Children and Christian Education

By Sophie Koulomzin

I realize quite clearly that Christian education is not merely a question of method, of techniques, of expensive manuals and books. Actually, the most important aspect of Christian education is the spiritual quality of the process that gues on in it. The teachers do their best when they recognize the tremendous challenge and importance of their work, which does not permit a slipshod, careless attitude. The teacher’s effort counts more than the physical facilities. Textbooks, maps, equipment are not of ultimate importance in themselves. What matters is the real i zat ion of the importance of what we are doing and our trying to do the very best we can.

In thinking of Christian education, I sometimes remember the example of Father John of Kronstadt. For many years he taught the regular “Zakon Bozhy” (God’s Law) course in a boys’ public school, twice a week. He gave grades, failed and passed students, held a regular classroom routine of those days. No one thought then of modern techniques, audio-visual aids, progressive educ. ation, open classrooms.... I suppose Father John used the old and dry textbooks he had. And yet we know from people who were boys in his class that they were all deeply influenced by his teaching. Not because he was in any way original or special in the way he presented the material, but because of the relationship he established. Sometimes he would notice a boy in his classroom who looked unhappy. Perhaps something had gone wrong for him at home or at school. Father John would begin his lesson but then would be unable to concentrate on it. He would become restless and jerky, would make an effort to continue, but finally gave up. Always rather nervous in his movements, he’d jump up, go over to the boy, settle down in the seat next to him, talk to him, quietly whispering, until the boy looked happy again and smiled at Father John. Then the lesson would continue serenely. I think this illustrates what is so important in a good lesson . the contact between the teacher and the pupil.

I once saw a questionaire given to children in a Protestant churcn school, asking them to describetheir idea of God. I don’t think such questionaires are a very good idea, but one of the children, a 7-year old boy, gave an answer I never forgot: “God is He, who when I do my very best, but can’t quite
make it, does that which I can’t do.” I like this answer not as a definition of God, but as a definition of God’s action. And in our task of Christian education our honest and conscientious effort to do our best is what really matters and God will add His grace to make our work effective.

I realized that there is a great analogy between the task of Christian education and the service of the Divine Liturgy. First, the name itself. “Liturgy” means a task that cannot be done by one person, a task, a job, a work, for many. In ancient Greece the term “liturgy” was used, for example, when the people of a city had a boat to build. It was not something one person could do, or one family. The whole city had to contribute work and money to build a large boat. And this term was chosen to be used for the service we call Divine Liturgy. I believe that the task of the Christian education of our children is a common task of the whole Church, of the whole parish, of all the families, not only of the church school.

When we study the Divine Liturgy we can see the five distinct “moments or movements”. There is first the gathering of the Church: the Proskomedia, where the whole Church is symbolically represented in the particles of the Prosfora on the Diskos: Our Lord jesus Christ, the Theotokos, the saints, the living, the dead. And during the celebration of the Proskomedia the people gather in the church building. Then we have the time of instruction - the reading of the Epistle, the Gospel, the Sermon. The next movement is that of offering our gifts of bread and wine in the Great Entry. This bread and wine, basic food of human life are, in a sense, a symbol of our very life. We, thus, offer up our lives to God. Then comes God’s act of response. In the Holy Eucharist God accepts our gifts and gives us Himself in Holy Communion. We offer ourselves to Him. He gives Himself to us. And at the very end we leave the church. We don’t stay on and on. We go back to the world, to the life that is not enclosed in the church building. We try to live out in our life that which we have received.

I think that these moments, or movements of the Divine Liturgy express very clearly the purpose of Christian education. In a sense the Divine Liturgy is the best school of Christian education. Let us think then in terms of applying its moving principles to our children’s education in the life of the church, at school and at home.

I. First there is the gathering within the church school. It must not be
just an individual person who has the good idea to teach children. It must be a gathering of teachers, priest, parents, and other parishioners who are clearly conscious that the Christian education of the children is their responsibility, which they sponsor. The church community as a whole must sponsor this gathering for the task of the children’s growth in the church.
The “gathering” has several facets. The school must he closely tied to the home. Unless the parents reflect what is being taught in school, and the students feel that the teacher is interested in what happens at home, something will be missing in the educational process. What takes place in church worship, at home, and in church school has to come together, to be a “whole”.

An old Russian priest told me once about an experience lie had. He was teaching a group of 4-year olds, and one of them k~rint~~ng, to tell him something about what had happened at her home. When he kept ignoring her comments and getting back to the lesson, she said: “Well, Father, you talk and talk, hut you don’t let us talk!” And the priest suddenly realized that she was right. From that time on, even when the children interrupted, he gave them an opportunity to share with him whatever they had on their minds. Of course, this had to be kept within limits, but there has to be an element of “sharing” and of “listening” during the lesson. As a good contrast to the above incident I might mention a priest who taught a similiar age group and almost half of his teaching time was spent in repeating: “Now, keep quiet!” “Don’t wriggle!” “Don’t talk!” Of course, he felt that was teaching discipline.

