Summer Sunday school: Blob Tag and Jataka tales

From my teaching diary; as usual, children’s names are fictitious.

We’ve been getting 8 to 12 children in grades K-6 in our summer Sunday school class — a nice group size that allows children of different ages to get to know each other. Such a small group size makes it easy to change your plans at the last minute, too. At 9:25, five minutes before heading in to the worship service, Edie, my co-teacher, and I revised our plan. We were supposed to take a walk to the nearby city park, but neither one of us felt like dealing with the hassle of getting permission slips signed.

“Let’s stay here,” said Edie. “We can play giant Jenga.” Last winter, the middle school group had made a game based on Jenga (a trademarked game invented by Leslie Scott), using two-by-fours for the blocks. The middle school kids had played this game on the patio during social hour, and the younger kids were fascinated by it.

“Do you want a story?” I said. I had just gotten an old story book, More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbit (1923), and there was one story I wanted to tell to children. Continue reading “Summer Sunday school: Blob Tag and Jataka tales”

UU kids and politics

I’m often impressed by Unitarian Universalist kids. They have this tendency to take our values seriously, and actually try to live out our values.

Here’s a video about the presidential election, from a second grader whose family is part of our church here in Palo Alto (her family gave me permission to share this on my blog). Whether or not you share her political opinions, she is articulate, personable, and fun — able to express her views politely and respectfully — just the way we want our UU kids to be. Nor is it surprising that a UU kid would get involved in politics at a young age — after all, we do encourage our kids to live out their values in the real world.

New publishing venture

A new publishing venture called uu&me Publishing has just issued their first book, About Death. It looks like a great book to talk about death with kids.

uu&me was a magazine that grew out of the work of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and eventually was included as an insert in UU World magazine, until it was slashed in 2009 due to budget cuts. The current kids’ insert in UU World magazine recycles materials from curriculum books, and just isn’t as much fun. I have kept all my back issues of uu&me, and still refer to them (full disclosure: I had material published in the final issue of uu&me).

On their Web site, uu&me Publishing indicates that they will be collecting material from back numbers of uu&me for a new series of kids’ books. Let’s all buy their books, and encourage them, and maybe they’ll start producing some new material as well!

Music and empathy

The San Francisco Classical Voice Web site has an interesting article about musical activity and the development of empathy in children. Written by journalist Edward Ortiz, the article states:

The study defined empathy as a child’s having an understanding of the emotional state of another. A total of 52 children — 28 girls and 24 boys — were split, randomly, into three groups. One met weekly and was immersed in interactive musical games and was composed of 13 girls and 10 boys. A second undertook group activities that involved the use of written texts and drama, but no music. Another group took no interactive activities at all.

The children involved in musical group interactions scored higher on an empathy test given to all the children both before and after the activities. “The relationship between music and empathy seemed to be a particularly good match,” said [Tal-Chen] Rabinowitch, the lead researcher. [Link to full article]

According to the article, it may be that participation in other group activities could also result in higher scores on the empathy test; however, one of the control groups in the study did participate in other types of group interactive activities, with no increase in empathy scores. It also appears that individual consumption of music (e.g., listening to recorded music) or playing music as an individual (e.g., performing in a piano recital) would not result in increased empathy scores.

However, Ortiz writes, more research is needed: “Ultimately, the research can only be seen as preliminary because of the study’s small size, and must be tempered by the issue of confirmation bias….”

Transform and grow your RE program, questions

Below are the questions asked by participants in the workshop “Transform and Grow Your RE Program,” a workshop I led at the Pacific Central District annual meeting on April 28, 2012. (First post in this series.)

Questions about tracking attendance

(1) Under “policy governance,” should religious education [RE] attendance numbers be shared with the Board? (every month?) — the congregation? — or just the executive team?

I don’t think it matters whether you’re using “policy governance” or any other kind of governance, I believe we should share attendance figures as widely as possible. In my congregation, I report RE attendance every month to the Board, key staffers, the RE committee, and the Committee on Ministry. Attendance figures for the year always go in the annual report, which goes to all congregational members. I also sometimes report attendance to parents/guardians and volunteers.

One key strategy for transforming a congregational system is building in as many positive feedback loops as possible. Positive feedback loops are those ways that people learn how things are going, and that they receive good feelings when things are going well (negative feedback loops are destructive communications like malicious gossip, triangulation, scolding, meanness, etc.). So as a general principle, I say we should be building lots of positive feedback loops all the time, especially with crucial metrics as attendance figures.

(2) Can we see a sample of the spreadsheet you use to track enrollment and average attendance?

