I did register for the online General Assembly (GA), but I have to admit I attended very few sessions. I discovered that I have a limit on how much screen time my body will tolerate in any given week, and I had pretty much reached that limit by Thursday. I watched perhaps an hour of the business sessions — long enough to realize that I’m going to miss our current co-moderators. I find them inspiring and visionary in their leadership. And while I’m sure the incoming co-moderators are highly competent people, it was awfully nice to have co-moderators who were younger than I am.
The one session from GA that really stands out in my mind is a session that I missed, but was brought to my attention by Linda H., a member of the curriculum subcommittee in my congregation. This was session 203, “Collaborative Planning of Highly Interactive Family Worship,” with Louise Marcoux of the UU church of Sharon, Mass. I started listening to the recording, and remembered that I heard Louise talking about this concept a couple of years ago. At that time, I had filed the idea away in my memory as very interesting but impossible to do in our physical space at the UU Church of Palo Alto, because we don’t have a room we could use for family worship on Sunday morning. But we’re going to be doing everything online for some time to come, and it looks like Louise’s concept could translate really well to an online setting.
I heard about stuffed animal sleepovers from my sister Abby, the children’s librarian. Children’s librarians have been hosting stuffed animal sleepovers at their libraries for some years now. I thought it would be fun to do one for my congregation, but the time never seemed quite right. But now, when children aren’t allowed to go into the congregation’s buildings due to the pandemic, is the perfect time for a stuffed animal sleepover.
So here’s how you can host a stuffed animal sleepover at your congregation.
Abby pointed out some of the educational content in what seems like light-hearted fun. In the course of the sleepover, the stuffed animals see some of the library’s resources that might be of interest to children; they look at some books that Abby wanted to make more widely known; and they became familiar with the library building as a place that was both fun and welcoming to children.
That helped me establish my own educational content. In my congregation, our primary educational goal is to have fun and build community. This is both a practical goal — organized religion is very much an optional activity in our culture, and if it isn’t fun then families are less likely to remain involved — and an idealistic goal — religious education is not mere preparation for life, it is learning by doing, learning how to build the beloved community by creating community in religious education settings. So in my congregation, a Stuffed Animal Sleepover is going to be light-hearted fun for kids, it’s going to promote a feeling of identity with the congregation, and it’s going to show stuffed animals living in beloved community.
With that idea in mind, I began to write out a script for the photos I wanted to take. Because children have now been away from our building for three months, I wanted to show remind them what their classrooms and other places on campus look like. I wanted to incorporate some of the basic rituals of congregational life, including lighting a flaming chalice, drinking hot chocolate (in surveys with children, over 90% of kids report hot chocolate as a favorite part of our congregation), and being in a worship service in our Main Hall.
The actual written script didn’t go into all this high-level stuff, though. My script was terse and practical. Here’s an excerpt:
Saturday morning: Room 10: Brunch [Props: Granola, hot chocolate] Lighting chalice, check-in [Props: chalice, candle, matches] Room 7: Play time [Props: play equipment already in the room] Room 6: Playing games [Props: board games] Coloring [Props: crayons, coloring pages] POST PHOTOS TAKEN THUS FAR
Our campus is spread out, so I used a wagon to carry the stuffed animals from one location to the next. The wagon also allowed me to show more of the campus: I could leave the stuffies in the wagon, as if they’re going on a tour, and take photos of them admiring parts of the campus.
The captions you write are just as important as the photos themselves. In the captions, you find out that the stuffed animals vote when they’re making important decisions; you learn that some of the stuffies identify as LGBTQ+; you discover that the stuffies have conversations about race and racism; etc.
I was also able to showcase some of my favorite cooperative board games, and I could highlight some books to which I wanted to draw attention.
I created an online registration form for the stuffed animals. Mostly, I wanted to have the cell phone and name of the adult who was going to be dropping off the stuffed animal. But, at the instigation of my sister, I added questions like: What time does your stuffie have to go to bed? and What kind of snakc is your stuffed animal allowed to have?
Publicity started going out 3 weeks before the event, with an announcement in the monthly religious education newsletter. I made a two and a half minute video with the two chaperones, two plush puppets named Mr. and Ms. Bear who were going to be the chaperones of the event, and this video was aired during the congregation’s online worship service the week before the event. Then I sent out email announcements 3 days before, and the day before. Out of a total enrollment of 112 children and teens, 10 children brought stuffies to participate. (Several other parents told me that their child couldn’t bear to part with a stuffie; some families just plain forgot; and some more families reported that their family didn’t understand what it was all about, but now that they knew they would participate the next time.)
