After seeing how well a “graduation” ceremony went for our local junior youth group, we decided it would be fun to have a similar event for our children’s class. Some time in August, we paid home visits to the kids and their families to introduce the idea of having a community celebration—something that would involve not only the families of the children in the class, but neighbours and friends as well. The kids would present some of the things they had studied during the past school year, and there could be refreshments and games too. Everyone agreed it would be a great idea, so we found a good date in early September, booked space at a nearby park, and forged ahead with our plans. As a first activity, we asked the children to create invitations to pass to their friends and family, which they did with gusto.
In our teaching team, we decided on a few activities that might make for a good presentation. We settled on a couple of good songs: “The Human Race Is One” by Gina and Russ Garcia (available from the Ruhi Institute), and “This Little Light of Mine“. We also decided to make a puppet show out of one of the activities we had done during the year—specifically, the sketch about the village harvest from our lesson on justice and fairness (Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2, Set 4, Lesson 11). For the whole month of August, we practiced these with the children. Practicing the songs was simple enough, since they were already familiar with both of them. As for the puppets, we decided to go with paper stick puppets to keep things simple. We printed out a whole bunch of characters for the children to colour—a schoolteacher, villagers doing different things like harvesting vegetables or repairing the rooftop, the sun and clouds, etc. They had a lot of fun with this. After all the colouring was done, we put sticks on everything and voilà—puppets! In our spare time away from class, we had developed a script based on the sketch; when we put everything together, the puppet show began to take shape. Everyone really got into it; they each had their favourite puppets and enjoyed huddling behind our makeshift stage waiting for their cues.
This was one busy week for us, in a lot of ways. I mentioned before that Quynh and I are preparing for our first child to be born this fall, and that’s been taking up an increasing amount of our time: check-ups with the midwife, getting major projects finished up at work, preparing for baby showers, attending pre-natal classes, and so on. In the interest of shoring up our efforts to serve, we’re also preparing to move into an apartment that’s closer to the neighbourhood where our children’s class takes place. All of this has to be done soon, since the baby is due in October—so the stress level is starting to rise. Apart from personal preparations, though, I wanted to paint a little picture of what went on during this busy, yet joyful weekend—a picture bright with the colour of confirmations.
We received a text message just before lunch on Friday, inviting us to an “arts night” presented by a group of junior youth who had been attending a weeklong camp. “Please try ur best to come and support them,” the message read, “They are going to be sharing their reflections on what they learnt this week! It’s going to be great!” Although I felt exhausted from a long, stressful week, something told me that the best way to improve my frame of mind would be to enjoy the company of youth and junior youth. Thank goodness for that inner voice! After discussing with the rest of our teaching team, we all decided to attend together. We arrived just in time to take our seats and to enjoy a little chit-chat. A few of the junior youth we met in another neighbourhood were there, and we happily caught up with each other. They weren’t part of the camp, but were showing up to encourage one of their friends who was. The camp consisted of several groups studying two different books called Spirit of Faith and Power of the Holy Spirit, both of which cover Bahá’í principles and history in a fair bit of depth. Each group made several different presentations, singing songs, showing artwork, performing skits and dramatic readings. What was really special and heartwarming, though, was seeing several young people who were once a part of our children’s class taking centre stage, eloquently reading poems about the true nature of love, explaining the principle of progressive revelation, and more. Seeing how they had progressed from the moment we first met them, six years ago, until now reminded us how our time together was just a part of a continuing process of education that will eventually span their whole lives.
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.
Once 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.
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.
One of the key words we hear in many of the recent letters from the Universal House of Justice is “coherence”, referring to the smooth interaction between the different core activities promoted by the worldwide Baha’i community. I came across a great example of coherence recently in a neighbourhood of Ottawa.
A neighbourhood children’s class had been formed during the previous year, and had continued for a while with gradually decreasing participation until by the end only one child was attending with any regularity (i.e. sometimes). Then, in May of this year, a collective effort began to promote the Junior Youth Empowerment Program, with which many of you are no doubt familiar. This neighbourhood was chosen as a focus for outreach, and through the many conversations that took place, a solid base was gathered for the establishment of a regular junior youth group there. At the same time, several families expressed interest in sending their younger children to attend a program for spiritual and moral education, and a strong base was built up to revitalize the ailing children’s class. The first class during this period saw a surge of interest, as attendance rose from one to nine children. Since then, the class now averages six to seven children each week.
One of the important aims of the Junior Youth Empowerment Program, of course, is to help young people develop the moral strength and ability to serve humanity. One of the ways this is expressed in the program is for the participants to engage in service projects. The junior youth group that was formed in this neighbourhood decided, as part of its first service project, to help organize the upcoming lesson for the local children’s class. The junior youth divided up roles between them, one of them volunteering to read a story, one of them to teach a song, and so on. Each one of them also brought some material contribution, such as a tablecloth, paper plates, carrots, apples, and other snacks. After a brief meeting with the regular children’s class teacher a few days before, the junior youth gathered for the class and carried out their service project—bringing two new children along with them to participate!
This example taught me a few things about how these different community-building activities can work together. For instance, the enthusiasm of the junior youth to participate in that program makes them want to encourage others to join—whether their peers joining the same group, or, as we’ve seen, younger siblings joining in a children’s class. For different ages, different needs, and different programs, driving further growth through their interactions. This should be relevant to those who are teaching children’s classes with decreasing attendance. The question remains, as always: from where should we raise up the necessary human resources to offer these different programs? Perhaps, in the course of time, we need look no further than the very same neighbourhood in which we are serving. As they experience the joy of serving humankind, at least some of these junior youth will be inspired and will arise to the challenge of giving back to their community in the same way others gave to them. Those junior youth will become youth and young adults, and will empower junior youth in the same way they were empowered, and will teach children who will, in time, repeat the cycle. That’s coherence.
