Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Bottom of the Totem Pole

I had a discouraging day this week. Two incidents reminded me of the cultural status of kids.
The first happened at church- to my dismay. We serve lunch in our third service, and this week it was pizza. We asked the servers of the food if we could take some pizza to our kids upstairs- we had eight hungry students in our elementary class. (Normally I wouldn't ask. I bring healthy snacks of fruit and vegetables, cheeses, yogurts, and crackers for them, but this was a fun day; everyone loves pizza!)
The servers scowled at my request and curtly informed me that we could have the leftovers- if there were any. Because of my rebellious nature, I sent the kids down with one of my helpers to get into the adult line. It's a good thing too, 'cuz there were no leftovers. This was most disturbing to the food servers who stared and glared and reluctantly handed over the food, but my kids happily munched on pizza without knowing how they had been relegated to the bottom of the societal totem pole. (Note to church: this is the wrong approach to kids.)
The next incident happened when my neighbor walked onto my property to snoop around my barn. We've been fixing the walls and residing it to make an outdoor play space for my three children. (I thought she had noticed that it rains a lot here in the Washington foothills and playing outside is almost impossible for close to six months out the year.) Instead she was obviously upset that we had taken the eyesore from dingy to beautiful, complete with a cement floor, but no heating or plumbing or anything fancy. "I don't want a lot of noisy kids running around," she announced to my dismay as my three year old walked by chattering to our fuzzy cat. I had to be very careful to not get defensive on my children's behalf and simply noted the dark clouds and gloom of the winter as our main incentive for the space.
It has bothered me all week that kids are the lowest priority in our society. I know some of you will argue that this is simply not true- look at the immense spending on public education, health care, and the like, but let's be realistic: kids are not a embraced as important, knowledgeable, and worthwhile to our society as a whole. How many times have you gotten "the glare" in restaurants regarding your kids? When was the last time that you found your children embraced in the grocery store? How many adults in your life choose to be around you because of your kids? For the church, how much of the budget is spent on kids ministry? How many times do the adult population and the kid population intermingle in activities? How is your volunteering going? How many patrons without children work in your program? When are children mentioned from the pulpit?
I think if change is going to happen, it has to start in the church. It's not right for any member of the congregation (regardless of age) to be frowned upon. All servants of the church need to treat all members with respect. I can give my neighbor a pass, she probably has her reasons for her disdain, but I have an issue with the workers at church. There is no excuse there.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Starting a new series

One of my teachers has asked me create a curriculum series on the Fruits of the Spirit. I'm beginning that project today. I must admit, it is going to be a challenge for me to work outside of the box I've constructed with our curriculum. Until now, I've always focused on the 12 essential topics of Christianity: Jesus, Faith, Creation, Love One Another, Tell Others About Jesus, Salvation, Sin and Forgiveness, Prayer, The Bible, Church, Christmas and Easter (not necessarily in that order.) I chose this route long ago because I felt that churches were not providing the basic Christian information that kids needed before entering adolescence. Yet I also feel that sometimes you just have to teach what you are led to teach, and if my instructor feels led to teach the fruits of the spirit, then we'll do that.
This brings me to that point about passion in teaching that I wrote about a while back. I do think that you should trust your own instincts regarding approaches to teaching Sunday school. Try something new, mix up your schedule one Sunday just to see how it fits, try not to get stuck in a rut. I could convince anyone that I'm stuck in a bit if a rut with my twelve topics, after all, it has been my primary focus for so long that I've become a bit bored, and that's an honest feeling. I think trying a new unit of fruits, complete with the tasty objects as a hands on experience, will be good for me, even healthy!

