A Charlotte Mason Education, Sunday School
Comments 12

Beyond Dust Particles: An Experiment in Sunday School by Amy Fiedler

Perspective is a curious thing.  I find that mine seems to be in a constant state of change as I grow older, add to my family, explore new ideas, and continue to know the Lord in a deeper way.

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Meditation in a Toolshed” (read it here) that speaks about perspective in such a beautifully descriptive way.  He tells of an experience where he was standing in a dark toolshed observing a sunbeam, shining in through a crack in the door.  He saw the beam of light, with thousands of dust particles floating through it and nothing else.  He was looking at the beam.  But, when he physically moved and allowed the sunlight to shine on his eyes, he was able to see something completely different; he saw the green leaves of the trees outside the shed and the sun itself.  He was now looking along the beam.

Lewis goes on to examine the tension in our modern world between “external accounts” and “inside experiences”: looking at versus looking along.  Logic might say that looking at, through analysis and deconstruction, would be more correct, more true.  Perhaps inside experiences should be discounted altogether?  Lewis says no.

“You discount [inside experiences] in order to think more accurately.  But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to think about.” (Lewis, 1970, p. 214)

He goes on to say…

“…it is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them.  And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters.  You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is.” (Lewis, 1970, p.214) 

In the end, Lewis argues that there is a place for both types of looking; but, he urges the reader to move away from the idea that looking at is somehow truer than looking along.

I love the imagery in this article.  The difference between seeing the dust particles and seeing the beauty outside the shed is a picture that so well describes my own perspective change since embracing Mason’s philosophy and allowing it to change my view of education; it truly has become more about experiencing and less about explaining.

Last year, Tammy Glaser shared a post here where she told of her experience in taking Mason’s methods into the VBS classroom of her church.  She described doing away with workbooks and sticker reward charts and instead creating time for building relationships and allowing the children to talk about the Bible, sharing their own thoughts and feelings.  They worked with their hands to create useful things to bless others and prayed together for the needs represented in the class.  It wasn’t difficult to envision the change of atmosphere in that classroom as I read Tammy’s article.

At that time, my focus and efforts toward applying Mason’s methods hadn’t moved much beyond the classroom in my own home.  Our family was preparing to begin our first year of homeschooling, and I was trying to recalibrate my own thinking about true education.  As a family, it was like we were just taking our first steps into that beam of light in the tool shed.

As time went on, however, and I began to watch my children come alive in new ways, the Holy Spirit began to convict me about my role as a teacher outside of my home and the methods I was advocating.  As one of the Sunday school coordinators for our church, I was directly involved in overseeing the implementation of curriculum that largely determined how God’s Word was being taught.  I realized that what I had come to believe about children and ideas and learning was not reflected in the decisions I was making regarding our Sunday school program.  I thought of Tammy and her VBS class.

Mason has so much wisdom to impart on the topic of teaching God’s Word and I’m thankful that she addresses it as often as she does in her writings.  One of my favorite sections is at the end of Volume 1, where she says…

“A word about the reading of the Bible. I think we make a mistake in burying the text under our endless comments and applications. Also, I doubt if the picking out of individual verses, and grinding these into the child until they cease to have any meaning for him, is anything but a hindrance to the spiritual life. The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child’s soul will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards. What is required of us is, that we should implant a love of the Word; that the most delightful moments of the child’s day should be those in which his mother [or Sunday school teacher, my additio] reads for him, with sweet sympathy and holy gladness in voice and eyes, the beautiful stories of the Bible; and now and then in the reading will occur one of those convictions, passing from the soul of the mother to the soul of the child, in which is the life of the Spirit. Let the child grow, so that,

     “New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven,”

are a joy to him, too; things to be counted first amongst the blessings of a day. Above all, do not read the Bible at the child: do not let any words of the Scriptures be occasions for gibbeting his faults. It is the office of the Holy Ghost to convince of sin; and He is able to use the Word for this purpose, without risk of that hardening of the heart in which our clumsy dealings too often result.” (Mason, 1925/1989, pp. 348-349)

Burying the text.  Sadly, this was exactly what we were doing in our Sunday school.  In our attempt to give our children enough to do, and keep them entertained, we were (as Mason would say) feeding them “pre-digested” mind food.  Amidst the attention-getters, skits, comprehension questions, cartoons, themed activities, and key ideas to be pointed out, we weren’t leaving any space or time for direct access to the Word of God.  We were not allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work.  We were describing dust particles rather than leading them to look for themselves directly into the ray of light.

