Joys of the Quaker Way — Teaching First Day School

January 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

One more joy of the Quaker way—teaching First Day School.

I spent a couple of years teaching teens in my meeting’s First Day School, and I really loved it. There were two of us and my partner was terrific and the kids were great.

Most if not all religious communities teach their tradition to their young, so lots of people have the joy of doing this, not just Friends. And indeed many Quaker meetings either don’t have the kids or don’t have the resources to have a First Day School. In many meetings, the kids’ parents end up teaching First Day School, even if they are new to Friends and don’t actually know the tradition well enough to teach it. And for this and other reasons, many meetings don’t actually teach very much Quakerism in their First Day School, or they stick pretty much to the testimonies and keep a focus on “Quaker values”.

In our class, the focus was on helping these young people recognize their own spiritual experiences and develop their own spiritual lives. Sometimes we offered Quaker faith and practice as a framework for understanding what they shared. And sometimes we started with some aspect of Quaker faith and practice, and invited them to explore it for themselves. And not just Quaker faith and practice, but the Bible also.

We were lucky in that the parents were clear that they wanted substance in their kids’ religious education: they wanted their children to know about Quakerism and know their Bible. But they also did not want “doctrine” in the usual sense, the kind of one-way transfer of theology that many of us had experienced in our own childhood. And these parents wanted their children to be as open to the life of the spirit as they were—without being forced into some kind of spiritual box.

And the kids responded. This ran across the spectrum from really engaged to barely engaged, but they did keep coming—mostly. They are all young adults now, and they are still scattered along this spectrum, in terms of their participation, though I suspect many of them still identity as Quakers, even if they don’t go to meeting.

So, as we knew at the time, our role was not to produce Quakers, but to be midwives to the spiritual paths that they might find on their own, making sure that they knew enough Quakerism to include it in their unfolding if they chose to.

As I have said in an earlier post, teaching Quakerism gives me great joy. Teaching it to young people is quite different and just as joyous. It’s more open-ended. You have to improvise all the time. You have to be attuned to their needs and their moods and whatever may be going on in the world to keep the spirit alive and the material relevant. But when you hit the right chord the energy is so great.

I loved it and I look forward to the next time I feel called to do it.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Families

December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Providing religious education for children and supportive religious community for families.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face, as we all know. Lots of meetings are too small to have any families and so they are not likely to attract new families who are searching for a religious home, especially for their kids. Too often, meetings don’t have any adults who are not themselves parents to teach First Day School, and as a result, the parents too often end up teaching their own kids. If they are new, they often don’t know enough Quakerism to feel confident to teach it. And of course, they would prefer to be in meeting for worship.

The only solution, really, is for the meeting to make an up-front commitment to provide First Day School no matter what, staffed by Friends who are not those kids’ parents. And then, if you don’t already have one, be prepared to start a First Day School as soon as a family arrives—that First Day. (Or, if you have the money, you could hire a teacher, as my meeting has done this year for the middle schoolers.)

The big obstacles to staffing a First Day School are: too few Friends willing to give up meeting for worship, too few Friends with the temperament and/or experience needed for dealing with children, and a perceived lack of curriculum—lack of confidence in what you could teach.

Not much you can do about the first two except pray. For the third, though, there really is no excuse. There is a lot of curricular material out there, and for all ages. So much in fact that combing through it all is its own obstacle.

I really like what my meeting’s RE committee has done. Quite a few Friends, both parents and teachers, took the Faith & Play/Godly Play training, available from Friends General Conference. This gave them an approach, confidence, a strong sense of First Day School community, and content. They developed a two-year framework for covering the Quaker essentials, timing topics when possible with the Queries we read every second First Day in both meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship. And they meet regularly to map out the details for the next few months, both in terms of content and teachers. They include Bible study in every lesson.

This is ideal, to me: it is Quaker religious education, rich in Quaker content. It includes the biblical foundation for our faith. And it is strategic: after two years, these kids have touched all the Quaker bases at their level of understanding, and then they go through it again at their new level. This approach raises competent, confident young Friends.

Way too many meetings shy away from Quaker and especially biblical content. I understand. I myself, with some help from at least one other parent, prevented my then-meeting’s First Day School from teaching the Bible. When those kids became young adult Friends, they came back to us and complained that they hadn’t learned anything and that we were lucky they were still around. And a lot of those kids aren’t still around, my own kids included.

I was so wrong to do that. And my meeting should not have let me do it. We owe it to our children to give them a real foundation for their religious lives. And we have such a fantastic foundation to give them! They may let it go. They may actively reject it or rebel against it. Fine. But they will know who we are and they will know who they are, if they leave. And when they stay, they will know what they are doing as Friends.

The all-too-common alternative to teaching real content is to teach “Quaker values”. This usually means the testimonies, plus the unspoken social attitudes common in Quaker circles, taught through example, osmosis and behavior control: liberal political leanings, tolerance, embracing “diversity”, making nice and avoiding conflict, using passive aggression when you really are in conflict, and the other affects of white middle-class culture. Too harsh? Maybe.

Still, it is the case that Liberal Quakerism increasingly defines itself in terms of “Quaker process” and “Quaker values”, rather than in terms of content, the rich legacy of our tradition.

A few years ago, after being laid off during the Great Recession, I thought I would like to volunteer as a guest resource in local Quaker schools. And here in the Philadelphia region, there are a lot of Quaker schools, most of them under the care of some meeting.

I visited the websites of literally dozens of Quaker schools looking to identify their religion faculty to contact. There were none. Out all those schools, only two had religion faculty, and only one or two more seemed to include religion or Quakerism in their curriculum in any way. I couldn’t believe it.

We hear their ads on NPR all the time, and they all tout their (Quaker) values as essential to their model of education, though they usually leave “Quaker” inside the parentheses. And I bet they do a good job of teaching these wonderful values. But where is the Quakerism? And don’t tell me that most of their students aren’t Quakers. That doesn’t stop the Catholics.

This simply reflects the way Liberal Quakerism in general is progressively abandoning its content for its values. Well, we can’t do anything about those schools. But we can make sure that we teach Quakerism, its values and its content, to our own children.

We should be teaching them something else, too, something that I feel is even more important than our faith and practice. We should help them find their own spiritual path. We should help them to recognize spiritual experience when it happens to them. We should not just teach them about the Light within them, but help them discover it for themselves.

For the youngest ones, this will mostly mean, I think, leading them to the Light in the conscience, that voice inside them that alerts them to wrong action, that prompts them toward love and peacefulness and reconciliation, rather than toward anger and resentment. This is “values” instruction”, but not as a list of outward principles to live by, but as the movement of the Spirit within their hearts toward love.

For the older ones, especially around middle school, we can go deeper. My first conscious religious experiences happened in seventh grade. Looking back, I see that I was groping at least by sixth grade, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Our role should be to help kids recognize G*d at work in their lives and in their hearts and souls.

As with virtually any instruction, nothing works better than stories. And we have so many great stories to share. First there are all those stories in the Bible, especially the prophets, first-hand accounts of hearing and answering the call of God. And the story of Joseph the patriarch—all about family, conflict, and reconciliation.

And then we have our own Quaker prophets: George Fox, John Woolman, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Bayard Rustin, Larry Apsy, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, John Bellers, William Penn . . . the list just goes on and on. Stories of real people waking up to the Light within them.

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