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.

 

Beauty Tips For DRE’s

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(My professional look on Sunday after I let some 2nd graders play with my hair after service. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain one’s dignity and work with children – but there should be a dignity inherent in the work whether it is with children or adults.)

With a hat tip to Beauty Tips For Ministers, here is my version for religious educators.  Embrace the whimsy every now and then.  We are still professionals, but professionals who work with children and are approachable and fun.

So here are my Top Ten Beauty Tips for DRE’s on Sunday:

1.  Remember you may get involved with a messy arts or crafts project.  Keep a change of clothes and a nice apron at church for those times, and avoid really expensive dry clean only clothing.

2.  But simultaneously remember that the adults need to see you as a professional. Dress a teensy bit nicer than the norm in your congregation.  In my congregation, I can where a chino skirt in the summer, but not during the church year, and never ever denim, and I end up aimed dressier than the congregants.  A dressy teacher outfit, here.  Some congregations though, you might need a suit to be dressed nicer than the crowd … judge your context.

3.  Limit yourself to one item of whimsy.  Wear the necklace a child made for you, but not the same day you let them put pipecleaners in your hair. 🙂

4.  Shoes – you are going to have to walk a lot, and stand a lot.  Can you in these shoes?  If not, but you simply must wear them because they are so fabulous, better bring along another pair for the clean up shift when everyone else has left and you are cleaning up the classrooms and your feet are killing you.

5.  Any chance you’ll sit on the floor in any classroom?  Can you do that in that skirt without wildly inappropriate flashing of leg?

6.  Any chance you ‘ll hold a baby?  Will your jewelry hold up to yanking?  Do you want the dangly earrings ripped out of your earlobes?

7.  OK – you’ve almost got an outfit picked out.  Now look at it and imagine what a teenager will think of this outfit?  If you get an intuitive cringe, back to the drawing board.

8.  Add a UU touch. You are modeling a UU Identity, and what does that look like?  Be classy about it (chalice necklace or pin, not slogan T shirt), and when folks ask where you got it encourage them to order one too.

9.  I like to consider the season and the liturgy, and try to match my colors accordingly.

10.  Now, lay it all out the night before, because you’ll be rolling out of bed way too early in the morning to decide then. 🙂

 

What a Religious Educator Does During the Week

I run a “Sunday School”, so many people have asked me “what do you do the rest of the week?”

Well, there is:
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1.  Educating yourself about ministry to children, youth, and families and lifespan faith development.  Much of this is education is done through reading and through things like “webinars” (workshops done online.)

2.  Committee meetings.  This week I had two committee meetings, sometimes there are more, sometimes less.  There are a lot of committees I need to coordinate with. 🙂

3.  Emails. So …. many …. emails.  Emails to volunteers to remind them.  Weekly announcement emails to all the families in my congregation letting them know what to expect on Sunday.  Emails after Sunday to all the families with the “Taking It Home” message of things to do at home during the week.  Responding to emails.  Emailing to check in on people I haven’t seen in awhile.  Emailing with other volunteer coordinators as I try to set up a youth service project.  Lots. Of. Emails.

4.  Cleaning/Sorting/Putting Things Away.  Just managing all the supplies and 6 classrooms that need tidying and sorting.

5.  Teaching Adult classes on Weekdays.  Right now I’m teaching a discussion class based on the book Faithiest.  It’s going very well – fun!
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6.  Planning and writing lesson plans.  Every week we have about 7 different classes happen, and all of them need to have plans and stories and so forth put together and sent off to their volunteers.  And then:

7.  Prepping supplies for lessons.  As I plan lessons I keep a giant spreadsheet called “Materials List 2013-2014” which is a giant grid with what supplies are needed for what class on what date, and then I order things, go shopping, make things, do photocopying, and generally prep all those supplies and have them ready.  Which requires:

8.  Budget oversight and administration.  It may not be glamorous stuff, but if you don’t file your receipts in chronological order with the bookkeeper, track attendance numbers, and keep up with all the many, many lists and directories and spreadsheets that are required to manage volunteers, staff, money, calendars, and resources, then you will have chaos and not a successful RE program.

9.  Prepping for Sunday presentations and worship services.  Memorizing stories to tell, mostly, but sometimes other preparations are necessary (pictures slideshows or videos, props, little cards or what not needed for the worship service).

10.  And more: (supervising childcare staff, responding to requests for pastoral care or just giving folks a listening ear, writing newsletters, articles, and blog posts, attending professional development meetings, meeting with the minister, coordinating and hosting social events for the congregation, training and supporting volunteers, etc.)