Teachers often complain about parents. I feel, however, that a much closer cooperation can be established between teachers and parents. reachers should be sensitive to the parent’s share in the process of Christian education, and realize the difficulty of the parental contribution. We tan draw on the parents cooperation not only to ask them to serve coffee and gather money, but really ask them to contribute to the process of education in the church school. There are often mothers and fathers who are qualified to give instruction and information on a subject that is related to the matter studied in class. We should invite them to speak to the class and the children will he quick to sense that we believe the importance of what the parents can contribute.

It is very important that the movement of “gathering” should include the priest. Of course, it is difficult cult for the priest to find time for everything and I believe that it is a great achievement that the Orthodox Church in America has accepted that its lay men and women give religious instruction. However, this does not eliminate the role of the priest in education.

I seem to be constantly quoting old Russian priests, but something one of them told me, really makes a point: “For very small children, the presence of the priest in class is noticeable even because the priest still smells of incense, carries a special ‘church- smell’ about him . . .“ And small children do perceive more with their senses than they perceive through verbal explanations.

There should always be a time when the priest drops into the classroom, to ask a few questions, to answer them, to discuss some matter, to show them something or show them around the church. If the child has gone through the whole church school and has not established a relationship of friendship and trust with the priest, great harm. has been done. This applies also to the priest’ visits at home.
The principle of “gathering” applies also to the relationships between the pupils within the class. One of the most important experiences we can give our children in the church school is playing and working together in the atmosphere, in the spirit of the church. Such an atmosphere of work and play together is established in public schools too, and it is important and good, but the atmosphere there is different. All that is being done is not done “in the name of God”. There is not even a very clear framework of ethics, based on a common world view. All the more important is it to establish this network of Iriendly relations, of working together, in a church school. Ideally, the church school should become a seedbed of friendship.

The fun of playing and working together is easy to establish with the young children. Kindergarten games have a real meaning for growth if they are a friendly and happy experience. As the children grow older and there is more distinction between work and play, the work must also furnish an experience of fellowship. In assigning work or a piece of research the teacher can suggest:
“Would you like to choose a friend to carry out this work together?” Whenever a work project is carried out in class small teams of two, or three, or four can be formed.

In a sense, class discipline becomes easier when the children are separated in small groups. So often some one student “upsets the class apple cart” and enjoys doing it, enjoys making jokes about the project, or just fooling around. The cure, of course, is for this pupil to become interested and giving him an interesting individual piece of work often helps the situation.
The classroom atmosphere grows more relaxed and easier to manage with sever-; al small teams working.

II. The second element in the Divine Liturgy is instruction, and, of course, this is the most emphasized aspect of the church school. Instruction is important but we must clearly understand the character and wuality of the knowledge we want to convey and its limits. There is knowledge of God and there is knowledge about God and the second should always be only a tool to help acquire the first. Memorizing definitions and formulas that are beyond a child’s understanding do not convey knowledge. You cannot say to a pre-school child:
“God is love.” It is meaningless for the child, though the child is ready to understand a statement such as “mother loves you”, or react emotionally to the story of the father forgiving his son in the Prodigal Son parable.
I remember how one priest in this country asked me once whether it would not solve all our problems if we published a small book where all the teachings of the Orthodox Church would be briefly stated. The children could be made to learn by heart the whole text and they would all become good Orthodox!

If, on the one hand, we tend to convey to young children verbal information and formulations of ideas and concepts for whicH they are not ready, we then also tend to avoid talking about matters that we find difficult to explain
and ,vhich are part of the youngsters’ life experience as they grQw older. One such matter is the nature of the Church in its reatiouships to other Christian faiths. We never teach our children clearly what they should believe about Roman Catholics, about Protestants, about Jehovah Witnesses and all other expressions of religious belief that they actually meet. There is no child that does not have a Jewish friend, or a Roman Catholic, or a Lutheran or a Baptist one. We have no text that gives a good explanation of other forms of Christfamily We are hesitant about learning what the oilier churches believe and leave it for our children to nd out or themselves. What do we mean when we tell our children that the Church is one? For my own thinking the most satify factory answer I found was in Khomiakov’s words:

“The Church is the oneness of God’s grace living in the many human beings who submit to it . - - The church is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit of God in humanity... The mysterious ties that unite ihe Church on earth with the rest of humanity are not made known to us and therefore we have no wish and no right to pronounce judgement on those who are outside the visible Church.”

Concerning the instruction to be given in Christian education there exists an opposite attitude: the only thing that matters are relationship to God and to people and to’ goal of education on I to develop relationships earn to express yourself in them. Education is teaching self-expression I agree ,with this point of view either. We can communicate are and exchange ideas and we can discuss them only if we have some knowledge of them, some information on the subject. I remerhher my shock when my ten year-old daughter came home
from public school very pleased because her class had discussed whether
the United States should resume relationships with China. She was proud because she had defended recognition successfully. Now to me t seemed a shocking thing because the child was being taught to have an opinion and to defend it about a matter of which she knew nothing. I think a respect should he developed for accurate knowledge, for precise information.

