Painting with Jello

My sister-the-children’s-librarian keeps telling me how much fun it is doing process art and sensory art with kids. So this Sunday I decided to do jello-painting in Sunday school. (The term “Jell-o” is a a registered trademark of Kraft Food Groups, but I’m using “jello” as a generic term for any gelatin-based sweet dessert.)

At the local supermarket, I found jello in all the colors of the rainbow: cherry for red (it looked like a deeper red than strawberry or raspberry), orange for orange, lemon for yellow, lime for green, some random berry flavor for blue, and grape for purple. Since I was expecting 8-12 children, I got six ounces of each color — er, of each flavor — whatever you want to call them.

I figured jello-painting would take about twenty minutes, so we did some other activities first. Then we went outside to the picnic tables, where I had already set up a can full of paint brushes, a whole bunch of little cups to mix colors in, wooden stirring sticks, and several cups of plain water to clean brushes in. The packages of jello powder were on a separate table, along with a big pot of very warm (but not hot, for safety’s sake) water with a couple of ladles.

I gave a quick demonstration: pour some jello powder into one of the little mixing cups, add some warm water, stir with one of the wooden stirring sticks, then paint on the paper. Then I gave each child a piece of watercolor paper, and let them figure out the rest for themselves. It took them a moment to realize that Barb and I were just there to facilitate the process, but we weren’t going to tell them how to do things. Then they liked the idea that they could just play with the materials. Barb helped this process — he quickly started making his own painting, asking the other children if he could borrow some of their orange jellopaint for the sunset he was making.

Below is a photo of Barb mixing some of his own jellopaint — you can see the pot of very warm water with a ladle in it, to the left:

(I really like the fact that I have a photograph of a Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association — the highest elected office in our denomination — mixing jello to use as paint.)

Continue reading “Painting with Jello”

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.

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 2

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Read part one

Documenting a Local Faith Community, pt. 1

Our local faith community, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), is a congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Both the Unitarians and the Universalists started out by rejecting standard Christian doctrines and creeds, and by the late nineteenth century they had become “post-Christian” religious groups. (7) Today, most Christians would not consider UUCPA to be a Christian church: we affirm neither the Nicene Creed, nor Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; the majority of the congregation are atheists; some of our congregants assert multiple religious identities including non-Christian religious identities such as humanism, Buddhism, etc. Yet to non-Christians, we look like Christians: we meet on Sunday mornings; our religious services resemble standard U.S. Protestant Christian worship services; and our official name is the “Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.” So the most convenient term for us remains “post-Christian.”

Most Sunday mornings, you will see me standing outside the door to the Main Hall on the campus of UUCPA, greeting families and individuals as they come up the covered walkway from the parking lot and the bike racks, or in the other direction from the front garden. On one particular Sunday morning, Reva, age 12, and her father wave at me as they walk up from their electric car. Reva is looking forward to “Pi Day,” March 14; she has memorized pi to over a hundred digits. When I comment that Pi Day is less fun this year than last, because last year was 3/14/15, Reva’s father points out that if you round up pi to four digits after the decimal point, you have 3.1416. Reva’s family is committed to fighting climate change, and they purchased an electric Nissan Leaf soon after the car came on the market. This family is typical of many Silicon Valley families in the congregation: they celebrate Pi Day, the children are well-versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning, and they all show their commitment to the global environmental crisis by embracing new technological solutions.

Inside the Main Hall, the senior minister, Amy Morgenstern, has started the service. Three sixth grade girls, Zoe, Becky, and Eva, say “Hi!” to me as they race through the door to take up their usual places in the back corner of the Main Hall. All our children and teens spend the first fifteen minutes of every service in the Main Hall before they go off to Sunday school. While some children prefer to sit with their parents and pay attention to the service, these sixth graders sit quietly in a corner and pay attention to each other.

I finish greeting latecomers, slipping into the Main Hall as Beverly, the lay worship associate, reads this week’s centering words. “With our centering words each week,” says Beverly, “we draw on the many sources of our living tradition.” She reads a short excerpt from a contemporary poem; then she rings a bell, inviting everyone “to follow the sound of the bell into silence.” I’m standing next to where Zoe, Becky, and Maria are sitting. They are still interacting through gestures and facial expressions, and though they are not making any noise I would not say that they are spiritually silent; and I’m pretty sure they didn’t heard the centering words Beverly just read.

