Monday, December 31, 2007

Well, we're back in the groove of teaching Sunday school.
This quarter, we've begun using Bible Study Guide LINK, which is really excellent. A number of teachers have come to me saying that they didn't understand what I disliked so much about the old curriculum, but now they get what I was talking about. This is what Bible class should look like. Sherry mentioned that her class is having a hard time getting through all the material because there's just so much good stuff. She suggested that we consider going back to teaching the same lesson on Sunday and Wednesday, with Wednesday being the "application" portion. There's a lot of merit to that idea. I've found that I hardly have time to cover half of what I'd like to in the Sunday class and also I end up having to recap the Wednesday portion of the story for the kids who don't come on Wednesdays. I'll remind her to bring that up at our next teachers' meeting (I don't want to be the only squeaky wheel!). The amazing thing about this curriculum is that it takes six weeks (if we implemented Sherry's suggestion, twelve) to get through one story. Currently we're working on the story of Joseph, one chapter at a time. When you go that slowly, you really have time to read the whole thing and talk with the kids about the hard words and make sure they understand every little thing that is happening--and they don't get bored. The curriculum is set up so that each lesson ends on a cliffhanger (this morning, we left off where Joseph finds the cup in Benjamin's sack, and Judah offers to take Benjamin's place as a slave. Our student groaned when we told him that we'd have to leave it there until next time). The kids follow only one set of characters for a long time. They get to know them, and I think they retain the information better too.
We've actually been doing it since early December, but I've been so swamped with holiday cheer that I've hardly had a minute to write about it. Due to the grade turn over, the only one of our original students left to us is Josh. He's pretty cocky, being the oldest kid there. In addition to him, we have Gracen, who is very smart and definitely well-educated, and Ben, who is a quiet boy, but definitely is aware of what goes on. Josh and Gracen are pretty solidly "good kids," and Ben is easily led to good behavior or bad, depending on his classmates' prevailing attitudes. Last week, while JC and I were home for Christmas, Amy taught our class. Unfortunately, Gracen wasn't there, and in her place were Corey and Justin. JC and I haven't taught either of them before--they don't seem to come very regularly. From what Amy told us, those two managed to swing Ben to the dark side. She had a really rough time with them, unfortunately. I felt bad about that because she was doing me a favor, in taking the class for us.

In response to this deplorable behavior, JC and I decided to give them a quiz today. Amy had told me that the boys told her they'd done that week's lesson the previous week (which was not true--two of them hadn't even been there!). Unfortunately, Ben was our only student that day. He did very badly on the quiz. It consisted of six questions, plus one bonus, and he didn't get any of them entirely right--although several should have been very easy if he had been paying attention in class. That said, he really tried. He thought about each question before deciding that he didn't know the answer. When he was done, he knew he hadn't been successful. He hadn't even guessed on several of the questions. He looked really defeated.
"Are you done?" I asked. He nodded. "Okay. Let's talk about this. First, I want you to know that I'm very pround of you for trying so hard. You didn't give up or tell us that you didn't want to do it--you tried, and that's important. At school, you get quizzes so that your teacher can give you a grade, and you can take it home to your dad, and he can say, 'Ben, why don't you work harder?' or 'Good job!'" At this, Ben smiled briefly. He has a really great smile, but it's rare. His dimples are a great reward, the more so for their rarity. "In Sunday school, we have quizzes so that you know what you don't know. We won't talk to your dad about this. This is just for you, so you know what you still need to work on. What we're going to do now is talk through this quiz, and talk about what the answers are, and why it's important to know these things. I bet you'll do much better next time."
We then talked through each question on the quiz. We explained what the right answer was (and yes, most of these did, in fact, have "right" answers, like "Where was Joseph taken when he was sold into slavery?"), and why it was important, in the context of the big Bible story, to know these things (if you don't know where Joseph was taken, it doesn't make any sense that Moses and his people were in Egypt to begin with!). By the end of it, Ben was smiling more. I think he felt better about the whole thing. I felt bad for putting him on the spot; class is much easier when there are several children.

We then read our text for the day--Genesis 44. We stopped frequently to make sure that Ben understood what was going on in the story--he had forgotten that Joseph hadn't revealed himself to his brothers yet, but when he understood the joke being played, he laughed out loud. By the end, he was so interested in the story that he didn't want to stop. That's the kind of interaction I think children should have with the Bible. I consider today a successful class, because Ben had that immediacy.

One thing I would like to explore is how to help the children read a little better. Even in children's translations, there are some tough words in the Bible, and apparently modern schools don't teach children to sound out words. I understand that phonics can produce some bizarre spelling and pronunciation habits, but they can open the door to children who would otherwise be limited by their "sight words," right? Ben got to words that I knew he knew, but he couldn't interpret them, and he lacked tools for breaking them down. I don't have enough time with the children to teach them to sound out words--particularly if that's the opposite of what they are being taught in school--and I feel awkward jumping in to help them when they are just on the cusp of figuring it out. Josh almost always interrupts, providing the word, which I am sure makes the other children self-conscious. I try to reprimand him for that, but, having been a fluent and early reader myself, I understand his frustration.

I guess the other question I have is how to instill classroom discipline in children who don't have any at home. I don't know about Corey, but I have it on pretty solid authority (as well as personal observation) that Justin has very little discipline in his home. I never know what to do with kids who just won't behave, for the sake of not behaving, often with a fairly malicious bent. Any ideas?

I've been interviewing people quite a bit--I'll post about those soon.
I read this great article from Scientific American called The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. The premise here is that praising children for being smart actually cripples them, while praising them for working hard at something sets them up for further success. I totally believe it (and some of the results of the study this article is based on are pretty astounding). It makes me think alot about how to apply this in my teaching--both in Sunday school and at the community college where I work as an adjunct. One problem, though--how do you praise effort in people who won't put out any?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Teen Girl Squad....Sigh.

Amy and I had the girls' class on Wednesday. It went surprisingly well. We again had them basically plan the class. The best part was probably the activity that Miranda had planned--they all got to decorate prayer journals (now will they use them...?). The girls who led the discussion had actually read the chapter this time--also helpful. Reagan led singing, and picked songs that the girls all knew (though one of them, "The Steadfast Love of the Lord," is really hard to do without men). The only really rough part was at the end where it was time to assign tasks for next time--there were way more girls than jobs, and, unlike last time, EVERYONE wanted to do something. They were all shouting out what they wanted to do, and I lost track of what was going on and ended up stiffing Miranda in favor of Katy. This was unintentional, though I wanted to make sure Katey did something, since she hadn't yet (and this was our second class that they ran). Miranda's mom emailed me the next day to tell me that Miranda was kind of upset. I emailed Amy--we need to figure out a better way to do this so that everyone gets a turn to do everything, and also so that I don't end up upsetting people. Really, the smart thing to do would have been to schedule for the next two times at once, so that all eight or so girls could have seen each of their names up there. I'm sure they are aware that they will have a chance next month, but being able to see that might have helped. Oh well, better luck next time, I hope.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Power and The Glory

Bethany lent me The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I'm really enjoying it, most especially the introduction, which contains the following intriguing note: "The Power and the Glory was born of a journey to Mexico in the winter of 1937-38 undertaken for quite other motives than a novel. It was not a very happy journey, clouded politically because England was about to break off diplomatic relations with Mexico and personally because a rather odd libel action had been brought against me by Miss Shirley Temple, the child film star." WHAT, I wonder, made Shirley Temple sue Graham Greene for libel? It might have something to do with one of his other books--this is the first one of his that I've read. The book is an interesting study of a piece of history I was completely unaware of. Apparently, during the late thirties, Catholicism was banned in Mexico (or in parts of it?). Priests were killed, and churches were converted to community centers. The book describes one church where the government painted over murals of saints, replacing them with images of priests feeling up little girls at a first communion party and getting drunk on the communion wine. I had no idea that Catholicism was ever illegal in Mexico; it runs contrary to everything I had ever thought or assumed about that country. Greene shows a country where the people are entirely desperate for God, but also very afraid--you could get thrown into prison for little things, like possessing a cross or a book about saints. In one touching scene, a rogue priest is talking to a man who very clearly plans to turn him in. The man tries to get the priest to hears his confession.

"He [the man who is confessing] had an immense self-importance: he was unable to picture a world of which he was only a typical part--a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession--Man was so limited: he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard around you, the greater glory lay around the death: it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization. It needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt."

That section just really struck me. How true that last sentence is. I've been having a rough week, spiritually. I just can't seem to muster patience or compassion; I've hurt people I care about, and I've just generally been an idiot. I've felt completely unworthy of grace--and then this book comes along and reminds me that even at my best, I'm unworthy. "We're fallen people in a fallen world," JoEtta said the other night. "Even the best of us." And even us at our best.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Madeline L'Engle

I know I'm behind the curve in writing about the death of Madeline L'Engle, but things have been kind of crazy here lately (typical).