The principle of “gathering” applies to the teachers, too. Ihey must think together, and learn to work together, keep in touch with ecah other. How can a teacher teach welt if she or he does not know what went on in the class before and what will go on in the class after? There niust exist a kind of “school spirit” as a whole and a continuity in the educational process. Teachers should have regular meetings and informal discussions. Occassionally ly someone can be invited to give a lecture on some aspect of teaching. Though it is difficult to find a priest who can “teach how to teach” children, priests can and should teach teachers about the theology of our faith, about our liturgical services, about the history of the church. And we can find professional teachers who can give valuable information on teaching methods, on class management, on creative activities, etc.
Students should feel free to discuss any topic and to express all their opinions, but they should be taught to recognize and respect knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge will always remain part of education. We have to make sure that at each level, at each age, each student receives the information he needs on the Bible narratives of the Old and New Testaments, Church History, liturgical and doctrinal knowledge that he is capable to understand and that is meaningful in terms of his life experience.

Ill. The offering. In celebrating the Divine Liturgy we, the participants, offer ourselves to God. This same principle applies to the teacher and the student in the process of Christian education. Only insofar as the teacher and student have given something of themselves to the task of learning, of growth, of education, only then has the educational process begun. A lesson is not a lesson if there is not some creative giving both on the part of the teacher and of the student: giving of one’s attention, thought, imagination, making things, finding information, expressing thoughts, illustrating, dramatizing, etc. We encourage quite often a certain kind of giving in our church schools - raising money for children in Alaska or helping the Orthodox churches in Africa. This is good, but it makes sense only if the children are really interested and in. volved in the purpose for which they are asked to give. To be a real experience of giving it has to be preceeded by an awakening of interest, sympathy and empathy. Even in the simpliest forms of acquiring knowledge, for example knowledge of the Bible, it can be done in such a way that the child puts something of himself into the process. When the child draws a picture of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he can draw himself as part of the picture, he takes part in the event he represents.

Whenever you look at the most expensive teaching aids, look at them from the point of view of how much can the child put himself into them? If I have to choose between a coloring book and a plastic puzzle with ready-made color pieces to be placed where they belong - I prefer the coloring book, where there is at least the freedom of choosing colors and the need for a certain skill. If you show me a coloring book and an empty sketch book, I prefer the empty sketch book where the child draws the picture himself. Coloring books are useful when you want to keep a group of children quiet, not to disturb another group. I’ve used coloring books quite often, but I recognize them as kind of a pacifier - that’s all they really are - good pacifiers.

With older children, creating posters, writing a newspaper, making a play, dramatizing a story, making models are all ways for students to put something of themselves into the material they learn. An act of learning takes place not when a page or two of the textbook have been memorized, but when the teacher and the student have put something of their own personality into the
lesson, have made a creative effort. . -
tv. Receiving God’s gifts. Do our children really receive something through the church educational program, something that really enriches their spiritual and moral hfe? We pnnot, of our own will, give the child a spiritual experience, but we can try to create an environment where there is a better chance for the children te he receptive to that which only God can give. That’s why I think every school should have a carefully planned for the whole year and the special, once- a- year events are sometimes more enriching and meaningful than the weekly teaching sessions

We can have retreats preparing the children for confession and communion. We can have pilgrimages to special places. We can carry out prolects to help people, make visits to nursing homes or old people’s homes. Camping trips, or longer summer camps are all opportunities for experiencing the reality of Church life. In the process of working together for something special, the children receive. If you try and remember what made the Church meaningful to you in your youth, it is usually something, some special event, when you, as a person, wholly, Look part in Church life.
V. We go hack to the world. This is the proper ending to the Divine Lit
And tIns should also apply to Church school. It’s wrong if Church school
is something that is completely forgotten during week days, only to be resumed next Sunday. Somehow it has to be reflected in daily life at home and at school. There are small practical things that can help carry this out. Try to give your students assignments to discover things. They can act like reporters gathering materials for the church school session. I can quite well imagine telling a class of ten or eleven year-olds, alter studying the story of the Godd Samartia

gathering materials for the church school session. I can quite well imagine telling a class of ten or eleven year-olds, after studying the story of the Good Samaritan, that they have a week to try and see whether they can report any story, any actual event or experience where someone acts as a good Samaritan, or as the other people. Tell the students that they should not think in terms of a “mugging” only. Sometimes at home, or at school someone may be suffering, unhappy, in need of help and not only physically. Someone may be lonely, or feel rejected, and people tend to pass such a person by and do nothing. You might come up with some interesting reports next Sunday.

I have tried to touch briefly on a variety of topics connected with Christian education, but the “organizing line” of my thinking was based on the idea that there is a similarity between the structure of our experience when we attend the Divine Liturgy and the experience of growth “in wisdom and in stature and in favor of God and man” which is what we want our Christian education to be.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries