prayer, spiritual nourishment

Today’s lesson: prayer, spiritual nourishment.

September 26, 2012: First things first: Class went really well. We had a group of a good size—six children, most of whom participated pretty actively in the lesson. We told everyone we would have a short class because we had to leave for Feast, but we ended up having enough time to cover what we had intended anyway. We started with prayers, and everyone made a really good effort to show reverence. Next we explained the lesson: We asked them how they would feel if they hadn’t eaten during a whole day, and then explained that our soul feels the same way when we go a day without praying. The children seemed to get the idea, which helps to illustrate the idea of spiritual nourishment as compared to material nourishment. We then tackled about half of the quote, explaining difficult words as we went along. Since we’re doubling up the classes (doing the same class two weeks in a row), we generally have enough time to study the entire quote at a slightly more relaxed pace, which helps since many of our students are only learning English as a second (or third) language. And when I say we tackled it, we really tackled it. We sometimes play word games or write words on index cards or add movements to make memorization easier, but this time we just repeated it until we got it—after splitting it into manageable chunks, of course. Next, we got everyone to stand up for the drama exercise, or what we called the Superhero Olympics. Building on what we had discussed earlier, we asked the children to pretend they were performing in certain imaginary “events”, using their bodies and actions to show their strength: jumping into and out of a tall tree, picking up a car (!!!), and completing a sprinting race. Next, we asked them to imagine that they hadn’t eaten in two days (apparently one day wasn’t long enough), and to repeat the “events”, this time pretending to be weak from hunger and exhaustion. We had some pretty good acting going on. This is starting to be my favourite part of the lessons, and I suspect it’s becoming theirs as well. Finally, we had them repeat the events after having an imaginary rest and hearty meal, once again showing their strength. Afterwards, we played a game of “I Spy” (to my surprise—that’s what they came up with), and, to our great delight, we were able to close with prayers that were just as reverent as the opening prayers.

Having worked with earlier versions of the Ruhi curriculum in the past, I really appreciate the way the lessons of Grade 2 are organized, especially the fact that we start off our year with a set of lessons on prayer. I feel as though the focus on prayers is helping the children to get a sense of the importance of that part of our daily routine, by allowing us to discuss it openly with them and explain why we pray. The fact that the children are sitting down for prayers and are showing disciplined reverence indicates that they are getting it, to varying degrees. And they help each other get it, too. One of the children has had a history of being a little scattered and hard to keep engaged in the class, which I always chalked up to the class taking place at her home. She also seemed disinterested in committing quotes to memory and reading prayers. But when one of her schoolmates joined the class and told her that she had put the prayer that we’re learning on her fridge so she could read it every day, it seemed to have an effect on her, as if she was surprised her friend was working on memorization at home. We had a talk with her right afterwards, and she confided that she often felt shy to memorize quotes and prayers because there were too many big, complicated words in them, and she had trouble remembering them all the way through. So we encouraged her to try little bits at a time, and assured her that a prayer is still a prayer even if you only read a few words. Since then, she’s been much more involved in memorizing, and has even offered to read prayers during class. So heartening! It gives me joy just to think about it.

On a related note, most of you probably remember that we’ve identified the need for a junior youth group in the neighbourhood, and we took action to make that happen this week. Quynh, my co-teacher (also my wife), decided to volunteer to animate a junior youth group, bringing them through the book Glimmerings of Hope. Why Glimmerings? Many of the families we’re dealing were living in refugee camps for many years before arriving in Canada, having escaped violent conflict in their native country. Some of the older children and junior youth have witnessed the horrors of this conflict first-hand, and are old enough to remember. Glimmerings follows the story of Kibomi, a 12-year-old boy whose parents are killed in an ethnic conflict, and of the choices he makes as he struggles to make sense of what has happened and meets new friends who show him new possibilities. Suffice to say that it’s a powerful book that speaks to those who have lived through conflict and felt its consequences, and from our conversations with the junior youth, we think it may provide not only a much needed outlet for their questions, but a constructive place for them to exercise positive choices in their lives and the life of their community. Hmmm… we may just have to open up a new blog soon.

prayer, a loving conversation with god (take 2)

Today’s lesson: prayer, a loving conversation with god.

September 5, 2012: Week 2 of this lesson! Our first weekday evening class, and it seems to have gone off brilliantly, all told. We’re starting to get a better sense of the needs in the neighbourhood—and the evidence points to the need for a junior youth group to complement the children’s class. We had more older children than last time; out of eight children attending, five were 11 years and older. Some of the older girls said they intended to invite friends and siblings who were of their age. The two teachers present today discussed the situation and agreed that a junior youth group was needed urgently; the question, of course, is always about resources—who will teach it? Fortunately, there’s currently a big push in our city for Baha’is to complete Ruhi Book 5, which should provide a number of able-bodied animators who may be able to help out. We’ll see how things go, and in the meantime we’ll do our best to provide the junior youth with a program that adapts more to their needs, as well as meeting the needs of the younger children.