I just wanted to draw attention to the beautiful interview with her that originally appeared in Christianity Today in 1979, and which they reprinted earlier this month. I heard about L'Engle's death in the most perfect way possible. I was helping Bethany pour drinks for a big family dinner, and she said, "Did you know, Madeline L'Engle died today?" The way she said it, loving the way the name fit in her mouth, not doing any of that awkward "luh-Angle" stuff that I heard later on the news, made me know she was a fan, though we had never discussed it before. This was the only way I could have handled it. If I had to hear it from some TV announcer who probably didn't even know who she was, I probably would have lost it.

I, of course, was a fan of the highest order as a child, though I didn't realize that L'Engle was writing an essentially Christian fiction until I was in middle school and picked up the (unfairly ignored) third book in the Wrinkle series, Many Waters. If you haven't read Many Waters, go find yourself a copy. It brings the antediluvian world into sharp focus, and it's just such an interesting look at God and love and miracles and angels.
I remember learning the parts of a cell in 9th grade biology, and I was fascinated to learn that mitochondria weren't something that L'Engle just made up for A Wind in the Door. I always thought it was just a fantasy word. It made me wonder, though I've yet to find an answer, whether she invented farandolae or not, as well.

The next day, on my lunch break, I surfed up the interwebs to find articles about her. This interview was the very best one.

There's something she says about a third of the way into it that has been rattling around in my head. L'Engle is talking about the best Christian influences in her life, and she mentions a woman who had a terrible life, an alcoholic husband, painful arthritis,

"But she always brought laughter with her.
A close friend of mine says that a Christian is someone who's met one. I met one, early."
That really challenged me, because I sometimes wonder whether I am the kind of Christian who converts people just by knowing them. I'm roughly 99% sure that I'm not. Things at work have been seriously frustrating lately (by lately, I mean for the past year), and I'm not handling it all as graciously as I would like to. I get ANGRY, I get SNARKY, I get plain MEAN. And I HATE that. I pray and pray and PRAY that this will be easier for me, that I will walk through the leper colony of my office with a beatific smile and not be fazed by any of it. Thus far, my God has not chosen to answer my prayer, at least not with a yes. I know this is not something I can do by my own will alone, though. It would be so much easier if I could! And so I get impatient with God and even more difficult to be around. L'Engle also writes about how her work is an act of worship, that good, honest, joyful work is an act of devotion. She notes that
"for many people their work is drudgery—neither a gift, nor a vocation."
I miss when my job was a gift. It's been mostly drudgery for a while now. It really was a blessing, too, for so long, which is what makes considering leaving so hard. It's also the most interesting game in town, even at its worst, so maybe I'm sticking around a little longer. I just wonder if it's the most socially relevant thing I could be doing, if it's helping people (well, it's helping people who wouldn't blink at spending $500 to learn French...). One of my frustrations is that we have such a great opportunity to help people and we don't do it. There are always money reasons and market reasons, but I get tired of those after a while, and angry at them after just a little longer.

Going to Ghost Ranch in just over a week. Here's to retreats in the wilderness. I hope I can come back renewed and prepared to be a better representation of Christ in the world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Falling Away

I read this article (which everyone and their brother has already blogged on, I'm sure). It's about a recent study by LifeWay Research (affiliated with Billy Graham, I think?) that shows that people in their 20s are turning away from the church. Well, yes. Yes, they are. My husband and I have this argument every now and then--because most of his friends are church-going Christians, he thinks that Christianity is actually on the rise amongst our peer group. That's like saying that, because most of our friends our age are married, people in general are marrying younger. It feels true, but it just isn't. Whenever I reply that the statistics are definitely on my side, he disputes the sampling. Admittedly, 1,023 is not a large group, but big enough, I think, to see some trends.

As I said, a lot of people have blogged about this study and how distressing it is that kids these days don't go to church of their own accord. I agree--this is *seriously* distressing. Why are young people feeling so disconnected from the church? Allow me to include my favorite quotation from the whole article: "'Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza. There's no life transformation taking place,' [Ed] Stetzer [of LifeWay Research] says. 'People are looking for a faith that can change them and to be a part of changing the world.'" I worry that youth pastors are too afraid of turning kids off to really challenge them about their lives. I feel that way, certainly, when the teen girls come to me all giggly and excited because they've just gotten the official "dating" signifier with the crush du jour. I don't want to snub them--I remember being their age and feeling that way--but what do I say? "Congratulations--but make sure he behaves like a gentleman," I tell them. I do my best, and I'm sure youth ministers all over the country are stuck with the same quandaries. How do you challenge the kids to examine their lives through the lens of the Bible, without scolding too harshly and driving them off?

That, however, was not the part of the survey that I found the most distressing. That honor goes to the following sentence: "Dropouts were more than twice as likely than those who continued attending church to describe church members as judgmental (51% for dropouts, 24% for those who stayed), hypocritical (44% vs. 20%) or insincere (41% vs. 19%)."

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it should be no surprise that roughly half of the church drop-outs feel that people at church are judgmental, hypocritical, or insincere. The part that blew my mind is that 19-25% of those who *stayed* at church felt the same way! That's roughly one out of every five twenty-something-year olds. As they say about the made-up stat that one in every five people is insane, "examine four friends. If they're all normal and happy, then it must be you." What I want to know is, why are these people staying? WHY? Would you spend every Sunday morning (and evening, and Wednesday evening as well, if you're Church of Christ) with people you thought were faking it? I'm sure each church has its handful of judgmental hypocrites, but are there enough to color one's perception of the whole group? Fascinating...

As to what we can do, I don't know that youth groups are really the answer. Konni told me that most people who are going to devote their lives to living as Christians have made a pretty solid decision on that by age 10 (Konni, do you have a source for that one?). So, again, what I've been saying about the Sunday school thing. Early intervention--by the time they are teens, it's probably too late.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


"I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek ... at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen should be about." --Ian Thomas

I found this quote on FaithVine, and just loved it. I don't think it needs much commentary.

Incidentally, I sent an editorial to Dave at FaithVine, but maybe it was a bit too edgy...or maybe Dave has been busy with the website redesign and hasn't had time for that yet. I should probably write to him, but I'm a bit shy...because what I sent was probably too edgy.

Also, a new favorite blog: BibliOdessy--not religious, but very literary and beautiful.


Friday, August 10, 2007


JC is suggesting that we should make Sunday school more like school. He wants to give the kids quizzes and tests. I’d like for them to keep journals, with brief writing assignments every week. It would have been easy to start on promotion Sunday, when all the kids move up, but I don’t know what it will be like to start it in December. Maybe we’ll give them each a journal as a Christmas present…and then make it a back-handed gift, by requiring them to use them! 

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Flyin' West

Susan IMed me the other day: “I’m so proud of you for asking to take your New Mexico trip as personal development.”
She asked me what workshop I’m taking. It’s called “The Sacred in the Everyday.”
“I feel like this is going to be a major milestone for you—not just for your writing, but for your personal journey.” I hope she’s right.

I don’t know if I posted this here, and I’ve been reading lots of Anthony Trollope lately, so here’s the exposition: When I was seven (told you, Trollope…), I heard Colleen Anderson singing on the radio. I thought she must be very famous—I didn’t really know the difference between West Virginia Public Radio and the top 40. I wrote her a letter, which she still (last time I saw her) carries in her wallet and shows to people as her “first fan letter.” We’ve kept track of each other over the years, and probably met in person about four times. We have some friends in common, so every now and then I’ll see her at a party or arts event.

Anyway, Colleen is teaching at a writing festival at Ghost Ranch, which is (or is near..?) Georgia O’Keefe’s old house. She emailed me this winter, while JC and I were visiting Katie in Nashville, to offer me a tuition scholarship to attend a workshop there. Colleen is teaching a songwriting workshop, which I’m not planning to take, but she’ll be there and we will spend more time actually in the same place than we ever have. Colleen also was talking about doing some writing together in the afternoons while I’m there (workshops are in the morning, afternoons are for hiking and homework).

I’m SOOO excited. I’ve never been to New Mexico. I’ve not really been camping much this year, and I’m going to camp out there. I need a vacation like nobody’s business. I also need to take a time and recharge my writing spirit. It’s feeling pretty bedraggled lately.

Oh, and about the “personal development” thing. I asked my manager (William) in February if I could take this, or part of it, as a personal development opportunity, in the budgetary sense. He said he’d look into it, and ask his manager (Ellen). Well, then in late February, I had about the worst performance review of my life, and after that, he never said anything about Ghost Ranch to me, and I didn’t feel like I could talk to him about it. So, in late July, it happened that I was having a casual conversation with Ellen, and I said, “Did William talk to you about my New Mexico trip?” He hadn’t, but I told her about it, and on the spot, she told me I could take three of the five days I would need as personal development, rather than vacation, and the department would pay for my plane ticket. As the big red button says, “Wow, that was easy!”

