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.

Monday, June 17, 2019

A House Church: Orthodox Christian Mission Church in Kenya

Since many small church schools are part of mission churches, students might enjoy learning about what a mission church outside of the United States looks like. 

Shared from the Orthodox Christian Sunday Church School Teachers blog, this article discusses the founding of St. Moses the African House Church through Orthodox Christian Mission Center:

"With so many beautiful churches setting the stage for most of Christian history, it can be easy to forget the humble beginnings of our sacred worship spaces. Before Christians could legally own property to build churches, however, worship took place right inside people’s homes.

Although most of us are able to worship in ornate churches today, Orthodox Christians around the world continue to worship in simple house churches too, as the Faith continues to spread and grow. In those places, it almost feels like being back in the New Testament epoch of the Church.

The St. Moses the African church in Kisumu, Kenya, is one such example of a modern-day house church. Since Kisumu - the 3rd largest city in Kenya - did not yet have a single Orthodox parish, OCMC Missionary Dr. Bill Black made plans to establish a community with a house church, with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Athanasios of blessed memory.
Dr. Black worked together with Father Ioannis from Kakamega to establish the St. Moses the African parish community, and they invited as many people as they could. Their first service was Palm Sunday 2018, with only 5 people present. It was a great help when the bishop ordained Fr. Hierotheos James Mukuria and assigned him to this parish, and one by one the community has continued to grow since then. One young woman invited her friends, several of whom continue to come and participate, and a number of children from the area where Fr. Hierotheos James lives have been coming to the church as well.

In addition to Sunday Liturgy, they have also been organizing fellowship gatherings on Wednesday nights, meeting in different people’s homes. This has proved effective in engaging people with their ministry outside Sunday services. In recent weeks they have seen more than 20 crowd into Dr. Black’s living room for the Divine Liturgy. Glory to God, they are hoping to baptize 10-15 on Holy Saturday before Pascha!

This parish community is still quite new, but through just a patient offering of services, more and more have found their way to this simple house church. These are the fruits of being faithful stewards of the Gospel treasure, and it’s exciting to follow the early development of this house church. Please keep the community of St. Moses the African in your prayers."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

A Team Approach to Sunday School Leadership

The following interview is with the Sunday School Leadership Team at Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Coral Gables, Florida. Although their's is not a small church school, the concept of team leadership is undoubtedly familiar in smaller parishes where volunteers wear many hats. Sharing the leadership responsibilities of a church school can make it manageable rather than overwhelming.

The Saint George Sunday Church School has an interesting leadership structure. There is a principal, vice principal, and a team of officers and coordinators. The official role and responsibilities of the Principal are defined as, “In charge of curriculum development and implementation. Maintaining a standard of student behavior designed to command respect and minimize classroom interruptions. Orienting/training staff.  Planning and conducting faculty meetings as necessary; planning and implementing Recognition Sunday Program.” A brief description of the additional positions are as follows:
Vice Principal - Support and assist Principal in all areas.
Secretary - Take minutes of meetings, keep all Sunday School records, maintain files at Church office.
Treasurer - Responsible for the financial management and reporting of the Sunday School finances.
Public Relations Coordinator - Promote a favorable image for the Sunday School by publicizing events and programs, writing/coordinating material for the newsletter.  Update Sunday School Facebook and Cathedral website information.  Update bulletin boards, photos.
Hallway Monitor - Ensure lights are turned on and classes are set up as needed.  Deliver snacks to each classroom after the teachers arrive. Ensure children stay in their respective classrooms until dismissal bell rings.
First Confession Program Coordinator - Present 2nd-3rd graders with an 11-week program that will explain the Sacraments of Confession in order to prepare the students for their first confession.
Creative Arts Festival Coordinator - Oratorical Festival, Bible Bowl, Art, Photography, Poetry, and Writing for Pre-K-12. (Feb-Mar)
Youth Choir Coordinator - Organize youth choir; maintain records and assist Choir Director to teach/train youth to participate during services and special occasions, especially the Christmas Concert.
Snack Team Coordinator - Create a rotating schedule and coordinate with parents to prepare students’ snacks.
Godparents Sunday Coordinator
Summer Bible School Coordinator