I think evening hours are more challenging for us as teachers, to be sure. Not having a car, and working 9 to 5 at a fair distance from the neighbourhood, I’m dependent on public transit to get to the class on time, and today it really failed to deliver. There are new schedules for the fall season that just came into effect, so I guess I should have taken that into account and left work earlier so that I could manage the delays in connecting between stops. Not having a car is a wonderful choice financially and ecologically, but it really seems to limit your ability to work through the logistics of a children’s class. We started late, but my co-teacher was able to spend some leisure time with the children and JYs; most of the parents were still coming home from work at that point.

Briefly, we started with prayers, and continued memorizing the quote we had started learning last time, this time reading through it in its entirety: “Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men.” We wrote it out onto a sheet of bristol board so that we could practice it together and explain difficult words, and then we tried a new strategy: using pictures to help represent words. For example, the word “intone” was represented by a picture of a person reading out loud from a book, “melody” by musical notes, and so on. We gave everyone cards with pictures printed onto them, explaining what each one represented, and asked them to glue the picture onto the bristol board.

piecing togetherOnce this was done, we read the quote again, reading the associated words whenever one of the pictures came up. Afterwards, we went through the dramatic exercises given with the original lesson in Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2: first working out and stretching inside our invisible boxes, acting out certain movements, and then pretending we were plants in a dry field praying for rain. They really seemed to enjoy this, drooping sadly when we asked them to express the desperation of plants praying for rain, waving their arms broadly and energetically as they expressed the joy of a watered plant with their bodies.

At the end of the class—which ended up lasting about an hour, by which time the sun had already started to set—we joined our friends outside, set a time for the next class (next Wednesday at 6:00) and spent time together, playing games and talking to their parents, who had arrived home by then. One of our goals this year was to get to know the families in the neighbourhood better, so that we can build stronger bonds of friendship. The time we spend with them before and after the class, and during home visits on the side, should help us move forward with this goal, and help us gain a better understanding on how a strong neighbourhood based on ties of universal love and fellowship is built.

prayer, a loving conversation with god (take 1)

Today’s lesson: prayer, a loving conversation with god.

September 1, 2012: Week 1 of this lesson at our neighbourhood children’s class. As is often the case when starting new classes, we had a wide range of ages, from 5 to 12 (!). All the children present were cousins living in the same apartment building. To start off, we explained that we would be starting the class with prayers, and engaged the children in a brief conversation about why we pray. As often happens, the older children (in this case, junior youth—11 and 12 years old) answered more readily.

Prayer is when we talk to God, they offered. Sometimes we ask Him for help when we have trouble or when we need something. We talked about the love of God, and how it motivates us to pray, just like we feel motivated to talk to a person we love, to tell them how much we love them. Since we were talking about God, we spoke a little about His nature. Some of the children began to volunteer descriptions of Him, for example, as a man with a long beard, “just like Santa Claus.” Another added, “I think he has green skin. Like an alien.” We explained that although we can converse with God through prayer, His essence is unknowable to us. For that reason, we should try not to make images of God in our minds, thinking of him as a man, alien or otherwise.

One of the older children then asked: Why is it that some people don’t believe in God? After all, we had just finished talking about how God loves us dearly. Why would people turn away from that love and reject God? We replied by noting that when we make images of God in our mind, these are merely the product of our imagination, and they will always fall short of describing Him. For instance, one person might think of God as an old, bearded man—but how could a mere man hear everyone’s prayers, all the time? Perhaps, then, it is this confusion that turns people away.

After prayers, we presented the quote, concentrating on the first part: “Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee”, and explaining some of the heavy words. Most of the children speak English as a second language, so we’ll be trying to work slowly but steadily on this. We played a game to help us memorize the quote—each child memorized a couple of words and would stand up each time he heard those words, sitting down when the next words were read. For example, one child would stand up at “Intone”; he would sit down and the next child would sit up at “O My servant”; and so on. We did this faster and faster, changing places in our circle, and then even lining up in a row. We’ll be playing similar active games in the next few weeks to help us along.

We continued by reading the story of Ruhu’lláh, which is a beautiful story showing how the devotion he showed in praying touched the heart of an official who was threatening his father. I feel like I was a little out of practice in telling stories, so I didn’t tell it as well as I could, but we can try again next time. After the story was over, we adjourned outside and played a lively game of extreme hopscotch—hopscotch with disconnected numbers all over the place.