With Tammy’s post as inspiration, as well as a Parents’ Review article ( “The P.N.E.U. Method in Sunday Schools” ), I felt confident that with a little effort, we could replace most of what we were currently doing with things that would better accomplish our goal – instilling a love of the Scriptures in the hearts of our children.  When I made the initial suggestion to the teachers of changing our curriculum, there were no objections.  What we had was time intensive to prepare, labor intensive to teach, and incredibly expensive.  The lessons often felt disjointed and confusing.  As a group, everyone seemed ready to try something new. 

So, I set aside a Saturday and began with a blank slate.  Keeping our most important goal in mind, and applying as much as I knew about Mason’s teaching methods, I slowly began building a new curriculum.  To be honest, it felt like it built itself.  All I really did was set up a new framework – one that would allow direct access to the Bible with plenty of living ideas for our students’ young minds to feast on.

Here is a brief description of what our Sunday school looks like now:

First, and most importantly, paraphrased stories have been replaced with reading directly from the Bible (the youngest ones are read to from Catherine Vos’ lovely children’s Bible).  With Bibles in their hands, the children are learning how to locate passages, and enjoying a slow and steady walk through God’s Word.  We’ve been reading through the book of Acts for the past seven months, one story at a time.  (Penny Gardner’s Bible reading plans have been a valuable resource.)  The children are getting to know the characters, and are excited each week to hear what happens next.  There are no follow up questions or “moral of the story” statements.  Everyone simply takes turns narrating back what was read, which often leads to a deeper discussion.

Instead of watching an entertaining skit performance, the children are looking at beautiful art.  The Masters certainly did not neglect the stories and people in Scripture as subjects for their artwork; we haven’t had a bit of trouble selecting appropriate pieces to introduce.  Picture study is done every week, with each child receiving their own 5×7 print to place in their personal Bible art books.  They take great pride in these books, and are always eager to add a new print.

Cartoon renditions of Bible stories have been replaced with a word-for-word, real life dramatization called The Visual Bible.  Seeing the stories come to life through real actors, with the actual text as a backdrop has been a favorite element of weekly lessons.

Scripture memory is approached gently and without competition.  Whatever verse we’re currently working on is read aloud once or twice by the teacher at the beginning of the lesson.  This is repeated weekly until the whole class can say it together. 

We try to give the children an opportunity to work with their hands each week.  Sometimes, it’s simply free time with clay or watercolors.  Other times, it’s a bit more guided.  Right now, we’re using our craft time to work on handmade Christmas ornaments that the children will donate to a local nursing home and pass out after their Christmas program in December.

Rather than filling time with crosswords and coloring pages, any extra time is reserved for reading aloud from a living book.  This is something all of the children really look forward to.  We’re currently reading through a collection of true stories of missionaries.

We close our time together with prayer, allowing opportunities for sharing and bringing our requests and thanks before God as a group.

That’s it, really.  That’s our homemade (essentially free) curriculum á la Charlotte Mason.  Not surprisingly, we haven’t looked back.  In the same way that new life was breathed into my children’s education when I applied Mason’s pedagogy in our homeschool, the same thing is happening in our Sunday school.  The children are excited about the Bible and what they’re learning.  They have new ideas to share and discuss each week.  Their minds are actively engaged; it’s evident in their attentiveness and attitude toward the teachers.  The atmosphere as a whole is completely different.  This certainly isn’t because of anything fancy or overly involved that we’re doing.  In fact, the lesson plans our teachers work from now are less than a page long.  Maybe that’s part of the beauty of it all; we’ve eliminated the script.  And in doing that, my prayer is that we’re allowing the Holy Spirit to do the speaking. 

 

Mason, C. M. (1989).  Home Education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925).

Lewis, C.S. (1970)  God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Wix, Helen E. (1917, 1918). The P.N.E.U. Method in Sunday Schools. Parents’ Review, 28 (9), 687-693 and 29 (4), 262-265.

© 2013 by Amy Feidler

This entry was posted in: A Charlotte Mason Education, Sunday School

by

Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

12 Comments

    • Amy Fiedler says

      I handle the printing myself. I find my image files online with the help of Google (Wikipedia often links to beautiful art that corresponds to a person or time period in the Bible) and then format them in Photoshop. Typically, we print one 8.5×11 for each teacher to display in the classroom, and then two 5×7’s to a single page to cut apart and give to each of the children. We have ours printed on regular card stock at the local office supply store for around 66 cents a page.

  1. Amber says

    Beautiful, and how wonderful you were able to so easily gain the support of your fellow catechists.

    We’ve started driving 45 min each way once a week for a children’s program I can feel good about. I tried hard to gently encourage changes where I am, but with no success. But my children and flourishing in this new program, and I am thankful for it. Maybe someday things will be better where we live too. Thank you for sharing what you’ve done, it fills me with hope to read things like this!

    • Amy Fiedler says

      Thank you, Amber. I’m glad that you’ve found a setting where your children are able to grow in their love of God’s Word. And who knows how the Lord may use you in the future to be a positive influence in some of these areas. Change always takes time, that’s for certain.

  2. I remember the day I integrated picture study, it was the most powerful piece of the curriculum. I struggled with using the Bible directly with K-1 kids, though, particularly as they were ps kids. I got a lot of blank stares when asking for narrations.

    • Amy Fiedler says

      How wonderful that you’ve incorporated picture study into your church’s Sunday School! You’re right about it being a powerfully engaging tool when it comes to teaching the stories of the Bible. I’m continually amazed with the responses of the children.

      Our elementary class is K-5, so I’ve experienced a bit of what you’re describing. I responded to another comment with some ideas that we’ve used to help the younger ones stay engaged for narrating (see below). Although, having the older ones there to model is very helpful. Also, don’t forget that as the teacher, you can serve as a model when it comes to narrating. In my experience, I’ve found that it can help to get them through a tougher portion of the text that might be difficult to follow.

      I love Mason’s imagery of seeds “light as thistledown” wafting into the souls of children and taking root. Continue to ask for wisdom as a teacher and keep trusting that the Holy Spirit will impart understanding to each child in a way that only He can.

  3. akismet-620f700f0f50ff2e56a687309fc84b12 says

    This is awesome! I am attempting to do the same thing in my SS classroom. No one else is willing to try it my way, but at least they are tolerant of me doing it. 🙂

    Question, though: How much time do you have for SS each week? I have 30-45 min, and I have had trouble getting to everything. Also, our church wants to teach the main stories of the Bible, and some of them are quite long and can’t possibly be read through in one SS session. I have to follow their schedule, however. I have 3rd-4th grades. Any ideas?

    • Amy Fiedler says

      It’s wonderful to hear that you are bringing living ideas into your Sunday School classroom! I’m sure the children are benefiting from your efforts.

      If I were working within the timeframe you’re describing (we have close to an hour, so my situation is a bit different), I think I would read the text in smaller sections and pair it with one or two other things, especially if you’re dealing with larger passages of Scripture. For example:

      week 1 – read first 1/3 of text, narrate, picture study
      week 2 – read second 1/3 of text, narrate, sing a hymn together
      week 3 – read final 1/3 of text, narrate, handcraft

      You could change up the types of narrating each week as well (which we often do). Have them act it out one week, tell the next, and draw or use clay another time. Even having a student draw simple stick figures on a white board as they narrate adds an element of interest.

      Include prayer and memory work each week to open and close your time together.

      Also, there is a definite advantage to be gained in leaving a story unresolved with the children wanting more. I think Mason talks about this, although I can’t quote it for you. 😦

      All the best to you!

  4. Very nice. Sounds like Listening to God with children together…a much nicer way to love God together. Thanks for sharing Amy!

  5. Dena says

    Thank you Amy. This was inspiring. Exciting to see little minds on fire for The Lord with living ideas. You are blessing Him!

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