“The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism”

Here’s a link to an important paper by Rev. Christana Wille-McKnight on how few of our Unitarian Universalist children and youth we retain once they grow up — “The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism.” Here’s the first paragraph of the paper, to get you interested:

Over the last 40 years, Unitarian Universalism has emerged as a transformative movement in the United States. Our denomination has become a haven for people from a variety of faith backgrounds, well regarded for its acceptance of people regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental ability. Despite our success in welcoming people from other faiths into the Unitarian Universalist fold, we have not been as successful retaining as adult members people who have been raised from childhood as Unitarian Universalists. The cost of losing so many of the adult children that are raised in our faith is staggering….

This is for participants in the Renaissance module on ministry with youth that I am co-leading with Betty-Jeanne Rueters-Ward at Ferry Beach this week. Christana is now working on a UU church start in Norton, Massachusetts.

Neuroscience and religious education

Outline of an informal talk given July 10, 2011, at Ferry Beach Religious Education Week, held at the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine.

Welcome to this porch chat on neuroscience and religious education. What I’d like to do in this porch chat is this — First, find out what you know about neuroscience as it applies to religious education. Second, to tell you a little bit about what I have been learning about the exciting new developments in this area. And third, to talk about ways we can all continue our own education in this area.

(1) Let’s begin with what you know about neuroscience and religious education. And before you say “nothing,” I suspect at least some of you know something about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. How many of you have run into multiple intelligences work before?

What you may not realize (or may forget) is that Gardner drew upon new scientific insights in the way brain works to develop this theory. According to a paper by the Multiple Intelligences Institute, “to determine and articulate these separate faculties, or intelligences, Gardner turned to the various discrete disciplinary lenses in his initial investigations, including psychology, neurology, biology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities.” [p. 6] So Gardner represents one attempt to apply scientific insights into the brain to educational practice.

So now let me ask: what (if anything) do you know about neuroscience and religious education?

[summary of some of the responses]

  • the brain’s plasticity
  • answering the question: is there a genetic quality to empathy?
  • the god gene
  • how like things like mediation, music, etc., can change the brain
  • kids who have deficits with empathy
  • you can make new neural pathways
  • visualing brain pathways through brain imaging

(2) Now let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been learning about how to apply scientific understandings of the brain to religious education.

I’d like to begin by reading you a paragraph from a 2000 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” (You can download a free PDF of this book here.) I was introduced to this book by Joe Chee, a teacher educator and UU who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education and technology; Joe recommended this as a great introduction to the topic. And right at the beginning of this book, the authors tell us why we should care about the topic:

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate [in this book], a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of interdisciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible, if not yet easy to travel. Thirty years ago, educators paid little attention to the work of cognitive scientists, and researchers in the nascent field of cognitive science worked far removed from classrooms. Today, cognitive researchers are spending more time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how different settings and classroom interactions influence applications of their theories.

Continue reading “Neuroscience and religious education”

The last of my general assembly reporting

A few last posts by me on the uuworld.org GA blog:

Scholars of color assess UU history, report on brief talks by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, Rev. Monica Cummings, and Rev. Patricia Jimenez.
Music and cultural change in UUism, interviews with UU musicians Nick Page and Jeannie Gagne.
Commission on Appraisal continues study of ministry and authority, covering the Commission on Appraisal’s report to GA, and brief interview with Megan Dowdell of the Commission.
Moderator’s report: All of us working together, covering Gini Courter’s report to GA.

As before, comment here, or comment on the posts themselves.

(Earlier links to my reporting are here, and here.)

Chalice edge matching puzzle

Most children’s programs in congregations are pretty touchy-feely, which means that kids (and adults) who love logical/mathematical thinking can feel a little left out. So here’s an edge matching puzzle, with obligatory flaming chalice designs so it can masquerade as religiously educational, which can be fun for both children and adults (since this type of puzzle is NP-complete, there is no fast and easy solution). The image below links to a PDF, with instructions for cutting out the nine puzzle pieces and solving the puzzle.

