"...for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs."
Something to be learned from Jesus’ teachings and the public education system is that the earlier we set a "firm and continuous foundation" for our children, the more likely they are to thrive. The same can be said for faith formation as it happens most intentionally in a community of people who gather together to learn from one another. There are certain aspects of a learning community that are integral to the learning of each member. Ellen Galinsky, in her book Mind in the Making, explores essential life skills for children. These skills are applicable in Christian context.
As we plan for the year, the tenants of our faith should guide our planning and practice, even in our own lives. Great teachers know that we learn from one another, as each of us possesses specific gifts from God. Learning communities meet monthly in person or via internet, and include teachers, leaders, and parents in the discussion. Remember that everyone brings his or her own gifts to the table; focus on a rich faith formation of our children.
As a public classroom teacher for many years, I know that there is no perfect curriculum. My colleagues and I used the curriculum that we were given, and we worked creatively to make it what the children needed to reach their goals. Each year, we shared those ideas with one another for future use. Unlike public schools, we may not have a formal assessment of what children learn in our congregations, so it is important that we understand the developmental needs of children. Remember to research current curriculum and trends in child development and hold informal conversations with parents and guardians.
John Wesley UMC in Cincinnati, Ohio, helps children to understand the importance of reaching out to those in need by making "Linus blankets" for children in crisis. This is a simple, but powerful ministry that children understand because they have their own "Linus blanket" for times when they are afraid. Remember, that as Christians, we need to look at our community to see who is in the most need and find ways to serve those people.
Providing opportunities for teachers to experience times of self-reflection will strengthen their ability to engage with the children they serve. One of the attendees at FOCUS 2009 expressed her concern over the absence of back-to-back workshops from morning to night. As I talked with her about the opportunities provided for self-reflection and self-discovery, she reluctantly accepted my explanation. At the end of the conference, she shared a renewed sense of her ministry as she practiced the spiritual disciplines that she recommends for the children and families she serves. Remember that taking time to deepen our sense of who God is calling us to be can change how we engage with others.
Media, used wisely, can create sustained learning communities with a balance of gathering in person and over distance. One way that we use media to our advantage is the UM Ministry with Children Group on Facebook. This group is a place for people engaged in ministry with children to find support in a role that can be quite isolating. Members bring their questions, concerns, ideas, and burdens to this group; and others respond with support and a genuine love for serving children. Our new discoveries and experiences equip us with what we need to serve others. Remember that the learning can continue by sharing those experiences with teachers and leaders through our digital connection.
Keep in mind that children learn so much from older adults, while older adults share in the wonder of children at different developmental stages. St. Luke’s UMC in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, sees ministry with children as a shared responsibility of all. Age-level leaders meet and plan with one another to meet the needs of children as they transition from one stage to the next. Intergenerational learning is an important focus in the congregation, and the youngest to the oldest engage in ministries and programs that help children feel loved and secure.
Finally, remember that lifelong learning is a part of teaching. The day of the teacher holding all the information has passed thanks to advances in technology. As one of my college professors told all of his students before the first day of student teaching, "There will always be students smarter than you. Accept that, and you will learn more than you ever imagined." Embrace the God-given gifts of the children we serve, and do everything to equip them with the resources they need to learn and to teach others… even you! Blessings on a wonderful year!
Reading and Resources
Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs
by Ellen Galinsky
Exploring essential life skills for children. Available through www.mindinthemaking.org.
For a PDF download of this newsletter: Faithful Learning Communities