summer note

path of cloudsAs summer arrives here in the Northern hemisphere, the time is ripe for reflection on another season of our neighbourhood children’s class. While we definitely can’t say we’ve achieved some of our most cherished goals—like establishing new classes to accommodate cousins and friends with different schedules—we’ve made other kinds of progress in our path of service. Our core participants, all cousins and siblings, are well engaged with the class and seem to be scaling the language barrier with more confidence and ease than before. Although our vocabulary builders made an impact in that respect, two other decisions we made seem to have made more of a difference: choosing shorter, simpler quotes to account for the children’s reading level, and increasing the number of times we repeat each lesson (from two times in a row to three or four). Focusing on getting the children to practice prayers inside and outside class has also made a big difference in the children’s engagement. We’re starting to think of doing something like the prayer books we’ve made in the past, so that the children would have something that they could take home to help them study their prayers on their own—not a bad idea to help kick off a new school year in September.

We’ve worked a lot on our functioning as a neighbourhood teaching team this season, too: there’s a core of three of us passing the duties of junior youth animator and children’s class teacher back and forth between us, accommodating vacations and other scheduled absences without sacrificing the regularity of the class. The result is that we’ve barely missed a class in the past six months, except that one time when we all ended up sick on the same weekend. That’s a pretty good record for a neighbourhood children’s class, and it’s all because we have a dedicated teaching team. Acting together as a team really makes us stronger than we could be on our own, and keeps us from feeling too much discouragement as we persevere along our path of service—as I sometimes did when I was teaching alone.

Now that it’s summertime, we’re expecting to have more time to regroup and reflect on next steps. One of those steps will probably be to expand the team, since at least one of us (my wife) will be giving birth to a baby boy in the fall and will probably be less available. Engaging neighbourhood youth, including some of the older siblings and cousins of the children in our class, will be a priority, especially considering the focus on youth in the latest guidance from the Universal House of Justice. We’ve already asked one youth to help out with activities during the summer and floated the idea to others; beyond that, there are many more eager youth out there who we need to follow up with. Lots of home visits will be in order, as we reconnect with families who’ve dropped off our so-called radar and renew the ties of friendship and fellowship with them. As always, watch this space!

Speaking of watching this space, you may have noticed a change in the layout and design of our website; welcome to the long awaited “version 2.0”! If you’re reading this via email, then please take a moment to check out the new look and let us know what you think in the comments. Our hope is that it’ll be easier for you to find what you’re looking for, whether it be lesson plans, activities, downloadables or insights and experience.

lesson touch-ups

Putting finishing touches on the agenda for our class tonight. We’re usually busy on Friday evenings so Thursday evening is the time to prepare now that we’ve moved the class to Saturday morning.

Nowadays, we usually try to prepare more activities than we can fit in, so that in case one of them doesn’t go over well we have a plan B, and C (and sometimes D). Since we’re now repeating the same lesson for two weeks at a time, we’ve started splitting up the entire lesson (as given in the Ruhi books), doing half of the activities one week and the other half the next week. It seems to work better given the limited time we have for class, and gives the whole thing a less hurried pace.

That’s it for now. More soon!

post-holiday strategies

christmas stampsHello again and welcome to a new (Gregorian calendar) year! We’re back in action this week, planning a new season of classes for our neighbourhood children’s class, which has been evolving at a steady pace and providing us with plenty of learning opportunities. The month of December was a little hectic, as we tried a number of new things in response to the needs and requests of the children. In order to illustrate a lesson on obedience to God’s commandments (which is not yet online) we decided to present a few lessons on the oneness of religion, tying it in to Bahá’u’lláh’s command to “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.” We tied this in to the Christmas holiday by having the children decorate a oneness tree—in the shape of a Christmas tree but made of wool—with the symbols of many different religions.

What we’ve found was that the children—for many of whom English is a second or third language—have had a lot of trouble grasping the vocabulary we use in the lessons, which are sourced from Grade 2 of Ruhi Book 3. We spent some time trying to supplement the lessons with written vocabulary-building exercises (some of which are available already on the files page) but even so, we’ve continued to run into the same barriers. The quotes and prayers we use in Grade 2 just use too many difficult words; we’d need an extra class each week to go through the words with them to keep things going at our intended pace. Sometimes, of course, the children manage with a little effort. I’m reminded of this snippet of experience from our lesson on prayer as spiritual nourishment:

One of the children […] 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.