PDF of Chalice Edge Matching Puzzle, 13 May 2011

P.S. No, I’m not going to give you the solution, because I know you don’t really want it.

Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!”

A couple of interesting things came up while I was teaching Sunday school yesterday.

1. At the 9:30 service, we’re doing a program based on the old Marketplace 29 A.D. curriculum by Betty Goetz; we’re calling our version “Judean Village 29 C.E.” The idea is that we have gone back in time to a Judean village in the year 29. The adult leaders are mostly “shopkeepers,” or artisans: we have a potter, a scribe, a candymaker, a baker, a musical instrument maker, a spice and herb shop, a maker of fishing nets, and a trainer of athletes. Not all shopkeepers are present each week; sometimes they’re off visiting another village, or visiting the nearby city of Jerusalem. There’s also a tax collector and a Roman soldier who roam around our village, shaking down the villagers for taxes. All the adults are in costume, which makes it a little easier to pretend we’re actually back in the year 29. Continue reading “Visiting a Judean village, and “Act out the story!””

A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series

The best organized series of Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, and certainly the series which maintains the highest quality overall, was the New Beacon Series in Religious Education, produced from 1937 to c. 1957 under the editorship of Sophia Lyon Fahs by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Ask someone who went to a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in the 1950s, and they’re almost certain to remember Beginnings and How Miracles Abound and The Church across the Street. Ask someone whose children went through a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in those days, and they would probably add the Martin and Judy books for preschoolers.

In the Palo Alto church’s Sunday school this year, we used the book From Long Ago and Many Lands from the New Beacon Series. It has been so successful that I’m thinking of continuing on with the next book in the series. I searched the Web for a complete listing of the New Beacon series arranged in order of the age of the students, but could find nothing. Below find just such a listing. Please leave corrections in the comments.

  Continue reading “A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series”

“Stencil-style writing” and zone of proximal development

Notes from my teaching diary, dated Sunday 20 February:

Paul was the lead teacher in the 11:00 a.m. Sunday school class this morning. Paul brought in a lovely picture book that a friend of his had given him. It was very attractive, and a couple of the children looked at it curiously. After everyone checked in, and the two new children got more comfortable, Paul started the lesson proper. “I brought in this picture book,” he said, “and I also have a story from our regular book [From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Fahs]. I thought you could choose which story you wanted to hear.” I was sure the children would want to hear the story in the attractive picture book, but they wanted to hear the story from the regular book — it was obvious that they really like the regular book.

After Paul read the story to us (it was the story of “The Wee, Wise Bird” on p. 146), we talked a little about the story, and then Paul asked us to draw scenes from the story. Billy* was having a hard time settling down, so as the assistant teacher I asked him to come sit beside me; he enjoys himself more when an adult can help keep him focused. We talked about what he might want to draw, and he said he didn’t really want to draw, but he might like to write down the three lessons the wee, wise bird tried to teach the dim-witted gardener. He began to write the first one, very neatly and carefully. I told him that he had very neat handwriting, and admired the special way he was writing. “That’s stencil-style writing,” he said with pride.

Across the table, Jack* drew very quickly: first a giant bulldozer, then a plane about to drop a bomb. Paul suggested that Jack might want to draw a picture of what the wee, wise bird might look like if it really could have had a pearl bigger than itself inside its body. Jack took great pleasure in dashing off another drawing showing exactly that.

When it came time for everyone to show their drawings, Isaac,* who was the youngest child there at age 6, showed his drawing. “I drew what he drew,” he said a little shyly, pointing to the 8 year old next to him. He had done a good copy of his neighbor’s drawing. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was a very visual example of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and a good reminder of how much the children are learning from each other, and from us adults, not through the explicit lesson but simply by watching each other and us. Along those lines, the class always seems to go well when Paul is teaching: the children come away from class feeling they have learned something concrete and memorable, we have all had time to chat (there was a lot of informal chatting while we were drawing).

At noon I checked the Main Hall and found that the main worship service was running a little late, as usual. So Paul asked if the children wanted to hear the story from the picture book he had brought with him, and they did. A couple of parents came in in the middle of this story, but none of the children took this as a cue to get up and scramble out of class: they all stayed and listened to the whole of Paul’s picture book. In another testimonial to the approach we are taking, about a half hour after class had let out, one of Billy’s parents came up to me and said that Billy didn’t really want to leave the house to go to Sunday school this morning, but once he was in the car he remembered that he really liked the 11:00 Sunday school class.

* Pseudonyms, of course.

Notes from study leave, pt. 3: small group management software

I’ve been thinking about ways to improve administration of Sunday school, and I’ve been dreaming of software that would allow me to track attendance and visitors, get reports from teachers online or via email, allow parents/guardians to see what Sunday school classes have been doing, etc.

I started out looking at Sunday school management software, but it all seems to be focused on merely tracking attendance and providing Bible lesson plans. Blah. Then I began to realize that my Sunday school classes are really more like small groups than traditional Sunday school classes. (When I say “small groups,” I don’t mean the usual Unitarian Universalist interpretation of small groups:– closed groups with the goal of deep intimate sharing. What I mean by small groups has more in common with evangelical Christian small groups:– open, welcoming groups with leaders who are actively encouraged to expand the group; groups which aim to bring persons towards a Unitarian Universalist way of life through learning and doing; groups which aim to encourage leadership growth in both current leaders and participants.)

So I began to look at some of the software packages that help churches manage growth-oriented small groups.

A typical software package

A typical example of such software is ChurchTeams Web-based small group software. ChurchTeams software is Web-based, that is, it’s hosted on their servers. You provide a link to this service through your Web site.

ChurchTeams allows visitors and guests to browse through small groups on your Web site — you can browse by interest topic, meeting location, etc. Guests can sign up for a small group online.

Small group leaders can manage their small group online. They can write meeting summaries (ChurchTeams claims their easy-to-use software gets over 80% weekly return rate on meeting reports). They can update member information in the online database; when they do so, the ChurchTeams software sends an email notification of this new information to a church administrator, who can then input the information into the main congregational database. Small group leaders can also make sure group participants get email notification such as meeting reminders, and copies of meeting reports. If I think about Sunday school teachers and youth advisors as small group leaders, I would think about sending email reminders to parents about Sunday school class, and then sending out meeting reports so the parents can know what went on in Sunday school.

ChurchTeams software also supports children’s check-in kiosks — you know, those things megachurches use where you check in your child at a terminal that takes your photo and prints out a security label that matches the child with the parent/guardian. ChurchTeams also allows teachers to text parents, so that if your kid melts down in the middle of the megachurch worship service where there are 3,000 people in attendance, you get a text telling you to come down right away. Not really a feature I’d need to use very much, but it would be a neat feature to have for our nursery staff.

This sounds like a real topnotch premium product, right? And it comes with a topnotch price, too. For a database of 151-500 people, the annual subscription is $400 plus a one time startup fee of 6-month subscription. That would be $600 for the first year — which is way too much for me to want to pay out of our small religious education budget, considering the limited number of functions I would actually use. Having said that, if my congregation were truly committed to growth through small groups, I could probably convince people that this would be an excellent investment for the whole congregation. But since my church is following a classic mainline Protestant model of church growth — advertising, putting people on committees, doing satisfaction surveys, etc. — I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone else to spring for this big an annual fee.

Other packages

Of course there are lots of basically equivalent products out there. I looked at ConnectionPower, which apparently offers similar functionality in their Web-based church management software, butI couldn’t easily find pricing information on their Web site, so I don’t know how competitive they are. CongregationBuilder appears to have fewer features than ChurchTeams (no online reports, less flexibility about contacting members, etc.); it’s also a lot less expensive — about $240 a year for our size congregation — but the lack of online reporting just wouldn’t make it worth my while.