I spent most of Wednesday prepping rooms for photos. A homeless shelter had just vacated our rooms a few days before, so I did some touch-up cleaning, arranged furniture the way kids would remember it, etc. More importantly, I got props ready — story books, games, snacks, etc., were either placed in the room where they’d be used, or were placed in paper bags ready to carry to the appropriate room.
Drop-off for stuffies was Friday evening. I asked that stuffies be brought in a paper bag, and told everyone that they were going to be left overnight in quarantine (actually to minimize my own risk of getting COVID-19 from a stuffie). I posted a few photos of the check-in process on Facebook, to build some initial interest.
Saturday was a 12 hour day. I planned to take between 80 and 90 photos (I actually wound up taking 83 on Saturday). Moving stuffies from room to room, arranging the stuffies and props, taking extra photos just in case, uploading photos to Facebook and writing cpations — it all takes time. I managed an hour for lunch, and half an hour for dinner. Bed time for the stuffies was 8 p.m., but then I spent another hour or so cleaning up.
Then on Sunday morning, the stuffies appeared in the livestreamed service. Arranging them, and lighting them, took more time of course. Then once the service was over, I returned them to their paper bags, and spent the afternoon waiting for families to come pick them up again.
As my sister Abby warned me, doing a Stuffed Animal Sleepover takes hours and hours of time; I spent most of my forty hours this past week on the sleepover. The response — both from the children, and from adults with no children — has been overwhelmingly positive. Plus this is the perfect activity for this pandemic– yes the stuffies are cute, yes there’s some obvious educational content — but right now people of all ages just want to see the campus that they spent so many happy hours in before shelter-in-place.
It’s been interesting watching to see what online religious education resources people actually use. How-to craft videos? Single digits for number of views. Read-aloud programs? Low double digits, if I’m lucky. It’s not a great return for my invested time.
But what about “Story for All Ages” videos that are included in the Sunday service? We typically get over a hundred log-ins to our Zoom worship services, probably representing 1.5 humans on average, and posting on other social media (Facebook Live, Youtube) might add 10-30 views to the total. Plus a lot of informal positive feedback. These videos are definitely a better return for the time I invest, and as a result that’s what I’ve been concentrating on recently.
Since the “Story for All Ages” gets the largest audience, I thought maybe I’d try a tie-in video. The current “Story for All Ages” video series is about the conflict between Ecojustice Avenger and a dastardly villain named Trashman. The Ecojustice Avenger videos have a 12 second jingle, and after two episodes some kids had memorized all the lyrics to the jingle. That inspired me to expand that 12 second jingle to a full 1:41 music video, with videography inspired by Nam June Paik:
Will this reach kids? Maybe…probably not. But doing religious education in the age of COVID-19 requires constant experimentation until we discover what we can do that will reach kids.
I’m still trying to figure out how best to deliver kid-friendly and parent-friendly religious education during the age of shelter-in-place.
Videoconference Sunday school, using Zoom, works well for some families. For younger kids, the format that works best centers around a story, followed by some kind of activity to go with the story. Middle schoolers tend to want more peer interaction.
But with any age, kids (and parents) who have had enough videoconferencing through school won’t attend. How to reach them? I got feedback from some parents that online videos might be useful, IF they didn’t require parental supervision.
So I’ve slowly been building up a library of on-demand videos that, while not explicitly religious in nature, at some level promote UU values. Here’s some of what I’ve collected on the UUCPA CYRE Youtube channel:
A series of “How To Make” videos, that mostly require easily obtainable materials like scrap paper, scissors, a pencil, and maybe crayons and sticky tape. These videos show how to make things that promote imaginative play and give children a sense of active engagement and agency. With these, my goal as an educator is to move kids away from being passive consumers of online content, towards actively creating their own imaginative lives.
But this is very much a work in progress. I’m still trying to figure out how to provide the best content for kids that promotes UU educational values. If you have ideas for content I could create, I’d love to hear them! Or if you know videos created by UUs that I should consider adding to curated lists, let me know:
On Monday, Zoom released a major update to the Zoom client. If your church is using Zoom for religious education and services, note that the 5.0 version will be required for all users by May 30, so start reaching out to your congregation now — after May 30, they won’t be able to log in to one of your meetings without upgrading.
