Saturday, January 25, 2020

Common Ground: Small Church School/Large Church School

There are areas of commonality shared by church schools of all sizes, such as: 

-staff training and retention
-managing Sunday School calendars of events
-choosing curriculum
-space issues

In an interview with Kelly Hamwi, director of St. Elias Cathedral Church School in Ottawa, Ontario, Kelly touches on aspects on a large church school. But her remarks don't exclusively apply to large church schools.

The 2019-2020 school year marks Kelly’s fourth year serving as the Church School Director at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral. The parish currently has 270 children registered, with 12 individual classes from K4 (4-year olds) up to Grade 12. Due to a limited number of classrooms, the older grades are combined: one for grades 9/10 and the other for grades 11/12. On average, half of the registrants attend in any given week. Classes begin once the children have received communion during Sunday morning Liturgy. They run for approximately 45 minutes until 12:15 p.m. For the most part, there are two teachers, and in some cases, three teachers for each of the classes.

Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?
We use both the Antiochian and Greek Orthodox curriculum up to Grade 8. There is no formal set curriculum for grades 9 and up. Teachers are given the flexibility to teach the material that is most pertinent for the older students. This includes studies of the lives of the saints, feast days etc.

Did you have previous training/experience which prepared you for the Director role? If yes, please describe.
I served as a Church School teacher for 4 years before being called to the role of Director. As a teacher, I was able to see the challenges teachers face and the importance of training them to be able to best manage the classroom.

Are there books, resources, etc. that you would recommend to Directors for their own development / enrichment / training in the role of Director?
We provide training in September to kick-start the year (through the Department of Christian Education) both for the teachers and directors. This training is open to other parishes in the diocese. Not only is it beneficial to learn from more experienced educators/pastors but it also allows interactive discussions with fellow Church school directors and teachers. 

Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please describe the meetings.
Yes, we typically hold meetings once a month from September to May. Our meetings cover upcoming events, administrative updates, round-table discussions to address any challenges that teachers might be facing. In January we start off the New Year by designating a full brainstorming meeting to seek out new ideas to improve the Church School. We also bring in a guest speaker to come for at least one of our meetings just to spice things up a bit. During every meeting we are blessed to receive spiritual nutrition from our Pastor to inspire us.

Does St. Elias Sunday school participate in the Creative Arts Festival? If so, please describe how workshops, etc. are organized for students to create their entries.
Yes, we participate in the Creative Arts Festival - it is one of the highlights of our school year! This year we will be integrating a guest speaker who will go around and visit each class to discuss this year’s theme and get the students thinking. Materials are provided but teachers are free to integrate the festival theme however it works best for them. We hold a separate Saturday afternoon session with the teachers for all the students to come work on their artwork pieces as Sunday’s class can be quite restrictive in terms of time. 

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?
Some of the unexpected challenges I encountered over the course of the past few years include (in no particular order): working with a staff of predominantly university-aged teachers with limited availability outside the classroom; managing the many interdependent initiatives that are not distinctly part of the day-to-day Church School activities (e.g., Bible Bowl training, St. Elias Church Camp, Food for Hungry Program, humanitarian initiatives to teach the kids to live their faith, organizing annual training for teachers and directors, hosting dinners during Lent and running emergency safety drills). Most of these challenges have been overcome by delegating different roles amongst the teachers (including the assistant Church School Director) but also engaging and recruiting parents to take on a more active role. I foresee different challenges ahead with a growing Church school in terms of classroom space, maintaining teachers and managing our needs with the third-party users of the classrooms.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Choose a Sound Curriculum and Make Lessons Interesting, Engaging, Personal, Informative.

Subdeacon Alexei Shevyakov has served as Church School Director at St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada for five years. The program is divided into two groups: Levels I and II of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for Pre-K through 3rd Grade, and traditional classes with OCEC curriculum and Faithtree materials for students in 4th Grade and older. 

How many students attend your church school? How is your church school organized for Sunday classes (by age, by grade level, etc.) and how many teachers are assigned per class? 

In addition to our Atrium (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd), we have two Church School groups. The Younger Group is Grades 4-6 with 8 students this year. The Older Group has 11 students in Grades 7-10. 

We have two teachers assigned to each class; they choose their program and teach it in an alternating fashion. 

