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Varying lessons: Rotating activities raises kids’ biblical literacy Bill Fentum, Aug 29, 2008
Children at State Street UMC in Bristol, Va., created flower pots during an arts workshop, part of the congregation's rotational Sunday school program.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
In the 1990s, Jaymie Derden lost heart every time a group of sixth graders started confirmation class at State Street United Methodist Church in Bristol, Va. Most students hadn’t been regular Sunday school attenders—and it showed.
“Their Bibles still practically had the wrapping on,” said Ms. Derden, State Street’s Christian education director. “We had children who didn’t know the difference between the Old and New Testaments.”
So in 2000 the church launched rotational Sunday school classes for kindergarten and elementary grades. The rotation model, created 10 years earlier at a Presbyterian church in Chicago, teaches one Bible story per month. Age groups rotate each week to a new workshop setting—where the lesson may be taught using games, music, arts and crafts, biblical costume dramas, videos or computer software.
Whether individual kids learn best from reading, math, visual aids or classroom discussion, they’re bound to get the message some time during the month.
“We’ve seen a huge difference in children who go through the whole six years,” Ms. Derden said. “Even the youngest ones are more biblically literate, and our confirmation leaders are just in awe. It’s really bearing fruit.”
State Street UMC is one of at least 8,000 churches in the U.S. that have adopted the rotation model—and found it offers many advantages.
Here’s how it works: A class at State Street UMC may begin a four-week study on the Prodigal Son with an art workshop, twisting wire figures of the parable’s characters into illustrative poses. To show the son demanding his early inheritance, children stretch out his hand. Then they raise the father’s arms over his head to say, “Oh no, I can’t believe this is happening!” After the son spends all his money and resorts to feeding pigs for a living, his hand is placed over his nose.
“The kids have fun,” Ms. Derden said, “and right away they’re absorbing the lesson.”
A week later they move on to a theater workshop where they dramatize the characters’ emotions. Or they may play a game, each student taking an item from a pillowcase (a stuffed pig, a sandal, a ring), and telling the others how it pertains to the story.
Every activity starts with reading the scriptural text. When children near the end of the monthly cycle, they may think they’re too familiar with it—so teachers arm themselves with plenty of background information.
“One week,” Ms. Derden said, “a second grader groaned, ‘We’ve already done the Prodigal Son. Can’t we do something else?’ So I asked the class to tell me the parable, and when they got to the part where the son came home and the father ran out to greet him, I stopped them and said, ‘Did you know that a dignified Jewish man of that time would never run? It just wasn’t done. What did it mean that the father didn’t care what his neighbors thought?’
“They said, ‘Wow, he must have really loved his son.’ Then we talked about the ring the father gave to signify he still trusted the son, and I asked, ‘What would your parents give to you, to say the same thing?’ One kid said, ‘The car keys.’ Sure, that’s funny, but doesn’t it say ‘trust’? There’s a kid who got the point.”
The rotation program at East Cross UMC in Bartlesville, Okla., helps reinforce the lessons, according to Linda Smith, director of children’s ministries.
“Even when children come only two Sundays a month,” she said, “they’ll hear the Bible story twice and experience it in different ways. The workshops build on each other.”
Churches like State Street UMC write their own curriculum, then share it with other congregations via e-mail or through the “lesson exchange” message board at www.rotation.org, the rotation model’s official site. Other options include Cornerstones (www.cstones.com), a six-year program that follows the liturgical calendar, and the United Methodist Publishing House’s four-year series PowerXpress (www.powerxpress.com).
A lot of churches mix ideas from several sources, until they have a plan that suits their needs.
“Most people who teach Sunday school aren’t professional educators,” said Christian education consultant Barbara Bruce, who helped write the PowerXpress lessons. “But they’re very good at adapting a course that’s already written. I encourage them to use curriculum as a base, but you know your children and situation better than anyone else. So make it yours.”
About 350 people teach rotation workshops at Kirkwood UMC in St. Louis, Mo. In each grade two additional volunteers serve once or twice a month as “shepherds,” guiding the classes from one workshop to another.
“We’re blessed to have five adult classes that sign up to teach a month every year,” said Joyce Sarvies, children’s education coordinator at Kirkwood. “Some will say, ‘I can only teach art, there’s no way I can teach music.’ But that’s fine; teachers can focus on what they really know and love, and they get better at it with repetition.”
That’s not surprising to Patti Hutte, children’s ministries director at First UMC in Kerrville, Texas. The church’s volunteer teacher base has greatly expanded since rotation classes began in 2006, attracting people who never thought they could teach.
“Once they teach a workshop,” Ms. Hutte said, “they see how easy it is and they realize, ‘I don’t have to be a Bible scholar to do this.’ Teaching the same lesson to different groups, they get good at it, and that keeps them coming back.”
Some congregations, though, teach rotation workshops for a while and then go back to traditional Sunday school. The reasons are many: The budget was cut. Church staff may have changed, and the program’s biggest supporter is gone. Maybe they expected an attendance boost, and it never happened.
Or church members complain that kids can’t learn if they’re too busy having fun. That excuse, at least, makes no sense to the Rev. Neil MacQueen, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who helped design the rotation model in 1990.
“The best Sunday school teachers,” Mr. MacQueen said, “are the ones who make it entertaining, or engaging. Unlike public school we don’t have the luxury of compulsory attendance, where we can bore kids to death and they have to take it. We’d better change our methods.”
Some churches work around tight education budgets by bringing four or five age groups together in single workshops, similar to one-room Sunday schools.
“I’ve seen rotations that are like theme parks with big set-ups in every room,” said Ms. Bruce, the Christian education consultant. “For some children that’s fine—but a child with attention deficit disorder will go bananas because there’s too much stimulation, too much going on all at once.
“So I caution teachers to do just enough to keep it interesting. In a storytelling room you might pitch a tent, and put blankets on the floor if there’s no carpet. Just the suggestion of a biblical setting is enough to get them involved.”
At Kirkwood most workshops are kept low-tech, to let students and teachers interact. In a series on honesty, children may bake “truthful cookies” that aren’t so tasty if you compromise the recipe. They may re-enact Mark 5:25-34, where a woman who was healed after touching Jesus’ robe “fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” But they’re not likely to watch a DVD on the topic.
“Even when a movie teaches the point well, they’re quietly watching it instead of spending time with each other. So we favor in-depth talks,” Ms. Sarvies said, “and encourage the kids to ask questions that help them relate the Bible story to their lives.”
Ms. Derden, who leads seminars throughout the denomination’s Holston Conference to help churches start rotation classes, does see a role for technology. Her students at State Street visit their CyberSpace workshop to take virtual tours of the Holy Land, or use software to design Bible quizzes and create little books based on the lesson.
But the best resource, Ms. Derden agrees, is always the least expensive: Volunteers who commit their time and creativity to effective children’s ministry.
“One of my favorite sayings,” she added, “is that ‘it’s a sin to bore kids with the Bible.’ How can we do that, when it’s the greatest adventure story ever written?”