One of the strategies we’ve discussed is to start choosing shorter, more manageable quotes to reduce the difficulty of memorization. Hopefully, this should invite a greater sense of confidence when reading. Another strategy will be to compile a prayer book for the class with all of the prayers we’ve learned so far, so that when it’s time for prayers, the children can stick to the ones they know and not worry too much about trying to recall long words by heart. We obviously want them to learn prayers by heart, but we’ll work on that little by little as we work on consolidating their vocabulary.

Wow. My dad was an English major; I never thought I’d end up being the one teaching English.

Look out for our next lessons soon—this week’s class will be a review of the lessons on prayer, and then we’re going to move forward with the next set of lessons from Grade 2, on the theme of knowledge.

“for the love of my beauty”

Today’s lesson: “for the love of my beauty”.

November 14, 2012: The class went well, although we focused mainly on memorizing the prayer and quote rather than the story and other activities. Since several children were showing signs of wanting to let out pent-up energy as we approached the house, running, jumping and screaming, we spent a little time at the outset playing some circle games, such as our usual name game (say your name and associate it with an action) and Tap Hands. Then we continued with the Unity Prayer, asked them about their understanding of unity, and then continued on to learn the quote, identifying difficult words. We had started late and had already spent much of the beginning of class on games, so we skipped straight ahead to our art activity—blow painting, with another brief game as we stepped aside to prepare the paint. We prepared six cups with diluted acrylic paint—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple—along with a bunch of straws and coloured paper. We showed the children how to pick up the diluted paint with the straw—just cover the top of it with your finger—and asked them to drop bits of paint onto their paper, and then blow it around with the straw. The result was quite impressive!

blow painting

And fun to make!

The point of the exercise, of course, was to produce a backing for the prayer we had read—copies of which I had printed out before coming. Of course, some of the children put so much paint on their papers that they couldn’t stick the prayer on right afterwards, and had to wait a while before trying again. That just shows that we really need to practice these kinds of projects at home before bringing them to the class, so we have a good idea of how to do them properly. (I’m reminded of the time I tried to teach origami without having learned to do it myself beforehand.) All in all though, this was a fun class, but I’m worried that because we spent so much time on games this time, we might lack time to finish all the other activities next week. Watch this space, I guess?

old challenges, new day

children's class spreadsheet

I’m back from Vietnam, newly married, and diving back into the fray of life in my home cluster—back to the Chinatown children’s class I’ve been writing about for the past few months (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…) and dealing with new challenges. Oddly enough, at our local reflection meeting, someone told a story of an individual initiative that echoed exactly what’s been happening with our class. He explained how he and his wife had reached out to their neighbours, gathering up about five families who agreed to support a children’s class in their home. “It started out well,” he explained, “but as time went on, fewer and fewer people came.” Week after week, he contacted each family, and, from one week to the next, they would give some sort of reason why they couldn’t come—too tired, too cold, late lunch, family visit, whatever. It got to the point where he was wondering whether it was worth it to continue holding the class each week; why bother holding the class if there’s only one child?

Our team has been dealing with this same issue in the past month—or so I’m told, since I’ve been away—it seems like family after family has been dropping out of their commitment to the class. It’s not like we’re going to give up, of course. I’ve been teaching children’s classes long enough to see the same kind of thing happen, and I’m determined to learn how to get past it. Still, it’s a real poser. When I first got back, we consulted and decided we had to find out why the families in question had dropped out. We investigated, and found that part of the answer might have been lack of interest in the class. The parents had never really insisted that their children come—they just left it up to the children, saying, “If they want to go, we’ll take them”. Apparently the children just didn’t want to come anymore. That sent the gears in our heads turning, thinking, how can we make the class more attractive to the children?

We identified a few strategies: first was to find better activities, and a more engaging format. We use a calendar to plan our classes (see above), so we added columns for each type of activity so we could plan several weeks in advance which craft, story, game, etc., we would feature for each class. That way, we would be better prepared for each class, and could incorporate more complex and engaging activities, ones that require more preparation than the ones listed in Ruhi Book 3. We had already decided beforehand to repeat each lesson two weeks in a row, and to use different activities each week to avoid too much repetition. We decided to increase the length of the classes from 1.5 hours to 2 hours, with a snack break in between (everyone loves snacks), splitting the class time into two portions. The first portion would be dedicated to the lesson: a few minutes of “presenting” the lesson, time to memorize a quote, and selected activities. The second portion would be devoted to arts and crafts, so that children could go home having accomplished something creative, yet still related to the lesson. Children who finish the craft quickly would be given a drawing or colouring exercise (dependent on age); drawing exercises (click for an example) would include some writing work as well.

This is a current issue for us, and in the next few months we’ll be focusing on class quality and outreach to gather more families into our community of interest. What a joy it is to make a commitment to learning about the core activities—there’s certainly not a boring moment.

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.