I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it. — Harry Emerson Fosdick
A curriculum about the “big questions” must begin with an inquiry: How often do you find yourself asking big questions? Write your answer lightly, with pencil, so you can change it with ease. The frequency of your changes may increase as you move through Riddle and Mystery.
Even without the stimulus of reading this curriculum, it may be every day that you ask what to do with your life. Maybe even more often you wonder whether life is fair—although you already know the answer is “no.” Perhaps every hour, in some way or other, you ponder whether something is right or wrong.
If even adults are uncertain about such matters, how must sixth graders feel? Perhaps sure of themselves sometime, and sometimes totally lost. The purpose of Riddle and Mystery is to assist them in their own search for understanding.
Each of the 16 sessions introduces and processes a Big Question. The first three echo Paul Gauguin’s famous triptych: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? The next ten, including Does God exist? and What happens when you die?, could be found on almost anyone’s list of basic life inquiries. The final three are increasingly Unitarian Universalist: Can we ever solve life’s mystery? How can I know what to believe? What does Unitarian Universalism mean to me?
Humanity’s list of big questions is not finite, of course, but Riddle and Mystery’s list is. Many sources were consulted to determine the questions most relevant to the faith formation of a sixth grader. What you have here is the result: 16 Big Questions for youth to unpack with a wide range of inquiry, activity and exploration as outlined under Program Structure, below.
Unitarian Universalists of every age may usefully consider life’s big questions. Why focus a curriculum at the sixth grade level? Because sixth graders are at a critical moment of growth, just turning the corner into adolescence. They face a sometimes bewildering world of increasing independence and choice. They are developing new abilities for abstraction and analysis as they encounter new ideas. Sixth graders need the wise counsel a guided Unitarian Universalist investigation can offer. And, sixth graders are typically open to the mix of deep inquiry and playful spirit that big questions prompt.
You will notice words such as “response,” “reaction” and “comment” occurring throughout Riddle and Mystery, more often than the word “answer.” Unitarian Universalists do not attempt to answer big questions for each other or for anybody else. Instead, we try to give reflective, generous responses that will help all seekers to their own understanding within the philosophical and theological frameworks expressed in the UU Principles and Sources. This is the intent of Riddle and Mystery.
This curriculum is part of the multi-faceted Tapestry of Faith program created by the Lifespan Faith Development staff group of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and works toward all the goals of Tapestry of Faith, nurturing faith development by providing a rich philosophical base and age-appropriate activities to help youth develop the ideas and skills they will need as they move into adolescence and beyond.
Riddle and Mystery does not directly pose one of the greatest questions: What is the meaning of life? Nevertheless, its 16 sessions suggest a response: The meaning of life—of human life, at least—is questions. Without them, the essence of humanity would be absent. Without them, the mystery would be lost. Without them, all would be fully known or not known; all would be dull. Life is, blessedly, in the words of the song introduced in Session 1, “a riddle and a mystery.”
This program includes goals shared with all Tapestry of Faith programs:
- Ethical development
- Spiritual development
- Unitarian Universalist identity development
- Faith development.
Riddle and Mystery also aims to:
- Teach participants to accept, appreciate and celebrate mystery, ambiguity and contradiction as part of human life and the starting points of religion
- Explore Unitarian Universalist responses to big questions
- Foster participants own personal, spiritual responses to big questions
- Demonstrate the importance of questioning thought to Unitarian Universalist faith and its value in personal and communal life
- Guide participants to develop and practice the skill of abstract thought.
Special training is not required to lead Riddle and Mystery. The curriculum is a complete program with more activities and ideas than most groups will be able to use and detailed guidance for presenting them to youth. Any lay or professional religious education leaders with the required time and energy can lead this program. Co-leadership is recommended, with at least two committed adults heading the program and sharing both burdens and joys. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations require that at least two adults be present in programs involving children and youth, as per the UUA’s Safe Congregations policy.
Experience leading youth programs is, of course, a plus. Anybody hoping to acquire experience by leading Riddle and Mystery is advised to team up with someone who has led programs for this age group before. Your religious educator may have additional resources to prepare leaders to work with this age range.
What characteristics should you seek in a co-leader? An ability to plan a session tight and present it loose is important (see Leader Guidelines). Comfort working with youth is essential. Experience with the Internet is helpful. Compatibility with you and other leaders is significant. A sense of humor can add a lot. Enthusiasm and commitment, plus the time and energy required for the job, are highly important.
One other consideration should be taken into account. Because leaders will coach youth along their faith journeys, they need to understand the power of adult opinions to influence young people. They must be willing to use that power sparingly and lovingly. Adults who hold a particular viewpoint and feel others should hold the same could influence participants too heavily. Leaders should feel free to express their beliefs, but must also be comfortable accepting the beliefs of others—even if those beliefs seem irrational and ill formed. Ultimately, leaders need to respect youth and accept their beliefs as valid and appropriate for their stage of faith development.
