Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Closing the Church School Year, Part II

Toward the end of May and into June, church schools focus on closing the school year and preparing for summer activities within the parish. Part II of our series will focus on enrichment opportunities for church school staff, including training, retention, and recruiting. We'll refer to the Church School Directors Manual by the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education. The full manual in pdf format is available through this link:

All church school staff members - seasoned veterans and newbies alike - will benefit from a training program. Most church school teachers and directors are not professionals. They often feel hesitant and unqualified. Trainings are a wonderful way to boost the confidence of existing staff and also recruit new staff. Contact the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education to find out if there are planned training sessions in your area and/or to schedule your own training.

Options for Teacher Training
- Teaching the faith by your parish priest or learned layperson.
- Professional teachers in the parish can offer training sessions on: 
      1. lesson plans 
      2. crafts and bulletin boards
      3. cooperative learning
      4. class management
      5. time management

- Retreats led by the parish priest, special speaker, or a monastic can enhance the spiritual life of the teachers and increase their knowledge about the Orthodox faith.
- Antiochian Orthodox Diocesan Coordinators can be contacted to schedule a teacher training. For a full list of Diocesan Coordinators, visit the link below. 

A church school staff also includes non-teaching staff: those who can help with music (if you wish to have an on-going program of learning church hymns or even a children’s choir), and those who can help with special projects.
Valuable resource people are: 
1) pageant directors, stage crew, prop-makers, costumers 
2) those who can help with processions
3) those with special knowledge on scripture or Divine Liturgy as guests for class sessions of middle or high school
4) those with art or writing expertise, or organizational skills who can help with developing the Creative Festival work and with the organizing and submitting of projects.

(Taken from Section 7.3.4 of the Church School Directors Manual by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Department of Christian Education.)

The link below will share an excellent article about student "intelligences" that could be included in a teacher training packet. Although directed toward parents, church school teachers (and directors) will benefit from learning about the various and differing ways individual students learn.
"Our Orthodox tradition is richly and “multiply” abundant with ways to know and grow in God through Scripture, liturgical worship, icons, hymns, and personal prayer. However your children are “smart,” you can engage them in ways that are true to their personalities and to our faith. Discerning your children’s “intelligences” is the key to helping them learn and grow. Below are the different kinds of intelligences, and some practical ways that your children can use their gifts to glorify God."
Article written by Stephania Gianulis for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Religious Education

Additional online articles and resources for church school staff are regularly posted on the Orthodox Christian Church School Directors Facebook group. Visit the page and join the Facebook group by clicking on this link:

Next, Part III of this series will focus on Vacation Church School, including planning and online resources.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Closing the Church School Year, Part I

The month of May is a time to focus on closing the Church School Year. We'll discuss end-of-year activities for staff and students, and will often reference the Church School Directors Manual published by the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education. A pdf version of the manual is available online through the link below.

Only a handful of Sundays left until we will wrap up the Church School Year. Between now and then, several things must take place in order to properly close out your school year: classroom clean-up, student and staff recognition program and/or end-of-year awards program, staff recruiting and training for next year, and Vacation Church School resources.

Closing the Church School Year: Classroom Clean Up

Set the date now for a late May/early June work day, depending on your church school calendar. This work can be accomplished on a Sunday during class time or during Coffee Hour. Involve your students! All ages! Play church music to add energy, and perhaps serve a special treat during Coffee Hour to show appreciation to students for their contribution.

Removing all visual aids, sending school work home with students, cleaning the classroom space from top to bottom. Plan ahead by bringing brooms and dustpans, vacuum, paper towels, and green/non-toxic cleaning supplies. (Gloves and dust masks, too, if any students have allergies or asthma.)

Closing the Church School Year: Teacher & Student Recognition
This is a necessary, important, and fun responsibility for Church School Directors. This is the time to showcase and spotlight the dedication of staff, and the accomplishments of students over the course of the school year.

Discuss with your priest when to schedule Recognition Day. To ensure maximum attendance, Recognition Day should be held on a Sunday before families leave town for summer plans. Section 4.2 of the Church School Directors Manual offers suggestions on planning Recognition Day. Click below to access a pdf version of the manual.

Closing the Church School Year: Teacher/Staff Appreciation
This is a nice example of a teacher/staff appreciation gift that could be presented during Recognition Day or during a Staff Appreciation dinner.