So, anyway, shady motivations aside, I’m going to New Mexico without blowing my budget. Sweet, right?

I need to be writing, something other than [redacted due to an unusually strict confidentiality agreement with my employer]. I was talking with a friend, who had hosted a photo shoot at his house. “It was really silly,” he said. “They were shooting lines of text like, ‘[censored].’ But you don’t write that stuff, right? You write, like, marketing materials and stuff, don’t you?”
“No. I write [what he said].” The fact is, I spend most of my days, when I am writing (which isn’t so often as I would like), crafting subject-verb-object sentences. The specifications are very tight, it’s like writing haiku in some ways. However…it is still just one SVO sentence after another, and you can bet your dollars to your donuts that the O is probably “apple.” As William said, when he read my first nationally published piece last summer, “You don’t need to be writing, ‘The boy is under the airplane.’ You need to be writing writing.”

It’s the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten from him, and I won’t forget it, because I feel like he is entirely correct. I love my job, most days, and I love the people I work with every day. Still, I want to be doing something that is more helping-people-y (though I can think of a few ways, if only I could convince the bra$$ that it was in their be$t intere$t, to really change lives, just doing what I do right now). Bryce, who homeschools his younger kids, and used to homeschool the older ones, told me about a curriculum program called Five in a Row, which consists of five activities to go along with each book in a large library of classic children’s literature. Madeline, for goodness sake! Without thinking, I blurted—in the office where I work, in front of three other employees and the Chief Technical Officer—“Are they hiring?” Oops. It’s just … My heart really wants to be in my true love, literature, especially children’s lit. Admittedly, FIAR caters to homeschooling families. We’re not talking about kids who are struggling to get by in the public school system, only to go home to parents who throw a TV dinner and a box of Cheezits at them, without ever turning away from their soap operas. Those are the kids I want to help. Those are the kids I worked with during my AmeriCorps days. I want to give them the classics.

I wonder if I could make something like FIAR, but for Sunday school, especially for young kids. What does The Giving Tree say about God? How about Horton Hatches the Egg? (or, for that matter, Horton Hears a Who…he’s got the whole world, on a clover…)

I might need to do this. Unless it already exists. Does it?

So, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but maybe I’m getting there. Of course, if Sesame Street would hire me, I’d have that one figured out in a heartbeat.  Sigh. I love you, Jim Henson.

I must say, I’m ever grateful to my younger self for being so sure, so completely unwavering, until about a year before I got my master’s degree. Who WAS that young woman? How can I possibly thank her enough (and how can I get her back?)? I might not have a clue, but at least I’m making good money and having a good time and building my resume while I figure it out, as opposed to my brother, who is 21, has switched majors at least four times, already will have to take an extra year of school, and definitely doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up. I feel sorry for him, just because he’s in the same place that I am, only I have a career that’s good enough for now, and he’s hemorrhaging money.

I realize this isn’t much about Sunday school, and I’m sorry for that. I just … I don’t know. The impulse that made me all excited when I heard about FIAR is the same one that makes me excited to teach Sunday school. I want to say to these kids, “Look! These stories are just for you, and they were made by a God Who loves YOU and who wants you to understand that. God loves you even though your parents don’t talk to each other, and He loves you even though He knows that you are mean to your little sister, and He just LOVES you.”

Literature is a gift, and we have such a literary religion.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Teen Girls--Get a Grip!

Alfred called me on the way back from camp. Hanna had told her dad, who went to camp with them, that she didn’t feel like she had any friends among the teen girl group. Alfred had hoped something good would happen to the group at camp, but apparently it hadn’t. He asked me to “call them out” on their lack of friendliness—but I think that probably would make the situation worse. He also asked me to think of something that would “make them work together.” I got the feeling he was thinking of a low ropes course or something.

Not knowing that Alfred had talked to me, Sarah also came over to discuss the same thing. Her perspective was kind of interesting, and frankly, surprising, because she likes Hanna, a lot. “I talked to one of the other mothers involved,” she told me, “and she says that Hanna’s friendship skills are kind of lacking. She makes cutting remarks and she doesn’t seem to know how to be a friend.”

I told Sarah I would work on this, and I told Alfred I would pray about it. The fact is, though, I don’t know what to do. I really didn’t have many friends in high school—and I was such a driven, strange child, I hardly noticed. I spent just about all my time, other than when I was with JC and his sisters, in rehearsal. Choir and plays kept me quite busy. I wasn’t really friends with the people in choir, nor those who did theatre with me. The theatre kids were leading a very different lifestyle than I wanted to (sex in the sound booth was not an uncommon occurrence). I saw my relationships with them as friendly-professional. I don’t know if I had any real, close friends until college. Even the people I had been close to in middle school, and am close to now, distanced themselves during high school. Or maybe I distanced myself. It’s hard to reconstruct.

I never solved the teen girl friendship problem. My solution was to grow up. Thus, I feel doubly helpless in the face of this thorny mess. I care a lot about Hanna, and her life situation (parents with an embarrassingly messy and public divorce) is very similar to my own at her age—though luckily, I only had one brother to look after, instead of two, much-younger, siblings.

The girls are, beginning next month, going to be running class themselves, and maybe that will help. I feel like one problem the teens at my church face is that the adults do everything for them. The youth minister plans all the trips and tells them where to be and when for pizza parties and bowling. They never call each other and just say, “Hey, let’s hang out!” They’re very used to having a grown-up arrange that. I’m hoping that, by encouraging them to work together to put on this class every month, they will get over their interpersonal issues. I’ve been meaning to email Kassi about this. She’s about the most socially savvy person I know—and she’s 19, meaning maybe she can help this make sense to me.


I haven’t updated in forever! Bad blogger! Bad bad!

There really hasn’t been much going on, at least in terms of stuff relative to this blog, and that is likely to continue. More on that to follow.

Things have finally moved forward with the curriculum situation at church, however. We had an “emergency” education committee meeting on Sunday evening, at which we discussed the DiscipleLand Core Bible Curriculum, Bible Study Guide, and 21st Century Christian.

Ralph had some interesting revelations regarding a few of the curricula. He told us that he had received a call from someone at 21st Century, that they were doing a customer satisfaction survey. He told them that he had actually had some complaints about the material recently. They said they were revamping it and wanted to send him a box of materials, absolutely free. He said that, when he looked at it, he just saw more of the same. I have to admit, the fact that they called him specifically makes me wonder…do they read my blog? 21st Century, are you out there? If they do, they’re obviously not reading very carefully, as what they sent to Ralph basically was the same kid’s menu garbage, maybe with shmancier graphics. I love those internet web crawlers that find hits about [company name]. We have one for Rosetta Stone, of course. I’m betting Hiram College (my alma mater) has one of those too, as I had a hit from that little village of 1300 people after I mentioned the school in a post. Hello, Hiram!

Anyway, then the discussion moved on to the DiscipleLand Core Bible Curriculum. Cathy wasn’t present at the meeting, but Ralph told us that he had mentioned it to her, and she said, “I know that stuff, it’s not biblical, and I won’t teach it.” Ralph said he had looked at the stuff, and had perused their website, but didn’t know what she was talking about. He went back to it, and found their “What We Believe” statement—and it didn’t mention baptism. Now, we Restoration types are pretty big on the whole baptism thing. So Ralph called them. The representative he spoke with told him that they leave it open so that the churches can teach whatever is relevant to their particular belief structure. “If they sprinkle, they can talk about sprinkling. If they dunk, they can talk about dunking. If they do babies…” etc. Ralph then asked which lessons specifically pertain to baptism. “It’s not in there,” the rep said.

This little anecdote confirms some suspicions I had about DiscipleLand, which is that they are trying to cast their nets to catch the widest market, principles being beside the point.
I mentioned my confusion at their other curriculum line, which was all fluff. I suspected then, and firmly believe now, that they are trying to get money from the churches that see Sunday school as education and those that see it as glorified babysitting. In addition, they want money from those who sprinkle, dunk, baptize infants, grown-ups, in-between. Their flaw was when they were too greedy—they wanted money from the people who don’t baptize at all (or who view it as largely irrelevant), so they left it out entirely. There is no moment for a competent teacher to elaborate on a basic framework lesson on baptism, sharing the practices and doctrine of his specific church. Instead, they skip it all together.

No curriculum (even one that has games that require a Bible to complete!) is worth losing a teacher as talented as Cathy. No one in the meeting even had to say that. The material was suddenly off the table, as if it had never been.

