One Parish’s Church School Alternative
By Michael Soroka
Some parishes schedule church school classes before the Sunday Divine Liturgy; some, after the Liturgy; and still others, during a “part” of the Liturgy. In addition, however, there are more and more Orthodox parishes that schedule their church school classes during available week nights or Saturday morningsâ??wherever and” whenever possible. One such parish is the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in Binghamton, New York.
Faced with the dilemma of experiencing less and less “quality time” on a typical “hurried” Sunday morning, the parish under the leadership of gather Steven Belonick, began to schedule church school classes on Monday evenings in the fall of 1984. Since then, Monday evening classes have continued every year from the months of October through May for children from the ages of three to fourteen. In addition, the parish sponsors Teen Group Discussions for students who graduate from the church school program and teenagers.
All Monday evening classes begin and end with a prayer and “run” from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A general topic is chosen each year by the teachers; they have included the following “themes”: the Divine Liturgy, the Sacraments, Feastdays, the Bible in the Orthodox Church, and the life of Jesus Christ. Each year, the general topic is specifically divided into 27 or 28 weeks or sub-divided into seven or eight sections (or “treasures”). No church school manuals are used; instead, each individual class expands upon the general theme through the use of arts and crafts, short Bible Studies, educational games or specific classroom studies which are based upon the educational needs of the students involved.
ANALYSIS OF THIS YEAR’S CURRICULUM
Each year, a letter is sent to all parents detailing the upcoming year’s schedule and description of goals and themes involved. In order to better describe the program’s intent, a short analysis of this year’s (1991-1992) curriculum may prove beneficial. The general topic was the Bible in the Orthodox Church, home and world. Three different bibles (to meet the needs of three specific “age groupings”) were obtainedâ??with each student having their own bible. These bibles were to be read at home individually and with their parents and brought to all Monday evening sessions.
The school year was divided into seven “Biblical Themes” or “Biblical Treasures”: 1) “In the Beginning” 2) “I am who I am” 3) Joseph and his brothers 4) David the Shepherd 5) The Old and New Manna 6) The Church and it’s gifts and 7) The New Heaven and New Earth. A large Biblical Treasure tree was constructed which included the seven themes or “fruits” growing on the tree in order to remind the students of our educational goals throughout the year.
After the initial prayer, a general discussion led by the assigned teacher introduced the Biblical Treasure: two discussions were plannedâ??one for the younger children and one for the older children. Immediately following the twenty to thirty minute presentation, all students proceeded into their seven individual classrooms. From 6:30 to 7:00 p.m., individual classroom teachers attempted to expand upon the Biblical Treasure through arts and crafts and/or classroom studies. At 7:00 p.m., junior choir rehearsals were conducted with liturgical hymns and easy to sing “secular songs” in rhyme and round form-all used to expand upon the specific Biblical Treasure, each student received a music notebook and an overhead projector was used with large notes on the melody line in order to encourage greater participation.
On the following Monday (week no. 2), a life of a saint or description of a city, place or “thing” in the Bible appropriate to the specific Biblical Treasure being studied was presented. For instance, a teacher “dressed up” as Mount Sinai in order to more vividly describe to the students the giving of the ten commandments to the Jews. The “mountain” was “speaking” to the students and describing itself. Matushka Deborah Belonick often “dressed up” as Mt. Sinai, a polar bear, Bethlehem, or St. John of Damascus in order to present a more vivid “variation on the Biblical Theme.” Individual classroom time followed.
The next week (week no. 3), a session on Orthodox Basics was presented in order to describe liturgical items or articles used in the church-all with a connection to the Biblical theme: vestments (Joseph’s coat of many colors) and prosphora (old and new manna), etc. Individual classroom time followed as well. On the fourth week, a moral talk or discussion was scheduled-one for the younger students and one for the older students. These sessions attempted to “drive home the moral theme of each Biblical Treasure: lying, giving and offering for the younger children; priorities, friends, dating and cults for the older children. Following individual classroom time, a common worship session devoted to prayer and meditation was scheduled in order to complete the four week Biblical Treasure “fruit.” A specific prayer was composed thanking God for this specific biblical message and then a period of silent prayer followed. Soon, all students and teachers were encouraged to pray or intercede for a specific need-family, friends, church, weather, etc. The fifth week would begin Biblical treasure No. 2 with the whole process repeating itself.
REINFORCING YOUTH ACTIVITIES
Throughout the past years, egg hunts, youth days, yolkas, family sports nights, talent shows, ice cream socials, hunger-drive walk-a-thons, carolling, pen-pal projects to Russia, poster contests, vacation church schools, swimming and baseball game outings, good works’ projects and prayer chains have involved many church school students as well as junior choir and youth choir participation (singing responses) at Sunday Divine Liturgies, chanting, serving, collecting and cleaning throughout the liturgical year-thus, encouraging participation within the liturgical and eucharistic life of the church: the real goal of any church school! Letters are often sent home to the parents, describing the classes and attempting to better involve entire families in the program itself-with varied success.
The intent of the church school program is to devote more quality time to the education of our young children while focusing upon the Orthodox theme of integration. All themes have as their center a eucharistic and liturgical spiritâ??emphasizing church attendance and eucharistic participation-again, with varied success. All discussions and/or segments of the church school program at least attempt to be inter-connected thus mirroring a more typical Orthodox approach to religious education while including many sources of Holy Tradition that are inter-related in the life of the church: scripture, doctrine, church history, liturgy, life of saints, iconography, etc.
While there are many advantages to such a parish church school program, there are also many disadvantages. All of our students live relatively close to the church-other parishes do not have that luxury. We have four graduates from an Orthodox Seminary other parishes may not. What may work in one parish, may not work in another. Week night athletic programs in the area decrease our attendance. To be honest, some parents and students choose not to attend “another day” at the church. Individual teachers must take more time to specifically expand upon the general themes without the aid of a manual. Hopefully, parents and students will not replace their liturgical life with church school time during a typical week. Many parishes cannot adopt such a program.
Nevertheless, such a program may be appropriate in certain parishes. Despite the disadvantages, we have found that such a program is beneficial to those interested and involved. More time and care can exist in order to assist the child’s integration into the liturgical life of the church-through religious education: the two go hand in hand (religious education and liturgical life). No easy formula can be produced. Here, I merely am posing one parish’s alternative!