December 2008

Here we are again, at the beginning of the Nativity Fast, and faced with the dilemma of how to be an Orthodox Christian in a secular world. For those of us in smaller church schools, it means deciding how we are to mark the season for our smaller church school. I have several suggestions for those in this situation.
First of all, if you are in a parish which loves to see children put on a Christmas program (called a yolka where I come from), it can still be done. It just takes a little more creativity, and you may need to write it (or adapt it) yourself. Click at the right on “Christmas Play” to see a sample. Because we were small, this one was written to accommodate the ages and skills of the children we had, and I also included some willing adults in the cast. What we discovered was, that it gave children the opportunity to interact with adults they would not normally be in contact with, and people liked it even better when they saw their adult friends up on the stage as well!
The drawback of a play, of course, is that it takes at least some practice, which involves finding good practice times that do not take away from teaching too much. The sample play to the right is simple, and does not require costuming, which does save preparation time.
The other suggestion I have for a special activity is a “retreat” day for children, which includes some parent participation. It also gets other adults involved in your church school program too, and I find that when people are more closely connected to a program, they tend to support it more, and this is a good thing. Look to the right for a sample schedule of this also. Of course, this can be altered to suit your inclinations and situation. We set it up so that during the majority of the day the parents were not there- giving them a perfect time to Christmas shop for the children, a feature which they loved.
I hope that if you are stuck for ideas, or want something new, you will try one of these. We found them successful and popular, and that the demands on the teachers and parents were minimal, since many were involved in the planning and orchestration.

Wishing you a blessed “Little Lent,” and a wonderful Nativity.

A First Introduction to Smaller Church Schools

Why do we have church schools at all? Can’t kids learn at the feet of their parents? Today- not really. Many, if not most, have no extended families, and many have two working parents, who barely have time to see they are fed and clothed. Of course, all parents are not equipped to teach the factual information, although of course they are the chief modelers of the faith. Therefore, there are very practical reasons for church schools.Certainly we have church schools because of Christ’s command: go ye and preach the gospel.” As church school people, we do not think of ourselves as “preachers,” but in a way we are. Jesus was a preacher and also a rabbi, which of course in Hebrew means “teacher.” Although we do not bring the gospel to the masses, we do bring it to our children- on a level they can understand. This is why, to me, church school is mandatory, not optional only if all conditions are optimal. We must be there for our children, whether they number in the hundreds, or can be counted on one hand. Therefore it amazes me when people tell me their parish does not have a church school, since there are not “enough” children. My question for them always is, how will you ever have “enough” children, if you offer no church school? A responsible parent will probably not want to attend a parish where none is offered, and we can’t wait for the numbers before putting something in place that will serve the needs of present and future children. Congratulations to those of you here who have seen this and acted.

Sample Lesson- Adjusting Curriculum

Actual text from The Way, the Truth and the Life (OCEC curriculum), p. 46:

(High School Level)
"St. Helen Finds the True Cross

To honor his new faith, Constantine arranged to build a church on Golgotha, where Christ had been crucified. At the same time, his mother, Helen, decided to search for the cross on which Jesus had dies, so that it could stand inthe new church. With a team of men to dig through the rubble, and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the elderly queen traveled to Jerusalem and found the true cross of Christ in 326."

Questions: Why do you think St. Helen decided to look for the true cross?

(Middle School Level)
St. Helen Finds the True Cross

When Constantine the king became a Christian, he wanted to do something special, so he decided to built a church at the place where Jesus had been crucified. At the same time, his mother Helen set out to find the actual cross on which Jesus had hung. She took many stong men with her and travelled to Jerusalem, where her prayers let her find the true cross of Jesus in 326.

Question: Tell what Constantine and his mother Helen did to show their faith in Jesus.

(Elementary Level)
St. Helen Finds the Cross

Long ago, two good Christians did something special because they loved Jesus. Their names were King Constantine, and his mother, who was named Helen. King Constantine built a new church where Jesus' real cross had once been. His mother Helen went to find Jesus' real cross, and she did!

Question: What did King Constantine build? What did his mother Helen find? Draw a picture of one of these.

