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”

Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1

This is part one of a presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow at the annual meeting of the Pacific Central District of Unitarian Universalist congregations. As you will see, growth is not rocket science; growth is all about patient attention to detail. I think you will find this presentation to be quite different from other Unitarian Universalist approaches to growth: it’s kind of geeky; it’s not exciting; it lacks sexy jargon terms; and it’s all about management and administration. However, since the exciting, sexy, theological approaches don’t seem to be working all that well, maybe you should check out my approach….

Welcome!

We’re going to talk about transforming and growing your programs and ministries for children and youth. And my emphasis is going to be on growth. I believe that there are many families who would love to have their children participate in our programs and ministries for young people, and wee need to make room for them in our congregations. Furthermore, research by the Search Institute shows that regular participation by youth in a religious congregation correlates with a decrease in risky behaviors such as substance abuse; therefore, by having more kids participating regularly in our congregations, we are literally saving lives.

If this is not the workshop you were expecting, feel free to leave now or at any time without embarrassment. I only want you to be here if you want to be here.

And if you want to ask questions, please write them down (legibly). I am going to post the entire presentation online, and I want to include your questions online. I will stop periodically during this workshop to take your questions.

How to measure growth

If you really want to grow your programs and ministries for children and youth, the first thing you have to do is figure out how you’re going to measure growth. More often than not, you get exactly the kind of growth you measure for. This is so important that we’re going to take fifteen minutes right now to go over this. Continue reading “Transform and grow your RE program, pt. 1”

We try out “think-pair-share”

After a meeting of Sunday school teachers last night, Heather said to me, “You didn’t have the kids act out the story during Sunday school on Sunday, did you?”

“No, we didn’t,” I said, curious to know how she had figured it out.

“I knew it,” she said. “When I asked the kids what they had done in Sunday school, they said, ‘I dunno.’ I asked if they had heard about Joseph, and they didn’t remember. So I knew you hadn’t acted the story out.”

Because we had twenty children in one group, Joe and I had opted not to have the children act out the story. Instead, Joe had introduced one of his favorite pedagogical methods, think-pair-share. We asked a seventh grader to aloud the story of how Joseph’s brothers encountered him once again as a powerful official in Egypt. Then Joe asked the children think about a specific question about the story, pair up with another child, and share what they had been thinking about. After giving time for the pairs of children to share with each other, we called the children back to a large group discussion. Continue reading “We try out “think-pair-share””

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!””

“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.

Congregations as learning communities: historical perspective and a possible path forward

Below is a lecture that I gave today at Starr King School for the Ministry, at the invitation of Rev. Michelle Favreault, visiting core faculty member, for her course “Between Sundays: Parish Life.” As you will see below, my title for the lecture is long and, as is necessary in academia, includes a colon. For the rest of the class, I spent much of the time focusing on how you can use a congregation’s physical plant as a teaching tool, using the concepts of implicit curriculum and distributed intelligence.

It was a good group of seminarians, who brought lots of good insights and experience to today’s session. I enjoyed meeting them, and if they are representative of the high quality of people going into Unitarian Universalist ministry, I have lots more hope for the future of our religious institutions.

Congregations as learning communities: historical perspective and a possible path forward.

The broken ecology of religious education

Religious education theorist John Westerhoff talks about the “broken ecology” of religious education; in this he is drawing on the work of Lawrence Cremin, a distinguished historian of education in the U.S.(1) The following handout summarizes Westerhoffs argument:

“Broken Ecology of Religious Education” handout (PDF)

On the handout, you can see that in the first third of the twentieth century, religious education of the individual was supported by a robust interconnected “ecology” of institutions and social contexts. That ecology is in large part broken today; this is graphically depicted in the lower part of the handout.

In the 1950s, the heyday of US religious education, while things were changing rapidly, a good bit of that earlier robust ecology was intact: prayers in public schools; a dominant Protestant ethos in many cities and towns; most churches were neighborhood churches; high participation in Sunday school; popular media still mining religion as a topic (think Charlton Heston); the family was more mobile and less likely to live near extended family but many women still at home.

Today, almost none of that religious education ecology remains in place. All we have left is the family and the Sunday school. The family is more and more likely to have little or no religious background, and may be seriously struggling to provide decent religious education to children and teens. The Sunday school is lucky to get children attending 30 weeks a year, which is less 30 hours a year, which is less time than many kids spend watching TV and playing video games each week. The church is removed from the neighborhood; popular media either ignores religion, makes fun of it, misunderstands it, or provides a fundamentalist or strict evangelical slant to it.

Forget nostalgia, let’s use what we have

We can bemoan this situation while indulging in nostalgia for a golden mythical past, or we can do something else.

