As summer comes to a close and teachers begin to prepare for a new year of Sunday School, the most common question I hear is: what are you teaching in high school?
While there is no perfect curriculum, there are many good options for younger classes, but once you reach middle and high school, the options thin out significantly.
The difficult lack of curriculum is compounded by the teacher’s well-founded concern that adolescents have different needs, interests and expectations than younger students. In kindergarten, you can read a Bible study and offer a coloring page and they’ll all be pretty happy with you (though even there, we can do much better if we try!) In fifth grade, you can teach Old Testament stories and let the kids act them out, and most of your students will go home delighted with the experience, and recalling quite a bit about the prophet you introduced. But once you reach eighth grade — or yikes, eleventh grade — you’ll find that your well-prepared and exciting lesson elicits rolled eyes and yawns.
Adolescents make us nervous.
We are not just afraid of losing their attention and interest — we are afraid that we are about to lose them. They’re headed out the door to college or to young adulthood, and those are the years when people walk away from the Church. We know that we have just a few more years left, maybe just a few more lessons left, before they have completed Sunday School and head out into that great, scary beyond. We feel like we are going to have to pack all of the knowledge into them before they go, so that they’ll be prepared and ready and won’t ever ever stop being Orthodox.
No wonder this causes so much anxiety.
If your plan is to shove their brains full of Church data, you should be nervous, because it’s not going to work. If we’re just offering lists — these are the sacraments, these are the sins, these are the dates of the Ecumenical Councils — they may very well head out into the freedom of the future and leave our long lists of rules by the wayside. Rules aren’t much fun, and they aren’t very popular these days.
Most of our kids actually know these things by the time they reach their teenage years. Most of these kids were raised in the Sunday School, and they have learned the meanings of the feasts and why we fast and what the passions are. Unless we are teaching these topics in a different and compelling way which doesn’t just repeat information they already know, but presents everything in a completely new light, we should expect them to be bored.
The real question we need to ask ourselves is: what is the one thing needful? what is the one useful thing we can impart to them, so that after they complete Sunday School they continue to engage in a spiritual journey of growth and learning?
I would argue that the one thing they will need is a thirst for Jesus Christ.
If they leave Sunday School convinced that it is worthwhile and important to pursue a relationship with Him, then they will be able to put all of those tools into action — the praying and the fasting, receiving sacraments and seeking guidance from their priest.
If they leave Sunday School knowing all about the tools and the Church history and the details, but have no particular interest in growing closer to Christ, then they will leave those tools aside — just as the man without a yard has no interest in lawn mowers and hedge trimmers. People who don’t yearn to know Christ will not want the tools to approach Him.
I have been asking myself how to pass on a love of Christ, how to inspire a thirst.
First, I think we need to pray. We need to be praying for our students before the classes are even formed, and before class begins on Sunday morning we need to be praying for the Holy Spirit to breathe life into our words and to reach into their hearts.
We need to choose our materials well.
This year, my class will read the Gospel of John. It occurs to me that they have read parables and that they know some stories from the Scriptures, but that they have probably never picked up a Bible and read one of its books from cover to cover. Armed with a wonderful commentary on the Gospel written by Vladyka Dmitri Royster of blessed memory, our beloved Archbishop of Dallas and the South whose commentary which incorporates the Church Fathers and his own brilliant teaching and insight has been recently posthumously published, my teaching partner and I will read the Gospel of John with our students.
Christ is in the Scriptures; I want to help them find Him there.
We use a lot of Be the Bee videos in our classrooms. They’re wonderful for getting the kids’ attention and fitting in lots of information quickly — and then we unpack that information in the following conversation. The kids are always excited to see that there will be a video, and they appreciate the fast pace and the way that this series respects their intellect and the knowledge they already possess. I highly recommend these videos for any classroom. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment — one laptop in the front of the room is a good start.
My daughter, Andja, is seventeen and she says we should bring in pages from the literature they read in school — The Old Man and The Sea, East of Eden, Canterbury Tales, Harry Potter, Beloved — and have the kids find Christ in it. So much literature contains Biblical references and echoes of Christ. Why not spend some time pointing that out? How wonderful for them to find out that Christ hasn’t been locked out of their schools — He’s right there in their English homework.
Our kids are finding that what they learn and do in Church is often out of sync with what happens during the rest of their weeks. What they learn in school and see in the media has little or nothing to do with what we are doing on Sundays.
I’ve found that 8th and 9th graders especially seem to love it when we connect our Church History to the history they’ve learned in school. They know the story of the Roman Empire and of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. They understand so much about it, and when we connect the dots and show them how Jesus actually lived in the Roman Empire and how the Orthodox Church fits into the history they already know, the lightbulbs go off. We connect the knowledge from school to the knowledge from Church, and they are delighted. They have yearned for those connections. (I picked up some wonderful history timelines at Parthenon Graphics — you might want to check out their site!)
Along the same lines, approaching the question of science vs. religion is a very good topic for this age group. They learn science in school — but what do they make of it in terms of their Orthodoxy? I have walked into my classroom and asked, Do you believe in evolution? and met only awkward silence. I ask, Are your science teachers lying to you? and they look at me, confused and silent. They don’t know what I want them to say; they think that the Church is somehow opposed to the science they’ve learned in school, and they want to believe their teachers and they want to believe us, and they don’t want to choose.
It’s important to address this basic idea: if a Christian seeks the Truth and a scientist seeks the Truth, they are seeking the same thing. Science is the study and appreciation of God’s creation, and any of our children who pursues such studies should be embraced and honored, and reminded that they are studying the holy work of God. There are Orthodox Christians who believe that God used evolution as His method of creation, and there are other Orthodox Christians who believe that evolution is an incorrect explanation. There is room for both in the Church, so long as we can all agree on this: Genesis is true; God created this world from nothing, and without Him nothing was created; God created this world intentionally and lovingly, and created man in His image. Whether we look to our sacred texts as science books or as philosophical explanations on why God created the world, there is no necessity for Orthodox Christians to abandon the exploration of the origins of the universe. Our children need not choose between science and their faith; our faith is big enough to include whatever truths science uncovers.
We have read other books in our older Sunday School classes — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, Everywhere Present by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Defeating Sin by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt. We’ve had good results from each of these.
There does seem to be some very promising curriculum in the works. Fr. Evan Armatas and his Sunday School staff at St. Spryidon’s in Loveland, Colorado have been working on a new series of curriculum, 100 Lessons From Scripture. Recordings of Fr. Evan teaching the first 20+ lessons to an adult class are available online, as is the list of the Scripture readings to be used. In time, they’ll be releasing lesson plans for various ages. When they do, I’ll be recommending it wholeheartedly as a multi-year curriculum that works for upper elementary through high school and adult.
Please feel free to comment with your own favorite books and lessons for Middle School and High School classes, so that we can all benefit from what you’re teaching!