Monday, October 12, 2020

Small Church School 2020: At-Home Christian Education

Beginning Spring 2020, most Sunday church schools paused in-person classes due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. That doesn't mean Christian Education was paused. Church school directors and teachers quickly mobilized to provide resources to families so that Christian Education could continue, now in the "original small church school" - the home. Their efforts evolved into a variety of programs, whether it be weekly emails to families with Gospel readings and printable worksheets attached, or live virtual classes, and even activity kits arriving in the mail with handwritten notes from the church school staff. The connection between educators and students was never lost, and as a result, the 2020 version of the small church school blossomed. 

A beautiful example of the new small church school is shared with permission from Kh. Destinie Winn, author of the Ascetic Life of Motherhood blog. She describes her family's recent experience with the Orthodox Christian Ed program "Rooted in Prayer" (Ancient Faith Publishing) as she and her two daughters attended virtual Kids Club during the Diocese of Miami & the Southeast Fall Retreat (Antiochian)

"This past weekend we tuned into Kids Camp for our Diocese’s Fall Virtual Retreat. I must admit, I was a bit skeptical of how the girls would handle 2-1/2 hours in front of a computer screen but we gave it a shot, and to my amazement... they LOVED IT! It was so engaging, hands on, developmentally appropriate and we learned all about intercessory prayer and the life of St Paraskevi.

One great benefit was the teachers provided us with a supply list ahead of time for both the craft and snack time. All of the items were things we already had at home so collecting them was easy.
A major highlight was “banana sushi” which Mrs. Caitlyn showed them how to make out of dessert items around the house and we talked about the origins of all those items and how we can remember to pray for people in those places all over the world! Then Mrs. Caitlyn showed us how to decorate a frame so we can keep a list on our altar of names of people we want to pray for. I will cherish those little frames forever! They turned out beautifully!

As I said, it was engaging, interactive and I even ended about learning more about a saint that I didn’t know very much about. I’m thankful for all the hard work that Mrs. Anna-Sarah, Mrs. Caitlyn, and Mrs. Sueanna put forth to make this program fun for my girls, and for other families in our Diocese (DOMSE). God bless you all!"

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

When Directing a Small Church School, Be Excited and Stay Flexible!

Interview with Yuliya Warner: “When Directing a small church school, be excited and stay flexible!”

Yuliya has served as Sunday Church School Director at St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church (Melbourne, FL) for six years. She was also the primary teacher for the program. Students meet in the same classroom and share a lesson, with an average attendance of 2-8 children per Sunday.

Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?
I use Orthodox Christian Education Commission materials as a base, along with various online resources to create my own lessons, since at times the students range in age from 4-17 years old. In addition, I occasionally use the Sunday Gospel for Children from Let Us Attend on the Department of Christian Education website (I add it to the bulletin with either a crossword puzzle or coloring page).

How do you organize a lesson that works well for all ages since you don’t know in advance which ages of students will be attending on any given Sunday?
I prepare for all ages just in case. We have a computer and printer available at our church, so if something unexpected comes up I can quickly adjust and print more materials. Also, I always keep various craft materials in our classroom.

Please describe one or more of the ways that you communicate with parents about Church School so that they feel connected even if their children are not able to attend on some Sundays.
We connect by email, text, or phone call. I email links with our weekly news announcements (I do “St. Anthony’s News” email on Sunday and the weekly bulletin, so I can add Sunday school news and materials to it). For the Creative Arts Festival, if children are not there for a period of time, I mail materials with a prepaid return envelope (this works better than just emailing a link for Creative Arts Festival to the parents).

Please describe a Church School event that happened outside of church.
All the kids were invited for a trip to the zoo. All costs were covered by the Sunday school fund. We had only two kids (ages 4 and 12) and one parent. Our theme for the trip was the beauty and wonder of God’s creations. We fed a giraffe, saw wonderful animals, and got to explore nature. We took a short break to share food (I had a cooler with food and drinks). Fr. Elia joined us for lunch and led us in prayer before the meal. We sat on the rocking chairs by the lake, watched the fish and birds, and talked about life. There is a lot to say about our trip. It was so much fun! I love field trips because they help us to get to know each other better. At the end, we had even more fun running to the car in the rain. The feeling of togetherness and friendship is the best!

What advice do you have for directors who are building church schools in small parishes? 
There is no formula, but I would say don’t get discouraged, stay excited, be flexible, and make more community events to show what you have to offer. People move constantly, so try to keep in touch with kids who left. Let them know that they have a home at your church and that they are loved by their church family. Also, work together with your priest to further improve church schools.

What is a short-term goal that you have for St. Anthony Church School?
The attendance is very inconsistent, so it is difficult to make plans. I would like to have a computer in our classroom to engage my students and increase participation.