Our Church School runs on Saturdays prior to Vespers, for 1 hour, every week throughout September-May (minus big Church feasts and long weekends.) 

Please describe the Nativity program at St. Vincent of Lerins Church School.

We usually have plays prepared and practiced by students and teachers/other interested adults. For older students, for many years, we used to have a play dedicated to St. Nicholas (December 6) rather than at Christmas. Then after the play, our priest would give out gifts as “from St. Nicholas,” and have pictures taken with every child separately. 

At Christmas, with younger kids, our parishioners usually prepare a Christmas Pageant; it’s held at an older folks’ long-term care facility. 

Are there any ethnic components to your church school/Christian education ministry? 

In addition to a wide mix of nations that already existed in the parish, including English, French, German/Mennonite, Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Iranian, Egyptian and other backgrounds, in the recent years, we have had a number of Orthodox immigrants from Africa who joined our parish. 

What advice do you have for parishes wishing to establish/grow their church school?

There needs to be a serious attitude to Church school among parents and teachers, then kids will see it. One should choose a sound curriculum and make lessons interesting, engaging, personal, informative. Our teachers follow books/course notes, but also use video and graphical aids, and engage students in different ways. There are homework assignments. 

In order to raise awareness of our “serious intentions” in newcomer families, we have established a registration procedure, in the beginning of every school year, outlining the necessity of regular attendance, parent cooperation and support in homework and other activities 

Are there ways in which you encourage consistent attendance? Perhaps through incentives, communication with parents, etc.? 

See above…. Plus, regular emails. 

Please describe almsgiving/outreach programs at St. Vincent of Lerins Church School. 

These are done through the Youth Group which is separate from Church School and is run by different people. 

What type(s) of training and resources specifically for church school director personal/professional development can you recommend? 

The best way to find something is ask people (often in other parishes) who many know. 

I believe church school directors should be well-educated people, not only in Christian faith, but literature overall. This will always help find or prepare right materials. The same pertains to choosing candidates for teachers – people who are both deeply knowledgeable, well-read, and deeply faithful – good role models of Christians for the students! 

Thursday, October 3, 2019

FREE Curriculum for Middle School from The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education

Now Available: "My Orthodox Church," a New Program for Middle School Students (free to download and share).

"My Orthodox Church" is a middle school program of nine lessons based on seven questions frequently asked of Orthodox Christians by non-Orthodox friends and acquaintances.

It provides a platform for students and teachers to engage with our faith and bring knowledge and understanding of the faith to the task of identity-building. The materials used for researching the answers are from both The Orthodox Study Bible and from pamphlets from Ancient Faith Publishing that are available at most parishes.

How is this program relevant?
Opportunity to learn about and examine our faith and its meaning in our lives.
Platform for students and teachers to engage and identify with our faith.
Prepares students for questions about Orthodox Christianity they will face throughout their lives.
Fun way to reinforce why we believe what we believe as Orthodox Christians.
Provides students opportunity to explore and express ideas about our faith in a safe space with peers who share their belief.

Additional ways to use this program:
Supplemental program to current curriculum.
Basis for Vacation Church School program.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Four teachers working together to accomplish their goals for Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.

Pictured here: The four VBS and Sunday school teachers from St. George 
on their last day of VBS this summer (2019). 

Sarah Fothergill is a church school teacher at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Kearney, NE. She was kind enough to share about Vacation Church School 2019 at the parish, and she also shared VCS resources from 2018 and 2019 (student workbooks for 2nd-8th grade students) that were created by St. George teachers. Invaluable!

Link to the VCS 2018 Workbook: Armor of God

Link to the VCS 2019 Workbook: Where Your Treasure Is, There Your Heart Will Be Also

How many students attended your church school for the 2018-2019 school year? 
We had approximately 20 students attend on a regular basis.

How many students attended Vacation Bible School 2019 and what was the age range?
We had 28 students, ages 3 through 13.

Please describe the registration process for students.
We asked parents to register (for free) via e-mail, Facebook, or on a card located in our parish hall. We asked for registration information to be completed a week prior to the start of VBS. Registration cards asked for parent names, contact info, children’s names, ages, allergy information, and t-shirt size. All students receive a free t-shirt with the theme on the front. The kids love wearing these shirts year-round and it’s a great way to “advertise” VCS and our bible verses to friends and our community. 