Wafa Omeish serves as Principal. Our thanks to her and the Sunday School team for participating in this interview. Please share with us a little about the Sunday School program at Saint George Cathedral. How many students attend your church school?
For the 2017-2018 Church year there were 85 students enrolled. This current year has an enrollment of 73 students.
How is your church school organized for Sunday classes?
All students proceed to class immediately after Holy Communion. They are served a light snack before the lesson begins. Class concludes at 1pm and students are dismissed into the Church Hall. Elementary students are grouped in classrooms by grade, and 7th-12th grades meet together. We are fortunate to have a Day School attached to the Cathedral (not affiliated with Saint George), and we utilize that classroom space for Sunday Church School.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?
Archdiocese curriculum and other designed materials and activities.

What type(s) of training does the teaching staff participate in?
Seminars conducted by our priest. We have previously had the pleasure of Archdeacon Saed Rihani leading a workshop for teachers. Throughout the church year, there are weekly "check in" meetings with the classes separately.

Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please briefly describe the meetings.
Meetings are held monthly. An agenda is prepared by Sunday School officers, including the review and approval of last meeting minutes, liturgy report, principal report, finance report, public relation report, old business and new business.

How does your parish show appreciation for church school staff?
Staff are recognized and thanked during Recognition Sunday at the end of the Sunday School year. Appreciation gifts are presented to all staff at that time. There is also a staff appreciation dinner at the end of Sunday School year. 

Please describe the First Confession program at Saint George Sunday School.
The First Confession Coordinator incorporates material about the Sacrament of Confession into the existing 2nd-3rd grade curriculum over the course of 11 weeks. Students participate in First Confession on Lazarus Saturday and take Communion as a group the next day (Palm Sunday) as well as on Pascha.  All the participating students dress in white.  Parents are invited to join the students on Lazarus Saturday  for a small reception to celebrate the occasion. 

Please describe the annual Church School Christmas Pageant.
The Cathedral Dean and Principal decide on a program that includes church hymns and religious songs to be performed during a 1-hour presentation the Sunday before Christmas. The presentation takes place at the Church immediately after Liturgy. Rehearsals start about three weeks before and are mandatory.

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?
Attendance is low at times. Staff contacts the families to encourage improvement.

What advice do you have for parishes wishing to establish/grow their church school? 
Be organized and creative. Especially stick to the teachings of the Bible, the main component of the Sunday School curriculum. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Best Way To Learn Is To Teach: Sunday School at a Mission Parish

Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education
Interview Series: Church School Directors Throughout the Archdiocese
Nancy McNeil, St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church, Woodway, TX
March 2019