Somehow, I never seem to have much trouble filling at least my full 40 hours.  It’s almost amazing how much there really is to do.

Religious Education can be Messy

Last Sunday I got a bit flustered.  So much so that at one point the minister said I looked “beleaguered”.  Here’s a hint for you all: it’s not good when the minister says you look beleaguered on Sunday morning. 🙂

Why was I flustered?  Well, we were a bit messy on Sunday.  RE can be a messy affair at times.  And then there was going to be a Dinner.  A BIG dinner – and apparently volunteers had been lined up to take all the folding tables from the church building to the rental space where the dinner would be, and they wanted to grab those tables right after church.

Wonderful, sweet volunteers wanted to carry furniture out of the church and load it into their cars, and then go unload it and set it up with pretty table cloths and flowers and get ready to feed 200 people dinner.

And they were coming up against a problem – our kids had made a big mess on those tables.  A big, fun, amazing mess.

Between the Rock and the Hard Place I Was.  And for a little there, I lost my cool a bit.  Whew, here’s a lesson – sometimes it gets messy, and maybe I shouldn’t have planned three messy lessons all on the same day (and the same days a BIG dinner).  But, whatever, sometimes life just is like that. 🙂  Sometimes things all happen at once.  And sometimes the So Muchness of a big, intergenerational, dynamic, active religious community overwhelms me.

I got over my fluster pretty fast.  Embrace the messy bits.  They can be the fun parts, too.  They show the LIFE going on here.

What was our Messy Stuff?  Here it is:

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1st-2nd Graders doing an Egg Drop.  Fun!  Bubble wrap!  Eggs!  Smashing Eggs!  Eating Eggs Afterward!
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(Most of the eggs were hardboiled to reduce mess, but I also had some raw eggs there and some of those were thrown – hard.  Outside.)
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Meanwhile … the 3rd-4th Graders were making cinnamon heart ornaments, which involved gooey (but wonderful smelling) mess.  Not to eat!
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And the third mess was … the 5th-6th Graders were doing some art about Good and Bad with pastels … pastel dust everywhere!
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Wonderful, messy, goodness.

Whose Turn Is It to Light the Chalice?

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This time of year for religious educators can get very detail oriented.  All the big picture planning was done in the spring, all the procrastinating I mean “getting ready” was done in the summer, and now it’s all about registration forms, and class lists, and materials lists, and master calendars, and volunteer schedules, and name tags, and so on.

Here’s a prime example of the sort of detail-oriented stuff on my desk right now.  These pots full of tongue depressors are how we keep track of kids getting to participate in classroom rituals such as lighting the chalice.  Every registered child has their name on a stick, and every stick as a red end and a purple end.  All the sticks start with the same color up, and as a child gets a turn, their stick gets flipped over.  This way the teachers can tell from week to week who hasn’t had a turn yet.

And so this week I was writing names on tongue depressors. 🙂

It’s all in the details, sometimes.

Teacher Training

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I’ve just done two teachers trainings for the volunteers, preparing for the new church year and fall start-up season.  This is my sixth time around this process, and as I got ready for the training I couldn’t help thinking back to the first time I ever did this.

Because of the timing of starting up as a brand-new DRE, I was only 2 weeks into the job when I had to train my teachers.  I had no idea how to run a teachers training!  I was OK fumbling through myself as a teacher, but to try and tell others how to do it – gulp!

Things feel a lot different now.  I have a better idea of what I want the volunteers to know, and I’ve developed a powerpoint and manual that I just tweak and add to each year.

In my own training to become a teacher, mentor teachers told me that the first few years as a teacher would be the hardest.  You’re making everything up from scratch in those first years, and will be just a step or two ahead of your own prep work.  After a few years, you can start to reuse the lesson plans and materials you’ve developed, and it will get easier.

The same is true for DRE’s.  The first year, I couldn’t even think about doing anything too ambitious – it took all my time just to prep for the basics.  The next year, I was able to repeat things, and improve them.  A year after that I was able to add new projects, new programs, and take on new endeavors, such as the Credentialing program.

And yet, that first year was so exciting.

So, for anyone feeling overwhelmed by anything new: it will get better.  But don’t forget to enjoy the stage you are in.  These days may feel long (and they will pass), but they are also a beautiful stage in their own right.  Enjoy them, while simultaneously knowing that this too shall pass.