How did you establish the theme and develop the curriculum/materials?
The teachers typically meet at the beginning of the summer to discuss ideas. Our first curriculum  was Kh. Gigi Shadid’s “Time to Go to Church” and our second curriculum was “Behold the Light” from the GOA. For the past three years, we have written our own curriculum. Our themes were Fruits of the Spirit (2017), Armor of God (2018), and Treasures of the Heart (2019). We try to make sure that our lessons include Scripture memorization, Scripture study and learning about the saints. Our crafts have included making prayer ropes, icons, wind chimes for the church, prayer rocks, and popsicle stick memory verse helpers. 
For our youngest age group, verse memorization incorporated pictures since most of them could not read yet. We found songs online that were suitable (many of them word for word from Scripture) that helped this age group learn their verses. Lesson times were often coordinated with a hands-on activity so the children could listen and participate while keeping their hands busy. For example, we created Play Doh fruit while learning about one of the Fruit of the Spirit. 
We also enjoy using “kindness coins” each year which we distribute to students when we see them helping one another, volunteering answers in class, and being extra kind to other students and adults. The students can cash in their kindness coins at the Kindness Prize Store on the last day of VBS to purchase items like candy, small toys, journals, crosses, prayer ropes, and stickers.

How many days did Vacation Bible School run? Please give us an idea of the average daily schedule.
We ran our VBS Monday through Friday, from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm. Monday through Thursday began with morning prayers and hymns in the church sanctuary followed by a message from our priest. Then we separated into classes for lessons, activities, songs, and verse memorization. We had a snack break and then finished our lessons and completed crafts. This year we had two classes (ages 3 through 1st grade in one class, and 2nd-5th grade in the other. We also had breakout sessions for grades 6 and up). At the end of the day, we met in the sanctuary for a puppet show highlighting the week’s theme and finished with closing hymns. On Friday, we walked to a nearby park for a sack lunch and fun time playing at the splash ground. 

How did you publicize details about Vacation Bible School to the parish (bulletin, email, flyers, social media, etc.)?
We advertised in our church bulletin, newsletter, and Facebook group. 

Were other parishes invited to participate (Protestant, Catholic, Pan-Orthodox)?
Invitations were not sent to other parishes, but we did have some non-Orthodox children attend who were relatives or friends of our parish children. We have found that our VBS week is a neat way to introduce families and friends to Orthodoxy and the importance that the Orthodox Church places on teaching our children about their faith.

How many staff were recruited?
We had four teachers (2 in each classroom). We also had a couple of volunteers help in each class. Several parishioners offered snacks.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Christian Education at the Parish and the Diocesan Level

We are pleased to introduce Anne Beach as part of the ongoing series of interviews with church school directors. Anne served as church school director of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church (Brier, WA) from the fall of 2005 through May of 2019. She is also the Diocesan Coordinator for the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West (Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education), serving the Pacific Northwest area. In this role, Anne schedules, organizes, and provides educator workshops as requested, and advises and trains Church School personnel. Additionally, Anne recruits the Creative Festivals Chair for the Northwest.