Link to Antiochian Christian Education Department

Teacher Meetings

Many of us hate meetings, myself sometimes included. Many we sit through seem to have no real purpose, and we wonder whether these folks have never heard of e-mails or memos or what. When it comes to church school however, they are vital. The only way a church school staff (be it two or three, or a hundred) can effectively work together as a team is not only by communicating with each other (e-mails are great for this), but also, by actually sitting down together and hashing through problems, and planning together for the future. Often, we then find that others have had our very experiences, and may indeed, have the solutions we are searching for. Also, we find that our weaknesses are another’s strengths, and we can take advantage of this. Needless to say, face-to-face meetings help to minimize discontent, misunderstandings and unhappiness within the ranks as well.I believe teachers’ meetings should take place not less than three times during the year- a number of weeks before church school is to start, during the Christmas break, and at the end of the school term. (Do this fairly soon after, while everything is fresh in everyone’s minds.) I suggest you make this fun- perhaps combine with a pot-luck or a barbecue. (People are happier with food!) Make sure the time is convenient for all of your teachers, and do not finalize the date until you have all committed to it. Give lots of notice, of course.Review successes and failures, and discuss. Ask for feedback on how the teachers feel about the curriculum, and respond in concrete ways to their comments. You may need to rethink what you are using, if it doesn’t seem to be working well, even with your help. You may need to find more resources to supplement. Ask for suggestions. People come up with wonderful ideas when planning together, and the church school director does not need to come up with all of the ideas, nor should she/he.If you are the director, be sure to thank your teachers, and tell them (honestly) how you plan to support them and give them training during the coming period. If your parish has never done so, ask the Department to come and do a training for your teachers. This costs you nothing, and you can get your teachers certified by the Church in this way. (It is also a good way to meet teachers from other nearby Orthodox parishes, whom you will of course, invite.)A good bit of your planning time will need to be spent thinking of how the material you have can be adjusted for use by a wider age range. You may wish to break up into groups of about four or five and work together on this. Do not try to cover the entire year, but focus on the few months coming up. That will be enough work for you!

Christmas Play for Small Church Schools

The Wakefield Pageant of Herod the Great c. 1400s

Adapted for modern children’s usage 1991 by Catherine Sullivan

(Note: this is performed in a “rap” style, with lots of “groups,” so that you can add or delete characters as you need. You do not need very many speakers. It is a short one also.)

Setting: Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus’ birth

Characters: Messenger

Act 1
Scene 1: Herod’s Palace

Present: Messenger, Herod, Two Soldiers, Counselors

Messenger: Hail oh Herod, Mighty King!
There is none so great!
Yet troubled be he, it’s plain to see,
By a babe to be born of low estate.

Herod: The Magi I’ve sent
From town of Orient
Tho’ babe be he
His body will I see or
No king shall I be!

Soldier 1: They have discovered the Magi three-
That terrible plot laid by thee,
We have not seen them all this day
They must have gone the other way!

Herod: Betrayed, betrayed, they’ll rue the day
They chose to go another way!

Counselor 1: No harm’s done yet-
The sun’s not set!


Herod: Revenge I shall have on this kingly three,
Else what will my people think of me?

Soldier1: They escaped before I knew-
I’d have got them,
I’d have seen it through!

Herod: Be gone, you rogues, away with you-
No better than these soldiers two!

(End of Scene 1- all exit stage.)

Scene 2: Jerusalem’s market Square/Herod’s Chambers

Present: Two Counselors, Women, Herod

Counselor 1: There shall be born a Royal Child
Born of a maiden, meek and mild.

Counselor 2: In Isaiah it was foretold
Emmanuel born, in poverty and cold,
The Writings then would have it thus,
God in Man is born to us!

Woman: Yes, of Jewry a babe shall spring,
To serve us all, as Lord and King!

Act 2
Scene 1: Herod’s Chambers.

Present: Herod, Soldiers, Messenger

Herod: I’m wild with rage-
This cannot be!
I’ll kill this child that threatens me!

Counselor 1: What outrage from a child not one-
A hunt for him we have begun!