Church School activities outside the classroom:
Camp days: Fr. Elia and I make three camp days throughout the school year. First, we come up with a theme. For example, our last theme was “Priest’s Vestments”. Next, he prepares a conversation about it. Sometimes I send him my ideas and links to look at. During camp, we pray in the morning, have breakfast together, then go in for Abouna’s talk, and do some Q&As. After the talk, I have a conversation with the kids about Father’s speech while making a themed craft or poster. We show our creations on Sunday to the whole parish by putting it on our bulletin board. 
Field Trip: Fr. Elia and I always make sure to plan at least one field trip during summer.
Christmas play: We do a Christmas play every year. Sometimes just kids, sometimes with the whole parish (whoever wants to participate). I usually conduct the play, but anyone can give advice, help with music, costumes, props, or suggest text for the play (which I often alter to fit our small parish).
St. Ignatius Dinner and Special Olympics Fundraiser: We organize a luncheon with kids and parents to raise money. 
Holiday celebrations: I ask children, teens and parents to get involved with cooking and decorating for holiday events.
Angel Tree: In November, children, with help from the adults, decorate our Christmas tree for the Salvation Army angels. After that is over and gifts are delivered, we decorate it for Christmas. I try to get all of our children, big and small, involved in the life of our Church.
Feast Day Lessons: Every week before a Feast day, I put together a lesson to educate the children about certain details to pay attention to during the service. We usually cancel Sunday school for Feast days, so children can witness and learn our traditions and services. I am usually involved in organizing Feast celebration luncheons, so I ask the children to help with flower arrangements, setting up tables, and decorations. 

In our small Church there is always enough work for everyone. Participating in all activities teaches children to love one another, be attentive, and serve God by serving others. We are a Church Family.

Approaches to Making Sunday School Welcoming to All Students, part 1

For the month of January, 2020, posts on the Orthodox Christian Church School Directors Facebook page focused on approaches to making Sunday Church Schools welcoming to all students, based on recommendations from Summer Kinard’s book, "Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability". These are practical recommendations that can easily be implemented by church schools of all sizes, and that can make a positive difference right away. E-book or hard copy is available at Ancient Faith Store:
Here is a compilation of the posts for Days 1-7.

(Day 1) Approaches to making Sunday School welcoming for all: 

"We need to find ways to begin in three areas: First, we need to learn how to greet people [children] with disabilities so that we honor the image of God in them and share the love of Christ with them. Second, we need to learn how to offer help when a person [child] comes to us with chronic needs rather than acute illnesses. Third, we need to learn how to ask for help, both from one another and the saints."
(p. 57, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 2) Greeting visitors with disabilities
"Look at them with love, the way you would look at a holy icon. You might need to practice, but looking at each person with the intention of loving God will be good for you and for the person who comes to the door.
Don't touch them unless you're asked to do so or unless they reach out to you first. This isn't to be cold. It's because many disabilities make touch confusing or dangerous, for reasons including fragile hands or balance or sensory-processing differences. If people arrive in wheelchairs, they will feel more comfortable if they or their designated caregiver are the only persons moving them. Welcome them with standard greetings. "Good morning," Good evening," and "Welcome" are good beginnings. Add, "I'm so glad you're here." People are at church because God has called them to be there. Don't turn them away."
(p.58, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 3) Designate a "Calm Space"         
"If you see a family looking stressed and you know a place they might go in the church [church school] to have a peaceful space to calm down, quietly mention the space to them and silently make sure they can get there. Meltdowns from overwhelmed family members are never helped by touches from strangers or extra noise. Preparing the way for them will help them use their strategies to gather themselves again more easily."

(p.58-59, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 4) Asking how to help
"If you want to know how to help a family with disabilities, keep your talk simple and find the parents or adult when it's quiet. Say simply, "I want to help you feel welcome at church because I know God loves you, and I want to love you, too." If there's a symptom that concerns you, ask about it without judgement...Start with, "I noticed" and show that you see that the person with a disability is someone who is really there, participating in God."
(p.60-61, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 5) Patron Saints of various disabilities
"For instance, St. Paraskevi helps people with impairments to their eyes, and St. Seraphim of Sarov is a favorite saint among autistic Orthodox Christians. Consider offering icons of patron saints of different disabilities to include in your church learning areas. How do you pray with these patron saints at home?"

(p.64, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 6) Remove social and physical barriers
"To remove handicaps, we must remove social and physical barriers to participation in the full life of the Church. "A barrier is any space too narrow, too high, too low, too unstable, or too hard to manipulate or negotiate," as well as social barriers like isolation, exclusion, and failure to communicate. When we work to include others, we will offer not only the ability to move into and through space freely and safely, but also "the gift of genuine friendship," "
(p.84, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

(Day 7) Ask to understand
“Ask people to tell you about themselves and their needs, use the language about disabilities that they use for themselves, and accept them as fellow members of the Body of Christ. It’s important to look at someone who comes to church as though he or she is sacred and loved and welcomed, as we would welcome holy angels and Christ Himself. A church member or visitor might have a visible birth defect, unusual eye contact or expressions, missing eyes or ears, a cleft palate, a large birthmark, unusual head shape, chronic skin condition, missing or differently shaped limbs, a feeding tube or other visible medical equipment attached to him or her, or a facial structure that indicates a chromosomal difference or unusual bodily development. No matter the difference, remember that the person in front of you is made in the image of God. When God looks at that person, he sees an image of himself.”
(p. 84, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, Summer Kinard)

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.