How many students attended your church school for the 2018-2019 school year? How is your church school organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
We had 29 students attend our church school program this year. Our classes are divided by school grade, differences occur from year to year - some are single grade, some are two grades depending on the number of students. This past year we had 3’s & 4’s combined, kinder, no 1st grade students, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th & 6th grade, no 7th grade students, one 8th grade student who joined the 9th/10th grade class, and 11th/12th grade class. Classes have patron saints; several years ago, we decided to take our class patrons from the lists of North American saints. We have at least one teacher per class. We have had teachers with assistants, co-teachers, and teachers who alternated Sundays. We try to be flexible based on our student numbers, their needs, and teacher preferences.
Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?
Currently, we use the OCEC curricula for kindergarten through 8th grade. The preschool classes (ages 3 and 4) use the Let Us Attend lessons from the AODCE website. Our high school classes are split with the 9th/10th grade doing an overview of the Bible (Orthodox Study Bible as the primary text), and the 11th/12th grade class doing one year of church history and one year of catechism – this curriculum is under development.
How do you keep teen/SOYO students involved and engaged in Sunday school?
This is definitely a challenge. We have some students who continue through their high school graduation, we have others who never quite finish the last year, and some who stop attending church school after 8th or 9th grade. We are a small parish and our high school students have historically been a small group. Our teachers strive to develop positive relationships with our teens that will encourage their continued participation in church school.
Please describe one or more of the Department of Christian Education workshops that St. Paul has hosted for educators (Teacher Training I, etc.).
St. Paul has hosted several teacher training workshops. Teacher Training I was provided in two separate years, once many years past, and once in 2016 along with the 2016 Northwest Pan-Orthodox Continuing Education Conference. A Teacher Training II workshop was held in 2017. We were blessed to have the participation of many parishes across jurisdictions and across Washington State.
Please describe Christian Education opportunities for St. Paul students outside the classroom: youth choir, almsgiving/service project, Lenten activities, seasonal events, mentoring, Pan-Orthodox youth events, other.
The choir at St Paul is open to youth beginning at age 13 with prior approval. Students are encouraged to participate in feast day activities such as helping with the egg hunt, helping to staff the children’s activities (face painting, 3-legged race, egg toss, etc.). St Paul has also collected items for the school and hygiene kits distributed through IOCC – youth are encouraged to help put these kits together. Our youth also have traditionally prepared our breakfast on Lazarus Saturday. Given our small numbers, students are encouraged to participate in any activities or ministries that interest them, feeding the homeless, helping with church-wide clean ups, singing in the choir, serving in the altar, caring for younger children, and many activities during Holy Week as we prepare for Pascha.
Are there students with special needs in your Sunday school ministry, and how have you addressed and accommodated those needs so that all students feel welcomed?

We have had students with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, and hearing loss, as well other physical and developmental disabilities in our church school program across many years. Students participate as much as they are able. St. Paul welcomes all students in our church school program. At times, per parent request, a student has attended class with younger children, other times, we have simply asked parents for information that helps us to more faithfully serve their child. We have also on occasion requested parents to attend class with their child when behaviors or needs exceed the teacher’s training, skills, and/or ability to continue teaching the class.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Dr. Pat's Orthodox Super Sunday School Curriculum

Do you know about Dr. Pat's Orthodox Super Sunday School Curriculum? Created with a small parish/small church school in mind, the curriculum is appropriate for PK-12th grade. 

Are you curious? A little excited about the possibility of FREE curriculum that is already geared toward a small church school and is already being used successfully in small church schools?

Visit the website for a full overview:

From the website:
The goal of this curriculum was to meet the needs of the mission or small parish for a unified curriculum, flexible to varying numbers of students of varying ages. The entire curriculum repeats every four years, each time with increasing depth. A child born in the parish will have the comprehensive material repeated three times during his Church School career (but in greater depth each time); a newly arrived child will have a full and comprehensive education even if he joins the parish as a teen.....Facilities, well, a bit sparse? Meeting in a stairwell or a closet? Can’t do detailed crafts? We’ve found it easy to put a minimal supply for each class in a plastic bin which can be carried in each and every Sunday. For craft time…consider a year-long scrapbook. Copy the coloring page for the younger children from the Parents’ Guide, mount it,  decorate it, and place it in a binder or folder for the child to keep as his “book.” Older children can decorate a page with his or her own illustrations from the lesson. Teachers burning out? Consider a rotation of teachers even for a very small church school -- no one, not even the Church School director, wants to miss coffee hour every Sunday! Small group of children of wildly different ages? Choose the levels that work best for the majority of the children, use what you need, and vary it from year to year as the ages of the children change.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Goal Is To Be Engaged With Each Other

The following interview comes from Matthew Duncan, Sunday Church School Director at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church (Pawtucket, RI). Matthew served his first year as director in the 
2018-2019 school year, and brought enthusiasm and new ideas to the role. 

How long have you served as Church School Director?
This is my first year as Sunday School Director at St. Mary. Before that I taught our teen Sunday School class and was the SOYO adviser.

