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.

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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.