This is a lovely appreciation gift that keeps on giving. Present these herb pots to church school teachers and staff, and they will enjoy the fresh herbs during summer with fond remembrance of their students from the school year.

Closing the Church School Year: Teacher & Student Recognition CERTIFICATES!
The link below will provide multiple certificates of achievement, attendance, and appreciation for staff and students. Even a "Recognition Certificate," which allows you to recognize every child for something if you wish— from a bright smile to listening well.

In Part II of this series, we'll discuss staff retention/recruiting/training. Part III will provide a list of Vacation Church School resources. Finally, Part IV will be an example of how to close the church school year if your parish uses Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: Removing Barriers

Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly (a Faithtree Resource)
Take time to purposefully consider whether or not your parish is disability-friendly…Once you have given thought to the subject, you’ll likely be aware that there are many areas of parish life to evaluate when determining whether any barriers are present which could prevent full participation for a person or family living with a disability. Barriers can be physical, attitudinal, or even programmatic. (Programmatic Barrier: “any program that cannot be accessed by persons with disability has a barrier that must be considered and intentionally removed.” page 47) So, after completing the analysis of where your parish lands on the disability-friendliness scale, now begins the task of removing existing barriers through education and physical changes. The book Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly (a Faithtree Resource), is available to guide your efforts from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
What exactly is a Removing Barriers Effort (RBE)? “More than a special program or a ministry team, a Removing Barriers effort constitutes an ongoing, organized plan for every person to feel welcomed, valued, included and fully able to participate in the Life of the Church, because barriers that might prevent them from doing so have been intentionally removed. The goal is to transition from a place of ignorance or pity into a congregation of co-laborers that serve Christ and His Church together.” (page 16)
Why begin an RBE within your parish? According to the Center for Disease Control, one in five Americans live with or are affected by disability. That is a significant percentage of persons within our country, within our parishes, who are struggling with barriers – significant enough to garner attention within the Church.  Oftentimes, families find our churches unprepared, unmindful, or unsure of how to remove barriers that prevent participation. Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly points out that“God gave us direct instruction throughout Holy Scripture that repeatedly reminds us of how much He values our love for each other. We hear again and again that God’s expectation of His people is that we provide for each other, and specifically, that we bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2, Philippians 2:4, James 2:14-17) …If we as the Body of Christ here on earth fail to include and incorporate every person in the worship, edification and evangelism in our communities, likewise, we are not functioning as God intends or commanded.” (page 19)
Furthermore, our leadership commands that parishes begin the work of removing barriers. The Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) put forth a statement in 2009 regarding persons with disabilities and including them in the life of the Church. The full statement is on pages 20-25 of Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly. A key excerpt reads “…A person with a disability is not necessarily handicapped except through physical and attitudinal barriers created by others. Handicaps are in fact the barriers that we create for people with disabilities by excluding them socially and physically. There are many persons with disabilities even in our own parishes; nevertheless, our parishes have not reached out sufficiently to adults and children with disabilities in its ministry.” (pages 20-21)
How to begin an RBE effort: Fortunately, the book provides a step-by-step guide for planning, forming, and implementing an RBE effort at your parish. Six steps are listed (page 33), along with detailed instructions for each step.
  1. Find your leader
  2. Gather Your Team
  3. Assess Your Need
  4. Develop A Plan
  5. Pray
  6. Start
Then, going a step further, instructions are included for constructive results ranging in levels from “no fundraising required”, all the way to “the project requires a strategic team and grant writing may be necessary.” (pg. 54) Seemingly small changes that yield immediate impact include adding welcoming language in the Sunday bulletin, creating a designated section for congregants with sensory sensitivity, or creating a buddy system for children in church school or youth program. (page 54)
Also included in Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly is a Basic Disability Primer (page 74-89), which reviews some of the most commonly-experienced disabilities and helps the reader better understand feelings, perceptions, and needs of parishioners living with disability. Even if your parish is not ready to form an RBE team or effort, this Basic Disability Primer is a valuable resource to share with Christian Education staff and leaders of other parish organizations.
Another resource to share with parish leaders and Christian Education staff is the list of 75 Strategies to Help Your Removing Barriers Effort (page 90-98). A suggested list of strategies that can aid Sunday church school teachers during class and make an immediate difference is:
-        Ask family members about unusual or inappropriate behavior. Parents can help you understand what the child may be trying to communicate, and how you can respond in a helpful way.
-        [Sunday Church School Directors:] Provide ongoing opportunities [for staff] to exchange information, share wins or concerns, and communicate regularly about how the Church can best serve the person and family.
-        Have realistic expectations.
-        Teach visually whenever possible.
-        Remember, in the church school setting, patience, consistency, and caring will bring progress. Don’t be discouraged if your student prefers to sit and watch instead of participating. They will benefit just by being at Church and in your class!
-        Be patient and respectful when someone with a communication disorder contributes in class. Give them time to respond. Through your example, help the class realize that he or she is an intelligent person who can share valuable insight and ideas.
-        Create a “buddy system” as a strategy that can bless persons with disabilities, their families, and the buddy!
Because the subject of removing barriers at a parish-wide level is so broad, it can easily seem overwhelming. By following the RBE method, goals of all levels can be created and achieved, even when starting small. By educating the parish on existing barriers and how to remove them, then “everyone is equipped with the knowledge to ensure safe learning and a clear understanding of the ministry, why we are serving, and what it means to be in true fellowship with one another.” (page 101)
To order Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly and begin the improvement process within your parish, visit www.faithtree.org. In addition to this book, Faithtree Resources continues to work at creating other resources to help churches become more disability-friendly. To stay informed of their newest materials, visit www.faithtree.org or email info@faithtree.org. Direct support from the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education (AODCE) is available by contacting Anna-Sarah Farha at aodce.csdirectors@gmail.com. Facebook groups organized by the AODCE for Sunday Church School Directors and Sunday Church School Teachers provide the opportunity to discuss removing barriers in Sunday Church School from an Orthodox Christian Education viewpoint in a supportive group forum:

Friday, March 9, 2018

Coordinating/Organizing a Small Church School Program

The Orthodox Christian Education Commission (OCEC) has provided suggestions within their 2017-2018 Curriculum Catalog for coordinating a church school program for parishes with small church schools - perhaps a one classroom school, or between two and four classrooms. 

The link to their catalog plus order forms can be found here: 

Quoting from page three of the catalog:

Not all churches have enough children to allow for separate grades in the church school. Several grades must be combined together in the same classroom. The open classroom concept is hardly new and has been developed in the public schools for years. It helps for us to think of those small schools as a small family living and learning about God together. A basic lesson can be taught to the whole group, and then children divide up into small groups or individually, according to age, work abilities, and interests. Projects all play a great part in such situations, and these activities must be worked out in advance and student-initiated. Older students need more challenge to understand and study the theme or concepts on their own level, at their own speed. Younger students need more teacher guidance and involvement. Here a few ways to organize this using the OCEC materials.

One Classroom School 
Although one class is possible, it is better to divide up into at least two groups for lessons. Where this is not possible, the home study book “Way of Life: Introducing Your child to the Orthodox Faith” can be used as an umbrella program for all ages. The material can be used as an umbrella program for all ages. The material can be divided to cover two years. The themes are the section headings from the book. [Throughout the catalog,] The books in italics are OCEC manuals that can be used. 

First year: Church—New Life in Jesus/New Life in the Church; Advent/Nativity—In the Beginning; Lent/ Pascha—Making Things Right/Jesus, the Promise of God 
Second year: Feast—Together with God; Home—The Wonder of it All/God, My Friends & Me; Major Saints— God Loves Us/Our Life in the Church 

Note: In the following sections the first book mentioned should be used this year. Other books can be used in succeeding years. Pre-school children have such unique needs that no matter the number, they should be placed in a separate area, using Pre-school manuals.