Here’s a PDF of our Excel attendance spreadsheet for April, 2012, at the UU Church of Palo Alto: REAttendSample.xls

Unfortunately, I cannot share the spreadsheet we use to track enrollment, as it contains the names and birthdates of legal minors. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, questions”

Transform and grow your RE program, conclusion

First post in this series.


Let’s review what it takes to transform and grow your programs and ministries for children and youth:

You have to figure out how you’re going to measure growth, because you will get the growth that you measure for.

Then there are four steps to growth:

One: You must have a compelling vision, and I suggest that compelling vision is encompassed within four big goals: to have fun and build community; to gain religious literacy; to gain the skills associated with liberal religion; and to prepare kids to become Unitarian Universalist adults who are sensitive, moral, joyful, and have integrity.

Two: You must build an infrastructure that will support your transformative and growing program, including $1,500 per kid, one adult volunteer per two kids, 25 square feet of physical space per kid, a good enough program, and plans in place to continue growth.

Three: You can pluck low-hanging fruit as it is available, to help motivate and encourage everyone involved.

Four: You must have at least five years’ worth of patience; and if your congregation is on a stalled growth plateau, you will need twice as much time, a decade’s worth of patience.

And the whole purpose of this is growth and transformation. We want children to grow up into caring, sensitive, moral adults with deep integrity. We want our congregations to grow so that we can accommodate all those people out there who want to join us. They might not yet know that they want to join us, but they are waiting for our fun, moving, life-transforming message. Sometimes we literally save people’s lives, and that alone would be enough justification to expand our reach through growth. We also transform people’s lives (including our own lives) on a less dramatic level because we provide a place where we can makes sense out of life: we make sense out of life being part of a community where we can share our deepest selves; we make sense out of life through an intellectual knowledge of religion that helps us be better citizens in a multi-cultural, multi-religious world; we make sense out of life by gaining personal skills like meditation and singing that help us find meaning; we make sense out of life by joining a religious community whose values we share and believe to be of utmost importance.

Questions from participants, with my answers.

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 5

First post in this series.

Step four: Have patience and hold on for at least five years

I got spoiled in my first job as a director of religious education. In my first three years on the job, we more than tripled enrollment, and probably tripled attendance. That first job gave me the impression that growth is easy, and that it happens quickly.

Sometimes that is in fact true: sometimes everything comes together and you get explosive growth in a short time without much effort. But most of the time, it takes years of hard work to get growth that you measure in a few percentage points each year.

Or, and this is more common than even slow growth, you find yourself stalled on a plateau for years at a time. Let’s talk about these growth plateaus for a moment. Growth plateaus often occur when the year-round average attendance of adults and children in a congregation is between 35 and 60, and again when attendance is between 150 and 200. When I look at 2011 attendance data on the UUA Web site, I can see several congregations in our district that may be stuck on one of these plateaus. Chico, Lake County, Sacramento Community Church, Stockton, and Sonora may be stuck on that lower plateau. Oakland, San Francisco, and San Mateo may be on that higher plateau. You may be interested to know that congregations that have stalled on growth plateaus seem far more likely to experience serious conflict — and watch out for conflict: it can stop growth dead, so you will want to manage conflict carefully so that it does not stop growth.

The only way to figure out for sure if your congregation is stalled on one of these plateaus is to check attendance data going back at least a decade. My own congregation in Palo Alto is reporting an average attendance of 208, but looking at our attendance data shows that we’ve been stalled on a growth plateau since about 1998. A couple of times we have broken 200 average attendance, only to fall back below that number after a year or two.

Growth usually takes patience, and it usually takes years. If you’re stalled on a growth plateau, it can take twice as many years and far more patience. If you discover that you’re stalled on a growth plateau, the best advice I can offer you is to stick to the basics: Carefully measure enrollment, attendance, and pledge income. Continue to maintain an administrative structure that provides adequate funding, adequate volunteers, adequate physical space, and a good enough program. Pluck low-hanging fruit when it’s available. And have patience.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a genius to create growth in your programs and ministries for children and youth. You just have to be good enough — and you have to be patient.

Any questions about having patience and holding on for at least five years?

Now on to the conclusion….

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 4

First post in this series.

