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Chapter 1: The Adult as Guide
Adult leaders need to serve as guides into the process and as witnesses to the children's unfolding. We have moved in educational theory from thinking of the child as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with knowledge to seeing children as unique human beings with differing intelligences and styles of learning and being. We have moved from treating the classroom as factory where the teacher is the giver of knowledge to viewing the teacher as a guide to the child's becoming whole as a person. These ideas are essential as part of our church school programming.
You, the adult, do not have to be a person of great knowledge or experience, but only a human being willing to help children find their own connections. Being present with children is more important that getting a particular idea across. You need to be willing to look at your own spiritual process, and to be open to others' differing processes. You need to feel comfortable with the arts activities that you wish to lead.
Your most important quality as a leader will be trust; trusting yourself enough to have fun with the arts techniques and trusting the children enough to let them connect at their own level and style. You will need to trust the arts as a container to express spirituality without letting the class deteriorate into a lesson in making a product, learning a technique, or performing for adults. Revealing your own sense of spontaneity and play is key to a successful experience — and a different role than most church school teachers have been asked to undertake.
You will want to make an environment that is safe for spiritual expression and for accessing children's deep wisdom and creativity. Encourage mutual support by setting up parameters for sharing without judgment. Children can be open to multiple levels of meaning and different aspects of themselves if a structure is created to allow deep learning and deep connections to take place
In this model, how we undertake religious education becomes just as important as what we teach. Do we embody our values when we approach children? Do we let the children make their own discoveries or lead them to conclusions? Adults need to present different ways of approaching the material to create a space where the children are free to make connections to the spiritual. Both meditative experiences such as painting to music and active experiences such as dancing a story can allow individual expression to find its way into a group response to any lesson.
Leaders also need to be able to let go of the need to control the outcome of the lesson. As leaders, we may never know the full extent of a child's response to an arts experience. It may take time and other experiences for children to articulate the connections and meaning they have made. It may take them until they are adults to realize and appreciate how the experience transformed them.
In my own experience as a religious educator, I have found that children returning as young adults don't remember the ideas of lessons from their former church school program. But they remember some of the arts experiences and how they felt doing them. They remember certain teachers and how they made the classroom a safe space where they could wonder into becoming themselves. They remember the feeling of a bigger mystery as they lit candles, dropped stones in water, or watched the things they wanted to let go of burn up on little strips of scribbled-on paper. They remember a place where respect was encouraged and no one laughed at their ideas or belittled their achievements, where they could learn who they were at that moment and dream about who they could be in the future.