Interview with Nancy McNeil: “The Best Way to Learn is to Teach.”
Please share with us a little about yourself and the St. Andrew Sunday School Program:
I have had the privilege to serve as Sunday Church School director in several different Orthodox parishes for over 20 years. In the 40+ years I have been Orthodox, I have continually worked with GOYA programs and Sunday Church Schools. My job as a public school teacher apparently just carried over into working with children at church.
How many students attend St. Andrew Sunday school? How is the program organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
St. Andrew is a smaller, 6-year-old mission parish and has a possible 24 students. Our average SCS attendance on Sundays is 17. We have divided the students into four classes this year with a 2-4 year-old class; a 5-8 year-old class; a 9-13 year-old class; and a high school class. Our youngest class has been blessed with a talented pre-school teacher who works with an aide. Our elementary class has two extremely dedicated teachers who have been working together since before their arrival at St. Andrew. I teach the intermediate/middle school class. Last year we added the high school class and enlisted a wonderful young couple to teach this class. Since we are still a young parish, we have been using the same teachers in each class since our inception. We did have to recruit for the high school class, and I reached out to a young couple who had recently converted and married in the Orthodox Church. They both teach in a local private school. They were slightly hesitant to take the call due to their newness to the church, but I reminded them that sometimes the best way to learn is to teach. They have brought their best teaching methods and their tremendous Biblical background to create a very effective high school class.
Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?
Our curricula fluctuate with our needs. Our pre-school class works without specific curricula and helps the students with the very basics from making the sign of the cross to stories and activities around the feasts or saints of the day. Our elementary class chose to use the “New Life in Jesus” OCEC curriculum this year. When their student group was younger, they used a variety of resources. I have also used a variety of curricula with the intermediate/middle school students. This year we are using the new GOARCH 5th grade “God Calls Us” series. The last several years I have used the OCEC materials for 7th and 8th grade. When we were just beginning our parish and I was teaching all the students together we used an excellent Old Testament curriculum developed by a deacon at our sister church in Austin along with “Let Us Attend.” I will comment that using the “Let Us Attend” with such a wide age group worked quite well for the short time we employed it. As I’m retired, I have the time to glean quite a bit of material from online resources. Our teachers seem to appreciate my sharing my finds with them as additions to our regular curricula.
Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please briefly describe the meetings.
Our short time of being a mission parish, yet, our continuous time working together has allowed our SCS staff to be able to communicate via email thus avoiding physical meetings. This year we had a short meeting in August after our weekly Wednesday vespers service to set our agenda and goals for the coming ecclesiastical year. Since we have been doing much of the same work for several years, we are able to do things such as our Nativity program without extra meetings. We talk at coffee hour, confirm, and communicate via email/text messages.
Describe how the parish recognizes or shows appreciation to Sunday School staff (year-end recognition, appreciation gifts, etc.)
As noted above, our being a small, younger parish means we are short of folks to rotate in and out of parish roles. Many of us have been doing the same work for the parish since its inception. As this is the case, the parish does not tend to recognize individuals; we are all working hard.  Parishioners have shown individual appreciation to our SCS staff and myself; and I attempt to acknowledge my staff at the Nativity. I look forward to when I can hand over the reins of the SCS to someone else and we can rotate roles in a timely manner.
Do St. Andrew Sunday school students participate in the creative arts festivals? If so, how are workshops organized to create entries?
St. Andrew parish is looking forward to participating in the Parish Life Conference in Fort Worth this coming summer. Our physical proximity to the conference will finally allow us to attend, though, one or two of our parishioners have participated in the past. As we are new to the PLC we will not be participating in the creative arts festival but hope to have several Bible Bowl teams. I have encouraged our older students around the creative arts festivals, though, we have yet to organize parish entries or workshops.
Do St. Andrew students organize and participate in events with other Orthodox Christian Sunday schools/youth in the area?
St. Andrew parish has had two events with the local Greek Orthodox parish this past year. My hope is to be able to host Vacation Church School together in the future along with other youth events. St. Andrew has had five successful VCS programs and I look forward to sharing our successes. Other Orthodox parishes are over 50 miles away so our interactions with their youth is difficult. We do encourage our children to participate in the diocese summer camp program and have had good attendance from our parish in the past several years.
What is one piece of advice you would share with fellow Sunday School Directors?
I have been blessed to work with a number of gifted and dedicated church educators and clergy over the years. My godmother, Irene Cassis, has been my inspiration and mentor for all my time in the Orthodox Church as she served as the Religious Education Director for Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and for the Metropolis of Denver.  Many years ago I was able to participate in several area and/or national Orthodox religious education and youth conferences. I encourage our Sunday Church School teachers and directors to take advantage of as much personal education and networking via conferences, workshops or retreats as they can. I am delighted that both GOARCH and OCEC work hard to keep our religious education materials updated and have been surprised with the number of Orthodox online groups sharing educational materials. I pray that our Orthodox religious education programs continue to develop as beacons of wisdom.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Holy Friday Vigil and Lock-In at a Small Church School

Several parishes encourage youth participation during Holy Friday Vigil - including scripture reading, singing of hymns, and overnight activities. A brochure from TEEN SOYO is available to aid in organizing this event:

Erica Ameen is the director of Sunday School and assistant director of SOYO for St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Sioux City, Iowa. She writes about the Holy Friday Vigil and Lock-In at her parish:

We are a smaller parish, so we have changed things a bit for our vigil from what was done in the past. We do a half night lock in, starting right after the 7:00 PM service Friday night, and we go until midnight. This is open to anyone age 12 and up. To get prepared for the night, I first hang a sign in the church hall asking adult parishioners to sign up for reading times, especially in the first hour of the lock in. The kids give us their food requests, because let's be honest, they have to have all the food. Really, that's as much as we do for prep anymore; if there are new kids that will be attending the lock in for the first time, then we will share about Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary sitting watch over Christ's tomb, and why we do it today.

We have two goals in doing the lock in: to sit vigil over Christ's tomb (and really prepare our hearts to understand the full reality of Christ's sacrifice for us), and then to strengthen the friendships between our kids. Our students are spread out within multiple schools in the area, and we want to really promote being friends outside of church and Sunday School, and that has happened in a huge way since we started doing the lock in a few years ago.

Our night runs a little like this-
After service we all meet downstairs. While we are setting up, adult members of the church start the readings and keeping vigil.The first thing we do is get everyone signed up for reading times. The kids sign up in pairs for 30-minute time slots. While they are taking turns keeping vigil, we have games going downstairs in the church hall. We have done a variety of games: Left Right Center with dice, Ten-Zee, Popcorn Olympics, Minute To Win It games. Last year, a random game of musical chairs broke out, completely unplanned and totally hilarious to watch. What is really awesome is watching the teens start to relax around each other, and really get to know each other. Someone is always keeping an eye on the clock, and each pair is ready to go up and start their turn to keep vigil. When they are upstairs in the sanctuary, it is their choice how they spend their time. They do go up together, but it is meant to be a personal growth time. Some take turns reading Psalms, some read various prayers, sometimes one will read from the Bible and the other will pray silently. All of them seem to leave the sanctuary with a better understanding of the sacrifice. 

There will be times that we have time slots open towards the end of the night, and we are never short of volunteers to go back up. What is really awesome is that by that point, as we have been playing games and hanging out together, the kids will pair up with someone completely different than their original partner.

For me, the last hour of the Vigil is the most important. As I mentioned before, our kids go to a variety of schools in the area, however it seems that they are all dealing with the same situations in school. Peer pressures, school and home pressures, all sorts of things that maybe don't seem to be such a big deal to adults, but we have to remember that is their life and what they are living. For the last hour of the night, my parent volunteers keep vigil over Christ's tomb while I take all the kids to the teen room for conversation. With the parents not around, the kids seem to open up a little more. During this time, I usually have some conversation starters ready to go, just from what I have seen and heard from the kids in the previous months. (Every Sunday we end Sunday School by praying all together. The kids all get a piece of paper to write prayer requests down, without leaving their names. The teachers of course know by handwriting who has written what, but the things we have learned doing this have been amazing, and that is usually how I get my conversation starters). For the last hour, I listen to these teens support each other, understand each other, give each other advice. I see the older teens helping the younger teens to know it will get better, or this is how I handled a situation just like that. I watch as the kids share their fears, and their accomplishments, and most of all I watch the love of Christ pour out to one another. The playing games at the beginning of the night is always fun, but really its just an ice breaker so that when we get to this point, they are comfortable to be open and honest with each other.

As far as safety is concerned, as soon as everyone has left the 7PM service, all doors are locked in the church. Anybody that would need into the church has to call my phone. We ask the kids leave their phones in coats so we don't have that as a distraction, and parents who aren't volunteering have my number in case of emergency. Boys are girls are not left alone together without a third party, unless siblings are reading together. There is always an adult present with kids.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Veteran Educator, Thriving SOYO Department, In-House Curriculum, Western Rite Parish

An Interview with Arlyn Kantz
St. Peter Antiochian Orthodox Church, Fort Worth, TX
Arlyn Kantz journeyed from an evangelical background to Orthodoxy seven years ago. She has taught history and Bible at St. Peter’s Classical school for the past six years and has served as director of Christian Education for the parish for the last three. Before becoming Orthodox, she worked in curriculum development for special populations while raising four children. She and Will, her husband of 25 years, recently handed off the reigns of a thriving SOYO department to capable younger hands.