If you run kids’ programs on Zoom, you will want to upgrade now. Zoom has plugged some obvious holes that could be exploited by trolls — or by mischievous kids wanting to disrupt a class. Most important, the host “can disable the ability for participants to show their profile picture or change it in a meeting.” Other critically important security upgrades for those of us who do Zoom meetings with legal minors include the ability to embed an audio watermark in recordings (you really don’t want anyone recording minors without parental permission). And there are a few other enhancements to security that will also be helpful to teachers.
It’s not easy to figure out how to make good online religious education content in the era of COVID. First and foremost, parents tell me that they don’t want another lesson plan; they’re sick of helping their kids do online school lessons, they don’t need another burden. So that means the videos I post have to require minimal supervision from an adult. Second, religious education is always optional, which means it has to be fun or engaging or no one will watch it.
These two constraints mean I have to interpret “religious education” pretty broadly. How is listening to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” religious education? Well, Unitarian Universalist religious education has always included the broad goal of supporting literacy; we want children to grow up thinking for themselves, and literacy promotes that in a number of ways. So while “Alice” doesn’t have any religious content per se, it’s a book that encourages literacy because it makes kids want to read.
And how is a series on “Things To Make” religious education? Well, the things I’m showing kids how to make promote independent play; they give kids a sense of agency; they cultivate creativity instead of consumption; and they have kids engage in hands-on embodied activities as a partial antidote to the disembodied lives many of us are now forced to lead online. This is rooted in good feminist theology: promoting embodied activities, promoting agency instead of passivity.
The “Back in Time” video saga could be considered religious education by almost any definition. (Yes, it would be considered rank heresy by many, but it’s still education on a blatantly religious topic.) The Aesop’s Fables series could certainly be considered moral education. But I think both showing kids how to make things, and reading aloud to kids, help us achieve some of the larger educational goals of Unitarian Universalist religious education.
I like several things about Abby’s videos. First, they’re a great supplement to Zoom calls — some of us are getting Zoom burnout, and it’s nice to be able to watch a video when YOU want to watch it. Second, they’re Goldilocks videos — not too long, not too short, but just the right length. Third, they don’t put a big burden on parents — the crafts project can be done by kids on their own without parental supervision, kids can watch the installments of Alice on their own, and the story time for young children has them doing what they’re going to be doing anyway which is sitting in a parental lap.
So I repurposed this Youtube channel, where I already had some religious education videos. I added a video we used in last Sunday’s service. I created a couple of playlists, one for crafts (Abby’s craft video is included there), and another for story time (Abby’s Alice stories are going there, because Alice in Wonderland is a sacred text). I’ve got a children’s librarian from our congregation half convinced to do a story time, I’m planning a story time (I think I’ll read aloud from an old edition of the Jataka Tales), there will be more crafts projects.
Blog readers, if you know of some videos that you think would be appropriate to share on this Youtube channel, please send me the links. I can’t promise to put everything up, but I’d really like to see your suggestions — send them to danharper then the little “at” sign then uucpa then a dot then org.
Nadine offered to do a virtual Sunday school session today for our gr. 2-3 group (which we call “Green class”). Her plan was simple: light a chalice, have time for check-in, read a story, everyone say our unison benediction together. I haven’t yet hear from her how it went.
Nadine’s idea inspired Carol and Ed, two of the teachers of the middle school “Ecojustice Class,” who put together an online session for that group. Carol and Ed planned a half hour session including lighting the chalice, a check-in where kids could talk about what’s going on in their lives, and a virtual tour of the Ecojustice Class garden, rain barrels, and composter.
Three middle schoolers logged in, and two siblings tagged along, for a total of five kids. Here’s a screen shot of Carol lighting the chalice:
Though Carol and Ed expected the session to last only half an hour, the kids were having fun, and ultimately the session went on for about an hour. (Carol has the free version of Zoom with a 40-minute limit on videoconference calls, but at 40 minutes she got a message saying Zoom would extend the videoconference for free; thank you Zoom!) They talked about how coronavirus shows that the non-human world still has a lot of power over humans, and they also talked about how people who are poor or otherwise vulnerable get hit hardest by natural disasters like this pandemic. One of the kids drew boba bunnies (don’t ask me what they are, I’m just telling you what Carol told me), and that led to a discussion of how boba tea tastes good but uses a lot of single-use plastic, and where tapioca comes from, and so on.
From what Carol said, it sounds to me as though there was the typical Sunday school ratio of social interaction to learning — more than half social interaction, plus some learning — and since our primary educational goal is to have fun and build community, this class definitely helped us reach that goal.