Archives for posts with tag: children’s class


“Scaffolding” is something professional teachers talk a lot about. It’s a simple concept: just like the temporary structure used by builders to provide structure to a wall until it is complete and able to stand on its own, scaffolding in education means the kinds of supports that teachers temporarily put in place to help a child learn a new skill that would otherwise be just out of their range. Rather than letting a child become frustrated with their inability to accomplish something, the teacher provides just enough assistance to get them the rest of the way there. Once the child has done it with help, they are both better prepared and more motivated to learn to do it on their own.

But scaffolding isn’t just for children. If we’re all in a learning mode, then any of us can benefit from this kind of support, even those who are ostensibly teachers.

The nice thing (okay, one of the many nice things) about the Ruhi Institute’s curriculum for children’s classes is that the program grows with the teacher. New teachers start working with a group of 5- and 6-year-olds (or, just as likely in a neighborhood with no children’s class program yet, 5- to 11-year-olds) on the Grade 1 materials. The curriculum is simple at that age: short prayers, repetitive songs, one-sentence quotations, stories that are one to three paragraphs, games with just a couple rules, and basic coloring sheets. Not only is all of this well within the ability of most 5-year-old children, it’s also well within the ability of a new teacher. In Grade 1, everything from what song to sing to what examples to use in illustrating vocabulary words is provided. And tools for tracking basic information like attendance and lessons learned by each child are printed right there in the same book that holds all of these self-contained lessons. Easy breezy, lemon squeezy.

In Grade 2, the children are a little older. They’ve had a bit more experience with the process. Instead of coloring, they’re drawing their own images. Instead of rule-oriented games, they’re working on guideline-oriented theater activities. And instead of each lesson being laid out for a beginning teacher, beginning lesson planning skills come into play, like choosing appropriate songs from a collection that they compile over time.

Grade 3 brings in more academic skills for children, and more extensive planning and organization for teachers. Stories are selected and adapted from historical sources, for example, and dramatic exercises are developed with less guidance from the materials. New skills, like asking questions to check for comprehension, are fully covered in the text so that teachers can learn how to add this component to their classes without worrying yet over the quality of the questions themselves.

I’ve not taught Grade 4, 5, or 6 yet, but it presumably builds both the complexity of the class and the skill of the teacher in a similar way.

Why is this scaffolding of service so robust in the children’s class program? Well, it’s the most highly developed branch course from the main sequence of courses. Many people will study the Grade 1 materials as they climb their way up the trunk of the main sequence of courses of the Ruhi Institute. Teaching children is such a core piece of the community building process that it’s the third book in the sequence. So even people who want to focus on animating junior youth or tutoring older youth and adults will learn the basics of teaching a children’s class, well enough to explain the curriculum to a curious parent or substitute teach as needed. But the real learning comes from those who decide to actually dedicate themselves to the act of teaching. And it’s these folks who will go on to study and teach Grade 2, Grade 3, and so on. It’s a specific branch of learning for those who are devoted to it, but it’s not necessarily meant for everyone.

Right now, there are many branch courses that are offered in different regions or localities as the need emerges. The second book of the main sequence, Arising to Serve, helps people learn to visit friends and share information about the Baha’i teachings with them. In some places, a branch course has emerged, helping those dedicated to home visits learn to share complex information like health and sanitation guidelines. I was lucky enough to be able to study a branch course for raising up academic schoolteachers when I lived in a country where this was an important area of service. But the children’s class program is the only globally-implemented branch course of the Ruhi Institute at the moment, and it has had years to be grown, developed, and refined. The materials themselves have changed quite a lot since I first studied them, and this is a direct result of feedback from teachers around the world.

I don’t know what the next steps are for the development of the Ruhi Institute, aside from the fact that both the main sequence and dedicated branches will continue to grow into a comprehensive and wide-ranging system of distance education spanning the globe. But I am grateful to be able to have faith in the fact that, however our service evolves, we will always find ways to accompany one another, every step of the way.



letter b

It’s easy to think of beauty as an extra, something nice but unimportant, when you’re doing meaningful work. But an ugly solution is only ever a band-aid, because it doesn’t inspire. The effort ends with the initiators.

I can’t work with young people without some kind of art. For some reason, the concept of learning + effort = improved results comes naturally to people when the goal in question is beauty, moreso than for science, or community, or anything else. Once they have the experience, it’s easy to point to it as evidence that it could work in other areas of their lives as well.