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Dream

A few times a year I speak at conferences to groups of Sunday school teachers. It is always a wonderful experience, invigorating, and enlightening. I find that regardless of the topic, we always gravitate to great ideas that are working in our classes, and of course struggles that we deal with week after week. So, here is my dream. I want to have this dialogue regularly. We are all on the same team after all- we all have the same goals. dream is to do away with the competition that churches seem to be trapped in, and start working together. I'd like us all to come to one spot- it doesn't matter where, blogging or at a huge conference, or in Hawaii on a beach (that would be fun!) but let's start talking about what works.
I guess that was an additional reason why we decided to give our curriculum away for free (go get it at!) I do not believe that there is any one right curriculum, although you've already heard my issues with the big publishing companies, but I do think that between all of us, we could get some outstanding ideas on how to teach Biblical principals. So, send me your ideas- modify our curriculum- instead of teaching the trinity with year braiding the three colors together, teach it using a candle! Tell me what works in your classroom and I'll put it up- I don't want anything, but a great dialogue of great ideas. My husband believes that those should be on a blog of their own- I'm going to think about that for a couple of days- maybe that is next week's project.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Free Means Free

Recently I've been asked why we have switched to a free downloadable site,, for our curriculum. The answer is because we feel everyone should have access, and the more people that can use the curriculum, the more kids can be reached for God. Ultimately this is not our work anyway, it's God's. Afterall, he wrote all the concepts and stories that we use. He laid down the foundational knowledge, we are simply repackaging it for young minds to digest.
We began writing curriculum almost five years ago when we moved to the Skagit Valley. I volunteered to be Children's Director at a brand new church in Burlington, Washington, and I began immediately looking for age appropriate preschool Sunday School programs for our very tiny class. I couldn't find what I liked. Most were a hodgepodge of story programs that taught obedience, which has always irritated me. Also, they were expensive. Big publishing companies have really cornered the market on curriculum and make a hefty profit. It bothered me to take tithes and throw them at a companies that were in states far away.
Also, I really wanted to focus on the basics of Christianity- teach kids about Salvation, Creation, Faith, Loving Others, etc. I truly believe that the church doesn't do this very well, as research shows that kids in middle school don't know much about their religion, although they know who Noah, David, Daniel, and the big boys of the Bible are.
Finally, I wanted a program that was simple enough for our mobile church to implement. I didn't have a set classroom where I could put up bulletin boards or paint murals. All I had was a couple of tubs of toys and supplies and an uncomfortable teacher's lounge.
So, I began with one month: Love One Another. I wrote the first story, the Good Samaritan, and wrote up a class schedule similar to the ones I had followed as a preschool teacher. We would gather in a circle, sing a song, say a verse, pray, read a story, and do an activity.
The next week I wrote another story, but we sang the same songs and said the same verse. By week three the kids, with yet another story on the same topic, were able to tell me about what they were learning. By the end of the month, they knew the verse and could independently tell me what Loving Others was all about. Intrinsically I knew that the curriculum would work.
At the end of that first month it occurred to me that parents might like the same stories I read to their children to have at home, to read again, after all, how many times do you read a favorite book to a small child? I have The Spooky Old Tree memorized because my 7 and 9 year olds needed to hear it multiple times a day for two years!
So I found an artist and bought some pens. I began to put pictures to the stories, and my husband scanned them into the computer. We copied them off, stapled them, and gave them to our parents. The parents seemed to like them, then we started hearing that they were being used in a sister church in the next city.
From there the curriculum blossomed. After I finished the preschool program, my husband created a website and started to distribute it for free. That got very expensive very fast. So we spent a few years advertising and distributing it at cost via the Internet. It was wonderful to get feedback from churches on how well their kids were learning. Meanwhile, I had moved on to the elementary program, created prayer journals, and a home school workbook. I got half way through the second year of the elementary program when I began a Children's church for my Sunday program. That launched the CC program, at the same time I was plugging away at an upper elementary program.
Today we have, for free, a preschool program, early elementary, half of the upper elementary, and most of the Children's Church program. In addition, supplemental materials for all the topics, a teen novel, a family small group study and a home school workbook that all teach the basics of Christianity.
Every day I continue to work on the curriculum. It will probably be something I do forever as it has become like an old friend. We may never be as big and grandiose as the publishing companies, we may never have fame or recognition, but that doesn't matter to us, because someday I will may meet those in heaven that I was honored to affect here on earth.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It's About Love