 

 

How to Communicate Now

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There is a lot of discussion about the need for Digital Ministry in UUism (or religion in general) right now, plus discussion of what sort of communication technologies will best reach younger people.

I hear from people my age or younger that email is antiquated, and that they want me to send them a text message or facebook them.

Then I hear from others (in the same age range) that they refuse to use facebook – don’t look for them there – why aren’t you on Twitter?  Or Tumblr?  Or Google Plus? (OK, those people are all nerds, but they still count! 😉

Those much older than me say they just miss the old fashioned courtesy of paper.  Why can’t we keep sending them things in the mail?  Why do we have to make them get on the computer and assault their eyes with flickering images when paper was so perfectly fine?

Other people quite candidly tell me that they are so overwhelmed by ALL forms of communication that they would prefer I not bother them with much – except what they really want to hear about.  Of course, since I can’t read their minds to know what they will care about, this is tricky.

What is a poor DRE to do?

I can’t pick the one best form of communication.  No matter what any group tells you, in my experience there is no such beast.  What it seems to me that I need to do is communicate with breadth AND depth, casting my net widely and yet also baiting it with content worth reading/watching/listening to.

I have little lists of people in my congregation, with marks next to their names for Text, Call, Email, Facebook, or Snail Mail.  I try to reach out to people in the method they prefer, even though that may mean that I have to take the same message and transmit it in all these multiple formats.

I am actively blogging and on facebook, and I write weekly and monthly emails to the families in my congregation.  I write a monthly report that I disseminate widely to the leadership of my congregation via email.  I send birthday  and thank you cards and calendars of upcoming events (hoping they will get stuck to fridges with a magnet) via snail mail.  I put up posters on the church walls and place colorful trifold brochures in strategic locations about the building.  I’m also experimenting with Twitter, Tumblr, Google Plus, Ning, and YouTube.

Which is the Best way to communicate?  Until everyone is willing to all line up and choose just one, all I can see is the Best Way to Communicate with X, and then the Best Way to Communicate with Y.  A challenge for those of us in this ministry business, indeed.

Got a minute?

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Our Office Administrator clipped this cartoon and gave it to me at church. 🙂

I know this feeling, when I’m trying to do what I think is important (memorize the story for the Sunday service, organize and write the lesson plans, craft a volunteer recruitment letter, whatever) and a person interrupts me with what might seem like a minor issue to me (the battery is out on the classroom electronic candle, all the pens are gone from the sign-in cart, they have a large item that needs storage space somewhere, they want to be shown again how to use the TV cart to do a powerpoint presentation, etc), and it can be very frustrating to be interrupted.

It’s the same at home, where my family interrupts me because they need something.  Why can’t people just deal with their own minor concerns?

There really are no minor concerns.  Everything matters to someone.

Maybe it doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to them, but the fact that it matters to them makes it matter to me.  Because they matter to me.

I work in a people oriented field, and I am interruptible.  I am available to others, to help, to listen, to point out where the pens are kept, how the TV cart works, which closet we store things in, and where the spare candles are.  I’m here to talk through your discomfort talking to children about God.  Or I can pull together the supplies for an activity you really would rather do than the one in the lesson plan.  I can listen about your struggles with your kids.  Or your struggles with other people’s kids.  Or we can talk about how you think we should put out non-dairy creamer.

It’s all important to somebody.

 

(Disclaimer: that said, the flipside is that if Everything Matters to Someone, Not Everything Can Matter Equally to You.  I cannot take on the concerns and nitty-gritty of every little detail and every last person in the congregation.  But I can give them a few minutes of my time, then say “yes, I see this is important to you – have you tried?/spoken to?/thought of?” And ultimately, I can’t solve everything for everyone.  So don’t take this post as a call for unrealistic standards.  There is enough of that and it is incredibly destructive to us all.  No one is superman/woman/minister/DRE)

Kids in church with me

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Yesterday I led the intergenerational Earth Day service for my congregation.  It was a fun service, with samba dancers and children acting out a story about feeling connected to the web of life.  It came off, and was lovely.

And I found it exhausting.  My kids were in the service, and my husband would have been there to sit with them and “wrangle” them, but he had to leave town due to a family illness.  So they were sitting beside me, up front, with every wiggle, noisy aside comment, and standing up at the wrong time during the Joys and Concerns ritual on full display.

And here’s the truth: I serve this congregation, but my children do not.  They are part of it, just like any other kids, and yet they have their mom being the DRE.

Is it worse to be a PK or a DREK?  How can we balance being parents and professionals at the same time, on display to everyone?