It is by no means necessary that I should live, but it is by all means necessary that I should act rightly.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
The song "Amazing Grace" on the one hand, and sixth graders on the other. The first: a traditional hymn, its language rich with the verbiage of sin and salvation, its melody echoed over many lands in a poignant mix of brass, voice, and bagpipe, its message sometimes haunting, sometimes hopeful. The second: youth—pre-teens and young teens at the brink of new maturity, new powers, new insight, new opportunity to experience all the joys and all the sorrows of an increasingly independent life. A potent combination.
The program, Amazing Grace, and sixth graders: the one, a package of sixteen hour-long sessions packed with action, information, and challenge; the other, a group of young minds and hearts seeking, learning, feeling, growing, and yearning—a promising combination.
Amazing Grace intends to help sixth graders understand right and wrong and act on their new understanding. Its purpose is to equip them for moving safely and productively through the middle- and high school years, when they will be continually tugged toward both ends of the ethics continuum. Through their involvement in Amazing Grace, youth will come to recognize and depend on their Unitarian Universalist identity and resources as essential to their movement toward understanding, independence, and fulfillment of personal promise.
This curriculum is part of and in the spirit of the multi-faceted Tapestry of Faith program being created by the Ministries and Faith Development Staff Group of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Amazing Grace works toward the goals established for all Tapestry programs by focusing on ethical development with a rich philosophical base and with certain, age-appropriate applicability.
The curriculum uses stories, activities, discussion, and more to help youth address such questions as: Why do bad things happen? What is the role of God, gods, and goddesses? Who am I? Is evil or goodness within us? Is it something we choose? What are my own ideas? How can I follow my own ideas and not somebody else's? Is "you decide for yourself" really the ultimate UU answer to these questions?
Amazing Grace offers sixth graders old wisdom in fresh form, and new understanding in active, challenging exercises. It invites them toward an adolescence enriched by self-knowledge and a deepening ethical sense. It is meant to be fun and engaging for youth and leaders alike. However, its enjoyment is always purposeful, and its messages are always meaningful.
Our children and youth wish to do right. In an article by Craig A. Lambert ("The Horror and the Beauty," from Harvard magazine [November/December 2007]), Harvard Professor Maria Tatar, when asked to explain the popularity of the Harry Potter books, said, "The sorcery of the books involves more than wizardry and magic, for the child has the chance to right wrongs." This curriculum will give our sixth graders more such chances.
We hope that throughout this program, youth will...
- Feel affirmed and supported in their decisions to act upon what they believe is the right thing to do
- Understand what the popular culture, Unitarian Universalism, other religions, and other sources say about right and wrong
- Recognize the virtues they and their families and their faith community have cultured, and why
- Grapple with the use of their moral compass to decide between right and wrong through discussions of actual and hypothetical situations.
This program is a significant tool for helping young people along the path toward becoming empathic and responsible adults.
The written program, however, is just part of the process. Closing the final gap is up to you, the leader. If we achieve the goal together, then together we give much to the lives of our youth and much to our hurting world.
This program includes goals shared with all Tapestry of Faith programs:
- Ethical development
- Spiritual development
- Unitarian Universalist identity
- Faith development
It also includes goals specific to Amazing Grace: Exploring Right and Wrong:
- Exploring right and wrong
- Understanding concepts connected to ethics, such as morality, virtue, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, redemption, forgiveness, guilt, and integrity
- Experiencing spirituality
- Appreciating Unitarian Universalist approaches to faith, morality, and social justice
- Expressing and living faith through action
Specific to the four session blocks:
Sessions 1 through 4, which focus on faith development:
- Exploring temptation, curiosity, conscience, and the Golden Rule
Sessions 5 through 8, which focus on Unitarian Universalist identity:
- Exploring Unitarian Universalist ideas about virtue and sin, right and wrong; accepting consequences; punishment; salvation; calling; and social justice
Sessions 9 through 12, which focus on spiritual development:
- Exploring spirituality, internal conflict, forgiveness, meditation, situational ethics, conscience, and soul
Sessions 13 through 16, which focus on ethical development:
- Exploring character, universal love, social action, and values
Special training is not required to lead Amazing Grace. The curriculum is a complete program with more activities and ideas than most groups will be able to use, and with complete and practical suggestions for presenting them. Any lay or professional religious education leaders with the required time and energy may readily present it. Amazing Grace has a format that makes materials accessible and leadership easy, but supplies still must be gathered, arrangements must be made, and plans must be internalized. We fully recommend co-leadership, with at least two committed adults heading up the program and sharing both burden and joy. In many Unitarian Universalist congregations, that will be a given anyway, because those congregations require that at least two adults be present in all programs involving children and youth.
Experience leading youth programs is, of course, a plus. Anybody lacking that and hoping to acquire some by leading Amazing Grace is well advised to team up with somebody who has headed similar programs before. Experience may be the best teacher, but we all have to start somewhere. One place to do that is in the how-to literature, and most directors of religious education will be able to help new leaders find appropriate printed and Internet resources.
If you are starting up on your own and looking for a co-leader, what characteristics should you seek? Being able to plan tight and present loose (see Leader Guidelines) is important. Comfort working with youth is essential. Experience with the Internet is helpful. Compatibility between you and other leaders is significant. A comfort level and familiarity with religious language is important. A sense of humor can add a lot. The list could go on, but much of it is obvious. Most of all, look for somebody with enthusiasm and commitment plus the time and energy required for the job.
Amazing Grace: Exploring Right and Wrong is designed for sixth graders. Think: the end of childhood and the beginning of youth. Think of youngsters looking back with a sense that it is time to move on, and ahead with a mixture of wonder, hope, awe, and trepidation. Think of the brink of puberty and adolescence.
