Category Archives: Religious education

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

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

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.

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.