How many students attend your Sunday school? How is your program organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
We have approximately sixty children in our parish, birth to eighteen. Twenty-two attend Sunday School on a regular basis. Sunday School meets after mass for forty-five minutes. Our children are organized into three classes: PreK-1st grade, 2nd-6th grade, and then 7th-12th grade. Our two younger classes do not hold firm to the boundary of age, depending on attendance and maturity and the preference of some children to be with a sibling. We do hold a firm line though on attending SOYO, as teens need a space of their own. We are blessed to have two teachers per level. Sometimes teachers rotate every other Sunday and sometimes they team teach depending on what is going on with their personal schedules and the number of children attending each Sunday.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes? Please also describe the curriculum created by St. Peter Christian Education Ministry.
SOYO leaders create their own program as they sense the needs of the group and are directly answerable to our priest, Fr. Mark McNary. Younger students are taught using in-house curriculum that has been tested through use in the lower grade Bible classes of our classical school. Sunday school teachers adjust lessons to be more applicable to mixed level classroom and a student population more sporadic in attendance. As lessons are polished, they are added to the parish web site where they are available to teachers to choose from and adjust to their specific needs. Our curriculum is always a work in progress. In fact, we welcome suggestions outside our parish to better serve, if possible, the wider community.
As the first Western Rite director to be interviewed, are there any unique characteristics of St. Peter Sunday school to discuss in comparison to Eastern Rite Sunday schools?
I am not familiar enough with Eastern Rite Sunday School programs to make a qualified comparison. I am confident that they, like us, are striving to make disciples and bring children into contact with the Holy Trinity and His Bride the Church. Because we are situated in a city that home to a large Protestant seminary, it seems good to us that our materials are presented as Bible studies and infused with commentary from the Fathers. We use terms most easily understood by the culture we are trying to reach. The saints and traditions are woven through, but as a support to scriptural interpretation, not as the lesson itself.
How do you keep SOYO/teen students involved and engaged in Sunday school? 
We are blessed with a very supportive priest in the area of teen SOYO. Additionally, we have two energetic and spiritually mature leaders who take the youth into their hearts, praying for them regularly and investing on a personal level. SOYO leadership creates an interactive atmosphere so teenagers are not subjected to simply a second sermon by an adult figure, but are given the freedom to interact, both asking and answering spiritual questions. A mixed set of activities are rotated including crafts, group building, introspection, and sharing.

Do members of your SOYO/teen group organize and participate in events outside of Sunday school?
SOYO youth provide leadership for younger students at the parish’s annual Vacation Bible School. This past year the teens created and manned games at a fall festival outreach for the local community. Youth leaders also issue challenges to encourage spiritual awareness during the week and fellowships are held in private homes.
Please share with us about your Sunday school Lenten programs/activities/outreach.
During Holy Week the youth lead off by manning the first hour of the Paschal vigil.
Do you have advice on how to schedule teacher training events and how to prevent teacher burnout? Are there any resources that you utilize for your own development and enrichment?
Teachers meet a couple time a year informally but most of our communication happens in passing and by email. Most of our volunteers are veteran educators so it is very much a team approach. Most of us come from Protestant backgrounds and are on a bit of an adventure rediscovering the Bible through the eyes of the Fathers. We very much lean on the commentary found in the Orthodox Study Bible and Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture by Manlio Simonetti. Teacher burnout is always a danger but having two adults committed to each classroom helps ease the problem. We are always looking for and praying about the inclusion of fresh volunteers, guarding against a sense of ownership of a particular ministry.

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 one student with severe autism who attends SOYO every week. The youth and their leaders have a deep appreciation for his purpose in the Body of Christ and are naturally inclusive. A presentation was given to the ladies group specially about autism and it seems to have affected positively the whole parish body.