The funny thing about this lesson was that since it was about prayer, we could start discussing the lesson before we even started with prayers, and it actually helped to set the tone when we said our opening prayer, enhancing the reverent atmosphere. We’ll be trying to focus on keeping this going and encouraging the children to make a habit of praying each day.

game: birds of a feather

This video comes to us from a children’s class teacher training in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Participants are practicing a non-competitive variation of the game Birds of a Feather (with various animals in place of birds). Very simply, the game proceeds like this: exchange slips of paper with animal names written on them at “go”. Read the paper at “stop”. Make your animal’s noise at “action” and try and flock together with others making the same noise.

The game’s original rules (given in the link above) describe a competitive version, in which the last team to “find their flock” is counted out, leaving winners and losers. We chose to eliminate this competitive element, to focus on the cooperative skills required in matching oneself up with one’s flock; instead of being counted out, we simply play the game as many times as we wish, with everyone participating. To keep the game interesting without resorting to competition, we can introduce different modes of play. For example, instead of using sounds, we can use nonverbal visual cues. Players might mime flapping wings for birds, or walking like a cat or a dog; or, conversely, they might mime taking care of one’s animal—calling to a bird on one’s finger, petting a cat or walking a dog, etc. Competition, which can lead the children to develop the undesirable habit of seeking conflict, is thus avoided by the application of creativity—finding different, innovative ways of keeping games interesting.

truthfulness (take 4)

Today’s lesson: truthfulness.

finishing touchesJuly 3, 2010: Trying it yet again! Outreach again this time. A group of us have been doing outreach in Chinatown and met some families all living in one apartment building who showed interest in a children’s class. After meeting a few times and sharing Anna’s presentation with the families (through a significant language barrier), we finally had a class of sorts, with 4-6 boys (I’d say about 5-8 years old). We played a lot more games than usual for us, and they loved it. in fact the class was mostly games, proportion-wise. all the same, we worked on memorizing “O God, guide me” and the quote on truthfulness. The prayers were amazing, as the older children stayed in quiet meditation for a full minute after the prayers were done–I’ve never seen that in all my time doing children’s classes. My co-teacher suggested it might have been due to their Buddhist background… in any case, it was astounding and MOST welcome, and we’ll encourage them to continue doing this for sure. They loved the story about the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and they seemed to grasp all the concepts well. overall, a great summer class after a very uneventful spring season.

service (take 4)

Today’s lesson: service.

After our team meeting this morning, we quickly drove over to the centre to find several of the parents already waiting for us inside with their children—a total of eight kids right off the bat. Some of the newer parents stayed at the side during the class. So many kids arriving early meant we had little time to prepare before the class; we may have to re-evaluate our preparation habits to compensate… we’d love to hear your experiences with preparing for children’s classes and any tips you may have to share.

We started with a few prayers; …. and I recited one, and one of the children did too. Since we had so many new faces present, we went around and introduced ourselves by giving our name, our age and what languages we spoke. Many of the children said they spoke mainly English and Tagalog, and I told them that we were counting on them to teach us how to speak Tagalog properly. Then we practiced the prayer we began learning last week, using the step method (adding a little at a time, and repeating). Next, we taught them the song “Look At Me” and sang it together; it’s an easy song that everyone seemed to pick up rapidly. After the song, we asked them if they remembered who ‘Abdu’l-Baha was, and used that to introduce the topic of service, which led into memorizing the quote and then into the story of ‘Abdu’l-Baha sending Lua Getsinger to visit the sick man. Everyone went quiet at the end, so I’m guessing it touched them.

After the story, we played the game noted in Book 3, “Help the Sick”, which involved locking wrists together and carrying each other across the floor to the “hospital”, which they all loved. I felt we were rushing through it a little, but at least we ended up with enough time to do the colouring at the end of class. We limited the number of colouring pens again, to test how well the children could share the colours, and they all seemed to do quite well. I took some time during the colouring to pass handouts to the parents, asking them to use them to study the material from the class (the song, quote, etc) with the children to help them remember.  We ended the class by getting back together and singing “Look At Me” one more time.

Overall, it was obvious that the home visits we’ve been doing with the parents have made a big difference; our interactions with them seem to be warm and loving (if still a little unfamiliar), and they already seem to be getting comfortable with us, and with taking their children to the class. It really seems to be a boon to us to be holding the class somewhere that’s already a hub of activity for them; they know exactly where it is and are comfortable with bringing their kids over. It truly does feel like a neighbourhood class.

Thanks to all of you for walking with us and serving with us. This truly is a captivating and exciting journey to be on.