The Fox and the Fish

Another story for liberal religious kids. This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 61b.

Once upon a time, the wicked Roman government issued a decree: no more would the Jews be allowed to study the Torah and the law.

But Rabbi Akiva seemed to ignore the decree. He gathered people together quite openly, and taught them the Torah and the law. Pappas, the son of Judah, took him aside and said, “Rabbi Akiva, do know what could happen to you? Aren’t you afraid the Romans will punish you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” said Rabbi Akiva, and he told this story….

Once upon a time, there were many small fish who lived in a stream. One day, fox walked alongside the stream, and noticed that all the fish were darting to and fro, as if they were afraid of something.

“O fish, o fish,” said the fox, “why are you swimming around so? What is it that you are trying to escape?”

“We are trying to escape the nets that the humans have put in the stream to catch us,” said the fish.

“Oh, ho,” said the fox. “Then perhaps you should come up here and walk on dry land alongside me, just as your ancestors used to walk beside my ancestors years and years ago. That way you can escape from the nets of the humans.”

“What, go up on dry land!” said the fish indignantly. “You have a reputation for being smart, but that is a stupid thing to say. We may be afraid of what’s going on here in the water where we feel comfortable, but it would be much worse for us up in the thin air where we would surely die.” And so the fish stayed in the water, and did not try to walk beside the fox on dry land.

Rabbi Avika said, “Now you can see that we are just like the fish in the stream.”

Pappas asked the rabbi to explain.

“It’s like this,” said Rabbi Avika. “If we neglect the Torah, if we neglect what is central to our religion, we would be like fish out of water, and we would die. It is written in the Torah, ‘For that is your life and the length of your days.’ Perhaps we will suffer if we do study the Torah, but we know we will surely die if we don’t.”

Not long after that, the wicked Romans arrested Rabbi Akiva for teaching and studying the Torah. He was roughly thrown into the Roman prison, and there to his surprise he found Pappas.

“Pappas, what are you doing here?” asked Rabbi Akiva.

“O rabbi,” said Pappas, “you were right. I have been thrown into prison for nothing important. At least you have been thrown in prison for something worth dying for.”

And when Rabbi Akiva was killed by the Romans, he died in peace with the words of the Torah on his lips.

I’ve been researching the race riot that happened at the high school in my hometown in 1978 (I hope to have a blog post about it on the 45th anniversary of the actual event). Part of my research led me to a 2002 oral history interview with Phil Benicasa, for many years an elementary school principal in Concord. I never knew him, but my younger sister worked as a reading tutor in his school for a few years, and always had good things to say about him as an educator.

So here’s what Phil Benicasa said about parents and education back in 2002, not long before he retired:

“[S]omething is going on with the youngster who comes to our door in kindergarten [in 2002] as opposed to the youngster that came to our door 20 or 25 years ago. They are nowhere near as well prepared for the conventions of learning as kids were some time ago. I think parents are confused about parenting. I think kids therefore are confused about their role as children. In 1975 if you took the chunk of time out of my week that I spent doing discipline, 80% or 90% of that would have been at the fourth and fifth grade level, and more often than not it was mischievous sort of stuff. It was the kind of stuff that you could chew out a kid for and send him out of the office and chuckle about what it was that the kid had done. Today 80 to 90% of my time in discipline is spent in kindergarten, first, and second grade. That’s astonishing. And it’s not mischief. There are really a tragic number of kids with social and emotional baggage that they are having great difficulty casting off….

“I think parents have bought into the business about, the sooner my kid learns to read, the better they’re going to be. If my kid learns to read by age 3, that’s a direct line to Harvard. That’s absolutely nonsense. There are so many more important things that need to be learned before they get to us [in elementary school]. You know that business, ‘everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten’? — to clean up after myself, to share, to listen to others, to wait my turn, not cut ahead — all that’s true. Generally speaking kids had much of that in place before they arrived in the door.… [K]ids are not coming to school in kindergarten as well prepared to take advantage of what it is we are offering than they have been in the past. That means we have to modify what we are offering.”

Three obvious caveats — (1) This statement represents the observations and opinion of just one educator. (2) Phil Benicasa’s observations were limited to Concord, a predominantly White town in New England. (3) The demographics of Concord’s schools changed from 1975 to 2002, from an economically diverse cohort of children, to a nearly homogenous upper-upper middle class cohort.

Yet even with these caveats, what Phil Benicasa said back in 2002 resonates with what I saw in a different educational setting, religious education in Unitarian Universalists, back in the late 1990s. But I was working with the same upper middle class predominantly White children that Benicasa worked with. To use a current catchphrase, I felt children in the late 1990s were often deficient in social-emotional learning. I don’t know why that was true, but it was.

Things have changed since 2002. I’m no longer in religious education, but I still see the same upper middle class predominantly White children that I’ve been working with since 1994. Up until the COVID pandemic, I felt that children became more able to fit in to structured social situations. Some of that change came from a bit more social-emotional learning, and some of it came from children simply becoming more compliant with authority.

I also felt that some of that change came at the cost of children’s mental and spiritual well-being. In the years leading up to 2020, I felt that I saw increasing amounts of depression and anxiety in children; at least, in the populations I worked with. Children had internalized the message that they need to do everything they can to gain (as Phil Benicasa put it) “a direct line to Harvard.” And, to quote him again: “That’s absolutely nonsense.” What you do in elementary school or middle school is not going to get you into Harvard.