Two Classroom School 
1. Kindergarten–Second Grade Use Together With God; Then God Loves Us, New Life in Jesus/Making Things Right 
2. Third–Sixth Grade Use New Life in the Church; Then Jesus, the Promise of God, Our Life in the Church, In the Beginning 

Three Classroom School 
1. Pre-School–First Grade Use The Wonder of it All/God, My Friends, & Me; Then Together With God; Then God Loves Us 
2. Second–Third Grade Use New Life in Jesus/Making Things Right; Then New Life in the Church 
3. Fourth–Sixth Grade Use Jesus, The Promise of God; Then Our Life in the Church, In the Beginning 

Four Classroom School 
1. Pre-School–First Grade Use The Wonder of it All/God, My Friends, & Me; Then Together With God; Then God Loves Us 
2. Second–Third Grade Use New Life in Jesus/Making Things Right; Then New Life in the Church 
3. Fourth–Sixth Grade Use Jesus, The Promise of God; Then Our Life in the Church 
4. Sixth–Seventh Grade Use In the Beginning; Then Young Church 

Teens—Separate programs and classes should be arranged. Where numbers are very low, youth could serve as junior teachers with responsibility of helping and mastering the content.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Pinterest Lenten Resources for Orthodox Christian Church Schools

Blessed Fast!

St. Basil the Great’s Hymn of First Monday of Lent
“Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood, perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education has Pinterest boards specifically organized and dedicated to aiding church school staff and parents during the Lenten Season. Click on the links below for direct access.

Great Lent


Holy Week


Thursday, February 1, 2018

Interview with a Director of a Small Church School

Are you wondering what is it like inside other small church schools? 
How are they creatively working with resources...
How do they structure classes...
What curriculum/technology is being used...
What types of humanitarian projects are they doing...

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education (AODCE) has an ongoing series of interviews with church school directors throughout the Antiochian North American Archdiocese. Interviews can be found at: 

The most recent interview in the series is with Laila Ferris, director of the (small) church school at St. George Orthodox Church in El Paso, Texas. An abridged version is posted on the AODCE website, and the full version is available to you here:

Interview with Laila Ferris: Integrated Learning in the Digital Age

Laila Ferris has devoted 25 years and counting to serving as church school director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, El Paso, Texas. Presently, there are 37 students enrolled and classes are organized by groups of two grade levels, plus grades 8-12 together as one class.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?  
We use a combination of curricula/materials from the OCEC and from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to support our students’ learning.  We also use online lessons provided by our Archdiocese Department of Christian Education.  The teachers develop lesson plans that use active and engaging learning activities through which the lessons are taught and learned.   We are presently working towards developing more opportunities for learning activities via apps and web-based programs for our students (as the digital generation) to expand their learning experiences.  Our plan is to be able to purchase iPads for use in the classrooms to support digital projects. But in the meantime, the church school staff will continue to use their personal devices to grow our instructional lessons digitally.

Are there any ethnic components to your church school/Christian education ministry?  
We have a diverse ethnicity among our students, whose connection to each other is their faith.  We incorporate ethnic diversity in our lessons with our students for Feast day celebrations/family traditions and music.  For example, in preparation for Pascha, our children learn to sing "Christ Is Risen" in English, Arabic and Greek, as well as learning the responses to "Christ Is Risen, Indeed He Is Risen" in languages other than English.

Does your church school participate in Humanitarian projects as a group?          
Our church school supports and participates in our parish's and Teen SOYO's Humanitarian projects such as food drives, clothing drives, and toy drives. We also participate in our parish's annual Senior Citizen Christmas Dinner and Dance. Every December, approximately 400 community senior citizens living in Federal Housing Authority retirement centers attend. Students pack goodie bags for the senior citizens, serve them at the dinner, assist them in several ways, and even dance with them.  We feel that connections are important to the well-being of many people, but the actual act of serving others, in person, will give our students life experiences which will grow their sense of empathy in the Christian way. This is an integral part of who we are to be and following our faith in becoming servant leaders.

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?   
Challenges provide us with learning experiences and allow us to become better at what we do to support the teaching and learning of our faith with our students.  Challenges we have experienced are inconsistent attendance with some students over the years, and students not being on time for opening prayer with our parish priest. The church school staff have been diligent in letting students know that we miss them when they and their parents are not present.  We have implemented an incentive program for students who are present before opening prayer, known as our "Bible Buck" program. Students earn one "Bible Buck" for every Sunday that they are present prior to opening prayer.  We open our "Bible Buck" store for students to purchase religious items for themselves or family members.  The students now remind their parents to make sure that they get them to church school on time.

How does your parish show appreciation for church school staff?  
   Our parish family is truly supportive and appreciative of the church school staff. Their appreciation is shown through their support of the church staff's work by assisting, attending, contributing towards the staff's activities and classroom materials, and so on.  Their appreciation is also shown through words of thanks as well as "no" never being a part of their vocabulary for whatever may be needed by the staff.