Counselor 2: To die by spear-
That is his fate,
For Magi Three we cannot wait!

(Soldiers enter)

Herod: This is the charge I give to you
Slay all the males of less than tow-
Scour the countryside near and far,
Ride in the light of yonder star!

Messenger: Your bidding they will do, Great Lord,
With all speed they’ll ride abroad.
They will kill the little child,
Though storm and sand, or desert wild.
They will ride, and at the end,
You will know your real friends!

Scene 2: (Another part of Jerusalem)

Present: Soldiers, Women

Soldier 1: Think not ill of me,
But your child I see!

Soldier 2: Him we must kill-
It’s Herod’s will!

Woman 1: Keep your peace or else I fight-
No child you’ll take from me this night!

Soldier 2: Your child must die,
No mercy here,
You must say good-by I fear!

Woman 1: A curse on you, we do not fear,
A mother’s love holds this child so dear!

Soldier 1: No escape, this child must die.
You may as well wipe that tear from your eye!

Woman 2: What shall we do- how can this be?
Can they not see this child is not He?

(Soldiers snatch the child from the mother and exit, leaving weeping women.)

Act 3:
Scene 1: (Herod’s palace some time later.)

Present: Herod, and several Soldiers.

Soldier 2: Hail Harod, your bidding we’ve done,
The children are slain-
We’ve left not a one.

Soldier 1: Our just compense to us now due-
This is all we ask of you!

Herod: You’ve done well, it’s plain to see,
A fat reward you’ve gained from me!

(Soldiers exit, leaving Herod alone.)

Herod: All is finished, I should be at peace,
But why can’t my soul now find release?

I did what I must to keep my crown,
But did they truly slay the child of renown?

(In the background, music plays- “What Child is This,” or other music with similar theme. Herod walks slowly off the stage.)

Orthodox Trivial Pursuit

Get a card box that will hold 3x5 cards, and a bunch of 3x5 cards. (or you can use 5x7.) On the front of each goes a question, and on the back an answer. I am sure that now you can set up your computer so that you can print them- I pasted each on the card when I did it. I also suggest you laminate them, although this can run into money, but is well worth it- mine is at least 20 years old now, and on its second box.

I use about 6 categories: (so buy or make dividers for the categories of cards, and label each.)

Church History
Theology (beliefs of Orthodoxy)

I always include some questions that are distinct to my parish, such as: What is our Bishop's name? or, Name one saint that is on our iconostasis. Most however, are more general.

To set it up quickly, I suggest you assign your teachers to come up with a few (questions AND answers), and ask willing parishioners who you think will have accurate information to help also. You can ask teachers to work together, so that teachers who teach elementary students can come up with those questions, middle school teachers questions for those kids, etc. You need quite a lot of cards in each category, but coming up with questions is pretty quick and easy- the time consuming part is getting it to game form (on the cards). (Maybe if you want it by the 6th you could just have 6 sheets of questions and answers, and paste them on cards later.) If you want this set up quickly, get lots of people to help, but be specific about what category each is to work on, so that you get about the same number of questions in each group, and give them a deadline as to when you need the questions! Have as many as possible for each category- it is amazing how many questions you can run through in 20-30 minutes!
I always have 2 or three age level questions on the same card- you choose which one would be age-appropriate for the child answering, and that way you can have multiple ages.

For example, on the same card your questions might be:

elementary: What is the name of your priest? (Father Tom)

middle school: What is the name of your priest? (Father Tom Hopko)

HS: What is the name of your priest and his title? (The Very Rev. Thomas Hopko)

You can also choose to have only one level per card, if this is the way you want to go.

You can play this game any way you want. You can have teams, or individual contestants. You can use as your cut off time, number of points reached first, or any other scoring method you choose, as long as everyone knows ahead of time. Be sure rules are printed out and kept with the game. Orthodox Trivia is not played with a board as is Trivial Pursuit, but is more like Jeopardy in the way you do it. You can use the game with individual classes or age levels, or can make it an activity that includes all ages- even adults. You can have the teachers play too! The rules will be the way you want to set them up. And, the great thing about the file card system is that it is easy to remove dated material and replace it with new material.