Whether we’re talking about 5-year-old children with coloring pages, junior youth personalizing their workbook covers with Sharpie markers, youth writing poetry, or adults copying quotations in calligraphy, there is a willingness to strive for beauty that seems to exist in everyone, regardless of skill.

It would be foolish to ignore this gift in the name of efficiency. Where were you planning on getting so efficiently, anyway? And why would you want to stay once you’ve arrived in an ugly place?

photo credit: chrisinplymouth via photopin cc

I’ve worked with kids and youth since I was a teenager. Little kids. Big kids. Teens. Rich and poor. Reluctant and voracious readers. All colors. All attitudes.

But they all love to serve.

Some really get into hard physical labor. Digging old bricks and rocks out of stubborn soil and hauling them across the lot into a pile was a heavenly experience for one group of middle schoolers. Others get a kick out of performing, as the Empowered Souls showed when they shared their musical gifts with residents at a local nursing home last month. Some like to cook. Some enjoy the stark before-and-after of a neighborhood cleanup. I’ve got shy kids who like to make gifts and deliver them anonymously, and gregarious ones who like to talk with others and hear their life story. 20-month-old toddlers love to set the table for their friends and wipe it down with a damp towel after the meal. We all serve.

So why do we run under the assumption that greed is the baseline for all human affairs?

Sure, selfishness might be natural. Babies are inherently self-centered, and there’s no moral judgment involved in that statement. Learning to understand that there is a world outside of yourself is a skill, and one that takes time. But if selfishness is inherent, so is compassion. See one toddler bringing their favorite toy to another child who is in tears, in order to comfort her. Altruism and ego exist in all of us. So why assume we have to cater to the latter?

Service gives meaning to skills. But the meaning must come before the learning, not afterwards. Nobody wants to put forth effort in a vacuum.

Instead of starting with book learning, why not start with service, and then proceed? Put meaning in its proper place, at the center of life.

It might feel awkward at first, going into service with little theory under our belts. But it’s probably less awkward than attempting to shift into action when the meaning until then has existed only in the mind.


My children’s class is breaking up … and I couldn’t be happier.

The class keeps growing. By the time we got around to coloring yesterday, (sometimes neighborhood kids drop in when they see us, even if we’re at the tail end of class by then), there were 15 children. And, unlike a year ago, they weren’t overwhelmingly young.

In fact, 5 of our regular students are 10 and 11.

So, going forward, I’m going to be teaching the 10-and-up class. Danna will keep working with the 4-8 group.

I’m going to miss my little ones. Amelia, age 5, who pretends not to listen, but then remembers better than anyone what was said last week. Lily, age 7, who diligently writes everything down in the notebook that I never see her without. Silas, age 6, who is heartbreakingly charming one-on-one, but becomes shy with the larger group. Enthusiastic Nia, age 8, with her widespread reputation for being the happiest child in town.

But I’m also excited to be able to work with the older girls. (Yes, I’m back to all girls again!) Calm and collected Ianna. Sharp-witted Carlise. Deeply creative Jasmine. Truth-seeking Alexis.

We’ll be able to delve more deeply into meaningful concepts. We’ll get to go back to doing drama, which we had to stop with the sudden influx of younger children. And we can sing more difficult music! No more “Love, love, love, love, love your fellow man,” for us! While I enjoy songs written for children, it’ll be SO NICE to be able to teach more grown-up selections. Rounds! Basic harmonies! Woo!

I’m also eager to finally get to make use of a curriculum I’ve never taught. The Ruhi Grade 3 lessons demand a lot more preparation and creativity from the teacher than the Grade 1 and 2 materials, and I’m ready for the challenge. It’s an aspect of professional teaching that I miss, actually. I always excelled at lesson planning.

There’s one final reason why this is an important development: in a year, these girls will all be junior youth, and they’ll be ready for a group of their own. This year will be a chance for them to develop a common identity apart from the children. They’ll draw new participants and develop along their own path, as will the children. It’s like dividing bulbs in order to allow them to propagate. Each group needs the space to spread to its full potential.

Will I miss the days of 15 kids ages 4-11 all in one room together? Sure. There’s something magical and family-like about it. But someday I’ll feel just as sentimental about the environment of the new classes. It always happens eventually. My job now is to make memories worth missing as we continue to grow.

I’m in that place where so many things happen it’s difficult to reflect on them, much less write about them. I hate “here’s a list of stuff I’ve been up to” posts, but what can you do?