I also looked at a non-Web-based software package, Excellerate church management software. You buy this software package and install it on your own server — it’s not hosted on their server. Small group leaders (or Sunday school teachers) can still do online reports, though — they simply log in remotely to the server you set up, through a link you place on your congregation’s Web site. Excellerate does show some nice graphing functions that allow you to track growth (or decline) in your small groups. Like most of this type of software, “Excellerate small group software can track all of your group details including meeting attendance, topics, comments, number of visitors, and much more”; all of which would of course be incredibly useful for a Sunday school. This database is priced by the number of records you’d use, so for our Sunday school we’d probably pay about $295 — that’s a one time fee, though, not an annual subscription fee as for the Web-based software.

Downsides and problems

The big drawback to using any of theses software packages is that I’d basically have to set up my own database running parallel to the main congregational database. I’m a big believer in nonproliferation of databases; more than one database means that you’re not sharing information the way you should be doing (although the ChurchTeams software does get around this problem by automatically sending that email update to the congregational administrator for inclusion in the main database).

In the past, I’ve run separate databases for my Sunday school programs, and of course I had much better data for my own use, and I also could get exactly the kinds of reports and analysis that I needed. But I finally realized that maintaining my own database for Sunday school meant that I was crippling the overall efforts of the congregation. Perhaps someday I can convince my congregation to switch to a more aggressive data-driven and results-oriented approach to growth; and if I do that, I’ll immediately try to talk the rest of the leadership into using one of these software packages to track small groups (and then of course I’d start using the same software package to pump up my Sunday school programs). Until such a day, however, I’ll be sticking with the same old mainline Protestant approaches to congregational growth and Sunday school management.

Notes from study leave, pt. 2: Web-based education

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to do more religious education online. I’ve been imagining a kid-oriented Web site that encourages kids (aged 5 through 18) to do religious education outside of that one lone Sunday morning hour of Sunday school. I’ve been dreaming of an interactive teaching/learning Web site that got kids excited about religious education, and drew in their parents as well. What might such a site look like? I decided to do a little exploring and see what was currently available on the Web — are there any Web sites that get me excited and interested?

First of all, if I’m going to do online religious education, I want stuff that is at least as cool and engaging as the Exploratorium’s series of videos on dissecting a cow’s eye — of for that matter, almost anything else on the Exploratorium’s Web site. The best part about the Exploratorium’s Web site is that if you live in the Bay area, you know you can go to San Francisco, visit the Exploratorium, and see that cool stuff in person. The downside to the Exploratorium is that it’s not a place that you want to go every week, so it’s not entirely analogous to what I want to do in religious education. All the Exploratorium really does is to provide a supplement to other educational opportunities; it serves primarily to get kids jazzed up to do science in other venues beyond its walls.

Another great learning Web site is Bre Pettis’ “I Make Things.” Pettis is known online for his short how-to videos, and when I look at the latest topics in his online video podcast, I see that I can learn how to make a robot that will make me a sandwich if I type “Sudo make me a sandwich” into my computer; and I can learn how to count in binary on my fingers (a skill I’ve always wanted to possess though I never knew it until now). Unfortunately, it looks like Pettis has stopped making his video podcasts; the most recent entry is dated March 23, 2009. Pettis’ site interests me because he pretty much does what he does on his own — he’s not a huge educational institution like the Exploratorium — and I think an individual Unitarian Universalist congregation could do something almost as good.

Turning to Web sites that are specifically designed for doing religious education online, most (not all) of the Web sites I’m finding are far less interesting. The best one I’ve found so far (and it’s pretty darned good) is TMC Youth. “TMC” stands for “The Mother Church,” the central church for Christian Scientists. Like many religious groups based in the United States, the Christian Scientists have seen their revenues shrink in the past few years; nevertheless, they still have pretty deep pockets and it shows in this Web site. It’s a well-designed site, with a variety of media — audio podcasts, videos, online Sunday school lessons, online student chats, and more.