In her book Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses characteristics of young adolescents. These include:
- Seeks support for self-esteem and body image as she/he transitions into an adult body
- Engages in abstract and hypothetical thinking
- Concentrates on self and others' perceptions of the self
- Engages actively with peers and social relationships
- Tries to reconcile the inner self with the outer self
- Explores gender, racial, and ethnic identities through affiliations
- Expresses criticisms of self and others
- Seeks belonging and membership and is concerned with social approval
- Takes on others' perspectives and understands that sharing perspectives does not necessarily mean agreement
- Expresses interest in religion that embodies values
- Sustains faith development by engaging with a community that allows questioning
- Seeks love, understanding, loyalty, and support
Amazing Grace: Exploring Right and Wrong offers ways to support the young/older adolescent:
- Promote self-esteem
- Affirm and support the adolescent's many physical, emotional, and cognitive changes
- Model respect
- Be flexible and responsive
- Provide opportunities for complex thinking and the pondering of big questions
- Respect and take seriously the adolescent's self-consciousness
- Recognize that challenging authority provides an outlet for new cognitive skills
- Maintain clear expectations that enable adolescents to make independent decisions
- Keep some routines or rituals that provide continuity from childhood to adulthood
- Be a sounding board for youth's exploration of ideas
- Encourage involvement in multiple settings
- Actively support the adolescent's exploration of identity
- Encourage participation in a faith or religious community
- Provide outlets for questioning faith, religion, and creed
- Facilitate youth's work in the community
- Celebrate both change and continuity
Integrating All Participants
Unitarian Universalism is an inclusive religion and Amazing Grace is an inclusive curriculum. No one should be excluded from the program or its activities by real or perceived physical or other limitations.
Inclusiveness sometimes requires adaptation, and specific suggestions for adapting activities are made as appropriate under the heading Including All Participants. By changing things as suggested or using alternate activities, you can help ensure that every session is inclusive of youth with a range of physical and cognitive abilities and learning styles, food allergies, and other sensitivities or limitations.
As you plan your Amazing Grace sessions, be aware of activities that might pose difficulties for youth who are differently abled. All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone who might be in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables, and the terrain of outdoor landscapes.
Find out about participants' medical conditions and their allergies, particularly to food. Session 4, Faith in Action: A Taste of Ethics, involves food. Make sure all your youth can eat the food you plan to use, or change the food.
The program mixes active and quiet, expressive and listening, and whole-group and individual activities, along with alternate activities that you can substitute for core activities if you feel they better suit your group, or if you have extra time. As you begin to recognize different learning styles among participants, let this information guide your selection of activities for each session.
Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs is a helpful resource book.
Families are the primary influences on the faith development of their children and youth. As a program leader, you take on a special role: supporting families in your faith community as they guide their children through Unitarian Universalist faith development. By involving parents in the Amazing Grace program, you can deepen the spiritual experience of both youth and their larger families.
Involving families in the faith development of youth can be a more delicate process than involving families in the faith development of younger children. As youth attain and protect the increasing independence that appropriately comes with growth, they will insist on the freedom to develop and hold their own ideas and to pursue their own spiritual practices. Both religious education leaders and parents should respect and nurture increasing maturity and the independence it earns, even as they continue to offer solid guidance and careful oversight. Help parents to see that having youth who remain on spiritual paths through adolescence is usually cause for celebration, even if the paths sometimes lead where the parents themselves do not wish to go. The test is not whether youth agree with their families, but whether the youths' lives are positive and safe.
Each session offers Taking It Home resources that include conversation topics and other ways to extend the session at home. These include family games, a ritual, discovery projects, and journaling. In such activities, some sixth graders will be as open and sharing with their families as they were in earlier years. Others may already be moving into new views of self and fresh expressions of independence, and so be less receptive to familial exchange. As a youth leader, you may help parents and youth bridge the gap, and you may find yourself playing a useful role as a trusted and helpful adult whom youth can turn to as they look beyond their families for models and guidance. Help parents see that while sixth graders are still too young for great independence, most have already started along the way that will inevitably produce much more. Encourage parents to respect increasing youth privacy needs when doing so is safe and appropriate, while always remaining open and available for those times when their youth step back over the line for a moment of renewed family closeness and support.
Every Taking It Home section includes Mystery and Me. Written directly to youth, Mystery and Me asks them to explore their own deep thoughts and suggests they record those thoughts in journals. Help parents understand that journaling is inherently a private activity. Even if youth skip the journaling, the questions of Mystery and Me can give them something to reflect upon. If the youth do follow through, their parents may well see that experience reflected by thoughtful approaches to life in general and ethics in particular. Whether or not this is the case, treating Mystery and Me, or any part of Taking It Home, as a homework assignment requiring parental supervision will not be useful.
Invite families into your sessions. Adult or older teen volunteers can be very helpful when you implement arts-and-crafts activities and when you divide youth into small groups. Parents who bring musicianship, storytelling, or artistic skills into your sessions will help foster participants' sense of connection between their families and their religious education experience. Faith in Action activities offer ideal opportunities to engage parents and other congregants in youth projects.
The leader/parent relationship is very important and must be both welcoming and reassuring. When parents bring their children to experience Unitarian Universalist religious education, they need to feel confidence not only in the safety and enjoyment you will provide, but also in your faith leadership. Strong partnerships can foster parental commitment to providing strong faith leadership within the family. As a religious education leader, you can support and inspire parents to bring intentionality and excitement to their role in their youths' faith development.