Riddle and Mystery: UU Reponses to Big Questions is designed for sixth graders. Think: the end of childhood, the beginning of adolescence. Think of looking back with the knowledge that it is time to move on, and ahead with a mixture of wonder, hope, awe and trepidation. Think of the brink of puberty.
In Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guidebook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005), Tracey L. Hurd discusses characteristics of young adolescents. These include:
- Seek support for self-esteem and body image as they transition into an adult body
- Engage in abstract and hypothetical thinking
- Concentrate on self and others' perceptions of the self
- Engage actively with peers and social relationships
- Try to reconcile the inner self with the outer self
- Explore gender, racial and ethnic identities through affiliations
- Express criticisms of self and others
- Seek belonging and membership; are concerned with social approval
- Take on others' perspectives; understand that sharing perspectives does not necessarily mean agreement
- Express interest in religion that embodies values
- Sustain faith development by engaging with a community that allows questioning
- Seek love, understanding, loyalty and support.
When leading Riddle and Mystery, take advantage of opportunities to support the young adolescent in these ways:
- Promote their 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 to 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 Riddle and Mystery is an inclusive curriculum. No one should be excluded from the program or its activities by real or perceived physical or other limitations. As you plan sessions, be aware of activities that might pose problems for youth who are differently abled.
Inclusiveness sometimes requires adaptation. Suggestions for adapting specific activities appear under the heading "Including All Participants." Make changes or use alternate activities to 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.
All spaces, indoor and outdoor, need to be accessible to anyone in the group. Check the width of doorways and aisles, the height of tables and the terrain of outdoor landscapes. When an activity requires forming small groups, ensure the accessibility of all meeting spaces.
When activities involve reading, such as the Kid for the Day’s announcement of each session’s Big Question and some roles in each session’s scripted WCUU broadcast, routinely offer participants the opportunity to “pass.” Be prepared to support young people who wish to read, but need assistance. It would be a good practice to regularly offer volunteer readers the words of a Big Question or a scripted part ahead of time, so they can get comfortable by practicing. Always be alert to group dynamics. Plan how you will make Riddle and Mystery a safe place where participants who need assistance can ask for and receive it.
Find out about participants' medical conditions and allergies, particularly to food. Session 16 suggests a celebration with food. Make sure all the youth can eat the food you plan to offer.
The program mixes active and quiet, expressive and listening, and whole group and individual activities. Each session offers alternate activities you can substitute for core activities if you feel they better suit your group. You can also extend each session with alternate activities if you have more time. As you recognize different interests and learning styles among participants, let this knowledge guide your selection of activities for the group.
A helpful resource book is Sally Patton's Welcoming Children with Special Needs.
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 congregation as they guide their children in Unitarian Universalist faith development. By involving parents in Riddle and Mystery, you can deepen the religious experience of both youth and their 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 may insist on the freedom to develop and hold their own ideas and to pursue their own spiritual practices. Religious educators and parents should respect and nurture the increasing maturity of youth and the independence it earns, even as they continue to offer solid guidance and careful oversight. Help parents to see that youth who remain on spiritual paths through adolescence are usually cause for celebration, even if the paths sometimes lead where parents themselves do not wish to go. The test is not whether a youth agrees with their family, but whether the youth’s choices are thoughtful, positive and safe.
Each session offers Taking It Home resources that include conversation topics and other activities to extend the session at home. Among them are suggested trips, photo challenges, and family faith in action projects to help others in some way connect to the Big Question. Some sixth graders will be as open and sharing with their families as they were in earlier years. Others may be moving into new views of self and fresh expressions of independence, and so be less receptive to familial exchange. While sixth graders are still too young for great independence, most have already started along the way. Encourage parents to respect increasing youth needs for privacy when doing so is safe and appropriate, yet also to remain open and available for those times when their youth step back toward the family for a moment of renewed closeness and support.
Invite families into the sessions. Adult or older youth volunteers can be very helpful with art and craft activities and small group work. Parents who bring musicianship, storytelling or artistic skills 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.
Session 6, Thinking of Death, specifically suggests engaging family members. Use the session as a model for others to which you might invite parents and/or siblings.
The WCUU/KCUU studio broadcast activities in all sessions offer the option of making a real video, which could be edited and shared with family members or the wider congregational community.
The leader/parent relationship is very important and must be both welcoming and reassuring. When parents bring their youth to experience Unitarian Universalist religious education, they need to feel confidence not only in the safety, fun and learning you will provide, but also in your faith leadership. As a religious education leader, you can support and inspire parents to bring intentionality and excitement to their critical role in their youths' faith development.