Everybody stands to sing the first hymn together. Most of the children know this hymn by heart, a contemporary spiritual song called “Come Sing a Song with Me.” One fifth grader stands on her chair, holding on to a parent, leaning her head back, her whole body involved in singing this, her favorite song. At the beginning of the last verse, I open the side door to the Main Hall, and forty or so children run pell-mell out the door and across the patio towards their Sunday school classrooms. Two generations ago, the children going off to Sunday school would have been almost entirely white, reflecting both a deep racial divide in American religious life, and the fact that the city of Palo Alto was over 90% white. Today, the city of Palo Alto is about 65% white while the surrounding county is now white-minority; nearly a third of the population of Palo Alto is foreign-born. (8) On this Sunday, the children going off to Sunday school are about 75% white; the non-white children at UUCPA are mostly of East and South Asian descent, but also of African descent, Latino/a, Middle Eastern, etc.

While the children race each other to see who will be first in their classrooms (not necessarily because they love class; in some classrooms there are a few couches, and the first ones in the classroom will get a seat on a couch), I reflect on the invisible economic differences between them. The median household income in Santa Clara County is close to $95,000, the highest median household income of any county in the U.S.; at the same time only 13.3% of households have an income in the range of $50,000-75,000, showing that “the middle class is being hollowed out.” (9) Many of the families who are affiliated with UUCPA have annual household incomes well over $100,000, but others are struggling to get by, especially given the exceedingly high cost of housing in Silicon Valley. (10) The majority of the regular attendees of UUCPA have incomes that place them in the middle class and upper middle class, but some regular attendees receive federal assistance for rental housing (so-called “Section 8 housing”). (11)

When I arrive in the classroom, Lorraine, my co-teacher for the sixth grade Ecojustice class, is already there. Of the seven children present today, five are white and two are non-white; six are girls and one is a boy. I take attendance while Lorraine asks one of the children to light a candle in a chalice (a flaming chalice is a common symbol for Unitarian Universalism). The children all say our usual opening words together: “We light this chalice in honor of Unitarian Universalism, the church of the open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts,” (12) and we all do the hand motions that go with each phrase. Next we everyone gets to tell about one good thing and one bad thing that happened to them in the past week; Becky is the only one who doesn’t participate in this; she never participates except when there are only one or two children in class.


Today we’re going to work on making nesting boxes for the Violet-green Swallows that fly over the creek that flows along the edge of the church campus. But first the children want to check on their worm composter and their “recycled container garden” which they made from a worn-out automobile tire and discarded wood pallets. On our way to the composter and the garden, we stop at the church kitchen to pick up some vegetable scraps that the worms would like. As the children dump the scraps into the composter, Lorraine reminds them that we should add dry plant waste to the composter. Two of the children drag over a large yard waste bin and add handfuls of dead leaves along with the vegetable scraps. Aiofe reaches into the composter and finds some worms, which she holds in her hand to show the others. Next we check the container garden, made of a discarded tire. (13) The squirrels have dug holes in the dirt and disrupted the seeds we planted, so I promise to make a wire cage to keep out the squirrels.

On to part three



(7) Historian of religion Gary Dorrien writes that “the implicitly post-Christian religious humanism” of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, two theological giants of mid-nineteenth century Unitarianism, had “reconfigured” the Unitarians by the late nineteenth century into a post-Christian denomination (The Making of American Liberal Theology, 1805-1900 [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], pp. 105-109). The Universalists became post-Christian somewhat later, but were post-Christian by the time of the merger with Unitarians in 1961.

(8) The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following data for the city of Palo Alto on “Race and Hispanic Origin” from the 2010 Census (as of April 1, 2020): White alone, 64.2%; Black of African American alone, 1.9%; American Indian and Alaska Native alone, 0.2%; Asian alone, 27.1%; Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone, 0.2%; Two or More Races, 4.2%; Hispanic or Latino, 6.2%; White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, 60.6%. 32.3% of the population in Palo Alto in 2010 was foreign-born. United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts, Palo Alto city, California, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

The immediate neighborhood of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) is slightly more diverse than the city as a whole. The racial and ethnic composition of census tract 510803, where UUCPA is located: 59% White, 1% Black, 5% Hispanic, 32% Asian, 2% Other. Neighboring census tract 5107 is white minority, at 47% white. “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” New York Times, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

(9) Data are from a 2014 study prepared by IHS Economics, and reported by George Avalos, “Santa Clara County has highest median household income in nation, but wealth gap widens,” San Jose Mercury News, August 11, 2014, accessed March 19, 2016: link.