I expected some of the big megachurches to have Web material aimed at kids, and they do. Saddleback Church, for example, has fairly extensive resources for junior high kids on their Wildside: Church for Junior Highers Media Center. There’s not a lot there, though — a registration form for camp, a few videos (including one titled “Exposed! Understand God’s Plan For Sex”), and that’s about it. Not nearly as interesting or deep as the Christian Science site. (Their page for children has almost no material, and is not worth visiting.)

Willow Creek Community Church has more interesting online material for kids. Their site for junior youth, Elevate: Church for Jr. Highers, is obviously focused on convincing kids to participate in small groups, but it’s done well, with interesting videos and references to dodgeball and mission trips and so on. This isn’t exactly online religious education, but it does what it’s designed to do — make you want to be a part of this church community. I was pretty impressed.

Obviously, megachurches are focused on serving their own church community; equally obviously, they have the will and the resources to do things that our entire UU denomination can’t take on. But creating a Web site like TMC Youth for Unitarian Universalism is well within our reach, even with the scanty financial and human resources we have in our tiny little denomination. Seeing the TMC site makes me wish that we had taken the money and effort that went into the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, and put it into something like this truly kick-ass religious education Web site. Oh well.

It did make me feel better when I took a look at other online Sunday school Web sites that are less well done. Take, for example, Simply Christian’s Online Sunday School — after fighting the clunky interface and looking at the old-fashioned stuff they have, it’s hard to believe they want me to pay to subscribe to their service.

Somewhat more interesting is Sunday School Sources: Free Bible Lessons. There’s some pretty cool resources here — but this is not a site that is aimed at kids, it’s aimed at Sunday school teachers who need lesson plans, bible trading cards, and things like that. (Take a look at this printable page of Bible trading cards — dude, I so want the Satan trading card — and check this out, Cain is about to bash Abel’s head in!) This is still pretty low-budget, and something like could have been well within the reach of Unitarian Universalism. But here again, like the “Tapestry of Faith” curriculum, this site is nothing more than old-school Sunday school resources placed online.

Other cool-looking Sunday school Web sites are hidden behind a pay wall. I liked the look of Spark Online. If you’re going to do old-school Sunday school, something like this would be fabulous: teacher scheduling takes place online, teachers can download lesson plans and resource materials, and they can even watch short videos on how to prepare a given lesson. Parents can stay in touch by looking at what their children learn online, and they can register their children online. (Their program can be adapted to a workshop rotation model of Sunday school, and if I were going to administer a workshop rotation Sunday school, with its high administrative load, I can’t imagine doing it without something like this.) This isn’t a kid-oriented interactive site, but it looks pretty good nonetheless.

Another Web site that combines a more traditional approach to learning with some pretty good online resources is REonline, a site based in the United Kingdom. In the U.K., “religious education” doesn’t necessarily mean Sunday school, it can also mean passing on knowledge about religion and educating for religious literacy; in the U.K., religious education can and often does take place in the regular school system. Though they are traditional and not interactive, I like REonline’s resources for students, which provides a curated set of links to other informational Web sites. Through REonline, I discovered the BBC’s Web pages on religious questions aimed at children — like this BBC page that’s a kid-level FAQ on Buddhism. REonline’s teacher resources page is also excellent, and I’m going to be passing it along to my Sunday school teachers at the Palo Alto church.

Summary: I found a few good interactive Web sites devoted to religious education. But most religious education Web sites seem to be devoted to supporting old-school Sunday school with lesson plans, teacher resources, etc. The only religious education Web site I’ve found that approaches the coolness factor of the Exploratorium’s Web site is the TMC Web site. The best kid-oriented religious education Web site, however, was probably Willow Creek Community Church’s Web site — fun, interactive, and designed to draw kids into actually coming to church.