Religious Education Lessons Remembered

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As I am on Sabbatical from the congregation right now, and headed out to Boston to UUA headquarters for the final interview of the religious education credentialing process, I’ve chosen to take the time for an Epic Road Trip Adventure with my two kids.  One of our stops recently was here, at Walden Pond and the replica of Thoreau’s little cabin.

At first, when I told the kids we were going to Walden Pond, they had no idea what the connection was.  But when they saw the little cabin, they remembered what they had learned about Thoreau in their religious education classes over the years.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they remembered the story Henry Builds a Cabin  by D.B. Johnson, which has been told in a worship service, read to several classes, and made into a Spirit Play story.  The book series by D. B. Johnson is charming and he tells the story of the cabin very well.

But the real thrill for me was that as my son sat in that cabin he dredged up a memory from a lesson that I created for a mixed grade class at church in 2009, when he would have been only 6 years old.  He said “didn’t we once have a class where you gave us a bunch of blocks and the challenge was to build a tiny cabin with the fewest blocks you could?”  Yes!  We did do that, and I’m actually delighted that it made enough of an impression for him to remember it five years later.

Of course, just remembering some random activity doesn’t mean that he really understands Thoreau’s philosophy, let alone that his life will be changed or transformed in any way.  But it is touching to me that our children and youth remember things later as being profound or meaningful that at the time we may not notice as such, and that the weekly RE lesson or activity may truly become one of their defining moments in hindsight.  When youth stand up and give their credo speeches in church, I have heard such moments remembered: that time we did a pie sale and it was the first time I ever got to help in a kitchen, it meant so much to me; when we were all talking to the minister and he said X, that really stuck with me; just being here and playing games with people who accept me for myself, that saved my life when I was depressed and lonely.

In the moment, we don’t know if it will be remembered, if it makes a difference, or if it’s even worth doing.  The fruits of educational labor aren’t always seen right away – they may take years to manifest.  And that is why this is a work of profound faith and hope, sowing seeds that we hope will grow but that we may never see.  It’s a wonderful gift when we do get to see it – when a child has an obvious Aha! moment or when a youth looks back and remembers, but we may never see those things.  Teachers move forward in faith and hope, so thank you for all those days when you showed up even though it didn’t seem to make a difference, or you worked so hard on an activity and then when the kids were asked what they did in class they said “nothing really”, or you lead a discussion that felt like pulling teeth.  Those might have been profoundly meaningful to a child or a youth.  Hold onto that.

 

Developmentally Appropriate Teachings for Earth Day Month

In teaching our 7th Principle (respect the interdependent Web of Life, of which we are a part) to children, I strongly advocate for focusing first on a love of nature before you present the environmental “doom and gloom” aspect of the green movement. Many environmental education advocates, such as Richard Louv, have pointed out the danger of making the environment a scary thing when children also have no sense of attachment to nature, even coining the term “ecophobia” for this phenomenon. I believe that it is absolutely vital for the primary focus of children’s environmental education to emphasize our connection with nature and to simply get kids outdoors and seeing and observing the natural world around them.

Step One: Love Nature and Get Outside! Emphasize pure pleasure, wonder and awe.

Step Two: Recognize the interconnectedness of all life, know about systems and cycles, and see how what happens to one part of the web effects other parts. Emphasize curiosity, fascination, and respect for the amazing system.

But, once you have done that, there are some next steps.

Step Three: Increasingly recognize and understand the dangers and damages to the environment, know their causes, and how humans contribute to those environmental dangers and damages.

Step Four: Demonstrate empowerment to act, alone or with others, to be good stewards of the web of life and to counter environmental dangers and damages.

If you have already done Steps One and Two with your kids, it is time to move on and incorporate Steps Three and Four as well. This month, for Earth Day, consider learning more about Climate Change as a family:

(For Pre-school age kids, I would still stick with Steps One and Two)

Elementary-Age Kids:
1. Read together Why Are the Ice Caps Melting: The Dangers of Global Warming by Anne Rockwell and The Magic School Bus and the Climate Change by Joanna Cole. Your kids may have (probably have!) already heard much of this information, so ask them what they already know or think they know about climate change. Be sure to leave time to discuss any feelings or concerns that come up, too. Many children are very sad for the polar bears, for instance. Others may feel a sort of existential dread that the world is changing and the future could be awful, but not have words to use to express this so just say “it’s scary and sad”.

2. Learn about kids who are making a difference, and talk about them as role-models. Read together Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet by Janet Wilson.

3. Make a family-pledge to make a difference. Pick one, easy enough that you will succeed at it, action that your family can take to either reduce your carbon footprint, advocate for larger societal changes, or make another positive impact of some kind. (Bike to school, plant a tree, etc.)