(10) The 2010 U.S. Census found the median household income in Palo Alto, 2010-2014 (in 2014 dollars), was $126,771; the per capita income in the same period was $75,257; and the poverty rate was 5.3%. United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts, Palo Alto city, California, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

The poverty rate of 5.3% may include a higher proportion of families with children. For example, at Gunn High School, one of the two high schools in Palo Alto, 158 students, or 8.2% of students, received federally-funded free and reduced price meals in the 2010-2011 school year, the latest year for which I could find information. Palo Alto Unified School District, Henry M. Gunn High School Midterm Progress Report (Date of Midterm Visit March 22, 2012), Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 8, accessed March 26, 2016: link. To put this into perspective, a household with four persons would qualify for subsidized meals if the household income is $44,863 or less. Palo Alto Unified School District School Nutrition Program Pricing Letter to Household (June, 2015), 2, accessed March 26, 2016: link.

(11) According to Fred Buelow, Treasurer of UUCPA, the congregation appears to have representation in each of the five quintiles of income distribution, with the smallest number in the lowest quintile. Personal communication, March 28, 2016.

(12) Words by Rev. Ginger Luke, a Unitarian Universalist minister of religious education.

(13) Haiti’s Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) developed tire gardens to promote food security: “The concept of personal home gardens—in the city and in the countryside—carries great significance in a country where food security is hard to find.” Jessica L. Atcheson, “Ending Food Insecurity, One Urban Tire Garden at a time,” Rights Now: The Newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (Summer/Fall, 2013), 6-8.

20 years

Twenty years ago this month, I began working as a Director of Religious Education (DRE) in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. During the recession of the early 1990s, I had been working for a carpenter/cabinet-maker, so I had been supplementing my income with part-time work as a security guard at a lumber yard. Carol, my partner, saw an advertisement for a Director of Religious Education at a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. “You could do that,” she said. So I applied for the job, and since I was the only applicant, I got it.


Above: Carol took this Polaroid photo of me sitting at my desk at my first DRE job. The computer in the left foreground is a Mac SE, and I have a lot more hair. It was a long time ago.

Over the past twenty years, I worked as a religious educator for sixteen years — full-time for six of those years, part-time for nine years — and as a full-time parish minister for four years. Since I was parish minister in a small congregation where I had often had to help out the very part-time DRE, I feel as though I’ve worked at least part-time in religious education for twenty continuous years.

Sometimes I wonder why I’ve stuck with it so long. Religious education is a low-status line of work. Educators who work with children are accorded lower status in our society, because working with children is “women’s work,” and ours is still a sexist society. And religious educators are sometimes looked down upon by schoolteachers and other educators, because we’re not “real” educators. In addition to being low-status work, religious educators get low pay, and the decline of organized religion means our pay is declining, too, mostly because our hours are being cut, or paid positions are being completely eliminated.

Continue reading “20 years”

Transcript of a class

Joe and I have been talking about ways to document what goes on inside Sunday school classrooms. Joe is doing his Ph.D. in education right now, and one thing he has been doing lately is videotaping experienced teachers. Eventually he plans to produce video teaching tools to help new teachers learn how to teach.

This past Sunday, Joe hitched up an audio recorder to me while I was teaching our middle school group about Quakerism, in preparation for a field trip to a Quaker meeting that same morning. I decided to transcribe that audio recording to help me reflect on my teaching — what do I do well, where could I improve? The transcript appears below.

In the transcript, I recorded names of specific young people in the class where I could identify their voices (of course I have used pseudonyms), and one thing I noticed is that of the dozen or so kids in the class that day, most of my direct verbal interaction was with the same half dozen kids. I can hear the other kids talking in the background, but they don’t directly respond to my questions. Thus, one thing that I would like to improve is the number of young people with whom I have direct verbal interactions.

The transcript is long, but if you read through it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Obviously, a transcript like this does not convey tone of voice and body language, which means you’re missing some of the most important stuff that went on (and that’s why Joe is making videos of teachers). Nevertheless: What do you think I did well? Where could I have improved? Leave your answers in the comments.

Continue reading “Transcript of a class”

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”

Major changes at the last minute

Excerpt from my teaching diary

The traffic sign over Highway 101 displayed an unwelcome message: “Left 3 Lanes Closed at Willow Rd Seek Alt Routes.” I sought an alternate route off the freeway, and arrived at church half an hour later than my planned arrival time, and only twenty minutes before class began. The goal of today’s lesson plan was to tell the children a little about the history of the flaming chalice, the unofficial symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and the lesson plan called the children to make flaming chalice of their own out of very small flowerpots. I went to where I knew we had a stash of very small flowerpots — and there weren’t any flowerpots there. Uh oh. Continue reading “Major changes at the last minute”

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””

“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.

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.