If you wish to indulge in nostalgia, please remember that the old ecology of religious education was embedded in a society in which women and blacks could not vote, in which there were few if any social safety nets, in which there was extreme racism towards blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and other racial groups, in which homosexuality was illegal and socially unacceptable, and so on. Furthermore, this ecology depended on Protestant domination of the United States — what we now call mainline Protestants, including Unitarians, Universalists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc., ran government and society to please themselves. If you want to indulge in nostalgia for that social system, you and I have very different notions of what constitutes a good world.

So let’s recognize that broken ecology of the past, and figure out how to move on. What can we do to maximize the potential of our present situation?

Vygotsky and distributed cognition

Let me begin by offering one possible theoretical background for moving forward.

First, I’d like to turn to the work of the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky worked in Soviet Russia, so his work was essentially ignored in the United States until the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, we in the U.S. went with the highly individualistic developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. For religious education’s purposes, Piaget worked pretty well through the 1960s, because all society supported Protestant values, so it could seem like little kids were like little individual scientists, figuring out religion on their own through immutable developmental stages. It is no longer clear to me that we can rely exclusively on Piaget, or other structuralist developmental psychologies including so-called “faith development” derived from James Fowler, for our understanding of how children learn about religion, and learn to do religion.

Vygotsky, true to his Soviet context, emphasized the social aspects of human development. He demonstrated that children could perform beyond their expected level of context if placed in a social situation with others — peers, older children, or adults — who knew more than the individual (“zone of proximal development”).(2)

In the West in the 1990s, Vygotsky’s work inspired other psychologists to develop theories of distributed cognition. A simple and direct example of distributed cognition is an axe; the thing lumberjacks use to cut down trees. If you look at it one way, an axe contains in itself accumulated learnings about trees and cutting them down, and learnings about wood as a material, and the way to work with it. There is a whole bunch of accumulated human cognition that winds up in that axe. So take that a step further: maybe cognition doesn’t happen just inside one individual’s brain, as Piaget seems to assume — maybe cognition is distributed socially across many people and across things and organizations.(3)

Here I’m interpreting distributed cognition (or “distributed intelligence” as Roy D. Pea prefers to call it), and Vygotsky, to suit my own ends. If you really want to know about these topics, you should go out and learn about them yourselves. But here’s where I’m headed: what if we think about a congregation as a form of distributed intelligence?

I’ve already pointed out that in the U.S. religious education used permeate the entire social setting in the first third of the twentieth century (at least, it did so if you were Protestant). Now the social setting has changed, but we can still try to understand religious education as much, much more than the short time kids spend in Sunday school. I would argue that as soon as a child enters the building that houses the congregation is when they start learning — for some kids, as soon as they start getting dressed to go to Sunday school or youth group, as soon as they get in the car, is when they start learning. And they don’t stop learning until they get home again. (Nor is this limited to children: all this applies as well to teenagers and adults.)

This would suggest that we need to maximize every moment the child is in contact with the congregation. Every aspect of the congregation’s physical plant should teach the child something; every aspect of the congregation’s physical plant should accurately reflect the values and the knowledge of that congregation. One possible metaphor is this: when you think of a congregation as a learning institution, it is like a children’s museum or a science museum where the displays start on the outside of the museum’s building (i.e., the learning and excitement starts as soon as you see the building), and it continues in a variety of interactive experiences throughout your stay in the building.(4) Note for this blog post: these days, a really good science museum extends learning into their Web site, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

This would also suggest that we need to train the members of our congregation that they are teaching every moment they are on site — they are like the staff of a good children’s museum or science museum, constantly leading interactive experiences. Moreover, just as a good children’s museum or science museum teaches adults just as much or more as it teaches children, so too with a congregation. In fact, since so many of our adult newcomers are completely unchurched when they arrive in our parking lots, they too are learning about religion the moment they catch sight of our buildings and grounds.

(By the way, insights from cognitive scientist and neuroscientists are changing the way we understand how people learn, and every religious educator should be paying close attention to this. The next annual conference of the Religious Education Association will be on precisely this topic, and will be held in Toronto this fall, November 4-6. This conference should be a high priority for anyone with an interest in educational ministries.)

Implicit, explicit, and null curriculum

This brings us to a lovely concept set forth in the 1979 by curriculum theorist Elliot Eisner.(5) We all know what curriculum is: it is a series of structured learning episodes designed to pass along an established body of knowledge and/or wisdom. And we all know that curriculum is contained in textbooks, printed curriculum guides, lesson plans, and teaching that we provide, right? Well, Eisner points out that this is merely the explicit curriculum, the curriculum that we say we’re teaching, the curriculum that we deliberately set out to implement.