I'm reminded again today how important love is in Sunday school.
My Sunday experience is very busy. As each child arrives I make a connection with them, some I high five, some I hug, some I simply tell them how beautiful they are or notice their smile. Every child, every service, every week gets noticed by me. My teachers also make a concerted effort to notice every child in their care, but ultimately they may be too busy and I consider this my responsibility first and foremost.
Some of the adults in the building don't understand this mentality. They give me quizzical looks when I break away from a conversation to acknowledge a child, they are irritated when I will stop listening to them to listen to someone under ten, but I persist.
I also move through my classrooms during services to make connections with kids, tell them how smart they are, or ask them questions about their lives. At first my teachers were confused by my apparent lack of interest in them, but now they leave me to my job of connecting with kids and carry on with their own work.
When service is over and everyone is leaving, I give hugs, high fives, and tell kids that I will miss them. I also tell them that I love them. It is interesting to see the change in my students since I started telling them that I love them. Many more are running into my arms now when they see me. They are smiling shyly and saying, "I love you too," before they exit. But most importantly, they are coming back, to hear about God and his love for them. Without a connection to these kids, and without them knowing that they are entering a safe haven where they are cherished and loved, they may not want to come back. Above all, we are to love others, as God loves them, this is the next greatest commandment.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Good Day

It’s always amazing to me how much a class can change in just a week. Last Sunday I had a challenging group of boys who tested my classroom management skills. This week, quite the opposite class arrived. Since we have three services, our families often move fluidly from one to another per their needs each week. So this week I had a delightful class of older elementary kids who easily understood the message of Salvation. Instead of reviewing the concept that God wants a relationship with you, this group could explain that to me already, I quickly moved on to the concept that Salvation is a gift from God (you cannot earn it.) My star teacher had already wrapped a gift as a demonstration tool and had left it with me to use, but this group saw it and explained it to me upon entering the room. So, I had to devise plan B immediately.
I found the crayons and gave each of them a blank piece of paper. I had them draw a box, then put their favorite thing inside the box. Pictures of kittens, family members, and Nintendo DS game units appeared on their pages. Meanwhile I was drawing a box with little circles inside (one for each child in the class.) I put faces and hair on my little circles while each child explained why they chose their favorite thing.
Then I showed them my box with the little faces inside. They smiled when they realized that I had drawn each of them. A few blushed. Then I explained that this was not my box, but God’s box. “What does that mean?” I asked them.
“That we are God’s favorite thing!” they said smiling.
“That’s right!” Then I drew a bow on top of the box and explained that God gave each of them a gift, the gift of Salvation. You cannot earn salvation, God gives it because he loves us and it is given through Jesus Christ.
They got it, and it was a fun moment!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Test of Classroom Management Skills

