Sunday, August 2, 2020

Charlotte Mason in Sunday School

"It is better that children should receive a few vital ideas that their souls may grow than a great deal of indefinite teaching."
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 346

Much of what passes for Sunday school curriculum involves "a great deal of indefinite teaching" and few, if any, "vital ideas."  We want souls to grow, but we have a vague idea of how to achieve that goal.  

Our first mission must be to connect the child with the Bible text.  This is the most direct way for the Holy Spirit to speak to the child.  For very young children, this may involve retelling the Bible text in simplified form.  Somewhat older children may be ready for Bible text mixed with some retelling so as not to get bogged down in the passages for which they may not be mature enough or which may be too long for them right now.  Older children can hear or read the text itself and connect with it with very little intervention from the teacher.

In a Charlotte Mason context we call that "narration," but it's a concept that modern educators know as well.  It requires full attention to the reading and then some mental effort as each child thinks about what was read and how to reformulate that in his own words.  The child must think about the passage in order to narrate, unlike answering questions which often can happen by guessing based on cues in the questions.  Narration encourages focus throughout the entire reading and puts the emphasis on the child's understanding of the passage rather than on the child's understanding of the teacher.

The teacher's part of the lesson mostly comes before the reading and after the narration.  Before the reading, the teacher helps set the stage in two ways: recapping the previous reading and introducing key vocabulary, names, or dates.  

Recapping the previous reading works best if the students provide the summary.  I've used a pictorial timeline in my classes, so on the wall we have a picture representing each lesson so far.  Before we begin the next reading, I will point out the picture from the previous lesson and ask for volunteers to remind us what happened in that lesson.  This helps prime the memory.  Sometimes input from several students allows us to get a sufficient understanding to know where we are.  Sometimes I need to fill in some gaps, although it's not necessary to go into great detail.  Just the main outline of the previous lesson is sufficient to set the stage for the day's lesson. 

Help the children get their footing in the current reading by introducing key vocabulary, names, or dates before the reading.  Keep this short!  Don't introduce every word you think they may not know; just introduce words that may keep them from understanding even the broad outlines of what you're reading.  Don't introduce every name necessarily, but just the most important people in this reading.  Places and dates may not need to be introduced at all unless they play a significant role in the action.  You don't need to explain these words!  Just write them on the board, read them to the students, and ask them to keep an eye out for them in the reading.  The exception to that is situations where some background really needs to be given for understanding.  Sometimes it's helpful to find places on a map before a reading, and sometimes a date needs to be put in context before you start.  Err on the side of saying less when you're not sure how much is needed!  Teachers like to talk, and we often talk too much.  Our talking gets in the way of the child interacting with the text.

When it's helpful, use a wall map to give students an idea of where the events were occurring.  Sometimes it's even helpful to give each student a copy of a map so that each week students can mark on their own maps.  Occasionally other visual aids such as replicas of artifacts, posters with additional information, timelines, or even artwork can enhance the lesson.  "Better than nothing is a high standard," so consider the value of any additional materials and include them only when it's clear they will be helpful and not distract or confuse.

In an elementary class (roughly age 12 and under), having the teacher read aloud the lesson is probably best in most cases.  Some children won't be able to read silently with comprehension, and they'll read at vastly different rates anyway.  Most children won't be able to read aloud correctly and with proper phrasing, so the children who are listening will tune out or have trouble following along.  When the teacher reads, she can read with feeling, using tone and inflection to help the children follow along.  She can stop and ask the class for responses when she sees attention waning, even if she hadn't planned to stop so soon.