However, there is also an implicit curriculum. The implicit curriculum is described thusly by religious educator Maria Harris: “the patterns or organizations or procedures that frame the explicit curriculum: things like attitudes or time spent or even the design of the room; things like the presence or absence of teenagers on our [governing boards]; or things like the percentages of church revenues we do or do not give to persons less fortunate than ourselves.”(6) In my experience as a practicing religious educator, the implicit curriculum is more powerful than the explicit curriculum. As an obvious example, if you are presenting a curriculum to children that teaches how much the children are valued by your religion, and that curriculum is being taught in a room that is not child-friendly, the kids are going to pay more attention to the poor ventilation, the lack of child-sized furniture, and the dirt and grime than they are going to pay to the lesson. And if you are trying to teach children to grow up to be part of your religious movement when they are adults — that’s the explicit curriculum — and you shunt them off to a less desirable space far from the adult community, they’ll learn that they aren’t really welcomed and they won’t come back as adults.

All too often, we educators ignore the implicit curriculum, and it subverts our explicit curriculum. I’m sure you can see that you can use the implicit curriculum positively, if you are intentional about it. So when I arrived at the church I’m now serving, and discovered that a major learning goal for them was to teach young people how to be Unitarian Universalist adults, the first thing I did was to arrange with the senior minister that the children would be in the first ten minutes of the worship service each week — she completely understands this idea, and is fully behind it — and we talk quite a bit about how to structure that first ten minutes so that the children are learning what we want them to learn.

In addition to the explicit and implicit curriculums, there is the null curriculum. Those are the things that you don’t teach at all. Sometimes these things are positive — as a Universalist, I try to keep the concept of hell in the null curriculum at my church. Sometime these things are negative — my church is in the middle of an area that’s full of Hispanic people, and there is little or no Spanish spoken except by a couple of the child care workers; so maybe what we’re teaching children is that a huge portion of the surrounding population simply doesn’t exist in our eyes? Anyway, the null curriculum is very tricky because often you aren’t even aware that it is there.

To sum up:

  1. Many congregations are still doing religious education like it’s 1950, or maybe even like it’s 1930; not a bright idea, since that old ecology of religious education is broken.
  2. Many congregations treat learners as individuals removed from social context; but there are social models of learning out there, such as Vygotsky’s model and distributed cognition. (And remember that neuroscience may change many things we now take for granted about education.)
  3. The whole congregation — physical plant, social structure, worship services, governance, etc., as well as formal classes — is the curriculum. It consists of explicit, implicit, and null curriculum, of which the latter two are just powerful as, or more powerful than, the explicit curriculum.

Notes
1 John Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith?, revised edition (Seabury Press, 1976 / Harrisburg, Penna.: Morehouse, 2000), pp. 10-13.

2 A good place to start learning about Vygotsky is: Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. Michael Cole et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1978). The Introduction and Biographical Note are useful brief summaries. The sixth chapter of this book, “Interaction between learning and Development,” introduces the concept of the “zone of proximal development” in Vygotsky’s own words.

3 Concepts in this and succeeding paragraphs draw in large part from Distributed Cognitions, ed. Gavriel Salomon [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ., 1993], esp. “Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education” by Roy D. Pea, pp. 47-87.

4 This idea comes in large part from Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 1991). In this book, Gardner several times mentions the potentials of museums as educational institutions; see, e.g., pp. 200-203.

5 Eliot Eisner, The Educational Imagination (New York: Macmillan, 1979), pp. 75 ff.

6 Maria Harris, Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 68-70.

Counting contacts

A couple of years ago, a special ed. teacher was telling me about a technique she finds is very useful to make sure she connects with every child in her classes. She counts the number of “contacts” she has with each child — each time she makes eye contact, etc. — and she attempts to make a minimum number of contacts with each child in each teaching session. This is a common technique for teachers, and other variations of it may use different terminology, and may have different criteria for what constitutes a contact. For use in Sunday school, my criteria for a contact is making eye contact or addressing a child directly in a positive interaction (addressing a child for misbehavior doesn’t count), and I’ve been aiming for a minimum of five contacts with each child in a group of 8-10 children, during a typical 50 minute session.

Yesterday, I was teaching the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class. While I was presenting the story of Moses and the golden calf, I was also counting contacts. It’s easy to make contact with the bright responsive kids; it’s also easy to make contacts with the troublemakers (I tend to like kids who are troublemakers, so I tend to have quite a few positive interactions with them).

But about two thirds of the way through the session, I realized that I had made absolutely no contacts with one of the boys. He sat there quietly and didn’t cause any trouble, so he didn’t draw attention to himself like the troublemakers. He never participated in any of the discussions, so again he didn’t draw any attention to himself. He was, in fact, extremely adept at blending into the background and disappearing from view. Even after I noticed that I wasn’t noticing him, I found it difficult to make myself have any interaction with him — he was that good at deflecting attention from himself. At last, towards the end of the session, I was rewarded — he actually looked up at me, and looked me in the eye.

I think this boy is not all that unusual; I can think of other fourth and fifth grade boys who manage to remove themselves from the circle of adult attention in congregations. I know we lose a lot of boys from Sunday school at about fourth and fifth grade, and I wonder if this is part of the reason why. If you’re teaching Sunday school, especially with upper elementary children, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.