Last week tested my classroom management skills. I’ve been working with kids for a long, long time and I’ve been able to compile a respectable toolbox of tricks and techniques regarding classroom management, but even my seasoned sensibilities were tested with my group of elementary kids during the third service at our church on Sunday.
As you remember from yesterday’s blog, we are teaching Salvation this month at church, and I taught one thing: God wants a relationship with you.
My very difficult group, of mainly boys, was irritable and tired, and at odds with each other before they entered my room. I was short staffed and immediately thought of a kitschy “hands on” activity for them to do while I was teaching.
This was a good start, but let me tell you what happened next. As a reminder, this is a multiage elementary classroom, with kindergarteners through sixth grade. There are three sets of siblings (one set is my tired group of three) with some serious behavioral disordered kids in the mix. I know all of these kids well, and I know how most tick, but it took everything I had to keep the class moving forward.
My first trick of the day was to keep them busy. I had a quick, multisensory activity for them to work on while I taught. They wound yarn around a Popsicle stick cross to make a fun diamond shape. I had them switch yarn every few minutes, and although this created a little confusion, it cut down on the “I wanted that color” conflicts.
The next skill I used was reminding them constantly of what I expected. I did a lot of reminding like this: “I love the way Kara is listening, thank you Connor for raising your hand, thank you for that answer, Aaron.” Positive reminders helped.
One child was having a particularly hard day, picking on his brother, not wanting to listen, wiggling, and at one point trying to take the star belonging to the boy next to him. I gave him the clear consequences of his actions, “Joe, if you continue to hit Scott, I will have to have you sit on the stairs.” Joe pushed, and prodded, but he never crossed over the line to fulfill the consequences. I had to remember that with each new kind of offense, he needed a new consequence. For this child, at this time, it worked.
Following through is critical to any classroom management toolkit. If I tell a child that they will be removed if they do “x”, then I need to follow through with that promise. Therefore, it is important for me not to overreact to a child’s behavior. For example, if Joe pinches his brother, it might be best to split them up, sit between them, distract them, or have him sit out. Making a big consequence (that of removal) is too big for the first offense (short of being a danger to self or others which always requires immediate removal.) But at the end of the day, kids will push me to see if I am serious, which I always am. I read a Barna study a few months ago about Sunday school kids, who are now adults, reported that one problem with their childhood church experience was that rules were never followed and classroom discipline was rarely imposed. That is tragic because without a clear set of rules and consequences children cannot feel safe.
Now might be a good time to mention that my most used classroom management skills are proximity and distraction. It is almost constant. Finding children who are not engaged, who are disrupting or disturbing others, or who are unhappy becomes second nature. Once I see these kids wandering or engaging in unwanted behavior, I immediately get next to them- either I move or I bring them to sit next to me. Then I give them something new to do. I have a lot of stuff at my disposal: a bunch of books, crafts, clay, mazes, games, toys, etc. Anything that I can do to engage them, stop or redirect behavior is worthwhile. I sometimes find that sitting down with a child for just a few minutes can change them for an hour! So I do this a lot. I like to play marbles with the kids, card games, legos, whatever I can implement quickly and effectively. I can get a kid engaged enough to leave others alone by spending time with them. This may seem obvious, but when you are in the middle of class, with multiple personalities to juggle, the obvious sometimes slips away to oblivion!
So, my Sunday experience last week employed most of my skills, hopping from one side of the group to the next, verbalizing expectations, talking about consequences, redirecting, sitting kids next to me that were struggling to focus, asking questions, giving praise, trying to teach in a group that was very difficult. But at the end of the hour I had taught one thing, so I’m happy. Next time I’ll try to teach two.