Then the pandemic hit. The pandemic accelerated some of these trends. To succeed at online school, kids had to become even more compliant. And the rates of depression and anxiety went up even faster, as near as I could tell. But the pandemic also meant that children lost a lot of ground in social-emotional learning. We’re barely out of the pandemic, so it’s too early to know if children will regain that lost ground or not. The pandemic also meant that children stopped participating in extra-curricular activities that promoted social-emotional learning, programs like Sunday school. Participation in sports keeps rising, but while sports does tend to make children more compliant, in my observation it doesn’t do much to improve social-emotional learning.

The pandemic also accelerated a trend I’ve been watching when it comes to the spiritual development of upper middle class children. The upper middle class consists of the “cultured despisers of religion,” so spiritual development tends to be low on their list of priorities (spiritual development won’t get you into Harvard). The upper classes limit spiritual development to meditation, mindfulness, and yoga — which are considered worth doing because they allegedly help children tolerate stress better. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is that meditation, mindfulness, and yoga mostly seem to work to make children more compliant. Nor do they address the root causes of children’s anxiety and depression; instead, they simply cover them over.

I’d like to say that Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education would help advance children’s social-emotional learning, improve their mental health, and (instead of making them more compliant) help them discover who they are and what their purpose is. But I’m less than impressed with the way most UU congregations implement their religious education programs. Most of these programs today seem to be run for the convenience of the staff and the child-free lay leaders. As an example, think of the many UU congregations that set monthly themes for worship services, then force children’s religious education curriculum to follow those themes regardless of the developmental and educational needs of the children. The adults come first; the children are supposed to be quiet and comply with the needs of the adults. No wonder UU religious education enrollment has been plummeting in recent years.

I don’t have a happy little conclusion for this blog post, except to say I’m worried. I’m worried that the selfishness of Unitarian Universalist adults is driving children away. I’m worried about children’s mental health, and limited social-emotional learning. I’m especially worried about the way children are being make more and more compliant — this in a time when fascism is on the rise.

(See also this post on why Sunday schools are declining.}

Reimagining Sunday school

I finally finished writing a short essay titled “Reimagining Sunday school” for my curriculum website. This essay has been in the works for a while, both as a response to the “death of Sunday school” movement, and as a response to the de-funding of religious education programs that we’ve been seeing denomination-wide. I’m copying the entire essay in below the fold, or you can read it on my curriculum website.

Continue reading “Reimagining Sunday school”

Possum tells the old story of Easter

Possum decides he’s going to tell the old story of Easter this year. His friends Rolf, Birago, Nicky, and Dr. Sharpie help him out.

Click on the image above to view the video on Vimeo

As usual, the script is below the fold. (The script has not been corrected against the actual video, and may vary in minor details.)

Continue reading “Possum tells the old story of Easter”

Behind the scenes

Since 2020, I’ve been filming stories-for-all-ages in a puppet studio I put together in the nursery at the Palo Alto church. We’re about to resume infant and toddler care, so it’s only a matter of time before I have to remove the puppet studio from the nursery. But I managed to take some behind-the-scenes photos of puppets and puppeteers in action while filming a few last videos.

When we’re filming, the puppeteers mostly watch the action on the computer screen. Sometimes looking at the screen is disorienting and we have to look up at the puppets. We tape the script to the back of the puppet stage at our eye level. Puppets who are not in the current scene lie on the table next to us (you can see Possum in the lower left corner of the photo.)

Puppeteer view

This is what the camera sees when the zoom is set to the widest angle:

Camera view

A wider view, from behind the camera. We sometimes have up to seven lights aimed at the stage. Props are laid out on the table to the left of the puppet stage. When not needed in the current scene, the puppets stay in cloth bags, and you can see Rolf’s head poking out of the dark blue bag in the lower right corner of the photo.

View from behind the camera

I’ll miss the puppeteer studio when it’s gone. But I won’t miss sweating in that small room on hot days, with the doors closed to keep outside sound out. I won’t miss having to reshoot a scene because a helicopter went overhead, or someone started talking on their phone right outside the door, or the cello class started up unexpectedly, ruining the sound. I won’t miss having a carefully-constructed set suddenly decide to fall over in the middle of filming. I won’t miss spending fifteen minutes trying to level the camera, only to find that somehow, mysteriously, the stage has gone out of level. I won’t miss shooting video on a tight deadline with little margin for error. But… I will miss bringing Sharpie and Possum and the other characters to life.

Webpage with links to all videos, plus “Meet the Stuffies”

Ecojustice Class curriculum now online (finally)

We’ve been teaching Ecojustice Class — a hands-on environmental justice curriculum for gr. 6-8 — since 2014. But much to the frustration of the teachers, there has never been a written curriculum for the class — until now.

Here’s the general curriculum plan for Ecojustice Class. There should be enough material there to fill approximately two dozen sessions over the course of a school year.

However, you won’t find a completely scripted curriculum, because that’s just not possible due to the nature of the program. This is a hands-on curriculum that gets the participants outdoors as much as possible. That means you have to have back-up plans in case weather doesn’t allow you outdoors. And you have to adjust the program to your specific climate and seasons.

I still have a few more successful lesson plans that I haven’t had time to put online yet. So expect minor upgrades to the curriculum over the next few months.

(And thanks to the many talented Ecojustice Class teachers who contributed to the class over the years, including Carol Steinfeld, Francesca Finch, Emma Grant-Bier, Ed Vail, Lorraine Kostka, Buzz Frahn, Mark Erickson, and others. I’m especially grateful to Francesca and Emma, who grew up taking the class and then went on to teach it.)

Thanksgiving with family, pt. 3

In the conclusion to the “Thanksgiving with Family” series, Muds and Possum talk over the Thanksgiving dinners they had with their relatives. For both of them, it didn’t go as badly as they had feared!

As usual, full text is below the fold.

Continue reading “Thanksgiving with family, pt. 3”