Children may need to be taught to attend to a reading and then think about it and retell what they've read.  In that case, stop at every paragraph or in some cases even less to allow the class to refocus and think over what's been read so far. Sometimes, let your eager students be the first to tell you about what's happened in the passage you just read.  Then let other students add to that.  If you have a student who's really capable, you may have to ask that student to tell you just one thing, so that others have a chance to respond.  Sometimes, call on the quiet student or the one who has trouble focusing during the reading, to encourage them to do the mental work of thinking over what was just read and to include them in the group.  Especially call on the quiet or struggling student when the passage is a simple narrative or when you can see that they are ready to answer.  Help them have experiences of success!  Generally, don't prompt a student to try to get a response.  Let them work through thinking it over on their own.  If they can't give even a simple detail from the reading, use your judgment about whether to call on someone else or to help this student think through the passage.  Don't talk too much!  Give them time to think, and accept their good faith attempts to try.

After the narration phase, the teacher can recap or reemphasize something significant from the lesson.  At this time a review by looking again at maps or other materials that were used in the lesson might be appropriate.  On rare occasions a short teaching on a concept that came up that requires clarification may be needed. While you are preparing the lesson, think about the "vital ideas" that the Bible passage contains.  You might make a note of one or two of these in your plans.  You don't necessarily need to actually present these ideas to the students directly, but you want to watch for opportunities to help the children notice them during their discussion of the passage.  Sometimes it's appropriate to actually tell the children the idea you see in the Bible text, but save that for a few key lessons.  None of this needs to happen every week, and when it does happen it should be short.

At the end of your lesson, provide a way for the children to record what they remember.  This could involve acting it out or writing a summary.  In my class, we draw a picture.  I've made a simple grid on the front and back of a sheet of paper turned sideways, with three boxes across the top and three across the bottom.  This gives us twelve boxes on one sheet of paper.  Each week at the end of the Bible lesson, the students each draw a picture in the next empty box to represent something they remember about the week's reading.  I have a grid on the wall with twelve boxes on a large sheet (of paper or of chalkboard paper), and I draw a picture too.  These are simple and crude often, but they work!  At the start of the next lesson, we refer to this to remember what we previously discussed.  Sometimes when we need to think about past readings, I will point out the picture on the wall to jog the students' memories.  We've sometimes used simple costumes and acted out the story we just read.  With younger children I've used flannel figures and let the children tell the story while manipulating the figures.  Think about what fits your preferences, your students' interests, and the story's needs.

We store our class supplies for each student in a simple manila folder.  It's easy to manage and easy to store.  At the end of the year, we send the folder home with the student.  Many other ways of keeping supplies in one place would work fine too.  We keep the folders in a plastic file box, and in that box we also have folders with the handouts we'll need for future class sessions.  Almost everything we need fits in a simple plastic file box.
Children need a regular change of thoughts in order to maintain focus.  Spending too long on one activity or one type of activity will cause their thoughts to wander and their behavior to deteriorate.  Aim for 15 to 20 minutes on each phase of the class in the upper elementary years, definitely no more than 30 minutes on one type of work.  So after reading the Bible lesson, which usually takes me about 30 minutes start to finish, something that is not reading should be done.  I like to change to a movement-based activity since we've been sitting and concentrating for so long.  Then we do another, lighter, reading-based activity.  We follow that reading with singing, then with prayer and a missionary story.  Exactly what elements your class time contains can vary greatly, but it's vital that you change pace every 15 to 20 minutes and switch between activities that require different types of effort. 

