What We’re Teaching in High School

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!

 

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

19 comments:

  1. Finding Christ in Harry Potter with its sorcery etc? Seriously? As to the notion that evolution and Orthodoxy are compatible. They are not. If God gave man a soul, then at which point during the point of evolution did man aquire the image and likeness of God? St Nektarios rejected evolution outright since it denigrates man and the dignity he is endowed with. Elder Joseph the Hesychast said evolution has an unclean spirit and emits a foul stench. And St Paisios called evolution blasphemy since it would mean that Christ’s human ancestors (genealogy) would be from the lineage of animals contradicting Genesis which specifically says each was created after its own kind. Not one evolving from another. There are massive contradictions between science and Orthodoxy ultimately answered by God Who said Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

    1. Hi, Anthony. Harry Potter is not an Orthodox text, of course, but much of the world’s literature is influenced by and contains references and allusions to Christ. There are those who call Harry Potter a ‘Christ figure’, which is a common literary device referring to those who are good and sacrifice themselves for others. You might also be interested in the book, written by an Orthodox professor, Finding God in Harry Potter.

      I find that there are Orthodox Christians on both sides of the evolution discussion, and I would leave open the possibility that God could use something like evolution if He wished to do so. I am not particularly invested in the details of how God created us, but much more focused on the fact that He did create us. The Orthodox Church itself does not have an official stance on the subject, nor do we require one. As you noted, there are Saints and Bishops who argue against evolution, and there are those on the other side as well. Ultimately, my interest here is in our message to youth. I don’t find it at all necessary to tell them that they must disbelieve all they learn in science and assume that those who study evolution are damned to hell. There are many who have left the Church because they find truth in science, and have been told that a choice must be made. I reject that idea; whatever truth science finds will be consistent with the Truth that is God. Some scientists are motivated by desire to disprove God and some religious people are motivated by desire to disprove science. That becomes an ugly battle. When both the scientist and the Christian are pursuing Truth, they will find that Truth is not an idea but a Person.

      1. Hi Elissa,
        I might suggest a book (to Anthony as well) by the author Michael O’Brien, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture. I always had a weird feeling about those books and O’Brien’s book was very illuminating.

        1. Paganism is a fascinating topic — I’ll have to find that book! Thank you.

          Fr. Stephen Freeman has sometimes talked about the dis-enchantment of the world, the way that our modern scientific approach to the world has removed the wonder and the thrill (and with it, all sense of the divine presence.)

          Some non-Orthodox Christian writers (I’m thinking of James A. Smith’s On (Not) Being Secular) are writing about how today’s world is totally focused on the ‘immanent frame’ and that modern people (ie millenials) are yearning for something transcendent — many turn to paganism and fairies, etc.

          I wonder if that doesn’t mean that this is an audience ripe for Orthodox evangelism.

          1. If you do get a chance to read O’Brien’s book, I would love to see a blog post on your thoughts on it.

            “Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.” G. K. Chesterton

            Chesterton also wrote in the Everlasting Man that “paganism…is an attempt to reach the divine reality through imagination alone.”

            Yes, I think you are absolutely right that there is a ripe audience for Orthodox evangelism. I hope we are ready for them when they come, which goes back to your article above; they (all of us, really) need instruction. Paganism, in its various modern forms, assaults us from all sides in our culture. It is so prevalent, it’s easy to forget it’s there.

            Paganism is big, but Christ is bigger yet… and that is quite reassuring.

  2. I very much appreciate the ideas given in the post, but I have a question from an experience I had about eight years ago.

    I was at a fairly large youth retreat in Florida. The kids were separated into groups by age. I finished one of my sessions early and walked into the church, where the high-school juniors and seniors were. I got there just as they were asked whether Holy Communion was truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Out of twenty-some people there, only three or four raised their hands to answer yes.

    How would you approach such a hole in the understanding of the faith from those who are on the verge of leaving their homes to go to college?

    Thank you,
    +Fr. Peter

    1. Hello, Fr. Peter!

      When things like this come up in the classroom — that is, when in the course of conversation, it becomes clear that there’s a ‘hole’ in their understanding — I find that it’s best to address it immediately. Even in a retreat setting, it would be completely appropriate to make eye contact with the retreat leader and if they didn’t handle it, for you as a priest (or even me, as a teacher) to enter into the conversation and offer the correct Church teaching.

      In some cases, if a quick conversation doesn’t seem to ‘take’, I would change the lesson the following week to address the question more thoroughly.