That left 21st Century and BSG. Pat presented BSG to the group and spoke highly of it, but remarked that it would require a lot of work from the teachers. Several people—not just me and JC—bristled at the notion that teachers would rather read from handouts than teach. Leah, a homeschooling mom with four kids, remarked that she had used BSG with her sons at home, when they were little. The family had worked through the first two Units (of four), and really enjoyed it. Leah is a great mom and a great teacher, so her opinion carried weight. The decision that ultimately went through was that we would continue with the 21st Century material for the fall quarter (as it starts in only two weeks!), and then in the winter, begin with BSG. This would give the teachers time to familiarize themselves with the material and prepare.

I worked things out with Janelle, who is currently teaching the 3rd and 4th graders. She’s going to teach them for the fall, and then I’ll take them for the winter, with the new curriculum. After that, we’ll rotate quarters, until one of us gets bored or has a baby or wants to try another age level. I need to talk to Josh—we told him we would be his teachers for the fall. I hope the little guy takes it ok. I love that kid to pieces. I am definitely going to make sure to tell him how much it meant to me—how it was the best gift ever—when he told us that he wanted us to be his teachers in the fall. Do all adults worry about whether children like them, or is it just me?

Because of this, posting for the fall will still be kind of slow. I’m hoping to renew my interview series, asking people about their own religious education experiences. That will certainly give me some fodder.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Complicated: Update

Well, I got a kind of apology email from Pat yesterday morning. I think Cleo talked to her. In it, she said that she knew the 21st Century material was not ideal, was not giving our teachers everything they needed, but that teachers could glean the good stuff and ignore the rest. She also told me that she had called the publishers and they had said, in effect, "I'm sorry you don't care for it."

She has said this many, many times--every time the discussion has come up, in fact. I wish I had the gumption to ask her, "WHY are we still sending these people our money???" If she herself says that it's not a worthwhile thing...what? Why? WHY?

So, I don't know what will happen now, regarding the curriculum thing, whether we'll have a change or keep sending our church's money to these charlatans.

She closed by encouraging me to continue to teach, but somehow, I feel incredibly discouraged.

What am I even doing here? Generally, in life, in this blog?
I had entertained ideas that this blog might become a book someday--Rob put that idea in my head, and I fell in love with it. What kind of book would it be, though? I don't really know. Memoir? Resource? How-to? And who would read it (other than you, Phil, and thank you for your sweet comment)? What kind of credence would I have in putting forth ideas about how to better one's church education program when I can't even better the one in my own congregation? If I write a how-to, I'll have to put in something about dealing with people who are resistant to change...but I obviously don't know anything about that.

I feel that my call is to help children learn--the scriptures, yes, but also how to read them. Interpretive skills, history, introspection. I don't think this only applies to the 2-10 kids in my class. I think I want to have some kind of larger impact.

But how? I hardly even want to go to church this week.

One thing Pat wrote in her email was that she didn't have the education to make fancy graphs, but she knew what she was doing teaching the kids because she's done it forever. This seemed like a jab at my own education (masters degree, but not a terminal one), and her own insecurity about how it must make me view her. The funny thing was that I had assumed that she had a bachelor's. I thought that she was a teacher, before retirement. I actually don't know a thing about her background, but most churches ask someone who is a teacher to guide the church education program. From her comment, I'm guessing she doesn't. But still...why assume that I'm a snob because I went to school for 17 years? I know lots of very intelligent, imaginative, curious people who never went to college, particularly here in Virginia, where I think there are still plenty of opportunities for people without that education (less degree inflation, at least here near the Allegheny).

The funny thing is, I get that all the time. It's to the point that I don't even mention my graduate degree (in Shakespeare. I'm not even making that up. Talk about useful.). Of course, everyone at church knows about it because I moved here to pursue it.

Why should I be ashamed of that? And why should others assume it makes me look down on them? Really, I don't know how much grad school added to my education and personal development, though my undergrad (at the excellent and tiny Hiram College) was definitely a formative experience.

The heck with this. I don't even know what I'm doing.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I just got in to work, and found an email from Pat, the education coordinator, waiting for me.

She's apparently stepping down, because she thinks that I want her to, and that I've been scheming to get her out of there for some time. It's a really sad email, and it's a heck of a way to start a Monday. She accuses me of thinking that she's incapable and that I could do better.

This is particularly upsetting because I have been trying really hard to NOT make her feel that way.

And you know, I just don't have time for this drama right now. Seriously, my world is too complicated anyway, why should I have this going on too? And yet.

I feel really bad about the whole thing. I had no idea. If she was so upset, why didn't she ever say anything? Why didn't she get that considering alternative curricula was a suggestion, an idea? I have a really hard time dealing with people who assume that just about everything is ad hominem. Why can't this just be about an idea?

I wrote her back, telling her that I didn't want that job, and that I didn't mean to make her feel marginalized, thanking her for the times when she's been supportive, and asking her, if she had a problem, why didn't she just say so? Even if not to me, maybe to the former elder who is officially in charge of education, who has been encouraging me in my research?

Happy Monday, everybody. Let's hope the week gets better from here.

Friday, July 20, 2007


I've been mentoring a teenage girl. Her name is Erica. We've been trying to do some Bible study online. I didn't really know how to start this study, unguided by any specific book other than the Bible. Erica has been to a few of our teen events and comes to Teen Girl Squad regularly, but she's not a member, and her parents aren't either. I'm trying to think back to being fourteen, to the sorts of things I was wondering about; at fourteen, I had just started occasionally attending church with the young man who would grow up to become my husband. I still was a pretty serious non-believer. Erica says she knows she needs to be baptized, but she needs to study more before she feels ready. I remember that stage--I was about seventeen. What, then, do you want to know, Erica? Where should we start? "I just want to know more about God, and what we can do to make God happy."

That's a question I really haven't thought about in a while--it's both very simple and very complex. I started with the simple answer--the greatest command. God is all about love. I wrote her a rather long email on that. If she ever writes me back, we'll take a nice long look at the Sermon on the Mount. What makes God happy? Peacemakers.

I don't really know how to give her the answers she's looking for. I get the feeling she wants kind of a shortcut--one that doesn't involve the text. She won't get it out of me, poor thing. We've been studying the Sermon on the Mount, and she writes, "I know I'm supposed to like the people I hate, but how do I do that exactly?"

I wish I knew...I guess it's trying to see their humanity and their beauty despite their flaws...but it's not easy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Mighty Mommy

I don't know how many of you out there listen to podcasts, but I'm a real fan of "The Mighty Mommy" from Quick & Dirty Tips. I don't have any kids, of course, and most of her tips are for parents of young children (this week's topic--weaning breastfed babies), but I find it interesting and useful. My favorite Mighty Mommy tip to date is this one, for a young child who is upset (not "I want that toy and you won't buy it" upset; more like "The world is too much for me right now" upset). She recommends blowing bubbles and getting the kid to blow bubbles with you. Bubbles are endlessly entrancing, and if you get the kid to blow them, they'll breathe deeply, which has a natural calming effect. I actually used this in the nursery last time I served there. One of the kids was just in a mood--not crying or anything, but definitely not interested in the other kids. I happened to have bubbles that JC's sisters had given me in my purse. I pulled them out and started blowing. It was like magic. Mighty Mommy--check it, yo. And while you're over there, have a listen to Grammar Girl. She makes grammar fun! Just the other day, I was telling Robin that I would really love to have a job where I explained grammar to people. I'm more interested in *why* the rules are a certain way than what the rules are (though I'm into that too). Is there a job like that in the world? I think I might actually have the closest thing to it...

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Teen Girl Squad: The Epistilary Form

My mom was visiting us on Wednesday, so she came to teen girl squad with me. I was supposed to start teaching them from a book called GIFTS: Girls in Fellowship and Teen Study, by Hannah Colley. Unfortunately, the youth minister and I got our wires crossed, and he ordered a book called "The G.I.F.T.ed Woman"--not the same thing. That one was mostly my bad; I didn't realize how obscure (as in, not available on Amazon) the Hannah Colley book is. Luckily, I still have Special Delivery, by Jane McWhorter, on loan from Kassi, so I did the first lesson from that. Special Delivery is a pretty good study, mostly about the power of writing letters. It contains advice about what to put in a letter depending on the situation (what do you say to a grieving family? To recently divorced people? When you're admonishing someone?), and samples of the letters. Before we started, I told the girls that the teen girls at Kassi's church had used this book for their Girls' Day. "For their Girls' Day, the teen girls did everything--they taught, cooked, lead singing, decorated, planned the craft, wrote the invitations. Everything. The whole year leading up to it, they took turns leading their girls' class, so they could learn to do all the things they needed to in order to run their Girls' Day. I'd like to do something similar here. Each week, one person will lead the discussion, another will lead singing, someone else will plan an activity, and somebody else will plan the snacks. So, the really good news is that we're going to start having snacks." I went on to tell them that, just because they were assigned a task, it didn't mean that they were all alone in it--I would meet with them and figure it all out. I want them to learn to be adult women in the church, to do the things that adult women in our church do. They weren't overly enthusiastic, but they at least seemed receptive to the idea. We'll see how it goes. We're going to use the GIFTS books, which have at last arrived (the right ones!). Kassi recommended those as well, and so did Amanda.

