’t you know that our families, our children, are central to Jewish life?

This silenced the people. They realized that it didn’t matter that Rabbi Israel had humbled himself by taking care of a mere baby. As he said, there could nothing more important.

Source: This story is from Lucy S. Dawidowicz, ed., The Golden Tradition (Syracuse University Press, 1996), pp. 173-174; the story is quoted and interpreted in Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 124-125; I am indebted to Batnitzky’s interpretation of the story.