Disclaimer: I don’t have the answers. I have the questions, perhaps, but I’m still working on answers.
2020. This year has been like no other. And like all of the other Sunday School Directors out there, my attention has moved from figuring out Virtual Vacation Church Camp to planning for the Fall 2020 Sunday School Semester, which promises to REALLY be like no other.
For me, Sunday School planning is usually about classroom assignments and finding a few more teachers… but this year, I don’t even know that we can use our tiny closet-sized classrooms (social distancing??? It’s a closet. No can do.) or that we’ll need a whole lot of teachers.
Our parish is able to celebrate the liturgy in person — we can support a limited capacity, with masks and social distancing. But that limited capacity is something like 125 people, and our Sunday School enrollment is at least that, not counting parents and teachers… so they can’t all come to church on the same day. Even if they could, a lot of us would still have to keep our medically fragile children home (as well as their siblings). And even if we found a way to get the kids and the teachers to the church on the same day, our classrooms are tiny. There’s no way to distance.
The possibility of holding Sunday School over Zoom is an option. Of course, last Spring we found that most of our kids suffered from serious Zoom fatigue. They are spending over 30 hours on Zoom as they attend all of their classes online.
And once we get them there, we honestly aren’t quite sure what to do with them. In an older class where discussion is the major component of class, we surely can converse over Zoom, but how will we teach preschool or second grade on Zoom?
Many regular schools will operate over Zoom, and it’s been suggested that we simply do what they’re doing, but I’m reluctant. We tend to follow the lead of academic instruction, but that’s not an Orthodox model. Orthodoxy is a lived faith, not an intellectual pursuit. The academic model can be useful, but it’s not really designed to pass on a true spiritual spark.
I am drawn back to my fundamental philosophy about religious education:
1 – We cannot be locked into academic models, because they are not really Orthodox in origin or function.
We can read a Bible story and talk about it, we can lead a discussion, but there’s one thing that really worries me: I honestly believe that no one can be taught into heaven. The Truth is not an idea, He’s a Person. This Orthodox faith is a lived faith, and we don’t teach it just by passing on information, but by showing love and cultivating relationships and role modeling. We can tell kids about Jesus, but unless we have shown them love and interest, unless we have developed a certain credibility and rapport with them, I’m not sure that we can really pass on the love of Christ. I am concerned about how to do that with a fresh new class. How do we get to know kids on Zoom? I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but it’s challenging. I am not yet excited or inspired by the idea of Zoom Sunday School.
2 – Traditionally, the parents pass on the Orthodox faith in the home, in the Little Church. The best youth and family ministries don’t rival this, they don’t replace this, but they support it. We should always be looking to equip and assist the parents in this mission.
Last Spring, Kristina Wenger and I expanded our Tending the Garden of Our Hearts weekly podcast into a weekly Virtual Sunday School lesson. This Fall, we’ll be doing that again, but in a new format. Beginning this September, we will offer a weekly lesson with:
– audio podcast (15 minute lesson, followed by the same comprehension and discussion questions you’ve come to expect from Tending the Garden)
– written lesson plan including transcript of podcast lesson and questions and other suggestions for in-person teaching (written simply and clearly for use by parents as well as teachers)
– printable worksheets/coloring pages
We are hoping to release the written portions in units of perhaps six or eight weeks at a time. The audio podcast will release weekly (perhaps on Thursdays?) but the written portion should be available in advance, in case teachers wish to use these lessons in a Sunday School classroom.
We are also planning a little passport feature, which would be a small booklet where the kids can mark off each lesson they complete as they move through the series.
Ideally, parents in parishes without Sunday School offerings this Fall will be able to lead their Little Churches with these lessons, and Sunday School teachers looking for curriculum can use these lessons to teach (and if you’re teaching over Zoom, you can send parents the printables in advance!)
Finally, Kristina and I will moderate a Facebook group where parents and teachers using the Tending the Garden of Our Hearts lessons can gather to compare notes and to offer assistance and wisdom. Maybe we can all work through this together? May God bless us with the creativity and strength we’ll need to keep up the religious education of our children without missing a beat, even during this pandemic.