cooperation and reciprocity (take 1)

Today’s lesson: cooperation and reciprocity.

May 25, 2013: 6 children, ages 8-11. Our first week with this lesson, based on Lesson 12 in Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2, Set 4. We spent most of the time going over the quote for the lesson: “The supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity.” The quote is actually quite simple, so once we tackled the big words—like “cooperation” and “reciprocity”—the children got it pretty well. We wrote one or two words on sheets of paper and had the children mix them up and put them back together in different ways: standing them up on a windowsill, having them hold them up above their heads and stand in the correct order, and so on.

We also briefly touched upon the story of Nettie Tobin and the founding of the Bahá’í House of Worship, although we didn’t have the time to go through it as completely as we had liked. One of our co-teachers was at the House of Worship for the annual Choral Festival this week, so we tied that into our explanation and showed them a few photos, which they really loved.

Reflecting on this class, I should note how nice it is to have a class consist of children in a narrow age range, as it really simplifies things. We can count on them to have a roughly similar reading level and attention span, for instance. The feeling of not having to work at two speeds—balancing precariously between making younger children feel overwhelmed and making older children feel bored—helps take some weight off our shoulders.

“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?

how do we pray?

Today’s lesson: how do we pray?

October 17, 2012: It’s been about a month and a half that our neighbourhood children’s class has been focusing on prayer, as part of the lessons given in Grade 2 of the Ruhi Institute’s curriculum. This week we had a class of six children—three boys and three girls, ranging in age from five to nine—and one junior youth who just turned twelve. Of course, we’ve been working to establish a regular junior youth group in the neighbourhood to engage the many young people in that age group; it’s been slow going, but as we work at it and get to know the people in the neighbourhood and explore their networks, we strengthen the foundations of the group. We’ll have more news on it as that comes.

A word about the topic: I must say that thanks in no small part to the past few lessons, the quality of our prayer time is markedly different from previous classes I’ve had the pleasure to teach. I mentioned before that I really appreciate the way Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2 is laid out in sets, with the first set giving us three whole lessons on the topic of prayer at the very start of the curriculum, which we’ve split up into six whole weeks of reinforcement on the subtle art of praying. This week’s lesson deals with the mechanics of prayer, and we talked about what we do with all the parts of us when we pray: close our eyes, put our hands together or cross our arms, and clear our minds of the things of the world, so we can show humility and reverence in the presence of God. One idea we had was to create a poster with one of the drawings from Ruhi Book 3 that features children praying, and to use it to show the children what sort of posture we can take with our bodies when we pray.

four part poster

A pretty prayerful poster.

The children had a better time with the quote for this lesson, since it’s a little shorter than some of the others in this set. This being Grade 2, the readings we study tend to be longer with more complicated words, which is fine for native speakers but a bit of a test for people (such as many of the children in our class) who are only just learning English. We’ve noticed some progress, though—at least one of the children has been with the class since Grade 1, and her capacity—and engagement with the class—have grown steadily since, to the point where we can consider her to be one of the key participants. The issue of language is still a sticking point for everyone, and it seems to be especially discouraging for the boys, who often end up distracted during the memorization section of the class, going off to sit on the couch and read picture books or play computer games, which is always a black hole that sucks the attention away from the rest of the class. How do we deal with it? By doing our best to make our activities, well, active. Our best memorization happens when we present it with a dynamic attitude, incorporating movement, music, rhythm—anything that brings it out of a purely verbal mode to a mixed mode of learning. An example would be the step game we came up with during one of our very first neighbourhood “outreach” classes. We’ve been trying out ways of using images and pictures to represent words, too—for example, in this lesson, the children took pictures representing certain complicated words and glued them in the order they appeared in the quote, and we used these to recite the quote without looking at the words. Lesson learned: It’s not easy to find a picture that represents the word “essence”. As well, we’ve started creating worksheets that the children can work on in class, for example, drawing lines between the pictures and the words they represent, as well as their definitions. The parents, who are also learning English in city language schools, jumped on the chance and filled out their sheets too. Is this what one might call potential for social action?

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.