Cast of the play on “Accompaniment”, starring a group of Cambodian Baha’i youth.
On a recent trip to Cambodia (ok, not so recent), my wife and I were blessed to be able to attend a national training session for institute coordinators at the Baha’i centre in Battambang. The training was specifically for coordinators from those areas that counted more than 20 active junior youth groups. Battambang, for those who don’t know, is one of those places in the world where there’s been a lot of growth in the Baha’i community. In the mid-2000’s, it was known as “the ‘A’ cluster of all ‘A’ clusters”, because thousands of people had embraced the Faith of Baha’u’llah thanks to the dedicated efforts of the friends at that time. In some places around Battambang, entire neighbourhoods are designated “Baha’i Communities” because most of their inhabitants have accepted the Baha’i Faith. The explosive growth they experienced has slowed somewhat, of course, as the community’s focus shifted to embrace both expansion and consolidation as concurrent processes.
Anyway, while we were at the training, we watched a play about “Accompaniment” presented by some of the participants. The photos are mine, and the script included below is written by my good friend Prema Krish, of Battambang. The original play was performed in the Khmer language, of course, but this translation should be pretty accurate. I’ll let it speak for itself, but suffice to say, it provides an inspiring example of how we can approach families about establishing children’s classes, and the difference that accompaniment can make in helping people gain the confidence to arise to serve.
Part 1/5. Completed Ruhi Book 3.
G: Oh, i just finished my Ruhi at the Battambang Baha’i centre during the recent intensive institute training. I want to start a children’s class but i don’t know what i should do first. B: Well, to start a children’s class, we first need to find children…hmmm…how shall we gather the children from our village? G: Do you think the village leader might be able to help? B: Maybe. Let’s go and find out together!
Part 2/5. Visiting the Village Leader.
G/B: Good afternoon, Mr. Village Leader (VL) VL: Ah, good afternoon! G: You look deep in thought. What is the matter? VL: I’m just looking at the activities around our village. For the past few months, i’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of children’s classes and junior youth groups carried out by the Baha’is in our village. It’s alarming because i see our youth are so motivated to serve the community these days! B: Mr. VL, we have here G, who just completed Book 3 in the Ruhi sequence of courses and she would also like to start a children’s class. We came to you to find out if you can suggest any families in this village whom we might approach to start one. VL: Another one! Oh, very good, G. I’m happy for you that you completed the course. Sure, i’ll be happy to help. Let’s see…there’s the A family whose children i think are not participating in children’s classes yet. I see them loitering by the road during the evenings when others are in children’s classes. G: The A family? Err, i don’t know if they’ll be impressed if i approach them directly. They’re always so busy.. VL: Don’t worry! Mr A is my good friend! Let me talk to him.
Part 3/5. The A Family.
Mr. A: Where are the kids? I hardly get to see them these days. Mrs. A: I have no idea where they are. They leave the house early in the morning and i don’t know where they go or what they do…it’s concerning. Mr. A: What do you mean you don’t know where they are? Mrs. A: You know kids…they go out and play with other children. I’m sure they’re not too far away. Mr. A: We need to watch out for them. There are many dangers all around us. Mrs. A: I know what you mean. I heard there was a snatch thief in the neighbouring village who robbed an elderly lady in broad daylight! The nerve of these people! But having said that, I’m having trouble with the kids. They just won’t listen to me these days! All they want to do is play.
Part 4/5. The Visit to Family A.
VL: Hey, Mr. A! How have you been doing recently? Mr. A: Good afternoon, Mr VL. What a pleasant surprise. Please come in. Mrs. A: Please have a seat, Mr. VL. Mr. A: What’s going on around our village these days? VL: I was just going through the monthly reports and i’ve noticed a lot of classes for children and junior youth going on. I don’t know if you know G, she’s one of the youth who just finished a course…err.. G: Ruhi Book 3, sir. VL: Ah, yes, Ruhi Book 3! And now, she wants to start another children’s class! That’ll be the 6th in our village! Mrs. A: What is a children’s class? B: Allow me, sir. Mr. and Mrs. A, the course G just completed is to empower her to start a class with about 10 children between the ages of 6 to 11. The classes teach children a short quotation and they learn to understand it through stories, songs, games and coloring activities and they will be able to remember this quotation well. The quotations are like “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth” or “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself” which focuses on developing spiritual capabilities. Mr. A: Hmmn, Mrs A and i were just discussing our concern for the children and the need to bring them up well.
The A kids, Aa and Ab, walk in with the neighbour, C…
Part 5/5. A Children’s Class is Formed.
Mrs A: Ah, there you are! We were just talking about you. Mr VL is here to visit, come and join us. Aa/Ab: Good evening, Mr. VL. Mr. A: Kids, big brother B has just been sharing with us about starting a children’s class. I think both of you should attend it. Mrs. A: Where and when will this class be? G: Err, i haven’t thought about it yet. You’re the first family we’re visiting… Mr. A: Ah, good! Let’s have it here, at our house. Both Aa and Ab can join. Oh, maybe even C wants to join? Mrs. A: C, why don’t you ask your parents about it tonight. Wouldn’t you want to learn together with Aa and Ab? Ab: Mom, who will teaching us? Mrs. A: Big sister G here will be teaching you.
Aa, Ab and C look at big sister G and they all smile at the same time 😀