A Creation Celebration: Building an Awareness of God’s Gift of Creation in the Church School
By Jo Kaleel
For the past six years, our parish clergy, Church School teachers and parents have engaged in what we consider a "laboratory" setting. By this I mean that we have experimented with a variety of lesson formats, activities in and outside of the classroom, and related ministries. Rather than using purchased materials or curricula, we have spent a great deal of time writing our own study units, several of which have been published by the Orthodox Church in America, such as the Bicentennial Study Unit "Teach All Nations" and the "Hidden Treasures" program used at the children's sessions during the 11th All-American Council. When our pastor showed us the unit’s title "The Earth is the Lord's," which was produced by staff members of the Education and Community Life Ministries Unit, we were very excited. We decided to use this unit for our first semester and to adapt it to our own needs.
An Orthodox Christian Perspective
In reviewing this educational resource, we decided that it would serve the following very important purposes in our Church School program:
1. While most of our students, even the youngest, have been exposed to environmental concerns in their schools, such concerns have been presented in purely secular terms. That is, it is important to care for the environment for the sake of humanity. What is lacking here is an Orthodox Christian perspective, namely that we are to care for the environment for the sake of God, our Creator, who gives us all that He has created as a gift. We are stewards, or managers, of His gift of creation. By caring for God's gift of creation and life, we are showing our love for God and, in all things, glorifying and thanking Him. This approach to creation and the environment is sorely lacking in public schools, and even our students who attend private, church-run schools have had little exposure to this vision.
2. In reviewing "The Earth is the Lord's," we felt that it would be a perfect introduction to the study unit we wanted to write for the second semester, which will focus on the importance of caring for one another just as God the Father, by sending His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ into the world, shows His love and concern for us.
The study unit as provided by the Orthodox Church in America contains a number of ideas and projects, but no specific lesson plans. So our pastor set out to write a series of ten lessons based on ideas contained in the OCA resource. The lessons were geared to reach a number of age-appropriate levels from preschool through junior high to accommodate the 74 registered students in our Church School.
The result? Our students had a marvelous time and, by the end of the semester, displayed an understanding of creation as a gift from God and the importance for Orthodox Christians to manage, protect and care for His creation.
For Younger Students
Among the ideas presented in the OCA study unit that we employed in each class was the creation of terrariums. Our 3 to 5-year-olds made one large terrarium that now stands in their classroom. Every week they look forward to seeing how it is doing, to tending to the plants in it, and to making sure that it gets enough water and sunlight. They have continued to bring little ceramic or plastic animals and other "nature" items to place in the terrarium, weeks after the project was completed. "The children enjoyed creating their our little world in the terrarium and caring for it," says one of the teachers, Jennifer Sashko. "We went outside and gathered grass, rocks, leaves, and other assorted items and created a beautiful little environment.
During the semester, the students also focused on themselves as an important creation of God and were taught that God made each of them unique. Class teacher, Juliana Matusiak, and her assistants, cut out life-size figures of each student. The children had a great time filling them in with their faces, their favorite clothes, etc. These were then mounted on the classroom walls as a reminder that their very lives are special gifts from God and that, just as every part of creation exists in harmony, they too must exist with others in a loving and caring way.
Our Kindergarten and first grade students learned a special lesson about the wonderful gift of life God gives us. Near the end of the semester, one of the students, whose family had just joined the church, was baptized, which showed how we are called to be new creations. The entire class took part in the baptism before the Sunday Liturgy and celebrated during the class that followed. "Natalie's baptism showed our students that, just as we need water to maintain the environment and to give it life, we receive new life through the waters of baptism," said Marisue Grabavoy, one of the teachers.
Sue Soiya, one of the second and third grade teachers, said of the unit, "We learned that we are important and unique creations." Her students also made life-size cutouts of themselves and mounted them on their classroom walls. "We created our own kingdoms in individual terrariums, which we care for weekly."
For Older Students
For older students, the level of the lessons was adjusted to fit their abilities and interests. "Our students created a giant puzzle showing how every part of God's creation depends on every other part," reported teacher Becky Dorf. "Another week we divided the class into two separate groups to form their own kingdoms. We even had kings and queens that decided how their kingdoms should be run. One group was a kingdom of the future, and it was interesting to see how the students perceived the way the world would be in decades to come." This class also created terrariums. With reference to the OCA study unit, co-teacher Tamara Fay said, "This unit has triggered some interesting and lively discussions among the students. We have all shared our ideas, knowledge and thoughts on how we can care for all God's creation."
Finally, our Junior High class spent a great deal of time discussing what happens when we fail to care for creation. "The students expressed concern over polluting the earth, that led to an exploration of the worst nuclear accident in history, the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine," explained teacher Bob Hanania. "The students researched this disaster and were really touched to learn about the ongoing suffering of many, including children, as a result of the lack of concern for God's creation." Most of the students were aware that several of the senior high school youth in the parish had visited Minsk, Belarus, a few months earlier. There they had visited displays on the disastrous affects of the Chernobyl accident in that republic. Asked by the rest of the students, they eagerly shared their experiences. "Our students decided that, since our priest was going to visit Kiev in the coming weeks, they would take a special collection among the parishioners to help some of the children born to Chernobyl victims, many of whom are orphaned."
Parish Assembly Program
The junior high students made this collection at the end of an all-parish assembly, during which everyone in the community was invited to celebrate God's precious gift of creation. The assembly took place after Sunday Liturgy. Father opened the program by discussing the importance of relating our faith to daily life and the objectives of the particular unit, "The Earth is the Lord's."
The preschool through sixth grade students then offered a lively rendition to the Canticle of Creation sung by the three youths in the fiery furnace with percussion band accompaniment. Between the verses sung by the older students, such as "Praise God, sun and moon, praise Him all ye stars!" the over 40 members of the percussion band sang, "Praise the Lord, sing and exalt Him for all His creation" while keeping rhythm on their home made instruments. The entire congregation "caught the beat" and joined in the celebration.
Following the musical presentation, the junior high students spoke about the duty of Christians to care for creation by avoiding life-threatening disasters, such as that in Chernobyl. They showed pictures of the aftermath and spoke of their own feelings in knowing that many Orthodox Christians had died as a result of this rejection of stewardship of the earth. A collection was taken to help orphans from the disaster in Ukraine. A few weeks later, our senior high group, the Junior "O" Club, donated additional funds, that our priest distributed on his visit to Ukraine. When he returned, he showed us pictures of some families who had been evacuated and seriously affected by this disaster, including a priest and his family. The priest is still feeling the effects of the illnesses he contracted years ago. At the end of the unit, our attention turned to the coming Nativity of Our Lord, that serves as the "bridge" between the first semester's study of caring for God's gift of creation and the second semester's unit, that we are now writing, on caring for one another as the crowns of creation.
One of the other parishes in the area, Saints Peter and Paul in Chicago, is now adapting the same program in their Church School. We recommend the ideas in the OCA's study unit and can attest to the fact that, with a little time, study, prayer, and adaptation, "The Earth is the Lord's" makes a wonderful resource and adds a spiritual dimension to the secular knowledge even our youngest children are given in the public schools.
Jo Kaleel is a member of Saint Joseph's Church, Wheaton, Illinois, where she has been teaching Church School since the parish was planted in 1989. She was also on the staff of the 11th All-American Council Children's Program.
Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries