Parama Pada Sopanam

I’ve written before about Moksha Patam, one version of the Indian board games from which the classic Snakes and Ladders game is derived. A few weeks ago, I decided to order the real thing — I ordered Parama Pada Sopanam, another version of Moksha Patam, from Kreeda Games in Chennai, India. Kreeda’s mission is to promote traditional Indian games, by “learning through play.”

I ordered two games for use in our religious education programs (plus one for my own use!), and they arrived today. I was more than pleased with the games. The cloth game board is beautifully designed. The traditional long dice are fascinating and satisfying to throw and use. The wooden pawns, though smaller than I would like, are a pleasant shape with good colors. The game box is made out of corrugated cardboard, which sounds cheap, but the bright printed designs on the box make it look exactly right. I liked the little cloth bag in which the pawns and dice are stored. And nothing in the game is made of plastic, which makes it all the more satisfying.

Kreeda’s games are aimed at modern families (and educational programs) who want to retain a connection to traditional games and culture. The best part of Kreeda’s version of Parama Pada Sopanam are the brief stories for each of mythological names of the “snakes.” If you land on a square where you are to slide down a snake, you can read aloud the brief story of that mythological figure. Thus, this game is not just fun, it is a way to become introduced to some traditional Indian myths.

Mind you, ordering a game from India is not exactly easy. The cost of shipping from India is more than the cost of the game; however, the game is inexpensive, so the overall cost is not prohibitive. The bank had a hard time when we wired money to Kreeda. And the U.S. staff of the international courier, DHL, proved less than competent in delivering the package: we saw the DHL truck drive right up to our house, then were notified that the driver could not find our house; when I called the national office in Arizona to straighten things out, the woman on the phone was less than polite, and wanted me to go pick up the package at their warehouse; and when the package finally arrived, one of the game boxes was partially crushed (which is OK by me, given that it will get wrecked anyway in our program, but it is annoying). If you decide to order a Kreeda game from India, be patient — and ask if you can pay Kreeda to pack the game in a sturdy box to prevent DHL from crushing it. What I really wish would happen is that someone in the States would import this game, and other games made by Kreeda — that would lower the cost, and make delivery easier.

I’m looking forward to playing this game with the early elementary children in our program. I expect the children in our program will have fun, and enjoy absorbing a little bit of one of the greatest cultures in the world.

Arjuna’s Choice

A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.

———

As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)

Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.

Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.

Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.

Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.

At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”

His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.

Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.

Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”

Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”

Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.

And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita

Story book

Over the years on this blog, and on its predecessor, I’ve published a number of stories for liberal religious kids.

You can now locate these stories using the tag “story book”:
link to “story book” tag on this blog
link to “story book” tag on the old blog

Additional stories for liberal religious kids appear in thre curriculums I’ve written; some of these stories are revised versions of the stories found on my blog:
Greek Myths
From Long Ago
Beginnings

Amar Chitra Katha

Someone in our congregation lent me a copy of a comic book biography of the life of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Aimed at middle readers, I think it would work for older kids (and adults) too — a concise, easy-to-understand summary of Guru Nanak’s life and principles.

That comic book is published by Amar Chitra Katha, a publisher with over 400 comic books on hand, with titles like “Guru Nanak,” “Buddha,” “Buddhist Tales” and “More Buddhist Tales,” “Kalidasa,” and “Rabindranath Tagore” (the Nobel prize winning poet much beloved of mid-twentieth century Unitarians).

The one I really want to get is the forthcoming title “Valiki’s Ramayana,” a 960 page graphic novel treatment of the Ramayana. Most of us in the West know far too little about this major Indian religious work — and most of us aren’t going to read the full Ramayana, so I’d love to structure an adult education course around this graphic novel.

Amar Chitra Katha has lots of comics that would work great for children and youth, too. They have a U.S. branch, so the prices are pretty reasonable.

Game development

In our congregation, we decided we need to pay more attention to resources that can support the curriculums. We want resources that are fun for kids, don’t feel like weekday school, don’t require any teacher preparation, and support the learning that takes place in the regular curriculums.

Like, for example, board games and card games. We already use a couple of board games in our Sunday school: (1) Wildcraft, a cooperative board game that teaches about herbs, supports some of our ecology courses; and (2) Moksha Patam, a board game that simulates karma, rebirth, etc., supports one of our world religions curriculums.

Ideally, we’d like to have one relevant board game per quarter per age group that we can give to teachers. And while we were talking this over in the curriculum review committee, I started dreaming up a card game about Moses leading the Israelites to freedom across the wilderness. Then I had a day of study leave today, so I could prototype this game, provisionally called: “Exodus, The Card Game.”

The game borrows its basic structure from the classic card game Mille Bornes (if you don’t know Milles Bornes, it will be easier to understand this blog post if you first read the Wikipedia article).

Although I’m borrowing the basic structure of the game from Mille Bornes, there are significant differences. Mostly, Exodus is a faster-paced game, more suited to the short time allotted to Sunday school classes. And I had to make other changes to fit the narrative of the book of Exodus — I wanted to make sure that as you play you get some sense of the narrative of Exodus…such as the fact that G-d released fiery serpents that attacked the Israelites, but then G-d told Moses to make a brass serpent that would heal serpents bites (Num. 21:6-8). Before researching this game, I didn’t even remember about the fiery serpents. It’s a pretty strange thing to include in the narrative, and one of my learning goals (and part of my theological interpretation) for Exodus, The Card Game is to help kids understand that the story of Exodus is pretty weird. It’s not trying to be an accurate historical account, nor is it some kind of scientific explanation — rather, it is a narrative filled with fantastical elements that reveal G-d’s character.

My other big learning goal and theological component for the game is, not surprisingly, to give some understanding of G-d’s character. First and foremost, G-d is not all kittens-and-rainbows, as for example when G-d sends the fiery serpents to bite the Israelites. Second, G-d does not follow human logic and is ultimately unknowable by humans; this is symbolized for the Israelites in part by spelling G-d’s name without vowels: “YHWH” (this idiosyncratic spelling is retained in the game in the English name for G-d). Third, while G-d is not omnibenevolent, G-d does want justice for humans and for the land; this theological interpretation of G-d’s character is communicated by the social justice flavor of the G-d Given Right Cards. A lesser fourth point is that G-d’s power do have some limits to them; G-d is not wholly omnipotent. So it is the game tries to help the players get a small sense of G-d’s character.

Above: Sample cards from the prototype deck

More details about the game below. If I ever put the game into production, I’ll let you know how you can get a copy….

Update 4/14/18: Major revisions to game rules and narrative now complete. Both images updated. I won’t revise this post any more; any future rules revisions will be incorporated into the production game (if it’s ever put into production). Continue reading “Game development”

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”

Is Sunday school dead?

Many liberal religious educators these days are talking about “the death of Sunday school.”

Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright concluded their 1971 history of American Protestant Sunday school, The Big Little School: Sunday Child of American Protestantism with the observation that people have repeatedly predicted the end of Sunday school. And 1971, the year they published their book, was a low point in the history of Sunday school: the Baby Boom was over, people were rebelling against organized religion, and Sunday schools were failing left and right. But during the 1970s, a new way of doing Sunday school emerged, exemplified in Unitarian Universalist congregations by the Haunting House curriculum, which began development c. 1971, with its activity centers, its songs and stories and creative movement, its frank discussion of birth and human sexuality, and its organizing metaphor of being at home as a religious search.

Another low point for Sunday school was 1934. The immense economic dislocations of the great Depression kept many people from being able to participate regularly in local congregations; there were in addition social trends that led to a decline in interest in organized religion. The old ways of doing Sunday school — the opening exercises, the single sex classes, the reliance on verbal instruction — no longer worked very well. In the year of 1934, Angus MacLean wrote something that could have come from today’s debates about the death of Sunday school:

“One or two of our most widely known religious educators have recently suggested that perhaps the church school should be abolished, because of its ineffectiveness. The ineffective church school should be abolished, but it would be foolish to give up the attempt to educate for the good life, until what is known of child nature and human need is taken more seriously. In any case, the most effective way to abolish anything that is worthless is to change it so that it becomes useful. Most church schools are in need of such change. What first steps can religious educators take towards transforming the church school?” — Angus MacLean, The New Era in Religious Education: A Manual for Church School Teachers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1934), pp. 31-32.

MacLean’s answer to transformation was to use the playbook of progressive education (one of the books on progressive religious education that he cites is Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds by Sophia Lyon Fahs). The chapter titles of his book give an overview of what he thought most important in religious education: Studying Personal Relations, Measuring Society, Re-Living History, Finding Great Companions, Sharing in Imaginative Experiences, Exploring Nature, Growing in Faith. And eventually, many Universalist and Unitarian congregations followed his lead, and found great success in so doing.

But all this brings me back to the beginnings of Sunday school. Do you know what the original purpose of American Sunday school was? — it was developed to provide literacy training for children who had to work in factories. It took place on Sunday because that was the only day when child factory workers could go to school. Because Sunday school took place on Sunday, and because it was sponsored by churches, there was a good deal of religious instruction included; and a primary purpose of literacy for American Protestants was so that everyone could read the Bible. But within a generation, Sunday school had changed into something quite different from literacy training.

Is today’s Sunday school dead? I think there’s a good chance that Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is dying. Here are my reasons for saying this: 1. There are too many parish ministers who do not see themselves as having to bother with children. 2. Congregational costs are rising faster than congregations income (due, e.g., to health insurance increases), and you can easily cut costs in the short term, without big reductions in income, by reducing programs for children and teens, programs which tend to require a lot of staff time and a lot of building maintenance. 3. Sunday schools require a lot of volunteer hours, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations are not particularly adept at volunteer management; as a result, it’s increasingly difficult for many congregations to find adequate volunteers. 4. I’m not seeing much in the way of new, theologically rich, intellectually stimulating, and spiritually deep curriculum resources.

5. Finally, there seems to be an infatuation among Unitarian Universalist thought leaders for what they call “faith formation.” My understanding of faith formation is that it comes from liberal Christian world religious educators who find great inspiration in the Biblical book of Isaiah, where it says: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (64.8) So the dominant image for faith formation is of children as unformed clay, who need to be formed in their religious faith. Sunday school is indeed ill-suited to faith formation imagined in this way; if you want to mold children into a certain kind of vessel, there are better ways of doing it than the usual chaos of the Unitarian Universalist Sunday school.

So yes, Unitarian Universalist Sunday school is probably dying — if it’s not already dead.

But I don’t think Sunday school needs to die. Since the first Sunday schools devoted to literacy in the late eighteenth century, the phenomenon of Sunday school has repeatedly changed to meet the needs of different times.

And I don’t think Sunday school should die. I don’t like the image of children being molded like clay. I’m too much of an existentialist to be able to believe in a Christian God who molds passive humans the way he wants, nor do I believe in unbridled behaviorism as an educational philosophy. Instead, I prefer images that are more in line with what I do in Sunday school: the image of a pilgrimage, where adults and young people are traveling together towards some goal they have in common; the image of a community or collective, where we each are transformed while transforming others; the image of a support network, where we support each other as we make meaning in an absurd world.

I am too much of a progressive and an existentialist to wish for the death of Sunday school — I don’t wish for the death of collectives, or the death of of pilgrimages, or the death of shared existentialist meaning-making.

Go on to read “What’s killing Sunday school?”

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.