How many students attend your church school? How is your church school organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
We have about 50 students on our rolls (but we don’t get that many on a weekly basis). Currently, our Sunday School is made up of four classes: preschool-kindergarten, 1st-3rd grade, 4th/5th grade, and middle school/high school. Each class has one teacher, except the middle school/high school class, which has two teachers. We also have a music teacher who teaches our students Liturgical music every other week. Our teachers—Jiana Dayekh, Nancy Muller, Holly Lazieh, Elijah Vollendorf, Andrea Vollendorf, and Maureen Gurghigian—are all extremely hardworking and dedicated. We’re very lucky to have them in our Sunday School.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?
Right now each teacher is responsible for their own curriculum—in consultation with me, the other teachers, and our priest, Fr. Elie Estephan. But we are working toward developing a more consistent, coherent curriculum—particularly for the younger classes. Specifically, we are starting to implement an Orthodox version of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd ( We’ve done a lot of research on this and talked to a lot of other Sunday School Directors, and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd seems to be the best game in town.

How do you use summer months to prepare for the next church school year?
Last year we started a (now-annual) summer camp for our Sunday School students. It goes all day for a week, and includes Bible and music lessons, arts and crafts, games, etc. We have also been working to provide our parents with resources so that they can continue their students’ religious education at home—whether during the summer or just during the week.

Is there some type training/orientation for teachers during summer/fall months? If so, please describe.
We haven’t had any formal training for our teachers in the past. But we have started meeting regularly to discuss all things Sunday School. We met a bunch of times this past summer and have been meeting monthly during the school year. Also, this summer we hope to have two of our teachers participate in a week-long training session for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

How do you approach potential volunteers for church school? What approach have you found to work best?
I suppose my general approach has been to just start a conversation with potential volunteers—at coffee hour, over email, on the phone, or wherever. These conversations aren’t always about signing up for anything or even about the particulars of Sunday School. Oftentimes I just want to hear their ideas. I suppose this has made it easier to bring people into the Sunday School fold and to ask for help when we need it, though that’s not generally been my intention in starting these conversations. Our parishioners are pretty good about stepping up to the plate when we ask for help—especially, I think, when their ideas are taken seriously.

Please describe how the church school year opens.
Our summer camp is in August. So that serves as a springboard into the Sunday School year. Then, in September, on the first day of Sunday School, Fr. Elie blesses the students and teachers, we then do introductions in the classrooms with students, teachers, and parents. Then we have a special Sunday School luncheon.

Are there plans to develop/implement any new programs or events in the new church school year (2019-2020)? If so, please describe.
As a new project, we have started a series of liturgical demonstrations—led by Fr. Elie—either before the Liturgy or during the Homily. Topics have included the preparation of the blessed bread, the censer, vestments, confession, and the bier. The aim is to give our students (and adults!) a behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts education about the Liturgy. And the more general aim is get our students more involved in the liturgical life of the church. To this end, our music teacher, Maureen Gurghigian, has also led our students in singing the Communion Hymns during Communion. We aim to have them do a whole Liturgy sometime in the Fall.

We’ve also added a bunch of social/fellowship events to our calendar—my wife, Megan, and another parishioner, Nancy Sterpis, have been handling event planning. We’ve gone bowling, roller skating, had a harvest party and a one-day Church camp, for example. This year we hope to have some events where the adults can interact more with each other while their kids are doing some activity.

By the time this interview comes out, we will also have hosted a YES (Youth Equipped to Serve; trip at our parish. We hope to make that a regular thing. And, toward the end of this summer, the folks at “Be the Bee” are coming to our parish to lead a retreat for our kids, parents, and teachers. Then, of course, there’s also our implementation of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which has benefited from the hard work of our teachers—especially Nancy Muller and Jiana Dayekh, whose classes are most directly impacted.

So we have a lot of new things going on. The goal is be engaged with each other—students, teachers, parents, Fr. Elie—on a more consistent basis, because we realize that Orthodox education isn’t, and can’t be, just be a once-a-week, one hour thing.

Please describe almsgiving/outreach programs at St. Mary Church School.
In addition to our YES trip, our students have been involved in several one-off outreach events. For example, each year we put together thanksgiving baskets for some nearby folks who could use some help. Also, this past year, around Christmas time, we collected gifts that we then distributed to kids in less fortunate circumstances. Our SOYO has also done some things—I know this year they plan to start a monthly raffle during coffee hour that will directly benefit outreach. We have also partnered with our parish-wide outreach committee to help with their soup kitchen and food pantry.

I want to do more of this. And I would love to find a consistent, long-term connection with some outreach program. This is super important to me. In fact, I consider outreach to be absolutely essential to Orthodox education.