Another year of classes has gone by, and here we are, well into the summer season, looking back on what we’ve accomplished this year. Since the baby came last fall, our biggest challenge has been to adapt to the new constraints on our time and energy. That’s involved bringing in new teachers for the class, and working on creating a good team dynamic. We gathered up enough teachers to try to establish a new class in a park at the other end of the neighbourhood. We hoped starting this new class would allow us to address the issue of age gaps, since many younger siblings and cousins are now starting to follow their older relatives into the class, with often chaotic results.
We ran into some problems, though. First were the scheduling hiccups: after no new children showed up for the first gathering of the new class, we ended up having to skip the next two weeks due to other commitments, losing momentum. Then suddenly, my co-teacher for the new class had to drop out due to a change in personal circumstances. I could have continued and taught the class alone, but we all thought it would be best for there to be two teachers, both to support each other in the class and to facilitate relations with parents. With no one else ready to step in, we decided we would put the new class on hold for the time being, and regroup for further consultation.
It’s late and I’m exhausted! but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about today before bed. A few weeks ago, we did some outreach in a park at the other end of our neighbourhood, and made connections with families who might be interested in having their children attend a class for 6- to 8-year-olds, studying the lessons from Ruhi Book 3, Grade 1. Today was the day we arranged to start the new class, at the same time as our regular Grade 2 class.
We ended up just having the two younger girls who had already been coming to that class, which was great, but not what we had hoped for—despite having called ahead of time and gotten a confirmation for two more children, they never showed up. Oh well. We still had a great time together, even though all we ended up doing was playing together in the park. The girls introduced us to a friend of theirs who lives right across from the park, a 10-year-old. Although she was a little old for this new class, she expressed an interest in joining us anyway, so we went to meet her mother to get permission. There, we learned that she has an older sister who’d turned out to be interested in joining a junior youth group. Woohoo! Things ended up better than we expected.
The main point of sharing all this, beyond keeping you all up to date, is to show that there are always ups and downs when you’re a teacher of children’s classes. These tend to be pronounced when we take on more difficult projects such as gathering support for a new class. Things like no-shows may happen a lot when a class is first starting out, before a strong relationship is built with families. We have to try hard, show steadfastness and perseverance, and eventually, progress will happen. Sometimes the same challenges keep coming back, and it takes us a while to get things right. Sometimes, like that class in Toronto from the Frontiers of Learning video, it takes years for a neighbourhood children’s class to fully mature and come into its own. I sometimes wonder whether the main limitation we experience is really ourselves—our own willingness to do whatever’s needed to apply what we’ve learned from our training with the Ruhi Institute. In that light, I’m trying to work on my capacity to nurture relationships with families and parents, as well as to effectively engage youth. Hopefully, that’ll make a big difference with our new class—so that, with the support of our team, we can rise above these challenges and transform our neighbourhood into a wonderful, vibrant and united community.
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.
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 😀
July 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.