  • I went to the CD release party of two of my junior youth. One of the unexpected bonuses of animating a junior youth group is seeing a shy middle school girl rap about the Civil Rights Movement in front of dozens of people. So proud!
  • I finished all my yearly dealings with the BMV with minimal drama, despite forgetting that Cuyahoga County requires an e-check, unlike Hamilton County.
  • Jef gave me a ukulele for my birthday, and I’m busy learning songs on it that I can share with my children’s class. “We Are Drops” is only three chords, thank goodness!
  • I started a new part-time job in a physical therapy clinic. It’s totally different from any environment I’ve ever worked in before, and I’m receiving no training. I just showed up, introduced myself, and was given my first patient! I actually had to ask where I could wash my hands.
  • I’ve become the official blogger of the Baha’i community of Greater Cleveland. It’s great to be able to use my writing habit in service to my spiritual family.
  • I’m preparing a series of home visits, an open house/informational meeting, an animator gathering, a cluster reflection meeting, a new teacher training, and a cookie baking party. And somehow I need to get the kitchen clean!

I often feel like I’m going to explode from the things I want to accomplish, but I haven’t exploded yet! Here’s hoping I continue the non-explosive trend into the new year.

It’s Ayyam-i-Ha, and our children’s class decided to visit two families that hadn’t been able to make it to class recently to celebrate with them at their homes. We packed up a basket with cookies and gifts (and a special gift for the new baby in the community!), and put three booster seats in two cars, and then we were on our way!

With perhaps the exception of the volume level naturally created by excited kids who haven’t seen each other in a long time, I’d have to say that the evening was perfect.

Everybody was happy.

Everybody was united.

We saw people we didn’t expect to see.

The joy was infectious.

And while my ears could have dealt without the shrill scream of seven-year-old rapture (“You’re here! I can’t believe you’re really here!”), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Nia begins: “We would like to share a song with you.”

“It is a song about prayer,” adds Lily.

Jasmine explains, “These are the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.”

I hate when people request for my children or youth to “perform” at a function. They’re not dancing monkeys, and they don’t do tricks. But my girls love to share, which is entirely different. We share, not because we’re polished, but because we’re learning.

“Strive,” we sing, “that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers.”

“Thank you for listening,” Ianna concludes.

The thanks is not an extra. It’s a part of what we’re learning, too.

It’s so funny to me how they all beg to be the one assigned to say that last sentence, “thank you for listening”. (We rotate.) The auxiliary aspects of sharing with others, like introductions, explanations, and thanks, are so often relegated to the adults who deal with children. It’s such a little thing, but it makes my girls feel so grown up to take on these tasks. It helps them to realize that courtesy is a virtue of action, not just one of keeping quiet and sitting still.

When they are older, I won’t need to put so many words in their mouths anymore. With junior youth, I replace many of my answers with questions.

  • “What would be the best way to introduce ourselves?
  • “What should these people know about what we are doing?”
  • “How should we divide the responsibilities?”
  • “How can we show these people  the greatest possible courtesy, kindness, and love?”

But for now, wading in the shallows of the adult world, my girls like the safety of ritual to help them practice new skills without fear. I think that’s why “thank you for listening” is so popular. It’s the only line that never changes, week to week.

We’re sharing “thank you” because we’ve learned it.

Every. Single. Week.

Realize that we do a lot of thinking too. What kinds of actions might be beautiful prayers? Can Sockie (the cat) pray? How? Can a plant pray? How? But there will always be a special place for rote memorization. After stretching the mind to the edges of understanding, there is real joy in certain mastery. My teaching, like much of my life, is both far too traditional and far too newfangled for the taste of most adults. But my students are curious, courteous, reverent, and happy.

What more could you ask for?

Pedagogical theory? Well, I won’t perform for you, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that there must be room in the world for knowing and unknowing. That practice, practice, practice makes practical. That you have to start somewhere, but it might as well be nowhere if you don’t know where it is. And that the most important things must be learned, as they say, by heart.

And of course, thank you for listening.

children's artwork with a Baha'i quote about prayer

My girls have wild, flyaway brown curls, thick dreadlocks, blonde braids.

My girls love to sing, except when they don’t. They love to dance, except sometimes when their parents are looking.

My girls always love to act. They love to do voices. Snobby voices. Squeaky voices.

