A few weeks ago I was at a wonderful place called Star Island with about 300 UU religious educators and their families for the Lifespan Religious Education Conference. It is a week that has a lot of history, tradition and camp-like rituals as well as opportunities to learn and develop. I have either taken or lead a workshop during the morning programming in past years I have attended. This year I was asked to co-lead the junior high program which is held for 3 hours each morning.
I knew it would be a challenge. 7th-9th graders can be a tough age span with wide variations on interests, energy levels and social competency. And my co-leader was a minister, so I knew that I would be counted on to plan most of the activities since that’s in my skill set. I figured that it’s always valuable to learn more about serving this age group and because I’ve always felt a little left out of a big part of the island culture because I didn’t know the families, many of whom return year after year.
So I said yes. And really, how hard could it be?
As I was planning activities in the weeks before the conference, I learned that because of other workshops, our group would not have the large and airy room that they had in the past for their programming; instead we were assigned a smaller, darker room that I knew housed very loud ice maker. Also, by some quirk, our group of fourteen junior high youth would have only 7th graders and 9th graders – no buffer of 8th graders. On the first day I learned that unfortunately, one of the youth punctured her foot the day before the conference and had come to the island on crutches. (Star Island is basically a rock in the ocean with some boardwalks and lots of steep, uneven gravel and rocky paths). And then, thankfully, some of the moms and caretakers approached me right away to talk about the special needs of their child: one child had very pervasive cognitive disabilities; another had just been diagnosed with anxiety disorder; another had come to the conference once, 4 years ago and had never made a friend and was returning with hopes that this year would be different; one was on the Autism spectrum; another came to the island with his aunt and uncle and he lived in an urban, mostly black community and as a male youth of color, struggled to feel comfortable in this nearly all-white island community. My co-leader and I learned that there was “history” involving things like flirtation and rebuff between some of the ninth graders from last year. We saw that there was also a “clique” of 3 ninth graders who longed to be in the senior high group. And most of the youth were very reserved with my co-leader and me those first days and we wondered if they were sullen or just shy.
One of our goals was to build community in the group and teach them some skills that would help them be engaged members of the senior high group one day. And so right away, my co-leader and I were having conversations with parents and with leaders running the program to try to find ways to get things on track.
The afternoon after the second day of the program, I was complaining to one of my DRE colleagues about the situation. “Sounds like Sunday school,” she said.
Woah! Here I was thinking that what I was going through was so crazy and unusual, and my colleague brought me back to reality.
Ok, so I don’t think we’ve had any groups in Sunday school in my tenure as DRE at Albany UU that have simultaneously experienced all those circumstances I experienced at Star Island as a “perfect storm”, but I can see how each of those challenges have been faced here on Sunday mornings, and perhaps at least several challenges at the same time. Some of our children and youth have special needs; they are all at different levels of academic and social skills; not everyone likes the same activities; it can take a while to get to know the children and youth; some of the rooms have no windows.
So I began to review how I support our RE volunteer guides compared to the valuable support I got at Star Island.
- My co-leader and I went to the leaders of the Star Island program. At Albany UU there’s the support I offer as DRE like there are the development sessions, sometimes I have meetings with each team or give coaching to individuals, I send weekly emails with encouragement and suggestions to create peaceful group times.
- At Star Island, I talked to the parents. Here at Albany UU ask parents and caretakers to fill out an info sheet to share with the volunteer guides about some the ways the parents have to help the children their respond to different situations.
- My co-leader and I had lots of conversations, especially in those first days, to strategize the next day’s activities for the junior high group. And as the DRE, I encourage team members here to communicate with each other for support and to come to me if they need more help.
By the third day, things in our junior high group at Star Island began to turn around. We rowed across the bay to spend the morning at a remote island and I recruited parents and other adults to help us row back and forth and to help supervise the youth when we were there. We started doing more challenging group building activities. And on our last day one of our activities was to divide the group into 7th graders and 9th graders so that each group could compose a message of farewell to the other to read at the multigenerational ceremony where the 9th graders bridged up to senior high. The messages seemed heartfelt and compassionate and were an important part of the ritual which, like our bridging ceremony at Albany UU, brought tears to the eyes of the adults.
So now I feel so much more connected to the Star Island community. Since then I’ve gotten some messages and photos from parents and others on Face Book saying that the efforts of my co-leader and I were appreciated by both the parents and their kids. They look forward to going back to Star Island next year, and so do I.
My hope and my goal is that here at Albany UU that the adult guides (Sunday school teachers) receive enough support from me, the curriculum, the Religious Education Council, from parents, and from their fellow team members that they look forward to each Sunday morning they volunteer and that they really feel and know that they are affecting the lives of the children and youth in unique ways. And I hope that, like those that experience the magic Star Island, the guides experience something special at Albany UU and know that they are part of a long and vital stream of history of religious exploration here.
At the time of this publication, have a few more openings in our teaching teams – in pre-k, fifth and sixth grade. If you want to be part of the Religious Education experience, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In joyful service,