shifting gears for summertime

a hot day in mayAnother 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.

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an afternoon at the park (first try)

some nice shade to sit inIt’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.

year-end celebration

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.

paper puppetsIn 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.

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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.

coherence: an example

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.

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.