We then continued with our lesson, mostly about how God is always telling people to write down the cool things He is doing. About midway through Habbakuk, God tells the prophet to write down his vision and send it out to everyone in the world. None of the girls had read Habbakuk--and a few of them didn't even know what neighborhood of their Bible it was in. We also discussed the moment where Jesus stands up in the temple and reads from Isaiah, saying "Today this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing." That reminded me of something my friend Jack, who is Jewish, told me about the Torah reading. It is set. They read the same scripture on the same day every year--for example, each Yom Kippur, they read from Jonah. In the scripture it sounds like Jesus was paging through, looking for the right passage--but knowing that about Judaism, do is it more that he went on the right day? I was gratified to find that one of them (Amanda) knew what an epistle was--but she learned that from her high school English class, NOT any churchly teaching. None of them knew who wrote most of the epistles--and when I asked to whom Paul was writing in Romans, there was a ton of silence until Hanna finally said, "The church at Rome?" I'm glad she knew, but everyone else???? So, then we talked about the different things that Paul wrote about in the epistles, from admonishment to encouragement.

We talked about why Paul's letters were saved, and the letters that they had saved from friends and family. I'm a writing-letters junkie (in fact, there are several I should be writing right now!), and I told them what my mom always told me--You have to send mail to get mail. It turns out, in adult life, that that is not really quite true. My first major publication was a piece griping at the friends who don't write back to me! Still, I encouraged them to write to people. The first assignment was to write to a woman who was turning 100 this weekend (her niece goes to our church, and she was passing out the address and asking people to write). The second was to write to each other--I asked them to put their names and addresses on a piece of paper, and then I passed them out randomly. I'll remind them mid-month...I wonder who remembered. :)

On the way home, my mom and I talked about the class. It was definitely weird teaching with her in there. She told me that I was doing a good job, that I should be a teacher. Maybe she's right, but I'd rather be a writer. I like teaching them, though, and I hope I get through a little bit at least.


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Sorry I've been so non-updatey. Things have been busy, and I also haven't been teaching as much as I was in for the past year. Here's a quick look at what's been going on (and more updates to follow, on specific subjects).

Here's the general update on life. We are almost done staining the house, though I think we're on hold for a few days until the likelihood of rain blows over. It looks pretty good. I about cried when I laid on the first few strokes--it looked so orange! But it mellowed as it dried, and now it's a nice warm brown (semitransparent). The inside of our house still looks like the set from That '70s Show, but that's ok. One step at a time. We're going to do the main bathroom this winter, and JC's family is giving us a clawfoot tub that they pulled out of his great-granny's house a few weeks ago! :)

Our garden is doing well, though we've made minimal progress on the (grass-free) "yarden." The yarden deserves an entry all its own, but let's just say that, due to my husband's grass allergy, we're trying to replace our yard with flowers that we can walk on and alternative ground covers, like ajuga and clover. Some day, I think I'll start a business selling plants that are great for ground cover, but hard to buy--violets are a good example. I'll call this business "Please Tread on Me" and use that Revolutionary snake thing as an icon. The veggies are looking good--we planted late, but already have a few tomatoes, a summer squash, a pickling cucumber, and a bell pepper.

I had my wisdom teeth out the week before last, and my mouth is still a little sore. Apparently they had a hard time getting them out. It was seriously painful. The craziest thing about the wisdom teeth is that I didn't have *any*, not even the little nubbins where they would form, when I had my last Xrays two years ago. My former dentist thought I would never get them. Then six months ago, there they were on the Xray, bigger than any of my other teeth! I've also grown an inch this year (after being an even 5' since I was about 16, I'm now 5'1", no cheating!). When I told my friend Jack about this, he said, "Marriage. It's a growing experience." That's one way of looking at it.

After I had the wisdom teeth yoinked, we spent a few days in the Canaan Valley with my in-laws, in a rented "cabin" (four times the size of my house...). I was happy to recouperate there, and to spend time with JC's family. They're good people, and I was grateful to them for taking care of me.

In other EXCITING news, my manager's manager approved my trip to Ghost Ranch for the writing festival in October!! Ghost Ranch is, if I'm not mistaken, Georgia O'Keefe's old house or something, in New Mexico. A good writer friend of mine, Colleen Anderson, offered me a tuition scholarship, and now my work is going to pay for my plane ticket and let me take three days as "personal development." That's about the coolest thing ever. The workshop I'm hoping to take (need to get my registration in before I will know for sure) is called "The Sacred in Everyday Life," taught by Laura Apol. It sounds sort of like what I'm into, yes?

Ok, I'm going to stop rambling and go write a few letters that I've been meaning to get to. Ciao.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Caught on the web

I've been writing a lot lately, and some of it has recently posted:

“Why Food Co-ops Matter” is up at Conserve Magazine for all of July, at least.

“The Absence of Women,” a story about my wedding and a few others, is on the Common Ties story blog.

I've also sent a travel piece about Staunton, VA to National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog, but it hasn't posted yet...keep an eye out.

Last, but not least, a major item on my to-do list is writing an editorial for FaithVine...need to get on that, yesterday. What should I write about?

inspiration and desperation

Sometimes, I watch documentaries that are simultaneously inspiring and depressing. Regular movies can make me feel emotional sometimes, but documentaries, the stories of real people, are what deeply move me. Recently, the husband and I watched The Hobart Shakespeareans. I highly recommend it. It's a PBS documentary about an award-winning teacher, Rafe Esquith, who has his fifth-graders performing Hamlet, weeping over Huck Finn, treating each other with respect and courtesy. At one point, the interviewer asks the children what their favorite book was, that they read that year. Other than Huck Finn, the close second was Of Mice and Men, followed by Lord of the Flies. I remember when the documentary originally aired, a bunch of people on SHAKSPER (it's a listserv for Shakespeare scholars, mostly) grumbled that the kids didn't really understand the text, or that they could get their students to do Hamlet too, if Ian McKellen randomly dropped by *their* classroom. Having seen the documentary, I would say that's all sour grapes. I was so inspired by Mr. Esquith--but also depressed. I saw this movie, and I thought, "Well, what's my job about? I help the wealthy learn foreign languages for their pleasure cruises." I felt that way about The World According to Sesame Street, my favorite documentary of all time, as well. It's about doing Sesame Street internationally, focusing on Kosovo, South Africa, and Bangladesh. The people on the Bangladesh crew were risking their lives during riots and floods to bring literacy to children in a nation where most five-year-olds work. That's cool. As you may have gathered, I'm a big fan of literacy. Again, what's my job about? I comfort myself by saying, maybe, when I teach Sunday school, I can be a bit like Mr. Esquith. I can set high expectations and know that they are capable of reaching them. I can demand that they behave in a courteous manner to each other, and to JC and me. I also have the advantage of Josh, who will be my only returning kid. I'm definitely going to enlist him on my side. Maybe some day I can figure out how to teach Sunday school professionally. I've thought, recently, about trying to get my teaching certification. Though I have a master's degree, it's in Shakespeare; none of my education is really about educating other people. Still, all the jobs I've had, excluding possibly working at the bakery, were mostly education. I was a literacy educator for AmeriCorps, I've worked at arts summer camps, I work for an educational software company now, and most importantly, I was a director, which is all about teaching. My friend Stacy was a high school history teacher for a while. He's read Mr. Esquith's books, and we discussed them a few weeks ago. Stacy said, "That's the teacher everyone wants to be, and everyone goes into it thinking they'll be that teacher...but they're not, of course. I'm not. I was a little bit, but not as much as I would like."