When we do scripture memory, we work on learning a passage rather than a single verse.  We work on the same passage for approximately 12 weeks, working on a sentence or a phrase for two weeks and then moving to the next sentence or phrase.  At the beginning of the quarter, I introduce the passage which I have printed on a full sheet of paper.  Each student has a copy in his folder.  I read the whole passage and explain the context briefly.  Then each week we say that week's phrase together as a class a few times.  Then the kids line up.  I pick two kids to hold our giant rubber band, standing inside it one on each end.  (I keep track of who has helped so everyone gets a turn.)  Each child in line says the phrase without looking, then gets to jump over the band or crawl under the band or whatever suits him.  If a child struggles, we stop and everyone says the phrase together again and the child gets another chance.  I may assist with hand motions.  Each child is successful before we continue on.  When a child goes over the rubber band, he gets back in line to go through again.  Each child goes through the line twice, then goes back to his seat.  This is usually the time in the class period when we take bathroom breaks, too, so during this time my adult helper is taking small groups of kids to the bathroom and the drinking fountain.
Our lighter reading helps provide a chance for children who struggle to attend to the Bible reading to follow along with a reading in class.  We read a chapter from Little Pilgrim's Progress by Helen Taylor each week.  My husband reads from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis in his class.  Both of these are fiction that is fun to listen to and has a simple, straightforward plot.  Listening to these is not hard work.  But both of them also embody within the story ideas that help us understand truths about God and about ourselves.  A biography of a missionary or other Christian could work in this place, or you could use a book about natural history.  The book you choose should be well written, should convey valuable ideas about God without being preachy, and should not be difficult for the children to understand.

When I finish this reading, I allow time for the students to draw a response, in this case in the form of a map of Little Christian's journey.  I showed them some really impressive maps that have been made from the original Pilgrim's Progress story, and suggested they might want to make one of their own.  They each have a piece of blank paper, and they are free to use it to illustrate the story in any way they want.  Some will make a detailed map.  Some will make grids and put an illustration in one each week.  Some will draw a large picture on the whole page each week.  Whatever they do, it's helping them think over the story and decide what's meaningful to them.

We sing a hymn together each week, singing from the sheet music without accompaniment.  (I select hymns I know and can sing easily.)  Sheet music can be printed for free from several websites.  Each student has a copy of the hymn, which we keep in their folders.  We sing the same hymn for four weeks.  Occasionally I share some information about the hymn, but mostly we just get out our music sheets, sing the hymn, and put them away again so we can move on.  Short and simple, but a nice break between heavier subjects and a lovely way to include an important element of Christian practice.

When we pray together, I try to make it a time of meaningful prayer with more involved than just making requests and with everyone participating.  I have experimented with several different ways of handling this 5-10 minutes, and I haven't settled on one that I think works best for us.  Sometimes we've just opened it up for voluntary prayer after which I close.  Sometimes I have spent several weeks working through the Lord's Prayer and having the kids help me to figure out what each part of that prayer meant, then implementing those pieces in our prayer time by assigning parts to each student.  Sometimes we've listed out prayer requests for our missionaries (or just the names of the missionaries) on the board, then had kids volunteer to pray for specific ones (and everyone had to volunteer).  We've done other things too.  All of these things have been successful in some ways, but I recommend making this time a matter for special prayer by the teachers so they can know what's best for this particular class at this particular time.

I close the class with a very short missionary story.  For a time, our curriculum included a missionary story each week, focused on one missionary for an entire quarter and including a quick episode from that missionary's life each week.  For one quarter when that wasn't available, we focused on a different missionary from our church each week.  When we needed to find our own missionary stories, we tried spending four weeks on each missionary from our church, giving small snippets about them each week.  The first week we might introduce the individual or the family and the general location where they serve.  Another week we might look more closely at the work that missionary does.  Another week we might look at the location and learn a little about what it's like.  One week we might talk about some particular challenges or prayer requests.  This missionary time really takes about 5 minutes, but it's flexible so it's well suited for the end of class when we might need to stretch a bit to fill some time or compress to end quickly.

Your Sunday school may include different elements.  I've included simple but useful handicrafts during our opening time in the past.  Some teachers include looking at great artworks.  You could include poetry or nature (plants in the classroom or walks outdoors).  Classical music might be a helpful element.  Your Sunday school may be structured completely differently from what I've described.  The structure we're using accounts for some needs that are specific to our situation.  Your situation will be different and will have different needs.  What matters is that each class contains "vital ideas" and that we avoid the "indefinite teaching" that undermines the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we present those vital ideas in forms and with methods that reflect proven principles of effective teaching, our students will thrive!

(This post will probably be updated from time to time.)

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