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Fly on the Wall

How would you like to spend one Sunday as a fly on the wall of a Sunday school class? Would you like to see another teacher at work? Do you want to know how others deal with difficult kids? Complex curriculum? Challenging questions? I’d like you to come into my classroom on Sundays and see what I do. I’m not the world’s greatest teacher, but I do have a wide variety of students, multiple ages, and family complexities in my little community church in Burlington Washington. Starting today I’m going to write about my Sunday school classes, the challenges and the joys of the weekly experience. I’ll give you an insight on how I prepare, the answers I give, how I prepare and modify my curriculum and classroom management skills per the needs of my kids.
Just so you know, I am the Children’s Director for a non-denominational church. I have about 90 kids, ranging from toddlers through junior high over three services. I have five classrooms, a paid staff of five, and multiple volunteers that work with our kids.
I use Foundations Publishing curriculum for our preschool program, KidsFaith Children’s church for you elementary Kids, and Scripture Sleuth Books for our upper elementary/middle school boys small group. All of our classes are multi-age with boys and girls mixed. I have families from all income brackets, kids with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, in foster care, and those broken families. We have many more boys than girls, our largest group is our early elementary with roughly half of all the students we care for.
So, with that background, here we go!
I’m busy today preparing for Sunday. We are teaching Salvation all this month, and we need to review. I usually teach Salvation in August, it is a good wrap up for the year of learning; we start fresh with a new topic in September. I guess I’m still following the school calendar from my public school teaching days. In any case, I introduced Salvation last week, the first two services went well with my seasoned teacher Heather at the helm. I always teach during the third, and last, service to keep my ideas fresh and my mind firmly planted in the trenches with my staff.
It was a difficult day. That day was the reason I began this line of thinking in this blog. I could tell as soon as Heather left to go to service that it was going to be challenging. First, my music people were running late. They usually begin “kids worship” right away while I clean up the now trashed classroom, but on this day, they were nowhere to be seen. A new girl, who wasn’t fond of talking, arrived and looked uncomfortable. While I tried to introduce myself and get her engaged in one of the many activities set out, a set of very difficult boys appeared, followed by another set of difficult boys. My kids, tired and grumpy from hours now at church, plopped down on the couch and began to complain. Still no noise from the new silent child, but thankfully a kind member of our church (a friend of this child’s mom) got her working on a craft. The difficult boys, now numbering six, roamed restlessly knocking over legos and dominos. A few more kids arrived including a visiting girl from California who has been with us all summer and has never spoken (why don’t girls speak? I question while trying to engage the restless boys in a game of twister.) Finally, my music people show and we gather the kids on the couches to sing. Two of my most difficult begin to fidget and poke one another. That quickly escalates to slapping and fighting (as a disclaimer- these kids are pseudo siblings, one adopted and one foster kid in the same house.) I immediately separate them, pulling the one I know more close to my side while singing, “Father, I adore you.” He sulks and pulls away. I let him go and remind another child that God loves to hear him sing. He is humming loudly a song I don’t recognize. The music time continues like this with me tag teaming between resistant singers until all five songs were finished. I had been smart enough when the kids began to arrive that day to quickly dream up a “hands on” activity for them to do while I’m explaining the joys of Salvation. After the singing I hand them each a Popsicle stick cross and skein of yarn to wrap around the stick (that nifty craft from the 60s and 70s that ends up making a cool looking diamond.
The group is overall intrigued with the concept of winding yarn, some are better than others at the task, and they all get to work while I begin to shoot questions at them about Salvation. “What is Salvation?” I ask while helping the most difficult with the purple yarn. None of them could answer, which disturbs me because we’ve been over this ground before, they should know. So I make the question easier. “What does God want from you?” Their answers are far from what I want to hear: to listen, to obey, to go to church, to give money. I sigh, but press on, “Not quite, what does God want from you?” I ask again. Sensing they are way off, they get more creative: to love others, read our Bible, be nice. “Those are all good things to do, but what does God want from you?” I ask a third time like it’s the first: with much enthusiasm. They stare at me blankly. I finally resign to the inevitable and just tell them, “God wants to have a relationship with you.” Then I ask them again, “What does God want from you?”
My daughter dully says, “To have a relationship with me.”
“That’s right!” Then I move from child to child and ask them individually the question again. One by one, they reply: a relationship. At least I accomplished one thing. Later I wrote it down and put it on the wall. For the next four weeks I’ll review that. I couldn’t get to the part about how we ask Jesus into our hearts, or how Salvation changes our lives, I just have to be happy with the fact that each of them now knows that God wants a relationship with them. This was a good day to remind me that you cannot teach kids without understanding where they are right now. I have to check for knowledge before I can teach something new. It also reminds me that I have to stick to the basics. Realistically, I only have about 10 minutes with this group to really teach. I didn’t get to read the Bible story, or verses, or connect anything with their lives, I was too busy trying to teach one concept, albeit, the most important concept in their lives, but still that was all I could do that day.
Now, back to this coming Sunday, I’ll review our concept: God wants to have a relationship with us, and then tell them how that happens (through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.) I’ve got curriculum as my backbone, but meanwhile I’m trying to think of an additional hands on activity for this group for Sunday. I’ll let you know what I come up with.