As to my job, the one that's not about anything...the kicker is, it used to be about something. I used to feel like I was changing lives and helping people interact and making the world friendlier. Lately, though, I've been having a really rough time at work. Things have gotten awfully political, and some of my friends have been canned or reassigned. With all that going on, I'm having a hard time focusing on and believing in the idealistic notions of this company. I respond to situations like this by becoming a very different person, a person I don't much care for. When I was in high school, I felt like I was surrounded by inefficiency, and by people who refused to take me seriously just because I was fifteen. I heard a lot of "no" with no reason behind it. Though my grades were great, I felt fragile. Also my parents were getting divorced--a situation that didn't make sense, tore my life up with lies and broken promises, and left me seriously ticked off. I got angry with people really easily, and I fought mean. Then I went to Hiram College, where I was loved and rewarded for being myself. I heard a lot of "yes" there. I found mentors, professors who would talk with me about my work and my dreams, who would challenge me without shutting me down. I blossomed at Hiram, and if I had to make the same choice again, I would go there in a heart beat. I had my share of frustrations there; I even had enemies, people who were out to get me. Those enemies never succeeded, though, because they didn't have any real power over me. They couldn't dominate my spirit--or yank funding for my plays. When I left Hiram, I thought I would never find a place like that again--a place where my work earned respect and privilege, where people knew that they could come to me with their questions and problems. When I started working at my current job, I felt like I had found that place again. I thought I had found the perfect job for me--it wasn't the Peace Corps, and it wasn't the Stratford Festival, but it was pretty good. I had friends and a loving community; my team was like my family. I had meaningful and challenging work, complex linguistic problems to solve. I was seriously happy. I actually got bored on the weekends and wished I could be with my team at work. Now I don't have that. I do repetitive tasks, cleaning up other people's mistakes, and try to maneuver through the lies that filter down the chain to me. The whole situation is that much worse because I know what I lost--I had the best job I could have dreamed up for myself for a whole year, and now, without my job title changing, I have one that makes me crazy. I've been starting to act out of anger and fear again. I'm becoming someone I don't much like, again. It's like high school all over, except that now I know I have betterness within me.

So, I was off for five consecutive days last week, recovering from having the wisdom teeth yoinked, and those were really great days...not just because of the Vicadin. The freedom from the stress of everything made me feel better--despite the shooting pain in my jaw--than I had in a very long time. When I realized that I had to go back to work today, I started crying. I didn't want to face that, I didn't want to deal with feeling so out of control. So I prayed about it, quite fervently. I prayed, not to change the situation, but to change myself. During church on Sunday morning, God put Craig, the manager of one of the three projects I'm working on, into my mind. Craig is about one of the kindest human beings I know. Last week, he emailed some notes I had written to a translator, copying me on it. He told the translator not to be offended if my remarks seemed harsh: "she's really not that way at all!" I felt awful about it--what I was responding so negatively to was NOT the translator, but a corporate environment that set her to translating with out any training in our method. I was really angry at the people who had failed to provide the ounce of prevention...So this morning, I went to Craig, and I explained the short version of this story to him. I asked him for some help--could he please just ask me to revise when I seemed a bit out of control, and also, could he help me to train the translator, even in a short and quick kind of way, to make our work together run more smoothly? Craig smiled and agreed--I get the feeling he's just as abused as any of us, and just as aware of it. He thanked me for coming to him, and he talked a bit about his own struggles with the pressures we're under.

My day went pretty well after that. I went for a walk with Bethany. "Something has broken," she said. "I think we're making progress. I think things might get better." I understood what she meant, and agreed with it--broken like a fever breaks, when the worst is over. Did the power of my prayer encourage God to do all that, or was He going to anyway?

I hope that this is the beginning of something better. I read the classifieds daily; my company is definitely the most interesting game in Harrisonburg (other alternatives include...milking cows...working at a poultry processing plant...). I don't want to leave, because I'm still so deeply in love with the people here. I hope that God helps me have the strength to stay, and to transform this place into somewhere I would love to be again. I'm sure this is, in some way, a test of my patience. I feel like the last threadbare bit of my patience is ready to give out; I'm hoping God agrees.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Last night, we had a meeting of the education committee. After much discussion, I presented the reviews I've done of several curricula, and recommended that we pursue the DiscipleLand Core Bible Curriculum and Bible Study Guide (thank you, Al, for telling me that they were still in print and development!). The only issue is that BSG doesn't go below 3 years old, and DLCBC doesn't go below 2. Apparently our church buys curriculum for the cradle roll class. Does anyone have a recommendation for the cradle roll curriculum? We basically decided we could use a different one for the babies than for everyone else.

So, I'm working on getting samples of those curricula and with any luck, we'll have a decision in time for the fall quarter.

It's funny--NO ONE in that meeting liked the 21st Century stuff. NONE of the teachers thought the kids were learning anything.

Pat, who is pretty much in charge of the ed committee, said that she thought the best curriculum she had ever seen was the Bible Study Guide. I agree--but if she thought it was the best, if she knew what great curriculum looked like, why were we paying for 21st Century all this time? WHY?

Anyway, both of the options that I recommended were head and shoulders above any of the others I looked at, or that the church had used. Everyone agreed that I should get samples for all ages and have the teachers take a look and make a decision. The great thing is, I don't really care which way they choose. They can pick either one, and it would be a good choice.

I'm just happy I've finally levered the boulder a bit...maybe it will move under its own momentum now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I hope you haven't all given up on me.
We've finally moved into our new house, but we don't have internet there yet.

My office kind of frowns on internet for personal stuff....and I can't focus enough to write anything worth reading here, anyway.

A few thoughts:
At Mars Hill, they have one adult assigned to each child, as a mentor. Could we do that at my church? That would be very cool, but we have a rough time even finding enough people to teach classes...

I emailed Lambert asking for samples of their curriculum, and instead, they sent me an order form. Has anyone else out there used Lambert? Al Bugg sent me a wonderful packet of materials, and he recommends them. We'll see.

And also our kids are a little ambivalent to their new teachers. I hope they chill out about that--the couple teaching them are very sweet people.

That's really all I can write here. It's just too crazy and distracting, and I'm not really supposed to be doing this anyway.

Teaching teen girls to make communion bread tonight....should be interesting.

That's all folks. I'll be back to regular updates whenever we get our magical internet from the sky.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Trying not to Step on Toes

I'll start with the cute stuff.
We had our last Sunday school class for the summer yesterday. Only Josh showed up. We talked about the story of Esther--he was pretty fascinated with the idea that she, like Daniel & co., had two names. He knew the story of Esther, but we talked about it in much more detail than he ever had before. There's a lot, in that story, that gets left out of little-kid Bible school. "Chapter nine," we told him, "is really sick. They don't tell little kids about this part."
He wanted to read the whole thing.
When he got to the end of this passage, he said, "What was sick about that?"
"These people were partying after slaying 75,000 people!"
"You don't think that's sick?"
"I've seen Pirates of the Carribean III," he told us. "I see this kind of thing all the time. It's not so bad."

Ick. Talk about desensitizing.

I also worked in the church nursery that morning, but basically no one showed up. Amy came by to change her baby's diaper, and we started talking again about the whole curriculum issue. "Pat still hasn't found anyone else," Amy said. "I'm thinking I'll ask her if I could call the company and return the unused curriculum for a refund, or for credit toward the materials for next quarter."
"That's a good idea," I said. Pat's whole reasoning for why Amy should use the curriculum was that the church had paid for it, and we shouldn't waste the church's resources. Accepting Amy's offer would keep the church from losing that money and save Pat from having to find a teacher.

Amy went off to find Pat--though church was going on, Pat was in the teacher supply room; I had seen her there earlier. She came back, five minutes later, in quite a snit. "She said no, and then dumped on both of us. She said that we would just have to learn to live with it, until someone writes something better, because that's what we have."

Ok. So I still don't know who is teaching my kids this summer.

After evening church, I talked to Laurie--I wanted to know what curriculum the church I went to in high school used for their little kids, and Laurie's mom is heavily involved with the education program there. We had a really interesting conversation. Laurie told me that she thought the curriculum that we have was doing just fine--her boys all know the Bible backward and forward. I pointed out that this is because she teaches them a great deal at home, and probably has nothing to do with the education they get inside the church walls. "Well, the parents have to teach their kids at home," she said.
"But a lot of them don't," I told her. "Some of them just can't, and some don't really think about it. Some of them didn't grow up in the church--like me--and don't have any idea what to tell their kids. I'd love to encourage my students' parents to be more involved with teaching the Bible at home, but I feel awkward telling people how to raise their children. If they're not getting it here, some of them aren't getting it." And I went on to tell her that our students still don't really get the concept of Jesus as a person in time, as well as an infinite person. I told her about arguing with David over whether Jesus "really died," about my teen girls who take forever to look up anything that's not in the four Gospels, and how NONE of them got a joke about Jael that I put into the skit I wrote for them. Laurie was shocked. "They really aren't learning that stuff?" Nope.

She told me what curriculum they used at our old church--I had asked mostly because JC's younger sisters went through the kid Sunday school program there and they both have very strong Bible knowledge. Of course, JC's parents talked about the Bible at home too. That curriculum is from Sweet Publishing, but there's no mention of it on their website. I emailed them for some info, but of course they won't get back to me today, it being a holiday and all.