4. Let other people know about what you’ve done! Write letters to grandparents about it, or post a sign in your front yard, or talk about it on social media such as Facebook.

Middle-School Age Kids:
1. Read together This is My Planet: The Kids’ Guide to Global Warming by Jan Thornhill or The Down-to Earth Guide to Global Warming by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon. Leave time to discuss any feelings or concerns that come up. For instance, it is quite normal for kids this age to feel more indignant with people who made choices that got us here or with people who don’t believe in climate change. Or, alternatively, kids this age may feel apathetic and despairing that anything can be done.

2. Learn about kids who are making a difference, and talk about them as role-models. Read together Our Earth: How Kids are Saving the Planet by Janet Wilson.

3. Set a challenge or a goal for making a difference. For instance, set a goal of riding bikes for a certain number of your regular trips instead of driving, or of reducing your trash generation to one tiny bag a week. Let others know (especially friends!) about your challenge and see if they will do it too. This can become a fun, gentle, competition and motivate everyone to have fun while making a difference!

High School Age Kids:

1. Watch a climate change documentary together for family movie night. Talk about the ways some people try to deny climate change exists, and what techniques they use for convincing/confusing people. This can be a very useful exercise in critical thinking (for you all).

2. Learn about young people making a difference: The Next Eco Warriors by Emily Hunter profiles 22 young men and women who are saving the planet. Some of their actions may seem drastic, and you may not always agree with their tactics. Discuss that!

3. Take action. Consider the personal/peer challenge as described for Middle School age kids, or look for a way to take on a big project (organizing an “Earth Hour” at school, for instance).

 

These are just some ways you can explore, celebrate, and advocate our 7th Principle this month!

The Fallacy of “You Can Believe Whatever You Want”

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I recently allowed my daughter to choose a hair color and dye her hair.  This is one of the things she can choose because I want her to have as much freedom as is reasonable for her age and maturity.  But it got me thinking about what we can change and what we can’t, and how much of our identity is a choice and how much is something deeper from within us.

When children and youth describe Unitarian Universalism, they often say “we get to believe whatever we want to believe”.  This is not true.  Within Unitarian Universalism, you cannot choose to believe in the superiority of one group of people over another group of people.  You cannot choose to believe that you have a right to treat other people poorly.  You cannot choose to believe that the people have a right to exploit or abuse, or that some people are destined for horrible eternal punishment.

And the kids know that.  It’s not really like a silly UU joke I’ve heard:

The children have all been in their Religious Education class and when they come out to coffee hour their parents ask them: “What did you do today?”.  “Oh, nothing … we talked about cannibals.”  The parents are taken aback.  “Cannibals?  What did you learn about cannibals?”  The kids say breezily “Oh, we learned that we have to make up our own minds about cannibals.”

This is the parody, the misconception that I have to work against.

The problem is, I think, a confusion between two types of freedom:

Freedom to be authentic, versus Freedom to choose

We can choose our hair color, our style, and so many other things.  But then there are things we cannot always choose:

  • We cannot always choose who and how we love
  • We cannot always choose who we will truly feel friendship or kinship with
  • We cannot always choose our passions, our callings
  • We cannot choose the belief or faith that comes from deep within us

We have to have the freedom to discover or discern these things about ourselves, not the freedom to choose them.  I explain this to kids and youth like this sometimes:

I used to think, many years ago when I was your age, that I would like to be a really cool and tough woman.  I wanted to ride a motorcycle and kick butt (they like it when I say butt).  I thought I could just choose to be like that.  But it turned out that I didn’t like to ride motorcycles – I didn’t even like to go fast down hill on my bicycle.  I also found that I was happier reading a book in a coffee shop than I was running around being tough.  So, I thought I could make a choice about how to be, but really I found out I actually needed to be true to who I really was, inside.  I needed to be my authentic self.  And what we believe in can be like that.  We can really, really want to believe in a God.  We can try, but discover that we just can’t.  Or we can really, really want to believe there is no God, but keep finding one in our heart anyway.  When I was growing up I had the freedom to either be a tough motorcycle babe or a geeky coffee-loving reader, whichever one I truly was.  And, as UU’s we also have the freedom to believe what we must believe in our hearts of hearts, but it’s not just an idle choice.  It’s the freedom to be our authentic selves, not to make idle choices.

 

This is why (as is noted in the curriculum Articulating Your Faith) it is not that UU’s believe whatever they want to believe, but rather believe what they must.  We are a tradition of free-minds, hearts, and souls, seeking to grow into our own authentic faith in a community of love, hope, and freedom.

To be true to oneself is a far more challenging proposition than the phrase “believe what you want” can ever represent.