Step three: Plucking some low-hanging fruit

A good deal of the work of creating transformative growth is pretty boring behind-the-scenes work. It can be tough motivating people to keep at it, year after year. So it is wise every once in a while to come up with some spectacular results to keep people interested and motivated. Let me tell you about a few tried-and-true means for doing this:

(1) If the attendance of children and youth drops off in your congregation during the summer, one of the easiest ways to boost attendance is to improve your summer offerings. This is what the Palo Alto religious education committee and I decided to do a year ago. We had tried all kinds of showy programs in the summer, and none of them had worked. One of our key volunteers said that what she’d like to do was chuck all programs altogether, and simply focus on our first big goal of having fun and building community. She said she’d take the kids to the park every Sunday during the summer to play and have fun. This is a fine example of a good-enough program. Actually, it was too good: it boosted our summer attendance so much that we saw a 21% increase in overall attendance; we wanted good enough, and now we have this big success we are expected to match again. Nevertheless, in many congregations, boosting summer attendance is an easy way to pluck some low-hanging fruit.

(2) Run a special program in the late spring when attendance usually drops off. Late spring projects that have been successful for me: taking 8 weeks to rehearse a play; the old Marketplace 29 A.D. Vacation Bible School program; a program on peacemaking. I’ve done this year after year in congregations I’ve served; it doesn’t always boost attendance, but it always at least provides a welcome change of pace for volunteers. And it’s usually easier to manage than trying to drum up enthusiasm to continue regular Sunday school classes through the bitter end of May or into June.

(3) Parties, overnights, and trips all generate enthusiasm, and often provide a small but measurable boost in attendance. I’ve taken youth groups to Chicago and to New Orleans. I’ve run overnights for grades 5 and up. I’ve helped organize parties for classes, for volunteers, and for the whole Sunday school. These projects are easy enough to do (except the youth group trips), and while the boost in attendance may be small, it is always welcome.

What I’m calling “low-hanging fruit” are things that are not going to create the kind of long-term upward growth trend that you can create through the boring work of management and building administrative infrastructure. But they are things that are fun, that provide short-term boosts in attendance, and most importantly they help keep everyone motivated.

This notion of motivation will bring us nicely to the fourth and last step… but first, any questions about low-hanging fruit?

And now on to step four….

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3

First post in this series.

Step two: Building infrastructure

Now let’s go on to the next step, building the infrastructure to support and sustain a growing program. (Remember that step two runs concurrently with step three, which is picking low-hanging fruit.)

If we’re going to adequately support growth of programs and ministries for young people, we’re going to need at least five essential elements. Let me list the five elements I think are essential:

(1) Money, from $1,000 up to $1,500 per kid. Money mostly goes to pay for staff time, and some goes to supplies.

(2) Volunteers, about 1 adult volunteer for every two kids. This includes both volunteers who have direct contact with kids, and those who do support work.

(3) Physical space, about 25 square feet per kid.

(4) A good enough program. We don’t need a supercalifragilisticexpealidocious program, you just need one that’s good enough.

(5) Pretty good plans in place to come up with more of the above when you begin to grow.

Now let’s look at each of these five essential elements. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 3”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2

First post in this series.

Transform and grow your children and youth ministries and programs

Now I’d like to outline for you one possible process for transformational growth. This is a four step process. In step one, you develop a compelling vision and set measurable goals based on that vision. Then steps two and three run concurrently. In step two, you build the infrastructure to support a growing program. In step three, you pluck some low-hanging fruit to build enthusiasm among families, volunteers, and lay leaders. In step four, you have patience and hold on for at least five years.

Let’s look at each one of these steps.

Step one: Develop a compelling vision

I have served in eight different Unitarian Universalist congregations as a religious educator, an interim minister, and a parish minister. These congregation ranged in size from the 3,000 member Church of the Larger Fellowship, our online congregation, to a 25 member church. Eventually, I noticed that each of these congregations had approximately the same vision for its programs and ministries for children and youth. And finally I wrote down this shared vision in the form of four big learning goals. Here they are:

(1) We want children to have fun and feel they are part of a religious community.

(2) We want children to gain the basic religious literacy expected of informed citizens in our society.

(3) We want children to learn the skills associated with liberal religion, skills such as public speaking, singing, meditating, basic leadership skills, interpersonal skills, etc.

(4) We aim to prepare children to become Unitarian Universalist adults, should they choose to become Unitarian Universalists when they are old enough to make their own decisions. To this end, we help children to become sensitive, moral, and joyful people, people who have intellectual integrity and spiritual insight.

I wrote down these four goals, and began presenting it to parents and guardians of children and youth. They immediately understood these goals, and more importantly they liked them. These goals set forth what they want for their children: to have a supportive place to grow up; to learn some basic religious facts; to gain some basic skills; and to grow up to become good human beings, the kind of good human being we like to imagine Unitarian Universalists are.

Lay leaders and volunteers also like these goals, not only because that’s what they want for our Unitarian Universalist kids, but also because these goals are specific and measurable. Let me take a moment to show you how each goal can be measured. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 2”