Finally, Laurie counseled me, rightly, to be really careful about Pat's feelings. My ambivalence toward Pat is so thorough, I'm not sure I could bring myself to hurt her on purpose--but I know I need to be careful not to do so accidentally. "The education program is her baby," Laurie said. The thing is, Pat herself has said that this curriculum is garbage, that the teachers have to add a lot and be very creative in order to get anywhere with it. What about the teachers who just do exactly what it says? Our students' parents feel like the kids have learned from our class, and they weren't before. Josh's mom especially--who is probably the most tuned-in of the bunch--has told us repeatedly that she loves that he is getting real "meat" every week. She loves that we are challenging him all the time. A lot of the teachers more or less ignore the curriculum (even Laurie, after making the usual, "but they'll get through the whole Bible in twelve years with 21st Century" argument, noted that she, "follows the storyline, but doesn't use many of the activities."). The finance committee thinks it's way overpriced compared to other curricula--which would be FINE if it actually worked.

I feel like I can't just go to Pat and say, "Can't everyone just make up their own curriculum? What we'll miss in breadth, we'll more than make up for in depth. JC and I don't have any kids, we don't know anything about teaching, we don't know anything about anything, but we made up our own curriculum as we went, and our kids learned from it." She'll tell me that the teachers are lazy and don't want to do any preparation work, which, if they're basically ignoring the curriculum, is not the case. I think if I go in there with a solution that is less expensive and more Bible-based, maybe she'll listen to me, particularly if I can take a few options and suggest that she make the final decision. I don't want a whole lot in a curriculum--just some sense, especially in the later grades, that the Bible is a document rooted in history and geography. I want something that asks the children to turn to the right passage in their Bibles rather than having the verses printed there. I would prefer something that the church could make a one-time investment in and reuse each year, or every two years, rather than these throw-away coloring sheets.

If you have any recommendations for curricula I haven't reviewed yet (or for polite, kind, and effective ways to approach Pat about this), please email or comment and let me know!

JC and I have decided that, next year, we are going to give the parents a note each week (give it to the parents, not to the kids to give to the parents!) outlining what we talked about, suggesting memory verses, perhaps some questions they might ask their kids. We really want the parents to discuss Sunday school material outside of Sunday school, but I don't think the kids are very forthcoming, and with the exception of Josh's mom, I don't think the parents push very hard.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Getting by...with a little help from my friends

A few days ago, Amy called me to talk about the teen girls at our church. She shares my concern that they aren't really learning how to be grown-up ladies in the church. She's frustrated that so many of the adults don't invite the girls to do those things that grown-up ladies do. How will they ever learn, if they don't do it themselves?

I'm frustrated too, but just knowing that Amy also felt like she was beating her head against the wall made me feel better, some how. I'm not alone! Woo!

We agreed that we shouldn't dwell too much on the things (like Girls' Day--planned and executed exclusively by the over-eighteen crowd) that we can't control. Instead, we're going to focus on doing what we can to get the girls to the point where they can really take some initiative on their own. I'm going to start asking them to plan and teach our once-monthly class. I'm also going to expand the range of activities we do in the class so that more than one girl gets to work on each one.

Autonomy comes even in the littlest things, though. After church on Sunday, Hanna came to me and said that the girls had really enjoyed the skit, and they were being asked to perform it a few other times through the year. "Could you write us a few more? We don't want to do the same one over and over all year," she said. I told her I would think about it--really I was just trying not to lose Joshua in the crowd. Now that I have thought about it, I think I shall ask them to take some initiative and write and direct these things themselves. When JC and I were in high school, we wrote several puppet shows every summer for the Vacation Bible School. They weren't that good, but they were serviceable, certainly. The one that I wrote for them this time wasn't that good either.

I'm curious how they will respond to this. Amanda has complained a few times that when her older brother was in the youth group, the kids just got together all the time and were really close. By my calculation, that was before they had a youth minister to depend on for getting everything done. It's easy to get lazy when you have someone else whose job is attending to the details. I want to really challenge them to attend to their own details. How to do that, though?

Amy also mentioned the idea of having a parenting class at the church. She initially seemed worried that people would be offended at the suggestion, but I reminded her that the church also offers a marriage class once per year--it doesn't mean that all the marriages in our church are falling apart, it just means that every marriage needs some work. I think the same is true of parenting. I've yet to meet a perfect parent (other than my mother-in-law, but she's a special saint, so she doesn't count!). Most of the parents of children we worry about are also worried about their children. They know they are missing something, they just don't know what. I think a lot of them would really like to take a parenting class. I'd like to take it, but I don't think they'd let me, since the only children I have are borrowed ones on short leases.

I'm really glad Amy called me--we came up with a few strategies, a few untapped resources, and some major solidarity. Knowing that I'm not alone is a great feeling.

Keeping Busy

Well, it's now one week until we close on our house. Life is pretty chaotic right now. It's ok, though--we're so excited about having our own cottage in the woods.

I had worried that I wouldn't have anything to blog about once JC and I took our hiatus from teaching this summer, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Now that people know what I'm working on, food for thought keeps finding me.

JC's sister brought me the August 2006 Gospel Advocate. The GA is not exactly in my must-read list, but I understand why she thought I should check out this issue. The cover read: "Putting the Bible back into Bible School." I'm glad to know that the editors of the Church of Christ publication of record and note agree with me that we're in a dire situation. The articles within had a few good ideas. There was one, entitled "Seven Ways for Parents to Help," by Roger D. Campbell, that I think I will Xerox and give to my students' parents next year. Every point he made seemed very obvious to me, but sometimes it's the obvious things that need stating: Ask your kid about class, get him there on time, go to class yourself.

How hard is that?

Pretty hard, apparently.

The cover article ("'I Have Found the Bible': Putting the Bible Back Into Bible School" by Al Bugg, Jr.) laid out some very practical advice. His number one suggestion was to ensure that the Bible is central to study. Ask even very little kids to read from real Bibles--from their own Bibles--he writes. Any curriculum that doesn't teach kids to navigate their Bible gets the big thumbs-down from me.

The last (depressing!) article to come my way this week was "Why Johnny Can't Believe," by James Patrick Holding. I discovered it while cruising the internet on the google search terms: "Sunday school failure." The title, a play on the excellent Why Johnny Can't Read--and What You Can Do About It, caught my eye. Titles are good for communicating the kid of person you are, and the kind of take you'll have on a problem. This title is a very good one in that it would not mislead someone who didn't catch the reference, but to someone familiar with the namesake work, it's an insider reference. Enough with the geeky English major digression.

The guy seems a bit obsessed with The DaVinci Code (he goes so far as to say, if your church doesn't have a planned, typewritten answer to those claims, it's not teaching. What's wrong with saying, "The DaVinci Code is fiction. Do you also believe that Peter Pan will come take you to Neverland if you think happy thoughts? If you meet someone named Harold, do you ask him for his purple crayon?"), but other than that, it's a great article. Holding makes an indictment of a church that is afraid to ask people to think, because those people might have thoughts that are inconsistent with the party line. Goodness knows, I do! He points out that people whose faith is rooted in habit have no defenses at all when faced with atheistic arguments. Do we want to raise habitual Christians? Of course not!

It's a good article, check it out.

I'm still trying to find articles that do a consumer reports-type look at curricula -- or something very practical about actually teaching middle-elementary Sunday school. There's not a whole lot out there, other than people trying to sell stuff.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Review: Bible Study Guide

Pat, the education coordinator from church, gave me a copy of a ring-bound Bible study guide for all ages, and it looks lovely! Unfortunately, I doubt that we could acquire it for use in our classrooms at church, as Amazon has it listed as a "classic," with one copy available for $40.

We really need to figure out something, though. The awful 21st-Century Christian fluff we use now is actually losing us teachers. Most recently, my friend Amy, who was supposed to teach my heathens this summer, on learning that this curriculum had been ordered for her (without consulting her), said she just couldn't get forty-five minutes of real education out of one of those lessons--and she's right. Pat insisted that, since it had been ordered, it must be used, and Amy told her that she would not, in that case, be teaching. I don't know who will be shepherding my flock this summer, but I know when I get them back, I'm going to have to start all over with the re-education process (mazes and complete-the-picture activities do not belong in Sunday school).

At least Josh is the only one I'm retaining; the rest will be coming up from the 2nd grade. Josh knows what to expect from us. When I told his mother about Amy and the curriculum situation, she was visibly upset. "They don't learn anything from that stuff!" she said, "They need meat at his age." She's right..but a summer of marshmallow fluff won't hurt them too badly, I hope.

Ok, I'm in love with this curriculum. Each lesson has a Bible story (and yes, they go in chronological order), drills (which can be things like saying the books of the Bible in order, putting biblical figures in chronological order, naming all of Jacob's sons, etc), review (preparation for the story), supplemental scriptures (tying the story to the larger context of the Bible), definitions of hard or Bible-specific words (disciple, psalm), discussion questions (ranked in order of importance), MAP ACTIVITIES! (I <3 maps!), timelines, and a visual of some kind (draw a picture about the story).