What type(s) of training and resources specifically for church school directors can you recommend?
I believe that time is critical to ensure that church school staff can plan and discuss the upcoming year, share successful lessons and information, and work together as a team to support all the students in our church school.  I also feel that it is important for the church school staff to use their abilities and knowledge to engage the students in learning about their faith through a variety of resources and instructional methods. These include hands-on activities, digital activities, and creative projects.  The teacher/student relationship is also important. Church school staff need to get to know their students, their families, their interests, and their abilities. We can then better serve them through the right variety of resources and activities, and ensure their growing understanding of the Faith, not only in church school, but as they participate in Liturgy and practice at home and in their everyday life.  The responsibility to teach the children and teens of our parish is an awe-inspiring responsibility and the trust given to us to teach them is truly honorable and humbling.  We constantly remind ourselves of the quote stating, "our children are our future". But I also believe that they are our "present" which makes our work with them even more important, for the what occurs in the present ultimately impacts the future.  Hence, what we teach and what the students learn today, alongside their families, the parish priest, and the parish family, is how they will grow in their faith so that they may become followers of Christ for all of their lives.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Chapter Six: Guiding Principles

Christian Education in the Small Membership Church
Karen B. Tye
Chapter Six & Postscript Review by The Mustard Seed

We’ve covered a lot of material, considered many factors, focused on important guidelines, and widened our understanding of teaching and learning as we strive to build/improve the Christian education ministry within our small membership churches. Even though we already know this, it bears repeating: there is no one right way to do Christian education. So, what do we need to keep in mind as we educate in the small membership church? What guiding principles should remain before us as we think, dream, plan and do this important ministry? Certainly we refer often to the who, what, where, when, and how of Christian education as reminders of our mission. Additionally, the author provides big-picture insight and inspiration for education in the small church. Share these lovely quotes with your teachers during the year.

“Our small size is to be celebrated and cherished for the gifts it brings. We aren’t just a little church, or we don’t just have forty in worship on Sunday. We are a cell in the Body of Christ and can faithfully educate our members to do and live as God would have us. Small is beautiful.” (p. 84)

“Our work is to know and understand our particular small church and, working as a team with others in the church, to think through together what will work and what won’t in our educational ministry.”        (p. 85)

“Every community that wants to last beyond a single generation must concern itself with education…Whatever our size, education is essential in the community of faith.” (p. 85)

“Too often the resources we already have are hidden from view because we are focusing so much on what we don’t have…It is really a matter of learning to see in new ways. To use what we have, we have to see what we have. So start looking – you will be surprised at what you find!” (p. 87)

“Innovate, avoid ruts, adapt, and keep it interesting. That’s what the principle of imagine and improvise is all about.” (p. 87)

“…we don’t wait until failure is upon us to pray. Christian education in the small membership church is rooted and centered in prayer from the very beginning. Prayer reminds us of who’s really in charge here.” (p. 89)

“We cannot be too small to be faithful to God’s call. We cannot be too small to carry out effective Christian education. Without apology and without excuse, may we carry out the work of Christian education in the small membership church, knowing that God is with us and the world awaits. May we be faithful to the task!” (p. 91-92)

All quotes within this series of reviews are from the book “Christian Education in the Small Membership Church”, by Karen B. Tye, which is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books A Million. The book was reviewed by Anna-Sarah Farha, an associate of the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education. Anna-Sarah enthusiastically supports the needs and efforts of Sunday Church School Directors and can be reached at aodce.csdirectors@gmail.com. For further support, join the Orthodox community of church school directors on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OrthodoxChristianChurchSchoolDirectors

Let us, as educators and church school directors, consider the words of St. John Chrysostom from his Lessons of Education, “Having children is a matter of nature; but raising them and educating them in the virtues is a matter of mind and will…Your children will always be sufficiently wealthy if they receive from you a good upbringing that is able to order their moral life and behavior. Thus, strive not to make them rich, but rather to make them pious masters of their passions, rich in virtues. Teach them not to think up illusory needs, reckoning their worth according to worldly standards…The youth to whom you give a good upbringing will not only enjoy general respect, he will also become dearer to you yourselves! Your attachment to him will not be a mere natural attraction -- it will be the fruit of his virtue.”