Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Black Ants, Buddhists, and Walking Beyond the Text

(This is from my current newsletter column. The book is excellent - you should buy your own copy and get one for the teacher's resource room at your local school.)

Black Ants and Buddhists is the title of a new book written by a public school teacher and friend of mine, Mary Cowhey, about teaching critically and thinking differently about public education. In addition to being an involved parent and public school advocate, I am finding this book extremely helpful in defining how we approach lifespan religious education at KUUC.

The title of the book comes from a snacktime discovery of black ants invading one girl’s snack cubby in her first grade classroom. There was immediate squealing and a rush of several eager students to stomp on the ants. And there was one student who called for them to stop. “They are black ants. Do not kill them!” Som Jet called out. “We know they’re black ants,” Ben answered. “That’s why we’re stomping them.” Mary stopped the class at once, so that everyone could hear what Som Jet had to say. He told his classmates that ants clean up messes, they don’t bite people and they are living things, so we should not kill them. As a Buddhist, his family had taught him to harm no living thing. Another boy leaned over to Sadie and asked, “Do we have that rule in Judaism?” It became a jumping off point for the class to examine their home values, religious values and community (classroom) values. Ultimately, they decided to attend more to cleanliness in snack cubbies; to carry black ants on dustpans outside when they saw them in the classroom; and that the group should not tolerate actions that make even one of their members so sad and upset. In the wider world outside the classroom, the United States was undertaking a “shock and awe” campaign against a sovereign nation, but in one first grade class, American students were developing community norms that would never tolerate that kind of behavior.

I appreciate how brave it was for Mary to not only allow, but to encourage and engage her students about their religious values and how they contribute toward their public / secular values and behaviors. The lesson she taught through this event is not covered under any of the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks. Many public school teachers are so fearful of the wall between church and state that they would have steered a wide path away from even the mention of religion, even when it arises organically in their classes. It allows our children to believe that their religious values can be compartmentalized neatly to something they do on Sunday mornings or evenings, instead of an integrated part of how they move in the world.

Conversely, I hope that in our Religious Education program, we do not become so esoterically concerned with transmitting philosophy, theology and church history that we fail to make the real connections to our children’s lives and the world they will inherit. We do, intentionally, try to build some of this into our curricula. We bring an annual donation of canned food to the Community Kitchen and learn about how that organization works in the community. We teach about Unitarian Universalist social justice activists and civil rights leaders who made connections between their faith and the ‘real world.’

At the same time, our teachers have our tacit permission to move beyond the text of their assigned curricula to engage students in authentic and meaningful ways about what is happening now, what is important to them. I think about the 5th and 6th graders who were slated to learn about Jesus’ disciples when one student asked why there were no women disciples. Much of the rest of the time was devoted to issues of sexism in religion and in society. One girl shared that she was talking to a school friend and mentioned our minister, Rev. Sue, and her friend’s jaw dropped. “Your minister’s a girl?” she gasped. The students connected with that, and were able to think about how different their lives might be if they didn’t believe girls could grow up to be ministers.

I think about the 3rd and 4th graders whose lesson plan was about the United Nations. The teacher jumped off the text, plugged in her laptop, and shared pictures of a Central American country where she had just spent three months immersed in the language and culture. Her first hand experiences, and those of a girl in the class who had traveled to Italy and Belgium, deepened the lesson, brought everyone in the room within one degree of separation to the rest of the world. We have wonderful curricula, and certain core, key lessons we want our children to integrate as they grow through our children’s and youth programming, but we also have lots of ways to leap into the world around us and create opportunities for unexpected learning.

Mary has a poster she made hanging on her wall in her classroom. It is from educator and activist Paulo Friere and it reads:

1) The purpose of education in an unjust society is to bring about equality and justice.

2) Students must play an active part in the learning process.

3) Teachers and students are both simultaneously learners and producers of knowledge.

She says she hangs that on her wall to remind her everyday why she teaches. I think I’m going to make a poster myself, for the R.E. Office, and to use in our teacher training, our R.E. Committee retreat and at the upcoming conversation about Adult Education. I think I will bring it to the teacher recruitment evening coming up next month where we invite members of the congregation to join actively in our Lifespan Religious Education program. I think these three radical and simple ideas should inspire both secular and religious educators to remember why we do what we do, and to give ourselves permission to go beyond what is prescribed, to what is necessary.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Little Blessings on Our Heads

Half of the time, I am a Director of Religious Education for a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New Hampshire, but I have a second job where I am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, when I am not in Keene. Last week I left work there late in the afternoon and headed down the stairs that lead to the parking lot. There are three small and unspectacular dogwood trees planted near the base of the staircase, usually the first trees to blossom into life each spring. Now, of course, their branches are bare, and they look like shivering skeletons when wintry wind blows. But late in the afternoon at this time of year and through the winter, these branches and the telephone lines that stretch above them become the daily meeting spot for a flock of hardy little birds. I don't know what they are - perhaps sparrows - but they gather every day, just as the sun is about to set; they gather and they make a joyful noise. Last week for the first time this season I noticed them. I noticed their voices, cutting in over my thoughts, my list making, my planning for dinner; whatever was going through my mind was just subsumed beneath their raucous conversations. I can't imagine the meaning behind their chirrups; I don't know if they were gossiping or trading information on the best backyard birdfeeders or swapping stories about the size of the worm-that-got-away or singing in praise of the sunset. But on that day I stopped - right in the middle of the staircase - I stopped and I closed my eyes and I let the sound of the birds surround me and it felt for all the world like little blessings gently cascading over my head. I don't know how long I stood there; I know several people passed me, anxious to get out of the autumn chill and into their cars, while I listened to this remarkable chorus. I felt happy and peaceful and grateful for their voices, and for the longest time I carried around the feeling of having experienced something blessed.

This is the time of year when I feel, and perhaps you do too, the most removed from the natural world. I do not love the cold and tend to huddle inside with my family more as winter approaches. When I do go out, of course, I am armored against the elements: scarf, hat, gloves and fisherman's sweater. In all the other seasons of the year, I tend to walk outside barefoot, but now the woolen socks have come out of storage and new winter boots insulate my feet. And the natural world seems to have pulled itself away from us, as well. Skeletal trees, fleeing geese, gardens covered by the season's first snow - nature seems to be drawing away from us as we huddle inside our houses and fire up the woodstoves.

This is the time of year, too, when many of us feel pulled into the frenzied cultural current known as the Holiday Season. Malls are enticing shoppers with the 'best sales of the season'. Economists are predicting how much you will spend on i-pods and talking Elmo dolls this year. Calendars are filling up with office parties, benefit concerts, children's recitals and other obligations. What those birds reminded me last week is that the natural world is not so far away as it feels. The dormant tree is not dead, but resting, husbanding its strength and vitality in preparation for its next season of buds and leaves. If I look closely, I will see the tracks of animals criss-crossing my covered garden, still here; still near. And if I stop and listen, I will know that not all the birds have abandoned us. When I stop to listen, I will be rewarded with little blessings on my head.

As Unitarian Universalists, our religious inspiration comes from many sources, including from our own experiences of wonder. I know that we all have had these sacred moments when we felt blessed by, or comforted by, or serenely grateful for the natural world of which we are a part. In the weeks ahead that will bring joy and comfort and hectic schedules and late nights with bows and wrapping paper, what I wish for us all is the opportunity to recognize those moments when the world will reward us with blessings, little blessings on our heads, if we only take the time to accept them.