Since last December, I have been applying the science of relations to children in my church’s weekly after-school program. I tried to respect their needs as persons who had just finished a full day of worksheets, standards, quizzes, and tests and didn’t know a thing about narrating and knowing. Every Wednesday, they arrived at the church gym, ran, yelled, jumped, and played ball to release hours of pent-up energy. We followed recreation time with a snack to reenergize for our one-hour lesson.
I thought and prayed long and hard about how to teach them in a way authentic to my principles as a Charlotte Mason educator while respecting them as students coming from a different paradigm. My goal was to encourage them to think and wonder and ponder what the Bible says about God. We focused on one person, Moses, in a narrow and deep approach to Bible study. My first through third grade class have gotten to know him from basket to burning bush, ten plagues to tabernacle, golden calf to bronze snakes with a talking donkey thrown in for good measure. Most children were already familiar with Moses six months ago. Now, we are intimate with nearly every account about him. Nobody ever complained about reading about Moses again because he led such an exciting life.
Careful attention and experimentation led to a rhythm that quietened them before the lesson. Singing two lively songs and a quiet hymn vented that last bit of steam and settled them. I wrote the lyrics on a chart pad to foster memorizing them. By May, the children not only knew the words to all three songs, they had invented their own moves, including Irish high-stepping for one and walking like an Egyptian for another. We sang with such gusto that the sound carried down the hall, around the corner, through the reception area, and into the office. On our last day, our secretary sighed wistfully, “I’m going to miss their singing.”
At first, we shifted straight from singing to story time because the youth pastor prayed before snack time. After a month of uneven transitions, I tried praying before the lesson. The first time, one girl suggested a squeeze prayer: we circled up and held hands. I started the prayer and squeezed the hand of the person on my right to let them know it was their turn to pray or pass on the squeeze. The children loved having a chance to pray aloud, think an unspoken prayer, or pass without being put on the spot. Developing the habit of talking to God right before the story oriented the children toward Him.
Expecting children to sit after being released from school was asking the impossible. Plopping on the floor was quietened most, but a few still had the wiggles. Every lesson began with a recap of the prior one. Since a child had usually missed the previous week, I always had a reason to ask, “Why don’t we tell Lisa what happened last week?” Children took turns telling classmates the latest in the life of Moses. One preview stands out in my mind. In the middle of narrating the crossing of the Red Sea, one child cried out, “Wait a minute! Isn’t that just like the song?” The children stood up, ran to the chart pad, and began reading the lyrics. They made that connection on their own, and their eyes sparkled with delight.
My heart wanted to read straight from a children’s translation of the Bible, the most living of living books. Their extreme restlessness at the end of a long day told me to tell the passages in my own words to build trust. When the wiggles began emerging, I paused and asked, “What do you think happened next?” Sharing guesses reengaged their minds by whetting their imagination and sense of anticipation. Once we finished the story, I let them talk about the connections they made. Now that our rapport is solid, I will try reading to them from the Bible next year.
I wanted the craft to be more than coloring and worksheets. Each week I tried to find something closer to handwork than to 3D twaddle. We wove paper to make baskets, glued flame-colored tissue to glass candle holders, decorated place mats with drawings of the ten plagues, and made things with store-bought clay and dough (on the day we read about manna). One day, the children did a nature study session on my parakeet (when we read about the quails) and, on another, I taught some to finger knit. For a change of pace, we went outside and marked the corners of the outer fence and the tabernacle with chairs. Then, I gave them an imaginary tour, and, sure enough, three children “died” of their own accord the moment they stepped foot in the Holy of Holies. Our final project lasted several weeks: they made a model of the tabernacle and tent out of card stock paper.
When the children were particularly attentive during our activity, I played classical music, usually Bach or Tchaikovsky. The first time they heard Toccata and Fugue in D minor, one asked me why I was playing such creepy music. I told her I liked it and later it grew on her. When she heard Bach’s more melodious pieces, she felted surprised how he could write something so beautiful. One boy observed that the War of 1812 reminded him of soldiers and I confirmed his suspicions by telling him the title. Another child thoughtfully noticed that these songs had no words, which surprised him.
The last two days of class let me know that our class rhythm was working because they started asking questions and sharing their thoughts. One boy piped up after I explained what leprosy was, “I’m glad you told me. I thought leopards had gotten Miriam.” Another asked me how old God was. I told them he was never born, so you could keep counting and get to the largest number you know, keep counting, and never stop. One second grader commented, “I know that number. It’s a sideways eight.” I eagerly wrote the symbol on the board and told them that the number is called infinity, which is God’s age. Another girl wanted to know how big Noah’s ark and the tabernacle were compared to a ship she saw in Charleston. The next week I brought in a diagram I made showing the relative sizes of the USS George H. W. Bush with the two biblical objects in such a way they could figure out how many of each fit into a modern aircraft carrier.
They asked some amazing questions about God too. “Why did God wait until the people died before letting their children go into the Promised Land?” “Why did He let the snakes bite people in the desert and healed them when they looked at the bronze snake on a cross?” “Why didn’t God let Moses go to the Promised Land?” “Does God have a wife?” “Who created God?”
They learned many things this year and so did I.
© Tammy Glaser 2011