      This kind of spontaneous addressing of issues that arise as conversation develops is often the most effective teaching. We’re catching them while they’re interested in the topic, and illuminating something new for them. I think that they appreciate those organic conversations even more than prepared lectures and lessons. It’s always necessary to be flexible, and to lay aside our planned lessons when something important like this surfaces.

  3. The things you listed here are actual lessons in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, especially the connection between history and Christian history and the integration of science and faith lessons. Also children are taught from a very early age to approach scripture from a place of inquiry, as if they are God detectives looking for clues. Byt the older grades they are accomplished at typological reading of scripture. We don’t use Be the Bee because that really is geared at the teen but I think it is an excellent framework for a youth program. I am the director of CGS at St Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River and a recognized Formation Leader (trainer) for the method. It is beyond an excellent program.

    1. That’s really interesting, Shelley! I have heard so many good things about that program, but it doesn’t seem to extend to the teen years. I have always seen it run through the early elementary years. It looks wonderful.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post! I discovered your podcasts about a year ago, and they have helped me understand my own struggles raising children differently- I think about the things you point out very often.
    I have been praying about the upcoming Sunday School season and teaching this age group for the first time – admittedly feeling inadequate. I was going to email you to ask about this age group today when I saw this post. Answer to my prayer!
    God bless you!

  5. Elissa, I have been sharing your post with our teachers from 6th grade and up. It is so right on!
    I even read parts of it to my teenagers last night when they started complaining about High School Sunday School starting up. I used your blog as a point of discussion and sought their opinions. They were VERY receptive – especially the science and religion paragraph. Now, to get my teachers on board!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that, Alexis! I do think that in particular the perceived conflict between religion and science weighs heavily on them, and we tend to underestimate its importance. We should be helping them integrate everything into an Orthodox worldview, helping them overcome that separation our culture keeps imposing (spiritual life in the corner, secular things separated and untouched by religion).

  6. The Way of the Pilgrim would be an excellent book to use – particularly if your class doesn’t have the time to read the entire book since you can pick out different encounters he has and still learn so much (such as how God sends others to help us when we need it, forgiving others when the robbers stole his belongings, or the providence of God when the horse crashes through the post office window and he finds out later in the chapter what happens to the cook because of it – which answers the question ‘why does God let ‘bad’ things happen’, how he was unjustly punished for helping the girl whose father had arranged her marriage and how he chose to deal with it which gave him the peace of God, and so, so many others.) My elementary school-age children and I read this together and learned innumerable lessons.

    1. We do use The Way of the Pilgrim in our Sunday School, and you’re absolutely right — even if there is only time to read a few excerpts, it is very worthwhile! Thanks for the suggestion! That’s an excellent choice!

  7. As a teacher of “Senior Discussion” which is the 9-12th grade age students, my task is challenging. I am enjoying reading through the various items on your site and it is giving me great ideas. My approach is to ask the students at the beginning of the new semester, what things to they wish to know more about in our faith, what kinds of questions they have that have remained unanswered throughout all of their years of attending Sunday School. Since last week was our first class, this year’s list is daunting! One of the subjects they want to discuss is Evolution vs. Creation and how excited I was to read that you have addressed this with your class. Do you have more material on the subject that you used and how could I obtain it? I have subscribed to your blog and hope that it can help provide inspiration for my class this year, I’m certain it will. Thank you for the wonderful site, I’m glad I found this.

    I came across it from the GO Archdioscese when there was a podcast of “The Little Church in our Homes” which I signed up for and listened to and found that to be very informative too. Thank you for all you do and I hope to find more things I can share with my class.

    1. Hi, Deb!

      That’s a great structure for a high school class. We’ve done that a few times, and it tends to yield wonderful results (though it keeps the teacher on their toes!)

      On the topic of evolution, the Church does not actually take an official stance, and in fact people tend to fall on both sides. I think it’s important to emphasize that Orthodoxy doesn’t require us to take a stance either. I have known teachers who sought out videos on Intelligent Design and offered them, which can be helpful, but again — even this is not really the Official Teaching of the Church, but is an interesting answer to the question. I emphasize to my students that the Bible is not intended as a science textbook, and cannot be read as such.

      Here are a few of my favorite articles:

      http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/towardso.htm

      https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/evolution-or-creation-science

      http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/departments/religioused/resourcesforteachers/Faculty%20Statement%20on%20Creation%20and%20Evolution.pdf

      Good luck, and may God bless your efforts!

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