Sometimes my girls speak in made-up languages, just for joy.

My girls love to pray. Some read prayers. Some sing them. Some recite from memory. One insists on holding a book in her hand as she prays, pretending she can read the words she knows by heart.

My girls flop on top of each other, bodies smashing, feet flying. My girls have learned how to say, “I need you to respect my space.”

When my girls smile, the whole world smiles with them.

My girls will sit in pairs on the floor for 15 solid minutes, helping one another memorize difficult quotations with almost no adult interference.

My girls will pretend not to listen. Pout. Whine. Complain of hunger, cold, stuffy noses, tickly feet, offended sensibilities. But my girls always remember the entire story I’ve told them afterwards. They listen to the important things, because my girls know which things those are.

My girls are rowdy. Picky. Bossy. Shy. Easily angered. Easily inspired.

My girls analyze the moral implications of their everyday lives. In first grade. Fourth grade. Second grade. Homeschool. Preschool.

My girls each have a favorite book, a favorite color, a favorite virtue.

My girls love one another so, so much.

I clothe myself in the hugs of my girls to keep me warm through the week.

Until Sunday comes. And I’m back again, laughing, praying, singing, writing, teaching, sharing, listening, loving, so very grateful for, so very proud of my girls.

This past Monday was amazing.

I put together my lesson plan in the morning. The virtue of the week was patience.

Emma, Janet, and I arrive at 2:00 instead of our usual 5:00. Janet, who’s been attending trainings in Lakewood to become a junior youth animator, needs to catch up on some material. Since all three of us had flexible schedules, we made an afternoon of it.

I cannot explain how much I adore the animator training.

[This turned into a really long tangent about how inspiring it is for me to train animators, so I’ve cut it out and saved it for another post. This was just supposed to be about Monday!]

At 5:00, other people start to arrive. Seth and his two daughters. Danna and her two daughters are already there. Then Jim. Then Anne Marie comes with her daughter and two grandkids. Then Dee comes with her two daughters, and a friend’s son, too!

When we all gather for prayers, we barely fit in Danna’s living room. It reminds me of Feasts back in Malawi, with all the kids and half the adventurous adults squeezed together on the floor while the rest sit on every available sofa and chair.

My children’s class has doubled from four kids to eight kids overnight. Ages 3-10.

And we have SO MUCH FUN.

Our virtue of the week is patience. And we rock it.

The older kids help the younger ones. Everyone listens to the story. The game (really a drama warm-up activity, but who needs labels?) is a smash hit, and the art project takes different amounts of time for each kid, so it’s perfect timing for getting dinner started, two children at a time.

It looks like this is going to be our regular Monday night crew from now on. Only Celia also comes every other week, and Amanda will be back from pilgrimage soon.

Only a few years ago, there was no group like this in Lorain county. Bit by bit, it grew.

It’s not glamorous work. There’s no big budget, no widespread public recognition, no quick expansion that shows everyone, “See? We’re making a difference.”

There are certainly faster ways of giving large numbers of people a feeling of community for a while. Conferences, festivals, intensive programs.

But the virtue of the week is patience.

And did I mention this group rocks at that?

Sitting on the floor, surrounded by mostly-cleaned-up art supplies and trying not to spill green bean casserole on my knee, I’m completely happy with the work we’re doing. Soon there will be more teachers. Next year, with lots of encouragement, we could start a new class in Norwalk, or Lorain, or maybe just down the street.

There’s a lot you can accomplish with a little bit of patience.

Good thing we reviewed it this week. With that under our belts, who knows where we’ll be next year?

We started with prayers. Kids and limber grownups sitting on the living room floor, a few other adults on the sofa and in chairs. Everyone prayed together before we broke into our two groups.

While most of the adults moved into the kitchen, I stayed in the living room with the four girls, aged 4 to 9. We had a lesson about the quality of justice.

Afterwards, we ate. Potluck, same as every week. There was macaroni and cheese for the kids, soup for the vegans, and pumpkin pudding and fresh-made gingerbread cookies for everyone. We wandered from one topic of conversation to another. It was just nice to be together on a rainy evening.

When most of the crew had gone home, Amanda did the dishes while Danna and I helped the girls with their homework. Danna and I chatted about massage for a while when the girls were getting ready for bed, and I left.

It’s so comfortable and normal to gather with friends over lessons and conversation and food. Why isn’t this normal everywhere? I can’t imagine wanting my life to be any other way.