Recruitment of Teachers and Staff

Before you begin recruiting teachers, consider your needs in terms of how many children you anticipate, and (very important!) what sort of groupings you may need to make if you are a smaller church school. There should never be less than 3 children in a class. There also (ideally) should never be more than a three year age range in any class. That said, you will want to plan for one teacher per class, and hopefully a helper, which could be a teen, or retired person who does not want the responsibility of teaching. You may want to set up a team-teaching situation if this works well and people will be more inclined to teach if they do not have total responsibility for a class. You will also want auxiliary people, who are able to do music and crafts, and others who can work on pageants, or who can write or organize well for Creative Festivals and other activities.

When you recruit teachers, be careful. You do not want to have a general cattle call for teachers, or you will (guaranteed) get one or two who simply have no business in a classroom. Start by consulting with your priest about people he thinks may be good at teaching. Of course, you want teachers who are communing members of the parish, and who have a good grasp of Orthodoxy. If you have very new converts, you will want them to get their feet wet by assisting. They should not immediately be presenting the Orthodox faith to our children- there needs to be time for them to learn it themselves!

Once you have found some teachers by this method (and they have accepted), you can certainly open the search to the general parish, but do so in a way that does not commit you to using those who respond. Have a form for people to fill out (see the sample at the end of this), which gives you some idea of what they are interested in doing in the educational program, with the clear understanding that people will be contacted as need arises. (Signing the form does not mean that the person is now a church school teacher!) When all forms are in (and do this early on, perhaps at the beginning of summer), you can look at who is interested, and what their talents are. After consulting with the priest when appropriate, you can then consider your needs, and contact those you think would work well in the church school. Don’t forget, while some may sign up who would not be good teachers, they may be excellent at organization, at maintaining supplies, or in providing snacks. When someone is good enough to volunteer, you want to use them somehow, if at all possible.
Once you have your staff in place, it goes without saying that you will then provide ongoing training for them- something covered elsewhere in the blog.

Church School Volunteer Form

We are looking for volunteers for this and coming years for our Church School. If you feel you could help us, please complete this check sheet. We will then see what our needs are this year, and you may be contacted. Even if you are not called upon immediately, needs come up all through the year, so you may hear something later!

I would like to help the Church School program by:
(circle all that apply)

teaching _________(ages?)

assisting a teacher

being a substitute

helping with crafts

helping with programs/pageants

helping organize and/or obtain supplies

provide musical expertise

provide publicity for our activities

work on budgeting/obtaining funds

Other _________________________


Phone number __________________

E-mail address ____________________________


Saturday Little Lenten Retreat Day

A Saturday Little Lenten Retreat Day

9:00 Continental breakfast for parents and children
9:30 Short Matins service
10:00 Teaching time (This is a good time to talk about the meaning of the Nativity Season. Try to bring in your priest for this- he very rarely has a chance to spend time with the children normally, and they need that contact.)
11:00 Snack time- (You may want to make this cookie baking time, perhaps making up the dough ahead.)
11:30 Beginning craft time (Start your craft now. Make it a meaningful one- perhaps making an Advent calendar or icon. You may want two or more activities if ages are varied.)
12:00 Soup and sandwich lunch provided by parish members.
12:30 Outdoor activity (varies depending on your location and surroundings- perhaps a walk in the woods, or snowball fight).
1:00 Continuing craft time.
2:00 Saturday at the movies (Pick a good film which has a good moral message, if not actually religious. There are some religious films out now that are very high quality, however, and engaging for children.)
3:00 Snack time- something simple and light.
3:30 Wind down time- (storytelling, an additional activity, or you can do the church school lesson for the week, and plan a day off on Sunday.)
4:30 Simple Vespers service. (If children have made icons, have the priest bless them at this time.)
5:00 Pot luck supper with the parents, and home.


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BA in education, MAR, in theology and religious studies, CPE, parish DRE, 30 years in teaching and Christian Education, workshop and curriculum design. Associate, Department of Christian Education, Antiochian Archdiocese