This is the best curriculum ever. It's a lot like what JC and I are doing, except more organized. It's designed to be used with people of all ages, together, with modifications for older or younger participants. I think that's a neat idea.

It's too bad this is basically out of print! But maybe we could get it...

I need to tell Pat that it's awesome. MUCH better than that 21st century nonsense. I think children (and adults) would really benefit from this kind of curriculum.


The other day, JC and I were discussing what we might teach when if we were trying to write a curriculum that would cover all ages. I think that the group we have now (3rd and 4th grades) is about ideal for a detailed look at the Old Testament--and if you have two years to do it, you can get through the whole thing fairly well. Much younger than that, and they can't really grasp the chronology (our students have a rough time with that even at their ages!). Any older, and they begin discovering that they really need all this background information to understand what they need to be learning about right then.

JC expressed distress and frustration that our students have no real understanding of Jesus as a being who is God and yet is not only God. The divine nature of Jesus, they are totally down with. They pray to Jesus. They sing "Jesus Loves Me." They view Him as an eternal being. Sweet.

But then you start talking about when Jesus lived--you talk about him being a human after Moses, but before Paul. You talk about Him living--walking on Earth--for thirty-three years. You mention the Holy Spirit. You get total blank looks.

I think my students understand the stories they know about Jesus' life in much the same way the ancient Greeks thought about the life of Zeus. He has a chronology, of sorts, but he spends a lot of time dropping in on humans to seduce them in the guise of a bull (Zeus), or heal and feed them (Jesus), and then going back to Mount Olympus/Heaven.

Because of this confusion, we thought it would be interesting to do a very linear study, complete with a timeline that the students would build, just as those in our current class have been building our family tree. We'd start with the birth and go, event by miraculous event, to the Ascension. Maybe studying the life of Jesus this way, instead of piecemeal as it is in the curriculum the church generally uses, would help the students get a sense of it as a single story.
For fifth and sixth graders, we think a very intensive, slow, and meticulous study of the last week of Jesus' human life would be in order. That age is more or less when most of them will get baptized, or start to seriously think about it, and they should really get the whole death/burial/resurrection thing before they do that. A study on the Holy Spirit would also be helpful for that age group. What's the point of receiving the "gift of the Holy Spirit," if you haven't a clue what or who the Holy Spirit is?

For the younger kids (five and under), we drew a blank. Maybe there is an age below which you actually can't do much other than tell stories that have animals in them and sing "Father Abraham."

There's plenty of material for 7th grade and up, so we didn't even bother discussing it.

Three for the Hebrew Children

Today, we discussed the Book of Daniel. We did a superquick look at it, but it's our second-to-last week with them...I don't know. We're doing Esther next week to wrap up. In the fall, when we're teaching them again (unless our summer sub wants to keep doing it), we're planning to do a pretty intense look at Kings, Chronicles, and that whole diaspora thing (isn't "diaspora" a cool word?). When we do that, we'll go really slowly and set up diagrams, timelines, etc. This right now is ending up being kind of an overview, drawing the moral lessons out of the stories.

The "moral" of today's story was the idea that God never leaves you without an exit strategy. The analogy we used was the way, in Looney Tunes, when Bugs Bunny is running away from someone and he finds himself in a dead end, he pulls out a marker, draws a door, and walks through it. We made a diagram with "dead ends" (Shadrach, Mesach, and Abed-Nego get thrown in the furnace), and made them into open doors (God sends his angel to rescue them). The doors literally opened, too. Amanda wants to cut off one of the doors and take it home next week, for some reason. So, that was fun, and the kids seemed pretty happy. Amanda is seriously a handful sometimes. She interrupts us when we're trying to explain things and seems to never listen. About five times today, I had to ask her to quit messing with Josh's stuff and listen while JC was explaining something to them. I don't think she's ADD--I've worked with a kid who was, and it was nothing like this--but it wouldn't surprise me if she's at high risk for a misdiagnosis in that general direction. At one point, I said to her, "You're older than Josh is--can't you please be mature and set a good example?"
She replied, with plenty of attitude, "I'm not mature!"
"You've got a year on him," I told her, "and I expect you to try." That's the rough thing with Amanda--the adults in her life seem to tell her that she's wild and immature--and they mean these things as criticism, but she takes them as license. As in, "I'm immature, and I can't be expected to do anything about it."

I read a study once that said that the best thing to do for kids is to teach them self-discipline by praising effort rather than effortless successes. That made a lot of sense to me--what did I learn by people telling me I was a good reader? About half of nothing, because reading came easily to me. When my dad complimented the hard work I had done to earn high marks in high school chemistry, though, that meant something. I'm trying to think about how I can apply this to my teaching. The issue is that I only have these kids for one hour per week, and several of them (including Amanda) don't come every week. Amanda was fifteen minutes late (for a forty-five minute class) for the second week in a row. Today, her mom didn't get her there on time, which is one thing, but a lot of the time she's just hanging out somewhere at the church. We started doing a game involving putting the books of the Bible in order, which students can start whenever they get to class. We don't do it every week, but you can't win if you're very late. It was motivating the kids to urge their parents to get in on time, for a while. We might need to start that up again.

It's hard to praise a kid's effort when she's making almost none. The few times David put in some serious effort and produced something great, after a load of hard work, we made sure he left feeling really good about himself. What do you do with the kid who practically never makes any effort? We praise her for being a good and eager reader, but I know that's easy for her. She's not learning from that. I praise her any time she manages to stay focused for even five minutes, but sadly, that doesn't happen often.

I see her growing into a very entitled person, much like a number of those I encountered when I was a TA for writing classes in college. She's young enough, though, that she can surely divert her course. I just want to figure out how to help her do that. She and Lachlan are both advancing to the next class this fall (classes are in two-year brackets at this church--we teach third- and fourth-graders; they will be in fifth). "Miss Cathy," the fifth grade teacher, is notoriously strict. She's also old enough to be Amanda's mother and then some, rather than (like me) far too young. That age difference may make her less accessible, less pushable, than I am.

Still, I view my work with David this year as a partial success--he took a liking to us, for at least a while, he learned something, and he worked very hard when we pushed him to. My work with Amanda, though, has not been nearly so successful, I fear. She's a good kid. I just have had such a hard time finding common ground with her. I don't think we have much in common--she's kind of caught up in pop culture in a way I was always too geeky to be. She's not naturally attuned to any ideas of community. Part of the "prize" for the points they are earning is supposed to be some solo time with adults other than their parents; Amanda was the one who suggested a gift card. Maybe it's just my bias that makes me see that idea as pretty impersonal and mercenary.

The really rough part is, I feel so guilty for not liking this kid much, for not having a super connection with her.

Today, we took Josh to the Bookfair (his prize for hitting 25 points). It was WONDERFUL. He's a great kid, and an avid reader. I just love him to pieces. We went to Long John Silver's (his choice) for lunch first. His food came before ours, and he opened the package, and then put his head down on his arms (hair, yes, in the food), and prayed for two or three minutes before he ate. My head about exploded, it was so cute. He was terribly excited by the Bookfair, and made out like a bandit. He thanked us several times, and from the look on his face, you would think we had given him bars of gold. He said that all of the books looked so good, he couldn't decide what to read first, so he played eeny-meeny-miney-moe in the back seat. On the way home, we showed him where our new house is (we didn't go out there, but we pointed and said, "a few miles that way"). He asked, about six times, "But you'll still be teaching us in the fall, right?" I loved him for that, too. Talk about stroking the ego.

Of course, Josh needs another pair of loving adults in his life like he needs more books. Not only is he the beloved only child of two wonderful parents, but one set of grandparents lives in the same town (and sees him all the time), and the other set lives only an hour or so away. He's well-adjusted, his parents are married, his life is pretty good. The kids who need a concerned adult the most, not surprisingly, are the ones who are the most difficult to spend time with. Even when Amanda's not in my class any more, I'll keep trying to connect. She seriously needs that, I know. It's a real challenge for me, though.

I just read a WONDERFUL interview in The Rambler with Rafe Esquith, who is an award-winning teacher. He gets fifth-graders in inner-city LA to perform Shakespeare and read Huck Finn and Orwell and such. Crazy, yes? He can do this with children whose parents are drug dealers, and I can't even get a whiff of focus out of a little girl who lives in a pretty standard American (divorced, messy) family. I'm going to add his new book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, to my reading list, and see if that gives me any ideas.

It looks like we'll have all or mostly boys in the fall, and I'm going to spend the summer looking for ways to make class even more visual and tactile--the boys we've taught so far respond really well to graphic organizers and things they can move around. I'm glad to have the summer to prepare.